Archive for November, 2012

The autumn colors naturally fluctuate from year to year. Sometimes they come on in one fell swoosh at the beginning of October. Other times, they slowly morph into fiery reds and sunshine yellows. 2005 was a particularly slow year for the foliage, as colored leaves could still be seen against a backdrop of Christmas reds and greens. So here I was in mid-December, heading to the middle of Izu Peninsula to knock off yet another peak, the last on my list that could be done as a day-trip from Osaka.

I boarded an early morning Hikari bullet train for Atami, where the local JR line headed south to Ito station. The sun shone brilliantly in the early winter air, as Mt. Fuji sported a short white cap of fresh frozen ice. Once off the train, I searched around for the correct bus that would take me to Amagi-kogen. Luckily there was a bus attendant that sorted things out for me and I soon found myself with a handful of other tourists in search of the autumn colors. Once at the trailhead, I filled up on water before diving into the forest.

After dropping to a col, the path climbed up and around the neighboring golf course towards the ridge, which I gracefully reached in a fraction of the time the maps had allotted. The 200-meter vertical elevation gain was anything but challenging after the previous month’s tough assault of Mt. Ena. The heavily-forested summit of Mt. Banjiro afforded no views of the cone, but as the trail dropped to the long saddle below the high point, Mt. Fuji’s elegant figure came into view. Autumn and winter are generally the best times to catch Fuji in all her glory, so I silently thanked myself for holding out on Amagi for this long. I could have easily squeezed the mountain in around the beginning of September, but patience surely paid off this time around.

Continuing along the ridge, the final summit climb loomed. Again, the maps said to allow 50 minutes to reach the peak but it took less than 30. Just as at Banjiro, the target peak of Banzaburo lay thick in a grove of broadleaf trees. Glimpses of Japan’s highest peak could be seen between the bare branches, but nothing compared to what can be seen on the hills surround the Five Lakes of Fuji. I took a quick summit photo and retreated excitedly back towards Banjiro and the golf course. I could have easily looped around on a different course on the other side of the peak, but the trail was roped off, so I opted for what Japanese call the piston approach, which is climbing and descending via the same route as in the motion of the namesake engine component.

Once back at the parking lot, I had about 45 minutes to wait until the next bus, so I killed time by sitting under the foliage of a maple tree. Despite the splendid weather and vibrant foliage, the parking lot was nearly empty, a throwback to the days when hiking was an activity only embraced by elderly pensioners. My how times have changed…..


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Every summer, from roughly mid-June to the middle of July, a stationary front settles in over the western half of Japan, bringing long periods of uninterrupted rainfall. Known in Japanese as the tsuyu (plum rains), this torrential rain can often bring landslides, flooding, and treacherous hiking conditions. There’s a public holiday called Marine Day that is conveniently placed at the end of this wet spell. Mother Nature, however, doesn’t necessarily decide to move her weather front out of the archipelago on exactly the same day every year, which can leave hikers in a bit of a predicament. So started my quest to climb the highest mountain west of the Japan Alps.

The overnight bus pulled into Kanazawa station, where I searched out for the bus stop to Bettodai , the starting point for the long climb up Hakusan, whose Chinese characters translate as White Mountain. Known for its deep drifts in the winter, the peak is a straightforward climb up a steep valley filled with wonderful flowers and lingering patches of snow. As the bus raced up the valley towards the trailhead, the rivers flowed in a torrent of chocolate brown, the dams overflowing with debris amidst a thundering roar of whitewater. The rain continued to fall steadily as a looked around at the half a dozen other passengers. After disembarking, I headed to the small shelter of the bus stop, put on the rain gear, and marched steadily towards the treeline. My plan was simple: hike up to the high point and head south along the ridge, pitching camp at the flatlands of Nanryu.

A third of the way up, I ran into my first group of nylon-clad hikers. “Oh your pack is way too loose”, quipped the fearless middle-aged leader. Grabbing the load lifters, he pulled on them as tightly as they would go, unaware that I was intentionally wearing them loose to keep the weight off my shoulders and onto my hips. I let out a gentle squeal, grimaced as inconspicuously as I could, dropping the pack off my torso the minute the group started on the trail ahead of me. I intentionally gave them an extra long head start lest I bumped into them again and Mr. know-it-all tried to offer more backpacking tips. The higher up the valley I headed, the thicker the cloud cover. Soon I disappeared from view all-together, stumbling across a decrepit-looking emergency shelter in the flower fields before Murodo. Resting briefly, I munched on some chocolate to help restore the stamina. I had hardly slept on the overnight bus, and the constant frigid rain meant any breaks were life-threatening. After what seemed like an eternity, the trail I was on ran head-long into the large hut and temple complex just below the high point of Gozen-hou. The temperature was hovering around freezing, with a strong wind blowing rain every direction imaginable. I couldn’t fathom having to camp in this dreadful weather, so I did what any sensible mountaineer would have done and checked into the hut. Since I wasn’t having meals, the hut staff directed me to an adjacent building, where I joined a dozen or so other brave souls who were cooped up for the night. After warming myself with a hot cup of tea, I ventured back out into the murk to reach the summit, officially checking mountain #18 off the list.

The next day the weather fared no better, but in my stubbornness I kept with the program and headed up and over Mt. Bessan anyway. The trail dropped for an hour or so to Nanryu, where the hut and campsite lay exposed to the wicked wind and fiery rains. I had to keep moving to stay warm, so I sped past the hut and up the ridge towards the exposed rocks of my target peak’s bare figure. I only encountered one other soul, who, crouched behind a rock just shy of the top, warned me of the dangers:¬† “strong wind, cold”. I was in my red nylon super rainsuit, but knew he must have been suffering in his plaid shirt and wrinkled cotton vest. I continued along the ridge as if in a trance, reaching the emergency hut on the other side of San-no-mine just before 3pm. Dropping my gear, I sat on the wooden sleeping platform, took a deep breath, and declared that I would walk no further that day. I had a dry and warm place to sleep, and my only other option was to descend to the valley below and camp in what must surely be a swampland. My only predicament was where to find water. Grabbing my water filter, I went around the back of the hut and started trying to pump rain water from some nearby puddles. I had only managed to get about 200ml of liquid before giving up in frustration. “There has to be a snowfield around here,” I exclaimed. With a new sense of urgency, I went into hunting mode, scanning the fog-covered horizon in search of a sign of snow. Unfortunately, snow and fog happen to be nearly the same hue of white, so my only option was to find with my feet what I couldn’t sense with my eyes. Climbing the crest of a hill behind the hut, I shot down the other side, slipping on a patch of slushy white gold. Snow! And remarkably close to the hut as well. I filled up a pot full of frozen crystals and went to work, melting enough snow for not only tonight’s dinner, but enough to see me off the mountain the following day.

No other souls presented themselves at the hut the rest of the day. I cooked, cleaned and organized, collapsing in my sleeping bag shortly after the darkness enveloped the mountain. Listening to the sounds of the steady rain¬†ricocheting off the metal roof, I silently praised myself for my decision to overnight here. The rain continued on well into the next morning, as I kept thinking of excuses to delay my departure. Eventually the thoughts of a warm bath proved too great to refuse, and I slipped out of my warm home and down the steep spur into the forest. I stumbled across several large snakes who were probably not used to have their stomping grounds invaded. The trail looked as if it had received only a handful of visitors this year alone, but thankfully there were enough signposts to make things navigable. Once at the campground, I peered at the bus timetable only to discover that it had been discontinued! I was in the middle of nowhere and a long way from anything, but at least the rain had finally let up. No cars to hitch a ride from, and no one to ask for directions. I knew the hot spring lie at the bottom of this valley, but walking there on a sealed asphalt road in the mist was easily of the worst things I had done in my short time in Japan. It took nearly 2 hours before I reached the bathhouse, which fortunately was open. I had a relaxing bath while trying to sort out the bus, which didn’t seem to be running today. In fact, there didn’t seem to be much traffic at all. The bath owner suggested that I should try to hitch out of there, so after my cleansing I walked out to the main road and stuck out my thumb. A prefectural utility truck pulled over and ushered me in. “There’s no train, so you’ll have to take a bus”, advised the government workers. They were out clearing debris from the road and warned me of the mudslides that had hit other parts of the prefecture. At Echigo-Ono station, I boarded an empty bus bound for Fukui station, but still couldn’t understand why I couldn’t take the train.

The bus scooted along abandoned roads, following a heavily swollen river that had emptied its contents into the neighboring villages. The locals were sweeping water and mud out of their homes and storefronts. Apparently while I was braving the elements at Murodo, the river jumped the banks and flooded not only Fukui city, but most of the houses between there and Echizen-Ono. To make matters worse, the train line lie in a twisted contortion along the banks of the river, stripped of its foundations. I now knew the reason for the lack of trains, and wondered if such a rural line with only 1 track would ever get rebuilt. I considered myself extremely lucky to have been able to make it out of there at all. If the flood waters had crested only a few days later, then I surely would have been trapped.

White Mountain gave me nothing but trouble. I’ve heard it’s a lovely peak. There are even some scenic volcanic lakes dotted around the summit, but I never got to experience the beauty of the place. Perhaps a re-visit is in order, but only during the dry season.

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Sometime in mid-September, Miguel posted in the Facebook group about how wonderful it would be for “fans” of my other site to gather in the mountains and get to know each other. After some group feedback, we all settled in on a date and location: October 20 – 21 at Tokusawa campsite in Kamikochi.

Grace and I met up at Toyama station at 9pm on Friday evening, where she drove her beat-up car to Sawando parking lot. Our plan was to catch a shuttle early the next morning to Kamikochi. We arrived shortly before midnight and set up camp behind the car. Grace opted for the cramped warmth of the vehicle, while I braved the subzero temperatures of the tent. The stars twinkled brilliantly in the crystal clear air, as arriving automobiles insured that my fits of sleep would be short-lived.

After a quick canned coffee and some snacks, we boarded an early morning bus under the brilliant skies of a clear autumn Saturday. Since the weather was so incredible, we decided to alight at Taisho Pond for a longer but more scenic approach to Tokusawa campsite, the meeting point for the event. Mt. Yake glistened peacefully in the ripples of the calm waters, as photographers gathered by the shoreline to snap away at the mirror reflections.

Our next stop in route to camp was Tashiro-ike and the frost covered grasslands just in front of the water source. The Hotaka mountains rose abruptly from the base of the valley as if pulled up by an invisible force from the stratosphere. Down at the pond, a few professional photographers positioned their box cameras to capture the early morning mist rising from the lakeside. I’m sure some of these photos will make their way into magazines and books on Kamikochi in the future.

After passing by the bus terminal, the next logical rest area was the small restaurant/shop at Konashidaira campsite, where my friend Shu works. Shu and I caught up while Grace and I ate a breakfast set. The three of us talked about the record number of tents set up in Karasawa a few weeks back. During the October 3-day weekend, no less than 1200 tents were pitched in the highlands. This mountain boom is really starting to get out of hand.

Next up was the hut at Myojin-ike. Grace and I decided to save the pond for the return trip the next day, and simply sat enjoying the early morning sun. Grace was carrying enough gear to feed a large family, so our pace was slow but steady. Halfway along the flat walk between Myojin and our home for the night, we stopped along the shores of the Azusa river to rest. The lack of sleep from the previous night was starting to catch up. I was so exhausted I could hardly move, while Grace looked a bit knackered as well. In my younger years I used to be able to hike for hours and hours on little sleep, but age and my allergies have definitely caught up to me.

Alas, the two of arrived at camp and immediately spotted Miguel’s teepee tents. We exchanged warm-hearted greetings while he introduced us to Rie, who was about to venture off for a hike. Miguel informed us that Gameboy had strolled into camp in the morning, but had headed up to Karasawa for the evening, wearing only a pair of jeans! After dropping off supplies, Miguel and I headed inside to the hut, where I filled my belly with warm soba noodles and we traded stories. I’d known Miguel for years through his beautiful writing and stunning photographs, but this was our first time to meet face-to-face and we immediately hit it off, considering we have so much in common. Both of us come from design and architecture backgrounds, and we both suffer from debilitating health conditions.

The next campers to arrive were Sonia and Isao, a Brazilian couple living in Gunma Prefecture. Tomomi soon followed suit, having come down from Oku-hotaka in the morning. She looked absolutely beat, as anyone would after traversing through Dakesawa with a heavy pack. She kept insisting she had to go back to Kamikochi to get supplies for the pizzas she was going to make, but Miguel and I insisted that she stay, knowing that an extra 14km of walking would not do her any good. I’m sure there would be enough ingredients between the rest of us to make up for what she had not brought with her. Miguel and I diverted her attention to a more important task: putting up her tent correctly.

Miguel taught us the proper was to fasten tent pegs and some basic rope knots. We tried to figure out why Tomomi’s rain fly wasn’t sitting securely on the tent frame. “I think it’s on backwards,” I modestly suggested. Sure enough, a 180-degree turn and we were in business.

I believe Jana was the next to waltz into camp. She had caught a ride with Kevin and Mona, so we knew they wouldn’t be too far behind. As the afternoon light faded through the campsite, a makeshift dining table was set up on a plastic sheet, while the kitchen was assembled in the open Snowpeak shelter, out of the wind. Rie and Tomomi started making pizza, while Isao and Sonia took care of frying the Coxinhas. Grace began unpacking her gear while Miguel, Jana, and I looked on with disbelief. Eggplant salad, ham, cheese, bread, a full bottle of red wine, and just about every other thing imaginable. No wonder her kit was so heavy!

During all of the frantic preparations, I noticed that I had lost sight of Miguel. Turning around, I saw him sitting quietly in his tent, labored breathing, while chowing down on a snickers bar. I knew immediately that his blood sugar had dropped too low, and the only course of action was to let him tend to his blood sugar. Although it was my first time to personally witness a hypoglycemic attack, I knew enough from prior reading about diabetes to know what to do: leave him be. Sonia and Isao looked quite worried, but understood once I explained the situation in Japanese. Once his blood sugar returned to normal then I knew he would once again join the party. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later Miguel emerged from the tent and came back to the festivities.

Kevin and Mona were the next to join camp. Mona was a bit shy because of all of the people, but she eventually calmed down a bit as darkness enshrouded the campsite. Satomi was the final person to roll into camp, arriving just before dusk. Now that everyone was settled into their outdoor homes, the feast and storytelling began. We passed around plates full of food and everyone ate to their heart’s content. Despite our appetites, we had barely made a dent in all of the food. Between all of the appetizers, Jana’s salad bar, and Satomi’s couscous salad, we easily had enough food to feed the entire campsite.

In the midst of all of our reverie, a lone figure approached from the direction of the hut. “Excuse me, is the the Hiking in Japan gathering?”, cried the voice. Grigory, the Russian Superman, had arrived into camp. Armed with only a backpack, we made him feel right at home by forcing him to eat our food, filtering red wine though a coffee filter (don’t ask!)¬† and clearing out Miguel’s other tent so he had a place to sleep. Kevin even gave him his extra sleeping bag to use. Blankets were available for rent from the hut for only 500 yen, so there was no chance of anyone freezing to death this evening. We all gazed in disbelief as Grigory told us he had left Kita-hotaka hut in the morning, traversed through the Daikiretto, had gone up and over Mt. Yari, and then down Yarisawa all the way into our camp. It was easily over 20km of walking, so it was no surprise he turned up long after dark.

Sometime after 8pm, we wrapped up the leftover food and supplies and placed them in the open Snowpeak shelter and called it a night, halfway wondering if Gameboy would be the last to roll into camp. Forming a standing circle, we continued telling stories before Grace had to get back to hut before the 9pm lights out curfew. We easily could have stayed up all night chatting, but the majority of us were in dire need of sleep after taking so much effort to get there.

I climbed into my bivy sack and tried to adjust to the low center of gravity. As the night progressed, the winds picked up considerably. My bivy sack shook from side to side, while I could hear the supplies in the open shelter starting to move. Sitting up, I noticed Miguel out and about the camp, tying down the food and double-checking all of the tents to make sure they were securely staked into the ground.

A short time before sunrise, I heard another rustle in the campsite. Peering out of my bag, I saw that Grace was already out of the warm hut and preparing for breakfast. The alpine peaks were beginning to turn their crimson colors in the first light of the day, so I grabbed my camera to capture the scenery. Slowly the campsite came alive. Grace was cooking grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, while packets of coffee were passed around. Tomomi was the last person to emerge from her tent and rightfully so, as she looked the most weary the previous day. The warm rays of sun gradually filtered down into camp, while we shared more stories and ate fresh blueberries, courtesy of our Brazilian mountain sherpa Grace.

Gradually the tents came down one by one and it was time to bid farewell to Tokusawa and make our way back to civilization. We marched in unison, slowly drifting apart with our varying speeds. Grigory and I led the pack, followed closely by Rie. Once at Myojin hut we took a break and waited for the others to catch up. Luckily they were only a few minutes behind. It was here that the group finally split. Miguel, Tomomi, Kevin, Mona, Satomi, Sonia, and Isao headed directly to the buds terminal, while Grace, Grigory, Rie, Jana, and I took the scenic route via Myojin pond.

The pond was absolutely stunning in the incredibly clear weather. Mt. Myojin is often covered in cloud, so rare is a day when her reflections can shine bright and unhindered. The path between Myojin and Kappabashi is much more dynamic than the other side of the river: wooden walkways, vibrant foliage, pristine forests. Impressive enough to have Jana vowing to come back here the following weekend!

After a quick snack at the hotel in front of Kappabashi, we crossed the bridge and converged upon the bus terminal, where an incredibly long line snaked around the visitor’s center. Over 150 people were waiting to get on the shuttle bus. Grigory was worried that he would miss his bus back to Tokyo, while the rest of us wondered if we’d make it out of here today. Amazingly, the wait was only about 30 minutes, and were were soon on our way. Grace and I got off at Sawando and back to her awaiting car. She drove me back to Toyama in time to catch the 6:30pm train back to Osaka. The train ride took over 3 hours but I slept the entire time, awakened only by the hand of an elderly gentleman who was shaking me back to reality. All in all the gathering was a sounding success, and we hope to make this a yearly pilgrimage.

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