Archive for July, 2008

In order to climb all of the Hyakumeizan, sometimes you have to resort to some physical hardships: financially devastating taxi rides, obscenely tight hiking times, sleepless nights on cramped buses, sleeping in dark corners of train stations. You get the picture. It took quite a lot of thinking before I finally came up with a feasible plan for tackling one of the most inaccessible of the Hundred peaks. A night bus from Osaka to Numata, the first bus to Fukuwari waterfall, followed by a 20km bicycle ride on the most rugged of forest roads. It all sounded so sweet on paper, so what could go wrong?

My plan was to depart on a Thursday night for a Friday afternoon assault. I’d made prior arrangements with my Aussie friend Joey to borrow his mountain bike. I called him on Monday evening to confirm a pick-up time, only to learn to my grave horror that his bike had been lifted just 2 days prior! Just my luck, since I’d already bought a bus ticket. I did some quick thinking. In the parking lot of my apartment building, there are a few abandoned bikes that have seen better days. I picked out a nice looking folding bike with flat tires and a rusty chain. It was completely unlocked, so I got out my pump and tested the tires. The next morning they were still completely inflated, which was the main test of worry. I spent a good half an hour cleaning off the thick network of cobwebs and spider webs, as well as giving it a good dusting and a quick test ride around the block. Everything seemed ok, so I called up my Canadian friend Krzysztof to borrow his bike bag and I was in business. This was truly turning into an International affair. Some of you may be wondering about the ethnics of stealing an abandoned bike, but let me clarify that I was planning to return the bicycle to its exact location exactly 2 days later, so I’d much rather use the term “borrowing”.

I walked up to the bus terminal just before the departure time, showed my ticket, and headed to the baggage loading area under the bus. “Actually, you’re not supposed to bring bikes on this bus”, warned the attendant, as he loaded the bike into the empty compartment. That’s one of the things I love about Japan! Was this guy really going to make me leave my bike at the bus terminal, or make me choose between the bus or the bike? I told him I didn’t know the rules, but with only 2 other passengers on the entire bus, it didn’t really make much difference anyway.

Since it was a weekday, the bus rolled into Numata station around 40 minutes earlier than originally scheduled, so I had time to eat some breakfast before boarding the one hour bus ride to the waterfall. The weather was perfect, as I could see Mt. Tanigawa rising in the distance, above the clouds. Mt. Akagi was also peeking its head out to say hello. I got off at the bus stop, unloaded the bag, and proceeded to unfold the bike. The man outside of the souvenir stall started quizzing me about my intentions. Instead of trying to dissuade me, he gave me a hearty “ganbare” and shoved a free can of pocari sweat into my hands! I strapped on my helmet and rode off into the sunset (well, at least up the steep hill to the start of the trailhead). I soon realized my first problem of the day: the gear shift was broken! Sure it was a 6-speed bike, but the bike only stayed in the highest gear. In order to ride in the lowest gears you had to hold the shifter in place. No wonder this bike was abandoned! Would I really be able to make it to the trailhead? I knew if I tried to ride the entire way, my legs would be like jelly and I’d be in no condition to go hiking! I resorted to a combination of riding and pushing the bike. Basically I’d ride on all the downhill and flat parts, and push the bike on the hillier/rockier bits. The bike just barely survived the 4-1/2 hour journey, as the chain kept popping off and various bike parts flew every which way. The only thing that saved me was the fact that the bike had rear shocks, so I couldn’t feel any of the bumps! By the time I arrived at the trailhead, it was already 11:30am, but I remember Julian’s previous advice: “Getting there is the toughest part of the hike”. Yep, the hardest part was behind me, but I was really starting to wonder how I’d get back to civilization before dusk. I ate a quick lunch, stowed unnecessary gear in the toilet hut, and started on my way.

It turns out that the bike ride was the perfect warm-up for my body, as I felt great hiking along the trail. There was a “Beware of Bears” sign at the entrance to the trail, which never scares me. In fact, it’s been one of my dreams to see a bear in Japan. Most of them are nocturnal and completely harmless, but given a notorious reputation by the Japanese media because they come down to town in Autumn to eat the farmers crops. Anyway, I noticed that it was only 3km to the summit of Mt. Sukai. I now know why this approach is so popular! If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that Japanese hikers are basically lazy. If given a choice of approaches, they almost always choose the shortest one, or the one with a gondola!

I flew up the short path, surprising myself by arriving at the ridge line in only 45 minutes! Sure the hike was ridiculously steep, but there were plenty of ropes and tree roots to grab onto along the way. I turned left for the short climb to the summit. The cloud was completely in, but for some odd reason it made the mountain extremely beautiful. Sometimes it’s nice to look at virgin forest and the color gradation against the white backdrop of cloud. I retreated back to the trail junction at the ridge line. It was here that I met the only other people of the day. A husband and wife team of hikers. They’d come up from the same path I’d taken, and were on their way to the summit. I told them about how I’d ridden my bicycle all the way along the forest road, and the gentleman responded with what must be my favorite Japanese phrase: “nosete ageru yo”, which translates “we’ll give you a ride”. I didn’t even ask, but here they were offering to save me another painful 20km ride on the road! “You’ll have to wait until we get off the mountain, though”, he added. “We should be back around 5pm.” This was the happiest I’ve felt in a long time, as I slowly and leisurely descended back the way I came. It was such a huge change from my hurried pace earlier. I must’ve spend about an hour sitting by the mountain stream, watching the water flow and reflecting on all my Hyakumeizan hikes: the hidden beauty of Japan, the kindness of the people, my extremely good timing. Sure enough, the couple returned at preciously 5pm and we headed to Hotaka kogen, where they were able to talk the owner into giving me an empty room and 2 meals for only 5000 yen!

The next day, I rode the bike back to the Fukuwari bus stop, left my bike at the police box for safe keeping (they never bothered to check if it was my bike or not), and spent some time sitting by the Niagara falls of Gunma Prefecture, so peaceful and absolutely deserted at 7 in the morning. I caught the bus to Jomon-Kogen station, and then the Shinkansen back to Osaka. I returned the bike to exactly the same place I’d found it, and marked Mt. Sukai off my ‘to climb’ list. I also have a daily reminder of my adventure every time I retrieve my bike.


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Mt. Tsurugi is the only peak in Japan I’ve turned back on, so I was ready to get revenge on this monstrous peak…..or was I?

My friend Fumito lives in Nagano Pref. and is an avid hiker. We met at Shiojiri station on Friday night in mid July, and decided to drive to Ogisawa, where we’d catch the bus/cable car/gondola/bus rip-off scheme, otherwise known as the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route. The road to Ogisawa was closed for construction, and wouldn’t open for a few more hours, so we retreated to the side of the road for some shuteye. The rain was pounding down outside, so we opted for cramped comfort in the car.

We set the alarm for 5am, and proceeded to the massive parking lot at Ogisawa. “The first bus isn’t until 7:30am”, cried Fumito. Well, at least we had time for breakfast! The sky was starting to clear, but boy was the wind howling. The price to Murodo was 5700 yen one way per person, but I used my disability card to garner a half price discount for both of us! The power of being “disabled” in Japan. (more on that in another post). We had to pay some extra money because we had a “big” backpack, and we boarded the bus. 15 minutes later (it’s got to be the most expensive bus in Japan), and a short stroll across Kurobe Dam (the Hoover Dam of Japan), we were first in line for the cable car. “That’ll be 400 yen”, said the attendant. “What?”, I inquired. “Your backpack is too big”, retorted the sharp dressed woman behind the counter. “But we’ve already paid at Ogisawa!”, I protested. Those motherf*%#ers! As if they didn’t make enough money from the transport! Craig McLaughlin wrote about this in his “Hyakumeizan” book, and I’m sure he was the first and last person to pull the wool over their eyes, as they’ve now got all bases covered. If your backpacks meets one of the following criteria, then you’ve got to pay the extra fee: 1) a capacity of 50 liters or more, 2) 1 meter or more in height or 3) weighing more than 20kg. My advice? Cram everything you need into a 40 liter pack and pray it doesn’t weigh too much! I’ve got a better idea for these idiots: Why not charge people 400 yen if they’re not wearing proper walking shoes?

We arrived in Murodo after nearly 2 hours of riding, waiting, riding some more, and waiting some more. Murodo was just as I’d remembered it 6 years ago and back then I vowed to NEVER come back to this place! So, what was I doing here again? Heaps upon heaps of tourists, pushing each other for the toilets, cramming the souvenir stalls, and being generally ignorant of the stunning beauty outside. I’ve never exited a bus terminal faster than I had on that morning, because we had a lot of ground to cover.

Fumito and I started on the paved trail towards Raicho-daira, filling up on plenty of water before setting out. It was foggy, cool, and very windy. Plus, part of the track was still buried under a meter of snow! It took about an hour to reach the campground, where we crossed the river and started the long, nasty slog towards Tsurugi-gozen hut. It was basically just one huge snowfield, which took forever to get through. It was already noon by the time we reached the ridge line. We’d have to abandon our goal of climbing Tsurugi that afternoon. For one, we couldn’t even see it! In addition, the winds were way too strong. We dropped down to Tsurugi-sawa, where we set up camp. The entire campground was still buried under the snow, but we found one small patch of bare land behind a huge boulder, which sheltered us from the wind. The person in charge of collecting money for the campsites didn’t even bother to charge us the 500 yen. “The campground doesn’t open until next weekend”, he admitted. He sported a very dark goggle tan on his face: evidence that he’d probably taken a few ski runs during the slow month of the rainy season.

We’d just set up camp and were preparing to cook when I had a dizzy spell. This has happened to me before, so I knew exactly what to do. I just closed my eyes, sat very still, and imagined that the ground wasn’t moving. Sure enough, it went away after a few minutes, but I still felt horrible. A slight headache, dry cough, and no appetite. I forced some food into my stomach and laid down. I’d had altitude sickness before when I climbed Mt. Shasta in California, and I had to come to grips with my current situation. Having gone from sea level to 2500m in less that 24 hours was taking its toll, and I knew right then and there that I wasn’t going to make it up Tsurugi this time. Imagine if I’d had a dizzy spell on one of the many chains and ladders!

The weather cleared up and we could actually see the summit around dusk. Bedtime came early, as Fumito would have to get an early start to make it to the top. I didn’t sleep well at all. I think it was a combination of lots of things. The sunrise was beautiful, but the top of Tsurugi was shrouded in cloud. Fumito set off while I stayed behind. I had an alternative plan of climbing Mt. Dainichi. If I couldn’t climb one of the 100 famous mountains, I’d settle for climbing one of the 200. That way, I’d never have to come back to Murodo again. I packed up and climbed back up to the ridge. The weather was stunning, and Dainichi was shining wonderfully in the morning sun. My body was well acclimatized, and I felt much better than I had the day before. However, I was in the mood for a more leisurely stroll without the risk of death, and Dainichi filled that niche perfectly. Plus, there were hardly any people on the trail. Quite a contrast from the mayhem of Murodo below. I raced up to the summit, leaving my heavy pack at the Raicho-daira trail junction. I had the pleasure of seeing 3 different families of Ptarmigan, each with recently hatched chicks. Spectacular alpine scenery, clean air, peace – three things I really needed to cure my fragile body. I retraced my steps back to the junction, using the remaining snowfields to show off my glissading skills. At one point I got a standing ovation from a group of elderly hikers taking a break nearby. I must’ve impressed them with my speed and agility. Or perhaps they were applauding my utter stupidity for sliding on such bumpy, slushy snow!

Anyway, I flew down to Raicho-daira and started the slow, boring climb back to Murodo. The absolute number one reason why I hate this place SO MUCH is because of the people. When you’re hiking on the ridge line everyone is so friendly, but the closer you get to the bus terminal, the unfriendlier they get. No ‘konnichiwa’ greetings, people carelessly eating bento with disposable chopsticks, women in heels and blue jeans stopping to pose with photos of meaningless signboards. I showed my utter disgust by kick-stepping through a snowfield, showering countless tourists with snow shavings. I didn’t even look back. In retrospect, it was probably a horrible thing to do, as tourists probably walked away with a negative image of dirty, smelly gaijin hikers, but it sure made my day. Farewell evil Murodo. May an avalanche come and take back what you have stolen from Mother Nature.

My next attempt at Tsurugi will be in the autumn from the other side of the mountain, via the Hayatsuki ridge line (早月尾根).

Chapter 2

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