You Are Here: Follow the Leader

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One man’s romance with the wilderness has made an entire country fall in love. Kyuyu Fukada, a mountaineer and author often called ‘the man of letters of the mountain’ differs from other literary men who carried notebooks in their hiking packs such as John Muir or Edward Abbey. If this paints a romantic picture of a wool-capped man sitting under a cedar with a notebook on his knee, it should, as Fukada paints this scene himself many times over his travels up Japans peaks. His connection with the land is not only literary and self-reflective but also patriotic and representative of the ties that many Japanese feel to nature. Like many other wilderness enthusiasts of the twentieth century, Fukada encouraged spending time in nature away from society, but in Fukada’s case, Japanese society has followed him to its summits.

In his 1964 book, Fukada reveres the Hyakumeizan, a list of the hundred mountains in Japan that he saw as definitive of the country, people and culture. While mountains have been central to Japanese art, poetry and literature dating back to the oldest known records, the idea of a pure list of mountains was embraced after an art book that ‘collected’ 90 mountains was published in the late 1800s. These mountains were praised for their beauty, spirit, and aesthetics more so than the experience of hiking them.

The mountains Fukada admired are not so much the most beautiful or the most challenging, but the most worthy of our time, recognition, and appreciation. Fukada’s mountains were surely a different place- trails built slowly over time by sparse travelers or animals, not by crews with wooden bridges and signs. A more pedestrian romance now, the trails are far better maintained, and huts sit scattered among the trees to provide respite for trekkers. The huts are fairly new, built to encourage hikers and establish a route of safe havens in the wilderness. In the old days, porters with cloth rucksacks and tabi instead of hiking boots hauled supplies in and garbage out, but nowadays most of these transactions are done on mountaintop via helicopter.

His story of lifelong adventure and its rewards has spurred new generations of climbers into the mountains of Japan. In the Nihonarapusa, the Japanese Alps, peaks are often visible from one another. Out of a culture where women were not allowed on mountains for fear of the divine consequences (their presence was believed to disrespect and anger the god of the mountain) until the early 1900s, Japanese hikers have expanded to include a range from overnight backpackers to intense peakers trying to collect them in a single year. A foreigner might have hiked a handful, a school janitor might have completed his hyakumeizan ten years ago and moved onto the nihyakumeizan — the second hundred most famous mountains, in no particular order. Peak collectors in America travel thousands of miles to bag the highest peak in each of the 50 states, or all of the fourteeners in Colorado. In bagging peaks, however, there is a sense of the game and the glory of the hiker over the glory of the mountain, a telling cultural difference between the two populations and their relationship with wilderness.

In a country where most of the land is uninhabitable mountain ranges there is little chance of the Hyakumeizan succumbing to development. The mountains are protected as a part of Japanese cultural heritage and revered on a level that would still please the god of the mountain. Today it’s customary for both men and women to contribute and pray at a small shrine on the peak, often a decorated box no larger than a steamer trunk, sometimes with a statue of the god himself with coins littered at his feet. John Muir, another hiker with a notebook tucked in his pack, reminds us that ‘going to the mountains is going home,’ and the same sentiment motivates the Hyakumeizen pilgrims and visitors. Japan’s home, heart and spirit is in these peaks.

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