Japanese mountains hazards
This year in July, 10 people died during a trek in the Deisetsuzan national park in Hokkaidō (Japan). When I talk about this tragic news most of people (even some mountain professionals) are surprised that they died of cold while hiking in summer. This type of accident happen here in high altitude, on the glaciers but not on hiking trails. I think it is as such necessary to evoque some of the particularities of Japanese mountains and their dangers.
In the Land of the rising sun, sun rises and goes down early. In mountain lodges forget about having your breakfast at 7 AM and leave at 8 AM like in Europe. In numerous mountain lodges, breakfast are served around 4 AM if not earlier. You won’t need your headlamp even if you leave the lodge just after, the sun is already rising. In contrary after 6 PM it’s laready dark and dinner might have already been served at the lodge.
Because of the lie of the mountains, you don’t hike the same way in Japan than in the European Alps. If in the European Alps you mostly walk from one valley to another crossing passes, in Jpana you go to summits and from one to another following ridges. On Japanese hikes you are as such much more exposed to weather hazards. In the Southern Alps, where storms are frequent in summer, it is recommended to end your hike around 2 PM to avoid being exposed to lightning on ridges. Rain and wind are other factors which can be dangerous. The 10 people (including a mountain leader) who died in July, died of cold exposure due to strong rain and wind. On ridges nothing will protect you and you’ll end up soaked even with you brand new 3 layers Gore-Tex jacket. Wind and it’s windchill effect (apparent temperature felt on exposed skin due to wind) will easily do the rest. Having a softshell Windstopper jacket with you in addition to your Gore-Tex and fleece jackets is to my opinion mandatory. Personally, I also always have (even in summer) long bottom and top insulating underwear. Be careful though, these cloths don’t guaranty your survival. Get the latest weather forecast, evaluate the risks and your capacities and never hesitate to go back.
Watch the bears! If to my opinion Japanese black bear on main land are of no threat, brown bears in Hokkaidō (estimated around 2 to 3 thousands animals) are a potential danger that needs to be taken seriously. Although there has been few reports of hikers attacked by bears, some precautions are necessary. It is recommended to make some noise to avoid running into a 300kg bear surprised of your visit. Sing, talk or like all Japanese hikers wear the kuma-yoke (bear bell) on your backpack. It is not recommended to hike when there’s fog of low visibility as you will have more chance to run into one. On camp sites there are sometimes lockers available to store your food away from your tent, use them. In any case keep your camp site clean, don’t leave any food or scraps around your tent and wash cooking away from camp. “Bear peeper spray” can be found in outdoor shops although I’m not convinced of there efficiency and I’m not sure you’ll ever be fast enough to draw it…
Warning : This list is not complete and usual security rules that prevail in all mountains of the world also prevails in Japan.