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?