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 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.