Saturday, December 3, 2016

Mt Ugo (Philippines, part 1)

A four-hour flight from Osaka to Manila followed by en a six and a half hour overnight bus ride to Baguio City and a mildly terrifying taxi ride brought us to Tinongdan Barangay Hall. Hall was a generous word for the colorful but tired wooden building surrounded by thick forest. The entrance was flanked by a couple of tired-looking dogs, the kind of half-tame half-stray we had seen many of since landing in Manila. Having left most of our baggage in storage at the Manila airport, Audun and I were carrying backpacks with camping equipment and food for several days. We were, we hoped, prepared for anything. Except what we met.


A barangay is the smallest adminstrative unit in the Philippines, and an important institution in the countryside.

We planned to hike from Tinongdan over Mt Ugo to Boundary, and then continue trekking to Mt Pulag, the highest mountain in Luzon. I had found reasonably good information online, and we had topographic maps (which virutally don’t exist in paper format in the Philippines) via the OsmAnd app on our phones. But the Barangay captain was not about to allow us to go traipsing off into the jungle alone. He was surprised that we hadn’t called in advanced and requested a guide, and immediately set about calling one, muttering something about an emergency as he offered us coffee. Audun and I soon resigned ourselves to our fate and waited patiently, signing the first of what turned out to be many log books along the way. We chatted with some curious visitors from another barangay. Everyone spoke English, although the level and accent varied greatly. They were going to visit a large nearby dam which I was given to understand was built by Norwegian engineers. Small world.


Me, the barangay captain on my left and his visitors surrounding us.

Soon enough, our guide arrived, clad in hiking pants, boots and a small day pack. At my relatively average height of 5’6” I dwarfed him, something I would soon get used to. The native tribes of the Cordilleras region, collectively called Igorots, are short and ethnically distinct from other Philppinos, even speaking their own languages. The steep, densely forested slopes of these mountains were a stronghold that Spanish Catholicism couldn’t conquer; the Igorots have maintained their culture despite many assimilation attempts. It was precisely into the midst of this culture that we hoped to get.

Our guide took one look at us, and asked if we were runners. Since I dislike being coddled by guides, I answered with a resounding “Yes, we’re both quite fit." He started to look kind of nervous, like he hoped he could keep up. Oops.


Goats don’t care. Along the road near the beginning of the trek up Mt Ugo.

When we finally set off for Mt Ugo, our guide set a hard pace. We descended from the hall, crossed the valley bottom and began climbing steeply uphill on a narrow concrete trail that passed through numerous carefully tended rice terraces. We stopped for a break at a table in front of a house, our guide chatting with the owners. These were clearly poor people. The house was constructed of a hodge-podge of greying wood and tin, and the owners had a small shop and a homemade pool table out front. A gathering place. 


Rice terraces on the slopes of Mt Ugo.

“This is the last house with electricity,” our guide explained, “They are a building a power line up the hill to the others, but it won’t be switched on until 2017.” I remembered a figure I recently read, that around 1 billion people worldwide live without electricity, and realized I was about to meet some of them.

I chatted a little with our guide, and learned that this was only a part-time job for him. There were a whole slew of local guides, and they rotated who was ‘on call’ from week to week. On their off weeks, they were sustenance farmers, just like the people whose houses we were passing in our ascent. 

It was a hot day, and I soon regretted telling the guide I was in great shape as he set the pace uphill. My backpack was much larger than his, and I was probably working harder than I should have to keep up, but I wasn’t about to let him go. Luckily he seemed to be working pretty hard too, and took numerous breaks. Despite the lack of electricity, I saw at least one smart phone in the hand of a woman we passed.


A narrow trail along a sprouting rice terrace.

We passed through another settlement, where another group of hikers was taking a break from their descent of Mt Ugo. One of the hikers had a brought a card game and some candy for the local children. Audun and I sat awkwardly out of the way and ate our lunches. I felt like we should be entertaining these children, too, but I didn’t really have anything to offer.

As our trek continued, we met a bunch of other groups of hikers, mostly Philippinos, all with their own guides. They had ostensibly summited Mt Ugo the previous day, so it seemed odd that they were so high up on the mountain still. Maybe they started late? 

The weather did an abrupt 180 and it began to rain heavily. I was grateful for the coolness first, but soon had to resign myself to getting wet. 


The guide and I on the Mt Ugo climb.

When it seemed like we must have exhausted the supply of descending tourists to greet, a couple with a guide in rain boots and jeans stopped to chat with our guide. Our guide turned to us, explaining that we would swap guides here. He lived on this side of the mountain, while this new guide, Rico, lived on the other, so it only made sense really. 

Rico was older, more taciturn and didn’t take nearly so many breaks as the first. It was still raining, and as we neared the summit we also entered thick layer of fog. Needless to say, there were no views from the summit, and so it felt a little anticlimatic. We could only hope for better weather on the next summit.

The descent was extremely steep and muddy, and I used my trekking poles to keep my balance. I marvelled at Rico who seemingly didn’t slip at all. I guess his rubber boots were the best footwear choice!


Descending Mt Ugo in the fog.

It was only an hour before dark when we reached the village of Domolpos, still fairly high up on the mountain. Rico told us we could spend the night in a school house there. Given the state of the ground, soaked, inside sounded good.

There were some dark thatched houses at the outskirts of the village, thick window shutters tightly closed. Rico to pointed one, and said point-blank, “There are five mummies in there.” I shuddered. I had read about Igorot mummification in our a guide book, a relatively gruesome process that took close to one year and involved collecting bodily juices in a jar and blow smoke through the nostrils of the unfortunate victim. Luckily the mummy house wasn’t next to the school house.


Rico and the mummy house

In the school house, we hung up our things in a futile attempt to dry them and ate freezed-dried food, watching the last of the light disappear. The village’s stray dogs sniffed at our door, hoping for some scraps. After dark, the bad nights sleep on the bus caught up with me and we went to sleep relatively quickly.


Ready to go outside the Domolpos schoolhouse.

Rico reappeared the next morning at 7 am sharp. The descent to Boundary usually took around 5 hours, he informed us, but he thought we could do it in 4. (We did it in 3). In Boundary, we would have to switch guides yet again. The trails past Boundary were out of the territory of the Mt Ugo guides.


Rico had swapped his rubber boots of the previous day with white and red Nikes.

The descent passed quickly. It wasn’t raining but the trails were still slick from the day before. We walked in the fog for a while, with occasional glimpses of the valley below appearing. I pondered our current problem. Being rather sleep-deprived from the bus ride when we arrived in Baguio, we had failed to really think before we withdrew cash, and I was fairly certain we didn’t have enough on us for the rest of our hike.

I’m used to never having to carry cash, and so I don’t really think too much about how much I will actually need. Here in the high Cordilleras, we could be hours from the nearest ATM. This mistake could easily cost us half a day of hiking.


A break in the fog affords a glimpse of the Cordilleras.

We arrived at Kayapa town hall, a few kilometers down the road from Boundary (“This trail has fewer leeches,” Rico said.) and began the process of waiting for a guide all over again. There was another log book to sign inside the town hall. The insides of the town hall looked like a parody of bureaucracy. There were many people, hard at work, all scribbling on papers. There were no computers.

We explained our cash plight to the town treasurer, who sat writing his signature on a tall stack of papers. With characteristic Philippino helpfulness, he offered to drive us to the nearest ATM in the hilariously named Bambang, one hour away. Although we had hoped to continue hiking that day, we reasoned that there was still plenty of time and that we needed the cash, so we climbed in to the van with the treasurer and set off.


Taking a break outside of Kayapa Town Hall.

One hour later, we jumped off in the noisy town of Bambang, withdrew cash, and were put on a jeepney back to Kayapa. The jeepney was full of people and their purchases from their trip to town, and I rode the whole way with my backpack awkwardly placed on my laps. There were a couple of guys sitting on the roof of the jeepney. The ride back to Kayapa was mostly uphill, and the jeepney had to stop twice to cool down the motor with water from hoses along the road. 

Back in Kayapa, we stopped at the covered market to buy some more food. The locals at the market were very interested in what we were up to. They thought we were crazy to want to hike all the way to Mt Pulag. “It’s raining!” they exclaimed, pointing outside. And so it was. One girl seemed particularly enamoured by our travels.

“You came from Norway to the Philippines to have an adventure!” she exclaimed. Right you are. 

As I paid for our food, a diminutive man in a leather jacket and crocks began to talk with Audun. “He’s says he’s our guide,” said Audun in Norwegian. I wasn’t so sure about this. He certainly didn’t look much like a guide; maybe he was just trying to scam us? 

We soon ascertained that Tony was, in fact, the guide that Rico had called, and that he was intent on taking us to Mt Purgatory, which was not what we had planned, but in the right direction at least. Tony produced a full-color brochure with a description of the hike, which looked nice, and so we agreed to go with him to Mt Purgatory.

The rain persisted as we waited for a passing van to pick us up. Public transportation is strange in the Philippines. There are very few buses that actually run on any kind of schedule, but most of the vehicles on the road are for-hire and will pick up passengers for a small fee. Basically you just stand around, flagging vans until one going in the right direction and with enough space arrives.

By the time the van dropped us at the trailhead, Audun and I were pretty stoked to finally get hiking. But Tony took one look at the dismal rain and suggested we spend the night at his friend’s house near the trailhead. We were hardly in a position to argue, and he promised we would start at 4 am the next morning to get in a long hike.


Puppies keeping warm on the doormat.

Soon we were installed in a simple, but dry guest hut, and then drinking coffee and eating cinnamon rolls in the main house. Half-tame dogs lay just outside the house, trying to gather some warmth, while kittens almost crawled into the heat of the fireplace.


The couple who owned the house chatted a little with us in English before switching to their native language to crack jokes with Tony. Their three children came home from school and said a quick hello before scurrying away from us, the intimidating foreigners. We were served a simple dinner of red rice, stewed squash and mushroom, and a sauce of ground chilis. Then it was early to bed, again, with a 3:30am alarm set. The next day was my 26th birthday, and it was time to go big.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

(All the pictures in this post are taken by Audun, who recently bought a new camera and became my official blog photographer.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The top five things I love about living in Kyoto

My time in Kyoto is drawing to a close. The three months here have passed in a blur of late nights in the lab at Kyoto University, and runs along the Kamogawa river and through the mountains surrounding Kyoto. It hasn’t all been fun and games, but I have challenged myself, and find myself stronger from it.

This Saturday, Audun and I are headed to the Philippines for 10 days before I move back to Oslo, just in time for the darkest, dreariest month of the year. Ironically, I’m leaving just as Kyoto is starting to feel like home.

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Kyoto is so beautiful in November, which is when the leaves turn. Here from Kyoto Imperial Palace park.

Here are five things I will miss about living in Kyoto:

1. Walking through the city on the busy main streets, and then turning on to a single lane side street where the old Japan seems to materialize. The noise of cars seems to disappear and all of the houses have wooden sliding doors and pattern roof tiles. Suddenly you stumble upon a shrine or temple; some could rival cathedrals while others could fit in your bathroom. The famous shrines and temples of Kyoto are spectacular, but the small, unknown ones are what create the special feel that defines Kyoto for me.

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A statue on a small side street in Kyoto.

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Kiyomizudera temple matches the fall foliage.

2. Convenience. Although the vending machines on every corner still seem a little excessive to me, it’s true that everything here is set up with convenience in mind. Unlike Norway, where most shops are closed on Sundays, most places are open seven days a week here, and much later than in Norway. There are endless little cafés and cheap yet excellent eateries to visit here. 

2. The transportation system. The sheer number of trains and buses running, even in a small city like Kyoto, is staggering. Not to mention the Shinkansen! The Tokaido line between Osaka and Tokyo stops at Kyoto something like every ten minutes. The trains are always on time, meticulously clean, really fast, and you can buy tickets minutes before getting on the train. Japan has managed to make a system where it is more convenient to take the train to Tokyo than fly - if only they could do that for the commute between Oslo and Trondheim! The only downside is that the trains aren’t particularly cheap, and that subway and bus lines within one city can be run by several companies, which necessitates several tickets if you are changing lines.

3. Endlessly kind people. The Japanese are quiet and orderly, and this is the place in the world I have felt safest living. If I look the slightest bit lost, someone will ask me if I need help, even if they don’t speak English!

5. The food. I definitely miss certain Western foods (whole wheat bread and cheese come to mind), but Japanese food is incredibly. A common misconception is that everyone eats sushi all the time here. There are so many different types of food in Japan that I’ve only had sushi three times in as many months! Japanese food tends to be mild and balanced (or ‘umami’). Dishes are rarely very salty or very sweet, most often somewhere in between. This has resulted in some unpleasant surprises, like when I bought tortilla chips and they tasted sweet. Some of my favorite foods are ramen, anything matcha (green tea) flavored and fresh Kyoto tofu with simple toppings.

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Delicious shoyu raman at the Yokohama Ramen Museum

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Matcha and vanilla swirl soft serve.

I can’t write about Japanese food without mentioning the wonderful rice here. At upscale restaurants, it’s common to have a separate rice course, which comes just before dessert. The course consists of plain, fresh white rice, cooked to perfection, served with a few pickled vegetables, some miso paste to add a little flavor and a simple miso soup. It sounds boring to the Western palate, where we are used to being bombarded with flavor, but it’s actually pretty amazing.

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The rice course at kaiseki restaurant Gion Nanba.

The one thing I won’t miss is being foreign all of the time. My looks and even how I dress make me stick out like a sore thumb here; it will be nice to go back to a place where I just blend in. I’m also looking forward to communicating with more than hand gestures and simple words. I have started to learn the basics of Japanese, but it’s so different from the languages I speak (English, Norwegian and French) that it would take me years, not months to get a working proficiency. 

For now I’m making a list of all the places in Kyoto I want to say goodbye to and trying to ignore all of the things I didn’t have time to see or do. I guess I’ll just have to come back someday!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, November 14, 2016

A taste of China

The Keyuan gardens in Dongguan, China are almost entirely preserved in their original state from the mid-19th century. As I walked around the gardens in my last afternoon in China, I could imagine seeing a beautiful, sequestered noblewoman admiring the carp alongside of me, or a man in flowing robes furrowing his brow over his calligraphy in the courtyard. On the far side of the picturesque lake however, this illusion of history was marred by grey, high-rise apartments.

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The Keyan Gardens in Donguan. 

This was the moment that completely epitomized my week in China. China is like a teen with growing pains; it is a country that has grown so fast that new has split the seams of the old.

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Scooters and neon lights in Shanghai.

Two weeks ago, I was went to China for six days on business. It was my first time in China, and unlikely to be my last. My colleagues and I spent two days in Shanghai, half a day in Xiamen, and two days in Dongguan, a city between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. As is often the case on business trips, I didn’t have time to take in many sights. We spent one afternoon in a beautiful old town of Suzhou outside of Shanghai, and toured Dongguan on the last day. 

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A charming old town of Suzhou. There was a clear divide in the ‘tourist area’ that was well-kept and prospering in this town, and the ‘locals’ area where more stuff was falling apart, there was trash on the streets, etc. Just one of the many incongruities of China.

One thing we did do was eat a lot. The Chinese take their food seriously. Tables are most often round, with a glass plate mounted in the center. A wide variety of dishes are ordered at every meal and placed on the glass plate, which can be spun so that everyone at the table can take pieces of the dish of their choosing. Whereas in the West we would often either eat fish or meat, in China there’s a hodgepodge of everything at every meal. 

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A typical lunch spread in China.

The most surprising thing was how little rice and noodles I actually ate. We mostly ate fish, meat and vegetables. It may be that these dishes are considered better or fancier, and that we were being treated as honoured guests. Still, I think I only rice once on the entire trip, in a fried rice dish! 

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A waiter desperately tries to find more space for food on our full dinner table. 

And all parts of the animal are consumed in China. I’m a ‘try everything once’ kind of gal, and the short list of things I tried on this trip includes snails (much smaller than the ones they serve in France), two types of stomach (sheep and cow), black pickled eggs, raw crab claws, stinky tofu (tastes similar to brie, but spongier texture) and spicy crayfish. 

Then there was the tea. I’m usually a big coffee drinker, but you don’t go to China without drinking tea. At the companies where we had meetings, there was often a special tea set with an integrated water boiler. The one pictured below was particularly clever, as the was a sensor that detected when the hot water was empty. The faucet would swivel around and automatically refill the water boiler. Traditionally, these tea sets have a frog that you ‘feed’ by pouring tea on it. Over time, the frog, which is made out of a special type of ceramic, changes color or ‘grows’. The tea is served in minuscule cups that are refilled ad nauseam.

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A typical Chinese tea set, complete with a frog to feed.

Although the old ways of China remain in their tea cultures, in other aspects it is clear they are striving hard to modernize. Many of the restaurants had a glitzy, look-a-me feel that is very different from the Scandinavian (and for that matter Japanese) design that I am used to. Chandeliers, marble and lavish furniture all gave the impression that the Chinese are trying to put their new-found wealth on display. Sometimes this went to almost ridiculous lengths, as was the case with this lunch table for 12 that our group of 5 was given...

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Fancy enough lunch room much.

…Or our hotel in Dongguan, a 39-story monolith where you could order green tea pillows, chandeliers in all of the elevators, and a man who pressed the elevator button for me after breakfast. I swear the hotel room was larger than my apartment here in Kyoto.

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Our hotel in Dongguan. Yes, the huge one.

I ran a little while I was in China, although not much since I’m feeling a little burned out these days. My last morning in Dongguan I made it to Qifeng park. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and truth be told I was feeling a little nervous before the run. Dongguan has not always been a safe city, although the recent prosperity that comes from factories mass-producing goods have certainly remedied that to a certain degree. However, I could tell that Qifeng park was a popular jogging spot from the Strava Heatmap, and decided to go for it.

There were literally hundreds of people walking, jogging and running the paved path that encircles Qifeng park. I felt very safe due to the shear number of people who were out. I only saw a handful of other foreigners; this was mostly locals, out enjoying the morning. It was a smoggy morning, and the sun rose in a spectacular show of deep, polluted orange. I definitely felt like the air I was breathing was heavier than usual. 

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Smoggy light in Qifeng park.

I should also mention the restricted internet access in China. As many people are aware, websites such as Facebook, Instagram, Blogspot, Twitter, the New York Times and Google are all blocked in China. I forgot about this and neglected to download local Google Maps for the areas I was travelling to. I felt kind of lost for most of the trip, as I usually use Google Maps to orient myself. Much to my surprise, many blocked websites were locally available on the hotel in Dongguan. Apparently a large concentration of tourists merits holes in China’s Great Firewall!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, November 10, 2016

When it's time for a break

Nearly two weeks ago, I set out for a 25K long run, seeking to link up Mt Hiei with Daimonjiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. I spent a half an hour on the bus to Ohara, then found the trail headed up to Mt Hiei. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was testing out my new hydration pack. In theory, the stars were lined up for a wonderful afternoon out. But something inside of me just wasn’t along for the ride. 

Just walk. I told myself. It’s uphill anyway. Walk until you feel the motivation to run. 

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So I walked. And walked. And by the time I reached the top of Mt. Hiei two hours later I knew that today was not the day to push myself to go the distance. I took the cable car down the mountain (yes, seriously), and then the train home. I got a milkshake and french fries and watched Netflix for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes you have to do that.

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Beautiful foliage on Mt Hiei.

Every since I won Hanase Trail Run, I have felt mentally exhausted. It has been a long, intense year of running. I started to focus my training in January and I have trained and raced well this year, with no injuries to speak of. Physically I am fine, truth be told I am in great shape. But I need to back off, to find to space to wake up excited about running rather than doing it because I feel like I have to, every day.

I am signed up for one more race, a 35K trail race near Nara which takes place tomorrow. For a while, I kept telling myself I would just keep up the intensity until that last race, and then I would back off and take some time off from running. It turns out I don’t get to decide how long I keep the intensity up for. My unconscious self is already on vacation. So I’m not going to do the race. It’s time for a break. I’m still running a little, but only when I really want to.

I struggle, as a type A person, with letting myself relax. I still feel guilty when I get up in the morning and don’t work out. But maybe that’s why it’s important not to, at least for a little while.

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In other news, my running routes along the river now looks like this! It’s finally fall in Japan.

One thing is for sure: I’ll be back.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Race report: Hanase Trail Run

“Saisho no josei!” the Japanese woman in the orange volunteer vest exclaimed, “Fighto!” First woman. Fight! With 19K left to go, I was leading woman’s race at the Hanase Trail Run. I barrelled down the trail, willing myself not to look over my shoulder too often. I didn’t feel like a leader, I felt like a rabbit being chased by wolves. Could I really pull this off?

The Hanase Trail Run is a small, 25K trail race in the mountains about 1 hour north of Kyoto, organized by Kyoto Triathlon Club. I found out about it through a webpage called Sports Entry, heavily aided by Google Translate, occasionally to hilarious and strange results (for example, Google Translate directly translates the town name ‘Hanase' to ’Forest Speak Exchange’). I signed up in September, thinking it was good motivation to keep running in the wake of the OCC.

And then I ran. A lot. Not currently in possession of a bicycle, my preferred mode of alternate training, I have run more in the last two months than I have ever done in my life. I capped if off with the Koyasan week, which worked out to be 88K of running - my biggest single week since my injury last year. This was maybe a little excessively, and I knew I had to rest during the week leading up to Hanase Trail Run. I felt sluggish all week, and took four (!) rest days. The race was on Sunday, and I lived out the PhD dream by putting in a 12 hour day in the lab on Saturday. As I set my alarm for 5:30 am to catch the bus to the start, I started to wonder if this was a very, very bad idea.

It would be an experience no matter how it turned out, I reminded myself. I was just there to experience a Japanese trail race, and to run some nice, new trails. I didn’t have to compete if I didn’t want to, I just had to complete.

The bus ride to the village of Hanase was terrifying, driving up narrow, winding roads. The bus was heavily packed. There was an extra column of seats that folded open into the center of the aisle, effectively blocking escape from anywhere except the windows. A couple of times the bus stopped in the middle of a hairpin, revving the motor. I seriously hoped we didn’t start rolling backward.

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Under the start and finish arch, pre-race. Photo courtesy of Kyoto Triathlon Club.

The bus made it to Hanase safe and sound, nearly two hours before the race was due to start. I picked up my race bib, then milled around awkwardly. I met a Frenchman called Pascal, who had been in Japan for 26 years and runs a restaurant in Kyoto. He asked me how long I thought I would take to finish the 25K, and I told him, quiet honestly, that I had no idea. Twenty-five kilometers on trails isn’t just about the distance. I knew this race had a lot of elevation gain (1400 vertical meters), but I didn’t know how technical the trails would be. And I’ve stumbled across some extremely technical trails in Japan.

There was a large building with a tatami-lined room for the women to change and hang around in, and I sat there for a while, reading my book and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then I dropped off my backpack of extra stuff and started to warm up. Oddly, no one else seemed to be warming up. While jogging, I felt a cool wetness on my back and took off my race vest to realize that the water bladder was in face leaking very slightly. I taped it up with some sports tape I had in my backpack and crossed my fingers that the leak didn’t get much worse.

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I guess it’s time to replace my water bladder...

Soon enough it was time to line up for the start. My big regret from the OCC was starting too far back in the field, and I vowed not to make the same mistake here. I lined up behind a handful of girls, reasoning that with 45 women participating I would  likely be somewhere in the top 10. 

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Racers getting ready to start.

Then there was a lot of talking, including a speech from an important-looking man wearing a suit. I hoped I wasn’t missing any important race information, so when I saw another foreigner I decided to go ask him. His name was David, and he was an Irishman who had been in the Kyoto region for over 20 years. He, too, spoke fluent Japanese.

“San…Ni…Ichi…Go!” the announcer proclaimed, and we set off. The first few hundred meters were downhill on pavement, and I let my legs go fast, feeding off of the speed of the lead pack. Once the chaos of the start died down, I saw that there were only two women in front of me. So maybe I started I little fast, I thought, But I usually start too slow. Let’s roll with it and see where I end up! 

We veered off onto a dirt road, and I chatted with David, discussing trails around Kyoto. Apparently I’m missing out of the big event of the Kyoto trail running season, Higashiyama Marathon, in December. Three months here is so short in some ways! After a couple of kilometers on a gradual incline, the warm-up was over and we hit steep, switchbacked singletrack. I had passed one woman by now, and was in second place. I could see the first place woman one switchback above me, maybe one minute ahead. Well this is unexpected.

The switchbacks were hard work, and I wasn’t chitchatting anymore. I was towing David and a Japanese guy up the hill, setting what I hoped was a reasonable pace. I could hear the Japanese guy gasping behind me, and I wondered if he knew what he was doing. The switchbacks transitioned to flatter dirt road again, and I got to chatting with my Japanese follower. His name was Ken, and this was his first trail race, although he had run several marathons and half-marathons. I could tell. He would try to run whenever possible, whereas I prefer to walk early but with purpose.

Next the course followed an undulating ridge line through the forest. The trail was covered with crunchy fallen leaves, making it a bit hard to spot in some places. I had lost sight of the first place woman, and I wondered if I had lost her for good. Run your own race, I reminded myself. Suddenly the first place woman appeared, downslope next to the trail, with a handful of other guys. They had gone off trail, off the ridge! I ran passed them, kind of feeling like a cheat for passing at that point, but there really wasn’t space to stop.

A little while later, we passed the first orange-vested volunteer who enthused, “Saisho no josei!” 

“You’re leading the race!” exclaimed David behind me, “Don’t give up!"

Give up? I think it’s hard to overstate how incredibly competitive I actually I. From that instant, I knew that I would win this race or blow up trying.

It was terrifying yet exhilarating to lead the race. Every move had to be calculated. I had to bomb the downhills, but try not to fall as this would certainly cause me to lose time. I had to go hard on the uphills, but stay below my lactate threshold, since there was still so much climbing yet to come. Psychologically, it was difficult to never know how far behind the second place woman was. I saw her briefly, after going through the aid station at 9K, a few switchbacks below me.

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Leading the Hanase Trail Run at about 12K. Photo courtesy of Kyoto Triathlon Club.

Despite the intensity of being in the lead for the first time in my life, I was enjoying myself. It was a beautiful, if a little windy, fall day. I regretted packing so much water, as I clearly wasn’t going to drink it all with the temperatures the way they were. I wondered if I should dump some out to lighten my load, but this seemed a little silly. There were volunteers everywhere, pointing the way, cheering and shaking what looked like little tambourines.

I crested over the high point of the course, spreading my arms out and exclaiming, “Sugoi!” (amazing!) to the volunteer waiting on top. Shades of blue mountains spread out into the distance. I wanted to take a picture, but I was still unsure how much of a lead I had. From the top point was a long, long descent, much of which was on fire road. After trading places with a handful of guys for most of the race, I found myself inexplicably alone on the descent. I struggled to push the pace. I knew a fast downhill like this was where I was most likely to lose time to other runners, as my advantage is usually on the more technical trails. Still, with no one to help me push the pace, I found myself flagging.

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View from the top of the course. Photo by Bertrand Pigeard.

I also knew there was a monster hill ahead. “There’s a really steep hill after 20K,” David had told me, early in the race, “Save something for it!” I snacked on my Snickers bar and pear-flavored gummy candies, hoping I could avoid a bonk. I stopped briefly at the aid station at 19K, eating a couple more orange slices, before heading up the climb. Only 6 K to go, I told myself, You could actually pull this off!

The final climb was horrendous. My calves screamed, and I put my hands on my knees, pushing my thighs in an effort to climb faster. My head was aching; maybe I hadn’t been drinking enough water after all. I told myself that this would be a long climb, that I couldn’t expect it to end soon. It didn’t, and even when I was over the top I could barely believe it. 

The descent to the finish was long and technical, and by this time I was ready for it all to be over. I hit the dirt road, and thereby the final K, looking over my shoulder but seeing only men descending the switchbacks above me. I had a couple of minutes lead at least then. Still, I mustered what little I had and ran hard for the finish. Three hours, nine minutes, twenty-one seconds, and I had won. The second place woman came in 4 minutes behind me, and the third place woman just one minute after that. David came if a few minutes after that, and we chatted a bit about the race. “That poor woman who was chasing you!” he said, “She was working really hard up the final climb!"

I had some time to kill before the awards ceremony, and since this is Japan there was a bath house near the finish line. I had the most glorious Japanese bath, listening to the other women chat as I soaked luxuriously in a hot pool of water. It was kind of strange to be distanced from my competition by the language. I wished I could join in on the conversation, and I hoped they didn’t resent me for being a silent foreigner.

The volunteers were all very enthusiast. “Congratulations, Molly-san!” they exclaimed as I walk back to the finish for the award ceremony.

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Receiving my trophy on top of the podium at Hanase Trail Run.

At the award ceremony, I was absolutely loaded down with prizes. It was actually a little embarrassing because I almost dropped everything as I stood on top of the podium.

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The swag, clockwise from the left: A North Face running vest, a trophy, compression socks, some energy products (one of which is ominously call ‘Athlete barley’, some kinesio tape, and a bunch of root vegetables.

I bought a victory beer from a vending machine, and sat around watching the finish line and chatting with other racers. I proceeded to fall asleep on the bus ride back to Kyoto. It had been an absolutely magical day, and I was completely wrecked.

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Raceday friends: a Japanese guy whose name I didn’t catch, French Betrand, Irish David and Japanese Ken.

Results here. Strava here.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, October 21, 2016

Japanese explains the Japanese

There was an earthquake during Japanese class yesterday. The biggest surprise wasn’t the quake itself, but the barrage of noisy cell phones that sounded a few minutes before the quake. Every phone with a Japanese SIM card automatically starts blasting warning messages when an earthquake is on its way. After the cell phones died down, I waited in suspense. The quake gently rocked the entire building for 15 seconds or so and subsided, no harm done. And the teacher continued to explain how the word for ‘minute’ in Japanese is modified depending on how many minutes you are referring to.

As a visiting PhD student at Kyoto University, I have the opportunity to take Japanese language classes. The language difference is definitely a huge barrier here in Japan, and even though I’m under no illusion that I will be anywhere near fluent by the end of November, I feel like it’s worth a try. In the this case, something is far better than nothing. Even though I’m only three weeks into classes, I’m starting to be able to read signs and pick up a few words hear and there, which is extremely gratifying after a month of a wall of meaningless sound.

Moving back to square one with a language is hard, and undeniably humbling. The most difficult aspect so far has been learning the alphabet(s). It’s been more than 20 years since the last time I had to learn the alphabet, and attaching seemingly meaningless squiggles to sounds isn’t trivial in the least bit.

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Japanese Katakana worksheet. Stroke order is important!

Still, the fascinating thing about learning Japanese is much the language reflects the culture. Here are four things I’ve learned about Japanese culture, as reflected by the language:

1) Everything should flow effortlessly. Japanese words, as a rule, end with a vowel, and consonants are often swapped when words are strung together to make the language flow more easily. For example, the Japanese word for ‘river’ can be pronounced ‘kawa’ or ‘gawa’ depending on what word it is prefixed with. In the same way, so many aspects of Japanese society are designed around convenience and efficient flow. One only has to watch the Japanese queue for and get on a train, a phenomenon that is so much less chaotic in Japan than in Europe, to see how they strive towards and achieve effortless motion.

2) Politeness is king. Although there is a Japanese word for ‘you’, I have been told not to use it. It’s considered very impolite to address someone so directly. You either use someone's name and an appropriate title (-san is polite enough for most circumstances) or don’t address them directly at all. Politeness and formalities are extremely important in Japan, and I’m now almost used to people bowing at me as a part of everyday conversations.

3) …but convenience is equally important. It is acceptable to shorten sentences to an almost ridiculous degree, removing both the subject and the verb, for convenience. For example, in English when you would say ‘Where’s the train station?’, in Japan you could basically just say ‘Train station?’ Convenience in everyday life is just as important, as starkly illustrated by vending machines even in the most remote places and 7-Elevens on every street corner.

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My favorite kind of vending machine is the ice cream vending machine!

4) The Japanese are masters of adopting foreign concepts, and making them entirely their own. For example, the Japanese alphabets are all based in the Chinese characters. The phonetics alphabets, hiragana and katakana, are essentially Chinese characters taken to represent a certain sound, and dramatically simplified. So although these characters are originally Chinese, they are twisted into a form that is uniquely Japanese. Another area of life where this happens is in food. The Japanese have adopted donuts, and Mister Donut shops (drawing on Dunkin’ Donuts) are ubiquitous. However, although the donuts resemble their American counterparts in shape, the taste and texture is something uniquely Japanese.

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I love Japanese donuts too.

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This was something I had for lunch the other week called ‘Taco udon’. Although there were most definitely udon noodle, it wasn’t a taco even in the vaguest sense of the term.

I don’t think English is quite so representative of culture, but that’s because English represents so many cultures simultaneously. Any examples to the contrary?

- 野生バジゥチュク

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pilgrimage to Koyasan

The sacred town of Koyasan (sometimes translated as Mt Koya), lies tucked away in a high mountain valley, surrounded by eight peaks that are said to form the shape of a lotus flower. For 800 years, pilgrims have been trekking the Choishi-Michi footpath from Jison temple to Koyasan to visit the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and see the resting place of Kukai, the monk who did not die, but merely settled in for eternal meditation. Although there are fewer now that in its heyday, Koyasan still contains over 100 temples. A number of the temples will host visitors for the the night, provided the visitor joins the morning and evening ceremonies. Most tourists travel to Koyasan by a combination of train, cable car and bus. 

I am not most tourists.

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Ascending the stairs at Jison temple 

It should really come to no one’s surprise at this point that I decided to forego the whole cable car routine and run the Choishi-Michi trail to Koyasan. It’s interesting, in hindsight, that I would undertake any kind of religious pilgrimage, considering how non-religious I am otherwise. I wouldn’t, for example, get so excited about staying in a Christian monastery and participating in their prayers. Maybe it’s the fact that I come from a culture where Buddhism is an anomaly, and therefore mystical and interesting?

Or maybe it’s because I’m surrounded by temples in the city of Kyoto, and I’m increasingly fascinated by the intersection between religion, art and politics that has shaped Japanese history?

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The signs on the well-marked Choishi-Michi pilgrimage route.

Or, the most plausible explanation, I just like to run places. I also knew there was an hour of meditation with the monks impending during my evening in Koyasan, and physical exhaustion was most certainly necessary in order to achieve the spiritual calm to do such a thing. So I ran, through the houses of Kudoyama and up through Jison temple, following the well-marked footpath that was first paved and then transitioned into increasingly rough trail as I climbed higher.

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Running through the bamboo forest.

The long climb into the mountains wound up through fields of Japanese persimmon trees. The sun was shining and I didn’t regret my choice to wear shorts, even though the temperatures have been growing cooler in the last week.

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Japanese persimmon trees in the sunshine 

The Choichi-Michi is marked with stone pillars called ‘stupa’ that are supposed to be spaced every 109 meter along the path. I’m going to hazard a guess that they didn’t have a very accurate way of measuring distance in 1285, when the pillars were originally erected. I found the stupa to be rather unevenly spaced. Apparently many of the stupa are original, and I’d say they looked pretty good despite having stood for 800 years.

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The stupa lining the Choichi-Michi piligrimage trail.

After the initial long climb, the trail was fairly flat and runnable in many sections. I wasn’t feeling particularly peppy, and decided just to enjoy the day, alternately walking and running depending on my mood. I was excited and little bit nervous about the upcoming meditation. Those who know me are aware that patience is not among my natural virtues, and I saw the meditation as a challenge to myself. I know there’s no way to ‘fail’ at meditation, but my goal was to allow myself to be absorbed by it and really try to find to focus on the moment, rather than allowing myself to drift off, or, Kukai forbid, fidget.

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On the final climb to the Daimon Gate.

I met only two other runners, going the opposite direction as me. Clever people, I thought, they get to run downhill all the way! I passed handfuls of hikers headed in the same direction as me, although many weren’t going all the way to Koyasan.

It took around three hours for me to cover the just over twenty kilometers to the end of the Choichi-Michi. The final stretch of trail was extremely steep, and so I didn’t see the Daimon Gate until I popped up over the edge in front of it. The gate is absolutely enormous, and pretty awe-inspiring, a suitable bookend to such a venerable trail.

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The Daimon Gate on the outskirts of Koyasan

As it was still early, I decided to take a slight detour before entering Koyasan proper to climb Bentendake. Just after turning onto the trail, I encountered this nerve-wracking sign:

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Beware of bears! (Don’t go out alone)

I had just gotten over my fear of boars, and now I had to worry about bears! I kept going, jumping nervously every time I heard a rustle in the bushes. On top of Bentendake there was a tiny shrine (what else), before the trail descended steeply to a Nyonindo, one of the points of entry to Koyasan where women traditionally weren’t allowed to enter. There is a trail that circumnavigates Koyasan, so that woman could get near this holy place, even if they were forbidden to enter. In the spirit of solidarity with oppressed women of the passed, I continued along a stretch of this trail. Somewhere along the way I started to get really tired and regretted my solidarity.

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My ‘this-had-better-be-the-last-climb-of-the-day’ face.

I found the quickest route into town and hit up two coffee shops for some much-needed sustenance after my small lunch on the trail. Then I went to check out Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. Anyone who’s anyone in Shingon Buddhism has their remains sent to Okuoin, in order to be close to Kukai in his eternal meditation. There are 200,000 gravestones of all sizes scattered throughout the forest, some overgrown with moss and some still fresh from the engravers tools.

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Someone important is probably buried here.

I had been told to make sure to check in to my temple before 5 pm, so I cut my sightseeing short and head over to Rengejoin, my accommodation for the evening. I was welcomed with tea, but to my dismay bath time wasn’t until after meditation and dinner. I felt kind of sticky from my long run, but reasoned that the bath would be all the better for waiting.

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My little room at Rengejoin temple. If you don’t sleep well on hard beds, don’t go here! 

A bell range through the temple, letting the guests know it was time for the evening ceremony: meditation. We gathered in the main hall, a dimly lit room decorated with intricate ornaments. We could choose between sitting on meditation cushions on the floor, or little stools. I went for the cushion, wanting the ‘cross-legged Buddha’ experience. The monks sat around the alter, and the guests were in a small room in front of the alter, almost like seats in front of a stage.

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A lamp decorating the main hall in Rengejoin temple.

After a long explanation in Japanese, the head monk switched to sing-song, melodic English, explaining how we should fold our hands and cross our legs. “Imagine a pipe, running from your head all the way down your back,” he explained in his peaceful voice, “And when you breathe in, the air flows down the pipe. Count each breath, to ten, and repeat. This is the most basic meditation.” I was a woman on a mission; I had to count to ten for forty minutes.

After some chanting and the banging of a gong, the room fell to silence and I closed my eyes. Breathe in (1), breathe out. I could hear people around me shifting slightly in their seats. Someone cleared their throat. Breathe in (2), breathe out. As my breath slowed, the sound of my heart beat seemed to increase in volume until it shook my body with every pulse. Breathe in (3), breathe out. The room smelled faintly of incense.

I wondered how many ten-breath cycles would make 40 minutes, and decided it was best not to keep track. Breathe in (4), breathe out. My mind wandered to everyday subjects, but the count was louder than the idle chatter in my mind. breathe in (5), breathe out. Don’t loose count. It doesn’t really matter though, you can just start again. Breathe in (6), breathe out.

My feet had fallen asleep and my back ached. I shifted my center of gravity slightly, sitting up tall, determined to stay in my half-lotus position to the very end. Breathe in (7), breathe out. I imagined bearded yogis sitting on cliffs in the jungle, meditating for days and nights on end. I couldn’t feel the places where my folded hands touched each other anymore. Breathe in (8), breathe out. The people around me shifted and sniffed and clear their throats, and it all seemed to blend into a part of the cycle of my counting. Breathe in (9), breathe out.

The gong sounded again, startling me. Was it really over? It was. The head monk had another explanation at the end, explaining about the purpose of meditation and loosing oneself into the cosmic Buddha and encountering transcendental beings. He might of lost me there, but the meditation was an interesting experiences nonetheless. 

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How can a dinner that comes on two trays be so small? Laid out beautifully, as always in Japan.

For dinner, we were served traditional monk’s food, shojin ryori, which is vegetarian. There was tofu in a lots of different forms, rice, pickled vegetables, some tempura vegetables, broth and slices of Japanese pear for desert. It was delicious, if not a ton of calories for someone who had run for nearly 4 hours that day. I may or may not have eaten a candy bar in my room afterwards.

Then it was bath time, and I took a glorious, hot Japanese bath. Feely tranquil, I retired early, setting a 5:30 am alarm to catch the morning ceremony.

For the morning ceremony, the monks chanted. Although this was interesting, and beautiful, I felt a bit distanced from it all, as a opposed to the meditation where I was an active participant. 

After a similarly frugal breakfast, I stopped and got coffee and a pastry before heading to the hills for another run. I ran the rest of the Nyonindo trail, circumnavigating Koyasan and climbing several of the small mountains around the village. The trail brought me through Okunoin once again, and I paid a visit to Kukai’s place of eternal meditation. 

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No photographs allowed in Kukai’s resting place, but here are some Buddha sculptures that you throw water on to prayer.

After a stopping in town for lunch, I jogged the short, steep Fudozaka trail down the mountain, dovetailing the cable car, to catch the train back to Kyoto.

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Above Koyasan on the Nyonindo trails.

I would highly recommend Koyasan for sightseeing as well as trail running or hiking. Staying at the Buddhist temple, and observing the ceremonies, was an enriching experience, although I don’t think I’ll become a nun anytime soon. Beside, I couldn’t fuel my running on shojin ryori!

{Strava data here, here, here and here}

- The Wild Bazilchuk