Hiking Japan's Ancient Buddhist Trails, Rainforests, and Volcanoes

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14705A, International


  • Visit ancient Buddhist temples and shrines
  • Enjoy nightly soaks in Japanese onsen (hot tubs)
  • Hike through Yakushima forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site


  • All lodging, in-country trip transportation, and admissions
  • Japanese-speaking guide
  • Most meals and all gratuities


DatesNov 3–15, 2014
Price$5,775 (11–14)
$6,995 (or fewer)
StaffAurora Roberts

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Join us as we travel to lesser-known parts of Japan.  We begin our journey hiking ancient Buddhist paths that are still traversed by monks today on the Kunisaki Peninsula in Kyushu.  The volcanic terrain leads us up steep ridges and down through lush green valleys.  The trails take us to temples and shrines along the way and we even spend one night in a temple nestled in a cliff-side.  If our timing is right we will be there with beautiful fall color adding to the beauty of our walk.

We also visit the National Parks of Kirishima-Yaku and Aso-Kuju where we walk through fantastic volcanic geological formations.  We will ascend Mount Yufu and Mount Aso where we plan to hike along the ridge of this active volcano.  From this high mountainous area, the scenery is incredibly beautiful with views all the way to the sea.

Another part of this journey takes us by ferry to the small island of Hime-shima where we spend one night in a small family-owned ryokan and hike to a temple.  The other island that we visit is Yakushima, which is a World Heritage site.  A high-speed jet foil ferry takes us on a two-hour journey to the island where we hike through old cedar forests, high moorlands, and grasslands.  Our reward will be stunning views of the surrounding area.

Each day we will end our walks by soaking in thermal hot springs called onsen or heated tubs after our showers.  Our nights are spent in small family owned Japanese ryokans or small inns where we have our evening meals.  Don’t worry about bringing a lot of extra clothing for eveningwear.  Yukata, or Japanese robes, and the ubiquitous slippers are provided at almost all of our stays. 

We also plan to visit a Samurai village and a few other cultural sites.  Time permitting we will visit a brewing company where you learn the fine art of brewing Sake and if you wish, sample some of the final product.  You will learn a lot about Japan, its customs, and history during this trip.  Come prepared for vigorous hiking and a good introduction to Japanese culture.


Day 1: Fukuoka. We will meet at a hotel in Fukuoka near the Hakata Train Station. From there we will walk to the station and take a train for an hour and forty minutes to Oita City, located on the Kunasaki Peninsula. We will then visit Usa Jingu, an ancient and impressive Shinto shrine. This shrine was instrumental in the development of the distinct Buddhism of the Kunisaki Peninsula. Dinner at tonight’s lodging is a Japanese feast of locally caught fish and home-grown farm produce. Dinner provided.

Day 2: Futago-ji - Matama Onsen. After breakfast at our accommodation, a minibus will take us on a 25-minute journey to our start point at the heart of the Kunisaki Peninsula. Luggage, aside from day packs, is forwarded on to our evening's lodgings for us. Very soon after the start of the trek, we find ourselves in a verdant forest and remote countryside. We visit some secluded temples and have lunch in a small, local restaurant. The afternoon's trek includes a short but stiff climb up to a view of Mumyo-bashi; a bridge perched spectacularly between two crags. The final descent brings us down to road level and our last temple for the day. From here it is a 45-minute walk to a well-deserved thermal hot spring and our lodgings for the night. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided. Total walking time: 6 hours. Total distance: approx. 7.4 miles.

Day 3: Matama Onsen - Hime-shima. Our luggage is sent on by taxi, while we travel a short distance by minibus to the beginning of Nakayama Senkyo, a lower elevation ridge climb. Near the top are some spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and the Seto Inland Sea. Lunch is a delicious bento box lunch. After lunch we wind our way up over a pass before descending to an idyllic hamlet. We then meet our transport, which takes us to nearby Imi Port. Hime-shima, a small island, is 20 minutes away by ferry. From there we have a short walkfrom the quay to our inn for the night. The island is a delightful place, with the main settlement a maze of narrow streets, houses, and little vegetable plots. Our dinner is focused on locally caught fresh fish from some of the best fishing grounds within the Seto Inland Sea. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided. Total walking time: 5 hours. Total distance: approx. 4.9 miles.

Day 4: Hime-shima – Monjusen-ji. We return by ferry to Imi Port. After sending our luggage on, we have lunch at a local restaurant before catching a public bus to the start of today's trek. We soon pass through the atmospheric grounds of a long-gone temple. Little is left of this once powerful institution except stone Buddha statues and hundreds of monks' gravestones. The latter include Ninmon's last resting place. Ninmon was the monk that is reputed to have first brought Buddhism to Kunisaki some 1,100 years ago. A climb to Itsutsu-ji Fudo provides impressive views across the Seto Inland Sea to Honshu and Shikoku, respectively Japan's first and fourth main islands. From here we also have grandstand views over to Hime-shima. Next, we walk down through forests to Monjusen-ji, a temple perched on a high cliff. Breakfast and dinner provided. Total walking time: 4 hours. Total distance: approx. 4.9 miles.

Day 5: Monjusen-ji - Futago-ji - Baien-no-Sato. If the temple priest is in residence, and for those who wish, we rise at dawn to join him in prayer and early morning rituals. As usual, our main luggage is forwarded by vehicle to our evening's lodgings before we start our trek. Today, we pass through virgin forests and cedar plantations before we descend to an old village to join a little-used ancient track to Futago-ji, the principal temple on Kunisaki. After lunch at a local restaurant, a minibus picks us up to take us to our nearby lodgings for the night; another onsen. The lodgings here are dominated by the rare attraction of a giant, 25-inch reflecting telescope. Another sumptuous Japanese evening meal follows.  Weather permitting; we will have the opportunity to look at the stars above Kunisaki through the telescope. The skies here are frequently very clear and a cloudless night can provide spectacular vistas of the heavens. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided. Total walking time: 4 hours. Total distance: approx. 4.3 miles.

Day 6: Baien-no-Sato - Kitsuki - Yufuin. Today is an easier day of walking, but no less spectacular. We visit the lovely Fuki-ji Temple, followed by the Kumano Magaibutsu, the little-known but largest Buddha relief carvings in Japan. Rejoining our minibus, we journey into the charming castle town of Kitsuki for lunch in one of its restaurants. This is followed by a short guided tour around this quiet town's old samurai quarter, featuring buildings from feudal Edo Period Japan. En route to the spa resort town of Yufuin, we visit a sake brewery for a look around and a sample or two of the brewer’s award-winning products. Our lodging is located in the middle of Yufuin, where we lodge in an upper-class traditional Japanese inn with thermal hot spring baths. Here we will spend two nights. Breakfast and dinner provided. Total walking time: 3 hours. Total distance: approx. 2.1 miles.

Day 7: Yufuin - Mt.Yufu - Yufuin. We have a choice today to either climb Mt. Yufu or relax in the pleasant surroundings of Yufuin, a charming resort town dominated by Mt. Yufu. For the hearty hikers, we take a minibus to the start of our 2,300-foot climb of Mt. Yufu (elevation 5,194 feet). At the mountain's peak, a grand panorama across Kyushu to an active volcano and Beppu Bay awaits us and makes a wondrous backdrop to a picnic lunch. After our walk, reinvigorating thermal hot spring baths are followed by another Japanese feast for dinner. Breakfast and dinner provided. Total walking time: 6 hours. Total distance: 6.2 miles. Total vertical ascent: 2,625 feet.

Day 8: Yufuin - Mt. Aso - Kagoshima. Today, we take the spectacular Yamanami Mountain Highway to the trailhead leading to the giant caldera of Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano. We'll hike to the top before walking a circuit of the craters of Mt. Naka. If our group has the energy and the area is open, we might make a short detour to take in the view from Mt. Taka, Aso's highest point at 5,223 feet. The smell of sulfur is ever-present, and on some days, the volume of gas expelled by the volcano is so great that access to Mt. Naka's active crater and volcanic crater lake is restricted. Our circuit finishes at the main visitor center, and another cable car takes us back down the mountain toward our transport to Kumamoto. Here we board Japan’s newest Shinkansen bullet train for Kagoshima, arriving mid-evening. Our hotel is near the station and tonight we’ll take the opportunity to head into town, eat at an izakaya, a lively restaurant and local Japanese favorite. For those who wish, musical or not, there’s an optional visit to another Japanese favorite, a karaoke bar. Breakfast and dinner provided. Total walking time: 3 hours. Total vertical ascent: approx 984 feet.

Day 9: Kagoshima - Mt. Kaimon - Ibusuki. Before leaving our hotel, we send our main luggage on to Yakushima for day 10, so we pack an overnight bag with enough for today and tomorrow’s activities. With our overnight bag, we set off for Ibusuki and Mt. Kaimon. The latter is known as the "Fuji of Satsuma" because of its striking similarity to its famous counterpart, and Satsuma was the original name of the Kagoshima region. Even those who elect not to proceed to the summit at 3,031feet will be rewarded with great views back toward Kagoshima and Kirishima, as well as southwards to the island of Yakushima, our destination tomorrow. Covered with wildflowers during the warmer months, Mt. Kaimon also has historical significance. For many members of the Special Attack Corps, or Kamikaze Squadron, Mt. Kaimon was the last view of their homeland as they embarked on their fatal missions. After descending Mt. Kaimon, depending on time available, we may visit the acclaimed Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots in Chiran before making our way to our thermal hot spring lodgings in nearby Ibusuki. Ibusuki is a seaside town famed in Japan for its thermal sand baths. Breakfast and dinner are provided. Total walking time: 4.5 hours. Total vertical ascent: approx. 1,312 feet.

Day 10: Ibusuki - Yakushima. After breakfast, it is a short distance from our lodgings to the port in Ibusuki, where we catch an early morning, high-speed jetfoil to Yakushima Island. On arrival, we head straight for Shiratani Unsuikyo, a spectacular gorge that provides the backdrop for today's walking. This will be our first taste of Yakushima, a truly spectacular natural environment with climatic zones ranging from sub-tropical around the coast to frigid temperatures atop the island's highest peaks. Not surprisingly, a huge variety of flora and fauna find their homes here. Fall can bring some rain, so it would be unwise to forget your waterproofs. Yakushima is officially one of the wettest places on earth, with upwards of 4000 mm (13 feet) of rainfall recorded annually. Rain, though, should not impair our enjoyment of our time here. On the contrary, it adds greater atmosphere to the primeval forest we walk through. The forest includes giant, moss-covered cedars, which are amongst some of the oldest trees in the world. We are guaranteed close encounters with deer and monkeys. Hayao Miyazaki, the Oscar-winning animator, found inspiration here for the scenery in Princess Mononoke, one of his most celebrated films. Weather and energy permitting, we'll take the trail as far as Taikoiwa, a giant viewing rock offering excellent views of the island's interior and high peaks, before descending to our lodgings for the evening. Breakfast and dinner provided. Total walking time: 5 hours. Total ascent: approx. 1,968 feet.

Day 11: Yakushima. Today's plans will be largely weather dependent, but a fine day will see us attempting an ascent of Mt. Kuromi Dake, a granite peak of 6,007 feet. This will necessitate an early start, but keep your eyes open as we take the winding mountain road up from the port of Anbo -- it's worth it for the views back toward the coast. The well-maintained trail to the top passes though a variety of cedar forest, high moorland, and grassland. Depending on the weather and cloud level, a number of alternative options are possible. These include an ascent of Mt. Mocchomu-dake via a viewpoint overlooking the spectacular Senpironotaki Falls; and a hike in Yakusugi Land, another area of impressive giant cedars and fast-flowing rivers. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided. Total walking time: ~6-8 hours. Total ascent: approx. 2,625 feet.

Day 12: Yakushima – Kirishima. Following breakfast, we take the first flight back from Yakushima to Kagoshima and, while our luggage goes on to our accommodation, we head for the mountains of Kirishima. We alight at the start of the Lake Onami path and 40 minutes later arrive at the lake. Lying 4,242 feet above sea level, it's the largest crater lake at this altitude in Japan. It is a good point to stop for a rest and take in the expansive views. According to legend, a dragon resides in the lake and at one point took the form of a beautiful maiden, living amongst local villagers for a while before returning to its home beneath the waters. We continue around the lake and ascend Mt. Karakuni Dake, the highest point in Kirishima at 5,577 feet. Clear weather will provide good views of neighboring Mount Takachiho, the surrounding national park, and the rest of our route for the day. A steady descent takes us through seasonal flowers and woodlands before a short climb to Mt. Shinmoedake. Please note, however, that volcanic activity here may restrict our access. We descend to Takachiho-gawara in time for the last local bus back to Kirishima Jingu and our lodgings. Breakfast and dinner provided. Total walking time: 5-6 hours. Total vertical: 2,953 feet.

Day 13: Kirishima - Kagoshima Airport. After breakfast we bid farewell and transfer to Kagoshima Airport, where the tour concludes. Breakfast provided.



Getting There

Travel to and from where we meet in Japan is the responsibility of each participant. Please purchase your airfare after you have been approved for the trip. Japan is one day ahead of the United States, so travel must be planned accordingly. There are direct flights into the Fukuoka Airport on the island of Kyushu, if avoiding the Tokyo Airport is a concern. There are many airlines to choose from and the trip leader will be happy to offer suggestions. Please consult the trip leader for options. 

Accommodations and Food

All accommodations are twin shared in traditional Japanese inns or small hotels. The rooms are usually spacious enough to accommodate two to four people sleeping on futons, Japanese folded mattress sets. A single supplement is available for most accommodations, but cannot always be guaranteed. Please contact the leader for further information. The night we stay in the temple, all males sleep in a room together and all females in another room. Lunches that are not provided by the trip can be purchased at local restaurants or purchased at local markets. Typical Japanese breakfasts consist of salads, cooked fish, tofu, and soups. Dinners are a feast every night and always include some type of seafood or meat and many small dishes of local vegetables, soups, and condiments. Vegetarians who eat no seafood or chicken can be accommodated, but these dietary requirements should be stated well in advance of the trip.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is designed for the experienced active hiker. Japan is a volcanic island with steep trails and ridges. Due to constant trail erosion, safety ropes have been added to ensure you feel safe in a few areas. The mileage for each hiking day may not be that long but the ascending and descending elevation requires that a person be fit. A good exercise and hiking program is necessary to ensure that you and your travelling companions have a good trip.

Equipment and Clothing

Good quality hiking apparel, sturdy boots, a day pack, and hydration system are a must.  A detailed equipment list will be sent to participants upon approval.


  • Lonely Planet - Japan.
  • Morton, W. Scott and J. Kenneth Olenik, Japan: Its History and Culture.
  • Smith, Patrick, Japan: A Reinterpretation.


Japan is a country with a population of more than 127 million people. Most of its energy is obtained through oil and coal. They are the third largest oil consumer in the world behind the U.S. and China. Even though many hydroelectric dams are visible, they only account for about 4% of Japan’s energy. Japan is only about 16 percent energy self-sufficient; however, newer energy sources are beginning to make headway, as we will observe. We will discuss other means the country is using to meet its energy needs and what we can learn from them to improve our own energy awareness.

Beyond energy, Japan has been effectively making use of their waste products. Nearly 85% of their refuse gets recycled compared to the U.S. rate of 32%. The country far exceeds the U.S. in efficiently turning their refuse into new products. We will examine some of the laws that Japan has passed to encourage recycling and ways we can improve our conservation recycling efforts as a country and as individuals.

Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward environmentally understanding parallel concerns at home and abroad.



Aurora Roberts has been leading Sierra Club trips for over 12 years. She enjoys meeting new people and sharing information about the countries and conservation effors where she leads. Her love for travel began as a young child from a military family. Hiking in the mountains with her father gave her an early introduction to hiking and being out in nature. An uncle, who was stationed in Japan, brought home photos and stories that gave Aurora a strong desire to visit this country. She studied Japanese and Japanese Culture at the University of Hawaii while living in Kailua, Hawaii. She began leading National Outings in California but moved into International a few years later. She has led trips in Ireland, England, Scotland, Nepal, New Zealand, Australia, Croatia, Jordan, Vietnam, Switzerland, Hawaii, and California. Join her in a new adventure hiking and touring the island of Kyushu in Japan.

Associate Leader:

Ellen Stein

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