Archive for August, 2010

The eastern half of the Azuma mountain range is undoubtly the most scenic section, but the target peak for Hyakumeizan baggers lies in the dreary, overcrowded west. The only logical solution was to do an east-to-west traverse, taking in all of the volcanic lakes and marshlands that make this area so breathtakingly beautiful. After a lengthy overnight bus journey from Osaka, I boarded a taxi to the turn-off for Takuyu Hot Spring at the base of the Bandai-Azuma skyline. Here, I simply held out my thumb and let my fingers do the talking, instantly hitching a ride to Jodo-daira, the start of my long trek. If I’d relied on public transit, I’d still be sitting at Fukushima waiting for the first bus out. Tight schedules and a tight wallet are not good companions.

The trailhead parking lot was massive, buttressed on either end by a visitor’s center and resthouse. Hoards of day-trippers out for a pleasant early autumn stroll gathered in droves, as I searched for a peaceful place to devour breakfast. After grabbing a free trail map from the information counter, I flew up the stunningly scenic path towards Mt. Issaikyo, an active volcano and the first target peak of the day.

Finding a good vantage point to photgraph Azuma Ko-fuji is not a simple task, for the gargantuan parking lot and toll road scar the landscape to no avail, but with a little creative cropping, the area can retain some of its natural beauty. It was one of those stunning akibare days with a stable high pressure system and crisp, blue skies. The cumulus cloud cover also made for an interesting backdrop. After 45 minutes of modest climbing, I sat on the summit of the volcanic flank, admiring the spectacle surrounding me.

Peering off the northern face, a clean, cobalt blue crater lake catches my eye. I stare down into the crystalline waters while studying the map. To my great satisfaction, I realize that the route I need to take skirts the edge of the pond before disappearing into an adjacent ridge. Descents never felt so wonderful.

On the shore of the basin, I peer back up at Issakyo’s pristine summit. At this moment, I realized that opting for the long traverse was the right choice, perhaps the only choice for true Hyakumeizan hikers. Westwards I marched, carving a line on the ridge that would please even the most veteran of skiers, for I was truly covering ground few others had done this season. Overgrown but still easily discernible, the trail dropped steeply to the valley before shooting up to the summit of Mt. Eboshi. From here, it was a gentle series of rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Mt. Bandai provided steady companionship to my immediate left as the target peak of Nishi-Azuma crept closer and closer. All thoughts of breaking the hike in half  at the hut below Higashi-daiten were abandoned. I was making good time through heavenly scenery on a pleasant day. Besides, I still had a few hours of daylight on my side.

The clouds began to roll in just as I started to reach the overdeveloped west. Fitting weather I must add, since it kept me from peering down into the neighboring ski resort and the eyesore of a gondola. As expected, the crowds increased 10-fold, but luckily they were all heading in the opposite direction off the peak. I replenished my bodily fluids at the water source just before the final climb, making sure to fill up an extra couple of liters to make my evening stay at the hut a little more comfortable. The path dove into the forest just before reaching the summit of Nishi-Azuma. I can’t believe that scores of hikers bypass such jaw-dropping scenery to the east in favor of this! A small lonely statue sitting next to an old wooden signpost reading “the highest point in the Azuma mountain range”. Sometimes height just doesn’t matter.

Up and over the peak I scurried, finding an immaculately clean and deserted emergency hut awaiting me on the other side. I settled in, cooking a modest meal on the wooden walkways in front of the hut. Sunset was literally lost in the clouds, but I prayed for better luck the following morning. Sure enough, my prayers were answered.

The tree-covered plateau in which the hut rests did not offer much of a view, so I left my pack in my sleeping area and rose to the perch of Nishi-daiten, where Mt. Bandai’s jagged edifice darted abruptly out of the surrounding cloud cover. Funny, I thought, in my quest to conquer Azuma I managed to climb all 3 of the daiten peaks at the same time. Happy accidents are always a good thing.

After a long digression, I came to the realization that I must return to Kansai at a decent hour to prepare for work the following day, so back to the hut I went to retrieve my gear.  A swift descent through a dense forest with lots of triangular trail markers several meters above the path. Apparently I was following the winter climbing path down a rarely-used and rather slippery trail. I somehow managed to avoid any lasting injuries despite ending up on my rear end nearly half a dozen times. Mental note to pay more attention to my footwork and not on trying to identify the tree types. Safely out of the mountains, I waited for the bus while admiring the collection of rustic inns several hundred years old. Wish I had more time to explore this area untouched by time. Perhaps after I get all of these peaks behind me.

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March 21, 1971 is a day that should long be remembered among those with an affinity for the Hyakumeizan. A short distance below the rocky summit of Mt. Kaya, Kyuya Fukada, famed alpinist and author of arguably the most influential mountaineering book in modern Japanese history, succumbed to a brain hemorrhage while admiring the beauty of the purple iwakagami wildflowers. Ever since finishing my own ascent of the 100 mountains, I’d wanted to pay my respects to Mr. Fukada by climbing the peak in his honor, but timing was always an issue. Respiratory ailments have continued to haunt me over the last year or so, sometimes making simple strolls quite an ordeal, so could I muster up enough physical strength to endure an 800-meter vertical ascent?

Joining me on the auspicious early August expedition was none other than Julian Ross and his brilliant dog Hana, who both completed their own Hyakumeizan challenge around the same time as myself. They are now well on their way to finishing the 100 famous peaks of Yamanashi Prefecture, of which Mt. Kaya is a proud member. At a little past 6am on a cloudy weekday morning, the 3 brave souls started their epic climb. First stop: Kyuya Fukada park.

Set up as an ad hoc memorial to the Hyakumeizan author, the overgrown, wooded picnic area has definitely seen better days, as the namesake recipient himself would at least wanted to have a view of the Japan Alps instead of a neglected area at the end of a desolate forest road. After a quick prayer, we set off at a snail’s pace up the well-used path. Having experienced a mild asthma attack the previous evening, I set a conservative pace that had Julian admittedly concerned about my well-being. Indeed, my previous record of turning back on easy peaks had broken my confidence, but the only way to overcome my crutch was to face it head on by testing the cardiovascular system.

Steadily we rose above the valley, arriving at Lady’s Rock (女岩) with a pace faster than the allotted map time. My asthma was somehow held in check, perhaps by the spirit of Mr. Fukada himself. Halfway through our climb, I once again took the lead through the endless switchbacks to the ridge line, keeping a relatively slow but steady gait. After all, we were well ahead of schedule and had absolutely no view through the low cloud cover. The air hung thick with humidity, as the unseasonably hot summer air penetrated even the higher elevations usually accustomed to cool winds. The trail took a sharp turn towards the left once reaching the ridge line, where the views towards the north started to open up. A short climb later, we found ourselves staring at a modest stone pillar marking the exact place where Kyuya Fukada left this earth.

A brief moment of silence ensued, as both Julian and I wondered aloud whether Fukada made it to the summit or not before he met his maker. Onwards we pushed, as the terrain turned summit-esque with appearance of large boulders. “Less than 100 horizontal meters”, quipped Julian from behind. Good timing as well, as the chest began to tighten, signaling potential respiratory interference. It’s a good thing the summit were only a mere 1700 meters above the surface of the ocean rather than a monstrous 3000 meter peak.

The clouds held their grip on the mountain, and we were left without what the guidebooks describe as a stellar panoramic view. Summit photos were taken before we retreated the way we came. The chest didn’t bother me on the way down, as we were both able to enjoy a speedy descent back to the parking lot. I felt my first sense of accomplishment in a long time, especially considering it was my first successful summit of any mountain since the spring of 2009. I also experienced a strong feeling of closure in my Hyakumeizan quest, similar to the Shikoku pilgrims who return to Koyasan after their 88-temple journey to pay homage to Kobo Daishi. Thanks Mr. Fukada for providing me both the inspiration and the excuse to travel all over this land knocking off spectacular peaks. Your influence will not be forgotten.

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