If you're visiting Japan for the Rugby World Cup this autumn, it's a great excuse to get out and explore this fascinating and beautiful country. Wes Lang, co-author of Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji, outlines the best hiking options that are available.
This autumn, the sporting spotlight will be on Japan, as it prepares to host the Rugby World Cup for the first time. The six-week, 20-team tournament will be spread between 12 venues located on three islands (in a land mass nearly double the size of the UK). Those attending all of their team’s four pool matches will need to do quite a bit of traveling between venues, making adequate transport preparations essential. In addition, many of the estimated 400,000 spectators will be looking for activities to do in the downtime between matches. Autumn is the perfect time to explore the variety of walks and hikes that Japan has on offer, so browse through the highlights of each region below for ideas to make the most of your trip.
Sapporo city (1 venue)
Teams: England, Tonga, Australia, Fiji
Sapporo is a mid-sized city known for its namesake beer, bustling entertainment district, and convenient ski resorts. The entire city is laid out on a grid system with names for every street, a rarity in Japan. It is known for its succulent miso ramen noodles and savory bowls of soup curry, and the comfortable autumn climate makes for pleasant strolls through Odori park. Don’t miss the 19th century clock tower, Sapporo’s oldest building and a reminder of the western influence on the island of Hokkaido.
The crown jewel of Hokkaido is definitely Daisetsuzan National Park in the centre of the island. Flanked at both ends by active volcanoes, the park features steaming fumeroles, alpine ponds and, if you’re lucky, the elusive red fox or brown bear. While the main hiking season is July and August, you may avoid the first snowfall of the year if you go in early-to-mid September. A network of trails connects Asahidake in the east with Tokachidake at the western end of the park, but the best day hike is an ascent of Hokkaido’s highest mountain, Asahidake (2291m). The walk is made easier by using the ropeway part of the way for the 2hr ascent to the summit. A longer option would be the loop around Nakadake onsen, a full-day hike requiring an early start. Asahidake is best accessed by bus #66 (100min, ¥1430 one-way) from Asahikawa station, an 85min train journey from Sapporo.
Closer to Sapporo is the Niseko region, and the impressive conical volcano Mt. Yotei (1898m). It’s a strenuous climb to a beautiful crater tinged with autumn colours in early September. Likewise, an ascent of nearby Mt. Niseko-Annupuri (1308m) affords fantastic views of Yotei’s perfect shape, which so closely resembles Mt. Fuji that it fools a few tourists every year. Trains depart Sapporo station for Kutchan (the closest train station to Niseko) on the JR Hakodate line (2hr 15min, ¥1840 one-way, involving a change of trains at Otaru station).
Kamaishi city (1 venue)
Teams: Canada, Namibia, Fiji, Uruguay
Rising out of the ashes of the catastrophic tsunami of 2011, Kamaishi city is known as the home of Japan’s first rugby club team and features a small fish market and historic iron mining site that has recently become a UNESCO World Heritage site. There isn’t much in the town apart from the new rugby stadium, but the Michinoku Coastal Trail runs right through the town and the rugged coastline to the north is well worth exploring.
Iwate Prefecture is renowned for its beautiful volcanoes, and Mt. Kurikoma (1626m) is one of the best, with crater lakes, abundant alpine wildflowers and fantastic panoramic views. The 9km loop starts and finishes at Sukawa Onsen, an impressive outdoor hot spring bath with milky white waters. Follow the Higashi Kurikoma trail to the summit and descend via the Chuo trail for a great half-day excursion before overnighting at the excellent Kurikoma Sansō (¥13,000 with two meals, advanced booking required). Access to Sukawa Onsen is by infrequent bus from Ichinoseki station (2hr from Kamaishi station, involving a change to the Shinkansen at Shin-Hanamaki station).
Flower enthusiasts should consider an afternoon stroll through the Hachimantai plateau (1614m), an easy, flat walk through an ancient volcanic caldera dotted with alpine lakes and vast fields of wildflowers. The nearest station is Morioka on the Tohoku Shinkansen (2hr 15min from Kamaishi station, involving a change the Shinkansen at Shin-Hanamaki station). From there, it’s a bus journey from the east exit of Morioka station at bus stop #3 (2hr, ¥1360 one-way, alight at Hachimantai Chojo). The first bus departs at 9:30am and the final return bus leaves at 3:35pm, giving visitors around four hours to enjoy the autumn foliage in mid-September.
Tokyo and Yokohama cities (3 venues – including finals)
Teams: USA, Argentina, Georgia, Uruguay, Russia, Samoa, Japan, France, Australia, Wales, England, New Zealand, Namibia, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland
Tokyo does not really need an introduction, as it is one of the world’s largest and most exciting cities. Highlights in Tokyo include a stroll through Yoyogi Park and neighbouring Meiji Shrine, the bird’s-eye views from the top of the 634m-high Tokyo Sky Tree, and a visit to Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa. Neighbouring Yokohama, home to the World Cup final, is a cosmopolitan port city with a vibrant Chinatown and many excellent eateries.
It takes a bit of an effort to get to the mountains from Tokyo, as the closest (and most popular) hike in the city is Mt Takao (599m), which makes for a nice morning hike for a bit of exercise and a view of Mt Fuji on a clear day. Beware that on weekends you may have to share the trail with half of the city, so aim to visit on a relatively quiet weekday. Closer to Yokohama is the sacred peak of Mt Ōyama (1252m), a popular day hike made easier by using the cable car part of the way up the mountain. Access is from bus stop #4 at Isehara station (1hr from Tokyo on the Odakyu Odawara express). There are two to three buses per hour to the Ōyama cable car bus stop.
Tokyo is connected to the rest of Japan by a high-speed rail network, meaning that the Japan Alps are within easy reach, and are a great two to three-day trip from the capital. Head to Matsumoto and further on to Kamikochi to experience the autumn colours at their peak in early October before the quarter-finals begin. Cicerone’s own comprehensive guide to the Japan Alps provides everything you need to know to help with your planning.
Hamamatsu and Toyota cities (2 venues)
Teams: Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, Namibia, Italy, Russia, Georgia, Samoa
The Tokai region is an oft-overlooked region of Japan, as countless tourists whizz right through it on their Shinkansen train journey from Tokyo to Kyoto. However, a visit to what is known as green tea country offers soothing hot springs, idyllic farming towns and fresh seafood from the nearby coast. The Shizuoka rugby stadium is located in a rural area roughly halfway between Shizuoka and Hamamatsu cities, meaning you could use either as a base for exploring the surrounding area. Toyota stadium, as the name implies, is located near the world headquarters of Toyota Motor Corporation on the outskirts of Nagoya city.
Hamamatsu isn’t too far from Mt Fuji (3776m), the undeniable highlight of the area. While Fuji is usually snowcapped by mid-October, the views of Japan’s highest mountain in the autumn are truly awe-inspiring. Take a bus to Kawaguchiko for a few days of hot spring baths in the shadow of the great mountain. Summit Mt. Kuro (1793m) for unforgettable vistas straight across to Fuji’s perfect cone.
Toyota city is the home to Mt Sanage (629m), which lies on the Tokai Nature Trail, a 1000km long-distance hiking trail connecting Tokyo and Osaka cities. On a clear day, the views of Ontake and Hakusan, two of Japan’s most sacred mountains, make the strenuous hike to the top of Sanage worth it. Consider rounding off your trip with a bath at Sanage Hot Spring, one of the oldest bathhouses in the entire region.
Osaka and Kobe cities (2 venues)
Teams: England, Scotland, Ireland, USA, Canada, Italy, Georgia, Russia, Namibia, Tonga, Argentina, Fiji, Samoa, South Africa
The Kansai region is home to over 22 million people, most of whom are sandwiched between Osaka bay and the surrounding mountains. Osaka is the undeniable heart of the region, a working-class city known for its cheap eateries and friendly locals. It’s a city well worth exploring on foot, as the gingko-lined Midosuji boulevard stretches roughly 4km through the centre of the vibrant metropolis. Don’t miss the chaotic energy of the Dotonbori area near Namba, as well as the tranquil lawn of Nakanoshima park and the therapeutic greenery of Osaka castle park.
Kobe city, in contrast, is a clean, modern port city built on the ashes of the destructive 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which destroyed nearly 400,000 buildings. Check out the bustling Chinatown area for cheap cuisine, and the 19th-century houses dotted through the historic Kitano district for a taste of Kobe’s cosmopolitan roots.
Due to the abundance of mountains nestled up against the cities, there is no shortage of hiking options. By far the most convenient area for hiking is Mt. Rokko (932m), a mountain range running directly behind Kobe. While there are dozens of trails to choose from, the most famous route starts at Hankyu Ashiyagawa station and climbs up and over the summit of Rokko and down to Arima Hot Spring. This route is so popular that locals have nicknamed it Rokko Ginza after the bustling Ginza district of Tokyo. If you arrive at Ashiyagawa train station early on weekend mornings, you’ll find a large group of hikers gathered at the adjacent square waiting for their friends. The track is easily marked and is known for wild boar encounters, so guard your food from the foraging beasts when taking breaks along the 13km hike.
Otherwise, those looking for a truly stunning hike should consider Mt Ryozen (1094m) in neighbouring Shiga Prefecture. The outstanding scenery is more reminiscent of Scotland than Japan and on a clear day the Japan Alps are clearly visible on the northern horizon. Just be careful of mountain leeches, which are abundant during warm, rainy weather. They usually hibernate during the first signs of cool autumn weather, so time your visit accordingly.
Fukuoka, Oita, and Kumamoto cities (three venues)
Teams: Wales, Ireland, Australia, Italy, France, USA, Canada, Samoa, Fiji, Uruguay, Tonga
The island of Kyushu is a nature-lovers paradise of active volcanoes, steaming hot springs and outstanding national parks. Fukuoka city is an energetic city known for its night-time food stalls serving hot bowls of pork broth ramen noodles. Oita, meanwhile, is a hot spring mecca attracting visitors from all over Japan in search of soothing thermal baths. Kumamoto is one of the most historical cities on the island, famed for a beautiful castle that was heavily damaged in a strong earthquake in 2016. The castle is undergoing a seismic overhaul and is closed to visitors until 2021, but the historical streetcar running through the centre of the city provides a glimpse of the castle walls as visitors navigate the city in search of its unique cuisine, including raw horse meat.
One of the best day hikes on the entire island is the towering stratovolcano of Mt Yufu (1583m). The steep hike is made easier by a series of several dozen switchbacks, and the final climb to the twin-peak summit is along a short section of exposed rock affixed with chains. Access is by bus from Beppu station (just west of Oita station). Alight at Yufutozanguchi bus stop for the 2½hr climb to the summit. From the summit, you can descend down to Yufuin, an amazing hot spring town nestled in a secluded valley and well worth exploring if you’ve got the time.
Those with a bit more time may want to consider visiting Mt Kuju (1791m), the crown jewel of Kuju-Aso National Park and a volcanic wonderland filled with crater lakes, volcanic cones and spectacular vistas. Additionally, Yakushima, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site just off the southern tip of the island, offers an impressive walk through ancient, towering cedar trees to the summit of Mt Miyanoura (1936m), the highest mountain in Kyushu.