Playing outside is one of my necessities in life. I enjoy it for all the physical aspects – the knowledge that yes, my body is capable and strong; for the appreciation of nature – cicada songs and wildflowers; for the distance it can put between me and the rest of civilization; and occasionally for the adrenaline rush of ascent, descent, or finding myself in a dicey situation. But what has been one of the most enjoyable aspects about navigating the outdoors here in Japan is, well, just the Japanesy-ness of it all. Every trip outside my own home is a window into the sometimes strange, sometimes charming, and sometimes baffling – but always unique – world of Japan’s camping and hiking subculture. For the purpose of this post, let’s use the term that fits almost every situation the best: Oh, Japan.
A couple weekends ago, Ellie and I decided to check out the Shirakami Sanchi mountain range on the opposite side of our prefecture, Aomori-ken. The Shirakamis are known for being the world’s largest old-growth Beech Tree forest, protected under UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The woods are certainly ancient there, prehistoric feeling, with ferns so big you believe in the dinosaurs. The area we explored is called Juniko – home to many little lakes tucked into the mountains. Buggy and muggy, but beautiful.
We arrived late on a Friday night, after driving six hours over hill and dale, and pulled into a campsite so dark and empty, it was eerie. Exhausted, we found some flat ground to pitch our tent and hit the sack (not so proverbial in this case.) Oh, Japan Moment #1 occurred at 6am when we were rudely awoken from our sleep by the Fukaura Town “Morning Song” tooting triumphantly over the campsite loudspeakers. Because noise ordinance laws in Japan are so lax compared to America’s, most towns have morning, afternoon, and evening jingles, often coupled with town-wide announcements. We should have known that not even a peaceful campsite is exempt from this sort of ‘Big Brother’ community messaging.
Oh,Japan Moment #2 occurred several hours later as we started our exploring for the day. Hiking the trails that connect all the lakes in the area, we began to come across small groups of Japanese people sitting along the paths in camp chairs, tea thermoses in hand, peering through binoculars, with thousands and thousands of yen worth of camera equipment at the ready. For in Japan, it’s not necessarily how good you are at whatever it is you’re doing, but how good you look, and how state of the art your equipment is. After a few conversations, we discovered that many of these tourists were up from the big southern cities, like Tokyo, to take pictures of the various King Fishers of the Shirakamis. Indeed, they were as surprised to see us traipsing through the woods as we were to see them on our home turf.
Oh, Japan Moment #3 soon followed, at the site of Aoike Pond, the most famous of Juniko’s lakes. Named Aoike (Blue Lake) because of it’s striking blue color, we encountered swarms of retiree tourists carted in from who-knows-where, hats pulled low to block the sun, towels fastened securely around necks to absorb the damp, sturdy walking shoes and gloved hands gripping the neatly-cut, wooden steps down to the “Viewing Platform,” snapping point-and-shoots at each other unsmiling. We fled the scene about as fast as you can say “Cheese-u!”
The following day, on our way back to Shimokita Peninsula, we stopped at Iwaki-san, a volcanic mountain outside of Hirosaki City, and one of Japan’s Hyakumeizan or Hundred Famous Mountains (and one of Aomori-ken’s two.) It was a beautiful day, and we were perplexed to see no one on the trail to the summit. Three hours in (two of which were straight up a surprise snowfield), we arrived dirty and tired at the first saddle, and last leg before the top. There, confronted with families in flip-flops and denim, we realized that from the other side of the mountain, there was not only a winding road that took you nearly all the way up, but a chairlift you could then ride to the point at which we stood. Oh, Japan #4. While many countries capitalize on their natural resources for tourist revenue, sometimes in Japan it seems they take public accessibility a little too far.
At the end of the day though, after a thorough wash and a soak in a natural onsen on the way home, and a greasy dinner of tonkatsu in my belly (a close tie to a good post-hike cheeseburger back in the States), the only way I can sum up my whirlwind weekend of playing in Japan’s outdoors, a happy camper to the core: Oh, Japan. You’re pretty awesome, after all.