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Archive for August, 2021

The hardest part about planning a trip to the Kita Alps is finding a clear weather window in Japan’s notoriously fickle summer weather. The second hardest part of trip planning is figuring out a schedule that works for a trio of participants, all of whom are in various stages of the COVID vaccination process. With the Olympics in full swing and COVID-19 infections on an upward trajectory, we set our eyes on July 30th as our target date for an ascent of Niigata’s highest peak, my final summit of what I have dubbed the ‘Japan 47’ – the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures.

Paul picks me up at Shinano-Omachi station shortly before noon on Wednesday the 28th. The train journey northward takes most of the morning, involving transfers at both Nagoya and Matsumoto stations. Due to the pandemic, the trains are running at a fraction of capacity, with many business commuters curtailing their business trips in favor of online meetings and their own private transport. The mask stays on for the duration of the ride – I’ve grown so accustomed to wearing the protective fabric that even naps are a pleasant affair. In the past, I had always avoided wearing masks as it made me feel as if I was suffocating, but now I hardly notice the minor inconvenience.

After hitting a supermarket for lunchtime snacks, Paul guides his vehicle along the narrow curves of route 325 behind Kashimayari ski resort. At a broad clearing near the top of the lifts, a juvenile kamoshika serow crosses the lane in front of the car, nonplussed by our intrusion as the creature climbs the adjacent forested slopes in search of nourishment. We reach the end of the road and a wave of nostalgia hits, as this is where Fumito and I camped back in June of 2007 during our ascent of Mt Kashimayari. In fact, it is up this same Akaiwa spur route that I now show to Paul. Conditions are exactly as I remember them, with a concrete tunnel built under the dam at the start of the long route. The afternoon heat slows our progress as we ascend the incredibly steep spur towards Takachihodai. Due to our late start, it will be impossible to ascend Kashimayari this time around, but we make good work of the track and give up around after reaching an altitude of around 1700 meters, still 1000 meters shy of Niigata’s highest peak but it is the highest altitude I have climbed in 2021 so far, so every little bit helps.

The following morning dawns clear, so I walk out in front of Paul’s house to a clearing where I stare up at Mt Hakuba-norikura shining bright in the morning sun. These clear morning views are usually short-lived in the summer, with the usual fog and rain clouds moving in for the remainder of the day. After breakfast, Paul and I head up to Kurobishi-daira near the top of Happo ski resort for a quick ascent to Happo Ike before heading down to Hakuba to pick up our friend Naresh. Thick fog and light rain await us as we reach the parking lot, and after a quick assessment, the two of us decide to continue with our plan, knowing we can turn around should the rain showers worsen. Forgoing the ski lifts, Paul leads me up a gravel road through the ski fields until reaching what he has christened “the concrete slope of death”, as the road suddenly turns to paved concrete and ascends directly up the steepest part of the ski slope. We make good time by cutting our own switchbacks through the no-nonsense approach. Halfway up we cross paths with a solo hiker making an unsteady descent down the path which forces me to grimace, knowing our same fate awaits us just a couple of hours later.

At the top of the slope we enter a verdant marshland lined with nikkĊkisuge lillies and other colorful wildflowers standing out through the monochromatic backdrop of thick fog. The rain has stopped, giving us hope that what remains above may be a little more promising. At the top of the final ski lift the proper hiking track begins and we run into our first sneakered day trippers of the morning. Most of them are working their way down through the mist. With several paths to choose from, we opt for the lower track, which skirts just below the main ridge past a lingering snowfield on broad wooden boardwalks helping to aid in the ascent. All of a sudden, the fog lifts, revealing a mouthwatering vista of Mt Goryu that sends our hearts racing with excitement. We push on, with the cloud eventually catching up to us as we reach the shores of the pond. Lingering for a few minutes in heightened anticipation, the views gradually open up, revealing brilliant skies of azure hovering above Hakuba-yari. While the remainder of the Hakuba sanzan lay enveloped in cloud, Paul and I are content with just getting a glimpse of the fantastic scenery awarded to those that choose to ascent the ridge leading to Mt Karamatsu. We push on a little higher, reaching an altitude of around 2100 meters – a great acclimatization exercise for the following day’s planned ascent of Mt Korenge.

After picking up Naresh at the station, we head off for lunch and to plan the logistics of our impending climb. With several options to choose from, we decide that sleeping at a park near Hiraiwa onsen affords our best chance of making it to Renge Onsen in time to ascend Korenge for the sunrise. This entails an early start, so after packing and resting at Paul’s house, we eat a quick dinner and head to the hot spring for a quick bath before laying our sleeping bags in the sheltered comforts of the public toilet complex at the end of a quiet road. All is calm as we close our eyes around 8pm, and with the alarm set for 12:45am, we attempt to catch some shut eye. Around 40 minutes later, a rumble in the distance grows louder as it appears that a very large lorry is headed directly for our campsite. A large spotlight shines towards us as the noise crescendos and skirts past our front door. In our rush to catch some sleep we have failed to realize that our meager accommodation sits just meters from the train tracks of the JR Oito line, and our intruder is non other than the infrequent train carriage shuttling passengers to Minami-Otari. Two more trains pass by during the evening, robbing us of a good night’s sleep but still – the show must go on.

We are on the road at 1am as Paul guides his vehicle up the deserted road under the cover of darkness. Our first signs of wildlife suddenly appear, as a wild boar ducks for cover on the grassy slopes while further along, we come face to face with a massive buck who simply stares at us from frightened eyes on the shoulder of the narrow road. Shortly before 2am we park, unload the gear, and set off on our journey towards the alpine. I take the lead, setting a gradual but steady pace past some strong sulfuric fumes wafting from somewhere above. The famed outdoor baths of Renge Onsen sit off in a clearing on our left, and while the appeal of a soothing bath is hard to pass up, we all silently agree that these things are best enjoyed after a hard day on the slopes, so we push on with anticipation.

Our route is lined with a multitude of switchbacks through a healthy forest of hardwoods, and as we reach a clearing we turn off the headlamps and enjoy the moonlit views of Mt Asahi and Mt Yukikura sitting elegantly under calm and starlit skies. Winds are calm, almost unnaturally so, teasing us into thinking that this high-pressure system is sticking around for the long haul. Sweat trickles down my brow as I focus on the rhythm of my footsteps – with such a large vertical elevation change, it’s all you can do to keep your mind off of how much further you have to go. Signposts are affixed at around every 200 vertical meters of elevation gain, and by the time we reach the Tengu’s garden just above 2000 meters in elevation, the eastern horizon hints that dawn will soon be upon us. We still have roughly 3km to go before reaching the tree line, and along the uneven boulders of the rough track, progress is slow but steady. In a race against the rising sun, the luxury of taking breaks has been shelved in favor of maintaining our steady progress. The clink of metal against the rock diverts my attention, and as I turn around I witness Naresh snap his trekking pole in two in an attempt to dislodge it between two stubborn boulders.

We with realization that our race with the sunrise is in jeopardy, I give permission for Paul to push ahead while Naresh and I hold up the rear. Paul wants to gaze at the first light of the new day from as high on the ridge as he can, while the two of us will be happy with ushering in the dawn by the shores of Hakuba-Oike pond. The track skirts the edge of a Erman’s birch forest before giving away to creeping pine and vast swaths of wildflowers carpeting both sides of the trail like a floral arrangement at a bridal fair. The red roof of Shirane-oike hut comes into view, together with the calm waters of the oval tarn. The sun remains hidden behind a thin layer of cloud on the horizon, giving us the upper hand. Naresh takes one look at me and pushes on ahead and for good reason: the higher we climb above the lake the better the vantage point of the rising sun.

It’s amazing how your body can adapt to the lack of sleep and relentless gains in altitude. We’ve been on our feet for nearly three hours and have not paused more than a few seconds to catch our breath, but I feel no fatigue nor drowsiness: it is as if sheer beauty of nature serves as my energy source. At the top of the rise, around an elevation of 2500 vertical meters, Naresh and I find what we are looking for: a small clearing of fist-sized stones which make for the perfect perch for our first break of the day. We have just minutes to spare before the first rays of light reach our face. What better way to celebrate than to break out my stash of chocolate covered coffee beans.

The temperature hovers around 15 degrees in stark contrast to the 30-degree temperatures a couple of thousand vertical meters below us. As the sun makes an appearance, we turn westward, mesmerized at the alpenglow hitting Mt Yukikura and Mt Asahi. Southwest of us, further above the undulating ridge, Mt Korenge sits in a thick swath of morning cloud. Is Paul sitting up in that cloud robbed of a view?

The path meanders past a series of large cairns and up into the true alpine zone, with a plethora of wildflowers, rock ptarmigan, and ever-expanding views to keep the mind off the sleep deprivation. Naresh takes up the rear, soaking in the scenery as I gaze skywards towards the cloud bank still clinging tightly to the summit. At the top of the rise, we reach the summit of Funakoshi-no-kashira and are awarded with our first clear vista of the Daisekkei along with the rest of the Ura-Tateyama mountain range lined up in succession. Stubborn cloud hovers around Mt Kashimayari and Mt Goryu, robbing us of a clear summit profile but our current vantage point demands our undivided attention. Naresh and I pause, taking it all in.

Descending to a saddle, with dizzying drops on our left down to the Ukijima wetlands, we follow the undulating contours of the ridge as it chauffeurs us up and over a series of false summits. I call out Paul’s name just before the crest of each rise before realizing in a dejected sigh that there is still quite some distance to go. Pushed on by an unseen force, the drive to summit Niigata’s highest peak, I continue, footfall by steady footfall, until I glimpse the fog-tinged silhouette of a dozen hikers standing on the true summit as the realization of my impending accomplishment starts to weigh on my emotions. Twenty years has this long journey taken me, not only up the Nihon Hyakumeizan but beyond, to the corner of every prefecture in this geographically diverse archipelago as I attempt to accomplish what no other foreigner, alive or dead, has ever done. My eyes moisten at the thought, but I fight back the tears and take my final steps with a smile instead.

Upon reaching the summit, a round of applause emanates from the other hikers as Paul offers his congratulations. As we set up for celebratory photos, the clouds suddenly part for the first time that fateful morning, leading to an improvised chorus of oohs and ahhs from our mountain spectators. I break out the banner my father-in-law made for me and snap a few photos in the unexpected sunlight. My watch reveals that it is just past 6:30 in the morning, the climb having taken us around four-and-a-half hours. We rest of the summit and enjoy a snack while Paul tries to coax me to continue my hike by summiting Mt Shirouma. Naresh has never climbed that peak but I am not interested in climbing it as the summit is still covered in fog. Plus, I have done what I set out to do, and there’s no reason to risk altitude sickness or a turned ankle by overstaying my welcome. Paul passes me the car keys while I sit on the summit, watching my hiking companions as they disappear toward the enveloping cloud.

With the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures now successfully climbed, I can now announce my retirement from peak bagging. While chasing mountain summits has been a lot of fun, I will no longer let my hiking destinations be determined by a list of arbitrary mountains. From now on, I will make my decisions based on my own criteria, which will mainly involve climbing peaks that look interesting, that lie further off the beaten path, and have not been included on anyone’s subjective list of ‘famous’ mountains. Stay tuned as I continue my travels deeper into the unexplored innards of this amazing country.

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