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The Gathering VIII

Planning an event during Japan’s fickle autumn weather is no easy task, and with a typhoon threatening to derail this year’s gathering, we all keep our eyes glued to the capricious predictions of the meteorologists. As the storm edges toward the archipelago, it becomes apparent that Nagano will be spared the heavy rain and winds predicted to batter the Boso Peninsula, so we move forth with preparations for the 8th annual Hiking in Japan gathering.

This time around, we head back to Togakushi, the location of the 3rd gathering and a splendid volcanic plateau jutting up from the river banks of Nagano city. I head up by train after work on Friday evening, arriving at Nagano station shortly before 10pm for a quick catch-up with my friend Trane before checking into my hotel for a short bout of sleep. The next morning, Miguel, who has just completed an exhausting overnight bus journey from Kobe, stumbles into the hotel lobby. I stumble down the elevator myself, grasping an unsteady cup of matcha, forcing some caffeine into my body in an effort to shake off the drowsiness. Paul from Hike and Bike Japan soon pulls up in his car and the three of us make our way along wet roads to the campground.

Rie and James have already started their climb up to Takazuma, so Miguel, Paul and I pick out a quiet area of the grassy campground and set up our tents. Miguel’s shelter is one-part tent, two-parts coffin but it does provide necessary cover from the elements. Paul’s is a more conventional set up, and since I’ve opted for just a lightweight tarp I stow away my excess gear in his tent before the two of us head to the Iizuna trailhead. Miguel stays behind to watch over camp, settling in for a nap accompanied by the soothing sounds of birdsong.

Iizuna’s track cuts directly through the Togakushi Eastern Campground, following a forest road before darting up into a thick forest of planted Japanese larch. Paul and I catch up since our late-July meeting in Osaka. Relating stories of a previous trail running race along our very same ascent path, we rise up away from the valley to a small marshland on the edge of the ski resort. Late summer flowers bloom along the side of the trail, which the grasslands take on their customary golden hues of autumn. A short climb later, we top out on Mt Menō, the first peak on Iizuna’s summit ridge of rotund volcanic cones. By now the clouds have closed in, depositing misty moisture on our eyebrows as we turn our eyes towards the summit buried somewhere in the murk.

The two of us make good work on the ridge, reaching the broad summit plateau in unexpected sunshine. We settle onto an improvised set of oblong boulders and share snacks and stories with a jovial group of local hikers. An elementary school soccer team lurks nearby, eavesdropping on our conversation in hopes of grabbing a snippet or two of free English vocabulary. After a quick summit photo, we drop off the northern face of the peak to a small saddle ablaze with autumn foliage before ascending a short distance to Iizuna shrine. From here, it’s a steep drop back to the forest, with Paul demonstrating his mountain sprinting skills down some truly tricky terrain. We slow down the pace once back in the treeline and continue sharing stories on the remainder of our loop hike back into camp.

Camp has turned into a small village, with HIJ members engaged in a variety of leisurely activities, few of which involve loitering at camp. Paul and I round up Naresh, Miguel, and Michael and head to Café Fleurir for warm pizza, tasty curry gratin, and several cups of coffee as one by one the other members of our party join us around the table. Bjorn and family have come straight from the stables after an adventurous afternoon of horse riding. John arrives after the long drive from Mt Nantai and shares stories about the infamous toll booth at the trailhead. Edward and friends also stop by briefly to say hello before ducking back into camp. I have a word with the owner about providing a candle in Naresh’s special cake – a surprise for him having recently finished climbing the Yamanashi Hyakumeizan. Follow Naresh’s blog here as he begins to tell his mountain adventures.

Bellies full, we all head back into camp to start the cooking duties. Paul starts in on the fire while Rie and James start cutting the vegetables for nabe. Bjorn and family settle into a corner of the covered kitchen to churn out another amazing bowl of guacamole. Alekh, Anna, Edward, Michael and Miguel lend a helping hand as well, shuttling ingredients between workstation and delivering prepared food to the common serving table. Naresh splits his time between the fire and kitchen, making sure everything is going according to plan and on schedule. Just as in previous gatherings, it becomes apparent that we once again have way too much food but we make a valiant effort to consume whatever is served.  Grace arrives at camp carrying her signature homemade cake – awing everyone with her baking prowess and making us full before the main dish even begins to boil.

As the first bowls of nabe come off the stove, Naresh and John have already begun roasting marshmellows for S’mores. Miguel places our framed photo of Michal closer to the fire, telling everyone about the contributions he made to the group before his untimely departure on his eternal celestial journey. Stories are told, laughs are shared, and even heated political discussions ensue but the conversation is eventually brought back to a topic we can all agree on: the beauty of Japan’s mountains.

One by one the campers drift off to sleep, some too comfy around the fire to retreat to their shelters until the embers of the campfire begin to grow dim. Mother Nature times her arrival perfectly as well, holding off on the rain until all of us have bedded down for the evening. The rain continues most of the night and slows to a drizzle as we all emerge from our cocoons.

In the filtered light of morning, the camp denizens converge on the covered kitchen area to indulge in copious cups of hot chai and an assortment of leftovers and calorie-rich muffins. Paul and James head off for a morning jog while others reluctantly discuss plans for heading back to civilization. Each year, we cram a full weekend’s worth of activities into, well, a weekend. I float the idea of perhaps trying to have next year’s gathering scheduled over a 3-day weekend, with an exciting group hike sandwiched between two nights underneath the stars. Who’s with us in 2020?

 

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This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

 

Before you can even begin to write a guidebook, there is a lot of behind the scenes work regarding content. Tom and I had to narrow down a list of mountains/hikes to include in the guidebook, and with only 60,000 words to work with (including the introduction and appendices), we had to choose carefully. We could easily allocate our entire word count to the Kita Alps alone, so we needed to be picky.

We were both in agreement about including the ‘mainstream’ peaks of Tsurugi, Yari, and Hotaka, as well as the full traverse of the Kita Alps. However, there were a couple of mountains that were tough choices: should we leave Jonen and Kasa out in favor of Goryu and Kashima-yari? How about Kuma-no-daira and the Washiba/Suisho section?

In the end we decided to push for the inclusion of Jonen and Kasa, since they have never appeared in any English-language hiking guide. Lonely Planet mentions them briefly but doesn’t provide any detailed hike descriptions. This would not leave enough room for Goryu and Kashima-yari, but we were fine with that, as avid hikers can simply seek out a copy of the elusive Lonely Planet guide for these hikes.

I also wanted to include Yatsu-ga-take, as it is a very popular area with relatively easy access to Tokyo, but there wasn’t nearly enough space in the book to include it. Instead, we opted for a day hike near Kawaguchiko to satisfy those hikers coming to visit Mt Fuji.

Our decisions were by no means easy, and the contents could always change in future editions of the guidebook, but hopefully there are a few hikers out there that can respect our decisions and won’t deride us for leaving out two very impressive peaks. It wasn’t an intentional oversight.

The Minami Alps section, on the other hand, is as complete a guide as you’re going to see. The only peaks we left out were the ‘minor’ summits of Nokogiri and Zaru, two of the 200 meizan that are definitely worth mentioning, but probably not worth the potential risk of including them in a hiking guide. Nokogiri itself borders on a proper alpine rock climb, with many visitors opting for a rope, harness, and helmet for safety.

The guide also includes all 4 routes up Mt Fuji, which is something a lot of guidebooks forgo due to lack of space. Since Fuji is our ‘hit single’, we hope by including the minor routes it would appeal to a larger audience looking for a quieter way to ascend Japan’s highest peak.

Time will tell if we made the right decisions, but for now it seems like we have made an honest attempt at a comprehensive guide to the Japan Alps. If the book sells well, then we can always make adjustments in future editions of the guide.

 

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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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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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12:15pm

The asphalt sizzles slightly as I follow route 22 northeast past the campus and along the edge of a deserted suburban collection of overpriced dwellings. Rows of planted keyaki trees provide  protection from the blazing midday sun shimmering off the pavement. Cars whizz by, oblivious to the lonely foot soldier on his march to freedom.

12:45pm

I make good work on the elevated protection of the sidewalk, following along steadily through the rolling hills to a busy intersection flanked by chain restaurants and a sprawling Kuroneko distribution center. Here I head west onto National Highway 302, a busy thoroughfare cutting straight through the northern tip of the Ikoma mountain range. A narrow sidewalk offers safe passage briefly before giving way to a narrow shoulder barely the width of a sneaker. These roads were not designed for foot traffic.

1:00pm

Trucks whizz by just inches from my scrunched-up shoulders as I climb higher into the hills. On normal days, vehicles use this road to gain access to the expressway, but due to the quake the highways are all closed: the car navigation systems have somehow rerouted all of the transport trucks along this typically quiet section of Kyoto Prefecture. At the top of a crest I reach Kawachi-tōge, flanked on the east by the glistening chimney of a garbage incineration plant. Here I cross over into Osaka Prefecture and return to the comforts of a wide sidewalk.

1:05pm

After 50 meters I reach a fully stocked 7-11 and enter the air-conditioned space. First on my list is sunscreen, followed by a cold sports drink and a few snacks. The interior seems to have come through the quake with very little noticeable damage, though I suspect that the diligent staff had already finished cleaning up the mess before I arrive.

1:45pm

The route climbs gently before leveling off at the mountain ridge for a short while. Here I pass by two in suits walking in the opposite direction: they too have taken to foot due to the utter meltdown of the train system. Thick forests give way to broad rice fields and vistas across the Hirakata plain and directly towards the quake epicenter. I make note of the lack of smoke on the horizon, a reminder that things could have been a lot worse.

2:00pm

Route 302 ducks under the Dai-ni Keihan Expressway and back into familiar territory. After reaching the JR train tracks I turn south and follow quieter streets towards Tsuda station. I notice my first signs of damage: kawara roof tiles lay in shattered fragments among crumbly leaf litter and cigarette butts. Street smarts start to kick in, though it not muggers that I am afraid of encountering. Instead, I study my surroundings carefully, planning out a possible path of escape should a strong aftershock send the electrical lines directly overhead into a free fall.

2:20pm

I arrive at Tsuda station, only to find the entrance cordoned off. There will be no shortcuts back to my house by train – I am committed to my own foot power. I continue south until spotting a torii gate snapped in two. My curiosity gets the better of me and I enter the shrine grounds. Beyond the gate lay the toppled remains of a giant tōrō lantern, a seismic ode to Stonehenge if you will. I step around the obstacle and exit out the rear of the grounds through another off-balance torii gate teetering on collapse.

3:00pm 

Continuing south, I now enter the familiar grounds of the Jingūji vineyards. To my great surprise, an elderly woman sits patiently at her stall, peddling stacks of freshly harvested grapes. I stop in for a chat and end up buying a couple of kilograms of Delaware grapes to bring back to Kanako and to my neighbors. I know they have probably been through a rough day so it seems like the best remedy to calm frail nerves.

3:45pm 

I finally reach my neighborhood and navigate around fallen debris and into Kanako and Ibuki’s waiting arms. All of my neighbors are outside, conversing about the rough start to the work week. We all have our own stories, especially those stuck in Osaka city who, like me, had to improvise their way home. As we chat, with smiles of relief for everyone safely accounted for, the pavement beneath our feet rises up-and-down as if we are all standing on a trampoline. A magnitude 4 aftershock sends vertical seismic waves through our bodies. Little do we know that the coming weeks are about to become a whole lot shakier.

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Shaken up – part 3

8:08am

After the tears dry I pull myself together and look through class materials, knowing that I will have no need for these today but convincing myself that taking my mind of the unfolding catastrophe will somehow help.

8:30am

The first administrative staff arrive at school but are unable to give an answer to our inquiries regarding class cancellations. The waiting game begins.

8:35am

The first aftershock rumbles through the building sending our rattled nerves closer to the edge.

8:45am

Still no official word from the administration, but I know that classes will eventually be cancelled. It’s just a matter of whether it will be announced before first period commences at 9am

8:55am

Not a peep from the higher-ups, so I head to my classroom to find 10 brave students sitting still in class. They were the lucky ones, having either walked from their nearby dwellings or having made an earlier train before the rumbling begins. One student confesses that he was sitting in the classroom having breakfast when the quake hit.

9:00am

As class ‘officially begins’, I plug in the laptop and stream NHK on the flat screen TV. I offer the following instructions:

1) There will be no class today. Please work on tasks from other courses or contact your friends and family on Line.

2) If a strong aftershock occurs, duck under your desk and move away from the windows.

9:10am

An announcement over the loudspeaker confirms that morning classes have been cancelled. Morning classes only. I leave everything in my classroom and head back to the teachers lounge to await further instruction. All train lines have been indefinitely suspended.

10:45am

I am informed that all classes have been cancelled. With no trains in operation, I head to the cafeteria for an early lunch and to weigh the options.

11:30am

Still no movement on the trains, so I do a bit of navigating on Google Maps and make a breakthrough discovery. My house is directly over the mountain behind the school. There is no trail to speak of, but a network of paved roads will lead me through the greenery home. Old man Google says it’s a 15km walk. So the journey begins.

(To be continued)

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Shaken up – part 2

8:00am

As my heart rate returns to an under-par golf score I take a few unsteady steps to the convenience store and step inside. Merchandise is strewn about the floors, punctured cans of toppled coffee forming a small lake in the far aisle in which a few pre-packaged loaves of bread stay afloat. I step over the mess, grab a 2-liter bottle of water, and head to the register. A shell-shocked employee rings me up, her upper lip quivering as an unsteady voice announces my total. I hand over the coins and step aside, sheepishly slipping away instead of offering to assist in the cleanup.

8:05am

I arrive at school and immediately plug in the laptop to get a read of the situation. National broadcaster NHK has set up a live stream on their site, so I clicke the feed to find the epicenter relatively close to my current position – hence the violent jolt and disheveled state of things. I abandon my fruitless pursuit to ring my wife and opt for a text message, which seems to go through. A prompt reply ensures that everything is fine on her end. A few other teachers have somehow made it to school as we ponder about class cancellations. The office won’t open for another half an hour, so there is nothing to do but watch the news and wait. The first reports of fatalities come in as helicopters send down images of damage and destruction. A busted water mane in Tatatsuki city sends up a geyser of water 10 meters in height. Rescuers frantically try to lift a concrete block wall that has crushed a 9-year-old girl on her way to school. Reminders that any one of us could go at any time without warning.

(To be continued)

 

 

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Is there a more scenic ridge in the Minami Alps than the sandy granite boulders of the Hō-ō mountains? Some may favor the loftier heights of the Akaishi mountains and their distinctive deposits of red chert and green limestone, but what Hō-ō lacks in altitude it more than makes up for in scenery.

The mountains sit snugly against the Kofu basin, soaking up the fine rays of sunshine which often grace the Yamanashi prefectural capital. After a period of rainy weather, it is indeed the Hō-ō mountains that make the earliest return to fair weather skies. It’s not too common for it to be sunny here while the rest of the Minami Alps lie caked in cloud and mist.

The mountain is most often referred to at the Hō-ō Sanzan, or the Three Peaks of the Phoenix. Named after the trio of Buddhist deities of healing (Yakushi), compassion (Kannon), and hell (Jizō), a full traverse of all three mountains in as a day-trip may very well conjure up the feelings of all three deities. Regardless, you will find a few trail runners in recent years who opt for the 27km return route from Yashajin-tōge. Those with a enlightened sense of sanity will want to break up the arduous journey by overnighting at either Minami-Omuro or Yakushidake mountain huts.

Most Hyakumeizan baggers opt for an ascent of Mt. Kannon, the highest mountain in the range, while adventure seekers prefer the vertical climb to the top of the obelisk, Hō-ō’s unofficial symbol and a rock outcrop that make it clearly identifiable from the summits of Yamanashi’s surrounding peaks.

The photo used on the calendar was supplied by Naresh Deora, an Indian hiker who splits time between Tokyo and Kofu. He is currently attempting to climb the Yamanashi Hyakumeizan, a collection of 100 peaks located within the prefectural borders. If successful, he will be the second foreigner (behind Julian and his amazing border terrier Hana) to complete the mountains. At the time of writing Naresh has currently finished 73 of the 100.

Trekkers typically start at Yashijin-tōge on the long gentle slog to Yakushi, Kannon and Jizo, where several option await. Most turn right and head down to one of the hot springs flanking the eastern foothills. Others continue along the ridge over to Kai-koma, a tough ridge of undulating track that will take a full day to navigate. This the route I chose back in 2005 during my first visit to the mountain range. Last year, I made a return visit to assess trail conditions for a forthcoming guidebook that I am co-authoring. The publisher needed clear-weather photos and the weather fairies delivered, possibly bringing me the best weather I have ever had in the Minami Alps.

On that traverse over to Kai-koma, the first major peak along the ridge is none other than Takamine, a peak just one meter lower than Mt. Yakushi but just as impressive. Amazingly, this mountain was not included in the Hō-ō triumvirate, perhaps because Japan likes to group things together by threes and not fours. Thus, a deity was not enshrined here and the rather mundane name of ‘tall peak’ put in its place. If given the chance, I would suggest offering the mountain to Dainichi, the Buddha representing emptiness.

 

 

 

 

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Shaken up – part 1

7:56am

I push the button next to the door of the Kizu-bound JR train – those self-service buttons on rural trains that only allow those in the know to exit the train. The doors open and I glide onto the platform, swimming through throngs of high school students funneling through the ticket gates. My ticket is swallowed by the wicket machinery, and allows passage via a narrow flight of stairs to the north-south corridor of route 22. Descending down to street level, I turn left along the narrow shoulder to my usual stance at the broad intersection. From here I can hop through the pedestrian crossing and directly into the convenience store, avoiding the rush of students following pursuit. It’s a perfect plan, and part of my usual Monday morning routine to kick off yet another busy week.

7:58am

I stand at the front of the pack, like a marathon runner taking position at the starting gates. Suddenly, I am pushed from behind and instinctively lurch forward into the middle of the road. The asphalt thrusts upward, throwing me off my stance. I scurry over across the street, against the light, along with around 50 other students who are escaping from the terrifying sound of screeching metal and the unmistakable ping of electric wires. Screams of panic fill the air – I turn around and glance up at the pedestrian overpass swaying with panic-striken kids holding onto the railing for dear life. Directly behind me, the wall of students patiently waiting for the red light is replaced by an undulating wall of scaffolding, teetering on the edge of collapse. Is this what pushed me from behind?

7:59am

Hands on my knees, I pant for air and wait for my redlining heart beat to subside. I watch as the power lines continue to sway, always among the last things to stop moving during a seismic event. Reality starts to set in – this was a quake, and quite a strong one at that.

(To be continued)

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The Togakushi highlands are an oft-overlooked section of northern Nagano prefecture offering a unique mix of nature and culture. The Togakushi range is dominated by the pyramidal peak of Takazuma, one of the Hyakumeizan, while the lower jagged ridge of Mt. Togakushi is relegated to 200meizan status.

The cliffs of Togakushi make for a stunning backdrop against the green pastures of the farmlands sitting snugly at the foot of the range. Troupes of wild monkeys can sometimes be seen foraging through the long grass in search of sustenance.

Rough igneous rock soars skyward as a reminder to Togakushi’s tumultuous past. Fossilized sea shells scattered along the summit plateau suggest subaqueous origins, a massive underwater volcano violently thrusting itself up to a height of nearly 2000 metres.

The climbing routes starts from the upper precincts of Togakushi Shrine, itself reached via a 2km corridor flanked by towering cryptomeria trees that make for a picturesque backdrop if you can manage to find a brief break in the large crowds that march like a holy procession.

From the the shrine a narrow path rises through native beech forests to the base of the cliff face. Fixed chains lead climbers through a maze of crumbly rock to an exposed knife edge ridge, which for once actually lives up to its name.

After this gravity-defying walkway the route opens up to the summit plateau, where it’s an easy stroll along the ridge over the summit and down to a saddle marking the entrance to Mt. Takazuma. Hyakumeizan hunters can typically be found resting in front of a bomb shelter of an emergency hut perched directly on top of this junction. Crowds often grow here, with peakbaggers giving Togakushi a miss in favor of Takazuma’s impressive pyramidal tower, a castle keep of sorts.

Unobstructed vistas all the way down to Mt. Fuji can be found on rare days of fair weather and good visibility. Most visitors are cursed with that all-too-familiar blanket of fog.

It’s easy to become enamored with the sheer beauty of the place, well deserving as its spot on the May page of the wall calendar. Observant folks will also recognize the cover shot of the calendar as no other than Togakushi’s kagami-ike (lit: mirror lake). From this angle Togakushi looks split in two, with jagged peaks rising both to the left and right of the lake shores. The left peak is Nishidake, whose rocky spire actually rises higher than the summit of Mt. Togakushi itself. Perhaps it is time to pay this ‘Western Peak’ a visit.

 

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