Walking In Japan

Something I really enjoy doing in Japan is going on random strolls. I wander about my town, diving down backstreets, searching for roads and paths I have never encountered before. I love the way you can find a beautifully maintained garden with bonsai and ornamental stone lanterns next to an unkempt yard with CDs hanging from fishing line to scare the crows, and full bottles of water lying around because of a misguided belief that, to a cat, nothing could be more terrifying. I love the smells that emanate from ramen and yakitori joints, I love the strained warbling that comes from a karaoke singer in a dingy Snack, and I love the vivid pinks and purples that appear in the trees and flowers at this time of year. I love seeing bent old ladies pushing carts along country paths, and a group of oldies playing gateball. Yesterday I saw an elderly chap, perhaps eighty years old, happily shuffling down the street lost in the business of eating an ice-cream cone and for some unknown reason it filled me with joy.  Even in my town, which is so unexciting that I once appeared in the local newspaper with a headline that read something like, ‘Teacher Uses Colored Chips In Classroom!’, I am never bored. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking of expanding my walking horizons.

You see, until now most of my walking has been fairly urban. Well, as urban as you can get in a small town. Yes, I often walk through rice fields and tea fields and along country roads, but I am never far from shops and houses and I never step off to the side, off into the places where there are no paths and where all those bamboo trees are growing.

For a while now, though, I’ve been watching videos on Youtube by a fellow called Softypapa. He leaves the kinds of roads I walk on and clambers deep into the mountains, into places where he almost never meets another soul. He takes his video camera and shows us these places with the demeanor of a kindly uncle explaining nature to eager children. Along the way he points out something I would call a stone and explains it is an old road marker. He points out ancient markings upon it or shows how it has been carved. He stumbles across a pile of logs which I would think were just old and mushroomy bits of wood and tells us that what he has found is in fact a small example of shiitake farming. That old rusty metal rail cutting its way down the mountain slope is in fact an old tram-car line from days of old when farmers would use it to access hard-to-get-to and long since abandoned green tea and mikan fields. He calls insects by their names and talks of huntsman spiders and giant Asian hornets. He films them. Things that would have me running away and shrieking like a girl because they look big and stingy, Softypapa welcomes and in doing so he teaches us about them. I live near similar kinds of nature and yet, despite my best intentions, I never dig out my hiking boots and discover.

I suspect one reason for this is the nagging fear that lies at the back of my mind. It is the same fear that has most likely stopped me from ever going scuba diving and that fear is this: there are things there that might eat me. The Japanese mountains are home to bears. I know, I know, they are more scared of me than I am of them (doubtful, to be honest) and they will do all they can to avoid me but still, they are there and as long as I know that, how is it possible to relax? In the last video of Softypapa’s I watched, he discovered a frog grotto just off a mountain road. It was wonderful. He stepped into the bushes and, just a few metres in, he discovered this pond full of huge, copulating frogs. But, the thing is, the thing that made me realize I might have to remain an armchair trekker, was the manner in which Softypapa discovered this grotto. He was wandering along the road and he heard a rustling in the mountains on his left. Had that been me, I would have been taking deep breaths and thinking, ‘Don’t run, don’t run,’ while walking back down that path with the speed and clenched-buttock gait of a particularly good speed-walker. Softypapa didn’t. He shouted a few gentle ‘Hello’s and crept slowly into the area to see if he could see the animal. It remained hidden, but his reward was the enormous frogs.

I want to do those things. I want to see giant frogs and discover unknown waterfalls and be able to talk about ‘spoor’. I want to not be flummoxed by the names of any flowers that aren’t roses. I want to throw on a small backpack and head off early in the morning and come back as the sun sets. I want to sink into a bath, tired, scratched and bruised, but satisfied after a day of proper exploring. I still want to continue my safe rambling around town, but I want to go further and see the places few other people do. I want to be brave.

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15 Responses to Walking In Japan

  1. softypapa says:

    Hello friend, Thank you for the nice words and for sharing with others about a side of Japan which is so beautiful and special. Your writing is amazing and I am compelled to climb higher and further by your wonderful, encouraging ideas and observations. Thank you again, friend. ~Kurt 🙂

    • You’re welcome. Really enjoy your videos. There are so many about Japan on Youtube but yours are the only ones I know of that delve deep into the countryside. Always fascinating.

  2. judi(togainunochi) says:

    Thanks for another wonderful story. Now I am subscribed to softypapa, so that I can enjoy arm chair exploring.
    Where I live in the mountains, actually a valley, the wildlife comes to me. Deer, black bear, hawks, eagles, think nothing of walking through my yard, snacking on trash cans or munching on the apple tree. Once in awhile, I go to them, but never have the time to just walk around with no direction in mind. I just may have to do that one day. 🙂

  3. Mr. S. says:

    The thing to do with your fears is shove yourself in their way. “A coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave die but once.” I was picked on in grade school, and afraid of bears in scouting in Canada, and of heights and small spaces (still afraid of the latter). I got fed up with myself, took some martial arts and took up rock climbing. Never had a real fight, and do neither sport anymore, but forcing myself to confront my fears did me a world of good.

    There’s a world of good hiking in Japan, no matter where you are. Start with day hikes, because everything seems more dramatic in the dark. Start with the popular routes, because you’ll always have help at hand. Eventually you’ll be so sick of the crowds here you’d rather spend time with the bears (personally, I don’t believe in Honshu bears).

  4. MULLY says:

    What I’ve always said, Kurt has a way of taking something that has absolutely no interesting qualities whatsoever and turning them into a something you’d see on the Discovery Channel…..and you just can’t change the channel. I think it has something to do with his Bob Ross/Kermit the Frog delivery. Either way, Softypapa has some of the most interesting videos out there. Now if I could just get him to speak to me at work we might have something.

  5. noonasays says:

    At least chances of you running into bears are very slim, and I don’t really thing there’s much ELSE that can eat you in the wilds of Japan (is there?).

    I love bears though (and luckily where I live is famous for them haha), so I don’t think I’d have the same problem as you.

    Like that guy’s videos. Thanks for the heads up. 🙂

  6. Sam Pugeda says:

    This is the second time I’ve visited your blog and I really love the way you write. Even when you are describing the adventures of softypapa, I can almost see the mountainous forest and the small overlooked details that he catches.
    I am sure that one day, after getting tired of the urban walks, you will pluck up the courage to explore the more rural areas. If you get even the smallest inkling to check out other unknown areas, you should just go for it! Its time for an adventure!

    • Thank you! Appreciate the comments, and perhaps will venture a bit further this summer.

      • Jeffrey says:

        This is the second time in the letters section that you’ve threatened to abuse yourself. While it’s marginally cooler in the mountains of Honshu in the summer, wait until the cool of autumn. The mushi count is down considerably by October as well.

  7. Mr. S. says:

    Yeah, don’t take the locals seriously when they get dramatic about their megafauna. I have had mountain hut staff insist that ‘kamoshika’ (a goat) are meat eaters, so I was in danger in my tent. It wasn’t even a ploy to make me pay the hut fee. They let me sleep inside by the fire for free! (I did ply them with whiskey, mind you).

    Any mammal on Honshu has survived by avoiding humans for a very long time. And they are smaller than their mainland cousins (no jokes about the Japanese, please). The bears which have attacked people were not in backcountry areas, such as I have heard, but in ‘touron’ zones. I have seen how witless ‘tourons’ are in Banff with elk bigger than their SUVs, so I do not doubt the Honshu bears were provoked.

  8. David says:

    Your first paragraph exactly describes what I love the most about Japan I think. 🙂

    Also, thanks for making us discover Softypapa, I will watch his videos avidly.

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