Postcards from Japan: Exploring Japan's great outdoors and writing a hiking guidebook, with Tom Fay

Tom grew up in North Wales where he fell in love with the outdoors while traversing over beautiful mountains and enjoying nature with his father and brothers. He moved to Japan 'for two years' without speaking the language and knowing only a little bit about the culture to join the JET Programme. Over a decade later, he is still a teacher but also a published author! His book about hiking and trekking the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji, is your best bet for being fully prepared before exploring Japan's mountains! Read on to find out about Tom's recommended walks for first-time visitors and his favourite hikes in Japan.

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Mt Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko

Hi Tom, thanks for talking to us today. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hi, it’s a pleasure! I come from a tiny village nestling among the rolling, green hills of North Wales, and after studying Medieval history at the University of Manchester I arrived in Japan in 2007, initially just for a year or two (or so I thought) as a teacher on the JET Programme. I actually had very little knowledge of Japan before that, and absolutely zero Japanese-language ability, but I soon fell in love with the place and have been living in the Kansai region ever since. These days I still work as an educator, but a great deal of my time is now also dedicated to travel and outdoors writing, mostly with a focus on Japan.

Shirouma-dake (North Alps)

Where does your interest in the great outdoors come from?

That all stems from my upbringing in North Wales - my house was surrounded by hills and countryside, with the mountains of Snowdonia right on the doorstep too. In fact, I hardly remember spending much time in any big city until I first went to university; I was a proper countryside kid. But I guess my love of adventure comes from regular days out with my dad and brothers which often involved climbing remote crags and crumbling scree slopes, traversing over pathless mountains, getting lost in forests, exploring caves and poking around on wind-swept beaches. I was also into animals and nature in a big way, so when I came to Japan I was delighted to find the country offered all of these things and more.

Mt Fuji from Kitadake (South Alps)

How did your guidebook “The Japan Alps and Mount Fuji” come about?

I had long been a fan of Cicerone Press - they are a wonderful UK publisher of outdoor guidebooks to beautiful places all over the UK, Europe and around the world, but I noticed that they didn’t have any books covering Japan. So I contacted them and suggested a few ideas, and they said they had long wanted to publish a guidebook about the region but didn’t have an author to call on. I was establishing myself as an outdoors writer at that time, and so the rest is as they say, history. However, I knew that it would be a huge job for one person to cover in detail all three ranges of the Japan Alps plus Mount Fuji, so I enlisted the help of Wes Lang, one of Japan’s most knowledgeable foreign hikers, to help write a section and for other valuable input. Hopefully the book will be a useful resource for anyone thinking of doing some hiking in Japan, as it features lots of good general advice too. And if you plan on climbing Mount Fuji then it has all the information you need, with full details on routes, mountain huts, access and plenty more.

Daikiretto and Minami-dake hut

Do you have any recommendations for visitors who want to try hiking in Japan?

If you’re not a serious hiker but just want to do a bit of hiking to sample the Japanese countryside then there are good options close to virtually all of the major cities. Around Tokyo a good one to try is Mt. Tsukuba - it has plenty of interesting trails, nice views (on a clear day) and onsen for a nice hot bath at the end of your hike. Further north, the fabulous mountain landscapes and historical sites of Nikko are also not far from Tokyo and makes a great weekend getaway. 
If you want to sample the big alpine mountains and perhaps see a bit of snow (even during summer) then head to Tateyama in the North Alps - its year-round snowfields are pretty mind-blowing. Kamikochi is beautiful and always popular, and Mount Norikura is another good option as a bus takes you pretty much all the way to the summit - you’ll still need to walk a couple of hours on easy trails to reach the top though (bring decent footwear and a warm layer or two). It’s a good way to bag a 3000 metre tall mountain, and still be back in Takayama or Matsumoto that evening for dinner. All these Alps hikes are covered in the guidebook by the way!

Daisetsuzan National Park

What’s your favourite area of Japan for hiking trips?

This is a very difficult question, as Japan has a real variety of landscapes. Of course as a lover of big mountains I have a real affinity for the Japan Alps, but possibly my favourite place for hiking is Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido. It’s a stunning area of unspoilt volcanic uplands, home to summer snows and brown bears, and is one of the few places which feels like real wilderness in Japan. There are a number of interesting hiking trails, including one-day options or much longer multi-day treks, and the landscape is remote and wild but somewhat less brutal than the steep climbs and chasms of the Japan Alps. I spent a lot of this summer hiking there, so there is perhaps a bit of recency-bias in my answer, but it’s a place which seems to linger long in the memory after you’ve left. 


Mountains aside, what’s your favourite destination in Japan?

Again, another tricky question! I do love the deep snow and biting cold of a northern Japan winter, but at the complete opposite end of the spectrum Okinawa and the Southwest Islands feel like almost another country entirely, with their sub-tropical temperatures, glorious beaches, coral reefs, great food and unique culture. But if you have chance, I’d suggest trying to explore any of Japan’s many smaller islands, whether that be in Okinawa, the islands of the Seto Inland Sea, Sado-shima in the Sea of Japan, or Rishiri and Rebun off of the northern tip of Hokkaido. Every island is unique and different, and visiting one will allow you to see a completely different side of Japan to which most tourists experience in the big cities.

Learn more about hiking in Japan from Tom's website and don't forget to check out his recent adventures on his Instagram and Twitter!



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