The rainy season lingered on, like the scent of a prematurely extinguished match. Marine Day drew near, and with no apparent end in sight, Kanako and I had our eyes set on two peaks in southern Niigata Prefecture. After an overnight bus to Nagano city, followed by a slow local train on the JR Shin’etsu line, we hailed a taxi at Sekiyama station through the pouring rain to the hilly hot spring town of Tsubame onsen.
The streets of the town lay mostly deserted, the tourists confined to the dry comforts of their hotel rooms. At the start of the track sat two open-air baths, partially concealed by a row of landscaped bushes and a tattered bamboo fence. Seeing how we were just beginning our hike, it would have been futile to stop now for a bath, so we pushed on through the steady rain falling on the shuttered ski runs. Shortly into our stroll a group of 3 hikers descended, led by a lanky, bearded fellow wielding an ice axe over his left shoulder. His footwear consisted of woven straw sandals (waraji) with a dull pair of 4-point crampons tucked underneath. Long, red shorts covered three-quarters of his slender legs, while a simple white v-neck shirt kept his nipples hidden from view. Topping off the outfit was a traditional woven bamboo hat (kasa), which looked as if it had be surgically attached to his perfectly lined cranium. He had the aura of someone famous, but I could do nothing other than stare out in utter fascination and belt out a quick konnichiwa before his party raced off to the hot spring baths.
The path we were on followed a torrent of a stream, skirting the edge of an occasional snowfield to reach the cause of the brisk flows: a towering waterfall that roared with such ferociousness as to send uninvited shivers down my spine. To our discomfort, the trail climbed directly parallel to the falls, steepening at ever-increasing angles. The snow made the footwork tricky, but the chains bolted to the rocks gave added support. Once past the top of the falls, the river, though flowing faster than most commercial airlines, narrowed to a meter-and-a-half across. The bridges that would make passage safe were long since washed away. Kanako and I searched for an alternative path that did not require crossing the waters, but the only way up to Mt. Myoko lie in a ravine on the left bank of the river.
I jumped across first, dropped my heavy pack, and scooted to the edge of the bank. Kanako was pretty scared and none-too-confident, but once I extended my trekking pole to her, handle first, and instructed her to jump as if fleeing a gigantic swarm of caterpillars (her greatest fear, even more than snakes, spiders, and bears combined), did she lift off her feet, grab onto the pole, and fling herself to where I was standing. Grabbing her arm, I pulled her up safely away from the river bank and onto more stable ground. If she fell here there would have been no way to stop her from plunging over the falls to an almost certain death. Despite being drenched with both sweat and rain, both of us treated ourselves to a much-deserved break to help calm the nerves and slow the adrenaline.
The route followed the bank of the river before hooking left, up a narrow valley towards the ridgeline below Myoko’s conical summit. Steady progress was made as the rain finally started to let up. At the ridge sat a junction, with a trail leading down to the ski lifts of Ike-no-taira resort. Turning right, the trail immediately steepened, passing through an area of tricky chainwork bolted to the slippery rocks. Thankfully we would not have to descend this area on the way back, since our goal was to traverse further north towards the meadowlands of Mt. Hiuchi. Thick cloud blotted out all visibility when the summit of Mt. Myoko was attained, shortly after 2pm. Silence and serenity were a much welcomed sight to an otherwise very popular mountain. Most groups had either already made their way off the peak or to their awaiting hut accommodation by now. After a quick snack, we geared up once again and continued on our lonesome journey.
Just past the top, the trail disappeared in a massive forest of white. The northern flank of Myoko still had a tight grip on winter despite being mid-July. Without crampons, the route became slippery and somewhat treacherous, as we stuck closely to the trees to help aid in the balance. Gradually the gradient began to wither, as we reached an open area with a field of snow 50 meters wide that ran several football pitches in length. No tape marks or signposts became apparent, but I used my instincts to tell me which way to navigate. Turning left, we kick-stepped a path roughly parallel to where we descended, but the angle refused to ease. The snowfield continued, as if laid down on a marathon route to nowhere. Something just didn’t feel right.
“Kanako, wait”, I commanded. I dropped my back and raced back down to where we had last seen the trail. There, on the other side of the snowfield, lay a red tape mark, partially buried in the thick ice. Racing back up to my companion, I broke the news to her while both of us carefully and systematically reworked our steps onto the correct path. From here, the snowfields continued to grow. I was really starting to wonder if summer would ever come to the hills of Niigata this year. Some of the traverses really required an axe, but trekking poles gave just enough of a brace, as long as the foot steps were carefully placed. Slipping here would mean a long slide down to a secluded marshland, which would add at least an extra hour of time to climb back out of. Darkness started to overtake us as we finally made it past the hairiest sections and into the flat plains of Kurosawa.
Kurosawa is an octagonal hut that resembles an abandoned NASA spacecraft. When we entered the hut, shortly before 7pm, the entire place was dark. Even the hut staff had started preparing for bed. When we climbed the stairs to the second floor sleeping area, we couldn’t believe our eyes: every inch of floor space had been occupied by retired pensioners. The hut officially sleeps 60, but I’m pretty sure there were more people that that squeezed in there. We did manage to find a tiny space for the both of us near the entrance, which meant we’d hear every single person as they embarked on their midnight toilet breaks and 3am wakeup calls to start their hikes. At least we had a dry place to sleep.
Donning our headlamps, we headed outside to cook up some noodles and warm tea. The damp weather and mist-filled clouds had done their best send temperatures to late-autumn levels. Even though we had brought camping gear, staying at the hut proved to be the better option. With satisfied bellies and properly circulating blood, Kanako and I retreated to bed, for we had another peak to bag the following day, followed by a long descent back to the valley.