Wild Japan: an explorer’s guide

Snow Monsters of Zao; Tohoku Japan
Snow Monsters of Zao; Tohoku Japan

Wild Japan: an explorer’s guide to the islands, mountains, forests, and other natural settings in the land of the rising sun is now online at https://medium.com/@aaronpaulson/wild-japan-an-explorers-guide-to-the-islands-mountains-forests-and-other-natural-settings-in-ae8c216934d0

Check it out for first-hand suggestions of where to trek in Japan!


Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Explorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places

花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu: “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”

A tangle of scrub pine, roots bone-white in the gunmetal blue of a Hokkaido dusk. Around us low, forested mountains rolled out to sea. In one direction, the Russian Far East; in another, Tokyo and main-island Japan. Only 1500 meters (4500 feet) above sea level, but the harsh climate of Hokkaido —  Japan’s northernmost, frontier island — put us already well above treeline. Below, I knew, higuma brown bears, cousin to the grizzly back home in Canada,  foraged among the bamboo grass for bedtime snacks. We stood in the triangular shadow of the summit as night crept up-slope, looked over a lightless wilderness, and marvelled at the irony of two city kids from Canada travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most urban and densely populated parts of Asia, to wind up alone on a mountaintop in bear country.

Grizzlies weren’t high on the list of things my admittedly eclectic research on Japan had prepared me for: a sporadic diet of Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Rain, Kurosawa movies, Akira, and Godzilla, had prepared me more for the 85 million-person conurbation on main-island Honshu, the Tokyo-Osaka megalopolis. Nature, for all I knew, was limited to the disciplined gardens of bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements, rather than big-N Nature red in tooth and claw.

But in fact, as I was quickly learning, this high tech, near-future, post-industrial nation still has plenty of countryside and even wilderness. In fact, in many parts of the archipelago it seems more like the people are squeezed into what arable land exists, mainly on the coasts, while large parts of the island interiors remain uninhabitable, and thus undeveloped.

Of course, Hokkaido is not main-island Honshu. In fact, that’s kind of the point:

Japan is a surprisingly big and diverse place. 6,000 islands hang pendulously from wintry Russian Far East, all the way to distant Taiwan in the semi-tropical south. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku and to an extent Hokkaido and Okinawa make up the bulk of what most visitors think of as “Japan,” but there are literally thousands of smaller islands which unfurl into the East China Sea.


Some islands are heavily developed, such as main-island Honshu with the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation (though, as you will learn, there’s still a lot of wildness left even on Honshu); others still have untouched forests of antediluvian fern and palm — such as on Iriomote — and millennia-old cedar — on Yakushima — at their mountainous hearts.

Continue reading “Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Explorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places”

Japan Photo Gallery: Kiyosato Kogen Highlands

Kiyosato Kogen HighlandThe Kiyosato Kogen Highlands rise to the southern foot of the Yatsugatake volcanic mountains in Yamanashi prefecture, near the border with Nagano. Yamanashi is most famous, of course, as home to Mount Fuji, and on a clear day you can see Fujisan rising solitary behind a screen of mountains from the Southern Alps and Chichibu ranges. Continue reading “Japan Photo Gallery: Kiyosato Kogen Highlands”


Kachou Fuugetsu Photo Blog: Mitakesan

 Mount Mitakesan, Tokyo花鳥風月 Kachou Fuugetsu = “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”

As you will no doubt read about in a future blog post, Mount Mitakesan, a – small sacred mountain in western Tokyo, has been a power spot, a day-long or overnight escape from the city, for R. and I since we first started dating like, 11 years ago. It’s where we got married, and we return there at least once a year to renew our vows, and pray to the local tengu warrior bird demons to watch over us in this life.

I recently uploaded a whole set of pictures from Mitakesan to my page at 500px. Follow the link to see the full set; here, for your viewing pleasure, are a few of the most popular pictures as chosen by 500pxers… Continue reading “Kachou Fuugetsu Photo Blog: Mitakesan”


Kachou Fuugetsu: Flower Bird Wind Moon “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself”

Mount FujisanUpdate 03/17/16: Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Exlorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places now posted!

(October 17, 2015: I’m continuously updating a new page with landscape and nature pictures from around Japan. Check it out!)

The Japanese have a word, or words in this case, for it: 花鳥風月kachou fuugetsu which literally means Flower Bird Wind Moon but commonly translates to “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself”.

Sometimes, in the middle of, say, big-city Tokyo, it may be hard to remember that Japan actually has quite a bit of nature, even within city limits. It’s kinda like when I was growing up in Toronto: in the working-class neighbourhoods where I lived, the seas and rivers, forests and mountains that graced souvenir postcards of Canada seemed a world away from the railroad tracks, parking lots, and concrete-covered playgrounds where we jumped our bikes and played tag as kids.

Dusk, FujisanBut out of sight does not mean out of mind, if that makes sense, and so it is with all that wilderness in The Great White North: just because all that open space and beauty and freedom was hardly even a twinkle in our jaded eyes didn’t make it any less real. Same in Tokyo. Just because it’s the biggest city in the world doesn’t mean it can’t have some wild nature on its doorstep, or outskirts at least… Continue reading “Kachou Fuugetsu: Flower Bird Wind Moon “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself””


Autumn Koyo Colours, Heirin-ji Temple 2013

Koyo at Heirinji Heirin-ji, a working Rinzai-Buddhist sect temple, sits well off the beaten path in Niiza, on the border between Saitama and Tokyo. For most of the year the monks who call this place “ohm” (that is a very, very bad pun), a murder of crows, and apparently the occasional tanuki raccoon dog are the only visitors.

For a couple of weeks in early December, however, photographers and sightseers arrive by the bus- and carload to bathe in the Musashino Uplands forest of maples in which the temple complex is set.

This year, R. and I hit the temple forest at its peak. So, why no more than a handful of pictures you ask? To be honest, much as I enjoy walking the footpaths through the woods and taking in the late afternoon sunlight through red, green, and yellow leaves, and though I shoot a lot of pictures at the time, I find that in general I don’t get more than a handful of keepers on any one visit. Continue reading “Autumn Koyo Colours, Heirin-ji Temple 2013”


Tokyo Hike: Okutama Mukashi Michi Walking Course

Okutama Mukashi Michi Trail Map
Okutama Mukashi Michi Trail Map

It’s still a little early for the koyo autumn leaves season around Tokyo — think another month or so. This is, however, still a great time to get out of doors and out of The City, into the countryside.

This season, as R. and I continue to stretch our legs after a too-hot summer spent mostly indoors, we continue to look for new hikes around Tokyo. Last weekend we walked the 9 kilometre Okutama Mukashi Michi, the Okutama Old Road, which runs from Okutama Station on the JR line to (near) Lake Okutama.

I say “walked” because for the most part, that’s what we did as the route follows an asphalt road along an old rail line along a forested slope. Only in the last stretch, the final hour so as we neared Lake Okutama, did we veer off-road and onto a trail.

It’s a pleasant, not spectacular, route, and if you walk it in the direction we did — from train station to bus stop — it tops out at a very pleasant viewpoint overlooking Lake Okutama: the Aometachi Fudoson Yasumidokoro rest house. It’ll be a great place to see the turning of the leaves around Lake Okutama; it’s also, however, reached by a road which means I suspect a lot of day trippers will be there to share the view.

I say “walked” because for the most part, that’s what we did. The route follows an asphalt road along an old rail line along a forested slope. Only in the last stretch, the final hour so as we neared Lake Okutama, did we veer off-road onto a trail. There were some others on the trail, mostly young couples still in active city wear and families with toddlers and small children: this is not rugged terrain. We finished the route in the suggested time, 4 hours, which is a little unusual for us: we often take considerably longer than suggested times as we like to stop for breaks and to take pictures. As pleasant as the Okutama Mukashi trail is, there just weren’t that many photo ops to slow us down this time. I might have gotten some good pictures from the Shidaraku-bashi suspension bridge over the Tamagawa River, but honestly I preferred not to look down…

Sun Rays on Forest okutama

Okutama Mukashi Tree

Other Info:

Detailed Trip report on the blog Sake, Kimono, and Tabi. Interesting and useful read with pics!

Map and photos on EveryTrail

Other sites and hikes in the Okutama area on Wikitravel

A lush description and photographs of a solo, contemplative hike of the Okutama Mukashi Michi in winter by Miguel Arboleda on his blog Laughing Knees. Recommended reading!