Japan owes its existence to mountains. Thousands of years ago, Japan bubbled out of the ocean as the afterthought of energetic volcanoes along the Pacific Ring of Fire. The spine of Japan — the Japanese Alps — are still rising just as the tectonic plate below the sea is steadily sliding. But whether you climb on sleeping Mount Fuji, still an active volcano, or watch sunset from a small village hill in Japan, you are on a san (山), a mountain or hill. Some Japanese mountains are more famous than others, such as Matsumoto for its castle, Nikko’s alpine trails, or Nagano as host city of the 1998 winter Olympics.
Whether you are a hardcore trekker or just want a breath of fresh mountain air (maybe soaking in an onsen!), visiting a mountain is a must-do while in Japan. Hikers should also visit my Hiking 101 post for more tips.
Visiting mountains in Japan is a unique cultural experience and uniquely convenient experience that makes accessing nature a possibility of everyone.
No driving necessary: buses, gondolas, and trams
Example: Nikko, Mount Fuji (to 8th station)
The Japanese love their mountains, even the people who don’t love walking them. To make beautiful and famous places accessible to city-dwellers who may not drive, most places “worth going to” for domestic tourism will have services that help you get to a mountain, and maybe to the top:
- a bus route from the closest train station to the base of the mountain
- a gondola to the peak (or close)
- a scenic bus (near the top)
- recreational routes in addition to hardcore ones
- a rest station and restaurant at the gondola and at the peak
- souvenirs for that area / mountain
- a viewing platform / tower (if there’s a view)
- ryokan (lodgings) at the base and / or at the top
Note that not all routes have amenities, but popular travel destinations usually have the above.
The more famous, the more convenient. Top travel destinations like Mount Fuji and Mount Takao (in Tokyo), or the entire Nagano and Nikko areas (which are mountainous) will likely have many scheduled buses or shuttles. This means that you can probably take a train or highway bus to the closest station with a connecting bus to your destination and improvise your way from there.
No walking necessary for views and sights
Ever wanted to see those stunning vistas for yourself, but not spend the 8 hours getting there? Japan is the place to see them. I’ll use one example below of a famous mountain route that can be 100% viewing, and 0% sweating.
Mount Tate close to Toyama is a famous local tourism destination throughout the year (for alpine hiking, fall colours, and the winter snow tunnel). As a result, it has a complete transit route designed for visitors to see everything from the comfort of a window:
- From Toyama JR Station take a private train line to the base of Mount Tate
- From the base of Mount Tate, take a mountain tram up
- From the mountain tram station, take a summit bus and get off at any of the stops along the way (to hike up the boardwalk)
- From the summit, take a tunnel to the other side of Mount Tate
- From there, take another tram down to Kurobe Dam (the other highlight)
- From there, take transit down the mountain (to stay in the onsen town, Omachi, below)
Please do check the mountain you want to see. If you are a hiker and want to go to more natural places with fewer people, note bus times because there may only be one or two a day and closures in winter.
No commitment necessary: scenic buses
Examples: Mount Tate, Nikko
For maximizing time in nature rather than planning your trip, take a scenic bus ride. In addition to showcasing the views, the buses also have stops at famous viewpoints and trailheads.
Mount Tate’s scenic bus takes you through the gentle alpine slopes in the summer and in winter it goes through the famous ice tunnel. In the winter, the ride in itself is an experience. In the summer, visitors can consider getting off one or two stops before the summit and follow the boardwalks up to see the mountain flowers. Nikko’s buses cover a bigger area, but operate the same way with drop-offs infamous spots and recreational trails for a quiet stroll.
No sweating necessary: recreational routes
Example: Mount Takao, Mount Koya
With limited time, you might want to spend most of your day hiking on the mountain, rather than up. Take advantage of the trams and cable cars that whisk you up to higher recreational grounds. For example, Mount Koya is a UNESCO World Heritage site that takes at least a day to enjoy, so taking the train from Osaka then the tram up is worth it for the time it saves. Even hikers should consider this option as many summit areas also have natural trails to other peaks that have great views.
People in Tokyo can choose from a network of mountain trails on top of Mount Mitake and Mount Takao. Both mountains have century-old shrines to visit, mountain towns with restaurants, and a network of trails. A recreational route usually takes between 30-120 minutes, is flat and usually well paved and marked. Other trails vary in difficulty, so bring proper gear if you are taking more challenging routes!
You can search for maps online (sometimes only available in Japanese) to check or otherwise look for printed maps at the closest train station or gondola. These different routes give distance and average time estimates as well, so you can decide after you arrive.
No planning necessary: maps & info aplenty
Look out for colourful flyer maps at the closest train station, temple, or tourist information centre. Also look for boards with a liberally stylized map (take all Japanese maps as rough guides). Throughout the trail, look out for arrows, stylised icons, and bubbly characters pointing you in the right direction.
No preparation, no problem!
Example: Mount Koya, Wakayama
Did you forget snacks and water while rushing to catch the train? Not a problem. There are always vending machines. I have visited some of Japan’s most remote places, where I see more vending machines than people. For mountains, they are often at trailheads or gondola stations, so make sure you pick up a bottle before you start your hike. On natural trails, you will not see another one until you get to the summit. Make sure you have coins or ¥1000 bills as many vending machines outside cities do not take PASMO or Suica cards.
Look out for the bamboo springs spouting drinkable water to refill your bottle.
At popular mountain summits, you will probably find travellers and hikers alike slurping on a steaming bowl of udon or chewing on the local manju, steamed buns. Rest assured that if there is a gondola up a mountain, there will be a restaurant and sometimes an entire village (like Mount Takao, or Mount Koya).
Essence of Japanese mountains: shrines and temples
Mountains are a must-see in Japan because they are so embedded in the culture. Mountains are where the spirits dwell, the spiritual leaders in Shugendo retreat to, and communities still call home. Virtually every mountain with a road or trail has a shrine somewhere.
The places that many travellers hear about from overseas usually have a deep cultural significance as well. Mount Haguro is a great example because walking through the hall of cedars, seeing the century-old pagoda, and stopping at the teahouse along the way before exploring the expansive shrine grounds is all part of an immersive experience for a short, 45-minute hike.
Experiencing a mountain: staying at ryokans
Examples: Shibu Onsen, under Jyogadani Monkey Park. Karuizawa under the Nagano ski mountains, Mount Haguro, Mount Koya, Omachi below Kurobe Dam.
Foothills for onsens and summits for sunsets. If a ryokan is on your list of Japan experiences, pair it with a mountain. Many resort towns have onsen ryokan in the valleys with fast flowing rivers. Soak in an outdoor bath while watching sunset before or after your hike. Or, if you prefer watching sunset and sunrise, then look for summit lodgings that give you an exclusive view dawn breaking over the rippling ridges.
Mount Koya and Mount Haguro are both examples of historical villages and towns that have hosted pilgrims for centuries and therefore have many ryokan to stay overnight. Shibu Onsen is an example of a historical onsen resort town that Edo nobility visited. Places like Omachi under Mount Tate are nestled in forested valleys to rest after a day fending off alpine gales.
If you would like to hike in Japan, check my Hiking Japan 101 for tips for transportation, trail, and lodging.