When the cicadas start to sing, summer in Japan is officially underway. Mid-summer days are hot, often followed by muggy nights, providing ample motivation to head for higher grounds and cool off. From Kyushu to Hokkaido, with a little bit in between, there are countless trails to explore, here are a few choices to inspire and satisfy that hankering for open skies and rolling vistas.
Southern Alps, Nagano
The Japan Alps are a classic destination for mountain lovers throughout the year. Home to some of the most dramatic mountain scenery south of Hokkaido, the Alps, in particularly Hakuba, the former stop on the Salt Road that ran from Itoigawa on the Sea of Japan inland to Matsumoto, made Fukada Kyuuya’s 1964 list of 100 famous peaks, and have been a favorite ever since. The 1998 Winter Olympics also thrust Hakuba to world stage, although things since then have slowed to a more pleasant pace.
Hikers can ascend in style via Hakuba’s Happo-One ski lift to begin the trek to Karamatsu Sansou. Set on a ridge with spectacular views in every direction, it looks more fit for a James Bond film, sleeps 350 hikers comfortably. Enjoy a hearty dinner and deep sleep before taking in the dawn and setting out for the day. The trail traverses ridge lines, skirts rock faces, and shimmies down the occasional chain and steel ladder before arriving at Tengu-sanjo.
This small mountain hut is nestled near a snowfield whose meltwater keeps beverages of all kinds cool to accompany the rather gourmet dinners and breakfasts. The next day, continue down a mostly ridge line trail to Yari Onsen, a rambling mountain hut with its very own onsen.
Stay for a soak then continue on clean and well-fortified. Either way, the trail soon crosses a scree field that, for the remotely timid, will be the longest part of the journey. (Emergency pick axes provided.) Finish at Sarukura Sanso for a final mountain sleep or catch a bus back to Hakuba.
Cape Tsurugi, Miura Penninsula, Kanagawa
Water lovers will delight in this hike, an easy day trip from Tokyo described in Gary D’A. Walters’ classic, “Day Walks Near Tokyo.” This, however, is no ordinary seaside stroll.
Catch a bus for Cape Tsurugi from Miurakaigan Station and disembark at Togari. Duck down a small road that leads to the base of the cliffs. The path follows the coast, climbing and meandering as it works its way around to the lighthouse atop Cape Tsurugi. Hikers will be splashed by waves as they inch along a narrow path that hugs a seaside cliff; step lightly across circular concrete columns between rock formations and take in spectacular ocean views in between. It may be worth noting tidal comings and goings, but the route generally remains above water.
Flora and fauna abound throughout the year here. Scarlet higanbana (cluster amaryllis) color the edges of fields in autumn, while late summer finds the cheerful faces of hamakanzou (orange lilies) sunning themselves here and there along the path. Ishiohidori (blue stone thrushes) sing their glorious songs and a variety of beach combing birds scuttle hither and yon as hikers cross the small beaches of various bays. These, too, are littered with shells and a colorful array of bright, perfectly smoothed sea glass and shells.
(There will be other litter, too unfortunately, so have an extra bag handy to pick some up if you can.) Catch a bus back to the station from the lighthouse.
Kunisaki Minemachi Long Trail, Oita
The Kunisaki Peninsula, with its forested interior bypassed by trains and highways alike, is a fabled place where Shinbutsu, a unique combination of Buddhism, Shintoism and mountain worship, still thrives. Mount Futago sits at its center of the peninsula, and Futago-ji, the temple at the heart of it all, is where priests from around the peninsula gather annually for yamabushi (mountain priest) training. Together they traverse roughly 140 kilometers over boulders, high bridges, and waterfalls following a path connecting temples, caves, and the tomb of their founder, Ninmon.
Visitors today can follow a similar route, starting at the Kumano Maigabutsu, religious stone carvings that date roughly from 1200 A.D., the tallest of which stands over eight meters in height. The course combines ancient roadways and trails with modern ones, stopping at temples and farm villages along the way. Millennium of volcanic activity results in a landscape creased by mountains and valleys, but filled with a rich blend of flora and fauna as well as ancient statues, ruins and cave temples with images of the Buddha carved into the rock. Stunning views over the Seto Inland Sea dominate from nearly every high point. Broken into ten separate courses of varying difficulty and length, hikers can explore for a day or do a through-hike ending at Futago-ji.
Daisetsuzan Koen, Hokkaido
It’s easy to see how Daisetsuzan Koen in Hokkaido earned its Ainu moniker as “Playground of the Gods.” A few steps along almost any trail, and hikers find themselves in another world, one that veers between deep forest, plateauwetlands, and glacial byways where bears and fox trod as well as barren volcanic landscapes. Breathtaking year round, in summer it is one of Japan’s great escapes from the heat and humidity that blankets much of the country. Those seeking to trek these northern climes will not be disappointed whether they choose an overnight hike to one of the park’s many mountain huts or a longer circuit.
One interesting choice is to start from Daisetsuzan Onsen and climb steadily upward to the Numanohara Wetlands. Here, the landscape flattens out into a great basin where an assortment of rare mountain wildflowers grace the spaces between shimmering mountain ponds just below a raised wooden trail. Camp next to Lake Onuma and take day hikes up nearby ridges. Cut down a wild hydrangea-studded river valley to Nupontomuraushi Onsen, a somewhat secret and semi-tamed coed hot spring accessible only on foot, dirt bike or other hardy vehicle—an excellent place for a good soak and sleep.
Climb back up to Hisagonuma Hinagoya (hut) and try to spot the furry pika roaming among the boulders or carry on to Chubetsudake Hinagoya. From there, hike to Hakuun-koya, where warm wood walls make for a cozy respite from the trail. A final long climb up the backside of Asahidake and down the other side brings hikers back to civilization slow and sure.
Two books that are great resources for hiking in Japan are Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Japan” (ed. 2009) and “Day Walks Near Tokyo” by Gary D’A. Walters.