This way to safety: Japan looks at why more foreign tourists are getting lost in the mountains


An uptick in tourists visiting Japan to climb its magnificent mountains has led to a novel problem: an increase in the number of them getting lost.

Japan’s lofty peaks and upland trails are managed differently from those in many other countries, including lighter supervision when conditions deteriorate.

Police in prefectures spread across mountain ranges are now stepping up efforts to keep foreign hikers safe.

Of the nation’s 47 prefectures, Nagano had the largest number of people lost in mountains in 2018, at 330, according to surveys by the National Police Agency and other entities. Most of those stranded were individuals.

Of them, 19 were foreigners, up by 16 from the figure in 2008. South Koreans accounted for the largest share, at seven.

There have been cases where walkers were not rescued in time. In 2013, four South Koreans died when their group got lost in the Central Alps in Nagano Prefecture.

The differences with South Korea are instructive. There, mountain trails are managed by institutions that operate national parks. They are closed if officials decide that weather has deteriorated to the point that climbing would be dangerous.

Mountain hiking in South Korea is therefore considered a safe leisure suitable even for beginners.

But many of Japan’s trails are managed more lightly.

An official at the Nagano Prefectural Police’s division for mountain safety indicated that the rise in stranded foreigners is mainly because they do not appreciate the risks involved.

“There have been many cases in which foreign climbers got lost because they were dressed lightly, as if they were on sightseeing trips, and were unprepared for sudden changes in mountain weather,” the official said.

In June, officials of the National Center for Mountaineering Education and mountain rescue personnel from the police departments of Nagano, Toyama and Gifu prefectures visited South Korea. They joined South Korean national park rescue teams for joint rescue training in rocky areas, and shared techniques.

The Japanese side told their South Korean hosts about the times when South Korean mountain climbers got lost in Nagano, and said hikers would do best to check their equipment — and the weather.

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