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Hiking manners

On July 23rd, 2012, I was invited by Yama-to-Keikoku to participate in a discussion about hiking etiquette in Japan’s mountains. Joining me in the meeting was Canadian nature photographer Peter Skov and Matthieu Lienart, a French licensed mountain guide living in Japan. Before the meeting, the editors sent us a list of questions to be discussed, including what surprised or disgusted us about Japanese hikers, some differences in etiquette between Japan and our home countries, as well as any anecdotes to support our opinions.

Peter and I met up a few hours before the meeting to compare answers and talk about life in the mountains. It was good to finally put a face to someone you’ve gotten to know through the on-line world. It felt as if I were reunited with a long-lost friend, a testament to the influence and power one’s words can instill. We both shared similar interactions with Japanese hikers, and decided to go into the meeting with a balanced view of both the positive and negative mannerisms. It took some time to locate Yama-to-keikoku’s office, which was hidden down a narrow backstreet. As we made our way to the meeting hall, we couldn’t help but notice how the temporary nature of the makeshift office. It was later revealed that the company recently moved to this new location, after the Tohoku earthquake caused structural damage to their original headquarters.

The discussion, conducted entirely in Japanese, was led by freelance writer Naoki Ohzeki, whose attention to detail was meticulous. The main editor, Kamiya-san, sat behind and scribbled notes while listening to our stories. He was also in charge of refilling our cups of Japanese tea, a task that left me with quite a caffeine buzz. Rounding out the meeting was a professional photographer, who snapped away flawlessly during the duration of the two-hour meeting. The results of the encounter can be found in the September edition of Yama-to-Keikoku magazine, which is on sale at any major bookstore throughout Japan. A summary of our conclusions can be found below.

First up was the issue of early risers. We talked about the penchant for waking up at ungodly hours to watch the sunrise. Matthieu commented on the fact that the sun rises much earlier here than in Europe, while I added that a lot of hikers in the west tend to watch the sunrise from the comfort of their own tent before retreating back into dreamland. Japanese hikers, on the whole, tend to stick tightly to predetermined schedules, regardless of the weather or hiking conditions. Since most Japanese people do not get a lot of vacation time, they like to cram in as much as they can in a limited amount of time. I brought up the story about my traverse in Daisetsuzan, where heavy rain pounded on my tent all night. The rain finally let up around 9am. When I unzipped my tent, the entire campground was deserted, sans one other tent. The previous day there had been over 30 tents, and everyone broke down camp in the pouring rain instead of adjusting their departure schedule.

Speaking of schedules, both Matthieu and Peter commented on the tendency for a lot of hikers here to climb in all weather conditions instead of cancelling their trips or waiting out the weather. The two recent accidents at Mt. Shirouma (in May of this year) and Mt. Tomuraushi in Hokkaido (a few summers ago) were¬† brought up as an example of how simple common sense and the foresight to turn back when things became too difficult could have saved lives. Next, the topic moved to the custom in Europe for hikers to casually veer off the trail, whereas in Canada and Japan that would be considered taboo. Matthieu explained that this was probably due to the long and rich history that Europeans have had with their mountains. They have lived in the mountains for centuries and have lived off the land, so it’s only natural that people would roam through the alpine pastures instead of following well-groomed trails. In Japan, however, the mountains belonged to the Gods, and only practicing mountain priests initially set foot there.

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Then, I took the discussion into much dirtier matters by elaborating on the poop problems plaguing a lot of peaks here. Much of it has to do with overuse, but some of the problems boil down to plain and simple manners. In the U.S., hikers are expected to bury their excrement at least 200 feet from a water source, but in Japan I’ve come across numerous instances where people have relieved themselves just off the main trail, and have left the toilet paper there to prove it. In the States hikers are encouraged to carry out their used toilet paper, and some mountains such as Mt. Shasta in California require trekkers to pack out their poop as well. In addition, garbage is also a problem in Japan’s forests, and I addressed the fact that few if any Japanese hikers pick up litter on the trails. My hiking friends are often surprised when they see me picking up candy wrappers or discarded bottles.

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Luckily, the conversation moved onto the positive aspects of Japanese hikers, and I courageously volunteered to go first. To be honest, it was hard for me to come up with any positives at first, but luckily my pre-talk planning paid off, as I focused on the friendly nature of hikers here, who generally offer warm greetings when passing you by and will often ask where you are from. Also, large groups regularly pull off to the side of the trail to let you pass, regardless of whether you’re climbing or on the descent (unless you’re scaling Mt. Yari of course). Hikers will often teach you about trail conditions or distances as well. Peter added that once you arrive at mountain huts, complete strangers will often ask you to sit and put a cold beer in front of you, free of charge.

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From here, the interview bounced back to focusing on the negatives, this time by addressing any unpleasant things we’ve seen hikers do. Peter couldn’t think of anything other than perhaps people using radios while they walk. I told the story of seeing a guy feeding bread to a wild boar on Mt. Rokko, right in front of my eyes in broad daylight without thinking it strange.

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Mountain huts were the next on the list, and I starting the proceedings by addressing noise issues. Hikers tend to make a lot of noise when they wake up and seem unable to whisper. Instead, they talk in their normal voice regardless of who may be sleeping. Perhaps they feel that everyone should wake up early when they are in the mountains. Matthieu added the noise caused by hikers rummaging through plastic bags deep in their packs, which could just as easily be done outside of the hut, away from the late risers. Peter reminded us that most hikers aren’t intentionally trying to cause a nuisance and they they are probably not aware of their noise levels. Additionally, Matthieu talked about how, during the busy summer season, mountain huts won’t turn anyone away, so you’ll have to fit 3 people on one tiny futon space. I guess the issue would be with those that have made a reservation in advance vs. those that have turned up unannounced. In Japan, both paying customers are treated the same, but in Europe, the ones that turn up late have to sleep on the floor near the entrance. Likewise, mountain huts are incredibly expensive, so I prefer to stay in emergency huts. Of course, on Mt. Iide you have to pay 2000 yen for the emergency huts, even though there’s no food or water. This is more that what I paid to stay at the hot spring at the foot of the mountain!

Finally, the article ended with differences between national parks in Japan and parks in our own countries. In the U.S. and Canada, there strict rules about camping, as well as day use fees for many parks. In Japan, many parks are privately owned and don’t charge admission fees. Rangers at national parks in the States often require you to register your hiking intentions and they will sometimes check your gear to make sure you’re properly equipped. Many places also require a wilderness permit to enter. Matthieu doesn’t like these kinds of places, and feels the ultimately responsibility for being adequate equipped rests with each individual hiker. If someone is caught in bad weather without the proper gear, then they have to face the consequences.

All in all, I thought the article was well-written and successfully portrayed our opinions. I do, however, question the writer’s structure of the dialogue. If I were the writer, I would have made the article end on a happy note, instead of on Matthieu’s comment about under-equipped hikers meeting their maker. I would have moved the positive aspects to the end of the article, but perhaps others would beg to differ. My friends have told me that I have “become famous” because of this article, but I’ve reassured them I’ll be able to comfortably walk down the street without recognition, as your daily Japanese person doesn’t read such magazines. However, the mountains may be an entirely different story. I’m off to Kamikochi this weekend to find out…

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