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Archive for the ‘HIJ Calendar’ Category

Mt. Arafune is a mountain that I have had my eye on for a while. In addition to being included on the list of 200 Famous Mountains, the massive rock formation flanking the summit plateau resembles the hull of a giant battleship for which the mountain receives its name.

Alastair and I depart from Suwa station on a bright and sunny morning at the start of the Golden Week holiday. We head east into neighboring Gunma Prefecture and reach the trailhead after a couple of hours of easy driving. It is my first hike with the fair-skinned Englishman, a self-determined mountaineer that can be found on neighboring alpine summits in the Kita, Chuo, and Minami Alps most weekends. Mt. Arafune dominates the skyline for miles around and can even be viewed from most of the Kita Alps if you know where to look.

A rope is draped across the trail, indicating some kind of closure. Having faced such obstacles before, I know that if the trail were really in such poor condition that they would built an impenetrable barrier. Alastair and I slip under the rope and along a very well-used path that hugs a narrow ridge. After a few modest rises and drops in altitude, we reach a saddle just before the final climb to the summit plateau. We soon arrive on top of Tomo rock and gaze out at Mt. Asama sitting snugly across a steep valley directly in front of us. We could almost reach out and touch it if not for the 200-meter high vertical cliff dropping just below our feet.

Speaking of cliffs, in 2009 this very cliff claimed the life of Kureyon Shinchan creator Yoshito Usui, whose death occurred under suspicious circumstances. Since there were no witnesses, there is debate as to whether the manga author ventured too close to the edge and lost his footing or whether it was a conscious decision to intentionally jump off and end it all. The drop causes severe vertigo problems for Alastair, but I crawl over on my belly to look down upon what would certainly be a rather nasty way to end your life.

As we admire the views, a trail runner jogs up and nonchalantly stands on the edge of the cliff peering over. The gusts of wind come strongly and irregularly and we both close our eyes before our fearless friend steps back from the void. He introduces himself as Mt. Haga and quickly blurts out a half-dozen peaks in the area that he recommends checking out. We pore over the maps and locate a few for future reference.

The true summit of Arafune is on the other side of this vast plateau lined with native hardwoods and a gentle mountain stream. It takes nearly an hour to cross over and reach the top, which affords views to our south of the Yatsugatake range. We retrace our steps all the way back to the car and head over to Uchiyama campground.

We check in and enjoy a late lunch of Genghis Khan lamb and ice cream before parking the car at the campsite. The winds are absolutely howling, so we put off erecting the tent and instead explore the mountains surrounding the plateau. Halfway along our traverse of a trio of forgettable peaks, we come across a well-fed rotund creature wobbling across a meadow. I take a quick picture before the mysterious animal scuttles for cover in the thick underbrush. It is no other than a anaguma or Japanese badger, my very first sighting of the elusive mammal.

The setting sun gives way to a brilliant display of stars. We somehow get the tent to stay upright while I give up on erecting my lightweight tarp. After our campfire is reduced to glowing coals, we retreat to bed. I settle in for a noisy night inside the tent while Alastair enjoys the warmth and serenity of the car.

The following morning dawns clear but the yellow haze pushing in from the Gobi Desert has reduced visibility to mum. We halfway consider climbing up a peak or two before throwing in the towel and taking an excursion to Shirakaba at the base of Mt. Tateshina for a pleasant lakeside stroll.

Mt. Arafune is well worth a visit, but the remote location really warrants having your own set of wheels. There is irregular bus/train service from Shimonita in the east but it involves a very long approach along a seldom-used trail. The vistas of Mt. Myogi more than make up for the ease of access though.

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Mt. Watamuki in Shiga Prefecture is well-known as a mecca for rime ice viewers. My only visit to the 1100-meter high mountain was perfectly timed for the first ice crystals of the season.

So impressed was I with the majesty of the mountain I quickly added it to my other site, where fellow hikers can find practical information for accessing the mountain. There have only been about 1100 views of that posting, which is about 1 view per meter so to speak.

If you do visit in the winter and time it right, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Mt. Amagoi, the most remote of the Suzuka Peaks, sits due north of Watamuki, just begging for a full-winter traverse, when the thick undergrowth is buried in the snow. In fact, you could climb from here all the way to Mt. Gozaisho if armed with proper navigation devices.

Although mountain leeches tend to congregate in the valleys surrounding the Suzuka range, they have yet to penetrate these folds of the Suzuka. That may change in the future, however. The intense summer heat would likely make summer ascents uncomfortable, even without the blood-sucking worms.

In terms of the name, Watamuki is thought to have come from the Japanese word Watanuki, the old word for April. The word literally means to ‘remove cotton’, in terms of changing from the thick cotton kimono of winter to the cooler silk version of summer. In some ways this is true for the mountain itself – in April the snows melt to reveal the slick silky green foliage of summer.

An emergency hut is located about halfway up the mountain, making for a great place to overnight to catch the sunrise from the summit. You’d need to bring plenty of water, however, as there are no reliable water sources on the hike.

 

 

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Mt. Yokoyama doesn’t look like much of a mountain from the summit of Shizu-ga-take above the shores of Lake Yogo in northern Shiga Prefecture.

In fact, you could say the summit plateau is elegant, somewhat graceful when covered in a smooth silky cap of wintry white. From here, in fact, is probably where the name originated, as the mountain does look almost completely horizontal, earning the kanji character yoko (横). Looks can be quite deceptive, as Baku, Tomomi and I found out one winter.

It was Tomomi’s second attempt on the 1132-meter-high peak, after she was forced into a retreat by the chest-high snow drifts in mid-January. We settled in for a late winter assault along the Mitaka-one route which was detailed in a previous blog post.

The preferred route on the mountain is via the Shiratani/Higashi-one loop , a stunning track following a mountain stream past a duet of impressive waterfalls.

This is followed by an easy stroll through a lush beech forest along the summit plateau to Yokoyama’s twin peak Higashi-dake before looping back to the trailhead.

Shiratani route is only done in the green season and, due to time constraints on our climb, we skipped the eastern peak in favor of the faster pisuton descent.

On clear days the summit views of Hakusan are quite impressive but they do involve a bit of work to earn. The western peak, the higher of the two summits, is flanked by a storage shack-cum-emergency-hut and involves a hairy ladder climb to the rooftop observatory.

If you stand on your tiptoes and gaze north, then Hokuriku’s lone alpine summit stands proud and clear. Such views are best appreciated in the late May sunshine, when Hakusan lets down her cloud veil for a brief period before retreating into a summer hibernation amidst the plum rains of June.

Tracks of wild boar, rabbit, stoat, fox, tanuki, and bear are not uncommon in these hardwood swaths of untouched forest. We spent most of the ridge following the tracks of a mother and cub who preferred the broad ridge to the steep gullies lining either side of the long spur.

Access to the trailhead is best done by private transport. This will allow for an early start and will eliminate the need for the infrequent bus connection from Kinomoto station in northern Shiga Prefecture. Using the bus also means an extra 1 hour walk on a paved road just to reach the trailhead.

Lake Yogo and Lake Biwa are clearly visible to the south on days with good visibility. Glimpses of both lakes could be caught between breaks in the clouds, but you’d be much better off just opting for a stable high pressure system to settle over the region. Problem is, such systems are few and far between in these cloud-loving parts of Hokuriku.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A gem awaits those that trample these hidden meadows above Wakasa village in western Fukui Prefecture.

The summit plateau is carpeted in a golden shag of grasslands stretching along the ridge for several kilometers, the perfect place for nature photographers to capture hikers strolling along the park-like promenade.

Unobstructed vistas of the mountains of northern Kyoto Prefecture dominate the southwestern horizon, while the quintet of freshwater lakes near Sekumi Bay sit idle by the seaside like a group of discarded Rorschach inkblots.

The photo chosen for the calendar came out a bit underexposed, likely due to the diffused late afternoon light and a bit of an oversight with my computer monitor: a lot of images appear fine on the computer screen but come out differently in printed form.

This darkened quality, however, does give a mysterious air akin to an overcast day that dominates the weather patterns over the Hokuriku region this time of year.

In terms of origins of the mountain’s name, one theory is that the wood used to build Sanjūsangen temple in Kyoto was taken from trees felled on these very slopes. Since the temple was built in the 12th century, it is quite impossible to bear truth to such theories, but the strand of virgin beech trees lining the upper slopes below the ridge provide a glimpse of what the ancient forests used to look like until the invasion of the cedar kings.

The hike to the summit takes a couple of hours, with relatively easy access by car from Kyoto city. On an exceptionally clear day, Hakusan would be clearly visible on the horizon if not for Mt. Sanjo cutting off the vistas to the east.

In order to provide full disclosure, it must be noted that the images captured here were taken on a chilly day in mid-April, where the scenery still retains the bleak hues of winter. Caught off guard by the sudden drop in temperatures, the three of us raced off the summit in search of the warmer comforts of the sakura-draped foothills below.

 

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