Around this time, there in the Kumonodaira, out of thin air, the gentle breeze of spring may be drifting in as if threading chillness of stretched out snowfield retracts. Summer season for trekking is just around the corner. Feeling pace of the year, we are busily undertaking preparation for opening our hut. What sort of plans do you have in your mind for the summer?

In this time, I would like to talk about the issues to that affect a number of people who enjoy outdoor sports and nature. In short, outdoor activities in Japan have a high demand by the public for enjoying and utilizing natural environment and unfortunately resources to sustain and protect it for many years in future are desperately lacking. We would like to shift the discussion to more creative direction. Though this editorial may be a bit social content, it is immediate and imperative issue. From my experience, I should add that content of story is based on Chubu Mountain National Park (Japan North Alps) that surrounds the Kumonodaira Mountain Hut.

Trekking Trail and Mountain Hut

First, I will talk about the trekking trail as a start for subject of overall discussion. Though rarely discussed in systematic way, in the dawn of modern alpinism in Japan began in the start of the twentieth century, and it was mainly the works of individual such as founders of mountain huts in various regions, professional huntsmen and mountain guides or byproduct of religious alpinism, that pioneered the isolated wilderness into the environment where everyone can enjoy mountaineering. It is safe to say that their action brought creation of maps of national parks, and from the onset, engagement by the governmental side was limited. This scheme has not been changed a great deal and mountain huts assume much of public functions of national parks starting with daily maintenance of the trails Consider the conditions of the trekking trails that have been in use for almost a century; there are many regions whose trails have been deteriorated due to climatic aberrations such as torrential rainfall, and in recent years, and the scheme in which mountain huts alone can shoulder responsibility for maintenance of concerned trails has hit a limitation. The current scheme is just too fragile to support national parks in a stable fashion without filling the regional gaps which are dependent on individual ability, sense and economic resources of the mountain huts. One can easily assume how risky this scheme is from the fact the mountain hut with staff of three must cover the same equivalent area as the one with staff of thirty. Since conditions of the trekking trails are strongly influenced by compounded factors such as number of trekkers, nature of soils and climate conditions, they are not necessarily stable in area surrounding the mountain hut in remotest region. Naturally, the mountain hut with fragile business base will be highly likely to no longer maintain the trails sufficiently.

It does not obviously mean that I want to abandon maintenance works of the trekking trails. I understand that I can’t turn the works over to someone else, and it is true that public projects with vendors that have no experience on working with nature are not reliable. The Kumonodaira Mountain Hut have been involved with a vegetation restoration project for devastated trails in collaboration with Tokyo University of Agriculture from 10 years ago. I would like to deploy it as a case study that everyone can put in practice.

However, this issue is beginning to present the aspect that is more than risk of the scheme alone. Circumstances surrounding business of the mountain hut operation here come to increased uncertainty due to rising cost of the facility expenses, transport cost of consumable goods, decrease in number of trekkers using mountain huts as more trekkers started shifting to using camping tents due to advancement of mountaineering gears and a shortage of staff for the mountain huts (despite high popularity in mountaineering, number of people who like to work in the mountain huts is decreasing). In some ways, there is a misfit of interests between “unchanging mountain huts” and “changing trekkers” who are becoming more diversified. Depending on future of economic balance, there is probability for the mountain huts with their fragile financial base to literally fall into the money-losing business when they decided to rebuild their existing aging huts. If the mountain huts cease to exist, who would take care of the trails? Though above described case is carrying logic to extreme, in any event, it is the time again to reevaluate about whole concept of “national park” as a shared heritage of our society in order to foster mountaineering as culture.

National Parks in Japan

Attitude of society toward natural environment and development leading to formation of national parks in Japan has had a deep impact on background of current situation. Inspired by alpinism that bloomed in Europe, mountaineering as activity had gained popularity in Japan. On the other hand, the idea of nature conservation that grew around the time of rise of alpinism in Western Society had not taken root in our society and activity to universally share importance of nature for modern society has not been engaged. As a result, until the present day, public opinion pertinent to natural environment in general is extremely fragile in Japan (not just limited for issue of national parks), and discussion itself about harmony and involvement between human society and nature is deficient. The idea of nature conservation is vital index for richness of human society is not large in our nation. In other words, in society that does not treasure human beings, it is highly unlikely to start from protecting nature.

Although national parks in Japan were first established following system of the United States and European nations, subsequently there was not sufficient process to establish idea of nature conservation, that is to respect nature itself, into society. The original emphasis seems to be undeniably on gaining name values as a part of tourism policy that is similar to today’s CR Activity for World Heritage rather than weighting value of nature. In the West, idea of nature conservation and natural science (natural history) and mountaineering as activity have simultaneously been blossomed and active discussions have been upheld to maintain good balance among them. In contrast, in Japan, public opinion pertaining to ideologies and academics has been extremely frail and mountaineering as leisure activity has been increasingly common among public. As a result, scientific and academic approaches that are integral for communicating and sharing attraction and the current state of nature in objective manner to publics have been lacking, and skills and insights for handling primordial nature, and training scheme for manpower regarding pertinent matters and budget for national parks have been overwhelmingly running short. Although there is an aspect that unique culture of the mountain huts sprang due to lack of active involvement by governmental side, as described previously, the state of affairs is reaching a critical point. For promoting understanding in straightforward manner, distinctive features of national parks in Japan shall be summarized as follows.

Designation of national parks in Japan is based on method called “Locality”. This method is to designate entire region that Ministry of Environment assessed desirable as a national park without unifying ownership of pertinent land since there is historically a mixed array of ownerships. The Britain System employing the same method generates synergistic effect in light of rationality by regional society, government, NGO, etc. sharing concepts and roles since movement of cultural preservation has gained momentum among the common people. However, in the case of national parks in Japan, the original goal was ambiguous and the ill effect of vertical-divided administration with conflicting interests stands out. There are several different governing authorities such as Forestry Agency for landlords, Ministry of the Environment for nature conservation, power companies for surrounding hydropower dams, and local governments for public projects. Each operates with different ordinances and aims, and there is no scheme to consolidate opinions and policy among them. Among them, it is no exaggeration to say that Ministry of the Environment is the authority with most vulnerable position. This pattern affected the fact that natural environments throughout the nation were exposed for various large scale development projects after they were designated as the national park.

Though the system for the Natural Parks Law that prescribes management of national parks gradually has improved in recent years, the law itself does not own the scheme to actively deal with the natural environment and only puts disproportional emphasis on maintaining its scenery by(passive regulations. In short, government takes its stance to expect the natural environment will not be harmed by laying various regulations against development pressure on the premise without its active intervention;however, since an array of issues has already arisen, there is a pressing need to establish framework to actively and scientifically participate in understanding this issue more than government does. In view of this framework, in Japan, national parks are being handled as the low-end service of Ministry of the Environment, and it shows that there is no independent entity to deal with national parks in professional manner such as the National Park Services in the USA and the National Park Authority in the UK.

Shortage of human resources is especially a serious issue. For entire Japan North Alps, there are mere five rangers, and a fulltime equivalent of Ministry of the Environment. Because the system is for every two to three years, these staff are transferred out, and practical expertise is not developed. It is hard for them to grasp current state of each region and of the trekking trails. Even if individual ranger had zeal for his work, it would be impossible to overcome current issue due to lack of manpower and human resources policy. This human resource policy is no exception for other governmental agencies as almost all staff in charge will be entirely shuffled and much of ongoing talks must go backward or return to the drawing board as a result. All common view such as “I don’t remember” and “I cannot find a record” is so prevalent here also.

Though guideline for a national park is determined by balance of power between its usage and preservation, how is current state in Japan in objective view? To avoid emotional discourse, let me briefly compare governing structure and size of international natural parks here. As a straightforward guideline, number of rangers, number of visitors and economic result will be referred. Please take note that simple comparison is difficult, and it is no more than just summary (refer to the appendix below).

What surprised me is that there are only five fulltime staff against estimate 91.5 million visitors for Japan North Alps. Japanese natural environment seems more complex, handful and worth pursuing than monotonic one in the UK. It is beyond my comprehension that Japan does not disclose the budget for each national park and its disclosure is indispensable for recognizing economic result in view of seeing balance of cost-effectiveness. Although there seems to be some cases that helped evolved cooperation with local community, from broader perspective, the vector of preservation appears to be silenced by a press of visitors.

Scantiness for dissemination of information for Japanese National Parks is one thing of which I became keenly aware as I started collecting information pertaining to the national parks. In the USA and UK, 200 to 300 pages of detailed report pertaining to change in ecosystem, coordination with local community and NGO, activity reports on cultural assets within a park, number of visitors and economic result is published per a park every year, and by this annual report, value of national parks is disseminated to the public as well as striving to get understanding for budget of a national park. On the contrary, in Japan, documents that are easily available for reading are extremely scarce, and among even available ones, most seem flimsy in their content. There is systematically compiled book titled “Guide for Natural Park” published by the general incorporated foundation; about 400 pages long covering various parks including national parks, semi-national parks and prefectural parks; however, the majority of its content pertains to no more than general facts that are reworks from previous year. There may be some good documents such as academic papers around, but they are not easily accessible by general public in their daily life. Public opinion is extremely difficult to function without this information.

Mountaineering Boom and Information

In conclusion, I would like to talk about what information should be available for the surrounding mountaineering community. The current boom for mountaineering is called the Third Mountaineering Boom. As the word of “boom” contains some implication of ending, I somewhat feel lonesome. Mountaineering in Japan has been decorated by a wide array of booms from the First Mountaineering Boom to now. The boom started with dawn of alpinism, then followed by mountaineering folksongs, 100 Top Mountains in Japan, middle-aged trekking population, trail running, etc. Whenever new boom arrives, new generation of trekkers replaces the old ones and modest turmoil arises such as people who see new boom as skeptical due to difference in their stance for definition of mountaineering for most instances appear. However, come to think of it, no single boom has not lasted for any more than 20 years, and even for people who present candid advice to new generation of trekkers, they might have to grapple with mounds of issues intrinsic to their age. Furthermore, for any single boom, “nature” itself has never taken center stage, and emphasis has been on buzzwords and style of mountaineering. Even without a boom, focus of attention was sightseeing approach that always bounded in expression of the theory of innate goodness. I feel regrettable that a boom has no continuity and no deep root. As described above, the scheme to handle nature that all people see as source of joy has various issues and only thing that can change it is public opinion alone. However, as being conscious of a boom, tendency is to fawn over novices, and whole concept for dissemination of information conceivably weighs heavily on short-time impact, thus it can never rise above a scope of superficial introduction. In such a spiral, it will not be able to reach to a point where one can share economic issues surrounding the mountain huts and intrinsic attraction of natural environment (also, when one weighs information of the mountain huts as service industry, it may unnecessarily foster disparity among the mountain huts, and consciousness on side of the mountain huts is likely to get distorted…). All these mechanisms seem to cause a boom to be short-lived and end a boom as no more than its face value. As an everyday example, whether an issue of hosting inbound tourists where reality runs behind or safety issue of aging trekking population, current system and quality of information will not be able to handle them nor bring out economic result (although I like to discuss about inbound tourists separately, for instance, just taking a case of transportation access to the trailheads within Japan North Alps region alone, there are many irrelevant circumstances such as many locations with sole access by one’s own automobile or taxi and lack of English signs). For an aging trekking population, though there is danger of trekking tours, an issue may be consciousness of aging itself, thus meaningful discussion is required in this area. The root cause may be that deterioration of living atmosphere in urban community is creating deep-rooted composition such as addiction to trekking. Not only is there poor quality of information from governmental side but if public opinions that seek information are nonexistent, how can we make a fruitful discussion? Though deeds for selling name and gaining profits instantly stands out in any events, we should earnestly strive for improvement of quality and sustainability of information if placing significance on economy.

As a matter of fact, I covertly have some expectation for this boom to be the first boom after full-scale informatization. Contemporary generations seem to amass reasons such as amount of information that fresh-and-blood human being can’t handle, the loss of privacy in name of “freedom”, limitless acceleration of everyday life, and helplessness of Japanese society where shared values and cultural infrastructure have been lost. The need to fall back on something universal and simple is growing stronger every day. Thus, accordingly, we as the mountain hut, like to respond with universal beauty as well as I being a member living in the same world.

Speaking honestly, the mountain huts themselves have been also a part of the consuming mountaineering culture. Without a conclusive worldview or philosophy, being self-conceited on the boom alone, young people who agonize over many matters, select and come through in informatization and economic strife will unlikely to commit themselves to the mountain huts. This is the time to form line of thought that can carry on into future (yet unfortunately, riding on the boom, various bodies of government, local municipalities and NGO have begun to propose great numbers of their own sightseeing policies and proposed regulation in an illustrated manner of the vertically-divided administration).

Since it is an important issue, we should not hastily work out a solution. What we need is a bridge that prepares all sorts of people to stand on the same ground; a bridge between trekkers and mountain huts, governments, mass media and academic experts. And let us remind this bridge as the one to people in future. I think that the mountain huts are the one that can play that role.

Although I have been critical, I think it is time to start line is what we can freely exchange our opinions with each other. What matters most is whether we can bring out the full attraction of culture of mountaineering and natural environment of Japan in which we are so proud of.

Now comes a beginning of a journey, I think.