Special Feature: Stairway to Heaven
Or How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love the 階段

Oh the great outdoors! As it finally starts to get to a reasonable temperature (for what – about 3 weeks?) I find my eyes drifting towards the mountains (I’m a country lass, for now at least) and my feet itching to bound upwards. I used to hate my parents for dragging me out walking when I was younger. I wanted to stay at home where I didn’t have to haul myself up a load of hills, drink bad soup from a thermos and at the end of it all to discover the chocolate bar of the day was a penguin, not a snickers. The hills were definitely my main bugbear though. I was fine with sports, but walking up and down a load of hills for hours on end was on no level an appealing idea for an 8 year old girl.



How my older self laughs at that ridiculous child. Fuji-check; Rokko-check; Mitake (highest mountain in my fair town of Sasayama) – double check (with more to come). I recently realized that I actively try to include some kind of hiking whenever I go away on holiday because IT MAKES ME HAPPY. The sense of achievement on reaching the 頂上(ちょうじょう;peak); the vistas laid out before you; the fully-justified trip to the onsen afterwards. It’s all good fun. On top of that (and especially on holiday), you can stuff your face silly with tasty things because you just climbed a frickin’ mountain. You can’t quite say that about the hills and valleys of mid-Wales.

The beautiful nature

As we have all been told a million times, Japan is great because we can ‘enjoy the beautiful nature’ and it’s true – to an extent. Then you start to see all the concrete and go ‘eh?’ The rivers are concrete; half the mountains seem to be covered in concrete or being torn down to make concrete; the rice fields, whilst they can be beautiful as they sway in the sun, are most certainly not natural. The conglomeration that is the cities of southern Hyogo, merging into Osaka with nary a breath of countryside between, is both terrifying and wondrous to behold. But the mountains are right there – waiting to take you away from it all, to get in touch with the true majesty of nature. So you strap on some appropriate footwear, take a deep breath and envision yourself scrambling to the edge

 of the sky.



Then you get to the bottom of your chosen mountain and find a giant flight of stairs. Doesn’t exactly scream ‘I’m in the wilderness!’ does it…

 I have been seriously put out and put off when faced with a huge set of steps going straight up the side of a mountain. It doesn’t feel like you’re in the great outdoors; it’s like being on a stair machine at the gym with a bit more to look at. As much as anything, they’re intimidating, whether you’re going up or down. Going up and they’re all just stretched out in front of you, taunting you with how far away the summit is; coming down and the slightest stumble will have you bouncing down the mountain to inevitable death. Death I tell you!

A necessary evil

Now there are many reasons why trails require steps and I’m not going to discount that. Steps can make routes safer and play the very important role of preserving them. Without some kind of more rigid support, particularly steep trails become impossible. One look at the incline on most Japanese mountains and it becomes pretty clear that steps are a good idea if you want to get to the top. Take into account the traffic some of the more popular routes have to handle, and the preservation role steps play crystallizes their necessity.

stairsYet the giant single flight going up remains incredibly annoying. When hiking I don’t like to take breaks until I reach a recognizable break point, often a switchback or viewing area. This is fine until your flight of stairs is right there, staring you in the face from the outset, and you’re gasping for breath before you’re a third of the way up. Give me a gentler gradient and a switchback sometimes, please! It would reduce the death factor on falling, and hide exactly how much further you have to go before hitting the top, along with providing more realistic break targets (I accept that may just be me feeling not very fit as old Japanese ladies power past me, not a single a drop of sweat on their brows).

So I moan about the stairs, but most definitely not what they let you do. Rokko is covered in trails that NEED stairs because they need preserving because they’re so popular because they are tremendous fun. Back in Wales we would go for a walk and see maybe 5 other people, if that, on any given day; there were correspondingly fewer concrete stairways in the middle of the forest. Head to Ashiyagawa Station and the start of the Ashiya-Arima Onsen hike on a weekend and you’ll easily see more than 40 people as you decide what onigiri to buy from Lawsons.

Also UlsanbawiHead outside

Whether a stair fan or not, hiking up your local mountain (or one further afield) is a great way to do something active and for free (except for train fares/petrol money). The Ashiya-Arima Onsen hike is a good day out with the onsen at the end being a great bonus. If you want to try something less vertically challenging, shall we say, head over to northern Nishinomiya and explore the old JR Fukuchiyama line from Takedao to Namaze (or the reverse). It’s almost entirely flat and runs alongside the river. It’s a beautiful area and the old train tunnels through the mountains provide plenty of opportunities to jump out at people (take a torch – the tunnels are pitch black at points). You may not get the views Rokko can provide, but it’s still a lot of fun.

There is English information out there, try http://japanhike.wordpress.com/kansai/ for hikes in Kansai, and links to the rest of Japan. Routes are generally well-signed but in Japanese, so take notes of the kanji for important points on your hike (i.e. the name of the mountain you’re going up).

P.S. The giant metal stairs up between the rocks is actually in Seoraksan National Park, Korea. Coming down that wasn’t fun, not fun at all – I think I would have preferred to abseil (which some people were doing…).

Imogen Custance

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