Every year I organize a gathering of mountaineers and hiking enthusiasts from my other site. The last two events were held in Kamikochi and a report of those trips can be found here and here. Miguel and I once again put our collective heads together over a cup of coffee at Yamagata station. While Kamikochi is a very nice location, I wanted to try a different place in hopes of keeping things fresh. The only problem with Kamikochi is that it is a destination in and of itself, which means that people attending the gathering would likely have been in the area regardless of whether the event was being held or not. Holding it at a different venue meant that people would actually have to go out of their way specifically to attend, which might help limit the number of participants. As the Facebook group continues to grow (surpassing 1500 members), we could be in serious trouble if even half that number decided to join in the event. Once the caffeine kicked in we brainstormed locations until agreeing on both a location and date: Togakushi Kogen in mid-September.
I set out the day before the event on an early morning Limited Express train that barreled through the Kiso valley en route to Nagano city. The cloudless sky and incredible visibility meant that the Kita Alps escorted me through the urban sprawl of Matsumoto to the highlands of Hijiri Kogen, teeming with farmers trying to finish up the rice harvest before the onset of typhoon season. At the crest of the gentle rise the train glides past Obasute station to the secluded valley in which the Olympic host is so securely nestled. Legend has it that in feudal times of strife and famine, families used to abandon their infirmed elderly on the slopes of this mountain. Hard to fathom that an area with a tarnished past could be home to such breathtaking vistas.
At Nagano station, I meandered through a giant maze of construction scaffolding on the way to bus stop number seven, where a bus shuttled me to Togakushi campground shortly past four in the afternoon. The cloud had already swallowed the surrounding mountains while I explored the vast grasslands of the camping area in search of a suitable place to set up base camp. Nestled at the end of the grounds near the bungalows sat a semi-secluded area with a surprisingly nice kitchen area and plenty of room for guests. Being an auto campground, I wanted to reserve an area where cars wouldn’t be able to park, since it detracts from the nature aspect of our outdoor experience. Fortunately it was an eerily quiet Friday evening, with only a handful of other campers dotted across the sprawling park. I knew that would all change the following day.
The mountain drifted in and out of foggy consciousness as dusk set in. I cooked up a two-course meal of Vietnamese pho and carbonara pasta as the evening glow fizzled out. Tucking into my grub, I spotted two pairs of eyes glowing at the edge of my camp. Mistaking it for a feral cat, I turned on the headlamp, where, to my great surprise, a juvenile anagram (Japanese badger) waddled lazily into my front yard in search of nourishment. I watched for several minutes as the animal eventually found the bed of an adjacent stream more worthy of its attention. I’ve come across plenty of tanuki and several foxes, but badgers were a first.
I hit the hay at the criminal hour of 8pm, hoping to somehow make it through the long night with at least a few hours of shut-eye. Between the barking of deer, the caws of the crows, and the screeches from wild owl, it was a fitful one, but once the first glows of light wafted into the tent at 5 in the morning, I felt somewhat refreshed. A hearty breakfast of leftover bread and oatmeal was prepared while I stared up at the wall of cloud still clinging heavily to the surrounding mountains. I had the option of an easier ascent up Mt. Iizuna, or the 5-star clambering up the cliffs of Togakushi. Fortunately the decision was made much easier when the first text message arrived just before 5:30. Paul and Rie were on the way and wanted to know which peak I had in mind for the morning. Togakushi had always been high on my radar, and having unexpected companionship sealed the deal.
They arrived just as I was polishing off the grub and set up their tents in the area adjacent to my shelter. We were cautious not to leave too much space lest a car camper should intrude. As we were catching up and discussing the day’s plans, Yuta from Osaka showed up with a companion. They were planning to climb Mt. Takazuma and possibly Togakushi on the return if time permitted. It was barely past 6 in the morning and we already had a clan.
The three of us set off on the climb (detailed in a forthcoming post) and made it back safely sometime before 2pm. Rie really wanted a hot spring bath, while Paul and I were absolutely famished. When given the choice between a meal and a bath, I always let the stomach do the talking, so we settled into one of the outdoor seats at Cafe Fleurir, an amazing place run by a husband-and-wife team. We split a pizza while each ordering a bowl of yaki curry, which is cooked in a similar way to gratin but there’s curry and rice in the ceramic cooking pot. The owner came out with his telescope and showed us the knife-edge ridge that got our hearts pumping earlier in the day. We looked for hikers but couldn’t find any at such a late hour in the day.
After lunch, we literally crawled back into camp, our stomachs about to burst from the caloric overload. Naresh and family were already settled into their cabin, so after a quick change of clothes we all got to work preparing the meal before we lost the light of the sun. The first stop was the campground registration area, where we rented cooking pots and bought wood for the campfire. The next step was firing up the grill, and our resident pyrotechnician Yuta went right to work. Rie assisted in making guacamole as Naresh’s talented wife Seema made the vegetarian taco fillings. Of course, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so Paul chimed in with our first-ever Hiking in Japan slack line.
After slacking, it was time to get down to business and make tacos. The grill was fired up, and Naresh’s children Prakhar and Pranita (and family friend Shrimal) made sure our tortillas were grilled to perfection. Toshi strolled into camp next, fresh from his ascent of Mt. Togakushi. We actually passed by him on the ridge, as he was doing the hike in reverse, something he did not recommend. The next member to join the party was David, who had just come down from Mt. Iizuna. Just before we were about to tuck into dinner, a car pulled up and a young man asked if this was the Hiking in Japan event. Kohei from Shizuoka has joined the celebration. He was new to Hiking in Japan but we welcomed him like family, and his fried chicken and beer were most welcome.
As if things could not get any better, just as we were losing the last light of the day, a black sport-utility vehicle pulled into camp, a car which I definitely recognized from a hike in Hokkaido last month. It was Grace the Yamaholic making a cameo appearance. She could not stay for the camp event as she had plans to climb Yakeyama the following day, but she had come straight from the top of Mt. Kurohime to join us for a short time. Of course she brought some of her famous carrot cake with chocolate frosting.
There was plenty of food to go around for all of us, and as the temperature dropped we all huddled around the glowing campfire for stories and conversation. Sometime during the evening, Paul, Kohei, Yuta and I decided to wander north of the campsite through the cow pastures in search of firewood. We eventually found some tree branches and brought them back to camp. On the way back, we spotted a man with a large tripod and high-quality camera taking night shots. It turned out to be Naresh’s son Prakhar, whose passion for photography and good music had us all impressed.
Naresh prepared dessert, which consisted of David’s Belgian chocolate along with an improvised take on S’mores: we’d forgotten to get graham crackers so substituted Saltines in their place. A sweet and salty version of America’s favorite campground snack if you will. They did the trick but next year we’re definitely not going to forget the graham crackers.
The next day dawned clear, and I roused Paul out of bed so we could capture the first rays of the day glowing off of Mt. Togakushi. It was a decision neither of us would regret. After, Kohei, Rie, Yuta, Paul, and I drove to Kagami ike (mirror pond) to capture the reflection of Mt. Togakushi in the still waters.
Back at camp, David had already departed on his early morning ascent of Mt. Takazuma (and Togakushi as well), so we didn’t get to say goodbye to him. We ate leftover tacos for breakfast, which had us absolutely stuffed. Toshi headed back to Matsumoto after he took an early morning stroll while Naresh and his family headed out on a day hike to the shrine and mirror pond. Yuta and Kohei set off for Mt. Togakushi, so soon it was just Rie, Paul, and I packing up the last remnants of camp. We left a little thank-you note and gift for Naresh to thank him for all of the hard work he put into the event.
Rie drove Paul and I back to Nagoya, where we were already thinking about Gathering #4 next year, which we all agreed should be held at Togakushi again. There are still several peaks in the area neither of us had climbed, so any excuse to get back to one of Nagano’s best hiking areas is most welcome.
There were several people whose presence was dearly missed. Co-organizers Viviana and Miguel both ended up getting sick and could not attend. Kaoru and Michal both had dates with their lovers (oops, I mean mountains!), and Tomomi was in China on a business trip. And if there’s anyone else i neglected to mention then my sincerest apologies. The Ontake eruption and the start of a busy semester have both preoccupied my thoughts.