Holidays are an important part of work-life balance. They are something to look forward to; they provide a well-deserved break from working life, and sometimes they feel like the only thing that can restore our sanity.
While a week in a luxury beach resort in Thailand is nice, I realized that for me surprisingly those holidays where I returned the most mentally refreshed were the ones, in which I stayed physically active and challenged myself.
This article is both, an ode to active holidays in general and a trip report on a recent adventure trip to Japan. As the article was getting significant longer than the average Life-Sparring round, I decided to split it into two parts. If you want to know how I survived the mountain, you can read part two here.
If you want a memorable holiday, look for a challenge!
Why do adventure holidays leave me more refreshed? I guess the lack of stimulus during a lazy day at the pool makes it difficult to forget work and the convenience of stable Wi-Fi makes it just too tempting to check business emails. In contrast, if I stay on my feet, preferably without regular internet access, I will eventually stop thinking about work entirely, and that is when the real holiday begins. Luckily I have a wife who, despite complaining her fair share (especially if the bathroom situation is unclear), is willing to go on occasional adventure holidays with me.
Four years ago we went to Mongolia, for seven days of (Wi-Fi and toilet-free) trekking with our personal guide, a mounted horseman, and a pack horse. Last year we hiked four days on the Kumano Kodo, an ancient Japanese pilgrim path, about 100 km south of Osaka. And just a few weeks ago we went again to Japan, for a guided three-day hiking and sightseeing tour in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture.
Our trip to Azumino was special in many ways. First of all, because it was practically for free, the tour was a monitored group sponsored by the city of Azumino, in an attempt to get feedback from “gaijins” (foreigners) about the attractiveness of their tourist attractions to overseas tourists.
We had to pay our flights to Tokyo and our hotel nights before and after the tour. For the three-day tour itself, everything but the after-hike beer was included: train tickets from Tokyo to Azumino (a three-hour train ride), sightseeing and activities in Azumino, meals, accommodation in Azumino and the mountain hut, transportation to the trailhead and the mountain guide.
If you want a real challenge, go with people stronger than you
The second reason that made the trip special was that it was a group trip. Usually, wife and I are huge proponents of individual traveling and don't mind to spend a premium for setting our pace. This time we were hiking in a pack of twelve participants and three guides.
As the organizers primarily recruited the participants for the tour through their connections to the trail running scene, most of the participants were athletically on a different level than me and my better half. Luckily the pace of the tour was moderate so that we did not slow down the group. Judging by my massive muscle soreness the days after the hike, I consider myself lucky that the hike only lasted two days, though.
As scary and humbling as it is, to be the weakest in a group, you are pretty much guaranteed to learn and grow.
Challenging yourself means leaving your comfort zone
The third reason that made the hike special for us was that it was the first real alpine tour we did. Most of our hikes are in Hong Kong, where the highest peak is the Tai Mo Shan, standing 957 meters high. While it is not difficult to get Alpine-like height meters in a single day hike in Hong Kong, by combining multiple mountains and descends to sea level, hiking to 2700-meter altitude was a whole new experience, and we were a little bit scared about it.
Exactly this step out of the comfort zone is what makes an adventure holiday so special. Overcoming challenges creates lasting memories. Our experience in Mongolia was a similar mix of excitement and discomfort.
An Unexpected Adventure Holiday
Lucky for Once?
In a Life-Sparring round called Life, A Game of Incomplete Information not too long ago, I complained about never winning a tombola. This time I got lucky. After seeing a Facebook post calling for participants to a free mountain tour in Japan in the Hong Kong Trail Running forum, I emailed the organizer and after a week of waiting our participation was confirmed. Everything was fairly spontaneous. The confirmation came two weeks before the trip; the timing was pure luck as the dates fell exactly between two top management visits to my office and even the wife could get off from work.
We bought new hiking boots for my better half, booked flights and a modern but tiny room at the extremely earthquake proof APA Hotel Kabukicho Tower, right in the hard of Tokyo’s famous red light district and off we went.
Day 1 - Superfood and Wasabi Ninjas
We arrived Friday afternoon in Tokyo. The tour participants met Saturday morning 7:30 at Shinjuku station, so we had limited time for some shopping, a nice dinner and strolling through the craziness of the Kabukicho.
Unfortunately, we found out that our hotel did not store luggage longer than a day, so we needed to find a storage solution for our suitcase that we could not bring to the tour. A Google research yielded possible locker locations and a luggage storage service in a tourist information right opposite of Shinjuku station. We opted for the latter as it was not only less risky (finding an empty locker in the right size can be quite an endeavor) but at Yen 800/day even cheaper than the lockers that charge in blocks of 8 hours.
After a short night in submarine sized room, we checked out, stored our luggage at the service point, bought the ultimate Japanese Hiking food: Umeboshi Onigiri (rice balls with pickled plums) and headed to the meeting point.
We had a quick introduction round that was hard to understand in the noise level of the surroundings, we got our train tickets and boarded the Super Azusa train heading for Matsumoto, where we would change to a local train to Azumino.
We had around 35 minutes layover in Matsumoto. While we used all more the entire time to find a trash can (a typical challenge in Japan) and go to the washroom, fellow participants ran the 1.5km to the Castle and back as a little warm-up for the tour to come. Did I mention that we were athletically outclassed?
Arriving in Azumino after around 3h 45 min of traveling, we luckily were able to leave our backpacks behind, before hopping on bicycles, driving off through the quiet streets of the rural city to our first destination, the Soba house. Cycling through Azumino was fun but would have been much less enjoyable with my massive backpack, the biggest among all participants.
At the Soba house, we got a fast-track introduction into making Soba, traditional Japanese buckwheat noodles. A good hour of kneading later we got the fruits of our labors served with a soy dipping sauce. Despite slight inconsistencies in the thickness, the dish was nice for a first attempt.
Next station of our bicycle tour was the Daio Wasabi Farm, the largest of its kind and the biggest attraction in Azumino city. Ran by the untypically outgoing and eccentric general manager and master wasabi farmer Shigetoshi Hama, also known as the world’s only wasabi ninja, the picturesque plantation supplies around 10% of the Japanese wasabi production. The farm is interesting, but the star of the Daio Wasabi Farm is most definitely Mr. Hama, who could have been taken straight out of a Haruki Murakami novel. Finding his calling as wasabi expert late in life, remembering a lost teenage love, Mr. Hama is currently writing his big wasabi novel. The farm’s general manager has most definitely more wasabi flavor then the wasabi ice and the wasabi served in the food stalls on the premises combined. Yes, ice and beer need an extra kick.
Last stop of the night was the visit of a Hotaka Shrine. After visiting countless Buddhist and Shinto shrines in the past, this was the first time to get a tour by an actual monk. So finally, after so many years I received the full introduction into the hand washing ritual performed at the temple entrance. Did you know that you are supposed to wash the handle at the end by holding the scope upright?
The day ended at the Pension Harvest, a cozy but simple guest house serving Japanese interpretation of French country style cuisine. We had a second round of quick introductions, this time a bit easier to understand acoustically. So, besides the Castle exploring elite trail runners based in Okinawa, we had a family of four orienteering champions from Seattle, Washington; a couple of running English teachers living in Yokohama and two IT professionals based in Tokyo. Our two guides Harry and Kei completed the pack.
After finishing the obligatory evening beer, we cozied up in our youth hostel style (and size) bed and fell asleep around 10 pm, knowing a challenging day was ahead.
If you are interested to read on, you can head over to Part Two titled "An Ode to Active Holidays Part 2: Castles in the Sky and Black Toes."