Sunday, April 28, 2019

One Hundred - And One More For Good Measure - And Why

-- Susan, every other Sunday

I've spent the last eleven months (almost to the day) traveling across Japan, attempting to climb 100 famous Japanese peaks within a year of completing cancer treatments.

The purpose of the climbs actually went far beyond the physical challenge. Without engaging in too much navel-gazing here (I'm writing a book about the journey, for those who actually want to know details) I undertook the challenge, in large part, to hit a reset button on my life.

The Kumano Kodo: Reset in progress . . . 50% complete . . .

Spoiler alert: it worked.

As I got close to finishing the 100 Summits climbs, people often asked me "Do you know which one will be number 100?" and "Did you choose the final mountain for a reason?"

Although the smart-aleck in me was always tempted to answer "was I supposed to end on a special one?" the truth is, I had planned the truly-final mountain almost before the climbs began, and the next-to-final one (which was actually #100) ended up in that position through a series of unusual circumstances that I now attribute to "it was meant to be."

The smart aleck in me likes this deer, too.

My journey took me to all four of Japan's major islands, and most of its 47 prefectures. In addition to mountains appearing on the official "hyakumeizan" (100 famous mountains) list, I climbed a variety of peaks with historical, religious, and geological significance. Essentially, I tried to climb a "greatest hits" of mountains in Japan.

Mt. Fuji - definitely one of Japan's greatest hits.

With that in mind, I chose to end my odyssey on one peak that has enormous significance for the nation of Japan and another one that has enormous personal significance for me.

On April 14, 2019, one year and four days after my final chemotherapy infusion, I traveled to Nara, which served as the capital of Japan from 710 until 784. The roots of Japanese culture, government, and society were formed during this era, historically known as the "Nara Period."

The trail up Wakakusayama

For that reason, I selected Wakakusayama--a small mountain immediately adjacent to Nara's sacred Mt. Mikasa, where the deity Takezuchi-no-mikoto appeared, astride a white deer, when called to protect the city and its people during the early eighth century.

Sacred Mt. Mikasa remains off-limits to this day, but neighboring Mt. Wakakusa was available, and it only seemed fitting for me to end my journey across the Japanese mountains in the place where Japan as we know it began.

With Laura VanArendonk Baugh on the summit of Wakakusayama

From Nara, my friend Laura (who accompanied me on the final climbs) and I headed south to Koyasan, another sacred mountain that was instrumental in my decision to move to Japan and climb 100 peaks. I fell in love with Koyasan the first time I visited its sacred summit valley in 2016, while researching my sixth mystery, Trial on Mount Koya.

Konpon Daito, the three-story pagoda that holds a 3-dimensional mandala inside.

The mountain is home to the Koyasan Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism, as well as the largest cemetery in Japan (Okunoin) and dozens of thousand year-old temples that open their doors to visitors from around the world.

It is a place unlike any other in the world, and a place I love so deeply that no matter how many times I visit, my heart still longs to return.

Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan.

I visited Koyasan three other times during my hundred summits journey--one of which transformed the mountain, and its meaning, in an even deeper way.

Annamaria Alfieri and I had planned to climb one of Koya's peaks during her visit last October, but her husband, David, passed away the day before our scheduled climb. We traveled to Koyasan anyway, but chose to spend our time in a more important way, honoring David's life and beautiful spirit in the most sacred parts of Koyasan.

With Annamaria at Okunoin. One of the most precious memories of my life.

That experience forever deepened my already deep and abiding love for this sacred mountain, and since the completion of my climbs came almost exactly 100 days after David's passing, I decided to climb one final summit--which, depending how you count them, was actually either peak 100 or 101--to bring my journey full circle and to make this sacred mountain--so important to me personally--the final stop on my 100 Summits pilgrimage.

On the summit of Koyasan's Manisan - summit 100 or 101, depending on the numbering

So yes, I did have a plan for those final mountains. And although the climbs themselves are now complete, the experience, and the things I learned, have made it the adventure of a lifetime.

Buddhist shrine on the summit of Manisan



  1. Congratulations! You pushed a bigger reset button than most people can even dream about.

    1. Thank you Stan! It ended up being even bigger than I could have dreamed - and more wonderful too. (I'm now living in Japan - not just for a book, and loving every day.)

  2. A spectacular achievement in many ways! Congratulations!

  3. My darling Susan, I cannot say enough what a gift it was to be with you. Traveling with you in Japan would have been a (you should pardon the expression) peak experience for me under any circumstances. That I was with you in Koyasan to say such a beautiful, healing farewell to David was one of the greatest gifts life ever gave me. I am overwhelmed by it every time I contemplate it.

    1. The honor truly was all mine. I adored our time together, and our trip to Koyasan made the mountain even more important to me. I will always feel your presence there with me, every time I visit from now on.

  4. When you first told me of your plans I said that you're my hero. Now, I'm honored to say, "YOU'RE MY MEGA-SUPER HERO!!"

    1. Thank you so much Jeff. I'm so happy you and Barbara are my friends. I hope to see you in the States next year!

  5. Brava Susan! I hope to meet you in person some day!

    1. Thank you Nicoletta! I hope to meet you too!! (Annamaria is urging me to come to Italy soon.)

  6. This has been such a special sharing experience for me. Not sure where I came in to it all, but it has been a wonderful blessing. You're amazing.

    1. Thank you so much! It means a lot to me that this experience has blessed you - one of my primary objectives in being so open, about the cancer and the journey, was to inspire other people to live their dreams as well.