One of the drawbacks of glamorous international travel is that you’ve constantly got to be wowing the folks back home. The peanut gallery’s always hungry for a vicarious thrill, and they set the bar high. They watch the Travel Channel, they’ve read National Geographic Adventure. Just you’re being there isn’t enough for them. They want to hear about some travel, by god. You went to South Africa? Did you go cage diving with the Great Whites? Oh, that’s a shame … maybe next week, yes? How’s Hawaii? Have you taken one of those helicopter rides around the rim of an erupting volcano? Well, why not? The volcano’s not going to come to you, you know.
Fukui’s not exactly the crossroads of Japan, but it is awfully central to things. Even if the city’s not much of an end point, it’s an excellent place to travel from. Just 41 miles (or 66 kilometers, if you insist) along the coast to the north lies Kanazawa, an overlooked gem of an ancient city that most foreign visitors miss because it’s well off the Tokyo-Nagoya-Kyoto-Hiroshima line. Triple that distance to the south and east gets you to the old capital of Kyoto, the crown jewel in Japan’s cultural dowry, as well as nearby Osaka and Nara. Two hundred miles and a three-hour bullet-train ride to the opposite coast is Tokyo itself: hyperbolic, hello-kitty-cute, switched-on and serene. Eight or so miles to the west, the Sea of Japan nuzzles the nation’s midsection, carving out a delicate string of beaches and inlets from the twisting stretch of overhanging cliffs and upended rocks known as the Ichizen Coast.
If it’s an adrenaline rush you’re after, though – the kind that comes with sheer drops and snow-capped heights, alpine steeps and bottomless rock canyons, gondola lifts and rope bridges, infinite vistas across the spine of the world and such – then you’re going to want to point yourself east, at the 1,000-square-mile scrum of glorious tectonic pandemonium known as the Japanese Alps. They’re home to innumerable tiny historic resorts and onsen (including Nagano on the northern edge of the range, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics), a score of the highest peaks in Japan, and some of the best snowskiing and hiking in the world.
That’s where I’m headed this weekend, bum foot or no.
Three weeks ago I took a train about three hours northeast to Nagano. From there, I’d hoped to explore a couple of the tiny nearby ski resorts like Hakuba and Togakushi, which during the summer and fall are great for hiking. The mountains decided otherwise, though, and it rained all weekend. As if to compensate for this, karma saw to it that I bump into Will Banff, an Australian-raised English teacher who’s been living in Osaka for four years, but who’s taken a six-month sabbatical from teaching to climb 100 of Japan’s biggest hills. Not just any 100, though. Will’s trek is modeled on a famous book by writer, poet, and mountaineer Kyūya Fukada, whose 1964 guide 100 Famous Mountains of Japan has been taken as a personal challenge by rush-seekers and risk-takers since its publication, Will being just the latest example.
Will was halfway through the list when I met him, having arrived in Nagano that weekend to tackle mountains 52-54. Over a few beers that evening, we agreed on a title for the book about the trip we’d decided to collaborate on: Heading for the Hills. (If you have a better idea, by all means send it along.) This weekend, Will is hunkered down in an alpine city not far from here called Takayama, which he plans to use as a base camp for tackling a clutch of local peaks and which I’ve been looking for an excuse to visit since I arrived. With the fall colors expected to be approaching an incandescent level of ostentation this weekend, I think it’s incumbent on me to say the hell with the foot and jump, as it were, on a train bound for Takayama as soon as I can hobble to the station.
Let the peanut gallery chew on that.