Wild Japan: an explorer’s guide to the islands, mountains, forests, and other natural settings in the land of the rising sun

花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu (flower bird wind moon): “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”

From the middle of Shibuya’s madcap pedestrian Scramble, say, or Shinjuku’s neon canyonlands, it’s easy to forget that real wildness — islands, rivers, forests, mountains, even active volcanoes — lives just a couple of hours away by public transit from Japan’s high-tech, postmodern cities.

In fact, the 6,000-plus islands which unfurl in an archipelago from sub-arctic Hokkaido all the way to semi-tropical Okinawa and Iriomote follow the volcanic, earthquake-prone Pacific Ring of Fire. 73% of the land is actually forested mountainside: Japan’s famously packed cities squeeze onto what little arable land remains, mainly on the coasts between mountains and active volcanoes. Large parts of island interiors — cedar forests, tropical forests, mangrove swamps, river valleys, alpine highlands — are inhabited by a bestiary of moon bears and grizzlies, wild boars, and monkeys.

In a country so profoundly affected by natural disasters including earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and typhoons, maybe it’s not surprising that nature has long played a prominent role in Japanese culture. Even today, the traditional Shinto religion still plays a role in every village, town, and city, not to say forest and mountain. Despite the rather grand literal translation of the kanji characters 神道 as “way of the gods,” Shinto is in fact a rather local religion, and often appears rather modest in its daily appearance: mountains, trees, even rocks are sometimes acknowledged with rice straw rope and shide zigzag papers. It is for this reason that Fujisan is a sacred mountain. It is also for this reason that to this day yamabushi ascetic priests still train for endurance running and waterfall-standing in the mountains year-round, and why spirits such as tengu and kappa are still said to haunt the river valleys and cedar forests.

Today, with Japan’s post-industrial economy, these wild places are a popular refuge for urbanites, especially seniors, and an increasing number of fashionable young Mori (forest) and Yama (mountain) “gals”who navigate mountain trails by smartphone. Also recently, shinrin-yoku (森林浴): “forest bathing” trips have become popular as a way for stressed-out city dwellers to calm down by way of some natural hormone therapy.

After nearly two decades of exploring Japan’s wild places, I have compiled a list of some of the locales which have made the biggest impression on me, and which I would recommend to anyone else adventuring in “the land of the rising sun.”

Main-Island Honshu

Fujisan

On a clear day, Japan’s iconic mountain — actually a volcano — can be seen 95 kilometres (59 miles) away, in Tokyo. Sacred Fujisan has what is called “prominence” in topographic-speak: it stands out in stark relief from the surrounding terrain. In fact, Fuji’s near-symmetrical pyramidal slopes are so prominent they have become a national icon — and UNESCO World Heritage site. Mount Fuji is easily climbed in summer and early autumn, although the popular routes from the fifth stations at about 2300 metres (7546 feet) to the summit at 3,776 metres (12388 feet) are also a bit of a grind. Popular wisdom has it that “only a fool climbs Fujisan more than once…” I climbed it once, under perfect conditions, and that was enough…

Chichibu/Okutama Mountains

Even within Tokyo, the Chichibu/Okutama mountain ranges provide an escape from the big city. Highlights include Takaosan, popular year-round, with — on a clear day — a view of Fujisan to the west. On nearby Mitakesan, pilgrims have worshipped at the summit-top shrine for millennia. For the record, R. and I exchanged marriage vows at Mitakesan’s shrine one storm-tossed day in May, and we still return at least once a year to check in with the local tengu forest guardians and renew our vows.

The Japan Alps

Yes, Japan has its own Alps, a range — three, actually — of mountains which bisect main-island Honshu. Next to Fujisan, whose summit at 3776 meters (12,388 feet) is the highest point in Japan, these are the some of the highest mountains in Japan, many of them over 3,000 metres (9843 feet) in elevation.

Kamikochi

Not surprisingly, there are many popular treks in the Alps. Kamikochi is a popular mountain resort in the North Alps, though the valley is closed off in winter to all but a small number of guided tour groups. I went in December of 2015…

Senjojiki Cirque

Apparently, some 20,000 years ago glaciers took a big scoop out of the flank of Mount Komagatake in the Central Alps, leaving behind a pond and flower-filled subalpine meadows in spring, and the red leaves of mountain ash trees in koyo autumn leaf season. A ropeway reaches Senjojiki Station at almost 2612 metres (8568 feet) — the highest ropeway station in Japan — and the Senjojiki Hotel, which can serve as a base for hiking to the Central Alps summits outside the cirque’s bowl.

Oze National Park

The largest highland marsh in Japan. About 150 kilometres (93 miles) north of Tokyo, Oze still seems to be on fewer “been there, done that” lists than many other trekking destinations relatively close to Tokyo. That said, it does apparently get quite busy in spring and summer, when skunk cabbage(!) and lilies, respectively, are in bloom. We went in October, when the marsh grass turned a particularly golden brown, and had the backcountry pretty much to ourselves.

Mount Zaosan

By some measures, Japan is the snowiest place on earth, and winter in areas such as the Tohoku region north of Tokyo add to that rep. The Zaosan (蔵王山) mountains, on the border between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, for example, gets around 12 metres dumped on its forested slopes each season. That’s more than enough to transform this range of stratovolcanoes, crater lakes, and subalpine fir trees into a magical fantastical winter wonderland each year.

Hokkaido (Japan’s Northernmost Island)

Teshiodake

A volcanic mountain with a dramatic summit; one of the first places I laced up my trekking boots in Japan — and returned to again and again throughout my time on Hokkaido. The distinct, pyramidal summit may only be 1557.8 metres (4110 feet) in elevation, but this is Hokkaido: the treeless alpine zone starts as low as 1200 metres in these parts, an easy day climb to treeless vistas across the rolling Kitami mountain range.

Rishiri-to Island

An extinct volcano which rises out of the Sea of Okhotsk between Russia and Japan. On a clear day you can see both! We climbed from the free Rishiri-Hokuroku campsite in June, and had the campground and trail nearly to ourselves. I returned in August, and was forced to squeeze my tent into a flat spot next to the congested trail.

Daisetsuzan National Park

“The Roof of Hokkaido” they call it, as there are 16 mountains with elevations above 2,000 meters (6562 feet), including Asahidake at 2,291 metres (7516 feet). Daisetsuzan is also famous for alpine meadow scenery and higuma brown bears. I did a two-night sawanobori river climb up the Kuwaaunni River on Mount Tomoraushi my first year in Japan, and lived to tell the tale.

Niseko

Off-piste snowboarder’s paradise. Apparently, Niseko has been named the “number two snowiest resort in the world,” with 15.11 metres (595 inches) of champagne powder falling annually. These days, Niseko is very much on the radar of the international ski set, and doubtless this has changed the fuinke, or atmosphere, of the place, but sanctioned off-piste skiing and snowboarding — a rarity in Japan — is still on the menu. This is probably the hottest, so to speak, ski resort in Japan these days.

Kyushu

Yakushima

They say it rains 35 days a month on this island just south of Kyushu. The ancient cedar rainforests, and waterfalls, make many peoples’ lists of power spots in Japan: it’s certainly hard to deny the pull of forests with trees which in some cases are reportedly up to 7,000 years old (which would make them, along with the bristlecone pine, the oldest living things on earth). But don’t just take my word for it: Kayao Miyazaki, co-founder of famed Ghibli studio, used Yakushima’s dense, mossy forest interior as inspiration for the setting of the anime Princess Mononoke.

Aso Kuju National Park

Susuki pampas grass highlands and active volcanoes in the heart of Kyushu. Mount Asosan is Japan’s largest active volcano, and among the largest in the world. The last eruption took place in October of 2016. Fortunately, as of June 2017 the Japan Meteorological Agency lists the crater as Level 1: potential for increased activity. Other parts of the park, around the Kuju Renzan mountain range, are somewhat less volatile, and the grass- and flower-filled highlands are a popular trekking destination during the autumn koyo season in October on Kyushu. I posted a trip report in November of 2015…

Okinawa and the Yaeyama Islands

Iriomote

1900 kilometres (1200 miles) from Tokyo, so far south it’s almost in Taiwan, Iriomote-jima is Japan’s Lost World wilderness, a tropical island of dense jungle, rivers, and mangrove swamps. Only a few thousand people live there, though hermits — refugees from the urban hothouses of Tokyo and Osaka far to the north — have been known to set up makeshift homesteads on remote beaches along the coast. Iriomote’s rainforest interior is one of the remotest, wildest places left in Japan: a day-long hike takes you through a Jurassic Park landscape of giant ferns and dense jungle canopy — not for the faint of heart! More accessible are the mangrove-lined Urauchi River, and the Pinaisara waterfall reached by tour boat. I posted a trip report for a couple of weeks sleeping wild on the beaches of Okinawa and Iriomote, hiking the Jurassic-Park interiors and spelunking along antediluvian shorelines.

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I’ve spent two decades exploring Japan’s wild places — and could easily spend another two discovering the rest — in fact, I plan to! In my travels, I have uncovered several places which have become personal power spots: places where I feel connected not just to nature here in Japan, but also to the wilds I left behind all those years ago in Canada. It’s not that Japan reminds me of Canada — the verdant green volcanic landscape is a world away from my home in dry, brown southern Ontario — but that being in nature anywhere in the world connects us to the earth in some basic, primordial way.

How about you? Do you have a power spot, or just a favourite place in wild Japan, you like to visit? Let us know in the comments section below!