The restorative act of getting in touch with nature has a name in Japan: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”. It's mindfulness but in a forest, and the act is taken seriously enough to warrant the official selection and certification by government bodies of particularly soothing, verdant areas of Japan. Although there are 62 such forests on the official register, there are plenty more places across the island nation to take a meditative (or strenuously worthwhile) walk. Here are some of our favourites.
The Nakasendō – “the road through the central mountains” – was a veritable highway for traders, samurai and feudal lords during the Edo era and stretched from Kyoto to Tokyo (then known as Edo). This 530-kilometre-long route weaves through the Kiso Valley’s secluded rural areas and charming traditional villages, with the highest peaks rising to 3000 metres above sea level. Visitors can easily divide the trail into smaller chunks; the most popular is the eight-kilometre section between the hamlets of Magome and Tsumago, where Edo-period architecture is either faithfully rendered or left intact.
Thousands of years of history have marked the paths that are now collectively known as the Kumano Kodō. This series of UNESCO World Heritage-recognised trails lead to the spiritual gateway that is Kumano, the southern part of the Kii Peninsula. Each separate portion of the Kumano Kodō passes shrines and sites that have drawn pilgrims for centuries, including Ise Jingu (a Shinto shrine dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu) and Kumano Sanzan (a trio of shrines considered to be among the most sacred in all of Japan).
Kamikochi and the Japanese Alps
Adventure in the Japanese Alps begins in Kamikochi, literally “where gods descend”—a place of pure serenity within the Chubu Sangaku National Park in Nagano Prefecture. Open for exploration between April and November, trails within this alpine-streaked mountain valley range from the gentle to vertiginous, with paths leading hikers through quiet elm forests or to a summit of the many pretty peaks that punctuate the landscape.
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The famed Shikoku Pilgrimage gathers both the spiritual and the secular on its 1200-kilometre loop past 88 temples of significance. Said to follow in the ninth-century footsteps of Kōbō Daishi – the most revered figure in Japanese Buddhism – the trail skims the edge of its namesake island, linking sacred spots, traditional villages and thermal waters (Dōgo Onsen is a great detour for soothing tired muscles). It takes somewhere between 30 and 60 days for walkers to complete the circuit, with each leg said to represent a stage on the path to nirvana.
Regarded as the best woodland trail in Japan, this 80-kilometre route traces a line similar to that taken by traders and samurai warriors as far back as AD 710. It incorporates a string of 16 picturesque passes from Mount Madarao to Lake Nojiri, reaching an elevation of just over 1000 metres at its highest point as it straddles the Nagano and Niigata prefectures. Scenery spans the volcanic landscapes of mounts Hakama and Kenashi, as well as lush forests of ghostly beech trees standing tall and defiant in this alpine environment.
Despite its proximity to Osaka, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed island of Yakushima – a pristine haven for surprisingly few locals and even fewer visitors – still retains a sense of near-mystical tranquillity. Trails, including one-hour beginner options and multi-day treks, wind through moss-covered forests with 1000-year-old cedar trees, twisted and knuckled amid freshwater streams. The Shiratani Unsuikyo Gorge, which has walks ranging from one to five hours, offers stunning views over the island’s verdurous canopies.