Hiking in Japan


We call it bush walking in Australia and the Japanese call it mountain walking. By any name, it's a popular recreation in Japan and well organised. Japan has an extensive system of National Parks with trails to suit all tastes from the casual walker to the hiking enthusiast. Parking, toilet and other facilities are provided and there's no shortage of maps and helpful signs for those who can read them.

Hiking in Japan is much the same as in other developed countries but there are notable differences. One is the virtual absence of campsites. I have hunted for them and occasionally found one, only to discover that it is reserved for youth groups.

 I've spoken to hikers about this and have received a mixed reaction. Some are amazed that anyone over the age of twenty would want to sleep in a cabin or tent. Others say there is no law to stop you sleeping on a mountainside and that's what they do. Another notable difference is wildlife. In Australia, where I live, it is important to keep an eye out for snakes and crocodiles. In Japan it's bears, boars and monkeys. The Japanese National Parks people are highly protective of the furry creatures in their care and some of them venture surprisingly close to cities. I recently photographed the warning sign (above) about bears.

 I came upon it in a park about 100 km from Tokyo and showed it to friends who live nearby. The wife refused to believe there were bears in the park, claiming that the wildlife service puts the signs up to attract tourists. Her husband assured me that the bears are real and have to be taken seriously. We wear bear bells when we go hiking in Japan. They jingle and let the bears know we are coming. That way they don't get taken by surprise, which can be bad for their nerves and lead to dangerous defensive behaviour. I stomp around when I go bush walking at home in Australia.

 That way the snakes know I'm coming and get out of my way. Japanese hiking gear is much the same as elsewhere but you will occasionally see people dressed in a far older style. They are pilgrims making their way between mountain shrines. The traditional gear is white tunic, straw hat and straw sandals. A few hardy types keep to the rules but many compromise on footwear and wear modern climbing boots.

You don’t have to climb to get to the top of many peaks. There’s no shortage of cable cars and mountain railways. And there are lots of places to leave the track for a meal with friends.

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