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Archive for February, 2014

Two peaks stood between myself and the completion of the hallowed 100. The remaining duo are actually on the same ridge line, a mere two-day walk that I could easily tie together on a three-day weekend. Timing doesn’t always work out how you plan, however, and if there was any chance of finishing off the peaks before the arrival of the winter snows then I’d have to grab every available opportunity. So, preciously two weeks after coming down the jagged spires of Tsurugi-dake I was at the southern end of the alpine spectrum, attempting to knock off Tekari as a day trip.

This mission called for back-up, and my trusty companion Fumito came to the rescue. After running my plan by him he agreed to not only shuttle me to the trailhead but also to tag along on the agonizing climb. Instead of the drive from Shiojiri, I met Fumito at Toyohashi station in Aichi Prefecture, where he had been transferred to earlier in the year. Despite its proximity to the Minami Alps, it still took us several hours to navigate the rural roads leading to the trailhead at Irōdo. One we arrived it was a simply of matter of pitching the tent by the side of the gravel road and catching a few hours of shuteye before the early dawn would signal our departure for the formidable challenge.

We embarked on our expedition shortly after dawn under a thickening sky. The route weaved through an army of cedar trees lined up in marching formation. Each step brought modest gains in altitude, as the views started to open up the higher the path forged through the woodlands. Shortly before noon the cedar gave way to trees of the more deciduous variety, and the cool autumn air brought a tightening to my lungs that threatened to bring a premature end to our operation. I stopped briefly, sucking in large pockets of air deep into the lungs until the bronchial spasms subsided. I’d never had a problem with asthma before, so I needed to hurry up and finish these last two peaks before they finished me.

The lungs somehow returned to proper working order just as we reached the junction at Mt. Irōdo. We were now officially on the ridge that ran along the entire spine of the mountain range. The altimeter read 2500 meters: preciously 1700 vertical meters higher than our Toyota parked in the valley below. The two of us were absolutely spent from the exertion of energy, but the battle was far from over. Though the majority of the steeper bits were behind us, we still needed to tramp along a ridge laden with more ups-and-downs than most roller coasters. We each downed an carb-laced energy gel and a bag of mixed nuts and slowly glided through a wooded plateau affording views of Mt. Hijiri across the valley. The cloud had yet to invade my last remaining Hyakumeizan, but the barometer warned us that menacing weather was just around the corner.

The pace slowed to a crawl as we followed a dry creek bed through an area ablaze with the yellows and reds of an early autumn. Just below the terminus of Mt. Izaru a small mountain spring brought refreshment to our dehydrated bodies, and by sheer luck the grade eased up just as the eaves of Tekari hut came into view. Peering over the edge of the southern ridge, the conical massif of Mt. Fuji punctuated a rolling torrent of boiling cloud, presenting a spectacle that surely would have had Hokusai glowing with delight. After chatting with the hut owner briefly, we topped out on Tekari’s tree-lined summit shortly before 3 in the afternoon. It had been one gargantuan effort to get there, and the majority of climbers would simply settle into the padded comforts of the cozy hut, but we both had work the following morning.

Clouds swept in from the east, providing a much-needed catalyst to get us moving back towards the junction. I tucked the camera away snugly in my pack, knowing that photo ops would only slow us down. We hit the junction at Irōdo a little past 4 and trudged back down into the dominion of evergreens just as the skies opened up. The canopy above kept most of the larger drops from soaking our gear as we limped through a network of downed, moss covered cedars and lumps of weathered granite. By the time we reached our automobile the first signs of dusk flickered through the forest. It was a monumental climb of nearly 12 hours that both of us vowed never to repeat. One thing was certain: the final peak would be knocked off at a much more leisurely pace.

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I’ve never been a big fan of Mt. Kongo. A summer ascent a decade ago left a mental and physical scar that haunts me to this day: an endless array of log stairs ended at a summit plateau scarred by development. That evening after returning to Osaka I developed a fever that led to a serious bout of the flu, most likely given to me by the ghosts of Kukai haunting the hallowed reaches of what was once a sacred mountain. There was only one way to conquer my fear: a winter ascent with a local guide.

Kanako and I boarded an early morning train on the Nankai line to Kawachi-Nagano station, where a packed bus shuffled us to the trailhead. Fortunately I ran ahead of the other elderly hikers and grabbed the last remaining seats for the 40-minute journey along the winding, motion-sickness inducing rural roads.  All was clear when we exited along the icy roadway marking the entrance to a network of dozens of trails up the cedar-lined pitch of the western face of the mountain. Our guides for the climb were two local Osaka transplants that moved into Chihaya village just a few meters down from the bus stop. Kaori Inaba, a hairdresser-cum-Himalayan guide and her trusty partner Hajime Nakano, an ex-Patagonia employee turned NGO activist. The duo knew the area better than most seasoned climbers, so we opted for the less-traveled Tsutsuji-dani route: the mighty valley of the rhododendron.

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The four of us scuttled along the frozen gravel of the forest road for about twenty minutes until reaching an unposted trail shooting off into the forest on our right. Here we affixed the crampons while Hajime lead the purification ceremony: salt was thrown across the mountain entry in much the same way beans are thrown to shoo away the demons at Setsubun. Sake was then poured as our leader said a small prayer to ease the mountain spirits. So perhaps this is the reason for my troubles the first time around: I forgot to ask the mountain deities for permission to enter.

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The route followed a small stream which fed water to the residents of Chihaya village. The higher we climbed the softer and lighter the snow became. Kaori explained that during regular winters the snow is usually very wet and heavy, but here we were with the light and dry powder that can usually only be found at higher elevations. After passing by a half-frozen waterfall we arrived at a larger multi-tiered fall almost completely frozen over. Kaori poured hot chai into our cups while Hajime explained the old practice of misogi that Shinto priests of yesteryear used to engage in under the very water dropping overhead.

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A bit higher up the constricted valley the trail split: both paths led to the ridge above, so we took the left fork and soon rose above the thicket of cedar into a grove of deciduous trees alive with dazzling displays of hairy hoarfrost. Winds flew over the ridge like passing jetliners as we tightened the straps on our jackets and raised the lenses in a hardy salute to nature’s brilliance. The sound of shutters fluttered wildly among the otherwise still forest – the crowds from the nearby gondola had eclipsed our soothing sojourn and turned it into a spectacle fit for a stroll down the Shinsaibashi shopping arcade. We darted between tourists frozen in a mouth-gaping gaze and popped out on the high point only to be met by even denser swarms. It was as if every inhabitant of Kansai had gathered here for a meeting. We beat a hasty retreat to a small noodle shop nestled between the shrine and the reception desk for repeat customers.

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Repeat customers? Well, yes, it seems Mt. Kongo has a bit of a quirky custom: visitors who climb the mountain over 1000 times will have their name emblazoned on a billboard-sized signpost affixed near the summit. Participants must go to the reception desk to have special cards stamped as proof of a successful ascent. The catch is that these cards cost money to purchase – the first one is 500 yen and it’s an additional 450 yen for each successive one. Since each card can hold twenty stamps, you’ll spend upwards of 18,000 yen just to collect enough stamps to reach the magic number. Oh, but the fun doesn’t stop there, as there are separate billboards for those select few mountaineers who have climbed 5000 or even 10,000 times! Why anyone would want to climb the same mountain day after day, year after year, and decade after decade is a concept I have yet to grasp.

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After warming up with the hot noodles, we continued further along the beaten ridge, reaching a metal observation deck rising sheepishly above the treeline. The Daikō mountains were draped in a swath of white while Mt. Takami’s pyramidal massif pierced the blue sky like a schooner adrift in a whitewashed Pacific. The lofty crags of the Omine mountains drifted in and out of cloud in much the same way a sleepy toddler drifts in and out of consciousness.

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Hunger once again occupied our thoughts: noodles are a good snack but hardly fulfilling when you’re out burning calories all day. The only thing open was a small refreshment stall hawking frozen foods by briskly thawing them in the microwave. Not the healthiest of choices but they did the trick. Shortly before four o’clock we retraced our steps back to the summit plateau, which was now completely devoid of visitors. Kongo’s subtle charms came out of hiding: the late afternoon sun shimmering off the roof of the temple that esoteric monks used to call home before retreating to the quieter hills of Koyasan across the sweeping valley. Snow fell gently from the branches overhead, landing on the frozen footmarks before being whisped into oblivion by the eastern winds sweeping over the ridge from Nara.

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Hajime led us on a secret path through some of the last remaining patches of virgin deciduous trees. The route could never be picked up by the untrained eye – only the local guides knew the way down, so we kept an attentive eye on our leaders’ movements as we slowly eased back into a cedar forest preparing to turn in for the evening. The accumulated snow offered enough reflective light to eliminate the need for headlamps, as the four of us carefully lowered our limbs over an impossibly steep ridge back down to the forest road. By the time we reached the village again it was pitch black. Kaori and Hajime invited us in for tea and snacks before chauffeuring us back to the train station.

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Thus, the curse of Kongo was broken. One question remains, however. Do I tempt fate with a third ascent of the peak, or just sit back in complacency and focus my attention on the remaining peaks of the Kansai Hyakumeizan?

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Before you read, you might want to refresh your memory with part 4 first.

The path down from the grassy highlands of Echigo-koma spit me out in a quaint hot spring village with a rustic public bathhouse. When you enter these facilities, you only need to replace your soiled shoes with clean slippers lined up at the entrance and feed your money in the vending machine in the lobby, which will expel a paper ticket that you hand to the attendant on-duty. Baths are a welcomed commodity after a tough hike, but they have the unfortunate disadvantage of zapping all of your energy if you stay in them too long, so I always give myself a time limit, especially when I’ve still got some miles to cover on foot. Once my cleanse was done, I made my way down to the shores of Lake Oku-tadami, where a small boat would ferry me across the lake. Though there is a route that weaves around the mountainous folds of the lake, the boat is a real time-saver and a must for those that suffer from car sickness. Besides, there would be a bus waiting for me on the other side to take me directly to the trailhead of my next peak. Hitching may have taken longer and I would be truly in a bind if no one were to pick me up. The boat ride itself involves a transfer halfway along at the dam on the outer edge of the lake. For some reason the dam is a big tourist attraction, but I opted to just relax by the shores until the other boat was ready for boarding. The bus was immaculately timed, and dropped me off at my awaiting accommodation in the pale, monochromatic light of the late afternoon.

I made my way to Furando Hut (literally Flemish hut), where the caretaker greeted me like one of his own family. I felt relieved, since I was turned away on the phone by the adjacent Seijirou hut because apparently my Japanese wasn’t good enough for the owner. Of course it wasn’t: he was speaking with a strong Tohoku accent on the phone and I couldn’t catch a single word he was saying. No matter, for I took matters in my own hands when booking at the Furando and perhaps the refusal was simply an omen to stay at the better accommodation. No ill feelings towards Seijirou, but a word of caution to all hut owners – treat me rudely and I will simply smile in your face and take my money elsewhere.

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Despite the warm welcome, I spent the vast majority of the night in a ruthless battle with mosquitos. If I pulled the covers over my body then it was too hot for comfort. Without the blankets, I was getting eaten alive. I desperately needed rest, as one of the longest and toughest Hyakumeizan lay at my doorstep, beckoning me to enter. Sometime just before daybreak, I finally got up, switched on the light and went on the hunt, killing two of the bloated bloodsuckers before stuffing a towel under the crack in the door so that the rest of the family would be kept out of the feast. Ah, that was much better. Slumber and fatigue were victorious at last, but a member of the mosquito rangers got the upper hand, leaving my lower limbs covered in welts when my alarm finally jolted me from my self-induced coma.

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The sky was as thick as my breakfast porridge when I entered the path at the terminus of a long winding forest road. I had my wet weather gear on in anticipation of the drenching, but the only precipitation fell in the form of sweat trapped beneath my rain jacket. I unzipped every opening, airing out my wilted chest like a pair of jeans hung out to dry. The route followed the curves of a serpentine spur leading up to a broad ridge far in the distance. Pine trees grasped tightly to the crumbly spine as I tugged onto whatever I could to help haul me up the natural jungle gym. Looking to my left, Mt. Hiuchi dominated the horizon, partially engulfed in a torrent of dark cloud and mist. Streaks of rain trailed out across the marshlands of Oze before being sucked up by more menacing clouds to the south. I stood on the outer edge of this monumental weather system, and it was only a matter of time before it too would nibble on my body for dessert.

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By the time I reached the first target peak of Shimodaikura the clouds had enveloped me like an invading army. I ducked into the forest for the first of a series of rolling peaks towards the fast meadows of the summit plateau, which I could spot between gaps in the trees. Most of the vertical elevation gain had been knocked out in the first few kilometers, and I felt relieved that the ridge had been attained and the angle let up. Once I had trampled across the forested knob of Mt. Daikura, I broke out of the treeline and into a spitting rain – the front had caught up with me at last. I latched on the pack cover and tightened the zips around my windbreaker, hoping to keep some of my gear intact. Yet as soon as the rain had fallen it eased, revealing a sharp line in the horizon directly ahead. This cloud arc pushed overhead like a squeegee on a windshield of an SUV, and beyond this arc the cumulus vanished to reveal a cloudless sky. Finally, this stubborn system had yielded to the high pressure system before my very eyes.

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When reaching the small pond on the summit of Mt. Ike-no-dake I was basking in brilliant sunshine. I stripped off my rain layer and sat by the shore, taking in the spectacle before me: the marshlands of Oze spread out directly below me like softened margarine on a piece of moldy bread, while the summit of Hira rose gallantly in front of me as if the mastiff itself were wearing a gigantic beanie. I could’ve easily spend the rest of the afternoon sitting here taking in the scenery, but unfortunately a guided group of over 40 hikers showed up from the southwest to spoil my nature commune. They had come from the shorter and much easier approach via a long forest road the leader had driven most of the way up. With the ever-increasing popularity of the 100 peaks, access is getting easier and easier, bringing a surge in crowds that would otherwise not have invested the time or energy to climb. Fearful that this swarm would spoil my day, I got a move on up to the high point. En route I passed dozens of other hiking groups, all of whom had taken the easy way up.

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I tried as best I could to erase this intrusion from my mind, instead focusing on the flatlands dotted by picturesque cirques framing the Echigo mountains beyond. The summit of Echigo-koma, the peak I had summited yesterday lay buried in cloud but further south I could make out the peaks of Tanigawa and Naeba, which looked like nothing more than rolling hills from this vantage point. I looped around the summit, dropping past an area under construction – wooden steps and a toilet were being added to the hillside to accommodate the increase in visitors. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hut would be built here in the future, scarring the landscape once and for all. Don’t get me wrong – the peak was still incredibly beautiful but I would have preferred it a bit less crowded, especially since it was my very last Hyakumeizan outside of the Japan Alps.

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On the way back down from the summit I stopped off at Tamago rock for a quick photo of the impossibly balanced boulders, wondering if this too, would become a relic of the past, toppled by the increased erosion of unwelcome intruders. The route back was just as long and agonizing as the way in, the sweat-inducing ascent replaced by a knee-knocking drop along the spiny ridge. Fortunately I staved off injuries and arrived back at route 352 just after 4pm. I let the thumb do the talking, hitching a ride all the way back to Urasa, where the train taxied back to Osaka via the sprawling Tokyo wastelands. Only three more peaks stood between me and the venerable 100. On to the Alps for the final push.

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Mt. Fuji – The Start

Miki and I arrived at Fujinomiya 5th station shortly before 9pm in a thick vacuum of swirly condensation. Hikers milled about the rest house, tightening their laces and zipping their outer layers tight before disappearing into the shadows of dark scree. Each of us bought a 2-meter long wooden octagonal staff that would serve as both our hiking stick and as an memento of our nocturnal ascent. Each stagepoint en route to the summit will emblazon a seal into your stick along the way as proof of summiting the sacred volcano.  Soon after entering the path, we caught up to a short, stocky elderly man whose comedic intents bordered on the absurd. “I’m going to rest at the next hut,” he confessed, a mere five-minute stroll away. His strategy was to rest here for a few hours of sleep before rushing up the peak for the sunrise. We turned down his offer to accompany him and continued up the dusty rocks of the broad path.

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Headlamps made navigation easier as we slowly marched our way up the barren route. An hour after starting our ascent, we reached our first major hut at the 6th stage point. Hikers shuffled about, faces hidden behind the bright illumination beaming from their foreheads. After getting our staffs branded, we continued our upward march, breaking through the clouds a short distance below the stage 7 hut. Miki and I turned off our lamps, admiring the expansive stretch of galactic fireflies streaked across the blackened sky. Above us, a river of lamps snaked around the switchbacks to a vanishing point on the crater rim. With so many other climbers to light our way, we kept the lamps off and followed the masses in their solemn march towards their ‘been-there, done-that’ glory.

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By the time we reached the 8th stage point it was already past midnight. Altitude slowed us even more than the train of congested hikers. We were now about 3200 meters above sea level, but a curving arc of 500 vertical meters stood between us and the summit. We dug into our energy gels and candy bars, trying to conjure up enough stamina to make the peak before sunrise. We pushed on, clambering over pumice boulders and slippery scree towards our vertical horizon. Just below the 9th stage point the sky started to glow from behind the backlit cone. We were on the western side of the mountain, and the only way to see the sunrise from here was to keep pushing on to the crater. As the two of us reached the shrine gate marking the entrance to the summit plateau, dawn was already advancing over Suruga bay. We shuffled along to the summit of Joyugatake, securing a seat alongside a chorus of 50 other hikers dotted across the exposed perch. Our timing was perfect, as the golden ball hit the horizon less than 10 minutes after our arrival, sending the crowd into a sleep-deprived frenzy.

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While most people stayed to absorb the warm rays of the sun, we kept moving, scooting past the village of noodle stalls to the meteorological station sitting directly on the high point of Ken-ga-mine. Scores of mountains stretched out in all directions: little did I know that over the next decade I’d end up scaling nearly all of them. Drowsiness and fatigue were taking over our thoughts, so we continued along the crater rim, turning back down the route we had climbed through the night. Hikers by the hundreds continued their slow advance towards the summit. Most of these climbers had spent the night at one of huts along the way and had missed the sunrise completely.

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Miki and I walked in a zombie-like trance back towards the parking lot which we could see clearly in the depths below. We took our first break back at the 8th stage point, where nature came calling. I stumbled over to the decrepit shack concealing nothing more than a deep hole in the ground. I eased over the pit, squatting on an uneven set of wooden planks balanced on both sides of the void. After finishing my business, I headed back outside and turned with my back towards Miki to check for any misfirings. While Miki was checking my bottom and hamstrings, the voice of an elderly woman called from just in front of me: “you’ve got some on you!” I looked down, spying a spot of brown goo attached to my right thigh just above the knee.

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I broke out into a hysterical laugh, retreating back to the outhouse to clean up as best I could. Water and volcanic soil did the trick for the most part, and soon we were back on the trail following the river of switchbacks in an insomnia-powered daze. Just past the 6th stage point a field of short shrubs filled the lower depths of the volcano, providing a small but welcome swath of green among the burgundy hues. Back at the parking lot, we just made the 11am bus before collapsing into an exhausted heap. The driver had to wake us upon our arrival at Shin-fuji station.

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Fuji nearly chewed us up and spit us back out, but we had survived relatively unscathed. Despite our exhaustion, neither of us suffered from the altitude, which was a good sign considering I still had 99 more peaks to go.

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