After I’ve left Japan, whenever that is, one thing they won’t be able to say about me is that he sat drooling through his weekends in front of the TV. Partly that’s because “weekend” is a relative term for me, as mine fall on Sundays and Mondays rather than into the more traditional time slots. (That’s not a Japan thing, incidentally; it’s just a teaching thing. Saturdays are jam packed with kids whose parents would rather have them sitting through English lessons than playing outside in the sunshine. If you tried to pull that on kids in America, you’d have a blood-spattered revolution on your hands.)
Also, watching TV in Japan isn’t really a viable option for me, even now that I live in an apartment that claims one. Apart from CNN and some random programming on the Discovery Channel, all of Japanese television is – no big surprise here – in Japanese. And since after eight months in the country I still understand only every hundredth word of spoken Japanese on my good days, TV watching here is even less enlightening than back in the U.S., which is saying something.
This leaves me with no alternative but to get out there and look around. That I most certainly did last weekend. After a full day in Kyoto gandering at 850-year-old Nanzen-ji Temple, with its 13 sub-temples, sprawling Zen gardens and Versailles-sized grounds, followed by another full day spent climbing up and across three 1,000-meter peaks in Japan’s Lake Biwako district on a cloudless blue day, my arms and the back of my neck now look like they just got back from spring break in Key West.
The Kyoto excursion was a solo affair – just me and my bike, which not only folds in half, but which I’ve discovered to my great delight that, because of said folding, can ride with me on the train hereabouts. I hopped off at Kawaramachi Station on Kyoto’s east side and headed across the Kamo River, into Gion and the outrageously scenic Higashiyama district. I’d hoped to tool around the northeast section of the city, pedaling up the famed “Philosopher’s Walk” from Nanzen-ji at the southern end to Ginkaku-ji Temple, the Silver Pavilion, at the northern end. But I underestimated the pull of Nanzen-ji in springtime on a nearly perfect April day.
One of the things I love about Kyoto is that you could spend every weekend of the year there gaping at a different temple or shrine or castle or garden or palace or park – any one of which would by itself be enough to pull legions of sightseers from every end of the globe – and still not exhaust the bounty of sights there are to see there. They don’t call Kyoto the City of 2,000 Temples for nothing. You should also know that “temple” doesn’t really convey the vastness of what I’m talking about. A typical temple complex is the size of a small town, which in fact is what it originally was. And every square inch of it, from the gabled roofs to the raked gravel in the garden and the sculpted moss on the trees, looks exactly the way someone wants it to appear; there’s nothing accidental about any of it. Every corner and every angle offers a new surprise, a different and completely unexpected perspective. It’s the most perfect union of the natural and the manmade that exists.
The following day, on Monday, Will and I set out to tackle three peaks nestled together like conjoined siblings in the long march of mountains that embrace the west side of Lake Biwako, just to the north and west of Kyoto. We left Ibaraki for the little coastal town of Wani at 8 am and were climbing two hours later through a forest of Japanese cedar dappled with morning sunlight.
After a close encounter with a mamushi I nearly stepped on as it was sunning itself on the trail, (yes, quite poisonous), we reached the summit of Gongen-san, a gnat’s hair shy of 1,000 meters, by 11:30 am. Surrounded by a rolling sea of of waist-high shrub bamboo, we took in the view of the western range under crystalline skies.
Far below us, the tiny town of Wani lay curled between the mountains’ feet and Lake Biwaka, whose far shore we could just make out, a line of lumpen ghosts in the afternoon haze. After a leisurely lunch of inari sushi and chocolate, followed by a nap in the grass, we set out across the ridgeline toward Hourai-san, one of Japan’s 300 most famous mountains. (Sometimes it seems they’ll let any old hill into the club these days.) As we were traveling mostly across instead of up, the hike became more of a meander than a climb, which was just fine. When we finally arrived at 4 pm, the view wasn’t bad.
We took a gondola back down to the bottom – Hourai-san’s a popular skiing destination in the winter – where we followed the twisting road down to the lakeshore.
All in all, an excellent weekend of training for next week’s adventure: a full week in the Japan Alps for a summit of five of Will’s remaining 24 mountains, including Senjo-dake, Ontake-san, and Haku-san, the third highest (and third holiest) mountain in Japan after Fuji-san. At 2,700 meters (almost three times higher than Monday’s adventures), I’m told the snow’s still two meters deep. “But it’s the end of the season,” Will tells me, “It’s all packed snow. We’ll be able to walk right across the top.” Do I believe him? I’m still trying to decide. (I was the one who spotted the snake, after all.) I’m investing in a pair of crampons, just to be on the safe side.
Yes, being outside all weekend meant I missed CNN’s frenetic buildup to the Pennsylvania primary. For some reason, I feel like I got the better end of the bargain.