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Archive for June, 2008

Yakushima

The long-anticipated journey to Yakushima was finally here, and my wife Kanako and I boarded a Shibushi bound ferry from Osaka port. The schedule was tight, as connections were crucial to making it all happen. It was Golden Week, and I made all necessary efforts to book the hydrofoil from Kagoshima port. We boarded the ferry, settling into one of the large carpeted rooms with shared sleeping on the floor. A few hours later, while strolling around the lobby, I noticed a sign with the arrival time posted. “That’s odd,”, I wondered, “it’s one hour later than I’d anticipated.” Sure enough, the ferry company had completely changed the timetable from April 1st, the start of the fiscal year. This meant that we’d miss our connecting ferry to Kagoshima, since Shibushi is a whopping 2 hour bus ride from Kagoshima city. Yep, we had a fight on our hands.

Kanako and I approached the info. counter and she let me do all of the talking. My argument was simple. I’d bought the ticket in March, before the ferry company changed the schedule, planning my entire trip on the initial arrival time. The ferry company changed the time and made no effort to notify passengers who’d already bought tickets. The people behind the counter, in classic Japanese form, muttered the all-too-familiar “doushiyo kana” utterance. Around an hour later, we were ushered into a back office and met with the head honcho of the ferry. He apologized for the muck-up and told us the ferry company would pay for a taxi from Shibushi all the way to Kagoshima city (it’s a 12000 yen taxi ride!) I’m not sure if a Japanese person complaining would’ve got the same treatment, but I was happy for my “kinpatsu power”! We were the first ones off the ferry and the taxi was waiting VIP style at the edge of the boat. Sure enough, we didn’t have to pay a thing and made it to the Kagoshima terminal with plenty of time to spare.

The ferry ride was smooth, and we could see tons of flying fish along the way. The weather? Perfect, with not a cloud in sight! We were planning to meet our friend, affectionately nicknamed “Sea Turtle John” (more on that later) at the Anbo bus stop. He was there, right on time, and we all jumped in a taxi for a quick ride to the Yodogawa trailhead. It was 6pm by the time we started hiking, but 30 minutes later we arrived at the hut, ready to bed down for the night. Interesting enough, all of the campsites were taken, but the hut was completely empty. Why set up a tent when you can sleep in comfort?

The next morning we woke up early and started the long trek to Mt. Miyanoura. The weather today? foggy. I searched my backpack for my raincoat and realized to my great chagrin that I’d forgotten to pack it. Here I was in one of the rainiest places on earth without my wet weather gear! The scenery was nice but we never got to see any views. Up and over the top and down to Shin-takatsuka hut. We found a wonderful campsite just off the main trail in a wooded area. This place was teeming with hikers, most of which were staying in the nearby hut. We cooked up a feast, filtered plenty of drinking water, and reflected on our day. Kanako crashed out early, while John and I told campfire stories until well after bedtime.

We got a leisurely 9am start the next day in perfect conditions! It’s funny how we had awesome weather both the day before and day after our summit hike – talk about bad timing! The closer we got to Jomon-sugi the thicker the crowds became! We were entering the touristy part of the hike, where our greetings of “konnichiwa” went unanswered. The path was narrow, with plenty of wooden planks, and our huge packs forced under-equipped day hikers off the path. Down we went to a huge junction and train tracks! Hiking on the tracks for what seemed like an eternity, until escaping off to the left for a nice climb up to Tsuji-toge and a spectacular lookout from some exposed rocks. It was a short, steep climb from the main trail but we were rewarded with a birds-eye view of the rugged ridge line we’d spent the previous day traversing. This must’ve been where Hayao Miyazaki got his idea for the Mononoke forest in Princess Mononoke. Speaking of which, from the mountain pass we passed right through the “Mononoke forest” until reaching the decrepit hut of Shiratani. “What a dump”, John added. We all agreed and found a flat spot right at the junction of the main trail and spur trail to the hut.

The next day, we completed the short hike to the trailhead, ending our epic traverse of the mountains. It started raining the last 10 minutes of the hike. We flew down to the port and boarded a bus bound for Nagata. John pitched on the beach, while Kanako and I opted for luxury in a nearby minshuku. That night, we met up for a guided walk to look for sea turtles. The meeting time wasn’t until 9pm, so John killed time sitting on the edge of the shore, listening to the waves and soaking up nature. One of the child volunteers ran over to him, thinking he was a sea turtle, hence the nickname we gave to John! We all sat on the beach with the volunteer guides, waiting for the sea turtles to come and lay eggs. Only one came on shore, but was scared away by the headlights of a passing car. Golden Week is a little early for the elusive creatures, as by mid-summer there are nightly sightings of the giant turtles. We’d have to try another time, later in the season. We will be back to attempt Mt. Miyanoura, using the Nagata trail, in hopes of catching the spectacular views from a summit: free from fog.

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Mt. Makihata

Niigata is notorious for nasty weather, and the fact that I’d climbed all of the surrounding peaks in less than ideal conditions had me a little worried, so when the bullet train rolled into Echigo-Yuzawa station on a morning in late July, I rollled my eyes and pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. A majestically azure sky, without a cloud in sight. “Well, at least the town has good weather, but how about 1500m higher up, in the land of eternal fog?”, I pondered. I’ve become accustomed to the fickle mountain weather, and the higher you go the more unpredictable it can be. Luckily, Mt. Makihata stands at an elevation of 1967m above sea level. Sure it’s high enough for fog, but still 1000m lower than the Japan Alps, so maybe I’d be in luck. The 20-minute train ride to Muikamachi seemed to take forever, especially since I could stare out across the valley to the wonderful silhouette of Makihata, completely free of clouds!

I quickly jumped in a taxi upon arriving at the station, not wanting to waste precious fair-weather hours sorting out the bus to the trailhead. Along the way I passed some homes heavily damaged from the Kashiwazaki earthquake that struck just 2 weeks prior. I was wondering if the mountain I was about to climb had suffered any damage! The taxi driver offered to drive me all the way to the trailhead, but I opted to save some lunch money and just walk for 20 minutes from the bus stop. I filled up my water bottles at the start of the hike, and quickly reached the nukubi-sawa trail junction. Should I take the conservative course to the right, or the adventure route to the left? The signs said the nukubi course was for expert hikers only, but the photos I had seen during my on-line research made it appear feasible. A decision was made. Three cheers for adventure!

The trail was flat at first, passing some vegetable fields before reaching the nukubi river. The trail was very clearly marked, and spent most of the time weaving back and forth on both sides of the river, with lots of river crossings. Fortunately, there were plenty of rocks which made the crossings a piece of cake. Majestic waterfalls, crystal clear pools, vibrant foliage, and one of the bluest skies I’d seen in a while. Oh, if I’d only remembered my sunscreen!

I reached a crucial trail junction about halfway up. My map said that both routes would take you to the top, so I went for the left fork, which was a big mistake, as the track basically ran up the middle of the river! After falling in the water, I retreated back to the trail junction in favor of the right fork. Future reference for anyone attempting the nukubi route – turn right when you hit the big river fork! This trail was more logical, sticking to the bank of the river while climbing next to some impressive waterfalls. The track, however, soon turned into snow! Late July and here I was hiking in an enormous snow field!

I’ve always been a fan of snow hiking, as it’s much easier on the feet than boulder hopping through a river. I just had to be careful not to break through to the river I was walking on top of! Up, up, and up I went, spending close to an hour on the white stuff, until hitting a huge ice fall which completely blocked the path. I’m glad I wasn’t here when this thing fell off the top of the mountain. After some creative maneuvering, I found the trail proper and popped out on the ridge line. I’d made it! Needless to say, I wouldn’t recommend descending via the nukubi trail, as climbing up is a heck of a lot easier than descending.

I turned left at the junction, and ate my lunch on top of Mt. Warenuki. The weather had held, with stunning views of every peak I’d had the displeasure of climbing but never seeing – Mt. Tanigawa, Naeba, Hotaka, Shibutsu, Myoko – my nemeses. While none of these peaks had any cloud, a glance in the opposite direction showed Mt. Echigo-koma and Hiragatake completely covered in nasty-looking fog. These are 2 peaks I have yet to climb, so was this an omen?

The stroll over to the high point of Mt. Makihata was a breeze after what I’d done, with so many beautiful flowers and alpine lakes. By this point both of my arms and my face had turned a bright red from the constant sun exposure. Live and learn I say! After a quick break on top, I headed down to the emergency hut – easily one of the nicest in Japan. There’s a nearby water source, and you flush the toilet by riding a stationary bicycle! As I was only up for the day, I said goodbye to the hut of my dreams and flew down the mountain via Mae-Makihata, on the trail that most people use to access the mountain. Back at the trailhead, with plenty of daylight to spare, but I still had to find a way back to Muikamachi station. I had over 2 hours to kill until the bus came, so I started walking down the road, hoping to use my thumb. After a few minutes, a car had stopped, offering me a ride to the station. It was a group of people I’d met on the mountain!

Mt. Makihata had been a rare success in a region of consistently foul weather. When I arrived at Tokyo station, there were announcements that the Niigata shinkansen was delayed because of a strong aftershock! How lucky was I on the timing? If I’d waited for the bus, then I would’ve felt the aftershock and could’ve been stranded. My morning shrine visits are finally starting to pay off.

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I’ve always been a fan of hiking during satsukibare (五月晴れ), which, along with akibare (秋晴れ)are the two best times for fair weather hiking in Japan. Satuskibare is the time between the breakup of the winter monsoon and the start of the summer rain front, so it was with great enthusiasm that I boarded a night bus bound for Nagano city in mid-May.

The bus rolled into Nagano at a quarter to 7, allowing me enough time to grab some quick supplies before jumping on the first bus to Togakushi Kogen, the start of the hike. It had rained the night before, but the clouds were breaking up, and I was praying that the weather would be OK in the hills. I finally got to the start of the hike around 8:45am, and was so happy to see the sun out! The first part of the hike was through a cow pasture, and it’s the one of the few animals that I’m absolutely terrified of, thanks to a traumatic run-in with a bull as a child. Luckily, the creatures were nowhere to be found, and the site of the cherry blossoms in full bloom put my mind at ease.

I could see the peaks of Mt. Togakushi didn’t have too much snow left on them, so I was wondering if I’d need my crampons at all. The trail got steep rather quickly, and followed a wonderful stream that was gushing with fresh snow melt. I reached the emergency hut around 10am, where I got my first glimpse of Mt. Takazuma. “Holy cow!”, I moaned, as the obelisk-shaped peak darted towards the sky, completely covered in white! I was expecting a snow field on the saddle, but not this. I took a quick break and started my climb towards Mt. Gojizo (五地蔵). I hit snow after about 5 minutes, and it was so soft and fluffy, having fallen just hours earlier. I definitely wasn’t expecting fresh snow in May, but there it was, directly before my eyes. Good thing I brought my crampons!

The snow got deeper and the wind was pretty strong, but the clouds were gone. Mt. Myoko and Hiuchi got a fresh coating, and Hakuba was looking as if winter never left. The top of Mt. Takuzuma looked so far away and oh so steep. I was beginning to wonder if I could actually make it to the top, especially since I’d forgotten my ice axe. It’s always a difficult choice deciding what to bring on hikes during the spring. Heavy-duty vs. light crampons? Axe axe vs. trekking pole? I went for a combination of both, bringing my 6-point crampons but opting for a sturdy hiking stick.

I descended to the saddle just below the summit and put on my climbing irons. This was it. I took a deep breath and started the long climb. There were huge drops off to the left side, so I made sure to stay as far right as I could. The snow was really hard and compact, and kick stepping was tough without toe crampons, but I compensated by grabbing whatever lay in my path: buried trees, plants, rocks, you name it. The wind was howling from the right, pelting me with ice pellets from the neighboring trees and threatening to blow me off the side of the peak. Still, I clambered on, taking it one agonizing step at a time. Miraculously I made it to the summit plateau, where the path flattened out significantly. I took a quick break on top and tried to calm myself from the adrenalin rush. 11:45am. Not bad for an under-equipped hiker in winter conditions!

I flew back down to the saddle, running and jumping for joy. The hard part was over, and I simply retraced my steps back to Togakushi, where I feasted on delicious soba and surprised a group of retirees when I spread my things on the pavement to dry. I made the 4pm bus back to Nagano, and dreamed of a day when I can come back and conquer the spiny ridge of Mt. Togakushi.

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Oze Chapter 1 – Shibutsu

I’d always had Oze on my list of places to visit, so it was with great excitement and anticipation that I set off one weekend in September to conquer Mt. Shibutsu and possibly Mt. Hiuchi. This time I brought my wife Kanako along , as well as my trusty hiking partner Yuuki (from the “Notorious Nikko” post).

Kanako and I jumped on the night bus from Osaka, planning to meet Yuuki at Numata station early on a Sunday morning. As the bus pulled into the station around 7:30am, we were greeted with the all-too-familiar site of pounding rain and dark, menacing clouds. Yuuki, being the frugal chap he is, took a local train and wasn’t due in until 9am, which left Kanako and I with plenty of time to kill. Luckily, we spied a cafe above a souvenir shop and next to a convenience store perpendicular to the station. Not only was it open, but they had a breakfast menu and seats overlooking the station roundabout, where we could watch the weather and locals. Usually in fine weather I’m quite the impatient person, but in nasty weather I do my best to procrastinate as long as possible.

Yuuki finally rolled into town, and we all took our appointed place in line at the bus stop. Just as the bus was arriving, an older gentlemen came over to talk to us. “Would you like to share a taxi with me? It’s the same price as the bus.” The thought of shelling out 2500 yen for a 2+ hour ride on a cramped bus didn’t sound appealing, but spending the same amount of money for a comfy 45-minute ride to the trailhead did, so we all threw out gear in the trunk and headed for the hills. What a brilliant idea! If you’re going to spend the money anyway, you might as well ride in style.

We arrived at Hatomachi-toge just before noon, and had a difficult decision to make. Climb now or save it for tomorrow? Just as we were starting to ponder, the clouds suddenly dropped and we had a clear view of the summit! You’ve never seen a more eager group of hikers grab their gear and head up to the hills as us! Overused is an understatement for the Shibutsu trail, as the nearly 1 meter gully we were ascending was completely bare of vegetation. The map makes Shibutsu look like a walk in the park, but it’s a suprisingly long and steep climb, especially once you hit the main ridge line. Appropriately enough, just as we did so the fog and rain returned to the peak, leaving 3 disappointed hikers. Still, we didn’t give up our quest to sit on the summit, just in case the views decided to open up again.

We finally made it to the top around 2:30pm, but the clouds hung thick, with a light drizzle and soft wind. Yuuki and I are some of the fastest hikers around, but Kanako struggled to keep up, so I had a crafty idea for the descent. The map said the trail down to Oze is solely for ascending and no one should attempt to climb down from the summit. I hate these kind of rules, but I guess someone must’ve broken their leg at some point so the officials decided to make it “safe” for everyone else. Anyway, my wife didn’t want to take the closed trail and I didn’t feel like arguing, so we decided to descend back to Hatomachi. “Kanako, since you’re a slow hiker, why don’t you descend first, and Yuuki and I will catch up a few minutes later. I’ll carry your backpack until we catch up with you. Then you have to carry it.” Boy, did the smile light up on her face, as she vanished into the mist. Yuuki and I cooked up some instant ramen, because we wanted to give Kanako a nice head start. We departed about 15 minutes later. I carried my pack on my back and my wife’s on the front, just like a turtle-esque western backpacker wandering through Europe with too much baggage!

I have over 2 decades of hiking experience under my belt and I’ve been know to fly down mountains at a fraction of the time the guidebooks allocate, but Yuuki and I could not seem to catch Kanako. At one point we passed 2 Japanese hikers on their way up. “Did you see a young girl descending by herself?”, I asked. “Yeah, she was trotting along at a healthy pace,” they answered. By now, the wooden planks on the trail had become perilously slippery due to the colllection of excess rainwater, and I showed off my best John Travolta moves in order to stay upright. Inevitably, I took more than a few nasty tumbles, but with backpacks on both sides I barely felt a thing. Yuuki and I finally made it back to the trailhead, only to find my wife with a bar of chocolate in one hand, and a bottle of tea in the other, with the hugest grin on her face!  But, hey – we made it off Shibutsu in only 45 minutes!

We descended to Yama-no-hana and stayed in a nice hut.  The next day the weather got worse, so we bagged the idea of climbing Hiuchi and headed back to civilization.  Hiuchi would have to wait until spring.

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