How to escape the urban grind (Japan Times)

The Rokko Mountains (less than an hour from Osaka and the Okutama area (around an hour and a half from central Tokyo) are conveniently located for day-hikes and also offer plenty of opportunities for longer treks and camping.

Toru Inoue, a board member of the National Camping Association of Japan, believes the mountains in Oku-Chichibu are among the best outing spots near Tokyo.

“In the beech forests, the ground is completely covered by moss. It’s really beautiful,” he says.

A guided tour of nature

The outdoors can be enjoyed in myriad ways, from canoeing, trekking and rock-climbing to fishing, stargazing and bird-watching.

Camping has become an increasingly popular family activity, and a number of campsites in forests and by lakesides now offer easy access and convenient facilities. Sites overseen by an administrator offer the comforts of both security and guidance.

For those who want to go camping but without the expense of buying new gear or the hassle of finding out where to go, adventure tours are a convenient option.

Tokyo-based adventure school Outward Bound Japan, for example, offers diverse adventure programs catering to nature lovers of varying experience and preferences.

A branch of an international adventure institution, the school offers programs that include a 21-day camping tour in which participants traverse the Japanese archipelago from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan entirely by foot and mountain bike; a 10-day trip featuring rock-climbing, mountain-climbing and stream-climbing (hiking up mountains along stream beds) in Nagano Prefecture’s Northern Alps; a five-day trekking trip on Mount Fuji; and various three-day rock-climbing and mountain-bike rallies in Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Shizuoka and Nagano prefectures.

All tours are led by experienced outdoor instructors who have completed the company’s special training program.

“Our main purpose is not to teach participants adventure skills but to help them grow as people through nature activities,” says Mamoru Hirose, deputy general of the school. “We encourage participants to push themselves beyond their perceived limits and achieve more than they believe they can.”

The school caters particularly to high-school and college students, but tours are open to anybody age 16 and over.

A special five-day program aimed at 35- to 60-year-olds is held in June and October. Participants stay at the company’s lodge in mountainous Nagano Prefecture and go trekking, rafting and stream-climbing.

Outward Bound Japan also hosts a one-week program for children in March, August and December and occasionally holds weekend “Japanese Language Camps,” designed to teach participants the Japanese language and Japanese culture via outdoor activities.

Before you go . . . Of course, outdoor activities are all about having fun, but make sure you are prepared for potential hazards before you set off.

The weather can change suddenly at any time of year, so you should always bring rain gear, even for a short day-hike. Bottled water not only prevents dehydration but can be used to wash cuts and scratches if you are unlucky enough to injure yourself. A headlamp (a flashlight attached to a headband) is invaluable if you lose your way in the woods after dark.

Although you want to get away from it all, Inoue recommends bringing a cellphone for emergencies. “Being able to make a cellphone call has saved hundreds of lost hikers,” he says.

Given Japan’s geography and climate, there are several precautions to keep in mind. Rivers here are short and fast-flowing, so it is dangerous to wade across a stream when the water level is above your knees. Take care when selecting campsites, as a small peaceful stream can turn into a sudden torrent after heavy rain, and quickly flood riverbanks and riverbeds.

Particular care should be taken when visiting a river with a dam — in the event of heavy rain, water may be released from the dam’s reservoir and could flood the area downstream. In 1999, 18 people camping on a sandbar in the Kurokura River in Kanagawa Prefecture were washed away by a torrent of water from a dam 5 km upstream from their campsite; 13 died in the tragedy.

“Look out for signs saying there is a dam upstream. If you hear sirens, leave the river area immediately,” Inoue says.

Lightning is a serious threat in mountainous regions. Inoue recommends taking shelter near a tree, “but never touch the trunk and branches — keep at least 2 meters away from the tree.” He adds that you can feel your hair rising several seconds before lightning strikes.

Climbing Mount Fuji is a popular activity, but Inoue recommends casual hikers do so only during the climbing season if they wish to go all the way to the top.

“Two foreign climbers died from cold and fatigue about 15 years ago when a sudden sleet storm hit in March. I recommend climbing in June, July and August when the weather is warm and stable. Don’t forget that Mount Fuji is nearly 4,000 meters high,” he says.

Take particular care as summer progresses. Heat exhaustion can easily occur when you are out in hot weather for long periods, so be sure to drink plenty of liquids to avoid overheating.

When cooking outdoors, never set up a butane stove near an open fire. And when using a stove inside a tent, make sure there’s proper ventilation, particularly on rainy days, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

When paddling in rivers, keep your shoes on to avoid injuring your feet on hooks left by fishermen.

If you burn yourself while cooking, cool the burns with cold water and never remove any clothing in contact with the affected skin. “A friend of mine spilled a cup of instant noodles onto his feet in a tent. Confused, he immediately took off his sock — and a lot of his skin with it,” Inoue says.

The great outdoors is not without its hazards, but the relaxation and thrill of the challenges it affords more than outweigh the dangers. So what are you waiting for? Get out of town and explore the many natural wonders of Japan.

For more information about Outward Bound Japan, call (03) 3235-5757   or visit the company’s Web site at www.feis.com/obs