JET Programme Voices / Friends in high places

Courtesy of Nicholas Colaccino

Nicholas Colaccino going up the vertical portion of Mt. Tsurugi in July.

By Nicholas Colaccino / Special to The Japan NewsHi! I’m Nicholas Colaccino. I’m a 5th-year JET living in Otsu. I was born and raised in the U.S. state of Michigan. I was a junior high school ALT for 3 years in Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. Now, I work for the Shiga Board of Education as the ALT prefectural advisor. My hobbies include anything and everything outdoors as well as playing the guitar and drums. Speech

As I shuffled, centimeter by centimeter, across the sheer cliff face of Mt. Tsurugi, my sweaty palms desperately gripping slippery rocks and my knees beginning to shake, I heard a voice from below. A climber on his way up saw my struggle and lent his support by bellowing an impassioned, “Gamba!” After I had crossed the infamous “crab walk,” he greeted me with a smile and said he hadn’t realized how daunting this mountain would be. I lied and said it hadn’t been too bad. Before continuing down, I winked and told him to be careful. It’s difficult to fit a mountain into a single newspaper article, and it is impossible to adequately explain hiking’s impact on my life, but I’ll do my best.

If there is one phrase that every mountaineer in Japan needs to know, it’s “Gamba!” Even though I’ve heard it on many treacherous traverses, and said it to countless climbers, it still eludes a succinct definition. It means so much more than “do your best.” Whether I’m slumped near the peak too knackered to summit, or clinging with all of my being to a pebble only a meter from topping-out a boulder, hearing that from a friend is enough to see me through. It conveys a sense of community and encourages you to fight through pain and hardship knowing that others are with you in spirit. Even when a total stranger yells it at me from below, by the time I come back down we will be close comrades of the cliffs.

The climbing and hiking community in Japan is one of the friendliest and most accepting that I have ever experienced. It’s a hodgepodge of every kind of climber: from office-working weekend hikers to true mountaineers filthy from weeks in the wilderness. No matter where you fit in the spectrum of climbers, you will be welcomed at any gym, campground or mountain hut as if you were family. Everyone knows what it’s like to gasp for breath atop a Japanese Alp or to feel the pain of raw fingertips on the boulders of Mie. And everyone knows that a small word of encouragement and comradery can go a long way.

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  • Courtesy of Nicholas Colaccino

    Nick Colaccino

People often ask me what it is about Japan that makes me stay and visiting friends always ask how to see the best sights of the country, but I always fail to adequately explain how difficult those questions are. How can I possibly explain the sense of connection, community and belonging that is every bit as deep as Mt. Fuji is tall? How can I take you to the heart of the Northern Alps to show you the truly unforgettable sights of Japan when you are going to fly out of Narita in a day or two? Of all the reasons and tales I could give to those who ask why I stay in Japan, I usually just go with one: “Mountains.”

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The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme is administered through the collaboration of Japan’s local and national government authorities and promotes grass-roots internationalisation at the local level. Learn more: http://www.jetprogramme.orgSpeech

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