Being a collector of conquering mountain peaks in the UK is akin to being a pyromaniac in Atlantis. True, places like Scotland and the Lake District have their fair share of peaks and uplands, but most of them pale in comparison to what most other countries offer. Put it this way: the UK’s highest point, Ben Nevis, stands at 1,344 metres above sea-level – not to be taken lightly, of course (I have learned the hard way to treat mountains with respect) but it is a pittance compared to most other countries, especially Japan, where the highest peak, Mount Fuji, stands at a formidable 3,776 metres. All the more incredible when you consider that Fuji is very much it’s own mountain, whereas UK mountains like Ben Nevis And Scafell Pike are pretty much just ‘highest points’ on elevated plateaus. Oops, sorry, did that sound disrespectful? Didn’t mean it, fellas!
So, as a hiker who liked to scale the highest heights of the UK, perhaps I was led into a false sense of security. Because when I arrived in Japan, I had to learn hiking humility all over again. Oh sure, you can read stuff. Sure, you can read that Mount Fuji is over twice as high as the highest peak you’ve climbed. You can read that Japan is an island born of tectonic movement and is thus made of effectively nothing but mountains. But it’s only in the moment, when you are clambering over steep inclines in the cold and rain, one slow and aching step at a time, and then look up to see that you have only rounded a blind peak and in fact have so much further to go, do you truly appreciate the facts.
Case in point: when I first was placed in Japan, I spotted a line of mountains outside of my window. These form part of the Chichibu National Park. On the very end is a prominent, pyramid-like peak called Kasayama (on the right in the photo, just to the right of the intruding phone-pole), which I resolved to conquer the very moment I saw it on my very first train journey. When I eventually did in May 2010, it was a very humbling experience. It was much, much taller and further away than I thought. More than that, Kasayama is a comparatively gentle bump by comparison to what else Japan has on offer.
And although I didn’t climb any mountains at the time, my road trip with friends during the Golden Week of 2010, from Gunma to Kanazawa, was unforgettable for so many reasons, not least because that was the first time I had seen proper mountains, the kind of mountains I had only seen in movies up to that point. Jagged peaks piercing the skies, the powder-snow discernible from the clouds, torn like cotton wool across their moody faces. It was awe-inspiring, and slightly foreboding, to behold them. My tepid beginnings in the UK had made me big-headed when it came to them. There would definitely be a sense of achievement from atop these mountains, but it would never be as simple as the step-by-step I’d grown used to.
I have climbed more mountains since then: Myougi, Tsukuba, Takao, Jimba…and of course, Mount Fuji. Twice. Mount Fuji itself is for another time. But with time I have found a new medium for Japanese hiking. The routes are clearer to follow, the path is often laden with all kinds of features such as old shrines, statures and sweeping views, and you are very likely to pass by other like-minded people willing to chat. Some of the things I am less keen on is that keen pathfinders like me might find the route ‘overcooked’: that is, the path can be clear to the point of boring, sometimes even laid with stones or (ugh) concrete, and this being Japan, on weekends even mountains can be ‘busy’. And what with the rapid reforestation of Japan after the war, far too many of the peaks are smothered in trees. So unless you are at a peak that is popular, you are unlikely to get that rewarding view from the top (Kasayama was like this, though there was a spooky old shrine at the top).
But that all comes with the nature of hiking: taking it in your stride. I haven’t done enough of it as of late, though I itch to tie on my boots, pack a rucksack and disappear into the wilderness sometimes. And, of course, there is a list of ‘100 Famous Mountains of Japan’. And what with me being a collector of mountain peaks, it is surely only a matter of time…