The air was humid, the road was rocky, and the path just seemed to keep going uphill. I was hiking Japan’s “Samurai Trail” (on Mountain Travel Sobek’s Walking Japan trip) but I felt like a peasant. Sweaty, thirsty, dust-covered, I arrived with my group at the village of Hirasawa, a drab collection of concrete buildings linked by a tangle of telephone wires. It hardly seemed the right reward for a difficult day of hiking. Little did I know this unassuming destination would become a surprise highlight of our trip, a gold-medal payoff we’d be talking about for years.
Even on an “easy” rated trip, hiking can be hard. The trail sometimes offers unpleasant surprises, from bad weather to broken backpack straps or a badly timed case of stomach trouble. So when you finish a hike, it’s nice to feel a sense of accomplishment. But unless you’re doing a first-ascent of some unexplored peak, the world likely won’t care that you walked from Point A to Point B, and you may be disappointed as well—unless you come at your hike with the right perspective.
Here are a couple tips of how to have a “gold medal” experience on any sort of hike. I’ve used these perspectives on dozens of trips I’ve taken around the world, but none proved the point with such dramatic fashion as this walk in Japan did.
Embrace the Journey: “Winning” your hike
After our first big day of hiking Japan, we stopped at a small train station café for a snack. An old Japanese man asked us about our trip. We proudly said we had just walked 20 kilometers to the town. Instead of complimenting us on our fortitude, he laughed at us “Why did you walk all that way, don’t you know you can take the train?”
He had a point. There are few places in the world where you really need to hike to reach a town, and Japan is certainly not one of them. So why go on the trail at all? I told the old man it was good exercise. He said I should play soccer instead. “You work hard to win a soccer game. You can’t win a hike.” He dismissed our group with a wave of his hand and left to smoke a cigarette.
So how does one “win a hike?” Unless you’re a Nepalese Sherpa, or extreme explorer, you’re probably not going do a trail fastest, first, or farthest. But you can find a reward in the journey itself, rather than the destination. I’ve found that the “winners” of any hike are those who return with the best stories, the most unique photos, or some tidbits of wisdom found only on the trail.
On our Japan journey the wisdom was revealed in the places between the towns, among the groves of bamboo trees, inside hidden Buddhist trailside shrines, beside the chattering groups of local grannies at their fruit stands. We were taking a trail into ancient Japan, hiking the same route as actual Samurai had done centuries before, an experience much more immersive than any history text.
But I imagined even the Samurai probably had some kids at their side, asking “are we there yet?” As our group discovered during this journey, with the right perspective, the answer is always “yes.”
Keep an Open Mind: Finding Hidden Treasures in a Hike
Flexibility and an open mind are keys for discovering hidden rewards in any hike. When our hiking group arrived at Hirasawa, the guide suggested we visit some stores. Shopping on a hiking trip seemed like a terrible idea. For me the point of hiking is to get away from the material, consumer world and to instead embrace nature. But since I was part of a group, I reluctantly entered a shop with them.
Turns out, this wasn’t just any store. It was the workshop of the artisan who crafted the gold, silver and bronze medals given to the winners of the 1998 Winter Olympics in nearby Nagano. The owner proudly brought out a display case with the original medals, and shared with us the story of how his design combined precious metals with the old Japanese wooden lacquer techniques for which the town was famous in Samurai times. He then handed us the Olympic Torch that he had also designed, and let me take a lap with it around the store, making me feel like a hiking Olympian.
Had I clung rigidly to a strict hiking route, I would have missed this hidden treasure in an unassuming store in an unremarkable town, an example of how golden moments can be discovered in the most unlikely spots, if you just keep an open mind.
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer whose stories have appeared in over 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveler, San Francisco Chronicle, and Lonely Planet’s “Best of Travel Writing.” Tales from his many hikes can be found at www.billfinktravels.com, and tweets from the trail @finktravels.