Five Summer Hikes Around Japan That Will Help You Reach Zen


Bodhidharma (known as Daruma-Daishi in Japan) was a wise and sage monk who lived in the 5th-6th centuries. The legend goes that in his intense search for total enlightenment, he sat outside for a total of nine years in deep meditation. After almost a decade of contemplation, it was in the depths of nature, surrounded by trees and rocks and earth, that he finally reached a zen state. Now, I might not be a monk and I definitely don’t want to spend nine years in meditation (I can hardly spend nine minutes doing yoga), but there is no denying that being out in nature helps calm the mind and ease the soul in a way that little else can. 
 
Nature is its own type of medicine. It allows us to leave behind the bustling noise of the city; to escape from our overcrowded, overstuffed lives. No more sounds of that jackhammering construction work floating in through your open window, no more annoying text tones alerting you to your Facebook notifications, and no more loud honking and/or cursing from overeager taxi drivers. Being out in the blissful quiet of the countryside or enjoying the gentle hum of a seascape warms us up like a cup of coffee or a nice, long hug. So, this summer break, take a break from the big cities and check out some of the following hikes around Japan to help you reach your own little version of enlightenment.
 

#1) Mount Fuji

Duration: Varies, but allow two days

Level: Moderate to Difficult

Official Website: http://www.fujisan-climb.jp/en/ 

 

I’m going to get this one out of the way right now. When thinking about hikes in Japan, at the top of any list is Mount Fuji. At 3,776 meters (12,389 feet) tall, Mount Fuji is Japan’s tallest, as well as its most famous, summit. The climbing season starts in early July and and ends in September, during which time thousands of people (tourists and Japanese natives alike) climb up this iconic peak. If you choose to go during this time frame, it may feel as if half the population of Tokyo is up there with you, but if the weather is right, the fantastic views are worth the crowds. 

According to the official website for Mt. Fuji climbing, on Saturdays the trails are incredibly congested, especially during sunrise. To avoid this crowd, try not to hike on the weekends and instead of watching the sunrise on the summit, elect to watch it from the comfort of your mountain hut. Mountain huts are available when trails are open, as a general rule, and all payments must be made by cash only. For more information about booking Mountain Huts for your overnight hike up Mount Fuji, visit this website.
 
Although this might seem like the most alluring choice for a hike because it offers a unique Japanese experience, do not be deceived into thinking that the ascension will be a walk in the park. Though not difficult for the experienced climber, Mount Fuji is not the best choice for a complete novice.The mountain’s altitude is pretty high, so be aware that altitude sickness is possible. 
 

#2) Shiratani Unsuikyo

Duration: Varies from one to five hours 

Level: Easy

Admission: 300 Yen

 
Located on the subtropical island of Yakushima (which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993) right off the coast of Kyushu, this nature park showcases some of Japan’s oldest trees (the most ancient of which are up to 7,000 years old). The park itself outlines four different trails, the shortest of which is a thirty minute walk covering 0.8 km (about half a mile) and the longest of which covers 3 km (around 2 miles) at an estimated 150 minutes. 
The main draw of this hiking area is that it served as the main inspiration for one of Studio Ghibli’s most famous movies: Princess Mononoke. Oga Kazuo, an art director and background artist for Studio Ghibli and Madhouse Studio, spent many, many hours here sketching the old trees and capturing the essence of the forest. This hike will transport you to the world of Ashitaka and San; it will allow you to walk where the Forest Spirit walked and maybe you’ll even see a cute kodama.  

 #3) Mount Shirane

Duration: Up to 2 Hours

Level: Easy to Moderate

 
Up until recently, Mount Shirane was closed to visitors. But in June 2017, the no-entry zone was reduced to 500 meters, thus allowing hikers access once again. Mount Shirane is located just outside of the famous onsen town of Kusatsu, which is one of the most popular hot spring sites in Japan. One of the nicest parts of this hike is that after the completion of your trek, you can celebrate by relaxing your muscles in a luxury hot spring bath back in Kusatsu.  
 
Hiking season begins in April and ends around November, which is when snow makes hiking impossible (but opens up the area to skiing). The easiest and most popular of the walks takes less than 10 minutes and is easily accessed from the town through the use of hourly buses. This short hike stretches from the Shirane Resthouse to Yugama Crater Lake, which is the main attraction of this area. The Yugama Crater Lake offers a beautiful view of sulfurous, baby blue water that is quite unique. 
 
 There are also a fair number of longer trails and hiking circuits nearby that lead to various peaks, craters, lakes and even a waterfall.

#4) Shikoku Pilgrimage

Duration: One to Two Months

Level: Difficult

Official Website: http://www.tourismshikoku.org/henro/


If you are looking for a way to more deeply connect with the religious aspect of Japan, then the Shikoku Pilgrimage is the choice for you. It is a spiritual route that includes over 88 temples all across the island of Shikoku. Extending over 1,200 kilometres (750 miles), the pilgrimage was traditionally covered entirely on foot, but nowadays pilgrims also use cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, or motorcycles along certain stretches. 
 
Because the idea of a 30 to 60 day journey might be overwhelming and unrealistic for most tourists, this website details various courses (all in English) that cover the highlights of the Pilgrimage in four day increments. The maps show train schedules and bus times in a straightforward manner, which will allow you to pick and choose your ideal journey.
 
The official website describes the Shikoku Pilgrimage as such: “This pilgrimage provides the chance to reflect on one's life and to change for the better. The motives for doing this pilgrimage are varied. For example, some come for religious reasons, some to pray for healing or safety in the home, or some in memory of those who have passed away. As well, some come just to get away from regular life, some for recreation, or some to spend time alone in reflection and to find oneself. To people today, it is being re-discovered as a healing journey.”

#5) Snow Country

Duration: Varies 

Level: Easy to Difficult

 
If you are looking for something off the beaten path where there are little to no tourists, try taking a trip up to Yuzawa in snowy Niigata Prefecture. Nicknamed “Snow Country” due to its large amounts of snowfall and its world-class ski resorts, the area around Yuzawa boasts not only beautiful winter scenery, but also has gorgeous and mild summers (not to mention it is home to the famous Fuji Rock Music Festival).
 
 Yuzawa is a great place to escape the crowds, along with the stifling heat of Tokyo and other such big cities. Up in the rugged mountains, you can really connect with the untouched beauty of nature. It truly is the perfect choice for those who are looking for a complete escape from the hecticness of civilization. For guided hiking tours around the area, check out this website, which conducts all of its business in English.

Katherine Hilker