Archive for December, 2011

Rule #1 of the Hyakumeizan Revenge club: never attempt revenge on a peak you had perfect weather the first time around. Rule #2: same as rule #1. So what were Kanako and I doing here, standing at Makinoto-toge in the middle of a blizzard on Christmas day?

After a grueling 3-1/2 bus journey from Kumamoto, we dropped off all unnecessary gear at the souvenir shop, strapped on the crampons, and headed up the frozen volcanic tundra towards the ridge line. We passed by groups of properly attired hikers making their way off the cloud-covered plateau. None of us had snow pants, since we weren’t expecting Hokkaido conditions on Japan’s southernmost island. Still, the White Christmas was a welcome change to the usual concrete of an Osaka winter.

Once we reached the top of the mountain pass, a problem immediately came clear: our water was freezing! We’d brought along a liter between the two of us, plus a half a liter of hot tea and hot water, both kept in a separate thermos. It was definitely well below freezing up here, and visibility was quite poor. Still, we pushed on like two camels walking through a desolate desert in search of shade. Our shade in this case would be a place to shelter from the wind.

The snow was some of the driest powder I’d seen in some time. The sugary grains blew swiftly and easily through the gale force winds, leaving the ridge a nasty mess of frozen volcanic rock. Even with crampons it was slow going, for one false step would mean a turned ankle and no means of rescue. We reached the col below the summit of Mt. Hossho in desperate need of nourishment. My lungs felt as if someone had been sitting on them all morning, aching with each inhalation. Sitting in the middle of the trail, I reached for my thermos, realizing to my horror that the warm water I’d needed had long since turned cold. Kanako brought out her thermos, offering sips of steaming tea. The lungs began to function again.

Sitting on the col, the clouds began to break, revealing spell-binding views of Mt. Kuju’s pointy summit. The altimeter read 1660 meters. If only we could spend a few more hours out here, I thought. The lunch we’d brought froze over as well, as I forced some nuts into my wiped out body. We’d set a turnaround time of 2pm and it was already a quarter past 2. There’d be no more climbing if we had any chance of making the 4pm bus.

Bravely, we made a 180-degree turn back towards Makinoto pass. This time we were feeling the full brunt of the head winds. In addition to the fingers and toes, the knees were the next body part to lose feeling. We needed to get off this mountain and fast. A quick glance at the thermometer revealed the sense of urgency.  Minus 20 degrees centigrade. Were we really on the island of Kyushu?

Despite our obvious predicament, Kanako was absolutely enjoying herself, stopping every few minutes to admire the hoarfrost and gradually improving views towards Mt. Aso. “Let’s do more snow climbing”, she demanded, immune to the arctic winds and cold air sensitivity that was impeding my cardiovascular system.

Arriving back at our starting point around 3:30pm, we slipped back into the souvenir shop, ordered a coffee, and stood in front of the kerosene heater trying to bring feeling back into our appendages. The warm interior was most comforting, especially since a fresh squall was once again dumping fresh snow on the hills. Looks like we made it off just in time.

Even though we couldn’t reach the summit, the mission wasn’t a complete failure. After all, few other people would have made it as far and as long as we did with the same resources at our disposal. Next time I’ll remember to bring the snow pants and eat my lunch before starting the hike. Kuju deserves a winter rematch and victory will be ours, rest assured.


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Excitement filled the air as the ferry pulled into Beppu port. Blue skies, calm winds, and the final unscaled Hyakumeizan in Kyushu lie just over the hills in the southern part of Oita Prefecture. Kanako and I jumped on a train bound for Taketa station, where a taxi happily drove us to Kamihara, a collection of decrepit houses marking the entrance to the northern face of our target peak.

Mt. Sobo, or grandfather mountain as the Chinese characters imply, is hardly an old man’s peak, rising abruptly over 1000 vertical meters from our present vantage point. Little did we know what other obstacles the old man was about to unload on the unprepared explorers. First, there was the stifling humidity of a July in the southern island. We were still on the cusp of the rainy season, with gallons of sweat rolling off our weary bodies. By the time we reached the unmanned hut at the 5th stagepoint, a change of clothing was in order. We rang out our drenched shirts in the thick air, replenishing our lost fluids with H2O from a neighboring water source. After a leisurely break, we regained the will to gear up once again and crawl up towards the ridge line.

It was in this next stretch of trail where my lexical knowledge was abruptly expanded. Swarms of black, bee-like flies hovered over our stenched torsos, attacking any exposed skin with unreserved vengeance. Yes, the almighty Japanese abu. Horseflies are surprisingly scarce in the mountains of Kansai, but they reign supreme in the forested peaks of Kyushu. Kanako and I pushed on, despite desperately needing a rest from the excruciatingly steep slog. Every time we stopped the flies would inflict their painful blood-sucking bites.

Alas, we somehow managed to reach Kunimi-toge, where the foundation of a rather large hut lie concealed under an overgrown lawn. The map had this place marked as a campsite, but with no reliable water source and the abundance of abu, we had no choice but to push on. The thick cedar forests gave way to native flora in the form of tall bamboo grass, which thankfully kept the horseflies at bay. We could finally slow up our pace, admiring the lush greenery under the deciduous canopy. After a handful of ups-and-downs Kanako and I reached the emergency hut at the 9th stagepoint. Dropping my incredibly heavy pack, I washed my face at the nearby stream, sucking handfuls of the crystalline water deep into my abdomen. Kanako collapsed on the stone bench, while I assessed the situation. Even though I’d brought the tent, we had a free roof over our heads and no one else around to bother us. Even the hut warden was away, leaving an honesty box to put the modest hut fee in. Life was good.

Lunch was cooked and devoured before we raced up to the rocky summit of Mt. Sobo. The sun shined brightly while the surrounding peaks were covered in thickening cloud. The haze concealed Mt. Kuju, the highest peak of Kyushu but at least we weren’t sitting in a world of white. Kanako took a nap while I observed the butterflies sunning themselves on the rocks.

Over an hour we spend on that bald summit, soaking in the sounds and feelings of nature. We seriously considered bivvying directly on top but had no extra energy to drag the gear up from the hut below. Eventually we slithered back our awaiting kit, trying to make that all-important decision of where to sleep. “I want to sleep outside,” demanded Kanako, deeming the hut too dank for her taste. Indeed a strong musty odor wafted from the worn blankets, and the lack of ventilation was disconcerting. Studying the map, I found a campsite marked at Miyahara, a 45-minute walk from our current position. The boss nodded in the affirmative when I offered this alternative.

Heavy gear on once again, we dropped down the steep trail, away from the comforts of the hut. It was already approaching 5pm, and the winds had picked up quite significantly. Suddenly, as if on cue, a rumbling sound rose forth from behind. Was that thunder I just heard? I turned 90 degrees, noticing the black clouds rolling over the lofty peaks of Sobo. Our lazy stroll was abandoned in favor of a hearty trot, as the tempest was likely to overtake us at any moment. The rumbles grew louder and louder, just as we reached the 3-way junction our of intended goal. Here, directly in the center of the trail, lay a flat area no wider than one tent width. Whether this were the official campsite or not I would never know, but it looked heavenly by our standards. I literally ripped the tent out of my pack, setting up camp in just the nick of time.

Kanako and I crawled in, while the rain poured violently all around us, a reminder that the rainy season had yet to release its grip on the archipelago. “Perhaps we should’ve stayed in that hut after all,” I chuckled to my startled companion. The rain let up after an hour or so, allowing us a chance to fire up the stove and cook a quick meal.

The next morning, the cloud lay thick all around, as we broke down camp and traversed down to the bus stop at Obira. Mt. Sobo had put up one heck of a fight, but victory was ours. With the Hyakumeizan of Kyushu safely knocked off, I turned my attention to the remaining 70 summits on Fukada’s list. Perhaps this was going to take much more time that initially anticipated.

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Essays to mark. Deadlines to meet. All of that is irrelevant when the itch appears. A 20-minute train ride is all it takes.

Alighting at Ikoma station, I followed the road paralleling the cable car tracks as it snaked up towards Hozanji temple. Despite the wonderful Sunday weather, traffic was surprisingly light, thanks in part to the sub zero temperatures. After a 40-minute stroll, I passed through the gigantic stone gate marking the entrance to the massive temple complex.

Hozanji was just as I’d remembered it: full of pious worshipers lighting incense and clasping hands. My first visit nearly a decade earlier brought me into contact with a group of monks chanting at the base of the massive cliff face which towers over the entire area. It’s definitely one of the better temples in Kansai, and gives Koyasan a run for its money.

Slipping through the forest of jizo statues, I eyed a shortcut to the stone path leading to the summit of Mt. Ikoma. The fallen leaves blanketed the area, while the sounds of silence offered welcome companionship. Up the stone path I tramped, not running into a single soul until just below the gates of the gargantuan mountaintop amusement park. This too, lay completely still, the rides boarded up for the winter.

Sitting on the summit, I surveyed Osaka city lying 600 vertical meters below. A light wind threatened to drop the windchill to frostbitten lows. Shuffling through the pack, I slipped on the gloves while nibbling on a leftover burrito. Feral cats strolled freely around the asphalt pathways as I sat alone in comforted silence. The rays of sunlight filtered softly through the thickening cloud, reminding me that the snow squalls of winter lie just around the corner.

Content, I slipped back down into the tree line, along the path to Ishikiri I’d explored during my summer sunset outing. Again, no other hikers showed themselves. Arriving at another mountainside temple, I paused in an area ablaze with autumn color, dropping to my knees on the soft blanket of foliage. How could places this beautiful so close to a major metropolitan area lie unnoticed?

As the sun sank behind the horizon, I mustered up the energy to stroll back down to the station. Reality was once again upon me in the form of several hours of work. The brief respite was well worth the procrastination, though. Ikoma is quickly becoming my favorite local peak, overshadowed by its loftier neighbors Mt. Rokko and Mt. Kongo. Sometimes height just doesn’t matter.

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Heavy rain thrashed outside the cozy hut most of the night, while the wind picked up several knots with each passing gust. The storm forecast was right on the money, but unfortunately we were a literal no-man’s land, sandwiched between two of Japan’s higher peaks. Breakfast turned into an impromptu strategic meeting of the minds: myself and one other hiker had our sights set on Hijiri, while the 5 other men were studying routes off the peak. One trio opted for  the 8-hour descent to Shirabiso-toge, where a taxi would be waiting to whisk them back to reality. The other two chose to re-climb Akaishi and head down to Sawarajima via Akaishi hut. The challenge was on.

My new-found companion was named Koji, a 40-something Tokyo businessman on a weekend outing in the Alps. After gearing up, both of us stepped outside, facing the brunt force of the typhoon head-on. We took one look up at the nasty ridge heading to Hijiri, turned to each other, and did what any other sensible climber would have done: we joined the duo bound for Akaishi. For one, we’d both taken the path the previous day and knew in addition to being somewhat sheltered from the wind, it was technically non-challenging. Hijiri would have to wait for another day. The 4 of us marched in unison, leaning close to the ground when the wind gusts blasted us. The rain was close to horizontal as we pushed on unfazed. Once we reached the emergency hut just below Akaishi’s exposed summit, the caretaker ushered us in. Without saying a word, the saintly gentlemen boiled some water on the kerosene heater and plied us with warm tea. He knew the severity of the predicament we were in. After all, temperatures were hovering around zero at 3100 meters above the earth. Remember that this emergency hut has no water source, so the man was giving from his own rations and didn’t expect anything in return. My respect for the hut operators in the Southern Alps reached new heights.

Up and over Akaishi we marched, dropping down into the tree line for a much needed respite from the wind. The rest of the hike down to Sawarajima was a bit of a blur. I don’t recall any distinguishing features other than the well-groomed grounds of Akaishi hut. Once reaching the valley, the news of cancelled bus service set in, as I raced around frantically trying to figure out how to get back to Osaka. Tokai forest was running shuttle buses to the parking lot, but from there I was basically on my own, miles from the nearest town. Luckily, Koji offered me a ride to Shizuoka station without hesitation. The rain continued to pour down as the shuttle bus made repeated stops to remove debris and landslides from the forest road. I had the feeling we were getting out in the nick of time. If we’d climbed Hijiri and stayed an extra night on the mountain there’d likely be no road left to leave on.

Disaster was once again safely diverted. Hijiri remained on the ‘to climb’ list, and little did I know that it would end up being #100 for me. Such is the way things panned out in my Hyakumeizan adventure.

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I woke before dawn, boiling water for oatmeal in the early morning mist that enveloped the vestibule of Takayama hut. I needed every calorie at my disposal for the mammoth climb that lie ahead. Shortly after leaving the warm confines of my accommodation, I found a stream flowing past the trail, gushing clean, crystal-clear mountain water down into the valley below. Make no mistake about it: reliable water sources are in fresh abundance in the Minami Alps, a stark contrast to the huts of the Kita Alps, which sell rain runoff for exorbitant prices. I carried an extra liter in the rucksack, which I hoped would last until the next stream up and over the rocky spires of Mt. Warusawa.

The crawl up to Mae-dake, the first of the triple peaks of Warusawa, took what seemed like an eternity. Fortunately, the light mist gradually evaporated, revealing clear blue skies and hints of a sunny day ahead. The problem lie in the fact that I was heading up the western face of the peak, away from the warm rays that would make the wet, rocky col much easier to navigate. At least I wasn’t descending this route, I thought, as I picked my way through the boulder fields. Alas the ridge grew near, and one last sweaty push later, I sat on the cusp of my target peak, surveying Mt. Akaishi shimmering blissfully in the soft golden sunlight.

I turned left, dropping my gear at the emergency hut at Naka-dake before dropping to the saddle far below. Here a family of ptarmigan crossed the path, oblivious to my close presence. Warusawa’s eastern spire towered menacingly above, swirling in and out of the rapidly flowing clouds. Taking a deep breath, I marched in silence, hoping for an unobstructed view before the mist swallowed the peak for good. I got a quick summit shot off before white enveloped everything around me. Using the paint marks to guide me, I carefully retraced my steps back to my waiting pack, and marked another Hyakumeizan off the list. “Only one more to go today”, I quietly thought, knowing I’d have a huge drop and ascent before reaching it.

A few hundred vertical meters later, I popped out of the clouds and into warm sunshine. Groups of climbers made their way past me, towards the lofty peak I’d just climbed. For once I was happy I wasn’t joining them. Arakawa hut soon came into view, and I found myself sitting on the picnic tables absorbing morsels of vitamin D, when the hut manager came out for a chat. “Here, Japanese sweets”, offered the elderly caretaker. I grabbed a mochi-filled manju and talked about life in the mountains. “Yes, you can see Mt. Fuji from here, but not today”, explained my informative guide. A thick layer of cloud lie between us and Japan’s signature peak. He wished me luck for my rather intimidating afternoon climb. “You’re lucky. Winds are calm today, but a typhoon is on the way.” It’d been a while since I’d seen a weather forecast, but September in the mountains is always a gamble.

Soon enough I rose back into the cloud, counting my steps until even that became a bore. I tried singing my favorite tunes, but nothing could shake this feeling of regret. Sure I was out in nature, but wasn’t this the same scenery I’d seen time and time and time again? A multitude of mountains in the fog, yet all with the same alpine blur. As I was pondering  these thoughts, I’d reached the crest of a hill and realized I was sitting on top of Ko-Akaishi, which was nearly a stones throw away from the summit. Dropping my things, I double checked the map times, and my watch. “Hmm, 2 hours from Arakawa”, read the suggested pace, but here I was 70 minutes after my mochi break. I’d definitely had no trouble acclimatizing to the altitude. My doldrums suddenly vanished as quickly as they appeared and I pushed on with renewed vigor.

After reaching the top, I coasted along the ridge down to Hyakkenbora Yama-no-ie, my home for the night. This time around I’d booked a place with two hot meals. After the incredibly long day, I needed the extra protein to see me through the rest of the traverse.

The majority of climbers take at least 2 days to cover the same distance I’d managed in 1. All in all about a dozen people shared the floor space that night, with all eyes glued on the post-dinner weather report. The prognosis was not good, as the Minami Alps lie directly in the path of the advancing typhoon. What could we do but hope, pray, and wait?

Day 3

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Early November. An opportunity presents itself to explore the highest peaks of the Kansai area and time is precious. After delaying our departure by one day due to inclement weather, John and I head up the paved forest road to the gate marking the entrance to the sacred mountains of Omine, a place which to this very day is still officially off-limits to women.

The path weaved through dense forests ablaze with color and the two lone explorers pushed on towards the ridge. While the sun shone brightly in the valley below, the clouds hung tightly to the first target peak of Mt. Sanjo. Omine temple was absolutely deserted and the thick cloud made navigation a bit tricky, as we raced back and forth trying to find the turnoff towards Kosaka emergency hut. Future climbers take note that the sign reading kashiwagi (柏木) is the correct path to take. Not sure why they couldn’t have just wrote 大峰縦走ルート on the signpost….

We arrived at Kosaka just before dusk, opting for the warmth of the free hut. No use pitching a tent when you don’t need to. The next day we continued on the ridge, up and over the craggy cliffs of Daifugen, and down to the water source at Gyoja-kaeri.  Just past this clearing we ran into our first hiker of the trip, a day-and-a-half from Dorogawa! Hiking on the weekdays out of season clearly has its advantages.

The ridge shone brightly in the crisp autumn air, the last of the autumn foliage hanging tightly to the deciduous canopy above. Statues lined the path at regular intervals, a reminder of the deep history of these mountains, and the thousands of Shugendo practitioners that came before us. Just after the turnoff to Gyoja-kaeri tunnel, the path gradient changed abruptly, as we were met with a never-ending array of wooden steps. I pushed ahead while John took the slow and easy approach. Arriving at Misen-hut ahead of schedule, I pitched the tent, paid the camp fee, and boiled up some water, waiting for John’s leisurely arrival. I wanted to get everything set up before dusk enveloped the ridge, and the swift pace kept us on schedule. Shortly before dusk, a rather inquisitive tanuki visited our makeshift kitchen, begging for free handouts. Apparently accustomed to receiving such refreshments from predecessors, the raccoon dog wandered uncomfortably close to our rapidly cooking meal. I thought for sure that the elusive creature would run off with our rations, so I threw some water on the helpless animal as a warning to keep a safe distance.

With hunger successfully relieved, we drifted off to sleep, awaking in the early dawn to witness another breathtaking sunrise. “Should we do the entire traverse?”, John asked, while checking supplies and map times. As much as I wanted to oblige, our delayed start meant that I needed to be at work the following evening, which didn’t allow enough time to get up and over Mt. Shaka and back to Osaka. Leaving our gear at Misen, the two of us climbed up to the high point of Mt. Hakkyo (the target point for Hyakumeizan climbers), snapped a few summit proofs, retreated back to Misen, and started the impossibly long climb down to Tenkawa-kawaai.

By impossibly long, I really meant it. Map times said to allow 4-1/2 hours for the 15km descent and it easily took that long, with our over-sized packs and the steep terrain. We half expected to run into a bear in the stunningly beautiful hardwood forest, but luckily the nocturnal mammals never surfaced. After a quick hot-spring bath in Tenkawa, we thumbed a ride all the way to Yagi station in eastern Nara, saving us a 4-hour bus ride. I headed back to Osaka while John started the long train ride back to Tokyo. The full traverse eluded up this time around, but I couldn’t help yearning for another stint with the sacred mountains of Kii Peninsula, which have since been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The only question would be, do I aim for a rematch with mighty Sanjo, or head to the uncharted waters of  Shaka and the southern half of Omine?

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