The overnight bus from Osaka to Nagano may be convenient, but the cost savings are offset by the lack of comfort and relaxation that the train provide. I arrived at 6:45am with heavy eyes and a heavier set of gear. Fumito was waiting patiently, having driven up from Shiojiri in the pre-dawn hours of a clear June morning. We turned the car southeast, past the quiet streets of Ueda and into the pasture-lined highlands of Sugadaira, the starting point of our goal of Mt. Azumaya, a gentle twin-peaked summit straddling the border of Nagano, Niigata, and Gunma Prefectures.
As we reached the start of the hike, an elderly lady sat in a folding chair directly in the middle of the narrow dirt lane, explaining that we needed to fork over 400 yen for the privilege of parking our cars there. Yet another local trying to cash in on the popularity of the 100 peaks. We reluctantly handed over the modest fee, knowing that it would at least protect us from slashed tires if we tried to park illegally. The path skirted the edge of a expansive pasture home to the milk-squirting bovines that made Sugadaira so renowned throughout the archipelago. After leaving the grazing grounds, we ducked into the forest briefly before reaching the summit plateau dotted with igneous boulders. Snaking through this pumice maze towards Mt. Neko, the views behind us opened up to reveal an unobstructed stretch of the entire Hida mountain range. It was as if the Kita Alps were strung out on a gigantic clothesline to dry in the soft light of early summer.
Though the views were enthralling, they were diminished somewhat by the aeolian haze hanging heavily over the Shinshu lowlands, making it appear like a smudged Bob Ross painting. Regardless, we could just make out Yari’s spearlike point still lathed in a cloak of wintry white. Fumito and I reached the summit of Neko a short time later, which offered our first vistas across a narrow depression to the taller pinnacle of Mt. Azumaya. We followed a thin snow-veiled spine before dropping through a meadow and back into a vast forest rising dramatically up the other side. As the grade increased, we grabbed tree branches, roots, foliage, and anything else we could find to assist in our anti-gravitational swim through the rotting snow.
Thirty minutes into our sweaty effort we reached the summit ridge, turning left for another quarter of an hour until topping out on Azumaya. Mt. Asama rose dramatically across a valley of low-lying cloud, still spitting volcanic gas and ash from the 2004 eruption. A modest weather-beaten shrine sat directly on the constricted rock outcroppings of the high point, so after a brief lunch, we prayed to the mountain kami for safe passage back to the trailhead.
Descending back to the junction, we continued straight on towards the less prominent peaks of Naka-Azumaya and Ko-Azumaya through an area of rustling rhododendron and savory mountain sakura still in bloom despite the early-June humidity. The trail led us into a dense forest of oak, beech, and birch sprouting their fresh vibrant folioles. The woods once again gave way to pasture-land which we followed back to our awaiting car. Before setting off, Fumito and I partook of soft serve ice cream made from the fresh milk of the cattle next door. Azumaya was peak #49 on the list, and we joked about being able to knock out another peak before our day was done. Flipping through my guidebook, I realized that Kusatsu-shirane, a peak that we had to turn back from in the winter, was just a short drive away. When I broke the news to Fumito, his face lit up like a child opening a birthday present. “Let’s go now,” he shouted, as we raced back to the car in a passionate pursuit of revenge.