“You can't do that – it's too extreme,” came the response from the tourist office in Takaoka when we told them about our plans to do a six day trek from Tateyama to Kamikochi. Had we really bitten off more than we could chew?
After our Patagonia and New Zealand adventures, we now wanted to check out Japan's mountain wilderness, and a six day traverse of the Northern Japan Alps – panned by Lonely Planet as the “ultimate hike in Japan” - sounded right up our street. Japan's perhaps not a destination associated with hiking - at least not for non-Japanese. However, the mountains are surprisingly easy to reach, so tear yourself away from temple-hopping in Kyoto or the city buzz of Tokyo and discover a Japan that few foreigners head out to see.
Getting any useful information beforehand can prove difficult. Lonely Planet's Hiking in Japan was the only English material we could find but, although the master of all guide books claimed such a trek was possible, the reaction at the tourist office left us somewhat concerned.
As with most things in life, it seems there was no need to worry. By the time we reached Murudō, we found ourselves surrounded by Japanese hikers kitted out from head to toe in Mont Bell gear – the brand of choice.
But hiking in Japan threw a few more surprises at us. Here's why...
Japanese Hikers have a lot of stuff
For a nation well known for economizing on space and working wonders at creating gadgets, devices, and foldable furniture to fit into small areas, it all goes completely pear-shaped when it comes to mountain gear. The Japanese, it would appear to us, take kit more akin to a Himalayan expedition than a jaunt in the Alps. Full-sized kettle and stove? No problem - it all goes in the 70L backpack. On the clothes front, it's not unusual to see the full combo of long-sleeved top, checked shirt, gloves (don't let any skin show!), fisherman's hat, not forgetting a nifty cord-cum-clip between hat and collar in case of any gusty moments, or an incredibly large visor for those sunny spells. Whereas gaiters are something I associate with school trips to the Lake District, slogging it out through the boggy marshes, they're essential Japanese hiking kit - even in sunny weather. Oh, and let's not forget the all-important jingly bell. It deters the bears. Apparently.
The Price of Japanese Mountain Huts
With our tent on its way back to Germany, our sleeping bags donated to the church in Australia, and our camping mats sold, we were left with little option but to fork out around 70 euros per person per night for the pleasure of sleeping alongside fellow sweaty, wet, snory, and weary hikers. Admittedly you sleep in a futon on a tatami mat - slightly more upscale than a mattress-stuffed dorm in a Swiss hut - and you get two meals included. And I suppose when everything needs to be flown in, and certain things that we'd rather not discuss in too much detail need to be flown out to a sewage plant, the money needs to come from somewhere.
Japanese Autumn Leaves are more stunning than we thought
The Japanese go wild about momiji (Autumn leaves). It's a bit like the Autumn version of the cherry blossom euphoria in Spring. But just how stunningly beautiful the expanse of colour is; it's a sight you can't grow bored of.
Shrines at the summit
We're used to a cross marking the summit, but shrines at the top were a new experience for us.
The stunned looks
The Japanese are enchantingly curious about why a non-Japanese person is in Japan - especially when you're in mountain territory where non-Japanese are few and far between. We met some endearing people - "please, enjoy your time in Japan" - but the sight of a Westerner proved a bit too much for some people who gave us a wide berth on the track and literally stared at us as we walked past. It's a stereotype we've never experienced in Japan before, but then we haven't usually been so far off the beaten track.
Success with my Japanese hut reservations
There's little English spoken at the mountain huts, so it was time to put my Japanese to the test when I called up to make the reservations. But had they worked? It seemed so! All the hut rangers knew I was "Karen-san"! I was pleasantly surprised :-)
Seeing how you climb Mount Yari
Is it a set from Playmobil? Or rather intrepid Japanese hikers taking the precarious route to the 3,180m high summit of Yari-ga-take? Can't say we were expecting that.
Mountain Hut Masterchefs
There were no Maultaschen here. Instead, the talented hut staff whipped up creations like this little lot:
Eat, Sleep, No Speak
Maybe we were foolish to think there'd be some drinking shenanigans and socializing like in the Austrian Alps. Oh no. Multi-day treks are serious business. Eating was a quick affair - in fact, we were always last! - and once done, off you scoot to bed, leaving your partner to finish their dinner alone if need be.
Early to Bed, Early to Rise
Breakfast at 5am, you say? Ouch! That was a painful one. It's "mountain time" as the Japanese say. Twinkly music gently wakes you from your futon slumber at 04:45 and by 6am you're out on the track. But you shouldn't risk arriving late at the next hut for that 5pm dinner. As for lights out - that would be 8pm. Sleep tight!
A Glimpse of Mount Fuji
If a friendly Japanese couple hadn't pointed it out to us, I think we'd have missed a glimpse of Japan's highest mountain. Just as well the weather was on our side and that R had taken his paparazzi lens with him for this beauty of a shot.
The young French couple looking for the shower
We had to break it to them that there was a reason we hadn't showered for five days. Yes, even when you're paying 70 euros for your hut!
The age and fitness of Japanese hikers
The majority of Japanese trekkers we met were, let us say, somewhat advanced in age. Apparently they only have time to hike when they retire. We can only take our hats off to them for their level of fitness and endurance. Let's hope we're still hiking at that age!