Even though it is labeled as Chapter 3, this is the first in a series of articles that chronicle my attempt to do a day hike with every single Japan-based hiking blogger. Chapter 1 involved an ascent of Mt. Ibuki with cjw, while the 2nd installation depicted the scaling of Mt. Kaya with Hanameizan.
Peter Skov is a Saitama-based Canadian photographer, whose wonderful blogs Tsubakuro and Project Sannmyaku archive trips throughout the Japan Alps to capture the wonderful alpine scenery of Japan’s 3000m peaks. We first met back in the summer of 2012 while doing a interview with Yama-to-keikoku magazine about hiking manners in Japan’s mountains. Both of us thought it would be a good idea if we could plan a hike together in the not-too-distant future. I mentioned my plan to climb some peaks around Lake Haruna just before the New Year’s holiday, and Peter arranged to free up his schedule for the 90-minute drive from Saitama.
As Kanako and I gathered our gear in our modest room of the Kokumin-shukusha, Peter chilled in the lobby lounge perusing through guidebooks about the numerous hiking trails in the area. After check-out, we traveled up route 33 to the pass, where a red wooden shrine torii marked the entrance to the ice-crusted trail. We marched in unison, admiring the lack of cedar trees on the sasa-lined path. The inline rose steadily to the base of a small shrine, where the route met the ridge. Here the three of us were greeted by the Siberian winds howling from the north. I zipped up my outer layer, turning my head to shield myself from the bone-chilling gales. The sun shone brilliantly through the navy-blue sky, with a wall of thick white cloud behind. The peaks of northwestern Gunma Prefecture were definitely getting a healthy dose of winter today.
The path led straight up the spine of Mt. Souma’s knobby flank, via a series of near-vertical ladders. I’ve never been a fan of these things: climbs are quite fun and challenging but I’d much rather not descend down these things. If there’s an alternative route I would definitely make use of it on the descent, but this is the only way up and down the peak, so here we were. Luckily we were shielded from the winds by the immense rock wall directly above, but once above this tricky part, the brutal winds threatened to push us off the mountain. It only took about 20 minutes of skillful rock scrambling to reach the summit, which housed a small shrine in addition to several statues placed by the Shugendō devout.
Peter, Kanako, and I rested leisurely, exploring every inch of the exposed summit in search of the perfect angle to digitally capture the scenery. Bare tree branches obstructed the views to our north, but the entire Kanto plain spread out directly in front of us like margarine on a piece of toast. The toast, in our case, was Saitama Prefecture, covered with a sprawling expanse of concrete development as far as the eye could see. Posing as a turtle in a pond of curvy mountains, Japan’s highest peak poked its head about them all as if waiting to be fed by the deities above. The warmth of the solar radiation was most welcome, with the shrine providing a adequate screen from the piercing winter winds.
Our next challenge was getting back off the knuckle-shaped summit plateau and back onto the long route out towards Lake Haruna. We eased into position and carefully lowered our bodies over the ladders until bottoming out on a well-worn path. From here we flowed along the undulating ridge, glancing back every few minutes to take in the full scale of Mt. Souma’s impressive cliffs which happen to be Haruna’s second highest summit and main target for Ni-hyakumeizan baggers.
Next we hit a small gazebo before gently ascending to the base of a towering rock spire known as Surusu rock, where we found a small grotto filled with buddhist statues and sanskrit etchings. In the old days this entire area was a stomping ground for Esoteric Buddhism but now the rocks are visited by regular folk looking for a hawk’s eye view of Haruna’s perfect cone. The trail squeezed between an opening in the rocks before leading to a long ladder that brought us to the top of the rock formation. From here, the views were straight out of a Vittorio Storaro work.
As the afternoon waned on, we thought it best to make a move back towards our waiting automobile, so instead of continuing along the ridge, we spied a short-cut that would take up back to the main road, where we could simply walk up the gently-inclining asphalt back to our car. The road was filled with unevenly spaced grooves, whose pitched changed as cars filed past. This is known as a ‘melody road’ in Japanese, and the tune in question this time bore a strong resemblance to the Incy wincy spider.
It was around 3pm by the time the ignition was started in the car, so it was decided a side trip to Haruna shrine, a venerated power spot in the area, was in order. The walk through the cryptomeria-lined forest was frigid in the late afternoon light, but the mysterious rock formations more than made up for our discomfort. Peter and I raced around capturing the scenery from different angles while Kanako rested on a nearby bench, looking cold and somewhat miserable. Eventually we got out of there just in time to see the moon rising over an adjacent ridge. Peter dropped us off at our hotel while he headed back to Saitama. It was great to finally do a hike with someone whose photography I had admired for some time.
Putting faces behind the bloggers is a bit like unmaking a voice actor for your favorite muppet character: you never know what to expect and you’re often pleasantly surprised by what the person is really like. Peter and I vowed to do more hikes together in the future when time allows, and I definitely plan to make due on our promise.