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.