Celebrating 10 Years Blogging in Japan
This month, RIDGELINEIMAGES.com celebrates its 10th anniversary. For a decade now, I’ve been snapping pictures, sharing my hikes, adventures, gear selections, and how-tos. It’s hard to believe I’ve been plugging away at it for so long. My first post went live on January 18th, 2013, and recalled my climb up Takaosan after it received a good dumping of snow. In that time, I have written up 120 hike reports around the Kanto region, comprising more than 1,800 kilometres of trail descriptions across 12 prefectures. I’m particularly proud of the fact that 40 percent of the hikes are overnight ones. As someone who never wants to rejoin the Tokyo rat race a minute sooner than is absolutely necessary, these multi-day hikes have been by far the most satisfying.
I would like to offer my sincere gratitude to everyone who’s stuck by me and provided encouragement over the past 10 years. Whether it’s by reading, commenting on, and sharing what I write or by providing financial support in some way, shape, or form, I’m truly grateful.
In this reflective piece, I recall the successes and positive takeaways along with the difficulties and failures by way of five short stories. I also touch on how the Japanese hiking scene has changed since I started the website and the blogosphere more generally.
The Short Stories
David Lowe Enters the Cantina
As much as I’d like to say it’s all beer and skittles out in the magnificent Japanese Alps, that’s unfortunately not always the case. Inevitably, you’ll come across the odd hard case, although hopefully not on your first overnight outing like I did in the Tanzawa Mountains. The situation is somewhat analogous to the bar scene in Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker wanders into the Mos Eisley Cantina. As you may recall, Luke encounters a couple of shady alien thugs who start an argument. Alien thug: “He doesn’t like you.” Luke Skywalker: “I’m sorry.” Alien thug: “I don’t like you either. You just watch yourself.” Luke Skywalker: “I’ll be careful then.” Alien thug: “You’ll be dead!”
To make sense of all this, let’s rewind a couple days earlier. For the uninitiated to stay at a mountain hut or sansou, a booking is sometimes required, especially when visiting out of season. On this occasion, I had my wife, Akiko, do the honours and ring the hut to make the necessary arrangements. Even this innocuous task left her reeling. Why? Because during the brief phone conversation, the irascible hut manager asked what meals I would be needing. Akiko in turn relayed the question to myself, but before she could answer, the manager barked something along the lines that he didn’t have time for this type of hither and thither and almost ended the call there and then. “This man is a piece of work,” Akiko remarked. The next day, I was to confirm it for myself.
Being my first solo overnight hike, I was understandably feeling a little anxious. Had I enough water and food? Did I remember to pack my Swiss Army Knife with 15 functions? A good illustration of my mindset in the morning was riding my bicycle halfway to the local train station before abruptly halting and returning to the apartment to grab another layer of clothing. Which, as it turned out, wasn’t needed. Getting to the trailhead was easy enough, and the weather, while on the chilly side at the end of March, was sunny and made for pleasant hiking. I reached the hut around mid-afternoon. I hollered out to whom I thought was the hut manager, but he either didn’t hear me or didn’t care to respond. After a different staff member checked me in, I decided to have a short nap, pooped out from the 1,300-metre haul from the bus stop up what is commonly referred to as ‘Baka-one’ or Stupid Ridge.
Before dinner, I decided to go outside to check out the sunset. In order to do so, I needed to put on my hiking shoes, which were located on the far side of the genkan, or entrance, of the hut. Oblivious to the correct etiquette, I proceeded to walk in my socks across the genkan, which is considered the ‘outdoors’ over to the shoe storage area. Ordinarily, you put on some rubber sandals. Upon seeing this transgression, the hut manager spared little time in letting loose a lengthy reprimand. However well-intentioned, it was over the top, and crossed the line of common decency. It was audible enough that guests on the second floor could hear that the newcomer had been ostensibly taught a lesson in good manners. I didn’t want him to see that I was peeved, so I thought it best to bite my tongue and roll with the punches. Honestly, it felt as though I had been teleported back to my old scout hall and was running the wrath of the Akela.
The hut was adorned with all manner of memorabilia and photographs commemorating this individual’s ascent up numerous Himalayan peaks. Evidently, though, such mountaineering triumphs hadn’t elevated his social skills. While this was thankfully an isolated incident, I have noticed over the years that hut owners have a tendency to be stroppy and will berate you if you rock up late. I might add that if you prefer not to have set meal times, lights out, or be surrounded by a troupe of heavy snorers, then I’d say mountain lodges aren’t going to be your thing. After my first couple of hut sojourns, I was pretty certain a tent was all I needed.
Mountains and Mindfulness
Anyone who has followed this blog for some time or knows me personally will understand that I’m passionate about both the Japanese mountains and blogging in general. Both, you could say, have been a mainstay of my life outside of work and family for the better part of 10 years, and I often find myself preoccupied by one or the other. But what is it about hiking and the outdoors that resonates so strongly with my inner self? As with most existential questions, the answer seldom disentangles itself in a straightforward way, but at its heart, it’s about spending time in nature alongside those majestic mountains.
The Japanese Alps are mightier than any one of us and formed at least 2 million years ago. I see them as a sanctuary and a place to fleetingly divert my attention from the here and now. They are great equalisers, don’t play favourites, and will punish dispassionately anyone who underestimates their dangers and climbs without making thorough preparations. It’s a place where, apart from the occasional ticked-off Taro like in the previous story, you’re bound to find most people in pretty good spirits. Small talk isn’t usually a strength of the Japanese, but the mountains seem to open people up to plenty of aisatsu and information exchanges when passing. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about hiking here, and it makes the mountains feel a little safer and more welcoming to all visitors.
Mountain climbing is now primarily an introspective, almost meditative endeavour for me. For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved hiking. Memories from my earliest primary school days recall family BBQs followed by forest walks. I was actively involved in the cubs and scouts, actually enjoyed high school camps, and belonged to the university bushwalking club. They each had a distinct influence, providing the foundation for what has become a lifelong pursuit. Hiking in Japan presented its own unique set of challenges, starting with a colder climate and dealing with a topography that is often precipitous and craggy, at least compared to south-eastern Australia, where I earned my stripes. Importantly, it offered the opportunity to hike solo. This is something that I had no experience with nor much of a desire to do prior to coming here.
For many, hiking on one’s own invokes a forlorn image, absent of the communal experience one might have if hiking as part of a group. And no doubt doubly dangerous as well. Personally, I don’t see it this way. On the contrary, solo hiking is a liberating experience, particularly on longer multi-day hikes, which I like the most. Once I overcame the mental barrier of being alone and began marching to the beat of my own drum, I found I could lose myself in my surroundings in a way I was never able to as part of a group. Not having to divert my attention to others helped me truly appreciate the sights, smells, and sounds of the forest. My senses could be fixated on whatever environment and terrain I came across rather than on conversation. This is amplified at night, buried deep in a sleeping bag at a wild camp, listening to the immersive world going on outside, separated by a mere slither of nylon tent fly. I value companionship as much as the next person and enjoy training indoors with my gym buddies, but just yearn for it a whole lot less when I’m out in nature.
Just to be clear, climbing alone poses more risks than climbing with others, and I’m not necessarily advocating for others to follow suit. Statistically speaking, it is safer to be in the mountains as part of a well-led group. According to a National Police Agency survey, in 2019, of the mountain-related incidents reported from those who were in groups and got into distress, 7 percent died or went missing; however, this number rose to 16 percent for people who were climbing solo and ran into difficulty.
A Moment of Oblivion
During the entire time I have been hiking in Japan, the only thing I ever recall losing or leaving behind was a single MSR Mini Groundhog tent stake. It’s something I’m pretty proud of, I have to say. On one particular occasion, though, the prospect of ever seeing a rather expensive piece of kit again looked to be slim to none.
It was my second day in the Yatsugatake Mountains when I awoke to mist at the secluded Lake Futagoike. The plan was to summit Mt. Tateshina via Ogawaratoge Pass and return to the campsite. The first point of call was Lake Kikkoike, which looked in desperate need of some rain. Thereafter I took a rest at the carpark Ogawaratoge Pass which ordinarily affords a fine view of Mt. Tateshina. From the pass to the summit involves an elevation change of roughly 500 metres, though like most trails in Yatsugatake, it is steep, rocky, and tough going. In my hike report, I remark that two-thirds of the way up, I decided to turn back due to poor visibility and leave it for another day. This, however, is only part of the story.
At the two-thirds mark, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t taken any photos since I left the carpark and for good reason. At the rest stop, I remembered taking the camera out of the pack and placing it down beside me, then inexplicably walking off without it. The only thing I could think of that made me do that was a car alarm that perhaps put me off my game. As you can imagine, I wasted little time rip-roaring my way back down the mountainside. At this point I was about an hour into the climb, and I reckon it took about half that to get back down. All I could think of was how much of an idiot I was to leave it behind and about the hundred-to-one chance of ever seeing it again. The camera in question was a DSLR Pentax K-70 that I had only gotten months before and was attached to my favourite lens. To ease the pain somewhat, I met up with an elderly gent who, after I explained the grim state of affairs, tried to reassure me that someone probably handed it in at the small shop at the pass. I was doubtful this would be the case, though.
After returning to the pass, we entered the shop together, and he asked the shop staff if someone had handed in a camera. The shop staff paused momentarily before asking what brand of camera it was. I replied, and I watched as he gingerly reached behind the counter and handed it to me, thereby relieving me of my torment. The thought of losing the camera is one thing, but losing the memory card would have been too much. I thanked them both profusely. It reaffirmed my faith in humanity, and I’m forever thankful to the kind soul who turned it in.
Look, Hon, I’m Falling
Slipping incidents and falls are an all-too-common occurrence out on the trail, which in worse cases can lead to serious injury or death. Managing these risks requires thorough planning long before you ever reach the trailhead. These days, it’s pretty rare that I don’t check the Japanese interwebs for the latest trail reports to suss out recent landslides, dangerous drops, and exposure that may lead to falls along the routes I’m considering. However, even with vigilance, falls can and do happen. In my case, they have mostly been minor affairs and have usually taken place when I’ve drifted off trail or been unobservant, such as losing my footing on an eroded path. This time, though, I thought I was done.
For this hike, I set my sights on Mt. Akagi in central Gunma. Rather than catch a bus from Maebashi Station to the Mt. Akagi Visitor’s Center, I instead chose to approach via the Kanto Fureai Trail, which winds its way through seven prefectures in the Kanto area. Despite the fact that this trail is generally well maintained, there are some sections that, as I discovered on this hike, could use some pruning. In more than a few locations, it wasn’t exactly clear and appeared to peter out. At one such spot, I made a bad turn and headed down a rocky embankment. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t the right way, and I began to backtrack.
While scrambling up some largish rocks, I suddenly lost my balance and began to fall. I thought my footing was secure but slipped as there was next to no traction. On well-worn trails, these types of rocks get scuffed up and don’t pose an issue; off trail, however, they’re a recipe for disaster. Here is where everything in the environment slowed down. It’s hard to precisely put into words what I experienced, but rather than falling to the ground like a sack of spuds, I had time and the wherewithal to reach my arm out and brace myself to forestall the worst of the impact. It was one of the most surreal experiences. It may sound cliche, but it felt like something out of The Matrix. The upshot was some mild abrasions, a slightly sprained ankle that had recovered by the next morning, and a blow to my pride.
The experience of slow motion is a phenomenon often reported when people suddenly fear significant injury or death. In these frightening moments, our mind and attention are immediately focused, and we feel alert. This is thanks to the release of norepinephrine, which supports the fight-or-flight response and enhances our decision-making and, in turn, our ability to take action to increase our chances of survival. It is also surmised that the amygdala, a part of the brain implicated in fear, is highly active and distorts our estimates of time. A more trivial example of this happened earlier this year along a river bank I was photographing. With my camera wrapped around my neck, I stepped onto a slimy rock and spun 180 degrees. Once more, I felt my perception of time alter and was able to make the necessary adjustment to land on my feet. As fascinating as this perceptual awareness is, I hope it’s the last time I’m beholden to it.
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man
The last few years have been tough on a personal note, and to be frankly honest, this blogging niche hasn’t had its most stellar chapter. When RIDGELINEIMAGES.com first got going, popular blogs at the time proudly sported badges such as ‘Best Japanese Travel Blog’. I’d hazard a guess that the late noughties or thereabouts was the Golden Age of blogging. Over the intervening years, blog readership has dropped off, with much of the old blogosphere replaced by microblogging sites like Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, TikTok, and of course YouTubers, viz., social media. Not that I’m complaining, but it does show how we consume content has changed. The Internet was once more about websites (remember StumbleUpon?), whereas today it’s all about platforms like Facebook and YouTube. At the same time, blogs still play an important role; if they didn’t, I would have already thrown in the towel. Long-form content like this hopefully proves the point. Rather difficult with 280 or even 4000 characters, as Elon Musk recently proposed.
Along came the Rona. Surprisingly, this blog’s visitor numbers held up pretty well in 2020. However, with each ensuing wave of the virus, the number of regular website visitors began to fall away. Almost mathematically so. A combination of Japan’s strict border controls on non-resident foreign nationals, people returning to their home countries (and not being replaced), and a general decline in hiking as people focused on other aspects of their lives meant that these numbers were unlikely to return anytime soon. However, visitors to the blog were closer to the long-term average this past autumn, which is encouraging. As I write this, Japan doesn’t anticipate inbound tourism to recover to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025. Patience is a virtue, so as much as possible, I continue to do what I’m doing and avoid worrying about things I can’t control. Nuff said.
The beginning of the pandemic also happened to coincide with a skin cancer diagnosis on my forehead. You could have knocked me over with a feather when my local dermatologist confirmed a positive biopsy result for basal cell carcinoma (BCC). The frustrating part was that I’d been aware of the lesion for almost eight years. In its earliest days, it presented as a barely noticeable mark. At that time, I was swimming regularly at a sports club and assigned blame to a poorly fitted swimming cap. It was elastane, stitched on the underside, which I assumed was abrasive, as how else, could this blemish come about? I couldn’t have been more wrong. The years came and went, and I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was only after it became more obvious that I finally decided to have it looked at. The skin cancer required surgical excision followed by a skin graft, where a piece of skin was transplanted from around my collarbone to my forehead. The cancer hasn’t returned, and we remain on the lookout to ensure this continues to be the case.
If that wasn’t enough, about a year later my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which was thankfully picked up in the early stages. She too had surgery to remove the tumour, followed by several cycles of chemotherapy. Happily, Akiko is now ‘cancer-free’ and has returned to good health. Based on my personal experience, any spot or blemish that is new, different, or just not healing should be looked at by a health professional as soon as possible. I wish I had.
To close, I’d like to briefly touch on how I think hiking in Japan has changed since I began the blog. I’ll start with the 2014 Mount Ontake eruption that killed 57 people and left 6 others missing. The aftermath has had wide-reaching ramifications. The mountain was off limits for several years after the eruption, and a 1-kilometer exclusion zone still exists around the summit. Notably, the tragedy warned off many hikers and, at least anecdotally, a good number of ‘Yama girls’ or fledgling female climbers with a hankering for the outdoors. It’s also possible that they switched to auto-camping (car camping), which has come into vogue. Another is the number of solo hikers. I see far more solo seniors nowadays, as well as a fair number of women who favour hiking alone. The trouble with this is, people 60 or older are at higher risk of falling prey to mountain distress and injury, and being alone only adds to their woes.
And lastly, perhaps most importantly, is technology revolving around GPS navigation. Smartphones for navigation have become ubiquitous thanks to subscription services provided by outfits such as Yamap, Yamareco, and Yama to Kogen Chizu. About six years ago, I invested in a Garmin Oregon and have never looked back. Prior to that, I felt safe relying on a paper map along with the altimeter on my Casio Protrek. The problem with that is that the 1:50,000 scale Yama to Kogen Chizu maps don’t provide sufficient granularity. Contour lines are packed too close together, and minor waterways and bridges are often overlooked, making it tricky to pinpoint your precise location and remain ‘staying found’. It’s also worth mentioning Cocoheli, a membership-based helicopter search service that launched in 2016. Members receive a small, lightweight radio transmitter with a unique ID number that can transmit radio signals up to 16 kilometres. In the event that a member is lost or injured, a search helicopter is dispatched. This is an excellent initiative and well worth taking a look at.
With that said, there is much to look forward to in the coming year. I plan to add many more hiking routes and, if all goes well, attempt some long-distance trails I’ve been contemplating for far too long. Now that we’re getting back to ‘normal life’ after COVID-19, we can only hope this extends to life out on the trail and in mountain huts as well.
In closing, I’d like to ask you for your input and suggestions. What have you gotten the most value out of on the site over the years? And what types of content would you like to see more of in the future? Please add your thoughts in the comments below, and I’ll keep them in mind as I plan what’s in store for RIDGELINEIMAGES.com. I wish everyone a wonderful 2023 and, as always, safe hiking.