I took the day off yesterday for a welcome convalescence. My weekend left me weary, but more importantly, it left me ill. On Sunday, starting at noon, germs began their assault on my body and, by the time I went to sleep, they had planted their victory flag. My immune system was defeated and I finally had to acknowledge that I was sick.

But a day of nothing but sitting in front of the computer, processing photos and surfing the Internet after sleeping late was just what my body needed. By noon, my immune system had rallied and the germs were on the run. Today, there are still some rebel groups attempting to fight the status quo, but with another good night of sleep, the uprising will be crushed. Huzzah!

What left me so fatigued on the weekend was my trek up Iwate San with about two-dozen other JETs. That and the fact that I just generally don’t seem to get enough sleep here (partly by my own doing, partly because of that raucous loading dock).

The weekend began with a trip up to Hanamaki to meet Thanet and watch the Hanamaki Matsuri. On my way out of the station, I had the good fortune to run into Racheal and Kurt who tagged along to find Thanet. We soon found ourselves surrounded by JETs while we took in the spectacle of the festival floats. The gaijin are easy to spot in a crowd, so that explains why we met up so easily – that or our desperate flocking instincts, ‘I need to speak English to someone! Now!’

Thanet and I hunted down vegetarian festival food and sampled some delicious pancake concoctions filled with either custard or bean paste (actually, I’m not entirely sure about the latter; it was brown and it didn’t look like it had meat in it – good enough for us). Unfortunately, that filled me up before I could get a crepe. The one I had in Matsushima was so good and I was tempted to stuff myself with whipped cream once again, but I was already nearing my belly’s breaking point – better not to push it lest I burst wide open. Undoubtedly, that would be some breach of Japanese etiquette.

I guided the aimless Thanet back to the bus station (I swear she could get lost in a straight hallway) while we chatted about her life back home. Things have been difficult for her and she has been preoccupied with thoughts of people outside of Japan. Well, we couldn’t have that – there was fun to be had. Actually, at that point on Friday night, there was sleep to be had – we didn’t linger in wakefulness long after arriving at her apartment.

The next morning, we prepared for our ascent up Iwate’s highest peak. Grocery store errands and culinary concoctions were the order of the morning. We made short work of our chores, but didn’t budget enough time to drive to our rendezvous point with the group. With a panicked Thanet behind the wheel and a focused Darby behind the map, we headed North and didn’t even break that many traffic laws in our hurry (yes there was one small incident where we were driving down the wrong side of the street, but that only occurred after we made a wrong turn – both members of the crew will share the blame for that lapse in concentration).

It turned out the hectic pace was unnecessary – we arrived exactly on time. We had a few moments to organize ourselves and have a bite to eat before gathering more members into the car for the journey to the mountain.

Iwate san loomed somewhat impressively over the parking lot and the not-so-hardy band of travelers tried in vain to disguise their displeasure at the thought of ascending such a height. I suppose it can look quite daunting if you have little experience with such hikes. I can hardly call myself an intrepid explorer, but I’ve hiked up enough trails to know that you will reach the top of this peak and come down with your health. But more importantly, if you have the right attitude along the way, you’ll have a blast.

What a shame so few people have learned that lesson. Yes, here it comes, my complaint. In the last year or two, I have learned something about myself: the one thing I will really complain about is people who complain too much.

When I was young and a vocal supporter of the Calgary Flames, the arch rivals to the North, the Edmonton Oilers, were led by a certain player named Wayne Gretzky. Any time he made any complaint to the referees about a given call, I joined the chorus of Flames fans melodically chanting, ‘Whiner! Whiner!’ Can you blame us? You couldn’t criticize any other part of his game. We had to razz him for something! Telling him, in whatever colourful language at the disposal of a drunken hockey fan, that he sucked would have been just plain unrealistic. Might as well make up some plausible avenue of attacking the indefatigable enemy.

Well, a few of these hikers joining me are, certainly, good people, but they could have used a chant of ‘Whiner! Whiner!’ aimed in their direction. Did you expect escalators rising to the top? Perhaps cherubs would swoop beneath you and carry you effortlessly by your arms to the top of the mountain. Were the burdens of carrying water food, sleeping bags etc. so far beyond the scope of your imagination that they actually caused you surprise?

The unfortunate answer was: ‘Yes, cherubs sound lovely, thank you.’ Here we were, spending time with new friends on a gorgeous Japanese day walking up a wonderful mountain and people somehow figured that the negatives associated with some fatigue outweighed the positive.

In fact, I don’t think I’m emphasizing the positive quite enough. The weather was just about perfect. It was cool enough to keep you from overheating while you hiked, but it took a while for the wind to actually drop your body temperature when you had stopped. Climbing the highest mountain in your prefecture in Japan is not exactly an opportunity that presents itself to many Westerners – such a gift deserves some appreciation. This was a great chance to hang out with some of the people who will be sharing these incredible experiences for the next year; shouldn’t we be enjoying their company instead of griping about minutiae? I mean seriously, you’re in Japan! What’s your problem?

Okay, there. I’ve whined about the whiners enough. On to better things.

The first half of the hike was not so difficult and offered glimpses of the lava flow that once poured from the mouth of the volcano. Dirt paths wound through forests that sheltered us from the slight breeze. The group spread out quickly with me and my camera gear beginning at the very back, but slowly progressing to the front. People kept commenting on my companion, the tripod, but when we reached the top of the mountain at dawn, I was glad to have lugged it along. As I walked, I had the chance to talk with a bunch of different groups along the way.

We stopped at a gorgeous lookout point where the trail mix Thanet and I had made became the envy of all the other hikers. Sitting atop a hardened lava flow and viewing the land below us while munching on some yummy trail mix was a nice way to spend lunch. But the wind soon kicked up and began cooling the sweat sticking to our backs. It forced us back onto the trail where we soon hiked along a more exposed portion of the mountain.

The slope was covered with loose gravel that made the climb a bit more challenging in places, but the ropes lining the sides of the trail and the spectacular view out to the surrounding peaks and the villages below made it an easy ascent for me. We then cut back into the trees and had to scramble over some steep rocks and boulders to continue on the way. By now, the sun was setting and the golden light was illuminating the peak. I would have loved to have been at the top a half hour earlier – the light would have been wonderful for photos, but alas, the setting sun dipped below the horizon before I could get to the top.

But, I soon arrived at the cabin with only Stian ahead of me. I had packed up the tripod, but now broke it out again for the few shots I could get before darkness enveloped the entire landscape.

Our cabin was cozy. Three locals had already claimed refuge there and were gracious enough to move their gear up to the loft (but not gracious enough to allow anyone to join them there – not that I blame them entirely; a gaggle of gaijin invading your hard-fought space deserves a little bit of contempt I suppose). With flashlights guiding them up the now-dark trail, the rest of the group eventually reached the night’s rest stop. We all had our dinner and Susan served smores to after roasting marshmallows over Kurt and Racheal’s stove.

Thanet and I took a walk outside to wonder at the stars. The night was mostly clear and the sky was well-dotted with distant suns. It reminded me of the three times I have seen such vast numbers of stars it was almost excruciating.

First was in junior high. I had a strange episode on a camping trip with my school. We were camped in the Rocky Mountains and looking up at the clearest night I had ever seen away from city lights. I can’t completely explain what I thought happened, but the impression I had was that I was seeing past the stars. I felt like the stars were projected on some black dome, like at the science centre in Calgary, but I was somehow seeing beyond that dome. I almost felt like there was something looking back at me. A nervous breakdown ensued. I started crying and I think I may have tearfully bellowed, ‘I saw past the stars!’ before getting carried back to the cabin by one of my teachers. Nothing like a good panic attack prompted by an incomprehensible mystical experience to gain teenage popularity’

The second time I saw anything comparable was in Switzerland. On our trip through Europe, our stop in Switzerland was in a town called Lauterbrunnen. Waterfalls tumbled from mountain walls surrounding us and echoed through the valley. Our altitude in the Alps made for clear view of the stars, but we only realized this when, in the middle of the night, nature called. The cold weather forced a dash to the toilet for me, but on the way, I looked up and was stopped in my tracks by the light from overhead. I wanted to stand there, jaw gaping, to stare at the sight, but my bladder’s pitiful strength and the cold snapped me back into motion. On the way back from completing my business, the prospect of returning to the comfort of my warm sleeping bag pushed me on. Laura was awake when I returned and had to make a similar trip. I made sure she took a look up as she walked.

The third occasion that featured such glorious night skies was when I was traveling in Peru. We had departed from Puno to cross the waters of Lake Titicaca and arrive at Amantani Island (or am I mixing it up with Taquille – damn place names, tripping me up). After a busy day of sightseeing, hiking, and soccer, we were invited to a dance with the locals. my travelling companions and I were fitted with some traditional clothes and we followed the bands’ rhythms through the dark to the dance hall.

After making efforts to keep up with foreign dance steps, we watched the dancers who had moved outside and were circling the fire. I remember saying it was a scene you could never capture with a still camera. By now, the full moon had risen and was casting a blue grey glow over the rippling water of the lake. That moon became the only light source when we walked back to the house of our host family. Again, slack-jawed, I gawked at the scene above. I can only imagine how it would have looked had the moon been new. Even with a full moon, the sky was brilliant. Infinite stars projected themselves from eternities in the past. I was happy.

And so I was on the top of Mount Iwate. I once dabbled with the idea of becoming an astronomer simply because of the wonder the stars held for me. But now, I am content to catch these glimpses. If only the mercury had not fallen so much, I would have slept beneath them.

But alas, I am not durable enough to get any sleep in that kind of cold, so I returned to the cabin and the hard wood bench that would become my bed. Surprisingly, my earplugs and a sideways sleeping position actually allowed me to get some sleep. Not much, but some.

Our wake up call was 3:00 am. We wanted to reach the summit before sunrise. Gathering up what we needed, we departed in the dark. Racheal, Kurt, Thanet, Mike and I blazed the trail. I couldn’t help messing with Kurt and Racheal’s heads by suggesting there might be a few of the aliens from Signs (we watched it the previous week and it freaked them out a little) might be active in this area. They only seemed mildly bothered at the prospect.

I reached to top by myself and bundled up in the wind. The stars were still peering through the darkness while I waited for the others to catch up. They arrived and we all headed along the spine of the mountain to the very top together.

My tripod was now earning its keep as the dawn sky slowly started turning blue while the lights from the villages below struggled to break through the clouds. The group eventually caught up and huddled together like penguins to keep warm. Bursts of light from cell phone cameras splashed in the relenting darkness as the sun’s light crept up through the clouds. Bands of red formed along the horizon and the profiles of the mountains began to take shape.

I busily snapped photos in the beautiful light until the wind started driving our troupe back down to the cabin. The sun was only directly visible through the clouds after we had started our descent. It illuminated our cabin and the rock formation behind it – they glowed like a beacon to guide us down the hill.

After gathering all our gear and cleaning the cabin (some more courteously than others), we descended to the parking lot. I flew down the path, stopping for photos wherever appropriate and only managed to fall once. Josh witnessed my tumble and subsequent skid and said the first thing I did was lift my camera to protect it from impact. Good to know I have the right instincts in that situation.

Reaching the bottom, we waited in the parking lot a while then decided to try our luck to see if the onsen was open. We were able to find comfy chairs in the lobby where we snoozed until the rest of the group slowly filed in.

The onsen experience rates second to the Turkish bath I visited in Istanbul, but was indeed pleasant after a nice hike. With brand new onsen towels in hand, the men and women separated and found their respective locker rooms. We disrobed completely then headed for the rinsing area. Sitting naked on top of specially made onsen buckets, we scrubbed away the grime. Once clean, it was time for a dip in the boiling pool. Apparently, this onsen had the heat cranked up a bit high, so perhaps it wasn’t the best experience, but it was fun enough to soak a while then make for the cold pool. A little frigid water splashed over the head while your feet soaked and you were ready for more steamy steeping. I also made a brief trip to the sauna where the heat was topping 90 degrees Celcius. A bit much for me so I withdrew to the baths.

With my clothes back on, I had to wait for the rest of the group to reach the base of the mountain. Racheal was my ride home and her knee was giving her problems on the way down. I managed to take a nap, but it was at this point that I could feel the germs fire their opening salvo. I tried to counter with some orange juice, but I suspect it was too late. My immune system had already been beaten back by the meager nights of sleep. I was defenseless. A few hours after reaching home, I was as good as useless.

Sarah, however, was kind enough to stop by after she got home from a night out. She brought me peanut butter, drinks, soup and apples (but great minds think alike, I bought apples earlier that day). We briefly visited before I collapsed into bed.

But as I said earlier, I am on the mend and one more night of good rest will vanquish this foe for good. Not to mention, I get a proper home-cooked meal tonight from Asanuma sensei as a thank you for the work Sarah and I did for the speech contest. That ought to send the germs packing.

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