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.
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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.