In a country as geologically active as Japan, there is no end to the natural wonders that you can find. Fortunately for those of us with a love of the great outdoors, Japan has well-managed national parks for us to go gallivanting through. One highly enjoyable experience is to backpack through some of Japan’s beautiful natural environments.
1. So you don’t speak/read Japanese…
Backpacking in Japan, as in any other country, requires pre-trip planning and research. This is especially important if you are unable to speak or read Japanese. Researching the rules and routes of national parks will better your safety, for example, in cases where hiking routes are only marked in Japanese, or where hiking routes are closed or diverted due to inclement weather, natural disasters, or seasonal effects. If possible, find visitor centers to obtain the latest park map, and to find out the latest weather conditions or trail changes. Be sure to memorize or take note of Japanese characters (kanji, hiragana, or katakana) for the names of local buses, stations, and campsites. In less populated areas, there might not be an English transliteration of the Japanese names. Memorizing some basic kanji too, such as: left (左), right (右), danger (危ない), etc., will at least point you in the right direction.
2. You are not alone!
Backpacking usually means that you are hiking for hours through rain, shine or wind. Most backpackers start early, even before the sun rises, to make the most of natural sunlight. Consequently, most people sleep early. In areas where you are sharing campsites with backpackers, remember that sound travels far in the quiet of the wild, so keep voices and activities low once the sun has set.
Especially during the summer, hiking in Japan means coming face to face with all sorts of creepy crawlies. Be sure to research on the kind of insects or animals that you might find in your backpacking area and take the necessary precautions, such as buying proper bug spray and packing any needed medication. Most animals however are usually more afraid of us than we are of them. For example, the buzzing of flies or the Japanese hornet may sound annoying and even scary, but a way to shake off some of these insects is to keep calm and move steadily along without making sudden aggressive movements. When packing food, remember to store them in airtight containers or bags to prevent the smell from attracting animals.
4. …and other things that go bump in the wild
One thing you might hear along hiking routes in certain areas is the constant tinkling of a bell. This is the sound of a ‘bear bell’ – a small bell hikers attach to their backpacks to scare away animals, such as bears, in advance. Once again, research as much as possible about your backpacking area, and about the seasonal conditions, to find out if this is an appropriate piece of equipment to buy and bring along.
5. There and back again
If you have lived or travelled in Japan, you know how complicated Japan’s transportation system can get. Without a car, and with heavy backpacks of tents, sleeping bags, and bedrolls, struggling to find the right trains or buses can put a real damper on your experience before you have reached your backpacking destination. Before heading out, be sure to do research on your transportation options for getting there and back again. Some bus and train companies offer discount tickets, or express options, that will reduce the duration of your travel time, or the number of times you have to change trains/buses. Keep track of the times these trains/buses are available, especially for smaller shuttle buses that connect you from national parks to the main train lines or roads. Getting stranded at the exit of the national park because you have missed your transport will be no fun for anyone.
6. Enjoy yourself!
Backpacking in Japan has something for everyone. Depending on which part of Japan that you choose to backpack in, the natural environment offers everything from mountains to marshlands, forests to farmlands, ridges to rivers.
In some national parks, there are small restaurants, lodges, and even bars, at campsites! For those of us who have spent the whole day hiking in the sun, there may be nothing better than drinking an ice cold beer on a lounge chair at a bar patio, watching the sun set.
Featured image from Author, taken at Oze National Park