Five Hikes in Japan (aka Japan: Part 2)

While in Japan, we hiked the following:

  1. Mt. Fuji
  2. Shin-Hotaka Ropeway to Kamikochi (Japan Alps)
  3. From the top of the Happo One ski resort chair lifts to Happo Ike pond (Hakuba, Japan Alps)
  4. Kurama to Kibune (outside Kyoto)
  5. Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine (Yakushima)

A few general observations on hiking in Japan:

  • I underestimated the first few. My experience of hiking in Japan now is that it is almost invariably steep and usually involves a lot of stairs or rock scrambling. It was like doing hours of stair stepper. But prettier.

(Okay, to be honest, three of those photos are from the same hike. But seriously – all the hikes had either built stairs like this, rocks-as-stairs or rock scrambling like the last photo, or steps made out of the landscape.)

  • Japan is a small country with a lot of people. The hikes are not very remote and are generally fairly developed/built. And crowded.
  • MontBell seems to be the hiking gear brand of choice for Japanese, though I’m not sure if that’s because they offer rental equipment. Speaking of, it seemed like many people hiking Fuji rented their equipment – from packs to shoes. A good option if you don’t want to carry a pair of hiking shoes and warm clothes all over Japan in the middle of summer for the rest of your trip.
  • While some people were outfitted head to toe in serious hiking gear on each of these hikes… there were also pretty ladies in kimonos and sandals on at least one of them. And everything in between.
  • Japan’s got some pretty cool stuff to see on hikes.

Mt. Fuji

We hiked up Mt. Fuji from the Subaru Fifth Station on the Yoshida Trail. There are four main trails up Mt. Fuji. Yoshida is the most popular. You can begin Yoshida, and I believe the others, further down the mountain. I think most people begin at this or another fifth station, and the Subaru Fifth Station is where most of the tour busses and other public transportation go.

I wrote about getting to the Subaru Fifth Station in my main Japan post. We each packed a day pack (Dan used the top of his Osprey backpack and I used this awesome Sea to Summit sack) and then stuffed our packs (i.e., our luggage) in a somewhat random-seeming pay locker (1000 yen) in one of the buildings. Then we paid 1,000 yen donation to the folks asking for a donation and set off.

It started okay. The trail was relatively flat (even downhill – which ended up seeming unfortunate the following day when we hiked back) and wide for a while. There were a lot of people, but there was a lot of space. Before long, though, we started switchbacks up the mountain along a trail that soon had ropes on either side. It turned out that this would be what the rest of the trail was like.

I estimated it would take us 4-5 hours (max 6) to get to the hut where we would sleep that night. It took us 2.5. We were definitely moving, and more quickly than most people, but it was manageable. We were also willing to be jerks a little bit. Not too long after we started switchbacking, a few things happened to cause some backlogs: the trail narrowed a bit, the trail became very rocky and required some scrambling, and we began passing huts along the trail. At the first backlog, leaving a hut area, I was a bit flummoxed. I was sure it was an anomaly. But no, they got worse. Luckily, Dan and I were able to rock scramble around the crowds (still within the ropes of the trail, but to the sides where no one else was scrambling). We made it to the hut around 4ish, were asked to eat dinner right away, and enjoyed a beer at 3,400 meters looking down at the hikers continuing their way up the trail. This particular hut holds 300 people and was sold out, I believe. After a bit of a fiasco with our sleeping area (one sleeping setup was missing), Dan and I went to bed at 7pm and got a little bit of sleep. At 2am, we got up with the rest of the hikers that intended to make it to the summit by dawn. Using the previous day as my guide, I assumed it would take us less time to get to the summit than I’d originally estimated (1-2 hours), and I was worried about getting to the summit too early and being cold. I was already cold. So we set out around 2:30/2:40, and DAMN, we should have left earlier.

We almost missed sunrise. The trail up the mountain was SO crowded that we were literally in a traffic jam the whole way up. Sunrise was at 4:40, and we literally got there at 4:35 and raced to a spot where we could see. It was infuriating. The trail was narrower, so we couldn’t be jerks and go around anymore (though we did a bit early on – then we started getting chastised). Sometimes it narrowed to single-file from two, causing further backups. It was like step forward. Wait two minutes. Step forward. Wait two minutes. The sky started lightening around 3:15 or 3:30. It was pretty. But.

Thank goodness we made it for sunrise. It was really beautiful. I’m pretty sure that makes the whole experience worth it. And our hike around the rim of Mt Fuji was also really nice. We got to walk through a snow field and see the shadow of Mt. Fuji projected on the valley below it.

Then we were ready to go down. It was about 6am. We were among a crowd of hundreds of people trying to enter the trail (while some others were still coming UP the trail). By 7am, we had gone two switchbacks (maybe 100 yards). It was like that until we got back almost to our hut where the trail finally split off and there was a separate down trail that was even less pretty than the up trail, but was at least wide. Still steep, though, and mostly gravelly.

We made it all the way down by 9:30, and we were ready to be finished. I’m very glad for the experience, but I don’t think I’d ever do it again. At least not on a Saturday in July. (For the record, we were warned that it would be crowded; I just never imagined.)

 

Shin-Hotaka Ropeway to Kamikochi

This hike started from the top of the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway. I’d read in our Lonely Planet guidebook that you could hike this either direction, but that Kamikochi to the Shin Hotaka was very steep. We’d just hiked Mt. Fuji and just the timing and bus schedules made this direction more manageable. There was no information in the main Shin Hotaka observation deck building about hiking, nor were there clear signs upon exiting the building onto trails. We saw a couple going one direction, which seemed to be the only direction to go, and tried to ask if it was the way to Kamikochi. They told us that no, hiking to Kamikochi was ‘very hard mountain’ and that they thought it was ‘impossible from here.’ It was hard to know whether they actually meant impossible (like, that was the wrong direction), or it was just known to be a difficult hike. So we returned to the building to ask and got a sorta map written on the back of a receipt by the store clerk. We  determined that had been the right trail and set out. But all the signs were in Japanese until we got to a mountain hut.

So, the Japan Alps do have a good network of huts that allow for multi-day hiking trips. We were strongly advised to fill out a form in a small cabin before setting out regarding our intended itinerary or face a 50,000 yen fine, which we did. But we were only going for the day, of course. The trail was pretty steep uphill until we got to the only hut on our route, where we stopped to eat snacks. Then we continued on, and the rest of the trail was pretty steep downhill (many of it actual steps) into the Kamikochi valley. I think it took us about 3 hours total? This was the least developed of the hikes that we did, but it was still fairly developed. We passed a few people along the trail, but not many, so it was also the least crowded. We were trailing a trio of American guys that we then later saw in the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima – see, small country.

Kamikochi was beautiful. It’s not really a town (at least what we could see). There’s a bridge on the south end, where we arrived, and then another bridge about half a mile north on the north end that crosses the river. On the side of the river we arrived on, that half mile is dotted with several ryokans (one of which had a public onsen that closed at 3pm and we arrived at 2:45, sadly, so we didn’t go). We walked to the north end and crossed over. That side had a couple restaurants/stores and the bus terminal. I think that’s all there is.

Hike to Happo Ike

I believe ike means pond. This hike is from the top of the Happo One ski resort chair lifts (a gondola and two chair lifts) to a pond. The trail continues further to the summit (dake) of Mt. Karamatsudake, but we didn’t have the energy or time for that – we wanted to get back to our Hakuba ryokan and relax! Also, the clouds were rolling in and we didn’t want to get caught in a storm. I was less worried about hiking in the rain and more worried that the lifts would stop operating in a thunderstorm and we wouldn’t be able to get back down in a timely fashion.

Again, this trail was super rocky and pretty steep. Partly, this was the route we took up. On the way down, we took a slightly different route that had more built boardwalks and steps that made it easier. The views of Hakuba and the valley and the surrounding mountains were beautiful. And we saw (and walked through!) snow fields! For the top half of the hike we were primarily in clouds, including at the pond, which made it look very misty and dreamy.

I think we got to the top of the lifts around 1 and were back to the lifts by… 2:30? So this wasn’t a super-long hike. But it was really pretty. And made us sorta feel like we earned our onsen :-).

Kibune to Kurama

I don’t have a lot to say about this one. Read this for more information, better pictures, and a generally more positive perspective. (Note: we did this in the opposite direction of that description, as we wanted to eat above the river before starting.) As I mentioned in a previous post, the heat and humidity while we were in Kyoto killed my soul a little bit, and getting out of the city in the mountains a little bit didn’t help. At all. Plus, it was a Saturday, and this is a common excursion from Kyoto for tourists and Kyoto residents alike. It wasn’t crowded like Mt. Fuji by any means, but it wasn’t remote at all and we were hiking with many other people. This is the hike that many women in kimonos were hiking! With slow, short steps, as their strides were limited by their outfits. They looked wonderful with their perfect makeup and nicely done hair, while I was sweating like crazy and a little grumpy. It’s almost not even right to call this a hike. It was more like a stair climb to a summit and then a stair climb down, via a temple. We only took one picture.

However. On a day that is not 95+ degrees F with 95% humidity, I can see where this would be a really lovely outing, with or without the crowds.

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Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine

This is one of several popular hikes on Yakushima. The other we strongly considered was a full-day hike to Jomon Sugi, the oldest and largest cedar on the island, estimated to be 3,000-7,000 years old (!!). However, this was the last full day of our trip, and we were staying in a fancy hotel, and we wanted some time to relax, unwind, and enjoy ourselves. So we opted for Shiratani Unsuikyo, which offers three different loops of varying lengths. We essentially did all three, except for portion of the shortest one that didn’t overlap with the other two. I estimate that it was about five miles total??

To get there, you drive up a very windy, often one-lane road with very beautiful views of the valley and the town of Miyanoura on the coast below. We passed a family of monkeys on the side of the road! (We’d also seen monkeys in Kamikochi walking along the bank of the river.) The parking lot was full when we got there, but there they let us park on the side because we had an itty-bitty rental car. Others had to park further down the mountain road and walk up. It cost 500 yen (or maybe 300?) per person to enter.

The path started with boardwalk and steps, but once we veered off onto the longer loops, we found ourselves in what felt like very deep, very misty forest. We passed several very old cedars, all of which had signs marking them and observation platforms (usually with a bench) for sitting and admiring. There are also several large ‘second generation’ cedars in which a seed germinates in the stump of an older cedar. In a few places, there were signs describing how the forest has been cleared and replanted to some extent, and that all of the cedars in a particular area are from a ‘mother cedar’ in the area.

It poured on us at one point and was generally just wet and misty, so a lot of my photos have the film of mist over them. Apologies. We were able to hike to a rock summit with a really nice view of the valley. It was cloudy so pictures don’t do it justice, but it was a nice panoramic view. We had planned to eat lunch up there, but no food was allowed (understandable since it’s a popular hike and it would probably get too crowded having people hang out up there too long), so we ended up having to eat our hotel-boxed lunches (rice, fish, and orange slices) off the side of the trail soon after.

So that’s my experience of hiking in Japan. I would love to do more, especially multi-day hikes, in the Alps. We saw such cool stuff everywhere though, despite my grumbling about crowds and heat. Super awesome experience!

 

 

 

Japan – Part 1: Itinerary

This will be my first of at least three posts about my trip to Japan (which I’m currently on – four days to go! – but I probably won’t be when I publish this). In this one, I’m just going to share my itinerary. And some observations. In the other two, I’ll talk about food and hiking. Of course.

You can visualize our itinerary and get more details here on the Google map I made. It went like this:

  • Tuesday, July 4: Flew to Japan via Toronto from BWI. Arrived in Haneda airport in Tokyo a bit late due to a mechanical issue (just what you want to hear before embarking on a 13-hour flight around the world, eh?), around 4 or 5 pm on July 5.
  • Wednesday, July 5: Basically lost this day by crossing the international date line. But arrived at our airbnb in the Bunkyo neighborhold in Tokyo (near Ueno). Got dinner nearby (our first meal in Japan!) at a nearby izakaya called Shinsuke, recommended by our Lonely Planet guidebook.
  • Thursday, July 6: Walked around the Imperial Palace gardens. Subwayed to Shibuya to see Shibuya Crossing (a very busy intersection), found ramen lunch in a small side street. Walked up Cat Street (boutiques and other shops) to the Harajuku neighborhood. Fancy stores. Then we needed to kill time before going to Kodokan (judo training facility and museum), so we crossed over to the Meiji-jingu grounds (a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken). We walked around the Gyoen (inner garden) and up to the Yoyogi-Keon (a park). Then we made it to the Kodokan. After touring the small museum, we realized there would be a competition in 1.5 hours. So we left, got a beer at Hub, a chain ‘British’ pub that we’ve seen in almost every city here, and came back to watch. It was quite entertaining. Finally went back to the apartment for a bit before heading out for conveyor belt sushi dinner in Ueno, recommended by our airbnb host. 33,631 steps that day.
  • Friday, July 7: Woke up early (Ok, I always wake up early. This means I woke Dan up early. Maybe before 6). Went to stand in line for super-fresh sushi at Tsukiji Market, the largest fish market in the world. We considered waiting in line for the most popular Sushi Dai but decided instead to wait in line for the second most popular Daiwa Sushi. It was amazing. Walked around the nearby Ginza neighborhood. Then did the Lonely Planet guide recommended walking tour of Ueno and Yanaka, including the main building of the Tokyo National Museum. Which was super cool – the main building is organized chronologically with select pieces/ exhibits showcasing a lot of Japan’s history. Then a sake and beer at a hostel in Asakusa followed by tonkatsu ramen dinner at a chain ramen place (Ippudo). Then Tokyo Sky Tree! We arrived right at dusk and were 450 meters up to see the city light as night fell. It was pretty cool. All indoor, so I wasn’t freaking out like I did at the Eiffel Tower. There was some weird anime film projected on the walls while we were there about a villain trying to capture Sky Tree? It was super loud and not my favorite thing.  27,059 steps.
  • Saturday, July 8: Mt. Fuji day!! I’ll talk more about the actual hike in my hiking post. We took a bus from Shinjuku Station to the Subaru Fifth Station. We’d reserved and bought the bus tickets a week prior, and already couldn’t take the bus of our choosing. So we went an hour later than we would have liked (and the bus was 45 minutes late to the destination due to crazy traffic leaving Tokyo all the way into the mountains), but it was fine. Started hiking just after 2pm. Stayed in the Fujisan Hotel hut at 3,400 meters that I’d reserved months ago via Mt Fuji Hut Reservations Service. 15,834 steps.
  • Sunday, July 9: Woke up (without really having been asleep much) just before 2am. Left the hut at 2:30 or so. Again, I’ll talk about this more later. But we almost missed the sunrise due to RIDIC TRAFFIC (yes, on foot). I have never experienced anything like it. But we made it just in time and saw the sunrise, which was awesome. Then, after circling the summit, we experienced more traffic going down, but were back at the Fifth Station before 9:30am. Grabbed our packs from the locker we’d stuffed them into the previous day, got on a bus bound for Kawaguchi-ko station, and then took some trains to Matsumoto in the Japan Alps. Including this cute Thomas the Engine train. Got slightly lost before finding our Matsumoto Marunouchi hotel. Dinner at an izakaya found on Yelp. We were the only customers. The attentive proprietress (read: we had an audience the entire time) spoke no English. It was delicious, but an experience. Also walked around Matsumoto a little. It is SO cute. There is a lovely little street along the river with several coffee shops and small restaurants as well as shops carrying pottery, printed paper, printed cloths, fans, etc. Very charming and pretty stuff. (There is also a castle in Matsumoto that we walked by while lost looking for our hotel, but didn’t really see otherwise, which is a little too bad.) 24,833 steps.
  • Monday, July 10: Lovely hotel buffet breakfast in a fancy dining room, followed by an early bus further into the Alps to Hiroyu Onsen and then a transfer to another bus to the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway. The ropeway was a set of two trams up the mountain to an AMAZING view. Also to the start of a hike over the mountain to Kamikochi in a valley on the other side. Kamikochi was not really a town. It was more like a series of ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and small restaurants, plus a bus terminal, on both sides of a river surrounded by incredible mountains. Really lovely. Returned to Matsumoto by bus. Dinner at a cold soba and tempura place found on Yelp. A specialty of this region is horse meat, including raw horse meat. Dan ordered it. I had a bite, yes. 24,727 steps.
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View from the top of the Shin Hotaka Ropeway
  • Tuesday, July 11: More Alps. We left Matsumoto after another delicious breakfast and headed to Hakuba, a ski town and site of some of the 1998 Winter Olympics. We took a bus from the train station to the bus terminal in the center of town and then found our way to the ryokan  (Shiramou-so) we were staying at (it was a two-minute walk!). Even though it was only noon, they let us check in, drop our stuff, and leave immediately to go for another hike. We took a gondola and two chair lifts up the Happo One ski resort and then hiked to Happo Ike pond. We were back at the ryokan by 3, just in time for the skies to open up. We had our first onsen (hot spring) experience and then relaxed in our room wearing yukatas (light kimonos) until our DELICIOUS ryokan dinner, and then relaxed some more. 15,623 steps.
  • Wednesday, July 12: Early morning onsen time at the ryokan followed by amazing ryokan breakfast. Then we walked to the ski jump that was used in the 1998 Olympics, and is still used today. We weren’t planning on it, but ended up taking the chair lift to the top. It was actually so cool. And terrifying. Then a series of trains, including our first Shinkansen (bullet train), along the west coast for a bit and then down to Osaka. This was our longest day of travel (almost 7 hours total), but that included layovers, etc. and didn’t seem that bad. And then… OSAKA at night. We came here to eat. And we did. We first dropped our stuff at our hotel (Hotel Code) and then did the Lonely Planet guide walking tour from our hotel through Amerika Mura, down the Shinsaibashi shopping street, across the Ebisu-bashi bridge, and along the Dotombori street. Mostly along Dotombori, we ate some takoyaki and then okonomiyaki that I’ll talk more about in my food post. We also drank a fair amount. We ended the night looking for a simple bar and ended up in a place where… hmm. It wasn’t unclear. Two young women were serving, and there were only male customers. They served us some sake very nicely (one using google translate on her phone to confirm we didn’t want food and to see how we liked the sake). And then we left. It was awkward. Osaka was awesome though. My favorite big city. Super funky, super hipstery. Lots of lights and energy and people out.
  • Thursday, July 13: Osaka morning. We headed straight to the Kuromon Market, which was a street food paradise. I’ll say more in my food post. It was incredible. There wasn’t much else we wanted to do in Osaka, so we trained to Kyoto, dropped our bags in a locker in Kyoto Station, and made our way to Fushimi Inari-Taisha, a large mountainside complex of many Shinto shrines and torii gates. We took a detour off the main path and ended up on a hiking trail to the top of the mountain, where we met up again with the main path. This was the hottest day ever, and I was fairly unhappy. We finished, grabbed our packs from Kyoto Station, and made our way to our airbnb where I passed out from heat exhaustion. Or just took a nap. We went to dinner at a nearby okonomiyaki place recommended by our airbnb hosts. 20,815 steps.
  • Friday, July 14: Kyoto. Kyoto has amazing temples. We started the day at Nanzen-ji, a large temple not far from us. Then we made our way across town to Otsuka, a small steak restaurant, for a truly delicious wagyu beef lunch recommended by one of Dan’s colleagues. We hadn’t originally planned it, but since we were over there, we walked through the Arashiyama bamboo grove and then along the river. We then intended to do a walking tour of Southern Higashiyama from our guidebook, but ended up on the right bus going the wrong direction, so instead took a bus tour around Kyoto and got off in a more northerly bit to visit Ginkaku-ji, a temple, and walk the Path of Philosophy. We ate dinner of sort of Japanese tapas at a small restaurant that also served fancy cotton candy by day. We’d passed it on the previous night in our neighborhood. 28,824 steps.
  • Saturday, July 15: Kyoto still. We spent the morning doing the walking tour we’d intended to do the previous day and visited two more temples: Koidi-ji and Shoren-in. Shoren-in was very close to our apartment, and less crowded and very lovely. Then we took the train out of the city to Kibune, where we walked along the road until we found a restaurant that would take us (sans reservations, on a busy Saturday) for kawa doko – eating a set course meal while seated on platforms over the river. It was great. Then we did the hike over the mountain to the next valley over, Kurama, and trained back to Kyoto. That night was the first of two eve festivals for Gion, an annual festival in Kyoto involving portable shrines (floats). On the 17th, the floats would parade through the city, but were parked for visiting as part of the street festival before then. It was awesome to be part of this. We ate lots of food from vendors. 28,664 steps.
  • Sunday, July 16: We left Kyoto and headed to Onomichi, a small part town that is the beginning or end of the Shimanami Kaido – a 75km bike route across bridges and islands between Onomichi and Imabari. We stayed at Hotel Cycle, which is part of a larger market that contains the hotel, a coffee shop, a restaurant, a gift/wares shop, and a Giant bicycle store. Except for the Giant, they are all essentially the same company, it seems. We arrived too early to check in, so got ice cream and sat on the outside chairs to relax. We got our rental bikes from the Giant, ate dinner at the restaurant, and just took it very easy. 10,301 steps.
  • Monday, July 17: We got up early to take a 7:10 cycle express bus to Imabari where we started cycling around 8:30am and did the entire Shimanami Kaido! We were tired and hot (and a little sunburned) by the end, but I think this was my favorite thing. It was so awesome. Bridges, gorgeous views, citrus groves, gelato, biking. All the things. When we were done, we showered in the public shower stalls outside our hotel, relaxed for a bit in the coffee shop, and then made our way to our Hiroshima airbnb. We walked to dinner at Okonomi Mura – a crazy three story building filled with various okonomiyaki shops. 7,016 steps. But 76km of biking!
  • Tuesday, July 18: Dan wasn’t feeling well this day, so we took a super relaxed morning. Then we visited the A-bomb dome, the Peace Memorial Park, and the Peace Memorial Museum. I actually learned a lot about the development of nuclear weapons and some of the politics and the museum. This was generally very sobering. Afterward, we ate lunch at a place recommended by Lonely Planet, which was really cute and wonderful, and then had a lazy afternoon. We were really losing steam by this point in our trip. We went to a Japanese curry place around the corner from our apartment recommended by our airbnb host. 8,905 steps.
  • Wednesday, July 19: We traveled via Shinkansen to Kagoshima, another port town. From there, we took a taxi to the ferry terminal and then a hydrofoil ferry to Yakushima. The car rental company we’d booked through met us as we disembarked the ferry and miraculously handed Dan keys to drive away, on the left side of the road. He drove us to the south side of the island to our hotel (JR Hotel Yakushima), which was also heaven. After settling in, we partook of the onsen and then the amazing set course dinner. 5,949 steps.
  • Thursday, July 20: Last real vacation day! After the excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel, we (Dan) drove back north and we made our way up the mountain to the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine where we hiked for approximately 5 miles by waterfalls, across streams, and past HUGE very old cedars that the island is known for (the largest/oldest, which we did not see, is estimated to be 3000-7000  years old). We then stopped at the Senpiro waterfall on the way back to the hotel. Our evening was very similar to the previous… except! After dinner we made our way to the Hirauchi Onsen, which is part of the rocky sea shore and only accessible within two hours of low tide. Low tide that night was around 11pm, and we arrived sometime after 9. It was dark and we had trouble finding it, but we made it, and it was a really incredible experience. Unlike other onsen we’d been to, it was mixed gender. There were other people there, but no staff or system or lights or anything – just an honesty pay box and a place on the sidewalk to leave one’s shoes. There were several pools. It was hard to tell how many with no light. And there were STARS! It was amazing. A kind of bizarre, otherworldly sort of experience – bathing with strangers on the beach in the almost pitch darkness, staring at the sky. 15,751 steps.
  • Friday, July 21: We ate another great breakfast, then left :-(. We returned our rental car at the tiny Yakushima airport and took a flight from there back to Kagoshima, then Kagoshima to Tokyo. Then, after a bit of delay, we flew 11 hours to Toronto and then a few more hours back to Baltimore. All told, it was four flights and over 30 hours of travel. It was nice to get home.

And that’s that! The trip was really incredible. It all worked out almost exactly is planned, which is amazing. We had no major (or really even minor) disasters. Partly that was due to a ton of planning (it takes hours and hours and hours, and recommendations from friends are super helpful – feel free to ask me if you want more information about how we went about planning this), but it was mostly due to just how organized, efficient, and punctual traveling in Japan is. A few general observations about the trip and Japan:

  • Obviously Dan and I prioritize being outside (hiking, walking, gardens, paths) to doing more cultural things like museums. But Japan has it all, whatever you’re interested in.
  • The food is delicious. But I missed vegetables. I eat so many vegetables.
  • Trains not only run on time, but run super-frequently. Everywhere. Which was awesome.
  • Japan is hot and humid in July. I’m not sure if this is consistently true or if it was just the weather while we were there, but Kyoto was by far the hottest. Tokyo was warm, but not as bad. Osaka was also probably hot, like Kyoto, but we were really only there and out and about at night. I had some periods of misery in Kyoto.
  • There are many wonderful hikes in Japan. I’m sure we missed a bunch. But based on the ones we didn’t miss… they are also crowded. Our hike from the Shin Hotaka Ropeway to Kamikochi was the least crowded.
  • People stand on the right and walk on the left on escalators (opposite of DC, which makes sense, because Japan also drives on the opposite side of the road). Except in Osaka, they do the opposite – stand on the right and walk on the left.
  • Japan has got it figured out with the ryokans. Bathe in hot spring waters, eat delicious food, sleep in a super-relaxing room on futons and tatami mats, repeat.
  • We never had to use many of the Japanese phrases I spent time trying to learn. Even in the more rural areas, there was enough English to get by.

I’ll try to get the other two posts up soon!

Spring Hiking (Part 1)

I already wrote a spring hiking post, but I’ve been fortunate enough to go twice this spring. Here’s what I did for my first trip, which I took with my friend Easter weekend. We were both pretty busy at that point (my friend was in the final stretch of law school, and I was in Budget season), so we decided to make it easy by going to the AT in Maryland. The AT goes through a pretty narrow section of Maryland, has a lot of entry points, and is only an hour or so from both DC and Baltimore, so it’s easy to get to and requires little planning.


***Quick aside: I generally spend a lot of time planning these trips. That was true when we lived in Atlanta (and similarly would plan at least one trip each spring and fall), and it’s true here. I think my criteria are fairly simple:

  • Within max 3 hours drive (here in Maryland, we sometimes stretch this a bit since most of the VA and WVA hiking is juuuust a little further)
  • Reasonable length for two at-least-partial days of hiking (so… anywhere from 8-20ish miles)
  • Has backcountry camp sites

In addition to those essentials, I have some additional preferences:

  • Loop. But out and back is fine
  • Elevation change
  • Water source
  • Campground or other car camping available near trailhead for Friday night
  • Haven’t done before

I have a hard time finding ideal candidates, and then it takes a long time to find ones that meet some of the criteria, to compare them to each other, to find nearby car camping spots, to make sure there are backcountry camping spots, to figure out permits if necessary, etc. If you have suggestions for resources, let me know! I frequently use midatlantichikes.com and backpacker.com.

In any case, I hope this blog can be a resource for you for hikes that generally meet those criteria. Aside over.***


Needless to say, I did not put a lot of time or effort into planning this trip. And you get what you plan for. While the AT in Maryland is nice and convenient, it is not the most memorable nor scenic part of the AT. And the easy access means that it’s easily accessible to lots of people. I wouldn’t say the trail was crowded exactly, but it wasn’t very remote. We were never very far from a road, and our campsite (near the Crampton Gap shelter at mile 1029.4 of the AT, according to cnyhiking.com) was only 0.5 miles from Gathland State Park and its access road – which allowed for our nearby campers (we were one of maybe six groups in this camping area near the shelter) to haul in beer their friends brought for them and have a pizza delivered by one of their mothers.

Still, lovely to be in the out of doors, as always, and to spend quality time with my good friend and dog.

We hiked from South Mountain Inn to the Crampton Gap shelter (with an additional short addition to Gathland State Park), which was a little over 7 miles, and hiked back the following day – we essentially did this hike backwards.

On Saturday, we took a break (after only 2 miles) at the recently renovated Rocky Run shelter. We met a volunteer there who was hiking out from another shelter further down the path that he said was used more by locals for partying and therefore had a lot of crap. We took the same break on Sunday on our way back, this time going further to check out that other shelter (and let Clio run in the water that was down there to cool off – it was over 90 degrees that Sunday!). It was definitely much more rundown. No pictures of that one.

The trail itself was largely on a ridge. There wasn’t a ton of elevation change. It was pleasant and walkable.

The main points of interest were Lamb’s Knoll and White Rock Cliffs. We stopped at White Rock Cliffs both ways for pictures.

After arriving at the shelter and claiming our campsite, we continued on without our packs to Gathland State Park. The land used to belong to a Civil War journalist named George Alfred Townsend, who for some reason was nicknamed Gath. It has a monument to Civil War correspondents. It had a few other buildings and nice open spaces as well. There were some people in costume and filming (I think) in one of the ruins. Or maybe just taking photos. I only got a picture of the monument.

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After that, we relaxed at our campsite. We had a fire in the evening, watched the sunset, and I enjoyed early morning coffee and relaxing by myself before others started to get up.

On Sunday, we hiked back to the Old South Mountain Inn. It was hot. I got sunburned. After the hike was over, we stopped for lunch at Brew’d Pub on our drive home. I had a saison and a local wild boar kielbasa (sans bun). Clio rested her overheated and weary body on the patio. Mm mmm.

Dan and I are booked pretty solid this summer. We’re already talking about when to go in the Fall, but we have been invited to four weddings in five weeks between September and October (prime fall hiking months). At this particular moment in time, I’m feeling way too busy and reluctant to give up weekends at home. Plus, Dan will have just started a new job in August and won’t be able to get so many weekends off. So. We’ll see. Maybe it’s a really good thing I went twice this spring.

Spring Hiking

I want to tell you about two hiking trips I’ve been on recently, but first, a few updates, mostly about my general state of mind:

  • My job is to assist in developing the President’s Budget (or rather, the small portions of it that fall into my portfolio area, which are all health policy related). The FY 2018 President’s Budget (which is a proposal to Congress for how to fund the government and a grand statement of the White House’s priorities) will be released soon. So I have been working more than usual. This time of year is usually in January, but because this is a new administration, it’s now.
  • I ran the Sole of the City 10K (pace: 8:09, although the last five miles were 7:51 – the first was so crowded) and the North Face Endurance Challenge trail half marathon (pace: 9:34) in April. They were both so fun!

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  • I am tired. Not physically so much (though a few weeks ago, I was that too – sleeping better now). But mentally. Emotionally. I haven’t had a lot of recharge time over the past month, month and a half, and I’m feeling it. I’ve been working a lot, busy on the weekends, around people a lot a lot, and just going going going. I haven’t meal prepped since I wrote about meal prepping, and I’ve run out of pre-made meals in the freezer, so this week I’ve been eating lunch out (hallelujah for sweetgreen order-ahead-and-pickup). This week feels a little better, even though I’ve had something every evening which has meant that I’ve had only around an hour at home each night before trying to get to bed. We have guests coming into town for the weekend tomorrow. Next weekend I’ll be in Denver (BolderBoulder and sister visit!) and the following weekend I’ll be in Grand Rapids (family trip and fishing!). The weekend after that is already super-packed. It’s just a lot. I’m trying to figure out strategies to recharge as I go, instead of needing a whole day (or even a whole evening, because those are rare too) with nothing planned and little human interaction.
  • Last week might have been less stressful and busy in the evenings had we not bought a new car! Mine broke the previous Friday night. On that Saturday, we made the decision to get a new car instead of fixing it. And we planned to shop on Sunday… but dealerships (and things like CarMax) are closed on Sundays in Maryland! ARGH. So we spent five hours on Tuesday and four hours on Thursday night dealing with that. And now. New car!! Hooray!

Hiking Trip 1 (most recent)

Despite feeling very tempted last weekend to stay home (see above), I joined Dan and another couple for a short (9-mile) backpacking adventure on the AT outside of Harrisburg, PA to Pulpit Rock and the Pinnacle. We originally planned to drive up Friday night, but due to stress of car shopping (and not being able to pack on Thursday night), we decided to go early Saturday. Our friends were driving down from Rochester, NY and had spent Friday night further north in Pennsylvania. Saturday’s weather forecast was for steady rain, but we met up at the trailhead around 11am anyway. We decided to give the weather a chance to resolve itself, and headed first to Hijinx Brewery then Taqueria Los Amigos in Allentown followed by Funk Brewery in Emmaus, PA.

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We made it back to the trailhead by 4 (still raining), made a plan to hike only to the AT shelter about a mile away and hang out there till Sunday morning, and set out.

Unfortunately, the shelter was super-crowded. So we continued on, hoping the rain would let up soon.

We made it to Pulpit Rock, enjoyed the almost-view, and continued on….

The rain never let up, so around 7pm and maybe 4.5 or 5 miles in, we finally called it quits and set up camp. My sleeping bag and pad had gotten a little wet around the edges (note to self – buy a rain cover for my backpack), but they were fine. It was lovely to take off all my wet clothes. Dan and I ate a sad dinner in our tent (sandwiches he’d made for himself, trail mix and a Larabar for me) and were asleep by 9. The rain ended sometime overnight. I of course work up early and was out of the tent before 6. It was chilly, but nice to just sit and enjoy the surroundings (and coffee with hot chocolate). By the time my fellow campers were up, it had become overcast again. We stopped at The Pinnacle further along our way and again enjoyed almost-views. But as we hiked on, the sun finally came out. We stopped to enjoy a mid-morning coffee (spiked with fireball that our friends brought) in a field before finishing the hike.

So that was that! As tired as I was (and annoyed at the rain), I’m still of course glad I went. This got long, so I’ll write about my other spring hike in another post :-).

Revelstoke

Six or so years ago, my husband and his best friend spent a day skiing with a classmate of my husband’s and her father. They raved about the skiing in this place called Revelstoke in British Columbia, Canada. I think it was a new resort at the time. (Wikipedia just told me it opened in December 2007.) My husband and his best friend have fantasized about skiing there ever since.

The two of them have been skiing together out west at least once a year (and usually more) for the past ten years. For the first six of those years, it was just the two of them and occasionally me and/or someone else who was available for a somewhat random ski hill meetup, like with Dan’s classmate. But for the past four years, it has been a bigger group/reunion, with a core group of six of us that all went to the same college, plus a few other friends or significant others each year. Four years ago, we rented a house outside Park City. I believe there were 7 of us that  year. The next year, we got a house (the best house ever) in Big Sky, Montana. We were… 12? that year. Again, friends from college, Atlanta, a friend of mine from Madison, and friends of friends. Last year was thrown together a little late – we were 8 staying in a not-as-great house in Salt Lake City and driving to ski resorts, but I had one of my favorite days skiing ever at Powder Mountain. And this year, finally, we made the trek to Revelstoke, Canada. This year there were 8 of us total.

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It took 17 hours of traveling to get there, and 17 hours to get home yesterday. Both travel days, we had to wake up at 3 am local time. But it was worth it.

We got to see friends:

 

There were some amazing views of Revelstoke and the Columbia River:

 

And Lake Louise in Banff:

 

Plus I got to go for a short 3-mile hike, all by myself, fresh tracks, in Mount Revelstoke National Park (with snow up to my waist when I accidentally stepped off the path – the pictures don’t quite capture it):

 

And see wildlife. In the middle of the Trans-Canada Highway:

 

And eat good food. Some of which was only good-tasting if not good for me:

As far as eating goes, our MO has become a huge Costco shopping trip as soon as we arrive to purchase food for the week. Each person/couple takes a night to cook and populates a shared grocery shopping list in advance. We spend the last night (or in this case, two) eating leftovers. One or two people also take on sandwich-making duties each morning for everyone for on-mountain lunches. It works out great. Our Costco trip for 8 people this time for the week was under $500. That’s about $60/person for food for the week. Not bad. And everyone makes really good food. In the picture above, Dan is eating a taco filled with mole chicken we made together. For dinners, we ate:

  • Saturday (arrival day): burgers and sausages, salad, and sweet potato fries
  • Sunday: meatballs and pasta (atop kale for me)
  • Monday: homemade pizza
  • Tuesday: chicken in mole sauce, plus taco fixings
  • Wednesday: tofu stir fry
  • Thursday and Friday: leftovers

We did pretty well this time not wasting any food. In past years, we’ve eaten at least one dinner out. This time, we didn’t do any (though I did fill up on that poutine in the picture above on the last day at the Lake Louise ski resort), but we probably should have eaten out the last night. We were really scrounging. But we got back from Lake Louise late after a harrowing 3.5 hour drive through fog and snowy roads along the Trans-Canada Highway and then had to get up at 3 am the next morning to drive 2.5 hours more, so eating out wasn’t really in the cards.

I skied 4 days – 3 at Revelstoke and 1 at Lake Louise. Two friends and I (we are known as the ‘Blue Crew,’ but have sort of graduated to the ‘Blue-Black Crew’) took a private lesson on the second afternoon that was a lot of fun. I like doing stuff that challenges me (i.e., not just the blue groomers), but I like having my hand held when I do it.

Revelstoke was amazing. It has the longest vertical in North America (5,620 feet). The longest run (the green run that goes from the top all the way down) is 9.5 miles long. It was exhausting. We got a fair amount of snow mid-week and had a lot of powder on Wednesday, which was incredible. So fun. Longer lift lines, unfortunately, but worth it.

Lake Louise was okay. It was kind of icy in parts and had less varied/interesting terrain. The view across the valley of Lake Louise was incredible, though. Pictures don’t do any of this justice. And I was sort of cold that day and pretty tired from the week. I only skied about 3.5 hours. Then I went to the pub and drank a hot toddy and ate poutine.

I always try to hike at least one day while on these ski trips. I love hiking in the snow. I’ve been fortunate to find  hikes that are manageable without snow shoes. (Except for that time two years ago in Big Sky when Dan and another friend and I hiked six miles into a canyon and definitely should have had snow shoes.) This hike was easily accessible from town, didn’t feel too remote to make me feel nervous, and elevated my heart rate at times but didn’t leave me exhausted. It was a rest day, after all.

All in all, a very good trip. I’m very glad to be home, though, and back to my routine. Like  most Sundays, yesterday I grocery shopped and made lunch for the week. And I was back at CrossFit this morning at 5:30 am…

The Nearest Outdoors

I’ve been feeling a little stifled by the urbanness of my environment lately, so I’ve been trying to get outside as much as possible. Our backpacking adventure in Virginia a few weeks ago was great, but isn’t getting me through. So I took the opportunity a few weekends in a row to go to Patapsco State Park, which includes several different areas across central Maryland. I most frequently go to the Orange Grove and Avalon areas, because they are the closest, but I’ve been to several of the other areas and they are also nice.

I did the same quick trail on both of these two weekends, once just with my dog and the second time with Dan and the dog. The trail is called Buzzard Rocks, which I got to from the Orange Grove area parking area and by crossing the swinging bridge over the Patapsco River. It starts out very steeply but then evens out and is fairly flat. The leaves were lovely. Afterward, on the first weekend, Clio took a dip in the water.

Weekend 1:

 

Weekend 2:

 

Patapsco is also great for picnics and mountain biking. Last summer, I planned a surprise picnic for Dan to celebrate the end of his residency, and I tried to do it in one of the many Patapsco pavilions. I quickly learned that the largest pavilions start getting rented out in January (or before) for summer weekends, so we weren’t able to do it there. (We ended up doing it in a county park.) There were many smaller picnic pavilions available, but either they were to small or they didn’t allow alcohol (some do, some don’t).

Before the picnic, I surprised Dan with a mountain biking adventure in the McKeldin area, which was a ton of fun. Until Dan got a flat tire and we had to bushwhack our way to a road so that I could uber back to the start and then come back to pick him and the bikes up. Anyway, I’d like to do more mountain biking there. We’re talking about giving each other mountain bikes for Christmas. We’ll see. MTB Project is a great resource for finding mountain bike routes.

Anyway. A decent place to get outdoors.

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Virginia Backpacking – AT-Mau-Har Trail

Guys, I’ve been busy. And haven’t had much to write about. But you know what’s great? My weekends have been busy, but I’ve been home for most of them! Last Fall, I was gone almost every weekend, and this year, I’m here! What’s been keeping me busy, then? I don’t know really. The half marathon was three weekends ago (and so fun!). We had several friends over (both runners and non) for brunch afterwards. I made breakfast tacos: scrambled eggs, black beans, sautéed onions and peppers, tortillas, shredded cheese, cilantro, etc. Plus coffee and mimosas. And tomorrow, I’m taking my Project Management Professional certification exam. Studying for that has kept me busy. Will I be less busy now? Who knows. The election is tomorrow, and I expect work to get very busy after that (now I’m finishing this post days later, and the election is over. Ugh).

In mid-October, Dan and I did a two-night backpacking trip with a friend of mine that lives in DC. It was a three-day weekend for me, so I was willing to drive a little further and wanted to get two nights in. We ruled out Shenandoah due to no campfires and picked a loop with the Mau-Har Trail (also called the Three Ridges hike) in the George Washington National Forest. It was a little short for two nights, but we made it work. The total hike length was 14.4 miles, but a significant portion of it did not have water access, so we planned our camping accordingly.

Last Fall, our hiking plans were foiled by intense rain due to Hurricane Joaquin. This year, Hurricane Nicole and other meteorological activity threatened us – but we powered through.

We didn’t get started until about 5pm on Saturday and hiked only 1.6 miles to the Maupin shelter – in the pouring rain. My friend was smart and had brought a waterproof cover for her backpack. Dan and I don’t have them, so hoped for the best, which turned out just fine. There were plenty of campsites around the shelter. Some people were already there, but they weren’t planning to sleep in the shelter. Dan and I also decided to sleep in our tent, but my friend did not have a footprint for her tent so decided to sleep in the shelter. Before we went to sleep, all the campers hung out in the shelter to keep dry, which was nice. Overnight, the rain stopped but it was SUPER windy. Thank god no trees fell on us!

 

The next morning was chilly but sunny. And windy. The higher we hiked, the harder the wind blew, and it was a little crazy at times. There were some really great views.

We finally were sheltered from the wind on the other side of the mountain. We hiked about 8 miles total, turning onto the Mau Har Trail and camping about at the Campbell Creek camping area. This section of the Mau Har Trail (~1.5 miles) was almost entirely steep downhill. Kinda rough.

We were the only ones at Campbell Creek that night. We set up our tents on land between two running creeks. It was pretty loud from the running water, but really pretty and nicely sheltered from wind. We had a little trouble getting and keeping a fire going because all the wood was wet. Thank goodness my friend brought some small firestarter things :-).

On Monday, we hiked the 1.8ish miles back to the Maupin Shelter and AT on the Mau Har Trail. This trail was HARD. Campbell Creek where we camped was the bottom, and the rest was uphill back to the AT, a lot of it VERY steep. It was as if the trail blazers decided to use the shortest distance between two points instead of working with the mountain at all. That’s not true, of course, but it felt like it. I took a picture of the shelter in the sunshine instead of the dark and rain, as well as the start/end of the trail at Reeds Gap. Then we hiked the 1.6ish miles back to the car at Reeds Gap the way we’d come on the AT. We drove a few miles to Devil’s Backbone Brewery for lunch before heading back to DC and Baltimore.

Overall, it was a very nice hike that definitely provided a workout and great views. I think the weather kept some people away. According to reviews, it can be very crowded. The parking lot at Reeds Gap was full when we got there on Saturday. We got the last spot. We saw a lot of people on the trail, but it didn’t feel too crowded.

Also, I think we went one week early for great Fall colors. There were some, but the next couple of weeks would probably have been incredible.