Hiking in Japan: the Basics, Part One
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My first article in these pages was in 1989, and in the eighty-plus pieces I have written on climbing Japanese mountains over the last twenty years since then, not once has it occurred to me to question my basic assumptions. Namely, that people want to hike and that they already know the rudiments of how to go about it. It has recently been suggested to me, however, that this may not, in fact, be the case; that my assumptions may not be the universal human verities I took them to be; and that some readers might appreciate an introduction to the Japanese high country and how to enjoy it. In what follows, the first in a short series of articles, I shall attempt to answer some of the imagined questions of such readers (based on those of my students) and provide a simple guide to experiencing the magnificent mountains of Japan.
Why hike? It seems like a lot of uncomfortable effort, and less fun than shopping, watching television, or texting my friends.
First, living in an urban area, as 65% of the population does, it is easy to forget that Japan is over 70% mountains, and the images most people have of Japan are of cars, crowds, and shops, not of forests and solitude. To live in Japan and not experience the mountain environment, then, is to receive only an incomplete and even false impression of the country. This is not to say that the mountains represent the ‘real’ Japan — cities are just as real as forests — but they certainly represent a different Japan, slower paced and more historically rooted. True, there are few shops, limited television, no air conditioning, and sketchy cell phone reception, but there are real benefits to slowing down to the pace that mountain hiking demands and shifting from a heavily mediated environment to direct sensory perception. Furthermore, mountains provide the conditions for true communication. Some of the best conversations I have ever had have been on mountains. Especially when I have been on my own.
The second argument for hiking is the health and fitness one. Japan is a very comfortable place to live with easy transport and great food; it is not hard to have days in which one’s most strenuous exercise is walking to the garage or the bus stop, or to the local robatayaki for dinner. Fitness gyms and sports clubs are a partial solution, but they are expensive and, frankly, a mountain is a far more interesting place to exercise than a treadmill, just as fresh air is better for us than the conditioned variety. And true health is more than a matter of physical maintenance; the sounds, scents, and sights of the outdoor environment help to remind us of our part in the natural world, an essential spiritual experience irrespective of personal belief system. The joyous satisfaction that results from a long, vigorous day in the hills is something that transcends mere physical enjoyment; it refreshes the soul.
Finally, the sheer beauty of the Japanese mountains should be sufficient reason to spend as much time as possible in their company. The variety of scenery and landscape found in the Japanese mountains still astonishes and delights me, from tiny microclimates nurturing unexpectedly tropical vegetation in forested bowls, to huge granite slabs enclosing gullies of permanent snow in the high peaks above the tree line, and to ominous volcanic valleys thick with swirling, sulphurous clouds. And, of course, the same route can be hiked any number of times in the course of a year, appearing and feeling different on every visit. There are probably few countries in the world that can match Japan in terms of scenic rewards for the hiker.
Okay, I am persuaded to give it a go. What do I need?
Not much, at least at first. Compared to most sports or activities, hiking can be a low-budget pursuit once a few essential items are acquired, and the first of these is a pair of boots. Good boots will be constant, trusted companions for many years, supporting your ankles and helping you to deal with sharp rocks, loose slopes, wet weather and cold, growing to feel as comfortable on your feet as warm gloves on your hands. Choose boots above all for fit, and remember that feet swell up with the miles hiked, especially in warm weather. Even in summer you will probably want to wear wool socks, for cushioning and comfort, and I wear wool inner socks as well, so a rule of thumb for boots is to try on a half-size or even one size above your everyday shoe size. Even so, you should be able to lace them tightly enough that your foot does not lift from the heel pocket as you walk. Any good mountain shop will let you walk around in the shop for a while to get a feel for new boots, although they will still need breaking in, especially full grain leather boots — still my preference, although the newer synthetics are fine for most day hikes and temptingly light.
Clothing is far less critical than boots, loose-fitting comfort being the general guide. Avoid cotton jeans, which wick water, and (unlike wool) are cold when wet. Synthetics are perfectly appropriate, and can be cheap (especially if you live near a Uniqlo); long underwear provides a very efficient extra layer of warmth. By far the best material for the outdoors is merino wool, which is warm, lightweight, and odour-resistant, but tends to be expensive. Acquire it over time, or drop hints for birthday presents.
The top layer is critical, as good waterproofs can make the difference between a satisfying day out in challenging conditions and a damp, shivery slog through hell. Two summers ago, on a multi-day hike in Hokkaido, I discovered too late that my trusty old rain jacket and pants were no longer up to sustained downpour; on returning to Nagoya I had ordered a new set even before unpacking my rucksack. Waterproofs are not ‘just in case’ items; they should enable you to go outdoors in any weather, without even thinking about getting wet. A wide-brimmed hat is useful in the summer, and gloves are good for protection on rock as well as warmth. A hiking staff (or a pair) is optional, but certainly reduces strain on the knees on long descents.
A rucksack with a rain cover can hold an extra layer of clothing, as well as food, water, a simple first aid kit, a head torch, and a whistle. For day hikes it is not necessary to carry a stove, as a flask of tea and a quantity of fruit and energy bars are more than sufficient. Water, though, is important, and the best way to carry it is in a ‘Camelbak’-type bladder with a hose and mouthpiece looping over your shoulder so you can sip on the go. Carry a map and compass and have at least a basic idea how to use them; trails are generally pretty well marked in Japan, but (believe me!) it is still surprisingly easy to wander off course.
A good source for all the above items, as well as for general advice, is Ishii Sports (石井スポーツ) in Sakae, opposite Maruzen.
In my next article on this topic (just in time for the summer!) I shall deal with the questions of where to hike and, crucially, what can go wrong. I have met a surprising number of people reluctant to try hiking because of the imagined dangers of the mountains — bears, rockfalls, getting lost — and I shall attempt to put these concerns into perspective. In the meantime, get some gear together, start exercising, and break in your new boots by hiking to a robatayaki a little further away!