Three peaks in the northern section of the Minami Alps remained on my list. Rather than tackling them individually, I seized the opportunity to scale all 3 at once, though the route would not be easy: 3500 vertical meters of elevation gain spread out over a 30km area. Finding a window of holidays in late September, I boarded the overnight bus to Kofu, followed by the early morning shuttle to Hirogawara, the starting point for my unprecedented traverse.
During initial route planning, I mulled over the idea of starting at Yashajin touge, which would allow me to traverse the entire Houou mountain range. While tempting, it would add an extra 10km to an already long traverse, so the shorter approach from Hirogawara won out. The route involved a bit of backtracking, but I knew it would be the least popular of the 4 approaches to the peak. Solitude was something I longingly craved, for the previous month’s ascent of Yatsu-ga-take was anything but: scores of Kanto adventure seekers armed with entire families of unwilling under-aged mountaineers. I wanted a place that screamed wilderness, and knew taking the path less traveled would provide that remedy.
From the massive bus parking lot of Kita-dake’s extremely overcrowded entrance, I trudged past Hirogawara’s namesake mountain hut and ventured to the northwest, along the paved road to Kitazawa Pass, where I would eventually end my trek. Off limits to private vehicles, the deserted pavement was a welcome sight after the jubilant atmosphere of the nearby bus terminal. After 10 minutes of gentle climbing, I spotted the trailhead on the right bank of the shoulder and disappeared into the dark forest. According to the map time, I had a 6-hour slog ahead of me, but I knew I could easily half that pace with my small pack and fit body. I decided to travel as light as possible: the tent and sleeping bag were traded for a few extra paper layers in the wallet that would cover hut accommodation. This was my first experience relying solely on the comfy lifestyle that the hut provides: a dangerous and costly addiction when compared to the bodily torture of carrying half of your body weight on your shoulders.
The route, though a little overgrown, was fairly well-marked despite the lack of foot traffic. After gently gaining altitude through the groves of oak, beech, and birch, I hit a massive boulder field which stretched all the way up to the horizon far above my head. Perhaps I had found the reason why this was the road less taken. Luckily visibility was good and it was a breeze keeping pace with the paint marks and arrows scattered through the steep alpine couloir. I hit the ridge after only 2 hours of steady climbing. The map said to allow at least 3-1/2 hours with their “middle-aged” allocations. The following day, I would need to backtrack to this point and continue to the west, but for now I headed east, up above the tree line to an unmarked crest just shy of 2800 meters above the sea. Shortly after descending the other side, I hit thick cloud and lost the views I had very much looked forward to: the rest of the Minami Alps spread before me while Mt. Fuji floated about them all. There was always a chance of capturing the scene the following morning if I could rouse myself out of bed in time.
The path soon turned to a slick sandy grime, courtesy of the vast deposits of sandstone lining the entire Houou range. These fields of crumbly scree are one of the trademarks of the area, whose name translates at the Phoenix range. Perhaps these mounds of sand are remnants of the mythological birds, who must’ve have come here to die and reawaken from their own grit-like ashes. A little further along the glazed path, I reached the base of the obelisk rock formations of Mt. Jizo, the first of Houou’s three sacred peaks. I could just barely make out the phallic shapes of the rocks in the thick mist. Giving it a miss, I scrambled back down to the tree line and reached Houou hut shortly before dusk. After checking in, I headed outside to prepare dinner. Though I was staying in the hut, I opted to save a bit of money by providing my own meals: a savings of roughly 3000 yen when compared to being fully catered. The hut owners generally have a hierarchy when it comes to customers. Those paying for 2 meals generally get treated like kings, while those who are paying for bedding only are usually quarantined to a different part of the hut, where they must prepare their meals in isolation. Finally come the campers, who the hut owners want no part of, since they aren’t making a profit from the DIY crowds. There are exceptions at different huts, of course, but generally in the Japan Alps you can generally expect the level of hospitality to rise in accordance with the amount of money you are forking over.
Sometime around 8pm I settled into my futon and drifted off to sleep. I had a marathon day ahead of me and needed as much rest as I could spare.