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On the trail of captivating contrasts in Japan

Tim Keller and Adrian Pirlet are Swiss creatives with a passion for capturing the drama of natural landscapes. The pair set off for a life-changing journey, hiking and running through some of Japan’s most magical landscapes. Ditching the itinerary, they instead chose to ‘get lost’ on purpose.

 

The cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto

Our Japanese trip started in the cities. We dedicated two full weeks to urban exploration in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, discovering the traditions and customs that are still to be found between the towering skyscrapers and modern mask of this high-tech nation. Despite navigating an entirely new culture, we felt instantly welcome but were soon ready to explore beyond the limits of these high-intensity urban environments. We rented a car and set off into the vast and diverse natural beauty of Japan. Without a specific plan, we followed our intuition for adventure, ready to seek out tough trails in return for spectacular views and new perspectives.

 

 

Mount Shakushiyama

We said goodbye to Tokyo, a city that values precision like our Swiss homeland, but in many other aspects could not be more different. Our next destination was the iconic, sacred Mount Fuji and a mountainous landscape that would feel much more familiar. The drive from Tokyo to Mount Fuji is an easy one of about 95 kilometers, or 59 miles. We arrived at the mountain in the dead of night, and wasted no time. We parked our car in the first spot we found, grabbed our headlamps, and set out on the trail.

 

It was about 2 a.m. when we began our hike, trusting our headlamps and navigation system in the absence of sunlight. After about three hours of steep climbing, we reached the summit of Mount Shakushiyama and our first view of Mount Fuji. Between the rolling mist and the fabled rising sun, our initial encounter with Fuji-san was truly remarkable. After spending weeks amid the chaos of the cities, our first glimpse of this imposing peak somehow felt like coming home.

 

We reveled in the astonishing views offered from Mount Shakushiyama as we caught our breath from our journey up. Though we returned down on the same path, the descent was an entirely new experience in the light of day. We were delighted by the lush natural beauty that emerged from the darkness as the sun rose higher.

 

 

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Lake Shōji

After our strenuous morning hike, we were eager to find a serene resting place. The area around the base of Mount Fuji is referred to as the Fuji Five Lakes, after the bodies of water in the area formed by past volcanic eruptions. This area is home to Lake Kawaguchi, Lake Motosu, Lake Sai, Lake Shōji, and Lake Yamanaka. We decided to settle in at Lake Shōji, the smallest of the Five Lakes with more awe-inspiring views of Mount Fuji (and an equally impressive reflection of the volcano on the tranquil waters). Watching the sunset from our new temporary home was the ideal way to finish off our first day at this iconic location. Drifting off to sleep in that setting, steps from glass-like water with views of Japan’s highest peak was surreal and truly special.

 

We got an early start again the next morning, eager to catch sunrise from one of Mount Fuji’s finest viewpoints. Once again, we navigated the hiking trail in complete darkness, putting every ounce of our trust in our carefully studied maps. And, once again, the magic waiting for us at the top surpassed our expectations. We were bombarded with picturesque sunrise views, unsure of where to look first – which, of course, is one of the best “problems” a traveler can have.

 

We navigated back the way we came and finished our early morning mission with a dip in Lake Shōji. It was the perfect, refreshing start to our second day in this breathtaking location.

 

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Mount Hachigatake  (The Japanese Alps)

Because we hadn’t done any research or planning before our trip to the Japanese Alps, we decided to visit the Hakuba Information Center to learn more about the mountain range, which consists of the Hida Mountains, the Kiso Mountains, and the Akaishi Mountains. We opted to escape the valley heat, and chose Mount Hachigatake, which stands adjacent to the better-known Mount Yukikura as our next destination.

 

 

It was a short drive to get to our new starting point at Renge Onsen, a hot spring and lodge tucked away high in the mountains. In Japanese, the term “onsen” refers to the natural hot springs, and the facilities, accommodation and culture that has bubbled up around them over centuries. With so much volcanic activity in Japan, there is no shortage of onsen spas to enjoy. The peaceful ambience in these calm oases offer an incredible juxtaposition from the bustling cities we had left behind. At Renge Onsen, we could park our car at the trailhead and be spoiled for choice when it came to routes to trek. Upon arrival, we repacked our backpacks and rested up ready for our longest hike yet – to an overnight stay at the peak.

 

Soon after setting off on this next leg of our adventure, we were quickly blown away by the diverse scenery on our path, from old riverbeds to wild forests. It also took surprisingly little time before the first traces of snow emerged. Tiny, babbling rivers along our path provided us with plenty of much-needed water stops and resting points. We were exhausted when we finally reached our campsite, but the stunning view gave us a fresh surge of adrenaline and the second wind needed to make it to the top and set up camp. Despite the warm glow of sunset, we quickly realized how necessary our thick sleeping bags and warm gear would be for the chilly night ahead. Tired from the climb, sleep came quickly.

 

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Waking up to take in a spectacular sunrise is one of life’s “can’t miss” experiences, and even more so when you’re camping at the peak of a mountain. We rose early to watch the rest of the world wake up, soaking up a view that stretches from the Japanese Alps to the sea. There are some moments in life when time seems to stop and this sunrise was one of those – simply unforgettable.

 

Once we’d arrived back at the trailhead, we decided that a soak in the onsen was the ideal ending. After navigating 16 kilometers and 1,700 meters of elevation, all with 25-kg backpacks, we were thankful for the opportunity to relax in the hot waters and drink in the striking mountain scenery. Before long, we were rejuvenated and ready for our next excursion.

 

The West Coast

After the frigid night on Mount Hachigatake, we were ready to heat things up again. We left the colder Japanese Alps for the warmer west coast, unsure of our exact destination but excited to explore.

 

 

Luckily, we stumbled upon a quiet camping spot quite easily, and parked up for the night. We were surprised by how warm it was, even after the sun had disappeared.

 

The next day we drove north along the coastline to see as much as we could. The landscape was quiet and peaceful, consisting mostly of country roads and endless farmland. At midday, after several hours of driving in the hot sun, we stopped to stretch our legs. We took a short walk toward a lighthouse, and were happy to bask in its shadow for a bit, with shade being a rare commodity on this stretch of coast. After cooling off and sightseeing around the tower, we hiked toward a cliff overlooking white sand and a crystal clear sea. We discovered an area where we could jump down onto the beach and were happy to spend the afternoon on the smooth sand and in the refreshing waters.

 

A waterfall pit stop in Fukushima

After spending a few days traveling Japan’s west coast and enjoying the warmth, we decided to head for the East Coast by way of Fukushima. To break up a long day of driving through inland Japan, we stopped at the idyllic Akiu Great Falls. After hours cooped up in the car, Adrian did a quick interval workout to burn off some pent-up energy. After a series of uphill sprints, cooling off in the water under the waterfall was the perfect reward. Some cliff-jumping blew away any remaining strands of exhaustion. After another hour or so on the road, we found a rest area and hit the hay.

 

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The East Coast

After another morning of driving, we arrived on the East Coast ready to hit the ground running – or hit the water, to be more specific. We were on a mission to find surfboards and a superb surf spot. Throughout our travels in Japan, we found that the locals are incredibly generous and helpful, and the East Coasters were no different. They helped us locate the proper gear and directed us to some of the area’s “secret spots”.

 

For accommodation, we found prime real estate at a place called “4 Beache.”For a small fee, the owner allowed us to turn his beachfront parking and facilities into home for the night. This seaside spot gave us a front-row seat to Japan’s diverse and rapid meteorological changes, and we were captivated by how quickly blue skies could turn into dramatic electrical storms.

 

Come morning, we slowly made our way down the coast, with our new surfboards in tow. We stopped wherever the waves caught our eye, and trustworthy advice from kind locals helped us find some of the most unbelievable, spontaneous outings. Between hidden-gem beaches and sublime surf spots, our deliberate lack of planning delivered a better trek along Japan’s East Coast.

 

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When we first arrived in Japan, we were a bit intimidated by the language barriers and cultural differences we’d be facing. It didn’t take long for us to realize how welcoming, warm, and accommodating the Japanese people are. From bustling cities to still, serene countryside, Japan is a country of contrasts, but the combination, together with the hospitality, makes for a truly unforgettable experience.

 

Follow Adrian’s adventures on Instagram – @adrianpirlet.

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