Archive for October, 2012

With my eyes set on reaching mountain #40 before the winter snows close in, I board an early morning train for Fukui, where a majestic peak lying in Kyuya Fukada’s hometown awaits. The Etsumihoku line is still under repair from the massive flooding that hit the prefecture in 2004, just as I was making my way off Hakusan. The train ran part of the way towards Echizen-Ono city before we were whisked off the train and onto a shuttle bus past the sections that still lay at the bottom of the river. Once past the washed-out area, it was back onto a different train that stopped at Kadohara station, my starting point for Mt. Arashima, which translates as “tempest island”. Hopefully the peak would not live up to its name.

Once outside of the unmanned station, nature soon called, so I found the small station toilet, which, like most rural station restrooms in Japan, was devoid of that tubular, soft white tissue used to clean up after making a deposit. I searched in haste, scooping up some fallen leaves from the side of the road before the pressure in my bowels was forcefully released. I cleaned up as best I could and staggered uncomfortably up the road to the small ski resort, which thankfully had a much better-supplied restroom. Disaster averted, I followed the trail straight up and around the lift pylons of the overgrown ski resort before ducking into the virgin beech forest.

Even though it was mid-October, I was unfortunately too early for the autumn foliage. The tips of the leaves were just beginning to change, but a few weeks from now the entire area would be ablaze with brilliant oranges and vibrant yellows. I tried not to focus on what I would be missing, instead keeping my thoughts on the ridge that rose just out of reach. Eventually I did reach the top of the rise, which was little more than a tease, since the peak actually sat on an adjacent fold of mountain. From here I’d need to drop to a saddle and face a brutal, incredibly steep climb up the spine of the beast. Wisely, I took a breather and re-fueled.

I can only imagine how treacherous and tricky this peak must be in the winter. Even in early December, the summit throws up formidable challenges. The initial climb from the saddle is a grab-what-you-can pull-up exercise through bamboo grass, exposed tree roots, and slippery mud. Beyond that, it becomes a series of false summits, which each one deceptively further than the next. Sensing the summit just over the next rise, you push yourself a little extra, knowing that a long break on top lie several meters out of reach. Deceived, you repeat the process ad nauseam, until finally collapsing in a heap of sweat beneath the modest shrine sitting squarely on the true summit. On this gorgeous autumn day, the peaks of northern Kansai rolled south on eternal folds, all the way to Lake Biwa. The Northern Alps sat behind a thick bed of cloud, just as Hakusan was revealing her shy figure to the early afternoon sun.

During my lazy break, an elderly gentleman who oozed experience from his sweaty pores came over for a chat. Placing his business card between my outreached hands, he explained that he was the unofficial caretaker of the mountain, and climbs several times a month to assess trail conditions and to remove any fallen timbers from the path. These kinds of locals can be found throughout Japan, whose unselfish endeavors ensure that Japan’s trails are some of the best-kept in the entire world. Many other countries have trail-maintenance volunteers, but none with the unyielding vigor and consistency of these unsung heroes.

Eventually I worked up the courage to bid farewell to the warm sunshine and majestic views and sunk back into the treeline, wondering if I’d make the 4pm train back to Fukui. On the descent I passed by several slower groups of climbers, and once I reached the ski resort parking lot I was able to easily negotiate a ride back to Fukui station, where I settled into a seat on an Osaka-bound train. Arashima was well-behaved on this excursion and let me off relatively easy. I was now done with every peak in western Japan and Shikoku, but still had 60 peaks to the north that eagerly awaited my arrival.

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