Combining Nature and Walking

09/15/2022 | By Waheeda Harris

For many of us in the West, we’re preparing for a celebratory moment every day: a welcome buzz and a colorful display of lights emanating from our wrists when our fitness tracker acknowledges we’ve hit the magic number of 10,000 steps.

Dedicated walkers will welcome the opportunity to attain those steps while exploring the myriad of landscapes of Japan. It was an unforgettable experience for me, especially while seeing some of this island nation’s noteworthy natural spaces.
Here are five memorable sites to experience in Japan and bonus: score the rewarding 10,000 daily step count too.

Mount Fuji, Yamanashi Prefecture/ Shizuoka Prefecture
Arriving in style on an ANA flight from North America, clear skies will allow a first glimpse from the air of Mount Fuji, one of the icons of Japan, before landing at Tokyo Haneda International Airport (HND) or Narita International Airport (NRT).
The highest mountain in Japan is also an active volcano, located 62 miles southwest of Tokyo in Yamanashi Prefecture and Shizuoka Prefecture. When I had my first sighting of this impressive mountain, I officially felt welcomed by Japan.

I realized how many times I had seen the beloved image of Mount Fuji depicted in art and photography, but especially one of the most noteworthy creations, Hokusai’s Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji which was originally created between 1830 and 1832.
As one of Japan’s Three Holiest Mountains (in addition to Mount Tate and Mount Haku), Mount Fuji has also been recognized for its integral connection to Japanese culture and added to the UNESCO World Heritage List because it has “…inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries.”

But Mount Fuji isn’t just something to admire from afar – it’s possible to ascend the beloved mountain, and depending on the trail chosen, can take between five and 10 hours. The most popular route from Kawaguchi-ko 5th station makes it easy to get your steps in. It’s recommended to consider a two-day trek to the summit, resting at the mountain huts on the way and being rewarded with one of the most enviable views of Japan.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto
Located on the western edge of Kyoto and accessible by transit, Arashiyama is a popular spot for viewing the Arashiyama Mountains (which translates as storm mountains) and to wander through the Kameyama-koen Park, well-known for its spring cherry blossoms and for its famous residents, the Japanese macaque.

The most popular option to kick the fitness tracker into activation mode is wandering through one of the most photographed sights of Kyoto: the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (also referred to as the Sagano Bamboo Forest). Bamboo is considered auspicious in Japan, and the trio of pine, bamboo and ume plum is translated to as sho-chiku-bai, a trio of lucky items.
A natural bamboo area, it’s a rare moment to find these dense groves without people, as the sunlight filtering through the swaying emerald stalks creates a peaceful green haven, a temptation for both residents and visitors year-round.

Peering up to see the two and three story high bamboo stalks surrounding the walkways of the grove, I’m spoiled as it’s only my travel companions and me in the grove. Thanks to the advice of our local guide, we’ve arrived as the sun has risen, and I feel swaddled in a delicate green cloak. As these immense bamboo plants slowly swing from side to side, the creaking sound provides a relaxing rhythmic tempo while strolling.

As I learned later, the music emanating from the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove was heralded by Japan’s Ministry of Environment as one of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan,” a selection of everyday sounds chosen to encourage Japanese citizens to take a moment to enjoy nature’s own music.

Yakushima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture
Arriving by hydrofoil ferry, the isle of Yakushima is located off the southwest tip of Japan, and one of the Osumi Islands, part of the Nansei Islands archipelago. This island of hills and valleys features over 1900 species and subspecies of flora, and was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.

This green oasis falls within the borders of the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, and became popular with Japanese honeymooners after Ryoma Sakamoto, a famous Japanese samurai, visited this isle with his newly-betrothed.

To achieve those daily steps, it’s the Yakushima Forest which draws my attention, containing one of the largest sections of subtropical evergreen forests and home to the Yaku Sugi Cedar Trees. On average, Japanese cedar trees can live up to 500 years, but on Yakushima Island, the trees have an extended lifetime to over 1,000 years, thanks to extensive rainfall and humidity.

This national recreational forest has several trails to reach the famous Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine and the place to seek out the 3,000 year old Jomon Sugi cedar tree. There are two options to reach Jomon Sugi, the Anbo and Okabu trails, each a different challenge. The Anbo trail is eight kilometers (five miles) and can be easily managed following old logging trails through the moss-covered trees, while the Okabu Trail is three kilometers (two miles), best for more experienced hikers, with the trail including stairs, ladders and climbing over rocks.

Another area to increase the step count (and take endless photos) is the Moss Forest, with its profuse display of lichens, ferns and moss, featuring 600 species of bryophytes. One third of all the moss species in Japan are found on this island.

This emerald forest was the inspiration for the exuberant verdant landscapes seen in the beloved 1997 fantasy film Princess Mononoke, by award-winning anime creators Studio Ghibli, and attracts the devoted koke-onna aka moss women to study, photograph and appreciate moss.

Meiji Jingu Shrine, Shibuya, Tokyo
Found within Shibuya City, this Shinto shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken, and was officially finished in 1926, 14 years after the death of the emperor.

After witnessing the busiest street crossing in the world, the Shibuya Crossing, it’s a calming dose of parkland that contains the meditative Meiji Shrine. My step count increases quickly, as the shrine is in the midst of 70 hectares of forest, containing over 120,000 trees, chosen for how they would look in 100 to 200 years. There are more than 200 varieties of trees, donated by people across Japan when the shrine was established.

This emerald oasis is man-made with the chosen trees planted by over 100,000 volunteers. The forest is also considered sacred, with nothing altered since it was planted. All the trees must sustain themselves and if they do fall, they are left to slowly disintegrate into the earth.

Within a few minutes of walking to the shrine, I’ve found myself in relaxing surroundings, the sounds of traffic and endless chatter of Shibuya streets seemingly dissipated by the Meiji trees. I slow down to see the flowers of the Inner Garden, which in early Spring are a profusion of brightly-hued azaleas.

Those who chose to meander through the outer precinct referred to as the Gaien can also learn more about the life of the Emperor by perusing the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, one of the earliest museums of Japan and considered an important cultural property of Japan.

Tottori Sand Dunes, Tottori Prefecture
Found on the edge of the Tottori city center, the Tottori Sand Dunes are an impressive sight, created over thousands of years as the sand from the nearby Sendaigawa River was washed out into the Sea of Japan, and the ocean waves redeposited the grains on the shoreline.

The tidal movement and steady wind currents continue to shape the dunes on a daily basis, an area that is approximately 10 miles long and a mile wide. Visitors can arrive by car, train or an ANA flight, the only direct access to Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport.

When I first start walking to the sea across the dunes, it feels slightly soft beneath my feet and the ocean doesn’t seem that far away. But as I keep walking, I’m surprised at how much effort it takes to walk in the soft sands and the sea keeps feeling farther than I expected.

When I finally reach the ocean, I’m on a cliff-like edge, and the wind seems to have disappeared for a moment. It returns quickly as I turn back to return to the starting point, and I’m feeling like a tiny speck in the golden sand, a mini-version of myself to those entering the dune area, like what I had seen at the beginning of my walk.

The return is a steady pursuit into the sand-laden wind, with my exposed skin getting a regular blast of grit as I push on up and down the immense dunes, glancing at those who are sandboarding gracefully like a snowboarder on a powder-covered mountain.

And when I finally finish, my step count easily exceeding 10,000, I’m rewarded with unforgettable views of this natural formation, the only one of its kind in Japan.