I am a hiking nut. I wouldn’t say I’m hardcore: I don’t do that insane mountain running malarkey, and I certainly don’t have a chiseled torso with a waist that you could fit inside an onion ring.
But I’ve always enjoyed that simple yet satisfying achievement of a good hike. It’s you, standing at point A, declaring that you will get to point B using only your legs. The more interesting the journey from point A to point B the better. Especially if point B is higher than point A.
The trouble was, as a Brit, I had limited options for a good hike. Oh sure, the countryside is very nice, but I longed for something a bit wilder, a bit…bigger. The mountains in the UK are glorified speed bumps, let’s be honest here. Well, Scotland ain’t bad I suppose, but England can’t even scrounge together a peak over 1000m. There are Japanese kindergartens with children still being potty trained that are have higher elevation than that. Think about that the next time you ‘hike’ up Scafell Pike.
So I came to Japan with somewhat higher hopes for hiking fodder. But what I got was something that was altogether bigger and better than anything I ever imagined.
Oh sure, we all hear that Japan is majority mountains. But you don’t really grasp that fact, even when you’re living in Japan. The urban centers are so enveloping that the only nearby mountain that crosses your mind on a daily basis are the cans of Mountain Dew in the local conbini.
But it is oh so easy to escape the big city and be enveloped in the interlocking spurs of mountains. A classic example is Takao San: take a regular local train out of Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world, for about 50 minutes. It will bring you to this delightful little hike that, judging by the surrounding nature alone, might as well be in the middle of nowhere.
Helping this illusion of complete immersion in the Japanese wilderness is just how…enthusiastic the Japanese can be in their attitude to hiking. Taking Takao San again as an example, this pithy peak of less than 600 metres is often populated by hikers bedecked in full on luminous hiking gear, hauling hiking sticks…and if you’re lucky you may even spot a group of old ladies out on a day trip who have roped themselves together. Yep, they’ve taken the precaution that some people take as a lifeline to save a soul from falling into the abyss, except they are walking on a dirt path that is flat enough to play bowling on. When I was hiking up in the Kita Alps area, which is admittedly an altogether different beast with elevations above 3000m where the proper gear is necessary, I was the only schmuck without a helmet.
This all plays into the Japanese mindset of being as prepared as possible, and never being too safe. The Japanese idea of roughing it in the sticks comes with packaged accommodation in mountain huts, where you can have three square meals, sleep on a bed and buy souvenirs…all at a height that is twice as high as the highest point in the UK.
But that’s just the cynic in me talking. When I did my multi day hike high in the ridges between Nagano and Gifu prefecture, those typical Japanese qualities of teamwork, ganbare, and sharing a common bond through shared interest shone as bright as the breathtaking sunsets I witnessed everyday. And while it can be easy to get snarky at Japan’s reluctance to let go of its conveniences and creature comforts when out on the trail, nobody likes it when they get lost. In Japan, every route is clearly signposted. In all of my hiking adventures here, I don’t recall ever having to look at a map for directions. Even when all of the signs were splashed with kanji.
Hiking in Japan is an experience I would recommend to anyone, even to the casual onlooker who doesn’t really care that much for hiking. Not only do you have all the joy and gratification of scaling a mountain in Japan, but you will also witness some of the unique qualities of Japanese life that you don’t typically witness in the tourist areas of Japan and are hard to discover on a short-term trip.