I have to admit – my first impression of Utsukushi-ga-hara wasn’t good. A mere stopover on the way back from climbing Yatsu-ga-take, just to tick another famous mountain off the list. Fumito didn’t even bother getting out of the car. The experience was so writhing that we both came up with a fitting nickname for the area: “utsukushikunai-hara”! So, some of you may be wondering why anyone would bother coming back a second, and dare I say it, a third time? To discover the reason why Mr. Fukada included it on his Hyakumeizan list and we quickly found the answer to the riddle: winter!
Gone are the heel-wearing, parasol-wielding tour groups. School kids? Nope. Even the cows are herded down to lower altitudes and browner pastures. Scenic. Serene. Refreshing. The behemoth collection of communication antenna are still there, but don’t see nearly as daunting when caked in a layer of ice and crystalline powder.
Our first winter excursion gave Fumito and I a chance to try out the snowshoes we’d rented in hopes of conquering Kusatsushirane in the snow. Utsukushi-ga-hara proved to be a respectable warm-up, and gave us the added challenge of white-out conditions and fierce winds. Not surprisingly, we had the entire plateau at our disposal, with not another living creature in sight. The snow drifts covered the tops of the wooden fences, making landmarks impossible to identify. Good thing we had a GPS, for we’d definitely go down in mountaineering history by succumbing to the elements on such an easy stroll.
We beat a hasty retreat in order to make our scheduled appointment with Mt. Kusatsu, but we vowed to come back to experience the jaw-dropping panoramic views of the Japan Alps, and the plateau did not disappoint! The second trip exactly one-year later was a warm-up for our winter ascent of Mt. Tateshina, and again there wasn’t a soul in sight. The tourist hotel on the summit is actually open all-year round, but even the staff aren’t used to seeing too many folks in the slow season.
Fumito and I must’ve stayed on the summit of Ougahana for close to an hour, tracing the outline of the Alps with our frozen gloves, name-dropping as we went. “Hotaka.” “Jonen.” “Yari.” “Harinoki.” “Kashimayari.” “Goryu.” The list went on and on, as each peak has a unique story forever etched in my mind. Across the valley, the peaks of the massive Mt. Myoko caldera showed off their wintry features, while Mt. Asama looked on with an eager eye.
We left the plateau with a heightened awareness that even in the most unsightly of places, true beauty can be found. You just have to nail the timing.