Japanese affinity for awe-inspiring beauty of their mountains is deep-rooted in a curious mix of sacred myths, love of outdoors and respect for nature.
Nearly 70 per cent of the Japanese archipelago is covered in breathtaking mountain ranges and majestic peaks.
According to the living traditions of Sangaku Shinkō, which blends beliefs from Shinto and Buddhist teachings, all mountains are sacred.
Numerous mountain tops have dedicated shrines and temples. Since time immemorial to this day, worshippers in large numbers have been embarking on religious mountain pilgrimages to seek salvation and express their thanks.
Off the beaten track
If you come to Japan, choosing which breathtaking mountainside to visit will be a daunting task. Their numbers runs into thousands.
There is hardly a corner of the world which does not know about Mount Fuji. You can add the majestic peaks of the Nagano range, home of 1989 Winter Olympics, to the list. However, every single prefecture in Japan offers a unique experience.
Below are a few wondrous mountainside spots in Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost major island. Though they are popular destinations for the Japanese, many (if not most) foreign visitors don’t ever get to see them.
Takachiho, Japan’s Birthplace
Mysterious, dramatic and awe-inspiring. This mountainous region in central Kyushu is a place of profound religious importance and unparalleled natural beauty.
The region is steeped in Japanese creation mythology. According to legend, it is sacred ground where gods descended to earth and Japan came into existence.
The ancient town of Takachiho is home to the legend of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who came out from hiding and brought sunlight to the world. The magnificent Ama-no-Iwato shrine is thought to be where she made her appearance.
A must-see place is the Takachiho Gorge, a deep ravine cut through volcanic basalt rocks by the Gokase River (where you can also do whitewater rafting). Pristine waterfalls juxtapose sheer cliffs which resemble imposing dragons.
To access, take a 90 minute flight from Tokyo to Kumamoto. In Kumamoto airport, there are direct buses to Takachiho. The bus ride takes about 2 hours, and the scenery along the way will not disappoint you!
Volcanic Tapestries of Kirishima
This is a volcanically active region in Southern Kyushu, home to breathtaking panoramas, beautiful shrines and some of Japan’s most renowned hot springs such as Ibusuki Onsen and the Kirishima Onsen village.
The area includes the ecologically important Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park, a volcanic wonderland which boasts numerous peaks and crater lakes.
The scenic mount Sakurajima is located near downtown Kagoshima. It is one of Japan’s most active volcanoes and minor eruptions often take place multiple times per day!
Access is through the city of Kagoshima, about a 100 minute flight from Tokyo.
Whimsical, Mystical Yakushima
Yakushima is a pristine, small mountainous island located about 60 km south of Kagoshima bay. It is a moss-covered place of otherworldly beauty and home of giant Yaku cedars, some of which are over 1,000 years old.
The island has 6 major mountain peaks including Miyanoura-dake, the tallest mountain in Kyushu.
The central part of Yakushima island was officially declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1993.
You can reach Yakushima via a four hour ferry ride from downtown Kagoshima harbor. There is also a high-speed jetfoil ferry which takes about 75 minutes.
This is a rugged land of timeless beauty. If you go there, you will be venturing into the unknown. But, your hotel can help book a safe, guided trek.
Mountain Day National Holiday
Starting in 2016, August 11 is the official Mountain Day national holiday. The legislation was approved with overwhelming support from legislators, the public and the business community.
In busy-busy Japan, it is not easy to enact legislation for yet another public holiday. The fact that Mountain Day has made the list is a testament to the important role natural resources play in this nation’s, and perhaps our world’s, continued viability.
Mountain Day complements the list of days dedicated to appreciating nature, which include Greenery Day (May 4) and Marine Day (July 17) national holidays.
What they are, I don’t even know
Mountains are a source of life. Besides their awesome beauty, they are home to multitudes of plants and creatures we share this world with, most of which we know so little about. But that matters little for appreciating them.
Here is a haiku by Taneda Santōka (Dec 1882 – Oct 1940) who loved to trek mountains. His style might be uniquely Japanese, but the thoughts he evokes are simply human and transcend culture.
What they are,
I don’t even know.
Yet they are all blooming!
(In Japanese 何が何やらみんな咲いてゐる, nani ga nani yara min-na saite iru.)