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.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Cycling Rishiri Island: Mountainsides, Shorelines & Heaven

Ten miles off the desolate northwestern shores of Hokkaido, Japan’s far-flung playground of the gods, Mount Rishiri breaches the water like a beast both heavy and buoyant. Clothed in the kind of mystery only distance can create, Rishiri-zan, and the namesake island on which she rests, offer only vague hints of the scars that remain after the brutal winters of eons and the mountain’s volcanic past.

Having come all this way, standing now a thousand kilometers and a world away from Tokyo, one feels compelled to venture just a little bit further, out across the water, to discover those secrets behind the haze lest the journey feel forever incomplete.

That's how I felt, there at the edge of the water.

I would not have come even this far if it weren’t for Ken, the very active owner of a cycling tour company. I’d emailed him a couple of years prior, to ask if he could use another guide here and there. As our ferry neared Rishiri’s port of Oshidomari I shaded my eyes and took in the detail-rich view, laughing quietly at my stupid, extraordinary luck.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Eboshi-iwa: Somebody Doesn't Want Me Here

The ride from my house to the trailhead wasn’t particularly challenging: three hundred meters of vertical (that’s almost a thousand feet for you Americans) over twelve kilometers of road. (Forty thousand feet, please learn the metric system, people!)

Granted, it wasn’t as easy as it could have been. I had to take my cheesy foldable bicycle with the twenty-inch wheels because Yeti, the road bike that has taken me across Alaska, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, is now sitting around refusing to fix itself.

My goal was Eboshi-iwa, a tall skinny tower of rock that makes for a fine excuse to go hiking in the hours between fatherly responsibilities. I’d been there before, albeit by a different route, so I knew nothing of the length or the terrain of the trail I’d be taking today. I wasn’t even sure there was a trail; last year, in a moment of gracious insanity, I lent my primo trail map of this area to my wife’s friend, Ryoko.

I haven’t seen Ryoko or my map since.

I was about a kilometer (figure it out yourself) from the trailhead when my back tire went flat. I didn’t have a patch kit, or a spare tube or an air pump because I generally don’t bother to prepare for such occasional contingencies. I’m too busy trying to get out of the house before someone can ask me to do something else for them. Besides, this bicycle had been operating perfectly for the almost four years since I rode it home from the garbage heap at the collection site down the street. It’s unbelievable the things people will just throw away. (Bringing home a discarded bike; maybe this is why Yeti is pouting in the shed.)

Aside from being unprepared, I also tend to travel light. I don’t like hauling around unnecessary bulk – like extra sneakers – so I had nothing but the hiking boots already on my feet as I began running (a generous term) with my bike up the road. It wasn’t until I finally found the trailhead that I knew how long the trail to Eboshi-iwa was. And I still didn’t know the terrain. But no matter. I could worry about the time – and that flat tire – later.

I locked my bike and took off clomping down the trail - or maybe someone's driveway.

A minute later I stopped.

Two gates before me. I had to choose. It felt like a game show.

I won! And on down the hill my boots clomped.

To this point the trail resembled a rutted access road. Probably because it was. Door Number Two took me down a path of dirt, then gravel, then concrete that crossed a stream and rose sharply before turning into a crumbling mix of all three. A sign for Eboshi-iwa pointed me left, bringing me up a dirt path that soon morphed into a lush, level ribbon of grass. This soon gave way to more dirt.

Swaths of grass can be hard to come by on a school playground in Japan, never mind on the side of a mountain. Rock walls are more prevalent out here, though as remnants of centuries-old castles and such. And I’d never seen or heard of any old fortress ruins out here.

I have noticed an increase in signs on some of the trails in this area, in many cases the new ones replacing the old, weather-beaten ones. Here, however, were two signs for Eboshi-iwa pointing in two opposite directions. Neither sign looked very old. One of had only Japanese characters. The other had “Eboshi-iwa” in English lettering as well as Japanese. I suspect this was an attempt by someone to keep the invading foreigners out of certain areas now that the castle walls are mostly in ruins.

With my primo map of the area gone right along with Ryoko, I’d had to resort to a third-grade level download of these trails. The path leading left, marked by the Japanese-only sign, was on my digital navigator missing a chunk in the middle. Whether this was meant to dissuade people from hiking up a trail that had fallen into disrepair or was another part of someone’s Keep-the-Foreigners-Out scheme I couldn’t say.

If the clock wasn’t ticking I might have gone left.

As the path wound and rose the ground underfoot slowly shed its multiple personality disorder. Eventually the evidence of the ongoing deadwood removal work was the only thing interrupting the consistency of the rolling dirt trail. The fresh, bilingual signs kept coming, assuring me I was on the right path – or should I say the path someone wanted me to stay on. The signs appeared with an almost irritating frequency, actually. Every few hundred meters I was reminded how far I still had to go, which in turn reminded me that I had twelve kilometers to cover on a flat tire once I was back down off the mountain and out of the woods.

At an apparent fork in the trail the forest turned suddenly, suspiciously disheveled. All over the uneven ground fallen branches and leaves that somehow seemed imported lie strewn like the aftermath of an intemperate storm. Sitting low in the midst of the contrived disaster scene was a rock sporting two characters, for “stop” and “mountain”. They were bright orange and arguably hastily-painted, and together made no sense to me. Stop the mountain? Stop! Mountain! The rock’s odd placement on the ground didn’t help in discerning what the grizzled elf sprite that did this was trying to say.

Either someone really doesn’t want me here, or wants me lost out here forever.

Despite the suspect nature of the man-made bits, Nature remains beautiful.

Meanwhile the Shinto-infused evidence of man’s infliction on the land remains magically, beautifully harmonious. Traditional Shinto deifies all aspects of Nature, and the expression of Shinto (“The Way of the Gods”) manages to enhance rather than detract from that to which it ascribes its spirit.

And though I may harp on man’s other intrusions, I do appreciate the signs.

The name Eboshi-iwa literally translates as “Crow’s Hat Rock” though it comes with the added meaning of “nobleman’s headgear”. Viewed from certain angles and mixed with a touch of imagination the name seems like it could fit.

Though if I saw someone walking around with a hat shaped like that? Noble probably wouldn't be the first word to come to mind.

For some, Eboshi-iwa means a chance to test their rock-climbing skills. That’s fine I guess, although judging from the gear left behind on top of the crow’s hat they might want to also practice their cleaning-up-after-themselves skills.

On a clear day the view from the rocks that sit slightly above Eboshi-iwa is fantastic, if limited to the southern half of the surrounding mountain landscape. Even under less than perfect skies this is still a great place to feel above the gentle crush of the everyday.

The hike up there and back down ended up taking less time than I’d allowed for. So did the trek home as I decided, after twenty minutes of running with my bike along the side of the road, to jump on and roll downhill, daring that flat tire to turn to powdered rubber from the grinding pressure of steel bike wheel and pavement. After four years it had become pretty worn, it needed to be replaced anyway. Plus it would be fun, I thought, to see how absolutely shredded it would get over the next ten kilometers.

To my amazement, it not only survived, it remained usable, if barely. The tube inside should have been torn to ribbons, but upon inspection I found only the original single pinhole that had almost destroyed the day.

I patched it up with some expired glue and a dried-out bit of rubber from the shed. The next day I found the patch had held.

I guess there are some people out there – sign makers and tire patch manufacturers among them – who want us to be able to keep on exploring.

I’d say it’s only right to oblige.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Yufu-dake: Encouraging the Kids to Climb

Like most events in my life, my introduction to Yufu-dake came about quite by accident. I’d gone down to Kyushu, to the hot spring village of Yufu-in, to help lead a cycling tour. Set among the mountains of geologically-active Oita Prefecture, Yufu-in reminded me of a village in Slovenia, where one might also encounter steam billowing into the air from scattered underground vents.

East of town Yufu-dake (Mount Yoo-Foo) dominated the skyline, rising higher than the others. Its double peaks floated pale in the late afternoon sun. Seeing them flipped a familiar switch. I wanted nothing but to go climb them.

But the next day would be taken up by the indispensable task of reconnoitering by bicycle the first leg of the tour. In the morning the other two guides and I would pass by Yufu-dake’s doorstep, but I would get no closer. A fifty-five-mile bike ride through the hilly Oita countryside was fair consolation, but still…

Two weeks later I was back at home, telling my wife how beautiful Kyushu was. She’d never been there, and seemed only lukewarm on the idea of taking the kids there during their winter break. But slowly the idea grew on her.

“Where should we go first?” she finally asked.

“Yufu-in,” I replied without any explanation as to why.

I’ve tried, with varying degrees of failure, to introduce my kids to the wonders of being in the mountains. My boys would rather go kick their soccer ball around. My daughter won't usually hesitate, but then every ten minutes along the way she'd mention ice cream.

My wife is generally, quietly non-committal on the idea of a hike. But the view of Yufu from a nearby roadside lookout point sold her, and soon the five of us were on our way across the golden grassy flats leading to the climb up the Yoof.

My boys were excited, walking and running, walking and waiting, then sprinting ahead again. My daughter, not quite up to the task, rode in her carrier on my back. Compared to her delight of being able to go up a mountain the extra weight is nothing.

It was chilly, even there in Japan’s southern reaches. I had on my ski jacket. My older son wore his long soccer coat. My wife and daughter had scarves around their necks. My younger son, true to form, was wearing gym shorts.

Forty-five minutes had passed when we took our first break, among the trees of the lower slopes. The scenery, or, more likely, the nascent talk of ice cream, kept the kids happy for a while. My younger son kept hurrying ahead, though less out of excitement, it now seemed, and more out of wanting to get to the top and back to the car.

We were going on two hours when we took another break, above the trees at a point that offered an expansive if hazy view of Yufu’s conical little sister, Mt. Iimorigajou, and the town of Yufu-in. Big brother passed around a bag of cheese doodly things. Little brother passed around quiet hints of his displeasure.

Twenty-five minutes later the top of Yufu seemed to be inching within reach – though such determinations can often prove false and dispiriting. Yet another twenty minutes we’d made it to the saddle, the ridge between Yufu’s twin peaks. Nishi-mine, the western peak, is higher by a handful of old volcanic boulders. The climb involves a series of chains and, for a dad hiking with two anxious boys up ahead and an increasingly-heavy daughter on his back, a fair bit of consternation. Without any protest from anyone we elected to climb the eastern peak.

My little girl, ever ambitious, wanted to walk to the top. It was a struggle for both of us, though not one that could dampen our enthusiasm. We were going to make it to the top, all of us. My sons, visibly agitated for a chunk of the climb, were now clearly satisfied for having conquered this dormant volcano. They scampered about the rocks and scrub of the summit, enjoying what lie underfoot more than the 360-view of the land far below us.

Eventually my wife appeared, spent but smiling after our four-hour uphill journey. She still had her coat on. I’d shed mine long ago.

For a while we took in the view, of the quiet land and of our rejuvenated children. We took pictures and passed around the hodgepodge of breadstuffs and bento we’d brought. We wondered aloud where the zip line back down was. We spoke of coming days.

As proud as my boys may have been to be up there, they slowly turned antsy, telling dad in quiet but clear terms they were ready to get going on the long trek back down. My wife asked them - several times - if they didn't want to rest just five more minutes.

Gravity can be a sneaky fiend on a descent, particularly one laced with snow at the top and strewn with leaves and rocks and roots the rest of the way. I reminded my boys of this several times, in part to remind myself as well. A twisted ankle wasn’t going to make hauling my daughter, who seemed to be gaining weight by the minute, any easier. I welcomed each moment she said she wanted to get down off my back and walk for a little again.

We reached those grassy plains marking the end of our hike ten minutes shy of four-thirty - a full six hours after we’d set out. If I had thought it would take that long I probably would have put my dreamy plans of climbing Yufu aside for another day.

But it was a great hike and a worthwhile endeavor for all of us, I thought. My daughter now has a photo of herself on top of a mountain. As far as she’s concerned she climbed it, and if that spurs her on to keep reaching for new heights that’s fine with me. (She has since climbed several more peaks.)

My boys, though the day may not have steered either of them toward a life of seeking out new mountains to climb, now have their memories of this day to add to their growing wellspring of accomplishment that, I believe, will serve them well regardless of their eventual chosen road.

Besides all that, it is without question that ice cream tastes so much better after a challenge.

And the hot springs feel so, so good.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Monsters on Yakushima's Motchomu-dake

It was 2004, and winter was coming to Osaka. On the horizon in front of me was a two-week break from work, starting with the Emperor’s December 23rd birthday and lasting well into the New Year. My trusty Yeti, the road bike I’d shipped to Japan from Alaska three years prior, was addicted to adventure. Or maybe that was me. Regardless, I heard Yakushima calling, so I figured we’d both go.

Forty or fifty miles south of Kyushu's Cape Sata, the southernmost point of Japan’s southernmost main island, Yakushima possesses a mystique borne of cedars older than Jesus and enough annual rainfall to make Noah give up. Virtually the entire island has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Beyond these few facts I knew nothing of the place – and that included how long it would actually take to bike there from Osaka. It didn’t matter. I was Edmund Hillary. And Yakushima was there.

As it turned out I never made that trip. Instead, the day after the Emperor turned a hundred and eighty-four or whatever I put on a suit and tie, bought a box of tangerines, and took a train north to Fukushima to ask a peach farmer for his permission to marry his daughter.

Thirteen years later I’d finally make it to Yakushima, as a guide on a cycling tour. Upon completion of the tour I thought I’d make the three-day hike from Onoaida on the south side of the island, through ancient and mossy forests and over Yakushima’s highest peaks, and down to the northeastern port village of Miyanoura where I’d catch the ferry back to Kyushu.

I had, however, in the thirteen-year interim picked up not only a wife but three children. The best my overpowering sense of fatherly responsibility would allow – after cycling around for two weeks under the guise of work – was one extra day to explore what I could.

I opted to climb the relatively modest mountain known as Mocchomu-dake, which probably doesn’t mean “forest with some crazy shit” but it very well could.