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Tracing Ancient Mountain Trails with the Japanese Alpine Club

"It is important to keep records of these ancient mountain trails and preserve them before they are lost," JAC Vice President Nagata said about the project.



A view of the top of Oyama, the main peak of Mount Tateyama, with the shrine and torii gate, where pilgrims from in ancient days have ascended to the 3.003m summit to worship. Today many alpinists as well as white-robed pilgrims climb the sacred mountain. (@Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route)

The Japanese Alpine Club (JAC), Japan's oldest and most prestigious mountaineering association, is in the final phase of a five-year project to survey ancient mountain trails in Japan. It then plans to introduce them to the public as historical paths. JAC is pushing the project as one of the anniversary projects to mark its 120th year in 2025.  

Last of two parts

Read part 1: 120 Ancient Mountain Trails Selected for Survey in Japanese Alpine Club Anniversary Project

A section of a mountain trail between Kosuge village and the Daibosatsu Pass on the Old Koshudo. In medieval times, locals traversed this path, trading village products for goods from neighboring settlements across the mountains. Takeda Shingen, a warlord of the Sengoku period, strategically employed this route to mobilize his armies for clashes against the Hojo clan in Musashi, present-day Tokyo. (@Yoshikazu Ishizuka)

The Tokyo-Tama chapter is surveying four mountain trails. One is the Old Koshudo (Ancient Koshu Highway). Japanese people have used this trail since the late Heian period. It linked the provincial center of Musashi (today's Fuchu in Tokyo) and Kai (today's Kofu in Yamanashi Prefecture) through many passes and mountains. 

Notably, Takeda Shingen and his Kai clan, along with the Hojo clan, utilized this route strategically as a war road. Traveling along its route they leveraged their bid for control over the Kanto region.

It was also a bustling trade route connecting Kai with Edo (Tokyo). Additionally, a section of the trail was frequented as a pilgrimage route to Mount Fuji until the new Koshukaido highway was constructed during the Edo period. The original Koshudo then served as a local back road. 

'Trails of Faith'  

JAC's 120 selected trails were grouped into three categories: "Trails of Faith," "Trails of Life," and "Trails of History." Trails of Faith made up the largest group. However, they also overlapped with the other categories because the trails were typically used for diverse purposes.

Project team leader Masayuki Kondo highlights the longstanding tradition in Japan of worshiping mountains. Japanese believed them to be the abodes of gods or visited by divine beings. This contrasted with the beliefs in Europe, where European people of earlier eras often believed demons resided in high mountains. "Unlike in Japan, mountains in Europe had little religious significance. [T]hey were seen mainly as useless and dangerous places." 


This Japanese view prevailed at least until the 18th century, according to Martin Hood, who once wrote about it in the JAC journal, Sangaku. Hood, an English banker and alpinist, had famously translated Kyuya Fukada's celebrated book Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) into English.

Even today, popular mountains in Japan continue to be revered as reizan (sacred mountains). There are often shrines along the paths up the mountains or at the summits. In Japan, it's rare to find mountains devoid of a single shrine or stone Buddha figure adorning their foothills, trails, or summits.

For over 1,000 years, people have climbed Mount Fuji, Tateyama (Mount Tate) and Hakusan (Mount Haku) and worshiped them as Japan's three most sacred mountains. Numerous footpaths, originally traversed by monks and pilgrims, still exist for ascending their peaks, and mountaineers still use many today. 

The JAC surveys aim to rediscover these mountain paths, along with their rich histories and cultures.

Mount Fuji Worship Routes

One typical example is the Fuji Kodo (Ancient Fuji Trails), also known as the Mount Fuji tohai (pilgrimage or worship routes.) Climbers were already using the volcano, admired and revered for its frequent eruptions, during the medieval Heian period. According to JAC, guided pilgrimage tours to the summit were common during the Muromachi period (about 1338-1573). 

An old wooden torii gate at the Sengen Shrine, perched over 1,000m above sea level in the Okutama mountains of western Tokyo. This ancient mountain trail has long served as a pilgrimage route to Mount Fuji from the Chichibu region in Saitama Prefecture. Pilgrims and villagers alike have paid homage to this shrine since the Edo period. (@Yoshikazu Ishizuka)

In the late years of the Edo period (1603-1878), pilgrimage to Japan's highest mountain became immensely popular. It gained such notoriety that restrictions were imposed on group climbing. During this time, there were four main paths to the top. The Ochudo, a fifth trail encircling the middle of the mountain, was also added. Three new routes were later added in modern times. 

Here's a fascinating anecdote about Sir John Rutherford Alcock, Consul General and Minister Plenipotentiary. He was the first British diplomatic representative to Japan. In 1860, he achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the first non-Japanese person to climb Mount Fuji.

Spiritual Pilgrimages

Other mountain trails in this category include Tateyama sanpaido (Mount Tateyama worship route). Shugenja (mountain ascetics or shugen practitioners) began using this trail in the Heian period. Additionally, pilgrims from across the country in the Edo period used it to climb the 3,000m summit in Toyama Prefecture. 

Another example is Hakusan Zenjodo (Hakusan mountaintop worship route). It has been in use since the Heian period when the three worship paths were opened to the top of the sacred mountain spanning Fukui, Gifu, Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures.


Kondo observes that many of the ancient pilgrimage routes in Japan, including the Shikoku Pilgrimage trails and the celebrated Kumano Kodo, traverse mountain areas. In contrast, their European counterparts, such as the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain, primarily pass through level land.

Kumano Kodo is one of the oldest pilgrimage trails in Japan. It is dedicated to worshiping at Kumano Sanzan, the three grand shrines of Kumano, located in southern Wakayama Prefecture, western Japan. 

There are six routes to these grand shrines, including steep mountain paths. Since the ancient days of the Heian period, members of the nobility, including abdicated emperors in Kyoto, walked these paths. Ordinary people from all over the country also journeyed to worship the holy area using these routes.

The peak of Mount Hakusan and pilgrims in white robes. (©Hakusan City Tourism Federation)

'Trails of Life'

Similarly, numerous ancient mountain trails are categorized under the "Trails of Life." The Shio-no Michi (Salt Road), also known as Chikuni Kaido, spans 120km and has served as a vital public path from ancient to premodern times. It was used to transport salt and other daily necessities produced in Itoigawa, a seacoast town in western Niigata Prefecture, to the mountain-locked Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture.

Another example of these trails is Saba Kaido (mackerel road or highway). It connected Kyoto, then the capital of Japan, to Wakasa province (now part of Fukui Prefecture) through several routes. It earned its name because people transported mackerel and other Sea of Japan marine products from Obama to Kyoto on foot. During the Edo period, this journey took two days. At least six such trails, some 80km long, are known to have been used for the purpose.

'Trails of History'

The third group, "Trails of History," comprises numerous mountain trails with fascinating historical significance. They include paths to gold mines, as well as silver and copper mines scattered across the country, reflecting Japan's past wealth of these minerals.

This category further encompasses ancient trails rich in legends and mountainous routes used by warlords of the Sengoku period for warfare across the Northern Alps. At the same time, it covers paths traveled by the Ainu people in southern Hokkaido before the 16th century. Far to the west, it lists the 15th century public paths to Shuri Castle during the Ryukyu Kingdom in today's Okinawa. 

One of these trails was the Iwami Ginzan Route. Iwami Ginzan was the country's largest silver mine. Located in Shimane Prefecture in western Japan, the mine produced silver for nearly 400 years from the mid-1500s to 1923. At its peak, Iwami Ginzan's silver production is said to have accounted for about one-third of the world's total. The mine is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The 'Misaka-toge' Route 

Another of the historical trails is Tosando leading to Misaka-toge (pass). The Misaka-toge is located in the middle of a route from Nakatsugawa in Gifu Prefecture to Achimura village in Nagano Prefecture. This route crosses the Kiso Mountains on the Tosando. It was an official high road constructed during the late Asuka and Heian periods from the late 7th to 10th centuries. 


At 1,569m above sea level, the Misaka-toge pass was the most difficult and important point on the Tosand. It extended from Kyoto to Tohoku through Gifu and Nagano. Mountaineers now use this section to climb the legendary Ena-san. 

Misaka (Sacred Slope) earned its name because, according to the ancient records of the Nihon Shoki, the legendary prince Yamato Takeru passed through this road around 110 AD during his return from the Eastern Expedition. In olden times, the Japanese word saka (slope) was synonymous with "pass."   

During the Asuka to Heian periods, the Yamato Dynasty constructed seven major official roads. These roads, including Tosando, linked the country's capital with key local points in the Kyushu, Chugoku, Kanto, and Tohoku regions. They were as wide as 10m in local areas and up to approximately 40m wide in and around the capital areas. 

A stone statue of Bato Kannon, a horse-headed Buddhist deity of mercy. Measuring about one meter high, it stands beside an ancient mountain trail near Kazuma in Hinohara village, western Tokyo. It is said to have been built to mourn for the horses that died carrying heavy goods on the trail in ancient times. Many such stone Buddha statues are found along ancient mountain trails. (@Yoshikazu Ishizuka)

A Call to Action

"It is important to keep records of these ancient mountain trails and preserve them before they are lost," JAC Vice President Kotaro Nagata stressed in an interview. He emphasized the importance of sharing the survey results with people throughout the country, not just local residents or mountaineers. 

Additionally, he stressed the significance of passing down these trails to the next generation. Once the JAC has published all the survey reports on the website next year, it hopes to publish them in book form. 

Nagata says the JAC will update the survey results through regular follow-up surveys after 2025. He emphasized the importance of ensuring that newly rediscovered trails in this survey are preserved as cultural heritage and utilized as tourist resources.

Bridging Cultural Conservation and Tourism

Nagata and Kondo hope that local governments and communities would recognize the significant value of these trails as cultural heritage. They also see tremendous opportunities to utilize the trails as tourist attractions, bringing visitors, hikers, and mountaineers alike. 

Moreover, they emphasize the importance of these local entities' regular maintenance and management of the trails. With proper management, the trails will have favorable impacts on the environment. They also highlighted that the more individuals visit their towns and villages and explore these paths, the greater economic benefits their communities will experience.

As they explain, in recent years, more foreign tourists to Japan are recognizing the value of local areas with rich cultural and historical traditions. Many of these tourists choose to travel on historical trails such as the Kiso Kaido and Kumano Kodo. Travel agencies that offer tour plans to visit those historical places and trails are increasing. This is encouraging, they said, as they also see good opportunities for these ancient mountain trails. 


If they receive good publicity, they will have as many foreign visitors and hikers walking these ancient mountain trails. In turn, increased visitation to these ancient mountain trails enhances their prospects for preservation.


(Read the column in Japanese.)

Author: Yoshikazu Ishizuka
Yoshikazu Ishizuka is a journalist and author who, before his retirement, led the Japan Times as managing editor for many years.