On the western cusp of the Suzuka mountains, not far from the shores of Lake Biwa, stands a broad peak that towers over the historical village of Hino. Named Watamuki, or ‘towards the cotton’ as the Chinese characters suggest, the 1110-meter mountain has long history with Shugendo buddhism, but in recent history you’ll find no esoteric monks or places of worship. Instead, it is the rime ice covering what is left of the virgin beech forest that attracts crowds of mountaineering spectators to its upper reaches. The origins of the mountain name are obscure, as you will find no cotton fields in this part of Japan. One likely explanation is the accumulation of cumulus clouds (known in Japanese as ‘cotton clouds’) that hover over the mountain virtually nonstop during the muggy summer months. Anyway, with 2015 quickly drawing to a close, I invited my friend Tsubasa along on a exploratory mission to close out the year of the sheep.
It has been quite a mild winter so far, so surprised we were when getting our first glimpse of our target peak as the bus rolled through the lowlands of Hino village. The upper third of Mt. Watamuki lie cloaked in a veil of wintry white, surely the first snowfall of the season. Tsubasa had told me during our planning stages that he wanted to climb a snow-capped peak, and though the mountain is famous for winter precipitation, we thought it would escape our grasp. From the bus stop at Kita-batake, we marched up a paved rural road for several kilometers, inching our way closer to the steep folds of the mountain that were just beginning to break out of a thin cloud drapery. This spectacle provided an extra spark in our step: even though I had woken up with a sore throat and runny nose, I marched up the road as if I was in perfect condition.
At the trailhead, our hearts dropped a bit when finding the parking lot full of cars. We had hoped by choosing December 30th that most of the other hikers would be too busy preparing for New Years to hit the trails. We were not the only ones to seize the day and race up for a glimpse of the freshly fallen powder.
The first 10 minutes of the hike followed the river along the remnants of a paved forest road that had fallen into disuse. At the terminus, a proper mountain trail meandered its way through a rather unimpressive forest of planted cedar trees, a sight I had become all too familiar with over the years. Here, the trail switchbacked its way up the surprisingly steep contours of the southern face. After twenty minutes of huffing and puffing, we reached the first stage point (1合目) of the hike. If it took this long just to knock off a tenth of the ascent, it was going to be a very long day.
The next two stage points took nearly an hour to reach, and at stage point #3, the trail crossed a gravel forest road before continuing its upward progress towards the ridge. It was here we found our first dusting of snow lying along the shaded portions of the forest canopy. The sun drifted in and out of the clouds on the otherwise remarkably calm day.
At stagepoint #5, a small wooden emergency hut with a vibrant red roof sat along the edge of a clear cut portion of trees, affording wonderful vistas back into the valley below and out to the shores of Japan’s largest freshwater lake. Beyond, the white-capped towers of the Hira mountains floated above a thick wall of cloud sweeping in from the north.
From here, the snow grew more consistent and deeper, as our first hikers of the day now passed us by on their descent. Most of them were over-prepared for the conditions, sporting both 12-point crampons and ice axes firmly grasped in their thick gloves. The temperature was above freezing and the snow was already beginning to soften, making neither equipment necessary. I did have a pair of 4-pointers in my pack as a precaution, but didn’t see the need for them on the way up.
We pushed up through the cedar forest and into the deciduous wonderland of hardwoods glistening with several inches of crystalline flakes on their bare branches. Every time the sun popped out of the clouds, more rime ice would tumble from the trees, occasionally finding its way onto our heads and packs.
At the 8th stage point stood a small Buddhist altar flanked on either side by statues of En no Gyojā and Fudō Myō-ō, two symbols of Shugendo. We took a quick break here, as we were entering the final push to the summit. During the green season, it’s an easy stroll up through the switchbacks to the top, but we found the route to be barricaded and instead we followed the tape marks up the winter route.
The no-nonsense trail followed the 40-degree slopes of the undulating ridge through a mystical kingdom of rime ice above and ten centimeters of accumulated power beneath our feet. Purchase on the well-worn chute straight up the ridge was tricky as our feet kept slipping out from under us, so we stuck to the untravelled sections of the forest where the footing was much better. Despite being only 200 vertical meters from the top, it still took the better part of 30 minutes to breach the summit plateau, where we were certainly rewarded for our efforts.
We took a seat on a wooden bench that was mostly free from snow and took in our surroundings. All of Mie and Nara Prefectures stretched out before us. Fold upon fold of blue ridges stretched out to the horizon. Apparently you can see Odai-ga-hara from here, but I had trouble distinguishing it from the dozens of other mountains dominating the horizon. To the north, a menacing wall of dark cloud obstructed our views of Mt. Ibuki and Ryozen, as well as the vistas of Hakusan, Oku-hotaka, and Ontake.
Closer to home, the Suzuka mountains stretched out directly to the east, with Mt. Amagoi appearing so close as if we could simply stretch out and touch it. The map indicates that it is possible to traverse from here to the summit along a little-used dotted trail, but it still takes over 3 hours of tough tramping along a twisty ridge. Mt. Gozaisho is hidden directly behind this mountain, but you can just make out the latter half of the sawtooth ridge as it serrates towards the summit of Mt. Kama, which sticks out like the thumb of a hitchhiker looking for a lift. Just to the left of Kama, a glimpse of Ise bay can be seen, with Aichi Prefecture fading out into the curvature of the earth beyond.
The views were just too good to ignore, and between bites of the rice balls and hot soup we set work with our lenses, trying to burn the images into our digital retinas. We finished off the midday meal with a cup of hot coffee that I wisely remembered to pack at the last minute. Both of us had flasks of hot water for this special occasion.
The vistas and grub energized us, but the cool winds pushing in from the north were eventually too much for us to bear, and we started our downward descent back to the bus. The first part down the winter route proved tricky, but again we tramped through the fresh snow where traction was better, bouncing off trees to help slow the momentum. The 4-point crampons inside my pack surely would have helped, but I just couldn’t be bothered interrupting our downward loss of altitude. We kept the pace brisk and steady, forgoing any breaks until reaching the parking lot at the start of the trail. By now my cold was starting to catch up to me, and I was feeling completely drained physically but in high cotton mentally. What a way to finish off the year of the sheep. Just before reaching the end of the trail, a monkey crossed the path in front of us and made its was down to the river for a drink. Fitting, as we were just two days away from the start of the next animal on the Chinese zodiac.
Back on the bus to Omi-hachiman, I drifted off to sleep under the vibrations of the bus and the shaking of my arms. I had the chills and very likely a fever. Now that I was safely off the mountain and on the way home, my body gave up the fight and let my immune system take hold. By the time I reached my apartment in Osaka my fever was over 39 degrees. I ate a quick bowl of soup before collapsing in bed and staying there for the next two days while my sickness subsided.