Long before the transport ministry burrowed a giant tunnel through Naka-no-yu hot spring, there was only one way in and out of Kamikochi. The path lie in the east, through the quaint village of Shimashima, along a fork in the Azusa river that led to a small gap between Mt. Kasumisawa and Mt. Chou called Tokugo pass. Walter Weston was perhaps the first foreign face to set foot upon the plateau, whose depiction is recorded in a diary entry from the summer of 1891: “The view from near the highest point of the pass is one of the grandest in Japan, so entirely does it differ in character from the ordinary mountain landscapes with their rounded outlines and verdure-clad slopes.” One mid-September morning, I set out with several members of the Hiking in Japan Facebook community in search of Weston’s lost view.
On the flat, 3km walk from Konashidaira campground to the junction at Myojin hut, I set the stage by demonstrating my regular flat-ground walking pace, which my trusty companions watched with reserved envy. On challenging hikes I opt to cover as much of the easy ground as quickly as I can. A 5 to 6 km/h average walking speed is not entirely unheard of. As I rested outside of Myojin, Michael strolled in a minute or so behind me. Out of the rest of the members, he was the only most likely to keep pace for the remainder of the hike. Miguel, Naresh, Tomomi, and Baku each filed in one after the other, eager to enjoy the scenery as much as each other’s company. I’ve done that stretch of forest nearly a dozen times over the last decade or so, and the anticipation of possibly setting foot on some of the same stones Weston left his heel-print on was too much to bear.
Michael led the way along the forest road that paralleled the swift moving mountain stream. In Weston’s time, the entire route most likely darted in and out of this water source, over weather-beaten boulders and snow sculpted waterfalls. I slowed up the pace, but once in the zone I knew that fighting my momentum would only expend more energy than necessary. That’s one of the main reasons why I never hike in big groups and also why I could never become a mountain guide: patience is one virtue that never stuck with me. To my utter surprise, our pace setter Michael had disappeared into the forest, long out of reach from my regular climbing march. I soon found myself completely alone as the route rose through a conservative array of lengthy switchbacks. Every now and again the views would open up towards the valley from which we had started, only to be enveloped by the thick greenery of the lush deciduous canopy.
After crossing several small streams, I reached a signpost that indicated only 800 meters of horizontal distance to the pass. I contemplated taking my first break here, but one look at the altimeter had me rubbing my eyes as if I had seen a desert mirage: 2030 meters! The pass lay only 100 vertical meters above, and it would have been futile to rest when my goal lay so close at hand. I hit the high point about 10 minutes later, where a small flat area crammed with tents beckoned me closer. To the left, a small, red-roofed hut sat nestled on the Shimashima side of the pass. Middle-aged hikers milled about, led around by a thin-skinned tour guide who barked instructions to the two dozen customers who monopolized every available rest space. If this guide ever tired of his profession, I’m sure he could easily get a job as a JR train conductor for his love of unnecessary announcements. Yes, a 1:45pm departure, you say? Please remind me thirty more times over the next two minutes. My headache is forever grateful.
I found Michael seated at one of the benches, and after a quick refueling, we searched for the million dollar view that Weston had touted in his book. A small sign in the campground pointed to a lookout point only 45 seconds away. We reached a small clearing, where a young woman with a bandanna on her head stood, hand outstretched, with her cell phone searching for reception. It turns out she worked at the hut, and this lookout point was the only place on the mountain where you could actually get coverage. Turning towards the west, the towering spires of Mae-hotaka demanded our attention.
From this vantage point, it appeared as if the mountain gods had thrust a giant spear into the earth, severing the landscape into a creepy craggly chaos. I now understood what Weston was talking about. Imagine laying your eyes on the Hotaka mountains for the very first time from this vantage point. Weston describes it best:
“With the broad white pebbly bed of the Azusagawa sweeping round its southern foot, the tall form of Hotakayama rises before us face to face. The highest granite peak in Japan, 10,150 feet above the sea, its towers and pinnacles, that spring from ridges seamed with snow, give it its picturesque name, ‘the mountain of the standing ears of corn.’ Northwards a great arete connects it with Yarigatake, whose monolithic peak is yet hidden by intervening wooded heights, but as we descend a little to the left a fine view greets us of the pyramid of Jonendake standing due north of our pass and separated from it by Chogadake and Nabekamuriyama.”
The descent that Weston speaks of is a little mystifying, as the trail climbs towards the left from the lookout point towards the tree-covered summit of Junction Peak. Perhaps the original location of the Tokugo trail was a little higher up or a bit further to the east?
As much as I had wanted to descend the other side of the ridge and out to Shimashima, our campgear and fire awaited us back at Konashidaira. One day I will embark on the full 20-km journey from Shimashima to Myojin up and over the great Tokugo divide. Until then, I’ll just have to keep chasing Weston’s faded footsteps over Japan’s long-forgotten routes.
Weston, Walter. Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps. London: John Murray, 1896