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.