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This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

 

Maps are an integral part of any hiking guidebook and can really make the difference between a best seller and a lemon. We knew going into this project that we wanted to include high-quality, easy-to-read contour maps and Cicerone delivered.

The publisher enlisted the services of map company Lovell Johns, who have provided on-line maps of Japan that Cicerone can incorporate into their electronic mapping portal. Tom and I were provided instructions for generating the maps in the portal, which basically entailed either uploading gpx files or manually drawing routes into their system.

There was a bit of a learning curve involved, and the physical work of inputting map information for every route in the book took quite some time, as there were 30 different hikes and treks for the first draft of our book. These were further subdivided into stages for each trek, and in the end we ended up with 65 different maps that needed annotating and editing.

After our initial map data was entered into the portal, the designer send us a rough draft of every map, which included only the basic trail information. We needed to input all of the text and symbol information on each map. This was all done through pdf files, but for the first run it proved much easier to print out each map and do the mark-ups by hand, with subsequent drafts fine tuned using detailed annotations on the pdf files.

 

The hand-marked maps were sent together with a Word file which included detailed instructions and text to include on the maps. Rather than the publisher having to manually input mountain names, they could simply cut and paste from our Word file. This was important due to the sheer number of kanji characters involved in our informative maps.

This never would have been possible without the power of the Internet, where files can be instantaneously shared across the world. In addition, Adobe Acrobat Reader allowed us to mark-up drafts from the luxury of our home computers. Remember the old days, when maps were completely hand-drawn, and drafts were sent overseas by snail mail? Tom and I would have likely flown back and forth between Japan and England if our book was written just a generation ago.

 

 

 

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

There’s really no way to ‘fake’ a guidebook. It’s like trying to give driving advice to a Nascar vet. You just can’t ‘talk the talk’ without ‘walking the walk’, which in my case involves hiking nearly every route in the Minami Alps in order to confirm existing conditions and document the scenery. But where to start?

I could have easily headed to the northern section of the South Alps, and that was the original plan during Golden Week until fresh snowstorms put a halt to that idea. With such relatively easy access, I could just hop on over to Kofu any weekend and knock out the routes in a systematic fashion. The southern section, however, would take a bit more time and planning, so why not start with the hardest?

That is my predicament for the 2-year deadline. With 8 peaks to climb, I need to split up the work, with 4 peaks each summer, and will probably face two separate trips into Sawarajima in the Southern section of the South Alps. The peaks in the northern section can be knocked off during weekend excursions if needed, but the most important factor for my trips would be the weather.

During my Hyakumeizan days, I would climb peaks regardless of the weather, which meant summiting Akaishi-dake in a raging typhoon. This time around, I need clear-weather photos for the guidebook, so I simply could not chance climbing in anything less than ideal conditions, quite a challenge in the ‘rainy’ Minami Alps.

I decided that the best course of action would be to knock off the hardest part of the Minami Alps first – the Warusawa-Akaishi loop. Then I could combine Senjō and Kai-koma in a separate trip along with either Hō-ō or Kita-dake after that. This would leave me with Shiomi and Hijiri for the following summer. Time to hit the trail.

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

 

Before you can even begin to write a guidebook, there is a lot of behind the scenes work regarding content. Tom and I had to narrow down a list of mountains/hikes to include in the guidebook, and with only 60,000 words to work with (including the introduction and appendices), we had to choose carefully. We could easily allocate our entire word count to the Kita Alps alone, so we needed to be picky.

We were both in agreement about including the ‘mainstream’ peaks of Tsurugi, Yari, and Hotaka, as well as the full traverse of the Kita Alps. However, there were a couple of mountains that were tough choices: should we leave Jonen and Kasa out in favor of Goryu and Kashima-yari? How about Kuma-no-daira and the Washiba/Suisho section?

In the end we decided to push for the inclusion of Jonen and Kasa, since they have never appeared in any English-language hiking guide. Lonely Planet mentions them briefly but doesn’t provide any detailed hike descriptions. This would not leave enough room for Goryu and Kashima-yari, but we were fine with that, as avid hikers can simply seek out a copy of the elusive Lonely Planet guide for these hikes.

I also wanted to include Yatsu-ga-take, as it is a very popular area with relatively easy access to Tokyo, but there wasn’t nearly enough space in the book to include it. Instead, we opted for a day hike near Kawaguchiko to satisfy those hikers coming to visit Mt Fuji.

Our decisions were by no means easy, and the contents could always change in future editions of the guidebook, but hopefully there are a few hikers out there that can respect our decisions and won’t deride us for leaving out two very impressive peaks. It wasn’t an intentional oversight.

The Minami Alps section, on the other hand, is as complete a guide as you’re going to see. The only peaks we left out were the ‘minor’ summits of Nokogiri and Zaru, two of the 200 meizan that are definitely worth mentioning, but probably not worth the potential risk of including them in a hiking guide. Nokogiri itself borders on a proper alpine rock climb, with many visitors opting for a rope, harness, and helmet for safety.

The guide also includes all 4 routes up Mt Fuji, which is something a lot of guidebooks forgo due to lack of space. Since Fuji is our ‘hit single’, we hope by including the minor routes it would appeal to a larger audience looking for a quieter way to ascend Japan’s highest peak.

Time will tell if we made the right decisions, but for now it seems like we have made an honest attempt at a comprehensive guide to the Japan Alps. If the book sells well, then we can always make adjustments in future editions of the guide.

 

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

 

Correspondence with the publisher was going well, but you can’t count your chickens (or should I say you shouldn’t count your tanuki skins before the hunt as they are apt to say in Japan). You don’t want to be set up for a letdown, so I continued to climb mountains while having this potential guidebook lodged safely hidden away as an afterthought until March 2016, when the publisher asked for our mailing addresses.

We received an agreement to sign and a large set of author guidelines. Our task was simple: produce a 60,000 word guidebook with 200 photos and clearly annotated maps with a strict submission deadline of April 30th, 2018. Here we go.

The guidelines are pretty straightforward but very intimidating when dealing with a new publisher, who has firm rules regarding writing style, punctuations and abbreviations. It’s a lot to work your head around, especially when reading them in advance before even beginning a project.

The other issue is with consistency of style. Since there are two of us writing the book, there should be a flawless integration of prose between hike descriptions written by two completely different authors. Readers of the book should not be able to discern which author wrote each particular section of the book. This may seem easy for two authors residing in the same country, but the issue is further complicated when working with someone from an entirely different part of the globe. I would need to up my game and study more about British vernacular and spellings. With Tom being the lead author, he would be able to ‘remix’ my writing into something a bit more palpable to a British audience and to more closely match his writing style.

In addition to the agreement and guidelines, the publisher sent along a collection of other Cicerone guides that we could use for reference. These proved invaluable and I actually read through the Corfu guidebook from front to back (possibly my first and last time to read a guidebook from start to finish, especially for a place I’ve never visited), highlighting key British vocabulary such as ‘waymark’ and ‘tarmac’ that I could borrow when writing my own hiking descriptions.

Tom and I split up the mountains and I was given the responsibility for the entire Minami Alps section of the guidebook. For those who are unaware, the Minami Alps is one of the most remote mountains ranges in Japan, with no easy access from any one direction. I gladly took on the challenge, as it gave me an excuse to revisit some of my old haunts from my Hyakumeizan days.

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

 

Hiking guidebooks are a great way to get insider information from experts about a particular region or mountain range. I came to Japan just as Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan guidebook went to print and I immediately picked up a copy. The information inside was invaluable in helping me plan trips and, while the maps inside leave a lot left to be desired, they did provide a basic layout of the trails and provided just enough kanji information to help decipher the Japanese signposts. In fact, I probably would have never climbed the Nihon Hyakumeizan if not for the informative side box about the peaks written by seasoned author Craig Mclachlan.

Still, as I dove deeper into the Hyakumeizan, I realized that Lonely Planet could only get me so far, so I invested in a handful of excellent Japanese-language hiking guides to help me complete my quest. I started both my Hiking in Japan and Tozan Tales sites exactly 11 years ago to help share my vast wealth of knowledge, but something inside me told me that it was not enough.

So back in 2009 I started the search for a publisher who may be interested in publishing a English-language guidebook on Japan’s mountains. I talked with publishers far and wide, submitted proposals, but in the end I always received the same answer: there just isn’t enough interest in Japan’s mountains. Japanese publishers were not interested in English-language content either, and I was reluctant to self-publish a guidebook that did not have well-made maps, as I lacked the resources and motivation to produce them myself.

Fast forward to February 2015, and with 90% of the way through the Kansai Hyakumeizan, I host a gathering of Kansai-based hikers and give a short slideshow on my top 10 mountains in the Kansai region, a list that continues to change (one day I’ll post the list on this blog). After my presentation, I am approached by British-author and mountaineer Tom Fay, who mentions his desire to write a guidebook on Japan’s mountains. We talk for a brief time and I offer him any assistance to help him achieve his dream, including a suggestion to help him co-author the book should he want to share the duties.

We keep in touch over the coming months, and after writing an informative article for the Guardian, Tom makes contact with esteemed British publisher Cicerone. They are interested in seeing a proposal and Tom formally asks me if I would like to partner with him in the project, with him being lead author. I accept his proposal and he gets to work on submitting a sample chapter and table of contents.

The response is positive, but the publisher is backlogged with other guidebooks, so we are asked about the willingness to wait for 2 years. We accept, knowing that you should never turn down an opportunity to work with a great publisher, even if it means waiting a while for your project to see the light of day.

Behind the Scenes Prologue

With the new guidebook slated for release next month,  I’m starting a new series to give readers a behind-the-scenes peak into what it takes to put together a hiking guidebook. Stay tuned over the coming months and feel free to pre-order the book directly from the publisher!

The Gathering VII

It’s hard to believe that 7 years has already passed since our first meeting of the mountaineering minds in the grassy fields of Tokusawa. Each year, ‘the planning committee’ springs into action, doing the behind-the-scenes work to ensure that everyone is well-fed and warm enough to survive a night out among the elements. Last year’s gathering coincided with the Banff Mountain Film Festival, so it only seemed natural to once again pair these two auspicious events into one thrilling weekend in late October.

Since relocating to Minami Otari village earlier in the year, Paul D. is instrumental in persuading us to hold this year’s gathering at Amakazari Kōgen campground at the trailhead to Mt. Amakazari, a peak I have fond memories of summiting during my own Hyakumeizan quest.

Access to Minami Otari is by no means easy, so I head up a day early to explore what this lesser-known village has to offer. It also affords a chance to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen for the very first time, a train line that has had the unexpected consequence of transforming Kanazawa from a ‘Little Kyoto’ to a ‘Little Tokyo’. The skies are a brilliant blue on the smooth ride through the Hokuriku plains. Tsurugidake, Tateyama, and Yakushidake follow my progress through a white-capped gaze, my first time to ever view this spectacle from one of Japan’s most notorious regions for wet weather. Paul picks me up from the station and we head for sustenance at an idyllic soba shop housed in a traditional dwelling lit by hanging gas lanterns. In this part of Nagano, cold buckwheat noodles are dipped into a miso broth with an accent of ground sesame and walnuts, the toppings pulverized by mortar and pestle. Paul and I grind the spices into a fine powder before adding them to the succulent broth and feasting on the handmade strands of soba. Once the noodles are successfully consumed, the server brings a warm cauldron of soba yū to pour over the remaining broth for a hearty finale to a satisfying meal. Paul and I are both boosting with energy and head to forests in search of a hidden village.

The village is worthy of a separate blog post, so interested parties will just have to wait a little while longer for the details. We make it back to Hakuba village in time for a quick stop at the North Face store and dinner at a local bar. Heavy rain moves in overnight and continues steadily through the morning. Yuta has just arrived by overnight train and bus, so Paul and I swoop down to meet him. Looking for a place to escape the rain, we all head to Sounds Like Cafe, a trendy hangout for the local powder hipsters in the winter season. The cafe is nearly empty at this early hour, and the smoked salmon and mashed avocado breakfast plate really hits the spot, washed down by a cup of fresh coffee. We all gaze our attention to a stunning photograph of a small alpine pond with brilliant mirror reflections. We gander a quick guess before giving up on our search for the name of the elusive location. A few minutes later, Yuta scrolls through photos of his recent trip to Shimonoroka and low and behold, on a hidden plateau on a seldom-used path sits the very exact pond adorning the walls of the cafe – Yuta had been there just one week ago but had no idea he had visited the place!

After breakfast we stop by the local supermarket for supplies and run into drone-master Edward. After shopping we agree to reconvene at Paul’s apartment to wait out the weather. At the first hints of sunshine we head further up the valley by car to Amakazari campground, reaching the damp grasslands just as the sun starts to illuminate the hillsides ablaze in autumn color.

One by one our trusty companions arrive: Naresh, Bjorn and family from Tokyo, John from neighboring Matsumoto, Rie, Hisao and David from Nagoya, and last but not least Michal (RIP), who is always with us in spirit. We pitch our tents along a thin sliver of green grass and start preparing a late lunch/early dinner of kimchi hotpot. With everyone carefully engaged in dinner preparations, Naresh, Paul, Bjorn and I head to the wetlands to take in the autumn scenery. Paul forages for ripe sarunashi, the underrated kiwiberry fruit that grows wild in this region. After taking enough photos to fill several memory cards, we stroll back to camp and feast on warm soup and hot dogs!

Shortly before sunset we head by car to Iwatake ski field for the film festival. Due to the wet weather the location has been moved indoors, but we all appreciate the added heat that comes with assembling in the large multipurpose space. Just before showtime, we convince Kaoru and Alastair to join us, and Paul slips out on a marathon driving session through the backstreets of Hakuba to pick them up. He returns just in time for the start of the film festival.

The films this year are a mixed bag. Last year it was a thrilling ride from start to finish, with every film competing to outdo the last. We all left there with a feeling of awe and an invigorating drive to head to the hills. This year, however, there were a few duds mixed in among the more brilliant footage. Sky Migrations was one such letdown. While it is a somewhat fascinating look at migratory birds, it is best appreciated on a comfy sofa cuddled up to a loved one, and not really suitable for a crowd of extreme sports addicts.

After a quick group photo, we all head back to the campsite to start the campfire, but the damp air produces a very smoky outcome, with most of us suffering smoke inhalation well before the fire produced enough heat to keep us warm. Some of us turn our attention to star photography while others drift off into a shivered reverie.

I awake at dawn to the hum of a drone. Peering outside, I find Edward taking his craft for a spin. I join him for a ‘virtual’ tour of the sky above. Mt. Amakazari sits free of cloud but the Kita Alps are cloaked and the sunrise just fails to impress. Luckily no one had made the suggestion for a midnight climb of Amakazari to view the sunrise. The autumn foliage glows warmly in the first hues of the new day. One by one the camp denizens awaken from their slumber and start their day. Paul makes the suggestion to head to Kama Ike to check out the colors and most of us head there on the double. The calm air produces perfect mirror reflections on the surface of the clear mountain pond. The beech trees wear their yellow coats proudly and look down on the spectacle with an air of content. Whatever disappointment we suffered at the film festival is now lost in reflection.

Back to camp we eventually retreat for a leisurely breakfast and quick throw of the frisbee. For some reason this is always my favorite part of the gathering due to the peaceful and calm vibe at camp just before the resignation that it must come to an end. While most of camp heads to the open-air baths of Amakazari Onsen, John and I reluctantly retreat back to Matsumoto, where I eventually catch a train back to Osaka, but not before an impromptu takeaway pizza lunch in the aptly-named Alps Park, with its impressive view of Mt Jonen to help keep us company.

With the 7th annual event now behind us, it’s already time to start looking ahead to 2019 and the next gathering. Judging by our track record, it is sure to be a memorable event. Let’s hope that Grace the Yamaholic will make a much-welcome reappearance!

The mid-section of the Diamond Trail is the toughest section, involving a long climb up to Yamato-Katsuragi, a steep drop to a mountain pass, followed by an even longer ascent of Mt. Kongo. An early start is in order.

Up at 4:30am, out the door an hour later and aboard a train into northern Nara Prefecture. Joining me for this excursion is William, host of his newly refurbished Willie Walks website. William has just started his own mission to climb the 300 famous mountains and gladly signed up when finding out both Katsuragi and Kongo are on his list. Never mind the fact that he has just been up Kongo on a separate mission not too long ago. I do suppose that I’ll have to return the favor by accompanying him up a mountain I’ve already been up to help even things out.

Both of us have been up Katsuragi before, but never from the Osaka Prefecture side. The problem is, the bus only runs on weekends and we are stuck without a ride on this brisk Friday morning. We hail a taxi to take us through the tunnel on the Nara side and over to the start of the Tengu valley trail. Rucksacks are shouldered shortly before 8am as we stroll on a concrete forest road through a sleepy village. The tarmac soon gives way to proper dirt and gravel as we traverse through a narrow gorge smothered with toppled trees snapped by the typhoon last autumn. Despite the damage, the track is clearly waymarked with pink tape and after an hour we leave the banks of the trickling stream and start gaining altitude through a monocultural forest of cedar and cypress trees that do their best to repeal the warm rays of the sun.

Further up the spur, the cedar is replaced by hardwoods lined by swaths of bamboo grass, and just before popping out on the ridge we reach a dirt forest road and a series of wooden dams – it seems that Osaka has been just as generous with its public works money on this side of the mountain. The ridge brings a campground and shuttered noodle shop, along with the fields of pampas grass lining the summit plateau. We trudge up to the summit, snap a few photos, and settle onto a wooden viewing platform, legs dangling over the drop while taking in the views across the valley towards Mt. Kongo, whose towering figure looks deceptively out of reach – is it even possible to reach it today?

Below our feet is a sprawling field of azalea shrubs, the area’s main attraction. Come May you wouldn’t even be able to find a place to place your feet on this viewing platform, never mind your rucksack and bottom, but on this chilly January morning we have the place to ourselves. I really would love to come back here for the main attraction but shudder to think about the large crowds that flock here via the ropeway on the Nara side. William offers me a Hojicha Kit Kit that tastes remarkably like roasted green tea and it’s just what I need to psyche myself up for the long road ahead.

We drop to a small saddle where a half a dozen gardeners are pruning the azalea bushes, perhaps to make the flowers bigger for their early summer performance. We scoot past and reach a broad clearing on our left with mouth-watering views down to the Nara plain. A windsock and solar-powered anemometer have been placed at the top, probably by a local paragliding club to check for opportune times to fly their crafts. Perhaps they make use of the ropeway to haul their parachutes up to this prime location for take-offs.  William and I continue south down a series of log steps bolted into the steep hillside. A duo of elderly women marches up these steps toward us – I don’t envy them at all and prefer the descent for a bit until the knees remind me otherwise. We lose a few hundred meters of altitude in a little less than an hour but a celebration is not in order, for we have to regain these precious meters on the climb ahead, plus a couple of hundred extra to put us over the 1100-meter mark on Kongo’s lofty summit.

The pass is soon reached and the Diamond Trail turns into jewel of cement along a broad forest road that continues for quite some time. We have a 6km ascent ahead of us but the forest road cuts out a few of those kilometers. At a water source just before the route re-enters the forest we stop for nourishment as the lunchtime bells ring in the valleys below. We are ahead of schedule and are making faster progress than initially thought but know that the climb is just beginning.

Our smiles soon turn to curses as the route shoots straight up a cedar-smothered flank of steep log steps, relentless in its pursuit to gain the ridge. Whoever built this trail did not bother with switchbacks, figuring that anyone dumb enough to follow in their footsteps should be rightfully punished. At the ridge we plop ourselves onto a wooden bench and take in the views through a gap in the trees. William throws me another Hojicha Kit Kat and I inhale it whole without taking a bite. If there was a vending machine here I’d gladly purchase an entire liter of coffee to help wake me up.

As the gentle winds start to cool our bones, the two of us push onward and upward, focusing on the sounds of our footsteps and our heavy breaths. Just a few days ago, William was sitting on a sunny beach on the Gold Coast – I’m sure he’s wishing he was sipping on a cool beverage rather than sucking on this thin Siberian air. We soon rise about 900 vertical meters and patches of ice start to flank the path. A descending party above us is making full use of their climbing irons and making me glad I made the decision to bring my 4-pointers. We hold off on the crampons for the time being, as there is still plenty of purchase on the untracked bits of snow on the shoulder of the track. After another hour we reach the shrine gate marking the main summit trail.

An abrupt decision is made to leave the Diamond Trail for the 20-minute detour to the summit of Mt. Kongo. After cresting a small slope the trail drops quickly down an iced-up bobsled-run of a track. William wises up and straps on his crampons, while I half-walk, half-slide down the slippery slope towards the temple. After a quick summit photo together, a row of picnic tables beckon to us, as do the vending machines lining the entrance to the shuttered restaurant. Coffee is served along with the remainder of the Kit Kats. I expect an endorsement check from Nestle any day now.

I finally put on my crampons, which makes the return climb back to the Diamond Trail much less treacherous. We plod along and take a quick detour to the highest point in Osaka Prefecture, marked by a signpost on an unmarked trail to our right. If William ever decides to climb the highest mountain in every prefecture, he now only has 46 to go.  A few minutes down the path we reach the observation deck. Built in the 1970s, the rusting metal structure affords fantastic panoramic views. A sea of mountains hosting the Kumano Kodo foreshortens off into the distance, while the Ōmine mountains lay buried in a blanket of snow cloud.

With Mt. Kongo successfully climbed, I convince William to trek a few kilometers south along the Diamond Trail to Kuruno-tōge, just below the summit of Naka-katsuragi. We reach this pass in a heap of sweat and exhaustion, and even the temptation to climb two different Katsuragi mountains in one day is not enough to entice William to ascend the wall of steps separating ourselves from the summit. We turn away knowing that I’ll need to come back to this point at a later time to continue my section hike of the Diamond Trail. We drop steeply off the ridge and make it to a bus stop exactly 10 seconds after the infrequent bus departs. With 45 minutes to kill before next bus, we add a few more kilometers to the already long day and walk down to Chihaya-Akasaka village, where a vending machine awaits.

With over half of the Diamond Trail now complete, I can now turn my attention to the remaining sections, which should be knocked out in 3 trips, or two if I’m feeling particularly punishing. Regardless, I hope to complete the trail before the end of the Heisei era. The clock is ticking.

 

365 Mountain Project

With the start of a new year comes a new social media undertaking: The 365 mountain project. In going through my collection of thousands of photos, I came to the stark realization that I have indeed climbed more mountains in Japan than there are days in a year.  What better way to reveal the beauty of Japan’s mountains than by posting a peak for every day of the year on my Twitter feed. Feel free to bookmark and follow along.

The Suzuka mountains straddle the border of Shiga and Mie Prefectures, effectively creating a natural barrier between the chilly shores of Lake Biwa and the azure waters of Ise Bay. Mt. Ryōzen sits on the western edge of the massif, affording outstanding panoramic views on the rare cloud-free occasion in this surprisingly wet corner of Kansai.

There are approaches from nearly every direction to the broad grasslands flanking the summit plateau. My first trip there involved an exciting scramble up a steep gully, while a recent trip utilized the main route from the ghost village of Kurehata. Even though I have already been up this mountain twice, the outstanding panoramic views and distinctly Scottish terrain of the highlands have me yearning for a mid-winter visit to explore the hills on snowshoes.

Calendar girl Rika works for Finetrack, a Kobe upstart launched by an ex-Montbell employee wanting to place more emphasis on creating a functional layering system for outdoor activities. The product line continues to expand with each new product release and it’s only a matter of time before the market will expand overseas. One of the challenges with a new outdoor brand is to convince customers to abandon their loyalty to more established brands.

The photo on the calendar was actually taken in November 2016, but it seemed like the perfect photo to round out the year, to dream of those crisp winter days with clear visibility and deep blue skies. Those days on Ryozen are truly hard to come by as the Siberian winds flow over the massif like a raging torrent, dropping a meter of snow each season with regular consistency.

Those wanting to climb Ryozen may find it faster to take the Shinkansen as far as Maibara station before transferring to the local train to Samegai station. I must confess that whenever I head to this part of Shiga I usually opt for the extra expense of the bullet train, as it saves nearly an hour of train time, meaning you can get an extra hour of shut eye before heading out to the hills.

And speaking of shut eye, with this final blog post of 2018, it’s time to put this monthly calendar column to bed. Unfortunately there won’t be a 2019 Hiking in Japan calendar, but those looking for something to adorn their walls may want to choose from among the lovely options available over at Yama to Keikoku.