Waterfalls

The sun rose at 4:28. I know this because I had already been up for an hour. I’d gotten out of bed to use the bathroom, but when I laid back down my eyes stayed open. It was ridiculous to think I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was still full after drinking enough wine last night because my neighbor was having a party in honor of her husband’s seventh year of passing. I’d only been asleep for four hours. I closed my eyes and rolled over.

When half an hour passed I pulled out my phone. I felt completely sober as well, but a dry mouth made me get up to gulp down a couple glasses of water. No smart decisions are made or lost with a cell phone and nothing to do. I immediately pulled up the REI app which I’d downloaded sometime early in the spring. It was their anniversary sale, and I still had a couple things to check off my list if I wanted to start camping by summer. For three hours I scoured the pages, going between REI and Backcountry (despite my membership, I found the latter to have some better deals). I was repeating almost the same process I had done a year ago approaching July 2016, with visions of Japan mountaintops and morning hikes. Back then I was making less and just gotten out of debt. I decided to clear my cart at the last moment and be done with it. I think I’ve mentioned this habit before. I’ll spend hour(s) shopping online or in real life — I’ll create these alternative realities where I’m fully enjoying a product I can’t live without — and when it comes to checkout I put everything down and leave the store. I think it’s a good practice in restraint. It’s always smart to wait before making a purchase, and after a year of having the urge to go camping I finally had to act.

I wrapped up all the shopping around the time my alarm went off. I could’ve stayed in bed a little longer, but really I had the mindset to get up and work so why put it to waste. Originally I had wanted to spend the day studying, applying to jobs, getting things in order and focusing on my side projects (which there are plenty), but those original plans fell through and I arranged to hang out with the only Japanese friend my age left in the city.

“Wanna hang out on Sunday?” I asked.

“Sure.”

“Bring Hazuki with you.”

“You mean in the morning, then?” he asked.

Hazuki is his … let me do the math, eight month old daughter. Wow, it’s weird to think that’s she’s only eight months, and at the same time she’s already eight months. Babies, I guess, are weird like that. Like only now among my third year students I’ve noticed the different in height and loss of chubby cheeks from when I first got here, but this girl has barely even existed for a year and she’s already practicing how to walk. Just weird. Let’s not think about that. Although I enjoy her company, even taking care of pets for more than a month I’ve found to be too intruding so I’m certainly not going to think about children within this decade. Well, not that I have a choice at the moment anyway.

Dillon with a baby

They arrived just before noon. She gave me huge confusing eyes as I looked at her. When Kubo, her dad, passed her over to me those eyes shone up at me, then over to her father, then back at me. Then they turned to twisted black raisins on roiling over puffy red cheeks, as her hands sprung out back towards her dad. I quickly passed her over, amazed at how immediate the crying stopped. He chuckled and then put her back in my arms where she started crying until I set her down on the floor. The last time I saw her she wasn’t much smaller, but she had stayed silent most of the day and didn’t seem remotely aware of what was going on around her. But now she was crawling and exploring and practically a hazard on four legs.

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Eventually I had to unplug my mouse and keyboard from my computer because she was so determined to play with them. We left when she got curious enough to dig into the floor plant I have.

We didn’t really have a plan so we first went for lunch at a restaurant near my school. It was my second time being there and basically solidified sauce katsudon as my favorite Japanese food. It’s pretty tough to describe. On the surfuce is just tenderized pork deep fried, dipped in sauce, and put over rice. It’s half a common dish in Japan but the way it’s done in this prefecutre is a bit of a specialty. I eat it as much as my healthy lifestyle will allow.

From the restaurant we stopped by his home to see if someone was around to take the baby. With the driveway empty and nothing else in mind, we took a quick detour to a walking trail. The weather now is basically summer. It’s a little hot directly in the but we put Ha-chan in a stroller so she was pretty comfortable. As soon as I strapped her in — maybe even a bit before — her head plopped against a shoulder and she fell asleep. The path took us down and around to a small baseball stadium where a minor league game was going on. At first I thought it might’ve been a high school match where I could see some former students. When we saw the entrance fee was roughly five bucks we decided to turn around and find something else to do.

That’s when I learned you never want to wake a sleeping baby. As soon as I lifted her out of the stroller she started squiggling, and wailing a bit more. When I set her in the car seat I noticed she burped a little milk. I’m not sure I expected what was coming when I decided to pick up again and pull her out of the car, but then she threw up a little bit more on my arm.

“Oh, no.”

Truly in these types of situations you can never move as quickly as you know you need to. The next thing was a jet-stream of white baby formula cascading down my shoulder. I’ve seen this happen in the movies, but I always thought it was some kind of trope. The obvious reaction would be to point her mouth in a different direction, but instinctively I just held her closer until it all poured out. Kubo just laughed at that reasoning.

“Don’t you have a towel?” I asked.

“No.”

“What! You’ve been a father for eight months and you don’t have a towel?”

He rummaged around for some baby wipes and started scrubbing her arms and legs.

“Well, has this ever happened to you?”

“It used to a lot, but recently not so much.”

I guess I’m just lucky. He pointed me over to the restroom where I washed my shirt in the sink and tried to clean the side of my shorts. Only being familiar with wine and nose bleeds, it seemed like it’d take a bit more than cold water to clean out this mess.

This little predicament settled our own issue of trying to find something to do. We went back to his family’s house to leave the baby with his wife and he tossed me a clean shirt. He had a place in mind in the neighboring area, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to explain it to me in words I understood. I could guess, though, what he meant when he said bridge. After all, in a rural area such as this, there isn’t a variety of sightseeing attractions under that category.

kazura vine bridge

It wasn’t nearly as long, or rickety, or high as I thought it would be, but maybe that’s just from a 6’3″ American’s point of view. The planks were tied a decent ways apart actually, but Kubo made fun of me because my foot size is so big I couldn’t even notice.

Under the bridge ran a stream with a path leading down to it on the other side. The water was a bit cold, but completely clear and I couldn’t help whipping my socks off to go stand it in. It was nice to be back in the nature, which only affirmed my morning camping purchases. The other side had a garden, a small koi pond, and even a dojo to make soba noodles. We went into a tiny hut with a map of attractions around the area. Kubo was attracted to one particular image of a waterfall that didn’t look too far away. It was already four o’clock and I had planned to run and hit up an onsen before the night’s end, but I didn’t mind a little more adventuring.

The trip was a forty minute drive into the woods on a narrow path without any signs. I pulled up google maps, but even that didn’t know exactly where we were trying to go. Luckily, I have never once come across a dirt road during my time in Fukui so the only real worry you ever have to have while driving is avoiding the open gutters on either side (which is occasionally a problem when two cars have to pass by on a curving hill in the woods). We actually passed by the parking lot, driving straight up to where the waterfalls were. It was pretty stunning, but we drove to make a u-turn because Google Maps actually didn’t know where what road to take us on.

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The fall is huge, and really there’s no good way to capture it all in a picture. It’s too wide, and too tall. Because it’s sandwiched between the ridges there isn’t much sun, but at that time of day it was shining perfectly to feel like a fantasy novel. It’d be a great place to have a picnic. There was literally a family with two boys splashing around at the base of the waterfalls. I thought it might be a bit too cold for that, but I envious they’d thought to bring a towel.

When we left we drove a different way back to town. I remember on the way there I was struck by how high we were going and how vast the woods seemed, but this time was a bit quicker. I figured it was OK since I’d seen enough. Pushing myself to the limits of my motivation, I did go out and enjoy a half hour run before the sun went down and immediately biked to the nearest onsen, one I hadn’t been to before. I felt a bit uneasy the whole time because the entryway and lockers were plastered with signs that said they didn’t allow tattoos (seriously on everything that I would touch). That’s pretty common in Japan, but usually the signs are tucked away and ignored. This place felt a bit different. On top of that the admission was ¥200 more than what I normally pay, I didn’t get a stamp card, and their outdoor pool wasn’t even working. Well, at least I can feel more assured about the quality when I go back to my regular one. Unfortunately this is all a Sunday, and I’d be much happier living in the future where they’ll almost certainly have three day weekends (at least). For now, I can only bask in the laziness and get back to work.

Daytripper

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through the changing weather it’s you’ve gotta take what you can get. So many days now I come to school wearing a light jacket only to have it dark and freezing by the time I leave. Often it’s begun to rain. Sooner than last year I expect it’ll start to snow. Sometimes I wonder if I should go for a run, or wait until I’m free in the evening with less errands to do. Too many times I’m stuck at 9:00 bundling in gloves and long pants, when during the day I could’ve gone out in shorts.

Thus before I’m completely shut in for Winter, I’ve been able to go out and enjoy the season just a little bit more. This has probably fatigued me a bit, being my weekends have been booked completely since Halloween, but I’ve also at least been more active than I would’ve otherwise.

The first weekend trip followed a day where I volunteered as a judge for a high school English debate tournament. Seeing the dozens of students compete in such advanced English made my average work seem inadequate. I doubt there are many opportunities in a junior high school where they can learn such enabling English, even after three years they’re barely learning how to use prepositions to connect verbs with nouns. I did find a reward though meeting one of my students who graduated last year. During the last round he asked me to sit by him and we talked pretty fluently about the points each team was making, as well as how he studied English, and what he was enjoying in high school. At least that gave me some hope that not every student I teach will go on to expel any hint of English by the time they graduate high school.

I woke up my usual weekday time on Sunday morning to car pool with some neighbors to the train station where we’d be picked up by a Japanese lady. I must admit I didn’t really have any clue what I was signed up for. Another American English teacher who arrived in the summer had invited me to go, so I didn’t even look at any of the details. Just that we’d be taking a tour of some ruins basically only famous in our prefecture. Maybe they were some sort of heritage site, but on that I can’t be sure. I didn’t even know how to dress. For some reason I had the impression we’d be hiking a mountain, so I packed extra snacks and gloves in my backpack just in case.

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We drove out of the city and arrived to meet two other cars of people at the entrance of a small museum. Literally, it was the most budget friendly museum in just an open foyer and a single humidified room. Most of the objects in glass casing lining the walls were broken pottery somewhat assembled back together. There were some scale models of what the area looked like hundreds of years ago, but the most interesting object to me was an old sword.

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After that short tour we drove out to the actual valley where these ruins were partially reconstructed. From what I gleaned a ruling family, Asakura something, had set up shop in the area about 500 years ago. Even more surprising was at the time it was the 3rd most populous place in Japan right behind Kyoto and Tokyo! The inaka countryside that I’d been living in for over a year used to contain the center of Japan. How things have changed.

Seeing the ruins and replicas they built was definitely not spectacular, but there was some solace about the place. If you imagined the type of people that would have lived there and the strains that society has taken to evolve into the present. Even among the inequalities and famines, the simplicity of the life appeals. This is certainly a weather-changing-another-year-overworked-pessimistic-me point of view, but the focus on living instead of life has some advantages.

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One of the best uses of the day came while strolling down the village street and finding inspiration to write. Actually through the whole day I realized I’d been gaining experience helpful for any sort of fantasy or old-world story I might dive into. Just being there and seeing what life was life gives my writing a bit more authenticity.

I’m quite surprised I’ve made it this far in my description because at the time I really didn’t seem to feel so affected by the tour. I suppose I was happy to be out in the nice weather, but to be honest I was more distracted by Pokémon Go half the time. Then again, there really wasn’t much to look at.

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Maybe the highlight of the day actually came in the afternoon once the tour was finished. We moved from the outdoors more into the valley to an old restaurant lodge specializing in soba noodles. They had an entire hall full of tables to teach how to make soba. Of course, you’ll remember from my post last Christmas about how to make soba. Well, maybe you won’t, I almost didn’t. It was fun to make again, especially since our tiny grandma of a teacher kept interrupting what we were doing to fix any mistakes. This time we left the cooking to the actual chef, though, so the end result lost some of its majesty.

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Still delicious, and I topped it off with a beer from the cooler.

Pokémon

When the game first came out I heard about it from Carmelo. He pulled it up on his phone, and I watched baffled how such a thing could exist. I downloaded it, and learning it wasn’t released in Japan, set it aside for later use. When it did get released, I was still using a disintegrating iPhone 5C wihtout a working clock or GPS. On one hand all my lucky eggs and incense were infinite (a bug now solve, by the way), on the other I could hardly catch any Pokémon because I was stuck in one spot. Once I finally got a new phone in the mail, I logged on and twirled around the screen, hopping at any moment a Pokémon would pop up. I was a bit disappointed. The gameplay for Pokémon Go still has a lot to make up for, and without the surge of popularity I probably would’ve deleted the app and just bought a DS and Japanese copy of Black or White secondhand.

Then midway through August I was strung out on my cash. My unexpected vacation to the Narita airport set me back almost $300. The lack of school activity also made my weekdays a bit more translucent. At night I my typical bedtime was moving further and further back. With a bit more time on my hands, and not too many free things to do (in the countryside) I found any excuse to be distracted. It came on a Sunday morning. I woke up earlier than usual for the weekend, feeling refreshed, and instantly did my laundry. By 10 o’clock, I had a vacuumed apartment and a bright and sunny day ahead of me. So thinking I’d go downtown to run some errands, I hopped on my bike and (because I’m a dangerous fool with ignorance to caution) pulled up the Pokémon Go game.

The next seven hours was filled with me riding around in the sun, waiting for my phone to vibrate, hatching several eggs, and searching out whatever Pokéstops I could find. By the end of the day I’d leveled up, attained a couple medals and increased my Pokédex. I felt pretty accomplished, but not only for my status in the game. Following the tiny map on my phone, I’d discovered parts of the city I hadn’t bothered exploring before. Perhaps one of the biggest visitor’s spots we have, Murasaki Shikibu Park, which was always just a block away from my apartment, is something I never stepped into before. I took a tiled pathway from there and found the back roads past the community pool to the post office. I discovered the town has way more shrines and temples than I ever imagined. There are plenty of remnants from decades ago, too, where the city was bigger and full life. That was during a baby boom before the population decline fell into crisis mode.

Playing the game made me realize more about the community I’m placed in, what has been thriving, just how many other people play Pokémon Go. There are plenty of restaurants that look delicious and even side streets that at night turn into a time machine for the past. So often as I make my way home, I’ll get distracted by a rare Pokémon that will divert me to a difference way.

Often this happens when I’m running. Granted, it’s not the best thing to play as a runner (you tend to stop and reorient yourself a lot), but it’s also one of the main supporters in getting me out the door. I’ve been running everyday for over a month now — something I could hardly do in college. It also keeps me out longer, going just a bit further, to see what’s around the corner, or to hatch that second 5k egg.

On trips it can be especially fun. When I went to Tokyo last month, I kept getting a buzz from my phone, looking at the map to catch some Pokémon, and then noticing a bunch of Pokéstops in a nearby place. Especially in bigger cities, if you follow the trail it usually leads you to some sort of tourist attraction or sightseeing place, or even just something locally worth knowing about.

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I write this because when you ask me what I’ve been up to the past 2 months I would definitely be lying if I didn’t mention Pokémon Go. In light of the election which I’ve been following off NPR podcasts and radio fervently, it’s nice to have a lighter distraction. It’s a mind-and-time sucking game with significant amounts of room for improvement. But it’s also kept me active, choosing to go outside on a better (or even typhoon) weather day than stay in and watch movies. I suspect the fads and interest in parts of America are dwindling as they are in Japan. Whenever I do go out to hunt down a silhouette on my Pokétracker, though, I still see the devoted fans, walking by with cell phones raised, or standing still and flicking their screen, and at least for now I’ll join them.

Surfing

There are plenty of things I hadn’t expected about this winter vacation. Last year I worked between Christmas and New Years, so I didn’t really have much to consider. In September I’d had dreams about skiing and snowboarding down the famous slopes of Fukui’s ski resorts. Even at the beginning of December I’d thought about making a dash to get back to America for a little while. The least likely of my unexpected plans would have surely been surfing.Yet, with the end of winter vacation upon us, and a random Monday off the first week of school, surfing is exactly what I found myself doing.

You may think it’s crazy, and I’ll admit to it being not the most appealing winter sport, but you’ve gotta remember that it hasn’t even snowed anywhere short of the mountaintops. Not even two weeks earlier I’d gone for a run in shorts and a t-shirt. Really the weather was not an issue. In fact, as my advisor and soon-to-find-out surfing virtuouso, told me that the winter in Japan was the best time for waves to form. After nagging from me for over two months he finally gave in and offered to take me. The nagging was more persuading, though, as every time I asked to go he got this longing look in his eye as if there’d be nothing he’d rather do than ditch school for the waters.

It only adds to his resume as the coolest teacher I’ve met. He’s been at my school for three years, but told me that his previous school was closer to the beach. He’d wake up early most morning in order to drive out to the sea and surfing for a couple hours before heading into class. He learned back when he lived in California after high school and continued when he moved to Australia after that. By the time he was back in Japan he competed near a semi-pro level, and I could see that surfing for him was like a long run to me.

So my persistence finally paid off and we were off predawn on that Monday morning. The weather was a bit cloudy, but looking to be good at the point a little over an hour and a half drive’s north. At first we drove out to a beach with roaring waves and no surfers. It looked awesome and I reassured him that I could figure out how to surf after my few years of skateboarding and boogie boarding when I visited my aunt in San Diego. He deferred to his better judgement and scoped out a more mainstream section with more regular waves.

surfs-up

We parked and he tossed me an old wet suit he’d had. Wasn’t sure what to expect, but lifting it up to me it was clear that we were in the “make it work” mindset. He is after all third of a foot shorter than me. I struggled slipping into the thick lining of the suit, thankful I’d decided to wear compression shorts when he had to yank the waist up while I held my body down. With a final squeeze it zipped up and I was off to waddle with the penguins.

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After a short bit of stretching on the beach we waded into the sea. I was pretty giddy with excitement so I didn’t consider the fact that I’d be going into tumultuous waters, nor the fact that I hadn’t swam in a couple of months. My stretching could hardly be considered anything by the time we got afloat and started balancing on our surfboards. Well, Keisuke was doing just fine, but I was more like the long forgotten diversity promo of a Weeble Wobble.

I think I probably would’ve been fine had it not been the couple of other surfers clearly more experienced than me. It’s not really that I was embarrassed, but more that I just didn’t want to try to get up on a wave and end up crashing into someone else. So I stuck more to the edge, paddling into waves and chilling with a woman who also was a bit new fine to chillax on the outer edge.

Eventually I ran into a problem. I had gone out the night before (it was after all a three day weekend), and though I didn’t really feel so hungover I also didn’t realize how much the waves would rock me back and forth. Combine that with the ever-crushing squeeze of the wet-suit and you’ve got a bigger mess than a Tijuana truck stop. I shuffled off to the restroom, also for the first time realizing how freaking cold my bare feet had become. It was as if my outer limbs were the glaciers in Antarctica while my innards were the hole in the ozone layer rapidly depleting. Also, a pretty unique anxiety to feel, but there’s almost nothing like having to take a too small wet suit off in two minutes urgency.

I shivered my way back to the sea, contemplating not getting back in. Alas I decided I’d have to stick at it, and there was an idea that I’d learned long ago that water temperature is usually warmer than air temperature. (I think I understand how that doesn’t work in this case, but with bone white toes I needed anything to convince me I could get warm.) Luckily the nausea subsided, and I was still flip flopping around.

The sun had risen high in the sky by this point and the blue sky was quite stunning. It was really staggering to believe it was barely January on top of the situation entirely. Really almost the most ideal conditions I could imagine, though it could’ve been a bit warmer. Keisuke swam over to me and asked if I was ready to go. I hadn’t been able to keep any track of time but he’d said we’d been in the water for over two hours. I didn’t believe him at first, no way had I survived that long, but I guess it seemed plausible. When we finally dragged ourselves onto the beach I started to feel the aches. I supposed for the most part my body was completely numb, so I didn’t realize how much work I’d put in until I warmed up.

Luckily the veteran surfing master came completely prepared. After stripping out of his wet suit in the blink of an eye, he brought out a container and poured hot water into a bucket. I was helpless and so thankful to just pad my feet around until they got any sort of feeling in them. It’s a good thing I lost all the nerves in most of my toes from Nordic skiing or else I would’ve faced a world of hurt.

 

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When I finally, with much assist, ripped my wet suit off, Keisuke asked if I wanted to go into the town. Within a fifteen minutes drive is one of the more famous natural monuments in Fukui and even among some crowds known in Japan at large. The thing is, the cliffs of Tojinbo are mostly known because they’re a popular sight for people to go and commit suicide. But when in San Francisco you’re not gonna avoid seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, so I figured this had the same reasoning.

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They weren’t anything super staggering, maybe because the tide was higher from the rain, but really the biggest thought was how unappealing a spot most of the cliffs would be to jump off of. Japan is pretty famous for having spots like this around the country, but I would hope this isn’t the first choice of most people. When we arrived the sea was clear and there was a pretty sweet rainbow off in the distance. It was good just to check it off the list, top off the day, and enjoy the weather.

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In the winter Fukui is pretty famous for its crab, so we stopped by a restaurant for a quick lunch of crab ramen. Fresh and fantastic. At first I was worried at the cost, but Keisuke pointed me to a different menu. Turns out the one I was looking at listed the prices for crabs reserved to be sent to the Emperor’s palace.

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All around a bomb diggity way to start my interest in surfing. Wouldn’t mind going again, but definitely need to scour the YouTube for more technique and practice videos. For now, I just hope it can snow soon so I can surf the slopes instead.

Peaks

Leaving the Chalet took a lot of effort on my part. But it was already 2 o’clock and we had a decent ridge to scale before we arrived at our destined campsite (or so we hoped). The clouds that were sweeping over us on the way up the mountain were now passed and on the other side, lingering behind. With full water bottles and a bit of respite we were off. Soon I found the fatigue had passed with invigoration.

Mt. Yari and the Chalet

At the top of this ridge line we finally reached one of the higher points on the range, and had a completely 360 degree view. It made the climb significantly more interesting and better. We also were moving more at a level pace, so the lack air seemed to have less an effect. Of course I still had no clue where we were going apart from the direction, and every time Mac pointed toward a crest or curve my eyes got lost among the grey.

The direction we were going
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

By this point we were around 3,200 meters high, about two miles, with around a three hour hike left for the day. I was thankful for not having many switchbacks anymore, and really just a straightforward climb. The top had a lot more snow than what we saw coming up, but on a whole the clouds moved away to allow the sun to shine full on. Mac had been vigilant about putting on sunscreen, but I was a little less worried (but with the dry air and sun combination, I’m feeling a bit of the consequences). It didn’t seem like long before I looked back and the chalet and Mt. Yari resumed being immeasurable points in the distance.

Mt. Yari from a distance

Can you see the chalet? It’s actually a rest point for a lot of climbers and they have a significant amount throughout the range. Of course, they’re pretty expensive, which is why we were heading to a campsite. Typically they charge you to use those (as Mac will say, a ridiculous amount per person!), but since the one we were headed to was closed for the season we’d get off free.

There were still a number of peaks to hit along the way. We headed toward this place called the daikirete, something we spent some time trying to translate. I was convinced it stood for “The Great Cut” for indeed that’s what it was, a severe gash across the mountain line (a huge but brief drop in elevation). As we crawled along the ridge I kept looking for what could be such a place that it would get its own name. In the name the first kanji ‘dai‘ does stand for big, but the ‘kirete‘ is strangely in katakana.

Scaling the first mountain
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

We picked up the pace as we hit the first big peak. Don’t get it wrong, though, we were still moving as infant toddlers learn to walk. I would find myself trying to make it all in one shot, but then forced to pause for fear of my heart working so fast it’d stop. It made for a good excuse to take in the view. Behind us the clouds were looking pretty overwhelming, but we could still see in front of the valley where we’d originally started, and across to our left where the mountains sprawled out for what seemed forever. Mac started pointing them out, and it’s amazing that he’s been to so many. Japan have three peaks in particular known as the “Holy Trinity”: Mt. Fuji, Mt. Haku, and Tateyama. Mac pointed far off to the southeast (our left) where Fuji would be without the clouds, and then to the opposite direction where we could see Haku-san. He gestured behind us and said if we were on a higher point we’d also see Tateyama over the ledge behind us. When I got here and fell into the peril that stopped me from climbing Fuji, I decided I’d climb all three before I left. It was quite inspiring to see them all from one place.IMG_0126

But of course, at that point, all the views are inspiring.

The peak of this mountain was pretty flat, shaped almost like a bowl with the rocks throughout. We stayed up there a moment relishing in the view. It was a bit of an oasis, you’d have to climb up one side to see, and then drop down to the bowl to go up the other and see the other side. I felt like any moment I stopped looking, I’d drop back down into rocks and the view would disappear.

Into the Mist
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Which, given the amount of fog rolling in wasn’t that far from the truth. As I mentioned before, when we made our ascent the clouds were coming at the mountain–piling up but stifled on the other side. At some point before we came out of the chalet all the clouds decided to head to the other side, but their density was hard to grasp. In a breeze, though, they all drew back like a tide against the mountain. Unraveling across the ridge, the blocked out the ground below and reached higher than the sun.

Wall of Fog

It was so bizarre for a while, to be going along with one side facing a vast amount of mountain range and the other completely blanked out in white. It didn’t last, though, because soon the clouds from the east reeled in towards us. You could barely see it happen until it was upon you. They started out as large clouds in the distance, but then as they got closer dropped low and spread out. So, it wasn’t until the tendrils started curling out along the mountain that you realized what was happening.

Off into the distance
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Not to mention that off in the distance (where we came from) we could start hearing thunder. There’s nothing like being stuck on a mountain and an impending thunderstorm to get you to move a bit faster. From a stint during his conquest of the Pacific Crest Trail, Mac had become a bit anxious about thunderstorms so I was doing my best not to let my imagination get to me.

The hike seemed never-ending, though, as we kept going toward the campsite. By now we had caught glimpses of the chalet by the site, but each time we reached the top of a peak it seemed farther away. Truly, it was as if the fog had created a mirage, a mythical chalet that we were striving for, but would never reach before the lightning came down and took us away for good. It was actually the curving of the ridge that made everything in front of us seem closer than it appeared. I kept on looking for the Great Rift, but Mac was certain it was ahead of us, so we knew that somehow we’d make it.

Climbing a ladder to the top

Another peak, thunder in the distance
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

This was the last peak of the day, and by now the fog was inevitable. The hike became less of a pleasing feat, and more of a threatening challenge. The thunder didn’t get closer, but would still rumble, and there was no telling if the clouds causing it would roll in our way anytime soon. At this point we were worn out for sure, I’d been hiking off no sleep and by now we reached over ten hours into the endeavor. Drinking water and eating food wasn’t enough to save me now, I desperately wanted to stop and rest.

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Out of the mist, the shape of the elusive fort formed, signalling the end of our trek. Painfully, though, we realized it wasn’t over yet. Frozen to the bone and numb in the head, we still had to set up camp–Mac’s two person tent–and replenish with dinner before we could pass out like lions.

The campsites, flat grounds spaced out by the chalet with stone built walls curving around one side, were not ideal in any way, and we couldn’t figure out where to place the tent. If the ground wasn’t partially covered in snow it was saturated with mud and it seemed we had to chose the lesser of two terrible. Instead we decided to roam around the chalet a little more, looking for maybe a flat spot that would work. I ended up sitting on the scoop of a mini tractor, idle next to a pile of rocks. I put my hand to my chin, and closed my eyes.

It must’ve been about fifteen minutes (maybe more) before I realized I dozed off. I looked over to see Mac seated cross legged next to me, looking equally defeated. Sensing my presence he looked up and said, “I guess we should just go back to that first place.”

We chose the mud, making a futile attempt with prairie grass to make some sort of mat for the footprint. It’s funny, now we were coming to a close (I wanted nothing more than to get into my sleeping bag and warm up), but the fog was rolling away, or at least lower, so the setting sun became visible. We debated not using the rain-fly, Mac firmly suggesting against it. I made the other case, and with the thunder in the back of his mind he acquiesced with the promise that if it wasn’t raining by night we’d pull it off to see the stars. To be true, my concern was less about thunder and more about heat, but I agreed because the stars were one of the main reasons to spend the night.

By now it was rounding 5:30 at night, and the sun quickly sank below the top line of the fog. I’d chomped down a seasoned chicken breast shrink wrapped from the conbini while Mac ‘marked our territory.’ When he got back we flicked on our headlamps, cranked the tunes, and cracked open the beers we brought. It was a good way to fall asleep and–with literally every piece of clothing on or in my sleeping bag–I was starting to warm up. I had a couple bruises on my collar bones from the pack, but otherwise I didn’t seem to ache either. I forget how soundly I fell asleep, but after finishing the pumpkin flavored beer it doesn’t really matter.

I woke up once to the sound of my name. It came out in a cough and I rolled over to find Mac on his stomach, with his head sticking out the entrance of the rain-fly, muttering incomprehensible words. Looking back it was a hilarious scene, as he could’ve easily been mistaken as a drunk person. Instead, I heard him hacking, and the words “so sick” come out. Of course I was baffled and had no real action but to watch. “Are you OK?” I asked, to the reply of “Yeah, just sick. Just need to throw up.”

I heard it, the loudest of the hacking, the final satisfaction that vomit brings about, and instantly myself felt sick. Could it be the conbini food? Was I going to meet the same fate off my herbed chicken? At this point I really had to take a leak, too, despite my mind trying to will my bladder into submission. I did not want to get out of the warmth of my sleeping bag. Eventually the spewing became too much for me, though, and I rushed to slip on my shoes and shiver into the night.

This was perhaps the best decision I made in the last 24 hours.

The fog was still there, as expected, but it had settled back, maybe 50 meters, to the edge of our cliff. The white clouds still reached up like columns, but this time It wasn’t impending fog saturating our path, but a gate to guard the night. There was a benign form to them and they didn’t reach as high. Instead the sapphire clearness of the sky took over the ceiling. The moon like the crescent of a thumbnail shot light all over the campsite, illuminating the sky so it shone azure in some places. I’m sure if I dared to look longer I would’ve seen a multitude of stars, but there were still enough to make me gape up for a while. It was brilliant, surreal, perfect.

Alas, the chill was superior and I hustled to make my way back into the sleeping bag. I checked on Tyler who also took a moment to get outside, but came back to his bag with an OK and a theory about dehydration. This whole trip he’d been making sure that I was drinking plenty of water but I didn’t take him serious until now.

my sleepingbag
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

I’d estimate that passage happened around 9 or 11, and later into the night I started to lose sleep. I had a problem where eventually the arm of the side I was laying on would fall asleep, so I’d have to transition to the other. I made it to a point early in the morning when it was still dark out, but I knew the sun would be coming up soon. I was tempted to go out, and I probably could’ve convinced Mac to join me, I bet he was sleeping as well as me, but my comfortable complacency won over.

In the end we still woke up within half an hour of sunrise. Our tent was caked with ice from our condensation. I pulled out a pint of orange juice and my final onigiri for breakfast as well as chomping down a power bar. I made sure to put on all my clothes (including jacket) before leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag, and then it didn’t take long to pack up the rest (since I was already wearing most of my luggage) and exit the tent.

Packing up the tent

Campsite's morning view
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

I was baffled to find the landscape that morning. The wall of fog disappeared to reveal the barren mountainside clear to Mt. Haku. At first I had mistaken the lower clouds for a lake in the distance and it all seemed majestic. I did a bit of exploring and found the sun bright in the side on the other part of our cliff. It took me a bit, but after doing some math in my head I recognized the flat topped silhouette in the greatest distance as Mt. Fuji.

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I found it baffling. Such a change in the landscape from the previous day and night in just a couple of hours. What before seemed wild turned to tranquility. It was supreme and isolating. I had no way of knowing if we weren’t the only ones in the world at that moment. The only form of wildlife we’d seen was the rare raichou (known in Japan as the Thunderbird and in the US as the Snow Chicken…), and even that seemed like it should’ve perished overnight.

Morning on the mountaintop
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

But of course, now we ran into the obvious problem of how we would get down. Originally we thought about making a longer more difficult trek across the spine above, making it to a lift and then taking the commercialized way down. With Mac’s health and my lack of gloves in the mix, we decided to make a quicker time and head back to the main trail, somehow. We really were in new ground, though, because it was a path that Mac hadn’t been on and that we would later find out, had been detoured due to a few rock-slides.

What goes up... A slippery slope a sheer drop

On the snowy path

looking back at whence we came
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

It really was a winding path, and we actually descended alongside the mountain, only to be diverted back up another ridge. We spent a lot of this time in the shade and it was all filled with tentative steps. The narrow trail, the ice under snow, and frost on the rocks made everything unreliable. By the time we got down the peak we started on but back to the spine of another ridge we already gassed a lot of our energy.

The sun at least came onto our side, and we stripped off the jackets (of course, Mac was still in shorts all this time.)

Mac on a cliff

On the cliffside
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

From this point it was a long and dismal way down as the rock turned back into forest switchbacks. It was a swash of snow and mud and leaves and rocks at a sever downhill. Even when the mountainside became less steep, my knees found it unbearable. They started trembling and I started taking breaks. It’s funny as the way up we went at a similar pace, only stopping for different reasons. The way was absurd and Mac even commented that he’d never go this way again.

A tangled way down

I can’t not describe how relieved I was to get to the bottom. Even just the rounding out toward the base when the ground finally flattened out. I just about jogged the remainder so I could stop killing my legs. We came out at exactly the same spot we’d eaten lunch the day before. It was oddly content to complete the circle like that. Yesterday we had gone the completely opposite way, so it was a testament to how much effort we actually gave.

That was until Mac reminded me we still had three hours to get to the beginning.

Mac having lunch
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The trek down certainly seemed easier than yesterday, and I tried to lead us at a good pace. It still took a while and we didn’t have the added incentive of getting to the top of a mountain. Alas, the valley was just as beautiful, and we were chipper with the idea of onsen and rest.

The valley overall

On the ground

The last stretch

We made it back to the car completely satiated. I downed the remnants of my food and chugged some water while massaging the aches from the backpack straps. We took a trip to the nearby onsen, brushed our teeth, and cleaned off the grime. I actually didn’t feel too dirty, and I think it was just too cold and dry climbing to really work up a sweat. It was only my second time in an onsen, and I’d forgotten how incredibly hot they were. We got a great view of the mountain as we dipped in to our shoulders. With a four hour car ride ahead of us we didn’t linger too long. This time, though, the ride was even better, as I could really take in the mountains and surroundings of the prefecture. We made it back Sunday night by sunset. A weekend completely fulfilled, and even with the aches I’d have for the next couple of days, the suntan and scrapes, it was all well worth it.

Hike

This past weekend started on a whim. I got back from school early Friday evening and went for a quick run wearing shorts and a tank top. The day was quite warm, but I knew it would be one of the last that I’d get to enjoy. When I got back and started cooking dinner there was discussion over LINE messages over who would be around and what to do this weekend.

I had asked around on Thursday to see if anyone wanted to climb Mt. Hino, the highest point in the nearby area, and enjoy what was supposed to be perfect weather for the weekend. I got some pretty weak responses, so now on Friday I was committed to finding something else to do. That’s when one of my neighbors sent out an invitation to climb an even higher mountain on Saturday, with the caption “This could be where you’re sleeping tomorrow night.”

Without even clicking on the link I replied back with agreement, and we were quickly making plans. I went to his place to pick up a hiking backpack and figure out what other things I would need. From America I didn’t really pack with great backpacking trips in mind. But I ended up pretty set with the various running clothes I’d brought for winter.

We decided to leave at midnight. Yes, midnight, another thing I didn’t consider before I gave my response. The mountain was, of course, no where near us and required a four hour drive to get to the start of the multiple hour hike. I think my neighbor was a little skeptical of my ability at first. After all, he is a pretty well known and experienced outdoorsman and I…well, I come from a land where the best hiking trails wind up in Canada. I guess I too was skeptical of how much I could handle, being it’d been a while since I’d done any camping and not a while since I started running, but as I mentioned I was committed to doing something great this weekend, and I couldn’t imagine something better coming along.

On the road, leaving finally at 1 o’clock in the morning, I managed to stay awake and keep the conversation while Mac downed energy drinks and avoided speeding tickets. Given some more time I probably would’ve passed out–as the drive passed my seat slowly reclined lower and lower–but as we rolled into the parking grounds at 5 o’clock I perked up significantly. On the way we stopped by a conbini to stock up on the next five meals and snacks for the weekend, and before we set out I chomped down a plate of fish, rice and some pickled vegetables. It also took time to pack everything up in the car, as it was barely over 40 degrees out. I had long underwear, under shorts, under track pants, with a shirt and a pullover and my winter jacket.

Start of the hike
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The first thing I noticed stepping into the chilled night were the stars. It’s something I’ve been disappointed about looking at the stars around my apartment–mainly the fact that there are none. Here, where the nearest conbini was a good half hour away, the stars speckled the clear night sky. After reading A Brief History of Time, it was really great to imagine the science Stephen Hawking tries to explain and the practicalities of it through our own understanding. I would’ve been fine just setting up camp in the parking lot for a while and looking at the stars, but with dawn soon upon us and the frigid atmosphere already seeping through my skin we set off.

Sun coming over the ridge

It didn’t take too long into the trek for the sun to crest the mountain ridge with an amber glow, and I could finally appreciate the forest that surrounded us. Out to our left the mountains rose above a river with trees curried in colors of autumn. Everywhere around my home has stayed the same tone of green; it was like skipping ahead in time. Soon it was warm enough to take off my jacket and hat (while at the same time, Mac set out that morning in shorts).

Autumn colors in the morning
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The first hour of the hike was pretty mundane, while we followed a gravel road cut into the mountainside. It made for a good warm up, as I would find out that Japan trailblazing has some unique features American trails don’t always follow. We made a quick stop for second breakfast, and chugged the water in our bottles to refill at a spring before crossing a small dam and hitting the actual start of the hike.

On the trail in the shadow

This is where things turn difficult. It was actually as if the whole day’s hike followed an exponential formula in terms of difficulty over time. At first the hike was a mixture of muddy, leaf and rock ridden trail that didn’t really go in any particular direction. We actually passed a guy who had started out the day at the same time as us, so it seemed like we were making good time. I had my Bluetooth speaker playing in the background (a playlist of various best-of albums rushed together the hours before we left) and it helped keep a rhythm. After about three hours, though, the mud and leaves waned and the rocks increased. It was like the person who crafted the trail used a blunted machete to clear the path and was followed by a truck with the most rigid ottoman sized boulders they could find. Really it was a wonder that we didn’t fall while going up. At this point I did notice that I felt like I was losing more energy than I was spending, the realization that we were gaining altitude. After scrambling over some rock slides and river veins, we reached the base of our first ascent, and I very slightly demanded that we take lunch.

photos via halfwayanywhere.com
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The whole time I hadn’t looked at my watch (on my phone). I wasn’t exactly hungry, but I figured I should stay on top of eating to avoid any gnawing pain that could crop up. I could’ve guessed that it was rounding noon, Mac took a shot at 11:30. I’m not sure if we were glad or disheartened when I checked and saw it was still 10:30. We had been hiking for a long while, but then again, we still had a long way to go, we hadn’t even started the ascent.

That’s what came next. Packing away the onigiri wrappers, the cheese and meat sticks, the bottled water, we moved across the river to the edge of a peak and began the trek up short and steep switchbacks. Looking back I think this was actually my least favorite part. We finally came out of the shade of the trees and were on the side drenched in sun. I’d stripped down to shorts and a shirt, but still felt overheated. It really was a scramble with the occasional safety rope tied to a tree as well as parts that were swept away by dirt and rock slides.

View from the trail

2440 meters high, the first peak
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Once we made it to the top of the first peak I definitely questioned what it was all for. The mountain we were on was a bit shorter shooting up in the center of the valley. The view was grand, seeing the colors of the basin, but the surrounding ridges seemed to curve up around us. It didn’t hold as much umph as I was expecting, but it allowed me to see we still had a far way to go. It was kind of just an appetizer.

The real start

We got back on the main trail, pushing even further up. Our conversation had long since mellowed out to the occasional statements, and I noticed that I’d stopped singing along to the music playing. When I tried I was out of breath, and it was the first time during the hike that we started taking regular stops. The effect was gradual, but the lack of oxygen had finally reached us. I took the approach to go in bursts along the grassy trail, tackling the height and recuperating while Mac went steadily one foot in front of the other. Even along this lower ridge we were still higher than the peak we’d came from, all the while being able to see across to the place we wanted to get to.

The way up

peak reference

It was grueling.

Once we reached the final stage, a switch from grassy terrain to rocks and pebbles, I felt doomed. I ignored the ache in my legs and focused solely on how much energy I could be exerting. Never has my heart beat so fast while my body has moved so slow.

The precarious stairway

Top of the stairway

End of the dirt and start of the rocks
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

This by far the most thrilling portion we’d hit for the day. It seemed that any time the rocks could shift below my feet and I’d be rolling to pain. Also, the lack of oxygen played with my mind a bit, keeping it focused on one thing, letting my body go forward on its own accord. We got back onto, somewhat solid ground, and then started hitting the snow. With 500 meters to go the chalet we were trying to reach seemed so close, but yet it hadn’t grown in my perspective. We took a brief stop for lunch, downing a sandwich, more jerky, some chocolate, and lots of water.

I had to start changing my layers, switching out my jacket a couple of times, as we moved into the mountain’s shadow. I really wish I’d had gloves as my fingers were the coldest part on my body. Gripping rocks and lifting myself along ledges sucked any heat out of them.

All this time climbing up this mountain, clouds had started to move along the other side of the ridge. For a while they just lingered there, but now they were starting to move over the top and come onto our side. They weren’t the heaviest looking, but definitely a darker shade of gray–an ominous motivation to move a bit faster. They started to block out the sun and really helped to cool things down. I was convinced that any moment we would be rained on.

So far to go

 

Almost to the top
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Within 100 meters to the top we still probably took fifteen minutes to get there. The path we were on had dissolved into short switchbacks and rocks with painted circles on them, directing us where to go. It seemed like any path was a good path as long as we went up. The chalet had finally disappeared, covered now by the rounding of the hill we were about to summit. The full ache of my body was coming to now. My bruised collarbone, the soreness of my lower back, the burning in my calves, the sleep deprivation and the occasional twitch where the scar from my foot hadn’t fully healed all surmounted to my sensory overload. I was just about done when we finally made it.

Standing by Mt Yari

I had made it, and actually staggered out a laugh with the joy. Not because we had made it to the top, or at the beautiful view, but because we were next to the chalet I knew we would enter to rest and warm up in. I needed it bad, and if it hadn’t been for Mac I probably would’ve stayed there for a while. Or at least passed out on the counter. Alas, we couldn’t stay there forever, and with my fingers hardly warm, water-bottles refilled, track pants back on, and much prodding from Mac, we got back out to finish the day.

Rest at the top
photos via halfwayanywhere.com