The odds were stacked against us. Arriving at Zao Hot Spring bus terminal shortly before 5pm, Yuuki and I filled up on water, preparing for the worst. The clouds hung heavy on the surrounding peaks, as we stared at the barren ski slopes, wondering if we could make it up before dark. Our first plan was to hitchhike to Katta-touge, where we could scale Mt. Katta and spend the night. Our back-up plan was to abandon all hopes of getting a ride and head up the steep slopes, camping along the way. Thumbs outstretched on the main road through the resort, we silently prayed.
Luck definitely continued to be on our side, as a family of four with two small children screeched to a halt. Yuuki and I jumped in, entertaining the toddlers for the duration of the 45-minute car ride. The parents couldn’t have been happier. The 4-door sedan meandered skillfully through the countless hairpin turns of the Zao Echo-Line before ascending into thick cloud and horizontal rain. “Are you sure you really want to get out here,” inquired the jovial father behind the wheel. We knew it was much too late to accept defeat. “Sure, no problem. Thanks for the ride.”
Visibility couldn’t have been worse as we tried to figure out which direction to go. A signpost pointed towards Mt. Byobu, but we wanted to go in the opposite direction. After walking through the toll gate of the Zao Highline, I spotted a 登山道 sign on my left which climbed straight up the spur to the summit of Mt. Katta. A short time later, in thick fog and chilling rain, we stood at a massive junction, completely unaware of our immediate environs. According to the map, there should be an emergency hut somewhere around here. We split up, feeling our way through the cloud until I stumbled upon what appeared to be an abandoned bomb shelter. Bingo!
Despite the decrepit appearance, our modest accommodation was perfect for keeping out the elements. Plus, it was free of charge and completely deserted, an oasis in an area with absolutely no flat place to pitch a tent. Dinner was served in between periodic checks on the low pressure system outside. Sure, the rain had abated, but any chance of watching the setting sun was hindered by some of the thickest cloud I’d come across. The next morning would be no different. After setting the alarm for 4am, Yuuki and I did a quick game of janken (stone, paper, scissors) to see who’d be in charge of checking conditions. I’ve never been strong at that game, and this time was no exception as I somehow managed to descend the ladder from my second story sleeping area and hobble all the way across the room and through the vestibule without even leaving my sleeping bag. I slid open the door, stuck my head outside, and retreated quicker than a groundhog on a dreary afternoon. “Let’s give it another hour”, I demanded.
Breakfast came and went, but our foe the cloud was stubborn. Finally, at 8am, we could bear it no longer and headed out into the mist to do some hiking. The main reason for our procrastination was Ookama crater lake, whose emerald green waters attract hoards of tourists from the nearby parking lot. Yuuki and I prayed that the cloud would lift enough for us to catch a glimpse of one of the most beautiful volcanic lakes in the world. Our pace was intentionally slow on the deserted path. The first tour buses wouldn’t arrive for another hour or so, but all we could see was a forest of white. We even tried to descent as close as we could to the lake shore, but to no avail. We simply accepted defeat and headed to the nearby high point of Mt. Kumano to try to appease the gods. I placed my wallet on the steps of the stone shrine, while Yuuki placed a rice ball alongside. Clap, clap, bow, clap. Both of our silent prayers were the same: bring us some sunshine!
Suddenly, as if by some unseen miracle, the clouds lifted! Directly in front of us lie one of the greatest panoramic views we’d seen on our trip. Yamagata city sat peacefully in the serene valley far below, with Mt. Asahi, Gassan, and Mt. Iide looking on with a watchful eye. Mt. Chokai towered above them all a little further to the northwest. “Quick, quick grab the camera,” I shouted, but it was too late. Our unspoilt view lasted preciously 5 seconds, as the cloud came in with increased intensity.
Over the next 30 minutes, the sun fought a fierce battle with the cloud, but on this beautiful mid-August morning, the planet would not prevail. I can’t describe the frustration of sitting in a bank of condensation while the world goes on under crisp blue skies just a few meters above, but I guess the only upside to the weather is that it gave me an excuse to come back to Zao under more favorable conditons. Yuuki and I accepted defeat, descending to the huge saddle at the base of Mt. Jizo before turning left and entering a dense forest. The path wove in and out of the ski fields before dumping us onto a bare slope just above the start of the Zao Sky Cable gondola. Naturally, we flew down the slope in search of a bath!
“You should definitely go to the Dai-rotenburo,” quipped the convenience store clerk, pointing in the exact direction from which we’d descended. If we’d only turned right when we left the trail! Yuuki and I started ascending again, through the ski fields we’d trotted through only moments before. The long, silent slog at the end of an even longer journey through most of Tohoku. We were both feeling the strain of Mt. Asahi, but that all disappeared when we caught sight of one of the most breathtaking baths I’d ever seen. A worthwhile investment of 450 yen.
Clean and refreshed, the mountain men bade farewell to the highlands and retreated to Yamagata city. Yuuki boarded a train for Saitama while I checked into a minshuku to sort out my laundry and prepare for the journey to Sado Island the following morning for the Earth Celebration. With the majority of Tohoku’s major peaks under my belt, I could now turn my attention to Hokkaido and the Kita Alps, where more unexpected adventures awaited.