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Hiking in Japan (1) : About mountains and the enchantments

Hiking in Japan

What do you want to do next after having done all the sightseeing in Japan? Where else do you want to go other than typical touristy spots? Now here is an idea, hiking.


About Mountains in Japan

Hiking in Japan allows you to not only enjoy the scenery in a natural setting but also discover unique Japanese culture created in history. Hiking can even be a highlight of travel experiences in Japan, is now attracting the interest of tourists. Here is an outline of mountains in Japan, the feature and uniqueness.

Japan is mountainous, has many mountains with well-formed hiking paths

About 70% of the Japan is a mountainous land where mountains surround the most cities. Even Tokyo Prefecture has a mountainous area in the west, just one hour away by train from the central Tokyo. As there are hiking trails on mountains near tourist sites, it is not difficult to plan a tour combining sightseeing, hiking and Onsen spa bathing at Ryokan.

Hiking path on Mt. Hodo, Chichibu Nagatoro, Saitama Prefecture
Tsukubasan (Mt Tsukuba)
Mt. Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture
digi-joho TOKYO TRAVEL : Mt.Tsukuba

Various trails are laid out for beginners and experienced hikers alike.

Both small and large mountains have hiking paths, some are good for day-hike, and some others are good for trekking. Hiking routes for beginner/intermediate hikers are provided on small mountains at an altitude of 1000m or lower, some of the paths are well-formed for old people to be walkable. For example, there are hiking trails on those middle-high mountains near Mt.Fuji, and hikers revel in the majestic view up there, as if some people said: “Mt.Fuji is not a mountain to climb, but to view, instead”.

The mountains over 1500m high have trails for intermediate or experienced hikers. The starting point of trekking on high mountains are often reachable by bus or ropeway and has a viewing deck provided for tourists who just want to enjoy viewing up there.

The highest mountain in Japan is Mt.Fuji in 3779m, and the second largest is the Mt.Kitadake at an altitude of 3193 meters. The mountains at a height between 2500m and 3200m are mostly situated in the central region of Japan’s main island, known as Japan Alps that attracts people for summer trekking. Though the Japan Alps are not as gigantic as the Rocky Mountains in North America, they are wild and steep as having rough routes suitable for challenging hiking that involves climbing.

Kiso Komagatake
Senjojiki Curl at Kiso Komagatake, Southern Japan Alps

Most of the large mountains are volcanoes

It is scary but thrilling to gaze into a summit crater, indeed. In Japan, the large, well-known mountains over 1500m* are mostly volcanoes. (*Only as a guide. There are also volcanoes even lower.) One of these volcanos can be described as an example is Mount Fuji, formerly designated as a dormant volcano and is now identified as an active volcano to avoid people misunderstand that Mt.Fuji will no longer erupt.

Japan Meteorological Agency observes active volcanos, including Mt Fuji, and they forbid any hikers to go into the volcano if they predict potentially hazardous situation. Still, hikers should be aware that no one can predict any eruption 100% accurately, hikers themselves always need to be prepared in mind, with knowledge, as well as well equipped in case of emergency.

Blessed with Onsen Hot Springs

How glad you will be to soothe your body at a hot springs spa after hiking. Thankfully, Japan has many Onsen (hot springs), and good Onsen resorts are found near mountains having hiking trails. In fact, Onsen spa is a highlight of hiking in Japan, and some hikers go hiking to enjoy Onsen afterwards, what they plan is to stay at a Ryokan Inn to spoil themselves with Onsen spa and authentic Japanese cuisine.

Mt.Iozan in Hokkaido
digi-joho TOKYO TRAVEL : Planning a trip to Hokkaido
Unzen Onsen in Nagasaki, Kyushu

A variety of plants and trees pleases to the eye region by region, season by season.

Japan is an island nation, elongated in a north-south direction. The north of the country belongs to a subpolar climate, and the southern part lies in the subtropical zone where you can find a wide variety of trees and plants, from fir trees to palm trees. In the northern region, the scenery of larch and white birch forest will enchant visitors from south-eastern Asia. In the south, palm trees and mangrove forests in Okinawa will interest European tourists. It is also noteworthy that Japan has four distinct seasons which dramatically change the view from hiking trails and please to the eye - fresh greenery in spring and colourful leaves in autumn.

Kamikochi, Nagano
digi-joho TOKYO TRAVEL : Kamikochi and Shinhodaka
Okinawa Ishigaki Island
Ishigaki Island, Okinawa
digi-joho TOKYO TRAVEL : Getting to and around Okinawa

Mountain Worship

Mountains in Japan are deeply concerned with gods, and the mountain worship or Sangakushinko 山岳信仰 has been embedded into the Japanese culture. Some mountains are called Reiho 霊峰 and taken as an object of religious faith.
Since the Sangakushinko has changed and evolved in a long history, it is rather difficult to describe the exact notion. So, the ideas below will help you to get a picture of what Sangakushinko is. The Sangakushinko could be a mixture of three thoughts;.

1.Worshipping mountains themselves as God (Animism)

Since ancient times, there has been in Japan a belief that objects in nature such as trees, rocks and mountains possess spiritual qualities as a god, which leads to the idea that the mountain itself is a god. Based on this belief, people have built little shrines at the summit area of mountains, small in common about H1m x W1m in size, tells hikers finally arrive at the top. Hikers are grateful to the God for arriving safely at the top and pray at the little shrine for going down the mountain safely.

2.Mountains are sacred site where God is enshrined

Similarly to the Greek myths, many Gods also appear in Japanese myths. Since the Japanese mythology has merged with the religious faith Shinto 神道, the gods in the myths are enshrined at sacred places which mostly include mountains. People have built a shrine on the mountain where God lives, and the mountain became the object of their worship.

For example, Mt.Fuji has a shrine called Sengen-jinja (also known as Asama-jinja) where to enshrine the goddess “Konohanasakuyahime コノハナサクヤヒメ”, the name literary means “Princess of Sakura blossoms in bloom. Her older sister is enshrined at Mt.Eboshi in Kumomi Onsen Town on Izu Peninsula. Yes, the god enshrined at mountains is commonly a goddess.

In times past, there were mountains where women were not allowed to go into as it had been said that the goddess gets angry with envy at the woman steps in, and it brings misfortune. Mt.Fuji was actually one of those mountains and the first female who climbed Mt.Fuji in early 19 centuries was in disguise as a man.

3.Mountains as an ascetic training site to find what you are looking for

Mountain Worship has also merged with Buddhism that brought Shugyodo, the way of self-discipline that includes rigorous training in mountains, such as climbing steep cliffs and meditation under a waterfall (Takiko). Those ascetic practices are called Yamabushi who wears a kind of Japanese priest clothes, looks like a Ninja in white. The ascetic training such as meditation under a waterfall can be experienced at some mountains, and anyone can try at their risk. Just like young pilgrims increasing in Europe, more and more people in Japan also want to experience this training, not for religious reasons but to find oneself or what they are looking for.

The small shrine on Mt.Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture
The stairway approach at Kumano Shrine in Wakayama Prefecture

Published in May 2017
This article is also available in Japanese


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