In two weeks time, the rainy season would be here……or would it? Hiking in June is always a bit of a gamble, so when fair weather presents itself, I usually stop whatever I’m doing and head to the hills. So goes my attempt at mountain #81 – a peak whose Chinese characters translate as ‘covered in rain,’
The train rolled into Minami-otari station shortly after 11pm. The station was deserted as I fiddled through my pack for the phone number of the taxi company. Fortunately, someone answered the phone and sent a taxi my way, saving me the long, monotonous stroll up to Otari-onsen. “The road’s closed beyond this point – you’ll have to walk from here”, remarked the driver upon dropping me off at a large barrier put across the road. I walked in silence for over an hour on the desolate forest road, hoping no creatures would come out in the night to size me up. Arriving at the trailhead around 1am, I scoped out a place to sleep
for the night. As luck would have it, there was an unlocked rest house with a wooden table and a clean concrete floor at the end of the parking lot. I settled in for a cozy nap.
My alarm rang much too quickly for my liking, but my eyes perked up while peeping outside for a look at the weather. Although it was still too early to tell, the calmness of the air suggested that the weather gods would be kind to me. Breakfast was leisurely devoured while poring over the map: an 800m elevation change over around 5km of hiking. Much easier than my epic ascent of Mt. Takazuma a few weeks earlier. The sound of voices broke my silent planning, as I looked up to find several minivans disgorging day hikers. “What?”, I screamed. Where they came from I had no idea, but I wasn’t about to share the trail with an enormous group of retirees, so I stuffed the map and breakfast into my sack and quickly escaped into uncharted territory.
The trail quickly dropped into a vast marshland, with endless rows of mizubasho in full bloom. Here I was, completely alone, traversing through an area of pristine beauty that gives Oze a run for its money. Seriously, if you’re turned off by the crowds in Oze, I highly recommend coming here during on any morning in early June. This was definitely bear territory, as I lauded my decision to rest at the trailhead instead of attempting a night assault. The marshlands eventually gave way to a spectacular virgin forest of fir and beech trees, with a floor still buried under a deep layer of snow. Amakazari becomes a human traffic jam in the autumn, as hikers shove elbows for a glance at the vibrant foliage, but on this sunny Sunday in early June it was mine, all mine.
Even though I had the entire mountain to myself, I kept a steady pace, constantly reminding myself that I had a very large group ascending somewhere behind me. Arriving at Arasugesawa, I caught a glimpse of the rocky summit rising high above me, to my left. All I had to do was descend down into the gully, up the other side, and climb up the massive shoulder to the ridge.
Traversing through the gully proved more challenging than expected, as each step loosened the snow enough to send trees popping out of the snow beneath me. The first tree that popped up nearly gave me a black eye, so I did my best not to set off any more ‘land mines’. I wasn’t exactly sure where the trail went, but I was pretty sure it didn’t climb directly up the cirque. Sure enough, the trail continued straight on and I was climbing up towards the summit on a snow-free ridge after a steep, nasty slog. I passed by a pair of trail junctions but still didn’t run into anyone else. It looked like I’d be the first one to summit that day.
Once on top, I said a quick hello to Mt. Asahi rising up in the distance across the valley. Mt Shirouma was slyly hiding under a gentle blanket of cloud, while Mt. Hiuchi looked on with envy. I could finally rest on the small summit and finish the breakfast I had started a few hours prior. I spent well over an hour soaking up the rays and observing nature’s gifts, while trying to make a crucial decision. Should I retrace my steps all the way back to Otari-onsen, or should I dive off down the north face of the mountain to Amakazari-onsen? Either way, I had a hot bath awaiting me.
As I retreated from the summit towards the trail junction that would decide my fate, a figure appeared in the distance. A solo hiker in his early 50s, on his way to the peak I’d just escaped from. “Which way did you come from?”, I inquired, with fingers crossed for a favorable answer. “Amakazari-onsen”, replied the man. Here was my chance, as I gathered information about trail conditions, the hot spring, and……access. “No, I don’t think there’s a bus, but I can give you a ride to Toyama station if you can wait for me to summit”, as I internally rejoiced for lucking out yet again.
I lazed about, observing the wildflowers and dreaming of the hot spring waters. My savior returned, and off we ventured to the junction. The no nonsense trail dropped straight down off the back side of the peak, through what can only be described as a ‘massive’ snowfield. I’m sure there are switchbacks during the summer hiking season, but before the rainy season it became a tricky game of kick-stepping, sliding and in some cases tumbling down the quickly rotting snow. A few hundred meters into our descent, we ran into an elderly gentleman with sweat pouring down his face. With his head wrapped in a bandanna and his body draped in flannel, he gave off a vibe of someone who’s known in the Nagano circuit. Sure enough, shortly after saying farewell to the energetic elder statesman, my hiking companion gave an explanation: “That man we just met is a very famous mountaineer. In fact, he was the one who built the trail from the Sea of Japan to Mt. Shirouma in the Kita Alps.” If only I could have remembered his name!
We spent over an hour descending through the snow until picking up the trail about 3/4 of the way down the ridge. A short time later, we were soaking in the therapeutic waters, with its mixed outdoor bath located in front of the hut about 50 meters from the indoor baths. We totally caught a few clothed visitors off guard by trampling through the courtyard with only a short towel around our waists! Mt. Amakazari treated me very well, but I soon knew the summer rains would come to wash the snows away. Could I knock off another peak before it happened? The challenge was on!