After the success of last year’s annual gathering, I started off 2015 in great anticipation for another epic summit of like-minded mountaineers scattered throughout this mountainous island nation. However, I became bit sidetracked with the birth of my daughter and our relocation to a new apartment within the city. Still, the show must go on, and if I put it off any longer than the year end would overtake us. After a few messages with my core co-organizers, we nailed down both a location and a date for our annual mountain retreat – the national holiday weekend in late November in the Suzuka Mountains of Mie Prefecture.
I set off on an early morning train on Saturday November 21st bound for Nagoya under clear skies and relatively balmy conditions. The Kintetsu line then shuffled me out of Aichi and into the factory-lined outskirts of Yokkaichi station, where a small branch line lead to Yunoyama onsen, the starting point for the rock climbing mecca of Mt. Gozaisho. Faced with an 8km walk to the campsite from here, I opted for the quicker option of hailing a cab. My driver was a jovial elderly transplant from Osaka who showed off the local sites en route to Miyazuma campground. The taxi shirted the edge of a a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course before traversing past a small reservoir and prefectural industrial research park. After forking over the fare, which came to the equivalent of a night out in Osaka, I strolled down to the campground, where Grace the Yamaholic was waiting patiently with her young niece and nephew. Standing beside her, a beaming gentleman draped in cycling gear and sporting a substantial mound of facial hair stood watch. He introduced himself as Art, an adventurous fellow who had cycled here over the last several days from Osaka. The gathering had officially begun.
Dewi, our resident Indonesian super hiker soon diverged upon camp, escorted by a cheery Japanese gal by the name of Yuka. They were both keen to climb Mt. Nyudo, one of the Kinki Hyakumeizan and a peak I also had my eye on. Art was keen for a walk as well, so after setting up camp and filling our stomachs with snacks, we marched up the road in search of the trailhead. Grace stayed behind, entertaining her relatives while waiting for the others to arrive. On the way to the start of the hike, I poked my head into the camp registration office and introduced myself to the caretaker. I had called ahead and told him of our gathering, and he told me that we could check-in at any time and not to worry too much as there were unlikely to be any other overnight visitors.
The trail crossed a couple of gently flowing mountain streams before ducking into a dense forest of hardwoods. The trail climbed steeply at first before easing a bit higher up towards the meandering ridge line. The views opened up to the north, revealing the rocky precipices of Mt. Kama on the far side of the steep valley. After half an hour of steady climbing, we ran into a solo hiker descending on the trail above, It was none other than Michal, a Czech-born mountaineer whose rock and snow climbing accomplishments are truly inspiring.
Once we hit the ridge, the angle flattened before reaching the summit plateau, lined on all sides by flowing tufts of bamboo grass dancing gently in the mid-afternoon breeze. The grass provided a splendid carpet for the vistas of the loftier peaks of the Suzuka range. After a couple of false summit humps, the shrine gate flanking the true high point came into view, and soon we were standing beneath its shadow, looking down on the Aichi flatlands much like Lewis and Clark stood at the apex of the Continental Divide, gazing down into Bitterroot Valley.
Fortunately there was no bitter fruit for nourishment on the summit, though I did break out my roasted soybeans to help fuel me for the return journey. We had made good time on the ascent, shaving half an hour off the map times. It was just after 2pm when I set off from the summit alone – my plan was to race back into camp in order to check on party preparations. I bade farewell to Dewi, Yuka, and Art and dashed back down the impossibly steep trail we had trudged up just a couple of hours earlier. I did little to thwart the momentum that gravity had instilled, reaching the mountain stream precisely 30 minutes later. From here, it was a rock scramble back to camp along the river bed, where I happened to find an abandoned grill laying across a campfire whose embers burned out months ago. I seized the metallic rectangle and hurled it towards our fire pit upon reaching the concrete dam situated directly above our camp. I let out a howl, which in no doubt surprised Kevin and Bjorn, who were just settling into camp.
I came down to exchange pleasantries with the newly arrived guests. Kevin was flying solo this time around, leaving his daughter Mona to twirl her way into a ballet routine while he navigated the back roads of Mie Prefecture by bicycle. It had taken him several hours to bike here from Nagoya, but he seemed overjoyed to be out in nature among like-minded friends. Bjorn, hailing from Tokyo, had arrived with his lovely wife and daughter for a long-sought weekend in the mountains. We exchanged in small talk while patiently awaiting for the others to trickle in.
I believe that Naresh, Arpit, Viviana, and Mike were the next group to arrive. They had made the arduous journey all the way from Tokyo in the holiday rush hour traffic, but looked pleasantly alert after the never-ending drive. Naresh and I went up to the camp office to register our details and to pay the camp fee. The next step was to get started on the cooking before darkness set in. We assigned Bjorn and his wife the task of making guacamole, while Naresh, Arpit and I waited for Rie to arrive with the vegetables. She showed up just in the nick of time. I assigned Kevin to be in charge of the campfire, hoping the knowledge he learned from working in the Sakae Fire Brigade would go to good use. It took a couple of hours to get the taco filling prepared, and once everything was ready we brought the food down next to the campfire and made a modest spread of nosh on a piece of plastic groundsheet. We needed to be close to the fire so we could make the tacos while the grilled tortillas were still warm. It was already dark by this time, but headlamps and the bright light shining down from the parking lot above made things a bit easier to see.
I had just finished making my first taco when the phone rang. It was Miguel and Eri, who were wandering aimlessly among a small hamlet of bungalows situated further upstream. The campground layout is a bit of a mess to be honest, and he wasn’t the only one who got lost en route to the fiesta. I set down my taco, hoping that it would still be there upon my return. I wandered upstream until spotting their headlamps. I guided them safely to the parking lot just above camp, which was filled to the brim with cars. We tried squeezing into a small space next to the caretaker’s place but apparently this is his personal space and he sternly told us to park at the parking lot further up next to the bungalows. He smelled of alcohol – apparently the money he was making from our camping event was helping to fuel his booze addiction.
Upon returning to camp, I found that my taco was still intact. We spent the rest of the evening finishing off most of the food. In addition to the tacos, Grace the Yamaholic had made an eggplant salad in addition to a potato salad which complemented our meal quite nicely. Once everyone was completely stuffed, we broke out the marshmallows and indulged in S’mores.
Continuing on a tradition started at the earlier gatherings, we sat around the campfire telling mountaineering stories well into the night. Paul is hands-down the storytelling king, but unfortunately he was unable to attend this year’s gathering due to some major health issues. His presence was dearly missed, but Michal did his best to step in and offer us a daunting tale of his winter ascent of Mt. Kasa in the Northern Alps. I’ll leave the crux of the story up to Michal himself ( hopefully he’ll write a proper blog post on his ascent at some point), but the ending had us all in stitches, as he closed with the line “No really, I had the best time”.
One by one we all drifted off to sleep, some in better stages of comfort than others. While everyone did make fun of Kevin’s primitive setup (tent without the poles), it did serve the very obvious function of keeping him warm and dry, as well as providing a cozy living room in which to catch up on season 2 of Lost.
The next morning, I awoke to find the embers still hot from the previous evening. I stoked the fire back to life as slowly our camp did the same. Grace got started on the hot coffee (to go with her incredible banana cake) while Viviana prepared the eggs (she had also prepared an excellent instant potato dish the previous evening). Several of us were planning on leaving that morning, so in between preparing breakfast, we needed to break down camp. Michal and I decided to head back to Osaka by bus and train. Our bus left at 10:20am, so we had time to lounge in camp and enjoy each other’s company. Rie left really early in the morning before most of the others had awoken – she had already made plans with one of her other friends to visit a temple steeped in Shugendo traditions. Unfortunately, she could not join us for the group photo, which came out rather nicely with the smoking embers of the fire providing an ethereal aura.
Michal and I hurried to pack our gear, and if it weren’t for the gracious lift by Naresh in his car we would have missed the bus for sure. We had a nice train ride back to Osaka, but couldn’t help thinking about how much more fun we could have had if we were allowed the luxury of staying another night.
Rumor has it that Naresh, Arpit, Viviana, Mike, Kevin, Miguel, and Eri all went for a very lovely hike up Mt. Nyudo, and upon their return, Tomomi and Baku rolled into camp with a dutch oven and prepared a stew over the campfire. I’m sure the meal was a resounding success, as Tomomi’s culinary skills really are something to behold. We all hope one day she’s tap into her unspoken talent and actually write and publish a backcountry cookbook.
As you can see, the 4th annual Hiking in Japan gathering was a complete success. Next year will be the magic #5, so I hope to continue in the tradition of the previous events and make it a spectacle to remember.