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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Skiing in Åre (January)

Suddenly a familiar voice shouted his name. He didn’t have time to turn around before he was in a friendly embrace.

The guy who had embraced him, Jalle, was quite short but full of energy. He quickly presented one of the other ski guides that Emil had not met before.

“We’re doing some off piste skiing, lets go!” Jalle said, and then the three of them where on the move. Up the chairlift and into the forest they went.

A chutelike formation between some trees still had some fresh snow left, that’s where they skied down.

“We’ve found a double drop on a line just beside that one.” Jalle exclaimed when they where back out in the groomed run.

When they returned into the forest and came to the drop Emil hesitated. He wasn’t too used to do drops. On the other hand he had done bigger ones than this.

“Well, the snow is soft and fluffy all around.” He said to himself, then he skied for the drop.

“Poof” The landing was soft. He landed with quite a lot of control and continued down to where the others where. Somehow, he managed to miss the second drop, with the first being so anticlimactic, he wished he had done that too.

“So, I missed the second drop, where is it?” He asked the two ski guides.

It’s good to have friends that push your limits in this way. I personally want to go more off piste, and do more drops. Since I’m working as a ski instructor I’m super comfortable in the groomed runs, but getting out there on the really big mountains is a challenge in its own.

It’s hard to motivate yourself on your own though. Pushing hard like this is both fun and a learning experience, but I think you need friends who are more skilled than you to do it.

This is also something I do as a ski instructor, sometimes a customer might not have skied intermediate runs, so I take them to intermediate runs. We can go slowly down, with me skiing just ahead of them as an extra security. Afterwards the easy runs will feel super easy, simply because of a confidence boost.

My point is, that improving on you skills might sometimes not involve a lot of study or training, but rather just to try something much harder and push your limits a little.

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My first experience with paragliding

He took two resolute strides forward, but almost came to a complete stop when the wing behind him came up in the air and started tugging at his harness. He kept trying to go forwards until the whole wing was inflated and flying straight above him.

“Release”, the instructor shouted to him. He leaned forwards and let go of all the strings used for inflating the wing. Holding the brake handles in his hands and moving them to behind his back, he started running.

One of the two instructors shouted at him to continue running, which is what he did. Somehow he knew he was centered under the wing, it felt right, so he kept on running. As long as he kept going he was going to get airborne.

He didn’t jump or or anything that might collapse the wing. He just kept running and eventually the wing smoothly lifted him upwards, turning his speed through the air into lift. He simply noticed that his feet couldn’t reach the ground anymore.

He was airborne.

In December 2016, my last month in New Zealand at the time, I tried out paragliding and started studying towards a flying certificate.

Paragliding might look similar to parachuting, and indeed, that is where the sport originated. In modern paragliding however, the thing you’re hanging from isn’t a chute, but a wing. This means paragliding has more in common with an airliner than a parachute, you can actually fly upwards!

Of course most paragliders don’t have engines, but must use the winds and thermals to gain altitude. Thus a paragliding pilot must understand winds, weather and how airstreams move over terrain.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get all the way to a certificate. I need eight more flights. If I have the time, I’ll do this in Sweden, but right now it’s looking like I’ll have my hands full with work. At least I bought a glider and have it waiting for me when I come back to New Zealand…

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Mavora Walkway (Day 3,4)

The book had an almost magical attraction to him. He just couldn’t let go. Reading while walking wasn’t optimal in any way. It made him super slow, and it was probably a bit dangerous too.

It wasn’t because it was a particularly good book, it was more the pure joy of reading that entangled him so. It was probably the first time in years that he allowed himself enough time to get fully enveloped in a book. It was a joy he had missed, and now truly could enjoy after craving it for so long.

A hill in front of him looked like it would be a good spot for a break. He walked up to the summit and put down his backpack. There was a light wind up here, chasing away any potential sandflies.

Some ominous clouds in the distance promised rain but for now the sun was shining, so he sat down, leaning against the backpack, and continued to read.

Several hours later, the first raindrops interrupted his reading. When looking up, he discovered that the clouds where now on top of him. A curtain of rain was slowly moving up the lake in the distance.

Quickly shouldering his backpack, he almost ran the last kilometer to the hut where he was supposed to stay the night. Only to discover that the hut was already occupied by three kiwi families. Well tent it is, he thought and pitched his tent by the lakeside. He barely finished pitching the tent and shoving both backpack and himself inside before the rain arrived in force.

The Mavora walkway stretches from the Mavora lakes to lake Wakatipu. After spending an extra day reading I just couldn’t put down my book while walking back to my starting point. Eventually I finished it whilst the rain poured down on my tent. In fact, it was raining so much that I decided not to leave the tent at all that evening, and did all my cooking and eating inside.

Eventually the rains died during the night, and the morning gave some calm and somehow washed clean scenery. It was as if the rain had washed away a layer of dust and all the colors could be seen clearer.

My path back along the lake passed the place where Sam almost drowned in Lord of the Rings (or where that scene was filmed). I did not know this, but you can see the resemblance of the place in the photos.

Soon I was hitchiking on my way to lake Wakatipu and Queenstown.

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