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).