Some long-term visitors to Japan choose to count the days. Others make the decision to suck every drop of juice out of the opportunity. Take Ginger Vaughn, for example. She falls most definitely into the latter category — and all power to her facial and calf muscles!
Switch to Asahi TV’s Saturday night program “SMAP Station” and look hard. She’s in the backdrop of pretty girls, grinning at all the jokes and nodding agreement to everything that’s said. “Basically I’m a smiling decoration, but it gives me insight to a totally different experience in Japan.”
There again, in climbing one of Japan’s famed “Hyakumeizan” (100 Famous Mountains), you may bump into her at the top — and not necessarily looking her best. A quick flick through a photo album shows Ginger with a puffy face (“altitude sickness”), Ginger looking like a drowned rat (“it rained the whole climb”) and Ginger iced up to the eyeballs (no comment). In compensation, there are many more where she appears to be having a ball, either in great company or happily alone.
Ginger says her father stole her mother away from her Japanese family and took her to the States. “Because her mother went out with an American, she was considered the black sheep of the family.” Ginger laughs when she describes how her relatives here are always saying “But you’re a good girl . . .” “They thought my hiking project absurd the first time I mentioned it — a wild streak that comes from my mom.”
As a child Ginger moved around a lot. She spent junior high in Virginia, three years of high school in Okinawa, and then returned to North Carolina, which was like reverse culture shock. Wanting to experience another country — “Okinawa is not Japan” — and to know her family better, she came here for nine months in 1999.
After graduating in Asian studies, she returned again via the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. “I was placed in Yokohama, where my mother’s family just happens to live. It was such an incredible chance. I thought, ‘OK, English teaching can get monotonous, but I can definitely use the time to make it interesting.’ “
During her first week, a colleague invited her to go on a hike on O-Yama in Kanto. “Misreading the map, we followed an extremely unscenic deer path. Still, the views from the peak were awesome. ‘Mm, hiking,’ I thought, ‘great way to see Japan, and affordable.’ So that’s what I did weekends, loving the silence, being alone with myself. My activities had always been competitive — softball, soccer . . .”
Soon she heard about the Hyakumeizan — nine peaks in Hokkaido, six in Kyushu, two in Shikoku and all the rest on Honshu — deemed to be the most worthwhile climbing in 1965 by explorer, adventurer and writer Fukuda Kyuya. “They’re his 100, not the 100 that everyone should find for themselves.”
Planning to climb all 100 in one year, she began August 2002 by scaling Mount Poroshiri (an Ainu name) in Hokkaido. But then “got sidetracked.” Working at a ski resort in Gunma was a bit grim, sleeping in a dorm and serving curry rice all day. “But my Japanese improved a lot, I met some really cool people, and I got into snowboarding.” It was through this sport she began reporting freelance for Outdoor Japan, the online guide to the great outdoors in Japan, developed by Gardner Robinson. “It’s an awesome site. Outdoor Japan is a great service to the foreign community.”
For her hiking project, she got a bicycle and hiking gear from companies such as Scott USA and GoLite, but needed financial support. “Being naive, I went for major companies who all said no. I thought what I was doing was unique, when hundreds of people were doing it. I should have gone local; far more sensible.”
As for the bike, that proved a not so wise idea. “For one thing, I had too much equipment.” Instead she began to mostly hitchhike from one mountain to another, notching up 42 peaks in 2002, and 38 the following year. Last year she climbed just six. To date this year, none. But from Friday this all changes. “I’m set to climb the remaining 14, planning to finish mid-November. It’s going to knock out every weekend from now to then, but that’s fine.”
The last peak on her itinerary is Kusatsu-shirane, back in Nagano, and it might be quite a party. “Anyone can come climb with me. I’ve met so many amazing mountain-loving people who’ve supported me with this project over the last three years. If they all come, we could be well over 100.”
Actually, she began climbing this peak in 2003, but got freaked out when she thought she saw a bear. “When I mentioned it to some people in the area, they said, ‘Really?’ Which even today makes me wonder . . .”
By 2004, tired of being constantly on the move, Ginger rented a place near Omiya, in Saitama. With a home but no income, and not wanting a full-time job, she began working odd jobs to keep a flexible schedule. “Seeing an ad for part-time non-Japanese TV extras, I called the agency. I think they were looking for long-legged blue-eyed blondes, whereas I have brown eyes and hair and only make 5 feet 2 inches (157.5 cm) on a good day. Anyway, that’s how I came to be on ‘SMAP Station.’ It’s interesting to see how the ‘talento/idol’ business works here.”
In April, Ginger began a postgraduate degree at Waseda on the Ministry of Education scholarship program. It’s great, she says, even though expectations are different. “I hope to be studying as long as I can whether it be at school or not.” After November, she plans to concentrate more on writing, with a book to be got out of the way. “I want to move into documentary-making concerned with social issues.”
Recently she was able to help Freshwater Illustrated, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting ecology and education based in Colorado, with a film about the life of the late Shigeru Nakano, who pioneered stream ecology. “I ended up not only interpreting and translating but closely involved with editing while the crew was in Japan.”
If she does write that book, it will be to say thank you to all those total strangers who picked her up, drove her around, put her up, and offered such great support over the last three years. “I couldn’t have climbed Hyakumeizan without them.”