A closer look at Best Day Walks Japan

My time in Japan coincides directly with the history of Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan guidebook. I arrived on these shores in March of 2001, just one month after the release of the first edition of the guide. I soon picked up a copy of the teal and black cover and immediately set out to climb as many of the mountains as I could. My focus soon shifted upon turning to page 21 and finding a side bar about the Hyakumeizan, and I set my sights on climbing all of the hundred mountains on Fukada Kyūya’s seminal list. Using the guide as a reference, I worked my way through the mountains until reaching my goal in late 2008, just as the authors were doing research for the second edition of the book. I picked up a copy of this new version after its release in 2009 and published a closer look , which details the changes between the two editions along with my thoughts on the update. Both editions eventually went out of print, leaving a void in the market for a comprehensive in-print guide to Japan’s mountains. Fast forward to 2021, and the long-awaited third installment in the series, entitled Best Day Walks Japan (US edition: Best Day Hikes Japan). Here’s a closer look:

The positives: First of all, the latest guide is visually pleasing, with 130 full-color photographs laid out through 210 pages of content. This certainly marks a big departure from the previous two books, which were done in 2 color offset with a full-color photo insert. The Japan book is among the first in a new series called Lonely Planet Best Day Walks, which is an interesting concept in this need for social distancing during the pandemic. Casual browsers in bookshops can simply open the book and immediately get an idea of the natural beauty of Japan. The designers have done an excellent job of presenting the materials in an easy-to-follow layout organized by region, and users will be able to flip through and find a hike that suits their travel needs.

Speaking of hikes, the new guide features what are simply billed as “60 walks with maps”, ranging in difficulty from flat strolls through Oze National Park to strenuous ascents of proper mountains such as Miyanoura-dake on the island of Yakushima. Regional content allocation is fairly balanced, with each region covering between 5 and 10 unique hikes, which gives readers enough variety to satisfy their outdoor thirst and match their travel itinerary. The first two Hiking in Japan guidebooks feature 71 and 69 hikes respectively, but in double the page content as the latest Best Walks Japan book.

Curating a guidebook is no easy task, but the authors have done well here for the most part. Lead author Craig Mclachlan has struck a good balance of bringing not only some of the best hikes from his previous two Hiking in Japan guides, but has also included a few new hikes that have not yet appeared in print, such as Sanbe-san in Shimane and Tanesashi Kaigan in Aomori. Also worthy of praise is the addition of experienced writer Rebecca Milner to the team – this  long-overdue female prospective is a welcome change from the all-male leadership of the previous two books.

Furthermore, the full-color English maps for each hike provide enough detail for hikers to follow, while the hike descriptions themselves  feature the kanji readings and symbols for each waypoint along the walk, which will help walkers to decipher the Japanese language signposts proliferating the mountain trails nationwide. The information is practical, and in many cases the URLs are included next to the items mentioned in-text such as transport companies and mountain huts.

Most of the hikes feature a ‘Take a Break’ sidebar with personal recommendations for places to eat and rest near each hike, including nearby hot spring baths. Each regional overview also includes a sidebar of practical resources for planning, featuring mostly government tourism websites and official promotional literature.

Room for improvement: While the book looks great upon first glance, there are a few things that could clearly make this book even better. The first issue is cosmetic. 90% of the photos are stock images, which is a huge departure from the Lonely Planet of bygone days with their 100% author-sourced photographs. Stock images do look nice, but they lack any kind of personal touch and perspective that the authors can give, especially since they are the ones who were there on the trails themselves doing the research. Among the 130 photographs, I have counted around 10 that are credited to the authors themselves. The notable exception is Ray’s photo of the higuma bear in Hokkaidō, which is a thing of beauty.

Two of the stock images chosen actually don’t refer to places on the actual hike: the stock photo for the Rokku Gaaden in Kobe is of the Suma Alps, which is further west in the Rokkō range but nowhere near the hike and the stock image of the Kujū hike is actually Amagaike marsh looking towards Mt Hiji, which again is in the Kujū range but not on the actual trail described in the book. These kind of issues are happening more and more in publications that rely too much on stock images, especially if the contributing stock photographer does not caption or tag their photos properly.

Another issue with the guide is with inconsistency between sections. A good editor should be able to take a guidebook written by three authors and make each section seem indistinguishable from the other in terms of detail and flow. However, with this guidebook some of the walk descriptions feel rushed and lack the appropriate amount of detail, while others are very well-written and presented. These descriptions can mean the difference between an amazing hike and one bordering on disaster. For example, the Ōtake-san hike in the Tokyo section is excellent: it gives you all the practical information you need (how to get to the hike, how long it will take to get there, cost of train fare) and the trail description includes estimated hiking times between each waypoint in the hike. Every hike in this guide should include exactly the same amount of detail. I think the problem is with word limitations – they simply reached their word count limits and ran out of space. One possible way to free up space is to axe the 4-page Shikoku Pilgrimage, which is definitely not a ‘day hike’ and instead do a shorter text box description of the 1400km route. That would free up more space to add more details to other hikes that lack transport information such as Norikura-dake.

Thirdly, some of the information in the latest guide is simply out of date, which is quite a shame considering the publication of the book has been delayed by a year from its original slated publication date of spring 2020. For instance, at the time of writing the Aso-san volcano in Kyūshū was off limits to hikers, but the mountain reopened in September 2020, which should have given the authors plenty of time to update the trail description to reflect the most current conditions. As it stands, the information about the Sensui-kyo Ropeway is simply incorrect, considering the ropeway ceased operations in 2010 and is now in a state of complete ruin. Perhaps this guidebook was printed in early 2020 and has simply been sitting in a warehouse collecting dust all this time?

Next, each hike lacks a ‘when to go’ box. Information about the best season to visit is handled in the introduction to each region, but these particulars should be clearly presented within the individual hike overviews themselves. The authors tout Fushimi Inari as one of “most impressive and memorable sights in all Japan”, but perhaps they should warn people about the immense number of tourists that jostle elbows with others to get a selfie for their Instagram, and instead recommend a pre-dawn or early dusk ascent.

One final item is with the difficulty rating system, which ranges from ‘easy’ to ‘hard’. These ratings are explained on the insider cover page of the book, but they really should include vertical elevation gain and distance recommendations. The book lacks vertical elevation loss and gain, so it’s difficult for experienced hikers to evaluate a hike without this valuable data. Any hike that includes an elevation gain of 1000 meters is going to be a hard hike for anyone who is not fit. In addition, any hike over 20 kilometers in length is going to be tough on the feet. The Sandan-kyō hike in Hiroshima Prefecture is listed as ‘easy’, yet the total round-trip distance is 32 kilometers – that’s three-quarters of a marathon!

The verdict: This guidebook will definitely appeal to first-time visitors to Japan, especially those interested in the variety of beautiful walks and hikes that Japan has on offer. Repeat tourists may also find the information invaluable for making informed choices about where to go and what to climb. However, be warned that some of the walks include only ‘bare bones’ information, requiring readers to do their own research about bus and train timetables. Or they can simply enlist the assistance of a travel consultant to supply the logistics.

Long-time residents who are not fluent in Japanese will also find a great deal of valuable content in the latest guidebook. However, anyone who is fluent in the language could easily find better Japanese-language sources for hikes in their region.

That being said, I will definitely pick up a copy of Best Walks Japan to add to my collection. My philosophy has always been: the more published content about Japan’s mountains the better, and while the latest guide is far from perfect, it is a step in the right direction and, with a few improvements, could easily be a go-to resource for both tourists and residents alike.

Best Day Walks Japan is now available for purchase on Amazon Japan and other retailers in the Asia/Pacific region. The US release date is scheduled for the end of March.

 

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