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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