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Archive for November, 2009

The forecast wasn’t looking good. Rain and cloud marks on the horizon for the next several days, but some unseen force seemed to propel me onto that overnight train bound for Hakuba in early October. The assignment? A 3-day traverse up to Mt. Shirouma and along the ridge to Mt. Karamatsu before descending via Happo-One ski resort.

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The peaks were engulfed in thick cloud as I boarded the bus for Sarukura, the starting point for one of the more popular routes up to the summit. The bus was only about a quarter-full, thanks no doubt to the foul weather and lateness of the season. After stretching my muscles and exhuming the winter coat inadvertently buried at the very bottom of my oversized pack, I headed up the trail just to the left of the large mountain hut. The path, much to my surprise, turned into a long, gravel forest road which carved its way past concrete waterfalls, dams, and other man-made atrocities. The rain was calm but steady, and I was thankful for buying the new pack cover the previous day. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached the end of the road and onto the trailhead proper. First stop: Hakuba-jiri hut.

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The rest area inside the hut was warm and absolutely inviting as I drank warm cocoa and studied the maps. I knew that soon I’d be entering the Dai-sekkei, a enormous year-round snow field requiring crampons for safe passage. Anyone who lived in Japan in 2003 will remember the difficulty of finding winter hiking equipment, as I had to visit 3 different outdoor shops to find what I needed: a sturdy pair of 6-pointers that would become the single most important piece of equipment in my kit during the coming years. At the hut I couldn’t help noticing that every single rafter and floorboard were numbered and seemed to fit together like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. “We dismantle the hut every year to prevent avalanches from wiping it out,” confessed one of the hut employees upon my polite inquiry. “We’re to start dismantling as soon as the weather clears.”

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I worked my way to the start of the snow field, anxious to try out the new crampons. The snow had formed an gargantuan melt-freeze layer several meters thick, and my new equipment sure made things easier. The Lonely Planet guys are nuts when they said crampons weren’t necessary. Obviously they’d never done the hike this late in the season.

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Up and up through the eternal valley of snow I marched, impressed with the majestic interplay of the rocks, snow, autumn foliage and cloud cover. The rain eased enough to allow me to capture a few snaps of the misty scene surrounding me.

Eventually the path disappeared into thick cloud cover, but the scuff-marks in the snow were easy enough to make out. Hitting the upper reaches of the crumbling snow wall, I found the real path marked with yellow circles diligently painted on the slippery rocks. It was now well past noon, and scores of other hikers had made their way off the mighty peak. “There’s no view today,” remarked a dejected outdoorsman. “The wind’s really strong on the ridge,” added his flannel-clad partner. Unabashed, I pushed on relentlessly up the incredibly steep valley, finally reaching the junction for the ridge walk.

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I turned right, immediately passing the deserted campground in favor of the warm confines of the largest hut I’d ever seen. Even though I’d brought my tent, there was no sense in ‘roughing it’ in gail-force winds with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark. I checked-in, changed, and hung my wet, dirty gear in the large drying room.

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26. In a hut that sleeps over 1500 people, the 26 guests that were lucky enough to stay on the final night of season for Hakuba-sanso were in for a treat. The staff treated us like royalty and the laid-back atmosphere of the common room is probably a rarity in the summer hiking frenzy. “Ever played Shogi?”, asked a friendly guy in his late-20s. “No,” I sheepishly replied, “but I’ve played chess before.” The next 45-minutes were some of the finest I’ve spent in any mountain hut in Japan, as the two dozen other guests gathered around to watch an impromptu reenactment of the Fischer-Spassky duel. Needless to say, my opponent pummeled me in near-record time. The only reason the match lasted as long as it did was due to the explanation of the rules, which I must’ve broken more times than followed. Still, it was a cultural experience I’m unlikely to forget (or repeat) anytime soon.

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Only a 10-minute stroll away, I psyched myself into going for a late afternoon scramble up to the official high point of Mt. Shirouma, but quickly abandoned the idea after sliding open the front door and discovering that the rain had turned into snow! This trip was just about to become much more interesting.

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8 long years I’ve waited, searching for the perfect opportunity to get revenge on this soggy plateau. My last visit consisted of rubbing elbows with hundreds of other tourists in a torrential downpour before escaping into the serenity of Osugi gorge. On this unseasonably blustery Culture Day in early November, I decided to roll the dice.

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Between bouts of sleep, Kanako and I had wondered about the crowds during the 90-minute train ride to Yamato-Kamiichi station. Would the cold keep away the ill-equipped or would it only encourage the masses to go for a Tuesday drive to the plateau? I’d conspicuously kept my fingers crossed during most of the journey: what if the rain of the previous night happened to fall as frozen flakes on the summit? Nah, not at 1800m so early in the season in Western Japan.

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“Odai?”, asked the bus staff as soon as we alighted at the station. “Please register over there”, said the jovial man in a freshly pressed suit, pointing to the waiting room filled with half a dozen other bus passengers. “Hmmm,”, I pondered, why the sudden need to keep track of visitors on one of the easiest hikes in Japan?

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The bus ride started out non-eventful, following the upper reaches of the Yoshino river through an area of public works devastation. Dams, concrete river embankments, suspension bridges to nowhere. The Nara Prefectural government has done their finest to ensure our taxpayer money is put to full use. The 90-minute journey became a lot more interesting, however, as we reached the turn-off for the long, windy road to summit. A police blockade was set up, turning back all vehicles without chains. Apparently the higher beings had heard my silent pleas and rewarded me with the first snowfall of the year.

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Anyone who’s been to Odai-ga-hara can tell you that the access road carved into the ridge is enough to turn even the strongest stomach: hairpin turns, blind corners, and gnarly drops hundreds of meters into a vast canyon below. Yet, the police roadblock kept only but the most adventurous at bay. Arriving at the rest stop around 10km short of the terminus, the driver let us out while he put on the chains. Ever seen the autumn leaves coated with a dusting of fresh, crystalline powder?

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We all boarded the bus again with a sense of excitement not witnessed for quite some time. Cameras glued to the windows, as every turn brought a view more spectacular than the last. Elderly couples in an unrehearsed chant of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ . Up into the clouds where the bus fell silent. Did we really know what we were getting ourselves into?

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The parking lot was 90% empty as we bolted for the small rest shelter adjacent to the toilets. I lent my rain pants to Kanako who’d come a little unprepared, while I opted for the double fleece approach. It was well below freezing and the humidity in the air didn’t make things much better. Still, we only had a 100 vertical meter climb to the high point, generously spread out over 2km. I prayed my asthma would be kept at bay.

“I have a confession to make,” boasted the bright-eyed Kanako, “this is my first time to see fresh powder!” Of course. I’d nearly forgotten that my lovely wife had spent most of her life in Osaka Prefecture, away from the brutal winters of the land to the north. We’d been on a handful of snow hikes together, but nothing compared to the soft, fluffy snow lying all around us.

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The route began its gentle incline towards the top of Mt. Hinode, as I slowed my pace. My breathing was somewhat normal but I felt weak due to lack of nutrients. I let a kind couple from the bus ahead of me as I confirmed the location of my inhaler, just in case. Reaching a trail junction, we turned left for the final push to the summit. The cloud hung tightly to the ridge line, robbing us of a view, but the mist only seemed to make the plateau that much more magical. Even the wooden staircases took on a much more scenic form.

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Reaching the summit, I gasped at the horror that lie before me. Directly adjacent to the summit marker lie a monstrous 2-story wooden viewing platform. This certainly was not here during my initial visit nearly a decade before, so when, and more importantly, why was this hillside further desecrated? The parking lot and access road are both free of charge, so where could the money have come from? Perhaps Odai-ga-hara got the idea from Hachimantai, which also has an eyesore of a platform directly on the summit. It certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth.

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After a short break on the summit, we retraced out steps back to the junction. Not wanting to risk bringing on an asthma attack, we abandoned the loop hike in favor of a short stroll back to the parking lot. Considering the conditions, lack of cell phone coverage, and scarcity of other hikers, we probably made the wise choice. The visitor’s center was warm and inviting, and I had some research to do for my hiking site anyway.

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“No, the trail through Osugidani will certainly not be re-opened either this year or next year”, explained the kind receptionist. Apparently the swing bridges were washed out in the typhoon of 2004 and the Mie Prefectural government doesn’t seem to have it high on their priority list. “It’s a shame that the gorge is not in Nara,” I dejected, for there’d surely not only be new bridges by now, but perhaps an entire valley encased in concrete.

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A warm noodle lunch was served at a neighboring restaurant, as the clouds began to break up. If only we had extra time to stay overnight, then perhaps we’d be rewarded with a view. Alas it was not to be. On the bus ride back down we dropped out of the clouds again and got the vistas we’d so greatly been hoping for. The bus driver was not kind to us, however, as we had to settle for photos from the windows again. If only we’d had our own means of transport, then we could stop whenever or wherever we wanted. Still, it takes a steady hand and lucky timing to capture photos such as this…..

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or this…..

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or even this, from the window of a moving bus.

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On the train ride back to Osaka, I promised Kanako that I’d bring her back to Odai-ga-hara again in better weather. “Why would I ever want to come back?” she exclaimed. “I want to cherish this memory in my heart forever, and if I come back here I’d only be disappointed.” This is perhaps the most insightful thing I’d heard in a long time, and oh so true. Farewell Odai-ga-hara, for I too, want the images of our splendid adventure to remain unspoilt for the remainder of my life. Even if we revisited hundreds of times, we’d never be able to duplicate what we’d been so fortunate to witness.

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Peaks in Japan are frequently named after the shapes they resemble. I’d started my trek by scaling a massive mountain in the shape of a conical straw hat (kasa) and now, entering the final leg of the long journey to Ogisawa, stand at the base of a peak that resembles the traditional headgear of court nobles (eboshi). The sun is just starting to peak its head over the horizon as I face the short, steep climb to the rocky summit.

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Chains help with the challenging bits as I pull my way up the towering rock formations on Eboshi’s shapely figure. The view is spectacular, as I stare down into Takase lake in complete solitude. The crowds gathered at Eboshi hut the previous evening have all gone back to civilization, but I’m not complaining, for I’m standing at the start of a long ridge that links the Hakuba section of the Northern Alps with the jagged peaks of Kamikochi. I maneuver through an area dotted with scenic alpine lakes, imagining how the pioneers of alpinism must’ve felt blazing trails through such areas of pristine beauty.

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After reaching the summit of Minami-sawa, I drop back into the tree line, my first taste of foliage since I left Shin-hotaka 3 days ago. The forest conceals the large drops in altitude, as the path becomes a series of clambering up numerous false summits before reaching the twin peaks of Mt. Funakubo. This little known mountain affords a picturesque bird’s eye view all the way across Takase valley to the summit of Mt. Tsubakuro and Mt. Yari, and again, there’s not a soul in sight. As I fill up on nutrients and pore over the map, I spy a short-cut to Mt. Harinoki. Turn left and the next junction, cut through Harinoki valley, and climb the spur to the left. The map says it’ll save 2 hours of climbing, so I weigh the options. Option 1 – stay on the knarly ridge over to Mt. Renge, or 2) try the shorter approach. I flip a coin. Tails! Looks like I’m about to pay the river a visit.

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Turning left at the junction, I leave the ridge (and the alpine views) and fly down towards the river. Upon reaching the valley, I notice the paint marks on the rocks and follow the water. The path meanders up, around, and through the rapids, until I lose it completely. Still I push on, knowing that the path will branch off up towards Harinoki any minute now. “Just stay on the north bank”, I chant while bushwhacking through the brush.

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An hour later, after stumbling upon some abandoned hiking gear, I realize my costly mistake. Instead of heading upstream to the continuation of the path, I somehow ended up downstream. Faced with an extra 2 hours of climbing and the very real possibility of not making it up before dark, I accept defeat and continue trudging downstream. A sense of panic starts to overtake me as I arrive at the shores of Lake Kurobe: how in the world am I going to make it across?

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My map showed a path hugging the shore to my left, but not the faintest trace remained. Unfazed, I blaze a new trail on the rocks near the edge of the water. This soon proves fruitless, as the loose rocks gave way and I found myself in chest deep water. Arms flailing, I change tack and try the doggy paddle technique. By now I’m complete soaked from head to toe with a backpack that is listing. I hug the rocks, inching my way around the unstable bits. I look up and find, to my complete astonishment, a set of steps built out of rebar embedded in a concrete wall. I reach up, pulling my bloated figure out of the chilly waters, and climb to the top. The path! I’ve found the path!

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The sense of panic eases when I reach the boat landing. According to the schedule posted on the corroded signpost, a ferry will be by in 90 minutes to take me somewhere. I strip naked, laying the sodded gear on rocks to dry as I forage through my pack for something dry to wear. Luckily, the top half stayed dry and I put on a warm fleece. I checked the cell phone which was a victim of the submersion. Completely dead. I’d lost all my data, but at least I had my life. The boat came at the appointed time, dropping me off just below Dake hut. I checked in and immediately took a nap.

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The hut was extremely nice, and I shared it with 2 other fisherman who’d traversed through the same river searching for iwana, a tasty fish indigenous to the clear waters of the Kurobe river. Fortunately they’d succeeded in catching a few, and we all feasted on sashimi and swapped stories. The next morning I followed the long trail as it snaked along Kurobe lake to the dam. I boarded a bus and arrived at my destination Ogisawa. Although not exactly as planned, I’d made it across 60% of the Japan Alps, crossing 3 prefectures and covering around 50km in only 4 days. Not bad for a guy with a faulty ticker.

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