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Archive for November, 2010

Golden Week 2010. With the respiratory system slowly returning to a somewhat normal function, a date was set for the rematch with Mt. Zao. The antagonizing 12-hour overnight bus journey from Osaka to Yamagata station was just as unbearable as I last remembered, as a back spasm jolted me out of my slumber around the break of dawn. After a few stretches and an exchange of seats with my forever patient wife Kanako, I settled back down to relative comfort. One peek behind the window curtain to the wintry world outside zapped me with excitement, as the bus was strolling on the scenic byway separating Niigata and Yamagata cities. Cherry blossoms stood at full bloom in the early morning haze,  in stark contrast to the impossibly heavy snowdrifts of Mt. Iide towering directly above.

We arrived at Yamagata station with plenty of time to kill before the 9:30am direct bus to the parking lot at Katta-dake. The bus station attendant assured us that despite the overnight snowfall, the road to the summit would be open. Sure enough, the bus made its way towards Zao Hot Spring in near record time, navigating the hair-pin turns like a skilled bobsled driver. The cherry blossoms were at their peak, as Kanako and I strained our necks towards the windows. Occasionally we caught glimpses of Mt. Asahi and Gassan on the other side of the valley below, until they became enveloped in a summer-like haze of smog. Visibility wasn’t our friend, but at least the sun was out…..for now.

We hit a wall of traffic on the turnoff to Katta-dake as the clouds started rolling in. I wanted desperately to get to the parking lot so I could jump off and get a view of the lake before the clouds swallowed it for the afternoon. Shortly after 12pm, the bus reached the terminus, as Kanako headed to the upstairs restaurant to order some noodles. I, on the other hand, walked swiftly past the under-dressed crowds to the lookout for Okama lake. I’d been dreaming of the emerald green waters of the pristine volcanic lake for years, and was absolutely stunned to find the brilliant green hues replaced by a thick blanket of frozen snow. “Hmm”, I pondered, “I guess this lake isn’t thermal after all”.

Retreating back to the restaurant, we feasted on noodles before heading back out into the elements towards the summit of Katta-dake. Temperatures were well below freezing, and we got quite a kick out of watching the unprepared day trippers marching through the snow in high heels and short-sleeved shirts. Some of them, however, looked rather the worse for wear. One lady had lost all color and feeling in her toes, so I strongly urged her to get back to her car. Thus the access maxim rang true once again: The easier the access to the mountain, the dumber the people.

Katta-dake was absolutely deserted, as the tourists felt that the shrine a dozen meters below the summit was far enough for them. I took Kanako around the back of the summit to the emergency hut in which Yuuki and I had stayed during our first visit. It looked as desolate and isolated as I first remembered. If only we’d been able to have a view the first time round.

After our brief detour, we started the descent past Okama lake and the long gradual climb to the high point of Kumano-dake. Again, we completely left the crowds behind, as Kanako opted to test her balance by walking on top of the wooden fence still buried under the deep winter drifts.

The sun and cloud played together joyfully during our one hour traverse, painting the white landscape with a series of shadowy stripes as far as the eye could see. Were we really hiking in Japan in late spring?

The climb through the snow drifts took a lot longer than anticipated, but at last the lone explorers reached the official high point of Zao. Unfortunately, the afternoon haze in the valley lingered, so the jaw-dropping views of Asahi and Gassan were not to be had on this blustery outing. Hungry but too cold to eat, I forced some trail mix into my mouth and searched for a place to escape the subarctic wind. The summit shrine hung tightly to the hoarfrost of the previous night’s snow squall. Kanako, visibly shivering, was in need of an energy boost. “There’s a restaurant awaiting on the other side of Jizo-dake”, I stated, “let’s make a move”. I honestly had no idea whether the restaurant was open or not, but hid this information from my joyous companion, who literally sprinted towards the saddle on the opposite side. The ice and steep terrain stopped her in her tracks a few meters below me, as she beckoned to have me take the lead. I gladly obliged.

The sky directly behind the summit suddenly darkened, as a rain squall threatened to envelop us. “Oh boy”, I stressed “here we go.” I kick-stepped an easy path down to the saddle and wondered how far we’d be able to make it before the rain completely soaked our gear and made hypothermia a very real threat. Once again I carved a steep but direct path to the summit of Mt. Jizo. As soon as we reached the ridge the skies opened up, but my fear turned to delight as the precipitation fell as soft crystalline flakes. Snow! I’m convinced that the sign of relief that left my mouth could clearly be heard in the valley a thousand meters below.

White out conditions at 1800 meters above sea level in early May? You bet, and two of the happiest hikers in the world, jumping for joy and walking through the wintry wonderland.

The blizzard eventually released its grip on the mountain and the snow gave way to glorious sunshine again. We flew down the northern face of Mt. Jizo and into the comfort of the gondola station. Kanako and I were both excited to discover the restaurant was still open, so our reward for conquering Zao and surviving the crazy conditions was two piping hot bowls of soba.

Short on time, we took the gondola back down to the valley and checked into our accommodation, a small but friendly pension run by a semi-professional skier. The next day, after a stroll around the lake to check out the mizu-basho, we took the gondola back up to Mt. Jizo and continued where we left off, descending past skiers, tumbling down rotting ski slopes, and eventually navigating our way to the milky, angelic waters of the dai-rotenburo. Again, we were the only foot travelers on that stunningly beautiful day.

This year’s Golden Week was truly golden, as I could mark off yet another peak on my slowly dwindling ‘Hyakumeizan Revenge List.’

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Kansai Resurrection

I really need to get a new hiking book. Rummaging through my Kansai mountaineering materials, I can’t seem to locate the hike my friend Paul is describing to me. Sandwiched between Muroji and Soni Kogen lies an apparent ridgeline lined with rocky peaks. “Sure, sounds good to me” I mutter over the crackly phone as we solidy plans for our foray deep into Nara Prefecture on the mid-week National holiday. The weather forecast is looking very promising indeed.

After a pleasant train ride through the quiet countryside, followed by a surprisingly scenic bus journey through a narrow gorge, we alight in Soni village, one of the hundred most beautiful villages in Japan. “There’s probably only 105 villages in the entire country”, I remark, unimpressed by the banal collection of homes, rice fields, and paved roads. We spot the signposts to our first target peak Byobu-iwa (屏風岩) and jubilantly march up the meandering surfaced road under stunningly blue skies and a brisk breeze. Our grins eventually turned to disbelief as we realized we’d be hiking on the road well over an hour just to reach the trailhead! Oh, the joys of hiking in the Kansai region, where 95% of the hikes involve a fair amount of paved footwork. We reached the start of the hike just in time, as my bowels were starting to uncomfortably back up deep into my gastrointestinal tract . Toilet paper was an added bonus at the clean public toilet.

Despite the packed parking lot, we didn’t meet a soul the entire climb up to the ridge. Perhaps they’d all come to admire the foliage from the warmth and comfort of their climate-controlled vehicles. The path rose quickly through a cedar plantation before reaching a saddle. Our intended route headed towards the left, but Paul and I were both interested in checking out the vertical cliff face of Byobu-Iwa, so we took the steep detour to the summit. Fortunately, the upper reaches of the rock formation were much too steep for the forestry service to manage, as we were rewarded for our hard work with not only vertigo-inducing views a hundred meters directly below our feet, but also a kaleidoscope of brilliant oranges and cheerful golds, the product of a deciduous forest preparing to shed its phosphorus skin for the winter. Cameras raised, we prepared to capture the scenery before pushing on to our destination.

After retracing our steps to the saddle, we continued westward on the ridge in a peculiar juxtaposition. The trail was sandwiched between the blazing virgin foliage on our left and the desolate monotony of the cedar forest to our right. I’ve come across quite a few of these scenes in my time, where the environmental destruction stops abruptly on the border of two townships. Sure enough, our left foot was in Soni, while the right one was in Uda. I wonder how the wildlife feels about the raping of its habitat.

A gentle 20-minute climb later we reached the deserted top of Mt. Sumizuka (住塚山), where a strategically-placed wooden bench awaited. We fired up the stove, cooking up a satisfying lunch of ramen and curry while admiring the strange woven patterns of cedar plantations and pristine forests. Japan truly must have been one of the most breathtakingly beautiful countries on the planet as recent as 70 years ago, before the post-war destruction properly began. Still, with a little bit of creative cropping you can still capture the essence of the beauty.

Bellies stuffed, Paul and I continued on the half authentic ridge line, dropping to a long saddle before rising over a series of false summits to the pampass-lined peak of Mt. Kunimi. There are several dozen Kunimi mountains scattered all over this land, and the views didn’t disappoint. We saw our only other people of the entire day on the bald summit, a pair of middle-aged hikers who’d just finished packing up before vanishing down through the forest. Here we were at 1000 meters above sea level in the peak of the autumn foliage and had found a spot completely free of the usual maple-crazed crowds. Across the valley, we could see the shaved scar of Soni Kogen, an area overflowing with tourists at this very moment, drawn to the beauty of the artificially planted pampas grass. Little did they know that there were pockets of pristine beauty barely 10 kilometers away, but these little secrets are best kept out of the mainstream media now, aren’t they?

After fiddling around with the timers on our camera for a good quarter of an hour, we were finally able to capture a bit of the spontaneity and bliss that comes with finding an unexpectedly pleasant hike. Talk about some lucky cropping….

Time check 3pm. With daylight waning and a dark forest yet to explore, the pioneers said farewell to the comfort and tranquility of Kunimi and set forth into the unknown. Well, that wasn’t entirely true since the half-virgin, half-artificial ridge line continued up and over the adjacent unnamed peak and down to the mountain pass. We’d finally met up with the Tokai Shizen Hodo, a pilgrimage route that’d take you all the way to Tokyo if you let it. The trail followed a quiet stream as we entered yet another cedar forest. After coming across the skull of what appeared to be a deer, we reached a junction pointing to an unfamiliar shrine nearly 4km away. Now we were starting to get a bit concerned, as we had less than an hour of daylight remaining and apparently quite a long way to go. Our steady pace quickened, as the route followed a multi-tiered waterfall dozens of feet below that was hidden by the dense network of cedars. One slip here and you’d surely break an ankle and tumble into no-man’s land. Still, we pressed on before finally reaching a forest road.

The road continued straight, past a few mountain houses before reaching some vegetable fields. Paul and I passed the time by singing popular 80s and heavy metal songs from our youth as the daylight grew shorter. We reached our first signs of life. An elderly couple stood by the edge of the road, repairing an open shelter in preparation for the upcoming winter. “No, there’s no bus from here”, answered the jovial woman, “you’ll have to walk to Muroji”. We’d already walked close to 15km and weren’t relishing in the fact that we’d have to walk 15 more, since it’d be well after dark when we’d arrive and weren’t entirely sure when the last bus left the temple anyway. We finally reached the main road and continued walking in a bit of a trance when a car came out of nowhere directly behind us. Paul and I hadn’t even discussed the prospects of hitching a ride, but my first instinct was to put my thumb up, partly as a joke since I knew no one would stop for us. The 4-door sedan slowly crawled to a halt about 50 meters in front of us. Paul and I looked at each other in utter disbelief as the husband and wife team signaled for us to get in. We’d gone from hopeless victims to 5-star generals in the blink of an eye as the driver lamented about the dwindling bus service in the Japanese countryside. This driver saved us at least 2 hours of long walking on a paved road and we couldn’t thank him enough.

Our eventful excursion to the mountains of eastern Nara was complete, but the memories will remain. The beauty of Kansai isn’t hard to find if you’re willing to put in the hard work and long miles to get there. I really need to get a copy of the hiking book that Paul was using.

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