Sampling Hillside-Fresh Coffee on Thailand’s Highest Peak: Doi Inthanon (2,565m)

(as always, ‘Practicalities‘ are at the bottom of the page)

A mid-morning hiking coffee break, whenever possible, has become something of a ritual.

Elevenses in a thermos, mug or cup. A reward for an early start. Accompanied preferably with Oreos, Chocolate Digestives or some other unprounanceable biscuit depending on the location.

It is not often though – or indeed ever – that the coffee comes fresh roasted from the very hills a walker is marching through. But on the surrounding slopes of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest point at a whopping 2,565m above sea level), such a treat awaits those willing to make the trek from Chiang Mai.

Before we reach the roasting hut (and I do mean hut), we start the day strolling through pine forests and over a footpath littered with acorns and tiny chestnuts. Along with the cool fresh air, it is a reminder that Doi Inthanon forms part of the high altitude Himalayas.

The noisy rush of moving water soon reaches our ears and we emerge onto a long river. It terraces at various points alongside the route with waterfalls of different shapes, sizes and ferocities.

I am in the middle of reading Roger Deakin’s Waterlog which infectiously extols the pleasures of wild swimming, so at every opportunity I feel the need to take a quick dip in honour of the late and great author. I promise the rest of our group that I will be quick; they look equal parts annoyed and intrigued. I imagine the latter is due to the temperature of the water, which is nether-shrivelling cold. As guaranteed, it is a quick swim.

Afterwards the terrain opens up to rolling valleys and bucolic farmland. The peak of Doi Inthanon looms masked by cloud in the distance. It is hard to imagine that this area was once part of the notorious Golden Opium Triangle.

Thirty years ago the incumbent King Bhumibol introduced drastic reforms to combat the drug lords, free the villagers from their rule and rid Northern Thailand of heroin production. This is how coffee, along with strawberries, gooseberries and bizarrely caviar have all ended up being produced in this fertile area.

“These crops are worth a lot of money in Asia,” our guide Mongkul explains. “Not many areas can grow them locally.”

I ask if the Royal Project (as it is known) has been a success.

He smiles and gestures around at the sprawling village we are now walking through. “Oh, huge success! Before these were all bamboo huts. Now they have proper buildings, roads, schools and electricity. Everyone is very happy!”

Despite the plethora of ‘proper buildings’ we are ushered into a smoky shack that reeks of the delicious local roast. Mongkul shows me the grinder out back: a bike attached to a pulley system. He passes me a steaming mug and I take a draught. It’s hot, muddy and strong; bordering on Middle Eastern style. Delicious.

It puts jet fuel in my step as we leave to explore the peak and Royal Pagodas further up the mountain. The summit is shrouded by forest and is nothing special, but the royal pagodas and their beautiful, manicured gardens are spectacular. Purple-white cabbages and blue hydrangeas interlace with pink fuschias and marmalade marigolds. They all parade up to a cliff edge that drops off to an endless horizon of rolling, hazy hills.

We head home via one more mighty waterfall. I have my still moist trunks primed and ready but hesitate at the ‘Strictly No Swimming’ sign.

I ask Mongkul if this really needs to be heeded. “If you want, you can go. But you might die in the whirlpools. We have no insurance for this.”

I think I’ll just enjoy the view this time Mr. Deakin.

Practicalities

– We wanted to get to Doi Inthanon ourselves but without an International Driving Licence we didn’t want to risk hiring a car or scooter and getting into hot water. If you decide to get a scooter, be aware that although the roads are good, it is a steep and busy drive. It is a 1.5-2hr journey each way.

– You can hire camping gear (or stay in wooden cabins) for overnighting from the Doi Inthanon Headquarters in the park. You do really need transport inside though to reach the peak and pagodas. There is no trail to these, just a road, which is a shame.

– If you do get yourself there, it is mandatory to employ a local guide to take you on the trails. Again the Headquarters can sort this for you.

– We went with Wonderful Eco Tours and they were really fantastic. There are a lot of tours to Doi Inthanon but WET made sure to get us away from any crowds. Mongkul was an excellent and knowledgable guide. They also do an overnight option but unfortunately for just the two of us it was too expensive. Cheaper in a bigger group.

– Packs of coffee beans can be purchased from the village but no pressure at all to do so. There are also various shops and standard eateries along the roadsides.

 

 

 

 

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From Beaten Track to Jungle Path: escaping Siem Reap’s crowds and exploring Mt. Kulen (Cambodia)

(as always, ‘Practicalities‘ are at the bottom of the page)

Desperate to cool down, I launch myself without grace into the choppy water of the basin. Sweat, motorcycle grease and fatigue strips off me in spades.

Twenty metre high cascades crash down onto the obsidian coloured rocks and splash into the surrounding water. A rainbow spectrum of dragonflies dart through the mist, landing on nearby leaves laced with bubbles and dripping from this vapour in the air.

Feet-nibbling Garra Rufa fish pinch me; patrolling the depths like tiny submarines and acting as a natural foot spa. The whole place smells cold, fresh and fertile; in the same way you notice the countryside does after a period of absence.

It is a fantastic way to refresh on Mount Kulen after a long day riding, hiking and exploring. As well as looking like a Herbal Essences shampoo advert, these waterfalls are a great example of what Cambodia has to offer away from Siem Reap’s (rightly) popular temples and better known attractions.

Earlier that morning, after a brief lesson on how to ride the manual and ubiquitous 100cc Honda Wave scooter, we ride out of the city and soon emerge onto bumpy dirt back roads. We stop at a village farmer’s market. The range and abundance of fresh produce – countless varieties of fresh river fish, spices and radiant vegetables – explain why we have enjoyed Khmer cuisine so much. It deserves to be up there alongside its more famous Thai and Vietnamese cousins.

We arrive at a hamlet on Mount Kulen around an hour later and meet our smiling local guide Many. He tours us round the jungle and, what he lacks in communication skills, he more than makes up for in his ability to find spiders as big as my head. I can testify this method of measurement is accurate as I spend several minutes walking into webs, panicking and thrashing them out of my hair whilst squealing. Needless to say, Many finds this hilarious.

The walk itself is through thick jungle using paths hacked out by an NGO to protect local flora and fauna from loggers and poachers. It is dense and warm, but the isolation it offers is rewarding. Especially after a few days stomping around Siem Reap’s crowds, it really is the middle of nowhere here.

Halfway through we clamber up a boulder and step out onto a rock plateau. The jungle stretches out all around. Blue flycatcher birds cannon themselves in and out of the banyan trees beside us. We loll about in the sun and snack on longon fruit which Many has brought from the local market. They are delicious; like lychees but sweeter and juicier. We hurl the shells off the side and watch them disappear into the jungle canopy below.

After the walk we motor further up the mountain and grab a lunch of spicy stir fried pork with cashews and Thai basil. Then it’s time for the aforementioned waterfall-plunge, followed by a visit to the ancient reclining Buddha and 1000 lingas river sculptures. Both a reminder of the area’s heritage as one of the key birthplaces of the Khmer civilisation. It even outdates Angkor Wat.

Finally, we ride home through the most spectacular prolonged sunset. The entire sky shades purple and gold.

If you want to spend time off the beaten path and doing something unique, this is a worthwhile day trip into the heart of the gorgeous Cambodian countryside.

Hop on that scooter, bring your swim stuff and be prepared for a sore rump in the morning. You won’t regret it.

Practicalities

– I highly recommend using Khmer Ways. The blog piece above covers their ‘Bike and Hike Mount Kulen’ tour.

– It is a little expensive (around $95 pp) but it covers everything and is of a very high quality. Excellent info, safe and they think of everything.

– You should be a confident scooter rider. It is around a 3-4 hour round trip over sometimes steep/tricky terrain. This is a major part of the fun though! I had only ridden a scooter twice before and was fine. I do cycle a lot though.

– N.B. It is illegal for a foreigner to hire a moped in Siem Reap. However, because this is a guided tour, this rule does not apply.

Butterflies & Casinos: Exploring Kep and Bokor National Parks (Kampot, Southern Cambodia)

The Kampot countryside in southern Cambodia is a gorgeous place.

Pockmarked dirt tracks thread through thick jungle, rice fields and past wooden houses on stilts. These are all backdrops to rural scenes, framed by the wooden bars of our tuk tuk as we judder past.

We swing around blind bends and are met by capillaried waterways and shimmering lakes, or emerge into clearings to awesome views of the surrounding mountains and beachfronts, or sometimes just surprise a nonchalant white-humped cow ruminating in the shade.

Everything is a vibrant, Chartreuse green and smells of baked clay earth. It is thirty-six degrees.

Our destination today is Kep National Park, but first we bump down a left turn signed for ‘La Plantation’: an organic farm that produces caviar-quality pepper for which the Kampot region is famed. The farm’s social mission is to take care of the families of its farmers, as well as supporting the nearby school with new buildings, roads and resources.

We sample the goods an hour later on the seafront when it comes laced on fresh blue crab, swimming in green Kampot pepper sauce; a Kep speciality. We crack and slurp our way through a brace each. Spice crackles on our tongues like popping candy. Not the standard pre-hike fare.

Bellies full, we head for the park and exit our three wheeler on a main road. The driver encourages us with vague directions claiming that the path starts somewhere along the trail beside us. It plunges straight into the jungle.

The trails in the park are maintained by the wonderful people at the Squirrel Association, led by a selfless man called Christian. I would presume the $1pp entry fee would go to them but it does not; tapped off instead to a less apparent government effort. The Squirrels receive no official funding for their work and do it all off their own back.

Not only do they safeguard the trails (installing ropes to reach the hilltop, clearing rubbish, creating maps), the Squirrels have also added trivia boards and ‘off-the-track’ points of interest. We scramble down a slope towards one and arrive at the Kep Butterfly Farm.

If someone ever needs cheering up, take them for a wander through a butterfly farm enclosure; everyone glides around with infectious codeine grins and glassy eyed gazes.

The farm is aimed at training locals to fulfill an export market demand for the butterflies. It requires no deforestation and brings sustainable income into the rural community.

Scrabbling back onto the path we can hear something crashing around in the treetops above us. On closer inspection, it is a troop of Gibbon monkeys. We try to take photos but they are a mangle of limbs and fur, shrouded in the canopy. We outstay our welcome and they screech abuse at us, so we take our leave.

At the end of the walk, we drop into the Led Zed Cafe, owned by Christian, for an iced lime juice. The walls are covered in paraphenalia on the history of the park. It is a wonderful spot to cool down and, along with their park work, it is a worthy physical manifestation of the Squirrel’s superb enterprise.

It is all in stark contrast to nearby Bokor National Park which we visit on the following day. The government has sold off a vast swathe of the park to Sokimex Group. The giant hotel-casino Sokimex have built is a remarkable shade of jaundice. What looks liken an unfinished concrete airhanger and ongoing condo buildings are almost as aesthetically offensive.

One would hope that the money from this deal would go to fund preservation in the rest of the Bokor park or education projects. Maybe it is.

From talking to locals, this seems unlikely. In 2013, Cambodia’s government was designated the most corrupt in the ASEAN countries too. More unlikely still.

In defence of Sokimex, they were not the first to build there. The French constructed a casino and hill top retreat here starting in the 1920s. The Khmer Rouge then held Bokor Hill as one of their last strongholds in the early 1990s. The place has an interesting, chequered and sad past.

It is a shame as the rest of the park is a real beauty. It has a top of the world feel to it, sitting at 1,048m above sea level.

The French also built a church that sits on an isolated hill. It is downright eerie. A one armed Jesus statue presides over the main chamber. In the room behind him is scrawled:

‘Watch around you’

A warning that seems to have gone unheeded by those in charge of safeguarding Borok.

Lessons could be learnt from Kep. The Pepper Planters, Butterfly Farmers and Squirrel folk of the Led Zed Cafe seem to be a little more aware of their surroundings.

N.B. To get to Kep National Park, hop on a tuk tuk and ask for the entrance. Its an 8-10km circular track (unless you go up the hilltop) but maps are available at Led Zed Cafe and are also dotted at fixed points around the park. Kep can also be explored by bike or moped.

A silver lining to the Sokimex development in Bokor is a fantastic road from Kampot all the way up to the hill station. Tours are available but the best way is to hire a moped and do it yourself. Take precautions (check the bike, especially tyres and breaks) but it is a fairly chilled ride for even inexperienced riders (like me). Mopeds available for around $5 a day from Kampot. From there its 1.5hrs roughly each way.

The Kumano Kodo: Hiking Japan’s Ancient Pilgrim Trail (Part II of II – 28km)

‘Harai’ is a Japanese noun.

It translates into ‘exorcism’ or ‘purification’ and is one of the principle goals of the Kumano Kodo: a cleansing of one’s self.

For centuries pilgrims have performed feverent rituals at various shrines along the route to rid themselves of impurities from lives past and present. This culminates at Haraido-oji with one final rite, before the pilgrim goes onto pray at Kumano Hongu Taisha and ends their journey.

Whilst maintining the utmost respect for this process, it seems to me that when a person walks far enough, they can also experience their own personal version of ‘harai’.

For me though, walking is more of an opportunity to declutter. To clarify thoughts, rather than exorcise. Walking gives me the space to make sense of my mind and, by extension, the wider world around me. It puts things into perspective and allows time for long periods of mulling-over, which seems to be an undervalued skill these days.

Back to our second day on the trail however, I have no thoughts other than enjoying the cup of hot miso soup in front of me. It is 6.45am and we step out into a beautiful gloom. Chikatsuyu snoozes as we creep past houses, my hand wrapped around the bear bells to prevent them becoming an unpopular village alarm clock.

After a while the sun creeps up and over the surrounding mountain tops. We drive on to the edge of a wood. Panting, we check the time and break out in smug smiles. We have achieved over eleven kilometers by 10.30am. Stealing a literal march on the day like this is a wonderful feeling.

I celebrate by dropping a hundred Yen piece into a purse hanging from a nearby doorway, before taking a cold can of sweet, milky coffee from the water trough that sits alongside. Presiding over the trough, a pinnochio statue urinates spring water downwards to keep the make-shift drinks cooler topped up. Rather racy for rural Japan.

The route is as long as it is undulating. We dive down into a fairy tale forest, complete with a Snow White chimneyed cottage. Sun slants through the pine trees, birds chirrup and a brook bubbles alongside. I half expect the whole place to erupt into song. The climb back out of the basin is tough though. If the forest valley was a Disney remake, then escaping it is the Brother’s Grimm version with the sweat, blood and tears left in.

The views and atmosphere along the route are fantastic. We have long stretches to ourselves; just us and the birds and the jangling of our bells. We break for lunch at a rest stop and unwrap bannana leaf parcels prepared by our Minshuku guesthouse the night before. Three colourful and symmetrical rice balls: serious and much needed Japan-style hiking fuel.

At this rest stop we meet a group of friendly Japanese ladies. They are almost as colourful in their attire as our digesting lunch. We catch up further down the path and, after the usual pleasentries of how we have the same Osprey bag (Osprey are clearly doing something right in Japan), we end up in a quite unexpected situation.

Striding down towards us is a man that looks like he has stepped fresh from a Tokyo salon. He is clad all in white with a trendy scarf, sporting a well groomed goatee and is wearing an expensive looking leather man-satchel. It is not made by Osprey.

“Can we please film you for a hiking advert?” he asks, first in Japanese to our new friends and then in English to us, “We are from Eurosport.”

One “Camera. Action!” later and we are striding down the path doing our best to look hiker-ly. I go for a pensive and slightly pained look. Several kilometers later, I see the same media group trying to convince a local village lady to carry a sack of grain past them. It doesn’t seem to go well.

We push on past green tea plantations and persimmon trees. Teahouses beckon but the restrictive winter daylight hours force us onwards.

Twenty-six kilometers into the walk we limp into Kumano Hongu Taisha. Juxtaposed by the isolation of the woods, the number of tour bus pilgrims is a bit overwhelming. It feels like everyone is flitting around in a frenzied, selfie-stick ‘point and click’ induced state.

The view of the Torii gate, the biggest in the world, is an imposing one. It dominates the landscape and, walking through its towering presence, the history of the Kumano Kodo passes through alongside. We rest for a while to take it all in.

It is an inconvenience at this point, as our legs seize up, that we still have two kilometers of brutal uphill to reach our lodging at Yunomine Onsen.

We power through it in the encroaching darkness in blistered and tired silence.

At the end, we are greeted by a lovely and eccentric lady: the owner of our Minshuku Yamane.

She ushers us through to the private onsen baths, fuelled by the village’s natural hot springs.

After a good long soak, we emerge pink, exhausted and cleansed.

N.B. http://www.tb-kumano.jp has absolutely everything you need for any element of the Kumano Kodo. It lists various itineraries and you can pay direct in one go for things like lodging, luggage transfers and packed lunches. It really is a fantastic website and one that should be learned from!

The Kumano Kodo: Hiking Japan’s Ancient Pilgrim Trail (Part I of II – 13.5km)

‘He visited the cathedral, and sat in its chilled light, pouring like water from above. He reminded himself that centuries ago men had built churches, bridges, and ships, all of them a leap of madness and faith, if you thought about it.’

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I gaze into the thin black crack between the two boulders. The board behind me invites pilgrims to take their own leap of faith by ‘tanai kuguri’ (passing through the womb) to pray to a turtle-shaped monolith hidden in the dark. I take a tentative step forward, before taking several more back in the other direction after the light from my phone dances off a thick, glossy mesh of spiderwebs. Not the most auspicious start to our pilgrimage, but we push on to Chikatsuyu nonetheless.

To be a builder of churches and bridges, or more accurately temples and shrines, in this area of Japan seems to require a doubling-up of a regular leap of faith. Every plaque we stoop to read tells us how these magnificent creations have been reconstructed over and over again due to earthquakes, fires or floods.

Even part of the Kumano Kodo trail itself disappears, enveloped by a landslide of trees, rocks and mud. A scar from the infamous 2011 typhoon, resulting in a detour along a forestry road.

But the rest of the ancient route abides. The Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO World Heritage trail and spreads like a web across hundreds of kilometers of the Kii Peninsula. No matter which route a pilgrim chooses though, he or she will always end at Kumamo Hongu Taisha. It is both the heart of this web and the spiritual home of Japan.

We are on the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo. Around a thousand years ago Imperial ancestors began the pilgrimage tradition on this path, starting at Takijiri-oji, which marks where the ‘passage into the precints of the sacred mountains begins.’

Picking up from our failed boulder-test, we march up and into thick forest. The path is littered with gnarled tree roots exposed by over a millenia of tred from pilgrim, priest, royalty and beast. Straight edged stones jut out from the dry ground, hinting at steps worn back into the earth from which they were first carved.

Neither of us feel Imperial as we huff, puff and sweat through the close forest. Our bear bells jangle behind, limping along on my backpack.

The route is punctuated by a weave of history, myth and religion. We pass the old home of Jujo Akushiro, a witty and strong man who was given the name Aku (meaning ‘evil’) because of his valour, not for anything slanderous.

Ancient, ironic slang as comparable to a 1990’s ‘wicked’, ‘sick’ or ‘gnarly’ perhaps?

We climb the Three Fold Moon Hill to try to spy the eponymous lunar scene and gain ‘unfathomable power’. Unfortunately, as its the day time, we are thwarted. It may be worth a nocturnal revisit, given what is up for grabs.

There are numerous do-it-yourself teahouses, shrines and the occasional village on the way too. Friendly folk pop out of their homes to wave you on. We pause at the hamlet of Takahara to admire the uninterrupted view across sprouting rice fields and hilltops that bounce off onto the horizon.

The route continues as a mix of the same until we emerge into Chikatsuyu, our lodging for the night. We treat ourselves to a Kumano Kodo Ale and are met with a feast at our guesthouse Minshuku Nakano.

As the daylight disappears we gorge on delicious sashimi, roast fish and pork stew. It is the best meal we have eaten since we set foot in Japan three weeks ago, and that is no mean feat.

It feels fortifying too, which is no bad thing, given the 28km trek tomorrow.

If not a leap of faith, then certainly a test of endurance.

 

N.B. http://www.tb-kumano.jp has absolutely everything you need for any element of the Kumano Kodo. It lists various itineraries and you can pay direct in one go for things like lodging, luggage transfers and packed lunches. It really is a fantastic website and one that should be learned from!

Fluorescent Pumpkins: Exploring Naoshima, Japan’s Art Island (10.3km)

A tank-sized red and spotted pumpkin: not an obvious spot to enjoy a sunset drink, but Naoshima is an island that challenges expectations.

It sits on the Harima-nada Sea, a body of water nestled between Honshu (Japan’s mainland) and Shikoku (the southern island). Naoshima’s history is not unimportant, but is predictable. A dwindling economy once associated with a Mitsubishi refinery, old age pensioners and a small fishing industry centred around Yellowtail and seaweed.

Perhaps its because of this that a hungry visitor can still enjoy of bowl of udon noodles with a slab of tempura for £2. Naoshima’s port cafe has a workmanlike atmosphere. The silence is only broken by clattering chopsticks and prolonged, thick slurps. We finish our bowls, mutter a timid ‘arigato’ to the cook and take our leave.

Before we know it we are passing exhibitions containing Warhol, Hockney and Monet. We arrive at Honmura, the northeast port, and discover a place with entire buildings transformed into pieces of art.

The Statue of Liberty rears up through two stories of an old dentist’s office. A flooded, gloomy living room is lit up by a vast sea of numbered LED lights. Ice-cube steps descend from a shinto shrine into a reimagined burial chamber.  It is spectacular and surprising.

But how did Naoshina go from seaweed to international art destination?

Enter Chikatsugu Miyake, then incumbent mayor of Naoshima, and Tetsuhiko Fukutake, founding president of Benesse Corporation. In the late 1980s, these two men conspired to create an educational and cultural space on the island that launched with the opening of Benesse House Art Museum in 1992. Since then, numerous installations, galleries and festivals have taken place within the fourteen square kilometers that make up Naoshima.

If this smacks too much of gentrification, fear not. Not only has this brought money and jobs in from tourism, but the art is often designed to be ingrained in the community and enjoyed against its natural dramatic landscape.

In Honmura for example, artists have restored and rejuvinated disused homes back to their original states. The fact that these are dotted around the community is intentional: it is to encourage interactions and the passing of ideas between all different sects of society. As we make our way around we do find ourselves nodding, bowing and chatting.

Some of the exhibitons themselves are also contributed to by the pre-existing inhabitants. This in turn has galvanised the residents here who take up varying causes such as the Naoshima Rice Growing Project which has brought rice cultivation back to the island after a hiatus of a few decades.

They have even given over their beloved bath house to become an art installation. The fact that it still works and offers affordable prices probably helped sweeten the deal too. It seems like this carefully managed project is working for everyone involved.

As we explore Naoshima’s perimeter on foot and bike, we can see out as far as Teshima, another island to where the art initative has spread. The views from the hills here are at least rival to the archipelago ones found in Thailand or the Med.

But the real stars of the show bookend Naoshima; a yellow and red one at either side of the island.

Exploring doesn’t always need to be about mountains, forests or rivers. A pair of giant, fluorescent pumpkins also suffices.

N.B. There is an island bus but Naoshima is best explored by foot and bike. Bikes rent for ¥300-¥500 from the main ports for the day. Electric bikes (¥1000) might not be a bad idea as some of the hills are quite steep. Mopeds also available. Some areas do not allow bikes of any kind, so keep an eye out for designated parking areas.

 

 

Unzen National Park, Japan: Climbing Mount Unzen’s Volcano (12.6km)

Japan forces a foreigner to pause and ponder on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

There are any number of reasons for this: the friendliness of the people, a meal laid out like a piece of art, the natural drama of the countryside, the imposing feudal castles, J-Pop, the neon underworlds of the major cities or the regional mascots to name only a tiny handful of the obvious ones.

The full list could fill a library and would be as long as it is ecclectic. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, it would also need restarting as soon as it is finished as parts of the culture adapt and remould.

My most random ‘pause and ponder’ moment to date came in the form of a cave, stumbled upon after a gruelling three hour uphill hike to the approach of Mt. Fugen.

We leave early; rucksack packed with onigiri (rice balls) and bellies sloshing with toast and coffee to ward off the chill of the early morning fog. The climb starts as soon as we leave town. We cut right between two still shuttered shops and up through a stretch of red and rotting torii gates. They mark the gateway between the secular and the sacred, as well as the beginning of our gradual haul up to Mt. Fugen (the second highest peak of Mt. Unzen).

The switchbacks of this old trail are thigh-burning and so we take plenty of opportunities to admire the campsites dotted alongside. One boasts an entire menagerie of stone-chiseled animals. The squat turtle and prowling lion double up as fantastic chairs for weary legs.

We reach Nita Pass, the gateway to the mountain, tired but in good time. The mist continues to roll over the peaks, though the veiled sun is doing its best. We push on up to Mt. Myoken (1,333m) and the Myoken Shrine in the hope that it might break through.

It does not. We find ourselves alone, shrouded in the cloud, passing underneath the grey torii that marks the entrance to the shrine. The wind picks bright red maple leaves from trees and hurls them around in the damp tasting air. A ragged Japanese flag flutters nearby. The deserted shrine is impressive, and a little haunting.

A few kilometres later, as we mull over a mid-morning bean curd dougnut, we are caught up by a trio of middle-aged Japanese ladies. They are very happy to have found us here and, after some communication in broken English, are also delighted that we are enjoying Japan. Their delight turns to giddy joy when it turns out that they also have Osprey bags like mine. All three of them twirl in unison to show them off.

We continue along the mountain trail towards Hato-ana Junction. The path becomes so thin and steep here that there is a one way system in place. Before we reach it though, we arrive at a lava cave with a detailed descriptive board outside. A ‘silkworm lava cave’ to be specific.

A wild silkworm cave, it must be? Up here, in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain? A mountain next to an active volcano which seems suspectible to molten rock, rain and fog?

Apparently not. Silkworm eggs were carried all the way up here because the cave provides the very best conditions for their preservation.

To be clear, I am no silkworm farmer. But could one not sacrifice having just slightly worse conditions for the silkworms by having a similar cave in a much more practical location? A quick Google tells me this is what they did in Korea, pre-refrigeration.

Who knows. The point is that this is why Japan is so brilliant: the strive for perfection, no matter the effort involved, is paramount. This ethos is core to the culture here and the humble modesty people show amplifies it even further.

The sun does now break as we sit amongst the Tateiwa Peaks. The newest and tallest peak Mt. Hesei-shinzan (1,483m) watches over us as we wolf down our rice balls. It is forbidden to climb it. Steam oozes out of the top. All the other peaks nearby have been here for around five thousand years. Hesei-shinzan has been here for twenty. It is not just Japanese culture that is remoulding, it is the landscape too.

Clambering up the final rock face to Mt. Fugen is a glorious moment. The drop is sheer and the views are incredible. From the peaks to the sea, the whole Unzen penninsula is lit up like its our own personal kingdom.

All except the lava dome of Hesei-shinzan, which continues to cloak itself and chunter out a warning at its own steady pace.

N.B. For this hike, and the one from the previous post, head to the Mount Unzen Information Centre in Unzen town. They have a fantastic array of English Language guides, with pencil illustrations of the local flora and fauna.

If you’re feeling lazy, you can get a shared taxi from here up to Nita Pass and a cablecar from there to Mt. Myoken. Mt. Fugen can only be reached on foot.