Walking vacations in Honshu

Japan is shaped a little like a seahorse floating in the Pacific, made up of four main islands. Hokkaido is the head, Shikoku and Kyushu the flippers at the bottom, and Honshu, the largest island where Tokyo as well as ancient capitals Kyoto and Nara are located, is the body. Walking vacations in Honshu promise greater depth in your cultural exploration than you might get from a standard sightseeing tour – they link exciting metropolises such as Tokyo, Kyoto and foodie paradise Osaka, but they also take you into remote, mountainous reaches that are steeped in ancient ways of life, where tradition is deeply ingrained into sparsely populated communities and the natural scenery is little short of mind-blowing.
From Tokyo you might take a day hike to Mount Takao with views of the iconic Mt. Fuji possible from the summit, weather permitting. Fuji views can also be had while walking around the shore of Lake Kawaguchi. In the Nara Basin outside Kyoto, at the foot of sacred Mount Miwa you’ll roam rice paddies and groves of bamboo. In the historic Asuka region, trails lead between mysterious tombs and some of the oldest temples in Japan, while walking through the Mitarai Gorge sees you tackling steep stairs and suspension bridges, rewarded with stunning seasonal foliage that turns from deep green to golden orange and fiery red as autumn follows summer.

Honshu walking vacations will also frequently feature a section of a longer Japanese pilgrimage walk. You could embark on a five-day stretch along the legendary Kumano Kodo Trail in the Kii Peninsula, which is considered one of Japan’s great pilgrim routes and sees you trekking mountain trails thick with cherry trees, and fragrant woods of fir, cedar and pine. Or from Matsumoto you might tackle a section of the historic Nakasendo Trail in the magnificent Kiso Valley. The ancient samurai route in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, built in the Edo period to connect Kyoto and Tokyo, is threaded with charming timber-clad postal towns, taking you along forest paths where you routinely ring bells on gateposts to warn away bears.


Walking vacations in Honshu will usually incorporate time in the major cities as well as the mountainous countryside, starting in either Tokyo or Kyoto, and often finishing in Osaka. That means you can appreciate the clear distinctions between each of these thrilling cities, as well as contrasting them with the peace and harmony of the rural areas you’ll be walking through. Itineraries will likely be broken up into a handful of different point-to-point multi-day walks, with bullet train and regional transport included between each location.
You can choose between either tailor made, self guided trips that give you flexibility on travel dates, accommodation and activities, as well as comprehensive support of course, or guided small group trips that depart on fixed dates and are led by knowledgeable local guides which provides valuable jobs in these rural areas. You will want to be in decent physical condition because although the terrain is moderate for the most part, Honshu is a mountainous island and you will encounter plenty of ascents and descents. Walking poles are recommended as is good-quality walking footwear. You should be able to get by with just a light pack each day however, as your luggage will be transferred between accommodations.

And speaking of accommodation, let’s talk about one of the great highlights of walking vacations in Japan: staying in traditional inns and guesthouse. Ryokans offer a quintessentially Japanese experience for visitors, usually independent and family-run, and sometimes with their own onsen (hot spring) facilities. You’ll be welcomed in, served delicious meals, and get a chance to interact with local Japanese families, helping to keep these delightful rural establishments going. Minshuku are slightly lower down the scale, Japanese-style bed and breakfasts where you’ll still be treated very hospitably and be introduced to some truly memorable cuisine.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Japan walking or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
James Mundy from our specialist operator Inside Japan provides some valuable advice on walking vacations in Honshu:

Weather and terrain

“When signing up for a walking trip, there has to be a degree of fitness there and although there are differing levels of walking trail on our Honshu trip, and there are mountains involved which means that there are some pretty steep elevations in places but there is nothing too challenging. The longest day of walking is around 20km and if the weather does not seem to be suitable for walking, then there are excellent buses to take. On the Kumano Kodo (and across Japan), there is an excellent luggage forwarding system which we arrange for people to send their main bags on to their next accommodation and walk light. Good shoes are important of course. It also depends on the time of year – May is generally warm, dry and the mountains are green. October and November are good for decent temperatures and the trees will begin to turn red in late October/early November – this is the most popular time of year. December-early March there is snow.”

Honshu Pilgrimage Trail walking

“The Nakasendo is one of Japan's more famous walking routes covering the old samurai trail through the mountains between Tokyo and Kyoto. Kumano Kodo is perhaps less known outside of Japan, but has been (and still is) one of the most sacred pilgrimage routes in Japan. Having existed for over a thousand years, you will still see pilgrims with their sticks and conical hats walking through the forests taking in shrines en route to the grand shrines of Hongu, Hayatama and Nachi Taisha. As is the case with Japanese beliefs, the mountains, trees and rivers are all sacred in themselves which is why this area is so important.”


“One of the most satisfying parts of walking in Japan is staying in traditional Japanese ryokan guest houses and family-run minshuku. They will often have just a handful of rooms, but some of them, such as the ryokan in Yunomine Onsen will have traditional hot spring baths. The kimono-wearing owners of each place will greet you and serve incredible traditional meals in the evening as part of the stay. After a long walk, a hot spring bath and good food, a sleep on a futon will never have felt so good. I always like this Kumano Kodo video that one of our travelers made for us. It should give you an idea of what to expect.”
At Responsible Travel, we think the best people to advise our travelers are often... other travelers:

“We are in our mid sixties and I was nervous beforehand about our ability to figure out the transportation by ourselves. In fact, with the helpful information plus clear ticketing, it was all very straightforward and went extremely smoothly. And local people just want to be helpful so assistance was always available.” – Jane Williams on a self-guided walking tour of Japan’s ancient capitals

“(Highlights were) walking in the countryside – seeing parts of Japan that I would never have discovered on my own and being guided by a reliable expert. Asuka, Dorogawa and the Mitarai Gorge were particularly memorable. Also – wonderful exotic food, charming ryokans and soothing onsens. (And the company of like-minded fellow travelers.)Ensure that you are fit enough to do the walking required, get a really good rucksack and carry as little as possible... (You don't need to take toiletries, towels or night gear as all is provided by the highly efficient hotels). Be prepared for the rigours of sleeping on a hard floor with a rice husk pillow in the ryokans!– Una Dinning on a walking tour of Japan
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: S64] [Intro: 663highland] [Practicalities: megawheel360] [Weather and terrain: Big Ben in Japan]