A free weekend in late November and I find myself once again in the urban chaos of Tokyo. Every time I come here I vow never to return, yet somehow always end up rubbing elbows with the masses on the Yamanote line. My plan this time around is to climb a mountain, ANY mountain! I turn to my trusty companion Yuuki who I haven’t seen since that fateful day over 2 years ago when I finally knocked off the Hyakumeizan. We quickly narrow our choices down to 4 peaks: the scenic lake and conical perfection of Haruna-fuji, the impossibly twisted rock formations of Mt. Myogi, a grand hike to Oodake at the foot of Okutama, or the overdeveloped mess of Mt. Takao. All 4 of these prestigious areas I had never had the opportunity to explore, but after a review of the logistics, we opted for the one with the easiest access.
We set off from Ebisu station at the crack of dawn, and the train was already packed with day-trippers heading to the hills. At Otsuki station the masses disembarked on their way to Lake Kawaguchi and Mitsutoge, while a healthy portion of budding outdoor types held on for the final push towards Takaosan station. Chung-chung: the doors of the mighty metal box swung open and disgorged hundreds upon hundreds of tourists, all headed for our intended destination! I’d been warned about the crowds beforehand but truly couldn’t believe my eyes. Yuuki and I jostled our way though the ticket gates, grabbed a free map, and escaped to the nearby toilets.
Nourishment was at the top of our list, but unfortunately the nearby soba shop was still closed, so we grabbed some rice balls from a street vendor and marched in unison with the other zombies towards the cable car entrance. “We should be alone on this path” I quipped, pointing to the red Inari Yama Course (稲荷山コース), a sturdy, 3.1km ridge walk meandering through pristine forest. Our summation was that 90% of the daytrippers would choose the paved course under the gondola. We were partially right in that only about 15% of the visitors chose the long route, but on this hectic autumn Sunday we’d forgotten to factor in the crowds. What’s 15% of 20,000 again? You get the picture.
Despite climbing nearly 200 peaks in Japan, this was the first time I’d actually come face to face with a bona fide tozan traffic jam. Although we didn’t keep official count, I’d venture to say we overtook close to 400 people on the easy climb to the summit. I know that sounds a bit far-fetched, but if we passed one person every 7 meters (which I’m absolutely sure we did since we were overtaking people the entire way) then it begins to sound a bit more believable, doesn’t it?
Even though the map said it’d take 90 minutes to the summit, we were sitting on the top in under 50 minutes, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather and our skillful maneuvering though the sea of humans. On the summit the path merged with 5 other routes to the top, where the visitors easily numbered in the thousands. Easily. Yuuki grabbed a beer while I staked out a place to sit down. Imagine sitting in the middle of Shibuya crossing and you can get some sort of idea what we were faced with. The toilet queue was even longer than it was at the station, as I gave up entirely and munched on my soggy rice balls. Luckily for us, Japanese people have some sort of mysterious affliction to the sun, as we sat on the very best location on the entire summit, soaking up the rays. Yama girls in all directions slowly emerged, pristine with delicately layered swaths of make-up and only the finest and most fashionable outdoor goods. Down-filled skirts with the gaudiest of socks pulled halfway up their spandex covered shins. Where on earth did they get these god-awful fashion ideas? “Here”, cried Yuuki, pointing to the reverse side of our map, which revealed the following illustration:
The two explorers retreated in disgust, but not before purchasing a bag of mikan oranges from a neighboring food stall. Hoping to avoid the crowds, we traversed 30 minutes further north to the summit of Mt. Shiroyama (城山), where sizable crowds and an extensive network of restaurants greeted us. We settled down at a wobbly picnic bench and devoured our oranges while watching the fashion victims. Would this madness ever end?
The next target peak of the day was Mt. Kagenobu (景信山), where we discovered an even larger collection of restaurants and the same relentless crowds. Desperate times called for desperate measures, as Yuuki bought another beer and we splurged on hot noodles and oden. There were so many people that the restaurant was calling out orders by the customers’ last name. The shop clerk nearly fell off his chair when I told him to just call me gaijin. Sure enough, heads truly turned when the cook shouted out gaijin san, ooda dekimashita (hey foreigner, your order is ready!) I carry my Osaka sense of humor with me wherever I go.
Halfway into our luxurious feast, the faint sound of a helicopter wafted through the air. Scanning the horizon, we spotted what looked to be a news helicopter approaching to film the crowds. “It’s heading for us”, I exclaimed! As the copter noise grew louder I became intrigued with the sheer size and unfamiliar red tint on the porpoise-shaped nose. “Hey, that looks like a rescue copter”, Yuuki shouted, spotting the Chinese characters for the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department on the belly of the aircraft. The copter circled the peak once before hovering above the summit directly behind the restaurant. Off we went to investigate.
Two rescuers quickly abseiled to a grass clearing and hurriedly scampered to a nearby picnic bench. An unidentified figure laid motionless, the victim of either over-consumption of alcohol or acute heart failure. I’m not a huge fan of gawking and peacefully retreated back to my waiting meal. Several more firefighters descended from the copter for back-up assistance, as another half a dozen climbed from the parking lot at Kobotoke (小仏) Again, this was another first for me in Japan, though I must admit that it’s not something anyone should have to witness up close. Earlier in my mountaineering career I saw a recovery operation at Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it was from a safe 20km distance. Seeing a copter hovering 20 meters away is an entirely different story.
Yuuki and I took the rescue as a sign that we should abandon our attempt to climb Mt. Jinba (陣馬山) and take the easy escape route to the south. Along the way, we passed the rescuers we’d seen on the summit and thought about asking what happened, but again, it’s not something that I really need to know about. Someone couldn’t make it off the mountain under their own power and were successfully airlifted to safety. Does the cause for that assistance really matter?
Safely arriving at the paved forest road, we turned left and raced towards the bus stop. Upon arriving, we realized that we had 45 minutes to wait until the next bus and would be the 50th person in line to make that bus. When I mentioned to my companion that it’d be a lot faster and more interesting to hitch a ride back to Takao station, his eyes lit up like an 8-year old on Christmas morning. “Yes, just like old times”. You see, Yuuki and I had our fair share of flagging down rides on Mt. Zao and Mt. Nantai and were eager to brush up on our skills.
Yuuki has developed an uncanny technique for hitching rides. Left arm fully extended, thumb outstretched, he reaches up with his right hand for the bill of his blue Kavu hiking hat, lowering the cap as if to ask for a donation while slightly bowing his upper torso. A quick twinkle of the eye to the driver and whammo: a free ride to our chosen destination. We walked down the asphalt road towards town and thumbed down whatever came toward us. First a motorcyclist gave a quick nod, followed by the firetrucks, who chuckled from the comfort of their cabs. The first driver that stopped had a car-full of kids and absolutely no room for us, but just wanted to stop and politely tell us he couldn’t take us. The next car pulled over and we slyly crawled in, much to the disbelief of the other Japanese hikers who’d opted for the 10km hike back into town. Back at the station, we boarded a Tokyo-bound train, vowing to never visit this place again. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Takao has its merits, but the heyday of strolling through an untamed piece of nature so close to the capital is truly gone forever.