Archive for February, 2010

I set up camp in the park across from the sandy beach in Kisakata, immersing myself in the warm waters of the sea a short time later. My legs were still reeling from the marathon slog up Hayachine just a few hours prior, and I needed to recharge my muscular batteries if I had any chance of scaling the highest mountain in Tohoku the following morning. An early night was in order.

The first bus to Hokodate was nearly empty, but seemed to wind its way through every back street before finally meandering through the hairpin turns of the Chokai Blue Line. The modest parking lot housed a large restaurant, a visitors center, and Hokodate Sansou, my home for the night. I dropped off my heavy pack in the lobby, put my name down in the guest registry, and headed up towards the towering volcano with the most minimal of gear. The cloud hung tightly to the steep walls of Naso gorge as I immediately hit a large patch of snow. Little did I know that I’d spend the next 3 hours trudging through the remnants of the fierce Tohoku winters. Up until that point in my journey I’d yet to come across more than just a pint-sized patch of powder, but Chokai’s sheer size dominates the horizon for hundreds of kilometers and, as such, acts as a magnet for condensation throughout the year.

I popped out of the slush just below Ohama hut, where I took my first break to admire the beauty and tranquility of the serene crater lake. I could’ve easily spent the rest of the day sitting on the shores, watching the snow fields slowly deposit their wintry runoff into the frigid waters. But alas, I had a peak to climb, and the summit rose majestically directly ahead, completely free of cloud cover. A short time later I came across a trail junction. If I went right then I could stay on the ridge all the way to the top of Mt. Shichikou, one of the twin summits of Chokai’s rocky flank. If I opted for the left fork, then I could climb directly up to the high point of Shin-san. I was immediately drawn to one of the most picturesque cols in all of Tohoku, and the left trail dropped directly into the line of fire, knowing I could later descend via the ridge.

There’s nothing more I enjoy then marching through a river of snow in the middle of summer: the cool air lifting magically off the frozen surface, the contrast of the lush greenery all around. Chokai was quickly becoming my favorite peak in northwestern Japan and I was only starting my day. Upwards and onwards I rose, leaving the refreshing confines of the col and crawling through an immense boulder field. The path got steeper with each advancing step, but eventually I found myself sitting on the doorstep of the monster of a hut just below the final push to the summit. “We’ve got no water. You’ll have to buy it,” scowled the stern seasonal employee, pointing to a large cooler of ridiculously over-priced beverages. I knew he was lying, but there was no point in arguing. Shell out the 6000 yen to stay the night and I’m sure he’d lead me straight to the taps. I was not about to pay 500 yen for a 500ml bottle of water he’d probably filled at the hut, so I politely refused and continued the climb.

And boy, what a climb it was. An exhilarating natural jungle gym of gargantuan slabs of rock. Follow the paint marks and try not to fall into the gaps between the boulders. I finally reached the high point, which barely had space for 2 people. This was by far the narrowest summit of all of the Hyakumeizan, and here I was completely surrounded by a strange halo of cumulus clouds. Never in my life had I encountered such meteorological magic. The sun was shining directly above, but all around clouds were floating directly at eye level. Viewed from afar, one would assume that Chokai’s rocky flank were completely immersed in mist, but this was not the case. Dropping to the saddle between the twins, I broke out the water filter and started pumping fresh snow melt into my bottles. The sky never looked bluer.

After refueling, I climbed, rather steeply, to the top of Mt. Shichikou, Shin-san’s less popular twin and sat for the better part of an hour. And why not? I had finally deserved to slow the pace down. It was my 6th mountain in only 5 days and it deserved my attention! The next hour was perhaps the most pleasant ridge walk I’ve done in Japan. I was completing the loop back to the lake where I started my morning and the unique flora were putting on a performance. Sprawling fields of Kisuge lilies dotted the landscape, while pockets of indigenous Chokai thistle and Chokai fusuma flowers basked in the afternoon warmth.

Once back at the junction, I retraced my steps towards Ohama hut, turning left on a faint spur trail that wrapped its way around the scenic lake and through some rotting snow fields. Again, I filled up the bottles and leisurely reworked my way back to the trailhead and waited. Waited for what, you might ask? Well, for the sinking sun to turn Shin-san into a fiery inferno.

Further west, the cloud cover over the sea of Japan transformed the horizon into an artistic landscape. Tohoku couldn’t get much better than this.

I slept like a log that night, knowing that the approaching low pressure system would finally give me an excuse to take a much needed day off. The following morning I could simply head to the castle town of Tsuruoka and spend the day planning for the three sacred peaks of Dewa-sanzan.

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The lights came on at 6am, which, for Japanese mountain hut standards, is a late start. The amicable caretaker prepared a modest meal consisting mostly of pickled vegetables and rice: precisely the same food we ate the previous night, but such is life in a dwelling with no running water. I was so tired and hungry I could’ve eaten anything, and my wife didn’t exhibit the faintest sense of dismay. I raced excitedly back and forth between my simple breakfast and the window, trying to catch a peek at the horizon. I definitely didn’t want to miss this photo op, so I grabbed my gear and bolted for the frigid solitude of darkness.

The horizon slowly changed hues, while I jumped around in circles trying to stave off hypothermia. Unsurprisingly, none of the other 4 guests followed in my footsteps, deciding that a warm kerosene heater was more important than watching nature’s light show.

Most people think that the moment the sun scrapes the edge of the horizon as the most beautiful part of the sunrise but I beg to differ. Still, I knew the others would eventually follow suit and join me in welcoming a new day.

Shortly before daybreak, Kanako and I turned out eyes (and lenses) away from the glow of the east and faced mighty Fuji, for it was time to give the birthday girl one last present on our unforgettable trip. Atmospheric conditions seemed perfect for nature to deliver the phenomenon known as akafuji, forever memorialized in a Hokusai print of the same name. “Here it comes,” I screamed.

“Quick, get one of me,” my wife demanded. It was perhaps the only time in my life where watching the actual sunrise took second stage to the spectacle occurring further west.

Even the Shirane-Sanzan joined in on the fun.

One of the other 3 guests joining our early morning camaraderie was a curious young gentleman named Satoshi Nagata, who spent the better part of the morning taking panoramic photos for his remarkable website, Panorama 360. Web technology now allows designers to create realistically stunning three-dimensional views that, when viewed on a large screen, appear to magically transport the viewer to the scene in question. Click here to see Satoshi’s composition on the morning of December 28th, 2005. My crouched figure appears at the edge of the photographer’s skewed shadow, while the bright yellow jacket of my lovely wife prepares to snap a photo of the other husband and wife team. We later all gathered together in the lobby of the shelter, where the warden presented the birthday girl with a commemorative shikishi, a square personalized celebratory signboard.

After a long exchange of pleasantries, we geared up and bade farewell to our generous host, and all headed in unison towards the bus stop at Tono. Crampons definitely helped with the icy bits below the summit, as we all cruised towards Jizo-taira (地蔵平) before a short climb towards the junction at Himetsugi (姫次), the highest point on the Tokai Nature trail that stretches from Tokyo to Osaka. It was here that we entered the tree line and lost the jaw-dropping views of Japan’s most revered peak. I used up the last of my film, zooming out to capture the entire stretch of the Japan Alps hovering in the distance.

On the bus ride back towards the metropolis, I reflected upon the year, which started with a long traverse in March of another one of Tokyo’s famous peaks, Mt. Kumotori. From there I embarked on two separate traverses in the Minami Alps, followed by a relatively productive autumn which knocked off a few of the more challenging day hikes. I still had 7 more peaks to go before hitting the magic #50, but was determined to reach my goal before the next rainy season. Time to plan.

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Climbing the Hyakumeizan without the luxury of a car is a bit like working the breakfast shift short-handed: you just have to make due with what you have. I stumbled out of JR Morioka station in a daze, floored by the realization that the first train on the Yamada line didn’t depart until 4:30pm. Apparently this line was not designed with hikers in mind. I tried my luck at the tourist information counter. “You’re better off taking the bus,” replied the helpful clerk, who informed me that the train line will more than likely be discontinued in the near future. On the bus I studied my hand-drawn map in hopes of getting my head around what i was in for: a 20km round-trip on a long, seldom-used trail not even marked in my guidebook.

The first part of the hike was along a series of gravel forest roads, where someone had put up hand-painted 登山口 (trailhead) signs to assist drivers in navigation. I definitely never would’ve found the path without them. I caught my stride upon reaching the true start of the hike, and flew up the deserted yet well-trodden trail through pristine wilderness. It was already after 10am and I was on an extremely tight schedule which I had to stick to if I wanted to be sitting on the summit of Mt. Chokai the following afternoon. Something just had to go wrong.

Water! After reaching a trail junction at the 6th stagepoint, I turned left and rose abruptly above the treeline. The clouds came in, chilling my sweaty figure as I reached the water source at the 8th stage. Bone dry! I’d planned my entire hike around this water source, and now I was down to less than half a liter for the remainder of the entire hike. I pushed on, reaching the main ridge and ran into a mass of hikers who’d taken the more popular approach. “Excuse me, were you on Mt. Iwate yesterday and Hachimantai the day before?”, inquired a kind couple directly in front of me. We struck up an instant friendship, for the retired husband and wife team were also climbing the Hyakumeizan. I quickly explained my water predicament and out came a 1/2 liter of oolong tea. “Take this”, the husband demanded. “We’re on our way down.”

Once reaching the summit, another group offered me a few mandarin oranges. This was truly turning into a concerted group effort as I ate a quick rice ball and took some summit photos. The mist covered everything in sight, while the top of Hayachine’s rocky perch contained a delipidated stone shrine and an unusual collection of mysterious metallic sword-shaped relics apparently laid by mountain priests.

I retreated the same way I came, walking the last 10km non-stop. The tea and oranges held out until I reached the forest road, where I ducked my head in a stream and re-hydrated my exhausted body before jogging the last kilometer to the bus stop. I arrived precisely 3 minutes before the bus departed, just as the skies opened up. The only downside to the entire trip was that all of my photos came out overexposed. I’d broken my camera at the very beginning of my Tohoku adventure (which explains the strange cropping on all of the Tohoku entries). I hope the sketches I put together will give you some sort of feel for the magic of Mt. Hayachine. I made it back to Morioka in time to catch the Shinkansen to Akita, followed by a limited express train to Kisakata, which set me up nicely for Mt. Chokai, the highest peak in Tohoku and the peak I’d been looking forward to most.

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