Chasing My White Whale in the Mountains of Fukui

After four months of trying to find my way to the top of the mountain, I was sure I’d finally found the trail. A cement torii framed aged cement steps that eased the sharp ascent through sun-spotted bamboo and humidity. A place that looked like the beginning of a level in Uncharted or a new iteration of Tomb Raider couldn’t possibly be anything other than the trailhead I’d looked for in snow, rain, and oppressive heat. And yet, it was just another dead-end.

Sabae Torii Gate

There is one thing I want when I finally make my way home to America: to know Sabae, my temporary home in the heart of Japan’s unfashionable Hokuriku region. Like others of stunted maturity, I want to bounce around the nerd encrusted Akihabara in Tokyo, spending too much money on anime paraphernalia I may hate in five years. I love that I have a story spanning six hours and ¥30,000 that culminates with a catnap in an internet cafe and a final desperate blitz to catch the train back home from Osaka.

But these are stories that can never really be mine, not completely. They share too much with other travelers who hit the places you’re supposed to hit, tasted the ramen you’re supposed to taste, when you find yourself sucking in Nippon’s air. I decided, nearly from the day I moved here, that my stories would be about Sabae, about Fukui, and a part of the country few foreigners — not to mention Japanese — hear anything about.

I love hiking. I love that this tiny blip on the map — known, supposedly, around the world for its glasses — offers rice paddies stretching to the horizon and a chain of local mountains that frame the city. The closest mountains — Hashitateyama, Hironoyama, and Monjuusan — are a quick 7km hike from my apartment. In theory, I can hike up them and get great panoramic views of the city anytime I want. Hell, the local tourism board advertises that as something I need to do as a local.

What a gorgeous day for a hike. #hiking #travel #Japan #mountains #nature

A post shared by Charlie (@charlienoseikatsu) on

Monjuusan, the highest peak among the local cluster of world’s teeth, rises an easy 365 meters. The trails are said to be well kept, and the view from the top at sunset, at least by local reckoning, is thought to rival those from much higher and more prestigious Japanese peaks. Mt. Fuji and the far closer Mt. Hino have nothing on this little mound of dirt and stone that could.

There’s a problem with hiking Monjuusan: finding the trailhead seems to be like finding the legendary Tarahumara of Mexico. It may well be right in front of you, but as far as your mortal senses are concerned, it doesn’t exist. I’ve been trying since February to find the trail. I’ve only stumbled on electric fences and alerts warning me about the local packs of wild boar and ronin bear with a liking for manflesh. You can climb Monjuusan, I’m certain of it; you might have to climb a fence and risk getting fried like Tim from Jurassic Park to do so.

electric fence Sabae Japan

The message here is pretty clear.

Now, you might be asking yourself, why I don’t simply make my own way up, blazing my own trail along the way. Two reasons: first, cutting a virgin trail is completely irresponsible when there is already a system in place. Lots of delicate things — moss, flowers, bugs — frequent the areas we tend not to squish, so I like to avoid stomping out something new. Second, what part of wild boar and bears didn’t come across? You’re a lot more likely to spook things that can perform on-the-spot amputation when you’re traipsing through places they don’t normally expect chunky, stinky white dudes to be.

It would probably be best to just give up. Like a card collector with a need for a full set, though, I find myself endlessly investing — in blood, gallons of sweat, and days — in finding what may well be a huge letdown.

I feel like I’m listening to an orchestra that is forever holding a seventh in the penultimate chord, refusing to resolve. I want resolution, and I want this story — one of the few the non-local is likely to hear about this forgotten chunk of Japan — to have a good ending. I’ll keep chasing my white whale until I’m sitting on its back, with my own selfish labors having broken its will to hide — or, at the very least, until I’m forced to fight a moon bear to the death with a selfie stick and some scrap pieces of paracord.

Want to hear more about hiking in Japan? Be sure to follow Words from the Road and its Instagram account.

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2 Comments

    1. I haven’t, but I think I might give it a go this weekend. The thing is that map points to exactly the spot where everything/everyone else tells me I should find the trailhead. I’ll find it, damn it! Thanks for the map 🙂

      Reply

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