Archive for April, 2010

Sleep deprivation can cause some careless decisions to be made at times. Hence, our current predicament. The overnight bus rolled into Kofu station shortly after 5am, where John and I realized, to our chagrin, that the first bus to Hirogawara (広河原), the start of the hike for Kita-dake, did not depart until after 9am. After studying the map for about 10 minutes, I spotted an alternative approach to the trailhead that seemed much more interesting than sitting in a smoky coffee shop for half the morning.

We rode a few stations north to Nirasaki, exiting the station towards the west amidst strong winds and a light rain. We trudged along towards the mountain road, hopeful that someone would come along to give us a ride. After all, if this indeed was the gateway to the Minami Alps, there should be a fair amount of vehicular opportunities. Higher and higher we climbed on the deserted pavement, passing by a troupe of wild monkeys foraging for food in the dense undergrowth of the forest. Finally, after nearly 2 hours of rising above the valley, a car came to a halt. The middle aged women, a bit startled by our early morning adventure, broke the news to us as gently as she could. “Yes, this road does indeed go to Hirogawara, but it’s not the Hirogawara you’re looking for.” Turning the map over, she showed us that our current location would indeed take us to the true Hirogawara, if we could add an extra day by traversing up and over Mt. Houou. As luck would have it, the woman happened to run Hakuhou-so (白鳳荘) at the base of the hike to Mt. Amari (甘利山), which is where we spotted the other Hirogawara on our map. “Don’t worry,” she asserted, “my husband will give you a ride to the real Hirogawara!” Only in Japan would two places in close proximity have exactly the same name with precisely the same Chinese characters.

So, after a plate of curry and rice and a generous helping of coffee, we hopped into the passenger’s seat for a whirlwind ride to Yashajintouge, where we boarded a bus to the true start of the Kita-dake hike. Instead of our anticipated start time of 10:30am, we were now poring over the maps, wondering how far we could make it on a 3-hour delay. We set off in high hopes, trying to make up for lost time with a full set of gear: tent, sleeping bags, 3 days worth of food.

One obvious advantage to our late start time was that we had the trail entirely to ourselves. Another perk was that the clouds and rain of our ill-fated morning were starting to break up. Scarcely an hour after leaving the massive parking lot at Hirogawara, John and I strolled into the campsite and hut at Shirane-oike for a quick break and replenishing of fluids. The map said it’d take 3 hours, but we were definitely powered by pure adrenaline by this stage, completely oblivious to the small home that both of us carried on our backs. Turtles we were not on this mid-August afternoon. “I bet we can make it to Kata-no-goya before dusk,” I quipped. John was up for the challenge as much as I was, and we powered through the tough switchbacks like wild horses trotting through the meadows. Even though our pace slowed somewhat, we’d been rewarded for our endeavors. The views were opening up.

Rolling into camp around a quarter to 7pm, the tent was erected just in time to admire the magnificent light show. There are few campsites in Japan that match the unobstructed views of Kata-no-goya. Where else can you stare at Mt. Fuji from the vestibule of your own abode? The temperatures plummeted after sundown, as we realized a pressing problem. John, accustomed to the extreme heat of Osaka, failed to pack any warm weather gear. No winter coat and absolutely no trousers to cover his lower extremities. His sleeping bag was rated at 15 degrees celsius, which would be useless in the sub-arctic conditions. “I wonder if the hut has any extra blankets?” John mused. 5-minutes later, my hiking companion returns with half a dozen warm linens. The staff at Kata-no-goya hut couldn’t have been nicer.

As we drifted off to sleep, I wondered what the scenery would be like for our first full day in the Minami Alps, a place that both of us were visiting for the first time. Would the approaching high pressure system continue to hold?

Day 2


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Mt. Asahi lies in a virtual no-man’s-land of rugged, inaccessible terrain roughly 35km southwest of my present position. After a modest meal and a quick break-down of camp, I crawled my way back out to the rural asphalt, hitching a ride to the shores of Lake Gassan. I walked a short distance over the immense concrete bridge to the beginning of route 27 and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Two cars had passed within the last 45 minutes, and the prospects were dim. Just when I’d convinced myself that a 20km stroll on abandoned byway were in order, a car screeched to a halt.

“Hop in”, the driver said, wondering what a blue-eyed, big-haired westerner with an even bigger backpack were doing out here. “Climbing Mt. Asahi”, I replied, full of hope for a ride to my destination. “You’ll never find a ride all the way there.” And he was right. Most hikers has started their ascent well before sunrise, and here it was nearing lunch time. The kind gentleman let me off at Ooisawa Hot Spring, where I stood patiently by the deserted highway, pondering life. 10 minutes later, the same man returned in his car and gave me a lift to the trailhead at Koderakousen. Once again I was saved.

The air hung heavy with humidity as I looked for any excuse to put off the impending ascent. As I emptied my bladder in front of a stack of rotting firewood, I spotted a small, v-shaped tongue prodding the space just in front of my left cheek bone. A snake was making its way slowly out of its hiding place to size me up for lunch. I needed no further persuasion: I loaded up the gear and hit the hills running!

My pack seemed much heavier than ever before, and I soon found the reason for the burden. Most of the major peaks over the last week or so were done with a lightweight day pack, but since I was traversing up and over Mt. Asahi, I needed to bring my gear. All of it. My pace slowed to a crawl, the only time in my journey where I was progressing slower than the alloted map times. Still, I had a lot of daylight left and knew I’d be camping on the saddle just below the summit. Just past the small clearing at the top of Mt. Kodera I reached a junction. I could either skirt the northern flank of Mt. Ko-asahi or head straight up and over the towering top. I’m a huge fan of viewing open expanses of nature, so I went for the tougher assault on Asahi’s smaller twin. Step by step I advanced, like a soldier on a death march. By the time I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat, with a large army of insects circling my heated cranium. It was here that I met my first hikers of the day, who’d come from the more popular approach via Asahi-kousen. We chatted at length about the Hyakumeizan while watching the clouds envelop the summit plateau directly ahead.

The path from the peak dropped suddenly down to a saddle, where it met up with the main trail. I grabbed everything in my path to prevent a journey-ending tumble down the steep terrain. Unscathed, I pushed onward, into the cool wind and mist. Intricate patches of wildflowers blanketed the grasslands, as the trail cut a large, unsightly swath of erosion on the backbone of the ridge. If it weren’t for the ropes keeping the hikers at bay there would be nothing left of the flora. With my energy zapped and my motivation waning, I peered out into the labyrinth of fog on my right and saw what appeared to be an angel. I rubbed my eyes and raised my lens, just as the mysterious apparition dissolved. “Probably just a Brocken spectre”, I muttered, too exhausted to dismiss it as anything else. I finally rolled into camp, where a clean, warm emergency hut was awaiting. I threw down my gear and surveyed the exposed and overcrowded campsite before heading inside to check-in!

The caretaker was easily twice my age and 3 times more energetic, giving me a quick rundown of the rules before shooing me upstairs to stake out a space for my sleeping mat. Somehow I always seem to end up at the top of the stair landing, but it sure beats having to crawl over several dozen bodies when nature calls. I grabbed my cooking gear and headed outside to prepare an early meal, when a young, tall figure greeted me in the landing. His name was Yuuki, a jovial landscape gardener from Saitama, who informed me that he came all the way from the trailhead of Mt. Itou in one day. “Very, very long”, he confessed. I quickly scanned the map, realizing the long-legged, 24 year old mountaineer had covered a distance of nearly 30km. We immediately hit it off.

Yuuki and I spent the rest of the afternoon filtering water and talking about life in the mountains. He’d once spent a summer working at Tengu-daira hut in the Japan Alps, where, due to the fickle weather of the peaks above Hakuba, he had managed to see the sunset only one time the entire season. Yuuki’s command of English was surprisingly inept: he’d obviously paid attention in his high school English classes, and he spoke with a fearless abandon that you hardly ever come across in a society filled with grammar-obsessive introverts. We raced up to the summit to watch the sunset, hoping for a slight break in the clouds. We never got more than a glimpse of the hovering ball of fire, but it sure was a nice break from the chaos of the hut below. “We’ll have to try again in the morning,” Yuki resigned, as we both hoped that sunrise peak would live up to its reputation.

3:30 am. In the predawn darkness, my new companion and I pack our gear away and trudge up the final 50 meters to the exposed knob of Mt. Asahi’s broad summit. The orange glow of the eastern horizon grows brighter as we survey our surroundings. The sea of clouds is endless as far as the eye can see, and we both knew it would be an epic moment. We waited patiently, devouring rations and dancing around to stave off the frost. As the sun made it’s way to the front of the stage, Yuuki and I looked around and realized that absolutely no one had followed us to watch the spectacle, opting for the warm confines near the hut. We couldn’t have had it any better.

My camera problems, which had plagued me most of my trip, had mysteriously resolved themselves, as nearly every photo I snapped on the rolls of film came through undamaged. To describe the light show in front of us would only do it unjustice, and I can truly say that Mt. Asahi went above and beyond the call of duty. This was the ephemeral moment in my Tohoku quest, and possibly the single defining moment in my entire Hyakumeizan saga. And here I was sharing it with one of the friendliest, funniest Japanese person I’d ever met. I raised my arms in triumph.

Scores of hikers swarmed the summit shortly after the celestial discus rose above Mt. Zao’s stately figure, so we made out abupt exit on the path towards Asahi-kosen. I was surprised and relieved to find that my new hiking partner was living up to his reputation as a hardcore outdoorsman, as he matched me step for step on the rapid descent. After dropping down into the tree line again, we stopped at a small clearing to rehydrate. While we were replenishing lost fluids, a loud, cracking sound erupted from the overgrowth directly beside us. A large, unknown creature was heading quickly drawing near. Before we could utter cries of dispair, an elderly gentleman appeared from the clearing. The sigh both of us let out surely echoed in the valley below.

After 90 minutes of trotting at breakneck speed, we reached a large river and swing bridge. The trail followed the secluded confines of the rapids as we adjusted to our new, significantly flattened terrain. We knew this area was the stomping ground for kamoshika, the elusive mountain serow that lives in the mountainous areas of Honshu. The harder you look for the creatures the more difficult they are to find, and we came up empty-handed. Still, the scenery couldn’t have been nicer. Shortly after 9am, we arrived as Asahi-kosen, a rustic mountain hut complete with its own hot spring bath. We chatted with the kind couple who ran the place, as they prepared the bath for us. Yuuki and I feasted on the most delicious bowl of buckwheat noodles I’ve ever had in Japan. All of the generous amounts of vegetables were picked in the surrounding area, including an eclectic mix of wild mushrooms I’d never seen before. We spent most of the morning at the hut, trying to figure out how in the world to get back to civilization. The hut owner informed us it would be about a 20km walk on the gravel road before we approached any sort of sizable road where traffic might be found. Hmmm….

During our relaxing soak, we heard the voices of other hikers who’d made their way off the peak. Perhaps we had a chance of getting a ride after all. After careful negotiations, we managed to share a taxi with an elderly couple who’d recognized us in the hut the previous night. We were all whisked off to Aterazawa station, where a train to Yamagata awaited. The couple refused our offers of money to help pay for the taxi. I asked Yuuki about his plans for the rest of the vacation. “I’m free”, he replied, which gave me a chance to offer a proposition. You see, even though I’d planned to finish my Tohoku adventure at Mt. Asahi, I still felt I had another mountain in me. “You wanna climb Mt. Zao tonight?”, I asked. Yuuki’s face lit up before he even had a chance to answer, and I knew it was on. We studied the maps on the train, figuring out the logistics of our awaiting challenge. Stay tuned as the never-ending adventure continues.

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After a leisurely day of restocking supplies and cleaning linens, I left the sleepy town of Tsuruoka and boarded a bus to the rustic shrine of Mt. Haguro, one of the 3 sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan. The bus dropped me off in a massive parking lot, announcing a brief 15-minute break before heading off to the trailhead at Gassan 8gome. I briskly walked towards Haguro shrine, regretting for not opting to stay in one of the many tranquil shukubo at the base of the peak.

Haguro represents birth, and I definitely felt a strange sense of awakening in the early morning light. Gazing at the thick mass of thatch holding up the main hall (the thickest thatched roof in Japan, so I’m told), I tried to imagine what life must’ve been like for the yamabushi several centuries before. My reverie was short-lived, however, as the announcement for the departing bus drove me back into reality: I had a mountain to climb.

Arriving at the Gassan trailhead, I geared up and quickly made my way through the splendid marshlands. Even though I was carrying a full pack, the previous week of scaling peaks primed my muscles for the task at hand. I maneuvered through the tepid grasslands like a fox scuttling towards its den. 600 vertical meters was powered through in less time than sitting through a major motion picture. Victory was mine!

Unfortunately, thick clouds filed in from the north, blotting out the view in all directions. While scores or tourists were taking refuge in the nearby hut, I walked quietly alone towards the bleak collection of structures housing the summit shrine. I paid my respects to the gods, hoping for a safe passage for the remaining peaks. With absolutely nowhere to peacefully rest, I exited the shrine and climbed the rocks immediately behind, where I found the true summit marker of the high point. The majority of Hyakumeizan baggers go no further than the shrine itself, but I preferred the solitude of my current position.

Once leaving the top, I continued onto the saddle affectionately labeled 牛首 (the cow’s collar). Summer skiers skidded awkwardly down the last remaining patches of snow. Instead of following their lead, I pushed along the ridge further south, dropping out of the clouds altogether before reaching the emergency hut at the base of Mt. Yudono. I studied the map, thought for a good quarter of an hour, and used the ‘might as well since you’re so close’ reasoning to justify my sidetrip to Yudono shrine. That way I could truly tell myself that I completed the Dewa-sanzan. The kicker was that I had to descend and return to my present position in order to traverse further south to Route 112 (my best chance of hitching a ride to Mt. Asahi, my destination the following day).

The path dropped rather steeply down a ravine towards the shrine. Chains and small wooden ladders made navigation easier but I was starting to regret my decision due to the sudden loss of several hundred feet of altitude. Still, the detour was interesting to say the least. The deity is housed inside of a geyser gushing hot spring water through the center of the shrine. There was also a foot bath for visitors to soak their wary feet and I did just that. After a 10-minute refresher, I glanced towards my immediate right and spied a small snake slithering its way toward the murky waters. I recognize a sign when I see one and instantly started the climb back towards the hut.

Exhausted, I glanced at my watch. 2:30pm. Deciding it was far too early to call it a day, I dropped down a track following a small stream. The map showed this route eventually meeting up with route 112 in about 90 minutes. Of course about 10 minutes into my decent the skies opened up and poured for, remarkably, the first time in my entire trip. Why do I always stow rain gear at the very bottom of my pack!?! To make matters worse, the path became treacherously slippery due to the abundance of wooden bridges crossing countless ravines. It was during one such crossing that I lost my footing, bounced off the back of my pack, flipped completely over the side of the ravine, and landed feet first in knee deep water. How I landed on my feet I will never know but I’d like to think it had something to do with my trio of shine visits. The bridge was about a meter above the stream and I could’ve done serious damage if I’d landed on anything other than my feet.

Stunned, but otherwise unharmed, I pushed on towards my destination. 5 meters later I stumbled upon a rather large and frightened fox who almost had me jumping in the river again. Deciding I’d had enough punishment for one day, mother nature released her grip on my testicles and allowed the rain to let up. Arriving at the road, I pored over the map once again. A 5-minute detour to my left lead to a campground surrounding a small lake. Another mile down the road lie a hot spring, followed by another, larger campground beyond that. My plan was to have a bath and then continue onto the lower camp which would put in a better position to hitch in the morning. The bath water never felt so refreshing and I garnered up the courage and strength to hit the road again. Arriving at the campground, my heart sank when the bad news was broken to me: “It’ll cost 3000 yen to camp here,” buffed the superintendent. I explained my situation and the fact that I’d just walked over 20km. “There’s another campground further up that only costs 500 yen.” The warden was pointing to the exact campsite I’d bypassed to come here! The look of horror on my face must’ve gotten to him. “Don’t worry, one of the staff will give you a ride,” smiled the boss.

With potential disaster averted, I could now focus my attention on geting some rest. Just as I was sitting up camp, the sun came out, glistening the hills of Gassan directly above me. I dozed off shortly after sunset, dreaming about the last major mountain in my Tohoku journey: sunrise peak!

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