Peak attraction

There's a magic in the mountains -- but will we break the spell?


When the cherry trees in the highlands of Nagano Prefecture start blooming, Hajimu Miyamoto of the Azumi Village tourist association begins to feel excited — and a little nervous.

Excited, because after five months’ hibernation under a heavy blanket of snow, the narrow 8-km switchback, the only road to Kamikochi Village (a subdistrict of Azumi), reopens each year in late April.

A little nervous, because the village, situated at 1,500 meters amid the dazzling scenery of Japan’s Northern Alps, will once again become a magnet for visitors. Many come simply to enjoy the fresh mountain air and breathtaking views, strolling along the river or in the woods; for others Kamikochi is the starting point for challenging ascents of the 3,000-meter peaks rearing up all around.

So, as secretary general of the area’s tourist office, Miyamoto spends the open season working busily to assist the hordes of hikers and sightseers who throng to this famous highland region. And though before the road opens he always worries about any accidents or mishaps that might befall visitors in the months ahead, he says each year his nervousness never fails to evaporate the moment he once again takes in the superb mountain views from Kamikochi. In particular, he says his first sight of the highest peaks of the Hotaka range overwhelms him every time.

“My concerns fade away in a instant,” he says. “It is like there is a magic in the mountains.” Perhaps this is the secret of the high peaks that keeps hikers and climbers coming back — again and again.

News photo
The Kappabashi Bridge at Kamikochi

Miyamoto’s comment reminds me of the experience I had when I first climbed Mount Chogatake from Kamikochi as a member of a student group. It was in early June and there was still snow on the slopes of the 2,677-meter peak. The going was hard in my hiking boots, as sometimes I’d plunge into soft snow, then slip on steep rocky slopes at other times.

While I silently pushed myself up, the instructors cheerfully told us the names of the birds singing around us and of the flowers along our path. It was hard going, and the only relief came during short breaks when we could have a snack or sip water.

Despite that tough climb, I am hoping to go back to Chogatake — and not only because of the spectacular view of surrounding peaks that greeted me when I finally walked clear of the treeline. The hard trek up the mountain, drinking in the pure mountain air, refreshed my mind in a way I had never experienced in my daily life.

Perhaps this hard-to-define feeling of spiritual uplift is one reason why, in ancient times, many mountains of Japan’s Northern Alps were regarded as sacred. Legend has it that people started to climb the mountain range of Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture in 701, when it was thought of as a Buddhist holy mountain after someone reported encountering the deity Amitabha Tathagata there in the form of a bear.

Much later, when mountaineering as a recreational pursuit took off in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the three mountain ranges in central Japan came to be known as the Japan Alps, comprising the Northern Alps (Hida Sanmyaku) the Southern Alps (Akaishi Sanmyaku) and the Central Alps (Kiso Sanmyaku). The name originated with William Gowland, a British mining engineer who referred to “the Alps in Japan” in guidebook to Japan he wrote after climbing Mount Yarigatake in 1878. Gowland is believed to be the first foreigner to have climbed the 3,180-meter peak, now the symbol of the Northern Alps.

News photo
Hikers high in the Yatsugatake range which straddles Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures

Though the Japan Alps lack the stature of their European namesakes, the Northern Alps — the most popular of the three ranges of the Japan Alps — offer magnificent scenery straddling the prefectures of Niigata, Toyama, Nagano and Gifu.

Kamikochi, located at the center of the Chubu Sangaku National Park, is a key access point for the Northern Alps. Located along both banks of the crystal-clear Azusa River, it was popularized by Rev. Walter Weston, a British missionary who climbed many of the surrounding peaks in the late 1880s and included it in his book, “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps,” published in London in 1896.

Known after that as the birthplace of Japanese mountaineering, Kamikochi later become so popular that, out of concern for the environment, driving there by private car was banned in 1975 and access is now by bus or taxi from Nakanoyu.

To commemorate Weston’s achievements, however, local people hold a Weston Festival every year in June — a tradition begun after World War II, when mountaineering became popular as a recreation for all. Even now the number of visitors continues to grow, and tourist office records show that in 2000 about 2 million people went there — some 900,000 of them in the peak months of August and October.

“Recently, Kamikochi has become a tourist destination even for day-trippers,” Miyamoto says. “Things have changed a little, but what remains unchanged is that people are fascinated by these mountains and they cannot wait for the hiking season to start.”

One of those waiting for the season to open is Tom Jones, a 22-year-old Londoner. About 120 years after Gowland became the first foreigner to climb Mount Yarigatake, Jones reached the peak for the first time in 1999 on a climbing outing from the high school where he was teaching English. He fell in love with the soaring peak and has gone back there every summer since. He doesn’t just climb the sharp rocky peak, dubbed “Japan’s Matterhorn,” but stays near the top, spending part of the summer season working at Yarigatake Sanso, one of the oldest mountain huts in the area.

Though he has traveled the world and climbed mountains in Europe and the United States, Yarigatake was different, Jones says. “It was quite scary — that was the first impression. It looked like a mountain in a horror film,” recalls Jones, who is now studying at Keio University in Tokyo as a one-year exchange student from Sheffield University in the north of England.

“But when I was about to leave to go down the mountain after my first ascent, I asked the girl at the hut if there was any job there,” he says. “I don’t know why. Just on the spur of the moment.”

The job he landed at the Yarigatake Sanso was, he says, “not glamorous”: everyday maintenance of the lodge, including cleaning rooms, airing futons, preparing meals, washing dishes and cleaning toilets. But for him it is an incomparable part-time job, in what he calls “one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

“You are busy, but you always have time to pause at the window and see views such as the sun rising in the clouds,” he says. “And it’s strange, but every year when I come down from the mountains, I am ill for a few days with stomachaches and headaches. I believe it is because the quality of the air and the quality of the life on the mountain are so good.”

As Jones knows, yamagoya mountain huts offer tired climbers not only food and a place to rest or stay overnight, but also the opportunity to meet other mountain-loving folk. They have evolved from the kikorigoya(woodcutters’ huts) of the Edo Period (1603-1867), and until about 30 years ago hikers carried their own rice to eat while they stayed there.

Thanks to the introduction of helicopters to airlift in supplies, however, the services offered by yamagoya have improved and diversified in recent years. In addition to the traditional rice and miso soup, their menus now include beef-steak dishes, tempura, hiyayakko (cold tofu), ramen, ice cream and beer.

The changes have made yamagoya life more comfortable, but Keiko Nakamura, owner of the Chogatake Hutte located 2,670 meters up Mount Chogatake, thinks that a mountain lodge’s role should be simple: to protect both the hikers and the mountain.

Nakamura, 37, who is now busy in the city of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, preparing for the opening of her lodge, took over the job from her father 12 years ago. He ran the hut for 40 years, through the period when the number of hikers in Japan grew dramatically — and Nakamura says that in her own lifetime she has noticed her beloved mountain losing its natural purity, little by little. “The air, for instance; I feel the air used to be clearer and more crispy,” she says.

Now, while managing the lodge where around 10,000 hikers stop every season, she works hard to improve the highland environment by reducing the consumption of water and the amount of garbage — as well as improving the meals and medical services.

“My happiness is to see hikers from across the country, some who come every year and others who show up just once, and to share their love for Chogatake,” she says. “I hope these feelings will lead everyone to protect the mountains as the old kikorigoya were doing in the past.”

As the popularity of mountaineering continues to grow, Nakamura’s philosophy is echoed strongly by others concerned with the condition of the mountains. As such, the Fujisan club, a three-year-old NPO set up to care for beautiful Mount Fuji, aims to encourage a way of hiking that combines an appreciation of the forests, flowers and animals in the mountains.

Some call for the number of hikers to be restricted in order to solve the garbage problems besetting Japan’s highest mountain. But Toyohiro Watanabe, executive officer of the group, says he instead wants to promote an alternative way of hiking. “My dream is that more and more people come to Mount Fuji, and keep the mountain beautiful at the same time,” he says.

Watanabe, Nakamura and like-minded campaigners believe that the key to achieving a sustainable relationship with the mountain environment lies in directing the focus away from a single-minded scaling of peaks, and toward an overall appreciation of the natural surroundings.

Kiyoshige Okubo, an experienced hiker who has worked for the prestigious mountaineering magazine Yama to Keikoku for 22 years, believes that “the naturalists’ way of hiking” hugely increases the pleasure to be had in the highlands.

“When I started hiking more than 30 years ago, I was sort of a peak hunter. I wanted to reach the top of every mountain I saw, and I wanted to climb up there faster than anybody,” he says. “When I was like that, enjoying the views was another goal. So, if it rained, I would be so disappointed.”

Since he discovered the joy to be derived from the flora and fauna of the mountains, though, 52-year-old Okubo says the weather has not meant so much to him, because those natural treasures are still there even in bad weather. “Even under the snow, I can imagine which flowers are ready to burst through because I’ve enjoyed learning a little about them.”

Okubo now climbs mountains to observe the flowers and animals in different seasons. “I’m always eager to go back because there is always something more to be discovered,” he says, beaming as he reminds me that the road to Kamikochi was opened last Friday — and the Opening Festival this year is scheduled for April 27, by the Kappabashi Bridge spanning the Azusa River running through the center of Kamikochi.