Chapter 4: You Are Not Prepared*

May 20, 2018 – Mt. Akagi (#1)

Bonus photo: the living room of our first short-term (furnished) rental, Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo

In Japan, it isn’t possible for foreigners to rent a long-term apartment without a long-term visa (more on this in a later chapter). Due to “exigent circumstances” (discussed more in the book), we had to make due with short term rentals during our first four months in Japan. Fortunately, I had already booked our initial six-week stay through 1/3 Residence–a company that rents short- and medium-term furnished apartments in Tokyo.

Bonus Photo: Oobie loved our first short-term apartment in Tokyo

I worried a little about how Oobie would react to the move. She was a rescue, but we adopted her directly from the foster home where she was born, and she had never lived anywhere other than our Sacramento house. As it turns out, and against all expectations, she’s an excellent traveler.

At lunch with fellow author Claire Youmans, shortly after arriving in Tokyo

Claire Youmans, author of the historical fantasy series THE TOKI GIRL AND THE SPARROW BOY, not only referred me to her immigration lawyer, but also became my first close ex-pat friend in Japan. As a writer adjusting to living abroad, it was wonderful to have another published author with whom to share lunch, coffee, stories (real and fictitious) and adventures.

“4:30a.m. on May 20, 2018”

Technically, this photo was taken at 5:15 – after the less-pleasant events of that first fateful morning had been resolved. Note my squinty, puffy eyes–I didn’t sleep very well the morning before this first hyakumeizan climb–my naive smile, and lack of sun hat. In hindsight? Ignorance really was bliss.

“My brand-new hiking boots.”

I had worn these just enough to break them in. I still have them, but they don’t look like this any more. (We’ll see them again in a later chapter, too…)

“the sky had grown so dark that I considered turning back”

This road led from the bus stop (out of view behind me at this point) to the Mt. Akagi trailhead (about five minutes farther down this road). At this point, I had never climbed a mountain from the base to the summit, and almost turned back several times before I even reached the trail.

“[it] didn’t look anything like my mental image of a hiking trail”

The trailhead of Mt. Akagi. The trail is the narrow opening in the sasa (bamboo grass) behind and to the left of this sign. The half-visible sign behind it is an arrow pointing up the trail. I almost turned back here, too.

“a huge metal staircase . . . like Picasso’s version of a giant zipper.”

Only the lower third of the stairs are visible in this picture. The staircase takes two more bends before ending at another section of rocky trail.

“An hour later, I emerged onto a ridge and stared in awe…”

This was my first–though far from last–experience with forest trails that suddenly open up to reveal spectacular views. The city in the distance is Maebashi, the capital of Gunma Prefecture.

“I still had a long, long way to go to reach the summit.”

After taking the preceding photo, I turned around 180 degrees. This is the view in the opposite direction. The rounded summit just left of center is the high point of Mt. Akagi.

“. . . long limbed trees and leggy wild azaleas covered in vibrant purple and fuschia blooms”

This was the view during much of the climb up Mt. Akagi – distant mountain ranges, with mostly-barren trees (spring comes late in the mountains) and blooming azaleas on the mountainsides.

the trail “alternated between hard-packed earthen paths and wooden stairs.”

These stairs, constructed from wood and earth, are common on Japanese mountain trails. In some places, erosion washes them away, but for the most part, they offer stable footing on otherwise steep slopes.

“As I snapped my first-ever selfie with a summit marker, I burst into tears.”

At this point, the puffy eyes are not from lack of sleep. People often ask me whether this first summit felt tremendously special. The truth is, although I did burst into tears, it was mostly from relief. The climb had taken a lot longer, and been much harder, than I anticipated (hence the chapter title). The true impact of overcoming cancer and beginning the 100 Summits climbs didn’t actually hit until much later . . . in Hokkaido…

Bonus photo: This sacred stone sits near the summit of Mt. Akagi

Shintō, the indigenous faith of Japan, recognizes the sacred nature of natural objects like stones, trees, and mountains. Many of these sacred natural objects are adorned with sacred, spiritually protective ropes called shimenawa or given other indicia of their sacred status. A small Shintō shrine, which sits near the summit of Mt. Akagi, is also visible on the right.

“…I hadn’t considered the fact that ‘shorter’ means ‘steeper’…”

Mt. Akagi can be hiked as a loop, using different trails to ascend and descend. I opted for the shorter trail on the descent, without processing the inconvenient geometric truths that decision would entail.

“This is a rock slide, not a trail.”

I’d say this was Exhibit 1 in the case that I was not prepared to climb even one mountain, let alone 100, when I set out on this adventure–but the reality is that this was probably more like Exhibit 22.

The “Mt. Akagi Commemorative Badge”

Many famous Japanese mountains–including but not limited to the hyakumeizan–sell commemorative summit pins. This was my first. The top line of Japanese text says “nihon hyakumeizan” [100 Famous Mountains of Japan”], the second line reads “Mt. Akagi.” (1,828m is the summit height.)

Bonus photo: An omamori from Akagi Jinja

Many Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples sell “o-mamori” (御守), lucky charms that purportedly offer different kinds of luck and protection. People also purchase them as souvenirs of a visit to a special site. On my way back to the bus after completing my climb of Mt. Akagi, I stopped briefly at Akagi Jinja (Akagi Shrine), which sits on a lake at the base of the mountain. While there, I acquired this little fish (which is also a bell) that supposedly provides good luck and safety while traveling. I secured it to my backpack, where it hangs and jingles to this day.

If you enjoyed this photo supplement, I hope you’ll continue on to

Chapter 5: Don’t Forget the Bug Spray

* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).