Reflections on the Japanese and European Alps
article written by MRI
16.05.18 | 12:05

Mt. Hakusan (2,702 m), 45 km south-south-east of Kanazawa Mt. Hakusan (2,702 m), 45 km south-south-east of Kanazawa

I recently visited Japan as a guest of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, hosted by Kenichi Ueno (University of Tsukuba) who has posted some JALPS blogs. He has asked me to post some reflections on my visit. On first sight, the Japanese and European Alps have quite a few aspects in common. Both are relative hotspots of biodiversity, with many protected areas and biosphere reserves. In places, both tourism – including large ski areas – and hydroelectricity are well-developed. There is a long history of alpinism, often associated with scientific research. There are steep slopes, and significant infrastructure to minimise natural hazards. Forests occupy the greatest proportion of the landscape – and are expanding because of decreasing harvests and the abandonment of agricultural land. Challenges include, first, accessibility to remote valleys – but tunnels and high bridges have been constructed; and, second, depopulation and ageing populations, especially in places far from cities – but some places are developing innovative schemes to keep people in the mountains or attract them to live there.

Togakushi Upper Shrine in the forested mountains northwest of Nagano city Togakushi Upper Shrine in the forested mountains northwest of Nagano city

Yet there are also major differences. Perhaps the most striking is the importance of Japan’s mountains, and many places within them, as sacred places; there are innumerable shrines and temples, and trails linking them. Agriculture is very important for the culture and the landscape, but in Japan there are few grazing animals: the fields are often terraced and used for cultivating buckwheat and rice. There are plenty of fruit trees, and some vines as wine-making expands. But sake production is much more important! While there are distinct local foods, they are very different, often served on very small plates.  And since nowhere in Japan is far from the sea, you can eat fresh sushi and sashimi high in the mountains.

There are major concerns about increasing populations of deer and their impacts on the forests; but it does not seem that many people eat deer (and there are concerns about food safety, so that hunting for meat does not appear to be a solution – an issue with parallels in my home country of Scotland). There are bears, but no wolves. And there are only a few very small glaciers: a real contrast to the Alps, linked to the very different climates and the fact that the highest mountains in the Japanese Alps are not much higher than 3,000 metres (Japan’s second highest mountain, after Mount Fuji, Mt. Kitadake, is 3192m, in the Minami-Alps). Many are quite recently formed and some are still active volcanoes: one reason for the many hot springs and the important onsen culture.

Looking down to Ashiyasu village, Minami-Alps Biosphere Reserve Looking down to Ashiyasu village, Minami-Alps Biosphere Reserve

For both natural and social scientists, there are many opportunities for comparative research between Japan and not only the Alps, but also other subtropical, temperate, and even subarctic mountains. There is still not so much literature about Japan’s mountains in international languages, but I believe that Japanese scientists have increasing interests in participating in the global mountain science community.

This post was written by Professor Martin Price, Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College of the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland.

Title Photo by Yoshihiko Iida (UNU-IAS OUIK): Participants at the workshop “University Education with Multi-Stakeholders in Mountain Biosphere Reserves”, 2018 in Shiramine, Mount Hakusan Biosphere
Other photos by Martin Price