July 22, 2024

Hiking in Japan: the history behind 3 sacred Japanese trails

Japan is an immensely popular destination in the travel community. Everyone wants to walk Shibuya’s busiest street crossing, eat conveyor belt sushi, and live their anime fantasy.

However, after living almost a year in Japan, I have realized my favorite part of Japan is not its modern wonders – although they are fascinating. What I love is Japan’s natural beauty. Japan is a fairly small country, yet it boasts 34 national parks. I’d argue it is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Japan is beautiful, but it also has centuries of distinct religious and cultural history. It is one thing to climb a mountain with an epic view, it’s another to climb a mountain with an epic view just like religious zealots did thousands of years ago.

There are many Japanese trails, and knowing the story behind a trail makes your hiking in Japan even more rewarding. Keep reading to help plan your hike and to know the background behind your trail. Here are three of my favorite hikes which help you learn more about Japanese culture.


Where to go hiking in Japan:

  1. Togakushi Five-Shrine Pilgrimage
  2. Nachi Falls and the Seiganto-ji Temple
  3. Mt. Hieizan


1.   Hike alongside Shinto legends: The Togakushi Five-Shrine Pilgrimage

Togakushi is one of my favorite places I’ve visited in Japan because of its beauty and folklore. In an hour’s bus ride from Nagano City, you can be in the space where gods are said to dwell.

  • How to access: Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo to reach Nagano Station (covered by JR East Nagano Niigata Area Pass). Take the Zenkoji Exit from Nagano Station and buy your bus ticket at the Alpico Bus Ticket Office (1,350 yen one-way). Directly outside of the ticketing office is bus stop 7, where you can board the bus to Togakushi.
  • Trail length:2 miles or 2.3 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Get off the bus at Togakushi Chusha to begin your trek through 5 different shrines. Your journey will take 4 miles to the fifth shrine. You can use this map from AllTrails to stay on track. However, it is a fairly easy trail to follow.


The meaning behind the five shrines

You will first pass through the Hokosha Shrine, where the god of learning and arts is enshrined. Traditionally, women were not allowed to enter the mountains for worship, so this shrine was built for women who could not go deeper into the mountain. Now, this shrine attracts women who come and pray for safe childbirth.

After climbing some stairs, you will reach the Hinomikosha Shrine, home to the goddess of arts. Make sure also to see the 500-year-old cedar tree near the shrine. It is known as the married couple cedar because its trunk splits at the base.

15 minutes later, you will reach the Chusha Shrine, with a massive wooden Torii Gate. It makes for a great photo, even at night. This shrine is dedicated to the god of wisdom—some worship here, praying for business and academic success.

Now, onto the two final shrines. Here you will find the most picturesque spot along the trail. If you are short on time, you can get off the bus at Okusha Bus Stop, bypassing the first three shrines. You will then only have to hike 2.3 miles out and back.

You will pass through the Zuishinmon Gate, signaling you are approaching a very sacred space. Once you enter the gate, you walk alongside rows of Cedar trees to reach the fourth shrine, Kuzuryusha. Here, farmers pray to a nine-headed dragon for rain.

Continue walking for a few more minutes and climb a few stairs, then you will reach the final and most important shrine, Okusha. Come here and pray for good luck by giving a coin offering.


How to visit a shrine and give an offering

You will find a purification fountain before the shrine where you rinse your hands and mouth. This is symbolic washing. So, you do not have to actually wash your hands. If you are unsure what to do here, that is OK. Just follow what others are doing. No one will criticize you if you do something slightly off.

After you have been symbolically purified, wait in line at the shrine, gently throw your coin in the collection box (most people offer the five yen coin as it represents good luck), and bow.

If you want to be more precise, throw your coin, bow twice, clap your hands twice, pray for a few seconds, and bow again—clapping gets the gods’ attention.

However, it can be stressful trying to remember those steps, so don’t worry too much. I have visited shrines across Japan, and it seems everyone does something different while giving offerings. No one has ever criticized the way I worship at shrines.


After your worship

Once you have finished worshiping, walk a mile back to the Togakushi Chusha Bus Stop. Avid hikers can continue up the trail to Mt. Togakushi. However, you do need to fill out a hiker registration form before continuing up the mountain. This is a challenging trail and does require some climbing.

You will find a noodle shop near the bus stop after you exit the shrine entrance. While you wait for bus 70 to take you back to Nagano Station, you can eat a traditional Japanese dish, soba (buckwheat noodles). Togakushi is famous for its great soba. Grab some soba ice cream if you don’t feel like eating a whole meal. It is the perfect reward for that hike.


2.   Trek to the Heavenly Nachi Falls and Seiganto-ji

The Wakayama Prefecture in the Kansai region of Japan is south of popular tourist cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara. Wakayama is famous for the Kumano Kodo, century-old pilgrimage routes, which is one of only two pilgrimage World Heritage Sites in the world.

  • How to access: It is easiest to spend the night in Osaka and then take a 4-hour train ride on the Kuroshio 21 Limited Express Shingu to Kii-Katsuura Station. This route is covered on JR Kansai Wide Area Pass. The pass costs 10,000 yen, and you can take unlimited rides for five days in the Kansai region. From Kii-Katsuura Station, take a bus to Daimonzaka Bus Stop (about 600 yen one-way).
  • Trail length:5 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy


Is the JR Kansai Wide Area Pass worth it?

A round trip from Osaka to Kii-Katsuura is 14,920 yen. So, if you want to make the journey to Nachi, you will save money if you purchase the rail pass. The Kansai Wide Area Pass can also take you to many other highly-visited spots in Japan, like Nara and Kyoto. When you make your seat reservation for your journey to Kii-Katsuura, ask for an ocean-side window seat. It makes your hiking in Japan and journey to Nachi Falls even more magical.


History of the Kumano Kudo

During the Heian Period over a century ago, the Imperial court made a month-long journey from Kyoto to reach Kumano. They were searching for heaven on earth and established three grand shrines in the region, which still stand today. The Kumano faith spread from the elite to the working class. Everyone could participate in the faith, regardless of class or sex. So the faith grew, and many would make the journey to Kumano for worship.

You can also search for heaven on earth via the seven routes that make up Kumano Kudo. However, the most popular way to visit Kumano Kudo without spending days hiking is to visit Nachi Falls, Japan’s tallest waterfall, and Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple, the oldest structure in Kumano. Capturing this temple’s famous 3-storied pagoda with Nachi Falls in the background is one of the most iconic shots you can get while hiking in Japan.


Hiking to the falls

After you get off the bus at the Daimonzaka stop, you can reach Nachi Falls and then the Seiganto-ji Temple in 2.5 miles via a stone path lined with Cedar trees. Here is the trail map.

Alternatively, you can take the bus to Nachi Falls, but hiking along the ancient route is a more rewarding way to reach the scenic waterfall. Nachi Falls gets pretty crowded, so having space on the Daimonzaka trail is nice.

The trail conveniently ends at the Seiganto-ji Temple, which is one of the best shots to capture Seiganto-ji Pagoda alongside Nachi Falls. When you are ready to head back to Kii-Katsuura Station, you can take a bus from Seiganto-ji or Nachi Falls. No ticket is required before boarding, so you can pay once you get off at the station.


3.   Climb to the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism on Mt. Hieizan

This hike has it all: views of Kyoto, views of Japan’s largest lake, and world-famous Buddhist temples. Hiking Mt. Hieizan along the border of Kyoto and Shiga—two Japanese prefectures—is perfect for the hiker who wants to hike away from crowds while learning about Japanese history.

How to access: From Kyoto Station, take a bus to Shugakuin Station (230 yen). Or, you can take the Local Kokusaikaikan train on the Karasuma Line and get off at Matsugasaki Station (290 yen). Walk 20 minutes to reach the trail from Matsugasaki Station.

Trail length: 7 miles

Difficulty: Hard

This is a point-to-point hike, meaning you can start either from Sakamoto-hieizanguchi Station in Shiga or Sh?gakuin Station in Kyoto. Here is the trail map. It is really rewarding to leave the tourist hotspot of Kyoto and travel across the mountains to Shiga. Shiga’s claim to fame is Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. If you are staying in Kyoto, it is easy to hike from Kyoto to Shiga and take a train back to Kyoto.


An unplanned visit to Enryakuji

I chose to do this hike initially because I wanted to visit Shiga during my Kyoto trip. I have the goal of visiting all 47 Japanese prefectures. I knew this was a holy mountain, but I failed to realize an entire Buddhist monastery was waiting for me at the top of the mountain.

After I passed the Hieizan summit and the Eizan Cable Car station, the trail led me to Enryakuji. At first, I was a little annoyed because I had to pay 1000 yen to enter Enryakuji. It was the only way I could continue on the trail. However, often the best things aren’t planned. I soon realized I stumbled upon a really interesting and influential area.


Enryakuji’s History as a Buddhist Learning Center

In the 9th century, a monk named Saicho decided to abandon current Buddhist principles and study alone on Mt. Hieizan. He built a shrine and began to attract his own followers. He founded the Tendai Sect of Buddhism, and soon the grounds surrounding Mt. Heizan became a training site for monks.

The monks that trained here went on to establish other very influential Japanese Buddhist sects. That is why Enryakuji is known today as an important birthplace of modern Japanese Buddhism.


What to see at Enryakuji

After you pay 1000 yen to enter the grounds, you will receive a pamphlet that indicates the main sites of Enryakuji. There are actually three main areas of Enryakuji that you can visit (Todo, Saito, and Yokawa). The trail leads you to Todo, the most famous section of Enryakuji.

You can walk 20 minutes from Todo to Saito or take a bus from Todo to Yokawa. However, I only visited the Todo area so I could finish my hike to Shiga before sunset. The main attraction in Todo is the main temple, Konpon Chu-do, but the most eye-catching is the Amida-do Temple.


Finishing your climb to Shiga

Once you visit Enryakuji, you will need to hike a few more miles to reach Sakamoto-hieizanguchi Station in Shiga. If you are running short on time or just tired, you can take the Sakamoto Cablecar down the mountain from the Todo area (870 yen, one way).

The beauty of hiking in Japan is that many of the mountains have cable cars or buses you can take to reach the summit. Although I prefer hiking, it is also nice to have these as an option to save time and stay safe.


Go hike and experience the beauty of “Old Japan”

Japan’s modern innovations and cuisine have a global reach. For example, If you crave sushi, you do not have to visit Japan to eat some. However, you cannot replicate Japan’s natural beauty. After all, there is only one Togakushi, one Nachi Falls, and one Mt. Hieizan.

These hikes provide great picture opportunities, but more importantly, they help you experience a timeless side of Japan. Knowing the history behind the places we hike makes for a more fulfilling journey.

Visit Japan and get lost in these sacred spaces—metaphorically, of course. Use the maps linked in this article to stay safe while immersing yourself in “Old Japan.” Happy hiking!


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