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Rising more than 8,900 feet above sea level, the mountains surging up from the northern shore of central Honshū, the largest island in the Japanese archipelago, have drawn devotees for centuries. 

Mount Hakusan, the tallest mountain in the area, is visible from four prefectures and one of Japan’s three holy peaks, revered in Japanese tradition. Since Taichō Daishi, a mountain monk, made the first pilgrimage to these mountains in 717 CE, monks have been making similar ascetic journeys to meditate on its peak. As the route became more popular with devotees, a network of sacred pilgrimage trails developed to guide the faithful to mountain shrines. 

These days, people still visit these shrines to pay devotion to the gods, or to ask for a good harvest. But the pilgrimage trails are also increasingly used by hikers and mountaineers, in search not of religious ecstasy, but fresh, clean air and a respite from the modern urban jungle. Here, we’ll explore trails through two prefectures – Gifu and Ishikawa – as well as guide you through summiting Hakusan itself. 

Gifu City is surrounded by mountains © takayan / Shutterstock

Gifu hiking

Before tackling the holy mountain, it might be a good idea to stretch your legs on a smaller challenge first. Start your day at a trailhead just north of Shiramizu Lake, in Gifu prefecture, and it’s possible to summit Mt. Okura after only 2  miles and about 2,624 feet altitude gain. 

Among the old-growth beech forest, keep your eyes peeled for endemic mammals like the Japanese macaque – famous worldwide for their love of hot spring baths – and the Japanese serow, a rare type of hybrid goat-antelope, a national symbol of Japan. Once you get above the tree line, tiny glacial lakes dot the landscape like jewels. 

For a totally different day on the mountain, climb Mt. Kinka, which soars above Gifu city. There are a total of ten hiking routes to the top of the mountain, many of which originate from Gifu Koen, 15 minutes from the train station by city bus. If you’re feeling ambitious, go for the Hyaku Magari or Uma no Se trails – but trust the sign at the trailheads warning that they’re only for strong legs and hearts. The Uma no Se route basically goes straight up the mountain. Good options for more leisurely hikers include the Meiso no Komichi and the Nana Magari trails. 

At the summit is a serviceable 1956 concrete replica of the feudal era Gifu Castle, the ruins of which were finished off during WWII. If you don’t fancy walking all the way back down (or up in the first place!) there’s a cable car that will take you to the bottom in about four minutes. 

Between hikes, don’t miss Gifu prefecture’s timeless thatched gasshō-zukuri farmhouses in the Shirakawa-go villages. This is the only architecture of its kind in the whole of Japan, and is well worth a detour.

Dawn on Mt. Hakusan © janken / Shutterstock


Mount Haku looms large over the rolling hills of central Japan – as well as in the imagination of centuries’ worth of travelers. Because it’s the highest mountain in the area, Hakusan stays snowy longer than its neighbors. That’s how it got its name – Hakusan means ‘white mountain’ in Japanese.

Hakusan National Park comprises 184 square miles of mountain meadows, forests, rocky outcrops, roaring waterfalls, and windswept hilltops above the tree line, offering stunning panoramic views of the four prefectures the park straddles: Ishikawa, Gifu, Fukui, and Toyama. 

Above the tree line, it’s possible to spot a wide variety of rare flowers. The chocolate lily, the official flower of Ishikawa prefecture, can be found in spring and summer. You’ll recognize it by its distinctively lovely appearance – chocolate brown blossoms mottled with yellow – but perhaps also by an unpleasant smell; the flower is also known as the ‘outhouse lily’. 

There are ten main hiking routes to the summit, open between July and October. The most popular route starts at the trailhead town of Bettōdeai, reachable via two-hour bus journey from Kanazawa; the hike from here to the summit takes between four and five hours. 

Two lodges on the mountain feature dorms for hundreds of hikers. Nanryū Sansō is about three-and-a-half hours’ hike from Bettōdeai, and the Hakusan Murodō visitors center is another hour up the trail. From the Gifu Hirasedo trailhead, it takes most people just over four hours to reach the Murodō lodge. Both offer tatami mats on the floor and two hot meals for around ¥9,300 ($85 USD) per night. Nanryū Sansō also features camping facilities. 

A third option, just down the trail from Nanryū Sansō, are the Minami Ryugabamba cabins, for hikers with their own sleeping and cooking gear. The lodges are only open during the hiking season from July to September. Reservations are essential, especially on weekends. 

Autumn colors in Ishikawa, Japan  © Enrique Moreno Daniel / Shutterstock

Ishikawa hiking

Southwest of Hakusan, a loop trail originates from the Hakusan Ichirino hot springs ski resort area. At more than 11.3 miles, hikers gain and lose 6,500 feet of altitude, making this hike quite steep and challenging. 

The hike starts out with views over the hot spring village, with some forested slopes in the background. From there, the steep trail climbs into the sky, passing through lush vegetation and snow patches that remain well into the spring. The four-and-a-half hour hike is possible on a day trip from the coastal city of Kanazawa

Kanazawa itself is a bustling, accessible capital. Rambling through the city’s immaculately preserved Geisha and samurai districts, with their wooden storefronts and tucked-away courtyards, is a gentle re-entry to urban life after the wild, windy trails of Hakusan. Better yet are the edible delights to be had at the fabulous Ōmichō fish market.

If your muscles are crying out for a break after tramping all over the mountains, treat yourself to the hot spring towns of Kaga Onsen, whose healing waters are famous throughout Japan. Before sinking into your hot bath, take a relaxing walk along the Kakusenkei Gorge, close to the village of Yamanaka. The path is either paved or pounded dirt, and lets amblers take in wonderful views of two bridges spanning the gorge: the modern Ayatori-hashi (Cat’s Cradle Bridge) and the traditional wooden Korogi-bashi (Cricket Bridge). 

Afterward, enjoy a quiet seasonal kaiseki dinner (Japanese haute cuisine) in a luxurious ryokan (traditional Japanese inn).

The 17th-century haiku poet Bashō waxed rhapsodic about the healing waters of this region: “Who needs the dew of youth from the chrysanthemum when / You have the restoring waters of / Yamanaka?” Quite so. 

This article was written in partnership with Visit Gifu and Ishikawa Travel

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