In a country that has perfected the art of giving exquisitely wrapped gifts, it is not surprising that Japan proffers the prettiest of parcels to its visitors. With layers of natural and cultural heritage to be unwrapped on Japan tours, you can saunter easily between ancient walking trails such as Nakasendo or Kumano Kodo and traditional ryokan rural inns. Or between mountain top temples and a bed in a Buddhist temple.
Japan protects its treasures and traditions in a way that is surprising to many visitors who have expectations of karaoke and kitsch, matcha and manga. On walking holidays in Japan, swap ultra modern for unchanged traditions, relax in onsen bathhouses or contemplate the big picture at shrines and temples. We have opted to only offer self-guided walking tours, Japan being a country where we believe you need to both take your time and step back in time, in order to enjoy its gifts graciously and wholly.
Where to go
Kumano Kodo walking trail
Japan’s ultimate spiritual trail, the Kumano Kodo, has carried pilgrims for centuries across the peaks and valleys of the Kii Peninsula, to worship at three magnificent Grand Shrines en route: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha. The Kii Mountains are still considered by many to be sacred landscapes, with nurture by nature dating back to Japan’s Heian period (794-1185) whether you were an emperor or commoner. This 258km walking route has various sub-sections and it’s the inland, mountainous Nakahechi section that attracts those seeking adventurous walking holidays in Japan.
Shikoku Island 88 Pilgrimage
Of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is the smallest but, for many, the most spiritual, with an ancient 1000km trail that connects 88 Buddhist temples and shrines. You don’t have to visit them all, and our Shikoku walking holiday takes you to some of its most sacred and sweet spots, such as the place where Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism, chose to meditate. Or to the elevated Ryusuian Temple located on a hike up Mount Shosan-ji. You will explore some sweaty spots too, with natural hot spring baths a feature of this trip.
Nakasendo walking trail
Traditionally created so that 17th century feudal lords, samurai and traders could transport their missives and minions between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo), the Nakasendo Trail now has a more peaceful mission. To provide a slow, central mountain route through ancient forests, along ridges and mountain paths with views of the Japanese Alps, all dipping down to a collection of 69 ‘post towns’, such as Magome, Tsumago and Narai, still proudly hosting travellers in traditional ryokan inns. The traditional trail is 500km, but our self-guided walking tour covers a rich collection of Nakasendo highlights.
This is part of our Nakasendo Trail holiday and a fitting finale. Uplifting too, as Kamikochi is gateway to the Chubu Sangaku National Park and its spectacular Hida Mountains. Kamikochi is a mountain resort tucked into a glacial basin fed by the crystal clear waters of the Azusa River. The river is the artery of the main Kamikochi Trail, with picnic places beside its larger ponds, traditional bridges to take you from one rocky shore to the other and snow-covered peaks beckoning adventurers to even greater heights.
Things to do
- Stay in a ryokan. We offer a range of accommodations on our walking holidays in Japan, but the most common is in ryokans, traditional rural inns, usually family-run in places that have hosted pilgrims and travellers for centuries. Ryokans are like a bento box of traditions, with tatami (straw) matting and futons laid out in plain rooms, yukato robes and slippers for your use and delicious Japanese dinners served in communal spaces. Ryokans, more often than not, have communal hot spring baths or onsens so you can fully immerse yourself in Japanese culture. Don’t be overwhelmed by their rituals. Ryokans rock.
- Immerse yourself in bathing culture. Chilling is also high on the Japanese agenda of mindful living. Hot springs or onsens feature on all our Japan tours, a relaxing tradition that is part of the Japanese DNA. They will have plenty of signs to show what the rituals are but, in short, they are gender segregated, you do strip off fully and you don’t wash in the bath itself. Always soap before you soak in Japan.
- Lighten your load. Although its cities are a sensory overload, we think that Japan is a great place to lighten your load. Which is why our walking holidays in Japan are not only self-guided but we also don’t organise luggage transfers for you, unlike most of our European walking holidays. We adhere to the Japanese way, using a well known and reliable national transfer service provider. They don’t always connect with you daily though, which means you just carry a few necessities, use your Japanese hosts’ traditional slippers and robes, and basically forgo ‘stuff’ for a few days.
- Eat Japanese food. Japan’s food is outstanding, it’s as simple as that. One thing you rarely hear from travellers is that they didn’t like the food in Japan. Whether it’s sushi or sashimi the Japanese favour local and seasonal, bentos make prize picnics and misos are restorative for all our ramblers. Don’t eat whale meat (unesu or onomi) though as it’s highly unethical, and vegan diets or gluten-free diets can still be tricky to accommodate.
Responsible travel tips
- Read up on Japanese codes of etiquette. They are polite, very forgiving and trusting people, so they won’t alienate you if you get it wrong, but they will be delighted if you get it right. And, in return, you won’t get overcharged, pick pocketed or scammed in Japan. It’s just not polite. Top of the manner menu is not wiping your face with a hot towel, never washing in the communal bath, not blowing your nose in public, learning how to bow and not feel strange, not tipping and never sticking your chopsticks vertically into your food.
- Low carbon travel in Japan is speedy and easy with its impressive network of shinkansen high-speed trains, and great value if you buy a seven day unlimited Japanese Rail Pass. One of the most popular routes with visitors is the Okaido shinkansen which runs west between Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka with extensions to Hiroshima & Hakata. On our Japan walking holidays, we will book your rail tickets from Kyoto, Osaka or Tokyo to your starting point. For other information on train travel in Japan, check out the train geek guru, the Man in Seat 61.
- Although recycling is catching on in Japan, there is still a lot of single use plastic, much of which can’t be disposed of sustainably. This ties in with Japan’s gifting and wrapping traditions, and wanting to keep things neat and tidy, so letting go of this takes even longer than in some countries. Lead the way by bringing your own chopsticks instead of disposable ones, as well as a refillable tea cup and avoiding vending machines packed with plastic. The good news is that all tap water is drinkable in Japan, so you can refill water bottles easily.