27.07.2015 19:54

The Japanese people love ブランド (brands). In a society that rewards uniformity and conformity, and an educational system that encourages thinking in categories with sharply defined boundaries, brands are a very convenient framework to place oneself into a category, while depending on the brand image to convey whatever message is deemed important. It's not like independent shops and no-name brands don't exist, but the prevalence of chains and franchises is clearly noticeable, just as is the strong affiliation with mostly European luxury brands.

With that background, it is not surprising that even for the countless mountains, a brand has evolved. Admittely, the origins of the 百名山 (100 Famous Mountains) are rather humble. They stem from a book written by a mountaineer wanting to portray the 100 mountains he deemed most worthwhile, and didn't get much popularity out of climbing circles at first. Only after a previously established name, Crowsn Prince Naruhito, publicly endorsed the book, it became the de-facto reference for worthy mountains in Japan, and countless people made it their personal goal to climb all of them. The 100 listed mountains are marked in every regional map and local signage, and the list has since then been increased to 200 and 300 mountains.

As I found out after setting sights on it, 乾徳山 (Kentoku-san), in 山梨県 (Yamanashi-ken), didn't make it on the list of 100, but was included of the successor list of 200 famous mountains. That makes it slightly less crowded, but still gives the warm, fuzzy feeling of ticking something off a list.

Getting there is pretty straight-forward, there is a bus from 山梨市駅, and another one from 塩山駅. The latter one is preferred for a day-trip, as it arrives at the trail head around 9 in the morning, almost 45 minutes before the one from 山梨市駅. The bus stop is at 850m, so even on days with 37 degrees of heat in the valleys, it's kind of bearable. It also helps that the canopy is still mostly closed in the lower areas, and the pathes are rather easy:

This lower part can be a bit slippery, it seems to serve double duty as a drainage for rain, but other than that, it's winding up gently, and only moderately steep until about 1500m. At that point, for some reason, grazing deer can be seen, and since humans are passing by there all the time, they seem utterly unimpressed, even by a tall foreigner dressed in bright colors:

Shortly after, the trees open up for a grassy field, for the first incredibly nice view of the day:

In the 山と高原 maps, there is a symbol for a bathroom around that area. As it turns out, it's not completely made up, but calling it a bathroom is a bit of the stretch:

Note that even the sign omits the otherwise obligatory お-prefix, instead opting to call it a 手洗石, which basically means bathroom stone. That is a very adequate description - a stone with a brownish puddle, only to be used by the boldest and most desparate climbers. Following the path on the right, the slightly more interesting part of the climb begins, first with some gentle rocky stretches:

When reading about the climb, most people say it's challenging, and should be done only with significant rock climbing experience. What they are talking about is one short ascent, where 2 chains are installed for security:

The chains are on the left, and the rock is going up at something like 80 degrees. It's admittedly not for the faint-hearted, slipping there means falling down a couple of hundred meters on hard rock. But realistically, the contact areas for hand and feet are so big and gently placed that climbing up is easier than even the easiest routes in any bouldering gym. Convincing one's head of that is a different matter altogether, and of course, a minimum of upper body and arm strength is required, but it's really not as crazy as it sounds in most reports.

Having seized that obstacle, there are already a couple of flat rocky areas on the left, allowing for a quick rest with gorgeous views:

But of course, going the next 200m to the peak is what everybody comes there for, and after another steep wall, which can be completely avoided with a ladder, the peak is reached, opening for full 360 degree views:

There's a lot of mountain ranges to be ogled at, but of course, for most people the view to the south-west is the most popular one, and admittedly a great backdrop to sit down and contemplate life, just like this dude:

After taking in the views, and a bit of food, the descent can be taken the same way, or around the north side. I opted for the quicker return along the path I came from, and arrived back at the bus stop around 3 in the afternoon. The bus schedule is sadly a bit nasty, and the last bus toward the station is leaving at 5:30, making longer explorations along the ridge line a bit risky. There's always the fallback option of taking a taxi, but in order to avoid the hefty costs, checking the schedule in advance is highly advisable.

20.07.2015 22:11

梅雨 (rain season) is practically over. That's great news, since it means it is possible again to go out without carrying around full rain gear. However, what follows is not a summer in the European sense of the word. Instead of long, warm days inviting people to get out of their houses, for the next 3 months or so, it will be so crazy hot and humid outside that any bodily activity close to sea level is not fun at all. It's still technically possible to go cycling, but that includes drinking more than one liter of energy drinks per hour, funked up with some extra salt, and the clothes building up a white, salty crust over time due to the body's desperate attempts to somehow regulate the core temperature, even though the surrounding air is somehwere around 38°C. It's really not fun.

That leaves only two options for avoiding the heat while still being outside - dipping into the ocean, or escape to higher altitudes. The latter is the more exciting option, so I went for that. Luckily, Japan land mass is covered by mountains for about 80% of the area, so there's not really a shortage of mountains here. And since 登山 (mountaineering) is hugely popular in Japan, it's also relatively straight-forward to go there, even from Tokyo. On the weekends, there are dedicated trains, the ホリデー快速 (holiday express). They are packed with people of all ages in mountaineering outfits, leave Tokyo between 4 and 6 in the morning, and go to various popular hubs in the mountains, from where people are further distributed with local bus lines.

That system allowed me to be at 丹波山村 (Tabayama-mura) at 9:30 in the morning, for a full 9 hours or so of daylight left. In a country with a timezone picked as poorly as Japan's, that's quite a lot.

丹波山村 is more than 600m above sea level, already giving some significant relief from the sultry air in Tokyo, and heading into the woods from the trail head, it got even better due to a small river, and shade from the trees for most of the way:

Gaining elevation quickly, a bit more than an hour later, I was already at 1288m elevation, which is pretty much a perfect elevation for a Japanese summer day. It also happened to be the peak of this particular mountain, 鹿倉山 (Shikakura-yama). The great climate had to suffice though, other than that, the peak doesn't provide any views whatsoever, and only a meagre sign marking the spot is to be found:

From there, the trail basically follows the ridge of this particular range, and crosses over to 大寺山 (Ootera-san), while always hovering above 1000m, and mostly in the shade. Thankfully though, the tree cover opens up in between at least for a bit, for a quite nice panorama over 奥多摩湖 (Okutama-ko):

大寺山, as the name suggests, indeed has a giant structure with Buddha figures on top, which is quite a change of scenery after a couple of hours in the forests:

Seizing the opportunity to sit down on the stairs and cook up some lunch, I noticed that the insects roaming around there are of unusual proportions. There was some rather big ants, but more impressively, some big flying yellowish-blackish insect that looked a lot like a super-sized wasp. I wisely decided not to get in a fight with it, and only today found out that this was a 大スズメバチ (Japanese Giant Hornet), the animal responsible for the most deaths per year in the country. That's kind of important information when leaving the relative sterile confines of the urban areas.

Interestingly, that very insect also makes it impossible for local bee keepers to maintain European honey bees, since a handful of those hornets will quickly take out an entire hive. On the other hand, the Japanese honey bees have found an amazingly sophisticated counter-measure to prevent being wiped out by the hornets, which Wikipedia describes thusly:

When a hornet approaches the hive to release pheromones, the bee workers will retreat back to the hive, leaving an opening to allow the hornet scout to enter. At a given point, the bees emerge from their hiding places in an angry cloud formation containing some 500 individuals. They form a tight ball around the hornet that acts like a convection oven: the bees vibrate their wings, generating heat via muscular exertion, and then direct the air warmed around them into the inside of the ball. This causes the interior temperature of the ball to rise to 47°C. While significant, this high temperature alone is not sufficient to kill the hornet trapped in the bee ball. However the bees' activity also increases carbon dioxide concentration inside the ball. The hornet's ability to withstand heat decreases as carbon dioxide concentrations increase. So the 47°C temperature becomes lethal to the hornets. Meanwhile, the honey bees can withstand temperatures of 48–50°C under the same conditions, so the hornet is killed and the bees survive.

Not knowing anything about the advanced warfare tactics employed by Japanese insects, I just kept following the route, which turned out to leave the most interesting part for the last couple of kilometers, where the trail winds across a rather tight ridge line, only to descend at a pretty intense grade:

Once back at 奥多摩湖 (Okutama-ko), which is only something like 500m above sea level, the bus and train can be used to get back into town, luckily already past the craziest heat of the noon.

All in all, that was a highly effective way of avoiding the heat, while being able to reach remote areas that are not accessible by bicycle. I'm sure that wasn't the last excursion on foot for me during this summer.

31.05.2015 23:08

The Japanese - at least the ones living around Tokyo - have a very binary approach to their evaluation of weather. During the very mild winters, people don't get tired of saying "寒いね", meaning it's too cold. It doesn't matter whether it is 5ºC or 15ºC, every temperature requiring any piece of clothes whose primary purpose is to provide heat is just too cold.

Then, on one day on which everybody somehow seems to agree upon automatically, that phrase is replaced by "暑いね", meaning it's too hot. There's really not much room for anything in between, and expressions of enjoyment are exceedingly rare.

For a foreigner, though, the time between end of March and beginning of June is the first season that makes it truly enjoyable to be outside. It is just past the not-really-but-kind-of coldness of winter, and right before rain season and the following brutally hot summer make the time around noon unbearable. It's a good time for cycling, but right now, this part of the year is coming to an end, the thermometer is starting to climb to 30ºC on a regular basis, and the humidity keeps increasing. Soon, we will be back in steam oven territory, but not yet.

This weekend, I had a barbecue thing going on in the evening hours, so I was a bit limited in my time budget, and there was no way to avoid the temperature peak around noon. I therefor looked a forest road traversing a mountain, which would give me some shadow to avoid the heat, carry me to higher altitude to cool down a bit, and be close enough to allow me to be back in town for the evening plans. 鋸山林道 fit the bill perfectly.

Note that this is not the small-ish mountain with the Buddha statue in 千葉県, this one is in 東京都, south of 奥多摩. I took the south approach though, and after passing by some camping grounds and cottages, this very welcome sign greeted me:

As a foreigner, I always have the advantage of a plausible lack of knowledge, so with the assumption that this means "no motor vehicles", I went ahead, enjoying almost perfect silence. With the exception of a few rebellious locals ignoring the rules, and a policeman on a motorcycle who didn't seem to be bothered by my presence, there is practically no traffic on the road.

The lower parts of the climb are as excpected very thick forests, and while the grade rarely exceeds 8% here, it already gives a glimpse of the later parts of the climb:

Notice the carved grooves in the road surface, providing grip even when high torque is applied.

As the road winds up, the density of the trees decreases, but the grade just keeps going up. Between about 450m and 720m altitude, the average grade is something like 14%, making it a bit difficult to enjoy the scenery:

It flattens out slightly after that, only to pick up another 8% average all the way to the top, which is at 1109m altitude. It's not quite as punishing as 和田峠, but it's surely not the easiest climb around, and maybe not the best choice once summer is in full swing.

At the highest point of the road, there's sadly not much to see or do. In theory, there is a path to the real peak of the mountain, which is only a couple hundred meters horizontal distance, and another 100m vertical climb, but it is impossible to go there with road cycling shoes. Other than that, there's just a bathroom, and that's it.

Descending on the north side in direction of 奥多摩 is bit wild, long stretches of the road are in such miserable conditions that I had to apply the breaks almost all the way down. Other than that, the descend is incredibly scenic, and just as serene as the climb on the south side:

Once back on the main road, the return to 青梅 is a joyful 20km stretch of -1% slope, making it really quick, and letting me catch the train just in time to be back for the evening plans.

Due to the early start though, the climb was right around noon time, with temperatures peaking around 30ºC. In combination with the rather steep grade, this is about as much as my body can take while still being able to dissipate heat, so I can only hope that the real summer is still a couple of weeks off.

25.05.2015 21:53

Japan has a history of making unconventional fiscal decisions. Among them was a decision in the 90s to try to spur economic growth by increasing spending on infrastructure - from below 32% of GDP in 1991 up to around 38% nowadays. The timing, of course, coincided with the burst of the Japanese economic bubble, and was the Japanese way of avoiding the big slump - instead of cutting back government spending, it was intended spur artificial demand and productivity in the country.

The results are two-fold. Foreigners coming to Japan easily notice the well-maintained infrastructure - streets have no pot-holes, highways are smooth, trains are passing through ridiculously expensive tunnels. The program, along with other domestic labor creation schemes, also helped in keeping unemployment low, leaving the image of the goverment protecting its people intact.

On the other hand, most of the coastline is now covered in concrete instead of sandy beaches, creating some incredible eyesores. Oh, and there's also the "minor" problem that the whole thing is so expensive that Japan ended up with the biggest debt of all industrialized countries, by a fairly huge margin.

I was very surprised, then, to find out that even Japan's seemingly unbounded spending spree on concrete has a limit. While heading to another mountain pass in the vincinity of 奥多摩, I was hoping I could avoid some sprawl by following a small path on the north side of 相模湖, which was classified as "path, paved" in OpenStreetMap. Surprisingly though, the entrance was shut off with a meticulously constructed obstacle:

It is not unusual for streets to be shut off, usually that means there is some minor construction work, and they are perfectly fine. However, the gate at the entrance was more serious than usual, and it became quite obvious why - the street had experienced some serious landslides a couple of years ago, and the surface was covered with rocks that had come down from the surrounding mountains:

The only reason why they hadn't fallen down further was because they were stopped by the guard rail, barely visible on the left. Now, while it's a bit reassuring that a guard rail can indeed stop a couple of tons of stones, it's not obvious how long it can resist the pressure, and surely at some point, it will just break.

Even more interesting, though, is that the street was completely abandoned. This hadn't happened a couple of weeks before, the landslide must have occurred a couple of years back, at least, as evident in the vegetation that reclaimed the area a couple of meters further down:

Clearly, this place was deemed to expensive to repair, and with two major roads flanking the area, it would have been used by locals and cyclists only anyway.

At the point where the road turned into a jungle, I figured that's a bit too wild for me, made a note to correct the labeling in OSM later, and defaulted to a safer route down to ヤビツ峠.

ヤビツ峠 is a pass between 宮ヶ瀬湖 and 秦野, not too... WAIT A SECOND, DID YOU SEE THAT? THERE'S FREAKIN' MONKEYS AT THE SIDE OF THE ROAD!

(Yes, it's very unusual to see wild animals so close to the populated areas, and I wasn't even aware that there's monkeys around here.)

Anyway, heading out from 宮ヶ瀬湖, the pass climbs up very gradually, with very few and rather short steep sections. It's one of the easier climbs around, but certainly one of the most scenic, with a nice open riverbed next to it, and plenty of small waterfalls:

From the top, there are at least 3 different hiking routes to various peaks in the area, and while all of them are a little bit far for a casual walk, they offer plenty of opportunities to hang up the hammock and take in the scenery:

Speaking of scenery, the real highlight of the climb is the descent on the other side. It's one of the fastest descents in the area, with plenty of segments that have good visibility ahead, and strategically positioned mirrors for the sharper curves. It's advisable though to not forget to take a look around, when the tree lines open up, the views can be quite spectacular:

Around halfway through, there is a parking area with an observation tower, which is also (barely) visible in the picture above. Stopping there at least on the first visit is definitely worth it, giving a slightly better view on everybody's favorite Japanese mountain, plus a nice glimpse of the urban sprawl below:

Even though I didn't really plan on going there that day, ヤビツ峠 never fails to disappoint. Let's just hope Japan's most recent push to plaster the rest of Asia with even more concrete doesn't mean places like this fall into disrepair, too.

20.05.2015 23:03

I love charts, especially when they give me a quick view on the interesting bits of a data set.

I don't like charts that try to paint a picture of something that isn't there, though. Here's a chart that describes how the IMF thinks the world economy is going to grow over the next couple of years:

Judging from the 25 years on the left of the chart - does the IMF really believe that we are entering an age of prosperity, stable growth and no market turbulences? How, looking at the fluctuations on the left side, could anyone come up with the straight line on the right?

The answer of course is no, the IMF doesn't believe in stable growth, in fact, they believe there are substantial risks, as lined out in the text of the article. It's completely beyond me though how the chart is supposed to illustrate that.