Mt. Tateyama (立山)

Altitude- 3015m

Location- Toyama Prefecture

One of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains, 日本百名山 Nihon Hyaku-meizan.

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As far as hiking in Japan, easily one of the best

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Snow mid July

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Shrine at the peak

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3015 meters up

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Mt. Kayagatake (茅ケ岳) 

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, there’s 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. Whelp, 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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Mt. Echizengatake (越前岳)

越 -Surpass, Exceed

前 – In Front, Before

岳 – Peak, Mountain

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.

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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.

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This small patch of leafless trees wasn’t the most comforting either

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Trees could save a fall

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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.

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.