From The Straits Times    |

Cherry blossom season in full swing in Kunisaki, a small coastal city in Kyushu. Photo: Walk Japan

Whether it’s a coastal trail replete with views of the Pacific Ocean in Tohoku, or a meditative trek of Shikoku’s famed 88-temple Ohenro pilgrimage, there’s been a burgeoning interest in guided walking tours in Japan.

“Walking tours have grown in popularity in Japan since the early ’90s. Walking is an ideal way to socialise with fellow travellers, connect with locals, and become part of the natural environment and local people,” says Mihoko Christie, 44.

The mother of four sons, aged five to 14, is the president and representative director of The Japan Travel Company (JTC), which comprises Walk Japan, a sister company that organises walking tours of Japan’s countryside.

Together with her husband, Paul Christie, who co-founded Walk Japan in 1992, Mihoko shares her passion for bringing people closer to Japan’s beauty and traditions, from the snowy mountains of Hokkaido to the sunny beaches of Okinawa.

Walk Japan’s customers come from the world over, with Australia, the US and Singapore making up its top three. The age range also varies widely with customers from their 30s to 70s.

Walk Japan takes travellers through the lesser-known parts of rural Japan, such as the village of Tashibu-no-sho in the Oita Prefecture. Photo: Walk Japan

Among its most popular tours are the classic 11D10N Nakasendo Way, which takes a historic route from Kyoto to Tokyo, and its shorter 4D5N counterpart. It brings travellers to the Nakasendo, an ancient 17th- century road that stretches over 530km, and served as a trade route between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo).

They serve as excellent introductions to Japan’s history, geography, modern society, and life away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

For example, the Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage, an 11D10N experience, covers the 1,200km pilgrimage trails that connect the 88 temples on the 18,800 sq km island located west of Osaka. Travellers can expect to cover up to six temples in a day, with a walking distance of up to 12km, while navigating both flat and elevated terrain.

Accommodations include onsen resorts, Japanese inns and Western-style hotels on Shikoku, with meals ranging from Shikoku specialities like wheat udon, to a traditional kaiseki spread. The itinerary is planned such that there is a reasonable pacing between more leisurely and strenuous hikes.

Expect long (but scenic) walks

The Katsura River flows through the Kyoto, Shiga, and Fukui Prefectures, and is popular for its picturesque views and as a venue for water sports activities. Photo: Walk Japan

To choose the right walking tour, it goes without saying that you’d have to assess your fitness levels. “Walk Japan’s tours are catered for a wide variety of people with varying levels of intensity. The difficulty of each tour is categorised from Level 1 being easy, to Level 6, which involves mountain trekking. It does help to be reasonably fit, as you will be walking over a few days,” advises Mihoko.

Looking for something a little more indulgent? Mihoko reveals that tours that feature onsen hot springs such as the Izu Geo Trail and Yufuin Walk, and the Onsen Gastronomy series are always a hit with female travellers from Singapore. Local delicacies, historic towns, ancient castles, and hot spring villages are all part of the experience.

“We want guests to feel that our tours are organic. We weave local stories into itineraries of our walks to convey the culture, history and life of Japan,” she says.

Tips for exploring rural Japan

japan rural walking tours sakura garden koumori tei path
Cherry blossom season in full swing in Kunisaki, a small coastal city in Kyushu. Photo: Walk Japan

1. In general, Japan is a safe destination, but like anywhere else, it’s essential to follow basic safety precautions, such as informing someone of your whereabouts.

2. Before your visit, it’s also advisable to research the local culture and traditions. Blowing your nose in public, eating on local trains, and talking loudly on mobile phones are frowned upon.

3. When exploring the Japanese countryside, there are fewer convenience stores, so remember to pack essentials. Also carry cash as some establishments in rural Japan only accept cash.

4. Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance from others, including men. Some may offer to accompany you out of kindness, and it’s perfectly acceptable to decline if you feel uncomfortable.

5. Have socks readily available! You might encounter situations where you need to remove your shoes. It’s considered proper etiquette to keep your feet covered.

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