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.