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Archive for August, 2009

The ferry rolled into Aomori city in the early hours of a bright and beautiful August morning. As I made my way to the bus terminal, I couldn’t help but notice the unusually busy streets. The posters at the bus stop confirmed my suspicions, as the Nebuta festival was entering its final day. My mission, however, was to leave the throngs of spectators and head to the peaks south of the city for the first leg of my Tohoku Hyakumeizan Tour.

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The bus ride was pleasant enough, but the wonderful weather brought out the impatience in me. “Hurry up,” I murmured, as the bus stopped for a bathroom break a mere 10km from Sukayu hot spring. The peaks of Hakkoda rose majestically to my left and I seriously thought about abandoning the bus in favor of hitching. Those last 10km seemed to take an eternity, as I was convinced the summer fog would foil my plans for a summit view. Immediately after pulling into the terminus, I went to work, stashing my huge pack behind the public toilets. Food, water, camera. Check. An extra shirt just in case.

The trail was well-maintained and I soon set a rather brisk pace, traversing through a volcanic gully before arriving at the Sennin-tai emergency hut junction. Round volcanic cones in the richest hues of green rose up from the marshlands in all directions, as the last hints of winter gathered in the form of rabbit-shaped snowfields. The water source here rose up from deep within the earth, forming a small, crystal clear pond of refreshing liquid. I had my fill before setting off for the final slog to the high point of Odake.

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After passing a picturesque pond and weaving back and forth between the red pines and Maries’ firs, I reached the high point of Hakkoda, only to be met by crowds of hikers who’d come up from the more popular northern approach. Most hikers avoid the most scenic sections of the peak by opting for the luxury of the gondola, which whisks visitors to within 200 vertical meters of the summit. I was in no mood for dealing with crowds, so instead of exploring the neighboring peak of Akakura, I made a beeline back to Sukayu hot spring, indulging in the gigantic mixed bath that is rumored to hold up to 1000 people. Fortunately, there was hardly a soul in sight when I entered the refreshing waters. A quick glance at the clock knocked me back to reality, as it realized it was high noon and most of the tourists were probably in the neighboring restaurants. Noon? Why on earth didn’t I spend more time exploring the peaks?

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I retreated next door for a bowl of noodles and was fortunate enough to sit next to a talkative pair of men who offered me a ride to Hirosaki station. Perhaps I’d even be able to knock off Mt. Iwaki before sunset, whose towering edifice dominates the skyline for miles around. One day into my quest and I was already well ahead of schedule. I vowed to come back to Hakkoda in the winter for some backcountry powder and juhyo (‘ice monster’) viewing.

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Tohoku – Preface

Rewind to the summer of 2006. My first foray into the northernmost region of the main island and I was on a mission. Knock off as many of the Hyakumeizan as possible in a 10-day period without a car. Here is how the trip went:

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Day 1 – Ferry to Aomori, bus to Sukayu hot spring. Climbed Mt. Hakkoda and soaked in the baths. Hitched over to Mt. Iwaki and stayed on the summit.

Day 2 – bus to Hirosaki, train to Rikuchusato, hitched to Hachimantai, strolled through the marshlands, hitched to Hachimantai hot spring and camped.

Day 3 – Climbed Mt. Iwate via the Nanatsu-taki trail, bus to Morioka and stayed in a cheap minshuku.

Day 4 – bus to Hiratsuto, climbed Mt. Hayachine via a long, seldom used route on the northern face, bus back to Morioka, shinkansen to Akita, local train to Kisakata, camped on the beach.

Day 5 – Bus to Hokodate, climbed Mt. Chokai, stayed at Hokodate hut.

Day 6 – bus to Tsuruoka, stayed at a cheap minshuku (my first day off!)

Day 7 – bus to Gassan 8-chome (via Mt. Haguro), climbed Mt. Gassan, descended to Yudono shrine, climbed back up to the ridge and down to Gassan ski resort and camped there.

Day 8 – hitched from Gassan to Kotera-kosen, climbed Mt. Asahi and stayed at emergency hut below the summit.

Day 9 – climbed Mt. Asahi, watched the sunrise, descended to Asahi-kosen, ate the most delicious bowl of soba in my life, took a well-needed bath, shared a taxi to Aterazawa, train to Yamagata, bus to Zao Onsen, hitched to Katta-toge, stayed in the emergency hut.

Day 10 – climbed Mt. Kumano, descended to Zao hot spring, soaked in the “dai-rotenburo”, bus to Yamagata, stayed in a cheap minshuku and collapsed from exhaustion.

Day 11 – bus to Niigata, ferry to Sado Island, enjoyed the Earth Celebration before heading back to Osaka.

I’ll write about each of these days as separate chapters in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more…

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“May I see your passport?”, inquired the stern police officer outside of Yatsuo station. “Why?”, I instantaneously retorted, resulting in a rather lengthy and embarrassing interrogation that I’ve grown uncomfortably accustomed to. I’d expect this in Osaka, but not in the middle of Toyama Prefecture! Cops with ego trips don’t sit well with me, but luckily I kept my cool long enough to avoid detainment. Thus begins the second stage in a Golden week that had quickly become tarnished.

After a long ‘bus’ journey (the bus itself was basically a converted minivan), I arrived at the start of the hike to Mt. Kongodo, ready to set up camp and dive into some dinner. The storage shed of an emergency hut was unlocked, so I forwent the hassle of setting up the tent in lieu of the concrete comfort of the dilapidated
dwelling. Coughing and squirming most of the night were my punishments for the first of many ill-fated decisions that would come back to haunt me.

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Early the next morning, I awoke to the sounds of dripping water. Upon opening the door to the hut, I found myself staring out into a foggy, wet abyss: hardly ideal hiking conditions for this dreary morning. I left all of the nonessentials in the hut and started up the steep path. I caught my stride within the first km or so and was making good time until WHAM – a sudden feeling of lightheadedness.

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I dropped to my knees and tried to balance myself. I pulled out my water bottle along with some snack food. “Perhaps I’m just a bit deydrated”, I thought, working my way extremely slowly up the terraced trail. My chest felt a little tight as breathing started to become a bit difficult. Foolishly, I pushed on, trying to convince myself that everything would be ok. 50 painstaking meters later, I sat on a pile of melting snow, completely defeated. Zapped of energy and completely exhausted, I make a decision that would ultimately save my life: turning around.

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As I sat on the snow, a figure appeared on the trail below me. I explained my predicament and the kind gentleman offered to give me a ride back to civilization after his ascent of the peak. I could now descend with the comfort of knowing that someone would be calling the search party if I failed to return to base camp. Slowly, I crawl back down the mountain, having knocked off over 500 vertical meters before my attack. I somehow miraculously retrace my steps to the trailhead, where a deserted picnic bench and bowl of hot noodles awaited. My breathing had returned to normal but my energy was entirely depleted.

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Diagnosis? Asthma! The first time in my entire life I’ve been afflicted with this potentially lethal condition. Medication for prevention and an inhaler for the attacks, I face a new hurdle and the possibility of never being able to get into the alpine again.

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The summer of 2006 was turning out to be truly epic. After an incredible 12-day, 10 mountain stint knocking off the peaks in Tohoku, I decide to up the ante by attempting an up-and-back ascent of Mt. Jonen, a behemoth monstrosity towering over the wasabi plantations of Toyoshina city. Map times suggest allocating 8-1/2 hours for the round-trip journey, so Fumito and I were keen to get an early start.

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Fumito picked me up at Shiojiri station, breaking the news to me as gently as he could: “the forest road to the trailhead is closed, so we’ve got an extra 4km hike each way.” We head to a nearby restaurant to work up a game plan before agreeing on a 3:30am departure. We pick up supplies before heading off for some rest.

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Dusk had barely shown itself as we headed up the deserted forest road. After a pleasant 3-1/2km warm-up we found the reason for our extra work: directly in front of us lie a 20m wide crevice, the victim of some major erosion during the most recent rainy season. Makeshift scaffolding formed an unsteady bridge across the gaping hole, and 200 meters further on, a huge beech tree sat directly in the center of the road, having miraculously stayed upright after sliding down the adjacent hillside. Once reaching the start of the hike at Hiedaira we made excellent time, following a beautiful river up the ravine towards our target peak.

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We hit a comfortable stride, surprisingly even ourselves by knocking through a section in a little over an hour that the map said would take 3-1/2. We took our first real break at the point where the trail left the cool waters of the river and started the steep zig-zag towards the ridge line. It was here that we met our first hikers of the day, having descended from the higher peaks earlier that morning. The sky was a deep azure, but we’d knew the cloud would inevitably roll in as the heat from the valley below met the crisp mountain air. Could we make it up before being enveloped in a torrent of cloud and mist?

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Our pace remained constant until reaching the hut at the saddle. 2400m above sea level, with the Hotaka range spread out directly in front of us. Mt. Yari was socked under a thick blanket of fog, while Oku-Hotaka was beginning to hide its head for the remainder of the day. Meanwhile, the clouds were building directly behind the summit of Mt. Jonen, a mere 400 vertical meters away.

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Despite the proximity, our pace slowed to a crawl, a victim of the thinning air and encroaching cloud cover. We had maybe 500 meters between us and the summit, but were making serious vertical elevation gains above the tree line. The hut we just departed from grew smaller and fainter by the minute, until it disappeared out of view completely. Undaunted, we pushed on, breaking out of the clouds just before reaching the signpost and tattered shrine on the exposed summit. We’d done it – another peak with a view as we stood in T-shirts at 2800m, wiping the hard-earned sweat from our brows.

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We wasted no time in descending my 64th peak, fearful that the thickened coverage might spawn an afternoon thunderstorm. Back at the forest road, we slowed our pace again, reflecting on our gargantuan effort. The hot spring we visited a short time later was most refreshing, as was the torrential downpour we experienced in the outdoor bath. Once again we’d beaten the rain, but I knew that my luck would eventually run out during the impending typhoon season. After all, my goal of reaching #75 by year’s end was truly in sight.

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