Autumn is probably the best time of the year to go hiking in Japan: the weather is usually clear and the leaves are beautiful. However, with a dizzying number of mountains and hiking trails, and a complex public transportation system, it’s not easy to figure out where to go, and how to get there – and back. I’m often asked how to get started with hiking, so here are six tips on how to plan your first hike, and hopefully many others!
1) Buy a Guidebook
I started out with the “Otona no Ensoku” (大人の遠足) book series by JTB Publishing. The two I have are Kanto Area Day Hikes Ending at a Hot Spring and Best Day Hikes in the Kanto Area. There may be more people on the trail but at least you’ll be walking on well-trodden paths. Among all the guidebooks out there, I find these to have the clearest layout.
With the hike + onsen book you’ll save time looking for a hot spring (photo source: books.jtbpublishing.co.jp)
If you’re looking for hikes in a specific area, I’d recommend the “Bunken Tozan Gaido” (分県登山ガイド), book series published by Yamakei. They have guides for each prefecture, and each one has around 50 hikes. The layout is also fairly easy-to-understand, and the hikes range from beginner to advanced. Some are even secret trails known to locals only – and you! If you live in Tokyo, the book to get is “The mountains of Tokyo Prefecture”, but the ones for the mountains of Saitama, Kanagawa and Yamanashi are all excellent choices.
Mt Fuji can be seen from the top of many mountains in the Tokyo area (photo source: http://www.amazon.co.jp)
2) Get a Paper Map
Although the above guidebooks include a map of the hike, nothing beats a separate paper map. It contains a lot more details and covers a wider area. The most popular hiking map series are “Yama to Kogen Chizu”, or “yama chizu” for short, by Mapple. Even if you don’t read Japanese, you’ll be grateful for the mountain routes, times and elevations. It’s possible to buy a digital map and pay for updates, but I’m a little concerned about my phone battery dying on a hike!
Section of the Okutama map – the paper is robust and water-resistant
The map I’ve got the most use out of is the Takao – Jinba (高尾 陣馬) map. It covers, not only Mt Takao, but also the mountains along the Chuo line all the way to Otsuki station. Many of these can be done as station to station hikes, so there is no need to worry about bus times. Other excellent maps are the ones for Okutama 奥多摩 (Tokyo prefecture), Tanzawa 丹沢 (Kanagawa prefecture) and Oku-musashi Chichibu 奥武蔵・秩父 (Saitama prefecture).
The very useful Takao-Jinba map – on the left side are all the mountains featured (photo source: http://www.amazon.co.jp)
3) Check the Trail Condition
Once I’ve chosen a hike, I go online to get the most up-to-date trail information. First, I check yamareco (meaning “mountain record” ヤマレコ), a Japanese only site, where people can post pictures and descriptions of their hikes. Popular mountains will usually get many updates, especially after the weekend. Googling “yamareco” + the mountain’s name (in Japanese or English) is an easy and quick way to get to the right page.
Some trails can be unexpectedly challenging – chains assist a hiker down a rocky section on Mt Take in Gunma
Afterwards, googling the name of the mountain by itself can lead me to other useful resources for planning my hike. Depending on the mountain, recent trail information can be found on a website for :
- a Visitor Center
- a Mountain Lodge or Hut
- a Nearby City or Town
- a Ropeway or Cable Car
- a Private Hiking Blog
Before setting out on your hike, it’s important to know whether the trail is not closed for some reason! On the other hand, if a website announces that autumn colours are at their peak on your chosen hike, you can expect crowds of people! Some of these websites have English versions, or automatic translation functions.
Hiking with the crowds in Oze in the autumn
4) Find Out How to Get There
If the hike is from train station to train station, then you just need to check the train route and times on the English version of hyperdia. More work is needed if access to the start of the trail (and back) is by bus, since there is no hyperdia for bus routes. Bus companies operating in popular sightseeing spots, like Nikko and Mt Fuji, have websites with routes and timetables in English. However, most bus companies provide information in Japanese only. Googling the name of the bus company + the bus stop (in Japanese) will often get you a PDF with the bus timetable, but not always.
Bus stop names are sometimes translated in English
Recently, Google Maps has started providing bus schedules, so it’s worth playing around with that as well. However, it’s still a work in progress, and not all bus routes are in the system yet. If Google Maps can’t find a bus route, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no bus service in the area. Finally, I always double check the day and date, since bus times can vary according to the day of the week and time of the year.
The bus is the most usual way to get to the start of the trail – many buses now accept IC cards such as Suica/Pasmo
5) Keep an Eye on the Weather
After choosing and planning my hike, I spend some time checking the weather. You don’t want to get caught in a downpour (or a snowstorm) mid-hike. I prefer Japan-specific websites such as Weather News (Japanese only) and the Japanese Meteorological Agency (Japanese and English) to get an idea of the weather in the area near my hike.
Snow on the trail – here Daibosatsurei in November – can radically change the nature of a hike
Even if it’s sunny in the lowlands, mountain weather can be completely different. It’s important to check the temperature and wind strength on the mountain itself so that you can dress appropriately. Mountain Forecast gives detailed forecasts for famous mountains throughout Japan. Tenki to Kurasu has more mountains, but it’s in Japanese only. The latter has a handy rating system that helps me decide whether I need to postpone/change my hike – or adjust my clothes. For example:
- Sunny but cold and windy weather might be rated “C”, meaning unsuitable for hiking.
- Cloudy but mild weather with little wind might be rated “A”, meaning suitable for hiking.
Both sites are automatically updated several times a day. Forecasts can sometimes be wrong so it’s best to be prepared for different conditions – I always pack rain gear even on sunny days!
Rain clouds hovering above Hakone – fortunately it didn’t rain on this hike
6) Look For a Hot Spring
I am a big fan of Japanese hot springs, or “onsen”: there is nothing better than relaxing in a hot bath after a long tiring hike. Not every mountain will have a hot spring at its base, but many do, so it’s worth taking some time to research this in advance. The guide books mentioned in the first tip will include hot spring information, if available. The hiking maps from the second tip will show the hot spring symbol. It’s best to check the website of the hot spring place to make sure that it’s open the day and time of your visit.
Expect the hot spring to be a lot more crowded on a weekend!
If there aren’t any hot springs mentioned in the guidebook or on the map, I try searching for “日帰り温泉” (day-trip hot spring) on Google Maps near my hike. I’ve found great places that were a short walk from the train station, or located along the bus route. If nothing comes up, I also search for “日帰り入浴” (day-trip hot bath), so that I can just take a regular bath to wash off the sweat before the train ride home. Sometimes some extra effort is required to get to that hot bath – it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth it!