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.’