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Walking ancient trails in Japan

Hiking is a popular activity in Japan and there are a plethora of trails that lead to adventures in the great outdoors. You can trek through a dozen different landscapes depending on season and situation, from snowy peaks to tropical jungle, but our favourite routes are those that take you into Japan’s extraordinary central forests. From half-day hikes to 3-day experiences staying in local accommodation, including a walking experience in your itinerary is a great way to see more of Japan.

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Tsumago
Kumano kodo
Kumano kodo
Tsumago

We can arrange walking trips through many different parts of the country, but these three iconic trails on Honshu are some of our personal favourites...

Nakasendo - At 534km long, this epic ancient trail links Tokyo with Kyoto through an inland landscape of hills and forests. You’ll hike 7.7km along one of the most scenic parts of the route, a subsection called the Kiso-ji, starting in one delightful Edo-period town and ending in another. This relatively gentle day hike is best enjoyed at an amble, taking the full 3 hours or so to complete it, and you can walk the trail in either direction. 

It’s an easy route in the main, with a few steep sections, that takes you through the soft, pleasant countryside of Nagano Prefecture. Stop for a rest in a traditional house at the halfway point, where you can pick up some snacks and enjoy a refreshing cup of tea. Your bags will be waiting for you at the other end, and the best way to add to this experience is to spend a night in a local ryokan or minshuku in either of the lovely post towns of Tsumago or Magome. A minshuku is more like a modern bed and breakfast. They often have the appearance of a ryokan, with traditional architecture and tatami rooms, but are usually somewhat less luxurious. Round off your satisfying day on the trail with a delicious home-cooked dinner, perhaps taken together with other travellers. Although more modern accommodation is available out of town, we wouldn’t miss the chance to finish this hike with a night in traditional Japanese style.

Kumano Kodo - This is, perhaps, Japan’s most well-known walking trail, having been granted UNESCO status in 2004. The Kumano Kodo, on the Kii Peninsula, links a series of old pilgrimage routes that were once used to reach the three grand shrines of Kumano (Kumano Sanzan). These routes have been built upon during the intervening centuries, so to walk the full trail would involve a lot of dangerous highway walking and a 5-day commitment. We don’t recommend that, but instead suggest picking out a few of the most scenic sections, away from the concrete landscape. We can help you select which ones to choose, and create a bespoke package to fit into your wider itinerary. 

The mountainous Kii Peninsula is one of the most beautiful parts of Japan. It’s remote, and it really feels so. It’s not well visited, remains very local, and gives you a real sense of Japan in years gone by. The most picturesque sections of the Kumano Kodo trail take in the peninsula’s mountains, woods, waterfalls, epic sections of coastline, and of course, several Shinto shrines. We’ll map out your route, take care of the logistics and secure your lodgings, so all you have to focus on is breathing deeply and pausing to enjoy some restorative shinrin-yoku forest bathing.

If you want to add a little more luxury, end your journey with a night on the coast at a top-class resort with fine dining, onsen, and spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. We know just the place...

Kamikochi - This remote highland valley trail in Chūbu-Sangaku National Park is absolutely stunning. Kamikochi, which translates as ‘where gods descend’, is spiritual and pristine. When the sun shines on the mountainsides, it reveals a natural splendour that takes your breath away. The translucent waters of the Azusa River running through the length of the valley are particularly memorable. It has a very different feel to much of Japan, being more reminiscent of Switzerland in places. It’s rare to find somewhere with such a relatively large population that is so well preserved, and there are strict laws to keep it so, with no private cars allowed to enter. The valley only opens from April to November and the well-marked trails can get pretty busy, but even then it doesn't feel overwhelming. 

You may stumble across the memorial plaque to Walter Weston, an English missionary who loved climbing in this area and is credited with making the pastime popular again in modern Japan. Kamikochi is best enjoyed with a night or two at one of the local hotels that line the river, including a plush Alpine-themed outpost of the Imperial Hotel. Set out on a selection of day hikes at your chosen pace and level, or take on the challenging ascent of Mount Yarigatake itself.

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Following Ancient Trails

Wander along the ancient trails of Kumano Kodo and its spiritual shrines, enjoying the peaceful, and enchanting surroundings as well as taking in the hospitality of local families along the way.

Price from: £4,990 US$5,790
Ideal length 17 days
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