16 September 2010

How We Almost Killed Our Japanese Friend

Most of you know that we've got some elderly Japanese friends who like to show us around Japan. This past Sunday we went with them to Yunouyama Onsen to go hiking. They had wanted to take us out hiking ever since they rescued us back in May and the weather had finally cooperated (read: cooled down) enough that we could go hiking with them. Or so we believed.

We met them at the train station at 7:00 in the morning and caught up on what we'd all been up to since the last time we were together. Yasuo (the one we're closest with) had climbed up a mountain near Fujisan and he showed us some pictures of his adventure; we showed him some from our summer hike from Tateyama to Kamikochi.

The train ride out to the base of the mountain was an hour and a half. On the way I practiced my Japanese and Yasuo practiced his English. My Japanese is a lot better when I practice it in my head - when I actually have to speak Japanese to Japanese people I get nervous and verbally stumble around like an idiot. I'm sure it's very endearing to my Japanese friends but for me it's frustrating.

When we got to the base of the mountain, Yasuo pointed out the hotel where we'd be drinking beer and relaxing in the onsen after our hike. It was a ritzy looking European-style hotel. We were excited to get into the onsen but then Yasuo told us that it wasn't a real onsen - it was just boiled water. This news was a little disappointing but after a long hike even a hot bath feels good.

Early into the hike Yasuo set a pace that was good by our standards - we had expected something a little slower from a man who is in his seventies. But it started to wear on him after about 30 minutes. I think he was worried that we would be frustrated if he slowed down. We assured him we wouldn't but it's difficult to do in a language that neither Aimee nor I have enough skill in to express more than basic feelings. By the time we reached the halfway point he was pretty burned out. Though after some water and a snack you wouldn't know it looking at him.

The above picture was at the halfway point. From right to left: Yasuo, Hayashi-san, and the-guy-with-calves-like-steel-cables.

After snacking at the halfway point, Yauso told us that our group would be splitting into two. He, Hayashi-san and their other friend would form one group and Aimee, me and Steel Cable Calves would form the second group. We would go on ahead since we were younger and the other group would meet us at the top. Please note that we were the younger group in name only - Steel Cable Calves is 60 years old. And he ran us up that mountain like a couple of dogs.

I had been watching Steel Cable Calves for most of the first half of the hike. He was very nonchalant about the hike; he had an air of sprezratura about him that couldn't be ignored. It seemed like he didn't care if he had to walk up the mountain or bound up it as fast as he could. He was more than willing to show us that the latter was as easy as the former.

As soon as I slung my bag onto my back, Steel Cable Calves took off like a shot. His pace was like a speed-walker, but up hill. He didn't scramble up rocks so much as he leaped over them. It was impressive but after a little while it became a little bothersome. Hiking at a fast pace means your eyes are glued to the trail because you don't want to slip up. You can't enjoy any of the scenery and enjoying the scenery is half the reason we go hiking, especially when the view from below the top is a lot better.

To get to the top of Gozaisho (the highest peak in the area, 1212m) you can either hike or take a cable car. If you know me well you can see where I'm going here. Once we got to the top, The Hikers and The Cable Car People mix together and the two just don't fit. I realize I'm generalizing, so please spare me, but I don't like The Cable Car People. It's a 2 hour hike at an easy pace from the bottom of the mountain to the top - there is no reason to build a cable car, a restaurant, a washroom, a petting zoo, a ski hill that maybe has a vertical gain of 100m, and a chair lift for said ski hill. Ridiculous.

The view from the top was beautiful but it was marred by the infrastructure and the crowds of Cable Car People. It was also irritating how impressed The Cable Car People were when we told them that we hiked up instead of taking the cable car. "You hiked up!? Wow, that must have been difficult." No, it wasn't. It's 1212 vertical meters - it's pretty easy. Anyone can do it. Our seventy year old friend is doing it right now. Next time try walking up, and then tell your friends, and then maybe more cable cars and everything associated with them won't be built.

About 20 minutes after we reached the top, Hayashi-san found us and told us that Yasuo was struggling with the heat and the steepness of the paths and that he and the other guy would be a while getting up. He told us to go on to the next peak and then head down and that he, Yasuo and the other guy would take the cable car down and meet us at the onsen. At this I could feel Steel Cable Calves ears perk up. It was as if sitting and waiting was more trying for him than hauling ass up a mountain.

Steel Cable Calves descended the mountain like a mountain goat. He jumped from boulder to boulder and damn near ran on boulder-free parts of the trail. Aimee did a pretty good job keeping pace with him but I had no interest in doing so so I ambled along behind them. I saw some cool spiders and some really nice rapids that Steel Cable Calves and Aimee missed out on.

We got to the onsen about 10 minutes before the group coming down in the cable car so we went in without them. I didn't think I would be able to tell the difference between a real onsen and a man-made one but I could. It was strange. The water had too much of a processed smell to it. But, there was a cold bath and that more than made up for the onsen being fake. After loosening my muscles in the various hot baths the cold bath was very refreshing.

After cleaning ourselves up we enjoyed some beers in the lounge while we waited for the bus. Yasuo kept apologizing for not being able to make it to the top which made us feel worse for having suggested we hike up Gozaisho. We assured him that it didn't bother us at all and that we were very worried about him when Hayashi-san told us he was struggling to make it to the top. When we got home we got an email from Yasuo suggesting that our next outing be somewhere flat and we happily agreed. Maybe one of us will have to race Steel Cable Calves.


  1. Good job, Mike.Anyone use hiking poles?..most do on the AT.

  2. Thanks MaxnCathy. A lot of people do use hiking poles here. I've not tried them before though. Do you find they help?