Books

Wes Lang and his quest to climb Japan's top 100 mountains

by Amy Chavez

Contributing Writer

There’s a nascent pink aura around the cherry blossom trees in Kansai. Wes Lang is dressed in a green shell jacket with a matching green zipper-pull hanging down just below his sternum, parallel with the drawstrings of the jacket hood. From an inner layer, which looks to be a blue fleece jacket, a black T-shirt peeks through the open neckline.

Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji, by Tom Fay, Wes Lang.
400 pages
CICERONE PRESS, Guidebook.

His head pokes out through his upturned fleece collar like a turtle that’s just been disturbed from a deep sleep. But, unlike a turtle, Lang smiles a lot and has an endearing habit of answering questions with a “yeah, yeah” instead of a “yes.” These two gestures put me at ease.

As we start our interview, he pushes back his flop of hair self-consciously. Lang is an adventurer, father, author and one of only a handful of non-Japanese who have hiked the hyakumeizan, Japan’s top 100 mountains.

“Some people translate hyakumeizan as the ‘100 famous mountains.’ But it’s not really a list of the best 100 mountains,” he cautions, without any sense of insistence in his voice.

In 1964, writer and climber Kyuya Fukada put together a compendium of his published magazine articles and titled it “Nihon Hyakumeizan.”

“It’s basically a write-up of these 100 mountains that he had climbed during his life, that he liked according to his own criteria such as history and beauty,” Lang elucidates.

Fukada’s book (translated into English by Martin Hood as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan,” University of Hawaii Press, 2014) is apparently responsible for this particular group of peaks becoming the de facto bucket list for climbers in Japan.

“Yeah, yeah. I decided I was going to climb this list in 2002 or 2003 but of course at that time there was no information in English,” Lang explains. So he hunted down Japanese guidebooks and researched the hikes himself. He finished the bonanza of peaks in 2008. “I just wanted to do it as part of my life,” he says, without a hint of bravado. “And I feel lucky I was able to do that.”

This U.S. native brought with him to Japan a mountaineering spirit first discovered scaling the Appalachian and Sierra Nevada ranges in his younger years. His predilection for volcanoes led him to ascend Mount Fuji’s perfect cone as soon as he moved to Japan in 2001. This trip inadvertently put into motion his quest to bag the hyakumeizan.

But the newcomer didn’t start the list in earnest until 2004, when he used most weekends and public holidays to ascend the lofty peaks. He laments that he doesn’t often see other foreigners hiking the ranges in Japan. This is surprising, since most of the hyakumeizan’s peaks can be hiked in a day and mountain lodges are readily available. However, because the ascents are scattered throughout Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, Lang also utilized his longer holidays. In Tohoku, he tackled 10 of the elevations in 12 days.

The tenacious climber is co-author with fellow alpinist Tom Fay of “Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji,” released last month by Cicerone Press, a guidebook publisher in the U.K. The duo’s goal is to fill in the vacuum left by two previous hiking guides that have gone out of print as well as to offer a more user-friendly guide.

“We wrote the book from two different angles,” Lang explains. “First, it’s a hiking and trekking guidebook for visitors to Japan. But, since both Tom and I live here, we wanted to write not just for tourists but also long-term residents: People who can already speak Japanese, who want really good maps and the most up-to-date transportation. So we included bilingual maps with kanji characters.”

He also reveals that signposts in the Japan Alps aren’t always rendered into English, so the descriptions in the book also include kanji. When people encounter such junctions, they can then decipher which way to go.

While the book features full-color maps with contour information, Lang recommends hikers buy the waterproof “Yama to Kogen Chizu” (“Maps of Mountains and Plateaus”), issued by Shobunsha (available at any Japanese bookstore or outdoors shop) to use in conjunction with the guidebook.

Although “Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji” doesn’t include specific information on the peaks of the hyakumeizan, Lang’s “Hiking in Japan” blog serves the vanguard of hopefuls with an online guide to the 100 peaks. On his blog you can also read about the 44-year-old’s most recent high-altitude project: scaling the tallest peak in every prefecture of Japan.

Will this, perhaps, be the birth of the yonjūnanameizan (47 top mountains)? Only time will tell.