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TRAVEL | Where to Go

MOUNTAINS IN JAPAN

Article | Anne

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DISCOVER THE CAPTIVATING MAJESTY OF THE MOUNTAINS IN JAPAN

The first name that pops in a person's mind when they hear the phrase 'mountains in Japan' is Mount Fuji, aka Fuji-san. The lofty, sky-high Mount Fuji is unquestionably an awe-inspiring natural wonder that is now a national symbol for the Land of the Rising Sun, and rightly so!

Fuji-san's widespread popularity is acknowledged across the world, making it a globally recognized icon of the Japanese nation. Considering Mount Fuji's unmistakable eminence and jaw-dropping natural beauty, it's no surprise that it is a wildly popular tourist destination that draws endless crowds each year towards Japan. Suffice to say that Mount Fuji is the most popular and notable mountain in Japan. However, it's surely not the only one.

MOUNTAINS IN JAPAN

Japan is packed with mighty mountains throughout its topography. From majestic peaks with soaring elevations to magnificent hills and captivating cliffs, there is a never-ending assortment of mountains in Japan, making the island nation an absolute delight for nature enthusiasts.

The multitude of mountains in Japan allow every traveler to scale hilly elevations while offering them mesmerizing vistas to enjoy all along the way. Whether someone is a seasoned hiker or a novice trekker, they can certainly go about gallivanting on any of the numerous mountains in Japan without trouble.

If you want to explore the mountains in Japan outside of iconic Mount Fuji, here is an in-depth guide on some of the less-popular, though equally enthralling, mountains in Japan.

MOUNT YOSHINO

Resting in Japan’s Nara Prefecture, Mount Yoshino is a magnificent natural feature that encompasses unmatched scenic beauty and awe-inspiring religiosity together. Even though many mountains in Japan offer a combination of captivating sceneries and stirring spirituality, Mount Yoshino is particularly recognized for that because it is a particularly sacred spot for the Shugendo sect.

The Shugendo faith is a syncretic religion that combines elements of Shinto, Buddhism, and folk practices into a uniquely Japanese combination. Mount Yoshino holds much significance for the people of Shugendo because their mountain monks, or yamabushi, would acquire spiritual purification. They would undergo severe physical and spiritual challenges on Mount Yoshino to gain spiritual enlightenment. At present, mountaineers can witness the ascetic training of monks, primarily during the religious festivals held in the temples on-site: Kinpu, Kinpusenji, and Yoshimizu. Out of the three sacred sites on Mount Yoshino, Kipusenji is considered the holiest for the Shugendo community. Many sacred celebrations are held on Mount Yoshino; if you happen to attend one, you could witness fascinating religious practices, such as monks walking through flames.

Seasonality on Mount Yoshino

Seasonal changes occur everywhere throughout Japan’s topography. Be it any of the isolated islands or one of the towering mountains in Japan, every landscape in the country has gorgeous changes from season to season. Likewise, Mount Yoshino channels the quintessential Japanese seasonality in the most remarkable fashion.

The warm summer season on the mountain brings a pleasant breeze stealing floral scents from hydrangea shrubs, which open under bright blue skies shaded by green trees. The winter season shrouds the scenery in thick blankets of white snow, making the location look like a frosty dreamland. Fall turns the cherry blossom-covered greenery crimson, channeling autumn perfectly. The spring cherry blossoming season is, without doubt, the best time to visit Mount Yoshino!

A Cherry Blossom Heaven

Mount Yoshino is recognized as one of Japan’s top spots to see cherry blossoms, or Sakura. Sakura viewing is a celebrated cultural practice of Japan. Mount Yoshino is a prominent destination to do that because the splendid mountain is home to 30000+ cherry blossoms. The pastel pink and white flowers covering the mountain range are divided into four sections; the upper, lower, middle, and inner.

Each pocket of cherry blossoms flourishes at different times, and because of this you can see the pretty flowers on Mount Yoshino for longer than most other cherry blossom spots in Japan. If you want to see the delicate flowers in all their glory on Mount Yoshino, you should ride the Yoshino Ropeway, which is believed to be the oldest ropeway in Japan. The aerial journey offers the most majestic scenes underneath, with thick cherry blossom plants covering the scenery appearing as fluffy clouds of pastel pink flowers. Riding the airborne gondola is your best bet to take in and appreciate the beauty of Mount Yoshino the right way. However, that doesn’t mean climbing the mountain is any less rewarding. If you choose to hike the 350m high mountain, you will pass by dense vegetation covered in splendid sakura, offering the best spots for a picnic under the sky.

Mount Yoshino

MOUNT OMINE

Another exceptional mountain in Japan, Mount Omine, also called Mount Sanjo, is better known for being a sacred site. However, it is not just a holy spot; the landscapes of Mount Omine are gorgeous, making it a favorite tourist spot, especially for nature enthusiasts.

Only For Men

People who wish to witness, or even take part in, the age-old Japanese religious practices of the Shugendo sect should make their way towards Mount Sanjo. However, it must be noted that Mount Omine’s consecrated homes and the religious rituals practiced there are accessible only to men. It may come as a surprise to many that in this day and age, a place exists that doesn't allow women to enter, but this practice has been a part of the culture of this particular religion for centuries.

In Japan, some native religious groups, particularly the Shugendo mountain worshippers, have considered women impure for centuries, hence keeping them away from sacred sites. This is why some of these holy destinations in the country have been off-limits for women for the better part of history. Although the rule barring women from going on sacred mountains is not valid in most places in Japan, Mount Omine remains the exception.

Women can stroll around on the mountain, but they are not to enter Omine-senji, the iconic Shugendo temple on the cliff. This means they cannot witness or participate in the spiritual training which includes the demanding three tests of courage.

However, the ban on women is not as stringently applied to tourists as they are to the local community. There have been reports of female travelers breaching the ban and entering the premises of the scared temple, yet no official complaint has even been registered. If you want to take your chances and explore the Ominesanji temple, you should consult local experts before making any impulsive decisions.

Hiking on Mount Omine

As mentioned earlier, the natural scenes on Mount Omine are no less alluring than most mesmerizing sceneries in Japan. If you tread along the trails up the elevation, you will see some of the most enchanting vistas. But bear in mind, not all hiking tracks are open for women. They can scale the mountain through just one particular trail that is designated for women only-Nyoin Omine.

Located in Yoshino Kumano National Park, Mount Sanjo offers delightful green landscapes to those who take on the challenge to hike the mountain. When trekking up, travelers go through thick forests surrounded by a woody scent, with birds cooing in the background in their nesting season. Simply put, climbing Mount Omine can transport a person to a mystical land where sky-high trees line paths and thick mist makes the atmosphere.

Ryusenji Temple

If you don’t want to trek up the sacred mountain, you can swap the journey to the top with a laidback adventure at Ryusenji temple at the foot of the hill.

This Ryusenji temple in Nara Prefecture enshrines a dragon-headed gargoyle, which is believed to be a holy man that was captured in the vicinity. The place is unbelievably serene and offers crystal clear fresh spring water maintained at 10-degree Celsius throughout the year. Legend has it that this water can cure illnesses, which is why travelers from far and wide visit the sacred spot and drink the healing water. The vermilion-colored temple stands against the sacred Sanjo Mountain that displays its seasonal changes remarkably.

Spend time at the Ominesan Ryusenji temple and take in the enthralling beauty around it. And when you are completely charmed by the surrounding vibrant foliage, head to the nearby town of Dorogwa onsen. There you can enjoy the small-town charm and the peace it offers by staying at one of the inns in the area for the night.

Mount Omine

MOUNT TAKAO

The last name on our list of lesser-known mountains in Japan is Mount Takao or Takaosan. A relatively smaller mountain, Mount Takao is a popular tourist spot among the locals due to its incredibly easy accessibility.

Resting less than an hour away from Central Tokyo, Takaosan offers a 599m high summit with lots of fun activities and beautiful sceneries. True to its Japanese roots, the mountain showcases regional seasonality beautifully, offering varying sights through the four seasons. The spring season brings swaying cherry blossoms, while fall offers colorful foliage. In the summer, the pleasantly warm wind caresses the lush greenery washed in bright yellow sunlight. Wintertime is undoubtedly the most favored season to visit Mount Takao because of the breathtaking, uninterrupted views of Mount Fuji visible to the travelers.

The sceneries a person gets to enjoy while exploring Takaosan are nothing short of stunning. Besides, they offer a break from the constant bustling energy of neighboring Tokyo. A quick trip to Mount Takao, perhaps on the weekend, can recharge your body and mind without you having to take a long holiday.

Activities to Try on Mount Takao

Monkey Park
If you are interested in learning about Japanese Macaques, you will love a visit to the National Zoo on Mount Takao. The area exclusively to the monkeys is called the Monkey Park, where you can see monkeys in their natural habitat. The park authorities also put up shows where monkeys perform and entertain visitors. From uni-cycling to walking on ropes, there are quite a few activities that resident macaques do during their performances. After enjoying your time at the monkey park, you can go towards the Botanical Garden.

Botanical Garden
The Botanical Garden on Takaosan has more than 300 species of native grasses and impressive wildflowers. If you are a plants person, you will love to spend time with the countless rows of flowers and shrubbery present.

599 Takao Museum
A museum called the 599 Takao Museum also lies at the base of Mount Takao, where you can learn all about the natural resources and habitats in the area.

The Yakuoin Temple
One of the most interesting features of Takaosan is the temple close to the summit, Yakuoin Temple. A sacred house for Shugendo and other ascetic practices, Yakuoin temple is a unique travel destination because of the many statues placed inside. Carrying long noses and wings, the monuments at Yakaoin temple depict tengus- mythical beings that were messengers to mountain deities. Legend has it that these mythical guardians protect good people and punish evil. The temple also has two paths leading to the main complex; one dedicated for men and the other for women. The stairway for men has 108 steps, each of which represents a worldly desire. So as a person climbs up the steps, they supposedly leave behind their material wishes. In contrast to the draining pathway for men, the route constructed for women is much easier, and ascending it doesn't symbolize any particular resolutions, such as leaving behind worldly desires.

Mount Takao

DEWA SANZAN

The Dewa Sanzan are a series of three especially sacred mountains in the heart of Yamagata prefecture. These mountains share a deep connection to Shugendo – a syncretic folk religion that blends mountain-worship with local Shinto-Buddhism practices. Pilgrimage paths wind through Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono representing a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The sacred pathway becomes the central training grounds for the Yamabushi – “mountain monks” who worship the mountains in Japan, hiking their way towards spiritual enlightenment along the routes of the Dewa Sanzan. And as you walk under the shade of dense cedar forests, passing standing pagodas and wayside shrines, you will truly feel as though you’ve been spirited away to another world. While the route from the base to Haguro Shrine (the first leg of the journey) is open year-round, the other segments are only able to be enjoyed during the summer hiking season.

Walk the Dewa Sanzan like a Mountain Monk

When you come to explore the Dewa Sanzan, you are in for a profound experience no matter whether you are a casual hiker or a pilgrim exploring Japanese spirituality. But you can climb like a Yamabushi by wrapping yourself in the traditional white vestments. Stop in the Shokubo (an overnight temple-inn for traveling pilgrims), take a class in proper meditation techniques, and enjoy the healthy shojin ryori¬, or monk’s food. You can also get some mountain monks to be your guides along the path, and you can be sure they will point out various points of interest along the way that you would never have seen otherwise, as well as demonstrate the proper frame of mind to adopt while taking these sacred steps. As you feel that tangible sense of enduring accomplishment in crossing the red-gated threshold of Yodono Shrine, you may find along with it an accompanying peace, clarity, and presence of mind.

Dewa Sanzan

MOUNT ASO

Powerful Mount Aso is Japan’s largest active volcano, and it sits, quietly smoldering, in Kyushu’s Kumamoto Prefecture. Nowhere near as tall as Fuji, but with a massive caldera that has loves to belch out smoke and sulfurous fumes. The volcano and its surrounding landscape, with its stark and wrinkled slopes layered in earthen tones, carries in its ancient bones a strikingly primordial mystique that awes visitors to the region. Within the greater caldera sits smaller peaks and lesser calderas, with Mount Nakadake among them. Filled with smoky blue-green water, Nakadake is a roiling eye of fury at the center of Mount Aso.

Hiking an Active Volcanic Caldera

There is a sense of power you can feel in the earth that goes unnoticed outside of destinations like Mount Aso, and as an active caldera, it is a thrilling prospect for adventurous hikers. As it is one of Japan’s most active volcanoes, Mount Aso is constantly monitored by Japanese geological authorities for when it “wakes up a little”. The temperature around the whole area can increase, and the air can become thick with volcanic gases. Some of Mount Aso may be inaccessible depending on the day, so it always a good idea to research the present condition of the mountain before going for a climb.

Mount Aso

MOUNT HOTAKA

Mount Hotaka, also known as Hotakadake, is a rugged, snow-capped peak in the northern Japanese Alps, roughly dividing Nagano and Gifu prefectures. Mount Hotaka is actually a series of prominent peaks ranged over about 50 miles. The greatest of them are Okuhotaka, Kitahotaka, Maehotaka, Nishihotaka, and Karasawa – collectively referred to as the Hotaka Mountains. During the high climbing season – which stretches from July to October, travelers can expect Mount Hotaka to be especially stunning, especially as the season stretches towards autumn and the fall foliage emerges. For those looking to Mount Hotaka at its prettiest, cherry blossoms and other alpine flowers bloom in spring. And winter sees the slopes open up to skiers.

Climbing up Mount Okuhotaka

Mount Okuhotaka is the highest peak, but it has become one of the most popular hiking routes in the Japanese Alps. The trail is a round-trip route that begins in Kamikochi, stretching for three days around steep, stony ridges and the winding Azusa River, with mountain lodges along the way to provide a good spot to stay and rest. There are even campgrounds where hikers can set up to stay the night. Hikers take the path up Okuhotaka for some of the most commanding views of the Japanese Alps.

Mount Hotaka

MOUNT ZAO

Mount Zao (also called the Zao Mountains), are a tight group of mountains that link together Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures. Mount Zao is a favorite for climbers in winter who trek to Zao Onsen to bathe in its thermal hot springs. These springs are known to be especially therapeutic for its high acidic content, so it is one of the best places to visit in winter if you are looking to relax in a snowy wonderland. Travelers love to hike up to see the stunning Okama crater, and its powdery slopes are especially popular with skiiers in winter.

A Land of Snow Monsters

What sets Mount Zao apart from other winter destinations is the presence of innumerable “snow monsters” that stand silently on its slopes. These monsters are actually trees that have been encased in snow and ice, taking on the appearance of fluffy white ice creatures. Some of the ski runs down Mount Zao feature these natural marvels and make for a more photogenic winter vacation.

Mount Zao

ENDING NOTE

While the Land of the Rising Sun is brimming with mountains, and you can visit any of those, the three mentioned in our guide are pretty good for a start. Begin your mountaineering experience with any of these three less-popular-than-Mount-Fuji mountains in Japan.

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