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Archive for March, 2009

With Golden Week just beginning, Kanako and I set out on a long train and bus journey from Osaka to the southwestern tip of Fukushima prefecture for my first post-op Hyakumeizan. Would the weather gods be kind to us, and more importantly, would the new ticker hold up?

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We arrived at the trailhead a little before 4pm, and immediately headed towards a lovely minshuku a short walk away. The kind couple showed us to our room and served up some local delicacies for dinner, including a local dish called sanshou uo, which I assumed was some sort of deep fried fish dipped in sanshou pepper. More on that later.

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Early the next morning, we started up the deserted forest road to the start of the trailhead. The sun was shining brightly, and we had a simple plan: climb to the summit and stay in the emergency hut. Yuuki would take the first train from Tokyo and join us at the hut around dusk. The large wooden staircase at the start of the trail was free from snow, but we ran into the white stuff another 20 minutes up the steep spur, and quickly put on our crampons (and sunglasses). Kanako and I took a leisurely pace, since we had all day and didn’t want to risk any careless slips.

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The beech forest has definitely seen better days. Victim to countless vandals who’d carelessly carved their initials into the precious bark, it brought to mind the recent defacing of the World Heritage trees in the Shirakami Mountains. We tried to keep our spirits up, instead focusing on the spendid play of light and shadow on the slowly retreating snow. Occasionally a skier would swoosh down from high above, enjoying the last clean runs of a dwindling snow season. Higher and higher we traversed, as the soft, fair weather clouds gently moved in from the west. Mt. Hiuchi stared at us across the valley, our target in two days time. We wondered if Yuuki would be able to catch up with us before we reached the hut.

The forest seemed to go on forever, but the other hikers on their way down assured us that we’d find the hut at the end of the tree line. Sure enough, we reached the last of the trees and saw a small triangle poking out from the top of the horizon: “there’s the roof”, I excitedly shouted, fully aware that we had another 2km of exposed hiking before we’d reach it. The locals had put large red, plastic poles in the snow to mark the path, but we didn’t need them in the clear weather. About a half hour into the treeless section, we saw a talk, dark figure climbing quickly behind us: “Yuuki?”, we both wondered, realizing that our friend was well ahead of schedule. “Yuuki!”

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The three of us climbed in high spirits, with Kanako and I shell-shocked that Yuuki had taken just 90 minutes to ascend an area that took us over 6 hours to complete. We arrived at the hut, greeted by two of the friendliest hut owners in Japan. “Welcome, you’re our first guests of the season!”. The husband and wife team enthusiastically gave us a tour and the rules. “The toilet is a separate building behind the hut,” explained the owner, “just climb over the 2 meter wall of snow”.

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After checking in and rehydrating, the 3 of us journeyed up to the summit in case the weather turned foul overnight. There was well over a meter of snow all around, and most of the signposts were still buried. The wonderful marshes and wild flowers wouldn’t show themselves for another month or so, but we enjoyed the winter scenery. “Let’s watch the sunrise from this point,” demanded Yuuki, before racing back down to the hut for a long awaited dinner. We cooked up some noodles in the lobby, while the hut owner brought out an interesting contraption. A cylindrical, foot-long metal tube, with a diameter of about 10cm. We were each allowed one guess about its use, but were dumbfounded by the answer. “The villagers use it to catch salamander, a local delicacy.” Kanako and I quickly put two-and-two together: “so that’s what we ate last night!” I mistakenly heard sanshou uo the previous night when the minshuku owner had really said sanshouuo, which is Japanese for salamander.

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We awoke well before dawn, cooking up some breakfast in the frigid lobby before heading back up to the summit, where we waited. And waited. And waited. There was a layer of cloud on the horizon, and we wouldn’t see the sun for a few hours. Kanako was cold, so she headed back down to the hut. Yuuki and I waited patiently, hoping for a gap in the clouds. Soon too, I started down, alone. I’d gotten about 50 meters away when I heard Yuuki shouting at me, waving his hands. I raced back up to the summit, wondering what all the commotion was about. Yuuki had spotted a kamoshika on a neighboring ridge, and I arrived just in time to see it tumbling down the steep slope.

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Just as we arrived back at the hut, the sun decided to come out, illuminating Mt. Hiuchi directly in front of us. We packed our things, said goodbyes to the hut staff, and started our long journey over to Oze. Aizu-koma was kind to us on this lovely early May morning, and the hospitality of the people in Hinoemata village will not be forgotten. To this day, even though I’ve filled out my address in dozens of mountain huts, minshuku, and other places of accommodation, the only New Year’s postcard we’ve ever received from any place we’ve stayed has been from the Aizu-koma emergency hut. We vowed to come back here again to repay our thanks.

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If there’s ever a maxim for hiking in Japan, then it must go something like this:

“The peaks with the easiest access are best visited out-of-season”

Hence, our latest challenge: a snowshoe stroll around an impressive volcanic caldera otherwise known as Kusatsu-shirane.

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Fumito and I rolled into town just before dusk, checking into the cheap minshuku before having a stroll around town. Kustatsu is one of the most famous hot spring towns in Japan, and this particular Saturday evening in mid-February was a testament to its gallantry. The very center of town consists of a massive open pit gushing with steaming lime-coloured volcanic water, a gift from the mountain deities. We ventured into a neighboring bathhouse, soaking in the scalding tub until turning bright pink, which took a little less than a minute. “Boy this stuff is hot!”, I exclaimed, immediately retreating to the cool confines of the changing area. Fumito concurred, adding: “I guess there’s a reason why these bathhouses are free.”

The next morning we awoke to a bright blue sky and very few clouds in sight. Scarfing down a quick breakfast, we drove up to the gondola entrance of the oldest ski resort in Japan to check on the gondola times. Our plan was simple: take the gondola up to the top of the mountain for an easy snowshoe stroll around the volcanic caldera, knocking off another Hyakumeizan in the process. In the summer, hoards of tacky tourists turn the place into a walking zoo, but we’d hope to avoid all that and explore the peak in its hibernatory bliss.

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“The gondola’s closed today”, read the signpost. “High winds”. Augghhh! You’ve got to be kidding! We’d drove all this way, been blessed for the nicest weather in weeks, and now this? Apparently someone was trying to keep us off the mountain that day. What could we do? A climb through the ski fields would easily take 6 hours, leaving us with no time for exloration. We’d forgone the crampons in favor of snowshoes, so another peak was out of the question. Then, an idea came to us. If we couldn’t climb a mountain today, we could at least get some exercise!

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Off we headed to a nearby golf course to ask the million dollar question. Fumito thought it best if I did the asking: they couldn’t possibly turn down a polite foreigner’s request, could they? I entered the clubhouse, explaining our predicament. “Sure, have fun out there,” said the kind superintendent, who’d just given us free reign of the entire golf course. “Just stay off the greens.” We strapped on our snowshoes and went to town.

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Japanese golf courses are some of the hilliest on earth, providing us ample opportunities to shape up our calf muscles. Silver birch trees, shimmering against an azure backdrop. Silence. Peace. Three things we definitely hadn’t planned on. Although our target peak remained out of grasp, we still made the most of the fantastic weather before heading back to Shiojiri.

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Kusatsu-shirane has eluded us, but revenge was in order. The only question remained was how to avoid the crowds. Another winter attempt? or perhaps a noctural mission? Stay tuned for the next chapter.

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I’d climbed it before, but I couldn’t erase the image of the snow-capped 2500m volcanic mass from my daily thoughts. Fumito was keen on the idea, so one cold March morning we gave it a go: the northern face of Tateshina!

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We pulled into the parking lot of Shirakaba-Kogen Kokusai Ski Resort on a stunningly beautiful bluebird day, unloaded the equipment, and filed our plans with the ski patrol. At least someone would know what we were up to. Opting to save precious daylight, we shelled out the money for the gondola, which whisked us to the 5th stagepoint of the 10 stage peak. The trail was well-marked for the leisurely stroll through the fresh powder to the trailhead proper at the 7th stage. In the summer,the parking lot is packed with day hikers, but on this particular winter morning, not a single creature was in sight. It seems that no one had made it up this peak for a few weeks, as there were no tracks to follow. Good thing Fumito brought his GPS.

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We strapped on our 12-point crampons, gripped our ice axes firmly, and started the short, steep climb towards the towering peak. Weaving in and out of a dense forest, we spotted our initial destination in the distance: a large shoulder sitting at the base of the summit plateau. Up we traversed, through fluffy, knee-deep snow. We took turns taking the lead, frequently checking the time with each passing step. We’d set 3pm as a turnaround time, and were well ahead of schedule thanks to our sustained effort.

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Around 45 minutes later, we popped out on the shoulder, finding a large mountain hut almost completely engulfed in snow. “Boy”, I exclaimed, “looks like it’s been a good year!” Fumito agreed, commenting on the meter or so of accumulation on the roof. The summit lie directly in front of us: an easy 30-minute stroll in the summer, but a gargantuan task during the white season. Fumito took the lead, as I kept a great distance behind in case he triggered an avalanche. I started my ascent when he gave the thumbs up, and we did our celebratory summit dance several minutes later, in plain sight of Yatsu-ga-take. Time check: 2pm

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The wind was whipping on the peak, so we slithered back down to the sheltered confines in front of the hut and cook up some lunch. I opted for instant pho, while Fumito dug into the udon. Hot noodles on a cold winter day really refresh the spirit, and we arose with increased rigor. We’d beaten the beast of Tateshima at her tricky game, and trotted back through the ski resort just as the skiers were carving their final runs of the day.

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With my internal cravings finally calmed, I could finally get a good nights sleep, but not for long. You see, once you make the commitment to climb the Hyakumeizan, the list will haunt you like a long-lost lover, taking over your thoughts and controlling your mind.

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The night was long. Too long. Bitterly cold, I drifted in and out of consciousness, counting down the minutes until daybreak. Retreating to the hut to cook some breakfast, I pored over the map. Last night’s companions had already started the long slog to Mt. Kinpu, so I sat all alone, thinking about the big day ahead. “Let’s hope the weather holds”, I prayed, remembering the depressing mist of Kinpu the previous afternoon. I stepped out of the hut, looking upwards. Not a cloud in sight. Breaking down camp never felt so good.

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The trail climbed behind the hut, revealing jaw-dropping views of the Minami Alps to the south, separated by the city of Kofu in the valley over a thousand meters below. Mt. Asama was completely caked in a thick layer of powdery frosting. It took about 40 minutes to reach the junction at Mae-Kokushi. Off came the pack for the 5-minute detour to Mt. Kitaokusenjo (北奥千丈岳), the highest point of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. 2600m above sea level and not a soul in sight. The snow was waist deep on the exposed peak, and it was only November! I retraced my steps to the junction and slogged on to the top of Kokushi-dake (not to be confused with Kobushi), where Ms. Fuji was patiently waiting. I let out a warm “nice to see you again” before settling down to a mid-morning snack.

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Refueled and refreshed, I head down the back side of the ridge, completely losing the track in the knee deep snow. Scant few traverse along the path I was heading, making my adventure so much more exciting. There was only one way to go – down to a long, flat saddle and up the other side to Kobushi. The more I descended the thinner the snow became, until I finally hit bare soil at the low point. I took off the crampons and surveyed Mt. Kobushi across the valley. I could see the summit, but I still had several hours of ups and downs before reaching my goal. I clasped my hands together and offered a small request to the gods: “stay with me sunshine”.

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The next hour or so was fairly uneventful, until reaching rather peculiar set of footprints. “That’s funny”, I thought “it’s much too cold to go hiking barefoot this time of year”. Wait a minute, this human only has 4 toes. The lump in my throat grew ever so slightly larger, and the reality of the situation finally sunk in: BEAR PRINTS!~

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I immediately froze, making as much noise as humanly possible, for I had no idea how fresh the prints were and wasn’t really keen on finding out either. The bear definitely knew where the path was, as I followed the prints for well over a kilometer, until reaching the junction just below the final summit climb. The prints descended down into the valley below, while I dug in the crampons for the final steep slog. Again, not a soul in sight, except for Ms. Fuji again, glistening blissfully in the distance. With peak #76 successfully scaled, I descended to the mountain hut just below the summit. It was still open for business, and I thought long and hard about the cold, miserable previous night spent in the tent, checked my finances and……checked in! A very wise investment of 3000 yen for a warm futon.

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I awoke early the next morning, hoping to catch the sunrise from the summit. Alone, I waited for well over an hour before realizing that the sun wasn’t coming out today. The views were still stupendous in the eerie wintry grayish-blue overcast landscape that lie before me.

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Frigid air and quickly numbing toes warranted an early escape to lower altitudes, and off I departed for Nishizawa gorge. I had another reason to head down to civilization: Fumito was on his way down from Shiojiri to meet me at the trailhead. Only 1400 vertical meters between us, which was knocked off in a flash. I stashed the pack behind a group of toilets, and Fumito and headed on a nice stroll through the gorge, followed by a meal of”houtou’ (famous soup of Yamanashi Pref.) and a warm bath.

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So there you have it – 3 peaks knocked off in 3 lovely days.

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Oscar Wilde once wrote that “no object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.” Could the opposite actually hold true for Mt. Ibuki, one of the ugliest, most overdeveloped peaks in Japan? cjw and I set out to test this hypothesis.

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The rain fell in hard sheets on the short train ride to the trailhead, where we were suddenly faced with the prospect of an abandoned attempt before even taking our first steps. As luck would have it, the train flew through the storm like a feline dowsed with a hose, revealing our target peak caked in a fresh layer of white. “Game on”, we both rejoiced.

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30 minutes into our long slog, we were faced with the harsh realities of a warming planet and a receding snowline. Snowshoes were stashed behind the public toilets, as the flakes fell gently all around us. Alone we marched, followed by a group of 8 elderly hikers a fair distance behind. As we traversed towards the plateau at the top of the abandoned gondola, the first patches of blue sky presented themselves, offering a good omen for the journey ahead. The desolate souvenir shops, boarded up for the long winter season, strangely brought images of Nepal to mind. “Should of brought the prayer flags”, I proudly suggested.

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Switchback after endless switchback, we rose high above the valley below. During a normal winter season, this would be an avalanche death trap, but here we were trekking through barely 30cm of fresh snow, with a respectable amount of day-trippers on their way down from the frozen summit. At the 8th stage, we chatted with a lone Japanese hiker wielding 10-point crampons and an ice axe. He’d spent the last 2 weeks or so knocking off the Hyakumeizan in Western Japan and Kyushu. Having completed the circuit last October, I gave some quick advice about the peaks in Hokkaido, which were left on his list.

On the fog-laden summit a short time later, we searched for our accommodation – a snow drift large (and stable) enough to house a snow cave. Mother nature left us with only two options. The first was to carve our way thorough a thick slab of nasty freeze-thaw crust 1 meter tall by several meters wide. 10 minutes of sweat-inducing digging and the thought of not being finished before nightfall made us go for option #2: sandwiched between a boarded up mountain hut and a snow drift lie a small area (less than one tatami mat in size) that formed a semi-natural cave. Our only task was to carve out an entrance and block off one of the exposed sides and we had our home for the night.

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Once set up in our new dwelling, the task of melting ice began. The sun kept poking its head out intermittently, but never seemed to overcome its shyness until much lower on the horizon. Then suddenly, like the raising of a curtain, the performance began. “Dinner can wait,” we exclaimed, as the gods of Ibuki put on one heck of a light show, continuing well past our bed time. You see, the setting sun was slowly replaced by the twinkling lights of Hikone far, far below. The light trails continued to the southeast, ending in a massive network of circuitry otherwise known as Nagoya city. Overhead, the constellations Orion and the Big Dipper smiled down on us, as Venus kept a bright signal for celestial navigation.

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Unfortunately, we awoke to a thick blanket of cloud and a noticeable change of wind direction – the low pressure system moving up from Kyushu! To the east, however, patches of blue were making themselves known. Off we trekked, in search of a sunrise. Short teases every now and again gave a glimpse of the possibilities. Yet, the wind was continuously blowing the fog from Lake Biwa to the west and never stayed clear for long. However, at precisely 8:15am, the curtain was once again lifted, revealing what had to be the bluest sky that the Kansai region has ever been blessed with. Hakusan belted out a quick ‘Konnichiwa’ in the distance, as the Kita Alps let out a faint ‘Irrashaimase’. Ondake opted to sleep in on this gorgeous Sunday morning, but Yatsu-ga-take and the Chuo Alps were playing a quick game of catch before heading off to church.

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The show finished much too quickly for our liking, but we were more than content. For we had successfully proven our theory about overdeveloped mountains. So I leave you with our newly revised maxim: “no mountain is so ugly that, under certain conditions, it will not look beautiful.” I’ll drink to that Oscar.

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