Building a Pilgrimage

Much has happened. 

I’m going to rewind to the spring of this year – which I know is not current, but my experience may still be relevant even in this age of instant updates. I’m going to write about hiking the Kumano Kodo, the ancient Japanese pilgrimage trail. This first entry is about my decision and the initial planning for the trip. I’ll try to keep it from running too dry, since it won’t have photos.

Once I realized that I was going to get a whole week off during the Spring/Summer semester for Golden Week, my whole outlook on life took on a brighter hue. I had yet to receive more than two weekdays off together in the “good” seasons! I had never actually been allowed (for want of a better term) to travel around Japan while I was working in Japan. I think it was the nature of my company to want us to be focused on the teaching, not on the fact that we were in an interesting foreign country.

As I learned the news over tea with David, the whole of Japan stretched out before me, beckoning with rose-colored tourist glasses. I could fly to Naha and finally see the beaches of Okinawa! I could take the overnight ferry to Hakodate, and tool around the plains of Hokkaido! Osaka, Kobe, Nagano, Aomori – all viable options. I had spent two years listening to students give dry presentations on the same major Japanese cities. Now I was finally given space to see them (while employed, which makes a really big difference).

I opened my Lonely Planet Guide and reread all the summary chapters. I narrowed it down to Hokkaido and Wakayama.  I was sorely tempted by the allure of the far northern island and the indigenous culture of the Ainu. I liked the idea of seeing a cold ocean coast. Then there was Wakayama, the “Spiritual Heart” of Japan. The picture captured my heart immediately – two towering ancient cedar trees set like sentinels along a moss-covered stone staircase (the Daimon-zaka). In my heart, I knew that I had to see those trees. They were on the Kumano Kodo – the ancient pilgrimage trail that runs along the mountains of Wakayama. A pilgrimage – a sort of test of faith. I’ve always wanted to walk a pilgrimage route – there is something appealing to me about reflection, faith, and action. I recalled in my very first semester in Japan talking about going on a pilgrimage with Katherine, who had completed the St.James pilgrimage in Spain. She had said she wanted to hike the Kumano Kodo, but that there was no time to do it during the school season. I had assumed that would be it for me as well. I couldn’t afford to stay in Japan outside of contract.

Wanting to be fair, I presented both options to my boyfriend. I even threw in Naha, to make it clear that I would listen to his opinion. He agreed that Hokkaido or Wakayama would be nice, but we had months to decide. This was not true – I had told my MBA students about my plans, and they politely but pointedly told me to book anything set for Golden Week immediately (it was March at this point – Golden Week was in May).

In a bit of a frenzy, I did a cost construct.  Going to Hokkaido proved to be too expensive in terms of transportation. Air, ferry, train – all were going to be several hundred dollars, which isn’t a lot until you make believe you are a poor English teacher with student loans trying to save money. ** Then a few hundred dollars becomes serious. Wakayama was not much better – Golden Week prices made Shinkansen tickets richer than usual. Luckily, we found a nice alternative – the JR Bus lines.  An overnight bus to Osaka would make a viable option.

But what to do in Wakayama? Did you just hike the trail and hope for the best? Knock on ryokan doors as the sun set behind you? Again, I asked my students. No, they said emphatically (I like my spring semester teaching MBA adults – they’re plainspoken) – reserve everything ahead of time! I looked on AirBnB, but the prices were again going up for Golden Week, plus I didn’t like the idea of having to navigate sporadic buses to find out of the way locations.

Then I found Kumano Travel – a community based tour planning group sponsored by the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Board. The website had an old feel to it and was not intuitive (and it might not be the most secure), but it offered customizable tours of varying lengths, and guaranteed room and meals if one paid ahead of time. It was going to cost, of course, but we could choose our level of comfort. I liked that the website was built by and for the community – I wasn’t feeding some cold third party system.  I did feel a little perturbed that they charged per person, effectively doubling the price for everything on top of Golden Week inflation. However, with all costs calculated out I was getting a five day hiking vacation with room and board for about five hundred dollars.

Liam was sold when I told him the tour ended at Nachi falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan. He likes waterfalls. I like old trees. All we had to do, then, was hike from location to location.

This is where I hit my first stumbling block. I’m an active person, but I’m not very fit. My knees sound like they’re filled with secret granola. My feet pronate and act up. I looked at the elevation gains and the length of the hike – roughly 40km through the mountains?! I got nervous as I finalized the initial reservations. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I hurt myself?  Then I remembered why I had really wanted to go on this particular trip, even more than Hokkaido. It was to make it to the cedar trees at the end. I wanted to complete a pilgrimage – my relationship with God was not fit either, yet I was open to discussing it out in the mountains.

I realize that I am simplifying the initial stages of this particular adventure. I’m going to skip the agonizing shopping trip for a raincoat and the unnecessary panic over realizing how little hiking equipment I own. Suffice to say – Liam brought me a nice blue raincoat from the UK, I bought a baseball hat, fanny pack, and a good pair of thick socks from the Montbell store. 

The set up is important, I know, but the adventure is why you’re reading this. Of course, if you have any questions you may ask them. I linked some of the websites I used up in the text.

 

** There is a cheaper option for the ferry – a public sleeping area that runs about $90 a ticket (one way). I will readily admit to vanity here. I’m over thirty and I was *not* going to rough it on a 17 hour ferry trip sleeping in a communal futon room.

 

 

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Off-Nagano: Komoro and Karuizawa

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Up till now I have been all about the trains in Japan, but let me take a moment to point out the economic option of the bus. Boyfriend and I had a weekend getaway planned in Nagano to see the koto (changing of the leaves) and the Shinkansen was set to get me there fast and expensive. That’s when Tori suggested the bus.

I’m a little prejudiced by bus trips in America. I’ve done Megabus (several successful trips, two broken buses), Coach USA (great airport bus before it cancelled service to my area), and plenty of long distance school bus trips. Buses are…fine. They do not have the sleek speed of Japan’s famed high-speed Shinkansen.

Still, the bus fare was much cheaper than taking the high-speed train, and I couldn’t argue with having more money to spend while on vacation, so we headed to Komoro on the JR Bus.

It’s comforting to know that bus culture translates. Unlike the Japanese metro, where the collective social weight of silence sits on everyone’s shoulders, the bus was full of more chatty Japanese people. They were definitely of an older bent (boyfriend and I might have been the youngest people on the bus), and they had their bentos and stories and they kept laughing and being happy for the three hour trip.

Let me move on, however, to the actual getaway.

We stayed at this AirBnb, a cabin at the base of the mountain, pretty removed from the town. It’s dark, quiet, and just about perfect for a couple looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Our hostess was very accommodating and friendly, which helped since we got in so late.

On saturday we climbed Mt. Kurofuyama, a peak adjacent to the sort-of active volcano, Mt. Asama. We took a bus from near our AirBnB property to Takamine Kogen (a large ski resort and onsen at the top of Mt. Takamine), and hiked over and up from there. There are two courses – the Omote and Naka. We started with the Omote, which is slightly longer and curves up the side of the ridge, as opposed to cutting up the mountainside. It was cold, and started to spit snow pellets at us as we climbed. I did not mind it, but I did have to get used to hiking at a sudden high altitude (2000m) – my brain and body felt slightly disconnected as we climbed.

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We were lucky when the sun came out! It went from grey and snowy to brisk and sunny during our climb and hike along the ridge. We even got to see all of Mt. Asama, and the surrounding Nagano prefecture. It’s a beautiful scene, though you can see the effect of the eruption – pyroclast dots the landscape and there is a clear line where the tree-line was flattened. We joined the small group of tourists at the summit and had our beers and homemade trail mix. We walked on ahead down the ridge line, but turned around before we got to Jakotsudake.

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For the return trip, we took the shorter Naka path. This path is a little steeper and cuts through some beautiful forest. The views are not as grand – more peaceful and relaxing. There are also fewer manmade steps, so this path might be more challenging for climbers who rely on Japanese-style wooden stairs for stability.

As we walked back to the bus stop, we opted to go to the Takamine Onsen. It’s a natural sulphuric hot spring, small cafe, and store. The hot spring was very small – one room for men, one for women, each with two small baths (hot and lukewarm). The view was beautiful, though I embarrassed myself because I used a hair dryer to dry myself off (I forgot to ask for a towel). The water was wonderful after several hours of cold weather climbing – it warmed me right to my bones and thawed my sinuses.

IMPORTANT – THERE IS ONLY ONE BUS THAT GOES DOWN FROM TAKAMINE. DO NOT MISS THIS BUS.

That night, we roasted apples and I taught the British Boyfriend how to make s’mores. It was delightful. I love the smell of fire and leaves – it fills me with nostalgia for growing up in the Midwest.

Sunday was real koyo viewing at Komoro and Karuizawa

Komoro was a very easy tour – the castle is just on the left of the train station (on the south, if you’re on a map). It’s an odd assortment – castle grounds, a small zoo, and a children’s amusement park. There is even a museum containing samurai armor, weaponry, and Japanese kimono specimens. Entrance to the grounds is 400 yen, and the museum entrance fee is extra.

The grounds are really pretty, and there are a couple of viewing stations where you can see the surrounding mountain ranges. It’s quite a view, and you can even see Fuji poking up in the distance. I swear, it’s like you can’t escape Fuji on a good day. It makes places touting “a view of Fuji” seem less and less impressive. I’m almost 80 miles from Fuji, and I can still see it! Anyway, the koyo were striking.

Side note: I would maybe skip the zoo. Most of the animals look ok, but they have one or two in cages that look unfortunately small. It might make you uneasy to see. The zoo does cost extra (which explains a lot).

Having seen every colored leaf in Komoro, we hopped on the train for a jaunt to Karuizawa. If Komoro is the Covered Bridge Festival in Indiana, Karuizawa would be the…I’ve never been to Aspen, but I bet it’s like Aspen. Resort town full of big, beautiful houses, lots of expensive customized honey stores, people walking around with beautiful mountain dogs.

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And don’t forget the rickshaw ride! (Note: I don’t do the rickshaw rides)

Boyfriend and I rented tourist bikes (so cheap – 2600 yen for two hours of riding around) and made a circuitous route around Karuizawa’s town center. I was surprised by all the churches and retreats dotted throughout the area – I later learned that the town had a large Christian community in its history. This whole day appealed to my lightweight adventurer side – the part of me that wanted to be active, but not too active. Biking around a sunny autumnal forest, parking to look at lakes and peruse artisan milk and honey shops (but not buying any of it) made me feel very catalog.

We went back to Komoro to catch the JR bus back to Tokyo. As I ate my supermarket sushi and tried to think past the cold growing in my throat, I closed my eyes and reflected on a well-done getaway. It’s difficult when work doesn’t give you more than a weekend to enjoy yourself. If you plan ahead and aren’t worried about using late night buses (or high speed trains if you’re feeling fancy), you can escape the city and get away to the mountains.

And make sure you know when your last train leaves for home from Shinjuku Station! Don’t want to spend the night in the station or a capsule hotel.

 

 

Fuji-Q Highlands : Investigating Terror

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I had heard of Fuji-Q Highlands in my first visit to Japan. The advertisement did not make me feel confident in the amusement park on the whole – it featured an old animation “loose mouth” character screaming in Japanese to come to Fuji-Q. I passed, and continued to pass until recently, when a group of teachers put together a trip to Fuji-Q to partake of the “scariest” haunted house in all of Japan, if not the world (as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records).

I am not into haunted houses, horror, or being scared. For me, there is no joy in jumping out of my skin, even if I survive the process. If I want to get my adrenaline going, I’ll join in a game of tag or try to teach a lesson without a plan. I was not that keen on going, until Kirsten brought to my attention the presence of “ride” called Ultimate Fortress 2.

An escape-room style fortress building with motion detectors and robots. A 99% failure rate. Tactical style laser-tag like gameplay. Spy craft, sneaking, and sensors? I was in.

We took a bus (far cheaper than the trains – more on that in the logistics below) – just over an hour and a half from Shinjuku station. We left relatively early in the morning, in one of the first sunny days in what felt like weeks. I slept on the way, and awoke to find a stunning view of what was to come:

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Fuji-Q is not just an amusement park – there is a large resort there as well, which is fitting given the view. If you are wanting a weekend away, in the off season the rates did not seem unreasonable. I hadn’t seen Mt. Fuji up close in a long time, and he did not disappoint. Throughout the day he would watch over our antics, screams, and age regression. This started with the Haunted House.

The sheer amount of buildup into getting into the house was unnerving, with signs everywhere promising multiple “escape” points for when the terror got too strong. This buildup was enough to get two of our intrepid party to back out and refuse to enter, despite our gentle “You do you and we respect your decision,  but also come on and be scared with us!”  My nerves were on edge before we even entered the first room and watched the “backstory” of how the hospital we were about to enter into turned into a bone-gnawing, demonically possessed horror house.

I surprised my group by taking point and the flashlight. They knew I did not like horror or terror. My reasoning is that if I have to be concerned about keeping the group together, I won’t focus so much on my own fear. It’s a good distraction for me. So we went through four or five stories of twisted hallways, jump scares, superb foley work and some very well timed effects.

I won’t tell you what we saw. That would ruin the haunted house, and mystery is what makes a haunted house special. Was it the scariest thing I had ever been through? No, but that’s because I was with a group of friends. We kept each other in check, even when we got startled and Shawnali shoved me forward like a she was unleashing a greyhound.

Note: The Haunted House is not included in the day pass ticket. You have to buy a separate ticket, which costs 1000 yen.

Then it was on to Ultimate Fortress 2!

I did not win.

I did not get killed by the robot. I clearly didn’t get the area effect of the laser lights. And I’m not entirely convinced that the second “level” is not intentionally meant to capture everyone. We all had such a good time, and agreed that we could easily repeat the ride, if not for the fact that there were many other rides available.

Fujiyama: The King of Coasters, for example.

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What makes Fujiyama king? It’s the highest roller coaster in the world – the initial fall starts at 79m (237ft). You hit a maximum speed of 130 km/h (about 80mph) and it is a long course. I haven’t been on a real roller coaster in some time, and starting with a coaster that never seems to stop climbing did a number on my system. I’m not quite a brave person – I focused on my hands, and the people in front of me. Occasionally I looked out at Fuji in the distance, eternal and probably laughing at my growing nerves. Once the coaster fell, however, you better believe I had my hands up in the air, and I was joyfully screaming the whole four-minute ride.

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Regaining my voice with some hot lemon tea from a vending machine, we got in line for our second coaster, Takabisha. It looked smaller than Fujiyama (naturally), but it had one thing that I did not like at all – a seeming free fall from a sheer drop. The cars would hang, slightly suspended, over an s-curve before plunging down. In line, I learned that Takabisha is the world’s *steepest* roller coaster, with a drop of 121 degrees (this is also on the website, which I did not read). Note: THEY WILL EMPTY YOUR POCKETS. I had a clipped on ticket – CLIPPED ONTO MY BELT LOOP WITH METAL. They still made me take it off and store it. THESE GUYS DO NOT FOOL AROUND ON THIS!

Once the rides begin, I love them. I hate the build up, the anticipation of climbing. So I was fine with the drop itself, and loved the ride. My anticipation/dread got really bad on the vertical climb up to the drop. I just hated going up on my back, hearing the tick-tick-tick of the chain. It doesn’t help that the drop is in the middle of the ride, rather than at the beginning. Tori, sitting next to me, kept trying to help by gleefully yelling for me to “Look at Fuji! Look at Fuji!” When we got off, I had the literal shakes.

We went on several other rides, but the final ride I’m going to talk about here is Tentekomai, a flying ride. You get into a plane with flexible wings, and as you’re raised to an impressive height and spun around, you flap the wings to make yourself spin. It was fun and terrifying, especially when done correctly. Once you get the g-forces correct, you start spinning without having to do any flapping, and you gain speed. As a short person, I found I did not like spinning as much as I thought, as every time I inverted I left my seat a little and found myself hanging momentarily upside down in the air. Kirsten said she thought she could hear me from the ground.

Did I mention the carousel? They have a nice carousel too – much easier to handle.

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So soothing…

So, day done, we headed back to our bus. All in all, I had an amazing time. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a big amusement park, and going to one with some many “World’s ****est” rides did not disappoint. If you’re looking for a day trip out of Tokyo, might I suggest going to Fuji-Q Highland? I know I’d like to go back – I didn’t get to ride on Eejenaika, the roller coaster with the most number of spins in the world….

Details

Fuji Q’s English Website – use this to get all sorts of useful information, including closed days and ticket discounts.

Cost: Varies. You can pay by ride (roller coasters are 1000 yen a ride, most other rides are 800 yen, and the kiddie rides are around 500 yen), you can buy a three ride ticket, or an all day pass (5100 yen). I did the all day pass, and I made sure to get my money’s worth. I can see why people buy the 3-ride pass. If all you want is to ride the three big coasters, you’re going to be waiting in line for a long time, and you might only get those three rides. If you want to go to Thomas the Tank Engine land and ride the carousel, the per ride option makes more sense.

Also worth noting is that Fuji-Q closes relatively early for a theme park – around 6pm. With wait times of up to two hours, a day can go by quickly.

There are pay lockers available to store your things during the day. I stored my purse and kept my scannable pass and some money in my metro card holder. A lot of the rides have free lockers to store loose change, keys, and anything that might come out of your pockets.

Transportation: In our case, we took the Keio Highway Bus, but there is also the Fuji-Q Highlands bus. The cost, roundtrip, was 3500 yen. There are train options as well. Look for Fuji-Q Highland Station.

Timing: We went on a Friday holiday, and the lines were not awful. They were there, and the line for the popular coasters was well over an hour. I imagine that in the popular seasons or on weekends the lines are crazy, so if you can swing a weekday trip, that will make things much more bearable.

 

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Nikko II: Ghosts, Gods, and Good Food

So I arrived at Takino’o Shrine, not as far as I expected from the main shrines of Toshogu and Futarasan. It’s a smaller shrine, more encased in moss than its counterparts. I loved it, and its relative solitude. In the half an hour I sat under the trees, I don’t think ten people walked by.

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I sat and thought about faith, and where we find solace. I think that there is something to Shintoism, though I am not a practitioner. There is a great American literary tradition of “taking to the woods” to find oneself, or to find peace. I think that, while the worshiping of certain stones and trees might fall outside my spiritual practices, I do find peace in the woods. It’s nice to feel small sometimes, to feel dwarfed. I felt something akin to what I felt when I climbed Emei Mountain, the sheer size of the world compared to myself. Going to the Grand Canyon does the same thing – it’s a comfort, in a way, to see how big everything else is. In Nikko, it’s not the size, but the age of the trees. Like staying with the nuns in Iowa, or being in the Sequoias in California. They’ve been around far longer that I have been or probably will be. And isn’t that nice? I don’t have to worry about them; they’ll be there. Assuming we don’t chop them down/burn them down/otherwise behave in a way that is unbecoming and yet distinctly human.

When I think about faith, especially “foreign” faiths,  I also think about that scene in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where Mr. Wednesday calls out the hippie for not actually worshipping Mother Earth, for essentially giving lip service to her religion. I am aware that it is one thing to be an actual worshipper, and another to feel a resonance or kinship with the idea of a faith. I don’t want to be that hippie, casually throwing around transcendence terminology without actually doing any of the work that faith asks of the faithful.  Then again, I also don’t want to blaspheme the Catholic faith with which I have had a tumultuous relationship. So, what is one to do, when one idea carries great resonance, and the other carries all the traditions, ceremonies, and obligations?

I rested my hand and forehead against one old tree that I thought had a great deal of character, halfway asking for advice. I felt a little cliché doing so, but because I need to stop self-censoring I decided to go with my instinct. Turns out the tree was less than impressed with the speed of my life. I felt distinctly like it was chuckling at me, this quick little thing that never seemed to hold still.

 

Turns out I’m not as weird as all that. When I started walking back I approached a gaggle of very giggly Japanese women walking up towards the shrine. They were still some distance off when four of them stopped, walked up to an old tree, and rested their foreheads and hands against it. They fell into a reverent silence, and stayed like that for a full minute. Then they all carried on walking and laughing. It’s nice to feel that you’re not alone in seeking wisdom from your elders.

I had mixed feelings as I walked back, partly because I didn’t want to, and also because it turns out that there was a flat path back, parallel to the service road. I had climbed the steep stairs unnecessarily. So, let it be known, tourists, that if you want a longer, but easier route to Takino’o Shrine, turn right from Toshogu and walk up from the parking lot. The path consists of large, uneven stones, so it has its own difficulties, but it’s not a climb up and down (for that, see my previous post and take the path along Futarasan).

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See how lovely and flat it is? DO YOU SEE?! Whatevs – climbing is good for the calves.

Before I left, something glittery caught my eye along the path. Upon inspection, I found the most beautiful beetle I have ever seen. While I like beetles in general, this one was different. It sparkled, iridescent thorax twinkling on the fence, and two blue-green antennae tested the air around it. It moved with great deliberation. I am convinced that this was a Kami – a Shinto spirit. This was the incarnation of the spirit of all beetles. It was a giddy moment for me – I haven’t had a moment of spiritual grace in years. I did not bother him as he walked, but I did try to get a picture.

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When I arrived in Nikko, it was raining and misty. I walked to the Narabi Jizo then, in the late afternoon rain, and saw the Kanman-ga-fuchi Abyss. In all the damp, my phone shorted out, though I did get a couple of good photos. The Abyss is not quite appropriate – the waterfall does not go down into nothingness. It is a steep drop, however, full of beautiful sound and aquatic fury. The Narabi Jizo line one side of the abyss like thoughtful sentries.

The Narabi Jizo are nicknamed the “Bake Jizo,” (pronounced Ba-keh) because if you count them front to back and back to front, you will wind up with a different number (“ghost Jizo”). I did not count. I trust that the number is not the same, and that there is a ghost guardian wandering the Kaman-ga-fuchi Abyss. It’s better to leave it unknown.

The Abyss and the river walk are down a ways from Toshogu, on the opposite side of the river, tucked back along the south mountain ridge. I highly recommend seeing them, both for the beauty and regal-ness of the statues, as well as the glorious sounds of the rapids.

As I did not want to trek back up the mountain to my cabin in the dark again, I started walking back. I stopped at the Zen café, a tiny eatery on the Nikko main road. It only has four tables, two menu options, and an industrial chic vibe that does not match the rest of the town. Their specialty is “Yuba rolls,” which upon researching I learned is bean curd sheets (and actually are Chinese in origin). I had their “set meal,” which was a series of small plates and one yuba roll. Though not a bacon cheeseburger, I did wind up satisfied. I recommend it!

And then (le sigh) I hiked home. I couldn’t tell which was more difficult, going it in the dark and the rain, or seeing the incline. Seeing it was definitely more irritating. Looking up every so often and seeing how far I needed to go made me wonder how I had done the climb with a suitcase. Perhaps it was for the best that the light faded quickly, and I had to turn on my solar light. I used music to get me up the last third of the climb.

Here I am again, cozy in my heated kitchen. Tomorrow I return to Tokyo, to work, and to the grind of teaching. I think, tired though I am, I am incredibly happy to have been in Nikko for this weekend. Do I regret not going out with my friends? Certainly. But I know that my soul needed trees and fresh air, which I found in abundance here. I’m a country girl at heart, and a little solitude is healthy.

Still, next time I will bring people with me. Maybe I won’t mention the climb…

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Nikko? Oh, it’s all flat valley land and sacred bridges. Certainly no unnecessary hiking…

 

Nikko: Uphill Preface

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This photo is from my second day in Nikko, when it was still light. I’m uploading from my first night as opposed to my first day, because this story overshadowed my afternoon. And because it was so dark, I have no photos to accompany it, save for this one I took later in my journey.

2km according to Airbnb. 3k according to the message I received from my host and a second Google map search.

What my host failed to mention in any of our correspondence is that however many kilometers it is from the Tobu Nikko train station to his rental, 95% of the journey was uphill. Nikko is a mountain town, but I passed my afternoon on a relatively gentle slope, and the town itself seemed more in the basin than on the inclines.

Not so my accommodation, I realized. I passed the rental one of my fellow teachers recommended (sold out), and kept climbing. I passed the rental that I had cancelled (too many negative reviews), and kept climbing. I ran out of sidewalk, and light. I passed inn after inn, pausing for a moment at each opportunity to stand in a light source and check my photo map. And I kept climbing. I had not stretched or prepped in any way for such exercise. My legs eventually stopped feeling the good kind of tired. I could feel it in my quads – 2 miles uphill was a lot to ask after a day of hiking. They are going to hurt tomorrow.

In the darkness, I could still see the occasional silhouettes of the tall trees around me. It made for a moody walk, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the poisonous spiders, leeches, and other dangerous things that I had recently read live in Japan. I tried not to get too close to the trees and bushes, while also not wandering into the road. And then there was the rain, which I had not minded until I was going solidly uphill in the dark with my poncho draped over my bags to keep them dry. By the by – my poncho is my hero, but also the dumbest inanimate thing. It kept sliding to one side, or getting caught under the front wheel without actually draping over the bag itself. Ugh.

Anger kept me going after the halfway point. I was pissed off that there had been no mention of climbing a mountain in the description of the property, nor in the reviews. A pleasant place, the reviews had said. Beautiful location, the reviews had said. I drafted my own Airbnb review, scathing and full of really beautiful but negative vocabulary. I started wishing horrible things upon the owner for his omissions. Eventually, I lost the anger, and I could feel real fatigue eating at my edges. The closer I got to where I thought I was going, the more I felt like I was going to turn into a blubbering mess from sheer exhaustion. Why had I been so stupid as to hike all day and then go to my lodgings? Why had I not planned better for this?

I passed the house altogether at first because the rain hid the faint Christmas lights. I mistook my rental house for another. Luckily, the second house had a loud, sturdy akita who let me know that I was mistaken. As I tried to leave the stairs, an old man came out to the balcony and asked me something in Japanese – my Japanese is still so weak that I mostly guessed at what he could be asking. I must have cut a pretty pathetic figure – my rain poncho was ineffectively tied around my bags, I was wet, my legs were a little trembly, and I spoke atrocious Japanese.

“Pension?” he asks.
“Airbnb,” I reply, but I recognize the word. For some reason it’s on almost all the hotels I’ve seen thus far. They really like using French here apparently. He disappears and his wife (I assume) comes out. She looks at my phone, and the pair start arguing about the address. In desperation, I turn on my phone’s cellular service. I will pay the (probable) $20 in extra fees for one minute of functioning google translate and a working map.

“Is that address near here?” I put into the phone.
“Ok,” the woman says after reading the translation, and takes off walking in the rain. She is still in her house slippers, and the old man follows. I try to stop them, but I don’t have the words, and when I show the man my google translate for “You don’t have to walk with me, sir. Just point.” He nods and keeps walking.

So there we are, one wet, confused American in a red knit hat, and an old Japanese couple dressed like my great uncle Tom and aunt Dorothy (bless them), each under an umbrella. They get me to the gate of my rental around the block, and I bow as low as I possibly can. I can’t tell, but I bet they were relieved I knew the place. We all reached near epic levels of confusion.

They’re going to be even more confused tomorrow when there’s a bouquet of flowers waiting for them. I passed a florist earlier today, and I’ve been wanting to get flowers for someone lately.

Soaking in the tub, drinking very hot ginger tea, I can feel all my swear words dissipate. I was about ready to quit the whole trip, suck up the financial loss and pay to stay at one of the faux “Euro-style” inns I passed somewhere on the unending incline. The sort that charges hundreds of dollars a night. And I know I’ll be peeved in the morning, as there are no combini around here, and I don’t have wifi so I can’t just go online and do some research. But right now, in my comfortable and warming up rental, I’m simply happy to not be climbing anymore. Tomorrow, I know I’ll get a taxi up here, and walking downhill is going to be so much easier.

Good thing too, as I’m planning to hike up the neighboring mountain…

MVPs of the day:

My red knit hat: I bought it 50% off at a 300 yen shop this morning because it was unexpectedly nippy. It kept my head nice and warm, and though I was only dry because of the umbrella, the hat made me feel quite comfortable.
My flashlight: An LED light from my True Dungeon volunteering, this little guy was a light for me when all other lights went out (yeah, it’s my Elendril light)
My legs. God bless my legs, and forgive me for not stretching them. May they not tense up too much overnight. They did such a good job getting 3k up an unplanned mountain.