mountain

Cameron & James

Just finished the retouching on images from a shoot with Australian designer, Cameron & James (read the behind the scenes blog here.)

Model: Dylan Peck
Designer: Cameron & James
Stylist: Amy Johnston

In other news, I’ve been very busy as of late. I’ve shot some big name events as well as some fun editorials, and have a lot of work that is bursting to be shown to the world, but is in lockdown due to submission and magazine releases. Exciting stuff! I’m also going to launch my new website soon, for the events division of my photography. Stay tuned for that one.

Allow me to get all sentimental and soppy for a moment. Sometimes it all seems a bit overwhelming, but I have to remember why I chose photography and why I want to take this path with my life. There are of course, hard times and struggles, and frustrations are plentiful. But when I am behind the camera, nothing scares me and nothing is too hard. Things ‘make sense’ inside a viewfinder. I know what I am doing, I relax, and I follow my instincts. Photography is what I am. But I also need to keep shooting for myself. Getting caught up in client’s jobs and mundane tasks takes its toll, so I always need to ensure I keep creating for myself. Because that is what keeps me sane, keeps me interested, and keeps me learning. If I am no longer doing all of those things, there is no point in continuing this career. When I stop learning and stop enjoying pressing the shutter, that is when it is time to move on.

I don’t think that will be for a long time.

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Despite allowing myself a sleep in until 7:30, I woke up around 6 this morning when the house started to make noise. I felt a bit disoriented for a while, but then I remembered that I was 1/4 of the way through my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. I lay there and listened to the sound of the rain falling before I worked up enough courage to get up and test the level of soreness in my muscles. Strangely, I was fine.

I got ready for the day, then stripped the sheets from the futon and folded all the bits up neatly. I was half way through writing a message in the guest book when Tsugizakura Okaasan came in and said good morning. She had obviously come to remove the futon and rearrange the room for breakfast, so she was surprised and happy when she saw I had already done it. I just wanted to be helpful and show my appreciation for her hospitality.

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A few minutes later, Tsugizakura Okaasan returned to lay out breakfast for me. I can’t usually eat much at breakfast, but this morning I had an appetite, and after last nights meal, I was excited to try more of the minshuku’s home cooking. Breakfast was, of course, huge. It consisted of miso soup with tofu, 3 different vegetable and bean dishes, pickles, mini mountain potatoes cooked with bonito flakes, a vegetable and prawn gratin kind of thing, tamagoyaki, cooked salmon, sweet black beans, simmered vegetables and firm tofu, nori strips, fruits with yoghurt, fresh orange juice, green tea, and enough rice to feed three people. It sounds like a lot, but they were all mini portions. What am I saying, it was a lot of food! I ate everything, much to my surprise, but I couldn’t finish all the rice.

After breakfast, I gathered my things and said goodbye to both the minshuku owners. They gave me a very cutely wrapped box of chocolates as ‘energy snacks’ for the road. I wrapped up my backpack in its rain coat, and said goodbye to Tsugizakura Okaasan and Otoosan. I had really enjoyed my stay there, and I loved all the little personal touches of the place. I had felt so welcome. Tsugizakura Otoosan made sure I knew where to pick up the Kumano Kodo trailhead, then I set off with my umbrella for day two of my journey.

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I made a quick stop at Nonaka no Shimizu, which was a crystal clear spring about one minute away from the minshuku. It was beneath a red bridge, tucked in a corner of a stone wall. In the middle was pool of water that was so clear, I was pretty sure you could drink out of it. Then the spring ran below that. It was so perfect that it could have been constructed for a movie, but of course this was Japan, and places like this really do exist.

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It was raining lightly as I headed off again on the Kumano route. But I was in good spirits. For some reason, my body didn’t feel tired or sore, and my pack really didn’t feel half as heavy as yesterday. Maybe I had developed giant callouses on my shoulders that were acting as extra padding, who knows. I walked along a sealed road for a while, which was easy because it was so even, and I reached the distance markers quickly. I walked past a few houses, some of which had these funny wooden statues out the front.

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It was really windy, and the rain got a little heavier, but it was never so bad that I actually needed my umbrella. Before long I came to the first bit of unsealed road for the day. The sun came out to commemorate my arrival at this point. Up until then, the walk had been very easy, but now the uneven uphill climb began. It still wasn’t as steep as yesterday though. It didn’t take long to reach Warajitoge Pass, which was a place where pilgrims traditionally traded their worn and broken straw sandals for fresh ones. From there, it was a steep and slippery downhill climb to the river. The whole time I was thinking ‘thank god I don’t have to go up this bit.’

At the bottom of the river I was supposed to cross a bridge and continue through the forest on the other sign, but the bridge was blocked off, and a huge sign saying ‘Kumano Kodo Detour’ pointed right. It said that the detour would take 1.5 hours. I had no choice really, so off I went down this gravel road that looked like it was made for trucks and construction vehicles.

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But I didn’t have to walk on the road for long. I crossed a river into a section.of forest that reminded me of highland mountains. Think mountain goats, and you’ll get the picture. A really tall and steep-looking mountain was in front of me, and I remember thinking ‘wow, it would be crap if I had to go up that.’ I was certain that I would curve around the mountain or that there would be a valley.pass, so I wasn’t really worried. But the trail kept going up for some reason. Steeply. After 20 minutes of strenuous climbing, I realized that I WAS climbing the dreaded mountain. I was so high up that the tops of other mountains were LOWER than me. But still I had to keep going up. At one stage I came to a net across the path with a big sign that I didn’t understand. I could read the kanji for ‘Kumano Kodo’ and ‘detour course’ but I had no idea what the rest meant. Beyond the net, I could see one of the familiar wooden signs that marked the detour route, so I guessed I was still going the right way. Plus, there hadn’t been any other trails, and I had just climbed up a long way, I wasn’t about to go back down again and undo all that hard work. So I snuck under the net and just hoped it wasn’t a net to contain wild boars which might attack me.

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A short while later, I reached the top of the mountain, and the path went down through a pine forest. I felt kind of elated from having ‘beaten’ the mountain, and wished my dad could’ve seen me do it. Another 20 minutes later, I reached the bottom of the other side of the mountain, which connected back to the main Kumano Kodo trail. Detour complete. I felt like I had successfully finished some kind of bonus secret mission. (I’m getting a sense that I played to many video games as a kid.)

But that was only the detour, and I still had many hours of walking ahead of me. I crossed a river and an old abandoned house, then had to climb a steep hill to reach Mikoshi-toge pass. This was the highest point of the day, and I rested there briefly before continuing through an arch and down through more forest. I followed a river, and cut through one section of blinding sunshine, where a whole chunk of forest had been cleared. There was this one shallow puddle there that was filled with tiny black tadpoles. There were literally thousands of them. I walked a little further along the river before reaching Funatama Shrine, where the main Nakahechi route links up to the Akagi-goe route (to Yunomine Onsen.) Here, I sat by the river and ate a banana and a few of the chocolates Tsugizakura Okaasan had given me. They had different flavours inside; banana, strawberry, almond and caramel. Then I tried to nut out what I wanted to do next. I had planned to take the Akagi-goe route to Yunomine (where I would spend the night), then walk to Hongu the next day and backtrack a little before heading to Koguchi. That route would take me 2 more hours today. But then I thought I might walk all the way to Hongu today instead, and then continue to Yunomine. That would take about 3-3.5 more hours today. It was only 1:30, so I did have time to do it today, and my body was feeling good so I thought I should do the longer walk when I wasn’t aching. So I set off for Kumano Hongu Taisha.

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I had another steep climb up to Hosshinmon-oji, which is known as ‘the gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment.’ It is important because it marks the outermost entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha’s sacred precincts. Yes, I copied that from the guide map. The next hour or so was quite an easy walk, alternating between tiny rural villages and forested paths. There were a lot of small ‘honesty shops’ on the roadside, which are basically tiny wooden sheds with bagged goods displayed for sale. There are price tags and a tin or jar for money. These stalls aren’t manned, and instead rely on the honesty of people to pay the correct money.for the things they take. Items for sale are usually fruits or vegetables, or homemade pickles. But today I also saw this store selling wood carvings. I’m sure Australian customs would love me if I brought one of those home.

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Around 3pm, I finally reached Fushiogami-oji, which is where “pilgrims fell to their knees on catching their first glimpse of the Grand Shrine in the distant valley below.” Again, guide map’s words, can you tell? I didn’t exactly ‘fall to my knees,’ but it was kind of cool to be able to see my next destination. There was a very modern toilet there, as well as a rest spot and a pair of ladies selling coffee and souvenirs. I bought a postcard with a picture of a 3 legged bird on it. This bird is the mascot of Hongu. Another foreigner arrived at the rest stop, having come from the opposite direction. She was the second pilgrim I had seen on the trail today, and was from Finland. It seemed strange speaking Japanese to someone who looked caucasian, but I suppose it’s wrong to assume people speak English. Also her Japanese was brilliant.

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Next, I began the hour-long descent to Hongu Taisha, which took me through more forest. At one point I really thought I was in Tasmania, because the vegetation looked so similar to some of the cold-climate forests there. I passed another bunch of remains of an old teahouse, as well as the point where the Nakahechi route joins up to the Kohechi route, which links to Koyaasan. Although I was only going down, it was very rocky and was actually harder than it sounded on the map. The trail was mostly step-like, rather than a slope, and the action of stepping down put a lot of stress on my knees. The guide map suggested using a walking stick if you have bad knees. I can tell you now, even if you start off in perfect health, you will definitely acquire bad knees after completing this pilgrimage. By the time I got to the small town at the bottom of the trail, both my knees were aching from the stress.

But I was almost there! I walked through another tiny town, and made a prayer for health and safety at a tiny ‘soul cleansing’ shrine next to marker number 75; the last number marker before the Grand Shrine. I had done it! I had really pilgrimed all the way from Takijiri to Hongu,just like real pilgrims! I was elated.

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I entered the main shrine through the back way, and looked around the grounds for a little enjoying the sense of achievement at having finally reached the holy place. I prayed there, because it felt right, and then walked down the many stone stairs to the town of Hongu.

It was feeling ok, but my body knew it wanted to stop walking soon. So I pep-talked myself for the final hour hike. After walking for hours for a few days, one hour really doesn’t seem that far anymore. The trail between Hongu and Yunomine is called Dainichi-goe. Although it is only 3.4km, it is incredibly steep, and takes a little more than an hour to complete. It can’t be that bad, I thought, I’ve been faster than the recommend times so far, so I can probably do it in under an hour.

What an ignorant person I am.

The trail started out ok, and it passed through Oyunohara, which was a giant torii in the middleof nowhere, with a pretty park inside. After I got to Oyunohara, I lost the Kumano Kodo route, and got disoriented for a little, but then I picked it up again on Hongu’s main road. I found the Dainichi-goe trail head, and prepared for my last climb of the day..

Boy was I so NOT prepared for what lay ahead of me. Most trails start off steep but level out after a while. But this was the hiking trail from hell. I literally climbed the whole way, and there were no flat bits at all. Each step was painful, and my whole body hurt. It was the steepest trail I had encountered so far. Each step up required me to lift my knees above hip hight, and I often had to use my hands to haul myself up too. I could hear eagles calling as they circled above me, obviously waiting for me to fall over and die so they could eat my flesh. I had felt ok after walking to Hongu, but this last hour broke me, mentally and physically. I had to force myself to keep climbing. I finally made it to the top, but then I still had at least 20 minutes of downwards climbing, which was almost as bad as going up. I was supposed to take this same route for part of the way tomorrow, but I swore never ever to cone back to it, even if it meant a two-hour detour tomorrow.

I felt the hugest wave of relief when I could see roofs below me, and could smell the unmistakable sulphuric scent of an onsen town. Forget pilgrims “falling to their knees” at Fushiogami-oji, I almost cried out in happiness at my first sight of Yunomine Onsen.

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I found Minshuku Teruteya easily enough, and the lady who ran it greeted me and showed me my room. I’ll call her Teruteya Okaasan. In the room, she boiled a little kettle for me to make tea, and asked if 6:30 was too early for dinner. I knew other guests were staying the night too, and it was probably easier for her if we all ate at the same time, so I said ok.

I drank a pot of tea, then collapsed on the floor and didn’t move for at least half an hour. I wanted to shower before dinner, but I’d only arrived at 5:45, and didn’t have time. At 6:30, I dragged my exhausted body downstairs to eat in the dining room. It was a tatami room consisting of three low Japanese tables, laid out with food. A group of three older Japanese ladies were already enjoying their meal together, and another table was set for two other guests. I sat down at my designated table and Teruteya Okaasan brought out a few more dishes to add to the already full table. She explained what a few of the specialty dishes were then lit a candle under a ceramic pot containing duck and vegetables, which was to cook at the table. The dinner included pickles, tuna sashimi, squid with cucumber and wakame cooked in a sweet sauce, simmered takenoko (bamboo shoots) and mountain potato, a whole cooked fish, two rice balls wrapped in leaves, plain steamed rice, tofu cooked in an onsen, and the sizzling duck dish, which came with a tasty dipping sauce. The food was pretty good, and any other day I would have said it was excellent. But last night’s minshuku had set the bar pretty high, and tonight’s dinner wasn’t quite up to that level. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it and it was delicious, but the food at Tsugizakura was really something special.

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Whilst I ate, I chatted to the three Japanese ladies, as well as a German couple, who were the other guests at the minshuku. Everyone was friendly, and I thought it might have been nice if we all sat together. The Japanese ladies were impressed with my ability to use chopsticks, my Japanese language, and the fact that I could eat Japanese food. The typical trifecta required for gaijin to impress locals. After the main meal, Tetsuteya Okasaan served yogurt with mandarine and azuki. I thanked her for the food, then returned to my room and sat with my legs under the kosatsu. I ate the purple sweet potato daifuku that I had bought yesterday, because it was going a but hard. I was also not completely stuffed, probably from having burnt so much energy hiking today.

I went downstairs to go in the bath, and was surprised to find it was actually a private onsen. I showered first, then was prepared for a long soak in the natural hot spring waters. I wanted to soak away my aches from the hell hike. But the onsen was far hotter than any I have been in before, and I could.only manage about 2 minutes of submersion before I felt like I was being boiled alive.

Back in my room, I rolled out my futon and planned tomorrow’s route. There was no way in hell I was going back over Dainichi-goe, so I thought I’d walk along some highways through onsen villages to reach the next section of Kumano Kodo. Even if it takes an extra two hours, I don’t care. The other option might literally kill me.

It felt good to just sitting there and not move. I think I should have walked the way I initially planned today. I bet I’m going to really pay for it tomorrow.

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I think I like yesterday’s minshuku better than today’s. It felt more personal, and I had a connection with the owners, where as here, the owner is just kind of ‘there.’ Of course she is polite and kind, but I felt that I got on well with the others, and they acted as if they were my aunty and uncle or something. I don’t know, I just loved that little minshuku.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADeparture: 9 am
Arrival: 5:45 pm
Breaks: ~45 mins
Total Walking Time: ~8 hours
Distance Travelled: ~25.5 km

Let The Hiking Begin

I can’t believe today. It seems kind of surreal, but at the same time it was all too real. I’m sorry if I don’t make sense in this post, my whole body is tired and my brain feels like it has turned to sludge.

Today was my first day of hiking the ancient pilgrimage route of Kumano Kodo. I can’t remember if I’ve explained this previously, so I’ll give you a quick rundown. The collection of hiking trails, called Kumano Kodo, are over 1000 years old, and are part of a route that pilgrims used to take between Kyoto and the Kii Peninsula. People from all demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds used to (and still do) make these spiritual journeys. The routes connect the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano, and it was the goal of ancient pilgrims to visit all three. The routes all have different names, and I am travelling the Nakahechi route, which is mountainous and cuts across the peninsula from west to east. All of Kumano Kodo’s routes, as well as the three main shrines are UNESCO world heritage sites. The pamphlet calls Kumano Kodo a “spiritual place of self discovery, purification and healing.”

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Last night I kept dreaming that I had missed the bus and that I wasn’t allowed to walk the route I wanted to. I also had this one dream, which I was so sure was real, that I woke up and another person was sleeping in the room on a futon next to mine. He was a weird red-haired hippy, so I was glad that it was, in fact, a dream. I must have been way more anxious about this hike than I expected, because I woke up at 3am, 4am, and 5am, before giving up at 6am and getting out of bed. I could have waited another hour and got the 8am bus, like I’d planned, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I just got up. I checked out and walked to the bus stop at the front of Kiitanabe station. From there I caught the 6:50 bus to Takijiri, where the Nakahechi route begins. On the bus I felt tired and yuck, and wondered what the hell I was thinking going on a 4 day hike. At that point I would have rathered a 4 day sleep. The bus ride took about half an hour, and followed a river that snaked around the mountains. I struggled to keep my eyes open and cursed my overactive mind for not letting me sleep last night.

When I got off the bus, the cold air hit me like a punch in the face. The temperature felt so much lower than it had outside the train station. I was glad I had layered up, but I had to dig out my gloves and put them on as well. I crossed a bridge to Takijiri-oji, the shrine that marks the start of the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route. There was a little sheltered area with wooden tables and benches, and I sat there to eat my breakfast and drink the coffee I had bought from a vending machine near the train station. After that, I went over to a vending machine next to the road (the last one I would see for a long time) and bought another coffee, just because it was hot and I wanted to hold it and warm up my hands. I drank it too but it didn’t make me warm inside, and it tasted terrible.

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Fuelled with food and slightly more awake (thanks to the cold, not the coffee), I started my very first pilgrimage. I put some money in the box and made a prayer at Takijiri-oji (because I felt like you’re supposed to), then passed by the shrine to the route. A wooden post stated the name of the route, and the word ‘START.’ Throughout the day, I would come to love these markers, as they are located every 500 meters, and are marked with ascending numbers. Because I didn’t really know how fast I was traveling, the markers helped give me a sense of distance as I walked. It also felt like a small achievement each time I reached one, like I was completing a series of small challenges (all with the same goal; get to the next marker.)

The trail didn’t start off gently. The rocky, root-laden path went steeply up the side of a mountain, and after only 15 minutes I had climbed 300 meters. By the time 30 minutes had passed, I was really hot, and had to take off my jumper, coat, and scarf. I ascended for almost an hour before I got to go downhill, but even that didn’t last long before I had to go up again. The landscape was ridiculously beautiful, with tall cedars towering over me, and deciduous trees clustered along the trail. The ground was sometimes rocky, and sometimes covered in tree roots, and in some areas pinecones and pine needles littered the trail. I had to keep stopping, not because I was tired, but because I wanted to look around at the scenery, which was impossible to do whilst walking, as I had to keep my eyes on the ground to avoid falling flat on my face.

I won’t describe every twist and turn of the path I walked, because that would just be boring to read, and I think it would detract from the purity of my journey as well. All you really need to know is I walked through different kinds of forest, and across the occasional road, following the 500m markers and looking at different ‘significant sighs’ along the way. Kumano Kodo is dotted with little shrines and ponds and other areas of historical cultural significance, and this enriched the hike for me. It not only gave me extra distance markers to look forward to, but it made the journey more exciting and interesting.

The first of these was right near the beginning of the trail, and is called Tainai Kuguri, and was a narrow passage through a rock that you were supposed to climb through to prove you faith. Women who passed through were supposed to be granted easy delivery of a child. It looked dark and claustrophobic, but I thought, what the heck, and entered the cave. But I couldn’t fit through the tiny exit hole because my pack was too big, so I had to turn around and walk around the passage. No easy labor for me.

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Today consisted of mostly up hill climbing, and a lot of walking on narrow trails that hugged the mountain on one side, and dropped steeply into the valley on the other. Of course there were no hand rails or safety guards, and I kept trying to imagine what I would do if I did just fall over the edge. There were also some incredibly steep parts where I had to climb almost vertically. At some points, I completed a near vertical climb, only.to look up and see another one of the same steepness in front of me. I had a lot of ‘are you kidding me?!‘ moments. I also quickly learned to assume that if I couldn’t see where the trail was leading, it was probably headed for the steepest possible route.

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I came to my first small town at around 9:30, where I visited Takahara Kumano Shrine, and wrote my name in the book there. I was sweaty and smelly after climbing vertically, and I felt like one of those people in a bad 80’s aerobics videos. I took my time to look around, because I had plenty of time to spare. According to the pilgrims timeline, I wasn’t supposed to have reached this town until around 12:30. I was 3 hours ahead of schedule. The town had this amazing lookout point, from which you could see all the surrounding mountains. It made me feel like I had come a long way, because it looked like I was very high up. I took some photos, then some helpful locals showed me where the next part of the trail was, (even though it was clearly signposted) just to make sure I didn’t get lost. That’s another thing I forgot to mention. Aside from the 500m markers, there are frequent signs stating that you are still on Kumano Kodo. And every wrong path that (even slightly) looks like it might be the right way has a sign that says ‘Not Kumano Kodo.’ Its very handy.

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After the town, I walked through more forest, passing a few statues and a pretty lake, and continuing to go up. At this stage, I felt really fatigued, and found myself wondering why I thought this was a good idea. My pack felt heavy and my legs were a bit tired, but most of all I felt a bit sick. My mind had started to plateau and think in circles as well. I thought maybe I needed some sugar, so I ate what I thought was a hard caramel, but what turned out to be some kind of sweet bean that tasted a bit like chocolate. I was presently surprised. I thought about my dad and my grandfather, both whom would be proud if I completed my hike, and who wouldn’t want me to give up. That spurred me on, as I wanted them to be proud.

I passed a few other walkers, who I chatted to briefly, and before long I had reached the remains of Uwadawa Tea House. I couldn’t actually see any ‘remains,’ as such, but there was a nice green forest with a few tree stumps to sit and rest on. I didn’t know it until later, but this was the highest point of my ascent for the day (at 688 meters.)

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After reaching that point, the trail began to go downwards, much to my delight. I found a second wind, and began to enjoy the hike a lot more. I somehow had energy again, but my pack still felt really heavy. I guess I had reached the ‘hikers zone.’ Like after you’ve been running for a long time and you don’t feel pain anymore- something like that. I felt like I was covering ground more quickly too. At one point, I was dead certain that a wild animal was following me, and kept pausing to listen or spin around quickly to catch it in the act. I half expected to see a wild boar standing next to a tree looking at me, but of course there was never anything there.

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I passed a river and crossed it several times on these cute wooden bridges. The trickling water was so clear, and I wondered if it was cold. I also reached marker number 22, which I thought was cool because it is both my birthdate and my age. That called for a daggy photo. I was also excited to be up to the 20s in the marker count.

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I got to a roadside rest stop, which had an actual shop and also a few vending machines. I considered having lunch here, but decided to walk to the next ‘attraction’ on the map and stop there. That next thing was a cute statue of a guy with two horses. I ate my lunch on a bench in front of them, enjoying both the food and the peace of the forest. For lunch I had a salad (which I had added extra edamame to), two salmon nigiri, and the pressed salmon sushi I had bought in Kyoto yesterday. This was wrapped in a leaf, and preserved so that it was ok not to refrigerate. Then I ate the anko mochi that I still had left from Takamatsu.

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It took me only five minutes to reach Chikatsuyu, the next town. A lot of people who walk the Kumano Kodo stay here overnight before continuing the hike the next day. Not me though, I was just passing through. I visited the small Chikatuyu Oji, then wanted to use the ashi no yu next door, but it was closed. It was only 2pm, and it would only take about an hour to walk to where I was staying, so I had a look around the tiny town, and came across a collection of shops selling souvenirs and local food products. I bought a purple sweet potato daifuku to take with me on the trail tomorrow. Whilst I was in the shop, it had began to rain lightly. I thought I might wait it out, but it only got heavier and showed no signs of passing. I had been warned that today’s weather might not be great, and so far it had been ok, but now the forecasted rain had caught up to me. Never mind, I had a plan. Using a plastic raincoat I’d bought ages ago at a convenience store, I constructed a very clever rain cover for my backpack. The backpack kind of ‘wore’ the coat, and I used to buttons to loop the ends up and underneath the bag. The hood protected the part near my neck, and I tied the arms together above that to secure them in place. I was very proud of my creation. Armed with my new backpack accessory, and an umbrella to keep myself dry, I headed back to the Kumano Kodo road and continued towards Tsugizakura.

I had been going really well up until this point, because I got lost for the first time all day. The road split into two, and you could follow either path because they would joint up again after 200 meters or so. But I couldn’t find the joining up bit. So I walked around for ages trying to work out where I was meant to go (and I saw a real live monkey come out of the forest and into someone’s garden!) Eventually I went back to the place where the paths split, and worked out that I had actually been going the right way. So I had wasted half an hour being dumb. But never mind, I was still ahead of schedule.

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I walked up a paved road, then turned onto the Kusuyamazaka trailhead, which was the last main stretch before reaching my accommodation. This trail went up hill through forest, then continued along a road. It was kind of fun walking along in the rain, and the mountains in the distance looked so beautiful with cloud and mist rising from them in delicate tendrils. I passed some tiny shrines and a few small houses, and then I was kind of near the minshuku where I would stay. I saw the small wooden sign by accident, and walked carefully down some stone stairs to reach the minshuku. I was actually really surprised that I had made it. I’d actually covered that huge 18.2km in under 8 hours (which doesn’t sound impressive, but you have to remember that it wasn’t flat terrain!) I was so happy and a bit relieved.

When I got near the entrance of Minshuku Tsugizakura, I stopped for a moment to admire the view of the distant mountains. The minshuku is on the side of a mountain road, and so the view was amazing. The owners were obviously expecting me, because when I arrived, the woman (who I’ll call Tsugizakura Okaasan) ran out to greet me and grabbed my heavy bag from me. She showed me the kitchen, toilets, and Japanese bath, then led me to my private tatami room, where she invited me to sit and rest. I filled in a check in form, and Tsugizakura Okaasan brought me hot Japanese tea and some homemade kinako mochi which was delicious. She asked me what time I would like dinner and breakfast, and then left me to relax in the warm room. I liked that the rug under the table was heated.

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I sat and just let my tired legs recover, whilst I listened to the rain falling softly on the roof. A bit after 6, I went into the bath to soak out the tiredness from my body. When you have a Japanese bath, you need to shower first and rinse all the soap off, and then you can get into the water. I heated the bath to 46°, which was perfect to sit in and relax. I was as red as a lobster when I got out, but I was also nice and warm. I went back to my room and changed into a t-shirt and turned off the heater. At one stage, I heard the only other guest arrive at the minshuku (its only big enough for two guests.) He just stood at the entrance and yelled ‘sumimasen‘ about 10 times, getting louder and more impatient each time. I never saw him, but I knew I didn’t like him. He sounded mean and rude. In my head I refered to him as ‘the sumimasen guy.’

At 5 to 7, there was a gentle knock at my door, and Tsugizakura Okaasan asked if I was ready for dinner. I was actually quite hungry, so I was very excited to see what I would be eating. I was not disappointed. A beautiful paper placement was laid in front of me, along with some exquisite little dishes that were tiny and brightly coloured, and a little glass of homemade umeshu (plum liquor.) Tsugizakura Okaasan also placed a kamameshi cooker in front of me, and showed me the rice and mountain vegetables inside. She then closed the lid and lit a little fire underneath it, and told me not to open it for 30 minutes not even to peak.

I ate happily, and Tsugizakura Okaasan returned with a pot of ocha, and the next course. She explained that dinner was kaiseki style (lots of small, intricately detailed dishes), and would consist of 8 courses. Oh boy!

After the first dish was a clear soup and some marinated raw tuna with pea shoots, which I was instructed to eat rolled up in crispy nori strips. Then I had a tiny whole fish and a homemade tofu thing with vegetables, shrimp and hijiki inside. Then there was some chicken and vegetables,which I cooked on a mini hot plate above a flame, and.dipped into special miso dressing. That was followed by crab and cucumbers wrapped in thin omelette, and served with wakame and broth. Finally, I had a colourful collection of pickles and a tofu and mushroom soup, which I ate with the kamameshi. After all that food, you can probably guessed that I was incredibly full. But there was also a dessert course, which was orange sherbet with tsubaanko, served on top of a fresh orange slice. I absolutely loved every single dish.

Tsugizakura Otoosan (the male owner) came in to talk to me, and I thanked him so much for the delicious food (he was also the chef.) We talked for a short while, and he praised my Japanese, then he had to go and answer a customer phone call. Tsugizakura Okaasan came back and cleared away the dishes, then laid out my futon for the night. It was only 8, but I was already very sleepy. I studied my route options for tomorrow, and asked Tsugizakura Otoosan‘s opinion on which way would be the best. Then I brushed my teeth and climbed into my comfy futon, where I think I fell asleep in about three minutes flat.

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Arrival: 4 pm
Breaks: ~1 hour
Time Spent Walking: ~7 hours
Distance Travelled: ~18.5 km

Hiking Addict? Perhaps Not…

I must have been truly exhausted last night, because I fell asleep immediately and didn’t wake up until 8:30. It was oddly quiet this morning, probably because the loud and annoying Phillipino people checked out already. Despite having the most solid sleep I’ve had in a week, I still felt tired and,my body felt like a bag of bricks. I guess that’s all the walking and cycling catching up with me. I had breakfast and got ready, then set out for a flea market that the girls last night were telling me about. I wanted to get a coffee from this cafe I saw yesterday, but it was closed. So I got a chilled one from Family Mart. Like I keep mentioning, it’s becoming an addiction. I walked to the temple where the market was held, and was surprised at how big it was. It completely covered the area in front of and next to the temple grounds, as well as spilling out into the streets. The vendors were selling mostly antique things (crockery, kimono fabric, bags, that kind of thing), but there were also some pickle and vegetable sellers thrown in for good measure. One side of the market was great, but the other was kind of tacky, packed with carnival style games and fried food stalls.

After looking around and debating whether or not to buy a hand carved wooden bento, I walked back towards the main river in Kyoto, to a station called Demachiyanagi. This station is the terminal for a special train that goes up into the northern mountains of Kyoto. There are two main towns that are accessible from this train; Kibune and Kurama. It is popular to hike between the two towns via a special route that passes through forest and temples. This is what I planned to do. So I took the train up to Kibuneguchi, where I would start my hike.

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It was a funny little train. It was two cars long, and had different kinds of seats inside. There was a row of single seats, some pairs of seats facing each other, and some bench-style seats facing the window for your viewing pleasure. The train slowly made its way toward the mountain, with voice-overs every 20 seconds that said the name of the next station, and continually thanked everyone for using the train. It said everything in Japanese and English, but the English voice was really slow and annoying. It spoke English as if it was speaking to a non-English speaker. I felt like the voice was being intentionally patronizing.

The train arrived at the station and I got off and collected a free map. I was a bit disoriented, and there was nothing around, so I wasn’t really sure where I was meant to go. I knew that I could either take a bus to the main part of Kibune town, or walk for about 20 minutes. I could see the bus stop, but I wanted to walk, so I studied the map and eventually worked out where I was meant to go. It was much colder up in the mountains, and I wondered if wearing shorts was such a good idea. I had been walking for about 5 minutes when it started to rain. Not heavily, just a shower, kind of. Just my luck, I thought, but it didn’t last very long, and I didn’t get very wet. The walk to the town took 20 minutes, as expected, and was just along a paved road that wound around the hills and followed the river. I was amazed at how tall the cedar trees were, and how clear the river’s water was. The town wasn’t really much of a town, more of a small collection of noodle restaurants and a shrine. And, being Monday, most things were closed. It started to spit again, and I sheltered underneath an overhanging roof to eat lunch. There was a bench there, which belonged to a restaurant that wasn’t open, so I sat on that. I ate a new kind of salad, with sweet potato, walnuts, pumpkin, hijiki and burdock root mixed in with the salad. And I had an ebi-may sushi roll, which I am now a pro at unwrapping (it’s tricky the first time because they are always wrapped so that the rice and nori don’t touch.) Then I was still hungry, and wished I had brought another onigiri as well. I thought there might be yaki-mochi vendours or homemade onigiri stalls in the town, but there weren’t. I did, however, come across a guy selling all kinds of daifuku, so I bought one that was famous in the area, which was brown and filled with tsuba-anko. Super tasty!

Feeling slightly better after finding the daifuku, I set off on the hike to Kumara. You have to pay 200 yen to enter the trail, but I have no idea why. The sun had come out (although temporarily), and the forest was incredibly beautiful. The trail was also very steep. It went straight up, and I was panting after about three minutes, thinking how am I going to do this?! I remembered reading about the hike online, and I remembered reading that it’s intimidating at first, but soon levels out. Intimidating, it certainly was! I passed a few people coming down, who told me gambatte! (do your best!) After a while, I got to a small shrine, which also featured this sign…

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1915 meters to the main gate at Kurama. That doesn’t sound that far, but you have to remember that this is a climb, not a paved, flat path. I just kept thinking of my grandfather, and how he would be proud if I finished all these hikes that I set out to do. I also thought of my dad, and how he’d want me to keep going and do my best, and never give up. I make it sound like the hie was impossible, but really  it wasn’t that bad. The first bit was steep, but only enough to make my heart rate rise, not enough that I needed climbing picks and ropes. Don’t get the wrong idea here people.

The next section of the course featured a whole heap of tree roots, all over the ground. They were incredible, and looked like a maze. Some parts were really smooth, from being stepped on over and over again. I really had to watch my footing because the roots were really uneven, and some were quite high. The root forest led to another small shrine, and then I had to climb about 400 stairs (steep ones), which seemed to go on forever. I passed a lot of people, all going in the opposite direction to me, of course. I had only gone up, so I thought maybe I should have started from the other end of the course, because it might be easier. Oh well, I liked the challenge.

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At the top of the death stairs, there was another collection of root trees, which snaked across the ground in a beautiful pattern. I have a thing about tree roots- I just think they’re really cool. And then, there were stairs that went down! I was so excited. These stairs led through more forest, and eventually came out at a large temple. I started to rain again, but the view from the temple balcony was so beautiful, and all the mountains faded into the distance in different shades of blue. I felt so free and calm, I think hiking tends to de-clutter my brain.

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From the shrine, the path kept leading downwards, and I passed more forest and little shrines and lanterns along the way. I happily passed all the people coming up, feeling a bit smug that I had chosen to walk the course in this direction, because I ended up going down a lot more than I went up. He he, suckers.

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Then, I was suddenly at the bottom. I had arrived in Karuma in only an hour, which I thought was strange. I really thought I remembered reading that it would take about three hours. Maybe it does if you walk in the other direction, who knows. Anyway, I was a bit surprised and stunned, but I walked around the small town on Karuma, then headed back to the train. I was actually surprised how easy the hike had been, as I was expecting it to be a bit harder and longer. But I was also happy that I had completed it.

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The train ride home was fast, and at the station I bought a chestnut flavoured daifuku from a little stall. It was only 3:30, so I decided to catch the subway to Gion, and buy some food for dinner from the department store there. It felt strange riding the subway in Kyoto. I associate trains and subways with Tokyo, so I felt kind of out of place. There was also only 4 people in the carriage, whereas in  Tokyo is would be full at all times of the day. In Gion, I wondered around the basement food level of Takashimaya, then walked through Nishiki market, and all the way back to the hostel. It was freezing, and the wind was icy. My legs got really cold because I was still wearing shorts.

When I got back, Tida the dog greeted me, and I learned that he was about to be taken for a walk. I was invited to come, and I said yes, because they were only going to a nearby park. Tida liked eating the grass. It was freezing, so we didn’t stay out long. I warmed up in my room, and then it was time for dinner.

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I was so hungry, having worked up a huge appetite from hiking all day. So I went all out and made a huge tei shoku dinner. I made a donburi with brown rice, topped with some cooked spinach and mushroom from the supermarket, and an egg, which cooked in the heat of the other food. I also had a cabbage salad, some miso soup, and the collection of food that I’d bought from the department store. It was amazingly delicious, and I ate everything. I ate dinner with 2 staff members and another guest. I like how everyone just joins each other and talks. It’s really homely, and it feels like a little family.

One of the girls has been learning how to do the tea ceremony, so we had a little practice one, and drank the matcha tea with daifuku ice cream and matcha Kit Kats that I’d bought. I had a go at whisking the tea, which was much harder than it sounds.

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I can’t believe tomorrow is my last night in Kyoto already. Time is zooming by and I’m gling to be back in Australia before I blink. Tomorrow we are having nikujaga party at the hostel, for my last day. They have last day parties for everyone, so there’s a party almost every day!

Here are some more photos from today that didn’t really fit anywhere…

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Ashi no Yu

Today was my last day in Tokyo.

It’s hard to believe, because I’ve fallen into a familiarly with my apartment and my area, and even begun to refer to them as ‘my.’ It seems like the month has passed so quickly, but at the same time, it does feel like ages ago that I walked through the snow to get the key to my shoe box sized apartment.

Today was a public holiday, so I was able to spend it with Saki and her mum, as neither of them had to go to work. I met them at Haijima (their local station) at 10am, which meant not much sleep. Because it was my last day, I treated myself to a Starbucks latte (the real kind, not the 7/11 prepackaged kind.) I got an extra shot for wake up assistance. I think I’m becoming a little too dependant on coffee here. Hmm. The girl making the coffee drew a special thing on my cup. I almost didn’t want to throw it out.

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It took a little over an hour to reach Haijima, and when I got there, Saki and her mum were waiting for me in their car. The station and everything was so familiar. It was very natsukashii.

Saki’s mum, Mayumi, wanted to take us to an ashi no yu (kind of like a hot public bath for your feet.) So we drove a short way to one that she knew of, but it was tiny and she was unimpressed. So we piled back in the car and drove a little further towards a lake. We were driving on the edge of two wards, and so the GPS kept getting confused and saying “now entering Tokyo, now entering Saitama.” We kept our eyes outside the car, trying to spot patches of sakura in bloom as we drove along. Before long, we pulled over in a gravel car park near the lake (which is also a reservoir for Tokyo’s drinking water.) We walked along the edge of the lake for a while, admiring the colour of the water. It was so bright, I wished I had brought sunglasses. My eyes were squinting so much in the glare. There were many sakura trees all around the lake, but they weren’t in bloom yet. One more week, perhaps. They would have looked so beautiful if they were covered in tiny pink sakura flowers.

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Next, we used the public bathroom, which isn’t something I would usually mention, except the toilets flushed without water. When you flushed, all of these foamy white bubbles appeared to clean the toilet. One toilet was overflowing with white foam; I think the button was broken. But the water that the toilets lacked was made up for at the hand washing basin, where water shot out at such high pressure that it could probably knock over a small child.

Next, we drove back through Fussa to a mountainous town in Saitama. Here, we visited an ashi no yu that was so beautiful. It was on the side of a cliff, and had a gift shop and restaurant, as well as little units where you could stay for a night or two. There were a few ladies giving free samples of a vegetable cooked in some special way, which we all tried. I have no idea what it was, but it was green and looked like broccolini. Then we went over to the foot bath and took of our shoes and socks. The water was 41°C, and was a little hot at first, but then felt so nice. We sat with our feet dangling into the water, chatting and taking photos. When our legs had turned red and looked like we were wearing socks, we dried off and put our shoes back on. My feel felt so smooth and soft, like all the crap had fallen off. We visited the gift shop before leaving, and Mayumi bought us all an oyaki, which is a kind of dough filled with red bean or vegetable, then grilled. Saki ate hers straight away, but Mayumi and I saved ours.

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We got back in the car and drove for about a minute, when Mayumi suddenly pulled over again. She had spotted this tiny hut on the side of the hill, which sold hand-made oyaki. One of those stand alone, super authentic places run by a single old woman. Perfect. We bought one more oyaki each, straight off the grill. We ate them immediately. They were amazing, and the anko inside was the best anko I’ve ever had. It was dark and rich in colour, and still had some parts of the azuki beans inside (not completely smooth.) It was so delicious, and I couldn’t eat it slowly, like the old lady advised. I ate fast and burnt my mouth on the hot anko. But it was so worth it.

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We drove back through the town a little, and stopped at a cute Japanese restaurant on the side of the main road. It must have been popular, because we had to wait our turn for a table, which took about 20 minutes. Inside was beautifully decorated with simple Japanese decor, and this gorgeous antique wooden dresser. Saki ordered udon, and Mayumi had zaru soba. I chose something I’d never had before, which was grilled leek topped with a special kind of home-made miso. It sounds really simple, but I can’t tell you how amazing it tasted. The miso had other things mixed in, and was grilled until it was a little charred, which brought out the sweetness. Hands down the best miso I’ve ever had.

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Feeling very full, we once again got back in the car and drove around pointing out big cherry blossoms. Then we ended up back at a large shopping mall near Saki’s house, which I remembered visiting last time I was in Tokyo. Mayumi wanted to buy some clothes, but Saki thought that was boring, so we split up. Saki and I went to a whole bunch of stores, and I bought a jacket, some little presents, and some postcards. Every time I go shopping with Saki I buy things. In pretty much every store too. It’s a running joke between us. But I can’t help it when we go to stores like Village Vanuguard (coolest most random store in the world? Yes.) One store that deserves a mention is one that sold a bit of everything (kitchen stuff, home stuff, kiddy stuff, etc.) It was a pretty typical store, but it also sold these little jars with sea critters inside. They were palm sized jars, and contained tiny critters like micro shrimp, little fish, and a tiny tiny pair of prawns. There was also a green ball, which was some kind of plant that’s famous in Japan. You didn’t need to feed most of these things (the bigger things did need feeding), and they had approximate lifespans of 2-9 years, depending on the creature. I thought they were incredibly interesting, but also a little cruel. Aside from the plant one; I wanted to take that home, but don’t think it would have made it through customs.

We met back at the car around 4, and Mayumi handed out iced coffee and matcha lattes that she had bought from the supermarket. I had a matcha latte, which I finished in about 1.5 minutes, because it was so good. We drove towards Tachikawa station, because I had to meet Chihiro there at 6:30 to pass her some gifts. But when we got there, it was only 5, so we parked in the department store car park and went into Lumine for shopping round 2.

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Saki wanted to see if they had a ring that she wanted to buy last week when we were in Tachikawa together. It was one of those ones with your initial on it, and last week they’d run out of ‘S.’ But they still didn’t have any ‘S’ ones. So next we went into Village Vanuguard for the second time today. No complaints – we could both easily spend hours in there. I found some awesome photography magazines, which I’ve kind of been hunting for since I arrived in Tokyo, and they were all cheap! Around 500-800 yen. So I spent ages choosing which one I was going to buy, and ended up getting two. Mayumi could get 10% off if she used her Lumine card, so we gave our purchases to her to buy, whilst we went and hid. I don’t know if hiding was necessary or not, but I just followed Saki’s lead. Then we met out the front of the store and I handed Mayumi the cash for the magazines but she refused to take it and insisted they were gifts. I tried to disagree but she wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I humbly accepted my new gift.

As we were looking at some more items that were attached to the front of the store, two high school girls came up behind us and asked me if they could take a photo with me. I said ok, and they nearly wet their pants with excitement. It was a bit weird. Once they snapped the shot, they took it back to their group of friends waiting in the corner and chattered away crazily about how I was apparently cute and had a small face. I wonder if they knew that I could understand them. Anyway, Saki and Mayumi thought it was hilarious.

Next, we went down to the basement food level and Mayumi bought a few things to take home for dinner. Then I got a text from Chihiro saying she had arrived at our meeting point. So I said goodbye to Saki and her mum, feeling all sad and reluctant to leave. I watched them go up the escalator until I couldn’t see them anymore.

I met Chihiro inside the ticket gate, and handed over the lamingtons that she immediately hugged to her chest. They are her favorite. Her boyfriend was there too, and he was promptly told that he would not be getting ANY of the lamingtons. Then I had to say another goodbye to my other Japanese sister. We prolonged it as much as we could, and I was even escorted to my train. We hugged a million times and then the train started playing the music that means its leaving. So I quickly jumped on and the doors shut. But then the train just sat there for a minute, taking away the grandeur of our farewell. We both pretended to be awkward. Then the train began to move, and I waved until we went into a tunnel and everything turned black.

The journey home was fast, and felt strange because I knew it was the last time I’d do it. I tried to soak in as much of Tabata as I could. When I tried to exit the station, I had to top up my Suica card, because I was 12 yen short for the journey I’d taken. The minimum you can put it is 1000 yen, so that was a bit annoying because now I can’t use that 1000 (unless Suica works in Osaka, but I’m pretty sure they have a different system.) I stopped at the grocery store to get a few little things for dinner, including my last tsukune yakitori from this one stall I always go to. The owner had a little conversation with me, probably because I’m one of her returning customers haha. I told her I was leaving tomorrow, and she told me to take care and have fun.

Back home, I cooked up the remaining vegetables and konnyaku from my fridge, and had them on top of some warm chicken rice that also needed to be eaten. Then I had the other anko oyaki that Mayumi bought me earlier, which I heated up in the microwave for authenticity.

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And then I had to pack.

Holy crap I’ve bought a lot of stuff! I didn’t think it was that bad, but I’d forgotten about all the coats hanging in the cupboard, and the three bags of gifts tucked beneath them. I thought I could loosely shove everything inside my suitcase, but I soon realized that would never work, and that I’d have to use the tight rolling technique. It took me over an hour to do most of my packing, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have to throw out my old backpack a bit further down the line. As well as some other stuff, probably. I already did a small cull of paper goods (do I really need this brochure advertising an art exhibition that I never intended on visiting?) Finally I could go to bed, after writing a list of things I needed to do before checking out at 10am tomorrow.

Better set the Pokémon alarm.