Language issues while hiking in Japan

So you’re a nature person- someone who has done some form of camping and enjoyed it, for example- and want the chance to enjoy some natural scenery in Japan. That’s understandable; there are plenty of places to explore! There are lakes, rivers, mountains, bears, snakes… Wait.

Killer bees, too, according to the sign on this tree on Onuma Park.

There are a couple things a hiker needs to be aware of while in Japan. Not only the wildlife (there are actually bears) but how easily you can find the path and where to look out for things that can hurt you. Here’s what I’ve taken away from my time wandering around the most accessible hiking points- not only in the more accessible hiking areas in Hakodate and Sapporo, but also on the main island of Honshu.

1. There will be very little English, if any. Yes there are websites in English recommending various paths, but when it comes time to hop on a bus to get to the trailhead, or once you’re on the trail itself? Make sure you have a copy of the name of where you’re going, not only in English but with the Japanese characters (kanji) and, if it’s helpful for you, spelled out in hiragana too.

Why it’s helpful: you’ll come up across post signs that will be ALL in kanji. You can use your handy dandy copy to compare characters to ensure you’re on the right path or, if needed, stop another hiker to make sure you’re going the right way.

2. Watch what the other hikers are doing. Also, what they have on them. Do they have bells to scare away bears? Are they wearing jeans and heels? Compare it to what you’ve got.

Why it’s helpful: websites can’t tell you everything. Sometimes locals will be aware of something and your resources will not be up to date. Upon seeing what they’re up to, reevaluate your situation if needed.

3. Look out for trail maps. These are normally at the trailhead, but sometimes when there are multiple paths you’ll find them along the hiking trails too. They often will tell you the elevation you’re at and, if you’re following a scenic path, will point you in the right direction for where to go next.

Why it’s helpful: Especially for scenic trails, paths can go in a loop or connect with other trails multiple times. You don’t want to walk in circles for hours without getting anywhere, do you? Hopefully if you’re doing any substantial hiking you have a map with you, but if not… these can point you in the right direction in a pinch.

Speaking of knowing characters/kanji that are helpful to you, here’s a word that you should definitely look out for: 注意 (ちゅうい、 or “caution”). If you see this, pay attention to whatever has it written. You could be dealing with wildlife, falling rocks, slippery roads, or any other number of things when you see those.

If you go exploring in a foreign country, what do you want to know about beforehand? What words or signs do you think someone should know?

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