As every Japanese person is surely going to inform you, ‘Japan has four seasons and the most amazing nature’. Therefore, the most popular outdoors hobby of the locals is mountain hiking, aptly called just ‘haikingu’ or ‘yama nobori’ (山登り) in Japanese. People of all ages go hiking the endless mountain ranges of the countryside. Japan is 80% mountainous, after all.
Mostly a hobby of the elderly in order to maintain physical fitness, families with young children also date the climb. The reason hiking caters to such a diverse audience is that paths are maintained and clearly marked, with kilometres and times from one checkpoint to the next. Most paths are well maintained, either by the prefecture, electricity or other utility companies. The path is marked both with small square boxes in the dirt (at a 50m or 80m distance) and -typically- pink ribbons on tree trunks. Most of the time, path markers have a number, which you can use to explain your location when in danger. There’s a long, interconnected network of courses, for example most hikes around Tokyo belong to the Kanto Fureai no Michi. Don’t forget that apart from the mountains, there are a lot of paths along the coast. I use an app with maps called All Trails, but be warned that there are rare cases where the path entrances that are shown in the map are not accessible.
The best course of action is to double-check the route you want to follow by googling in Japanese; a local website will surely have an updated map about ‘XX ハイキングコース’ (XX hiking course). In some mountain paths, you might notice a fenced area. The fences are the borders of protected areas, either of wildlife protection where hunting prohibitions are in place, or of technical equipment. Sometimes, the fence might have an unlocked door, which opens easily with a latch. Only recently, I saw a fence door not parallel, but instead on the path, which prompted a mini panic attack. While I thought the path was off-limits, perplexed by all previous signs that didn’t mention path closures and hastily calculating whether I’ll be able to return to a previous checkpoint before the sun sets, I managed to read the note on the door. Apparently, it was OK to open the door to the other side, as long as you close it, in order to prevent wild animals from reaching nearby villages.
A lot of the mountains in Kanto are rocky or covered by tree roots. Hiking poles are a life-saver in such a terrain, they’ve saved me from so many inglorious falls. Popular courses, like Mt. Tsukuba, have wooden steps that cover the path to make it safer, but not necessarily easier. At locations where the soil is rocky or eroded, there are chains or ropes to assist the climb. Other courses have the bare minimum, like a block of wood that functions as a bridge or chains to prevent rock falls. Many times the path is extremely narrow, enough to just put one foot next to the other, overlooking a steep cliff. That’s why you should also make sure to wear proper hiking boots, especially considering how often it rains in Japan. Quick showers are not uncommon at all at the mountain, despite the weather report. I always bring a raincoat, a waterproof backpack and a set of clean clothes, in case this happens. The set of clothes serves an alternative purpose, since the best hiking paths tend to end at an onsen or sento.
During my years in the countryside, I’ve come across a variety of wild animals. From field mice, woodpeckers and deer, to wild boars and kamoshika. A few times, I saw signs of a bear, but I’ve thankfully managed to never come face to face with one. Luckily, the bears in Kanto are of the small asian variety. While they don’t hibernate, they are not as dangerous as the brown bear. This however is not true for Hokkaido, where the large Ezo bear roams, as dangerous as it gets. The population of bears and boars has grown considerably in Honshu in the past decades, resulting in infestation and human casualties from time to time. Therefore, there are areas in the mountain where hunting is allowed, and you might come across traps. A way to avoid meeting a bear is to use a bear bell, the noise of which keeps them away. I am not convinced whether it actually works, since deer and wild boars seem to completely ignore it, but since I’ve never seen a bear that’s a 100% success rate. You can also attach a whistle on your bag’s shoulder strap, to call for help if you come across danger.
During the hike itself, there are many things to look forward to. Along the path, you might find jizo statues, stacks of stones and pebbles and observatory decks. Many peaks have cable car access and riding it (if you are too lazy to walk) is always fun. The terrain changes a lot, as you move from dirt to tree roots and then to rock, so it never gets monotonous. Every season has its charm, although my favourite is autumn. Shinto religion places the gods at high places, thus many mountains have a shrine on top. I usually bring food with me, but at the weekend there might be an open mountain hut at the summit, serving noodles or soup. A hut at the top of Mt. Oyama even serves takoyaki. Campers often bring mini gas stoves with them. There are benches with tables at flat checkpoints. Speaking of camping, wild camping is prohibited, but there are a few free and rental campsites available. On the contrary, public toilets are almost anywhere, at least at the start and the end of a path.
If you liked your hike, remember that famous mountains have their own souvenirs, from local produce to commemorative pins. In exceptional cases, the souvenir shop might even sell wooden walking sticks with the mountain’s name inscribed. You can get a lot of suggestions about future hikes from lists like the ‘100 mountains of Kanto’. You can also check out my posts with the tag #hiking. Take care, have fun and if you come across an amazing mountain view, tell me about it.