Archive for September, 2011

After a cozy night at a cheap minshuku on the shores of Lake Akan, I was whisked to the trailhead of Oakan by the kind owner. She gave me her cellphone number, indicating that I call her if I needed a ride back to town after coming off the peak. Kind service in the countryside never fails to impress. As I tightened up my boot laces, I gazed at my map and prepared for the obvious: a long, steep climb in questionable conditions. Sure it was sunny here at the foot of the massive volcano, but higher up the cone lie wrapped in thick blankets of wind-swept cloud.

With the inherent risk of brown bear attacks, I deviated from the norm and actually filled out my info in the trail registration book. Oakan was not a peak to be taken lightly. I soon caught up with a middle-aged female out walking alone, and the two of us pushed on for most of the uninterrupted climb up to the crater rim. The first part of the trail was easy enough, skirting a couple of scenic lakes before reaching the 1st stagepoint. Lake Jiro was particularly attractive in the early morning light.

Compared to Meakan, Oakan, albeit long, was rather gentle to start. I rose up to the 3rd stagepoint without too much effort, passing through areas of hidden subterraneous caverns, from which pockets of frigid air would rise suddenly, cooling my sweat-soaked torso. While most of the climb of the previous two days had been above the treeline, here at the male peak the forest reigned supreme, blocking any lake-effect winds from reaching the trail. Humid was an understatement, but I had other problems at hand in the form of blood-sucking horseflies.

The horseflies, known in Japanese as abu, were  relentlessly persistent, taking every opportunity to swarm and dive-bomb their prey. I was starting to wonder if the creatures had an affinity for foreign blood, as my Japanese companion walked with ease while I swatted endlessly. Breaks were next to impossible, as every stop in motion meant the sweat-chasing abu could make landfall and deliver their nasty bites. Luckily they were fairly easy to kill once they landed, but my upper torso quickly became inflamed from all the smacking. My walk in the woods was somehow becoming a sadomasochistic ritual. Walk, rest, swat was my mantra.

Immediately after reaching the 4th stagepoint, the path turned predominately steeper and muddier, but the slowly expanding views and scenic alpine flora made the effort worthwhile. The views back down to the lake made me forget completely about the nasty thunderstorm of the previous day. Meakan put up one unforgettable fight, but Oakan wouldn’t submit so easily either. I collapsed at the 5th stagepoint, too tired to move any further. I needed nutrients, even if the abu made such attempts futile.

Somehow I managed to stuff a fistful of peanuts between my lips and continued on the overgrown trail. Alas, I could see what appeared to be the summit directly ahead. Dropping into a long saddle, I pushed up the curving switchbacks with renewed vigor before ascending into the cloud. Cut off from the surrounding views I chased a lone hiker to the 8th stagepoint, mistakingly thinking I’d reached the summit plateau.

From here, it became a monotonous series of ups and downs along the wind-swept ridge until I’d finally seen the ancient, grass-filled crater rim. It’s easy to forget that this peak is indeed a volcano. Perhaps Meakan will one day look like this, once the cyclical eruptions cease. If only the clouds would lift so I could get a better sense of perspective and scale…

Nearly 3 hours after setting foot on Oakan’s broad flank, I arrived at the summit, only to be met by a crowd of 20 strong. They’d taken nearly 5 hours to cover the same ground I had, and the elderly team spread out on the summit like chocolate syrup on vanilla ice cream. I found it difficult to position myself amongst the organized chaos and cigarette smoke. Why on earth would you want to pollute your lungs after filling them with clean mountain air?

Sitting on the bald summit, I felt a sense of dejection in the thick mist and frigid wind. Sure I’d successfully scaled a massive volcano, but couldn’t the crowds and flies just leave me alone. I sunk my teeth into a soggy sandwich, wondering what the peak looked like on a crisp, cloudless day. “At least I’ve got a hot spring to look forward to,” I sighed in resignation. Clearly Meakan was turning out to be the victor in this battle for volcanic supremacy.

Silently and briskly I retraced my steps back down to the treeline, flying past the tour group I’d met earlier. Just below the 8th stagepoint, well out of reach of the crater rim, the clouds completely dissipated, revealing jaw-dropping panoramic views. “You gotta be kidding me,” I screamed, cursing my incredibly bad timing. If only I’d spent another 20 minutes on the peak! Too exhausted to return to the summit, I accepted defeat and slid back down to the treeline, through the warm sunshine and awaiting abu.

Returning back to the main road, I thumbed a ride back to Akan-kohan and the refreshing waters of the hot spring baths. Rain fell steadily on my aching body, a sign that perhaps I was wise to retreat when I did. I long for the day when Akan would reveal herself in her cloudless beauty. Just as in the Japan Alps, I fear those days and few and far between. So, who won the battle between Meakan and Oakan? I declare a mistrial due to lack of evidence, and can only hope to schedule a rematch on a clear autumn morning in the not-too-distant future.

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My first trip to Kumotori had ended in utter failure, a victim of the deep snow drifts, late start, and lack of preparation. This time around I came armed with something extra: knowledge.

From Demachiyanagi station, I once again boarded a Hirogawara-bound bus and alighted at Hanase Kogen. Instead of the snow-soaked forests of mid-winter, the vehicle meandered through a thick world of hand-planted cedar. The native flora completely decimated, the evergreen sea spread out unchecked for dozens of kilometers. A recent thinning of the forests left hope that one day the native flora would make a resurgence, but that will take an eternity. At the bus stop, I marched along the overgrown forest road towards the trailhead proper, passing by the abandoned ski lodge with its insanely bowed floor. Ski boots still sat on the shelves, collecting mold and dust, while the kitchen lay in a mountain of broken wood and glass.

After reaching the end of the forest road, the path crept into the cedar forest, following an old stream before bending around the mountain towards the ridge. Somehow in the winter I’d managed to make it this far, but I surely don’t know how. Downed trees and exposed roots made the going surprisingly tough even in the summer, but I confidently pushed my way up to the mountain pass. Once at the pass, I spotted the signpost I’d seen during my first trip. Instead of being buried in the deep snow, the signs clearly pointed the way. I used this marker as an indication of the snow depth: clearly over waist deep during my mid-winter challenge.

The route dropped down the other side of the pass, through a deep gully before meeting up with a tranquil mountain stream. During the winter I’d avoided this section in favor of the ridge and I thanked myself for that decision. The path was difficult enough to distinguish in the summer, and I’d surely have gotten lost in the winter. In the deep folds of the forest I stumbled across a shuttered mountain lodge in immaculate condition. Perhaps the locals come up here to escape from the trials and tribulations of life.

Onward I pushed, reaching the source of the stream before scrambling back up to Kumotori Pass. It was here that the summer and winter routes met, a place I had turned back from months earlier. I had no idea how close I’d come to reaching this pass during my initial excursion, but I had the feeling I wasn’t far. The cedar forests suddenly gave way to virgin foliage which became more and more stunning as the path climbed towards the summit. Autumn must truly be spectacular up here, I thought, silently regretting my haste in attempting revenge. Why couldn’t I have waited one more month?

Preciously one hour after setting off from the bus stop, I came upon the tree covered plateau of Kumotori’s modest summit. Shocked I was at the speed and fluidity of my journey, I paused for a brief moment to orient myself. A clear path shot off the north side of the peak, but where was the path towards Valley #2? I had no choice but to propel myself down the impossibly steep slopes. Ropes were thankfully fastened to the surrounding timbers, slowing my momentum enough to avoid a potentially nasty fall. This would surely be an avalanche death trap in the winter.

Briefly I rested by the side of a stream. As I stepped on a rock to snap a photo of the v-shaped valley, a large frog jumped onto my hiking boot, nearly sending me into coronary shock. Perhaps I was not alone up here after all.

The stream I followed grew larger and larger as I reached an old forest road, which met up with another road a bit further down the valley. Logging was clearly a cash crop during the post-war rebuilding of the country, as I reflected on how beautiful this country must have been before the slash-and-plant policy went into effect.

With the aid of my hiking map, I soon discovered I was following the same stream that passed by the immaculate hut earlier in my walk. From this deduction, I was able to loop back around and eventually retrace my steps back to the bus stop. This was a much better alternative than walking 20km on the forest road over to Kibune. I set off in high spirits until nearly tripping over a gigantic blue earthworm coiled up in the middle of the hiking path! The wildlife up here definitely grows larger in the deep folds of the Kyoto mountains.

I reached the bus stop with nearly an hour to kill before the next bus. This was quite a change from the hurried pace of the winter. The village looked much different when not buried in the snow, so I took some time to explore the area. The one coffee shop in the entire area was closed, so I sat by the side of the road soaking up the sights and sounds of inaka.

Mission complete, but the sense of satisfaction remained out of reach. Perhaps I’d only feel complacent by a successful winter ascent. Hmmm….

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