Go to the Mountains – In Japan! Part 2

Apr 27th, 2009 | By CJW | Category: Outdoor Activities & Sporting Events

Mt. Kitadake Peaks  JapanToday, Chris, an avid mountaineer and guest photographer for The Nihon Sun writes a follow up Go to the Mountain in Japan Part 1 and talks about preparing for your mountaineering adventure and offers tips on where to stay and what to bring with you.  Take is away Chris…

Whether you are planning day trip to one of the mountains near Tokyo or a week long trek through the Japan Alps in Nagano, you will need to be prepared. Accommodation, weather and terrain are important issues to consider when planning to climb the beautiful mountains of Japan.

Staying On The Mountains

Japan boasts an extensive and well-maintained system of mountain huts. These range from simple unmanned structures, often maintained by local clubs and free to use (although often with a voluntary donation box) to hotel-like structures that can sleep literally hundreds with full bed and board.

Typically, a manned hut will offer a futon and dinner, from Golden Week in late April to mid-November, for around Y7000 per person. Many offer a “sudomari” option to those with their own sleeping bag and food for around half that price. The larger huts may offer a private rooms, but in most cases both sexes bed down in one or two large tatami dorms (snorers abound – earplugs are sine qua non for a good night’s sleep). Reservations are advisable, but not necessary; for safety, the huts do not turn people away.  In high season the mountain huts may get very crowded indeed and it’s not unusual to hear tales of huts so full that the guests must all sleep on their sides.

The manned huts on the higher peaks tend to close for the winter months but they may leave an outhouse or the entrance to the hut unlocked for winter climbers, but this should not be assumed. The unmanned huts are open all year, but they should not be relied upon as the sole means of shelter; doors have been known to freeze shut, or entire huts disappear under heavy snow or be washed away in heavy rains. Chemical or drop toilets are available at each hut.

Campsites are typically available at, or close to, the huts for around Y500 per tent per night. Wild camping is discouraged in the summer months, while in winter campers should be careful to avoid avalanche prone locations.  While Japan does not operate a strict “carry-out” policy, it is only fair (not to mention hygienic) that visitors to its mountains exercise common sense and observe accepted waste disposal rules.

Goryu-dake Peak Rising Sun Japan

Terrain and Navigation

On average, the tree-line in Japan runs to just over 2000 meters (6000 feet), although this naturally diminishes the further north one travels. While patches of primeval forest remain, in the main the forests are more recent mixes of coniferous and deciduous trees, or managed plantations (frequently Japanese cedars, cryptomeria japononica). Care should be taken not to damage alpine flora.

Above the treeline, expect to find extensive rock and boulder fields, generally granite or chert. Due care should be paid to warning signs on those peaks which are still volcanically active, as well as ridges and peaks where erosion makes for unstable conditions and increases the risk of a serious fall.

In most cases, routes up the mountains are both well maintained and signposted (increasingly in English, Chinese and Korean as well). Shobunsha’s “Yama to Kougen” series of maps cover the Hyakumeizan and many of the surrounding areas, and are well produced on a 1:50,000 scale with trails and approximate times marked on them. They can be bought at most major bookstores. Yahoo maps (in Japanese) has a zoomable contour version, as do the countrywide maps at Denshi Kokudo (in Japanese) .

Where the route is indistinct, or used by winter climbers, it may also be marked with red ribbons or flags (aka-nuno) attached to trees, and on stonier ground it is not unusual to see red or yellow markers spray-painted onto rocks. The convention in Japan is to spray a large “O” to indicate a safe route, and and “X” to indicate a no-go area; on no account should you enter an area marked with an “X”.

Seasons

Japan experiences an enormous variety of weather conditions, depending upon the season and location.  At the extremes, the summer months are hot enough to require several liters of water to be carried with temperatures in the high thirties centigrade, while the winter months see temperatures as low as minus thirty and many meters of snow. It should also be noted that the summer months in Kyushu to the south and much of Honshu experience a prolonged rainy season and tropical typhoons, during which mountain travel is not advised on account of increased risk of landslides and flooding.

The interaction of complex weather systems from the Chinese and Russian mainland, combining with those from the Pacific and southern Asia, make weather forecasting in Japan more of an art than a science, and forecasts are prone to change with alarming rapidity. Climbers should be prepared for sudden changes in conditions, and plan accordingly.  Forecasts are available from the the Yahoo.co.jp and Tenki.jp websites as well as through all major media outlets.

View from Mt. Nantai Japan

Safety

With care and common sense, Japan’s mountains offer an exciting, beautiful and often unfamiliar glimpse of the country. However, there are risks.

Bears are found across Honshu and Hokkaido but there is little danger of attack as long as they hear you coming.  For this reason, many Japanese climbers have a small bell on their rucksack, or occasionally a portable radio, especially in the more dangerous pre-hibernation season. Capsicum spray is available at most outdoor stores.  Encounters with wild boar are rare, but they should be given a wide berth if encountered.

Snakes are not uncommon in the summer months, although only one species (the “mamushi”, gloydius blomhoffii) are venomous and care should be taken in long grass or concealed vegetation. Fatalities from bee swarms are also not unheard of, and climbers should be alert in forested areas, especially following heavy rainfall (when hives may have been disturbed).

Weather is also a concern and common sense rules apply to thunder and lightning. If it is raining in the summer months, then lightning strikes are usually not far behind, and fatalities are all to common. Typhoons are characterized by extremely high winds, and sometimes winter conditions even in autumn, and no travel should be attempted at these times. While water is often available at the huts in summer, temperatures can be high and UV strong; adequate water, sunscreen and long sleeved clothing is advised.

Japan also has more officially recognized avalanche zones than any other country on earth so winter climbing in snow should only be attempted with proper equipment and experience.

Flash flooding can make rivers and gorges dangerous in summer months, while monsoon rains increase the risks of landslide and rockfall. Fatal falls are common, and adequate attention should be paid especially on higher peaks and areas of severe erosion.

Many peaks and cliffs have fixed ropes, chains, and occasionally ladders; while these do no require technical equipment, the simple expedient of carrying a couple of webbing slings and karabiners to fashion a light harness and self-belay can add considerably to both safety and confidence on such routes. Helmets should be worn in areas where rockfall is a known danger (although you will often sadly be in the minority should you decide to wear one).

Go to the Mountains!

The mountains of Japan can offer thrilling views and amazing experiences, for one-day or multi-day (even multi-week) excursions – and given the volcanic underpinnings of these islands, frequently with an onsen (hot-spring bath) awaiting you at the end.

However anyone heading to the mountains should be prepared with adequate information, equipment and supplies; serious injury and fatal accidents are not uncommon, but with common sense and care, the risks can be largely mitigated.

The old mountaineering saying has it that summiting is optional, but getting down is mandatory, and this should be respected. As the sign at the trailhead of Mt Hou-ou says “Make sure you have the courage to turn back”.

A big thank you goes out to Chris for sharing his knowledge about mountain climbing in Japan.  Be sure to check in with him often on his blog I, CJW Hiking and Climbing in Japan – he’s always up for an adventure and tells great stories with pictures to match.

i, cjw Flickr Images used with permission: Kitadake rising, Chuzenji lake, from Mt Nantai & Rising Sun, Goryu-dake peak

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  1. [...] week, in Go to the Mountain in Japan Part 2 Chris will tell you how to prepare for your mountaineering adventure and offers tips on where to [...]

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