Thursday, March 3, 2022

A Winter Hike Among the Shrines of Togakushi

Solitude & Freezing Cold Feet

I’m on an early morning train, stealing glances at the young woman sitting diagonally across from me. Purple sneakers with thick white soles; jeans, artificially faded (you can just tell); a black down coat to match her hair, tickling her shoulders in time with the movement of our car. Her face is buried in a lavender scarf; I can only see her eyes, at the same time bright and lost in thought.

I find it interesting, looking at strangers. You never know in any meaningful sense where they are coming from or where they’re going. We can guess, but we’ll never know how right or wrong we are.

As if aware of my thoughts the girl lifts her eyes to mine. Her face remains hidden in her scarf, her body as unmoving as her glance is deep. In the window behind her the mountains and the valley drift by in the muted blues and grays of dawn.

Togakushi is still two hours and one bus ride away. The weather during the six or seven hours I’ll be hiking is impossible to predict. Nature can be fickle four thousand feet up.

As if suddenly bored with the view our train leans into the hills and slips into a tunnel. For a minute the world is black. When the light returns I can see nothing out my window but pines dusted white and the contoured hints of a snowed-over river. Save for our train and the tracks disappearing into the powder ahead the world of man has ceased to exist.

I glance over again. The girl’s eyes have turned away.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Finding New Faces in an Old Japanese Favorite: Hiking the Kiso Valley

Whenever my wife tells me to go take a hike I happily oblige. She said it again last Friday at dinner and by daybreak I was on a train heading into central Japan's Kiso Valley.

The Magome-Tsumago stretch of the old Nakasendo trade route is a well-known and well-trodden trail - and for good reason. Magome and Tsumago are two of the best-preserved Edo Era trade route towns in all of Japan, and are connected by a pleasant (albeit hilly) 7-kilometer walk that takes you through forests and fields and rustic villages that can - and have been - settings for numerous novels and films about the Japan of yesteryear.

Magome is almost too pretty.

The sloping "ishidatami" part of the trail between Magome and Tsumago.
Beautiful and shaded in summer, beautiful and treacherous in winter.

Tsumago is less glazed (read: more authentic-looking) than Magome.

I'd walked this section of the Nakasendo several times, as a guide and on my own. But I'd never gone in winter. And I'd never ventured south of Magome or north of Tsumago. The original Nakasendo, the mountainous route between Kyoto and Edo, covered more than 500 kilometers. Tsumago and Magome were just two of 69 post towns where merchants, travelers, and nobility on their way to see the shogun would eat and sleep and trade.

I've no mind to walk the entire route. (I'd cycle it if not for all the stairs.) But I did want to see more of it. In short, that's how I ended up here:

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Hiking Mt. Norikura: What I Really Want For My Birthday


It's nothing special, how I approach each birthday as a father. I just tell my kids (whether they ask me or not) I'd like to do something fun, and encourage them to throw their ideas at me; where to go, what to do, and where and what to eat. It's fun to hear what they say.

I smile at their enthusiasm and bite my tongue when they argue, and ultimately go along with whatever they decide - which is never what I silently hope for.

What the lone wolf in me wants is a huge home-cooked breakfast without having to cook or clean or listen to the kids go to battle over who gets which pancake when the first batch hits the table. He wants to take off on his own, cycling or hiking or both, at his own pace and discretion, with no debating where to stop for ice-cream. He'd get home just as the sun was dipping behind the mountains, and take a long hot shower and sit down to a burger and a beer without having to wash the dishes or listen to the kids argue over who gets to use the ketchup first.

Lone Wolf is going to have to try again next year.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

To Each His Own, Together: Cycling the Chikuma River


As a thoughtful, likeable human being, my son is way ahead of me. I don’t know where he gets it, but I love when it’s on display. Take one recent Sunday.

The morning skies were cloudy and uncertain. I looked around at my kids, full of breakfast and lethargy, and felt a familiar dull ache. An ache borne of a persistent and pesky awareness that my days are numbered, both with my kids and in this body as I walk this good beautiful Earth.

Standing in the living room, looking at my kids on the couch and at those skies outside my door, I am torn between giving the next few hours to my kids or keeping them all to myself.

As usual, I give in to my compulsion to at least try to be a decent dad.

“You guys want to get outside for a while? Go for a bike ride, or an easy hike somewhere?” They remain entirely unfazed. What dad can compete with a video game? “Maybe stop somewhere for ice cream after?”

The kids have clearly reached the age when soft-serve is no longer as interesting as Fortnite.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear my oldest say that yeah, he’d be up for a bike ride. I must be one cynical father because I wasn’t sure if his expressed interest was genuine or if he was simply humoring me out of the goodness of his heart. If it was the latter, I thought, then (a) what a good actor, and (b) what a phenomenal kid.

Then he added a perfect dose of honesty. “I don’t really want to go hiking.”

We threw our bikes in the van and took off for the Chikuma valley, an hour and a bit away.

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 (or Driving) Japan's Noto Peninsula

The Noto Peninsula is a curious place. Found midway along the western coast of Honshu, it sticks out into the Sea of Japan like the thumb of a hitchhiker trying to escape the shadow of the continent. Off the long arc of its eastern shore lies Toyama Bay which, at 1,000 meters deep, hosts an almost unimaginable variety of marine life. The shores exposed for eons to the winds and sands of far-off Siberia are marked by weather-worn cliffs and rock formations only Nature could dream up.

Temples sit quietly in the skirts of the forested mountains, as they have for over 1,000 years. Farms and rice fields conform to the contours of the thick green land. Coastal villages wear clothes that only time and the elements can provide.

All this, and nobody ever comes here.

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".