An interview with Wes Lang
The first American to complete the Hyakumeizan
Anyone who's lived in Japan and searched for hiking information has probably come across Wes's website. Wes was the first American to complete the Hyakumeizen, which is an old list detailing 100 mountains for hiking in Japan, published in 1964. The list gained popularity after the crown prince Naruhito, now emperor, talked about his desire to hike the entire list. In addition, Wes is also the first person to publish online English information for many of the hikes and mountains around Japan. He runs two successful blogging websites, one for trail information (www.hikinginjapan.com) and one for stories about the experiences he's had while hiking in Japan (The Tozan Tales). On top of all this, he has published a great guidebook for hiking the Japanese Alps, you can check it out here.
With 20+ years of hiking in Japan I thought it would be great to have a chat with him about his experiences and hear some of his stories. Below is the interview with Wes, a true hike master with a wealth of knowledge about the mountains and trails in Japan.
So what brought you to Japan?
I'm originally from the States and grew up in Virginia, so I've always been into the mountains and mostly started hiking when I was in University, which is when I started hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail. After Uni I moved to San Fransisco in California and started hiking around there. While I was living in San Fransisco I made some Japanese friends, and they told me a lot about Japan. At the time I didn't like my job because it was mostly desk work, I studied architectural design and was working for a big architectural firm. One of my colleagues used to teach English in Japan, so she told me about it and then I decided to visit back in 1999. I loved how different the culture was, and the energy of the people here, but I was really surprised that most people in Japan can't speak English, so when I went back to the States I studied Japanese for a year and started applying for teaching jobs. Eventually I got a job and moved to Osaka in 2001.
Why did you choose Osaka instead of Tokyo?
All my Japanese friends in San Fransisco were from Osaka, and during my visit I found that Osaka people were really funny and energetic and positive, I also had some friends living in Kyoto. The timing was quite interesting because that same year, 2001, was when Lonely Planet released their Hiking in Japan guidebook, which at the time was the best English information for hiking in Japan. Back in California I loved hiking volcanoes, so one of the first mountains I climbed was Fuji.
For comparison, do you have much experience hiking in other countries?
In the US I did a lot of hikes on the Appalachian trail. I've climbed most of the big peaks in California like Mt. Shasta (4,321m). Hmmmm I've climbed Mt. Saint Helens in Washington (2,549m), I've hiked in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and the well known hikes around Yosemite. I've also hiked in Korea, China, New Zealand, and the Swiss Alps.
Japan has a lot of diversity among the mountains depending on the region, there's quite a lot of differences between Kansai, Shikoku, Kyushu, Nagano. Do you have a favourite region for hiking in Japan?
I really like Hokkaido because the forests there are really natural. Most of Japan had a lot of cedar and cypress trees planted during the 70's and 80's, but Hokkaido was mostly left untouched by these plantations. So even if you go onto a mountain right next to a town, it feels really wild and very natural. And the summer is really nice up there, it's not too hot and humid like the rest of Japan.
Wes with his daughter Ibuki
Mt. Meakan, an active volcano in Hokkaido
Oh okay, so if someone were to go and spend 1 week hiking in Hokkaido, what would be your top recommendations for hiking up there?
Definitely Daisetsuzan, if people are short on time the Asahidake to Kurodake trail gives the best sample of Daisetsuzan. Any multi-day hikes take a lot more preparation, you need to bring your own food, boil your own water, and the weather is pretty difficult in the summer with rain and thunderstorms.
I also really like Mt. Meakan which is an active volcano in eastern Hokkaido. It's really impressive, I would say it's the most impressive active volcano in Japan. When you're hiking up you can't see the crater until you reach the summit, so then when you reach the summit you can suddenly see this amazing active crater which is steaming, smoking, and hissing. You can also hike around the crater and then hike over to Akan-Fuji, which is this perfect conical volcano that looks just like a mini Fuji. It has an amazing view of Mt. Meakan and not many people head over there.
You were the first American to complete the Hyakumeizan back in 2008. How long did it take, and do you think the Hyakumeizan deserves all the attention it gets?
Well I kind of started in 2001 when I climbed Fuji, and in the Lonely Planet guidebook there was a little side-bar about the Hyakumeizan so that's when I first heard about them. There were about 20 or 25 of the Hyakumeizan in the book, so when I first started climbing them I wasn't trying to complete the list, I was just hiking the mountains in the guidebook. I finished all the mountains in the guidebook in 2004 and that's when I started aiming for the Hyakumeizan, so all up it took 7 years. It's kind of easy to do the first 80, but after that they are more remote and further away.
Are they worth it? Well I think if you climb the Hyakumeizan that's a good representation of the mountains in Japan because you will see a lot the country by doing them all... Are they the one hundred best mountains in Japan? I would say definitely not. It's just one persons very subjective list, I mean there are some amazing mountains on that list, but there's also a lot of mountains I would not recommend. The other problem is, if you restrict yourself to these mountains then they're always going to be busy. But there is a really cool feeling when you're hiking with the other people that are doing the Hyakumeizan, especially with the more obscure peaks, as the only people hiking the obscure mountains are also trying to complete the Hyakumeizan.
Mt Jirōgyū in Tokushima
A Japanese noren listing the Hyakumeizan
What are your favourite hikes from the Hyakumeizan?
Basically all the mountains I had good weather on haha, but yeah I would say, definitely Asahi and Iide (in Bandai-Asahi National Park, Yamagata), they're both fairly remote mountains and really nice. And then the southern part of the south alps is really remote and nice, like Akaishi, Warusawa, and Hijiri, those 3 are really good. And Poroshiri in Hokkaido.
What hikes do you think should be excluded from the Hyakumeizan?
Yeah I'd say Utsukushigahara and Kirigamine, they're so developed so you can just drive right to the top. Same thing with Tsukuba and Odaigahara.
There is also some ambiguity around what peak is meant to be on the list, because sometimes the author, Kyuya Fukada, lists a whole mountain range such as Omine or Azuma, so people are just assuming the highest point in the mountain range - but sometimes the highest peak is not the most beautiful part of the mountains. Azuma is a great example of this, and people really limit themselves only by focusing on the peak, they miss out on why Fukada included it on his list in the first place.
A lot of people complain about Mt. Ena which is in the southern part of the central alps, people often say "there's no view from the top and it's really long and not beautiful" but, at least it's undeveloped. So, I guess if I was to make a list of the best mountains, that's what I would base it on.
What are your favourite hikes that are not included in the Hyakumeizan?
Well for me, the more obscure the mountain, the better. I really like mountains that have a lot of native forest and not too many cedar plantations, the Suzuka mountains in Mie and Shiga are like that, they can get really busy but once you get up onto the ridgeline they're really nice, and if you go into the western part on the Shiga side, those mountains are very obscure and quiet.
The original book was published in 1964
I also like the mountains in Fukui a lot, such as the Tsuruga Sanzan. A lot of the forests up there are really natural.
I mean my favourite hike in Japan I can't really talk about because I don't want to give it away haha. I go there twice a year, there's a restaurant I really like right at the trailhead, and yeah, with technology and social media now it's so easy for these things to be ruined by popularity. Maybe if the restaurant closes down one day then I'll publish that hike haha. And if people want to find out more about what I like and find some clues then go to my Tozan Tales website.
For an expat or student that’s temporarily living in Japan, do you think the Hyakumeizan is worth it or are there better mountains that should be on every hikers to-do list?
For someone that's temporarily living in Japan I would say you should look at different pictures of mountains in Japan and base your choices off what you like. The hyakumeizan is a very subjective list. But definitely go hiking in the Alps, they have the biggest awe factor so they should be on the top of everyone's list, even now, after 20 years, whenever I go to Kamikochi it's just like "wow this is really, really beautiful." (You can view our guide for hiking in Kamikochi here)
Hiking in Japan is generally very safe. But let’s look at some of the dangerous wildlife that people often ask about, starting with bears. There are numerous news articles and some data suggesting that the bear population is increasing in Japan. What are your thoughts on this, and can you tell us about any encounters you or someone you know has had?
Bears get kind of a bad rap. Everyone thinks that if you see a bear it's going to attack you, I mean, if you're in Alaska that could happen, but, yeah your chances of seeing a bear in Japan are very, very minimal. I've climbed about 500 mountains in Japan, and I've only ever seen a bear once while hiking and once while on the bus in Kamikochi. The one I saw while hiking was in Shiga prefecture in summer, it was in the middle of a ski resort about 50 meters away, it didn't even notice me or look at me. I had my camera with me, but left my SD card at home so I was like "you gotta be kidding me". I've also seen bear scat and bear prints, and I do know people who have encountered them numerous times but they've never been attacked.
Most of the attacks are with people that are stealing the bear's food supply, such as farmers or people harvesting mushrooms and bamboo shoots. (you can read more about bears in Japan here)
What are your thoughts on bear bells?
Yeahhh they're really annoying haha, I never use them. Maybe they scare off bears but they also scare off all the other wildlife so you'll never have any animal encounters, you'll miss out on seeing a kamoshika (a type of Japanese goat or serow) or a tanuki (Japanese racoon dog). That being said I did buy bear spray recently, I was doing this really remote hike in Fukui where a person had been attacked on the same section I was hiking, so I bought it for peace of mind and now I carry it with me.
Japanese hornets have gathered some attention overseas recently. Any stories to share about these encounters or any advice for people regarding hornets?
Yeah they're quite common so people are likely to encounter them while hiking. They're more aggressive around September and October, and don't wear black or red as they're attracted to these colours. The giant hornets have subterranean nests which is why they're a problem for hikers, you can't see the nest until you're really close to them and sometimes people accidentally step on the nest. A friend of mine stepped on a nest and got stung 4 times on her legs. And a couple of years ago a neighbour of mine got stung while doing some weeding in his vegetable garden, so we called the city to come check it out and they found a massive underground nest with about 800 hornets in it, so yeah they had to exterminate the whole nest. I encounter them every year but I've never been stung, the standard advice is to stay still if they come near you, but I always run haha. Apparently they won't bother you unless you get close to their nest. The biggest risk of being stung is having an allergic reaction, but most people are fine and with most encounters people don't get stung.
The asiatic black bear
Wild boars also have a reputation for causing trouble and occasionally killing elderly people. Any stories to share and advice for encounters?
Yeah don't climb Mt. Rokko hahaha, the boar there are too accustomed to humans now. Normally, boar are nocturnal, but in the Rokko mountains they've adapted their behaviour for humans because people were feeding them. I had a friend who was bitten by a boar while hiking Rokko. But, boar generally won't do anything unless they see you as a threat to their little piglets. I mean I see them often when I hike up a mountain in my neighbourhood to watch the sunset, and I'll hike down in the dark and always see them but they don't bother me at all.
There are other risks for hiking in Japan, such as ridgeline hiking with sudden lightning storms, or mamushi. Generally speaking, tell us about some of the dangerous experiences you or someone you know has had in Japan?
I've nearly been bitten by a mamushi twice, they are really hard to see and if you startle them they'll freeze up. The first time, I heard a clicking noise, but I didn't know what that noise was and apparently stepped right next to a mamushi that was curled up in the strike position, and then my hiking partner behind me suddenly jumped back right before stepping on it. They're related to rattle snakes so they make a small sound when they're threatened, you can check out a video here.
I've been pretty lucky with lightning storms, I've never been up on a ridge during a storm, but I've been in the forest and in mountain huts. I also got lost once on a winter hike with a friend. We lost the trail and instead of turning back we thought we could follow a watershed down to the trailhead but it ended being really precarious, it got dark and I took a bad fall. We called for a rescue but they said we had to wait until the morning, but we thought we could die if we waited until the morning so we pushed on and figured out a way to get off the mountain. Yeah everyone has this image in Japan that if you get into trouble while hiking you can just call the helicopter but it's not that easy. I mean basically we didn't have a GPS device, this was back in 2010 before Yamap and before a lot of navigation apps became effective. I ended up getting pretty bad frost nip on my fingers, so they were kind of numb for 4 months. You can read a full account of the story on my Tozan Tales website.
Sanjogatake, part of the Omine mountain range
Are there any amazing experiences that stand out for you in the past 20 years of hiking in Japan?
Well let’s see, I probably have way too many stories to remember. It seems like every time I head out for a hike I have an amazing experience, and most of those experiences come from the people I interact with. I remember climbing Mt Shirouma back in October 2003, the final day that the massive summit hut was in operation for the year. The weather was horrendous, with driving rain and snow flurries, and only about 20 guests were staying in a hut that can hold over 1000. After checking in and hanging my wet gear in the drying room, I headed to the common area to warm up and chat with other hikers. Two guests were engaged in a game of shogi, and I watched with curiosity while trying to understand the movements of each piece. The victor of the match asked me if I would like to play, so after a quick explanation of the rules, I took my seat by the board. Japanese people will often tell you that shogi is a lot like chess, which I suppose is true, but the main difference is that you can reuse any pieces that you capture from your opponent and add them to the board. Anyway, the other hut guests soon swooped in to watch our match, wondering if the American newcomer can dethrone the Japanese shogi master. I felt a bit like Bobby Fischer in his match against Boris Spassky. Needless to say, I got annihilated in my one and only match of shogi but it was an experience I will never forget.
Tell us all about your guidebook.
The guidebook is a comprehensive English-language hiking guide to the Japan Alps and Mt Fuji. British writer Tom Fay is the lead author of the book, and he brought me on board to help him write and research the 400 page volume. The full-color guide not only features detailed route descriptions, but also includes elevation profiles and maps for each of the 27 walks and treks in the book. It will appeal not only to first-time visitors of Japan but also long-term residents looking for alpine hikes to explore. Our publisher, Cicerone Press, has been in business for over 50 years and explicitly focuses on high-quality hiking, trekking, and mountain biking guidebooks. We keep the guidebook updated with each new printing, so once we sell out of our current print run (reprinted just prior to the start of the pandemic) we will include the latest COVID-19 information. You can buy the guidebook here or check out the latest hut information here.
Cool man, thanks for chatting with us today, let's catchup for a hike sometime.
Yeah sure, always looking forward to more hiking!
Shogi - often described as Japanese chess
A photo from Hiking in Japan's Instagram