Picture your workday, and then your week. Imagine the discomfort of the morning train or the slow crawl of traffic. Think about your place of work.
There’s no getting around it: Most of us spend huge swaths of time in offices and workshops, on factory floors or behind sales counters. After five straight days of commuting to work, the idea of spending the weekend curled up on the couch with some wine is tempting.
While there is certainly something to be said for rest, our lives have become quite sedentary — perhaps to the detriment of our bodies and minds. Luckily, there’s a remedy for this urban malaise, an exercise as old as our species and one for which we’re practically designed: hiking up mountains.
Japan, as it happens, is more mountain than not. Each of its main islands has a spine of alps that, taken together, cover just over 70 percent of the country. No matter where you happen to live, chances are there’s one in range for a day trip. Walking straight up the slopes, I’d like to suggest, is a potent antidote to the travails of modern city life. The leaves are changing color as you read this, so what have you got to lose?
Hatching a plan
You’ve got plenty to lose, as it turns out.
Hiking, like surfing, involves venturing beyond the borders of human dominion. That may sound obvious, but it’s worth bearing in mind. According to National Police Agency data, 3,043 people were reported missing in mountains nationwide in 2015, of which 335 were either confirmed dead or still missing as of June. Of those who were found, 1,151 had suffered some kind of injury.
But take heart, don’t let those numbers sway you. Much of the calamity that befalls hikers can be averted with sound planning and preparation.
The first thing is to choose a mountain. There are thousands, with most between 500 meters and 2,000 meters high. Local city governments often provide brochures, maps and other information, but online research is essential, and there is a wealth of detailed blogs and websites.
Judging difficulty and time allotments can be tricky, as one person’s gruelling slog is another’s afternoon stroll. If it’s your first excursion, remember the safest plan of action is to always consult a physician before embarking on a new form of exercise. Personally, I would aim for something around 1,000 meters, keeping in mind that the distance to the top depends on the elevation of the starting point. Some trailheads (where the trails begin) are accessible from train stations by foot, while others require further travel by bus or even taxi.
When planning routes, cross-referencing multiple online sources is ideal. There is no one-stop shop for information, so poking around Google with queries such as “Day hikes from Kobe” is a good way to start.
Noting the times of last trains and buses is also advised, as some stop surprisingly early in the countryside. Because cellular reception is often unavailable in the mountains, carrying a hard copy of your itinerary and route is also smart. You should forward a copy to someone who isn’t coming with you, too, and if you’re just starting out, never hike alone.
For those in the Kanto region looking to dip their toes in, the Momiji Matsuri (Maple Festival) will take place during the entire month of November on and around Mount Takao in western Tokyo, featuring special events on weekends and holidays. Takao can be accessed by cable car and chairlift, and although exceedingly busy at this time of year, it provides an easy introduction to the hills.
Packing is paramount. Japanese hikers tend to be well outfitted with the latest, from trekking poles and spandex leggings to portable stoves and bear bells (more on those later). How deep you want to wander down the gear hole is up to you, but a few items can truly be called essential.
Sturdy footwear with a good grip ranks among these, and if purchased new, they should be broken in beforehand lest they make a mess of your feet on the mountain. Avoid denim, and err toward loose-fitting shorts or pants that allow a good range of motion. Layers are the way forward in fall and spring, due to the wide temperature disparities between the valley and the peak. Pack extra socks and a clean shirt for good measure.
Rounding off clothing — and woe to anyone who forgets it — is at least one small towel measuring roughly 75-by-30 centimeters. These are widely available and indispensable, for their uses are myriad. A towel can shade the eyes during naps, protect against the sun, swat insects, absorb sweat and dry one off after a hot-spring soak or a quick dip in a river. As correctly noted in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” towels have innate psychological as well as practical value, and are the mark of an intrepid trekker.
Lastly, it should go without saying that a good supply of water is essential. About 2 liters is safe for a day hike, and anything under 1 liter is taking chances. Energy-rich snacks such as granola and dried fruit can boost morale along the way, but save your packed lunch for the summit.
Many of Japan’s hikers rise in the dark to ride the day’s first trains, choosing to climb early. If you’re anything like me, you’ll meet these admirable folk on their way down midway through your ascent. Although in cities the practice of greeting perfect strangers has grown rare, for some reason nearly all hikers greet one another — an excellent chance to ask about what’s ahead.
After you’ve warmed up and shifted into heavier breathing, stop and take it all in: The leaves are exploding like fireworks in slow motion, the air is crisp and clean, and the calls of distant birds ring in the absence of buildings amid the trees. Have a stretch, take a photo and move on.
When you hit the tough bits, and you will, pay attention to your breathing. As silly as it may sound, take care to exhale properly and to fill your lower abdomen, not your upper chest, with fresh air. Hiking steadily is about finding your own unique equilibrium of breathing and movement.
Depending on the area, it’s not unheard of to see deer, serow, wild boar, monkeys and even bears. Many Japanese hikers affix small bells to their packs to ward bears off, and should you encounter one, it’s important to stay calm, keep talking and back away without bolting.
Following lunch at the top and a pause to take in the view, it’s time to go down, which will force the use of your muscles in a whole new way. It’s easier to slip when descending, so choose your footing carefully and don’t rush.
After the hike
Once back in town, wind things down with a final stretch and a farewell over-the-shoulder glance at the mountain. At this juncture it’s fair to say that the nutrients and hydration afforded by a single beer are in order, followed by some local fare to be safe.
If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know all about the chances of finding a local onsen (hot spring) or sentō (bathhouse), where limbs can be soaked and the aches and pains of the day washed away. Upload your photos on the way back to the city, and start thinking about the next outing.
For information on weather forecasts for mountains around the world, check out www.mountain-forecast.com.
Everyone hikes for different reasons, whether it’s exercise, photography or just to escape the city. With that in mind, here are a few footholds that will hopefully lead to the first of many climbs.
At 1,273 meters, Mount Nabewari is a bit tough, though your effort will be rewarded. It’s crowned by a little shack that serves piping hot udon. bit.ly/2eA3SqE.
With an elevation change of about 800 meters, Mount Yoro is a great day trip from the city and sports a photogenic waterfall at its base. bit.ly/2eEjgkL.
Mount Kongo, capped by both a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple, stands at 1,053 meters and is steeped in history. There are 10 regularly used approach routes. bit.ly/2eiLPUf
The path leading up to Mount Kaimon winds around this dormant volcano’s cone with no switchbacks. At 924 meters, it’s a pleasant hike with a great view. bit.ly/2dEIvVu (Tyler Rothmar)
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