If you hike in the Chichibu mountains this summer in Saitama Prefecture, you may stumble across an American-style summer camp with huge tents and 50 to 60 school kids exploring nature with walks and tree-climbing adventures and enjoying campfires and roasting marshmallows.
And you will find the tallest “kid” there is Jeff Jensen, 41, an alpine mountaineer and program manager of English Adventure.
Jensen started working with English Adventure in the spring of 2004, about a year after a fellow outdoorsman, Dave Paddock, established the company, hoping to provide returnees a “real American camp experience” in Japan. It now offers nature and wilderness courses — in English — for everyone from beginners to native speakers, as well as a variety of seasonal camps.
Although Jensen started as a seasonal counselor, introduced to Paddock through mutual outdoors enthusiasts, his role has expanded with the company. The energy of working with kids keeps Jensen fresh and enthusiastic.
“I wouldn’t particularly say I’m a kid lover, but we really just see eye to eye. I don’t speak to them like they’re kids. I respect them for who they are, and maybe they can respect me for who I am in return.”
Jensen well remembers his own youth, and his respect for the mountains. Growing up, Jensen spent his summers in Banff, Alberta, each year leaving his hometown of Edmonton. “I traveled extensively through the Rockies with my grandparents, two or three months every year. As soon as I graduated high school in 1987, I left home and moved to Banff.”
Jensen bought himself a harness and a pair of shoes, and took to the mountains. “I always wanted to climb, and I had skied since I was little. In Banff, it was all about getting out there and climbing, from the bottom to the top.”
Although Jensen had built up over five years of mountain and alpine climbing experience while in Banff, he decided against taking official classes to become a member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. “It’s very difficult in Canada, five or six years of full-time study. Sometimes when you work in something you really love, it becomes tedious, and you lose a lot of why you love to do it.”
Jensen worked in a safety kayak in Banff, following behind the big rafts in white water and picking up anyone who fell out. In the winter, he worked in the ski industry, and he slowly noticed his love of the outdoors eroded by repetition. “I was out on the river every day in the summer, and it got to the point where I did not want to do it anymore.”
At 25 years old, Jensen decided to challenge new peaks. Aware of the high percentage of Japanese tourists in Banff, he applied for a working holiday visa to Japan, hopeful he could spend one year studying the language, to help him find work in the tourist industry back on the mountain.
“I quickly realized it was not going to happen that way, to have the language all dialed in after one year.” Jensen applied for a second visa after the year expired, and was lucky to be given another one. “I came back to Japan, and that’s when I met my future wife.”
Jensen deliberately worked on a variety of part-time jobs in Japan, so that he could indulge in his first love, mountaineering. He built houses for a construction firm, taught English in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, opened a white-water rafting company and worked as a seasonal counselor for English Adventure — all the while exploring the mountains of Japan.
And Japan has a lot of mountains. One that has earned Jensen’s respect and devotion is Mount Fuji. He combined his appreciation for Japanese culture with his mountaineering experience to create his own personal tradition: “I had already been in Japan four or five years, and I learned how they celebrate New Year’s. . . . I also noticed a lot of people in Japan stay awake to watch the first sunrise of the year, and some people try to get high up to see it.” He decided to climb Mount Fuji to welcome 1999.
Jensen had never climbed Fuji before, deterred by the infamous summertime crowds. A winter climb for this alpine specialist seemed a perfect fit. “The first year, I got to the fifth station, and it was midnight and I was awake, since that’s the time I wanted to start my hike to reach the top by sunrise. I hear these banging sounds, and I look down, and I realize I am looking down on fireworks displays. . . . They are really far away and small, but they are beautiful.”
Yet the summit and sunrise were still five stations and six hours away. “Unfortunately that year, I had a bad experience. I did not have all my gear yet from Canada, so I borrowed a pot from a kitchen where I worked, but the pot was really used for just storing oil, so I gave myself iron poisoning and had to come down without reaching the top.”
Still, Jensen was sold on a winter climb of Fuji, despite the dangers. “I only saw one other person on the mountain for two days. Being a climber, it is nice to go to the back country and have peace and enjoy yourself, by myself, without the hustle and bustle of everyday city life. The next year I went back and climbed it to the top and saw the first sunrise of the year. Freezing cold, the weather was crazy up there, but I was all alone, at the highest point in Japan.”
Jensen has since made it his tradition, and most years, he is alone on the summit. After four years of scaling the ocean side, Fujinomiya, he tried a different route, Yoshidaguchi, and there he discovered another reason to make the journey each year.
“I found a place, Satogoya Hut, between the fifth and sixth stations that is open. And it turns out this hut is open every year at New Year’s for two days. Every year, people from literally all over Japan come to this hut, walk through the snow for New Year’s, and they only ever meet each other this one day of the year.”
Jensen noticed many of the revelers wear traditional happi coats, and soon realized the happi coats represent continuity of the tradition. “It turns out you have to come 20 years in a row in order to get a blue one. You get a red one when you turn 60 years old.”
Unfortunately, Jensen’s happi coat will have to wait another 20 years before he is welcomed to the club. Last Halloween, Jensen fell while rock-climbing, and was forced to miss the summit this year, the first time in 11 years he was away from Mount Fuji at New Year’s.
Injuries are part of climbing, Jensen admits, and he plans on scaling Fuji again in 2011, taking his 10-year-old daughter this time to the Satogoya Hut.
Jensen feels a balance these days, having eliminated the side jobs and pursuing his newest venture, Rock 24, and his now full-time role in English Adventure. In 2008, Jensen used his experience in the outdoors to start Rock 24, an indoor rock climbing facility that is open 24 hours a day in Johnson Town near Iruma, Saitama Pref.
With both Rock 24 and English Adventure, Jensen strives to provide a comfortable, safe environment where climbers or kids can learn and appreciate nature without too much interference. Rock 24 boasts a high-tech entrance.
English Adventure provides some structured activities but focuses more on letting kids “get out there.” As Jensen explained, “We want kids to just be outside with other kids. It’s our job to tell the kids to go to bed, and it’s the kids’ jobs to turn on their flashlights and whisper in the tents. It’s unfortunate, but in Japan, I just don’t see kids getting out there. When I go back home and climb, I see a range of people, from very young, even school-age, out there on their own, rock-climbing or paddling a river or hiking or trekking, whereas here, I’d estimate 60 to 70 percent (of those he sees) are of retirement age. . . . Youngsters are disappearing from outdoor sports.”
Jensen aims to help all ages get back out there and climb life’s mountains. Even with the occasional fall, Jensen believes, “For me, I just feel more alive outside. To stand somewhere no one has ever stood before or do something only a few people have done. And you can experience that, even in Japan, all the time.”