Doai station, for those who have never had the pleasure of visiting, looks like it was lifted straight from a low-budget horror flick. Dark and damp, with a cool musty wind and mysterious shadows flickering in the poorly lit hallways. There would be no way I’d sleep in the station, and with the approaching storm, my only option was the fluorescent illumination of the station waiting room, who I shared with one other man sporting nothing other than the clothing on his back. What in the world was he doing here? “I lost my wallet,” confessed the frail, bespeckled 40-something loner. “My friend is delivering me some money on the first train, so I have to wait until then.” He seemed like a harmless enough fellow, so I drifted off to sleep and put my valuables inside my sleeping bag just in case my new companion had other ideas.
The next morning strong winds and heavy rained bounced off the asphalt like under-inflated volleyballs, and I knew that trying to climb Mt. Tanigawa would be an exercise in futility. I stared at the maps, checked over the train schedules, and changed tack. Naeba would be much easier to navigate in the rain than the rocky cliffs of Tanigawa, so I got on the local train to Echigo-yuzawa station, which is boarded in the middle of the tunnel under Mt. Tanigawa. When the train reached the end of the tunnel and popped out in Niigata prefecture, I was shocked to find the valley bathed in sunshine. I knew the right decision had been made and wanted to make full use of my time on Naeba, so I hailed an outrageously expensive taxi to the ‘Wadayama’ approach up Mt, Naeba.
“Sure, you can stay here tonight”, returned the manager of Wada hut. The large dining room lay completely deserted as I dropped off my extra gear for the lightweight jaunt up the slopes, who still held their quilt of cloud in the manner of a snugly sleeping toddler. I donned on my red rain suit and shot up the moist riverbed towards the top of the ski resort. In the winter, hoards of skiers and boarders would be sliding down every available inch of powder, but here in the early autumn gloom I marched alone, guided only by the thought of knocking off #66 of the coveted 100. The next hour or so became a bit of a blur. Perhaps it was the monotony of slopping through marshlands on those wooden planks that offer about as much traction as a skating rink. Unheeded by the gently falling mist, I reached the ridge in relatively good time: it was sometime in the early afternoon and there were few other souls around. Everyone I met was already on their way off the mountain and they didn’t seem too thrilled with being robbed of one of the best views around. The path skirted through some rock formations before dropping to a broad saddle, marked by a swiftly flowing creek. Here I took my first break and rehydrated my soaked figure, which was wet not from the rain but from the sweat produced by wearing this unbreathable nylon coffin. I’m not completely sure why Japanese hikers prefer this sauna suits but I blindly followed this trend. At least I had enough foresight to unzip my rain jacket all the way to let the steam escape back into the environment.
From here, the final push to Naeba’s level plateau ensued. Visibility hovered around the 3-meter mark as the winds threatened to push me off into an unknown abyss but I held my ground, topping out at the high point just in time to find the hut owner in the midst of an afternoon stroll. “Why don’t you stay here tonight?” the man inquired, but after explaining that all of my kit awaited me back at Wada he bade me a hearty farewell and I retreated back from where I had come. By the time I reached Wada hut the clouds had lifted, revealing mesmerizing views across the valley towards the peaks of Echigo. When I entered the hut I found out I was the only guest staying. The manager didn’t feel hosting a party of one, so after a little negotiating, he agreed to drive me all the way back to Echigo-Yuzawa free of charge if I were to help conjure up a fib about having a sick family member. He called his boss (the hut is owned by a big company, and the manager has to approve all transactions with the big man-in-charge). The reservation was canceled without a hitch and my main problem of getting off this mountain without my own transport was finally solved. Back at Echigo, I searched in vain for a quiet, dark, and dry place to sleep at the station before giving up and calling my friend in Tokyo for permission to stay. With that granted, I headed back to Tokyo even though I had plans to climb Mt. Tanigawa the following morning. Crazy? Yes. Foolish? Perhaps not as much.