The title question came from a colleague on the way back from a ski-tour in the Swiss backcountry. It seems a good enough place to start. Be reassured: you’ll never run short of great relief in Japan. Only three of the 47 prefectures, circuits, or major cities lack summits above 1,000 metres. Some 21 peaks, mainly in the Japan Alps, rise above 3,000 metres.
|Mt Fuji from Ohito, by Yoshida Toshi
From Tokyo, all three sets of the Japan Alps are within weekend reach – Northern, Central and Southern. Even closer to hand are the lower ranges of the Jōetsu, Tanzawa and Chichibu. One way to introduce their potential is to outline a year in the life of a Tokyo-based alpine club. Ours was affiliated to the Japan Workers Alpine Federation, one of two big national organisations. We called ourselves “Workmen Alpinists”.
A mountaineering year
We start in late November by tackling Mt Fuji (3,776m) as a winter training climb - by way of the south flank, shown in the woodprint above. This is an annual fixture for many mountaineering clubs. As Japan has no glaciers and precious few permanent snowfields, crampon and axe skills get rusty in the summer months. Once those skills are honed, there is ice-climbing within easy weekend reach, provided the waterfalls freeze. For winter climbing in the Japan Alps, you’ll need longer than a weekend, to allow for the long approaches and uncertain weather.
|Winter training climb, Mt Fuji
Snow ridges are ideally climbed after the snow has had time to consolidate – typically, in April and early May. From the carpark to the summit of Shirouma-dake (2,932m) via the mountain’s Main Ridge you’ll raise yourself through 1,700 vertical metres. A more challenging ridge, including several abseils, is Yatsu-mine (“Eight Peaks”) on Tsurugi-dake (2,999m).
|On Shirouma-dake's Main Ridge
|On Kita-dake Buttress: the charms of radiolarian chert
Summer is also the time for sawa-nobori. The Japanese art of river-climbing differs from European canyoning – instead of descending, the gully or gorge is followed up the mountain. Sawa-nauts can apply a whole array of specialised footwear, kit and techniques. River forays range from one-day trips in the mountains near Tokyo, to multiday expeditions where you may find yourself leading spray-rinsed slabs on étriers while wearing a wetsuit. There’s no accounting for tastes.
|In the Kurobe River (day one), Northern Japan Alps
|Sacred torii on Mt Fuji
By now, you'll have noticed the shrines that adorn many a Japanese mountaintop. They hint that mountaineering developed differently here. To simplify a bit, while science was the original impulse for mountaineering in Europe, in Japan it was religion. From the eighth century, most of the country’s high mountains were first climbed by monks or mystics. And monks are still to be met with on mountain paths.
|Pilgrims on Mt Fuji, by Yoshida Hiroshi
|Murai Yoneko vanquishes the Dai-Kiretto, August 1923
|Samuel Brawand, Yuko Maki, Fritz Steuri, Fritz Amatter
|Toshio Imanishi atop Manaslu, May 1956
“But dreams we must have and, all the time, I prefer dreams to memories,” said Gaston Rébuffat. We’ve touched on mountaineering in central Honshū, but that leaves whole ranges and regions unexplored. In particular, the northern island of Hokkaidō is another world. A winter traverse of the Shiretoko Peninsula would be a challenge of Alaskan dimensions, for example. With luck, the bears should be asleep.
|Sōfu-iwa: stuff that dreams are made on (Wikipedia)
|Akagi-sawa: in the deep mountains of Japan
So, Japan does have mountains. But of what kind? A co-founder of the Japanese Alpine Club said that Japan has both high mountains and deep mountains. The high peaks, even rugged Tsurugi, have all been climbed, robbing them of their mystery. Yet that still leaves the deep mountains (深山), where “no roads nor even forest tracks can penetrate, where you find your way along paths as faint as dreams, or along narrow ways, clambering over rocks and tree roots – such are the rigours and the rewards of the deep mountains.”
Ladies and gentlemen of the AACZ, worthy academicians, I hope that you too will one day get the chance to tread those paths as faint as dreams, and reap the rewards of the deep mountains.
A hiking guidebook such as Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan will give you a good idea of what is where. The best and indeed only English-language source on alpine climbing is Tony Grant’s Ten Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan, available in print and as an e-book. And don't miss this perceptive take on Japan's alpinistic culture on the iceclimbingjapan blog. Last but not least, for the history and literature of the mountains, try Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan.