Mt. Kayagatake (茅ケ岳) 1704m

茅 – miscanthus reed

岳 – peak, mountain

A good friend of mine had just gotten back from deployment and contacted me. “I’ve been around people 24/7 for the last few months, I just need to get away from people for a few hours.” I knew the perfect solution. My recently newfound hobby, hiking.

“You got any hiking gear? Boots, pants, packs?” I asked. Andrew responded, “Nah, but I should be fine with my running shoes. You think there will be a lot of snow?” The next two sentences would stick with us throughout the entire hike.

“Shouldn’t be that much, I went hiking last week, not that much snow. Plus its a whole ten degrees warmer this weekend, I’m willing to bet it’s all melted by now.”And with that, I convinced him that running shoes would be perfectly suitable for a spring hike.

We set off by car the next morning at 0600 en route to Mt. Kinpu. After about two hours of good conversation and empty (yet still expensive) highways, my buddy looked off into the distance and made an alarming observation.

“Are those mountains ahead of us where we’re headed?” I looked at my phone, “Yeah, they have to be…”

Silence.

“There’s umm…it looks like there’s quite a bit of snow on those mountains…”

Silence.

“Yeah…I guess we’ll see a little snow after all. You think your running shoes will be able to hold up?”

Silence.

“Meh…not much I can do about it now I suppose.”

As we got closer to the mountains and left the city behind us we felt what must have been a ten degree drop in temperature. The car took its first wind up the side of the mountain, and just as it did, we saw just how much snow there really was. “There shouldn’t be that much snow” had quickly turned into “Will my car be able to make it out of here with these abysmal tires?” I looked over at my friend and I could tell he was of the same opinion as me “We drove out this far, theres really no turning back” although I sensed his level of thrill was not quite as high as mine, given the running shoes situation.

I followed the course on my phone that the lovely british voice was directing me towards and we came to an unexpected stop. Before us was a small white truck with an older Japanese man, in what appeared to be his maintenance uniform, closing a large yellow gate that blocked the road. I knew I was in for some exhausting and confusing Japanese.

“すみません、 あの、 行けませんか?” Now, this guy, was either a complete asshole or gave me too much of a benefit of the doubt. He replied, in full blown, fast paced Japanese. The only part I caught was 4PM. So of course I replied, “ああ、そうですか。えとね、いつに入られますか?” His next set of actions led me to believe he was leaning more towards being an asshole than the alternative. He looked at my friend, then back at me, then simply replied “明日.” And with that, he turned towards the gate and proceeded to close it as if we had simply vanished into thin air.

“Sweet. Welp, I guess we’re not going up that hike today…” My buddy, being the sharp Naval Officer that he is, responded without hesitation, “I bet if we can find a visitor’s center around here, we can make our way to a good hike. In less than a minute, he had one pulled up in his phone and we made our way, set back but undefeated.



After thirty minutes in the tourist information center, the employee there kindly recommended we check out a trail just south of there, Mt. Kayagatake. “But,” he warned, “It will be dangerous for your friend because of his shoes.”  I looked Andrew inquisitively and as he gave a thumbs up saying, “Lets get this show on the road.”

We drove off and found ourselves at the start of the trail within the hour. Stepping out of the safety of our car into the cold forest with its makeshift parking lot, we could not see any snow and were both slightly relieved. That sense of relief lasted all of thirty minutes until we left the parking lot and saw nothing suffocating, blinding white snow in every direction. In fact, the only indicator of where the trail went was the absence of trees and slight indentation into the earth.

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I have to admit I began to feel bad for my buddy that was about to hike this entire mountain overtaken by snow, in Nike running shoes. Even though it was fairly warm outside for April, every step had us shin deep in snow. And a wrong placement of the foot, could easily mean slipping and falling over onto the snow, or worse, a hidden rock.

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The tempo of our conversations were timed by the focus, or lack thereof, on our foot placement. “This would be right around the time bears would be waking up,” Andrew pointed out, “I bet they’re going to be rather hungry.” Both lacking a bear bell, we attempted to keep a steady conversation, only when the snow was thinner and the ground, relatively flat. We did this to not inadvertently sneak up on any bears, and to try to keep our thoughts away from the subject of bears; however, that seems to be all we talked about. “What does bear piss smell like? Can you smell if a bear was recently in the area? Can you accidentally wake one up early from a hibernation?”

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Pushing on with our bear talk, we came through this beautiful snow covered valley of trees, with an incline at the end. The bright white snow and thin white trees for hundreds of feet in every direction really made you feel like you were on another planet. It was absolutely stunning to see, but, you could only see so much of it as you made sure you didn’t slip and fall off of the trail.

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The more we ascended, the more the snow seemed to thin out. We could feel earth beneath our footwear and the stress of foot placement eased tremendously. You’d be surprised how much brain power making sure your foot steps in the exact spot takes. We were both pretty relieved to be able to concern ourselves with other things. Like taking pictures, stopping to hydrate, and bears of course.

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The rest of the hike was rather straightforward and uneventful, although challenging. The last 1/3 of this mountain saw the greatest amount of elevation change. Although the snow never died away, it did become small enough of a problem that we stopped paying attention to it. My buddy fell a few times of course, but that was mostly on the descent. Mostly.

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That’s Fuji-san in the background. I can never get a picture of him without some cloud coverage…

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I’m sure he will hate me for bringing this up, but during the descent, we decided to “run” down the mountain. Looking back it wasn’t the greatest idea, in fact it was more of a slide, but it was pretty entertaining. During one leg of this “run” I was leading and all of the sudden I stop hearing the sound of Andrew’s foot steps behind me. I assumed perhaps he was in the middle of a really long, quiet slide so I didn’t think much of it. After a good minute or two of silence behind me, I turn around to find, Andrew, laying flat on his back about 200 feet away. I double back and find him sitting in the snow, with a dirt streak all along his left pant leg. I stupidly remember asking him “What happened?” Even a West Point graduate could have pieced this one together. “Are you alright?” I asked, trying to deliver more purposeful questions. As soon as I realized he was ok, I was dying with laughter. He had, not even five minutes prior, bet me that he would slip fewer times than I would, running shoes and all.

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Beijing (北京)

北 – North

京 – Capital

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If you know absolutely noting about China and her history, you’ve probably at least heard of Beijing. If you haven’t, no worries, I’ve got you covered.

Beijing, meaning quite literally, northern capital, was given that name in the 15th century to distinguish it from Nanjing (南京), Southern Capital. With a population of 19 million, it comes in 8th place for Most Populated Cities, just behind Osaka, Japan and ahead of New York, New York. Popular attractions include The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.

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“The air is so terrible in Beijing.” When I told people I was headed to Beijing to visit a family friend, this was their response 75% of the time. And 10% of the time it was “Oh nice, The Great Wall.” Not to forget the 5% of the time where it was simply “Ha, Communism.” As I boarded the plane headed East, I really had no idea what to expect from China. As an American, and more importantly, an American in the military, I was raised to fear China, to distrust anything Chinese, and to view anything they touched as inferior. I can honestly say that in the “Chinese Visa Acquisition Process” I definitely held these views. The number of times I was told simply “not today” or “this isn’t good enough” when just last week, the SAME LADY at the Chinese Embassy had said “this is all you will need next week,” was very trying on my open mind. When asked to surrender my passport for a week so they could “process it” I naturally assumed that it was now being shipped off to some black market or a tracking device was being added so they could “watch me.” I had heard of stories of cameras hidden in hotel rooms in China, and of people just disappearing after their visit.

As the plane took off I remember thinking “Welp, no turning back” as I mentally increased my personal vigilance and security posture. All around me there was nothing but a strange Asian dialect my ears had not yet been accustomed to after a year in Japan. After 4 very quick hours, the plane landed and we debarked, grabbing our luggage and heading to customs.

My first official interaction with China went smooth enough. “Passport!” The stern looking Chinese customs official barked as I fumbled through my bags. “How long are you here!” He ever so gently screamed. “Just 5 days,” I replied, trying to speak gently enough to calm the situation that seemed to be getting out of hand. There was the awkward pause that I always seem to find myself in at international airports where, they’ve already scanned my passport, but continue searching. Leaning against the counter, bags at my feet in disarray, and fearing that they will somehow find out, that one time, when I was 11, I once thought of grabbing an extra packet of BBQ sauce from Chic-Fil-A even though they said the limit was 2, and throw me in jail. Luckily, that didn’t happen this time and he gently ushered me through, “Ok, go!” Maybe it was just when he spoke English, but I really hope, for the sake of his family, that his Chinese Bedside Manner was better than his English…

As I successfully walked through customs, I approached a line that scanned everyone’s bags. I waited, patiently, as the line proceeded. There were two airport officials, both Chinese of course, and about, 40 or 50 passengers that had already made it through customs. They were there, working the line through, and randomly inspecting passports. “China doesn’t play around,” I thought. The longer I waited in line, the more I started to notice. “Hmm…they are only asking a particular demographic for their passports…” I thought. There were three African men a few people in front of me, and almost systematically, when they got to the scanner “Passports!…” “Maybe they’re asking more people and I’m just not realizing it…” I continued to optimistically tell myself. I kept watching. A family of Argentinians went through, speaking their Argentinian Spanish loud and proud as they are known to do (much love) and no passport check. A Chinese man went through. No check. A Japanese couple just ahead of me went through. No. Check. Finally it was my turn. I almost bet myself $50 that they would check mine, due to, you know, security reasons. I should have taken myself up on that. “Passport!” The “extremely friendly” Chinese security woman barked. I smiled, looked behind searching for some support in how ridiculous this was, handed her my passport, and she shoved it back like she had been on this shift for too long now.

Ignoring the “passport selection process,” and trying to remain optimistic about the People’s Republic, I marched on through the airport, finally being picked up by the family friend around midnight. We drove through the night, passing utterly insane drivers, enormous skyscrapers, and people on the side of the road, offering to wash the insane amount of dirt off of your car that every single car on the road had.

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The next morning I awoke to an absolutely gorgeous view of the city. The sun was just rising, and this panoramic view made for the perfect addition to my morning cup of local tea. Without skipping a beat, we left for The Great Wall. Everything about Beijing seemed normal enough. The people were there. The buildings were there. Sure it was a little dirty, but what major city isn’t?

This is right about when Beijing’s charm started to hit me. The locals, for the most part, had no idea what I was saying, and I, of course, returned the favor. But communication is always more than words, and I could tell that these people weren’t the cold barbarians I had been made to believe. Our driver, a Chinese man whose name I will NEVER be able to pronounce, kept making sure that we were at our highest levels of comfort. Every time we almost got in an accident, which happened more than a handful times, he looked back and gave a thumbs up with questioning eyebrows. The men and women at the produce and meat stands gave free samples, and said something in Chinese which I translated via body language and intonation as, “These are great, you are great, you deserve these.” And when we declined to buy, “Have a marvelous day!” I’m guessing of course.

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Maobama

Finally arriving to The Great Wall, we purchased our tickets, took the cable car up and saw, with our own eyes, one of the great wonders of the world. I was pretty taken aback. My friend had probably been here numerous times and was probably tired of bringing every visitor here, but you can’t go to Beijing and not see it at least once. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of graffiti on the wall, along with stolen breaks and general decay.

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We were in front of this couple here on the left just about the entire time, and, although in Chinese, they appeared to be having an argument, the entire time.

After The Wall, our hosts took us to a local grocery store. There was a VERY STRANGE smell that permeated throughout the store. If you took a plastic water jug, heated it, and added raw chicken to it, you could possibly mimic the smell. If that isn’t enough to make you uncomfortable, there was, so, much, raw, meat, just hanging out.

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Raw Poultry
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No gloves

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If you’re a savvy reader, or are irritated by mistakes, as I am, even though I make them myself, you probably noticed the percentages in the beginning did not add up to 100%. If you didn’t catch that, no worries. The remaining 5% of people, when made aware of my trip to Beijing, commented “They have amazing food there.” These wise 5%, were absolutely correct.

After getting back to the house, resting up, showering, and heading back out, we made it to a authentic Chinese restaurant. American me expected to see, Kung Pao Chicken, General Tsao Chicken, or any other popular Chinese food item. I was, blown away. Our host ordered this fried duck for us. I have no idea what part of the duck it was, but, the way this meat literally melted in your mouth, as the sugar coating broke apart and gave you a caramel sensation followed by succulent protein made me completely fall in love with China. There was this spicy chicken dish, seasoned with all kinds of herbs and spices. I not only ate my serving, but I had the audacity to ask my host “How hungry are you reaaaallllly?……” It was that good. If you ever get the chance to travel in Asia, go to China, find yourself in Beijing, and try real Chinese food. You will be blown away, or discover that you really don’t have any taste buds.

The next day we were arranged to meet with a Chinese tour guide that would take us around the famous Square, and forbidden city. She was a nice enough women, late 20’s with great English and a great depth of knowledge about China. She pointed out almost every building and gave its history. Right around now, I looked around and noticed the air looked quite odd. I thought it was just the way the sun was rising, but the “filter” didn’t leave once the sun had completely risen. “This is the smog we are famous for,” our tour guide explained. I honestly cant remember if she said that the fog was worse in the winter because everyone was using their heaters and increasing energy consumption…or better in the winter because the air was less humid and thin (if you know please inform me, I’m pretty irritated with myself that I can’t remember).

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Apparently there were no clouds. This is the smog, that is the sun.

After arriving at all the tourist traps, she started getting pretty political. Really all I care to say about that, but I was worried a passing guard would hear her rhetoric and throw us all in jail. I was happy when she switched from politics and current events to history. Did you know the Emperor of China had a whole city of concubines for him and him alone? I hadn’t. I looked at my girlfriend and made the facial expression for “That would be pretty cool huh?” She wasn’t as amused by this fact, and even less so by my stupidity.

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I HATED standing watch in uniform. I empathized with this guy. Pretty sure we had a moment.

I was really pleasantly surprised by Beijing and China as a whole. They weren’t these savage monsters that knew nothing but how to be rude and untrustworthy. I’m sure they have that, hell, name a country that doesn’t. And although their customer service may not be as crisp as Japan’s, there certainly is something to be said about Chinese hospitality. Of course, I got strange looks in certain places. This really old guy just came up to my face and looked at me. I looked at my tour guide searching for an explanation, and she just shrugged. But people, for the most part, were just as friendly as I had been experiencing back “home” in Japan. Hell, the customer service of these “rude and backwards people” definitely beat some of the restaurants I frequented back in the States.

Right after this “old guy incident,” my tour guide gasped as she looked at her phone. “Trump just won…” she let out in despair. I chuckled as I realized I found out about who my next President was from a Chinese woman in Beijing.

Mt. Oyama (大山) 1252m

大 – big

山 – mountain

I would love to meet the person, or people, who came up with idea for this mountain’s name. Sounding pretty cool in English, Oyama is just Big Mountain. Not only does the name not strike awe into the potential hiker, but it also could just be the least creative mountain name in Japan. (If you know of an even more simple mountain name in Japan, or anywhere for that matter, I’d love to hear it!) Aside from how uninspiring the name is, the hike itself is pretty fun, although challenging at times.




To get there by train make your way to Isehera station via the Odakyu line. From there catch a bus and take it all the way to the last stop to the Mt. Oyama base. If you’re going in the summer or early fall, especially on weekends, expect a long line waiting for the inevitable painfully crowded bus. Once you get off the bus, there are bathrooms directly ahead and to the right and a visitor center for the mountain ahead to the left. I would recommend getting a map (available in Japanese or English) in the visitor center, as there are a few routes up/down that you can take, depending on how much time you have.


0500 my alarm went off, and, just like every other morning, I debated whether or not I REALLY wanted to go on this hike. My bed felt so comfortable, wouldn’t it be nice to lounge around the house all day? I knew the answer was no. If I didn’t wake up and go on this hike I had planned, I would beat myself up about it all week.

I did my regular pre-hike morning routine. Showered, ate breakfast, grabbed my backpack, left the house, realized I forgot my watch (I always do this), went back, grabbed my watch, and I was off. After about an hour transit I found myself at the Isehara station mentioned above. From there, I walked around the perimeter of the station looking for this cursed bus stop. I passed by a long line of people I had assumed were in line for some restaurant. People here love lines, if there’s a line, it’s worth waiting for. (Such is the thought in Japan…personally, if there’s a line, looks like I’m coming back another day). I passed by, thankful that I had nothing to do with such a line, and continued my bus search.

After another 15 minutes, I gave up and decided to ask someone. “Yama no basutei wa (Mountain Bus Station?)” I confidently mispronounced. The guy just looked to his right and pointed. His finger landed on the absurd line filled with men, women, and children of all ages. “No way,” I thought. I thanked him and stepped off. The closer I got to the line, the more I realized that  all of these people had hiking gear on. Patagonia sweaters, hiking poles, mountain boots. I cursed myself and the decision to get out of bed. The only thing I despise more than lines is being tired and in a line.

The next bus arrived and somehow, someway, everyone in the line was able to get on the bus. With that, we were incredibly stuffed in there. I was next to a rather unpleasantly smelling elderly Japanese man that was going to crush this mountain no doubt, in his official color coded hiking gear. To my left was a family with three children who did nothing but look and point at me and giggle the entire 30 minutes through the village. I decided to have some fun and look at them, turned my head to the side like I was some monster in an anime and open my eyes real wide. They laughed. Guess I wasn’t intimidating as I thought. I looked back out through the window and realized it wasn’t just these kids that were curious about the only foreigner on the bus, everyone was curious about the only foreigner on the bus.

Much to my personal space’s relief we arrived at the mountain head and I could finally breathe again. After a quick restroom stop, I went in to the information center and picked up a trail map. I was pretty surprised/impressed by how many elderly Japanese people I saw on the trail with me. I was prepared to have an easy day’s hike, perhaps with a unfortunately crowded trail.

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Once I passed through the shop area that you are forcibly funneled through in an attempt to sell you merchandise, I came to a fork in the road. A woman’s trail strait ahead, and a men’s trail to the right. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Is it women’s only to the left? The trail that happens to be 45 minutes shorter than the one to the right?” Unsure, I decided to play it safe and begin my “Hike of Stairs” as I would soon come to understand was what this mountain should have been called.

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After about 362 stairs (complete guess) I passed by two middle aged Japanese men who looked like they could have easily been Salary men. I heard them say something in Japanese and all I could make out at the time was “Sugoi……..Hayaii” I waved and continued on, wondering if they really needed the thick mountain jackets they had. It wasn’t a hot day, but it wasn’t necessarily cold.

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Some stairs

As the stairs continued, the temperature seemed to drop. “Maybe those guys knew what they were doing…”

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More stairs
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Stairs!

After 726 steps (another wild guess) the fog really started to roll in and the temperature continued to drop.

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The forest was gorgeous though. A mixture of The Lord of the Rings and Crouching Tiger  Hidden Dragon was enveloping me on both sides.

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After another hour I finally got to this temple. It looked interesting enough, especially with the fog rolling through.

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These children creeped me out pretty well

After the temple, I went up a trail to the left. There was this young couple, maybe early twenties, and the guy kept eyeing me. Didn’t think much of it. I had yet to see another foreigner and I assume he wasn’t used to seeing one on the mountain. I walked to the left, to start…more stairs, and his girl had fallen behind.

As I started ascending these particular set of stairs seen below…it seemed as if he was trying to race me. I looked over at him and he pointed up and started going faster. He was. I picked up the pace, refusing to let this random guy with a soccer jacket on beat me. We got to the top, one before the other, and, I kid you not, I almost died. We were both bent over gasping for air (it seemed as though he wasn’t in as much pain as me) and the altitude would just not let me catch a breath. I did a few circles, with my hands on my head, and this random guy was just panting and laughing. His girlfriend finally came up and started laughing too.

I was not amused. Although the challenge had been entertaining, I was in no condition to laugh, and had no idea who these people were. The random guy smiled, waved, said something and ended with “Arigatou” and they were off. I spent another 5 minutes recovering, ensuring that I wasn’t going to die there on that mountain from exhaustion and continued on.

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This picture was taken mid-pant

As previously mentioned, the forest was absolutely stunning. The mixture of cool, autumn air, overcast skies, and fog rolling through gave it an enchanting feeling.

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Early Japanese women

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The higher I got, naturally, the colder it got. My thin Patagonia fleece didn’t seem adequate enough and did absolutely nothing to stop the wind. I had previously rolled the sleeves up to cool my body temperature down and reduce sweating, but the quick change of temperature had my arms going numb. “I should probably speed up or slow down and join a small group…you know…In the off chance I just fall over on the trail,” I thought to myself.

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I was probably a week too early to see the Autumn Leaves everyone keeps talking about

I honestly considered turning back twice. Once at the top of the “Challenge Stairs” and again when I lost feeling in my arms. However, I pushed through and made it up. At the top there is a nice small little service shop where you can buy Japanese Curry, Ramen, or an onigiri. I went with the Ramen and enjoyed the great, but unfortunately overcast view (as seen in the last picture). As I let my food digest, I decided to look at my map, that had pretty cool hand-drawings on the side. Inside one of the drawings, I noticed that it pointed to the “Challenge Stairs.” It said, “Please do not go fast on these stairs as they can create exhaustion.” “Wow,” I thought “They should definitely bold that, put a star, or maybe a sign next to the actual stairs.”

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Decided to take the cable car back down….and save some stairs for the next guy
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You can see Enoshima all the way to the left.

All in all, it was a great hike. Very easy to get to from Tokyo with a rewarding view. I wish I had counted the stairs (If someone does, would love to know just how many). I myself prefer climbing boulders or a steep incline, since stairs just reinforce how much longer I have to go. Regardless, I got back to the train station, and fell fast asleep all the way home.

Death Valley (デスヴァレー国立公園)

The Hike that Started it All

First and foremost, let me apologize for the pictures. The quality is terrible, the creativity is minimal, if existent at all. At the time, I was sporting an iPhone4. That is not a typo. As a result, I hope these will be the poorest images on this site; however, they are the only ones I have of a very significant hike for me.




 

I had been in San Diego for about a month now. A friend decided they wanted to come out to visit, and had also decided that it would be a great time to hike the Mojave. I knew absolutely nothing about hiking. I knew nothing about trails, gear, conditioning, but I knew I was interested. After hours spent watching videos of people getting lost in deserts, mountains, and jungles, I knew I would love it, I just didn’t know how to start.

I went to the local REI and asked the poor guy working there probably close to a thousand questions. “What kind of boots should I use? Do type of socks matter? How much food should I bring? Do I really need these water purifying tablets?” After 3 or 4 trips, of lengthy question and answer sessions I had my gear. I had previously purchased a Mountaineering Book so I had somewhat of a baseline level of knowledge, but book knowledge is quite different from experience. Luckily, the staff at REI could provide that.

With my boots, socks, pants, backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and recommended food (and water of course) I was ready to go. I picked my friend up from the airport in a rental car and we immediately set off. The trip to the desert wasn’t bad. We only encountered one minor scare. I decided to chance it on the gas and just get some when we got there. Dumbest idea I’ve had. A gas station in the desert. No idea why that sounded like a good idea. After pulling up to the “Mojave Desert Information Center” and not seeing a gas station, we realized this could be a problem. I asked the information guy where the nearest gas station was. 15 miles?!?!? I had 8 in the tank. An ever re-occurring mixture of fear and excitement met me when I got back in the car. “Well, this could either end up in one of two ways,” I thought. The sun was pounding onto the gravel road. Unfortunately, we saw no tumbleweeds, as would have been indicative of even a slight breeze. All we were met with was the wavy haze of an overheated road far off in the distance.

“Just let the car coast,” I kept thinking. I kept checking the gas, and kept looking at my friend, who did not seem as worried as I did. We crept forward, looking at our phones every few minutes praying we would come across some cellular phone signal in case the worst happened. “Well, we do have enough food and water for a few days, worst comes to worst…” I was the only one that laughed. We spent the next 30 minutes, going just under the speed limit, killing daylight and our adventure, creeping towards the gas station. We finally arrived, somehow, with no gas. I popped open the tank, and it let out a breathe of air, almost as if it was exhausted, giving us all the fumes of gas it could muster up to get us to the gas station.

We filled up, let out a sigh of relief, and got back on the road, racing back towards the parking lot trying to save daylight. After finally arriving, we hopped out of the car, excited to have a full tank of gas, and, although a shortened one, a whole day of adventure ahead.

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The trail was absolutely beautiful. It was hot, very hot. Temperatures here can get up to 49C (120F) incredibly enough. But the further away from the visitor center we got, the more breeze we were able to catch. We saw small rodents, rabbits, and even cows grazing and I kept thinking “How awesome is this!” And then of course, as if perfectly times to ruin my carefree, adventurous mood, we saw “Caution: Mountain Lions. Don’t hike with small children, don’t hike alone, be cautious of your surrounding.” Ha….well wow. “I doubt this pocket knife will do much to this mountain lion. Umm…was anyone going to mention these vicious killers to me before we decided to go on this hike?” Silence. I quickly learned that it was better to not speak of the potential danger, and just enjoy the journey, whether it be a bear, a lion, or a shark. You can’t control when and where you see them, you can just better prepare yourself.

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Tough chance. The entire hike, the thought of a mountain lion leaping 60 feet in the air and pouncing down on my lingered in the back of my head. Fortunately, the further along we went, and the less energy I had, the quieter this thought was, although never silenced.

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The hike up to the site where we decided to set up camp was pretty fun. Between wild animals, rocks to climb over, and jaw-dropping views, I was having the time of my life. I felt so disconnected with the city and the rest of the world. In that instance I felt alive, free, and refreshed.

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It was right around when we decided to set the tent up that we noticed two things. Its starting to get really cold. And. Where did all of this wind come from? As the sun went down, the wind picked up, almost as if it was the very thing pushing the sun back behind the mountains. If you’ve never set up a tent in 20-30 knot wind, I’m pretty envious of you. Setting up one side of the tent, only to have a piece on the other side blow up, or an item roll down the hill was by far my least part of the hike. But looking back, it made it that much more memorable.

The sun finally set and it. was. freezing. I knew from high school that it can get cold in the desert at night, but I had not anticipated needing a jacket inside my sleeping back inside my tent. The same tent that was constantly at risk of being blown to pieces by the howling wind that was determined to not let me get any sleep. On top of that, in my head, I envisioned a mountain lion just circling our tent, waiting for one of us to step out and go to the bathroom or peak out for a view. Fortunately, the wind did its best, but did not damage to my tent, and the mountain lion, if she came, never bothered us.

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We awoke, with little sleep, and started our journey back to the car. I was completely exhausted. The views were amazing, I could recharge away from the city, and really turn inward to my thoughts and where life was going. However….my joints were killing me, and I was tired of eating jerky and trail mix, I wanted real food. Still, with all the self-induced suffering caused by a weak frame of mind and no conditioning, I caught the hiking bug. It was quick, it was easy, I hadn’t even noticed it. On the car ride back I thought “That was cool, but I’m not really sure I’ll do it again…” And here we are…

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Rebun Island (礼文島)

礼 – Salute, bow

文 – sentence, literature, style

島 – island

“If I’m going to be alone, I’d rather be alone in nature, than alone surrounded by empty streets and buildings.”

A quick google search confirms that no one in fact said the above quote; however, if someone had, they would have perfectly captured my emotions in words.

In the port of Wakkanai there is a ferry that runs to the two Island off of Hokaido, Rebun and Rishiri four times a day (two times a day in the winter). If you plan on visiting either, I would strongly recommend starting early and getting the first ferry so you’re not pressed for time, or even worse, stuck on the island overnight. I fortunately made it back to the ferry in time, but I have heard that there are only a few hotels that are pretty pricey, and the hostels that are not expensive, have a mandatory wake up time, and group singing…If you know me personally, you’d know that I would be perfectly fine with the former…but would never be ok with the latter…

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Still….no people….

Getting to the island is simple enough. Exploring the island is even easier. There are multiple tour buses that start from the Ferry station. You can rent a car and even rent a bicycle to get around (which most people do).

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Imagine living in that house

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My original intention coming to Rebun was to hike its 8 hour trek; however, there was rain that day as well as the next five days. I debated trying to wait it out another day or two, but that would mean going back to Wakkanai and staying another night. After exploring the island all day I got back to the ferry terminal and checked the whether forecast one last time. 100% chance of rain for the next five days. Awesome.

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I decided that I would end my trip early and head back down south. There wasn’t much left for me to see in Wakkanai, and the guaranteed rain definitely didn’t help. I took the ferry back, purchasing a plane ticket on the way, and planned to take the next bus to the airport so I could make my flight. As luck would have it, I missed the bus, my fault completely, and I had to take a $50 cab there instead of a $6 bus ride. I was ready to go back to civilization.

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Airport “shop”

Hokkaido was definitely an interesting place. Every place I had gone to in the region felt like a completely different country when compared to mainland Japan. Sure they spoke Japanese, but the pace was much slower, the people much less Westernized (more Japanese I suppose?). I really hope to return one day, in warmer weather and with better plans (read: company).

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If you look at the wing of the plane, put your finger where the wing and horizon line up and work your way left from there, you can see Mt. Fuji!

Wakkanai (稚内)

稚 – young, immature

内 – inside, within, house

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1094 km (680 miles) north of Tokyo lies Japan’s northernmost city Wakkanai, a town known for its geography and its seafood. If you’ve studied Japanese at all, you probably know that Wakkanai is pretty much the same as the shortened version of wakaranai (I don’t know).  The name itself actually comes from the Ainu Yam-wakka-nay, which supposedly means “cold-water river.” I can’t attest to the temperature of the rivers here, but I can say that in September, when the rest of Japan was sweating profusely, I was regretfully shivering in my very thin jacket.

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With an average low of of 14 degrees Celsius (57F) in September, and -6C (19F) in the winter, I’m surprised anyone actually lives here, year-round. But they do, supposedly. According to Wikipedia, 37,011 cold resistant people inhabit this city year round. If you had asked me, 24 hours after I arrived, how many people I thought lived here, I would guess a mere 2000.

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8PM

The two days I spent exploring the city, I saw but a handful of people. Not an exaggeration at all. The most populated places I saw included the train station and the hotel. The streets were empty, the shops deserted. It was rather creepy. Eerily creepy. As if everyone had left town for some event, and I was one of the few people, uninformed and left behind.

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8PM

I wanted to “explore the city” so I went out in search of food. My first stop landed me in a VERY local seafood restaurant. My Japanese is not by any means amazing now, but back then it was absolutely abysmal. All I could mutter was, “Tabette mo ii desu ka? Can I eat?” The owner of the shop, looking at me as if I was an alien or lost (both of which I could have easily been according to this short, older Japanese woman that seemed to have never left town) started spouting off in Japanese. Naturally, I knew nothing of what she was saying. I was not ignorant enough to assume she spoke English, as could be possible in Tokyo, so I curled my lips inward, embraced the tension in the room as everyone (note 3 people) looked at me, nodded my head and said “Hai…”

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Needless to say, I didn’t eat there. I continued on, in search of food, or English, or civilization as I cursed myself for not bringing a thicker jacket. After touring what seemed like the entire city and feeling a profound but unfamiliar loneliness that I had never experienced before, I decided I would just go back to the hotel and perhaps wait until morning to eat. “Maybe all the restaurants close early….everyday…” I thought.

I walked back at a much faster pace, attempting to quiet the relentless feeling of being isolated. I couldn’t put my finger on what I was experiencing. I’m not big on supernatural phenomenon, but the void created by lack of human interaction, even just seeing people on the street at a reasonable time, was replaced with something sinister. I began pushing away thoughts that something(s) was(were) watching me as I walked through the city. I wasn’t necessarily afraid, just creeped out. “Seriously, where is everyone?”

I finally arrived back at my hotel, and regained my humanity once I saw the receptionist. I’ve never been so excited to see a stranger before, and part of me just wanted to stay and “absorb” more human interaction. Starving, I asked “Tabemono wa… (Food?)” expecting him to either say sorry or something I would never understand. Instead, he pointed to his right and said “Hai.” How had I missed this? There was a restaurant…..In the hotel….and I just walked around a post-apocalyptic city for hours in search of food. I did away with my thoughts of calling myself an idiot and proceeded to the restaurant.

I walked in not expecting much, and I’m glad I did. The restaurant was about the size of my hotel room, maybe a little larger, with no windows and dim lighting. There were no paintings, no television screens, nothing but silence. Of course, there was no one there except the waiter, and I assumed, the chef. The options on the menu were seafood, seafood, and more seafood with absolutely no pictures. Overwhelmed, irritated, and starving I pointed to the middle option, and the waiter nodded and was off. Five minutes later, my life saving food had arrived. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great, but it was definitely enough. Now that I had gotten food, I decided it was time to go to sleep, since there was, literally, nothing else to do in this city at 9PM.

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Upon waking, I decided to explore more before I departed via ferry to an island just off the coast of Wakkanai. Interestingly enough, there is a strong Russian presence in Hokkaido due to its proximity to Russia, naturally. As such, some of the signs are in Japanese, English, and Russian. I don’t remember seeing too many Russians as I didnt see too many people, but they had to be there, somewhere, perhaps watching….

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Some Russian
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Some more Russian, no English

Wakkani, a cool little city to see, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend visiting alone, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend visiting in the winter.

Mt. Asahi (旭岳) (Pt. 4) 2291m

About halfway through the hike, the elevation REALLY started to pick up. Fortunately, it seemed as if I was outside of bear territory; however, I was no longer just “coasting along.” Instead, I was in drenched in sweat, muscles aching, reconsidering my decision to hike this mountain. Rather than clearing, as I assumed it would once morning gave way to noon, the fog decided to pick up. I could not see more than 50 feet in any direction, and had no reference other than the occasional height post, of how high I really was. Given this, the edges seemed THAT much more terrifying.

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A little after noon, I decided to take a quick energy/snack/water break. A group of two, younger Japanese women who seemed to be in better shape caught up to me. “Konnichi wa!” they greeted. Just as I prepared to reply, a rude and obnoxious clap of thunder interrupted me. “Hmmm…” I thought, “probably not the best time and place to hear that.” I looked at the two girls the same way I look at flight attendants during turbulence. These girls looked like mountain pros and if they weren’t worried, everything should be fine.

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One of the girls looked out into the fog, tilted her head to the side, and drew her breath in hesitation. She said something to her friend, and they both contemplated what I’m assuming was their decision to continue on. I forgot what the word for safe was so I stated the word for danger in a rising intonation and pointed behind me. “Abunai?” The friend that had been silent before laughed and said “Oh-Kei desu…..maybe.” We were over 1500m (4900ft) in elevation, and there was thunder, I assumed either next to me or below me. I frightenly chucked, “nice…ki o tsukete” and they were off. I took a few more minutes to hydrate and eat my sugar gummies as they faded off into the mountain. IMG_0041

This being my first mountain, I couldn’t grasp how much personality she had. But between the fumaroles, the smell of gas, the colors from green, to blue, to brown, to red, and even the noise of wind rushing past thousands of feet in the air…it was hard to not be overwhelmed. Not to mention the unwelcomed thunderstorm.

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The rest of the hike was quiet, besides the constant thunder in the distance. The higher the elevation, the higher the elevation change, or so it seemed. At certain points, I was, hands and knees, climbing over boulders, thanking myself for investing in quality hiking boots and pants.

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These birds at the top of the picture were ZOOMING by and making this incredible screeching noise.
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“Hello!” Never missing an opportunity to practice their English.

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Finally making it to the top, I took a picture of the “view.” I was a little disappointed at first with how low visibility was, but, it gave the mountain quite a bit of personality throughout the entire hike.

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Peak of the mountain. 2291m (7561 ft)

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The hike back down wasnt TERRIBLE. However, the steep incline, or decline I should say, made it tough to go at a slow pace. All of the locals, along with their bear bells, seemed to have trekking poles that they would use to support them going down. I had no such contraptions and my knees took quite the beating for it. I made it down in roughly three hours, and back to the hostel in four. I had JUST enough time to through my clothes in the laundry one last time, shower, and catch the last bus back to Asahikawa.

I would HIGHLY recommend this hike, late in the summer. It is grueling, but well worth the pain. Thinking of going? Check out the Live Webcam to see the snow coverage. I personally wouldn’t go if there was snow due to how steep some parts were, but some of you may be more adventurous than I. If you have any specific questions about the hike, how to get there, when to go, feel free to find us on Facebook or fill out our Contact Us form. Hope you enjoyed the trail! Next stop, Wakkanai.