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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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Mt. Tanzawa (丹沢山)

丹 – rust colored, red
沢 – swamp, marsh
山 – mountain

So this may just be my most memorable hike in Japan. It was late fall and I had only a few days left in Japan before I would head back home to the States for Christmas vacation. My girlfriend at the time and I wanted to do something memorable for my last weekend in Japan. She knew that I loved hiking and thought it would be a great way to end 2016 and send me off. Well, that was my first mistake.

Rule #1 – Always let the first time hiker choose the altitude of the mountain and the hike length.

Check, I had known about rule number one for quite some time now. As soon as she, my GF at the time, had mentioned that she wanted to go hiking my immediate response was,, “perfect, well, choose the mountain and the hike and I will take care of the rest.” About three question filled hours later we had made a decision, Mt. Tanzawa.

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Fortunately for us, on the day of the hike, we were initially greeted with no clouds and reassuring, constant beam of sunlight that took some of the chill out of the autumn air. It was at this point in time, that my hiking partner today decided to let me know that she had sprained her ankle a few weeks prior. Lovely.

Rule #2 – Don’t attempt a hike if you’re not feeling 95%.

I would chalk up a recently sprained ankle as significantly detrimental. What’s worse, I was not naive enough to not realize, that the previously unmentioned sprained ankle would at best slow my down and at worst possibly jeopardize our ability to finish the hike unassisted.

I ever so calmly asked her, “why is this the first you’re mentioning this?” “I saw how excited you were to go hiking and didn’t want to disappoint you,” she responded, “plus, I want to try to start hiking myself,” perfectly un-equipping me of any anger I could have felt towards her “delayed notification.” “Alright well…I guess just be careful,” I told her, knowing all too well of what lay ahead of us and how impossible it would be.

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We pushed off and I found myself in my element once again. She began asking me questions like, “What do you do if you start sweating a lot?” “How do you know how much longer you have to go?” “What do you do if you see a bear?” I easily answered all of them except for the last one where I simply smiled and replied “Ganbatte ne” (Best of luck to you should you ever find yourself in that terrible situation you poor soul) Loosely translated of course. The truth is, that I naively didn’t know much about bears at the time. I simply thought that they were farrrrrr away, out of reach from the casual hiker. I truly miss those days of ignorance. Hikes were much freer, more enjoyable without the constant scan for a curious bear. I know feel the same way about hiking as I do getting in the water at the beach, “I know I’m screwed if I see a shark so I damn well better not see one….”

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Anywho… As we began gaining some altitude I was pleasantly surprised by how well my hiking partner was doing. She hadn’t complained once about her ankle and was actually keeping a solid pace. The crisp autumn air ran through the mostly barren trees and made a whistling noise as if the mountain were inviting us further.

We climbed a few sets of natural stairs and scaled a few boulders, and before we knew it, we were a solid two hours in to the hike. This was when I made another mistake… “You want to stop for a water break?” I asked, and as soon as we stopped, whatever magical power that had been pushing my girlfriend forward must have tumbled down the side of the mountain.

We finished our water and I looked at her with raised eyebrows and my head pointed upwards implying movement. She responded with minced eyebrows and a quick hand to the ankle. “It hurts a little..” she said. “Yeah I’m actually surprised you made it this far without mentioning it, can you go on.” “Yeah!”

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We continued our upward cut through the mountain but nothing was the same. Our pace had been halved, if not quartered, and her face was full of sweat and pain. I painfully watched as Japanese grandmothers passed us on our left and right, decked out in their 1980s mountain climbing gear and ever loud, ever proud bear bells. “Hey, if you need to stop, just let me know” I reassured her.

She pushed on, and I could smell the resentment in the air. “Why the hell am I on this stupid mountain…” I just KNEW she was thinking something along those lines. The constant, engaging conversation had devolved to a mere one word answer with her frustration increasing in every response.

Fortunately for us, mostly me, we stumbled across these bunny/deer hybrids off to the side of the trail. The mama bunny/deer (bdeer) kept a watchful eye out as her offspring fed. It was rather entertaining and my hiking partner kept commenting on how cool it was. Hell, I had never seen any big wildlife on any of my Japanese hikes, this was really cool. “She’ll probably be in a better mood now because of this” I thought to myself as I thankfully watched her cheek to cheek smile materialize. A crowd quickly began to gather around us taking pictures of the bdeer and we decided it was time to move on.

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I kid you not, the very first step off from watching the bdeer, I sadly watched my girlfriend’s cheek to cheek smile turn into a hatred filled frown. I rotated my palms inward and up and asked “Wh…what just happened??….” “Nothing, how much further do we have?” she ever so pleasantly (sarcasm) asked. “I really have no idea, I plan my hikes based on a relatively constant pace and…we’ve stopped a few times…” Silence…. “Maybe 90 minutes left?” I tried to reassure her….Silence….

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The rest of the hike up was enjoyed by me internally, as I did not say or hear a single word. Finally, about an hour and a half later, we got to the top. The view made it all worth it of course, but even better, there were some benches to sit on. A little ramen shop stood off to the side and we ordered some Japanese curry and ramen of course.

I asked my hiking partner to show me her ankle, this being the first conversation we had since the bdeer sighting. “Whoah” I breathed with eyes wide open, “That’s pretty swollen…” “Yeah, I don’t think hiking was a good idea today…” she casually responded “sorry for getting irritated at you, it’s just pretty bothersome.” “No kidding, should we call for help?” I asked. “Let’s wait an hour and see how it feels. Knowing that without ice and an aspirin, and only an hour of rest, her ankle would feel exactly the same as it did now, I agreed and decided to fill my mind with other, less guaranteed things.

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Well the hour was up and so was my jovial mood. I knew for a fact that I would not want to descend any mountain over 300m on a sprained ankle, and here we were, faced with this difficult task. I say we, but really it was her duty to fulfill, all I had to do was absorb any of the “I have a sprained ankle, what is the point of hiking, its freezing cold” attitude coming my way. Easy enough, I thought, how hard could just being quiet be?

About an hour in I casually asked, “so…really…why didn’t you say anything about this ankle beforehand, I mean, this could be pretty dangerous?” Which brings me to rule number 3.

Rule #3 – If you ever find yourself on a 1500m mountain, hiking with a first-time-hiker-girlfriend who is beyond irritated with a sprained ankle, there is never a good time for logic driven questions. Hell, there is never a good time for questions.

Fortunately for me, she wasn’t a quitter and we kept moving. We did have to take numerous stops, which I completely understood, but, as I watched the sun fall closer to the horizon, my patience for waiting was quickly turning into a rush to get off this mountain before nightfall. During our last “stop” I tried to explain how crucial it was to not be on the side of a mountain after sunset. She understood of course, but all that was reverberating through her ears was a beating ankle.

We finally arrived at the trail head and just as we stepped off the trail and onto the road, we saw three Japanese men in blue uniforms with a stretcher run past us. “That was an option?” my intrepid hiking partner jokingly asked. I started to reply “Well actually there were many options that we could have taken today…one of which including not hiking on a sprained ankle,” but….I decided that wouldn’t do anything positive. Plus, she had just done a 1567m hike at less than 95%, easily earning my respect. “Thanks for coming with me,” I said as I gave her a hug. “Yeah, it was interesting” she responded, “thanks for guiding…..I’m never going hiking again.” “Believe me I know,” I smiled.

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Café Döga Tour

I had the honor of touring Biocafe Oro Tarrazu, located just an hour and half south of San Jose. I was lucky enough to meet them at the Cafe Expo Tarrazu in February seen below.

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And then by chance, at the San Jose Coffee Expo a few weeks later.

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Being March, most of the coffee had already been picked, processed, dried, and stored, however, we were still able to see all of the equipment and process of how everything functioned.

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My sister’s car that is capable of driving up a 70 degree incline

The harvest season in Costa Rica is generally from December to March. Workers arrive from Nicaragua and Panama to pick the fruit, which is then sent to the processing plant via truck.

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Drying fields for sun-dried coffee

Upon arrival at the plant, the coffee is sorted, stripped of its outer layers (depending on the wash [we’ll get into that in a following post]), and dried. Cafe Doga uses mostly water, gravity, and sun to achieve these goals with a “home-made” engineered system.

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Altitude – 1475m

The fruit is placed into these storage tanks which sorts and temporarily holds the beans until they are ready to be sent, via water, to the “de-pulper.”

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Top pipe is return water line, bottom pipe is coffee feed line

After the fruit is transferred, it is stripped of its outer layer (unless it is a natural process which we will get into later) and sorted based on quality. Sitting in water, the beans that float are not yet ripe and are pushed down the line, to be collected in another section and used “Para la casa” instead of being sold or exported.

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The heavier, better quality beans, fall through the small slits in a rotating drum and are collected at the bottom on a wheel barrel. The water that brought the fruit to this stage is then recycled back to the beginning to be reused on the next batch.

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The coffee is then taken to be dried on African Beds or concrete flooring. African beds are an elevated lining that provides a porous underside, which allows air to flow upwards into the beans, helping prevent molding and fermentation. On concrete flooring, the beans are also dried by the heat of the ground, however, since there is no airflow as found in African Bedding, the beans must be raked many times a day. Both concrete and African beds take just over 10 days to fully cool the beans.

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Interestingly enough, upon arrival to BioCafe Oro Tarrazu, coffee beans usually have a moisture level of about 50%. By the time they are bagged and ready to be shipped, they are sitting at 10.5%. Too much moisture and the risk of mold increases, as does the amount of money the buyer pays for each bean. Too little moisture, the coffee will lose most of its flavor and the farmer will earn less per bean.

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From fruit to green bean

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Farmer

Once coffee reaches the desired level of moisture, it is stripped of any leftover casing and bagged, ready to be sold. They must be stored with extreme caution, as extra moisture in the bag could spoil the entire shipment.

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Although Cafe Doga is a small, family owned coffee estate, they do provide quality coffee that is carefully processed. Compared to the other estates in the area they are relatively new, but have already made a name for themselves in Costa Rica coffee.

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Leftover dominos set used by workers from Nicaragua and Panama

Also, Cafe Doga has started a quite intriguing Ponche de Cafe line. They offer a liquor filled and alcohol free version of the cold milk coffee beverage. I was pretty exhausted from the tour that I didn’t realize which one I had, but I do remember that it tasted amazing.

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Poncha de Cafe

To the family of Cafe Doga and Biocafe Oro Tarrazu, specifically Mrs. Vargas and Ms. Madrigal, I can’t thank you guys enough for your warm hospitality and an opportunity to see a part of coffee that not many people get to experience. Look forward to running into you guys at the next coffee event!

If you’re interested in contacting Cafe Doga for more information or would like to purchase some coffee, check out their Facebook. Ask them how they came up with the name Doga! Interesting history behind it.

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Asahikawa (旭川)

  1. 旭 -rising sun, morning sun
  2. 川 – stream, river

(Continued from Sapporo)

“Take the first train out in the morning to Asahikawa, then from there its an easy trip to the mountain. There is not a lot to do in Asahikawa so I recommend staying in the station,” – Life-Saving Patagonia Woman (Mina-san).

I checked out of my AirBnb at around 7AM. I figured that would give me enough time to eat breakfast, walk to the station, and still make first train. I seriously do not know what I was thinking, perhaps I was still tired from the endless night with no A/C. I COMPLETELY missed the first train. By the time I got to the station, not only had I missed the first train, I had missed the first 8 trains! Again, I’m not sure why I failed to realize the first train left at 6AM. Even more confusing, I felt a rush of shame, as if I had let Mina-san down. I purchased my tickets and was on the next train North.

It was about a two hour trip and I got in to Asahikawa right after noon. Not knowing anything about how to complete my trek to the mountain, I smartly went to the information center. “Hello….English?” I foreigner-ingly asked. “Yes, how may I help you,” the quiet, middle aged woman behind the counter replied. “I’m trying to go to Asahidake.” A concerned look snapped across her face and she let out a sigh of regret. “Did they close the mountain?” I thought to myself. “The bus leaves in ten minutes,” she said with a regretful face. “Ok, ill buy the tickets, I’ll take it!” Unable to connect with my level of  haste she calmly replied, “I’m sorry Sir, but the bus is full and you have to have a reservation with hotel before you go. There are only three buses and I believeeee the last one is fullll.”

The next thirty minutes were spent locating hotels near the mountain that were not already booked and within a reasonable price range. (If you’re not like me and would like to search and book your hotel BEFORE you start your trip here is a list of good places to stay near the base of the mountain). Finally, we found one. I had my reservation, my bus tickets, and my maps. I was ready to go. Only problem was, since there were only three buses every day, I had two hours to kill. So…I googled “Top things to do in Asahikawa” and was somehow shocked by the results. No.1-Zoo. Ok, fair enough, that’s reasonable. No.2 Asahikawa Train Station. Whoah. The train station I was standing in, was ranked as the number two thing to do in the city…..I remember thinking to myself “These are going to be a long two hours.”

I put my phone away and decided I might as well see if some things somehow just missed the list. I’ll let you decide for yourself with the pictures below.

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No cars went down this road for 15 minutes

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Still have no idea what these guys were

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Not too many pedestrians
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The largest amount of activity I saw outside of the train station

Needless to say, I was more than happy when 3:30PM rolled around and I was able to get on the bus.

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Coffee and I

My very Hispanic step-mother from Bogota, Colombia, whom I endearingly called by her first name Edith, survived on coffee. The first thing she did after waking up was prepare coffee. She drank coffee in times of great happiness, and great sadness. She drank coffee to help her raise my two younger brothers Mateo and Santiago, who were never short of energy. She even somehow drank coffee at night, prior to going to sleep. She and coffee were one and the same. After my many visits to Bogota, I quickly learned that, for her and her family, coffee wasn’t just an energizing refreshment, but rather, a way of life.

Edith had these three red, ceramic, air-tight jars that she kept in the cabinet above the oven. Each one was a different size, and within each, she kept coffee beans, sugar, and rice, respectively. Every morning on the weekends, I would like to treat myself to a big bowl of oatmeal that I could eat while I watched cartoons in my pajamas. Of course, as a sweet toothed teenager, nothing went better with my big bowl of oatmeal than a generous tablespoon, or two, of sugar. Well, of course, I could never get the jar size right. “Last time, I tried the middle one, and it was coffee…so it has to be the big one,” I would think to myself. And every weekend, without fail, I would open the wrong one before finally getting to the sugar. Well, each time I guessed incorrectly, and opened the jar with the coffee beans, I would spend a good minute with my nose in the jar, taking in the smell of the beans and its entire aroma. At the time, I thought coffee was just coffee, I had no idea where the beans came from, that there were levels of roast, or even that there were different kind of beans. All I knew was that I was in love with that smell and everything it reminded me of.

Flash forward ten years and I’m on a U.S. Naval Warship, having just graduated from the Naval Academy. It’s three in the morning, pitch black, and I’m standing my first duty night-watch, guarding the ship. To say that I was struggling to stay awake is a gross understatement. The person I was standing watch with, HM2 Deane, a young medic originally from Guyana, asks me in his heavy Guyanese accent, “Sir, would you like some coffee to help you get through this watch?” Growing up, I had never really had coffee. Edith would offer me a sip from time to time, but my father was worried my growth would be stunted had I enjoyed too much coffee. I carried this mentality with me to the Naval Academy, and I never really drank coffee, always desiring to be in top physical and mental condition. I told HM2 Deane that I was appreciative for the offer, but that I didn’t really drink coffee. Again, in thick Guyanese English, “Sir, you’ll be able to breeze through this night watch, without the pain of your brain trying to fall asleep.” “What the hell,” I thought. I was no longer at the Naval Academy, competing against my peers. It was the first time in my life that I was awake at three in the morning, with the expectation that I would have to stay awake, guarding the ship, until seven in the morning. “Sure, why not,” I thought, “It couldn’t hurt.” My eyes were so heavy. All I could think about was placing my heavy head on a pillow and sleeping the night away. HM2 went to get the ship’s coffee for me.

By the time he returned, I was barely clasping to consciousness, praying for any situation that would give my eyes just a fifteen minute break to rest. As soon as he handed me the Navy Coffee Mug, I got a whiff of the smell, which looking back, I’m sure was terrible, and my entire childhood flashed before me. I saw Edith in the kitchen preparing coffee as Mateo and Santiago got ready for school. I remembered the weekend morning cartoon session with my big bowl of oatmeal and three, maybe four tablespoons of sugar. I even remembered my step-mother yelling at my brothers and I for using all the milk before she could have her morning coffee, and my Father in the living room chuckling. I was instantly awake and I did in fact, breeze through the rest of the night-watch. I spent the remaining four hours, reminiscing on the fortunate childhood I had, my loving step-mother and father, and the best younger brothers a former only child could have asked for. All of these memories, brought about, by the unforgettable and enticing smell of coffee.

I’ve been drinking coffee ever since. Fortunately, I’ve been able to get my hands on better quality coffee. I can’t imagine that the Navy’s twenty year old, instant coffee machine, filled with 3 week old coffee grounds, was anything taste-worthy. Since that first cup, I’ve become fascinated with coffee culture. I’ve always considered myself a man of science, and the coffee bean is nothing short of that. The variables on altitude, bean selection, processing methods, roasting level, and exposure time all fascinate me beyond belief.

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Mt. Oyama (大山)

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

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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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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.

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Wakkanai (稚内)

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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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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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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 didn’t 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.

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Rebun Island (礼文島)

“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 Hokkaido, 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!
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Mt. Asahi (旭岳)

  1. Sitting at 2,290.9 m (7,516 ft), Mt. Asahi (aka Asahidake 旭岳) is the tallest mountain on the Island of Hokkaido.
  2. Mount Asahi is an active stratovolcano, with a volcanic activity rating of C given by the Japan Meteorological Agency.
  3. Last eruption was in 1797.
  4. Rock on the mountain is from the Holocene era making it almost 12,000 years old.
  5. 旭 – rising sun, morning sun.
  6. 岳 – point, peak, mountain

(Continued from (Asahikawa)

At the end of very long and winding road, our bus finally arrived at the last stop, Daisetsuzan Shirakaba-sō, a youth hostel/ryokan hybrid right next to the mountain. I cannot recommend this place enough. Not only was it affordable, roughly $70 compared to the $200 nightly rate of some of it neighbors, but the staff was extremely friendly and accommodating.

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At the end of very long and winding road, our bus finally arrived at the last stop, Daisetsuzan Shirakaba-sō, a youth hostel/ryokan hybrid right next to the mountain. I strongly recommend booking here if staying hiking Asahidake. Not only was it affordable, roughly $70 compared to the $200 nightly rate of some of it neighbors, but the staff was extremely friendly and accommodating.

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The rooms were spacious and comfortable. I had two extremely friendly roommates. One was a engineering college student in Hokkaido, the other was a middle aged Japanese man whom I exchanged zero words with for whatever reason. Seemed like a really nice guy though. My last roommate was a talker. This guy was 50 or 60, from New York, and had stories about EVERYTHING. He asked me what I did, where I worked and that conversation just snowballed for further and longer than anything I had the energy for. Finally, when the college student returned, I invited him back into the conversation as I strategically slipped out to do laundry. Fortunately there is a washing machine downstairs you can use for $5 the first time. I ended up using it three times, and when I went to pay the second and third time, the guy just looked at me and said don’t worry about it, which was great for my travel fund…

Dinner was AMAZING of course. I imagine that’s where a good portion of the $70 goes towards. Breakfast was two or three onigiri, nothing special, but a solid fuel source for a hike start. Oh, almost forgot to mention, there is a small onsen downstairs. Since there was no TV and I had already finished my book, I spent the majority of my time here in this onsen.

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I had set my alarm the night before for 5AM thinking I’d be the first one up, the first one showered, and the first one on the trail. The middle aged Japanese man I had not said a word to somehow had me beat. By the time I rolled over and turned my vibrating phone off, he was throwing on his jacket and walking out the door. Much respect to that guy.

It only took me about thirty minutes to shower, eat, and step out myself. I was met with a beautiful morning fog, and a refreshing mountain morning chill, the kind that makes you feel suspended in air as you cut through it. From ryokan to the base of the mountain is about a five minute inclined walk. I dint see anyone on the road with me and took it as a good sign that the trail would be sparse as well. Right at the base of the hike, you have the option to take a cable car up, or hike the beginning. I asked the guy behind the counter on the second floor if the beginning hike was special or worth seeing. “No,” he replied, “It is more populated with bears though.” “1 ticket for the cable car please,” I casually requested as I thought for the first time of the potential of seeing a bear. I had just missed the first cable car of the morning and the next one wasn’t for another twenty minutes so I had time to spare.

I walked back downstairs to check out the small store they had and buy some hiking snacks. Walking around, I found it quite odd that there were so many bells. “Do the locals like to ring each other as they pass by on the trail?” I thought to myself. I grabbed some water, rice snacks, and some sugar gels and proceeded to the counter. I set my items down, and there, at the counter, were more bells. The lady began ringing my stuff up and I had to ask, “kore ga nani?” She chuckled and pointed to a small picture of a large bear. “So they can hear you,” she smiled and practiced her seldomly used English. I could tell she was just eating up the confused, startled look on my face. “Would you like to buy one?” “Ah…no, irimasen,” I unconvincingly replied. “Ki o tsukete ne!” I thanked her and returned up to catch the cable car. The bear bell was ten dollars…I’m sure it was just a store sale tactic…I doubt I need a bear bell…at that, so a bear can hear me?

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Cable Car Station

I boarded the cable car and was pretty impressed. Everything seemed very modern and the view was amazing. Two very friendly Japanese hiking women asked me where I was from and why I was in Hokkaido. We talked for a bit about the hike and they mentioned that there were two paths. The path to the left led to a flower hike, where you could see flower species located only in Hokkaido (and only on that mountain I believe, but cant recall exactly). The path to the right, they told me, led to the peak of the mountain, and they recommended that route to me since I was a “strong foreigner.” “Right it is,” I replied, commended them for their great English, and thanked them for their advice.

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View from lift off.

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Once the cable car got some altitude, the fog rolled back in. I had never seen so much fog in my entire life, but all I could think of was, “I wonder how many bears are down there…”

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I don’t remember the last time I felt such a concoction of excitement and fear as I did when I stepped off the cable car. I saw a few people with me that were just starting their hike as well. All of my senses were running at full speed. The lack of depth caused by the fog somehow seemed to diminish my sense of hearing.

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I took a few steps and was still in awe of everything I couldn’t see, if that makes any sense. And then it hit me. There was this chorus of pings going off. “Ping, ping ping, ping, p-ping.” “Are these all bells? Does everyone seriously have bells?! IS THE BEAR THREAT SERIOUS?!?” I nervously thought to myself. I grew up in Virginia Beach, far from the country side. I had never seen a living bear, let alone worried about one chasing and mauling me down. “I should have bought a damn bell,” I mentally slapped myself. “Well….I have this change in my pocket from the store……what if I hold it in my hand…and shake it as I walk……” I laugh now thinking back, but that’s exactly what I did, for the entirety, of the hike… I was not prepared to see a bear that day. I guess a bear seeing me first and not being startled is the better of the two options.

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Pressing on through the hike, I was calmed considerably by the beauty of the trail. I had never seen a fumarole in person before and I was pretty awe-struck by it, as if I was getting more intimate with Earth. I’ll let the beauty of the hike, speak for itself.

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Fumaroles in the distance

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Someone took a picture of me…taking the picture you see above this one…

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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.

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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 unwelcome 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 wasn’t 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. Hope you enjoyed the trail! Next stop, Wakkanai.

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Sapporo (札幌)

  1. 札 – Tag, paper money, bid
  2. 幌 – canopy, awning, hood

(Continued from Set Off On Adventure)

Sapporo itself seemed like a pretty neat town. Unfortunately, I was only there for less than 24 hours, so there was only so much I could see. Here’s what I got to.

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Sapporo Factory Exterior

The Sapporo Beer Factory is worth a visit. I will say, if you don’t speak any Japanese, prepare to be considerably underwhelmed. Its mostly old Sapporo Beer pictures and old Japan maps. If you’re madly in love with Sapporo beer, or even if you just had it from time to time while you ate Sushi in the U.S., give it a visit.

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History of Sapporo Labels
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“Tasted” three different type of Sapporo Beer. I must not have a developed beer taste palate.
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Random Russian Looking Building That Caught My Attention

Odori Park was surprisingly pleasant, and long. The thing almost stretches an entire Kilometer! Almost. I considered walking the whole thing, and am by no means anti-nature, but you see one tree….you kind of see them all….All jokes aside, beautiful park right in the middle of the city.

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Cool Waterfall in Odori Park
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Transportation
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Odori Park
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Random Bank Building

As day turned to night, I began to head towards my AirBnb. I could make the story of me trying to find my AirBnB into a post of it’s own, but here’s the shortened version. Mind you, its 8 PM, I’ve been walking around the city all day, am exhausted and just want to sleep.

Me: “Moshi moshi…ano….eigo ga?….”

AirBnb Woman (That sounded like a guy on the phone): “Yes, I speak English, do you stay with us?”

Me: “Yeah, I’m just looking for the place now, the address you listed has me in front of a 7-11…”

AirBnb Woman: “Ah, ok, do you watch small park.”

Me: “Can I see small park? …..No, just a 7-11, what’s the park’s name I can put it in my phone.”

AirBnb Woman: “No name, just park. Find park.”

I walk around the 7-11 3 or 4 times.

Me: “I’m sorry, but I don’t see a park, is there anything else to describe your apartment?”

AirBnb: “Sorry, I cannot understand.”

Me: “Where is apartment?”

AirBnb: “Please speak more slow.”

Me: “Apato ga doko desu ka?”

AirBnb: “Ah please wait.”

(HANGS UP)

Me: (hmmm, maybe these 7-11 guys know where this address my phone is saying 7-11, really is)

(They didn’t know)

(Call from AirBnb woman 10 minutes later): “Hello, I’m park.”

Me: “You’re at the park?”

AirBnb Woman: “Yes”

Me: “Can you send me location of park?”

AirBnb Woman: “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”

Me: (frustrated) “Koen no basho wa nan desu ka?”

AirBnb: (tells me park name)

Me: “……thank you……..”

I put the park name into my phone, and start walking. Ten to fifteen minutes later, I find said park. The thing was the size a driveway and it had nothing but grass and a sign that read park in Japanese.

Me: “Ah, hi, thank you for coming, sorry I couldn’t find the place by myself.”

AirBnb MAN: “Ah no problem.”

We walk to this apartment and I had to ask…

Me: “AirBnb picture is woman, no?”

AirBnb Man: “Ah yes, my wife.”

We arrived at the apartment, I tried my best to not look or sound irritated even though the address was not the same as the one given. Oh well. There was a bed, a phone charger, and “free-wifi.” I very quickly found myself asleep.