Kate Ashbrook: tragedy on Mount Ontake

Autumn is a popular season for hikers in Japan. It’s the time to enjoy the splendid colours of the forests, and to climb a mountain to look down on them. It was cruel that the 3,067-metre Mount Ontake volcano in central Japan should have erupted without warning last Saturday, engulfing walkers in sulphurous ash, killing at least 47 and injuring many more. We send our deepest commiserations to our fellow walkers.

Fuji from Lake Yamanakako
Mount Fuji from Lake Yamanaka

Walking is part of the culture; the Japanese tend to walk with a purpose—to visit a temple, shrine or other sacred site. Mount Ontake, often known by its honorific title Ontake-San, is such a destination: a sacred mountain where actors and artists have put themselves into trances to win divine inspiration for their creative activities.

Fuji-San (3,776-metres), the highest mountain in Japan, is another sacred site and the nation’s emblem. People have been climbing it for centuries, for religious reasons and now for recreation too. It is divided into three from bottom to top: kusi yama (grass mountain), ki-yama (wood mountain) and yaki-yama (burnt mountain), the last being the bare lava. It is officially open for climbing from 30 June to 26 August each year and about 300,000 people climb it each year, staying in mountain huts along the way.

Hiker on Fuji
A hiker on Mount Fuji

At the other end of the scale there are local paths called rido (‘village path’). They were originally constructed by residents for the convenience of the community; many have now disappeared or become roadways. But there is a revival of interest in rido and in some areas they are gaining sufficient status to be protected when land is developed.

The Japanese are interested in our rights-of-way system because they have nothing like it, and they can see that paths are beneficial to communities and to the economy. In March 2009 the Japan Footpath Association was established which negotiates for footpaths to be recognised and provided. Unfortunately there is no ministry or national agency with jurisdiction on footpaths so the association has a tough time ahead.

Family on Fuji
Family on Mount Fuji

Japan has had more than its share of natural disasters and, after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in the east, the government established a national park as part of the green reconstruction with a trail, over 700 km long, along the affected coast. The Japanese want to use this opportunity to promote tourism here, linking the trail to communities where people will stay.

I have talked to Japanese students about our public-path network, national trails and Walkers Are Welcome Towns, all of which bring income to rural areas, and they are keen to learn what works for us.

Walking the world over brings benefits to wellbeing as well as the economy and it’s good to share our experiences about paths and access.

Kate Ashbrook is the President of the Ramblers. You can read her blog at: http://campaignerkate.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @campaignerkate.