Friday, May 20, 2016

“Are there really mountains in Japan?"

An appreciation of mountaineering mainly on Honshū – from a presentation to the Academic Alpine Club of Zurich

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
Spring is the season for ski-tours. Unlike in Europe, mountain huts are far and few between. That’s why you might want to dig a snowhole on Karamatsu-dake (2,696m), above the Olympic ski resort of Hakuba/Happō-one. There’s even a Japanese Haute Route, which follows ridgelines in the Japan Northern Alps. Allow extra days for the changeable spring weather. Wind speeds can blow you away, and avalanches too demand respect.

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
Rock-climbing is possible all the year round at warm coastal locations. Small crags are plentiful within 1–2 hours of Tokyo. Near the city, you’ll often be climbing on outcrops of chert, such as Koesawa Buttress. The sharp edges make for good holds; they’ve also been known to cut ropes. We used to climb on double ropes. Further away are the granite faces and towers of Ogawa-yama, Japan’s Ponte Brolla, and the basalt sea-cliffs of Jōgasaki.

On Kita-dake Buttress: the charms of radiolarian chert
Alpine rock climbs have to wait until the snow has melted and the June rains have dissipated. No.4 Ridge on Kita-dake Buttress is a classic. Be aware that the top pitch fell off a few years ago, making the finish much harder than before. Refer to an up-to-date route description for details.

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
Early autumn, when water levels are low, might be the best time to tackle the Kurobe River. This is a lengthy excursion – the guidebook says four days/three nights – through the gorge that drains the Northern Japan Alps. The route takes you past one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But don’t get caught by a typhoon. And so a year goes by.

Sacred torii on Mt Fuji
Japan’s mountaineering history
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
Foreigners started to explore Japan’s mountains from the 1860s. One, a mountaineering missionary by the name of Walter Weston, suggested the idea of a Japanese alpine club along the lines of the British original, of which he was a proud member. The Sangaku-kai (“Mountain Club”), Asia's first, was duly founded in October 1905 by the banker and writer Kojima Usui and six friends. Women weren’t invited to join until 1949, but that didn’t stop them climbing both with and without the men.

Murai Yoneko vanquishes the Dai-Kiretto, August 1923
Soon Japanese alpinists were active in the European Alps. A breakthrough came in September 1921, when Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune and three Swiss guides made the first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittellegi Ridge. This feat spurred a new generation of climbers, especially university students, to start tackling difficult ridges and faces in the Japan Alps, Tanigawa-dake and elsewhere.

Samuel Brawand, Yuko Maki, Fritz Steuri, Fritz Amatter
Inspired by European models, academic alpine clubs were founded to pursue guideless climbing. The Academic Alpine Club of Hokkaidō (1926) became experts in ski-mountaineering. Their counterparts in Kyoto (1931) had ambitions in the Himalaya, although they weren’t able to get there until after the second world war.

Toshio Imanishi atop Manaslu, May 1956
We’ll break off this potted history on 9 May 1956, when Toshio Imanishi reached the top of Manaslu (8,163m) on an expedition organised by the Japanese Alpine Club and led by none other than Yūkō Maki, of Eiger fame. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the reconnaissance expeditions were conducted by the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto, realising their dreams at last. That brings us to:

“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)
Or, if you seek sunwarmed rock instead of snow, you could sail 650 kms south of Tokyo (but remain within the city limits) to a volcanic seastack known as Sōfu-iwa or “Lot’s Wife” (99m). A first free climb awaits – the first ascent party in 2003 used some pitons, according to an obscure book that is subtitled “The book of secret islands in Japan”. I mention these places just to hint at the vast range of possibilities. The limits are set only by the imagination.

Akagi-sawa: in the deep mountains of Japan

Deep mountains
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.