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.