Personally, I find walking the most rewarding and refreshing mode of all, allowing me to really experience the charm of slow travel. Exploring places on foot with an expert local guide is often the best and least intrusive way to connect with the indigenous natural and social environment.
Wherever I go, whether it’s for work or on holiday, I look for places that allow for such unhurried and in-depth explorations. In Asia, two of my favourite destinations for walking off the beaten track are Japan and Bhutan. Both cultures follow Buddhism, are deeply spiritual and worship nature. This means their connection with nature is more rooted than most other rapidly developing nations and their natural habitat is being preserved with much greater attention and dedication.
I am very pleased to share with you some of my favourite regions in Japan for gentle walking and hiking which will take you away from the well-trodden paths:
The Nakasendo Trail, located in Central Japan, is one of the most legendary walking routes in the country. Historically this route was part of feudal Japan’s network of trade routes. Travellers between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto were almost always forced to make the entire journey on foot due to the restrictions imposed by the Shogunate.
As a result various “post towns” came up every few kilometres along the way with places to eat and rest, which can now be used as a convenient base for an overnight stay. Of all the 69 towns, Magome, Tsumago and Narai have been particularly well-preserved with traditional cobbled streets and wooden buildings exuding the charm and history of a bygone era.
Although there are many interesting sections along the route, the scenic trail from Magome to Tsumago is the one that I’d recommend. It is considered to be one of the best walks in the country!
The eight kilometre section takes about three hours to cover and is suitable for anyone with a moderate-to-good level of fitness. The densely wooded valley provides the most amazing mountain scenery! What really struck me is how quiet and “untouristy” the area is, despite being so well documented.
A delightful feature along the route is the succession of little bells that are placed for walkers to ring, not for prayer but more practically to keep the bears away! Although bear sightings are rare the valley is rich in wildlife including black bears, monkeys and a sizeable variety of birds. My favourite accommodation in the area is a charming little ryokan called Yamamizuki Urara Tsutaya. The property has only 11 rooms with exquisite traditional food and comfortable rooms with private bath.
This area is a real hidden gem. Nestled in the mountains of Central Japan, Yamanashi Prefecture is not yet on the main tourist map for international travellers but it offers incredibly unique and undiscovered gems such as amazing mountain landscapes, pristine forests, intimate art museums, sake breweries and one of Japan’s best whisky distilleries.
This is a great area for walking and horseback riding, and also for those interested in contemporary art. Also here is the world’s only private museum to exclusively feature an impressive collection of about 200 pieces of Keith Haring’s artwork, a renowned American pop artist in the 80’s. My favourite walking route here is the trail leading up to Shojingataki Falls, one of Japan’s highest waterfalls. It’s relatively easy and suitable for beginners but there are also other more challenging routes suitable for more advanced hikers.
The forest is truly beautiful as you meander along by the river and across several suspension bridges. This area is wonderful in autumn when the entire forest turns stunning red and golden! Another very interesting feature of this area is Hotel Keyforest Hokuto, designed by the award-winning architect Atsushi Kitagawara who took inspiration from Keith Haring’s artworks.
Located on Shikoku Island, Iya Valley is one of the most isolated regions of Japan. The valley is dotted with cottages and is covered with lush maple forests offering absolutely stunning views.
Due to very limited accessibility the region served as a safe refuge for the survivors of the Taira clan after their defeat by the Minamoto at the Battle of Yashima in 1185. Swapping the sword for the hoe and scythe, the warriors became farmers and, today, many villagers claim to be direct descendants of those who served at the court during the Heian era.
I would recommend exploring the area around Mount Tsurugi – Shikoku’s second highest mountain, which has excellent walking and hiking routes. The summit (1,955 meters) offers the most incredible views of the valley. Again, this region is excellent for autumn colours.
There is a decent traditional ryokan in the area but, for an authentic local experience, I’d recommend staying in a renovated thatched roof farmhouse in the historic Ochiai village where a delicious hot-pot dinner will be prepared for you by a local Oka-san (Japanese term for mother). For gourmets you can also learn how to make traditional Iya-soba from a local villager. Although it’s more suitable for seasoned travellers who are not put off by rustic and basic facilities, this region in my opinion offers one of the most authentic and pure local experiences.
Located to the south and east of Osaka, this is the most spiritual part of Japan and also one of the finest walking areas in the country. The region is home to Kumano Kodo – a network of centuries old pilgrimage routes leading to the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano region and Mount Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, which was introduced in Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi. The whole mountain range is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is ideal for intrepid travellers interested in multi-day walks.
The rugged and often steep trails offer breath-taking views of the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, along with an opportunity to stay in remote and ancient inns and guest houses. One can sample simple local food, bathe in some of the oldest hot springs in the country and seeing stunningly beautiful shrines. I love the region’s spiritual and religious aspects! My favourite trek is the 10th century Nakahechi route which runs west to east between Tanabe and the grand shrines.
One of my favourite views in the area is of the Nachi Taisha Shrine with Nachi no Taki in the background – the tallest waterfall in Japan. The sight is breathtaking; a place for reflection and peace.
Located in northern Oita Prefecture on the eastern coast of Kyushu the Kunisaki Peninsula has been a training ground for Shinto religion for centuries, dating back as far as 660 BC.
The peninsula is home to a unique local Buddhist culture called “Rokugo Manzan” which comprises element of Buddhism, Shinto and mountain worship. Kyushu remains one of the most secluded regions in Japan and is renowned for its natural beauty. This region has a number of lush forested valleys located around Mount Futago in the centre.
One of my favourite walking trails is the Kunisaki Peninsula Long Trail, which consists of ten courses ranging from 11 to 18 kilometres suitable for all ages and fitness levels. There are also very interesting temples in the region including Monjusen-ji Temple, founded in 648, and the 1300-year-old Futago-ji Temple which is spread across a vast area on the forested mountain slopes.
For those seeking a Japan undiscovered by tourists these are fantastic options which you explore with your expert local guide and, crucially, at a pace that suits you. Contact me here for more information about tailor made holidays to Japan.
Images are kindly supplied and copyright to:
Tokushima Prefecture and JNTO, Destination Africa, Wakayama Prefecture and JNTO, Nagano Prefecture and JNTO, Yamanashi Tourism Organization and JNTO, JNTO, The Real Japan, MOEJ, Yamanashi Tourism Organization and JNTO