There are quite a few ways to get away from the throngs of tourists in the Land of the Rising Sun, but the best move is to go where others can’t. Tohoku is quickly becoming a favorite travel destination for hikers who want to get away from the normal lines and crowds typical of hiking in Japan. Areas like Mount Fuji are pretty extraordinary, but they’re far from isolated. These hikes aren’t for the casual hill-walker; they’re for people who take their holidays seriously and like to put a few miles under their legs when they travel Japan.
The three sacred mountains of the ancient province of Dewa are located in modern-day Yamagata Prefecture, and Mount Gassan is the tallest. Its peak scrapes the sky at 6,500 feet above sea level, and it can be reached only during the summer months as heavy snowfall results in closure for the majority of the year.
Tracing a path paved with stones that is just over three miles long, the ascent takes two to three hours and passes through marshland, wild alpine flower fields, and patches of snow that remain even in the middle of summer. There are no trees on the mountainside, and while this affords spectacular sweeping views of the surrounding scenery, it also means there is no protection from strong winds or sun throughout the entire hike.
Rains can also leave the rock path slippery, which adds to the difficulty level. Upon reaching the mountaintop shrine, all guests are required to undergo a short purification rite before entering, after which they can pray at the shrine alter, have a sip of sake, or light candles or sticks of incense. From there, ambitious hikers can make their descent via the backside of the mountain that leads to Mt. Yudonosan, another of the three sacred mountains. The descent is steeper, more challenging, and takes about two and a half hours.
For ambitious hikers looking to enjoy a multi-day hike in the Tohoku Region, they need look no further than Mt. Iide. From the trailhead to the peak, hikers ascend nearly 4,000 feet in elevation, traveling through a verdant virgin beech forest. The path is mostly paved with gravel, and though some parts are very steep, protruding tree roots offer something to grab onto. The hike typically takes about two days, and there are a number of huts available to shelter campers along the way. The peak of Mt. Iide is 6,906 feet above sea level, capped by a little shrine, and offers incredible vistas, but the advantage of hiking Mt. Iide is that this first summit is just the start of the hike.
From there, hikers can continue directly over to Mt. Kitamata, Mt. Monnai, and Mt. Dainichi, the last of which is the highest in the Iide mountain range at a full 75 feet taller than Mt. Iide. Along the way, there are more views, steep cliffs, and even hot spring baths to be savored. The mountain range can only really be hiked between June and September, as heavy snows all but shut the mountain down when winter arrives, and public transportation to the trailheads is only avaible in July and August.
Located adjacent to the Bandai Highlands – a popular tourist destination of beautiful scenery, idyllic lakes, and peaceful walking paths – Mount Bandai tops out at a summit that’s 5,968 feet above sea level. The hike takes about eight hours, round trip. The initial portion is relatively easy, as you are mostly strolling through grassy ski fields, but upon reaching the ridgeline the real hike begins as the going gets very rocky and some hiking gear is likely needed.
The mountain is often shrouded by clouds, so hikers will want to be careful to stay close to the trail; if the clouds clear at the summit, then they’ll be greeted with superb views upon arrival. This is especially true during the fall when leaves dramatically take on intense autumnal coloration. The oranges and yellows begin appearing in late September and linger throughout the entire month of October. Mt. Bandai can be hiked in the winter, but it is significantly more difficult, and the trail is best traversed between late April and early November.
Mount Hakkoda, located in Aomori Prefecture, is likely best known for its heavy snowfall and skiing during the winter, but during the warmer times of the year it is also a fantastic spot for hiking. The Hakkoda Ropeway can whisk tourists up to the upper reaches, near Mount Tamoyachi, and there are a number of summits to reach from there with plenty of trails making it easy to cover ground. On their way to other mountains and down the mountain, these trails traverse grasslands, marshlands, and steep mountain faces.
The highest peak is Odake at 5,197 feet above sea level. Lingering snow is often present, sometimes even to the point of covering the path on the way up. There are also a great number of wildflowers encouraging your ascent, and upon reaching the summit you can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. On clear days, the port city of Aomori to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the east will be visible, both about 40 miles away.
Rising up from the relatively flat plains of the Tsugaru Peninsula, Mount Iwaki towers over its surroundings at more than 5,330 feet high. Its conic shape has led it to be dubbed the Tsugaru-Fuji, and its domination of the surrounding landscape has inspired worship and a godlike status throughout its history. The summit of this relatively active volcanic mountain can only be reached on foot. At least, that’s true of the last 30-40 minutes, as there is the option to take a chair lift to a point near the peak.
But hiking purists looking to make the claim that they’ve truly scaled the entire mountain should set out from Iwakiyama Shrine – the entirety of Mount Iwaki is considered to be a portion of this shrine – and plan to devote at least four hours to the endeavor.
Near the top there is a good deal of boulder scrambling that might remind some hikers of climbs through the Alps, and as one reaches the summit they’ll be presented with a panoramic view of the Tohoku Region. Tourists can see as far as Matsumaezaki in Hokkaido, marvel at the mountains of Hakkoda island to the north, catch sight of the Sea of Japan to the west, and much more.
Finally, at the very top there is a pavilion connected to the Iwakisan Shrine, marking a successful ascent to the peak. There are huts on the mount for those who wish to stay the night, and nighttime hikes are also common among those wanting to catch the sunrise from the top. This all said, be sure to plan accordingly. The mountain can be climbed between early June and late October. An excess of snow and avalanche risk make the summit off limits in the winter, and it can be difficult going during the rainy season.