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Archive for September, 2012

Flashback to 2001. After 7 months of living in Osaka, my first opportunity for an overnight hiking trip arises, as my co-worker Eric and I head to the highlands of Nara Prefecture for a 2-day hike through one of the most secluded gorges in Japan: the mighty Osugidani. After a bleary-eyed early morning train ride, we boarded the jam-packed tourist bus bound for Odai-ga-hara, which arrived at the plateau after a 90-minute slog on rural roads that have surely seen better days. The parking lot was filled to capacity by pensioners eager to catch the autumn colors at their peak. Only in Japan would the masses carry forward with their plans regardless of the weather. Once out of the bus we immediately sought shelter at the bus stop to escape the pelting rain and frigid winds.

New to Japan and low on gear, I threw on my trashbag-cum-poncho and snowboarding pants since I had no other gear to keep the rain away. I knew things would be fine as long as we kept moving. We marched up the crowded trail, along wooden walkways built to keep erosion at bay. Deer grazed casually on the surrounding greenery as the orange and red foliage fell steadily from the exposed timbers of one of Kansai’s most popular outdoor destinations. After a half-hour hustle, Eric and I reached the high point of Mt. Hinode, my 2nd Hyakumeizan. We took a 30-second break before heading off the peak towards the gorge, where we left 95% of the crowds behind.

The path must have surely been built by a knee surgeon, as the near 80 degree slope dropped incessantly into the valley floor. We would surely require the services of said doctor once we made it out of here, as the weight of our packs put constant pressure on the joints. We had a tent, sleeping gear, and food for two days, yet had no idea where we would actually make camp. Our first priority was getting off the mountain and into the gorge.

Eventually we reached a forest road that marked the entrance to Osugidani. Luckily the rain had let up, but the wet rocks proved treacherous. If not for the chains bolted in the rock we surely would have fallen into the river far below. The narrow path has little room for 2-way traffic, but our late start ensured we would encounter no other hikers the rest of the way. After an hour or so we reached the start of a number of impressive waterfalls that dropped with great thundering sounds into the emerald green waters of the gorge. Eric and I pushed on as steadily as we could in the quickly-fading light, reaching an open-walled shelter just in front of Nanatsugama waterfall. “This will do,” I exclaimed, as we started sorting through gear. The wooden platforms meant we wouldn’t even need to pitch the tent. We simply unrolled the sleeping bags, broke out the cooking gear, and got to work.

The next morning we awoke to find the shelter completely filled with elderly hikers. Arriving from nearby Momonoki hut, the crowd took over all available foot space, oblivious to our vain efforts to cook breakfast. Why they needed to stand in our bedroom to view the waterfall I’ll never know, but after 10 minutes of nonstop shutters, they finally got the hint after Eric and I chanted a chorus of sumimasens (excuse me, but do you mind?). We finished off the oatmeal and packed up in a flash, just before the 2nd wave of tourists took over. We continued traversing down the gorge, past the nonstop roar of crashing waterfalls, across high-flying suspension bridges, and out of the narrow mouth of the constricted river. After lunch we arrived at a large lake, just at the ferry took off. The next one wasn’t for several hours, so we faced a dilemma. Hike the 10+ kilometers up to the dam and bus stop, or let our thumbs do the talking. Our first attempt to get a ride in Japan was a success, as the driver ended up driving to the bus stop, where the bus had already departed. Instead of leaving us there, he sped down the road, caught up with the bus, and after a few incessant honks, the bus pulled over. We jumped on board, ending up at a rural train station that took us to Matsusaka and finally back to Osaka. All in all in was a successful mission, even if the first day was a complete washout.

One day I hope to do the traverse again, but the typhoon of 2004 has put an end to all efforts to revisit. To this very day, the trail between Momonoki hut and the forest road just before the steep climb to Odai-ga-hara has been closed, and there is no indication of when it might reopen. A bypass route has been built on a forest road so that hikers can still stay at Momonoki, but it doesn’t go through the gorge itself. Apparently most of the chains nailed into the granite walls are no longer there, and huge rockfalls still block the path. I’ll need to go have a look for myself to further investigate. Trails usually get rebuilt quickly in Japan, so there must be a compelling reason why access has not returned to one of the country’s most beautiful gorges.

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“Are you going to bring your rain gear?”, shouts Paul from the other side of the tent. Looking around at the blue skies surrounding the alpine peaks, and the paltry 20 percent chance of rain forecast for the day, I reply in the negative. After all, with clear views of our target peak all morning, and no wind to speak of, how could the weather possibly change?

And with that, the two explorers set off from camp, armed with a fresh map and a few snacks. As we turned from the road to the trail, the temperature suddenly started to drop and the sun disappeared behind clouds that were concealed above a thick forest canopy. It definitely felt like rain was on the way, but perhaps we’d be lucky enough to miss the worst of it. It was Paul’s first time to climb the only active volcano in the Kita Alps, and it was my first chance to check out the route from Kamikochi, which became steeper with each ascending footprint.

After an hour of hiking, Paul and I reached a clearing at the base of a set of cliffs. We wondered which way the trail would go, spying the rocks above for a hint. “Straight ahead,” pointed my companion. We could just make out the throngs of a long aluminum ladder, bolted to a neighboring rock formation. As we reached the vertical climb, a lone Japanese hiker started the vertigo-inducing descent. One slip here would be deadly. I knew the climb up would be a breeze, but I dreaded the inevitable – having to come down that thing later in the day.

Once past the ladder, the path entered alpine territory, with an array of colorful flowers in full bloom, and a meandering trail laden with switchbacks. It was somewhere around here that the skies started to open up, turning from drizzle to an all out downpour. Now I really was starting to regret my foolish decision to leave the rain gear in the valley below.

We rested briefly at the hut until the rain abated. From the hut the path climbed on the true ridge of the mountain range, reaching a lookout point in about 10 minutes or so. Steam from volcanic vents rose up mysteriously in the murk and from the pumice boulders strewn carelessly about. This would not be a good place to be in an eruption, so I silently prayed Yake would not decide to belch while we were visiting. From here the trail drops steeply to a saddle and starts the final, relentless climb to the summit.

This would be as far as I ventured, however, as the skies erupted in a downpour much heavier than before. The clouds hung thick to Yake’s conical figure, as the rain penetrated my thin layers instantaneously. I’d been up Yake in preciously the same conditions before, and a revenge climb doesn’t make much sense when the view is blocked by clouds. I sent Paul off to the summit alone, while I gracefully retreated back to the hut. Once there, I ducked inside and ordered some instant noodles. We had no food in our packs other than a few bags of mixed nuts, and I was starving. I waited out the rain in the luxury of the hut while chatting with another solo climber who’d just come from Nishi-hotaka hut.

An hour later, the rain once again stopped and I headed back up to the lookout point in search of Paul. Mt. Yake drifted in and out of cloud as another man stood by the rocks, searching for his hiking partners. It seems that I wasn’t the only one who gave up on the summit attempt. After 15 minutes or so, 3 figures appeared on the crest of the ridge back down to the saddle. We shouted to them and they replied by waving their arms. I couldn’t remember what color rain gear Paul had on, so I waited patiently for the group to arrive. A young couple eventually wandered up, informing me that my friend was about a half hour behind them. The group worked for one of the hotels in Kamikochi and were up for a bit of a day hike on their holiday. As with the majority of hotel staff in Kamikochi, they were from Kansai. I think the people in Osaka are smart to escape the summer heat and accept employment in a beautiful area with temperatures that barely break 30. They offered me their leftover rice balls, which I gently tucked inside my pack, waiting for Paul’s return to break them out. After bidding farewell, I stood alone on the summit, 2100 meters above sea level, and peered into the murk. A lone figure in green rain gear slowly made its way down the steep trail, meandering as if in a drunken stupor. I yelled up to the ridge line, which seemed to snap Paul out of his contemplative trance. Once we were reunited, I stuffed the rice ball into his waiting fist and asked about the summit climb. “Brutal”, he replied. “I almost gave up after getting lost among the hissing boulders”. Our map marked this trail as difficult to pick up even in good weather, so I wasn’t surprised by the navigability issues.

The rice balls seemed to give up that much needed jolt to get us moving off the mountain. We slid past the hut, down the flower field, and over to the base of that vertical section of ladder. I took a deep breath and slowly lowered myself over the abyss.

I don’t know when I became such a softie when it comes to heights, but I was downright scared when making the 10 meter drop. The trickiest part was about halfway down, when two ladders were tied together. Due to the awkward angle, you couldn’t see your footing at all, and had to trust your instincts. Eventually we both made it through the danger zone and back into the darkened forest. I still had a bit of energy in me, but Paul looked completely zapped and he could barely keep himself on the trail. We took a break at the first available flat area, stretching out our weary knees and finishing off the last of the rations.

From here the walking became much easier, and we soon found ourselves back on the forest road. It was approaching 4pm, and we’d missed our window of opportunity at the hot spring, where the baths closed at 3. To make matters worse, the skies opened up again, soaking my hiking gear that had managed to dry on the descent. The temperatures plummeted, as goose bumps covered my exposed skin. I could definitely use a jacket now, I thought, picking up the pace back to the campsite. Luckily our home had a bath that closed at 7pm, so we jumped right in and thawed out our bodies.

Mt. Yake had definitely won the battle that day, and I couldn’t really call the revenge climb successful, as I’d been robbed of a view of Yake’s elusive emerald green lake. I promised myself that I’d be back for a third round, but this time armed with some rain gear and a decent lunch.

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Fumito met me at Hakuba station early on a cool October morning. The further north the train went, the worse the weather became. Our original plan was to conquer Mt. Goryu, but as Fumito and I stood under the station shelter in the cold, pelting rain, we changed tack and looked over my list of remaining peaks. “Hmmm”, I muttered, “Mt. Yake doesn’t seem so far from here.” I jumped in Fumito’s car as we headed south, towards the sunny skies of Matsumoto. Matsumoto city sat in this unique pocket of sunshine, surrounded by heavy cloud on all sides. Fumito pointed the car west, towards Kamikochi and the dark foreboding skies. A hour or so later we rounded the switchbacks above Nakanoyu hot spring and parked at the trailhead.

Faced with exactly the same wet skies as Hakuba, we put on our wet weather gear and ducked into the forest. Our logic for choosing Yake was, at 2400 meters above sea level, the weather was less likely to turn to snow as our original destination, which sat 400 vertical meters higher. We pushed through the virgin forest like two mountain lions chasing prey, and soon we found ourselves on the slopes of the hissing volcano. Once we hit the ridge, the winds increased 5-fold and the visibility cut to less than 1 meter. Turning left through some sulfuric steam vents, we topped out sometime in the early afternoon, sticking around only long enough to snap a quick photo before seeking shelter from the wind. Fumito broke out the stove at the base of a large rock formation while I jumped around to stave off hypothermia. Though the rain had let up, the wind was ferocious, signaling that the weather front was moving through. Tomorrow was likely to be a clear day, but neither of us wanted to stick around to find out.

Once back at the parking lot, we soaked in the nearby baths for nearly an hour, trying to bring feeling back into our frozen appendages. Fumito then dropped me off at Matsumoto station, where I checked into a hotel and prayed for good weather on the next day’s visit to Mt. Norikura.

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