Wild Japan is amazingly gorgeous. The expansive wilderness is everywhere, ranging from lush green forests to rugged volcanic peaks. But the best part? The country’s national parks are relatively unknown to foreigners. These are not the National Parks in the US, where people travel from all over the world. But the beauty of Japan outside of the cities is among the most epic, pristine and unique. This is a hiking destination that should be on even the most avid hikers and nature lovers trekking list.
1) – Mount Meakan, Hokkaido Prefecture
Japan is flush with volcanic activity, no more so than on the northern island of Hokkaido. Mt Meakan, or Meakan Dake, is an active volcano in Akan National Park near Lake Akan. The mountain is great for a day hike, and passes through a diverse number of climate zones. Starting in a lush moss forest, the trail winds ever upward beneath a tree canopy based with a vast number of plants and flower species. After a good climb, the path suddenly shifts from tree cover to barren volcanic slope onto loose gravel and rock. Onneto Lake can be seen behind with neighboring Akan-Fuji cone on the right, which is accessible as a side hike from here if taking the trail from the south side of Meakan.
Soon, the steam from Meakan will be visible above the volcano’s rim, and a short but brisk climb will deliver you to the best vantage into the crater where sulfurous colors and small ponds can be seen. The trail continues to wrap the rim to reach the highest vantage point with views to the north of Lake Akan and expansive portions of the park where volcanic soil abuts lush forest.
The hike is best accessed from Onneto Lake which is a 10 minute drive southwest of town. Most people do a loop hike from the lake, wrapping the rim of the crater and returning from the opposite side. The trail on the south side is a little longer and less steep than that on the north, but still quite difficult. We opted to hike from Onneto Lake to the crater using the southern path, but then continued on to Lake Akan instead of finishing the loop back to Onneto. There is a separate path which descends from the northeast side of the crater and returns to town. Lake Akan is not linked to a railway line, and is only reachable by bus or private car. Bus schedules are limited, seasonal and expensive so check ahead of time.
- Hike Type: Loop from Onetto Lake, or one direction between Onetto Lake and Lake Akan and the town.
- Total Distance: 11 kilometers as a loop or 20 kilometers from Onneto Lake to Lake Akan.
- Elevation Gain: The elevation at Onneto Lake is 623 meters, and the summit of Mt Meakan is 1,499 meters.
- Difficulty: This is a strenuous hike. The climb is steep and continuous as is the descent.
- Additional: There are no water sources on this hike. The trail is often made of loose rocks and gravel so sturdy boots and trekking poles are helpful. Pack a picnic and enjoy great views at the top.
2) – Mount Karamatsu, Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture
This mountain is located in the ski town of Hakuba in upper Nagano, set amongst the Japanese Alps. The hike is steep, jagged and rocky and offers epic views of the Alps and valley below. Many people access this trail to visit the popular Happo Pond, which provides amazing reflection of the surrounding peaks when unfrozen, but far fewer continue up the slope to the ridge line above. The trail is rugged and steep from the start, but continues to increase in intensity as it climbs towards the peak. Even in mid-summer, the path often must cross wide snowfields, so good boots and poles are helpful. Typically narrow and rocky with sharp drop offs, this is not a hike for the inexperienced or those with aversion to heights.
There is a mountain hut below the Karamatsu peak, where some choose to spend the night. We did not go in but heard from other hikers that it offers food and even beer on tap. There are options to link this into a multi day trek along the ridge line, where several other huts are located. This is without a doubt one of the most majestic hikes we have found anywhere in the world.
Hakuba is located along a JR Railway line which has direct access from the Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, or can be reached by taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano City and then a bus from Nagano to Hakuba. The second route takes less time but the bus is not covered by the JR Rail Pass.
The best way to reach the hike is to take the Happo Gondola (Gondola “Adam”) up the mountain towards Happo Pond. Tickets can be purchased to include two additional ski lifts which go further up the mountain. The round trip ticket for all three lifts is 2,900 yen, with the first chair up leaving at 8:00am and the last one down departing at 4:40pm in the summer months.
Most people take advantage of all three chairlifts before starting the hike as the lower portion of the mountain is not as scenic and adds unnecessary difficulty. Once you reach the top of the lifts, a 30-45 minute moderately steep hike brings you to Happo Pond, where the majority of people will stop. From here, the trail continues up towards Mt Karamatsu.
- Hike Type: Out and Back
- Total Distance: 10 kilometers starting from the uppermost cable station
- Elevation Gain: The elevation at the uppermost cable car station is 1,830 meters, Happo Pond is 2,060 meters, and the summit of Mt Karamatsu is 2,696 meters.
- Difficulty: This is an extreme hike. The trail often follows a knife edge along the ridge with steep drop offs and includes a few rock scrambles and steep snowfield climbs.
- Additional: Bring waterproof boots, windbreaker or warm layer (it can get quite chilly), and trekking poles. Poles are available to rent at the top of the chairlift station for 500 yen apiece. There are no water sources.
3) – Lake Mashu, Hokkaido Prefecture
Lake Mashu fills the crater of an old volcano in Akan National Park. The lake is massive with a roughly 20 kilometer circumference. Steep cliffs fall off from the rim into the deep blue waters below, creating a stunning scene. There is a trail which follows the southern rim to the highest point at Mt Mashu (Kamui on Google). The trail is typically wide and sturdy as it wraps the lake, with views into the crater and off the mountain to either side. Once you reach the base of Mount Mashu, the path gets steep and narrow as it climbs to the summit.
The views here are very weather dependent. We had low hanging clouds in the crater on our hike towards the summit, which suddenly dispersed on the return trip opening a wide panorama.
We also tied in a short hike past volcanic Mt Io on our way to Lake Mashu, which sits on the other side of the railway station near Kawayu-Onsen. This mountain cannot be climbed, but offers close-up encounters with steam vents, boiling water and sulfur mounds.
Lake Mashu is located near the towns of Kawayu-Onsen and Teshikaga in Akan National Park. Both towns are accessible on the Senmo Main JR Rail line which leaves from Kushiro. The lake is more than 10k from either station, accessible by car from a road passing from Teshikaga to Kawayu-Onsen. There is also a bus route which goes to the lake from the Mashu Train/Bus Station in Teshikaga. This bus operates on a limited, seasonally dependent and somewhat inconvenient schedule. Online timetables are sparse so it is best to ask at the station on arrival. We opted to hitchhike on the advice of a local since we did not have a car and had no problem catching a ride in either direction.
The trail starts from Observation Deck 1 and follows the southern rim of the lake. It is very well marked and easy to follow. At the end of either hike, a stop by one of the several free hot spring foot baths nearby town will make all of your troubles disappear.
- Hike Type: Out and back
- Total Distance: 15 kilometers
- Elevation Gain: The trailhead elevation is around 530 meters and the summit of Mt Mashu is 857 meters.
- Difficulty: This is a moderate hike. It includes a few ups and downs as it follows the rim, and one relatively steep climb to the summit.
- Additonal: There are no water sources
4) – Komikochi, Nagano Prefecture
Kamikochi is a national park in the western portion of Nagano filled with an endless expanse of pristine wilderness. This area is not one hike, but a series of trails set around the river valley making one of the most serene and beautiful parks we have visited. Trails follow the river on both sides, going further than most people would do in a day hike. We started at the Taisho Pond bus stop to begin our hike, but there is no defined start point. Taisho Pond is a beautifully intense teal pool surrounded by rolling green mountains and fed by the Azusa River. Following the river north continues past several mountain views and stunning fields of wildflowers.
As the path continues, there is the option for hiking along the east or west side of the river with several bridges along the banks. We chose to hike up the west side and return on the east, creating a loop hike around the valley.
Kamikochi is accessible via the town of Matsumoto. Matsumoto is located on a JR Rail line which reaches Tokyo. From Matsumoto, Kamikochi can be reached by bus from the Matsumoto Bus Terminal or by a private train and bus combo leaving from Matsumoto Station. The round trip ticket which can be used for any option is 4,500 yen. Private vehicles are not allowed into the park. The first departure from town is 5:30 am and takes 1:35 hours. We stayed in Mastumoto and hiked Komikochi on a day trip, but there are also a few hotels in the park.
- Hike Type: Loop
- Total Distance: As far or short as you would like. We walked 13 kilometers from Taisho Pond in the southern portion towards Yokoo in the northern part and back to the bus terminal.
- Elevation Gain: The valley trails are mostly flat
- Difficulty: The many trails around the river and valley are easy, but more strenuous options are available as part of multi day treks into the nearby mountains.
4.5) – Cape Kamui, Hokkaido Prefecture
How can you have half of an epic hike? Well, you find an amazing cape which is accessible by a short walk. Cape Kamui is on a southwesterly point of Hokkaido, and is an incredible peninsula to explore on a short day trip. The hills are covered in summer wildflowers with rugged and sharp cliffs surrounding the cape, dropping into clear blue waters below. If it weren’t so cold, the water could create the impression of a tropical destination.
With the path to the tip being only a kilometer, it doesn’t take long to explore the area. The terrain bobs up and down, but is not difficult and requires no special preparation. There are also a couple of other viewpoints worth a visit including Cape Shakotan a few kilometers up the road to the north.
There is essentially no public transportation which reaches this area. There is one bus which leaves from Sapporo at 9:30 am but doesn’t arrive until after 12:00 pm, and then returns shortly afterwards. The only reasonable way to access the cape is by private vehicle.
- Hike Type: Out and back
- Total Distance: 2 kilometers
- Elevation Gain: Negligible
- Difficulty: This is a relatively easy walk from the parking lot on a dirt trail with some stairs and short ascents / descents.
You can see other posts from our adventures in Asia including A Month in China, Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Getting Lost and Then Found in Vietnam, and the Tasmanian Camper Vancation. These are some of our favorite experiences! Also take a look at our Adventure Gallery where you can see our travel pictures from dozens of countries around the world.
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