Hiking in Japan, or Why Beer Tastes Best at the Top of a Mountain


Hiking in Japan is strange. But then pretty much everything else is too, so that makes it normal, I guess. Anyway, I enjoy it because I like nature, plus it gives me something to do while I’m waiting for the izakayas to open. Daytime, there sure is a lot of it. Might as well go walk through a forest and look at a bird or something just to kill some time, is what I figure.

An exclusive to Tokyo Weekender by Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7

And so on a recent weekend, The Tanuki and I crammed into his tiny car and started driving. We had the brilliant idea to climb Mount Daisen, and when I say “we,” I mean The Tanuki. He’s a great friend, because he doesn’t speak English, and because he has a car. Knowing someone with a car in Japan is awesome, since you can take road trips. I think that’s what they mean by “friends with benefits.” Anyway, The Tanuki’s always saying intelligent things like “Let’s drive across the country and then climb up some mountain or other.” And because I only understand about half of everything that comes out of his mouth, I just nod and smile. I was trying to explain this to Kumiko, and I could tell she was mad.

“So why aren’t you spending the weekend with me?” she demanded.
“Because The Tanuki insisted I join him,” I pleaded.
“You didn’t even ask if I wanted to go,” she said with a huff.
“You told me you hate hiking. Think about the bugs. They’re out there, waiting.”
“Fine. I’ll just go to dinner with my ‘friend.’” She says things like that sometimes.
“Does he have a car?” I asked.
“We can take the train,” she said.

So that was good, since at least he wasn’t a Friend with Benefits. But still, the human mind is a peculiar thing, you know. I concluded this after sitting in traffic with The Tanuki for ten hours. That’s because if you’re breezing down an open road, life is awesome. But sitting there bumper to bumper not moving, all you’ll think about is Kumiko and Please just drive off the next bridge and kill me now. Which is weird, right? Because either way you’re still sitting in a car for the same amount of time. But if you’re moving, somehow it’s okay. I don’t know why.

Psychology, so mysterious.

Finally, we got to the mountain, by which I mean the hotel at the bottom, and checked in then took a manly Japanese bath together in this giant tub with a bunch of other dudes, then drank a couple of tall beers and went off to have a massive sushi dinner. Whew, all that hiking sure was wearing me out.

The next morning we got up at 6 am and drove to the trailhead. Why does hiking have to start so darned early? It’s not like the mountain’s going anywhere. But there were already a dozen other groups assembling. “Expedition parties” is more like it, sorting through piles of gear, including crampons, ice axes, Gore-Tex suits, and backpacks big enough to lug a couple of spare sherpas. Everyone had at least three thousand bucks worth of name-brand equipment, all color-coordinated in yellows, reds, and greens. It was like a gay parade for Everest.

Everyone had at least three thousand bucks worth of name-brand equipment, all color-coordinated in yellows, reds, and greens. It was like a gay parade for Everest.

Now, at this point I should mention that I’d thought to ask exactly nothing about the mountain other than its name, which means simply “Big Mountain.” Well yeah, just look at it: I figured out that it was a big mountain. Thanks Japan. And because it was nice summer day, I’d only worn shorts, some old running shoes, and a jacket that’d been waterproof a decade ago. I did have a pair of sweat pants in my knapsack, along with some rice balls, grilled fish, and a bunch of extra-large trash bags. I figured if things got really gnarly I’d just wrap myself up in those. I mean the trash bags, not the fish. But you never know, I guess. I mean, wilderness and all.

We started up the mountain, which is really a volcano, like a scale-model Mount Fuji, and it began raining. So everyone pulled up the hoods of their Gore-Tex jackets and wrapped their packs in a rainbow of form-fitting waterproof covers. I put on one of my trash bags and took a tiny folding umbrella out of the knapsack, which worked surprisingly well. That’s when I found out how hard hiking in Japan really is.

It’s hard because there’s about a thousand Japanese people with all this expensive gear lugging giant packs up a narrow trail, going slow as hell. I told The Tanuki I’d see him later, and spent the next couple of hours weaving in and out of lines of folks who stopped constantly to adjust their hiking poles, the myriad of straps on their backpacks, and their colorful bootlaces. Eventually, I reached the snowline. Snow in summertime? Apparently, weather changes with altitude. Who knew? So I sat there for an hour wondering how I’d get up this snowfield and studying Japanese flashcards until The Tanuki finally showed up.

He put on his crampons and I found a couple of sharp sticks to use as ski poles and we set off. Here’s another thing you need to know about hiking in Japan: it’s steep. Really steep. That’s because when a Japanese person thinks, “Let’s go to the top of Big Mountain,” he doesn’t ask “Now where’s the best route to put in some switchbacks?” No way, that’s foreign thinking. A Japanese man just draws a straight line from base to peak and ganbattes his way to the top.

So we climbed and scrambled and it got steeper and rockier and colder until it was a full-on blizzard at the top. The tiny umbrella was useless. I tied a towel around my head and pulled socks over my hands. The Tanuki took off his massive pack, unlashed an array of straps, and pulled out a green Gore-Tex parka, which he put on over his red Gore-Tex parka.
“You fool,” I said, “now your jacket and pants don’t match.”
So we spent another ten minutes in the raging blizzard fixing his outfit, after which I put on my sweatpants and another trash bag.

Which way to the vending machine? (Photo: Matthieu Lienart/Flickr)

Which way to the vending machine? (Photo: Matthieu Lienart/Flickr)

I’m not gonna lie, it was actually cold. We could only see about ten feet ahead and I was a little worried about blowing off the icy ridgeline and into the next prefecture, but we pushed on to the summit. There was a plaque and we took a few pictures. It’s not easy to use an iPhone with socks on your hands, as I found out. I now know how Ernest Shackleton must’ve felt.

Then we walked a few feet and into a nice warm cabin. Japan, even at its most remote, is infinitely civilized. More than once I’ve hiked through a forest only to find a lovely clearing with a vending machine in the middle. That’s very convenient. Carry some cash should be the first rule of hiking in Japan. So on top of this massive volcano, they’d put a cozy little house. Inside, a score of Japanese hikers were cooking up savory freeze-dried meals and hot coffee on shiny propane stoves. In one corner, there was a small room serving as a makeshift convenience store, complete with energy drinks, snack bars, and instant noodles. The Tanuki opened his pack and unloaded the entire contents, which turned out to be four tall beers. “That’s what you carried?” I asked. He looked rather sad. “I knew I should’ve brought six,” he said. Good thing I’d packed the fish, rice balls, and some peanut snacks, otherwise we’d have had no decent appetizers at all. Clearly the man knows nothing of high-altitude mountaineering.

After we polished off our lunch, we were nicely, let’s say, refreshed, so we headed back into the hurricane to slip and stumble our way back to the bottom of the snowfield, where it was once again warm. A few hours later, we were back in the tub and then on to an izakaya, powering down ice-cold sake and a small mountain of sea bream sashimi along with these fabulous pickled wasabi leaves. All that adventuring sure builds up a powerful appetite, let me tell you.

The next day we heard on the radio that four men in their thirties had to be rescued by helicopter off the mountain, unable to descend through the blizzard. Which reminded me of all the other mountain rescues I’ve seen here. You know, disasters and rescues – the massive piles of equipment, practicing with dummies on stretchers, the orange jumpsuits and hard hats – Japanese people love that stuff. But it’s true, the mountains here are quite rugged, so I guess it pays to be safe. No need to go all Donner Party and start chewing off someone’s leg. Just bring plenty of oversized trash bags and emergency rations. Or at least some change for the vending machine. It’s a wilderness out there.