In a book describing Japan's most famous peaks, mountain writer Kyuya Fukada counted a hundred. Climbing these peaks is a challenge for hikers, but you can simply walk through their valleys, breathe in their forests in summer and taste their powder snow in winter.
Sometimes you might even experience a volcano erupting, like Mount Asama in February 2009. This was nothing too serious, but lava spilled while a column of white smoke escaped from the snowy crater and flakes of black ash flew to the port of Yokohama. Just enough to remind everyone that Japan, located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, has one of the highest densities of volcanoes on Planet Earth. 109 to be precise. This great country of islands and sea winds is actually 71% mountains. It is not surprising that choosing your mountain trip requires a bit of thought... The best views of Mount Fuji are from the iconic swan-headed boats that cross Lake Kawaguchi, which is famous for reflecting, like in an inverted mirror, the north face of the mountain's perfectly symmetrical cone.
Alternatively, explore the gentle landscapes in the Kyushu region, to climb aboard the small retro train that crosses a constellation of villages surrounded by forests, meadows, bamboo woods and hot springs. Pass the curious grassy mountain that looks like a bowl of upside-down rice, and finish by climbing Mount Aso, by the edge of one of the largest calderas in the world with a perimeter of 80 miles.
Skiers prefer to find the most delightful powdery snow in Hokkaido. When talking about Japan, people do not usually think of winter sports, yet from Christmas to spring, the snow falls thickly, especially in Niseko, enveloping the landscape in a sublime, immaculate winter coat. Hokkaido, the land of the Ainu hunting and fishing people, is a fascinating side of Japan and winter suits it so well. If you prefer spring, the Japanese Alps are the place to be. Honshu is cut in half by this thrilling spine, which divides the main island into very contrasting landscapes.
The Sea of Japan side is rough and wild while the other side on the Pacific coast is more inhabited and sunnier. Matsumoto station, with its high perched castle, dominates this cheerful side. Its meadows are perfect for hiking and their green gives way to farms where the wasabi that ignites our sushi is concocted. Matsumoto is also the gateway to Nakasendo, the old paved merchant road that was made up of 69 stations and crosses the Kisoji Valley, advancing under the dim golden light of towering forests. The west side is called 'Ura Nibon'. This hinterland is the hidden side of the Land of the Rising Sun. A traditional and enchanted Japan that has brought craftsmanship to its peak. A mountain where lacquer and gold leaf flow, so beautiful when burned by the autumn colours.
Known as Little Fuji because of its elegant and perfectly conical shape, Mount Daisen is the highest of the country's largest mountain range in the west and rightfully appears on the list of 'Japan's 100 Most Beautiful Mountains'. It is nearly 6,000ft tall and its slopes welcome ski enthusiasts in winter and ornithologists in spring, attracted by the several thousand species in the Yonago Lagoon Reserve. In summer, hikers can easily climb the summit, which is almost entirely made up of accessible log stairs and is nothing like scaling Everest. In Autumn, Daisen-Oki National Park is covered in all shades of red. It's the mountain of all four seasons.
On the other side of the river, Kanazawa, little Tokyo
Delving west into the Japanese Alps into Japan's inland sea, Kanazawa, set at the root of the mountains, offers a unique glimpse into the feudal past. The Nagamachi district of this 'Little Kyoto' is still lined with samurai residences, while in the Higashi Chaya-machi district, hemmed with geisha houses with wooden slatted windows, there is still a charming atmosphere. In another space-time setting, the 21st century museum draws its contemporary lines against a backdrop of snowy peaks.
Before skiers, golfers and hikers, there were priests. Back in the days when the country's coastline was infested with pirates, the mountains became a refuge and sanctuary for the people of Japan. Two Japanese regions have retained their sacred paths and are now places of pilgrimage. These are the Japanese versions of 'Santiago de Compostela'. Shikoku, the smallest and wildest of the four major Japanese islands, is famous for its 88 temple pilgrimage, known in Japanese as 'o-henro'.
The Wakayama Peninsula, south of Kyoto, has sites such as Mount Koya and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kumano Shrines. Almost nothing has changed since Emperor Go-Toba's palanquin passed through forests and rice fields for his pilgrimage. Large red ink Sanskrit inscriptions provide evidence of the stages of this ritual.
It is said that those who finish the pilgrimage will have their prayers answered. If you don't want to walk more than 600 miles, choose just one or two stages of the pilgrimage. The locals, dressed in indigo cotton, still grow rice and tea and greet passing visitors. Stop for lunch at a tiny countryside inn and enjoy a 'bento' box filled with seasonal vegetables and dried fish. After a glass of warm sake, you're ready to hit the road again. In the evening, onsen water flows like silk over tired legs and feet to leave you feeling invigorated.
This is the source of Japan's spiritual tradition. Feel Zen and inner enlightenment and gain an insight into a universe mingled with poetry, life and death, enjoyment and asceticism… Immemorial Japan, as one hardly dared to dream. Today, young and old Japanese people from all walks of life continue to walk, cycle or travel by bus through these roads. Mingle with pilgrims dressed all in white.
CHOOSE YOUR BED
Yunomine Onsen - Azumaya Ryokan
In a lost village that welcomes pilgrims from the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails, this wooden inn keeps alive the memory of André Malraux, moved by the serenity of the traditional rooms and the hot spring bath. Step back in time and soak up the charm and history.
Hokkaido - Kasara Niseko Village
Curl up by the fireplace and immerse yourself in the steaming water while gazing at the scenery through the bay windows of this luxurious contemporary lodge.
SOME IDEAS TO GET YOU STARTED
From Tokyo to Mount Koya
A trip to Japan based on the theme of stepping back in time, from Tokyo robots to Kyoto temples, to the Mount Koya temple settlement above Osaka. A place apart, this centre of Shingon Buddhism was founded in the eighth century. Spend one night here, a rich experience coupled with peaceful nights in a ryokan and the discovery of the art of bathing.
Cover picture : Getty Images/iStockphoto