Japanese Summers and the Endless Ocean

This is from the Letters from Japan, my monthly newsletter.

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Good evening,

The brief period of a few real summer weeks, when Tokyo does its best to justify its listing as one of the most liveable cities in the world, is about to be over. The nights when an open window is sufficient for comfortable sleep, and the days when walking on the famously clean streets of the city does not feel like a choice between life and heat-induced death, the 5-minute morning walk to the station does not trigger or add to one’s self-love issues due to its impact on your body and clothes, and outdoor dining still feels like a fairly earthly experience, not an extraterrestrial one, will soon become the dearly cherished Tokyo memories, at least until early October.

Tokyo, one of the most liveable cities in the world, but only for a few more days.

First comes the rainy season, which begins this Saturday, with the weather forecast predicting almost two weeks of continuous rain. Unfortunately, Japan‘s rainy season is nothing like the monsoon season in Southeast Asia—there are no sudden downpours and, alas, no rainbows that come right after. Instead, we get boring, consistent drizzling during the day and intense, noisy rain at night, forcing me to sleep with headphones on.

The rainy season in Tokyo feels nothing like the monsoon season in Northern Thailand – August 2018.

The wet season typically ends around the third week of July. As soon as the Japan Meteorological Agency announces the end of the 梅雨 (tsuyu), the entire city, despite knowing what comes next, enters a state of delirious happiness. However, the joy of waking up to a sunny morning with endless possibilities under a cloudless sky lasts only a few seconds until the reality of the soul-body-mind crushing humidity, already present as early as 4 a.m. (when the sun rises in Tokyo in the summer), hits and makes one question not only the decision to live in Tokyo but also the very meaning of life.

So, if you want to build a higher tolerance and appreciation for the summer weather at your home, I highly recommend spending a week in Tokyo in mid-August, followed by another week in Osaka (I have yet to decide which one gets worse). If that is not enough, you can consider adding a third week to your trip to explore the streets of Nagoya, otherwise known as the “concrete jungle.” The experience will change you forever, giving a new meaning to the concept of “summer heat” in your life. For instance, I am looking forward to spending a few weeks in August in the small towns along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts of Turkey. It is not just because it is my home and, in my obviously very subjective opinion, beautiful but also because I know that the weather will be much more tolerable than in Tokyo. And dear reader, if you have been to the Turkish coast in the summer, you know what this says about Japanese summers—yes, that bad.

Two new hikes since the last newsletter.

Knowing what was ahead, I tried to make the best of these past few rain and humidity-free weeks by enjoying a lot of outdoor dining, taking an overnight hiking trip on the weekend to Kyushu, and changing my commute by replacing the metro station next to my office with a farther one that requires a 40-minute walk, as the weather and overall aura of the city become particularly delightful after 6 p.m.

During these past weeks, I also tried to write the May edition of Letters from Japan many times, but with no success. It was not due to a lack of time—of which I honestly have plenty—but because I had a hard time (and still do, as you will see below) finding the right words to express the unparalleled joy that my recent week-long hiking trip, mentioned in the previous letter, brought to me.


The endless and roaring ocean

When I sent out the latest April edition of the Letters from Japan, I was about to leave for the biggest trip of 2024. It has now been over a month since I returned from Australia, where I hiked the Great Ocean Walk trail.1 The past tense here makes me feel deeply grateful but, at the same time, very sad. Grateful because the experience meant so much to me, far more than just undeniably spectacular scenery. But also sad because I will never get to hike the Great Ocean Walk for the first time again, just as I will never get to watch Six Feet Under or read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote for the first time again. It was one of those experiences that felt so joyful and satisfying in a unique way that you knew —even while it was happening, long before the glorifying effect of nostalgia, which has the power to turn almost any experience into a more memorable one, set in—it would be nearly impossible to replicate, so you do your best to enjoy and cherish every second of it.

12 Apostles from afar
12 Apostles, the end point of the Great Ocean Walk.

The Great Ocean Walk trail was beautiful—idyllically beautiful, no doubt about it. But I have been fortunate to have hiked equally, if not more stunning, trails before. So, what made the trail and the experience stand out was a combination of multiple factors, with the scenic beauty being merely one of them and not even the most important one.

Two people watching sunrise in Apollo Bay
Apollo Bay, where I began the hike.

At the time, just last month (and fortunately still), I was in a fairly peaceful and relaxed state of mind—so much that I did not even mind the 20 hours of travel between Narita Airport in Tokyo and Apollo Bay (where I began the hike), which involved two plane rides, one train ride, and one bus ride, all embraced with unconditional love. Looking back, perhaps I was even a bit too relaxed and definitely foolish enough not to even think for a second before drinking three glasses of red wine after a 20-hour journey and the night before starting a multi-day and 110-kilometer long hike. But it was hard not to give in to the elegant beach town ambiance of Apollo Bay with its deliciously inviting restaurants and wine bars. Knowing that I would get to spend two full rest days in this lovely town at the end of the hike was a great motivator.

Then there was the weather factor—four consecutive days of sunshine despite the forecast promising a good amount of clouds and rain. I’m sure the trail is memorable under most weather conditions (though I wouldn’t want to experience some of the cliff sections on windy days), but sunshine and blue skies, among the many other joys they bring, also enhance the color of the ocean. The only time I encountered rain on the trail was on the third day, just before finishing that day’s hike—a brief but strong shower followed by a million-dollar view.

The whole experience also felt easier than many of the previous multi-day hikes that I did, leaving plenty of energy to enjoy the scenery. After taking up hiking more seriously since I moved to Japan, I am now a little more experienced with the logistical aspects of multi-day walks, a factor that contributed to having a smoother, much “lighter,” more frictionless experience. While the trip and the hike itself took a lot of pre-planning, once on the trail, there were no logistical issues to worry about. Also long gone are the days when I thought carrying a laptop, two sets of cameras (though I have to admit I sometimes still do), and five lenses in my pack on a section of the trail that required constant climbing was a good idea (see: how not to hike the Kumano Kodo). I did my best to pack as lightly and wisely as possible.

Last but definitely not least, there was the endless, roaring, mesmerizingly blue ocean. This was the first time that I got to hike for days right next to or very near the ocean. Hiking in complete solitude with the roaring sound of the ocean as your only company in a place like Australia, which feels and is worlds away from the rest of the world, was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life. There was also a lot of beach walking, with clear views of the ocean and the darling seagulls but very hazy and sandy views of what lay ahead, adding to the intrigue.

While the Great Ocean Walk trail occasionally wanders away from the coast and follows inland forest sections, knowing that the trail will always eventually lead back to the ocean and reward you with its hypnotizing and mesmerizing presence gives you something to look forward to, even in the most challenging parts of the trail. The sound of the waves greets you long before the ocean, growing louder with each step, leading to a truly euphoric moment of reunion.

While I have often used expressions such as ‘one of the best hikes of my life,’ ‘otherworldly trail,’ and ‘life-changing scenery’ to describe some of my earlier hiking experiences, this is the first time I will use this one, which truly does justice to what the Great Ocean Walk meant to me: ‘hike of my life’.

If you would like to read more about the Great Ocean Walk in a trail guide/diary format, I wrote a longer post for my blog: the Great Ocean Walk of Australia and Post-Hike Blues.


As always, thank you for being here, and apologies for writing more about Australia than Japan in a newsletter titled Letters from Japan. But before I finish, here is a quick update from a recent hiking trip in Japan. For the longer post: Hiking Kuju Mountains

Late May/early June was the Kyushu Azalea season in the Kuju Mountains of Kyushu. A few weeks ago, I took Friday off for a three-day hiking trip. I stayed the first night at the wonderful Hokkein Onsen Sanso, which is only accessible to hikers (there is also the free Bogatsuru campsite nearby). The next morning, I started hiking at 5 a.m. to reach Hiiji Dake, one of the prime spots in the Kuju Mountain range for azalea viewing. I then followed the Sugamori Pass route to Kuju-wakare via Hokkein Onsen. The weather was beautiful on Saturday, although the trails were still muddy from the previous day’s rain. I really love the Kuju Mountains; it has an extensive network of not-too-difficult trails with mesmerizing scenery at every turn. Highly recommended.

Until next time,

Burcu


Some posts from the website for the summer season:

Japan Travel Guide

The Islands of Japan Worth Ditching the Mainland For

Kerama Blue: Tokashiki and Zamami Islands in Okinawa

Walking Goto Islands: Travel Diaries

Tohoku: One of Japan’s Least Explored Yet Most Rewarding Regions