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Archive for May, 2008

Climbing the hyakumeizan is a bit like working at the Post Office:

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these hikers from the swift completion of their appointed peaks.”

The journey started at Asakusa station, where I planned to meet my friend Yuuki for a weekend of hiking in Nikko national park on a national holiday weekend in October. We took the last train on the Tobu line, arriving at Nikko station after 11pm with no place to sleep. I’ve been in Japan long enough to know the word “nojuku” (野宿), which roughly translates as “wild sleeping”. Nojuku is an accepted form of accomodation, especially in rural areas where transport is painstakingly slow. We found some benches in front of Nikko station that would serve as beds. The cops came by a short time later, to make sure we weren’t homeless vagrants. We told them we were doing nojuku and they went on their way. Yuuki and I had just unrolled our sleeping bags when we had our first visitor. An older, somewhat dodgy man who wouldn’t quit talking. “Oh boy, this is going to be a long night.”, I thought. He kept trying to challenge me to a boxing match, but I did my best to ignore him. At one point I took a look at his hand and realized that we was missing half his pinkie! Just when we were wondering how to get rid of this thorn in our plans, an opportunity presented itself. Someone was walking in front of the station, and the man’s attention was distracted. Amazingly, he left us to go talk to his new friend. Knowing we didn’t have much time, we quickly packed our bags and snuck out of there. Although we successfully evaded our intruder, but were stuck with no place to sleep. We found a building under renovation with an open facade, which we could easily enter. It was dark and quiet, but right on the main street. Yuuki wasn’t feeling too secure about potentially being busted for trespassing, so we did the next best thing and went to the Family Mart. If there was anyone who knew of a good place to sleep, it would have to be the part-time graveyard shift worker. Bingo – a secluded park a few hundred meters from JR Nikko station. We walked in high spirits, knowing we’d found alternative accommodation, but were faced with yet another hindrance. No, it wasn’t our scary man from Tobu station, but a young couple engaged in an intimate romantic embrace! “What to do now?”, I asked. “Let’s check out JR Nikko station”, Yuuki quickly suggested. Well lit places directly beside the police station don’t really top my list of sleeping destinations, but just as we were about to settle down and give up, we saw a young couple walk past. “Aha, it must be the lovebirds from the park!”. We retraced our steps to the park and settled down for the night.

We woke up to fog and mist. The forecast didn’t look too promising when we left Tokyo, but we were men on a mission. We walked out to the main road and stuck out our thumbs. The 3rd car stopped and gave us a ride all the way to Yumoto hot spring, where we were planning to tackle Mt. Oku-shirane. As the car wound its way up to Lake Chuzenji, we noticed that the sinister clouds to the north. Although it was cloudy around Nantai, it wasn’t raining. The closer we got to Yumoto, however, the worse things got. I thought typhoon season ended in September, but it really looked like we were in the middle of something nasty. The man who gave us a ride asked us if we really wanted to get out of the car here. We changed plans immediately, and he drove us back down to the start of the Mt. Nantai hike. We could climb Mt. Nantai today, and hit Oku-shirane the following morning.

Mt. Nantai is one steep mountain. I’d much rather hike 10km with a 200m elevation change than to hike 2km with a 1000m vertical ascent, but that’s what we were faced with. About halfway up we entered the cloud bank, where it started to rain. It was a cold, cold rain and I kept wandering if October were too early for snow. Well, I certainly jinxed that one, as huge white flakes started falling from the sky! Luckily it was a mixture of snow and rain, and not quite cold enough to settle. The trees on the summit, however, were coated with ice and it must’ve been below freezing up there. We checked out the emergency hut, but decided to retreat because of the bitter cold and less than ideal sleeping conditions.

Back at Lake Chuzenji, we hitched a ride back to Yumoto hot spring. The rain and typhoon force winds were still howling, so we changed tack again. “This is definitely not camping weather,” I announced. We headed to the 案内所, which I like to translate as “guidance place”. The man behind the counter provided no guidance at all, proclaiming that everything in town was booked out sans one hotel, which was charging 15,000 yen per person per night! I’ve been in Japan long enough to see through his lies, as many people usually cancel or change their plans in foul weather. His brother probably owned the hotel he was trying to tout to clueless tourists. We simply called a mishuku directly and got a room (without meals) for only 3000 yen per person! The minshuku was nice, with its own hot spring bath and spacious rooms. The owner even offered to drive us to the suge-numa trailhead the next day!

We kept an eye on the mountain ridge most of the night. Even though there was blue sky above us in the morning, cloud was still sticking to the peaks. We arrived at Suge-numa and filled up our water bottles. The first part of the hike was quite easy, and we arrived at Mida-ga-ike in half the time the guidebook said it would take. We were greeted with one of the most beautiful sites I’ve experienced in Japan. There was the top of Oku-shirane, completely covered in white! “Now I know why it’s called Shirane san!”, Yuuki proclaimed. Yep, the weather had cleared and we were more excited than 1st graders at the zoo! “Only one problem,” I admitted. “we’ve forgotten our crampons.” If there’s one thing to be learned from this trip it’s this – no matter where you go hiking in October, always bring a pair of crampons just in case!

We hadn’t come this far to give up now, so decided on the slow but steady approach. Countless other hikers had given up midway, but we plodded along. Most of the trail, in fact, was covered in ice, but we kicked as hard as we could until we found traction, and used our hands to help when our feet wouldn’t. Eventually we made it to the summit, only to be met by a crowd of people. They’d all come from the other side! Well, at least we could say we tackled the tricky north face! The views were stunnning. Was that really Mt. Fuji on the horizon? Yep. Clouds were covering the tops of Mt. Shibutsu and Mt. Hiuchi, but Mt. Nantai was towering gracefully over lake Chuzenji. We raced off the peak down to Goshiki numa, and then up to Mae-shirane. A steep descent later, and we were sitting at Yumoto hot spring again. Did we have time for a bath? You betcha! After cleansing ourselves, we stuck out our thumbs again, and got a direct ride all the way to Utsunomiya station. Yuuki headed back to Tokyo, while I caught the train to Koriyama, as Mt. Bandai awaited me the next morning.

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Mt. Goryu

My plan was simple. Catch a train to Kamishiro arriving around dusk. Hike to the top of Goryu ski resort at night, camping somewhere near the top. Wake up at the break of dawn, climb to the top of Mt. Goryu, and descend back to Kamishiro station in time to make the 4:35pm train…..could it be done?

I arrived at Kamishiro at 7:16pm and headed for Escal Plaza. My map had a supermarket marked a short walk from the station, but was shocked to find it was only a small, family-run pharmacy/convenience store with few provisions. The first thorn in my side – nothing to eat for dinner! I remember a “Pizzakaya” named Country Road, located adjacent to Hakuba Alps Backpacker hostel. Would it be open on a Thursday evening in late May? Bingo! Dinner was served and I stuffed myself. Around 8:30pm, I left the warm confines of the friendly Izakaya and headed off into the unknown. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’d been snowboarding a few times at Goryu ski resort, so I had a fair idea of how to get to the top.

As I trampled through the bunny slopes, two options became immediately apparent. I could take the gravel road all the way to the top, which winds its way through a dark forest, or I could shoot directly up the black diamond course, straight to the top. I didn’t really fancy meeting any ferocious creatures, so wanted to steer clear of any dense foliage, especially considering that I’d forgotten my bear bell. A huge mistake, as the expert ski course was easily the steepest, most difficult thing I’ve climbed in a long time! Sure it would be easy in the daytime with a small pack, but imagine carrying 3 liters of water, a zero degree sleeping bag, and heavy tent! Plus, to top it all off, about 10 minutes up the slope a large rustle came into earshot to my immediate right. Footsteps trampling just out of my headlamp beam reach. “This is it”, I thought, wondering what the headlines might read the next day. Then, I heard the familiar “ff-ff”, “ff-ff” sound. I’d heard that sound once before, when descending Mt. Ryokami, I came face-to-face with a Kamoshika. They make this really unique thumping/hissing sound to try and scare away prey. I realized that it was a Kamoshika, peeping out from its hunting ground to inquire about my noctural invasion.

The ski field was much, much longer than I remembered, but that’s because it only takes a fraction of the time to descend on a snowboard. I finally gave up around 11pm, when I reached the bottom of the #2 & #4 ski lifts. Awating me was a nice wooden platform sheltered from the wind, with outstanding views of Hakuba below, a full moon rising above the peaks to the east, and a rather run-down but usable toilet. In addition, there was a ski office that was left unlocked! I had immediate shelter in case the weather turned foul. I even considered sleeping in the office, but figured I might as well pitch my tent since I went through so much trouble just to bring it up here. I set the alarm for 4am and crawled into my bag.

It’s funny how early you can naturally wake up when you’re in the outdoors. I rolled out of my bag at 3:30am. I wasn’t the least bit hungry, so started my preparations. I knew I was coming back to this place, so I had enough hindsight to pack an extra day pack to use for my assault on Mt. Goryu. I put my heavy pack next to the toilet, and started on my way. I made it to the top of the ski resort, where I checked a mountain hut I had spied in the winter. It’s marked as a “ski hut” on the map, and sure enough, it was firmly locked. I then knew I had make the right choice pitching tent where I did. I made it to the top of the resort just at the sun was casting pink hues on the alpine peaks above. I could only imagine what kind of sunrise the employees in all the mountain huts must’ve had.

The first few hours of hiking were fairly non-eventful, until I reached the col just below Mt. Shiro. Since it was my first time there, I wasn’t sure if I needed to hike up and over Mt. Shiro or if I could just make a bee-line directly ahead toward the hut. I couldn’t see the hut at all, but the map marked in the saddle between Goryu and Shiro. I decided to play it safe by following the footprints up towards the white peak, hoping that my predecessor knew what he/she was doing! About 50 minutes later, I was sitting on top of Mt. Shiro, patting myself on the back for not falling into any crevices or giving up. A quick descent to the hut, where I surprised the lone hut staff. He asked me if I came from Karamatsu, but almost fell off his chair when I told him I’d come from Goryu ski resort. I guess most people don’t arrive from that direction at 7:30am! He breathed a sigh or relief when I told him I’d camped in the ski resort, since the gondola wasn’t running. Anyway, I hadn’t brought any lunch with me because I knew the hut was open and had images of a hut teeming with hikers and the pleasant aroma of curry and rice. Oops! I should have known that there’d only be one staff member who solely prepares meals based on the number of people staying the night.  Luckily, I was able to purchase a bowl of instant noodles – not on the top of my culinary wishes, but it would have to do. I decided to hold off on lunch until summiting as a reward to myself. I asked for climbing advice and went on my way.

The hut staff recommended I stick tightly to the ridge line, where there was absolutely no path but at least there was no snow. I did the best I could scrambling over the boulders and being careful not to trample any potentially endangered foliage. The ridge was steep and rocky, with lots of ups and downs. I even found the real path on one occasion, and followed the paint marks briefly until they disappeared into the snow. Eventually, I found myself on the final traverse to the rocky summit, and was awarded with an outstanding view of Mt. Tsurugi. The signpost has definitely seen better days, as someone had put a piece of tape marking the summit. This is in stark contrast to the concrete-embedded signposts of the Shizuoka Prefectural section of the Minami Alps!

I flew down the peak as fast as I safely could. At one point I tried to descend through the snow, but it was very steep and difficult to get traction (even with crampons on!). I took two steps and ended up on my butt, sliding at lightning speed toward most certain death. Luckily I knew how to stop myself with my ice axe and slid very, very slowly toward the nearest rock formations I could find. I had built up my confidence by sliding down Mt. Hiuchi a few weeks prior, but this terrain was much steeper and faster than anything I’d been on before. The snow was soft and somewhat slushy, but that seemed to make it faster!

Eventually, I worked my way back to the hut and feasted on Kitsune Udon. I also bought some bottled water because the hut was using melted snow and rain water as their drinking supply. If I’d brought my water filter then I could’ve opted for that, but I decided to not risk it on this trip. I’m still amazed by how many Japanese hikers willingly drink from untreated mountain streams. Anyone know the giardia stats for Japan?

I took the shortcut back, bypassing Mt. Shiro. This can only be done in the winter or spring, when snow still covers the entire col. I flew back to the ski resort, and made it back to my heavy pack a little past 1pm. I looked at the train schedule. Could I actually make the 3:36pm train? A challenge it was! This time I decided to stick to the forest road through the ski resort. My feet were killing me, but I didn’t want to risk tumbling down the black diamond course with a 20kg pack! I walked the entire way without taking a break, and made it to Kamishiro at 3:21pm. Phew! Another peak bagged, and time to plan my next alpine adventure.

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