Ogawa Machi, Yorii Machi and Higashichichibu Mura are all right next to or within the Chichibu mountain range of eastern Japan. In fact, our apartment is right next to a mountain. With the little river that runs behind our apartment, it really is a picturesque place to be.
Every week Karl and I see hiking clubs on the trains and buses heading towards the mountains. They are always well equipped with their sturdy boots, backpacks full of supplies and extendable hiking poles. (Which, by the way, are so nice. We used them on our two-week honeymoon in Glacier National Park. Such a difference.)
When we arrived here last summer, we were very excited to be so near to such excellent hiking areas. Unfortunately, the oppressively hot and humid summer kept us indoors with the relief of fans and air conditioning. It was simply too hot to hike.
When autumn came, we had yet to go hiking. This was primarily because of my horrendous work schedule at Saiei International. Working from either 1-9 or 2-10 five days a week (including every Friday and Saturday) really put a damper on life.
Winter approached. I quit Saiei after three months (Karl and I simply could not take the rotten schedule and commuting so far anymore). We don’t get any snow (to speak of) in our area, but it does get cold here. Despite that, we finally went hiking. Once.
This last Sunday, we were invited by Karl’s elementary schools to attend their annual hiking party. One of the teachers-who speaks English-picked us up and we drove together to the starting place of the hike. It was way up in the mountains of Higashichichibu Mura, past all three schools at which Karl works. We met at the old West Higashichichibu Elementary School. Man. We thought Karl’s current schools were small-that building was tiny.
For some reason, I had assumed this hiking party would be somewhat small in terms of number of people. I was wrong. Teachers came, the principals, the vice principals, a hand full of the board of education members (including the superintendent), lots of students and (most impressively) lots of parents!
Before we started on our journey up the mountain, the board of education superintendent greeted us. (There is always procedure in Japan-no matter the scale of event.) After that another board of education member stepped forward and led us in a series of stretches. Then we all trooped over to the other side of the lot where teachers were handing out bottles of sports drinks, water and green tea. They were really taking care of us.
Finally, we were off. Up the mountain we went. One of the school principals told us it was between seven and eight kilometers to the top of the mountain where we would stop to eat lunch before turning around and heading back to the foot of the mountain.
It was a beautiful hike. The weather was perfect. Warm with a nice breeze. But it was not an easy hike. It took about an hour and a half to get to the top. Which really isn’t bad…it had just been a while since we had been on a big hike so we weren’t used to it.
On the way up the mountain I saw something I had never before seen or ever thought I would see for that matter. A couple of guys were mountain unicycling. That’s right. Unicycling. They were covered in protective gear: shin guards, knee guards, elbow pads, forearm pads, helmets. They obviously knew what they were doing. I just had no idea that such a sport existed. You really do learn something new everyday!
We made it to the top of the mountain and sat down to enjoy the scenery and view a bit before eating lunch. You could see little farms, houses, and whole towns nestled in the valleys between the mountains. It was beautiful.
As we finished eating lunch, the students ran about handing out candy. Their parents train them in the ways of omiyage giving at a young age. Omiyage is the Japanese word for small gifts that you give to your cowrkers or friends. It really fosters a culture of sharing. Omiyage is typically expected of you after you go on a trip, for example. There are frequently little rice crackers, sweet bean cakes or other such snacks sitting on my desk when I get to school. (Karl and I made homemade cookies as omiyage once-it was a huge hit. The fact that we actually took the time to make something ourselves and then share it meant a lot to them.)
The hike back down the mountain went off without a hitch. We reached the bottom around one o’clock. The whole excursion had taken around four hours. We were beat and ready to go home, shower and take a nap.
No such luck.
We were swept along to something completely unexpected…