He's light on his feet and has a big grin on his face. You would think he was a young boy without a care in the world. Cveto Podlogar (43) spends a lot of time in the mountains. "My work is my hobby, so of course I'm a happy guy."
Japan is a comparatively small island nation, but it has a number of challenging mountains higher than 3,000 meters. Except for Mount Fuji, they all form part of the Japanese Alps in central Honshu. Podlogar guides visitors to these and other mountains, showing them how to combine enjoyment and safety. He was the first person of foreign nationality to be officially recognized by the Alpine Guide Society of Japan as a mountain guide.
Podlogar was born and brought up in the mountains of Slovenia in the former Yugoslavia. His father was in charge of a local forestry office, and this explains his mountain heritage. He knew how to ski by the time he was 3, and would go to his father's workplace every day, to take him lunch. When he grew older, he would cross over a mountain to go shopping-the trip both ways took an entire day. His life in the mountains toughened his body and spirit, and by the time he was 17 he was on Yugoslavia's national cross-country ski team. He participated in two Winter Olympics, in Lake Placid and Sarajevo.
"We visited a number of foreign countries, but whenever I had a free moment I'd slip off to climb a mountain. I found that more fun," he grins.
At 28, he retired from competitive sports and set out to see the world-South America, China, Hong Kong... and he ended up in Japan.
"I'll never understand Japan properly. People here don't seem all that logical, but their accomplishments certainly seem to be based on reason. When I first came to Japan I found it an extremely mysterious country."
Podlogar met a Japanese woman, Chiharu, at a ski resort in Yamagata Prefecture and married her in 1992. Soon he was managing a company's resort in Nagano Prefecture. And he would climb mountains in different parts of Japan, always captivated by their charm.
"It's surprising how the mountains here create so much variety. Take the snowflakes, for instance-there are many subtle differences, from big flakes to powder. And in the summer you'll find ten or more different types of plants growing on a single square meter of ground. Japanese mountains taught me there's a lot more to steep slopes than just climbing. They offer a great chance to enjoy nature as well."
"He is especially interested in a mountain sport special to Japan-sawa-nobori, climbing up the bed of a mountain stream, rather than using a trail. This involves scrambling over boulders and fallen trees, sometimes getting wet, enjoying a physically active day in the mountains. He became an alpine guide in order to bring this enjoyment to more people.
"When I guide people, it's like I'm with friends, although our first priority is safety, of course. I tell them about the plants, Slovenia, all kinds of things. And I like to joke a lot."
He and Chiharu now live in Tokyo. When he is asked to serve as a guide, she stays there and he's off to the mountains again. He and his wife both want to interact with people from all over the world, through nature.
"Every year, we organize tours to Slovenia for Japanese people, guiding them in the mountains there. I also want to introduce more people from overseas to Japan's mountains. People from overseas tend to assume that the mountains in Japan are lower and easier to climb than in Europe. Maybe that's why quite a few of them get into difficulty when they climb in Japan. If you can't enjoy the outdoors safely, you shouldn't be out there."
When we listen to Cveto Podlogar speak of his love for Japanese mountains, we start to hear their call, too.