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.