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Archive for January, 2018

Well, I have to admit that I never thought I’d find myself back on the plateau, but after the birth of our daughter Ibuki two solar revolutions ago, it was time to take her to her first Hyakumeizan. What better place to start than our old friend Odai-ga-hara?

Kanako, Ibuki, and I boarded an early morning train to Yamato-kamiichi for the 2-hour bus journey to the trailhead. It being Golden Week, we expected the bus would be a lot more crowded than the dozen or so other passengers, but then again with the automobile-addicted nation at work perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the bus navigated the long switchbacks towards the 1500-meter-high parking lot, we got our first views of the cliffs of Mt. Daifugen, still dabbed with slivers of rotting snowmelt. It was the first time in my 4 visits to the plateau that I’ve ever had an unobstructed view from the skyline road – if there was any reason to doubt the stature of the Omine mountains one would simply need to point their vehicle in this direction.

We arrived just before noon under brilliant blue skies with a smattering of white cloud floating lazily around the upper reaches of the plateau. We dropped off our extra gear at Kokoro-tōjikan hut before heading up the well-worn path through the forest still very much in hibernation mode. The trees had only just begun releasing their spring buds, and the gullies still held onto their winter coats tightly like a stingy old maiden guards her pursestrings. I brought my baby carrier for the journey in case Ibuki did not feel up to the task, but she insisted on climbing the trail under her own power, albeit with a little extra boost from mom and dad’s outstretched hands on the steeper bits. She looked just as comfortable as her parents and has definitely received an unfair portion of Hyakumeizan DNA from her father.

The junction sitting  under the high point of Hide-ga-take was reached just as the first grey clouds marched in from the west. We settled onto the wooden steps overlooking the Pacific Ocean town of Owase and tucked into our home-made lunch boxes. Ibuki had worked up quite the appetite on her slow march towards the summit, and the food provided just the extra boost she needed for the final push up the series of wooden staircases to the summit.

We reached the high point just before 1pm and took a few summit photos before ducking behind the wall of the observation deck that helped shelter us from the strong gales blowing directly across the valley from the Omine range. The sky turned black and we braced ourselves for the first drops of rain. Imagine our surprise when the sky deposited huge wet flakes of snow instead. It was a repeat of our spring trip to Zao except that we had the additional challenge of keeping a 2-year-old from getting hypothermia.

The snow brought the adrenaline, and after tucking Ibuki safely into my baby carrier, we dropped back down to the saddle, where the snow let up completely. Instead of quickly returning to the trail we had come, we headed up an adjacent peak and down through the maze of wooden boardwalks, which brought a smile to Kanako. Her last trip here involved a cold, snowy slog to the high point in subarctic temperatures, where we abandoned any attempt at a traverse and high-tailed it back to the warm confines of the cafe.

The path rose to a summit before dropping through a maze of wooden boardwalks sitting snugly on a broad carpet of bamboo grass and dead trees poking their needle-like heads out of the tuft. The breeze send us scurrying down the wooden steps as the second wave of snow hit us from the west. Ibuki by now had fallen asleep on my back as I used my umbrella to shield her from the wrath of the horizontal snow.

At the first junction we turned right and entered the shelter of the forest, where the snow turned to rain before yielding to weak rays of sunlight that barely penetrated our thick forest canopy. The sun, rain, and snow spent the next 45 minutes battling for control as we reached the parking lot and ducked into the restaurant for lunch.

By the time we checked into the lodge the sun had won the battle and the winds became calm yet cold. The thermometer in our room read minus 1 degrees and we quickly switched on the heat and kept our down jackets zipped tightly. We shuffled off to the bath to thaw out before heading to the dining hall for dinner. This was followed by a short stroll out to the parking lot to check out the stars. The lot was filled to capacity with Golden Week visitors snoring snugly in the warmth of their cars. Parking is free up here and it’s mind-boggling that the prefecture doesn’t charge people for overnight parking.

The next day dawned bright and clear, with a warm spring feel to the air. After breakfast and coffee we hit the trails and headed out to the cliffs of Daijakura but the crowds were immense. It seemed as if every hiker had read the weather forecast and had invaded the mountain like a mass of shoppers searching for bargains. We continued in a counter-clockwise direction past the statue of emperor Jimmu and back to the boardwalks of the previous day. Ibuki had enough walking and quickly fell asleep when put in the baby carrier. The blue skies were a much welcome site and all too rare on this plateau of mist and rain.

We looped back to the hotel and ate lunch before strolling over to the bus stop and the overflowing queue of hikers 100-strong. They had all trekked up from Osugidani gorge in Mie Prefecture and they all wanted to catch the bus that we were planning to take! I’m not sure why the bus company couldn’t simply offer priority boarding to those who stayed in the mountain hut, but it was a free-for-all as any rules of etiquette were quickly abandoned. The bus company asked for volunteers to take the later bus but of course everyone wanted to get back to the city as soon as they possibly could, for most of them had not showered for a few days. By sheer luck we ended up on the bus and got a seat towards the front, where Ibuki took a nap on her mom’s lap.

Odai-ga-hara may be a Hyakumeizan, but it is definitely the kind of place that could use a bit more management and coordination to avoid public transport bottlenecks. Will I return for a 5th visit? It remains to be seen, but there always the chance of a much longer traverse along the spine of the Daiko mountains, which either begins or ends here depending on your directional preference.

 

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Tsuruga is your typical sleepy port town nestled in a quiet bay in southern Fukui Prefecture. Most visitors pass through on their way to Kanazawa, or perhaps kill time at the ferry terminal awaiting their transport to Tomakomai in Hokkaido. Mountaineers, on the other hand, should know that the city is home to a triumvirate of peaks known as the Tsuruga Sanzan: Mt. Saihō, Mt. Nosaka, and Mt. Iwagomori.

Nosaka is the obvious choice for winter mountaineers, thanks to the support of a fervent local who climbs and blogs about the mountain nearly every day of the year. With such up-to-date information at hand, you can not only get a real time update of the current snowpack, but you can also rest assured that you’ll always have a trace to follow through the knee-deep powder.

Paul, Rie, and I met at Tsuruga station around half past seven on a cloudy January morning. They had driven up from Nagoya while I caught the first train from Osaka. The weather looked iffy, with a low-pressure system set to move in from noon onwards, but if we waited for the perfect weather every time we set out we’d almost never go hiking, especially not in the Hokuriku Region with its propensity to attract mist and precipitation.

The trailhead parking lot was full of cars, as other locals had apparently not been scared off by the forecast. The march up the track followed a stream before crossing it via a steel staircase that is erected in the winter months. Here we strapped on the crampons and marched up towards the ridge line. With the large snowpack, we could pretty much channel our own route up the mountain, which Paul did at regular intervals for an added aerobic workout.

Despite the steepening grade, we made good progress and before long we had reached the first peak on the ridge, fittingly named Ichi-no-dake. The mountains to the east were swallowed in cloud, robbing us of a view of Hakusan and the Japan Alps, but the summit of Nosaka was still above the clouds, giving us an incentive to keep on the move.

Stopping only to polish off the lenses, the three of us coasted gracefully over the 2nd peak and up through the steepened slopes of beech towards the final summit plateau. On a saddle below the top, a descending hiker warned us that the door of the emergency hut was broken and that we’d have to find another way into the hut. Not knowing the full meaning, we pushed on to the hut, only to find another hiking group removing the rear window of the shelter! Breaking and entering is generally frowned upon, but not when it meant a dry place to sit and eat lunch.

We had the summit to ourselves, as other trekkers milled about in front of the hut and ate their frozen supplies. Each of us taking turns to pose, it was Paul’s steps out to  the west that revealed the waist-deep snow drift that now graces the header on the January entry to the 2018 calendar.

We easily could have spent the rest of the day up here admiring the scenery if not for the brisk gales that were pushing the low pressure system over the massif. We ducked through the open window and into the relatively warm confines of the emergency hut.

The return to the car was relatively uneventful except for our failed attempt to slide down the steeper slopes on our rear ends. I ended up with a bucketful of snow up under my jacket and a drenched bottom due to the wet nature of the snowpack.

Back at the car, we ducked into a family restaurant just as a strong rain shower moved in over Tsuruga. Paul ordered a cheese in hamburg set and had to send it back after they forgot to put the cheese inside. It’s only a matter of time before these chain establishments replace their servers with tablet computers, where orders will be less likely to be mistaken.

All in all, Nosaka is one of Kansai’s best snow hikes, especially if you can time it with a high pressure system and the million dollar views of Hakusan. One day I hope to traverse the ridge over to Akasaka and the Makino highlands, where I just may continue along the Takashima Trail for a few days. If that happens, I’ll be sure to call on Rie and Paul and anyone else who’s up for an adventure in the wild mountains of Fukui.

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