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Free the kids from the concrete jungle

by Jason Jenkins

Contributing Writer

One foot in front of the other. Deep breaths and deeper conversations. There’s nothing like hiking to open the mind and loosen the tongue.

Whether it’s the jungles of Sumatra, the forests of Spain’s Basque Country or the high desert plains of central Mexico, our family truly connects when hiking together. The conversations we have on the trail just don’t happen on sidewalks or train platforms. Our kids learned to hike outside of Tokyo, and hiking together among the autumn leaves in Japan will always be some of our fondest memories.

Believe it or not, Tokyo offers the hiking enthusiast a wealth of opportunities. It may be one of the most populous cities in the world, but it is also just a few hours by train from plenty of relaxing trails. Many Tokyo families already take advantage of the bucolic prefectures that surround the city, but I hope that even more will learn to escape the concrete jungle.

Soon the weather will turn and the mountainsides with transform into a patchwork of red, yellow and orange. This is the best time of year to head for a walk in the woods. Whether it’s a mountain incline or a simple stroll under the forest canopy, autumn hikes with kids are special.

Most of the destinations I recommend here are at least two hours away, so plan accordingly. If possible, leave early and schedule snacks and nap times during the journey. We prefer to leave at dawn, even if that means the kids are groggy. That way if one train is packed with people, then we can wait on the platform for another in hopes of the kids getting a seat so they can get a little extra sleep. But be warned, sometimes the next train may be even more crowded — especially if it’s a weekend.

No article on hiking near Tokyo would be complete without mentioning Takao-san. Hiking Mount Takao is one of the most popular autumn activities in the Kanto region. It has paved trails and is just over an hour from Shinjuku Station, making it one of the most accessible hiking trails in Japan. As a result, the crowds here can be massive. It comes recommended by many, but I would suggest avoiding it on weekends. That said, the views in autumn are pleasant, and if you want to get away from the masses, the more technical, one-way trail No. 6 (Inariyama) is a good choice. Older kids only, though. The temples on some trails can make for a nice pit stop, as well. One thing that is worth avoiding is the Takao Monkey Park as its concrete enclosures can be a little depressing.

Also in Tokyo’s western reaches is Okutama. This is where we’ve done the most hiking with kids in Japan, and it remains one of our favorite places. Okutama is still actually part of the Tokyo metropolis, albeit the most western and rural part. But it feels like being a million miles from the city, and there are a number of trails easy enough for primary school-aged kids and up.

In the same area is Mount Mitake, which offers many walking and hiking options. For example, if you don’t want to hike the entire way to the peak, take the cable car to Mitake Shrine and start your hike there. For a flatter walk in the same area, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail is a great option. Once you walk down the hill from Mitake Station, the trail is flat and partially paved. Unlike in the city suburbs, the Tama River here is also clean and blue.

You’ll also find some great places to hike if you head south of Tokyo. When most people think of Kanagawa Prefecture, they think of the temples of Kamakura. However, there are fun and easy trails that connect some of the major Kamakura sites, which can be real fun walking with the kids.

The Daibutsu Trail, for example, is less than 6 kilometers and ends at the great Buddha statue. There’s plenty of great scenery along the way. Stop in the grassy areas along the trail for lunch, which you should bring with you as there isn’t much food for sale in the area.

Last, but not least, Yorokeikoku in the center of the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture is worth mentioning. This is one of our favorite places for autumn hiking. It’s great in every season, but the fall leaves make October and November the best time to visit.

As a family, we even enjoy the train ride out there, since the last 40 or so kilometers are on the Kominato Railway. This two-car train rolls through countryside so attractive that it could have inspired animator Hayao Miyazaki. Buses run from Yorokeikoku Station to Awamata Falls every hour on weekdays, and the river and hot springs are only a half-hour walk away.

Mount Takao

Take the Keiko semi-limited express from Keio Shinjuku Station and get off at Takaosanguchi. Or take the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku Station to Takao, then transfer to the Keio Line for one stop to Takaosanguchi.

Okutama

From Tokyo Station, take the JR Chuo Line to Tachikawa Station. Then transfer to the JR Ome Line for Okutama Station. From Shinjuku Station, Take the JR Chuo Line to Tachikawa, then transfer to the JR Ome Line and go to Okutama.

Mount Mitake

Take the JR Chuo Line (via Shinjuku or Tokyo stations) to Ome Station. At Ome, take the JR Ome Line to Mitake Station, where you’ll take a bus to the cablecar.

Kamakura Daibatsu Trail

From Tokyo Station, take the Yokosuka Line to Kita Kamakura Station. Take the southwest exit and look for the signs.

Yorokeikoku

From Tokyo Station, take the Keiyo Line from to Soga Station. At Soga, take the Uchibo Line to Goi Station and transfer to the Kominato Line to Yorokeikoku.