Mount Mitakesan Photo Hike

Mount Mitakesan to Hinodesan

Tengu Tree

Even now, after more than a decade of visiting and photographing around Mount Mitakesan in western Tokyo, R. and I still find new pictures to take. Sometimes it’s something new or that we didn’t notice before, such as the goblins “hidden” in the renovated stairs which lead to the summit-top shrine, or a new lookout spot to the green serrated ridges of the surrounding mountains on the trail from Hinodesan to Tsurutsuru onsen; other times it’s a new way of seeing an old subject, such as the backlighting on the tengu tree this trip.

Mitakesan continues to be enjoying its moment, as there were far more visitors than we’re used to, and far more tourists at the shrine and on the trails. On the plus side, work crews have done some serious maintenance leading from Hinodesan down to the Tsurutsuru onsen; this section of the trail used to have steep, knee-aching stairs but have been replaced by far gentler, knee-saving steps.

Another great day at Mitakesan. Despite the growing crowds, I expect we’ll continue to return to one of our favourite power spots in Japan…

If you like these pics, check out my continually updated Mitakesan gallery at 500px…




Mount Mitakesan Photo Gallery

The stairs to Musashi Mitake Shrine

For more than ten years R. and I have visited the Shinto shrine at the summit of Mount Mitakesan, the village of minshuku and restaurants below, the “Rock Garden” river course, and the trails to surrounding peaks such as Mount Otakesan and Mount Hinodesan.

In order to create this gallery of pictures from those trips, I have gone back to the earliest scans of pictures I shot back in the days of film photography, when my pride and joy was a Konica Hexar Silver camera and rolls of Fuji Velvia and Provia. I’ll continue to add pictures, though it will take time: we average maybe three trips a year, and we’re going again this weekend!

You can view the Mount Mitakesan gallery on 500px, or see all the galleries on 500px on my gallery landing page…

Aaron Paulson’s New Homepage


As some of you may recall, I’ve maintained a personal webpage for going on two decades now, ever since I started this overseas adventure (“Home in three years:” yeah, right) in Hokkaido. The last few years, as the adventure turned into more of a lifestyle, I’ve let the webpage go in favour of more attention to my blogs – including Big Sushi, Little Fishes. After a steady bombardment of sponsor ads from Squarespace on the podcast Serial, however, I have finally relaunched a new homepage. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I’ve added links to some feature blog posts and now my first gallery on my re-invigorated 500px account. And there’s more to come… Check it out at

Oze National Park Photo Gallery


After a respite, I first cleared out and then resurrected my account at the photo sharing site 500px. My inaugural upload is a gallery of pictures of autumn and winter trekking and climbing in Oze National Park, a highland marsh between Tokyo and Niigata. Check out my Oze National Park gallery at 500px.

Mount Shibutsusan Photo Hike

“Reaching Buddha:” Oze National Park, Golden Week 2016

Mount Shibutsusan, from Ayamedaira

Cold wind rain cold snow ice crampons more wind Blueberry Crunch Clif Bar in the rain strong wind heavy rain cold did I mention rain?

Even by the first weekend of May, the start of the Golden Week holiday here in Japan, the weather on main-island Honshu remains unstable: winter’s last breath mixed with summer’s first hot and humid blush results in the occasional mild and sunny spring day — perfect! — but just as often a temperamental kind of weather that scatters cherry blossoms and pins crows to their rookeries. It can be tough to get out of doors. This time last year, for example, snow-choked trails forced R. and I to stay off the mountains of the north Alps and instead stroll along the banks of the — admittedly still quite scenic — Azusagawa River in Kamikochi

We learned our lesson from that Kamikochi trip. This Golden Week when the weather gods seem even more fickle than usual — especially in the mountains — R., my wife and travel companion, and I strapped on crampons and joined a group (from the travel company Club Tourism, if you wanna know) of more experienced mountain trekkers on an overnight trip to Oze National Park, and a one-day climb of Mount Shibutsusan.

Not that Shibutsusan is that high, at 2228 metres (7,310 feet), or much of a technical challenge. The wise gnomes at Club Tourism market the one-night course, with a stay at the Hatomachi mountain hut, to beginner mountaineers. Shibutsusan does, however, rate a place on the Hyakumeizan, or “100 Famous Mountains” list of Japan. From Hatomachitoge Pass the gain to the summit is about 700 metres. In winter Shibutsusan is apparently considered an expert-level climb; by the first weekend in May I’d say it’s moderate, and the snow and ice still demand crampons (“aizen,” in Japanese) and trekking poles. Zac over at Hiking in Japan gives the route from Hatomachitoge a 3 out of 5. Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan guidebook points out the trails are usually climbed only from late May, after the snow has gone.

I’m not a fan of group tours, for the usual reasons. Nothing breaks the spirit faster than having to a pass up a good photo op — snow on a cedar branch, say, or a cloud suspended in a shrouded valley — to keep pace with, oh, let’s say a guy in bright yellow La Sportiva alpine boots, knee-high red gaiters (“spats,” they’re called in Japanese) and 10-point crampons, who lets those cedar branches fly back in the face of whoever happens to be behind. For me in Japan, there’s added cultural and linguistic challenges, of course, as even now — after eighteen years in-country — I still have to have things repeated to me in simple terms, and I usually miss the kind of unspoken nuance which, say, means everyone has assembled at the trailhead ten minutes ahead of schedule and would be game for an early start – if they didn’t have to wait for me. It’s not cheap, either.

Then again, R. and I are still newbies to mountain climbing. Despite years now spent in the mountains – the Japan Alps, the Canadian Rockies – we have spent less time on the mountains, if you know what I mean. This was our first winter ascent of a mountain crossing snowfield traverses using crampons (we’d been introduced to crampons for glacier travel last spring, in Iceland). I felt a lot more confident pushing on to the summit through white-out conditions with guides — and fellow group members — who kept us on-trail and moving briskly. 

‘Sides which, there was the added advantage that all the food and transportation and accommodation was arranged for us, so we could just focus on the experience of being in the mountains in winter. As R. put it, “I don’t have to be your personal tour guide this trip,” which is fair enough since it’s true that when we travel in Japan she does most of the planning. Being in a tour also allowed us to meet some interesting people, such as the cool single woman about our age who spends practically every weekend in the mountain and is training for an ascent of Tsurugidake, the most dangerous mountain to climb in Japan. R. and her hit it off, and spent much of the weekend chatting and generally getting along while I litewrally and metaphorically dodged those snow-covered cedar branches snapped back in my face by La Sportiva…

In any case, as you can no doubt tell, we had mixed weather trending towards… worse? On the Saturday we arrived, another group of climbers had to turn back from the summit after stump holing through fresh powder to the point of exhaustion.

Our summit day wasn’t until Sunday. On Saturday, while the other group struggled through the snow higher up, we limited ourselves to a walk through a dusted pine forest, meltwater falling like rain and a short jaunt to Ayamedaira highland, with a view – in better weather – of the Ozegahara Marsh and distant mountains. In fact, we had hiked this same section of Oze National Park back in October of 2012, when the marshland grasses had turned to gold.

Ayamedaira in Autumn
Ayamedaira in Autumn
Ayamedaira in Winter

By the time we returned to the small yamagoya mountain hut at Hatomachitoge Pass the snow had melted and we splashed downtrail in running water.

Same again on Sunday: we started the climb on wooden stairs slick with running water, and returned several hours later with meltwater literally streaming down the narrow, deepworn trail back to the yamagoya. One big difference: where Saturday had some clear sky, on Sunday it rained on and off all day, and strong winds along the summit ridge traverse – at times near whiteout conditions. Still we made it to the summit, 2228 metres, 7310 feet, and back again to the start of the trail at Hatomachi Toge Pass in six hours – five for the faster, stronger and more experienced members of our group. By the time we came back down, snowshoers and telemark skiers had all but taken over the backcountry trail, and snowboarders were teraing up a natural halfpipe in the trees.

Fun fact: many climbers make Shibutsusan the last stop on their Hyakumeizan pilgrimage, as the kanji Chinese characters in its name translate literally to “Reaching Buddha.”

Check out my gallery of Mount Shibutsusan in winter (basically the same pictures you see in this post), plus those from an autumn trip to Oze National Park and area in 2012.

Nagasaki Photo Drift

Nagasaki Harbour

Nagasaki’s long and complicated relationship with the outside world blends into the diorama of hillside houses that sweep back from the long harbour, and the distinctive, cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of this small city. In fact, reminders of this vexed history make Nagasaki popular with tourists: Japan’s oldest Chinatown; the landlocked, newly reconstructed houses of fan-shaped, manmade Dejima island; the churches and monuments to Japan’s first and largest Christian population; the ruins of undersea mining colonies on islands such as Hashima in Nagasaki Bay; the memorials to the city’s H-bomb victims and survivors.

As far back as the 2nd century CE, before there was a unified country called Japan, The islands of Iki and Tsushima, near the site of present-day Nagasaki, appeared in classical texts as the earliest Japanese “kingdoms” to be in contact with China and mainland Asia.

Skip forward some 1200 years, to Japan’s first contact with Europeans and the “Christian century” — from 1550-1650 — which followed. By 1571, Nagasaki had been developed into a port city to handle all the traffic with the Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, and the so-called Nanban, — “Southern barbarian” — trade commenced. The Portuguese introduced new technology and culture such as guns, Christianity, and popular food such as castella (sponge cake), and tempura — called in Portuguese “peixinho-da-horta” — as well as silk and other forbidden luxury goods from China.

After the initial culture shock wore off, many of these Portuguese imports were keenly embraced. Not least was Christianity; by 1580 Nagasaki had become a Jesuit colony. In 1587, however, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi nationalized the port as part of his campaign to unify Japan. Fearing the foreign influence of the Jesuits, a series of persecutions of Christians led to the crucifixion of 26 Christians in 1597, the “26 Martyrs of Japan,” and the banning of Catholicism in 1614. Where previously trade with the Portuguese had dominated, attention now shifted to the Dutch and English, who apparently acted more as merchants than missionaries. The Dutch introduced badminton, beer, billiards, chocolate, and coffee to an apparently receptive audience, since all of these things are still popular in Japan today.

Oura Catholic Church

Nevertheless, Nagasaki continued to be a hotbed of Christianity, and by 1637 ongoing religious persecution helped foster the Shimabara Rebellion and subsequent policy of national isolation, the subject of Shusako Endo’s historical fiction Silence — soon to be a feature film by Martin Scorsese. By 1641 the meddlesome Portuguese Catholics were expelled, and even the sober Dutch Protestants were confined to Dejima – the subject of David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The situation vis-a-vis foreign influence must have improved, as by 1720 the ban on Dutch books lifted, turning Nagasaki into a center for rangaku “Dutch learning.”

Nagasaki became the focal point for Japan’s foreign contact and modernization: in 1858 the port opened to foreign trade, and in 1859 the Scotsman Thomas Blake Glover – no relation I can detect to Crispin  or Danny Glover  – arrived from Shanghai in time to be an arms dealer to the Emperor’s army which defeated the Tokugawa shogunate and brought about the Meiji Restoration – a period of Japanese history captured in The Last Samurai. Glover went on to introduce steam locomotives and western-style warships and shipbuilding to Japan, as well as to develop the first coal mine in Japan at Takashima, and founded Kirin Brewing Company. Glover’s hillside estate overlooking the harbour is now a tourist attraction.

Nagasaki Peace Park

By the late 19th century Nagasaki had become a hub of western technology and industry, including such heavy industries as shipbuilding and railways. Thus, unlike Hiroshima, by the end of World War Two Nagasaki was very definitely a strategic target in the sights, so to speak, of Allied bombers. Nevertheless, the city was still only a secondary target on August 9, 1945, when an H-bomb was exploded over the city.

Unlike the flat, open river delta that Hiroshima was built on, Nagasaki is relatively sheltered by its setting among foothills and so many more buildings, including churches and the harbour, survived the bomb. It’s said that the residents of nearby Gunkanjima island saw the explosion from their apartments.

Rebuilding focused on foreign trade, shipbuilding, and fishing. Memorials to the bomb victims were created from the rubble, such as the one-legged torii gate at Sanno Shrine, and in new buildings such as the Atomic Bomb Museum – the counterpart to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum.

Gunkanjima “Battleship Island”

Today, the city is popular with tourists from China and further abroad, as well as with expats looking for an alternative to Japan’s drab urban sprawl. Nagasaki’s newest “attraction” lies just offshore: the abandoned coal mining facility on Hashima, so-called Gunkanjima “Battleship Island.” But that is the stuff of another story…


Fire in Golden Gai April 12, 2016

Update Friday, April 15: On Wednesday, a day after the fire, police reportedly arrested a 66-year-old man for breaking into the building shortly before the fire started.


Update 7:25 p.m.: According to this report from The Japan Times, the fire is out with no cause determined. Five buildings damaged and one person injured. I can’t tell much from the picture, so I’ll have to pay a visit sooner than later to see where the damage was…


Don’t have any details yet, but a part of Golden Gai – my favourite hang-out spot in Tokyo – is apparently on fire. here’s the news footage:

On the one hand, given the 200+ tiny bars crammed into ramshackle buildings in this six-block Shinjuku ghetto, it may not be surprising that a fire has broken out. Then again, there has been a rumour ever since Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Olympics that Golden Gai is once again being considered for gentrification…

Either way, I may have to update Down the Rabbit Hole, my guide to Golden Gai, sooner rather than later…