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.