On the third day of the Year of the Snake, Ted Taylor and I headed to the western shores of Lake Biwa for an afternoon ascent of Mt. Jyatani-ga-mine, a name which translates as The Peak of the Snake Valley. As fate would have it, this mountain would push our physical and emotional boundaries, as well as put our very survival skills to an unexpected test.
After cruising north on route 161 past the western shores of Japan’s largest lake, we pointed the car west, towards the quaint village of Hata, located in a steep valley between Buna-ga-take and our target peak. Directly above, the sun shone brightly through the soft stratus clouds, but just a few kilometers north, the peaks of the Makino highlands lay thick in a wall of arctic cloud and blustery white. The snow front was inching its way south, but we were safe for the time being.
Arriving shortly after the lunchtime sirens reverberated throughout the hamlet, Ted and I sorted through gear while examining the bare-bones map showing two roads that led towards the mountain passes on the ridge. Scanning the horizon, we could both clearly see where the trail would follow the ridge. “Perhaps we can descend via that slope”, pointed Ted. We knew that even if we didn’t make the summit we could still do a bit of a loop hike for good measure. Unfortunately my guidebook didn’t cover our approach to the peak, as the hot springs and ski resort on the other side make it a far more palpable proposition for the cool winter months. Regardless, we had a general idea which direction we needed to go.
The rice fields soon gave way to cedar forest, which led to a large, paved forest road lined with a 3-meter high chain-lined fence topped with electric wire. Surely this was built to keep more than just wild boar out of the village. Crossing the deserted pavement, a signpost pointed the way to Bobofuda-touge, the crossroads for the ridge walk to snake valley. Pushing through the dense forest, the human footprints we chased soon crisscrossed with those of the antler variety before yielding to those elusive ursine creatures that still haunt the hidden folds of the Hira mountains. Here we were confronting two of Ted’s greatest fears head-on: snakes and bears. “Clearly these prints are not fresh”, hawked my companion. Reassurance was definitely something we both needed.
The winds picked up considerably when reaching the exposed mountain pass. This weather front was moving in much quicker than expected, but we pushed on through the rolling clouds and fluttering flurries. Ted and I had reached the junction precisely one hour after leaving the car, but both of us knew that time management was of the essence. Setting a turn-around time of 2pm, we followed one solo set of prints, most likely laid by a local villager sometime after the last snow storm. Perhaps it was an early morning ascent to embrace the first rays of 2013, I quietly pondered. The ridge rolled north, dropping to a small saddle before starting the long, relentless climb towards the grassy knob of Jyatani’s curvy perch. “What’s our elevation?”, I yelled back to Ted. “Just over 700 meters”, came the reply, a barely decipherable tone through the howling winds. I took the lead, searching through the silvery haze for the red tape marks affixed to the bare deciduous trees. Moving as if on a C.I.A. mission, I topped out on a false summit, collapsing beneath a cedar tree while waiting for my partner to catch up. Rummaging through my gear, I pulled out the snow pants, knowing the slope I had just conquered would be perfect for a late afternoon glissade. “The good news is we’re almost there”, I announced, “but it’s 2pm now”. Ted and I knew we should turn around but silently agreed that it would be a huge waste to head back now.
Once again, I played the part of guide, kick-stepping a path through the knee-deep snow drifts to the desolate summit. There was no one in sight for miles and miles. Well, at least no one sight for meters and meters in the thick white murk. As Ted approached the high point, however, the clouds mysteriously started to break up, revealing views down to the surrounding plains and valleys. By the time we started backtracking the sun had made an unexpected appearance. Once back at the false summit, we let our rear ends do the navigating, sliding smoothly to the saddle before crossing a small stream and meeting back up with the main trail. Our shortcut had easily cut 30 minutes off our return, and both of us skated along the ridge in high spirits, dreaming of the warm noodles and hot bath that awaited us upon our return. We reached one final, rotting signpost that indicated only 500 horizontal meters between us and Bobofuda-touge. Both of us continued following our prints as they led away from the ridge down towards a stream. By the time we reached the water Ted and I had realized that we were following animal tracks and had veered off the trail. “No problem”, we both exclaimed, “I’m sure we can just continuing follow d0wnstream, as it should meet up with the main trail soon.” Little did we know that our true adventure was just about to begin.