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120 Ancient Mountain Trails Selected for Survey in Japanese Alpine Club Anniversary Project

The Japanese Alpine Club is marking its 120th anniversary with a landmark project to document and promote historic mountain trails traversing the country.



The signpost at the Ishimaru Pass in Yamanashi Prefecture, the original Daibosatsu Pass on the Old Koshudo trail during the late Heian and Sengoku periods (12th-16th centuries). (@Yoshikazu Ishizuka)

A five-year project to survey ancient mountain trails in Japan and introduce them to the public as historical paths is entering the final phase. The Japanese Alpine Club (JAC) is Japan's oldest and most prestigious mountaineering association. It is pushing the project as one of the anniversary projects to mark its 120th year in 2025. 

The JAC survey covers 120 ancient trails running through mountainous areas of historical importance throughout the country. Documenting their cultural value and unique geographical features, it aims to preserve these trails as cultural assets and encourage more people to use them as hiking and climbing paths.

Ancient people once used these mountain trails for various purposes. Today, due to roadway modernization, motorization, and rapid development, many are falling into disuse. Unless they are properly managed and utilized, they are in danger of being lost.

First of two parts

Masayuki Kondo (left), the Japanese Alpine Club Ancient Mountain Road Survey Project Team leader, and JAC vice president Kotaro Nagata. (@Yoshikazu Ishizuka)

JAC's History

Boasting 4,800 members nationwide, JAC traces its roots back to 1905 in the latter days of the Meiji era. A diverse group of seven young mountain enthusiasts, inspired by Britain's Alpine Club, founded the organization. Walter Weston, an English missionary mountaineer who introduced modern mountaineering to Japan, encouraged them in their pursuit.

In 1956, a JAC expedition became the first in the world to ascend the then-unclimbed Manaslu, a Himalayan eight-thousander and the world's eighth-highest peak. This impressive feat stoked a mountaineering boom in Japan. In addition to climbing and conserving the natural environment, JAC also studies mountain culture and religion and organizes activities to popularize mountaineering. 

The current survey project began in 2020. Members of JAC's 33 local chapters, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, made lists of candidate mountain trails to survey. At JAC headquarters, an "Ancient Mountain Trail Survey Project Team" then selected the 120 finalists from these lists. Fascinating historical tales and cultural values were among the criteria for selection. Selected trails also included other features, such as beautiful scenery and mountain views.

First Nationwide Survey

Masayuki Kondo, the project team leader, stresses its significance. This will be the first opportunity for the public to access the results of such a survey through the JAC website.


More than 40 years ago, the Agency for Cultural Affairs surveyed historical trails. However, they were primarily ancient kaido (major public roads or highways) running largely through non-mountain areas. According to Kondo, local municipalities, volunteer groups, and individuals did survey ancient trails and paths in mountain areas. Unfortunately, results were often confined to local communities, remaining relatively unknown beyond those areas.

In the project's second year, in 2021, JAC members commenced actual fieldwork to inspect the 120 ancient mountain trails. This followed each local chapter's research into old documents and maps. 

Plans to walk along the ancient trails, however, were widely suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic's peak in 2021 and 2022, especially near city areas. Face-to-face meetings among survey team members were canceled and instead held on Zoom. Fortunately, the project is now progressing almost as planned, despite many months of delays in the initial field surveys. 

Local survey teams are now reporting their findings, including manuscripts, photos, and maps of the old trails they walked. The results of all trail surveys are scheduled to be disclosed on the website by fiscal year 2025.

Overlooking Ishimaru Pass, known as Daibosatsu Pass during the Edo period (elevation: 1933 m) in Yamanashi Prefecture's Daibosatsu Mountains. Villagers from Kosuge and Hagihara ascended the Old Koshudo trail for centuries, trading goods for daily essentials. During the Edo period, a new route from Kosuge diverted traffic to the pass's north. (@Yoshikazu Ishizuka)

Japan's Mountain Heritage

Japan is one of the most mountainous countries, with these elevations accounting for some 70% of the land. From ancient times, people crossed these peaks, traveling from one village to another on the other side of the mountains. 

Kotaro Nagata, JAC vice president, explains why many ancient trails in Japan were built in mountain areas. According to Nagata, people found it safer to travel along ridges than through valleys or rivers.

From the Jomon period (dating back to 14,000 BC) down to the Middle Ages and early years of the Meiji period in the 19th century, people used these trails for everyday life. They served as routes for exchanging food and daily necessities. In addition, the paths led to sacred mountains for worshiping the gods and practicing shugen mountain asceticism.

During the 15th-16th centuries of the Sengoku, or Warring States Period, numerous trails served as roads for moving soldiers over mountains to outwit enemies. Historical records provide evidence of this strategic use during regional warfare.

Many of these footpaths and trails fell into disuse over time. They were gradually buried under bushes and grasses in the quickly proliferating vegetation of the hot and humid climate. Abandoned, their deterioration accelerated after the construction of new modern roads during and after the Meiji period. Various types of development, such as housing, highways, dams, and golf courses, also contributed. 


Kondo, who has walked many of these trails, warns that they will surely disappear unless actions are taken soon to preserve surviving trails. He says that well-traveled and well-managed trails like the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes, registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, may avoid this fate. 

Surveys at the Tokyo-Tama Chapter

Local chapters have played an important role in the JAC project. Take the Tokyo-Tama chapter, for example. Surveys began in late 2020 by searching for and collecting information about ancient mountain trails in the region. A dozen members embarked on extensive research, delving into ancient documents, old maps, and local history books. They also examined journals written or edited by various contributors, including local towns and villages, citizen historians, mountain religion and culture researchers, and mountaineers. They aimed to determine the original routes of the trails and explore their rich histories, legends, and cultural backgrounds.

Members often visited local libraries, museums, and regional town and village offices for reference materials. Furthermore, they interviewed village elders and residents who knew about the old trails. They aimed to capture and document episodes and memories from the villagers' childhoods or their parents' experiences related to the trails. For consultations, they sought out meetings with local municipality officials and local history specialists knowledgeable about the ancient trails.

Locating community elders with expertise on the ancient trails or related legends and stories proved to be a time-consuming and often frustrating aspect of the survey. Tokyo-Tama team leader Hidesuke Ishii highlighted this challenge, attributed to a rapid decline in the number of individuals possessing such knowledge.

A JAC Tokyo-Tama chapter survey team member examines a stone monument at the entrance to the Sengen shrine on the Sengen ridge in the Okutama mountains. The monument, dedicated by two men from a nearby village in 2023, depicts a Mount Fuji drawing and an inscription celebrating a successful pilgrimage to the holy mountain. (@Yoshikazu Ishizuka)

Walking Back Through History

Using their research findings, JAC members walked along the old trails chosen for the survey. They had trekked many of these trails before while hiking and climbing. This time, they searched for signs and evidence that the trails were used by people in ancient times. Members took photos of the mileposts, signposts, stone Buddha figures, roadside shrines, and other relics and monuments along the mountain trails.

Before writing articles describing the trail, they usually walked the same trail several times on ridges and overpasses. Trail survey sections extend from several kilometers to tens of kilometers. It takes them anywhere from several hours to a full day or two to walk while taking records. 

Project submissions include a main article about each trail. A couple or more short pieces detailing historical episodes, legends, and in-depth accounts of cultural and social backgrounds related to the trail supplement the report. This approach aims to make each survey article engaging and informative for readers.

Coming next in part two: Tracing Ancient Mountain Trails with the Japanese Alpine Club


(Read the column in Japanese.)

Author: Yoshikazu Ishizuka
Yoshikazu Ishizuka is a journalist and author who, before his retirement, led the Japan Times as managing editor for many years.