Coffebreak in Tokyo

So here I am, standing in a hidden Japanese bookmarket drinking coffe. I’m not going to buy any of the books, I’ve yet to master the art of reading Japanese. Yet I’m smiling inside, this might be the first time I’m really enjoying a big city.

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time in Tokyo. Being one of the largest cities in the world, Tokyo can offer pretty much anything you can imagine, except big and wild nature. For me, who likes hiking up mountains, any larger city is usually a big disappointment. There’s an overload of costly activities, none of which I actually want to do.

At Sols coffe stand in Kuramae, I end up getting a regular customer card, even though I’m only in the country for a month. The guy who is working there ends up telling me about a bookmarket where he also has a coffe stand. This is how I end up at Bettara Stand, a bookmarket held once every month in Nihonbashi.

Last time in Wellington, I was introduced to coffe culture by a friend. As it turns out, another friend who’s lived in Tokyo for almost two years now, has also gotten into coffe after working at a cafe.

Through him I’ve now been introduced to a Japanese subculture of coffe enthusiasts. It turns out there’s quite a lot of smaller coffe stands and cafés, not just selling a cup of coffe, but also trading coffe beans from all over the world.

Sols stand is just one of these places, usually found in backalleys and smaller streets. It’s a cool hipster culture, except the fact that there are no such thing as Japanese hipsters.

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トトロぽい (Mt. Mitake)

Japanese forests are dark. If you’ve seen any of the Studio Gibli movies you probably have quite a good idea of what Japanese nature looks like. Especially nature featuring movies like Princess Mononoke and Totoro has a special feel to them. (If you haven’t seen any of these movies, I recommend you stop reading and watch one right now, it’s going to be time we’ll spent.)

When Miyazaki made these movies he used different places for inspiration, sometimes cities or buildings in the movie are modeled after actual existing ones. One such example is in Mayou no Takyubin, where the main city for the story is modeled from my hometown, Visby.

That the nature in Gibli movies tend to be Japanese becomes obvious when you go for a hike in the Japanese mountains. More so when my friend Haruka grabs a big leaf and poses beside a lightpole saying トトロぽい, translating to “It’s like Totoro.”

[Insert imaginary picture here]

Indeed, Mt. Mitake might be one of the most Totoro-like hikes I’ve done. Extra reinforced when my two hiking friends Haruka and Sakura starts humming to the music from the movie.

A cablecar takes us up the first part. Then it’s walking all the way to the shrine at the top. A sudden rain shower convinced it’s it’s time for snacks. To our surprise it’s not only rain falling from the sky. Extreme weather seems to become more and more usual as it suddenly switches from rain to hail.

When we after a day of exploring the mountain go onto the last cablecar down a gruesome discovery awaits us. There are no more buses for the day.

At this point it starts raining again. It’s a wet but still fun experience walking back to the station. Singing in the rain.

The train back to Tokyo includes the now obligatory “after hike trainnap”.

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しまなみ海道 Cycling in Japan

The wind lightly plays with my hair. The smell of ocean is in the air. Even though we Japan recently entered the rainy season it’s sunny today. It’s just a perfect day for some cycling. Except for when I try and sit down on the bike saddle. Then it feels like someone is stabbing me with multiple knives in my butt.

I’m cycling I between Shikoku and Honshu, two of the Japanese main islands. One of the roads leading to Shikoku passes over several smaller islands and bridges, and most importantly, does have a cycle road. The ramps leading up to the bridges has a low inclination, so you can see a lot of cycle tourists as well as professional cycles here.

Nancy, who lost her shoes in a previous post, invited me to this trip. Also tagging along is Elisabeth, a girl from Holland. Starting early in the morning we take the bus from Onomichi, which is on the Honshu side, to Imabara on the Shikoku side. There’s plenty of rental stops for bikes along the way, so you can choose to do a shorter daytrip if you want. Our plan is of course to go all the way back to Onomichi.

There’s just one problem. The only bicycles that are still available at the rental stop we go to are long distance road bikes. Almost like racing ones. And you know what those kind of bikes have? Very hard saddles.

You’re supposed to have cycling pants while riding this kind of bike. Cycling pants has some extra padding for your butt, and thus you get the extra movement benefit of a hard saddle without your skin turning blue.

Halfway through the trip I can no longer wit down on the saddle any more. Nancy, not expecting her Japan trip to involve mountain hiking and long distance biking is having a big sweat. Strangely, Elisabeth, who’s from a country with no hills, has no problem at all cycling up the ramps to the bridges or over the Japanese hills. 

When we eventually feel done with the island hopping for the day we take the ferry back to Onomichi. The trip gives me inspiration to do a future cycling trip through Japan. I’m going to buy cycling pants for that though.

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長門の冒険 (Adventure in Nagato)

“It was around here.”

“There it is.” Nancy exclaims and points toward the next takeoff.

Tomo makes a sharp turn into the parking lot. There, standing peacefully without a bother in the world, are Nancys shoes.

Me and Tomo, one of my best Japanese mates, had decided to go on a roadtrip together. Tomo is from the Hiroshima area, but hasn’t actually been around the area much. The goal of the day was Motonoinarijinja, a shrine on cliff that reaches out into the Japanese sea. 

Of all the Shinto shrines in Japan, over one third are believed to be devoted to Inari. Inari is the kami (a sort of spirit or deity) of rice, fertility and financial prosperity. Inari shrines can usually be identified by having fox statues lined up to the altar or around the shrine, as well as the vermillion red toori-gate (sometimes multiple) leading up to the shrine. The most known is the main shrine in Kyoto, known for having thousands of toori-gates lining the path to the shrine.

The Motonoinarijinja doesn’t have thousands of toori-gates, but 123, which is quite enough together with the view of the sea. In fact, when passing by a beach in Nagato on our way, the clear water pretty much forced us to stop for a swim.

Upon reaching the shrine, we discovered that Nancys shoes had stayed on the beach for sunbathing. After a quick discussion between us, we decided to buy a lucky charm from the shrine to prevent more things from getting lost. It apparently worked, since the shoes where still there on our way back.

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野沢温泉の不思議 (The mystery of Nozawaonsen)

Walking into the onsen I’m greeted by something I did not expect. There’s a leek in the bathtub.

Or well, it looks like a bundle of leeks. But I think it’s some other kind of vegetable. What is it doing in the hot tub of an onsen? 

There are special onsen for cooking food, and they are not the same as the ones you bathe in. When I ask the Japanese guy who’s also having an onsen he seems as confused as me. Eventually he answers that it’s for cooking food. He’s obviously not a local, so I don’t trust that answer.

During the winter 2015/2016 I was in Nozawaonsen for skiing for three months. Although famous for skiing, it is also an onsen resort. It boasts a total of 13 bathhouses managed by the community, all free of charge (donations are welcome).

Coming back in summer I discovered that the village actually had some really good day hikes. And I get the opportunity to do something I missed out on during the winter season. An onsen marathon.

The mystery of the leeks continued as I discovered it was not just in this onsen. Two quick baths later, another bundle of leek-lookalike plants was there in the tub. Eventually an older guy from Tokyo could explain the mystery.

Japan is a land of mythology and superstition. It turns out the leeks are for protection against bad luck. It’s put into the men’s onsen during June, and in the Women’s during july. A local later clarifies that the leeks are only put in the onsen for one day and then removed.

At this point my head was getting quite cloudy from hot bathing. Imagine having a sauna for a whole day. How the leek onsen day is chosen therefore remains a mystery for me.

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高尾山 (Mt. Takao)

​I’m negotiating the sloped track quite easily. The trees around are majestic, and their roots grow onto the track almost creating a stair I can use. There’s just this one thing that slows me down. The huge crowd of Japanese tourists.

After one and a half years I’m finally back in Japan, and after some jetlag, some touristing and a night out in Shibuya, I feel that I really have to get out of Tokyo. Tokyo, together with Yokohama is the largest city in the world (close to 50 million), and you can find anything here, except big nature and mountains.

Armed with three hours of sleep, some hangover from the night before and a still ongoing jetlag. I decide I need some fresh air.

Mt. Takao is halfway to Mt. Fuji from Tokyo. It’s where the Kanto-plain (where Tokyo is built) ends, and the Japanese mountains start. Included in a lot of guidebooks as a good hiking destination, it’s no wonder that there’s many people going up the mountain together with me. The wonder might be that I see no other foreigners. Instead, the deafening noice of a Japanese army of schoolkids meets me as the hiking trail continues up a gully. They are of course, in typical kids fashion, trying out the echo.

Mt. Takao is the first top on a ridge that extends further away from the Kanto plain. There are hiking trails following the ridge all the way to Mt. Jinba. Tired of the crowds, but feeling quite energetic I decide to continue the ten or so kilometers to Mt. Jinba.

There’s a surprising amount of Japanese people that do hiking. Considering that they live in concrete jungles. Or maybe it is because of the concrete jungles. There’s also always a Shinto shrine or a shimenawa along the track. Sometimes with a sign telling the story behind a certain object. Yet sometimes you’re left to your own imagination as to what creature might be enshrined. Maybe the spirit of the mountain, maybe a fox with nine tails?

As it turns out, a lot of hiking trails was also used during the age of the samurai. Hiking in Japan is much more a trip in mythology and history rather than just a beautiful landscape. 

Just two kilometers from the top of Mt. Jinba my body reminds me of sleep and hangover. I’ve long given up on going back the way I came, instead I’ve realised there’s a train station on the other side of the ridge. A sign along the path also informs me there’s an onsen in the same direction. The bare thought of having an onsen after a days hiking makes my body want to run the last few kilometers. Turns out that downhill in Japanese mountains can be quite steep, and challenging to run. Who would have known?

Eventually I end up in a small mountain village. It turns out the onsen is a whole ryokan, a sort of Japanese spa hotel. Unfortunately it’s closed for cleaning, but after talking to the owner I’m offered to enter the onsen in return for a small fee. 

Since the men’s onsen is emptied for the cleaning, I’m directed to the women’s section. With the ryokan being closed I can relax completely alone as I watch the mountain view soaking in the hot volcanic water.

Day well spent. I fall asleep on the train back to Tokyo. 

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The people you meet at airports 1

A lot of the people around me seem stressed. They’re opening up their bags ripping out computers, toothpaste and skin creams. Some are frantically drinking from a water or juice bottle. Myself I feel that little tingle I always feel. Whenever I pass by a security check on an airport there’s always that part of me thinking they’re going to find something in my luggage and lock me up.
It’s a completely irrational thought, yet it’s there every time. The tension eases when the older lady in front of me is caught carrying a yogurt in her luggage. You know, one of those small snack yogurts you can buy in a convenience store.

I mean, yogurt, how explosive is that now again?

The lady, obviously stressed out starts explaining to the staff how she was going to eat it before security but forgot. Eventually the staff member just throws it in the bin, and that’s that. End of story, no yogurt after security.

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A family trip to Iceland

Ahead is a big open plain, with some slowly rolling hills. The landscape is mostly rocks that are covered in moss and tussock. Scattered over the plains are some bigger rocks, they look like trolls, standing silently and watching the landscape. In fact, some of the rocks have probably been placed there by humans, in the ancient times when they where needed for navigation.

Far in the distance snow covered mountains and big black clouds loom. I’m itching to use my camera, although I don’t think I can capture the awesomeness of the scenery.

The fact that I’m driving a car, and the fact that there’s three other people in it that I have to take into account discourages me from using my camera, for now. Most likely we all want to stop soon, to take as many pictures as possible with cameras, iphones, ipads and god knows what.

I’m in Iceland on family holiday, and I’m enjoying the whole family holiday thing more than I anticipated.

The whole trip started this winter when my sister decided to give me a trip to Iceland. I gave her a trip to Japan a couple of years back, so now it was her turn to give me a trip. Our parents have always talked about going to Iceland themselves, so they decided to go with us.

A family trip for me entails rigorous reading of Lonely Planet and whatever travel guide you can get your hands on before the trip. Creating a list of activities to do when during our one week stay, and booking accommodation and any other activities that need a reservation. Our family is quite outdoorsy, so the list of activities tends to include a lot of day hiking as well as generally just walking around and looking at things. I imagine this is the typical routine for any family going on a trip abroad, give or take a few 10km hikes.

So here I am, driving our rental car to our first stop on the first day, Þingvellir. It’s a place where the vikings used to meet for democratic meetings (they were vikings, so some of those meetings ended in brutal murder).

Þingvellir is part of what is called “The golden circle”, which also includes Geysir and Gullfoss. The later is one of Icelands largest waterfalls, while Geysir is the place that has given name to the nature phenomena called geyser (if you don’t know what a geyser is, go look it up on wikipedia right now, I promise it’s cool).

All of these places are very touristy indeed. Which is proven when, at Gullfoss, two British girls walks up to us asking if we can take a picture of them both together. They both have at least three cameras each (including a GoPro, DSLR and a mobile phone with the protective packaging plastic still on the camera lens). Of course, my mum asks her share of other tourists to take group photos of our family.

While I’m not to fond of stand together awkwardly family photos, I’m actually enjoying the touristing a lot. After a while I start taking photos of pretty much everything. Eventually, while adjusting my camera focus at a geyser, a big warm water plume shoots up from the ground and rains down on me. My family, standing on the other side of the plume, laughs and points at me. I laugh with them as they join me to get washed over by the next geyser eruption.

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Paragliding in Åre (March)

He had just taken off, yet he was suspiciously close to the ground. Looking to his left, the mountainside was moving fast upwards relative to him.

This was sinking air, no question about it. He was already below the ridge he needed to clear to get to the landing area.

Turning a bit to the right, he flew over a ski lift. Right in front of him was another one, at the bottom of it was a big flat snowfield. He quickly decided that was where he was going to land.

As he came down a bit closer he could see a flag he could use to estimate wind direction. The landing was spot on.

Looking 90 degrees to his left he could see the other glider circling around the same spot as him. As the other glider turned a bit more, so did he to prevent it from coming up behind him. It was better to try and keep the same distance all the time and use each other to determine where the most lifting air was.

Suddenly the other glider surged upwards, that was where the center of the thermal was. 180 degrees later in the turn, when he came to the same spot in the air, his own glider surged upwards. He tried to flatten out the turn a bit, as to get more wing area lifting up whilst in the lift.

The other glider was now a bit higher than him, still 180 degrees to his left. They continued their game, trying to find the best spot to go upwards.

This was my first time flying since December. Did some dry runs, or fake starts, before getting airborne. I still don’t have enough flights for my certification, so I’ll have to fly supervised by an instructor for now. It’s not a lot of flights left though, soon I’ll be able to go on my own whenever I want. That’s where the real journey starts.

The certification is mostly basic security training, so it’s when you can get out there on your own that you can start learning how to ride thermals and winds.

Also I’ll be able to hike up pretty much any mountain and fly down, can’t wait to get my hands on my own glider.

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Skiing in Åre (March)

The wind gusts were tugging strongly at the skis strapped to his backpack. He wasn’t going to fall because of the wind, but it made the ascent a bit more tricky. To his left one of his companions had started walking on an area with less snow. He made for the same area as well. The deeper powder wasn’t hard walking in, but it was always a good idea to try and save the leg for the downhill later.

He stopped to take a breath, walking uphill would still make you breath hard. Further ahead both of his companions had stopped to take the skis of their backpacks. All in all there were four of them, two guys named Axel. That was the two that had stopped just ahead. He, Emil, and behind him was another guy called Marcus.

Eventually they all had their skis back on and were ready for the downhill. Axel and Axel went ahead into the snowy forest with shouts of joy. Emil stopped for a moment, he looked over at Marcus. He could see the same kid of thrilled excitement in Markus that he felt himself.

“Wow, this is steep.” they both said, overlapping each others words.

To distract himself from the steepness Emil took out his mobile phone and snapped some pictures of Marcus.

Then, they too, went into the forest.

This was by far the best day of the season (so far). The amount of snow hasn’t been optimal, but two weeks ago it started dumping. Because of wind, already made tracks has been swept away, and as long as you new where to look it is possible to find fresh powder.

It’s not free however, we did one run where we had to walk for some 20 minutes with climbing skins on our skis, and then this run where we strapped the skis to our backpacks for 10 minutes. We also found some shorter runs by going alongside the mountain for a bit.

A lot of the runs where quite steep. Adding the trees, I wasn’t fully able to link my turns. It didn’t give me the “flowing motion” you usually want when skiing and because of this I also got tired in my legs quite fast.

It was a fun day nonetheless, and I was super happy to ski in some challenging terrain with my telemark skis.

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