A guide on avoiding the (literal) pitfalls of hiking in Japan, as seen through the perspective of someone who has personally experienced all of the dangers.
Some of us might not be a seasoned hiker by any stretch of the imagination, but let’s say you went on a recent vacation to Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, decided to forgo the temples and instead brave the wilds in the hopes of imitating bold outdoorsy types by heading to the vast outdoors of Japan. By then you might realize that it came to an end with impenetrable mountains that could only be reached by road.
Then, you might suddenly remember that you missed an important factor: bus schedule. At that time, you’re stuck on one side of Lake Chuzenji by sunset, while in a bear territory! You’d be fortunate to have some phone coverage to summon a rescue speedboat, back to civilization.
So for future would-be adventurers out there, here is a list of some do’s and don’ts along with further advice while hiking in Japan.
Make a route plan
We can’t emphasize enough how important planning is, especially in rural Japan. Buses can operate once an hour or once a day, and they can also stop early. Not all signs are in English. There aren’t many people, except on major paths.
One might used AllTrails and Google Maps, but before venturing into uncharted country, it’s advisable to have asked the locals beforehand. This was particularly true of those who were walking in the other direction (a bad sign). All it would have taken was a short, “Tadashii michi desuka?” tacked after the required, “Konnichiwa (Hello).”
Another blunder is recognizing the relevance of elevation gain. The continuous up and down cost time and might lead to missing the last bus. Hikers with more experience tend to start earlier in the day.
- Visit the tourist information center for a map and advice—that is why it is there.
- To plan your route, use an app like AllTrails, Yamareco (Japanese), or Komoot.
- For lengthier excursions, notify someone, such as your hotel, of your route and plans, or use a tozan posuto (hiking trail itinerary box).
- Know your limits: If you’re new to hiking or haven’t done it in a while, don’t attempt high peaks.
Prepare yourself ahead of time
While some may think it’s excessive, it’s impossible to go wrong with extra supplies. Food and water are necessary, but don’t forget to bring a compass or GPS equipment as well. You’ll be grateful you have your phone if it dies or loses signal. When it comes to dead phones, don’t rely on them for directions. Just in case, bring a physical map.
Good hiking shoes, a whistle, a blanket, a flashlight, and a first aid bag are some items you’ll kick yourself for not having in case of emergency.
Surprisingly, vending machines may be found in even the most remote parts of Japan, but there are restrictions, so bring lots of water. One might have assumed there would be one at the conclusion of his or her journey, and while there might be, it might also be a long time since it had been restocked.
- Bring a physical map with you.
- Avoid draining your phone’s battery.
- Bring plenty of food and water with you.
- A compass, flashlight, blanket, or first-aid pack may come in handy and prove invaluable.
Don’t stray from the path
Those frightening warning signposts are there for a reason, and they’re quite necessary, especially during specific seasons when the terrain might slip and slide underfoot, or when there’s no shade and you’re roasting in the scorching Japanese sun.
In Japan, trail markers can range from a wooden signpost to a bright pink ribbon tied around a tree. If you miss one, you can find yourself scrambling up the side of a rock face. You also don’t want to degrade the natural beauty of the area. The moss-covered woodland floor is nearly sacrosanct in places like Yakushima.
- Always refer to your physical map.
- Keep an eye out for signs pointing the way.
- Learn a few important kanji, such as the name of your destination, 現在地 (genzaichi, you are here) and 注意 (chui, caution).
Keep the wildlife in mind
Several dangerous animals live in the mountains and natural environment areas of Japan, including the locations where you want to hike. Of course, the chances of encountering a bear on the path are slim, but adding a bear bell to your backpack, no matter how annoying the sound may be, couldn’t hurt.
If you’re unsure, go back. It may have hurt your ego, but a bear can do a lot more damage.
- Check out the most recent bear sightings (Nikko, for example, has an online bear tracker).
- Make some noise on the route to warn bears and other wildlife that you’re coming.
- Don’t give that cute monkey any food.
- Clean your trash and dispose of it properly.
If you’re lost or in danger
Even with the best planning, mistakes happen and things could go wrong.
If you get lost or in danger, follow these steps:
- Dial 119 for emergency help.
- Stop, ponder, and keep your composure and calm.
- Stay put if there is no immediate risk.
- Follow a watercourse downhill as a last option.