Ah Colombia. The country I caught the travel bug from. When I was about 10 years old, my Father and I would go for 3-4 week long trips to Bogota during the summer. A child, armed with the knowledge that such a different culture exists, in such a different part of the world, will become immediately and immensely more curious about what else the world has to offer. Now, at 28, having been so deeply affected by a country that I never really called home, I was finally able to go back and visit, thanks of course, to the amazing hospitality of the Jordan-Cetina family. From the little knowledge I had when I was 10 years old in 1999, it seems that the country has come a long, long way. A modern, internationally in-tune youth, a promising Democracy, a well established economy, and, not to mention the all too efficient public transportation system, El TransMilenio, Colombia has effectively transformed itself into a 21st century nation.
Of note, Bogota is situated at an altitude of 2640 m (8660 ft). Some travelers may experience some soroche, or altitude sickness as I did my first night back in town. Symptoms could include headache, upset stomach, dehydration, loss of appetite, slight depression, insomnia, difficulty breathing, and/or nose bleeds. To combat this, hydrate heavily, don’t train or workout for the first 3-4 days, carb up, and realize that symptoms will probably dissipate soon.
I had just gotten back to Japan from Christmas vacation in the United States, and I was bored out of my mind. I had regrettably finished all of my Netflix shows on the 22 hour commute to and from home, and I couldn’t find many people that wanted to go surfing in negative degree water (myself included).
Deciding to get off the couch and sweep away my suffocating boredom, I put my morning cup of coffee down and picked up my iPhone. I opened Google Maps (highly recommended app for living in Japan) and looked for a mountain within driving range. I found one just south of Fuji-san, three hours away. Afraid of losing any more daylight, I threw on my favorite pair of hiking pants and was out the door within a matter of minutes.
Absolutely nothing remarkable or exciting happened on my drive to the mountain. I listened to a few podcasts from SYSK (highly recommended podcast, great content, outstanding presentation) and safely arrived about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I parked my car, grabbed my gear (camera and backpack full of one rice snack due to poor planning) and I was off.
About 100 steps up the trail, I kept getting this nagging feeling to turn around. I knew Fuji was close, but even from the parking lot, I had somehow missed the fact that it was this close, and this visible.
I turned back around, and continued on with my hike. You can see all of the cars in the parking lot in the picture above, but I had yet to see any hikers on the trail. It could just be me, but I’m always a little unsettled when I don’t see at least a few souls enjoying the hike. I use a similar rule when visiting foreign bodies of water. “If none of the locals are swimming, there is no way I’m getting in the water.” Well, I didn’t have that option here after a 3 hour drive so I tried to just put that thought away.
About halfway through the ascent, I finally came across another human being, a group on their way back down the mountain. Solo hikes are fun because you don’t have to worry about too much talking, too little talking, pace, or burdens of injuries, but, too much silence is rather unsettling. Overcome with excitement, I had failed to realize that it was too early for anyone to be making a descent.
As I passed by and greeted them, the leader of the pack stated “Be careful, its dangerous.” I asked why in Japanese and I’m not sure what startled him more. The fact that I understood his comment, or replied in Japanese, but shock and confusion was well written all over his face. “There’s too much snow ahead, you need (word in Japanese that I did not know).” “Eh” I replied “what is it that I need?”
His face shifted back to calm and collected. As if me not being fluent and able to understand Japanese completely put his world back in order. “Cramp-onzu.” “Cramp-ons,” I thought, “Hmmm….that is definitely a thing that I do not possess.” Slightly defeated, I asked if he thought I could still continue. Unsure whether to use English or Japanese he replied “Ah….maybe ok because…..” The words had escaped them. “強いので、その大丈夫です,” he proudly stated, “気を付けてね,” waved, and continued his descent.
I thought to myself. “I’ll be ok because I’m strong?….What does my strength have to do with the snow?….It must be pretty bad if they all decided to turn around….I wonder if this is going to be one of those situations where I wish I made THE OTHER choice….Well, no turning back.”
It took me at least another 20 minutes of hiking before I even saw snow. I had started to think maybe that guy was just messing with me. When I finally did see the snow, I was naively unimpressed. I distinctly remember thinking “Locals here always over-prepare and err too much on the side of caution.”
And then I was alone again. Not a single soul. “Where are all of those parking lot car owners?” I thought to myself. The snow on the trail began picking up, but nothing worth worrying about. It was so thin that I could “feel” the dirt beneath each step. I told myself I was really glad I didn’t quit.
And that’s when the snow reared her subtly irritating head. It wasn’t so much the thickness of the snow, but the “challenging” aspect to it. I now found myself on angled trails, with no real grip on my boots and no cramp-ons of course. I alternated between trying to shimmy up this trail, not fall off, and grab trees to pull myself through when I could. I, hated, myself. Why was I so stubborn? Why did I decide to swim when none of the locals were swimming?
The snow never gave way to dirt, it was always ice. Ice, ice and more ice. My boots couldn’t grip to save my life. If I wasn’t holding on to a tree, I was sliding, or on hands and knees, digging into the snow with my shivering hands, and planting my legs to prevent myself from sliding backwards. I was slightly comforted in the fact that there were so many trees all around me that if I fell, it would be a short “slide” into a tree nearby. However, I would lose all sense of direction and would be in some serious trouble.
I had decided by now two things. 1. There was no way I was going to let this snow defeat me. And 2. I need to invest in some hiking gloves. Sliding up the mountain, I found a new drive to not let this mountain beat me. I would allow my hands to go temporarily numb to the point where I could no longer grip the trees and then curse myself as I warmed them back up. I’m sure, if you could have been there with me, you would have died of laughter. The funniest part, I think, was in the thickest part of the snow. There was a small gap where no trees could be reached. My hands were numb and my legs were killing me at this point from digging so deep into the earth. I tried to “hop” in between the gap of trees in order to grab the next tree. Well, I successfully “hopped” in between, but when I went to grab the tree, my hand was too numb to even feel for anything, let alone grip it. I lost my balance and fell hard on my right knee. I was livid. This damn snow. I went to stand up, but I realized, that any significant shift in my center of gravity would have me back on the ice. So, I slid back, using my hands to shuffle me along to the last tree. My “weather resistant” (read: non-waterproof) camera had snow all over it like it was about to be in an Old Navy Christmas Display. I finally reached the previous tree, hands burning, and I just sat there, trying to wash away my frustration.
About five minutes later, I finally got back up and attempted to “hop” again. This time, I wrapped my fleece around my hands for added grip. Successful, I continued my ascent and was graced with a marvelous sign. No, more, snow. I’m not really sure the science behind it. I had always assumed that, the higher the altitude, the stronger the snow, but I wasn’t complaining, neither were my hands.
I finished out the hike energetic but grumpy. Once I got the top, I finally saw another person. A friendly lady that asked me to take her picture. I did of course, and in return she offered me a Japanese snack. I was deeply embarrassed as all I had to offer in return was a rice snack that had, without a doubt, been crushed from all of my falls on the trail. I thanked her and realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I laugh at it now, but all of my irritation, frustration, and pain suddenly made sense. I ate her delicious snack and began my descent. My first thought, “I’m going to have to get to that damn point again, and I’m really going to lose it.” Fortunately, gravity would be on my side this time.
But seriously, where were all those people who parked their cars in the parking lot? I’m still pretty creeped out by that to this day.
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.
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.
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.
As the stairs continued, the temperature seemed to drop. “Maybe those guys knew what they were doing…”
After 726 steps (another wild guess) the fog really started to roll in and the temperature continued to drop.
The forest was gorgeous though. A mixture of The Lord of the Rings and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was enveloping me on both sides.
After another hour I finally got to this temple. It looked interesting enough, especially with the fog rolling through.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.