Aimee and I went on our first hiking excursion on the 11th of April. Aimee had been out to Seto earlier in the week to teach and she said that there were mountains there that we could hike up. I had been to a similar area during the week (Tajimi) but we decided to go to Seto instead. My ride out to Tajimi had been nice – I passed through vast rice fields and went through some small mountains. Since Aimee said she found mountains I assumed that our rides would be similar. I was mistaken. The entire ride went through the city and upon disembarking at Seto, I estimated that it would take us about 6 hours to get to the top of the nearest mountain, meaning a 10 hour round trip. This would not usually be a problem except that we arrived in Seto at 11:45 and the trains don't run late on Sundays. Aimee disagreed with my estimation, so off we set.
We walked for about an hour up a road which proved to be a nice walk. We got off the busy main street and saw lots of quaint Japanese houses and more than a few people enjoying the nice weather by gardening. After topping the hill we had been walking up we found a trail head and decided to take it. The sign post said it was 5.4 kilometers – what was 5.4 kilometers we weren't sure. My kanji reading was not up to the task of translating the sign. At best we figured we'd end up somewhere interesting; at worst we figured we'd do a loop and end up where we started. Turns out we did neither.
Half an hour of walking brought us to the summit of a small mountain – maybe 250 meters. We took a break and drank some water because it was extremely humid. In retrospect it probably wasn't “extremely” humid and we're just not used to it yet. It only gets worse so we've been told. We saw another sign post indicating we were 3.0 kilometers from our destination so we pressed on. About 30 minutes later we had reached the bottom of the other side of the mountain and found ourselves at a crossroads. We could take a road and continue down the mountain or we could take the road up. Or, we could take another trail which lead to... we didn't know. When we got off the train in Seto we saw a sign that said Tajimi was 17 kilometers from the station and we knew we were walking in the approximate direction of Tajimi, so we decided to take the new trail, figuring we'd hit Tajimi at some point. Not 5 minutes up the trail we met 4 Japanese hikers who would prove to be our rescuers.
They were taking a break at the top of a hill we were coming up. After exchanging a friendly “konichiwa” (good afternoon) they quickly offered us beer and snacks (Kirin and peanuts with puffed rice things). The offer of beer and food came within a minute of introducing ourselves – easily the fastest I've been offered beer in my life. After hiking for two hours the beer was very welcome.
Even before we told them we were ECC teachers from Canada they had seemed to take an instant liking to us. They kept trying to fill us up on snacks because we were offered more as soon as we were done each handful. I'm sure they would have filled us with the sake they had had we not nursed the beers they gave us (the cold can felt good in my hand so I took my time). We told them we had been hiking from Owari Seto (the train station we got off at) and didn't really have an idea of where we were going. I asked how far it was from where we were to Tajimi and the oldest man told me “dame desu!” while making an X with his arms (pronounced “da-may dess,” it means “no good”). He told me it was 20 kilometers to the nearest train station in Tajimi. Already 2 o'clock we would have been hard pressed to cover 20 kilometers of unfamiliar ground to catch a train. Perhaps realizing that we did not want to turn around and walk all the way back to Owari Seto, Yamazaki-san (the man we spoke with the most based on his English ability) invited us to join them. He told us they were walking an hour and a half to another peak and then on to a closer train station. We happily accepted the invitation.
We continued to make small talk while we drank our beers. Yamazaki-san used to work at Hitachi selling electronics and was now retired. The four of them meet once a month to go hiking somewhere in the Chubu area (the area we live in). Fuse-san (pronounced “fu-say”), the eldest of the group, asked me how old I was. I told him I was 27 and Aimee was 25. He smiled and looked at Yamazaki-san, who told us that Fuse-san was 71 years old. 71 years old! The mountain the 4 of them had just ascended and descended was more than 600 meters high. Yamazaki-san then told us that he was 70, the elderly woman was 68 (Atsuko) and the other man (Hayashi) was also 70. They called themselves “Silver Hikers,” though you would not know it looking at them. Aimee told Yamazaki-san that she had guessed they were in their 50s – 55 at the oldest. He found this amusing.
For the remainder of the hike down to the train station we spoke at length with Yamazaki-san about all kinds of things. He told us about his children and grandchildren; his favourite hikes in the area; where he and his group had travelled and were planning on travelling; some of his business trips (he did a whirlwind trip of North America 30 years ago: 1 day in Montreal, 1 day in New York and, I think, 2 days in Washington before returning home); and he told us Japanese names for some of the flowers and trees we passed by. We also spoke a little with Fuse-san, who, when he was 64, had run a 42.195 kilometer marathon in Honolulu. Hayashi-san drove the support car for him, though I would not have been surprised if he was capable of running a marathon, too. Fuse-san was also a “patrol man” in the area were were hiking, as he lives in the area and walks the trails every day. Hayashi-san had hiked Kamikochi and he told us a couple places to check out when we go there – specifically which onsen (hot spring) to go to.
As we neared the bottom of the road, Yamazaki-san told us we would be stopping in a traditional Japanese house for a rest. Aimee and I were excited by this as we had yet to see a traditional Japanese residence. The town it was in probably appealed to us more than the building itself. The town was a tiny rice farming village which probably had no more than 50 people in it. I counted probably a dozen buildings. I was surprised that places like that existed so close to Nagoya (the 4th largest city in Japan).
On the train Yamazaki-san pointed out landmarks in the area – the Toyoto Automobile Museum and the 2005 Aichi Expo were the highlights. Before the stop where he and the lady were getting off, Yamazaki-san gave us his email address and told us to email him the next time we were going hiking. We told him we definitely would since we had had such a great time. He also told us to come and visit him sometime to meet his wife. She wasn't with him because she doesn't enjoy hiking. She does love to cook and make clothing though. We thanked him again and told him that today had been our best day in Japan so far. I think he was pleased.
We weren't being polite when we said that today had been our best day in Japan. We were having fun hiking before we ran into the Silver Hikers but running into them made our day much better. We felt that we got to see the real Japan – the Japan behind the commercial behemoth. There were no tall buildings or giant advertising billboards; no cars or buses or trains; and not a lot of people. These four people were also the first people with whom we had had a lengthy conversation and with whom we had spent a significant amount of time. It was great getting a chance to have a real conversation with some Japanese people instead of just talking about work or students in classes we teach.
We also weren't just being polite when we told Yamazaki-san we would email him the next time we go hiking. Talking about it later, Aimee and I agreed that it would be a real pleasure to spend time hiking with the four of them once a month when they go out. We would also really like to meet Yamazaki-san's wife. I got the feeling from the way he was telling us to visit that he would like to show off the Canadians he rescued.