If you look through your window, you will probably mostly see concrete, perhaps the ugliest and most soulless building material, yet somehow loved by the Japanese construction industry. Sometimes the concrete may be broken up by paddy fields or obscured by cars going nowhere slowly and occasionally even a few square metres of park. Probably there seems little incentive to leave the building, especially if you happen to be in a bar or restaurant. However, on a clear day, from a good vantage point, it is possible to see something else: tree-covered mountains. A majority of Japan is not urban sprawl, but almost unspoilt countryside, which can offer a much-needed break from the stresses of grant proposals, Taira and Japanese administrators. There are many ways of enjoying the countryside, but for me hiking is one of the better ones.
But isn't that hard work? Well, it can be, but like any other form of exercise there are levels to suite everybody. Having said that, even on the more challenging trails it is not unusual to see hikers well into their middle-age. If you go to Oze in June, it is almost impossible not to conclude that hiking is suitable for everybody. At that time of year, the skunk cabbage is in full bloom and coach loads of hikers/tourists are bused to within a few km of the marsh and led around by flag-bearing guides. In this case, your car does most of the hard work as the carpark is at the same elevation as the upland marsh leaving a relatively flat walk.
Don't worry if you can't read a map, once you have found the start of your walk, your destination will be well sign-posted. Unlike in the UK, where you can wander freely over mountains, the nature of Japanese terrain restricts your walk to paths, which are clearly shown on hiking maps so navigation should not be a problem, provided that you can match the kanji on the maps to the signposts. Another advantage of the Japanese system of hiking is that the maps give estimated times for each section of the trail so you can plan your walk accordingly. On most trails there are plenty of huts that sell beer, omiyage and even food. Yes, beer and cigarette breaks are an integral part of hiking in Japan. This along with the de rigor greeting of hikers with ohayo gozaimasu, konnichi wa and sumimasen tends to create a friendly atmosphere on the hills. It is not unusual to be offered some kind of snack by a walker who is keen to make your stay in Japan more pleasurable.
One of the best ways of meeting fellow hikers is to stay in a mountain hut, which can be anything from an unmanned hut to a 1000-bed hotel. The full-board cost of staying in a hut varies between about 5,000 and 9,000 Yen depending mostly on the hut accessibility. Be warned: what can be much more variable is the standard of the food - from the most basic curry sauce and rice up to nutritionally balanced meals including salads, meat and, of course, rice and tea. The sleeping arrangements can be quite cozy; a 6-tatami room seems like a small bedroom in Tsukuba but it is not unusual to share it with another 5 walkers in the mountains. There are rumours that sometimes you only get allocated half a futon, so if you pick a popular hut on a bank holiday weekend, you have been warned.
If you ask for the weather forecast in the mountains, invariably tomorrow will be sunny in the morning turning to rain or a thunderstorm in the afternoon. Often this is right so it is wise to make an early start when walking in Japan. Another advantage enjoyed by the early birds is that the visibility is much better for the first few hours after sunrise. An exception to this rule of thumb is made when climbing Japan's most famous mountain, Mount Fuji, which is a must for many people during their stay in Japan. Here tradition dictates that Fuji should be climbed at night to watch the sunrise from the summit. A fine plan with one major drawback - Fuji is something of a cloud magnet so even if the weather forecast and conditions when you set off look favourable, you could just be looking at the inside of cloud from the summit. That being said, when I climbed Fuji, the night time views over Gotemba and Odawara made up for disappointment waiting on top - after all it was an unusual experience to enjoy a panoramic view over urban Japan.
There are far too many hiking areas in Japan to describe in this article and the choice of walk will depend on the time of year and your level of fitness. Some of the walks that I have enjoyed most are: the Tanzawa Mountains in January, with about 6 inches of fresh snow on the ground, clear blue skies and stunning views of Fuji; the autumnal colours at Tanigawa-dake and, during the summer, it is hard to beat the views from the Minami and Kita Alps. If this article has whetted your appetite there are plenty of suggestions for 3-4 hour walks in "Day Walks near Tokyo" or for the more adventurous Paul Hunt's "Hiking in Japan", both of which can be borrowed from the AIST library. If you want somebody else to do the organisation for you, the Tsukuba Walking and Mountaineering Club (www.geocities.com/yosemite/gorge/6108) offer a program of walks throughout the year.
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