Sake Hike

29 Jul 2021

Sort of like a ski weekend, but not…..

So apparently the lengths, or should I say heights to which we will go for Sake are great! This annual event is sponsored by a local Sake factory in which eager participants merrily hike up a mountain to a sacred, fresh water spring in order to fill a jug with the water and carry it back down where it will eventually be turned into wine, AKA Sake. The men carried a 20 liter jug (44 pounds) and the women carried half that.

This adventure was a good-er. We left Yokohama Saturday afternoon and made our way to Tokyo. From there we took the bullet train North-West to the other side of Honshu (the main island of Japan) to a place called Niigata, population approx. 17,000. Our escapade was set for the next day, so we had the evening free to enjoy a nice Japanese style dinner, which included lots of Sake.

The lady who organized this event is a career counselor and had some students in Niigata who wanted to join us for the evening, which was great.

Thankfully their English was quite good because unfortunately, my Japanese remains extremely limited and basic…. So after a long day of travel and a fun evening Japanese style, we retired to our tiny but super clean room for a short sleep.

Sunday: After an early breakfast and quick check out, we were off. Our little group included good friends from the Hash House Harriers running club we joined last year so we were well suited for a mountain adventure together.

The next leg of the journey was another train ride, and then a shuttle bus to the trail head where there was a small building with bathrooms and a dry place to leave the bags we did not want to carry up the mountain. After a bit of organizing, re-organizing and fumbling around we finally set off for the trail which started out tame, but quite muddy.

In addition to being nearly the last people to begin the hike, it also appeared that we were the only non-Japanese people in this group of roughly 400 enthusiasts!

We think the hike up to the Spring was only around 5km, however due to the deep snow and trajectory up the mountain, it took well over an hour just to get to the filling station. Oh, and it was also cold and raining!

The first 2/3rds of the hike were on a snow covered road that was cut into the side of the mountain, so the difficulty level here was basically due to the incline, and deep snow. Although this ‘road’ had been lightly packed, the snow was still soft and deep which often resulted in your foot going right through the path in some spots, leaving you knee-deep, or even thigh-deep in the most perfect playing snow that kids could ever hope for on a Saturday morning! When the road came to an end and the ‘real’ trail through the woods began things got interesting.

We were now on an actual mountain trail that was blanketed in at least 4 feet of soft, fluffy snow – and it was still raining! There were event volunteers spread out every couple hundred meters (or as needed) and they all had shovels which they used constantly to cut steps into the snow making the path much easier to navigate up and down hills. Great idea and each person with a shovel got a cheery Domo Arigato from me for that!

Needless to say they were kept quite busy as the stairs almost seemed to take on a life of their own, trying in vain to morph into slippery slopes with all the trekkers and the rain packing them down and rounding them off. The really steep parts of the trail were continually sprinkled with sawdust and also had ropes strung through the trees that we grabbed and used like a hand-rail for added stabilization.

It was a beautiful trail that could have been back home in the Rocky Mountains with snow covered trees, a slow running creek and that deep silence that always comes with heavy snow. We were loving it! We crossed that creek several times as we meandered through the woods and up narrow paths that were often only wide enough for one way walkers. Given our slow start, we stepped aside several times to let people pass who had retrieved their water and were already on the way back down.

The bright side of this scenario was that we would not have to wait for, or sneak by others at these narrow points once we were on our way back down. The down side was the wait at the top!

When the first person in our group hollered out “There it is, just up ahead!” we were all quite thrilled! We had made it, no slips or injuries and it was all (pretty much) downhill from here! Then as we came around the last few bends in the path and came over the final rise, we saw approximately a hundred people queuing to get their jug filled.

It didn’t take long to guesstimate that we would have at least a 30 minute wait, which in hindsight would have be much better than our actual wait of twice that in gear that was wet inside (sweat) and out (rain) – and it was still raining! We were drowned rats! I was telling my friend about the crazy mind game I was playing with myself in an attempt to not let the cold get to me… I questioned what cold is and why that was cold, or painful, and how much more uncomfortable some of the other people must be… It worked for a while as I talked, or should I say questioned myself out of giving in to the cold; that is until I did!

A few snowballs were thrown, jokes told, wagers laid on which line would be the quickest as we inched our way to the front. The filling of the jug was done with a hose which acted like a siphon with no ‘close’ position.

Although the ‘jug fillers’ were very careful with the cold water, I think we all ended up with a bit extra in the bottom of the knapsacks. I was lucky to dump this water out of my sack at the bottom of the mountain, but one lucky hiker in our group had the pleasure of this cold water trickling down his back and legs the whole way down thanks to a leak in his jug!

Coming down the mountain with a full jug was a bit dicey and I did end up on my backside a couple of times, thankfully no harm done! The little bridges we used to cross the creek were very basic, yet more than adequate. A 1-1/2 foot wide wooden plank spanning the void with strips of wood nailed on every 8 to 10 inches (like a ladder) for traction, and that’s it!

Some people shot across it just like they were gliding on air, and others took slow, deliberate steps to a dry and successful crossing. The great benefit to this wooden-plank style bridge was all the wood chips which came off everyone’s spikes and boots, lining the path on either side of the bridge, affording a bit more traction.

By the way, I would be remiss to not give a description of some of the other 400 water-fetchers. Let me first say that Japanese people are tough, hardy, active people who rarely complain, if ever. I would estimate that the majority of the participants were middle aged or older and there were many folks who were definitely 70+!

Some came prepared with North Face, walking poles and even umbrellas. There were also a good number of folks who employed ‘old school’ ideas to cope with the conditions; things like heavy twine wrapped around boots for traction instead of snow grabbers, strapping the water jug to a metal frame rather than a full knapsack, rain smocks rather than water proof gear and it goes on…. But what amazed me the most was the full on seniors out there trucking it up the slushy mountain all in the name of Sake and let me tell ya, they don’t budge one inch off the middle of the path, too funny! They are serious, they have their line, and they aren’t moving-! At one point it took three of us about 15 minutes to get around one old-timer with poles and no plans to step aside or inch over!

Once we got off the skinny trail, the bottom came quickly where unloaded our packs and handed off those jugs of water to be mixed in the giant vat holding the sacred spring water from the mountain.

Straight after we all handed a hot steaming bowl of soup that was absolutely perfect! Among other ingredients, this soup contained the most delicious creamy, potatoes which are grown in the area and renowned Nation wide. A real treat.

From there we quickly made our way to the warm, steamy waters of the Onsen and arrived there just in time for the rain to stop. The location of this particular Onsen was very nice and it overlooked the now wide river and some homes built on the banks.

Lovely. The traditional end to this event is a Sake fueled (dinner) party which was held in the same facility.

We estimate that about 200 people attended the party and we were definitely the only Westerners in the room! The food was great, most of it was cooked (yes!) the Sake was flowing and then something interesting happened.

Following a few speeches and the majority of the food being eaten, there began a very orderly precession of group after group of Japanese people joining our table and filling our little

Sake cups to sit with us for a few minutes of patchy conversation! It was great! We all felt like celebrities as the empty spaces beside us from those who just moved on, were quickly filled with the next group rushing in as if not wanting the seat cushion to cool off. When eating a meal out in Japan, it is 50/50 at best if you will have a table or not and this time we did not!

There was a lot of sake consumed that evening…..

The was one more advernture we enjoyed the next day before heading back home to Yokohama. We visiting a Sake factory there in Niigata and it was super cool (no pun intended).

Oh, and then this happened on the train home haha (bad gaijin)

Bye for now.

Originally From January 2014

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