Enzan looks like most places in Kanto: layers of reinforced concrete buildings clustered around the central train station. There is one noticeable difference, however. The medium-sized city in Yamanashi is home to one of Japan’s cheapest modes of transport. For just 100 yen, the community bus will shuttle you half an hour to the trailhead of Daibosatsu, my target for this tepid May morning. Despite the affordable price, the bus was only about a third full – it seems the majority of mountaineers in Yamanashi Prefecture prefer the flexibility and convenience of their own four wheels of luxury.
The trailhead was flanked on both sides by a couple of mountain huts that have seen better days. I followed the grooves of the well-worn concrete road that eventually led to a dirt path through forests of beech and chestnut just beginning to awaken from a long, frosty winter. A soothing breeze blew in from the valley as the sky flexed its ash-tinged hues. I strolled along, lost in my thoughts while thinking ahead to the productive summer awaiting. Here I was on mountain #48, on task to reach the halfway point before the June rains settled in. Birdsong accompanied my tranquil reverie, offering a soundtrack that accompanied me all the way to the large village sprawled out at Kamihikawa Pass. Dozen of hikers milled about, stretching their legs or shuffling through their immaculate gear in preparation for the easy stroll to the high point. The development reminded me of the busier sections of Yatsugatake. With the overpopulation of the Kanto region, the mountains are put under an environmental strain unmatched in more rural areas of Japan. Basically the farther away from Tokyo you get, the lesser the impact.
The next half an hour followed a road lined by even more cars and mountain huts. It seemed that half of Tokyo had come to frolic in the golden fields of the summit plateau, but why the immense popularity? I pushed on under the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji, whose snow-stained summit peeked out above a foamy latte of bulging cloud. When I reached Daibosatsu-toge, the answer to my riddle was finally solved: it turns out that the trail is part of the Oume-kaido, the main route between Edo and Kofu, the capital of Kai Province. The samurai pledging allegiance to the Tokugawa shogunate haunted these hills, and if the writings of Nakazato rang true, slaughtered an unarmed Buddhist monk upon these very slopes. Whether fact or fiction, the box office depictions of Ryunosuke Tsukue’s cold-blooded act put Daibosatsu on the map for jidai-geki fans.
From the pass, the route spilled out into a vast open plateau, crowned by a pocketed forest of oak and cedar. Japan’s highest peak had by now sunk into the billowing elixir, but an array of other peaks shimmered in the afternoon haze. Groups sat scattered among the hill like spectators waiting for an outdoor concert to start. I kept on the move, climbing up to the edge of the meadow before ducking back into the woods to the high point of the mountain, where I dropped off the northern flank into a shaded swarm of virgin hemlock trees, one of Yamanashi’s 100 most beautiful forests if you can believe the literature. The deserted path was refreshing considering the immense crowds on the southern side of the mountain. I soon reached Marukawa hut, a rustic green-roofed structure sitting in an open meadow bathed in warm sunlight. If I had more time I would have definitely stayed here, enchanted as I was by the peacefulness of the wonderful setting. I sat on a bench, snacking on my late lunch while soaking up both the ultraviolet rays and the rural scenery.
Reluctantly, I rose to my feet and completed the rest of the loop, reaching the trailhead with enough spare time to enjoy a bath at the hot spring a few minutes walk down the road. After my soak, the bus pulled up, completely packed with day hikers who had boarded at the trailhead above. I was barely able to squeeze into the doorway of the jam-packed bus. Perhaps those crowds I had seen earlier had not come by automobile after all. Still scratching my head, one glace at the guidebook revealed a partial explanation: this hike was designed as a two-day trek, with a layover at one of the many huts along the way. No wonder I was feeling so drained.