Mt. Iide was one mountain that had been on my list for quite a while, and I’d finally blocked out some time for the long, long approach. I’d prepared enough food to survive 3 days on the mountain, but managed to cram my sleeping bag, stove, food, and clothing into a 30 liter pack, opting to go without a space-eating sleeping pad. I booked the night bus to Niigata station, and all necessary train and bus schedules had been investigated. The only thing I had to worry about was the weather, for the forecast had lots of cloud marks and umbrellas!
The bus rolled into Niigata station, and I headed to a bakery to kill some time (there’s nothing like free air con!) before the first train. The train came soon enough, and I was waiting at Niitsu station in next to no time for the long, slow crawl to Yamato station. I’d managed a quick snooze before arriving around 10:15am on a national holiday in mid-July. The station was completely unmanned (why oh why did I pay the full fare?!), and the parking lot was completely deserted. So much for my plan to jump in a taxi! I searched for the phone number of the taxi company, hoping they’d be open on a national holiday. Sure enough, the dispatcher sent one my way, and before I knew it I was conversing with the driver, who sported a heavy Tohoku accent. He confessed that he’d lived in the town his whole life but had never been further than the Mt. Iide trailhead. The road leading to Kawairi was undergoing a massive widening project, and soon it would be a paved two-lane highway all the way to the start of the hike. It just goes to show how popular the Hyakumeizan are becoming. Mt. Iide used to be one of those mountains only the most hardcore hikers dare approached, but now (as evidenced by the massive trail erosion) it seems that every elderly pensioner is intent of conquering.
I arrived at Kawairi, filled up my water bottle, and quickly started on my way. It was 11am, and soon enough I’d gotten those familiar ‘kore kara’ comments from descending hikers. The map said it’d take 7-1/2 hours to reach the first hut of the day, but I knew that I’d easily be able to make it in half that time. Sure enough, I was sitting at Mikuni hut shortly before 2pm! The slog was long, and the humidity and insects just about did me in, but I had reason to celebrate. You see, the clouds were breaking up and fair weather was on its way. It was way too early to call it a day, so I continued over toward the next hut on the traverse, Kiriai koya. There was a lot of up and down, and the ridge would’ve been quite treacherous in foul weather, but I was blessed with warm sunshine and ever-improving views! I rolled into Kiriai a little past 3pm, and was shocked to see a rather large crowd gathered out front. At least 30 people were basking in the sunshine, chattering loudly about the next day’s plans. I took a quick respite and replenished my dehydrated body with much-needed water. I still had 4 hours of sunlight left, and I would’ve been a fool to shack up with all those noisy elderly hikers, so I clambered on. I heard the echoes of ‘kore kara’ fading behind me, but I powered through the massive snow fields without even looking back! I was half their age and probably had 4 times the amount of hiking experience. Plus, the weather was incredible. The climb up to Mt. Iide was long and relentless, but I was awarded with a wonderful hut with only 3 guests! I checked in, cooked some lunch, and took in the scenery. The clouds were just starting to lift off of Mt. Dainichi, the highest point of the mountain range. The sunset was setting itself up nicely, and I wasn’t about to sit in the hut drinking alcohol with the other guests. I took off for the summit of Mt. Iide, armed with my camera and a bottle of water. It only took 10 minutes from the hut to reach the top, and I’d made it just in time. Phenomenal was an understatement, and the sight re-confirmed my belief that the mountains of Tohoku are the best in Japan.
That night, I was victim to a drunken cacophony of the most grating kind – snorers! I’d thought I’d be safe with only 3 other guests in the hut, but all 3 of them must’ve been finalists in the national snoring competition. I’ve got to bring my earplugs next time, or at least some pebbles to throw at the offenders! I still can’t believe how much booze Japanese people drink in the mountains. I wonder how many mountain accidents are caused by alcohol? The guy sleeping near me drank 3 cans of beer, a cup of sake, and some whisky, but absolutely no water. Hmmm……..
The next day I woke up early to catch the sunrise and to find solitude. The weather was bizarre – a thick layer of cloud behind the hut, but crystal clear directly in front. I spent the next hour or so on the gentle ridgeline, alternating between warm, refreshing sunshine and a thick blanket of fog. By the time I got over to Mt. Dainichi the cloud had settled for good. Oh well, at least I had views the previous evening. I dropped my pack off at Onishi-goya for the 90 minute round-trip assault to the top of Iide’s highest point. Upon returning to the hut, I checked over the map. It was 9am and I had a good 4 hours or so to Kairagi hut.
The ridgeline was still buried under a meter of snow (was this really mid-July?). It wasn’t too treacherous, but really difficult to see which direction to go in the mist. I followed others footprints, hoping they knew the way. Occasionally the trail would pop out of the white stuff and climb past some alpine lakes. About an hour into the traverse I came across 2 volunteers in charge of trail maintenance. They’d set up folding chairs in the middle of the trail and were drinking beer at 10 in the morning! I can’t quite figure out what exactly they were supposed to do – it’s not like there was any bamboo grass to clear or anything. I pressed on, pretty much without stopping, and arrived at Kairagi shortly just before noon. The hut has a great natural spring, so I had my fill of refreshing water and got my bearings. A trail descended directly in front of the hut, down a massive cirque. This is one of the most popular access points for experienced climbers, and it makes the Daisekkei in Hakuba look like a bunny slope. I’d love to come back here to try this route someday. I noticed that the next hut was only 90 minutes away, so after a quick lunch I dashed off to the top of Mt. Kitamata. The clouds were starting to break up, and I wondered if I’d be treated to another spectacular sunset. The final hut of the traverse, Monnai, was staffed by 2 of the friendliest people on the entire mountain range. I get the feeling that most people bypass their hut in favor of Kairagi, which is a shame because I really feel that the hut staff make all the difference in the world when it comes to accommodation. I can even put up with snoring if the hut has a good vibe with friendly owners! They gave me advice about the trail down to Iide Hot Spring and shoved 2 ripe plums in my hands. I was overjoyed to say the least. I had 2 choices – I could check into the hut, stay the night, and hope for fair weather or I could descend down to the trailhead and enjoy the hot spring!
Needless to say, the bath option won out, and I set off around 2pm for the knee knocking 1400 vertical meter descent! My legs took a beating, and by the time I arrived at Iide-sanso I had 3 decent-sized blisters on my feet. But, hey, I did it! A tough, 35km traverse in just 30 hours! I checked into the hut, telling the manager that I just wanted a place to sleep on the floor – I had my own sleeping gear and food. He led me towards the back of the hut and showed me to my room. It was some kind of meeting room, with a large carpet and tables folded against the wall. It was easily twice the size of my apartment and I had it completely to myself. Plus, there was a kitchen upstairs with propane burners. I can’t believe I paid 2000 yen to stay at the emergency hut on Iide, but here I was staying at a proper hut with a kitchen and hot spring for 300 yen less! Anyway, it rained hard most of the night, and I knew I’d made the right decision. The next day, I took the bus and train all the way to Osaka, having marked another mountain off the list.