Japan stretches in an arc 1,800 miles long, but its total landmass is slightly smaller than California. Since most of Japan is mountainous, the majority of its 125 million people are concentrated on less than 20 percent of its land. In other words, imagine a third of the U.S. population living in southern California (never mind those who claim they already are), and you begin to get the picture of how crowded Japan actually is.And yet, I can find solitude in Japan just as easily as in the States, perhaps even more so because of all those mountains. In America, everyone is trying to get away from everyone else, whereas in Japan everyone more or less sticks to the beaten path. Japanese are content looking at nature, whether it’s a traditional Japanese garden or a national park (scenic lookouts, boat cruises, and observation points are big here), whereas in America people are rappelling cliffs, shooting rapids, mountain biking, and doing who knows what else in the confines in the woods.
Views along the way hiking in Akan
Thus it was that I found myself alone on three hikes in Hokkaido this month, each one in a national park. In Akan National Park, I followed a path uphill to a shrine and then over a wooded hill before it descended to pristine Akan Lake, where I sat on a bench and soaked in the views all by myself. In Noboribetsu Onsen in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, I visited well-known Hell Valley with its boiling sulfurous caldrons and then followed Funamiya Promenade, which traces the backbone of several ridges and is marked by small stone guardians.
My private view of Lake Akan
Stone guardians watching out for me on Funamiya Trail
In Daisetsuzan National Park, two locals in Sounkyo recommended I try the Momijidani Trail, so I walked it in late afternoon, the sun streaming through the trees as I followed a neglected path to its end, where I was rewarded with a waterfall.
Momijidani Trail hike
Each of these three trails is clearly marked on maps and easily accessible from well-known hot-spring villages, yet remarkably I never met another soul (true Japanese hikers flock to the famous trails, decked out in proper hiking regalia). Of course, it wasn’t quite tourist season (mid-July through August), but experience tells me–as well as the untrodden look of the paths–that they are never very crowded. In any case, I reveled in the solitude, happy to have the trails all to myself, until it struck me: being the lone hiker certainly narrowed the choices for a Hokkaido brown bear looking for lunch.