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The Gathering V

It’d been a rough summer for everyone, especially when the news trickled down from the slopes of the Eiger. We’d lost one of our own, a member of our extended family who had attended the second and fourth meetings of the mountaineering minds. I knew this one would be for Michal, but where would be the best place? Back at Kamikochi, where I first had the pleasure of meeting him? Or a return to Suzuka, which turned out to be our very last encounter?

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The answer, it turned out, proved to be none-of-the-above, as Rie put forth a location in southern Nagano by the name of Jimbagatayama. The 1400-meter summit affords views of both the Minami and Chuo Alps, two places that were like a second home to our fallen hero. Rie, Miguel, Eri, Paul, Naresh, Tomomi and I settled on a date in early November and commenced with the all-important preparation.

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On Friday, November 4th, I boarded an early evening train to Nagoya to crash on Paul’s floor. Being based in Chubu would save an early morning train ride at the crack of dawn and allowed the two of us to catch up since last hiking together during Golden Week. Paul was busy preparing two pots of chili in the kitchen and I jumped right in to offer assistance. Between stirs of the simmering chili pot, Paul told me a little about his trip to Kyrgyzstan and his other recent mountaineering endeavors. He set up the computer as we accessed Michal’s Vimeo account and downloaded all of his self-shot and edited videos for use at the next day’s event.

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Rie showed up at our door at 7am the following morning. Paul shared some banana cake that the Yamaholic had sent him in thanks for the laptop he’d sent to her. Unfortunately, the Yamaholic would be unable to attend this year’s gathering, but her presence was felt with every bite of our morning meal.  We loaded the kit into the back of Rie’s car and sped off to the bakery to pick up focaccia sandwiches and other finger bites from a local bakery. Before heading to Nagano, we needed to help Rie recce the highest mountain in Kasugai city for an upcoming school excursion. Never underestimate a 400 meter mountain. What looked like a small hill from the parking lot turned out to be a lot tougher than initially thought. The trail climbs to the ridge and then follows the Tokai Shizen Hodo for a while before topping out on the summit of Mt. Miroku, which afforded hazy vistas of Ontake and Hakusan.

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Once back at the car, we drove under Enasan and into Nagano Prefecture towards Jimbagata. Due to a bit of miscommunication, we detoured slightly to Komagane to pick up Joseph, who just managed to squeeze into the back seat among all of our warm weather camping gear. Rie navigated the tight switchbacks of the forest road with ease, as we pulled into the barricaded path to the campground entrance. Miguel had warned us on an earlier message that parking would be extremely limited due to construction on part of the campground. The Hiking in Japan members sprung into action, and with everyone’s assistance we had our cache of gear hauled into camp. Shelters were set up on an attractive stretch of grass on the edge of the plateau.

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While the weather still held, I gathered up the troops for the short walk to the summit of Jimbagata, where we admired the views and gathered around the lens for a group photo. En route I ran into Ian Kerr, a fellow hiking enthusiast and fellow member of the Hiking in Japan group who happened to be on the mountain by chance. He gladly joined us on the summit and we had an opportunity to chat a bit about the mountains. With over 1700 members of the Facebook community, you’re bound to run into fellow armchair mountaineers wherever you go.

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The panoramic views coaxed us into peak-dropping, as our fingers pointed to mountains on the horizon. The entire Minami and Chuo Alps were visible from our perch, sans Hououzan and Kai-koma, which were concealed behind the broad flank of Mt. Senjo. Members eventually trickled back down to camp in order to commence meal preparations. Tomomi had yet to arrive, so we couldn’t start the campfire since we were waiting for her portable fireplace to arrive – open fires are not permitted on the plateau in order to preserve the delicate ecosystem. An emergency hut stands adjacent to the tent sites, and it would make for a great refuge in foul weather if not for the scaffolding surrounding its sturdy walls. The hut is currently undergoing renovations, and rumor has it that the new hut will be staffed and will charge for future accommodation.

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The sun began to drop behind the Chuo Alps, which sent us all into a frenzy to catch the alpenglow on the Minami Alps. Naresh broke out his camera, as Paul contemplated doing a time lapse shot, but decided that the scenery was too good to capture with just one shot. Just at the brilliant hues of crimson and ochre reached their climax, my phone vibrated with news that Tomomi and Midori had arrived. I dropped back down to the campsite and recruited a few members to help us all ferry the supplies to camp. Since the regular parking lot was closed for renovations, it was a long walk of about 8 minutes from the temporary lot to the campsite, but we all pitched in without the slightest bit of hesitation. Alastair had to regretfully head back to Lake Suwa for a soccer game the following morning, which must have been a difficult decision as the celebration was just getting started.

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By now our small camp was thriving with activity. Guacamole was being prepared by Bjorn and company, while Rie cooked savory garlic ajillo over the campstove. Paul stirred the chili while Miguel got started on the campfire. Tomomi and Baku mixed the greek salad as Midori broke out the bottles of Nagano wine for all of us to sample. The drop of the sun behind the horizon sent the temperatures plummeting, which in turn sent us all scrambling for extra layers of clothing and jostling for a smoke-free space around the campfire. The wind kept changing directions, so we all had our bouts of smoke inhalation. When the fiery coals built up enough, Tomomi stuck the dutch oven on the fire while Paul set up the laptop. We streamed Michal’s videos and reflected on the inspiration he provided to us all. I had brought a framed photo of Michal that Paul set up in an empty chair. It still felt like a dream to us, like Michal was just out on a holiday and would be back any day now. Three months is still too early to get over the loss of a loved one, but we knew that Michal would still want us to carry on, to live life to the fullest and to spend quality time with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. When I first set up the Hiking in Japan community on Facebook, I truly thought it would just be a way to promote my website. Little did I know that it would take on a life of its own and would serve as a catalyst to bring a core group of hikers together to share their experiences and create everlasting memories.

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After an hour or so, Tomomi took the dutch oven off the fire and opened the lid to reveal baked chicken, potatoes, onions that were cooked to perfection. Just as in the previous four gatherings, we had way more food than could possibly be finished by us all, but it’s much better to be over-prepared than to come up short-handed. We barely had room for Smores, but a few token sandwiches were made with Naresh’s jumbo-sized marshmallows. Viviana made a guest appearance via Skype while we passed the phone around. With bellies threatening to burst, several of us left the comfort of the campfire to re-climb the summit of Jimbagata in search of meteors. The Leonids were just beginning their annual celestial display, and with the sunken crescent moon, the stargazing conditions were prime. We craned our necks and managed to see a dozen or so of the shooting stars over the course of 90 minutes or so. Paul was particularly apt at finding the streaking light as I always seemed to be looking in the wrong part of the sky. Still, we had fun trying to play with the camera settings to capture the night spectacle.

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Sometime after midnight, we all retreated to the warmths of our sleeping bags. I collapsed almost immediately, and the next morning I was one of the last to rise. The sleeping bag was much too warm to squirm out of to enjoy the sunrise, so I laid under the tarp while the early risers prepared breakfast and stoked the fire back to life. Joseph set up a coffee bar in the corner of the sheltered cooking area while Miguel and Rie made hot panini sandwiches. Bjorn worked the griddle magic and passed fresh pancakes around to all. Eri cooked scrambled eggs over the campfire. Everyone was pitching in to cook something except me. I was selfishly wondering around in a bit of a daze, too exhausted and clumsy to be able to lend anyone a hand, something for which I regret. Naresh made fresh chai for everyone until being interrupted by an urgent telephone call. He had a serious, troubled look on his face. I sensed that he had just been the recipient of some bad news.  It turns out he had a family emergency and needed to get back to Tokyo as early as possible. We rearranged for Bjorn and family to ride with Midori while I helped Naresh gather his belongings and saw him off as he sped back to Tokyo.

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The first rays of warm sunshine filtered through the campsite, which put us all in a bit of a lazy trance. We were all having way too much fun and didn’t want it to end. The cleanup began slowly at first, as we all put off the inevitable. We managed to break down camp shortly before noon and posed for one last group photo before disbanding. Paul, Rie, and I headed back to Nagoya but not before stopping on the banks of the Tenryu river for one final glimpse of the Chuo Alps. Miguel and Rie also stopped by, as Paul brought back our juvenile spirit by showing us the best way to roll down a grass embankment.

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All in all it was another successful event, that never would have been possible without everyone’s assistance and support. I tend to put off making a decision about the annual gathering until the last minute, too distracted and sidetracked by other things going on in my life. In an effort to amend this, Paul suggest we make a decision about the 2017 gathering while we had the momentum.  With the Banff Mountain Film Festival making its tour of Japan in September, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tether our annual gathering to this unique collection of film shorts. And since Hakuba hosts the festival in a rare open-air theater, it seemed like our next gathering was just destined to stay in Nagano. And so it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding time

Things have been a bit quiet here on the blog, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been busy. Michal’s tragic passing caught me off guard and literally took the wind out of my creative sails. I owe it to him to continue exploring the hidden depths of this land and to continue reporting on those summit cloaked in obscurity.

In the meantime, I continue work on an exciting guidebook project on the Japan Alps, and will create a new ‘behind the scenes’ series about it here on Tozan Tales. The last 6 months have involved revisiting a few long-lost alpine peaks, as well as exploring the surround hills in search of that perfect vista. I leave you with an image from one of those missions, which would undoubtedly make Peter Skov proud.

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Mt. Warusawa (L) and Mt. Akaishi (R), as seen from Mt. Jimbagata

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Dreaming in Clouds

“It was supposed to be the last climb of the season. The mountaineering masterpiece. The culmination of everything I have learned and done in the mountains up till this point. The myth shattering feat, proving my point of pure alpinism, unhindered by man-made rules and paradigms.

Except that it wasn’t meant to be.”

– Michal Vojta, March 2016

Thought the above words were written about a winter ascent of the Gendarme in the Kita Alps, they could apply to any one of Michal Vojta’s outstanding achievements in which he continued to up the ante. Whether it be the frozen southern face of Mt. Inamura in the Omine mountains, or the impossibly long day-climb of Chinne on the Tsurugi massif, Michal was always pushing the boundaries to the extreme limit, for the ultimate thrill and satisfaction.

Yet, the 29-year old Czech native never boasted about his achievements, at least not publicly. He let his phenomenal self-shot and self-edited videos do the talking for him. The most recent video dates from May and shows the direction in which the budding mountaineer was heading:

You could easily spend an afternoon with his video channel on autoplay, living vicariously through his thrilling climbs and pioneering ascents. He preferred going solo instead of roping up in a team. A bad experience from Ichinokurasawa on Tanigawa-dake sealed the deal. Instead of having to follow the orders of the senpai and seeing his opinion continually ignored because he was the kohai, Michal favored the flexibility and freedom of going to the mountains alone, where the only direction came from inside, the mind providing the voice of reason instead of the stubbornness of a team leader.

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I first met Michal soon after my winter mountaineering accident in the spring of 2013. Tomomi, Nao, Ted, Miguel and I embarked on the famed Rock Garden walk in Kobe and we invited him along for the climb. Having not heard back from him, we assumed that he’d be unable to attend, but at the Kazafuki-iwa lookout, there he stood, alongside his Vietnamese wife Thuy, welcoming us with open arms and tagging along for the descent back down to Okamoto station. We all came to know Michal from the Hiking in Japan community on Facebook for which he was one of the earliest members, and it was a pleasure to put a face with a name so to speak, getting to know someone in the physical, as opposed to cyber, form.

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A few months later, Michal joined us for the 2nd Hiking in Japan gathering in Kamikochi. He showed up a day early on Friday evening and sat with us around the campfire, sharing a bit of details about his life. He had come to Japan from The Czech Republic to study Japanese, landing a part-time job at Montbell to both earn an income and surround himself with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. He was soft-spoken, preferring to sit back and absorb the conversation and always seemed to know when to chime in with an insightful comment. He was as elusive in his thoughts and feelings as he was in his climbing plans, and as he left the campfire, his only words were “I have to get up early tomorrow.”

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Little did we know he was about to climb the northern ridge of Mae-hotaka, along a spiny route scaling 7 different peaks before reaching the apex of the 3090-meter mountain. From there he descended via Dakesawa and slithered back into camp, joining the festivities as if he had just stepped off the bus. He was a keen observer and listener, shooting footage of the event ala James Benning.

As the winter snows settled on the archipelago, I was invited on an ascent of Mt. Sanjō in the Omine mountains. Although I could not embark on the snowy climb, I did join Michal, Thuy, and a few other friends for a Nepalese dinner before heading back to Michal’s apartment near Nagai Park for tea. The cozy apartment and Thuy’s warm hospitality made me feel right at home, and although I could not join the hike, I could share the sense of excitement that draws Michal to the higher and more challenging peaks in Japan.

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As the wintry snow gave way to the first thaws of spring 2015, I noticed less and less activity on Michal’s brilliant blog Dreams in Clouds. His honest writing style comes straight from the heart, and is remarkable in its fluidity considering English is not his native tongue. Not one to be too nosy or intrusive, I let things play out, hoping that my Czech companion would hopefully find the time and inspiration to upload another bit of prose. Sure enough, in the autumn I received an invitation to Michal’s wedding with his new bride Moeko. It seems that the relationship with Thuy had gone sour, and the chaos of a broken relationship, blossoming love, and visa woes took precedence over climbing adventures and blog posts.

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Unable to attend the ceremony, I sent my regards and an invitation of my own to the Hiking in Japan gathering in the Suzuka mountains of Mie Prefecture, just one week after his wedding ceremony. With such a hectic schedule, I had my doubts as to whether the newlywed would be able to attend. After arriving at the campsite, I headed up the trail towards the summit of Mt. Nyūdō with a couple of companions, and halfway up the steep slopes, a lone figure descended from the ridge above. It was Michal, smiling in the early afternoon sun after a morning ascent of Mt. Kama and a long loop along the ridge back down to the campsite. I gave a high five, congratulating him on his mammoth climb and told him to save me a place around the campfire that evening.

Once settled back into camp, Michal opened up, telling a gut-wrenching story about his early winter ascent of Mt. Kasa, having arrived on the summit after nightfall and passing out immediately after digging out an improvised bivy directly under the summit shrine. The following day was a hair-raising drop through avalanche terrain down the Kasa Shindō route back to Shin-hodaka hot spring. He ended his story with a phrase that still sticks with me to this day. Even though the climb was filled with perilous moments, “it really was the best time”, as laugher erupted around the campfire. Such was the influence of Michal’s innate story-telling prowess that not a single camper was left without awe and respect.

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At the conclusion of the gathering, Michal and I shared a bus and train back to Osaka, where he did open up a bit to me about the changes in his life. Again, I did not pry into his personal affairs, allowing him to divulge as much or as little as he saw fit. “I’m planning a challenging climb next year”, he stated, not divulging any details of his intentions. Perhaps he preferred it this way, not wanting his friends or loved ones to worry too much about his safety and instead just enjoying his wonderful blog posts and captivating videos upon completion of his epic ascents.

“Well, both winter and spring are very dangerous. I also do not have enough experience to manage the risk safely. I risk a lot and that makes me scared. And yet I cannot give up. Risk is like a drug. I get used to it and I need more to give me the same feeling of challenge. If I do not stop, some day the risk will be bigger than i can manage and I will have an accident. I love life so much. I do not want to bring myself to the edge of life and death.”

– Michal Vojta, July 2016

In late August, just one week shy of his 30th birthday, Michal embarked on his mountaineering masterpiece. It was supposed to be the culmination of everything that he had learned and done up until this point. It was supposed to prove his point of pure alpinism, unhindered by man-made rules and paradigms.

Except that it wasn’t meant to be.

On the 25th of August, 2016, Michal reached the summit of the Eiger via the western flank of the mountain. It was a solo climb of the iconic peak in the Swiss Alps, a mountain that perhaps he had on his radar since childhood. Shortly after summiting, while crossing a snowfield high up on the western ridge, he lost his footing, sliding nearly 150 meters down the perilous slopes. He did not survive that tumble.

The following day, after failing to report back to his accommodation, a rescue helicopter was sent out and recovered his body. News of this tragic event spread like wildfire through the Japanese climbing community, and with no witnesses to the accident, it has left more questions than answers.

Was this his magnum opus, a final climb before reaching the age of 30 and finally calming his appetite for pushing the boundaries? Or would his summiting of the mighty Eiger only continue to feed his endless yearning to walk the fine line?

Michal is survived by his wife Moeko and his family back in Brno. His influence on the hiking community here in Japan will not be forgotten, and on every mountain I climb from here on out, I’ll be thinking of you Michal Vojta, as you live in your eternal dream in the clouds.

 

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The Gathering IV

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And then there were two

The finish line to the Kansai 100 is now in sight, and the race against the winter snows is now on. IMG_4480

 

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New Posts

I’ve finally finished cleaning up the blog in order to make space for new posts. Thanks to everyone for being patient. New content will appear very soon.

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A Meizan Fit For Offspring

If you could name your newborn after one of Japan’s Hyakumeizan, which one would you choose? Tsurugi would be an obvious choice for a male, but just wouldn’t be suitable for a daughter. Such is the dilemma of meizanologists who are fascinated with mountain climbing and nature.

Fuji, Hotaka, and Ena could be considered lovely names for Japanese children, but just don’t fit kids born from multi-national parents. But wait…….there is indeed one of the Meizan that does indeed sound foreign, especially when the first two syllables are abbreviated. And low and behold, it is right here in Kansai.

So I present to you, the latest addition to the Tozan Tales family. You may call her by her Japanese name, or the fitting abbreviation ‘Eve’

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A New Year

Since the year of the Sheep is now in full swing, I’d like to take a little time to reflect over the past year as well as touch on a few goals for the upcoming year.

As you may remember, the beginning of 2014 had me sitting at mountain #70 of the Kansai 100 quest. I had made it a goal to reach #90 by the end of 2014 and almost got there. The first half of the year I was struggling to climb mountains while still undergoing my treatment for tuberculosis. If you thought hiking in the winter was taxing, imagine doing it while pumped full of antibiotics. Still, I persevered and managed to knock off 5 snow-capped peaks during the winter. It was a much better start than 2013, which found me stranded in a blizzard with mild frostbite. I took a much more conservative approach, only hitting mountains which has prior foot traffic to allow for no guesses when it came to route finding. The GPS also helped in the decision making when things were not so clear.

Once the antibiotics were finished, I slowly returned to normal and found a bit of an extra kick in my step, checking 10 peaks off the list before summer had ended. From there, the peaks became further and further isolated from Osaka, making planning a bit trickier, but managed my 15th peak (and #85 overall) by the beginning of September. I had only 5 more mountains before my goal was met, but nothing left on the list was possible without an overnight stay or relying on someone with an automobile. Instead, I knocked a few peaks off of the Kinki 100 list just for good measure. I doubt that I’ll finish the Kinki Hyakumeizan, but some of the mountains on the list looked interesting and not too difficult to access, so I took the plunge.

On October 19th, I reached peak #87 on the list, where things just kind of stopped. It was as if I was listening to a Dead C record on a locked groove and I just couldn’t move forward. Plans were made for mountain #88 but were thwarted numerous times by the weather. Finally, a clear weather window presented itself but I had come down with pneumonia and it was game over for 2014.

So now I sit at peak #87 and only 3 mountains left before I hit the magic #90, but I have loftier goals for 2015. For not only do I plan on finishing the Kansai 100, I plan on completing the Japan’s Highest Prefectural Peaks (the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures). Luckily I’m already at mountain #43, so I only have the prefectures of Ibaraki, Saitama, Fukui, and Niigata left on the list, so it should be relatively easy to finish the remaining four. The 13 remaining Kansai mountains will be the most difficult, but I’ll only need to average around one mountain a month, so it should be smooth sailing. The only thing that could add fuel to my mountain fire are the responsibilities that come with becoming the caretaker of fire-breathing, pellet-dropping little monster. With the due date set for Valentine’s Day, I’ve got only a very small climbing window before being called into action.

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Conspiracy theory

The recent spike in volcanic activity throughout Japan could be attributable to a surprising culprit. In order to better understand these increased occurrences and their possible connections, further investigation is necessary.

The first sign of a seismic upheaval started earlier this year, when tremor activity increased around the active volcano Kusatsu-Shirane in central Gunma Prefecture. The activity centered around Okama lake, a blue-green crater lake of immense beauty. While volcanic activity on the 2171 meter-high peak is hardly an anomaly, the sudden spike in earthquakes directly under the mountain mass prompted the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) to raise the alert level, which prohibits visitors from encroaching within a 1 kilometer radius of the summit. The alert became effective on March 18, 2014 and has yet to be lifted.

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The second round of thermal chaos occurred just 6 months later and rather unexpectedly at that,  catching even veteran volcanologists asleep at the wheel. Just before noon on a cloudless and stunningly beautiful morning on Saturday, September 27, Mt. Ontake, a 3000 meter-high volcano straddling the Nagano-Gifu border, suddenly sprang to life, sending hikers scurrying for shelter and taking the lives of over 50 people. While steam explosions are almost impossible to pin down, there is now evidence that there was a subtle warning beforehand. Reports from NHK indicate that geologists did observe a spike in tremors on the mountain just two weeks prior to the catastrophic eruption, but the alert level was not raised to level 2. This has prompted families of victims to blame JMA for failing to adequately inform visitors to the mountain of the increased seismic activity. Such finger pointing will not change the outcome of the events, but it will almost surely cause the JMA to implement a more conservative approach to their warning systems.

Courtesy NHK

Courtesy NHK

As if the first two signs weren’t enough evidence, in late September, increased seismic activity had been detected at the Okama crater lake at Mt. Zao, sending waves of fear through the Tohoku region that the picturesque mountain were about to awaken from its long slumber. Just yesterday, on the 9th of October, researchers found that the emerald green waters of the lake had begun to turn a milky white, a possible predilection of steamier things to come. While the JMA has yet to raise the alert level, one has to hope that geologists are on high alert to even sudden changes to the frequency and depth of the tremors.

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Three significant volcanic events in a time span of only 8 months begs the question: Is there a connection between them? Geographically speaking, the verdict is a resounding not guilty, since all three mountains sit in different geographical regions, separated by kilometers of tall mountain ranges and narrow valleys. One might make the argument that Okama could be the culprit, since both Kusatsu-shirane and Zao share the same nomenclature for their scenic lakes. While Ontake is home to a duo of colorful lakes, it does not make use of the same label. Perhaps there’s an obscure mathematical connection. If we subtract the height of Mt. Fuji by the height of Mt. Ontake and double that figure, we come to the number 2127, which is only 44 less than the height of Kusatsu-shirane. See the connection? Dismissive.

One closer look at each volcano, however, reveals some striking similarities. Kusatsu-shirane and Zao both have parking lots alarmingly close to their perspective crater lakes. In fact, both peaks require a walk of less than five minutes to reach the viewpoints of their ponds. Both mountains have a resthouse serving food and both volcanoes are teeming with tourists during the busy summer months. What about Ontake? The peak is inaccessible by automobile and requires a hike of several hours to reach the crater lakes, so that rules out the connection. Yet, there is commonality between all three mountains in the form of a gondola system that whisks visitors up the steep slopes. In fact, all three mountains have renowned, world-class ski resorts, so are the gondola companies to blame for the volcanic awakenings? Surely the foundations of the concrete foundations do not go down deep enough to cause any shifts in magma movements, but perhaps the culprit lies in something much more sociological.

Could this increase in volcanic instability be caused by Mother Nature herself, exacting revenge on the developers for littering her slopes with concrete and corrugated metal? Mother nature could not be reached for comment, but sources tell us that just after the New Year’s holiday she was in, for lack of a better term, ‘a thoroughly pissed-off mood.’ Perhaps the government’s plan to build a railway on the slopes of Japan’s most sacred peak was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The proposed railway is targeted for completion in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The railway could come in conjunction with a gondola system that would ferry visitors directly to the summit of the Japan’s tallest peak. See the connection?

The latest theory is that Mother Nature lit a smoke signal at Kusatsu-shirane, but officials didn’t take the hint, so she took a more direct approach by sending ash spewing at Ontake during the height of the autumn viewing season. The government is still on track to start construction of the railway, so another warning was ushered on Mt. Zao. Could this all be leading up to a final display of her fury, with a simultaneous eruptions of both Mt. Norikura and Mt. Fuji? Time will surely tell.

 

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The Gathering III

Every year I organize a gathering of mountaineers and hiking enthusiasts from my other site. The last two events were held in Kamikochi and a report of those trips can be found here and here. Miguel and I once again put our collective heads together over a cup of coffee at Yamagata station. While Kamikochi is a very nice location, I wanted to try a different place in hopes of keeping things fresh. The only problem with Kamikochi is that it is a destination in and of itself, which means that people attending the gathering would likely have been in the area regardless of whether the event was being held or not. Holding it at a different venue meant that people would actually have to go out of their way specifically to attend, which might help limit the number of participants. As the Facebook group continues to grow (surpassing 1500 members), we could be in serious trouble if even half that number decided to join in the event. Once the caffeine kicked in we brainstormed locations until agreeing on both a location and date: Togakushi Kogen in mid-September.

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I set out the day before the event on an early morning Limited Express train that barreled through the Kiso valley en route to Nagano city. The cloudless sky and incredible visibility meant that the Kita Alps escorted me through the urban sprawl of Matsumoto to the highlands of Hijiri Kogen, teeming with farmers trying to finish up the rice harvest before the onset of typhoon season. At the crest of the gentle rise the train glides past Obasute station to the secluded valley in which the Olympic host is so securely nestled. Legend has it that in feudal times of strife and famine, families used to abandon their infirmed elderly on the slopes of this mountain. Hard to fathom that an area with a tarnished past could be home to such breathtaking vistas.

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At Nagano station, I meandered through a giant maze of construction scaffolding on the way to bus stop number seven, where a bus shuttled me to Togakushi campground shortly past four in the afternoon. The cloud had already swallowed the surrounding mountains while I explored the vast grasslands of the camping area in search of a suitable place to set up base camp. Nestled at the end of the grounds near the bungalows sat a semi-secluded area with a surprisingly nice kitchen area and plenty of room for guests. Being an auto campground, I wanted to reserve an area where cars wouldn’t be able to park, since it detracts from the nature aspect of our outdoor experience. Fortunately it was an eerily quiet Friday evening, with only a handful of other campers dotted across the sprawling park. I knew that would all change the following day.

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The mountain drifted in and out of foggy consciousness as dusk set in. I cooked up a two-course meal of Vietnamese pho and carbonara pasta as the evening glow fizzled out. Tucking into my grub, I spotted two pairs of eyes glowing at the edge of my camp. Mistaking it for a feral cat, I turned on the headlamp, where, to my great surprise, a juvenile anagram (Japanese badger) waddled lazily into my front yard in search of nourishment. I watched for several minutes as the animal eventually found the bed of an adjacent stream more worthy of its attention. I’ve come across plenty of tanuki and several foxes, but badgers were a first.

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I hit the hay at the criminal hour of 8pm, hoping to somehow make it through the long night with at least a few hours of shut-eye. Between the barking of deer, the caws of the crows, and the screeches from wild owl, it was a fitful one, but once the first glows of light wafted into the tent at 5 in the morning, I felt somewhat refreshed. A hearty breakfast of leftover bread and oatmeal was prepared while I stared up at the wall of cloud still clinging heavily to the surrounding mountains. I had the option of an easier ascent up Mt. Iizuna, or the 5-star clambering up the cliffs of Togakushi. Fortunately the decision was made much easier when the first text message arrived just before 5:30. Paul and Rie were on the way and wanted to know which peak I had in mind for the morning. Togakushi had always been high on my radar, and having unexpected companionship sealed the deal.

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They arrived just as I was polishing off the grub and set up their tents in the area adjacent to my shelter. We were cautious not to leave too much space lest a car camper should intrude. As we were catching up and discussing the day’s plans, Yuta from Osaka showed up with a companion. They were planning to climb Mt. Takazuma and possibly Togakushi on the return if time permitted. It was barely past 6 in the morning and we already had a clan.

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The three of us set off on the climb (detailed in a forthcoming post) and made it back safely sometime before 2pm. Rie really wanted a hot spring bath, while Paul and I were absolutely famished. When given the choice between a meal and a bath, I always let the stomach do the talking, so we settled into one of the outdoor seats at Cafe Fleurir, an amazing place run by a husband-and-wife team. We split a pizza while each ordering a bowl of yaki curry, which is cooked in a similar way to gratin but there’s curry and rice in the ceramic cooking pot. The owner came out with his telescope and showed us the knife-edge ridge that got our hearts pumping earlier in the day. We looked for hikers but couldn’t find any at such a late hour in the day.

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After lunch, we literally crawled back into camp, our stomachs about to burst from the caloric overload. Naresh and family were already settled into their cabin, so after a quick change of clothes we all got to work preparing the meal before we lost the light of the sun. The first stop was the campground registration area, where we rented cooking pots and bought wood for the campfire. The next step was firing up the grill, and our resident pyrotechnician Yuta went right to work. Rie assisted in making guacamole as Naresh’s talented wife Seema made the vegetarian taco fillings. Of course, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so Paul chimed in with our first-ever Hiking in Japan slack line.

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After slacking, it was time to get down to business and make tacos. The grill was fired up, and Naresh’s children Prakhar and Pranita (and family friend Shrimal) made sure our tortillas were grilled to perfection. Toshi strolled into camp next, fresh from his ascent of Mt. Togakushi. We actually passed by him on the ridge, as he was doing the hike in reverse, something he did not recommend. The next member to join the party was David, who had just come down from Mt. Iizuna. Just before we were about to tuck into dinner, a car pulled up and a young man asked if this was the Hiking in Japan event. Kohei from Shizuoka has joined the celebration. He was new to Hiking in Japan but we welcomed him like family, and his fried chicken and beer were most welcome.

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As if things could not get any better, just as we were losing the last light of the day, a black sport-utility vehicle pulled into camp, a car which I definitely recognized from a hike in Hokkaido last month. It was Grace the Yamaholic making a cameo appearance. She could not stay for the camp event as she had plans to climb Yakeyama the following day, but she had come straight from the top of Mt. Kurohime to join us for a short time. Of course she brought some of her famous carrot cake with chocolate frosting.

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There was plenty of food to go around for all of us, and as the temperature dropped we all huddled around the glowing campfire for stories and conversation. Sometime during the evening, Paul, Kohei, Yuta and I decided to wander north of the campsite through the cow pastures in search of firewood. We eventually found some tree branches and brought them back to camp. On the way back, we spotted a man with a large tripod and high-quality camera taking night shots. It turned out to be Naresh’s son Prakhar, whose passion for photography and good music had us all impressed.

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Naresh prepared dessert, which consisted of David’s Belgian chocolate along with an improvised take on S’mores: we’d forgotten to get graham crackers so substituted Saltines in their place.  A sweet and salty version of America’s favorite campground snack if you will. They did the trick but next year we’re definitely not going to forget the graham crackers.

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The next day dawned clear, and I roused Paul out of bed so we could capture the first rays of the day glowing off of Mt. Togakushi. It was a decision neither of us would regret. After, Kohei, Rie, Yuta, Paul, and I drove to Kagami ike (mirror pond) to capture the reflection of Mt. Togakushi in the still waters.

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Back at camp, David had already departed on his early morning ascent of Mt. Takazuma (and Togakushi as well), so we didn’t get to say goodbye to him. We ate leftover tacos for breakfast, which had us absolutely stuffed. Toshi headed back to Matsumoto after he took an early morning stroll while Naresh and his family headed out on a day hike to the shrine and mirror pond. Yuta and Kohei set off for Mt. Togakushi, so soon it was just Rie, Paul, and I packing up the last remnants of camp. We left a little thank-you note and gift for Naresh to thank him for all of the hard work he put into the event.

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Rie drove Paul and I back to Nagoya, where we were already thinking about Gathering #4 next year, which we all agreed should be held at Togakushi again. There are still several peaks in the area neither of us had climbed, so any excuse to get back to one of Nagano’s best hiking areas is most welcome.

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There were several people whose presence was dearly missed. Co-organizers Viviana and Miguel both ended up getting sick and could not attend. Kaoru and Michal both had dates with their lovers (oops, I mean mountains!), and Tomomi was in China on a business trip. And if there’s anyone else i neglected to mention then my sincerest apologies. The Ontake eruption and the start of a busy semester have both preoccupied my thoughts.

 

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