Until the 19th century, only Shinto pilgrims visited the inhospitable mountains of central Japan. The British missionary Walter Weston was the first to appreciate the beauty of this region as a holiday destination, likening the mountains to the European Alps and thus coining the term Japanese Alps. Today thousands follow in his steps to reenact Switzerland.
What a breathtaking sight: Mount Yarigatake, the Japanese Matterhorn! The British missionary Reverend Walter Weston spent a few years in Japan in the 1890s, climbing some of the highest peaks in the country during his holidays. The more triangularly shaped Jônendake he likened to the Weißfluh, and in 1896 he published his musings on Japanese Mountains as „Mountaineering and Explorations in the Japanese Alps.“ Thus the Japanese got their very own Alps – and eventually the urge to book five-day tours to the “Swiss Alps”, to see the real thing. Meanwhile, they are also enthusiastic hikers and mountaineers. At least, every Japanese wants to climb Fuji-san once, Japan’s holy mountain!
The Alpine route
From Switzerland, they also adopted a penchant for cable cars and gondolas. The most famous route for crossing the mountain range of the Northern Alps involves no less than 7 different vehicles: Trolleybuses, cable cars and ropeways. In summer it is also possible to cover some of the distance on foot instead.
Then, thousands tramp over the wooden planks prescribing a path through the moorland and admiring the Alpine flora..
June, however, is still winter at Murodô / Tateyama (2500m). The road for the trolleybus has only been opened in Mid-April, dug through a 20 m high covering of snow. From the plain of Murodô we look down on the local campsite: a few coloured tents on a lot of white. “Just follow the bulldozer tracks to reach the campground!,” the ski lift operator advises before swishing down the slope.
Cold camping days
Only a handful of campers have carved shelters for their tents into the high snow mountains. “Last week we had winds of 80 km/h,” remarks Ashley, an Australian outdoor fan. Mary-Joe, a hardened French Himalaya climber, spends the night outdoors in her sleeping bag, just to save some packing time in the morning. And Daniel from Brazil, a part-timer at one of the hotels, practices high altitude running in his free time. He hopes for a career as a professional marathon runner.
Even Japan’s oldest mountain hut in Murodô, which has been turned into a museum, cannot yet be visited because the tiny wooden structure is still covered with snow. Originally it was built in 1726 for pilgrims set for the holy mountain of Tateyama. Today, Murodô consists of half a dozen “mountain huts,” huge buildings with double rooms and showers for the pilgrims on the “Tateyama Alpen Route.” Most stay only for a night, diligently taking photos of the Tateyama mountain, of the rare Japanese ptarmigan, which is less shy than anticipated, and of the volcanic activity in the “Valley of Hell” before heading to their next trolley bus.
Reverent Weston – “inventor” of the Japanese Alps
A week later we meet a descendant of Reverent Weston’s local mountain guide, Kamonji Kamijô. The family is now operating a restaurant near Kamikôchi, in a different part of the Northern Alps.
Reverend Weston presented his guide with a used Ice Axe which is still displayed proudly above the charcoal grill. With his book and his enthusiasm for the mountains he gave the whole region prosperity – thousands of camera-wielding tourists yearning for “local specialities” to try and then bring home as souvenirs make for better customers than the old pilgrims of late, who took on great discomfort to visit a shrine built on a 3000 m high mountain top.
“The Weston Festival? I don’t know exactly what happens there,” the employee at the Kamikôchi Tourist Information apologises. “After all, I always have to work in the information centre! But I heard that it is very nice.” We are just preparing for a two-day trek and want to know what we are going to miss. Apparently a few women sing a song about the mountaineering exploits of Reverend Weston near the memorial plaque put up in his honour. There is also a small procession in his memory, but without any costumes. Solemnly, the official adds: “Reverend Weston can’t take part unfortunately, because he is already dead.”