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Archive for January, 2019

It’s hard to believe that 7 years has already passed since our first meeting of the mountaineering minds in the grassy fields of Tokusawa. Each year, ‘the planning committee’ springs into action, doing the behind-the-scenes work to ensure that everyone is well-fed and warm enough to survive a night out among the elements. Last year’s gathering coincided with the Banff Mountain Film Festival, so it only seemed natural to once again pair these two auspicious events into one thrilling weekend in late October.

Since relocating to Minami Otari village earlier in the year, Paul D. is instrumental in persuading us to hold this year’s gathering at Amakazari Kōgen campground at the trailhead to Mt. Amakazari, a peak I have fond memories of summiting during my own Hyakumeizan quest.

Access to Minami Otari is by no means easy, so I head up a day early to explore what this lesser-known village has to offer. It also affords a chance to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen for the very first time, a train line that has had the unexpected consequence of transforming Kanazawa from a ‘Little Kyoto’ to a ‘Little Tokyo’. The skies are a brilliant blue on the smooth ride through the Hokuriku plains. Tsurugidake, Tateyama, and Yakushidake follow my progress through a white-capped gaze, my first time to ever view this spectacle from one of Japan’s most notorious regions for wet weather. Paul picks me up from the station and we head for sustenance at an idyllic soba shop housed in a traditional dwelling lit by hanging gas lanterns. In this part of Nagano, cold buckwheat noodles are dipped into a miso broth with an accent of ground sesame and walnuts, the toppings pulverized by mortar and pestle. Paul and I grind the spices into a fine powder before adding them to the succulent broth and feasting on the handmade strands of soba. Once the noodles are successfully consumed, the server brings a warm cauldron of soba yū to pour over the remaining broth for a hearty finale to a satisfying meal. Paul and I are both boosting with energy and head to forests in search of a hidden village.

The village is worthy of a separate blog post, so interested parties will just have to wait a little while longer for the details. We make it back to Hakuba village in time for a quick stop at the North Face store and dinner at a local bar. Heavy rain moves in overnight and continues steadily through the morning. Yuta has just arrived by overnight train and bus, so Paul and I swoop down to meet him. Looking for a place to escape the rain, we all head to Sounds Like Cafe, a trendy hangout for the local powder hipsters in the winter season. The cafe is nearly empty at this early hour, and the smoked salmon and mashed avocado breakfast plate really hits the spot, washed down by a cup of fresh coffee. We all gaze our attention to a stunning photograph of a small alpine pond with brilliant mirror reflections. We gander a quick guess before giving up on our search for the name of the elusive location. A few minutes later, Yuta scrolls through photos of his recent trip to Shimonoroka and low and behold, on a hidden plateau on a seldom-used path sits the very exact pond adorning the walls of the cafe – Yuta had been there just one week ago but had no idea he had visited the place!

After breakfast we stop by the local supermarket for supplies and run into drone-master Edward. After shopping we agree to reconvene at Paul’s apartment to wait out the weather. At the first hints of sunshine we head further up the valley by car to Amakazari campground, reaching the damp grasslands just as the sun starts to illuminate the hillsides ablaze in autumn color.

One by one our trusty companions arrive: Naresh, Bjorn and family from Tokyo, John from neighboring Matsumoto, Rie, Hisao and David from Nagoya, and last but not least Michal (RIP), who is always with us in spirit. We pitch our tents along a thin sliver of green grass and start preparing a late lunch/early dinner of kimchi hotpot. With everyone carefully engaged in dinner preparations, Naresh, Paul, Bjorn and I head to the wetlands to take in the autumn scenery. Paul forages for ripe sarunashi, the underrated kiwiberry fruit that grows wild in this region. After taking enough photos to fill several memory cards, we stroll back to camp and feast on warm soup and hot dogs!

Shortly before sunset we head by car to Iwatake ski field for the film festival. Due to the wet weather the location has been moved indoors, but we all appreciate the added heat that comes with assembling in the large multipurpose space. Just before showtime, we convince Kaoru and Alastair to join us, and Paul slips out on a marathon driving session through the backstreets of Hakuba to pick them up. He returns just in time for the start of the film festival.

The films this year are a mixed bag. Last year it was a thrilling ride from start to finish, with every film competing to outdo the last. We all left there with a feeling of awe and an invigorating drive to head to the hills. This year, however, there were a few duds mixed in among the more brilliant footage. Sky Migrations was one such letdown. While it is a somewhat fascinating look at migratory birds, it is best appreciated on a comfy sofa cuddled up to a loved one, and not really suitable for a crowd of extreme sports addicts.

After a quick group photo, we all head back to the campsite to start the campfire, but the damp air produces a very smoky outcome, with most of us suffering smoke inhalation well before the fire produced enough heat to keep us warm. Some of us turn our attention to star photography while others drift off into a shivered reverie.

I awake at dawn to the hum of a drone. Peering outside, I find Edward taking his craft for a spin. I join him for a ‘virtual’ tour of the sky above. Mt. Amakazari sits free of cloud but the Kita Alps are cloaked and the sunrise just fails to impress. Luckily no one had made the suggestion for a midnight climb of Amakazari to view the sunrise. The autumn foliage glows warmly in the first hues of the new day. One by one the camp denizens awaken from their slumber and start their day. Paul makes the suggestion to head to Kama Ike to check out the colors and most of us head there on the double. The calm air produces perfect mirror reflections on the surface of the clear mountain pond. The beech trees wear their yellow coats proudly and look down on the spectacle with an air of content. Whatever disappointment we suffered at the film festival is now lost in reflection.

Back to camp we eventually retreat for a leisurely breakfast and quick throw of the frisbee. For some reason this is always my favorite part of the gathering due to the peaceful and calm vibe at camp just before the resignation that it must come to an end. While most of camp heads to the open-air baths of Amakazari Onsen, John and I reluctantly retreat back to Matsumoto, where I eventually catch a train back to Osaka, but not before an impromptu takeaway pizza lunch in the aptly-named Alps Park, with its impressive view of Mt Jonen to help keep us company.

With the 7th annual event now behind us, it’s already time to start looking ahead to 2019 and the next gathering. Judging by our track record, it is sure to be a memorable event. Let’s hope that Grace the Yamaholic will make a much-welcome reappearance!

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The mid-section of the Diamond Trail is the toughest section, involving a long climb up to Yamato-Katsuragi, a steep drop to a mountain pass, followed by an even longer ascent of Mt. Kongo. An early start is in order.

Up at 4:30am, out the door an hour later and aboard a train into northern Nara Prefecture. Joining me for this excursion is William, host of his newly refurbished Willie Walks website. William has just started his own mission to climb the 300 famous mountains and gladly signed up when finding out both Katsuragi and Kongo are on his list. Never mind the fact that he has just been up Kongo on a separate mission not too long ago. I do suppose that I’ll have to return the favor by accompanying him up a mountain I’ve already been up to help even things out.

Both of us have been up Katsuragi before, but never from the Osaka Prefecture side. The problem is, the bus only runs on weekends and we are stuck without a ride on this brisk Friday morning. We hail a taxi to take us through the tunnel on the Nara side and over to the start of the Tengu valley trail. Rucksacks are shouldered shortly before 8am as we stroll on a concrete forest road through a sleepy village. The tarmac soon gives way to proper dirt and gravel as we traverse through a narrow gorge smothered with toppled trees snapped by the typhoon last autumn. Despite the damage, the track is clearly waymarked with pink tape and after an hour we leave the banks of the trickling stream and start gaining altitude through a monocultural forest of cedar and cypress trees that do their best to repeal the warm rays of the sun.

Further up the spur, the cedar is replaced by hardwoods lined by swaths of bamboo grass, and just before popping out on the ridge we reach a dirt forest road and a series of wooden dams – it seems that Osaka has been just as generous with its public works money on this side of the mountain. The ridge brings a campground and shuttered noodle shop, along with the fields of pampas grass lining the summit plateau. We trudge up to the summit, snap a few photos, and settle onto a wooden viewing platform, legs dangling over the drop while taking in the views across the valley towards Mt. Kongo, whose towering figure looks deceptively out of reach – is it even possible to reach it today?

Below our feet is a sprawling field of azalea shrubs, the area’s main attraction. Come May you wouldn’t even be able to find a place to place your feet on this viewing platform, never mind your rucksack and bottom, but on this chilly January morning we have the place to ourselves. I really would love to come back here for the main attraction but shudder to think about the large crowds that flock here via the ropeway on the Nara side. William offers me a Hojicha Kit Kit that tastes remarkably like roasted green tea and it’s just what I need to psyche myself up for the long road ahead.

We drop to a small saddle where a half a dozen gardeners are pruning the azalea bushes, perhaps to make the flowers bigger for their early summer performance. We scoot past and reach a broad clearing on our left with mouth-watering views down to the Nara plain. A windsock and solar-powered anemometer have been placed at the top, probably by a local paragliding club to check for opportune times to fly their crafts. Perhaps they make use of the ropeway to haul their parachutes up to this prime location for take-offs.  William and I continue south down a series of log steps bolted into the steep hillside. A duo of elderly women marches up these steps toward us – I don’t envy them at all and prefer the descent for a bit until the knees remind me otherwise. We lose a few hundred meters of altitude in a little less than an hour but a celebration is not in order, for we have to regain these precious meters on the climb ahead, plus a couple of hundred extra to put us over the 1100-meter mark on Kongo’s lofty summit.

The pass is soon reached and the Diamond Trail turns into jewel of cement along a broad forest road that continues for quite some time. We have a 6km ascent ahead of us but the forest road cuts out a few of those kilometers. At a water source just before the route re-enters the forest we stop for nourishment as the lunchtime bells ring in the valleys below. We are ahead of schedule and are making faster progress than initially thought but know that the climb is just beginning.

Our smiles soon turn to curses as the route shoots straight up a cedar-smothered flank of steep log steps, relentless in its pursuit to gain the ridge. Whoever built this trail did not bother with switchbacks, figuring that anyone dumb enough to follow in their footsteps should be rightfully punished. At the ridge we plop ourselves onto a wooden bench and take in the views through a gap in the trees. William throws me another Hojicha Kit Kat and I inhale it whole without taking a bite. If there was a vending machine here I’d gladly purchase an entire liter of coffee to help wake me up.

As the gentle winds start to cool our bones, the two of us push onward and upward, focusing on the sounds of our footsteps and our heavy breaths. Just a few days ago, William was sitting on a sunny beach on the Gold Coast – I’m sure he’s wishing he was sipping on a cool beverage rather than sucking on this thin Siberian air. We soon rise about 900 vertical meters and patches of ice start to flank the path. A descending party above us is making full use of their climbing irons and making me glad I made the decision to bring my 4-pointers. We hold off on the crampons for the time being, as there is still plenty of purchase on the untracked bits of snow on the shoulder of the track. After another hour we reach the shrine gate marking the main summit trail.

An abrupt decision is made to leave the Diamond Trail for the 20-minute detour to the summit of Mt. Kongo. After cresting a small slope the trail drops quickly down an iced-up bobsled-run of a track. William wises up and straps on his crampons, while I half-walk, half-slide down the slippery slope towards the temple. After a quick summit photo together, a row of picnic tables beckon to us, as do the vending machines lining the entrance to the shuttered restaurant. Coffee is served along with the remainder of the Kit Kats. I expect an endorsement check from Nestle any day now.

I finally put on my crampons, which makes the return climb back to the Diamond Trail much less treacherous. We plod along and take a quick detour to the highest point in Osaka Prefecture, marked by a signpost on an unmarked trail to our right. If William ever decides to climb the highest mountain in every prefecture, he now only has 46 to go.  A few minutes down the path we reach the observation deck. Built in the 1970s, the rusting metal structure affords fantastic panoramic views. A sea of mountains hosting the Kumano Kodo foreshortens off into the distance, while the Ōmine mountains lay buried in a blanket of snow cloud.

With Mt. Kongo successfully climbed, I convince William to trek a few kilometers south along the Diamond Trail to Kuruno-tōge, just below the summit of Naka-katsuragi. We reach this pass in a heap of sweat and exhaustion, and even the temptation to climb two different Katsuragi mountains in one day is not enough to entice William to ascend the wall of steps separating ourselves from the summit. We turn away knowing that I’ll need to come back to this point at a later time to continue my section hike of the Diamond Trail. We drop steeply off the ridge and make it to a bus stop exactly 10 seconds after the infrequent bus departs. With 45 minutes to kill before next bus, we add a few more kilometers to the already long day and walk down to Chihaya-Akasaka village, where a vending machine awaits.

With over half of the Diamond Trail now complete, I can now turn my attention to the remaining sections, which should be knocked out in 3 trips, or two if I’m feeling particularly punishing. Regardless, I hope to complete the trail before the end of the Heisei era. The clock is ticking.

 

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365 Mountain Project

With the start of a new year comes a new social media undertaking: The 365 mountain project. In going through my collection of thousands of photos, I came to the stark realization that I have indeed climbed more mountains in Japan than there are days in a year.  What better way to reveal the beauty of Japan’s mountains than by posting a peak for every day of the year on my Twitter feed. Feel free to bookmark and follow along.

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