Go to the Mountains – In Japan! Part 1

Apr 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Outdoor Activities & Sporting Events

Peaks of Mt. Hotakadake JapanToday I’d like to introduce you to Chris, an avid mountaineer and guest photographer for The Nihon Sun.  He’s an adventurous and knowledgeable climber who has agreed to share some of his knowledge and tips about mountain climbing in Japan.  Take it away Chris…

Japan is one of the most crowded countries on earth: 120 million people crammed mostly onto the coastal plains which make up under 30% of the landmass. The corollary is that 70% of the country comprises sparsely inhabited mountains, some of them among the most beautiful and exciting in the world. Combine this with a first class transport system, and you have a recipe for a Japanese adventure which goes beyond the standard Blade Runner-esque scenery of Tokyo and ancient charms of Kyoto.

The sheer scope and variety of Japan’s mountains makes a short summary difficult; the below represents a Tokyo-centric view of non-technical mountaineering.


William Weston, the 19th Century missionary, coined the term “the Japan Alps” to describe the ranges that run across the center of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, and they remain the mecca for many of those seeking Japan’s highest points. The Alps are subdivided into three, the Northern, Central and Southern ranges, with the majority lying within the borders of Nagano prefecture in the Chubu Region of Japan.

They Japan Alps bear a strong resemblance to their European cousins, both being the product of massive tectonic upheaval, although Japan never experienced the glaciation which occurred in Europe.  The summits of the Japan Alps may be lower that those in Europe but they still boast over 13 peaks of greater than 3000 meters (10,000 feet) and in many cases the climbs start from much lower altitudes than is common in Europe.

Outside of the Alps, the Okutama and Nikko regions, to the north-west and north-east of Tokyo respectively, also offer year-round hiking and climbing opportunities, as do the Tanzawa and Takao ranges to the west.

Japan is still volcanically active, and moving further north up Honshu, the height of the mountains diminishes and the proportion of volcanic peaks increases as do the number of high-plains moors. The main northern-most island, Hokkaido, features several ranges which, although lower in stature than their southern brethren, are among the wildest and least traveled in Japan. The islands to the south of Honshu (Shikoku and Kyushu) also have notable ranges of around 1500-1700 meters, including one of the world’s largest volcanic calderas at Aso.

Sunrise of Mt. Fuji and Kofu City Japan


No account of the mountains of Japan would be complete without mention of the Hyakumeizan, the Hundred Famous Mountains of Japan. Drawing upon a lifetime spent climbing, Fukada Kyuya penned his choice of the hundred most note-worthy mountains between 1959-63.  Collected together, his short essays about each was critically acclaimed and would go on to win him the Yomiuri Prize for literature. They are indeed the gold standard for mountaineering in Japan, and it is the aim of many climbers to summit each one (including none other than the current Crown Prince of Japan).

As Fukada makes clear, the mountains are not necessarily the hundred tallest in the land (although many of the highest peaks are represented in the list). They have been chosen for both their character and historic significance, too. An translation into English is slated for publication some time during 2009; details may be found, and much background information besides, at One Hundred Mountains.

The most comprehensive guides to the Hyakumeizan routes in English can be found at the Hiking in Japan and the Hanameizan site, which features the incredible Hana the Border Terrier. The Outdoor Japan site also hosts a semi-active forum for people seeking information or looking for guides and companions for outdoor activities in Japan.

Getting To The Mountains

From Tokyo, the Japan Alps are easily accessible by train, bus or car. The Chuo line from Shinjuku station traces a route along the foot of the mountains, and offers local, overnight, and express services.

Aspiring climbers will usually find themselves alighting around Kofu for the Southern Alps, Lina and Komagatake for the Central Alps, Matsumoto or Nagano for the Northern Alps. Buses run from these stations to the trail-heads, usually several times per day.

Alternatively the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo station runs to Nagano in under 80 minutes, and two highways put the Alps within three to four hours driving distance from central Tokyo by car or bus.

The Okutama ranges are accessible via the Seibu-Chichibu line from Ikebukuro, the Nikko ranges via the Tobu or Shinakensen lines from Ueno, both in around 90 minutes.

The ranges of Hokkaido and Kyushu are more serious endeavors and generally require a domestic flight (of which there are plenty each day from Haneda) and car hire at the other end, or a journey of six hours or more on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo.

Train and flight timetables can best be located through Yahoo Japan (in Japanese), while bus timetables are best found by searching for the station and trailhead names in Japanese on any of the major search engines.

Next week, in Go to the Mountain in Japan Part 2 Chris will tell you how to prepare for your mountaineering adventure and offers tips on where to stay and what to bring with you.  In the meantime, take a moment to read about some of his adventure on his blog I, CJW Hiking and Climbing in Japan.

i, cjw Flickr Images used with permission: Sunrise over Fuji and Kofu City & Peaks of Mt. Hotakadake, dawn

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  1. Fantastic! Really looking forward to Part 2. I am a big fan of Chris and his hiking/climing/adventure escapades.

  2. I love hiking around Tokyo and Yamanashi! I need updated tips where to go and what to bring etc. look forward to reading Chris’ series!

  3. Like most places in the world, the best parts of Japan are the places less corrupted by man. :-) Great insight into areas most will never see firsthand.

  4. Thanks for stopping by to comment. Chris’s words always make me want to pull out my hiking boots and I’m honored to host this inspirational look at hiking in Japan’s mountains.

  5. Don’t some of these mountains have elevators attached? At Enoshima Island you can take an escalator to the top of a tiny mountain.

  6. Chris you rock! Awesome photos and delivery was excellent as usual.

  7. […] a stroll through a garden, visit a temple, shrine or just explore the neighborhood?  Would you head for the mountains or visit one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage […]

  8. […] Chris, an avid mountaineer and guest photographer for The Nihon Sun writes a follow up Go to the Mountain in Japan Part 1 and talks about preparing for your mountaineering adventure and offers tips on where to stay and […]

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