My wife and I enjoy getting out into the wilderness for a hike. We have always loved the feeling of cresting a hill and looking down on a beautiful mountain lake or wending our way along ocean trails to reach a secluded beach.
As we began our two years of teaching in Japan on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, we looked forward to exploring some of the natural beauty of the place.
A Kindred Spirit
A colleague at our school, Yayoi, told us she also enjoyed hiking. We often talked about good places to hike in Hokkaido. “You definitely need to go to Kamuiwakka on the Shiretoko Peninsula,” she said. “There is a hot springs waterfall there that is gorgeous.”
She also told us of other good places to hike, and we were looking for an opportunity to hike with her. Unfortunately, the first few chances we had to go, Yayoi was not available, so we went by ourselves.
The hike we took was near Noboribetsu Onsen (Noboribetsu Hot Springs) in a wild forest where we found the trail to be devoid of other hikers. A second hike we took also was great because there were so few people out hiking. We thought hiking must not be very popular with the Japanese.
A Surprising Reaction
When we returned from the second hike, we told Yayoi about it, and she seemed shocked. “You went by yourselves? What if something happened! You should have waited until we could go together!”
“But the hiking was beautiful. It wasn’t crowded, and we saw some beautiful country,” we replied.
“Next time I will arrange it for you. Shall we go for a hike next weekend?”
We set up a time with her for the next Saturday morning while wondering why she reacted so strongly about our exploring by ourselves.
A Different Type of Hiking
The next Saturday, we met Yayoi at the trailhead of a beautiful mountain path. We got out of our car, prepared our backpacks, then started to move toward the trailhead.
“Wait for a few minutes. Some others are coming on the hike with us,” Yayoi said.
Yayoi hadn’t mentioned anyone else coming, but we waited for 10 minutes or so. Then a tourist bus rolled up.
“Oh no!” I thought, “these tourists will get on the trail ahead of us and slow everything up!” Aloud I said, “Yayoi, can’t we get started and stay ahead of this group?”
“Oh no, we can go together,” she replied.
It was then that I realized something I should have known but never even considered: the people on the bus were not tourists but were part of Yayoi’s hiking club. She greeted them, and soon we were part of a long line of hikers winding like a long snake up the mountain.
Getting Over My Preconceptions
My initial thoughts were pretty critical: “This isn’t hiking! This is just walking in a line! If I wanted to hang out with 50 people, I would have attended a public meeting or gone to a movie.”
I am from Alaska. A place that represents the very antithesis of what I was experiencing right then and there. "Hike" meant to get away, on one's own, or with a few other people, at most. This experience rattled my sense of "the right way."
As we stopped for lunch on the top of the mountain, the group of hiking friends broke out a wide variety of foods that were shared all around. There was also singing and opportunities for group photos. Finally, I put aside my own prejudices and realized I was having fun. Yayoi introduced us to a variety of her friends, and we learned of several other good places to hike and view nature in Hokkaido.
In the end, my wife and I continued to take trips by ourselves, but we had learned to appreciate a different culture’s way of hiking. Although I personally prefer communing with nature alone or with a few friends, I came to realize the Japanese way also has its positives.
This was an opening of my mind. Can you think of a time when your mind opened to new ways of doing things, especially in the context of other cultures?
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