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Ultralight Backpacking: How To Wellspring

Mid-Spring Japan 3-Day 2,000 Meter Mountain Visual Gear List

I’ve been deeply involved with ultralight backpacking for fifteen years now, starting with the first explorations with Ray Jardin’s “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook”, through the heydey of Backpacking Light, making my own gear, getting to know some of the more well-known UL leaders like Glen Van Peski and Japan’s Tomoyoshi Tsuchiya and Hideaki Terasawa. It’s been a long and interesting journey, of trying to lighten my load and make my use of gear more efficiently, so that hiking itself was less of an ordeal with a huge pack and exhausting weight. The community that I have been involved with spent days heatedly contesting the merits of quilts versus sleeping bags, pyramid tents versus flat tarps, boots versus running shoes, even whether silnylon was 100% waterproof or let rain spray through. It has been a great learning experience.

One of the things that has been ubiquitous with UL talk is gear lists, presenting the contents of your pack and then having people critique the set up. Curiously, in all those years I never once spent time putting up my own comprehensive gear list on the Internet, though I have hundreds of pages of gear lists agonized over on the backs of envelopes, in notebooks, on my iPhone, and over again and again in my head.

Here is a visual representation of a pack list for cold, rainy, even snowy, 3-day mid-spring hike at 2,000 meters in the mountains of Japan. The mountains at this time of year are still quite cold, with lots of snow, so the list includes a lot of thermal clothing I wouldn’t normally carry at other times of the year. I’m more of a “heavy ultralight” walker now, rather than “ultralight”, having added items for comfort or for convenience. There are weight categories for each level of going lighter, defined as:

Lightweight (LW): 4.5 kg (10 lb) ~ 9 kg (20 lb)

Ultralight (UL): 2.7 kg (5 lb) ~ 4.5 kg (10 lb)

Super-Ultralight (SUL) (but still safe for 2 seasons in alpine regions): < 2.7 kg (5 lb)

Extreme Ultralight (XUL) (this is crazy weight, and not recommended for anyone who doesn’t have extensive mountain experience): around 1.7 kg (3 lb) or less

I’ve never been able to properly do SUL without cheating. I’m also not comfortable doing it. SInce the mountains are about having fun for me and not spending time being unnecessarily uncomfortable, I’m happy with UL.


This is most definitely a work in progress and I’d never claim that I’ve gotten everything sorted out 100%. There is always more to learn, especially understanding what you are capable of and overcoming your own fears. As the famous ultralight long-distance walker Andrew Skurka, who walked solo 7,560 km (4,700 miles) around northern Alaska and the Yukon in 2010, wrote to me, “You carry your fears.”
Tell me what you think! I welcome critiques!

Everything

Visual Gear List of Everything in a Mid-Spring (cold and rainy, possibility of snow) Pack


When going ultralight everything in the pack must have a reason to be there, and if possible each item ideally serves more than one purpose. Normally a summer/ warmer weather set-up would not require so much clothing, but with the weather very changeable at this time of year in Japan, with heavy rains, strong winds, and sometimes sub-freezing nights, it is important to cover the bases when getting out there. Here is a general breakdown of the items:

1) Katabatic Gear Saskwatch 15 Quilt.
2) Gossamer Gear Mariposa 2012 Pack with Nightlight closed-cell sit pad
3) Mountain Equipment Postman Bag… waterproof camera bag
4) Small notebook, money, and documents in ziploc bag
5) Insulin pen cooling bag
6) Valuables waterproof protector
7) Whistle & mini-pocket knife w/ lanyard to wear around neck
8) Compass w/ lanyard to tuck into shoulder strap pocket
9) Snacks and emergency food bag
10) Drawing & painting kit
11) Necessities bag
12) Volvic water bottle 1½ liters
13) Food bag
14) Esbit (or alcohol) stove & 0.9 liter pot kit, with Trail Designs Caldera Cone windscreen and pot support, sponge, and E.M.I titanium folding spoon
15) Homemade reflective foam pot cozy
16) G.S.I. lidded, insulated cup
17) Ziploc lidded, insulated bowl
18) Shelter bag with Locus Gear Khufu Silnylon,
19) Exped Downmat UL 7 Short
20) Quilt attachment cords
21) Exped Schnozzle waterproof quilt stuff sack/ air pad inflator
22) Montane Short Sleeve Bionic Tee (oversized to fit over long-sleeve baselayer and for hot days when a loose shirt is needed)
23) FineTrack DoughtSensor Wool Mesh Briefs
24) FineTrack DroughtSensor mesh sock liners
25) FineTrack Storm Gorge Alpine Pants
26) MontBell Wind Blast Parka (windshirt, modified with softshell collar)
27) Neck towel, cotton, with twist tie
28) Mountain Equipment Long-Sleeve Crux Crew Shirt (lightweight merino wool/ cocona blend)
29) Outdoor Research Radar Pocket Cap (folding)
30) Outdoor Research Echo Ubertube (buff neck gaiter)
31) MontBell U/L/ Down T (oversized to fit over midlayers)
32) Turtle Fur Fleece neck gaiter
33) Mountain Hardwear Seta Strapless Running Gaiter (modified with hook and loop attachments)
34) Montane merino/ polyester blend liner gloves
35) Mountain Laurel Designs Event Rain Mitts
36) 3mm Neoprene Booties
37) MontBell Goretex knee high waterproof socks
38) MontBell Fleece Socks (for sleeping)
39) Buffalo Pertex/ Pile Mittens
40) The North Face PowerDry Balaclava
41) Montura Thermal Pro Fleece Cap
42) SmartWool Ultralight Mini Sock (extra socks)
43) Cloudveil PowerStretch midlayer zip neck shirt
44) Paramo Torres Core and Sleeves (waterproof insulted vest and sleeves)
45) Rab Stretch Neo Jacket (Neoshell waterproof jacket)
46) Paramo Cascasda Pants (waterproof and thermal overpants)
47) Kindle
48) Diabetes kit

Packing

Packing


The pack is what helps you carry all the stuff you bring with you up there among the peaks. And depending on how it fits and wears, it can either help to make the walk more enjoyable, or else make it misery. An enormous, overweight, overbuilt pack is not necessary, just the basics, with enough carrying capacity and stability to make the carrying comfortable. In my early years of UL hiking, I used what amounted to merely a sack with straps, but unless the weight was exceptionally light and devoid of anything for whiling away the hours, any extra weight quickly became very apparent, and the pack would buckle under itself on my back. These days I still go very light, but also prefer to have a frame inside to help stabilize any extra weight (especially food) that I might carry. I also prefer to have a big front pocket to store my shelter (thus allowing it to be immediately pitched when arriving in camp, and keeping other gear dry when it is raining), and two side pockets for holding a water bottle, trekking poles, umbrella, and windshirt.

1) Gossamer Gear Mariposa 2012. My favorite pack now. After using it for a whole month in the Pyrenees last summer, I couldn’t be happier with a pack. I’ve modified the draw cord at the mouth of the pack, and added two, thick bungee cords at the sides to act as side compression straps. The pack is lightweight, but strong, and carries even heavier loads exceptionally well. There is a closed cell foam sit pad inserted in the back panel that I can take out to sit on at rest stops or in camp, or as part of my sleeping system as an extension to the shorter down air mattress I use.

2) Rain cover. Though I went without it for a long time, the rains in Japan are so hard, so long, and so frequent that everything gets wet unless I cover the pack up well. Also helps to keep the pack dry when hammock camping.

3) Liner bag. 90 liter garbage bag. Used to line and protect the gear inside the pack from rain and water.

Shelter

Shelter System


Over the years going ultralight I’ve gone through a whole series of different kinds of shelters, from one-pole tents to tarptents to tarps to poncho tarps. Recently I stepped back a little to get more protection and have been using pyramids for their fully-covered storm protection and lightness. My favorite shelters at the moment are the Locus Gear Khufu Silnylon when I am solo, the GoLite Shangri La 2 for when I want more space, or will go with two people, and the MSR Hubba Hubba HP for when I am traveling with a partner who wants more comfort. I prefer the solo Khufu pyramid because it has a very small footprint, which is essential on the limited site space on the very steep mountainsides in Japan. I could go even more simply, and just use, like my mountaineer friend Chris White, a waterproof bivy that I could throw between rocks and not take up any space at all, but I haven’t yet mustered up the courage to sit out mountain storms at night, rain pouring all about, with nothing over my head except a sheet of fabric centimeters from my nose. Should try it some time.

I’m torn between using shelters that include tent poles or those that require a separate support, like trekking poles. I don’t use trekking poles very much, preferring to have my hands free as I walk, or using one pole at most. My pyramid actually only requires one pole to be set up, but the two pole system allows for an “A” support that makes the pyramid more stable in side winds, and opens up the space in the middle of the shelter. I still think that tunnel tents are the most stormworthy tents available, and I’d like to get a very light design, preferably one of the upcoming commercial ones designed by Roger Caffin in Australia. Still, I like the simplicity and versatility of the pyramid system, which has a small footprint, that work well on the steep, limited-space sites of the mountains in Japan.

Floorless shelters are the way I go now. They allow pitching on more iffy site ground conditions, allow you to track mud inside, allow use of a stove inside (with the usual caveats of making sure to ventilate the space and be very, very careful that the stove doesn’t flare and light the shelter fabric on fire), can be pitched on top of snow and a hole dug down, and have no worries about spilling things. Plus they can be immediately pitched when arriving in camp in the rain, so that you can move about in leisure while still dripping wet, sorting out the rest of the gear inside the protection of your shelter. Same for when striking camp, everything can be packed under the shelter, then the shelter stuffed into the outside front pocket of the pack, still wet.

When it gets warmer I want to try out my camping hammock system, which allows camping in far more varied terrain than a ground shelter, including over rocks and water and on very steep slopes. I’ve made my own hammocks and hammock tarps, and used the Hennessey Hammock system, but was never happy with them because of the cold . Hopefully my new underquilt will eliminate the cold spots. Hammock camping opens up possibilities for walking that ground camping may limit you with.

The components of my present ground shelter system:

1) Dyneema guylines for staking out the shelter in strong winds.

2) Locus Gear Dual Pole Tip Extender (DPTE) to allow the trekking poles to be used together in an “A” configuration in the pyramid shelter.

3) ZPacks cuben fiber bathtub floor. In drier places a simple flat waterproof ground sheet would suffice, but it rains so much here, and too often I’ve camped in areas of ankle high water, that this brings great peace of mind. A bit slippery.

4) Stake sack. 4 big 9-inch Easton aluminum stakes, 4 6-inch Easton aluminum stakes, and 4 titanium skewer stakes.

5) Locus Gear Khufu Silnylon 1-man pyramid tent. An exquisitely custom-crafted shelter, with an exceptionally light silnylon that does very well in the rain. As someone who sews my own shelters, when I first saw one of these in person, I was greatly impressed by the jewel-like workmanship and beautiful form, and I had to have one. The designer, Jotaro Yoshida, is a quiet, soft-spoken friend, who loves what he is doing. It’s a joy to be using his designs.

6) Black Diamond carbon fiber telescoping trekking poles. Telescoping poles are a necessity when riding the crowded trains in Japan. There are lighter poles out there, especially the Gossamer Gear LT4 carbon fiber pole, but these are very sturdy and tuck out of the way when there are people about who might get stuck by the tips.

7) Mesh shelter bag. Mesh to allow the shelter to drain when wet.

Sleeping

Sleeping System


Many people think that because ultralighters pare away what is unneeded and go as light as possible, that they are compromising safety. Ultralighters spend a lot of time evaluating gear and discussing methods to stay warm and safe with as minimal a set of gear as is reasonable and possible. A lot of gear is used as a system, with each part working together with other gear to increase the usability of the item. For instance, many ultralighters use quilts rather than full sleeping bags to save weight where the compressed down underneath the sleeper is not being used. They also use lighter weight sleeping bags, but use other items of clothing, like a down jacket or pants worn inside the quilt to raise the temperature rating of the quilt. Likewise, when the insulating jacket is not warm enough outside the shelter, the quilt can be wrapped around the body to help keep the camper warm.

Though not strictly necessary (a closed-cell foam pad is much lighter), a thick down-filled air mattress makes sleeping on rough ground a joy and keeps the sleeper warm. With my arthritis, sleeping on a thin pad is painful, and keeps me up at night, when really I should be getting as much rest as possible. Good sleep is an important part of mountain walking, and I figure it is worth the extra weight. Since blowing up a thick air mattress by mouth can make you giddy, I use an air pump in the form of a stuff sack with a nozzle at one end. When not pumping up the air mattress, I store the quilt in it.

Many people swear by camping hammocks, and they eliminate the discomfort of the hard ground.

1) Katabatic Gear Sawatch 15ºF quilt. Beautfully made custom quilt with water resistant shell.

2) Cords for securing quilt to the sleeping pad.

3) Air pump/ quilt stuff sack

4) Exped Downmat UL 7 Short. Supremely comfortable sleeping air mattress.

Cooking and Hydration

Cooking and Hydration Kit


When hiking I try to go as light as possible with the food, and spend as little time and fuel as possible on cooking. Using Esbit fuel tabs over the last few years has proven to be effective and convenient, and very light. I’ve been looking again at more nutritious and fresh foods lately, and may go back to doing proper cooking, rather than the purely boil and eat menu I’ve been following for about 8 years now. Here is my basic setup:

1) Food bag. This tends to be the heaviest part of the pack, with more than half the weight of the entire packed backpack when going for four or more days. More than anything else trying to keep the weight of the food down, while simultaneously getting all the nutrition and calories I need (some walks take about 5,000 to 6,000 kcal’s a day), is the biggest challenge to staying ultralight. Food necessarily turns out to be mostly carbohydrates when weight and shelf life is a concern. As a diabetic, carbohydrates play havoc with blood sugar levels, which can strongly affect energy levels when walking, or, when there are not enough carbs, be downright dangerous as I dip into hypoglycemia. I’ve found that by upping fats and proteins, my hunger pangs go down, and I am able to function much longer throughout the day without having to constantly replenish carbs. The only problem is that carrying fats and proteins means a lot of fresh food, which can substantially increase the weight of the pack.

2) Ziploc lidded/ insulated bowl. (homemade closed cell foam insulation). Many ultralighters eschew using anything more than their cook pot and perhaps one cup to stay light, but I’ve found that I like having soup while drinking coffee or tea, and also don’t like eating out of freezer bags for the boiled meals. With the bowl I can let a cup of tea or coffee steep on the side while eating soup, and wait for the dehydrated meal to slow cook inside the homemade reflectix cozy.

3) H. S. I. insulated, lidded cup. Though not super light, I use the cup both for drinking coffee or tea during a meal, when I wake, or during breaks, and also to help scoop up water from shallow creeks and springs when I need to top up my water supply. The cup makes it easier to pour into the narrow mouth of my pet bottle. I therefore carry the cup on the outside of the pack, clipped to a compression strap, ready to use at a moment’s notice.

5) Evernew 0.9 liter titanium pot. This is the perfect size for me when I am solo. Mostly I use it for boiling water, and it holds just the right amount for a cup of tea, base water for hydrating a pre-packaged meal, a small bowl of soup, and a last dash of hot water to help wash the dishes after I finish eating.

6) Sea-to-Summit Ultralight Wash Basin. Often I want to properly wash dirty dishes, or at other times I want to take a good sponge bath or wash my face, especially on very hot, muggy Japanese summer days. This does a great job holding the water, but also doubling as a stuff sack for the pot and other cooking gear.

7) Homemade Esbit stove (simply the lid of a steel face cream canister) with aluminum scorch protector for when I use the stove on flammable ground.

8) Sponge with some soft scouring ability.

9) TrailDesigns Caldera Cone titanium windscreen and pot holder. The TrailDesigns Caldera Cone is probably the most efficient and stable pot stand available for alcohol and Esbit stoves today. It actually comes as a system with a specially designed alcohol stove and even an attachment to turn the cone into a wood stove, but all I’ve ever needed was the windscreen itself, a tiny steel cap to hold an Esbit tab, and a pot to fit into the pot-fitted circle of the cone top. Even in strong winds, the cone protects the flame and the pot doesn’t tip over. It also helps save a substantial amount of fuel compared to other similar stoves.

10) Homemade reflectix pot cozy. Using a foam-backed reflective aluminum foil sheet, I place a hydrated package of pre-mixed ingredients with boiling water inside, and the cozy slowly cooks the food, saving on fuel.

11) Volvic 1.5 liter pet bottle. I’ve used all kinds of water containers over the years, from Sigg aluminum bottles in the late 70’s, to Gatorade bottles, to polyethylene jugs, to Nalgene polycarbonate jars. Most of them do the job well enough when you’re at home, but out in the field they tend to be very heavy and ungainly. Discovering that, I went to the ubiquitous “Platypus” water bottle, and for a long time used nothing else. But the Platypus bottles are expensive, quickly start splitting at stress points, and have a terrible habit of losing the cap. Last summer in the Pyrenees, with temperatures sometimes reaching 44ºC, I realized that my usual 1 liter water bottle that is all I need in Japan was severely insufficient for the dry, desert0like heat of southern France and northeastern Spain. I needed to carry a lot of water . The long, narrow 1.5 liter pet water bottles you can buy in any store proved to be invaluable, carrying more water than I usually needed in a day, but providing enough when thirst settled in. Two 1.5 liter bottles helped me make it through most days, though I stopped to fill up at any safe watering area I could find along the way.

12) Fuel and kitchenware kit. Everything you need to use when you are cooking… fuel tabs, pot lifter, lighter, matches, spoon, knife, fire starter…

Necessities

Necessities Bag


There are some things that should always be included in every pack, whether you are walking for one day, or for a whole month. Some of the items above are survival essentials, for emergencies and times when life or death might be the result if these items are not on hand to get you through a freezing night or a bad fall. Other items are more important for information or connecting to the outside world, though they might not always be reliable or helpful for survival situations. Some are just necessities for everyday needs, like for the toilet, washing up, or taking important notes.

1) Heavy duty Ziploc bag for iPhone.

2) Noise cancelling fur windcutter for recorder microphones.

3) Olympus WS-803 Digital Voice Recorder. Use this to record notes when I’m too tired to write or while walking. I also use it to record sounds in the mountains, like bird calls or the wind or the sound of a river.

4) Electronics bag. Carry all the electronics for the trip. I really don’t like this extra weight that just sits in the pack all day, but if you want to be connected it’s part of today’s “needs”.

5) iPhone 5 USB cord.

6) iPhone 5 recharger

7) Sony rechargeable battery for iPhone and camera

8) Toilet kit. Toilet paper, hand gel, and titanium scoop that can double as a tent stake. Has a neck cord to hang from the neck while doing the hustle in back country bushes or less-the-stellar outhouses at the mountain huts.

9) Important documents and cards bag. Bag for money, credit cards, ID cards, keys, and other valuables.

10) Compass. Essential.

11) Swiss Army Knife Classic and loud plastic emergency whistle on lanyard. Worn around my neck at all times. I don’t really like the Classic pocket knife, but it is what I use until I find something better. I also carry a slightly bigger Opinel folding knife for cooking and for doing chores like shaving wood or cutting branches.

12) Journal. For me, essential, especially years later when I want to remember details of the trip.

13) Small notebook. For train times, mountain route names, route schedules, food lists, and information that I learn along the way.

14) Map case. To protect the map.

15) Contour Map. Essential. Getting lost in the mountains is serious business. It is essential, too, to know how to read them, and how to use a compass with them. I sometimes carry a GPS, too, but it is not a good idea to rely on them, due to batteries running out and lack of signals in the mountains. My iPhone has a good GPS, too, but I have to be careful with the batteries.

16) Insulin Pen Cooler case. Insulin must stay as cool as possible in order to remain effective. Difficult to do in hot summers!

17) Medicines and vitamins. For diabetes.

18) Emergency kit. Essential. This is the one bag that will always go into every pack I carry when I go for walks. Has an emergency bivy, firestarting kit, water purification tablets, cord, candle. Other essential emergency items are placed in other parts of the pack where they are most often accessed and used.

19) First Aid Kit. Essential. After suffering from an infection once, I’ve decided, “NEVER AGAIN!” It was one of the most painful and debilitating experiences I ever went through. Nowadays I’m serious about keeping wounds clean, having proper antibiotics, and the basics for binding wounds.

20) Toiletry kit. While I’m not obtuse about it, hygiene is still important. Many western ultralighters talk about it as if it is an affront to their manhood, but if other animals in the wild keep themselves clean, then surely it is good for us, too!

21) Travel kit. Things that make a difference in getting a night’s sleep (ear plugs), keeping eyeglasses clean (lens cleaners and wipes), keeping skin from getting sunburned or wind chapped (sun cream and lip balm).

22) Head light inside translucent sack. Essential. Getting caught at night on the mountains without a light can make the difference between staying put until dawn, or seeing what is in your pack. The translucent sack is used to pull over the head light in the shelter and diffuse the light more.

23) Repair kit. Essential. Anything from fixing the inflatable mattress to the shelter material, sewing a ripped shoulder strap, or wiring a broken trekking pole back together.

24) Pillow. Essential. I can’t sleep without it, because of the pain of arthritis.

25) Small super-absorbant towel.

26) Necessities bag.

27) Emergency food and snacks bag. Essential. With diabetes this can mean life or death. Can also help other people who might need it (and it happens a lot).

Thermal Layers (usually in pack)

Thermal and Rain Clothing (in pack)


In mid-spring in Japan the weather is still very unpredictable in the mountains. One day it could be warm and rainy, the next it could be freezing with snow. The possibly of getting cold and wet is very high. In summer months I would not carry all this warm gear, but it is still winter in some places in Japan these days. Also, the thermal layers here are part of the sleeping system, worn when the quilt is not warm enough. I carry one upper body synthetic insulation layer for the possibility of clothing getting wet, a measure of insurance, and in this case the Paramo Core Vest is waterproof and oversized, so it can be thrown over all other layers even in the rain. Down doesn’t hold up well when it gets wet, though I’ve never had a problem with that. Another thin layer of down works over (or under) the synthetic layer to add extra warmth.

1) Buffalo Pertex/ Pile Mittens. Pertex/ Pile was invented in Scotland where cold wet weather is part and parcel of life there. Pertex/ Pile is designed to dry extremely quickly and keep even a wet body warm. These mitts are fantastic for keeping fingers dry and warm even in the rain. I wear them over wool/ polyester liner gloves.

2) Spare merino wool socks.

3) The North Face Powerdry balaclava. For sleeping and days when it is very cold and windy.

4) MontBell Fleece socks. Sleeping socks. I never wear them in my shoes and always keep these as clean and dry as possible. Fleece works better than wool because it doesn’t retain moisture. Moisture contributes to cold feet.

5) Montura Thermal Pro fleece cap. For cold days and sleeping.

6) MontBell Goretex waterproof socks. For cold days when the mesh shoes are wet for extended periods and there is no possibility of drying out. Knee high.

7) Thermal layers drybag.

8) 3 mm neoprene booties. For when the feet are very wet and cold. (may be superfluous with the Goretex socks)

9) Outdoor Research Seta Strapless Gaiters. To keep debris and mud out of low-top shoes.

10) Turtle Fur fleece neck gaiter. For sleeping and very cold days. (may be redundant with balaclava)

11) Walking thermal wear stuff sack. Keeps all thermal items that might be needed while walking together, and keeps them dry.

12) Mountain Laurel Designs eVent Rain Mitt. Very light weight, but helps keep hands warm and dry. Sometimes all I need over my glove liners.

13) Montane merino wool/ polyester blend liner gloves. Used while walking. I tend to run hot while moving, so thicker gloves are usually overkill. These are just right most of the time until I arrive in camp.

14) Paramo Core Vest synthetic insulating top. The main thermal top. It can be treated with Nikwax waterproofing and works with the Nikwax Analogy water management system to become a waterproof insulating garment.

15) Paramo Core Sleeves synthetic insulating component. Add these to the vest above and the two become a full-covering insulating top.

16) MontBell U.L. Down T. Oversized down short-sleeved jacket. Can be worn under the main insulating jacket, or over. Very light.

17) Rab Stretch Neo Jacket. Made with the new NeoShell waterproof fabric, by far the most breathable waterproof material I’ve ever used, outside of Paramo Nikwax Analogy. It’s a bit heavy for the warmer months, so I may get one of the newer lighter versions of the fabric when a good jacket becomes available.

18) Cloudveil Powerstretch zipped neck shirt. A warm mid-layer for use while walking on cold days. Usually all I need when it is colder and I’m walking. Anything heavier and it is too hot.

19) Paramo Casacada Rain Pants. Nothing beats Paramo rain gear for breathability and pure comfort in the rain. The system is quirky and confuses a lot of people, because it doesn’t rely on a membrane to keep the user dry. Rather it works on the same principle that furred water mammals use to stay dry, with directional mechanical (not chemical) pumping of water within the fabric. On the recommendation of Chris Townsend, instead of wearing wool tights under my regular walking pants, when it gets cold I put these rain trousers over my regular pants and stay warm and dry that way. I figure it’s lighter than carrying a pair of rain shell pants plus wool tights. Plus I can wear them as regular pants, too.

20) There is no rainwear that can deal with high humidity and heat. You’ll sweat in all of them. For very heavy sustained rain when it is too cold to let myself get wet, I use a sturdy umbrella. In hot, sunny weather, I’ll use an umbrella with a reflective coating on top, as a parasol.

Worn Clothing

Worn Walking Clothing


Most of the time you don’t need a lot of clothing for walking, even when the weather gets cooler. In warmer months I never carry more than the clothing above, with an extra insulated jacket for unexpected cold weather stuffed into the pack. Even when it is raining, unless it is a deluge, my windshirt is usually all I need to keep light rain off. When it is very warm, like during Japanese summers, I will often allow myself to get wet while I walk, knowing that the heat from my moving body will dry off the rain soon enough. Of course I must be careful about hypothermia, but in that case I just don my windshirt until I am warm again. Japanese summers are extremely hot and humid, so carrying a light cotton towel around the neck helps with sweating. On very sunny days, my wool t-shirt’s lack of a collar exposes my neck to the sun’s rays, so I use a very light buff as a makeshift collar, or just rely on the towel to protect my neck. In summer I will always use zip-off long pants/ shorts, but in colder months I just use regular pants. I prefer loose-fitting clothing because I find they are warmer in the cold and cooler in the heat. Tights always make me feel the cold or else feel to hot and sweaty in the heat.

I always use mesh running shoes, even on the highest, steepest rocky trails. Light shoes make walking much easier work, plus the lack of waterproofing makes them dry out quickly as you move. You can wade through streams without taking the shoes off, and they will dry out soon afterwards, or, at the least, stay warm. The mesh allows water to escape, whereas a Goretex lining will tend to hold water in. A rock plate in the sole protects on sharp rocks, and good, sticky rubber lugs keeps you safe as you climb. It is a good idea to get the shoes a little bigger than you would normally wear on the street, so that your toes don’t jamb in the front on descents, when you can injure the tips of your toes.

1) Outdoor Research Pocket Radar Cap. My favorite cap of any hat I’ve used over the years. And I’ve used A LOT of hats!

2) Outdoor Research Echo Ubertube. Very light neck protection, head protection, headband, cap. Can be used as a water filter, too.

3) Cotton neck towel. For very hot days, to wipe away sweat, keep the head cool when dipped in water, to protect the back of the neck from the sun. Ends are left unfinished to allow for faster drying.

4) FineTrack mesh merino wool/ polyester briefs.

5) Finetrack merino/ polyester blend running socks. Very thin to allow quick drying.

6) FineTrack mesh polyester liner socks. Helps to keep the feet dry and blister free. Don’t always use them.

7) MontBell Wind Blast windedhirt, modified with softshell collar.

8) Montane Bionic T merino wool/ polyester mesh short sleeved shirt. Oversized to be loose in hot weather and to wear over the long sleeve shirt.

9) FineTrack Storm Gorge Alpine Pants. Some of the finest mountain pants I’ve ever worn. Very well-tailored, and a hard-wearing material that repels water, but is breathable enough for hard walking. FineTrack’s sizings were on the short side until recently when they finally acknowledged that there are people with longer legs. Just before I headed up to volunteer in Tohoku after the disaster, I met the delegation of Israeli rescue workers at an outdoor store in Tokyo, who loved the design so much they bought out the entire stock at the outdoor store I was visiting, due in part to my recommendation!

10) Mountain Equipment Crux Long Sleeve Zip T. Merino wool/ cocona blend long-sleeved shirt. My basic shirt at this time of the year. Just light enough for hard walking.

11) Inov8 Flyroc 310 running shoes. I loved the Inov8 Terrocs until recently, but never liked the pebble grabbing soles. This shoe ought to fix that. Before that it was the Vasque Velocity, but I prefer shoes with lower profiles now.

Photography Kit

Photo Kit


Photography is one of my oldest serious hobbies. I started when I was 10, when I saved up and bought the then popular Minolta 16 P. I’ve gone through quite an assortment of cameras since then. My favorite camera until last year (2012) had been the Pentax MX, a compact, fully manual SLR that seemed made for me. I learned more about photography during the period I carried the MX around than anytime before or since. When digital cameras started making inroads I remained skeptical for quite a long time, and wasn’t really happy with anything I bought, due either to bulk (with the DSLR’s) or slowness (with the compacts. I fell in love with the image quality and incredibly intuitive user interface of the quirky Ricoh GXR, but it, too, was far too slow, both in its focusing and in image processing, so I often missed shots that should have been easy to take. Then along came the Olympus OM-D EM5. It harkened back to the Pentax MX for compact size, but its focusing speed and range of capabilities, including a fantastic stabilization mechanism that let me take many low-light images without a proper tripod, brought back the fun in photography. The interface is not as intuitive as that of the Ricoh, but it is good enough that it usually doesn’t get in the way.

Many of my hiking trips are partly photographic excursions, sometimes forgoing walking very far at all in favor of staking out one place and immersing myself deep in the minutiae of the landscape. When photography goes right I forget all sense of time, and even begin to forget about myself, often forgetting to eat, and only remembering hours later when I rise from the reverie as if surfacing from beneath a deep body of water.

I try to keep my photographic equipment as simple and uncomplicated as possible. I don’t like fussing with lenses or spending too much time thinking about technical details. I also no longer want to be climbing steep mountain trails lugging lots of camera equipment around, so I try to stay with just one zoom lens, and perhaps a good macro lens to go along with that. That way I can concentrate on the world around me and seeing. The limitation of lenses forces me to think within a framework and to get as creative as possible within that framework. It also forces me to be more patient when trying to photograph wildlife, though I do wish I had some more powerful telephoto lenses.

The items in my kit:

1) Mountain Equipment Postman Bag. Waterproof photo bag that I wear a little below chest level, with a criss-crossed harness around my back, worn under my pack. This setup allows me instant access to the camera, but is high enough above my lifting legs that it doesn’t interfere with climbing, plus the bag won’t swing forward when leaning down. I originally attached the bag to clips on the backpack shoulder straps, but I always felt claustrophobic being clipped into the harness. I also couldn’t carry the bag separately from the backpack that way, which was inconvenient when traveling. I’ve designed a cuben fiber version of the bag that I’m planning to sew together soon, to lighten up the system, and add more slots for documents, a map pocket, and important items for traveling.

2) Rain cover. Allows me to continue shooting in the rain. I’m thinking of designing a version with padding incorporated so that I might be able to eliminate the photo bag altogether.

3) Macro lens. I love taking images of the micro world. Also great for portraiture.

4) Olympus OM-D EM5 with a homemade webbing strap that can be shorted to a carrying handle.

5) Ultrapod mini tripod. Quite versatile in where it can be set up. Lighter than the Gorilla Pod.

6) Accessory flash unit. Great for close up photography. Don’t use it very often.

7) PL filters.

8) Remote control. For time lapse and low light shots.

9) Spare batteries

10) USB cable.

11) Homemade stabilizing cord. Screw in the tripod bolt, step into the loop at the other end of the cord, and pull taut. Will keep the camera surprisingly still.

Drawing and Painting Kit

Drawing Kit


For me walking in the mountains or in the forest is more than just a sporting event outdoors. It is also a time to slow down and look around me, and forget myself. Part of that is to sometimes forget about trying to reach a destination like a peak or the end of the trail, and just wander very slowly about, pushing my nose into bushes or clumps of grass, lying back to stare at the sky, or closing my eyes to listen to the sounds of scurrying feet or distant hoots. It also means sitting very still to draw. Sometimes I’ll make very quick sketches, at other times I’ll immerse myself in the surroundings and draw the details, sometimes several hours at a go to do one drawing. Many people don’t stop to see the mountains like that anymore, and it’s a shame. By failing to move slowly or sit still, they miss a lot of what is happening around them, or that hides upon their approach. Animals, for instance, require stillness before they venture forth after human boots have thundered past.

Here are the tools I use for my drawing and painting kit:

1) Gel ball point pen. Although I much prefer traditional steel nib and an ink well, using lightfast, waterproof china ink, it is inconvenient when hiking, and tends to leak and cause a mess. Traditional nib pen and ink allows for much greater control of the lines, and is great for washing with watercolor. I use a gel pen because the ink flows very smoothly and creates a beautiful, solid black color. It’s also waterproof and I can use watercolor or a waterwash pencil over it. It also serves as the writing tool I use to take notes with.

2) Pentel plastic fiber calligraphy brush with ink reserve. This is a great tool for doing ink brush drawings, or when I want a drawing with bold, variable lines. The ink is waterproof, so no running or washing out if the paper gets wet. Have to be very careful that the cap is properly closed, or the ink gets over everything.

3) Derwent Sketching Medium Wash 4B Pencil. The lead is very soft and when mixed with water can be used as a watercolor wash, for shadows and shading. The lead smears on paper though, and easily gets smudged, so I only use it when I want a sketch with a softer touch, or want to accentuate the hard lines of a purely ink pen drawing.

4) Staedtler-Mars 780 mechanical pencil. I’ve had this for many years, since I was studying architecture at university. I use an HB grade lead in it so that I can get strong lines, but still keep a hard point to the tip that allows me to draw sharp edges, then angle it to create soft edges. I prefer these thicker-leaded mechanical pencils to the more popular very thin-leaded mechanical pencils because I can get a more varied line.

5) Winsor and Newton Artists’ Water Colour – Davy’s Gray. When I was studying watercolor at the University of Oregon under the visiting watercolor artist Rene Rickabaugh, he insisted that the students always buy the best quality paints they could afford. He said that inferior pigments couldn’t bring out the color that an artist intended, and also didn’t last. He said that if one wanted to make a piece of art, it should be something that lasted, and should retain its richness into the future. One color in particular he urged us to use was Davy’s Gray, which is a chalky gray pigment that provides a good base layer for other paints, and can help bring out edges in paint washes when the paint dries. By blotting the Davy’s Gray at various stages of drying, the colors painted on above it can be soft or bright.

6) Retracting watercolor hair paintbrush. In watercolor the brush makes all the difference in how you are able to control the paint, the lines, the water, and the nuances of the tip along the texture of the paper. A good brush ought to be able to hold a fine tip when it is wet, and soak in the water enough that it doesn’t immediately run dry, but not so deeply that the paint and water don’t mix well, or release onto the paper in a fine stream. The brush must also fit well into the hand, and that is why longer brushes tend to work better, but for hiking and economy of space, this is the brush I use. It has a good weight and the brush itself has a nice pull to it.

7) MontBell small map case, to protect the sketchbook.

8) Plastic eraser. Normally I use ink, precisely so I have no option to redraw the lines or fix anything, which forces me to be bold and trust to the lines. Sometimes though, after making a light skeletal pencil sketch, I will lay the ink drawing on top of that and erase the pencil afterwards. A plastic eraser is much easier on the paper’s surface and doesn’t rip away the fibres the way a rubber eraser does. I also like using a kneaded eraser, especially when I want something to relax myself… pulling at the strands like string cheese!

9) Mujirushi Tyvek Pencil Case. Tyvek is water resistant and strong, and very light. It’s a great material for a pencil case for hiking.

10) Watercolor tray. Again, I use Winsor and Newton Artists’ Water Colours, applied to the individual slots and allowed to dry. I used to use the commercial Winsor and Newton Cotman dry cake watercolors, but the colors were always weak and the washes ran. So I went for the higher quality paints.

11) Moleskine plain sketchbook. Moleskine is probably the most famous blank journal-making company in the world. They make nice, handy journals with decent quality cold-pressed paper, and many people I know use them. However, it is not my favorite journal brand. They are very expensive, and heavy, and the paper is not the best for any kind of watercolor work. I much prefer the “A. C. Sketch” journal sold at the Uematsu art shop in Shibuya, downtown Tokyo. The smaller journal is a little bit smaller than the classic Moleskine, but fits better in my hand. The paper is of far higher quality than the Moleskine, and the bindings of the books are beautiful. It is lighter, too, so less cumbersome to carry. I’ve been using them for over 38 years!

Final Packed Backpack

Final Pack


The final configuration, with everything packed. This is a cold-weather configuration, with enough food for three days. The sketchbook and pencil case would be stored at the the top of the pack, or in the upper side pocket to the right.

Weights:

Full pack with food, 1.5 liters of water, and full camera bag:
12.4 kg (27 lb)

Full pack without food and water, and without full camera bag:
6.2 kg (13.6 lb)

Full pack with summer weight sleeping bag, and summer insulation, without extra insulation, without food and water, and without full camera bag:
5.3 kg (11.6 lb) (I could exchange a lot of the gear, like the down mattress, the trekking poles, cup, some items in my necessities bag, for lighter alternatives and save about 1 kg more, which would bring down into the UL range. This is what I would do if I were traveling abroad and needed to go as simply and without fuss as possible.)

1) Camera bag.

2) Sketch journal and pencil case.

3) Gossamer Gear Mariposa 2012 pack.

4) Golite umbrella.

5) Black Diamond trekking poles.

6) Volvic 1.5 liter water pet bottle.

7) Shelter bag.

8) Windshirt

9) Rain cover

10) Cup

11) Emergency tools (compass, whistle, knife, firestarter, bandana.

12) Snacks, walking food.

Categories
Drawings Sketchbook

Mountain Sketches: Houousanzan with Fuji

In 1998 my dear friend Sally and her boyfriend Jim came to visit me and my wife Yumi here in Japan. Initially we were supposed to walk the South Japan Alps, but due to a huge landslide that took out the road going up there, and time constraints at my job, we had to cut back the walking time, and ended up walking the Houousanzan traverse instead. On the second day, moving faster than we had planned, we had time to stop and take our time to enjoy the scenery. I did this sketch on a small peak just past Kannon-dake.

Sketch Houousanzan
Houousanzan a small ridge of mountains at the northern edge of the South Japan Alps with surrealistic rock outcroppings and a direct panorama of some of the highest mountains in Japan, including the highest peak, Mt. Fuji, and the second highest peak, Kita-dake. I’ve done the walk three times, and it is relatively easy, with easier access than most of the mountains in the South Japan Alps, but still the wild, weathered, more remote characteristic of the South Japan Alps.
Categories
Drawings Sketchbook

10 Years Today

(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)

Laughing Knees is 10 years old today! What started out as a way to express my rage and anguish at the Iraq War and Bush, gradually lost it’s fever and mutated into something much closer to my heart. It’s been a long, long journey, not always easy, but also never boring. Blogging has connected me with people around the world I would never have met otherwise, some of whom have become close friends, and most of whom I am still in touch with even today. While I haven’t been around much for the last two years, lately I’ve begun to revive my interest in blogging and slowly uploading material that wasn’t part of the blog in the past. I hope to make Laughing Knees more comprehensive, but also more focused. Hopefully you, my friends, will find more to read and think about in the coming 10 years.

(These are not the best of my drawings, just a sampling of my recent, first scans. I hope to get some of the better ones up soon.)

lk_studies_004_banner_ideas
Laughing Knees started out as a reaction against the Iraq War, and was the only way that I was able to express the rage and anguish I felt. But as time went on I couldn’t sustain the anger, and reverted back to my normal, daily thought-about connection to the natural world and being outdoors.
lk_studies_003_front_page_layout_notes
Laughing Knees started 10 years ago today. I’ve been designing and redesigning elements of the design and layout again and again, never quite happy with what came up on the Web, or simply too unskilled to get it to be the way I wanted it to be. My original goal was to make the blog resemble pen-and-ink drawn illustrated books of the 1920’s, and of Tove Jansson’s wonderful, wonderful series of Moomintroll books. Alas, I could never quite figure out how to get the images in there. I’ve gotten the basics of CSS design and layout down, but not well enough to really do a good job controlling the elements.
lk_studies_001
Study for a sidebar banner for Laughing Knees.
lk_studies_002_windblown_trees
Originally the blog was supposed to have a separate banner for each category, but at the time I didn’t understand what the difference between categories and tags was, and hadn’t quite understood the way that loops had to be used, so was never able to implement more than one banner for the whole site, except when I divided the website into 5 separate websites… way too much work!!!
lk_studies_005_banner_ideas_002
It took quite a few years to begin to really understand exactly how a website navigation system is supposed to work. Coming from books, I had a tendency to think in static pages, not quite getting my head around the fluid nature of hyperlinks. Because of that there was a lot of redundancy in both pages and links.

Naturally it wasn’t all the blog that was on my mind all those years. However, besides writing and photography, I’ve also spent countless hours drawing the world around me and figments of my imagination. Recently I took out 30 years of sketchbooks, backs of envelopes, napkins, and margins of tests and note-taking during boring work meetings, and started to scan what I hope are the more interesting outtakes. Here are a smattering I’ve started with:

field_notes_001_rock_meadow_massachusetts_1991
Drawing something helps you to understand something, and see it, much more comprehensively than taking a photograph does. I’ve been drawing and examining and sitting for hours watching insects, birds, plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, spiders, the wind and rain, clouds, mountains, and ocean waves all my life. I can’t imagine my life without them.
1994_04_15_yatsugatake_with_yumi_rainstorm
I have to been to the Yatsugatake Range more often than any other higher mountain range in Japan. I’ve been going there since I was 10 years old, staying at a school camp in Kiyosato. For some reason it holds a special place in my connection to mountains, seeming to pull me toward it every opportunity I had. I got married there, did my one and only hike with my father, wandered the higher trails crying my eyes out the week after my wife and I made the decision to get divorced, and immediately followed by the tragedy in New York on September 11, and slept for the first time in snow. A special place.
domestic_plant_studies 001
I’ve never been very good at taking care of plants at home, though I’ve always had some growing if just to bring in some life to the often dreary living quarters I had. I have doubts about keeping any kind of living thing captured, away from their natural homes.
notes_penmanship_practice
I love writing by hand and doing my best to make the writing look well proportioned and flowing. I started when I was in elementary school and am still learning to get the proportions right. Because of my diabetes my nerves don’t work so well anymore and at times it is very hard to get the pen to do my bidding. Practicing the writing helps keep me steady and to see new ways of forming the letters. I’m still not happy with my signature after a whole life attempting to get one I like!
ul_hiking_001
In the early days of my lightening up my backpacking load, I started out with this gear. The Hilleberg Akto tent was, at the time, one of the best lightweight solo tents around. 15 years have passed since I started, and along the way I went to the lightest I could get it to go, just about 3 kg. But when arriving in camp late in the evening in the cold and rain, with nothing but a long night under my tiny tarp to contend with, I began to miss being able to read or while away the hours with my camera. So I began to add back those things which allowed me basic creature comforts so I could enjoy the trips, just enough to make it worthwhile, but not so much that I ever got bogged down again. Ultralight changed the way I walk and spend time outdoors, or even traveling.
Beth 1991
It’s amazing how the women I’ve known in my life have changed me and unwittingly helped me to grow as a person. While not always tranquil, much of what I learned was an opening my eyes to both what other people are and how they see the world and want to live, as it was a growing understanding of who I am and what worth I have. Beth, probably more than any other woman I’ve known intimately, helped to understand that life is for living fully, no matter how difficult the circumstances. I will never forget her elfin smile and indomitable flair for adventure.
people_studies_002_plane passenger
Airplanes are like hell to me… an enclosed tube in which I must sit for many hours without moving. One way I pass the time is to draw sketches of people around me. It often helps me to empathize more with the often short-tempered or unpleasant reactions many of them have when I encounter them. Often it’s led to conversations and friendships.
people_studies_003_izu_beach_father_son
When you take the time to look, you will see tenderness everywhere. It isn’t all anger and violence and indifference, that seem all-prevading when you browse the Internet. This is what the world is made of and what keeps it beating. Without it where would we be?
1994_04_16_yatsugatake_with_yumi_climbing_akadake
View of Akadake, the highest peak in the Yatsugatake Range.
1994_04_15_yatsugatake_with_yumi_country_road
Walking along a country road outside Kiyosato, in the Yatsugatake Range, Yamanashi Prefecture
people_studies_001_east_izu_1992
People are endlessly fascinating. I love sitting somewhere and just letting myself become part of the place, while watching people and drawing them in all their emotional and behavioral range. strange for someone who is very shy and doesn’t communicate easily with people…
nude_studies_001
It’s been a while since I did live model drawing, but it is still one of two of my favorite subjects to draw. The other is landscape drawing. Even though the subject is just a human being, the expressions you can discover and the connection that we humans have to one another becomes more and more apparent, and trying to bring that out without making it look like a caricature is one of the most difficult tasks an artist can try to master.
foot_studies_001
Hands and feet are among the most difficult parts of the human body to capture correctly. Especially the hands. I have a particular love for feet. They can be incredibly beautiful.
animal_studies_singapore_zoo_african_elephant
Zoos are very painful places for me to enter. Few zoos treat animals with enough knowledge and respect to allow them to live even close to their natural way of living, and I believe no animal should be in a zoo. But the Singapore Zoo was, to some extent, an exception. I wandered about the park-like grounds and spent hours drawing the inhabitants.
Categories
Far and Wide Japan: Photos Photos

Country Walks (1)

(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)

Some photos from an afternoon walk in the summer of 2012, out in Chiba Prefecture, from Togane to Naruto. It was as always a quiet, lonely walk… quite a relief from the work earlier in the day, and the crowds of Tokyo.

2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Train Crossing
Country road leading to a train crossing, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Unripe Ume
Unripe Japanese prunes getting close to getting ready to pick, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Gingko Leaves
Gingko leaves sprouting from a pruned tree, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Farmer Woman Hoeing
Farmer woman hoeing her garden, Naruto, Chiba, Japan.
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Corner Rice Paddy
Two ways to go at the edge of a rice paddy, Naruto, Chiba, Japan.
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Rice Field
Texture of half-grown rice stalks, Naruto, Chiba, Japan.
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Queen Anne's Lace
Queen Anne’s Lace newly sprung up on fallow land.
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Farm Shed
Various tools and materials outside a farm shed, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Cat Tails
Cat tails waving in the evening wind, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Windy Road
Windy road amidst the rice paddies, approaching a shrine, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Shrine Entrance
Entrance to a local shrine, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Path to the Shrine
Concrete path leading to the local shrine, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Copse
Trees at the edge of the shrine land, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Sunset Tree Silhouette
Tree in the evening light at sunset, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Torii Silhouette
Torii guarding the entrance to a small local shrine, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Evening Greenhouses
Green houses in the evening light, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Farm Sunset
Sun setting behind a farm, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Evening Grass
Grass bending beside the road in the evening, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk WIld Grass at Sunset
Reeds bending in the evening wind at sunset, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
2012/07/14 Naruto Walk Roadside Lily
Dying lily at the edge of the road, Naruto, Chiba, Japan
Categories
Japan: Photos Photos Tokyo Whimsy

Tokyo Whimsy 1

Life in Tokyo can only be interesting and challenging if you make an effort to see it from a different point of view.

Birks On the Train
Birks On The Train
The End of the Tea
The End of the Tea
Ruins of the Spaghetti
Ruins of the Spaghetti
Sunset Through the Curtains
Sunset Through the Curtains
Categories
Hiking Hiking In Japan: Group Japan: Living Journal Walking

We Are The Leaves In The Wind

Trailside Kamikochi woods

I was late. The train would arrive in ten minutes. It would take about 12 minutes to get from putting on my shoes by the front door to hustling through the neighborhood streets to the train station, crossing the bridge, and getting down to the platform. So I would miss the train. I cursed while fumbling with my shoelaces, and, sweating profusely in the chilly air, I hefted my backpack and charged out the door. I guess waking up at 3:30 in the morning after 2 hours of sleep wasn’t helping my mood either.

Everything went wrong from there. I did catch the next train, but it got stuck halfway to my destination when someone decided to mosey across a train crossing and hold up the entire train line. When I did finally arrive at my final station, and half run through the downtown business district, I stopped to buy a Starbucks latté, glad, at least for something to make the morning nicer. The bus station from where I was supposed to take the long-distance bus west to Kamikochi wasn’t where I thought it would be, so I ended up circling the buildings, frantically looking for the bus terminal. with only 10 minutes to spare before it took off. Still unable to find it, I called my friend Satomi, who was also going the following day, about where the bus terminal might be. She tried to explain, but it made no sense to me, because the location of the bus station wasn’t obvious. While we talked, I set the extra duffel bag I was carrying down on a planter, and promptly knocked the latté to the ground, spilling its contents all over the sidewalk. No, not a good morning at all!

Mae-Hotaka
Mt. Mae-Hotaka

It did finally get sorted out. I found the bus terminal, got on the bus, and relaxed, as the bus headed into a perfectly blue Friday morning, straight for the Japan Alps.

After spending a month traveling and walking in the Pyrenees in August, coming back to Tokyo had brought me right back to the crowded trains, endless concrete, and overly preoccupied lifestyle that characterizes this city. The transition from a month of mostly silence amidst the mountains, with only intermittent conversations with various fellow travelers along the way, sent a wave of melancholy through me, enough that, paradoxically, I despaired of getting myself outside. Japan, after so long away in an environment much closer to my own family culture, seemed like a land of endlessly working souls who knew no rest and spoke an alien language. Even the food seemed monotonous, tasting always of soy sauce or miso paste. So it was about time that I joined a group of like-minded people who also loved walking in the mountains and sharing conversation, food, and knowledge in that cheery, gung-ho way that mountain walkers have.

Trail to Tokusawa
Trail to Tokusawa, along the Azusa River
Maple leaves along the Azusa River
Maple leaves along the Azusa River

The Facebook group, “Hiking In Japan”, started by Osaka mountain enthusiast Wes Lang, had been steadily growing ever since people got wind of a group of walkers in Japan who loved mountains. I’d been steadily following the posts and occasionally actively posting myself; my feeling was that somehow a group of people in Japan with both a serious interest in hiking, yet also a sense of fun and silliness, had somehow touched the right combination. One evening, while reading yet another post by some members who seemed as if they would enjoy meeting one another, I suggested that we actually try to get people together and meet somewhere in the mountains… the very place that we all loved most.

So it was that the Kamikochi Camping Event got started. Wes set up the event invitation page and many of the members started suggesting places to meet, dates, and what to do. Since members lived all over Japan, the first thing was to choose a place central to people living in Tokyo and Osaka, which meant somewhere in the North or Central Alps. At about the same time one member, Tomomi, and I, hit upon meeting in Kamikochi. I remembered the huge open camping ground at Tokusawa-en that I had visited twice before, and how easy it was to walk there, and Tomomi thought about the accessibility of Kamikochi, being about equal in distance from both Tokyo and Osaka. Most people seemed happy with that, so Tokusawa in Kamikochi it became.

It was a beautiful morning on the bus, with not a cloud in the sky, but I only saw it in between bouts of deep naps. Normally I can’t sleep on buses, but I was so tired, that as soon as I sat down I was out. Every now and then I’d wake and peer around, catching glimpses of the last vestiges of Tokyo petering away, droning through the still-green hills of Oku-Chichibu, a view of the snow-dusted peaks of the Houou Sanzan range and taller Kai-Koma Peak, whizzing through the dry woods east of Kofu, making a wide detour around the wide base and sharp peaks of Yatsugatake, sailing above the edge of a deep slate blue Lake Suwa, and a momentary spying of the Central Alps off in the distance. I slept right through the last portion of the journey, only waking when the bright yellow wash of Kamikochi’s larch forests engulfed the windows of the bus in the last spurt up to Kamikochi Bus Terminal.

Home of the Permanent Kamikochi Painter
Live-in Kamikochi painter’s home in Konashidaira Campground
Azusa Riverside Fir
Azusa Riverside fir tree

Outside, the parking lot was so choked with tour buses I couldn’t see the terminal itself. The spaces between the buses bustled with throngs of leaf peepers, and a low din of hundreds of voices hovered in the chilly air. Going by the view of the Hotaka range above the bus tops, I maneuvered my way out of the parking lot to a quiet bench among the trees, where I pulled out a sack of lunch and sat on the bench munching a rice ball. The air was cold enough to prompt me to pull out my microfleece midlayer and windshirt. I sent a message to the event group on Facebook, warning everyone to dress warmly.

Because I was carrying a duffel bag stuffed with several tents and extra stoves and pots, I didn’t want to linger too long walking, so I set off at a brisk pace, by-passing the hordes of walkers. It was a flat, easy trail along the banks of the still wild and untouched Azusa River. But though I moved fast, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to gaze at Mae-Hotaka peak looming above the trail, or the scarlet leaves of the Nikko maples. A few times I whipped out my camera and got down on my knees to photograph the autumn colors in the underbrush, or just stood there, feeling the cold breeze. The numbers of walkers gradually trickled down to a few slow walkers who would most likely stay at the mountain lodges.

Kamikochi Trailside Maple Leaves
Kamikochi trailside maple leaves
Kappabashi
Kappa Bridge
Kamikochi Wild Berries
Kamikochi wild berries

The waning sun had already dropped into the crook of the mountains to the west by the time I reached Tokusawa-en campground and lodge. Deep shadows crept across the expanse of grass, and to my surprise, most of the camping spots had already been claimed by earlier arriving walkers and their ubiquitous dome tents. I registered at the lodge, then quickly set up my pyramid tent and one of the extra group tents in one larger area so as to have some claim on tent space the following day. Night time fell fast and in the waning light I made a simple dinner of couscous in a bag with corned beef mashed inside, egg drop soup, my special olive oil and garlic sauce, chopped carrots, and instant cappuccino. It was cold enough for my fingers to be stiff while I prepared the dinner, but once I sipped the soup and chowed down on the couscous-meat entree, and then savored the steaming coffee, my whole body warmed up. I sat for a long time quietly sipping and watching the stars wink on above. The muffled noises of the campground died down, and soon I felt quite alone, with only the dimmed light of the lodge to remind me that people were still about. I finally crawled into my sleeping bag when the coffee was done.

First view Tokuzawa Campground
First view Tokuzawa Campground
View of Mt. Chogatake from Tokusawa Campground
View of Mt. Chogatake from Tokuzawa Campground

My summer sleeping bag was barely warm enough to help me make it through the freezing hours. I kept waking up shivering, even with my puffy down jacket on. I would roll over, tuck in the edges of the sleeping bag a bit tighter, adjust my fleece cap and down hood, and try to get back to sleep. One time I woke up with a start and bumped my head on the shelter walls, sending a cascade of frost drifting down over me. I reached up and ran my finger through the white crystals. Like grippy, powdery snow.

Morning sunlight was sifting through the translucent white walls of my shelter when I woke. I’d actually made it through a cold night using mostly summer gear! I’d been wondering how cold I could go; now I knew. Definitely not comfortable, but I didn’t die, either. Feeling groggy, but elated, I struggled out of my sleeping bag and zipped open the door. The whole world had been powdered in frost, and everything was limned in a white crust of sugar. High above the trees the first fiery rays of the sun caught the fingertips of the mountains, while down here a chilly shade cast across the field of grass, and when I stood to go get water for breakfast, the grass crunched beneath my shoes.

Shelter frost
Shelter at dawn
Frosted glass
Frosted tent stake

I spent the morning exploring the minute corners of the leaves and branches around the campsite, photographing ice crystals and seeking to get the traces of light beginning to spill into the valley. Other campers had already finished breakfast and started to pack up their tents by the time I surfaced and took note of how the whole campground had lit up as the sun cleared the mountains to the east. Whole trees of yellow and red glowed with in the warmth of the morning, and people began to spread out on the grass to close their eyes and bathe in the sunlight, or sit and murmur over their cups of steaming coffee.

Frosted rounded grass
Frosted leaves
Frosted red leaf
Frosted hairy leaf

Around that time, as I sat on a bench, one of the Hiking In Japan members sauntered up to me, a Chinese man wearing loose jeans and a big grey backpack, and introduced himself as “Fred”, or Gameboy, as he was known in the group. We sat talking for almost an hour, not quite able to get ourselves to move in the early morning warmth. He explained that he had arrived at dawn and had walked in the darkness here to Tokusawa. He was heading up to Hotaka Hut much higher up in the mountains and would stay there overnight. I was worried about his jeans, since he had told me earlier that he had only walked a few of the hills around Hong Kong, but never really a bigger mountain, though he said he’d been to Kamikochi before. I couldn’t really say much, except to take care and hope that he made it to Hotaka all right. It was a long walk.

HIJ Rie's Arrival
Rie’s arrival

Soon after he left, Rie, another member, happened by and asked me if I was Miguel from Hiking In Japan. She was cheerful and easy to talk to, and once she had her dome tent set up (in a nice sunny spot, unlike my shelter), we went to the hut to have some curry at the restaurant there. She was delighted when she discovered they also sold beer in vending machines, so we each got one, and over a merry conversation about each others jobs (teaching), we whiled away more time as the afternoon slowly passed on by.

HIJ Preparing Dinner
Preparing dinner
HIJ Isao making coxinhas
Isao making coxinhas.

Just as we returned to our tent sites, Wes, the leader of Hiking in Japan, called my name from across the campground, and there he was striding toward me with that characteristic mop of wispy brown hair, and trailing behind him, fairly tuckered out from carrying a huge cooler bag along with a full backpack, was Grace, the tireless Brazilian hiker who seemed to be hiking every other day. Seeing Wes was a bit of a strange thing: I felt immediately as if I already knew him quite well, though this was our first time to meet in person. We’d been in touch through our blogs and through Facebook, for quite a few years and upon meeting we gave one another a big embrace. Grace was shy, though we’d talked to one another a few times as friends, we still didn’t know each other well. Wes and Grace had stayed overnight at the car park outside the national park and had walked in since early in the morning, via Lake Tashiro. They both looked pretty tired, since it had been freezing the night before and neither had gotten much sleep. Rie announced that she was going to go for a short hike, probably towards the Panarama Walk on the way to the famous Karasawa valley, where most of the hikers who passed the campsite were headed up to.

HIJ First tents set up

Hungry, Wes asked me if I would join him for something to eat at the restaurant. I’d already eaten, but I was looking forward to talking with Wes, so headed in with him and bought a can of coffee while he ordered some soba. We sat chatting about people we know and hikes we had done over the summer and also about our respective diseases, his asthma and my diabetes. There was something reassuring in opening up about something that gave us both extra worries to think about when hiking, and sometimes scary experiences. Not many people really understand what it is like.

Kettle In Tokusawa Lodge
Kettle in Tokusawa Lodge

Back outside, Sonia and Isao, a couple from Brazil, arrived with their selection of Mountain Hardwear gear, including a very nice 2-person tent that I had never seen before. They had a peaceful air about them, and though I had never met them before I immediately felt comfortable talking with them. While they set up their tent, yet another member came wandering into the camp… this time Tomomi, the Japanese woman who had suggested Kamikochi as a place to gather, and who had walked over the hard route in the Hotakas since early this morning. She looked totally worn out, but immediately announced, “I’m just going to leave my pack here and go down to Kamikochi Bus Terminal to pick up the food I brought.” (she had offered to hold a cooking class for everyone). Wes and I stared at her in disbelief, since it is a two-hour walk one way, four hours there and back. “Don’t worry about the food, Tomomi,” we told her. “You did a hard walk today. Get some rest.” I think she must have been relieved, because she collapsed to the ground and sat there resting for a while before getting up to put up her big two-person tent. Wes and I assisted her when the fly didn’t go on right. I showed her and some of the others how to tie guyline knots while Wes realized that the fly had gone on backwards, an easy mistake to make with the design, because it wasn’t obvious which side was which.

HIJ Tomomi preparing Jagariko mashed potatoes
Tomomi preparing Jagariko mashed potatoes

At about that time a big whoop came across the campground and there was Jana, a tall American who along with Wes gave a lively presence to the gathering. It was Jana who had the most active presence of mind in taking photos of the whole event and who started a lot of the topics in the group conversations. She dropped her pack and made a point of going from person to person to greet them and get their names.

HIJ Evening Tokusawa

Dinner preparation had already started, with Grace pulling out item after item after item from her cooler bag and backpack. The rest of us looked on in disbelief at the sheer amount of food she had brought. She alone had containers of different kinds of salad, wheels of cheese, finger food made with palm hearts, bread, a bottle of wine, paté, avocado dip, ham and slices of cold cuts, smoked salmon, tuna salad, and olives. Tomomi, together with Rie, started making her miniature pizza’s under that open canopy, while Isao and Sonia pulled out their burner with big pot and deep fried coxinhas, a Brazilian dumpling. Jana started on her caesar salad.

HIJ Sunset Tokusawa

Kevin and his young daughter Mona arrived just as it began to get dark. Kevin was an old friend whom I had met before and we’d been touch for years through our blogs and emails. He lives on a farm in rural Nagano, grows his own vegetables and rice, and runs an adventure company (One Life Japan) that takes people on bicycling and walking tours around his area. He was carrying a huge sack along with a baby carrier. It was my first time to see Mona in real life, though I’d seen many of her photos on Kevin’s Facebook page. Her charm and playfulness immediately had everyone vying for her attention.

Satomi, my friend, arrived after sunset. I just barely made her out in the dim light, slowly walking up the path. She’d taken the long way around via Lake Tashiro and had taken her time. Her right leg gave her a lot of pain, and so she couldn’t move fast along the trail, but she’d wanted to see something of the area and make the most out her time in Kamikochi.

HIJ Tokusawa Dinner Gathering
HIJ Tokusawa Dinner Gathering

Everyone joined in on making the meal and helping with cooking. Satomi started her tabouli. With the sun now gone, a chill crept through the campsite and people pulled on their warm layers and rubbed their hands to try to stay warm. We gathered in a circle around a sheet spread out on the grass and with our headlights shining onto the food, talked long into the night, Jana asking everyone to describe an object that they always brought out hiking, Wes telling tall tales from his ventures hiking around Japan, Kevin inserting hilarious jokes that had everyone laughing quite loudly. My only regret, for myself, was not making more effort to get the conversation balanced by speaking in Japanese. More people probably would have opened up if we hadn’t focused so much on English.

HIJ Satomi feeling cold
Satomi feeling cold

In the midst of this a voice suddenly spoke up out of the darkness outside the circle, “Excuse me, is this the Hiking In Japan group?” It was Grigory the Russian I had exchanged emails with days before. He had told me he would be climbing from Kita-Hotaka from early this morning, but hadn’t been sure if he’d make it all the way down to Tokusawa today. That he had was quite astounding. He’d traversed the dreaded Daikiretto (a section of the trail that dropped off vertically in a precipice and that you had to cross using your hands to hold on) and Yari peak, all in one day. A great distance of lots of ups and down over very rough terrain. We invited him into the circle and he sat down with a big smile on his face, happy to get a banquet to feast upon. We named him the “Russian Superman”. He hadn’t brought a tent or sleeping bag, so we improvised by opening up one of my group tents, Kevin lent him a summer sleeping bag, and he rented a ¥500 blanket from the hut. He didn’t even have a ground mat, and though it was freezing out, he reported that he’d slept like a baby the following morning. Only a Russian!

8 o’clock was lights out in the camp, and we were making quite a bit of noise, so it was finally time to wind down the party and get in our tents. Grace hadn’t been able to carry a tent and sleeping bag in addition to all her food, so she’d opted to stay at the hut. She seemed a little regretful when she walked off to the hut. But at least she was the only one in the group guaranteed to stay warm! She had a wood stove in her room!

I zipped up the door of my pyramid and got ready for the night. I’d also rented one of the wool blankets from the hut to beef up my sleeping arrangements, but this evening was warmer than the night before, so I never really needed the blanket. No frost formed in the night. I’d drifted off to sleep, when I became aware of a big roaring sound from the mountains sides, and a strong loughing of my shelter walls. I woke and realized that a big wind had picked up and the whole mountainside was booming with billions of dried leaves rasping under the arm of the wind. I listened a while and became concerned that it might strengthen and blow all our stored food away or snatch up one of the badly staked tents. So I got up and battened down the stores of food under the open tarp, and then went around to each tent to announce to the person inside that I was checking on the stakes. All of the tents needed securing, some quite a lot. When everything was tight and free from flapping, I returned to my shelter and sat by the entrance, looking at the Milky Way sprayed across the sky straight above. Wes lay quietly in his bivy sack a little off from my shelter. I wasn’t sure if he was awake, so I tried to keep my movements quiet. I pulled out my camera and tried to take some time lapse images of the stars, but I hadn’t figured out how to do that with this camera yet, so none of the images were clear.

HIJ Rie's tent on a frosty morning
Rie’s tent on a frosty morning

When I returned to my sleeping bag, I barely put my head down on the inflatable pillow before I was deeply asleep.

The shelter walls were bright with morning when I awoke. I could hear the metal clang of pots outside so I zipped open the door and saw Grace sitting there preparing breakfast for everyone. Others were still asleep, though Wes stirred in his bivy sack and looked around. Grace looked up with a shy but joyous smile that gave away just how much she enjoyed being out here and being with other hikers. Again, she had food galore, this time making grilled ham and cheese sandwiches using a sandwich grilling tool. Others came awake as the campsite awoke, and soon Rie, Satomi, and Sonia were busy helping prepare the breakfast. Wes, continued to lie in his bivy right next to the kitchen area, staying warm and regaling everyone with stories of encountering bears and hitchhiking way off course with a carload of cute girls. Tomomi was the last to wake, probably still exhausted from the walk the day before.

HIJ Wes avoiding breakfast chores
Wes avoiding breakfast chores

We took our time eating breakfast and telling stories, and as the sun broke over the ridge and bathed the campsite in a warm autumn light that lit up all the yellow and red leaves, we fanned out across the ground and lost ourselves in taking photos for a while. Jana got us to gather and pose for a series of group shots, and we all felt like a family, making silly jokes, lingering by the tents, laughing a lot. But buses were waiting and the need to travel the long distances we had all come, plus the hordes of other walkers all heading in the same direction, meant that we eventually had to take down the tents, pack up, and start home. Reluctantly we said good-bye to the campsite, and, carrying whatever leftover food there was and the extra tents and other gear, we sauntered back along the path towards Kamikochi Bus Terminal.

Some of the member wanted to take the slightly longer way around to Myojin Lake, while others needed to get back in time for the buses. I walked with Satomi, Tomomi, Sonia, and Isao, to head straight back, while the others turned off to head to Myojin Lake. I felt a sadness at the parting of the fellowship. It wasn’t often that I met with and spent an unforgettable time with likeminded friends. Still, I had a chance to talk with Isao and Sonia, who I discovered had walked the Camino de Santiago. It had changed both their lives and seemed to figure in much of how they saw their way of life now. I wanted to talk more about their adventures with them. Tomomi I discovered was a nautical engineer, actually fixing parts on ships herself, and traveling abroad as a consultant for ship parts. In Japan, a woman doing such work is extremely unusual, but, as she put it, “I believe that if you want to do something, just do it. Being a woman is no excuse.”

HIJ Last view of Tokusawa Campground
Last view of Tokusawa Campground

So, I had met some amazing people and found a group that I could relate to and feel comfortable with. It was hard to say goodbye. And two days just wasn’t quite enough, especially since we hadn’t done any real hiking together. It would be great to get these people together for a walk of several days and together share the hardships and joys of being out there, on the peaks, in the wind and rain, laughing, crying, cursing, consoling, helping one another. Perhaps another time soon.

The Fellowship
(photo courtesy of Jana McGivern)

Satomi and I said good-bye to Tomomi, Sonia, and Isao, and boarded our bus for Tokyo. The cold had settled in again, and the afternoon sun burned a fiery orange on the distant peaks. Neither of us had much to say at first, perhaps because we both felt the lingering sadness of having something special end, but also from that slow-burning fatigue following a walk through the autumn woods. My last view of Kamikochi was over the glittering waters of the dam, all signs of the trees and autumn colors lost in the shadows.

HIJ Lake Tashiro in the evening light
Lake Tashiro in the evening light
HIJ Big traffic jam back toward Tokyo
Big traffic jam back toward Tokyo

Neither Satomi nor I anticipated the monster traffic jam going back to Tokyo. But that is something better left out of the story.

Categories
2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake/ Tsunami Home Places Japan: Living Journal

The Sun in the Hollow

I wrote this near the end of 2011, right in the midst of facing my own possible personal tsunami, when my doctor informed me that I might have necrosis, or rotting of the bones, a complication due to high blood sugars from badly controlled blood sugars as a Type 1 diabetic. For three weeks my landscape shook and trembled, and every fiber within myself prepared for inundation and devastation. The wave swept over me and then subsided, with the reassurance that I’d be spared the horror of necrosis, but was instead left with osteo arthritis. No pleasure in the diagnosis, but certainly better than amputation or even, and a painful one at that, death. Following the meeting with the doctor and this news, the wind seems to have been knocked out of my sails, and like that sense of inhalation following a punch, I’ve been sitting still a lot, looking around, marveling at the visceral immediacy of the possible, wondering how, once again, I escaped more or less unscathed. So my thoughts on the Year 2011…

A year that I will never forget draws to an end and perhaps more than any time before in my life I ask myself what exactly it is that I got out of it. In many ways the March disaster seems like something a world and era away; the tremors have for the most part stopped and the most dire aspects of the tsunami clean up have more or less been addressed. Life seems to have returned to normal, at least on the surface.

Sometimes you’d think that nothing had happened, that either the people here are so resilient that they shake off the thoughts of fear and grief and move on with their lives with the full and discerning understanding that this is what life is all about, or else they’ve buried all the mess and pretend that outside of direct immersion in the actual events it really has nothing to do with their lives. Time and time again Japanese I’ve spoken to who were not there in Tohoku, or who have no family there, tell me simply, “You are alive, you made it through, what you feel now and experienced have no lasting consequences.” In a way this seems eloquently wise, a reaction that dispenses with the unnecessary and focuses only on the facts. But look around at all the posters and television commercials cheering the populace on with slogans like, “Gambare Nippon!” (Do Your Best, Japan!) or “Makeruna, Nippon!” (Don’t Give Up, Japan!), it is sorely obvious that there is much more going on under the surface than the Japanese are willing to openly face.

Only two people I’ve spoken to owned up to having been terrified, one who went through the whole earthquake experience essentially alone, and the other who had gone up to the tsunami and nuclear disaster zones to see for real what had happened there, and therefore denies himself the comfort of denial. Nearly everyone else relegates the whole thing to the “inconvenient” heap, so that even speaking about it comes across as an assault on their private sensitivities, rather than as a communal concern that everyone ought to be contributing to. And quite a number of people pop back the criticism, “That’s really selfish, to be questioning what the government does and to talk of leaving because of the possibility of radiation danger.” “Life goes on” might be the credo of a survivor, but as the fear-based outrage by Osaka residents over the Osaka City government’s plans to accept debris from Tohoku (the vast majority of which is completely outside the reaches of the radioactive claws) reveals, more revolves around watching out for one’s own neck than in working together and finding solutions as a single society. The lack of willingness to talk about any of this is not just an attempt to retain dignity, but a rather a giant brushing-under-the-carpet.

Even in Tohoku itself, where the destruction and horror affected nearly everyone’s lives, you’d expect that the unquestioned societal mores that usually run the hierarchies, would have been shaken up a bit and the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. Ten months later, with universal agreement that the low-lying towns needed to be moved to higher ground, most of the unhomed populace continues to wait in temporary housing because landowners of the surrounding mountains refuse to sell their land or work with town representatives in creating places where the town might move. So almost no progress has been made. Frustrated, people, especially the elderly, are flouting the restrictions over building upon tsunami devastated land, (or in the case of Fukushima Prefecture, the scourge of radiation) and returning to build new homes right over the old. Such is the spell of ownership and possessions; tens of thousands having lost everything doesn’t seem to count in convincing those who still have everything to give back so that everyone might re-establish their lives.

Nevertheless, most of the ruinous debris and damage from the tsunami have long been cleaned up in Tohoku, so when you go there now, you see wide swaths of emptiness, with punctuations of reminders, like lone standing houses or trees that somehow survived the onslaught, or incongruous, silent monsters, like the big fishing boats that have not yet been removed, or gouges in the silent railroads like giant bite marks. The horror of the human cost seems to have seeped into the earth, more out of sight. The Tohoku people themselves have by-and-large weathered the storm with grace and courage. Instead of complaining about the problems, they simply get on with things, cleaning what needs cleaning, building what needs building, improving what needs improving. They even put out a YouTube video to voice their gratititude to the world.

Personally the year scoured me. I’ve emerged much more tranquil and self-confident about being myself than I’ve ever felt before, but at the same time wary of everything, including people. The months following the big quake, when constant aftershocks rocked the city night and day and got me so tense that even the slightest quiver of my bed or blink of the light on a subway would set my heart racing and get me tensed up to jump to safety. Nothing felt trustworthy. Walls and ceilings could suddenly fall, subway tunnels could crush me, elevators could get stuck high up between floors, the Internet could wink out and connection to loved ones wiped clean, friends could turn away and break down, the sun could fail to rise. And worst of all, as happened to me when August rolled around, our very bodies could fail to keep holding onto the edge of the ledge and plummet into uncertainty and illness. It didn’t matter what I did, I fundamentally came to understand that attempting to stay the juggernaut would ultimately knock me aside. Who was I, but this infintesimal spark, just barely flickering at the edge of the candle?

But my eyes were also opened to the grasp of others’ concern and generosity, to the faith our communities and friendships draw out of us when the worst occurs, to that resilience and fierce determination to live and continue that we and all living beings inherently carry within us. During all the shaking, during the meeting with people who had lost everything and had reached the nedir of their lives, during the height of the pain of my disease, people were there, to help, to listen, to voice encouragement, to simply offer companionship. The kindnesses sometimes touched such an undeniable simplicity and rightness that on the spot I’d often break down weeping, I think because in our societies it happens so infrequently and was therefore such a surprise. By going through such a completely appropriate test of nature it made me think that our lives in civic society are too insulated, that only reminders of our mortality can keep up a healthy respect and awareness of one another and our place in the world. When life draws up to its full height and allows no escape, it simultaneously rips out the best in us. I realize now that we are capable of much more than we tell ourselves. I’ve also come to despise cynicism; it now seems like a cop out, a lazy way of condemning the harshness of reality and living, while making no attempt to become stronger and more adaptable.

I’ve learned to say, “No.” to things that I feel are wrong or unfair. I’ve learned to say no to anything that smacks of wasting what little precious time we have to live, or to anything pretentious or seeking to subject others to its will. Perhaps more than anything, 2011 was the year that reminded me of the treasure that life is. That I want to live, as best I can. And that I want others to live, too, and I will do all I can to be part of helping to ensure they can can make it. Seeing all those possessions obliterated and swept away by that enormous force that cares nothing for human vanity or hope, and how little of those possessions figured in what survivors yearned for, the futility of finding completion in what you own made itelf starkly clear. This might not be obvious when the nights are still and stopping by Seven-Eleven for a case of beer and packet of fried chicken is as easy as opening your wallet, but when it is no longer there and you are hungry and around you there is no one to plea to for help, the connections with others becomes more acute and all of the extras, like TV’s, computer games, five pairs of shoes, make up, that subscription to National Geographic, the Starbucks Cafe Latte, 794 friends on Facebook, first class flight to Mexico, or even the useless required language course at university, more and more come across as unnecessary and distracting, while at the same time their very luxury can help soothe the fear and frame the craziness with the familiar.

What are the answers, or the “guidelines”, then? Perhaps that there are none. Life goes on and you make do while valuing life itself. That life is the reason for living. That life other than your own is just as precious, just as pertinent, just as fiercely scratched for. And perhaps that you won’t find a caring deity hiding in the midst of the destruction, but rather, perhaps, the destruction is the deity unto itself, raw and unfiltered, inhuman, such that you must reach for your humanity and fill in your own captions. Empathy, compassion, and action are the responsibilities of a human being, not something that concerns the gods.

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Routes: Hiking Walking

The Lost Peak of ’76

Kiso Couple Clouds

Jump back to 1976, Japan, the summer when I was 16, and picture the gangly teenager with shoulder-length hair, who loved wearing bell bottoms jeans, lace up lumberjack boots, and a broad-brimmed black felt hat adorned with a Navajo bead band and bright blue, jay feather. And picture this youth ambling along shouldering a huge yellow Mt. Whitney external frame backpack, complete with giant synthetic fill sleeping bag strapped to the bottom and a guitar slung across one shoulder. Beside him trudged his best friend, dressed more conservatively in straight leg jeans and sneakers, but none the less burdened by a big external frame pack, too… orange, hip-belt too low, sleeping bag strapped on haphazardly with cotton cord. Two typical backpackers of the 1970’s.

Kiso Komagatake Feet Me

Here we were just outside Kiso-Fukushima station, walking the road under a sweltering summer sun, seeking the way up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, the highest peak in the Central Alps. We’d both camped quite a lot, but had never been so high in the mountains, and knew nothing about what to expect or whether or not we were even prepared for such a venture. All we knew was that the pictures in the Japanese guidebooks looked adventuresome with their green crags and impressive, sweeping abysses and patches of summer snow.

Kiso Komagatake Kamiigusa
Kiso Komagatake First Range

The problem was that neither of us could read Japanese well and therefore we had little information to go on. For one, we had landed at the wrong train station and though we could see the peaks from where we had started, they were still too far way from where we needed to be. We spent the better part of the afternoon seeking a path up the mountains, wandering through little farming villages, eliciting shocked exclamations from the locals, many of whom had never seen foreigner before, especially not one wearing a big black hat and toting a guitar. Odd indeed.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Cloud Puff

Eventually we found our way back to the train station and realized our error and took the next train to Komagome, which was the proper starting point for climbing Kiso-Komagatake. Unfortunately it was getting late by then, so we looked up the local youth hostel and booked a night there. A number of mountain climbing groups were also holed up there for the night, and at dinner we sat with all of them, chatting. Two high school mountain climbing clubs, one university climbing club, and even a troop of acolyte Buddhist monks, with shaved heads and loose blue robes and who would be climbing the mountain as a kind of spiritual training, all sat together at a long table, eating dinner. It was obvious that we were the odd men out; our clothes certainly gave us away.

Kiso Komagatake Col

Photos of the mountains we hoped to climb hung all along the walls and the scenes of the crags and windswept slopes soon had us doubting our own plans, making us think we had taken on more than we could handle. The way the club people spoke, with all the talk of wind and rain and cold nights, struck fear in our unprepared hearts.

Kiso Red Leaves

Discussing our options, we decided that attempting the summit of Kiso-Komagatake was perhaps foolhardy, so we decided to camp along river down here in the valley and try the peaks another time, when we were ready.

Kiso Komagatake Couple Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Asian Peak

Now jump ahead 35 years. High school graduation, moving to the States, university, grad school, work, many mountains and long bicycle journeys later, I was back. I’d recently recovered from a month long bout of sickness and wasn’t sure I was strong enough to even climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain slope, so after taking the gondola up to 2,600 meters, I stood there in front of the gondola station gazing up at the peaks that I had dreamed of at 16, and felt a mix of trepidation and joy. There they were, the green, wild rocks that the guidebooks had tempted me with, the same light grey stone, the same lush vegetation, the same deep blue sky. But alive and real this time. As if no time had passed at all since I was still a boy. I watched clouds rise, sail, and fan across the sky, moving as fast as the swifts that darted across them. The gondola had carried boatloads of tourists up, but a hush had befallen all of them, so that even the noisy ones tended to speak in awed tones. One university girl in high heels, obviously seeing such magnificence for the first time, couldn’t stop exclaiming how beautiful and overwhelming it was. She snatched the camera from one of the boys and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! It’s not real, is it?” She attempted a few shots, but soon gave up. “I can’t take a picture of it,” she said. She tossed the camera back to the boy and stood gazing up with her hands on her hips, a stern grimace on her face, as if the mountains had somehow outsmarted her and she had quite figured out if she should forgive them or not.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Rocks

I started climbing and immediately it was obvious that both the altitude and the exertion were going to take their toll on me. I took it really slow, stopping every hundred meters to regain my breath and clear my woozy head. People passed me every time I stopped, and at first it bothered me that I was so weak, when in the past I would have strode up such a slope, breezing by everyone, but the simple feel of the wind and the familiar act of putting one foot in front of the other on the rough randomness of a trail soon took my mind off such silly concerns, and all that mattered was losing myself in the landscape. This was a trial run after all, to see what I was capable of after so long being housebound. After the shaking up of my confidence in the aftermath of the Tohoku quake, nothing was whole anymore, it seemed. I jumped at every shiver of the earth. Elevators made my heart race. Big, thick-kneed buildings inevitably brought out a moment of hesitation before entering. And as if there were strings attached, my body followed suit, seemingly welling up with hormonal and systemic aftershocks, with inexplicable rashes, internal aches, stomach fluxes, and wild blood sugar swings that had nothing to do with what I was eating. In the middle of the summer, just before I was supposed to head out for a month-length traverse of the Japan Alps, something imploded inside, sending my brain into a tailspin every time I tried to stand up, robbing my toes of sensation, retracting my breathing so that I felt as if I was suffocating as I slept, and punching out lumps and blood spots in my eyes… The doctors had no idea what it was, just vaguely guessing that perhaps it was “a virus”. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” they said. But I knew better. My body was typing out Braille messages, with the warnings, “You are NOT exempt from the consequences.”

Kiso Sweep Down
Kiso Nakadake Sign

The aftershocks lessened after a month of lying in bed. And I emerged feeling much the same as I did coming out of the big March quake: shaky, but oddly windblown, with an aimless, compass-less sense of selflessness.

I stopped often along the first climb, trying to regain my breath. But I made progress, slowly gaining each step of the rock masses, ascending higher and higher, until the gondola station had shrunk to a tiny blip in the circle of mountains. My nose touched the underbelly of the clouds as they ripped and shredded amidst the crags, passed in front of the sun, cast galloping shadows upon the slopes. Tiny, multicolored beads of people crawled infinitesimally along the scratches of trail, all aiming for the top.

Kiso Morning Peak
Kiso Komagatake Kiso Grass

Lungs burning, it almost seemed to be happening to someone else when I gained the ridge and came face-to-face with the sweeping panorama of the col. A troupe of macaques scribbled down through a grove of white birches, plaintive ululations echoing throughout the valley, at once playful like children, but something also immensely lonely, as if they were lost and couldn’t find their way home. The wind buffeted me, giving me a shake, letting me go, then racing away laughing. I laughed, too, giddy with joy. Here I was, I really was, above tree line, alive, looking down at the whole world, up where I feel connected to grace. Because it was still raw and new, the photographs I tried to take fell flat each time. I was trying to look in too many directions at the same time. So I stashed the camera away for later when the wind felt more like it was blowing through me, rather than against me.

Kiso Komagatake Gorilla 1

It’s always funny how the place that you end up standing in seems to have no relationship to the imaginary collage you had pored over for days on the map. The peaks and valleys came out in relief right where you expected them to, but there is a presence they all exude that immediately tells you that they are alive, in spite of the seeming indifference and silence. They come across as being bigger or smaller, darker or brighter than at first imagined. And when you step out on them, to trust your feet to their care, you realize that rocks are harder, the branches sharper, the drops far steeper, and the wind so big that that sense of mastery that a map can trick you into quickly gets whisked into fantasy.

Kiso Precipice

Thick clouds had crowned the ridges, and so it was hard to see beyond the first hundred meters ahead. Visible was a flat saddle between two shadowy peaks lost in the shrouds of mist. The lines of people who had climbed up to this point broke off in different directions, most of them heading for the mountain hut neaby where they could sit down to take a breather and get a nice hot lunch of curry rice or egg-chicken rice bowl. Those wearing proper climbing gear or carrying the extra loads of camping equipment, and a few less mindful, or knowledgeable, of their safety, set off for the peaks. A few tourists in high heels and loafers stood at the edge of the cliffs, taking photographs of one another and laughing loudly. In the thinner air and huge, racing clouds, their voices were swept away.

Kiso Komagatake Rock Mound BW

The thin air made it hard for me to breathe and without stopping to rest and consult my map, I followed the crowd and veered off toward the charismatic spearhead of a peak off to my left that was Hokendake, but that I thought at the time was the peak I was aiming for, Kiso-Komagatake. Immediately the trail left the flat saddle behind and shot up into the air, in no time turning into a hand over hand scramble up a steep, tortured stone path, complete with chains and ladders. I thought it vaguely strange that the map hadn’t said anything about this, until a small group descending slowly from above stopped to talk with me and told me I was on the wrong peak. Embarrassed, I sat down on a narrow ledge and consulted my map, and sure enough, there I was heading south instead of north, right along the ferrata path that crossed the dizzying razorback col between Hokendake and Senjiyojiki. I sighed with relief and turned about, making my way gingerly back to the saddle ridge and crossed north, in my intended direction. I met the group again further down the descent and we took photographs and exchanged email addresses.

Kiso Komagatake Hutte Wide

The walk north was completely different, more of a level ridge stroll, with gradual rises and, as the clouds began to clear, views of the valleys and the distant ranges like the South Alps, Mt. Ontake, and the winding path toward the northern half of this range. My breath still came with big gulps of air and I had to stop frequently, but a spring came into my step and I almost bounced along, heady with the joy of walking on an alpine ridge again. My camera came whipping out at every new rock formation or flower or cloud, one wonder following another, though the sense of immersion still eluded me… the weakness of my body continued to stay in the foreground, punctuated by all the stops and dizzy need to get my heart to slow down. People kept passing me by and I nodded to them, trying my best to smile.

Kiso Komagatake Campground Above

When I reached the top of Nakadake, a minor peak providing a sheltered place among boulders to take a break and view the way back down, I lowered my pack and surveyed the path ahead. I had intended to walk all the way to the top of Kiso-Komagatake and then backtrack to the campsite directly below, but knew that, in this condition, there was no way I’d be able to enjoy the walk, so I decided to just concentrate on making it down to the campsite and call it quits for the day. Arriving at the campsite in the early afternoon would allow me to grab a good camping spot among the rocks that littered the campsite, before all the other campers had returned from their climb to the top of Kiso-Komagatake.

Kiso Komagatake Clouds Rising
Kiso Dawn Cirrus
Kiso Komagatake Morning Cloudsea
Kiso Komagatake Three Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Thunderheads BW
Kiso Komagatake Wild Clouds BW

Getting down to the campsite took a lot less time than I anticipated, and before I knew it I was picking my way among the campsite rocks, looking for a level and dry site. Already a lot of campers had set up their tents, and the bright orange and red bubbles of their canopies stood out like limpets amidst the dry grass and stones. I found a spot at the bottom of the campground, right at the edge where a rope warned people off pitching in the protected swale below. Beyond that the mountain dropped away to an unseen precipice, and beyond that was nothing but open air, wild clouds, and hazy, distant peaks.

Kiso Komagatake Shrine Roof BW

The ground was hard as rock and getting the stakes in for the simple, open tarp I was using proved quite a challenge. Two of the stakes bent at the head and immediately became useless, while the other stakes required several tentative probes to push past the hidden rocks beneath to get a proper purchase of the ground. Even then the pitch of the tarp, though tight, kept a few wrinkles and off-center veerings that would later in the night prove to make it hard to sleep in the wind. Nonetheless, the campsite made a comfortable little space where I could relax, all my belongings set out on the groundsheet under the tarp, and the sleeping quilt laid out beside the tarp, snug in its bivy. A neat sanctuary. I lay down on the quilt and closed my eyes for a while, feeling the waning rays of the sun warm my face and hands.

Kiso Komagatake Campsite
Kiso Komagatake Campsite Me

Other campers steadily arrived and set up camp, until there were few places left. Latecomers had to make do with rocky sites or their tents pushed up against bushes or along the verges of the campsite where water pooled during rains. One couple traveling with a third person produced two tents that they proceeded to pitch around an old tree stump, and all three went about setting everything out with much laughter and photograph taking. Another couple had arrived earlier than I had and now sat lounging in inflatable seats, gazing at the sky while sipping coffee. Still another group, two fathers and five children around 12 years old, hollered and shrieked from the center of the campsite as if they were lounging about the privacy of their homes, but strangely the noise was comforting and familiar, and the delighted discoveries the children were making at being inside a tent or watching a stove burst into flame reached across the hush of the mountain and made me smile.

Kiso Cupo Coffee
Kiso Komagatake Me Coffee

The sun dropped below the edge of the peaks, drawing for a while, a brilliant orange heat from the waiting rocks and boulders, and in its fire the moon slipped unannounced, still pale with daylight, but impatient, seemingly, to take the stage and give an equally brilliant performance across this stark landscape. For a full ten minutes the two stared in defiance at one another, until the sun backed down and sank beneath the horizon. The sky blushed indigo, and the crags darkened until their outlines raked a crenulated midnight out of the base of the skyline. Clouds swam like dim, silent whales through the dark, overhead ocean, rising, cresting, diving into the abyss.

Kiso Komagatake Mist BW
Kiso Komagatake Moonrise Rocks BW

I made dinner as all these celestial events played above me, a simple bag of curry rice with a side of cream of asparagus soup and a cup of instant cafe latte. The fuel tab stove took quite a time to heat up the water, so I waited with my arms wrapped around my knees, shivering a little in the chilling air, and looking up, looking around, looking down at the ever-so-slightly crackling stove. Goups of people huddled over their stoves here and there in the field of stones, their headlights light-sabering through the darkness, and the subdued hiss of their cannister stoves issuing soft threats like snakes. People were telling stories and laughing and sitting together pointing up at the sky, and as I watched it hit me that this was a scene our kind have played over and over again for most of our time on earth, and that it was as human and indicative of who we are as anything that we have ever done.

Kiso Komagatake Bowl Silhouette
Kiso Komagatake Night Wacthmen

To the northeast an enormous anvilhead thundercloud rose up and flashed with lightning. Here and there the flash echoed itself, in lesser thunderclouds, all silent, all distant, all safe from where we sat. One flash sent out a spiderweb of lightning so bright all the tents exhibited their colors for a moment, and the faces of the tribe lit up like spectators at a fireworks event.

Kiso Komagatake Night Spinnshelter

As I ate, one of the men from a neighboring campsite made his way over and asked if that was a tarp I was sleeping under. He’d seen them in the magazines, but had never seen one in person, and hadn’t expected to see one way up here at 2,600 meters. We talked. His nickname was Chilli and he was here with his wife Junka and their close friend, Yuri, the couple and the third person I had noticed earlier. We got to talking about ultralight backpacking and how to use gear to do double duty and get your pack weight down. He’d already started learning about it, even mentioning some of the relevent stores in Tokyo where UL enthusiasts could buy a lot of the specialized gear and exchange ideas. It was still quite a new movement here.

Kiso Komagatake Chili Tent Stars
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Junka
Kiso Komagatake Shadow Puppets

Chilli invited me over to their tent to talk and get out of the cold. We sat hunched up in the small space, sleeping bags draped over our legs, and getting to know one another and telling jokes and stories of past mountain adventures and mishaps. I loved their cheer and the enthusiastic embrace of being outdoors, in spite of the inconveniences and hardships that sometimes characterized getting out here. As I listened to them I was once again reminded about what I take to mean loving life and feeling alive. It had nothing to do with sitting at home watching endless TV reruns or spending the weekend going shopping at the mall.

Kiso Komagatake Star Door

When people began yawning, it was time to head back out to my tarp and dive into my quilt. I put on my down jacket, pulled on a layer of windpants over my regular pants, placed my water sack near the head of the quilt, slipped into the quilt, and lay back to go to watch the stars. Already they had spilled across the northern sky opposite the moon and I could see the outline of the mountains where the stars were blocked out. The moon cast a hard blue light across the field of tents, bright enough to read a book under. The white tarp canopy glowed in this blue light, and when I swiveled my head I could see all around, the openness of the tarp keeping me in touch with accumulating stars, the sailing moon, and the silent tents one by one winking out as the inhabitants switched off their lights and went to sleep. I pulled out my camera and took some time lapse photographs of the heavens and tents, finally feeling immersed in the mountains and in the moment, feeling that wonderful sense of being tiny and insignificant with big eyes for the sky and the wind.

Kiso Komagatake Apex Stars

I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of wandering aimless trails. My sleep pulled me down into the earth, further and further from the thin film of my tarp and into the well of my deepest shores. I felt safe, enough to dream. Then the wind hit. I shot awake. A hard, series of punches that snapped at my tarp and set off the telltale crackle that I had been warned about concerning spinnaker cloth shelters. Since I hadn’t been able to get a drum-tight pitch the tarp shook incessantly, whipping all about my ears, and snapping me awake with every gust of wind. I tried a number of solutions… adding more stakes to the side, tightening the guylines, trussing the trekking poles-cum-tent-poles up a little higher, but to no avail. Finally, at about 1 in morning I gave up and I sat out on a rock, gazing at the sea of clouds to the east.

At about that time one of the men in the tent next to mine set off on a snoring campaign from hell, so loud and distinct that I couldn’t believe no one else didn’t wake up. But the campsite remained still, most likely individuals here and there lying awake in the dark, waiting for morning.

Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Door
Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Dawn

I did manage to finally get back into my quilt, stuff ear plugs in my ears, and get about two hours of sleep. The sun had already poked under my tarp by the time I woke.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Me Smile BW
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Tents

And what a morning! A storm-tossed blue ocean of clouds below us, a fan of sun beams illuminating the heavens, and a chipper accentor calling from up the slope, telling us to make breakfast and start the day.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Tent
Kiso Komagatake Wide Cloudsea

While chatting with the three friends from the night before, I heated up some muesli with egg soup and chai, and packed up. The shortness of breath of the day before seemed to have disappeared, and though I had hardly slept and felt sleepy, I felt as bright as the sun. I left my full pack by the mountain hut, took my windbreaker, some snacks, and my camera, and headed up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, about a half hour scramble. The wind blew so strong that when my feet balanced on sharp rocks or I swung around on a switchback it sometimes knocked me off balance.

Kiso Jizo
Kiso Little Shrine
Kiso Komagatake Torii BW

I reached the summit of Kiso-Komagatake 35 years after I had started out. When I saw the weathered wooden sign, creaking in the wind, I let out a whoop of pure joy and found myself watching that boy of 16 run the last 10 meters up the slope to reach out and touch the sign. And I heard myself shout out, “You finally did it, Miguel! You finally made it here! I knew you’d make it here one day! Good job!”

Kiso Komagatake Me
Kiso Komagatake Top Me

It wasn’t the tallest mountain I’d ever climbed, and certainly not the hardest. But there was something about dredging up that past and placing it in front of me again, tying up old loose ends, that felt more satisfying than a lot of other summits I’d reached. Maybe I won’t fulfill all the dreams I’ve ever had, but it sure does feel good to put my arm around that shy 16-year old, and slowly head back down the mountain, this time together.

Kiso Sun Shrine 2 BW
Categories
2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake/ Tsunami Japan: Living Journal Tokyo

Trembling

Japan Quake Map
Map of the big earthquake in Tohoku in 2011

Whenever someone writes about the beginnings of an earthquake the story inevitably starts off with that lull before the event. Usually the story takes a humorous twist, because the experience only lasts a moment and then fades into a memory, and when the adrenaline drains away and the heart stops thumping, you’re left with this void that laughter does a good job of filling.[1. Japan Quake Map, A time-lapse map of the series of earthquakes just before and after the Great Sendai Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Author: Paul Nicholls, from Christchurch Earthquake Map, of The University of Canterbury, New Zealand.]

The Great Sendai Earthquake of March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., in northeastern Japan, started the same way. Seven days ago I sat at the living room table, working away at my blog design, atypically outside of my studio, lounging back against the sofa, sipping Prince of Wales tea from a mug. My partner lay fast asleep on the floor in her room, still exhausted from a hard day working at the hospital the day before. The sun shone through the window from a cloudless blue sky, gray starlings twittered and chortled in the branches of a young gingko tree, and the street stood quiet, the elementary school children still not out, a day like any other.

When the first tremor came it felt almost gentle, a soft bumping against the floor that made the hanging potus plant sway in the window sill. It was followed by an impatient shudder that rattled the window glass and spoons in the sink. Then all of a sudden this titanic shrug shoved against the floor and walls and knocked my mug off the table. For a moment it subsided, a breathless moment, then it rammed into the building again and bucked, shaking, the way a dog shakes a mouse in it’s teeth. The movement generated an almost inaudible, faraway rumble, the same sound you hear when you press your fist flat against your ear and clench your fist hard, growing steadily louder and more indistinct.

I was already up, first unconsciously grabbing my insulin kit, then dashing to my partner’s room, shaking her awake. But she was a deep sleeper and just moaned, throwing her arm over her eyes. “Get up! Get up! Get up!” I insisted, still not quite scared yet, still having no idea. I pulled her by her arm and she reluctantly woke, mumbling, “It’s only an earthquake. Stop getting so excited.” But the earth kept heaving and the walls creaked and groaned and the window glass of her room skittered against the frame. “It’s big!” I said, louder. “Come on, get up!” She moaned again. A huge fist slammed into the floor, forcing it to buckle under me and I almost toppled over, caught myself. She was still slow, so, shouting now, I wrenched her to her feet and pulled her through the living room into the corridor. My partner walked to the bathroom door while I threw open the front door, and stopped it with the old, chewed up plastic door wedge. I glanced out at the sunny day outside, everything telling me to get out and fly the coop and get away from this pile of rock, but I stopped myself. To the bathroom. The bathroom. The bathroom. Where had I heard that it was safe there? Right. The bathroom. We stood in the doorframe as the walls seesawed back and forth on either side of us, dust spilling from small fissures that split along the corners of the wall, and my thoughts seemed to flutter in the darkness, without direction, frantic flashes of old lessons repeated over and over like a litany… don’t go outside… falling masonry… bathroom tight frame safe… why didn’t I buy those helmets?… I should have finished putting that emergency backpack together… oh no! My cameras!… but nothing coherent that could think my way out of whatever this huge thing was.

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God…

A siren punctuated the air, howling over the city. Down the hallway another alarm, an insistent electric beeping, echoed down the hallways.

I kept glancing at the ceiling, wondering when it would crash down on us and crush our skulls. Outside I heard the sharp crack and then heavy thud of a concrete wall falling down. A woman in a neighboring apartment kept bawling over and over, “Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa!” (No! No! No! No! No!) in a high-pitched, keening voice. A baby’s thin wail started up in the apartment above us.

In Japanese mythology a gigantic catfish is said to reside beneath the islands. Whenever it rolls or turns it takes the island with it, a muscular shifting of bones. The catfish had started wildly awake, shuddered under the inhabitants, and broken the old sleep with violent fits. Only after the mud had clouded the depths and cloaked the catfish in darkness, did the catfish begin to settle down. The swaying began to die down, but not completely, just enough to get our wits together and think what to do. My partner got her coat and bag and some food ready, while I gathered, as quickly as I could, two packs with lightweight backpacking equipment.

studio rubble after the quake
Fallen bookshelves and books in my studio after the earthquake.

One look into the living room convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to look for anything precious, even if I wanted to. All the dishes in the kitchen cabinets had slid out and crashed to the floor. The wine bottles lay smashed and bleeding amidst the dishes. The kitchen counter that I had built had shifted two meters toward the center of the living room. In my studio, the entire bookshelf system had collapsed into a huge mess, books scattered over everything, the shelves buried under boxes, the guitar broken in half, and no way to get in. I’d have to stick only to what we absolutely needed, if I could find it.

For the first time since I took a passionate interest in learning how to go backpacking and mountain climbing with an exceptionally low weight pack, I felt grateful for the hours and hours, over the years, poring over gear lists and putting together and using in the mountains, combinations of gear necessary for surviving outdoors in all kinds of conditions. WIthout even really thinking consciously, I stuffed two packs with what we needed, including a shelter, water filter, wood burning stove, special clothes, sleeping bags, headlamps, gloves, etc. I knew we’d be okay outside, even in the snow or heavy rain. My partner impatiently stood by the door, keeping back her thoughts that I was wasting time and looked ridiculous with my geeky obsession. Within five minutes I was ready and followed my partner out the front door, into the afternoon.

Trees still registered the ongoing shaking, like metronomes ticking down the heartbeats.

To be continued…

Categories
2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake/ Tsunami Japan: Living Journal

Disaster Japan Information Gathering Site

The “Chamber Moon” photoblog and “Tracing the Wind” drawing blog have been retired and all content moved into Laughing Knees itself, to keep everything in one place. The information here is merely for record-keeping purposes.

Hi Everyone. I have been quiet again for quite a while on Laughing Knees, but not, this time, due to neglect. I’ve been very busy setting up my other concurrent blogs, Chamber Moon, a photoblog, and Tracing the Wind, a drawing blog. I still have to finish setting up my fiction blog and professional illustration site, but for now the two above are online and started. I will still mostly post to the photoblog because I just don’t have time to write a lot of long posts to Laughing Knees, but I want to keep it moving along more frequently, too.

Also, I’ve just been through the horrors of the earthquake here in Japan, though luckily quite far away from the nightmare of the north. I’ll write more in-depth about the experience in my next post, but for now I wanted to announce a blog I put together in hope of centralizing much-needed information in English on dealing with the crisis. It is not a news blog, or a place to discuss politics (in fact there are no comments open), but rather a sober and practical approach to bringing some measure of order to the chaos of information about the crisis. This includes information on where shelters are, what the trains schedules are, who to go to for advice on trauma, etc. I want to help, not cause further panic. Please take a look at Disaster Japan.

Quite a few people are helping with gathering the information and working on the site. If any of you are interested, please join the Facebook group “Disaster Japan Information Gathering” (it’s closed and you have to knock to get in… don’t worry it’s not exclusive!)

Hope to see some of you there!