Review: Tom Fay and Wes Lang's Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji
You can trace the lineage of these authors all the way back to Ernest Satow and Albert Hawes, who came out with their A Handbook for Travellers in Central & Northern Japan in 1881. This was a general vade mecum that included side trips to many high peaks, Fuji, Hakusan, Yari-ga-take and Tateyama among them. It was this guidebook that sped Walter Weston on his way to his Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps.
If Tom and Wes are part of a long tradition, how do they stack up against it? The question is easily disposed of. The two writers know their territory as if it were their backyard, being long-term residents of Japan and certified meizanologists. And they had the wit to team up with Cicerone, a specialised publisher of hiking and trekking guides. Heck, the very name of this imprint means “guide”.
The result is all but a foregone conclusion. Applying two decades of progress in printing technology, Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji regales you with full colour pages, all photos, maps and elevation profiles included (Wes's posts on these topics over on Tozan Tales are well worth reading). The crisply written route descriptions come with course times based on ground truth. If you still get yourself benighted, this guidebook won’t be to blame.
Introductions then and now
You get the measure of a guidebook’s ambitions by dipping into its introduction. Back in 1881, Satow and Hawes prefaced their Guide with more than a hundred pages on Japan’s geography, botany, zoology and religions. The sections on ferns and Buddhism are particularly good, as is the practical advice:
The shooting season begins on October 15 and ends on April 15. Licences can be obtained at Tōkiō from the Police authorities, and the open ports and Ōzaka from the Prefecture, fee 10 yen (paper). The applicant has to enter into a written engagement to observe certain regulations … This covenant expressly stipulates that the holder of the licence shall not shoot beyond Treaty limits.
Picking up the baton just over a century later, Paul Hunt chose to go light on religion in the introduction to his 1988 guidebook. On the other hand, and as you’d expect from an author who came to prospect for oil in the Japan Sea, he provides a very lucid and complete summary of Japan's natural history and geology:
The present zone of active volcanoes, which is known as the Green Tuff Zone, has been active since the Miocene, and is the youngest tectonic zone. It is found on the continental side or the inner belt of the island arc systems, where subsidence and deposition of sediments in basins has occurred. During the Miocene, large-scale submarine volcanism occurred in these basins … These lavas, extruded in an aqueous environment, were altered and changed to a green colour – hence the name Green Tuff.
In their own introduction, Tom and Wes stay away from the Green Tuff. Instead, they zero in on practical matters such as how to get a SIM card for your mobile phone (be reassured in this: “Japan is a technologically advanced country… “). Alas, they have nothing to say about shooting licences – although, for Bambi’s sake, there are enough deer up in those hills to justify a bit of culling.
Their route descriptions focus on the practical too. Where Paul Hunt mashed up guidebook with travelogue, blending his personal reminiscences into route descriptions, Tom and Wes are all business. Instead of picking just a few flagship hikes, as Hunt does, they outline a dense web of trails through the highest mountains – and, of course, on and around Mt Fuji.
Each approach is, or was, the right one for its time. While Hunt had to reintroduce Japan's mountains to a foreign audience after a long hiatus in English-language guidebooks, Tom and Wes have a readership that already knows a bit about hiking in Japan. So detailed coverage is the right way to go.
So much information is packed in here that not much room is left for background colour. Here and there, the authors do drop a tantalising detail or two, such as the hut-warden’s “notorious” temper on Notori-dake. Or the rumour that rocks were piled up on the summit of Oku-Hotaka (3190m) in the Northern Alps so that it could overtop its southern rival, Ai-no-take (3189m), as Japan’s third-highest mountain.
It’s no coincidence that both these vignettes involve mountains in the Southern Alps. For my money, one of Tom and Wes’s achievements is to drag this shy and retiring mountain range out into the limelight. For various reasons – difficult access, less obviously dramatic scenery – these mountains have always played second fiddle to their northern and central counterparts. By stoking many a hiker's ambition, the write-up of Trek 13, a traverse of the entire Southern Alps, will do much to correct this deficit of attention.
The southern reaches of the Southern Alps are particularly remote. Tom and Wes can’t alter that fact, but they do show you how to use such transport links as there are to best effect. And they are particularly good on what flowers and rocks you’ll see along the way. I learned from their route descriptions that the pinkish (radiolarian?) chert which forms Kita-Dake Buttress actually outcrops on many mountains further south too.
So there you have it. A solid, practical guide, based on decades of mountain experience, and all packaged – at a reasonable price – in a durable plastic wrapper. It’s good that the book will hold up well, as, on past performance, it will be a decade or so before we get another English-language guide to any of the Japanese mountains.
When we do, here’s a wish-list. Now that Tom and Wes have so thoroughly written up the Japan Alps, the big remaining blank on the map is Hokkaidō – surely those Hidaka and Daisetsuzan mountains deserve an English-language guidebook to themselves. The same might be said for many individual regions, such as the Kansai or Kyushu. Or, if you're into the Green Tuff, how about a guidebook to Japan's burgeoning population of geoparks and geomuseums?
There’s no need to go far to find other terrae incognitae. Yes, Mt Fuji, I’m looking at you. Hidden in plain view of Tokyo, Japan’s top mountain is surprisingly reclusive when it comes to English-language hiking information. Tom and Wes include workmanlike information on four of the main climbing routes, plus a satellite peak – but that still leaves the Murayama trail, the O-chū-dō, the lakes, lava fields and caves, and the circuit of the mountain’s foot, among scores of other possible Sehenswürdigkeiten.
A detailed guidebook to Mt Fuji: now there’s an idea – you know, if you started compiling one now, you might even get it published in time for the Tokyo Olympics.
Tom Fay and Wes Lang, Hiking and Trekking: The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji, Cicerone, 2019
David Joll , Craig McLachlan and Richard Ryall, Hiking in Japan, Lonely Planet, 2001
Paul Hunt, Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer's Guide to the Mountain Trails, Kodansha International, 1988
Ernest Mason Satow and Lieutenant A G S Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Northern & Central Japan, John Murray, 1881
Wes Gibbons, Teresa Moreno and Tomoko Kojima, "Field geotraverse, geoparks and geomuseums", Chapter 12 in Teresa Moreno et al, The Geology of Japan, Geological Society, 2016.