Hiking Japan : A Survival Guide

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the outdoors—-exploring peaceful forest trails, sleeping under the stars, making fire from sticks. Plus the fact that you can pee basically anywhere. I conquer you, Nature. Take that.

So when I moved to Japan, the first thing I did was to look for some good hiking trails. Well, I mean, after finding a decent bar with some hot chicks, but hiking was pretty high on the list too. And eventually, I got around to some outdoorsy stuff, until one day, while following a deer path through a stand of trees, I had an epiphany. That’s when you realize stuff that’s incredibly obvious only you haven’t thought of it yet. Anyway, the epiphany said: Ken Seeroi, these two activities don’t have to be separate. Because Japan. Okay, Let me explain. Or as we say in Japanese, esprain.

Japan, the Great Outdoors

On the weekends, half the population of Tokyo escapes the hot, overcrowded city and heads for the cool solitude of the mountains, turning them into the forest version of Shinjuku Station at rush hour. So my advice would be, yeah, don’t go on the weekends.

In my case, I had Monday off from teaching English, so I rode the train out of town to Kita-Kamakura. I planned to hike over the mountain and into Kamakura, which is a little seaside resort town full of temples and this giant Buddha statue. They’ve also got a really good soba shop that offers a sesame dressing that’s simply to die for. So although it was a long way to go for some noodles, I figured a little hiking would do me good.

My Japanese Adventure

It was a hot afternoon, and once I started out, I realized, Hey, maybe I should have brought some water. Who knew hiking could be so strenuous? But I climbed higher and higher and got thirstier and thirstier. The trail got steeper and steeper. And after a while, I realized I didn’t know where I was, because I’d been so busy repeating myself. And then I really wished I’d brought a map. Really, really wished I had. And then I got somewhere near the top and the trail diverged into two different paths. It was just like that poem by Robert Frost, only without all the snow. Whatever. I’m not real good with decision-making, so I did what my years of hiking experience had taught me was most effective for such situations. I sat down on a rock and cried. Then I prayed for deliverance from the wilderness.

I mean, I’d been hiking for practically 30 minutes and the situation was clearly hopeless. I knew I’d be lucky to make it back alive. So I threw my arms wide to the sky and cried, “Oh God, show me a sign.” I’m a little dramatic like that. Anyway, that’s when I had the epiphany, because suddenly there was this sign. A sign from God. And it said, in Japanese: “Bar, this way, 50 meters.” Okay, maybe it wasn’t from God, but still, somebody put that damn wooden sign on top of a hill way out in the woods, and I’d like to thank whoever it was. So just to be on the safe side, yeah thanks, Japanese God.

And so I summoned my remaining strength and forced my depleted body along the narrow deer path until there, shining like a magic castle, was this massive red-brick cafe with several levels of outdoor decks. And my first thought was, Who puts a huge cafe in the middle of a forest? Followed closely by, And how’d they get all these bricks up here, and why are they shining?

But long story short, I was able to properly restore my electrolyte balance with many life-sustaining beers and eventually made it down to Kamakura, where over a lunch of soba noodles in sesame sauce, I wrote a proper story about hiking in Japan on a hundred tiny Japanese napkins, which Tokyo Weekender was kind enough to publish here:

Hiking in Japan

It’s a daring tale of higher mountains, more women, more beer, and . . . well, that’s about it. But still, it’s moderately entertaining, so check it out.

44 Replies to “Hiking Japan : A Survival Guide”

  1. I’m always surprised by how much Japanese people like hiking.

    I’ve done Fuji, Tsukuba, Takao, and Chokai with my husband. He loves it – I always feel like I’m about to die/pass out. I guess beer helps?
    How is hiking drunk, by the way? Fun, or scary?

    1. Terrifying. But in a fun way. Can’t say I’d actually recommend it though, really. Well, maybe just one.

  2. after money probably a cooler/bagpack filled with beer should be essential for such trips! why would you want to be stuck with water in the middle of a mountain when beer can also be carry?

    1. See, now you’re thinking right.

      In fact, I’m struggling to understand why anyone would ever drink water instead of beer. I mean, they weigh the same. Sometimes they even cost the same. Only water has less bubbles, less taste, and is a thousand times less fun. Definitely a beverage you want to avoid.

      1. ahh humanity… they create such wonders but have no clue on how to apply it the right way! i guess will stick with our thinking till the japanese beer vending machine take over the world!

  3. Congrats on getting published elsewhere again. You and your writing style really deserve it.

    Another nice masterpiece.

    I love hiking, but I hate being chased by killer hornets. But on the other hand, those are pretty much everywhere, not only in the mountians. *sigh*

    1. Those hornets would add just the right touch of danger to my new reality TV show idea J., and there’s already a built in audience from the Ninja warrior series, so they could make the contestants wear ninja hoods… see below for my comment.

        1. Thanks for the link Jeck, that was awesome and funny. Ya know, they have a smaller version of the giant hornet here in the area of the US where I live called a Cicada Killer, but it’s not very aggressive and doesn’t live in hives. They have single burrows in the ground, where they lay eggs on a captured cicada. The males are territorial about those burrows, but they don’t bite or sting at all, just fly close to people and act tough. I have been stung by a very large female Cicada Killer (chasing a Frisbee in a pine forest golf course) and it hurt pretty bad, but it wasn’t venomous nor was the stinger that long.

          I have heard that a mere 20 Japanese hornets could kill an entire hive of bees and some of the Hornets have been found in the US in Nebraska, Illinois and of all places, Washington D.C. Bees in Japan have developed a defensive strategy against the hornets, but American bees are totally defenseless against them. You might not be aware of a growing problem in the US with our bee population dying off, but farmers in the heart of the US take this issue seriously as it effects plant pollination and food production. They are aggressively exterminating the Japanese hornets they find.

          I really can’t picture a hornet that large attacking people in numbers; it must be horrifying and I wonder if the Japanese try to exterminate these giant flying threats? After I saw the pictures of them on the internet, I felt scared for anyone that has to deal with these monsters… and OMG, they can also fly 25 miles an hour too! Good luck outrunning them! I really didn’t know there were so many deaths caused by them until I looked them up. I wonder if the US could use Japanese hornets to kill off the aggressive African bee invasion coming from Mexico?… hmmmm!

          1. I’ve never seen more than one of those giant hornets at a time. If I saw two or more together, I’d probably dive into the nearest lake. They’re fairly big and slow, like small birds, and the typical Japanese response is to freak out and run screaming, but I don’t think there’s much of a concerted effort at extermination. I guess they help to pollinate Japan’s flowers and fruit trees, so they’re useful in that respect. Japanese people certainly value working hard, so perhaps they get a pass.

  4. Sublime… walking the line between Hedonist and Naturalist. Very few can do that K-chan! BTW, a naturalist is just a short step away from a nudist! OMG, I’m having an epiphany… NOW I can see a new reality game show out of this, with nudist running thru the woods racing to get drinks from various Izakayas located across Japan’s trails and parks… Tehe! Sort of like the “Survivor” TV series for naked alchys!

  5. The owner of that bar must have been a hiker once, and has sat and cried on the same rock, until he had an epiphany: If I open a bar nearby, I can charge these hapless unprepared hikers any money, and they will pay anyway!

    1. It’s true, that trail has a steady stream of people, and that place is the only spot for miles. Still, you’ve gotta have pretty huge ones to open a bar in the middle of the forest and hope somebody stops by.

    1. Man, that sounds good. My memory of Gifu is basically all mountains. Do you guys even have cities there? Or does everybody just live in like a cabin?

      1. OK, many thanks! Hopefully, I will go there next week after doing some maintenance on my bicycle. I will report back 🙂

        I like Soba and I like Sesame products. Never had them together before, though. Should be interesting to try!

        1. I went there once a few years back and they were closed. Of course, now I don’t remember which day. But I think Saturday would be a better bet than Sunday, if you have the option.

          1. Oh, I went this past Thursday just to be sure. This is the shop:


            It is located very near to the path I usually take while cycling so arriving there was quite easy. It is also located near to the West Gate of JR Kamakura Station. They are only open between 11:00 and 17:00 (except on Sundays), though. They even have an English menu (which they automatically brought for me, naturally).

            Their Goma-Seiro Soba (胡麻せいろそば) was really, really good. I instantly regretted not ordering the extra helping of noodles (大盛り). Their soba is quite good, I can eat it as is but the sesame sauce makes it heavenly. The tea at the end enhances the whole experience. Many thanks for the excellent recommendation!

            They also have the same dish with Udon. Wonder if I should try that next time?

            1. That sesame sauce is awesome, right? Glad you found it, and thanks for the link. That plus an English menu, and pretty soon they’ll be like, Where are all these Westerners coming from?

  6. Random Question: What’s the best chips (could be potato, kale, sweet potato, yam…wutever) you’ve ever had in your life?

    I know you enjoy beer…but what about….root beer? Mine is Virgil’s old fashioned root beer

    1. Man, that’s so easy. Calbee’s makes the best chips on the planet. Really. If I could find a girl who could do that with a potato, I’d marry her. Or marry the potato, actually. Sorry, girl who fried all those spuds. Anyway, Calbee’s did a hot and spicy limited-edition last year that I should have stockpiled. I’m really bad at planning for the future. Anyway, they were super hot, not like those crappy barbecue chips that are all sweet. Jeez, how I miss them.

      Did you know that Japanese people generally hate root beer? I don’t know why. But it has a reputation here for being awful. Personally, for soft drinks, I think ginger ale is apotheosis of carbonated beverages, but that’s just me. That and some Calbee’s hot and spicy, and I’d be in heaven. Oh, why did they take it away?

      1. that’s a surprise to me……I expected you to mention an American brand cuz we’re all about meat and potatoes….or maybe I just need to get that out-of-date notion out of my head. Anyways…I’m really gunna have to go find some around here and try em out. I’ll let you know later.

        ..I hope the ingredient list is simple, and are made from quality potatoes. If they are, and if they do taste as delicious as you say they are…boy am I in trouble.

        As for ginger ale, I’d go with Reed’s ginger ale…made from real Jamaican ginger and some fruit concentrate for sweetening …or something like that. Anyways, point is, the ingredients is wholesome..and its delicious. They have a extra ginger version that has such a kick….that it makes you cringe a little bit. And yes,…just like that skittles commercial, I try not to look at babies or pretty girls when I do cringe.

        Reed’s ginger ale looks like this: http://www.goldensweetinc.com/Images/reeds/reeds_ex_brew_set_2.jpg

        there’s also another brand called Bundaberg that’s pretty good too. But man, I’m so bummed the Japanese don’t like root beer. How can anyone not like root beer. So, I guess I can deduce that they don’t have root beer floats either right?

        1. Kakenotane and peanuts are my personal favorite. What’s really good are Lawson’s croissant doughnuts. Man that’s what I miss snacking on the most from Japan besides the fish on a giant bamboo stick I had in Amano Hashidate. Japan’s sweets are perfectly sweetened compared to America’s.

          1. I’m right there with you. I don’t understand American flavors at all. Everything’s got about five times more salt and sugar than it needs.

            Don’t think I’ve ever had a croissant doughnut though. Guess I’m gonna need to take a trip to Lawson, for research purposes.

        2. Meat and potatoes…unless it’s niku-jaga, forget it. For me, Japanese food beats pretty much everything else, particularly in the snack department.

          As for root-beer floats, I think you’d terrify small children with those things. Probably a felony just to brandish one.

      2. Oh you’re a ginger beer and spicy fan?
        Best spicy ginger drink I’ve ever had is this stuff I found at the Aldis recently. So good I put the bottle down, went back, and bought every bottle in the store, then went home and finished my drink. True story. Its not scientifically possible to make a better soda. Organic cane juice (no corn syrup,) fresh ginger, water, hot spices, glass bottle. Honestly my friends and i love ginger ale, but we only drink these on special occasions. Like elaine on Seinfeld rating dudes as sponge-worthy, we don’t want to drink one casually. Sadly, or wonderfully, you can only by them 24 at a time on amazon. I have no problem with this since i filled the bed of my truck with them halfway through my first bottle..
        Cheers! *clink*

        1. Doesn’t sound like buying 24 at a time is posing much of a problem for you. Next time I’m in the States, I’ll try to find some and line my suitcase with it. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Love Kita Kamakura area with all the green forests and otera/jinja. Thanks for reminding me to get back there. I seem to recall a divine strawberry melon pan on Kamakura as well.

    This concept of bars/restaurants on top of mountains is pretty convenient. I went up Bandai-san last week and there’s not one but two little places to eat and hydrate. I always wonder who’s lugging all the crap up. Sort of like I can’t figure out who keeps track of all the vending machines in this country. They’re everywhere and I am thankful 🙂

    1. Hah, I wonder about that too. I’m pretty sure there are a few hundred vending machines that have just been forgotten—like the person in charge quit or died, and now they’re just sitting forgotten, dispensing hot coffee during the summertime and collecting the occasional 100 yen.

  8. Thanks for reminding me about this area. Kita-Kamakura is just such a lovely, green, peaceful little town. Hard to remember that Japan is 65% covered by forest when so much time is spent in the cities.

    1. I know, right. And it’s just a quick train-ride from Tokyo. As are Hakone and Mount Takao. Really gotta get out more…

  9. I should really stop reading your writings on public transportation, people apparently think I’m a bit weird for laughing by myself.

    Great blog man.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate that. Though honestly, pretty much everybody riding public transportation here is a bit weird, so I guess I wouldn’t sweat it. Like clamping an umbrella between your knees while balancing a bag on your lap and staring at your phone’s tiny screen for a hour, when did that become normal? But hey, at least you got a seat, so I guess I can’t be hating on it.

  10. Hello there. I’m traveling to Japan for 10 days in mid-January. Can you suggest any winter hiking that’s not too snowy or rainy?

    1. Well, you’re in luck, in that this year is insanely warm. Still, most of the higher mountains will have snow. Rain, well, that happens when it happens. Bring your Gore-Tex.

      I’d suggest two things. First, hiking in the hills rather than the mountains. Japan has lots of trails that stay within reasonably low altitudes. Once you get into the real mountains, things get a bit wilder, and you’d really want to be prepared. Secondly, head to Kyushu. It’s south, and has tons of nature.

      Near Tokyo, you can hit Mount Takao. It’s basically a suburban day-hike, but if you avoid the main trail (which is just a steep paved road) you’ll probably enjoy it.

    2. If you want to combine sightseeing with walking, both Nikko (a day trip from Tokyo) and Kyoto have hilly parts suitable for day hikes plus World Heritage temples, etc.

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