Hiking in Japan can be a lot like hiking elsewhere in the world; except that sometimes it’s not.
My experience hiking in Japan has taught me a lot about the country and what can be expected when hitting the trail or climbing one of its many famous mountains.
Some of what can be found hiking in Japan is great – like free toilet paper and onsens. Other things are terrible – like the persistent ringing of bear bells and the giant hornets that can kill you (and are basically the things of nightmares).
The following is a collection of the backcountry trivia I’ve managed to learn on my adventures thus far.
Let me know what you think in comments below!
1. Yes, everyone has a bear bell.
Practically everywhere I’ve hiked in Japan I’ve seen signs warning hikers about bears, and practically everywhere I’ve hiked in Japan I’ve been plagued by the unmistakable jingling of bear bells. I don’t believe that bear bells are in fact required anywhere, but the majority of Japanese hikers use them whilst hiking. Even in areas where there aren’t any bears, bells still ring through the mountains (so are they really bear bells anymore?).
Although I’ve yet to see a bear in the country, I have met hikers who claim to have firsthand experience with Japan’s largest mammal. The Asian black bear can be found in the mountains of Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku (all of Japan that isn’t that big island at the top) and the Ussuri brown bear can be found on the island of Hokkaido (that big island at the top). Occasionally someone will be mauled and eaten by a bear in the country (the average is less than one death per year), but there are far scarier things in Japan than bears (as you’ll find out below).
2. No, you’re not underprepared.
Heading out for my first summit following my first winter in Japan, I feared that perhaps I had decided to hit the mountains too early for the snow to have melted. Why? Because everyone at the trailhead was wearing huge boots, snow gaiters, jackets, and waterproof pants. Not only that, but they all had rope, harnesses, and ice axes too (and bear bells). I was naked in my trail runners, shorts, and shirt (good thing I like being naked). Not discouraged, I hiked up anyways, and guess what? Zero snow, zero obstacles, and zero reasons to have all that extra gear.
As time went on and the march into summer continued, I quickly learned that this was not simply a one-time phenomenon as we transitioned from winter into summer – even in the middle of August, Japanese hikers come to the mountains fully equipped (to hike through a typhoon in winter). So just remember, you’re not underprepared, everyone else is far too overprepared.
3. The lodges are fully functioning hotels.
Another hallmark of mountains in Japan are their lodges. The most prominent mountains of Japan are filled with lodges that do more than simply allow hikers to escape the elements or refill on water. These lodges (which can cost upwards of $100/night) offer everything from beverages, incredibly overpriced souvenirs, and freshly cooked meals to wi-fi, flushing toilets, and the ability to pay with a credit card. Some of the largest lodges have capacities pushing 800 people. Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with these places (but it’s been falling more towards “hate” recently) and although I have never stayed in one, I have benefited from their services (and been asked to pay for sleeping outside on the ground).
4. People yield – far too early.
In the mountains there exists an unwritten code of conduct that people follow to avert disrupting nature’s harmony (and backcountry brawls). One point of this code states that downhill hikers must yield to uphill hikers (however, exceptions exist). When I see a fellow hiker dragging themselves upwards towards me, I pick a spot between us with space to pull off and that I know I will reach first. However, in Japan, I have found people coming uphill to yield far too early (similarly to how people merge far too early whilst driving here – it’s a real problem) – basically as soon as they see me.
Now sometimes yielding to a downhill hiker can simply be a way to justify a break from climbing, but all too often people will step off the trail as soon as they see me coming (maybe I am just incredibly intimidating – being not Japanese and all). Basically, if you feel like an ass far passing everyone going downhill when you were, in fact, going to yield to them, don’t worry too much about it (I know how you feel).
5. Hit the onsen afterward.
First of all, if you are in Japan and “go to an onsen” is not on your list of things to do, then chances are you didn’t research “things to do in Japan” very thoroughly (and you should add this item immediately). Many of the major trailheads in Japan are surrounded by onsens (and if you’re wondering what this onsen thing is, then you can read about my first onsen experience here), and heading to one once you descend from the mountains is almost obligatory for Japanese hikers. I have found the mountain onsens to be much more inviting and relaxing than those to be found in cities, and if you’re lucky then you’ll even get to let it all hang out while enjoying a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains or valleys.
Just remember that you’ll want to have a clean change of clothes with you for when you emerge from your soak (not exactly ultralight, but well worth it if the onsen is on your list).
6. Start early – finish early (if you’re Japanese).
Hikers in Japan like to get up early – really early. Should you plan on sleeping past sunrise, make sure to move far away from anyone camping near you. Everyone gets up at the crack of dawn, makes their fancy meals (the idea of going stoveless is impressively more foreign to the mountains than I am), and gets moving early (which I am actually totally on board with). Getting up early will help you to avoid any afternoon thunderstorms and make headway before weather forces you to retreat to your tent (or get off passes and peaks).
However, hikers in Japan stop hiking incredibly early as well. People seem to rarely put in big days, and by two or three in the afternoon everyone’s already made it to their next lodge and is ready to throw back some ¥1,000 beers. I rarely encounter hikers in the late afternoon or early evening (I don’t think anyone night hikes). Usually, if you plan on making it to some distant (but reasonably close) landmark and it’s already late in the day, people will be shocked if you tell them your day’s destination or ask them for directions. Don’t you worry – I have faith you’ll make it.
7. The ropes, chains, and ladders.
Trail builders in Japan are very fond of affixing ropes, chains, and ladders to the landscape to make routes more accessible and less technical – almost to the point of it being irritating. All alone out in the mountains and suddenly you have a virtual handrail to aid a tricky traverse? Not the greatest of adventures. Admittedly, I have used these ladders, ropes, and chains on occasion to help myself up and down mountains, but many times they’re completely unnecessary and do a lot more to take away from instead of add to the experience. These fixtures (the ladders in particular) are also excellent at creating bottlenecks and causing slowdowns on trails (pro tip: get started before sunrise – even earlier than your Japanese counterparts).
8. Beware the Japanese giant hornet.
I’ve already mentioned bear bells and bears, but the reality in Japan is that bears aren’t much of a threat to human life in the mountains. What is a threat is the Japanese giant hornet. These things can be upwards of 1.8 in / 4.5 cm long and have a wingspan of more than 2.4 in / 6 cm, which may not sound that big, but trust me, you’ll think differently once you see one buzzing past your head (they’re terrifyingly huge).
Are you someone who doesn’t like bees? Well these things literally destroy bees (I’m not kidding) – thirty hornets can completely wipe out a hive of 30,000 bees in just three hours (I’m telling you, follow that link). Apparently being stung is incredibly painful (go figure) and even if you don’t happen to be allergic (in which case you die from anaphylactic shock), the neurotoxin (called mandaratoxin, MDTX) can still kill humans. Every year between thirty and forty people are killed by these monsters. Good luck.
9. Learning some kanji is extremely helpful.
First, a kanji is one of those complicated messes of strokes that you see all about you in Japan. Scary, I know. Even to people learning Japanese, kanji are the bane of their studies. However, learning some kanji before you set off (or at least having them written or saved somewhere) can help out a lot when you’re all alone at that trail junction you didn’t expect to find (or want to make friends with the locals).
So what kanji should you be learning? At the very least you should have with you the name of whichever mountain or trail you plan on conquering and the name of your trailhead if it’s available (you should also write down the romanization of these kanji so that you know how to say them if you need to ask someone directions).
Secondary kanji can be those for any nearby peaks or landmarks that could be used for navigation (generally, trails and junctions are well-marked), those for north, south, east, and west (北 kita, 南 minami, 東 higashi, 西 nishi), or the kanji for geographical features such as mountains (山 yama), valleys (谷 tani), and rivers (川 kawa). I guess I will have to write a post on Japanese hiking kanji in the near future.
10. Yes, there’s a shrine on top of the mountain.
On almost every summit I’ve reached in Japan, there has been a shrine of some sort (obviously there to appease the merciful mountain gods and keep them from blowing up the mountain in a violent explosion). These can be small stone shrines the size of microwaves or huge shrines large enough to walk into (less common). At first I wasn’t a huge fan of these shrines, but after seeing what sort of damage can be done to summits (like what was done with Fuji and Ibuki) I don’t have much of an issue with the Japanese tradition of mountain god appeasement.
11. Nobody fears you stealing their toilet paper.
Perhaps a bit of context is needed for this one (for those of you who have not yet been reduced to stealing toilet paper from public restrooms). Typically whilst out in the wilderness, I (and many others) carry toilet paper in the event that I need to make a poo without a functioning bathroom nearby. Although toilet paper can be a hot-button issue in the outdoor community, it’s useful to have around in case of an emergency. Many places nearby (or on) trails will have locks on their toilet paper dispensers, and they make it difficult for paper to be taken en masse (and usually don’t have extra rolls just sitting around). However, you need not worry about toilet paper being unobtainable in Japan.
12. Yes, that’s a vending machine you’re seeing.
When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail “where the next vending machine was” became a running joke among hikers. The humor in this would fall deafly on Japanese ears because there are in fact vending machines in Japan’s mountains. Now these aren’t necessarily just places along the trail (but actually sometimes, yes, they are), but should you make it to a lodge (or the summit of Fuji) it may be difficult to believe your eyes (or resist the temptation to pay far too much for a beverage).
13. Everyone has really expensive hiking boots.
I’ve hiked in New Balance trail runners for a while now and don’t have any intention of switching to anything that resembles a traditional boot (and not just because my hiking paradigm was shaped by the PCT). In Japan, I have found it quite rare to encounter anyone out in the mountains with anything short of boots, and these aren’t just any boots – they’re the same boots that everyone else has got, and they’re expensive (like over two or three hundred dollars expensive). I’ve even been told by employees at the mountain huts that I don’t have the proper footwear to be trekking. These people have even gone as far as to tell me that I should not continue and am better off turning around and coming back better prepared. Needless to say, I have yet to end a mountain adventure due to inadequate footwear.
14. Nobody has ever cowboy camped before.
If you want everyone to think that you’ve got something seriously wrong with you, then try your hand at cowboy camping in Japan. So long as the weather cooperates, I sleep without my trusty tent whenever I can. This has gotten me plenty of attention in Japan’s mountains.
“BUT AREN’T YOU COLD!?” Everyone seems to be concerned with how warm I am (when I can’t carve myself out a piece of solitude for the night), but since it’s barely below freezing and I invested in a sleeping bag designed to handle temperatures down to 15 °F / -9 °C (check it out here), it turns out that I’m perfectly fine. Thank you goose feathers!
On a somewhat related note, around 80% of the campers I have seen have the same (two person) tent (I very rarely see single person accommodation).
15. Everyone’s food is fancier than yours.
So this might not apply to all of you out there (especially those of you who haven’t yet embraced stoveless travel), but hikers in Japan don’t mess around when it comes to their food. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the meals these guys cook aren’t on par with the stuff they make at home. Everyone has a gas stove. They also have pots, skillets, oil, rice (so much rice), vegetables, and noodles. The massive packs that people haul up and down mountains here have always perplexed me – perhaps this is a clue to what they’re hitting the trail with.