Fighting Blindness Japan Trek – April 2008
This was the first event that Hike Japan has managed as an in-country operator. Whilst the trek was the culmination of fundraising efforts by the participants from Ireland who were supporting the charity Fighting Blindness, with twenty-one members in the group it was a logistical challenge for Hike Japan as our main business is small group guided walking tours, normally with no more than nine members! I am happy to report that thanks to the hard work by all concerned in preparing for and managing the event, the fortnight was a great success.
Everyone was understandably tired on arrival at Kansai International airport after the long flight, but by late evening spirits had been raised by the clouds of cherry blossom surrounding our hotel, wonderful natural hot spring baths, and pre-trek celebratory drinks in the karaoke bar in the basement!
The four day trek starting the next morning took us over the mountains along an old imperial pilgrimage route used by emperors in the Heian period a thousand years or so ago. The succession of steep ridges proved too difficult for some members so from Day 2 we had one main group doing the full trek with a smaller group doing local, shorter hikes. Although distances are not too great, the terrain is quite challenging for those not used to climbing hills. I take my hat off to JP who, in spite of significantly impaired eyesight, walked the entire forty mile mountain route. I am happy to say we were blessed with fine weather.
I will let one of the trekkers say what he experienced below .
Japan is an amazing place. I went there, trekking the ‘imperial pilgrimage' in the mountains south of Osaka, for ten days last month. While there, I walked in the mountains, soaked in volcanic hot springs, saw the world's biggest Buddha and sampled some of the neon night life in Japans second city, Osaka.
Possibly, a space ship crash landed there a thousand years ago. Presumably, the survivors just decided to stay. That scenario might explain why Japanese culture was alien to my potato shaped Irish mind. A can of Coca Cola was the only thing I ever recognised in a vending machine. They wear surgical masks when they have a cold, so as not to infect others. On returning, I have a slightly better understanding of why artists like ‘Johnny Logan' and the ‘Nolan sisters' were so big there. It seems Japan does not rely on the West for anything, not even good music.
Eighteen million people live in the costal metropolitan area of Osaka. I flew into Osaka's Kansai International Airport, which is located on a ‘man made' island in the bay. The artificial island is connected to the city by the longest and most unassuming bridge I have ever seen. On the drive into the city you can look across the bay to the city of Kobe, famous for its Kobe beef. Where cows are fed beer, live in their own apartments and receive regular body massages. I have been told the meat produced by such pampering rivals foie gras for richness and caloric content. A Kobe beef steak could set you back 300 euro. The Japanese do everything with style and an almost obsessive attention to detail.
The size of Japan is comparable to that of Germany or California. It is a country of over three thousand islands. Four big islands make up most of its land mass. Eighty percent of the country is mountainous. The 125 million inhabitants live in the remaining low lands in large coastal cities. The top of Japan lies on a geographical latitude similar to the European City of Milan while her most southern line of latitude cuts through the Bahamas.
Japan is 9581 Kilometres distance from Ireland. When you add nine hours time difference, the morning after arriving I was already two days out of Dublin. I was there to walk the ‘Kumano Pilgrimage' also known as the ‘Imperial Pilgrimage Route'. It is located in the Kii mountain range on the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka. Excellent Pilgrimage route maps exist, getting lost proved difficult. It is a land of waterfalls, flowers, forest paths, mountain passes and UNESCO world heritage shrines and temples. Despite its high technological achievements Japan remains a very religious and spiritual country. Shinto and Buddhism exist separately and have also fused. Worship of nature itself is widely practiced. Every rock has a spirit, every waterfall has a soul. It makes for a county of great and dedicated gardeners.
The plan was to walk around sixty kilometres over the next five days along an ancient pilgrimage route. I did this trek with the Irish based charity, ‘Fighting Blindness'. It organises up to three International treks a year to help raise much needed funds. As I drove into the mountains leaving the City behind the pace of life slowed. People live to great ages in the mountains. Stress is melted away in twice daily hot volcanic baths, the houses are made of wood, the doors slide and the walls are made of rice paper. The rooms reminded me of a scene from a James Bond movie. T atami bamboo mats carpet the floors. Life takes place at ground level. I slept on a comfortable futon mattress each night and rested my head on pillows filled with buck wheat (known to have anti fungal properties). I took my shoes off at the building entrance and walked around in slippers. There wasn't a chair to be seen.
Japan is located on the Pacific ring of fire, at the juncture of three of the worlds moving tectonic plates. Earthquakes and Tsunami's occur regularly but it's not all doom and gloom, so do natural occurring hot springs. They say a good idea stretches the mind such that it never fully returns to its original shape. Relaxing in a volcanic hot spring can be mind altering.
A typical day on this mountain trek was an early wake up call, a soak in a hot spring and a traditional Japanese breakfast. I can't be sure of what it was they fed me. I'm positive it was delicious and involved around twenty small plates of various tasty morsels. Then off for a nice long seven hour walk through spruce forests, on ancient sun dappled pathways. The trails pass by Shinto and Buddhist shrines in sunlit forest clearings. One particular day while walking, I saw a strange thing, a white porcelain urinal surrounded by a door-less cabin. I was tired from the walk and it looked, at first glance, to be a thought provoking piece of modern art. With so many trees about and so few people I just couldn't see the point of it. That artists go to so much trouble always makes me smile. On arriving at my evening destination I would fix up my futon and fluff up my firm buckwheat pillows and don a ‘ Yukata ', which is a summer cotton kimono and very comfortable. It's a cross between pyjamas and a dressing gown. Once suitably attired, I head straight for the volcanic hot spring bathhouse. Every rest stop has one. A bath house is segregated by gender and total nudity is the norm. I soak in this hot sulphuric water and every problem I thought I had and every muscle pain I might actually have had, melt away and I emerge positive, rejuvenated and starving for raw fish and rice balls. I spend the rest of the evening lounging around on cushions in my ‘ Yukata ' pyjamas, clicking chop sticks over interesting food, chatting and sipping cold beer. It is a very sociable way to live and later after dinner I can be a rock and roll star with the aid of the ubiquitous Karaoke machine.
The lonely planet guide book do a special edition dedicated entirely to trekking in Japan. It details more than 70 day and multi-day hikes. The variations of landscape in Japan make it a world class walking destination. Add massive cities, space age transportation infrastructure and a rich spiritual and gastronomic culture and you will find it hard to ever have a dull moment there. The mountains in Japan are rural, sparsely populated, honest places. While I was walking, I would occasionally come across a road side hut, with a bowel of oranges and a donation box. It is an honours system you just don't see at home.
After five days of walking I rested up in the pretty town of Nara. There I saw a statue that claims to be the world's biggest Buddha. Divine providence and a girl handing out flyers led me to an Irish bar whose proud owner told me that he never closes. I decided to see if such a thing could be true. In Nara I opted for a Western-style hotel and this is where I saw an amazing innovation in comfort… the heated toiled seat ...it is definitely worth the risk of electrocution.
I returned to Osaka two days later. Osaka is quiet beautiful to look at. It has five lane, one way, traffic systems like Manhattan and futuristic neon glad wide pedestrian streets like something out of the movie ‘Blade Runner'. Cities usually feel the same to me, the opportunity to engage in retail therapy is everywhere.
In the airport the following day, I eves dropped on a tour guide talking to his tour group about the Japanese national obsession with the blooming of the cherry blossom. “The cherry blossom ‘bloom front' moves up through the country slowly starting in the south and moving north like a fast flowing, sweet smelling, colourful warm glacier”, he said. “Weather forecaster's try to predict when the ‘blossom front' will hit the next city. It is like celebrating the return of a much loved migratory bird”. You will like Japan - it is a place of amazing contrasts, wonder and beauty.
I would like to thank all the locals who helped make the event a success – Maki Yamashita san from the Wakayama Prefectural Tourism Promotion Bureau, Yamamoto san from the Japan Retinitis Pigmentosa Society, Kosho Tateishi san (shugendo priest and fire ceremony intermediary with the nature spirits), Mieko Sakamoto san and her koto concert group of musiciansin Nara, all the accommodation owners and restaurants who went out of their ways to cater for us, and Tsukimori san from A-Z Tabi and our bus driver. And last but not least, Tom Takano, top professional mountain guide and pillar of strength.