Guidebook to the Magnificent Japan Alps

It would seem the only thing rarer than an albino dodo bird, scoring an albatross in golf or stumbling upon a Freshness Burger outlet in Tokyo is an English-language guidebook dedicated to Japan’s mountains. As quite frankly there ain’t a lot of them. In fact, to find one published in the last twenty years you’d need to rewind to the early noughties when Lonely Planet released their first edition of Hiking in Japan. Prior to that there was only Paul Hunt’s Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer’s Guide to the Mountain Trails (1988), Day Walks Near Tokyo by Gary D’A. Walters (1988) and his follow up More Day Walks Near Tokyo (1992). Incidentally, these were the last hiking guidebooks by Japanese publishing house Kodansha International who closed their doors in 2011 dealing a major blow to books on various Japanese topics in English.

Thankfully this hiatus of hiking books on Japan has come to an end with Cicerone’s (a UK publisher specialising in guidebooks for trekkers and cyclists) release of Tom Fay and Wes Lang’s Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji along with Japan’s Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage by Kat Davis. Wes needs little in the way of introduction being the founder of the website Hiking in Japan and a doyen of the Japanese mountain scene having climbed the Hyakumeizan or 100 Famous Japanese Mountains. Tom the other half of the intrepid duo is an accomplished writer with plenty of experience climbing mountains in Japan, his hometown of North Wales, and the Himalayas amongst others. Together they harness their strengths in this comprehensive 400-page hiking guide.

The guidebook is intended for both foreign residents living in Japan as well as international visitors seeking independent and self-guided walks. Hiking is one of the most popular pastimes in Japan attracting a robust following amongst foreign hiking devotees. Hence an up-to-date trekking guide for the Japanese Alps was well overdue. The hikes are divided into four geographic regions namely; North Alps, Central Alps, South Alps and Mount Fuji – the north to south corridor of mountains which crisscross central Honshu. The introduction is followed with a rundown on hiking in Japan essentials and information to keep you healthy, safe and generally out of harm’s way. Perhaps best summed up by “Unlike treks in many other parts of the world where trails tend to be steady … treks in the Japan Alps often follow rugged, steep trails which rise and fall over multiple peaks, so good levels of fitness and stamina may well be required”.

Unlike the aforementioned books above, Tom and Wes’s is crammed full of stunning photography to inspire and satisfy the craving to explore new places. Local topographic maps are presented in full colour and annotated in English and Japanese making them a good accompaniment to the Yama-to-Kogen map sheets. A helpful addition are the elevation profiles which provide advanced warning of what’s to come such as the almost 1,700 metres in elevation gain in just over 5 kms ascending Mt Kita-dake from Hirogawara – I can attest this climb is quite brutal.

The route descriptions for each hike and trek are as you can imagine are thorough, to the point, rarely leaving you wanting for more. They range from easy half day walks that are well-marked and travelled to long and strenuous overnight treks. Optional and often challenging alternative routes are also included. The multi-day treks include information about the mountain huts and campsites you’ll pass by and the amenities they provide. The guide’s pièce de résistance culminates with ‘Trek 13’ a full-length traverse of the entire South Alps from Hirogawara to the Akaishi Onsen Shirakaba-so hot spring. According to the authors “is Japan’s toughest yet most rewarding multi-day hike” but with some days on this hike necessitating 11 plus hours of trekking it’s sure to test the mettle of even the most seasoned hiker.

The margins of the book are packed with titbits of information such as “Odaira sanso is family-run and serves a great cup of fresh coffee” to the practical “If a leech attaches to you, pull it off gently using your fingernail” and on Japanese hornets “(suzumebachi) found here can be aggressive and attracted to the colour black. Avoid aggravating them as stings can require medical attention”. Sound advice to take on board. Lastly, a thoughtful addition is the clear protective sleeve for added durability, invaluable if you intend on carrying the entire guidebook along with you.

With 31 walks and treks to tackle, Tom and Wes’s guidebook has plenty to keep even the most impassioned hiking enthusiast busy for at least a few summers. Whether you’re after scrambling and exposure up the likes of Mt Tsurugi-dake and the notorious Daikiretto or prefer a slightly less hair-raising experience this guidebook has you well-covered.

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