The World Nomads Podcast: The Healing Mountains of Japan

In this episode, Susan Spann confronted her deepest fears by climbing 100 of Japan's most famous peaks, gaining a new confidence and strength.

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Man and woman on a mountain Photo © The summit of Tomuraushi with Susan's Hokkaido Nature Tours guide, Takuto (Tak)

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The World Nomads Podcast: Traveling during COVID-19

The World Nomads Travel Podcast has suspended its regular destination episodes, and in their place, sharing the thoughts of travelers who are shaping the future of the industry. We tap into their vast bank of knowledge to discover what can be learned from the past as we plan a new way of traveling moving forward.

What’s in the episode

00:52 Attractions reopen in Brazil

02:11 Introducing Susan Spann

03:30 Conquering the bouncy house

06:07 Seeking motivation

09:56 Finishing the climbs before COVID-19

13:22 A transformative experience

15:23 Next episode

Quotes from the episode

“It's a wonderful thing that the mountains did for me... it was really a transformative experience and absolutely changed me in just about every way that a person can be changed.” – Susan Spann

Who is in the episode

Susan Spann is the award-winning author of the Hiro Hattori mystery novels.

Inspired by Eric Weihenmayer, author of Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther than the Eye Can See, Susan made the decision to face her fears and climb one hundred of Japan's most famous mountains, inspired by a classic list of hyakumeizan peaks.

woman near a sign
Susan climbed 100 of Japan's most famous mountains, overcoming many fears and a major health battle along the way

Resources & links

Explore Japan with World Nomads.

Keep up to date with World Nomads travel safety alerts and warnings.

Purchase Climb: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan

Subscribe to Susan’s YouTube channel.

Whether it’s a call from your mom or the call of the wild, we’ll help you prepare for your trip and help you stay safe while traveling.

Best practices for getting on the road without endangering your health.

Bookmark World Nomads COVID-19 travel restrictions and border closures which are updated regularly.

Where can I travel to?

Get in touch by emailing [email protected].

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If you liked this episode please head to Apple Podcasts and kindly leave us a rating, review, and of course, subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.

We use the Rodecaster Pro to record our episodes and interviews when in the studio, made possible with the kind support of Rode.

Kim: Hi Kim and Phil with you revisiting an Amazing Nomad we featured in an episode last year. Susan Spann was attempting to confront her deepest fears climbing one hundred of Japan's most famous peaks, despite a breast cancer diagnosis. Did she do it? We’ll find out shortly but first Phil – do you have any travel news?

Phil: Two of Brazil's best-known attractions -- Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf Mountain -- have reopened after being shut for five months due to coronavirus but visitor numbers have been limited.

Meantime Brazil’s COVID cases continue to rise becoming the second-worst affected country in the world behind the USA, which by the way has rescinded warnings to Americans against all international travel because of the coronavirus pandemic, saying “conditions no longer warrant a blanket worldwide alert”. Of course, this was at the time of recording.

And if you must travel, we’ll share an article in show notes on how to do it safely.

Finally, globally, air travel is down more than 85% from a year ago, according to industry figures. And the implications for the airline industry are not good with several leading airlines filing for bankruptcy protection. But let’s get some positive news, Kim!


Kim: It was last year, 2019, early on in the year, we spoke to an amazing nomad, Phil, Susan Spann. The episode was titled No Barriers. Now she was currently, or she was then, facing her fears and climbing 100 mountains in Japan. After making a pledge to create a life of purpose and impact she's written a book, she's contacted us to fill us in on what's she's up to now in 2020 and Susan, spill. What have you-

Phil: Have you done it?

Susan Spann: I have done it. Oh, that's a spoiler alert. Maybe we should delete that one. Anyway. So yes, I did ... First of all, thank you for having me back on the podcast. I really enjoyed talking with you last time so much. And I did in fact, complete a hundred mountains, actually in just a little over 11 months. It wasn't even a full year, finished almost a year to the day after my final cancer treatment, my final chemo treatment, which was a really nice way to put a cap on it. And as you mentioned, the book has just come out. It's titled Climb: Leaving Safe and Finding Strengths on 100 Summits in Japan.

Kim: I liked the quote that you gave us from the last episode, and very early on in the book you touch on this, you said at six years of age you got out of line and walked away because you didn't know what the risk was and you were afraid to take it. And you were terrified that if you got in the bouncy house, this is as a six-year-old, somehow you were going to die, and straightaway in the book you get into that feeling that you have that you can't do anything, or you could never do anything. But now looking back, look what you've achieved.

Susan Spann: You know, sometimes it's a little surprising to me too. I mean, a lot of the mountains that I've climbed, because I continue to travel in Japan and I'm continuing to climb mountains now. I mean, it was really transformative experience for me. And sometimes I look at the mountains that I have climbed, Mount Fuji in particular, because you see her quite often fortunately here, and I kind of shake my head and think, "Wow, that little girl who wouldn't go in a bounce house ..." and for the record, I've still to this day never been in one because by the time I realized that the fear was foolish I was too large for them. It's just amazing how the simple decision is what it takes to move forward. And that was not apparent to me somehow for 45ish years, that really, the journey of a thousand miles, the journey from fear to confidence and joy really does begin with that simple step.

Phil: Can I just thank you. I know the book's out, but you were very kind to send us a PDF of an advance copy of that. Can I just thank you for allowing me to waste a couple of hours of my day when I should have been working reading your book?

Susan Spann: Well, thank you. The honor's mine.

Phil: Fascinating straight from the get-go which is brilliant. And there's so much in that. I mean, when you say that you took the easy path to get away from fear and followed your father into the legal profession. That doesn't ... I mean, it's still pretty tough doing a law degree though, isn't it?

Kim: Yeah.

Susan Spann: Well, I mean difficult, but difficult and familiar. And I think that's what a lot of us sort of fall into. Even hard work, if you know what the path looks like, right, it's sometimes easier to work hard on a difficult path than to step off the path and not know where it leads. But in my experience and having done both, the unknown path is often much more rewarding.

Kim: I was sitting there reading your book and suddenly I saw myself in you and don't laugh, Phil, you just ... Phil just spoke before we recorded that he did a gym class last night and he went so hard he felt physically sick after it. It was only on the weekend after reading the book, I haven't read it all, but I was saying I walked up a hill and I was really, really puffed. And I just couldn't believe that when I'd first met my husband, I was doing these gym classes and running rings around a really fit football player. And you described yourself in the book as having a few rolls.

Susan Spann: Indeed. I did. [crosstalk 00:04:27].

Kim: And then when you got to Japan and you were going up this mountain with your son, rather than coming ... You went up in a chairlift or whatever you call it, rather than coming back down in the chairlift, you decided to walk it. And I thought, "Why aren't I ... Okay, I'm unfit and I've got a few rolls, but why can't I take that step?" What's lacking in me, Susan?

Susan Spann: Nothing. It just didn't occur to you. And that's kind of where it was with me. The mountain you're referring to is one that I actually climbed in advance. In fact, well, it gave me the inspiration to do this, which is really funny because it was an absolute disaster as the book describes. But I got up there and I rode the lift up and I stood on top of that mountain, which was Mount Misen in Hiroshima prefecture, and felt just a little hint of that runner's high, that experience that people talked about when they stood on top of real mountains, like Everest. And by the way, I mean, the mountain we're talking about is like 500 feet. It's really not a big mountain, but at the time I was very, very overweight. I didn't do anything physical and I wanted to earn that feeling. And so I decided I was going to hike back down it, and it probably just hasn't occurred to you that you could, and it hadn't occurred to me either. And for my own personal safety, that might've been a good thing, but fortunately, the story ends much differently now.

Kim: We began with a spoiler so we don't want to give away too much.

Susan Spann: Indeed.

Phil: No. And tell us about your health now. Is it okay for you to talk about that, you fully recovered?

Susan Spann: Absolutely. In fact, I have had my ... what is either your two and a half year or three-year checkup, depending on how you count it. My doctor in the US might've called it two and a half. My physician here in Japan actually referred to it as ... sorry ... yeah, as three, just because of the way they're ... whether you count from the day of diagnosis or the day of finishing treatment, right, because there was about a six month lag in between, but I am still cancer-free and I am over the hump, 95.5% of the recurrences of cancer within the first two years. And so the odds are very strong in the favor of me having absolutely beaten this thing and moved on with my life, which is really, really a wonderful place to be.

Phil: Oh, that's great. More power to you for it as well and I'm sure there are very, very many very talented medical lab staff who helped you along that journey as well.

Susan Spann: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I give them shout-outs in the book, but I had a wonderful team at Mercy Medical in Sacramento, California. They just not only took care of me, but they were very understanding from the very beginning that I had this hundred summits quest in my sights and they just moved mountains literally. You see what I did there?

Kim: Yeah.

Phil: Yeah.

Susan Spann: [crosstalk 00:07:25] on the slopes.

Kim: So we're talking to you in 2020. It's a very different world to when we spoke to you in early 2019, we are in the middle of a pandemic. [crosstalk 00:07:34]. Yeah. The world is at a standstill. Now you did have some coronavirus related delays. Can you sort of touch on those again without giving too much away?

Susan Spann: Yeah. Fortunately I was finished with the climbs of course, before the coronavirus, but the book did get delayed. We were supposed to be released in .... was supposed to be released in January. And then that was pushed back for ... because we were going to bring it out near the Tokyo Olympics, and of course, really delaying it until the Tokyo Olympics would have been quite a bit of an endeavor at this point now, but we ended up having a couple of pushbacks, but the book is now available. It is now in release. If people go to order it, they may find a little bit of a delay in shipping, but like a day or two, not we're not talking weeks, but it is available and it is now released and I'm just thrilled that it's out in the world.

Phil: And what's next for you? Can I suggest that you set up your own little rock at the top of a mountain and hand out the fantastic advice you've been sharing with us?

Susan Spann: Well, thank you.

Phil: A guru on the mountain.

Susan Spann: Well, I've done a couple of things. I have actually started a YouTube channel. A lot of people have talked about wanting to see more of the mountains of Japan, maybe get some more narrated and curated videos. So I am actually planning to go and rewalk the Kumano Kodo, which is a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage trail through the mountains in Wakayama prefecture in October. I will be taking a video camera and gimbal and I will be recording that. So I'll be doing in October, November, releasing about seven videos, about 30 minutes in length, curated tours of the Kumano Kodo, for those who cannot get away from home this year.

Kim: Being a Japaphile I love all things about Japan. I wanted ... My goal is to visit in every season. I've only managed summer so far, but-

Susan Spann: You picked the worst one to start with. Why did you do that?

Kim: Well, no, I went to Ishigaki, which is somewhere that a lot of people have never been, so-

Susan Spann: It is.

Kim: It was beautiful. It was a great experience. But when I do a renovation, I always try and incorporate some kind of Japanese design and I love Japanese food. And these things are touched on also in this book, it's not just about climbing the mountains.

Susan Spann: Oh, indeed. Yeah. I wanted to share everything from show shojin ryori, which is the Buddhist temple cuisine, which happens to be my favorite food in Japan. I ended up accidentally walking into a major festival on a city when I wasn't even expecting ... I thought I was going to have a rest day. That didn't work out because I just wandered into the largest festival in Northern Japan, which ... These things happen when you go and travel for a year. And particularly when you really were first getting started and didn't really know what you were doing, but yes, it's everything from food to culture. There are festivals, there are horses, there are all different kinds of things. And so I hope that people will enjoy that part of country too.

Kim: And photographs.

Susan Spann: Yes, there are photographs. And what is more, I will also put in here, there are full-color photographs in the book, and I am also in the process of posting a photo companion on my website. So all of the things that are discussed in the book, photos of all of those things, because we could only get so many photos in the book, right. But there will be hundreds of photos on a chapter by chapter basis, basically photo narrating the entire book on my website, available to people as they read.

Kim: Are you want a roll? Do you feel like there's nothing that you can't do?

Susan Spann: Well, I probably still can't climb Mount Everest to be brutally honest with you.

Phil: Would you want to, though? Even if you could? Anyway.

Susan Spann: It's a wonderful thing that the mountains did for me. They really ... it was really a transformative experience and absolutely changed me in just about every way that a person can be changed.

Kim: Well you mentioned that you're still there, what's it like traveling throughout Japan during COVID?

Susan Spann: Well, I wasn't able to travel actually from about March until the end of June. We weren't locked down formally, but the government was asking everyone to stay home and avoid congestion. And so I did in fact stay home. I walked into the neighborhood. I did make one brief trip to Hiroshima prefecture. In fact, on the five-year anniversary of that first fateful climb, Mount Misen, or down Mount Misen I should say, I actually was back on Mount Misen and climbed it again. And it was not as difficult the second time as it was the first. I'll just put that out there.

Kim: Well, how exciting. The book is Finding Strength on 100 summits in Japan. It's hard to chat about a book, Phil, and not give too much away, but-

Phil: Give it all away.

Kim: Yeah, the fact that you've completed the climbs, more than a 100, too, 112?

Susan Spann: To date, 112, although 108 I think before the book was finished. That's a little bit of a spoiler. So I'll just tantalize with this. The climbs did include both the largest and the smallest official mountains in Japan. And the smallest mountain is a lot smaller than you might think.

Kim: Beautiful. Well, as you like to end your emails with, dare to dream and you can change your world, and I totally believe in that and think you've done an amazing job, Susan.

Susan Spann: Thank you so much.

Kim: An incredible effort. The links to Susan and her book in show notes alongside a link to join our Facebook Group.

If you liked this episode please head to Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your favorite pods and kindly leave us a rating, review, and of course, subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.

Phil: Next episode flying during COVID, what it looks like and how will prices be affected in the short and long term.

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