Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Azumino-Yamabiko Cycling Road: Smooth Sailing Between the Mountains

John’s e-mails tell me that Spring has returned to the central Japanese high plains we inhabit.

“Yo Kev! Weather’s lookin sweet, bro! You up for a ride?”

His enthusiasm is infective. Not that it takes much to get me out on the bike.

He talks sometimes of mountain biking the trails of nearby Hachibuse-yama, though in his voice I hear more reminiscence than actual suggestion. That’s fine with me. I run those trails on occasion, and to me there's no better way to communicate with the gods who reside there than entering their world on foot. Besides, one broken collarbone is enough.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Back Roads, Bike Paths & Quiet Surprises: Cycling the Noto Peninsula

Noto is one of those places that is great to visit because people no longer go there anymore. Okay that’s not totally true – there are pockets of interest that keep the tour buses running along certain of the few main roads. But for a side trip along that ‘unbeaten path’ to the stereo-mythical ‘real Japan’ that so many are ostensibly looking for, Noto delivers.

The peninsula is doable by car in a day or two from Kanazawa. And if that’s what works for you, cool. If you have the time, the legs, and a decent bicycle, then charge up your devices and start pedaling.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Hiking Slovenia's Uršlja Gora

 Mid-sized Mountain. Dubious Legend. Misplaced Church.

Pop Quiz: Upon hearing the name Slovenia, most people think of:

  1. Famed Slovene architect Jože Plečnik.
  2. Maribor’s Žametovka trta, the world’s oldest known grape-producing vine.
  3. Predjamski grad, the 12th Century castle built right into a karst cave.
  4. Nothing. Because that’s what most people know about Slovenia.

I too would likely know nothing of this European garden if not for my dear friend Damjan. My wife, wholly incapable of wasting an opportunity to make a new friend, was the one who met him first, on a day tour to a glacier in Iceland in 2001. She'd later tell me about "the guy who keeps sending me travel brochures".

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Kaimon-dake: Up Close & Passable

Kaimon-dake had been high on my to-hike list since I first cycled the Satsuma Peninsula in 2017. Under sapphire skies this conical peak rose like a perfect Mt. Fuji, floating on the edge of the ocean at the southwest tip of Japan, calling me in that silent language to come see things that exist beyond words.

Now, two weeks into 2021, circumstances had brought me back to this quiet, scarcely-traveled place. I’d just finished up a three-week working vacation down on the island of Yakushima, a mountainous place of monkeys and deer, spidery Banyan trees and gnarled, thousand-year-old cedars, and daily rainbows that naturally occur with daily rains. As with hiking Kaimon, I had fantastic expectations for this random opportunity to travel. In Yakushima, it can be hard to take three steps without having your breath taken away yet again.

Sadly, my working vacation came with little vacation. But in some places you can see a year’s worth of beauty in a day.

Back on the mainland but not ready to go home, I booked a hotel in Kagoshima and made a date with Kaimon. My visions of what was to come were stark and fantastic: I’d stand on the summit, the land and the sea stretching into eternity before me; I'd gaze down on royal blue Ikeda Lake to the north, then turn to take in the scattered gray-green islands swimming in the distant pelagic south. The beauty would be encompassing.

I had no mind to consider whether reality could actually measure up.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Jonen-dake & Cho-ga-take: How We See the World


I leaned my bike against the wall of the toilet hut, right under the yellow Watch Out For Bears sign. Such warning signs are common in these mountains. Actual bear sightings, not so much I don't think. Not in a normal year anyway. But when you close down an entire mountain range for four months, eliminating the usual throngs of hikers and campers, the bears start acting like they own the place again.

This was how I thought it should be. It was also how I feared it was.

In the immediate moment though my biggest fear was having to go into that putrid bathroom to switch out of my sweaty clothes. Since when are toilet hut cleaner people non-essential? Holy stench.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Hiking Mt. Bandai: Fatherhood and Who to Feed

My kids were staring at their grandma’s TV for the fifth night in a row. Not that there's much else to do after dark out here in the sticks, unless you want to stay up and keep watch for the wild boars and black bears that have recently been coming around.

A shortened summer vacation and a resurgent coronavirus had nixed our plans to visit the oft-overlooked, quietly intriguing island of Shikoku. To compensate we opted for a relaxing week at my wife’s parents’ peach farm in Fukushima, north of home but just as hot and three times as humid.

I’d spent most mornings helping my mother-in-law pick and pack peaches. As a family we’d done little else, remaining distant from the people and places that normally take up our time here. The days had passed sluggishly, slipping unremarkably by until suddenly it was Wednesday and we had a mere thirty-six hours before we'd have to return to Nagano. Tomorrow, then, was my last chance to carry on a nascent personal Fukushima tradition: going off for a day to climb one of the region's innumerable mountains.

It's a rather selfish endeavor, but we all need to feed our souls. And walking up really big hills then walking back down them is how I feed mine.

To this point it had been a private affair - just me and a mountain - so I was surprised at the words that were now falling out of my mouth.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Nasu-dake: Navigating Through Snow and Fatherhood

We visit my wife’s parents at their peach farm in Fukushima once or twice a year, and every time I bring three things: my hiking boots, my guide to Japan’s 100 Most Famous Mountains, and a hollow optimism that this time I’ll get out and do some hiking.
Then we get there and my wife and kids want to do a million things that don’t involve hiking and my boots end up sitting by the front door all week while I spend all my time playing daddy.
It’s just like being at home, except I don’t have to do the dishes.
I did make it out a few years ago, on a day that any normal person would have stayed home. “I think I’m gonna go climb Adatara tomorrow,” I told my wife as the weatherwoman on TV talked politely about the typhoon on the way. My wife was planning on everyone going shopping in the morning, then to lunch at the same ramen shop we always go to (not for nothing, their portions are massive). Her plan, I’m sure, included me. “I’ll take that orange bicycle out there. You going to be okay with the kids?”
“Yes, of course,” she replied, sounding less than excited about the perfect storm brewing. “You don’t want to eat lunch with us at Kuntaro?”
I did. But I didn’t.
Everyone was still sleeping when I slipped out the door and pedaled off into the gray, misty morning, heading for #21 of those Hundred Famous Mountains.