Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps: an Interview with Wes Lang

If you still haven’t decided what to do this summer in Japan, how about a trek in the Japan Alps? With the rainy season ending soon, and hot and humid weather scheduled to take its place, the higher and cooler elevations of the Northern, Central and Southern Alps are the ideal place to spend an outdoor vacation. A new guidebook to the Japan Alps, with up-to-date information, written by two knowledgeable Japan-based hikers, Tom Fay and Wes Lang, will make planning your trek, as well as the trek itself, a whole lot easier.

2019-07-03   Visit: Parks & Nature, Japanese Alps,


Introduction to the Japan Alps

I was introduced to the Japan Alps by a Japanese friend in 2008. He took me on a three-day hike in the Northern Alps, about 200km North-West of Tokyo in Nagano prefecture. We walked a panoramic route with spectacular views of Mt Hotaka 3190m  and Mt Yari 3180m, Japan’s 3rd and 5th highest mountains respectively. I had never heard of the Japan Alps before then, but the fortress-like summit of Hotaka, and the Matterhorn-like peak of Yari left a strong impression on me.

View of the central ridge of the Northern Alps seen from the Panorama Ginza route

The next year, I returned to hike those two peaks as the final part of a six-day traverse of the North Alps, starting from Tateyama in Toyama prefecture further North, and finishing in Kamikochi in Nagano prefecture, just South of Mt Hotaka. I used the Lonely Planet “Hiking in Japan” guidebook” (published in 2001). I was accompanied by two friends, and we carried tents, sleeping bags, and food for a week. It was an amazing experience, but also quite an exhausting one, since none of my previous hiking trips had really prepared me for such a demanding trek.

The summit of Mt Tateyama 3015m in the Northern Alps, the first step on the classic Tateyama to Kamikochi trek

Fast forward to 2013, and I was back in Kamikochi. I had joined the second meet-up organised by members of the “Hiking in Japan” Facebook group started by the American Wes Lang. This was my first time meeting Wes in person, but we had interacted before on Facebook and by email. The Facebook group was the offspring of his hiking blog also called “Hiking in Japan”, an invaluable source of information for anyone heading to the Japanese mountains. Without its information, I would have found it hard to make any headway with my own quest to climb Japan’s hundred famous mountains.

Kamikochi in the Northern Alps, the perfect place for a hiking meet-up

In 2019, thanks to Wes and his co-author Tom Faya lot of this information is now available in book form. “Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mt Fuji” covers the Northern Alps (“kita arupusu” 北アルプス), the Central Alps (“chuo arupusu” 中央アルプス) the Southern Alps (“minami arupusu” 南アルプス) and Mt Fuji (“fujisan” 富士山). The Northern Alps are part of the Chubusangaku National Park, the Southern Alps form most of the Minami Alps National Park and Mt Fuji sits inside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Looking at a map of Japan, you’ll notice that the three mountain chains form a North-South line that separates Eastern and Western Japan.

Panoramic view of the entire range of the Northern Alps

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Wes, who lives in Osaka with his wife and daughter, via Skype. We discussed his hiking experiences, in his native USA and in the Japan Alps. We also talked about how the book came into existence. Not surprisingly, as a fellow hiker myself, we shared similar experiences hiking in the Japan Alps, and I often found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the opinions he expressed during the course of our talk.

Hiking in the States, Hiking in Japan

“It feels like all the mountains have been squeezed together and pushed up very abruptly”

Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Wes Lang, I’ve been living in Japan for 18 years. I’m based in Osaka, and I teach English at a couple of universities, but my main passion is hiking and the outdoors. When I came to Japan, I decided to climb Mt Fuji like everyone else. Then I found out about the “nihon hyakumeizanlist (the 100 famous mountains of Japan), and I decided to climb them all, which I finished in 2008. While I was climbing the “hyakumeizan”, there was no information in English, so I decided to make a very simple blog that I titled “Hiking in Japan” just to put some practical hiking information out there. I used to hike every week, but now it’s every other week.

Above the clouds: Wes on the Summit of Mt Senjo 3032m in the Southern Alps (photo courtesy of Wes Lang)

How did you first get into hiking when you lived in the United States?

I grew up in Virginia, which is on the East coast of the United States. In my hometown, there is the Appalachian Trail, or AT as we call it, so I always had access to hiking trails when I was a small kid, but I wasn’t really into hiking so much until I entered university. Then I started doing some day hikes on the AT. After I graduated from university, I moved to California, where there are a lot more high mountain hiking opportunities. I started hiking mostly in the Sierra mountains, and also in the Cascades in Northern California, where I climbed Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta [both active volcanoes]. That’s how I got interested in volcanoes, and when I moved to Japan in 2001, I climbed Mount Fuji first. Not because it’s the symbol of Japan, but because it was a volcano.

The Appalachian mountains where Wes got his start (photo courtesy of Wes Lang)

In your opinion, what are some of the differences between mountains in Japan and mountains in other countries?

The mountains in Japan are definitely a lot steeper. It feels like all the mountains have been squeezed together and pushed up very abruptly. Even if you climb a 500m high mountain, it’s very important to stay on the trail. Once you get off the trail, the terrain gets really steep and treacherous, with lots of cliffs. I think there’s a lot more switchbacks in the States, which makes the going a lot easier. When people come to Japan, they’re surprised that the trail just goes straight up. In a lot of places, log stairs are built into the hillside. So I definitely think that’s a big difference.

Heading down on Mt Kaikoma 2967m in the Southern Alps

Even the Japan Alps have a much different feel from that of the Alps in Europe, or the mountains in California. The Japan Alps are a lot lower for one. The highest peak is Mt Kitadake, which is only 3193m high. Whereas in the Swiss Alps, and the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade range, there are a lot of peaks around 4000m high. However, they feel a lot more gentle. The tree line is also a lot higher as well [around 2500m-2800m in the Japan Alps]. So that makes it feel different as well.

Sunrise and Mt Fuji near the top of Mt Tekari 2591m in the Southern Alps

What about in terms of the people hiking there, how is that different?

In Japan, there’s definitely more of a group mentality. You do see solo hikers, but not maybe to the extent of what you see in the States. I think in other countries, people go to the mountains to escape society, to seek solitude and peace, whereas in Japan, people go to the mountains to be part of society. So they take the societal aspect of their regular lives with them to the mountains. The solo hikers that you see in Japan are a lot of elderly men. Either they don’t have a lot of friends, or they like going out on their own to seek peace and solitude. So I think that’s the biggest difference. Finally, Japanese hikers are more regimented. Even solo hikers will keep records of exactly what time they reach the summit. A lot of people have little notebooks where they’ll write stuff like “summit 9h15am, 10m break” whereas people in other countries are a lot more relaxed and flexible with their hiking schedule.

The rare solitary Japanese hiker relaxing on the summit of Mt Hoken 2931m in the Central Alps

Traversing the Alps, the Hard Way

“People reading this are going to think I’m crazy, but it seemed like a good decision in my book”


Can you tell us about your first hiking or trekking experience in the Japan Alps?

The first Japan Alps trek I did was the multi-day Tateyama to Kamikochi Northern Alps traverse. However, for some reason, I decided to do that in reverse, doubling the amount of elevation change. At Tateyama you start at an elevation of 2400m, but in Kamikochi you start only at 1500m.

Murodo is the usual starting point for the classic Northern Alps traverse

Were you self sufficient on that hike or did you stay at the huts?

I was completely self-sufficient, so I had a tent, food, everything. I took an overnight bus from Osaka, went straight up Mt Hotakadake, and camped the first night at the lodge just below the summit. I arrived at dusk and all the tent sites were already taken. So I had to set up my tent on the helicopter pad, which is not the best place to sleep. If a helicopter comes to do a supply drop, it usually comes early in the morning, so you have to pack and get out of there quickly.

Helicopters are a common sight in the Japan Alps, used for supply drops and rescues

I had planned to do the trek in seven days, but it took ten. That’s one thing people often don’t take into account: you know the distance, and you know how much time it’s going to take, but if you have rain for half of your trek, how will that affect your planning? So, I had a few days that I cut short because of the rain. You’re never going to get 10 consecutive days of clear weather in the Alps, you just can’t expect that.

Misty weather going down Mt Houou 2840m in the Southern Alps

That’s an important thing to mention. From my experience hiking in the Swiss Alps, you could have extended periods of good weather, but in Japan I find that it’s usually three days maximum.

The first big surprise for me on that trek was the ridge between Mt Hotakadake and Mt Yarigatake. It’s called the spine of Japan and I would say it’s one of the most difficult ridgelines in Japan. I certainly didn’t expect that level of exposure. From the lodge, the first peak you climb is Mt Karasawadake 3110m. From the top, I look around: there is a panoramic view but I cannot see a trail. So I’m like: “Well, where does the trail go?” All of a sudden, I see a hand appear over the edge, then a second one. Finally, an elderly lady pulls herself up and stands next to me on the summit. “Is that the trail?” I ask her and she replies “Yeah, it’s down there”. So I peer over the edge, and it’s a near vertical cliff. I have a ten-day supply of food on my back and I think “Okaaay”. So I turn around and lower myself down a chain. About halfway down, one of my water bottles pops out of my pack and goes over the abyss, and I’m now down to one less water bottle. Then the mist came in.

The spine of Japan with, in the back, Mt Hotaka 3190m, the highest peak in the Northern Alps

I make it over to Mt Kitahotakadake 3106m [the halfway point], which is the start of a really famous kind of gap called the “daikiretto” [meaning “the big cut”]. After getting there, I thought to myself “You know what? this is not for me”. So I left the route and went down and around the “daikiretto” via Yarisawa [about 2500m descent and ascent]. I was only a few hours away from Mt Yarigatake, but this detour added one whole day to my trek. People reading this are going to think I’m crazy, but it seemed like a good decision in my book. That was also the last of my good weather. I had perfect weather on the top of Mt Yarigatake, and again on Mt Tateyama, at the end of the trek, but between those two peaks, I had nothing but rain and clouds.

The “Daikiretto” in the Northern Alps – would you dare?

Most Memorable Experience: a Crushing Defeat

“I felt like it was this huge international match, America versus Japan”


What was your most memorable experience while hiking in the Japan Alps?

I think it would be a cultural experience. Most of my best experiences have occured when staying in mountain huts in Japan. When you camp, it’s a lot more about being self sufficient. Most campers keep to themselves because there are a lot of tasks to be done, like taking care of the food and the sleeping space. When you’re staying in the hut, everything is taken care of for you. So you have more time to socialize. Some years later, I climbed Mt Shiroumadake 2932m in the Northern Alps [above the Hakuba ski resort]. I went up the very last day that the mountain hut was open, around mid-October. It was terrible weather – rain mixed with snow.

Hiking trail near the summit of Mt Shirouma 2932m in the Northern Alps

The hut can hold about 1000 people, but because it was so late in the season, there were only about 20 people. And all 20 of us were in the common room. Every hut has a common room with magazines, television, etc…People sit on the floor, and they just kind of relax. After arriving, I first hung my wet clothes to dry in the drying room, and then I went to the common room where I immediately made friends. When you’re in a Japanese mountain hut, there’s always going to be one person who has a bottle of shochu, or whiskey or Japanese sake or something. People will invite you in, especially if you’re a solo hiker from another country. There was a Shogi game, the Japanese version of chess, happening at one table.

I was invited over. “Do you want to play Shogi?” they asked me and I said I would. Now I had no idea how different Shogi and chess actually were. It’s the same concept, but some pieces move differently. And the biggest difference between Shogi and chess is when you play chess, if you capture someone’s piece, you keep it. In Shogi, if you capture someone’s piece, you can reuse it in your army. Needless to say, I got obliterated, but it was a really interesting experience, because everyone was huddled around the table. I felt like it was this huge international match, America versus Japan. I’ve never played a game of Shogi since, but I don’t think I would have experienced playing one if I had not been on the mountain, and if I had camped instead of staying in a hut.

Hakuba Lodge near the summit of Mt Shirouma

A Dangerous Situation: Borderline Hypothermic

“I grab a bunch of blankets and wrap them around my friend because he can’t stop shivering”


Could you also share a not so good experience so that people can get realistic expectations?

Well, there was a not so good situation while I was trekking in the Southern Alps with a friend of mine. It was in August, and in most of Japan, that month can be miserable: it’s extremely hot and humid, and most people wear a t-shirt and shorts every day [when they aren’t working]. However, if you go to the Japan Alps in the summer, you need to have some warm clothes. We were going to traverse the whole Southern Alps but we realized on day one that my friend didn’t have a pair of trousers – he was just hiking in a pair of shorts and a lightweight windbreaker. I had a fleece and really good waterproof jacket and pants. The first night we camped at the hut just below the summit of Mt Kitadake, at 3000 meters. My friend only had a very lightweight summer sleeping bag as well. So after arriving, he says “This is a lot cooler than I thought it would be!”. Luckily, we were able to rent blankets from the hut. He had a couple of them in his sleeping bag so he was totally fine.

Wes at the top of Mt Kitadake 3193m, the highest peak in the Japan Alps (photo courtesy of Wes Lang)

The next day we trekked over in perfect weather to the Kumanodaira hut and campsite. It was a little lower, and below the tree line so we were somewhat sheltered from the elements. However, here, they wouldn’t rent blankets, so my friend shivered all night. The following day it was absolutely horrible weather. We went up the next peak, Mt Shiomidake 3047m, in the worst weather possible – horizontal rain, heavy winds. Because my friend was so cold, we couldn’t take any breaks. Every time he stopped, he would just start shivering. Just past the summit, there’s a little hut, so we go inside. There are two hut staff workers and a kerosene heater – It’s really warm. We ask them if we can stand around the heater for a while since my friend is borderline hypothermic. They say no, you have to stand outside of the hut [people who aren’t spending the night at a hut or a lodge aren’t usually allowed to use the facilities]. So we go back outside, it was still raining really hard, and it’s 10 C° or less, and we enter the main hut where people sleep at night, and I grab a bunch of blankets and wrap them around my friend because he can’t stop shivering. The hut staff see us do this, and they rip the blankets off. So then we start a big argument with the hut owner and the other staff.

Eventually they relented. Some of the people staying at the hut got involved as well. Also they probably realized that if something happened to my friend, they could be held liable. We had to pay to use the Kerosene heater but we didn’t care, since my friend’s well-being was more important. Anyway, I had a really bad experience at that mountain hut. Apparently a lot of other people had had really bad experiences there. Luckily that hut owner is gone, and now it’s owned by Iida city [in the valley below]. I revisited the same place two years ago, and the hut staff were super friendly. So it was a very different experience.

Heading towards Mt Shiomi 3047m in the Southern Alps

Practical Advice: Research, Preparation, Decisions

“I would look at the signposts and then down at the book, and try to match them : are they the same? Are they not the same?”


Considering the story you just told, what advice would you give to anybody planning a hike or a trek in the Japan Alps?

Just be prepared. Do your research beforehand. Bring enough clothing to stay warm. Be aware of the weather. You’re probably going to have rain, or at least you’ll be hiking inside the clouds. The weather is generally good between 4am and 9am. That’s the window where you’re going to have the views. So get an early start. The Japanese hikers start getting up at 2am. But there’s a reason for that: they want to take advantage of the good early morning weather. The same goes for the campsite – people start taking down their tents really early. If you’re going to stay in a hut bring earplugs, because generally there is a lot of snoring.

Sunrise from the top of Mt Warusawa 3141m in the Southern Alps (photo courtesy of Wes Lang)

That’s a good point. I used to think 8am or 9am was a good time to start hiking. However, everybody is already long gone and the staff are already cleaning the hut by that time… 

Since it’s hard to do anything as a day trip, you need to stay at least one night somewhere. There are two schools of thought : the first one is to bring lots of money, have a really light pack, and stay in huts every night; the second one is to be totally self-sufficient and bring everything in a big pack. When I was younger, I used to camp, but now I’m a bit wiser and realize how terrible the weather can be. Since I don’t want to camp in the rain, I usually end up staying in the huts.

Camping or….
…sleeping in a lodge? The choice is yours

We’ve talked about the weather, the huts…what is the signposting like now in the Japan Alps? Are there signs in English everywhere?

It depends on the prefecture. For example, in the Southern Alps, Yamanashi Prefecture generally has better sign English support then Shizuoka prefecture, so in the Southern Alps, around Mt Akaishidake 3120m, you’re not going to find much English signposting. As a general rule, there are more English signposts in the Northern Alps. If you can’t read or speak Japanese, it’s really important to have a useful guidebook. Now I can speak and read Japanese, but when I came to Japan in 2001, I couldn’t speak or read any Japanese at all. But I did have a guidebook at that time, the Lonely Planet “Hiking in Japan” guidebook, and they had the Chinese characters on their maps and in their descriptions, so I would look at the signposts and then down at the book, and try to match them : are they the same? Are they not the same? Having a really good guidebook where you can match that information is crucial.

And this goes where…?

Origins of the Guidebook: a Chance Encounter

“Everything in the guidebook, I’ve climbed twice, because the most important thing for any kind of guidebook is to have the most up-to-date information”


You have a guidebook that was published this year called “Hiking and trekking in the Japan Alps and Mt Fuji”. Can you tell us how this book came into existence?

Sure. So this book has been a dream of mine for a long time. Ever since I completed the “hyakumeizan”, I thought it’d be nice to have a guidebook. Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince publishers that there’s a market for a particular guidebook. Around about three years ago, I met my co-author, Tom Fay, who is from England, and lives here in Osaka as well. He’s a really talented writer, and he’s actually the lead author in this guidebook. He’s the one who got everything started. He contacted this publisher in England called Cicerone specialising in trekking, walking and mountain biking guidebooks. They’re probably the world’s leading hiking and trekking guidebook publisher, since they have close to 400 other guides for all over the world, but they had never done anything for Japan.

So Tom approached them in 2016, and they were interested. They said, “send us a proposal!”, so he sent them one. Around that time, I had an event for my “Hiking in Japan” website in Osaka. I did a short presentation about best hikes in the kansai area in a cafe, which Tom also happened to attend. Afterwards, he talked to me and said he was doing this guidebook. I told him that if he needed any help from me, I could give him advice, or to let me know if he would be interested in having a co-author. So he got back to me, and we decided to team up.

Wes with, behind him, the “Shiranesanzan” in the Southern Alps (photo courtesy of Wes Lang)

Cicerone had said yes to Tom’s guidebook proposal but they were backlogged with other books and they said we had to wait for two years. We were fine with that since that would give us time to put together the guidebook. When you talk about my guidebook I actually don’t say my guidebook, I say our guidebook, because it’s probably more his guidebook. We did write it together but if it weren’t for Tom, this book wouldn’t have been published at all.

We spent two years of our lives revisiting all these mountains. Everything I’ve talked about, everything in the guidebook, I’ve climbed twice, because the most important thing for any kind of guidebook is to have the most up-to-date information. A lot of these mountains, I first climbed around 15 years ago, and I had to go back and ask myself “has anything changed, has anything stayed the same?” The other requirement, which is probably even more difficult than writing the guidebook itself is that the Cicerone wanted clear weather photographs. Now clear weather and the Japan Alps don’t really go together. In the end, we were incredibly lucky. The guidebook has about 140 photographs, and some of those photographs are pretty impressive.

Book cover photo taken from the summit of Mt Tsurugi 2999m in the Northern Alps (photo courtesy of Wes Lang)

We both feel that we’re probably not going to make any money on this guidebook but that’s totally fine. We’re not doing this to make money. We’re doing it because there’s a real need for up-to-date information. There was the Lonely Planet “Hiking in Japan” guidebook that’s out of print. Before that, there was a guidebook by Paul Hunt also called “Hiking in Japan” and that’s long out of print. So other than a few blogs and websites, there hasn’t really been anything in print recently.

2019 is the year where Japan’s hosting the World Cup. And next year, they’re hosting the Olympics, so the timing of our book is really good. And who knows, maybe our guidebook will spawn others. I personally welcome it. I think the more information we have in English, the better. The more options that people have to buy guidebooks is great. As long as the guidebook authors themselves are knowledgeable. You could probably tell from this conversation that we’ve had so far, I do know a lot about the mountains. And I’m sharing this information and knowledge in the book not to make money but to share that information with people out there. Our publisher Cicerone only does specific regional guides and some of you out there might be wondering, why we didn’t write a “Hiking in Tokyo” or a “Hiking in Kansai” or even a “Hiking in Hokkaido” guidebook. But the publisher is interested in doing other guidebooks as well, and if this one sells well, fingers crossed, you may see other Japan guidebooks in the future.

Fifth station of Mt Fuji 3776m, also covered in the guidebook, with Michal Vojta (center) who is no longer with us, and to whom the book is dedicated

Would the guidebook be available to buy, not only in bookstores and online, but also from visitor centers in places like Kamikochi and Tateyama?

Right now, they’re not available there. We’re trying to get the book into some of the big outdoor shops in Japan, because that’d be a really good place for them to be on sale. So if you do want to see the book in your local outdoor shop, talk to the outdoor shop staff and tell them. Of course, its the head office of each shop that decides, but if they get requests from their shop staff that would help.

Hiking near the top of Mt Kasa 2897m in the Northern Alps

Final Words and Future Hikes

So we’re reaching the end of the interview. Do you have any final words?

It’s been great to share my experience with you. And hopefully, the people that read this interview will feel inspired to go out and enjoy Japan’s mountains, because when people think about Japan, they think about Tokyo and electronics, but Japan actually does have some really beautiful areas, especially in the Japan Alps. In particular, I think people are really surprised when they go there on a clear day and they see the beauty that it offers.

Mt Yari 3180m in the Northern Alps is known as the Matterhorn of Japan

I totally agree – the views are absolutely breathtaking. I have one final question for you. When you went back to the Alps to do all the trails again for the guidebook, did you then do the “daikiretto”?

I still haven’t done it – Tom wrote that section. Even though I have all the experience, I’m not really a big fan of exposure and chains and ladders. Going up a ladder and chains is totally fine. Going down them is not really my cup of tea. Since the book is out now, Tom and I are going to climb a lot of those mountains again this summer, just to make sure that the information is correct. If the book continues to sell, we will do a reprinting and if there’s any kind of information that’s inaccurate, we’d like to update that. We’ll keep the book in print as long as we need to. So even if it’s in print for 30 years, the publisher expects us to keep it up-to-date for 30 years. So if there’s anything that anyone finds, please contact us or the publisher. If there is any kind of description that is unclear, we’re more than happy to make those changes to benefit everyone out there.

Descending Mt Yakushi 2926m in the Northern Alps

It looks like you’ve got a busy summer in perspective. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that you have good weather.

Thank you!

“Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mt Fuji” is available in major Japanese bookstores, on Amazon Japan and directly from the publisher on the Cicerone website.

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AUTHOR

David

David

Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.