Backpacking 101: Four Tips for Hitting the Trails with a Friend

This time next week, I’ll be hiking around the base of Mt. Fuji on the Tokai Nature Trail with a friend from London. Starting from Mt. Takao in Hachioji, Tokyo, we’ll be bouncing from temple to temple, mountain to mountain over 200 kilometers, finally finishing in Shizuoka. It will be the longest hike either of us has ever managed.

We’re going to want to kill each other once or twice along the way.

I’ve been on two and three day retreats in a number of beautifully secluded locales in Western New York before, Letchworth and Stony Brook the most memorable among them. By the end of day three, I’m glad for the experience, but I’m slightly irritable with my traveling companion(s) for one reason or another. Here are just a few suggestions for those among you looking to enjoy nature with friends, but who aren’t looking to “accidentally” push anybody into a ravine along the way.

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Midori Matsuri Sabae Fukui

Japanese Hospitality and Summer Hangovers

Summer in Japan: hot, humid days that turn the act of sandwich building into an Olympic event;  cold noodles with equally chilled dipping sauces; and festivals offering grilled food, live music, and a chance to embarrass yourself on a public karaoke stage.

I have no trouble taking part in the latter two summer experiences alone. Heading to my local festival — or matsuri (お祭り) — alone, however, seemed more daunting. There is a sizable population of foreigners in this part of Fukui prefecture, but most tend to come from socially oppressed parts of Southeast or Central Asia. White faces tend to stick out like the proverbially painful non-finger appendage. Woe is the fate of the white man.

Despite my reservations, I went to the festival armed with a budget of 1200 yen (~10 USD) and the certainty that, at best, I’d be stared at uncertainly as I munched my way around the festival. My meager budget proved more than enough for a wonderful experience, and my assumption about my reception, well, that was more than just a little cynical.  Continue reading →

Through the Lens Thursday: What Do You Want to Do Now?

I think I’m giving my new friends a mixed impression. At the bar, at the noodle shop, I’m fine just to sit back and let everybody else talk. I drink in the smell of ancient tatami mats and wood that make my grandpa seem like a newborn. So long as the vittles, beer, and conversation are equally plentiful, I’m good with just relaxing.

Once we get outside, though, I’m the boisterous, blathering fool I always was, and likely always will be. Is that a castle nestled in the clouds over there? We need to climb that. Now that we’re at the top of the castle, let’s go play around in that hilly woodland in the distance. No, why are you hopping in the car? Let’s just walk.

I’m terrible to be friends with.

Mountains around Sabae Japan Monjuusan

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

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Arashiyama monkeys Kyoto

How Being Broke Helps Me See Japan

I remember getting the offer to teach English in Japan. I don’t remember reading anything more than “We’re pleased to offer you…” before writing a hasty reply, telling my new employers that I’d absolutely accept the position. It was the opportunity to check a goal off my list, one I’d ignored to personal and professional ruin before.

I wasn’t completely sold on going. Emotionally and in most other ways that meant anything, I knew I could go. If I didn’t like it, well, you can survive anything for a year. Still, the nagging thought that my ongoing student loan payments and the cost of living here would perpetually land me in the poor house made me doubt my decision. You could chalk it up to pre-move jitters, but the predictions of my low-income bracket quickly came true. It turns out it’s not such a bad thing.

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Yakitori Shops: The Most Dangerous Places in Japan

A doorway filled with the charcoal-infused smoke of roasting animal bits. A six-person strong chorus welcoming you, each cook, server, and dishwasher shouting as loud as their lungs will allow. Cheap beer that only comes in 1.3 pint bottles, all the offal you were always curious about but never had the gumption to try, a crowd of people of varying ages and backgrounds all looking for the same thing; this is the yakitori shop, and it’s the most dangerous place in Japan.

A line of chefs works in unison, with one end seasoning the skewered vittles and the other cooking them over charcoal-fed pyres to crispy perfection.

A line of chefs works in unison, with one end seasoning the skewered vittles and the other cooking them over charcoal-fed pyres to crispy perfection.

The word “yakitori” tells you just about everything you need to know about these extremely common establishments that pock the Japanese landscape from Kyushu to Hokkaido. “Yaki” means grilled, and “tori” means bird or chicken. You no doubt get the picture; yakitori shops are where you can get some really killer bits of chicken, everything from the intestines to the skin, skewered and grilled over charcoal.  Continue reading →

Nature’s Enclave in the Heart of Kariya

Tucking the still hot  U.F.O. instant yakisoba package into the plastic bin in the spartan kitchen attached to my bedroom, I pull open the door, pushing out of my host parents’ house and stepping into a small, verdant area lined with vines I never learned the name of and a yuzu tree, a sort of lime-flavored citrus fruit that masquerades under the yellow cowl of a lemon.

It’s another heavy day, thick with a visible humidity that takes whatever clothes you’re wearing and transforms them into something so tight and uncomfortable that you might as well be wearing a sweaty gimp suit as you walk. The sun climbs in a tortured crawl in the afternoon sky, painting my hosts’ garden of potatoes, peanuts, and green onions — a motley assortment  — in midday’s  fluorescence, reflecting a kaleidoscope of blues, oranges, and greens across the earth.

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