Japan is a country that holds great fascination for large numbers of people around the world. Some are drawn by its traditional mystique, while others are into its unique food and drink culture. Then there’s the more contemporary world of “cool Japan” that seems to include everything from manga, J-pop and the cos-play culture to robotics, sleek fashion and minimalist but elegant design. And, of course, in addition to all of this, Japan has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, in particular its mountains, the most famous of which being Mount Fuji.
With the Tokyo Olympics just a couple of years away, a lot of effort is being spent on promoting Japan as a tourist destination, making it more accessible to foreign tourists, with more and more signage appearing in English as well as Japanese particularly in the major cities. For those wanting to explore the country’s natural beauty beyond the urban sprawl, though, the language barrier can still be an issue.
One person who has tried to address this is Tokyo-based Briton Tony Grant, creator of the Climb Japan blog. Living and working overseas for most of his adult life, with spells in Poland, Azerbaijan and Bangladesh, Tokyo has been his home since 2006. Always having had a passion for the outdoors, he soon started to explore the mountains in Japan, but with virtually no knowledge of the language, getting the information he needed was problematic.
“When I arrived here, speaking no Japanese at all, information in English was extremely scarce, or should I say pretty much non-existent,” he said. “It took me a long time to figure out how things work over here. You know, the weather patterns, the logistics, the seasonal conditions, the mountain ranges and the routes themselves, with their complex approaches and descents. In those early days I failed a lot.”
Over time he started to build up his knowldege of the challenges associated with different mountain routes and then set up his blog.
“Climb Japan sprang from a desire to make sense of it all, to help other people avoid all those pitfalls. It’s a work in progress, and I still get a massive kick out of it after all these years.” Speaking to him, his passion and enthusiasm for his pastime is clear for everyone to see.
Roughly three-quarters of Japan’s land mass is mountainous, with peaks running across virtually the entire archipelago.
“Very little beyond Mount Fuji has made it out of Japan,” says Grant. “But the truth is there is enough climbing and hiking on these islands to occupy a person for life!”
“The entire country is laced with hiking trails and is a paradise for hikers and trail-runners,” he continues. “For climbers, the central ranges of Honshu are higher and more alpine in character, and most of the highest peaks have classic alpine routes to their summits up stunning natural features.”
A qualified climbing instructor and also author of 10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan, he has now established himself as one of the main sources of reliable information in English on climbing in the country, and is keen to share his passion and knowledge with other climbers and hikers. When asked about any particular favourite routes, Grant is hard pressed to make a choice.
“If you’re going to force me to narrow it down, I’d say that anything on the famous Buttress of the East face of Mt Kita (Japan’s second highest summit at 3192m) would be up there, as well as any of the great alpineridges of Mt Tsurugi in the North Alps,” he says. “But the real heart of Japanese alpine climbing lies in the Ichinokura-sawa valley of Mt Tanigawa, a vertiginous rocky cirque on the border between Gunma and Niigata prefectures. That’s the place where most Japanese alpinists cut their teeth, and it is as intimidating as it is beautiful!”
In the past, most people started out hiking and moved on to climbing by gradually increasing the level of challenge, building up experience and developing their skills in the mountains. These days, however, there are numerous climbing walls where people can learn and practise their climbing skills without leaving the city. For Grant, though, the best place to learn is actually in the mountains.
“There’s no substitute for getting outdoors and climbing on real rock, snow and ice,” he says. “I think the best way is still to find yourself a mentor, a friend or partner with more experience who can lead you through those initial forays; or to take a climbing course and learn the skills from a professional.”
While climbing is his real passion, Grant realises that some visitors to Japan may be looking for other less rigorous activities to enjoy the mountains.
“For tourists visiting Japan for a short holiday, there are a number of places that are easily accessible from Tokyo for day hikes,” he says. “Such as Okutama (roughly an hour and a half west of the capital on the Chuo Line), Tanzawa (to the south on the Odakyu Line) and the famous onsen resort of Hakone, which is just past the city of Odawara.”
“If you have more time, I would say you can’t go wrong with the North Alps in Nagano, or the Yatsugatake massif in Yamanashi prefecture. There is everything from one- or two-day loops through to multi-day traverses,” he entuses. “One of the finest outings, in my opinion, is the full traverse of theNorth Alps from Mount Tsurugi all the way down to Kamikōchi village at the southern end. It typically takes around 7 days to complete, and there are mountain huts to stay in at intervals along the ridgeline.”
The most famous peak in Japan, however, is the iconic Mount Fuji, the cone-shaped volcano that reaches 3776 meters andsubject of many ukiyo-e prints. In the summer, hiking to the top is something of a mass group activity, with reaching the summit for sunrise an item on many people’s bucket list.
“Quite naturally, anybody who hikes or climbs in Japan wants to get to the top of Mt Fuji at some point,” says Grant. “In summer it’s not a difficult hike, just long and a bit unchanging. The main things to remember are to carry enough food and water for your ascent and descent can buy food and drinks, and even in summer be sure to take warm clothing as the temperature on the summit will be substantially cooler than at sea level.”
Grant’s personal recommendation is to try Mount Fuji either in the early autumn or late spring, when the trails are less crowded. A spring climb will allow hikers to go through some soft snow for the final 800 metres or so of their ascent.
Climbing can be a year-round activity for those who are sufficiently trained and prepared, though Grant feels that the autumn is possibly the best time to climb.
“Temperatures are still warm during the day, the weather is typically fair and settled with blue skies, and the entire country is a riot of reds, oranges and yellows as the leaves turn,” he says. For those yet to see it, the Japanese autumn is an amazing experience, and is highly recommended.
If climbing or hiking is not your thing, but viewing mountain scenery appeals to you, then there’s always the option to dip your toe into the onsen, or hot spring, culture. The very same geography that gives Japan a large number of earthquakes and volcanoes also supplies a lot of geothermal energy, which has been exploited as a rich source of natural hot water.
“Each onsen is unique, with its own identity in terms of termperature and the minerals in the water,” says Grant. “And relaxing in an outdoor bath, or rotenburo, is really one of the most enjoyable ways to enjoy Japan and its mountains.”
There are onsen resorts all over the country that are popular getaways, and visitors can chose to either just visit a bath or go for the full experience complete with a huge spread of Japanese food at a ryokan. First timers will need to familiarise themselves with onsen etiquette and overcome any inhibitions regarding communal bathing, but once experienced, you can quickly get the onsen bug.
10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japancan be purchased on Amazon.
All the photos in this article are copyright Tony Grant and used with permission.