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Archive for the ‘Niigata hikes’ Category

Before you read, you might want to refresh your memory with part 4 first.

The path down from the grassy highlands of Echigo-koma spit me out in a quaint hot spring village with a rustic public bathhouse. When you enter these facilities, you only need to replace your soiled shoes with clean slippers lined up at the entrance and feed your money in the vending machine in the lobby, which will expel a paper ticket that you hand to the attendant on-duty. Baths are a welcomed commodity after a tough hike, but they have the unfortunate disadvantage of zapping all of your energy if you stay in them too long, so I always give myself a time limit, especially when I’ve still got some miles to cover on foot. Once my cleanse was done, I made my way down to the shores of Lake Oku-tadami, where a small boat would ferry me across the lake. Though there is a route that weaves around the mountainous folds of the lake, the boat is a real time-saver and a must for those that suffer from car sickness. Besides, there would be a bus waiting for me on the other side to take me directly to the trailhead of my next peak. Hitching may have taken longer and I would be truly in a bind if no one were to pick me up. The boat ride itself involves a transfer halfway along at the dam on the outer edge of the lake. For some reason the dam is a big tourist attraction, but I opted to just relax by the shores until the other boat was ready for boarding. The bus was immaculately timed, and dropped me off at my awaiting accommodation in the pale, monochromatic light of the late afternoon.

I made my way to Furando Hut (literally Flemish hut), where the caretaker greeted me like one of his own family. I felt relieved, since I was turned away on the phone by the adjacent Seijirou hut because apparently my Japanese wasn’t good enough for the owner. Of course it wasn’t: he was speaking with a strong Tohoku accent on the phone and I couldn’t catch a single word he was saying. No matter, for I took matters in my own hands when booking at the Furando and perhaps the refusal was simply an omen to stay at the better accommodation. No ill feelings towards Seijirou, but a word of caution to all hut owners – treat me rudely and I will simply smile in your face and take my money elsewhere.

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Despite the warm welcome, I spent the vast majority of the night in a ruthless battle with mosquitos. If I pulled the covers over my body then it was too hot for comfort. Without the blankets, I was getting eaten alive. I desperately needed rest, as one of the longest and toughest Hyakumeizan lay at my doorstep, beckoning me to enter. Sometime just before daybreak, I finally got up, switched on the light and went on the hunt, killing two of the bloated bloodsuckers before stuffing a towel under the crack in the door so that the rest of the family would be kept out of the feast. Ah, that was much better. Slumber and fatigue were victorious at last, but a member of the mosquito rangers got the upper hand, leaving my lower limbs covered in welts when my alarm finally jolted me from my self-induced coma.

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The sky was as thick as my breakfast porridge when I entered the path at the terminus of a long winding forest road. I had my wet weather gear on in anticipation of the drenching, but the only precipitation fell in the form of sweat trapped beneath my rain jacket. I unzipped every opening, airing out my wilted chest like a pair of jeans hung out to dry. The route followed the curves of a serpentine spur leading up to a broad ridge far in the distance. Pine trees grasped tightly to the crumbly spine as I tugged onto whatever I could to help haul me up the natural jungle gym. Looking to my left, Mt. Hiuchi dominated the horizon, partially engulfed in a torrent of dark cloud and mist. Streaks of rain trailed out across the marshlands of Oze before being sucked up by more menacing clouds to the south. I stood on the outer edge of this monumental weather system, and it was only a matter of time before it too would nibble on my body for dessert.

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By the time I reached the first target peak of Shimodaikura the clouds had enveloped me like an invading army. I ducked into the forest for the first of a series of rolling peaks towards the fast meadows of the summit plateau, which I could spot between gaps in the trees. Most of the vertical elevation gain had been knocked out in the first few kilometers, and I felt relieved that the ridge had been attained and the angle let up. Once I had trampled across the forested knob of Mt. Daikura, I broke out of the treeline and into a spitting rain – the front had caught up with me at last. I latched on the pack cover and tightened the zips around my windbreaker, hoping to keep some of my gear intact. Yet as soon as the rain had fallen it eased, revealing a sharp line in the horizon directly ahead. This cloud arc pushed overhead like a squeegee on a windshield of an SUV, and beyond this arc the cumulus vanished to reveal a cloudless sky. Finally, this stubborn system had yielded to the high pressure system before my very eyes.

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When reaching the small pond on the summit of Mt. Ike-no-dake I was basking in brilliant sunshine. I stripped off my rain layer and sat by the shore, taking in the spectacle before me: the marshlands of Oze spread out directly below me like softened margarine on a piece of moldy bread, while the summit of Hira rose gallantly in front of me as if the mastiff itself were wearing a gigantic beanie. I could’ve easily spend the rest of the afternoon sitting here taking in the scenery, but unfortunately a guided group of over 40 hikers showed up from the southwest to spoil my nature commune. They had come from the shorter and much easier approach via a long forest road the leader had driven most of the way up. With the ever-increasing popularity of the 100 peaks, access is getting easier and easier, bringing a surge in crowds that would otherwise not have invested the time or energy to climb. Fearful that this swarm would spoil my day, I got a move on up to the high point. En route I passed dozens of other hiking groups, all of whom had taken the easy way up.

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I tried as best I could to erase this intrusion from my mind, instead focusing on the flatlands dotted by picturesque cirques framing the Echigo mountains beyond. The summit of Echigo-koma, the peak I had summited yesterday lay buried in cloud but further south I could make out the peaks of Tanigawa and Naeba, which looked like nothing more than rolling hills from this vantage point. I looped around the summit, dropping past an area under construction – wooden steps and a toilet were being added to the hillside to accommodate the increase in visitors. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hut would be built here in the future, scarring the landscape once and for all. Don’t get me wrong – the peak was still incredibly beautiful but I would have preferred it a bit less crowded, especially since it was my very last Hyakumeizan outside of the Japan Alps.

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On the way back down from the summit I stopped off at Tamago rock for a quick photo of the impossibly balanced boulders, wondering if this too, would become a relic of the past, toppled by the increased erosion of unwelcome intruders. The route back was just as long and agonizing as the way in, the sweat-inducing ascent replaced by a knee-knocking drop along the spiny ridge. Fortunately I staved off injuries and arrived back at route 352 just after 4pm. I let the thumb do the talking, hitching a ride all the way back to Urasa, where the train taxied back to Osaka via the sprawling Tokyo wastelands. Only three more peaks stood between me and the venerable 100. On to the Alps for the final push.

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The new day dawned bright and clear. Groggy-eyed, I stumbled through the streets of Urawa until slipping into a sparsely populated train to Omiya, where the Shinkansen whisked me to Minakami and I once again found myself climbing the steps from the tunnels deep within the bowels of Doai station. It was hard to believe I was staring at these same walls just 24 hours ago before my spontaneous decision to give Tanigawa a miss. Now I had no choice, but at least I had the weather on my side….or so I thought.

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Asphalt guided me to the gondola entrance, but I just couldn’t give in to such technological catalysts. I had to climb the mountain from the bottom, all of it, so I ducked through the weeds, following a gravel trail that ran roughly parallel to the ropeway pylons. Birds sung gleefully, hidden from view by the thick foliage framing the concrete of the river bed. Brisk my pace led me, higher and higher towards the ski resort at Tenjin-Daira. To my right, buried somewhere in the jungly thicket, sat a faint trail that would take me towards the main ridge of my target peak, but without any signposts or markers, I overshot the turn-off until realizing it much too late. The route I followed banked left through a series of long switchbacks until dumping me right into the middle of one of the ski runs. Large ruts the size and contour of a small tanks lay deep in the dry mud. Ah, this must be the path used by loaders for construction and maintenance work.

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Stumbling onto the lush greenery of the open fields, I sought refuge from the baking rays of nature’s ultraviolet oven. The intense heat, high even by September standards, left me parched and withered. I lay my head under the faucet of the bathroom sink, sucking thick morsels of everyone’s favorite mix of hydrogen and oxygen. Perspiration, mixed with the fresh flow from the taps, dripped from my already soaked clothing, creating a small salty pond at the base of my feet. I inhaled mouthfuls of refreshing liquid until equilibrium returned.

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Shortly after the lunchtime sirens echoed in the villages far below the abyss, I reached the collection of boulders indicating the summit of the first of Tanigawa’s twin peaks. The other lay along the wind-carved crumbly spine. Not knowing which of the two were higher, I opted to climb them both, picking my way among the hunks of cretaceous granite sculptures for the better part of half an hour before reaching the secondary peak. Here the winds threatened to send me tumbling down the cliffs of the eastern face, so I dug in the heels and rummaged through the pack for some alpine delicacies disguised as a bag of mixed nuts and chocolate. Just below my plastic bag of goodies, sandwiched between my soft-shell and fleece, I located my map, which brings up an unfortunate habit of mine. In my frenzy to scale the peaks on Fukada’s list, not only do I end up taking far less breaks than normal, but due to my laziness, useful gear stays unused in the bottom of my back. Map? Nah, too much of a hassle to pull it out. Rain jacket? Again, unless the skies open up I just end up dealing with the mist.

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Anyway, my maps showed that I indeed reached the designated top of Tanigawa, so instead of the long traverse over to Tairappyo, it was back to the ski resort I retreated. Shortly below the summit rocks I dropped down out of the cloud line, revealing the near-vertical drops off the eastern edge. If I wanted to end it all, I could have simply moved a meter or so to my left. Rows of bluish-gray mountain stretched out to the horizon, folding over on one another like a stack of futon being stored in the closet. I recognized the rounded contours of Hotaka, the peak I had been on just a few days prior. To the left I saw what appeared to be Makihata, with the trio of Echigo peaks nestled beyond. The stroll back to the trailhead was non-eventful until I reached the bottom of the gondola, where I was able to hitch a ride all the way to Saitama.

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With 3 peaks knock out in 3 successive days, I turned my eyes towards the remaining summits of the Kita Alps.

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Doai station, for those who have never had the pleasure of visiting, looks like it was lifted straight from a low-budget horror flick. Dark and damp, with a cool musty wind and mysterious shadows flickering in the poorly lit hallways. There would be no way I’d sleep in the station, and with the approaching storm, my only option was the fluorescent illumination of the station waiting room, who I shared with one other man sporting nothing other than the clothing on his back. What in the world was he doing here? “I lost my wallet,” confessed the frail, bespeckled 40-something loner. “My friend is delivering me some money on the first train, so I have to wait until then.” He seemed like a harmless enough fellow, so I drifted off to sleep and put my valuables inside my sleeping bag just in case my new companion had other ideas.

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The next morning strong winds and heavy rained bounced off the asphalt like under-inflated volleyballs, and I knew that trying to climb Mt. Tanigawa would be an exercise in futility. I stared at the maps, checked over the train schedules, and changed tack. Naeba would be much easier to navigate in the rain than the rocky cliffs of Tanigawa, so I got on the local train to Echigo-yuzawa station, which is boarded in the middle of the tunnel under Mt. Tanigawa. When the train reached the end of the tunnel and popped out in Niigata prefecture, I was shocked to find the valley bathed in sunshine. I knew the right decision had been made and wanted to make full use of my time on Naeba, so I hailed an outrageously expensive taxi to the ‘Wadayama’ approach up Mt, Naeba.

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“Sure, you can stay here tonight”, returned the manager of Wada hut. The large dining room lay completely deserted as I dropped off my extra gear for the lightweight jaunt up the slopes, who still held their quilt of cloud in the manner of a snugly sleeping toddler. I donned on my red rain suit and shot up the moist riverbed towards the top of the ski resort. In the winter, hoards of skiers and boarders would be sliding down every available inch of powder, but here in the early autumn gloom I marched alone, guided only by the thought of knocking off #66 of the coveted 100. The next hour or so became a bit of a blur. Perhaps it was the monotony of slopping through marshlands on those wooden planks that offer about as much traction as a skating rink. Unheeded by the gently falling mist, I reached the ridge in relatively good time: it was sometime in the early afternoon and there were few other souls around. Everyone I met was already on their way off the mountain and they didn’t seem too thrilled with being robbed of one of the best views around. The path skirted through some rock formations before dropping to a broad saddle, marked by a swiftly flowing creek. Here I took my first break and rehydrated my soaked figure, which was wet not from the rain but from the sweat produced by wearing this unbreathable nylon coffin. I’m not completely sure why Japanese hikers prefer this sauna suits but I blindly followed this trend. At least I had enough foresight to unzip my rain jacket all the way to let the steam escape back into the environment.

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From here, the final push to Naeba’s level plateau ensued. Visibility hovered around the 3-meter mark as the winds threatened to push me off into an unknown abyss but I held my ground, topping out at the high point just in time to find the hut owner in the midst of an afternoon stroll. “Why don’t you stay here tonight?” the man inquired, but after explaining that all of my kit awaited me back at Wada he bade me a hearty farewell and I retreated back from where I had come. By the time I reached Wada hut the clouds had lifted, revealing mesmerizing views across the valley towards the peaks of Echigo. When I entered the hut I found out I was the only guest staying. The manager didn’t feel hosting a party of one, so after a little negotiating, he agreed to drive me all the way back to Echigo-Yuzawa free of charge if I were to help conjure up a fib about having a sick family member. He called his boss (the hut is owned by a big company, and the manager has to approve all transactions with the big man-in-charge). The reservation was canceled without a hitch and my main problem of getting off this mountain without my own transport was finally solved. Back at Echigo, I searched in vain for a quiet, dark, and dry place to sleep at the station before giving up and calling my friend in Tokyo for permission to stay. With that granted, I headed back to Tokyo even though I had plans to climb Mt. Tanigawa the following morning. Crazy? Yes. Foolish? Perhaps not as much.

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The next morning, after a bit of a sleep-in (7am wake-up instead of the usual Japanese start of 4am), we packed our gear and contemplated our next move. The rain had moved in with a vengeance, and any thought of scaling Mt. Hiuchi in this natural shower seemed crazy, but here I was faced with a mountain so close that it would be a huge setback not to reach the summit on this outing. We reached a compromise: I’d head out alone, bringing only a water bottle and a bag of peanuts. Kanako would wait in the warm, dry hut for my return, at which time both of us would head down to the trailhead at Sasa-ga-mine. “See you in 1 hour”, I affirmed with a look of disbelief from the other hikers and hut staff. “There’s no way he’ll be back in an hour”, retorted the hut owner, proclaiming that Kanako wouldn’t see her husband until at least early afternoon. The map times alloted 2-1/2 hours just to reach the summit of Hiuchi from here, and that’s without the return time. A challenge was on and I was more than ready for it.

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With a dash I set off into the downpour, wearing only my rain suit. I pushed up and over Mt. Chausu and down to the junction at Kouya-ike in only 15 minutes. From there, the marshlands in front of the hut resembled one giant lake, partially covered with yet another thick patch of slippery snow. Relentless I was in my pursuit, flying past the buried wooden walkways of the Tengu’s garden before reaching the ridge for the final push towards Hiuchi. The clouds had lifted a little, revealing the peak in all its verdant green beauty. Breathtaking though it was, I didn’t loiter around too long, marching up the final set of wooden steps to the high point. Time check: 40 minutes from Kurosawa hut. Not bad for a guy with a leaky heart valve.

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The snowfields catalyzed my ascent, and I would have easily made it back within the hour if not for a brief stop at Kouya-ike hut. “Excuse me”, I asked the staff, “do you know the bus schedule from Sasa-ga-mine to the station?” The reply bounced back as if returned by a professional table tennis player: “There is no bus”, explained the hut manager Masa, “but I’m heading down later today and can give you a ride.” With this extremely good piece of news, I once again set off for Kurosawa, arriving exactly 1 hour and 15 minutes after leaving Kanako behind.

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“You made it to the summit?”, quizzed the hut staff, still spellbound by my Jamaican speed runner pace. Rest breaks are pretty pointless when you’ve got no view and you’re soaked to the bone. I was ashamed to admit that I was pretty spent after that insane burst of energy. We ordered some hot noodles as reward for knocking off Hiuchi. I alternated mouthfuls of buckwheat with morsels of trail mix and chocolate, trying to up my calorie intake to compensate for the increased exertion. We finally hit the trail together just before noon, keeping a brisk pace in case the hut owner should beat us to the bottom. We didn’t want to inconvenience anyone by making them wait unnecessarily for us, so we skipped steadily ahead until reaching Fujimi-daira, where the trail from Kouya-hut met the main trail from Kurosawa. We rested leisurely here among the cover of the forest canopy, knowing that even if the hut staff caught us we could walk together in relative ease.

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Reaching the parking lot around 3pm, we searched for any signs of our saviors, but no one was in sight. We waited in the small shelter marking the entrance to the trail, hoping that we hadn’t somehow missed them. About half an hour later, the group of 4 from the hut strolled in, and we were whisked to Myoko Kougen station to catch our train. As a way of thanking the kind hut staff, we offered to treat him and his girlfriend to a later afternoon snack, so we headed to a noodle shop and listened to some pretty insane stories from our driver. “You see this scar?’, buzzed Masa, pointing to a gash just below his lower lip, “I fell off a cornice while skiing and my upper teeth went right through my lip.” This was a man that truly lived on the edge, and enjoyed every minute of his life.

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Overall, despite the foul weather and treacherous conditions, the mission was a resounding success. I was now up to 52 mountains under my belt, but had a long summer and autumn ahead of me if I wanted to reach the magic number 70 before the end of the year.

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The rainy season lingered on, like the scent of a prematurely extinguished match. Marine Day drew near, and with no apparent end in sight, Kanako and I had our eyes set on two peaks in southern Niigata Prefecture. After an overnight bus to Nagano city, followed by a slow local train on the JR Shin’etsu line, we hailed a taxi at Sekiyama station through the pouring rain to the hilly hot spring town of Tsubame onsen.

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The streets of the town lay mostly deserted, the tourists confined to the dry comforts of their hotel rooms. At the start of the track sat two open-air baths, partially concealed by a row of landscaped bushes and a tattered bamboo fence. Seeing how we were just beginning our hike, it would have been futile to stop now for a bath, so we pushed on through the steady rain falling on the shuttered ski runs. Shortly into our stroll a group of 3 hikers descended, led by a lanky, bearded fellow wielding an ice axe over his left shoulder. His footwear consisted of woven straw sandals (waraji) with a dull pair of 4-point crampons tucked underneath. Long, red shorts covered three-quarters of his slender legs, while a simple white v-neck shirt kept his nipples hidden from view. Topping off the outfit was a traditional woven bamboo hat (kasa), which looked as if it had be surgically attached to his perfectly lined cranium. He had the aura of someone famous, but I could do nothing other than stare out in utter fascination and belt out a quick konnichiwa before his party raced off to the hot spring baths.

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The path we were on followed a torrent of a stream, skirting the edge of an occasional snowfield to reach the cause of the brisk flows: a towering waterfall that roared with such ferociousness as to send uninvited shivers down my spine. To our discomfort, the trail climbed directly parallel to the falls, steepening at ever-increasing angles. The snow made the footwork tricky, but the chains bolted to the rocks gave added support. Once past the top of the falls, the river, though flowing faster than most commercial airlines, narrowed to a meter-and-a-half across. The bridges that would make passage safe were long since washed away. Kanako and I searched for an alternative path that did not require crossing the waters, but the only way up to Mt. Myoko lie in a ravine on the left bank of the river.

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I jumped across first, dropped my heavy pack, and scooted to the edge of the bank. Kanako was pretty scared and none-too-confident, but once I extended my trekking pole to her, handle first, and instructed her to jump as if fleeing a gigantic swarm of caterpillars (her greatest fear, even more than snakes, spiders, and bears combined), did she lift off her feet, grab onto the pole, and fling herself to where I was standing. Grabbing her arm, I pulled her up safely away from the river bank and onto more stable ground. If she fell here there would have been no way to stop her from plunging over the falls to an almost certain death. Despite being drenched with both sweat and rain, both of us treated ourselves to a much-deserved break to help calm the nerves and slow the adrenaline.

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The route followed the bank of the river before hooking left, up a narrow valley towards the ridgeline below Myoko’s conical summit. Steady progress was made as the rain finally started to let up. At the ridge sat a junction, with a trail leading down to the ski lifts of Ike-no-taira resort. Turning right, the trail immediately steepened, passing through an area of tricky chainwork bolted to the slippery rocks. Thankfully we would not have to descend this area on the way back, since our goal was to traverse further north towards the meadowlands of Mt. Hiuchi. Thick cloud blotted out all visibility when the summit of Mt. Myoko was attained, shortly after 2pm. Silence and serenity were a much welcomed sight to an otherwise very popular mountain. Most groups had either already made their way off the peak or to their awaiting hut accommodation by now. After a quick snack, we geared up once again and continued on our lonesome journey.

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Just past the top, the trail disappeared in a massive forest of white. The northern flank of Myoko still had a tight grip on winter despite being mid-July. Without crampons, the route became slippery and somewhat treacherous, as we stuck closely to the trees to help aid in the balance. Gradually the gradient began to wither, as we reached an open area with a field of snow 50 meters wide that ran several football pitches in length. No tape marks or signposts became apparent, but I used my instincts to tell me which way to navigate. Turning left, we kick-stepped a path roughly parallel to where we descended, but the angle refused to ease. The snowfield continued, as if laid down on a marathon route to nowhere. Something just didn’t feel right.

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“Kanako, wait”, I commanded. I dropped my back and raced back down to where we had last seen the trail. There, on the other side of the snowfield, lay a red tape mark, partially buried in the thick ice. Racing back up to my companion, I broke the news to her while both of us carefully and systematically reworked our steps onto the correct path. From here, the snowfields continued to grow. I was really starting to wonder if summer would ever come to the hills of Niigata this year. Some of the traverses really required an axe, but trekking poles gave just enough of a brace, as long as the foot steps were carefully placed. Slipping here would mean a long slide down to a secluded marshland, which would add at least an extra hour of time to climb back out of. Darkness started to overtake us as we finally made it past the hairiest sections and into the flat plains of Kurosawa.

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Kurosawa is an octagonal hut that resembles an abandoned NASA spacecraft. When we entered the hut, shortly before 7pm, the entire place was dark. Even the hut staff had started preparing for bed. When we climbed the stairs to the second floor sleeping area, we couldn’t believe our eyes: every inch of floor space had been occupied by retired pensioners. The hut officially sleeps 60, but I’m pretty sure there were more people that that squeezed in there. We did manage to find a tiny space for the both of us near the entrance, which meant we’d hear every single person as they embarked on their midnight toilet breaks and 3am wakeup calls to start their hikes. At least we had a dry place to sleep.

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Donning our headlamps, we headed outside to cook up some noodles and warm tea. The damp weather and mist-filled clouds had done their best send temperatures to late-autumn levels. Even though we had brought camping gear, staying at the hut proved to be the better option. With satisfied bellies and properly circulating blood, Kanako and I retreated to bed, for we had another peak to bag the following day, followed by a long descent back to the valley.

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As a brutally wet August comes to a close, I venture off into the hinterlands to knock off 2 of my remaining 5 peaks. It won’t be easy though, with torrential rain on the horizon and nearly 3000 meters of vertical elevation gain awaiting. Successfully scale these peaks and all that lay between myself and the completion of the Hyakumeizan are three backbreaking ascents in the Japan Alps. It’s going to be a tough autumn.

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The taxi ride from Urasa to the trailhead was short but enjoyable, thanks in part to the cheerful commentary from my helpful taxi driver. “Look over the the right and you’ll see the remains of the forest road, washed out just two weeks prior,” boasted the middle aged gentlemen. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself on this journey, I prayed.

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The water source at the deserted campground had a notice that H2O should be boiled before drinking, but in order to save time I opted for my water filter. “3 liters should be enough,” I surmised, as the thick air hung heavy all around. I took off down the gravel forest road and immediately broke into a sweat. It was as if the rainy season had never departed, and I was beginning to wonder how a 1700m vertical climb would feel in such sticky conditions.

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After a 4km stroll on the desolate, pockmarked road, I arrived at the trail head. A small, wooden sign confirmed my initial suspicions about the distance. I stretched the legs, said a quick mantra, and started the long, relentless ascent.

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The higher I climbed, the steeper the path seemed to become. I was heading up the mountain via the traditional pilgrimage route that connects all 3 peaks of the ‘Echigo Sanzan’. Most people completing the circuit start across the valley at Mt. Hakkai, traverse the knife-edge ridge connecting it to Naka-dake (the ‘middle’ peak), and then follow the ridge to Komagatake, descending via my current path.

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On this majestic Friday morning, I met only one other soul, a middle-aged woman who was on her way down from completing the 3-peak circuit. “The views are outstanding from the top”, boasted the pilgrim. I’d fallen into a bit of a trance climbing up the steep spur and had forgotten to look up. Sure enough, the sky was clearing, and Mt. Hakkai rose serenely due south of my position. “Looks like I can put away the raincoat.”

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Indeed the higher I climbed, the more beautiful the weather became, until I popped out on a unnamed peak filled with bamboo grass. Luckily someone was kind enough to cut back the overgrown flora, making navigation a cinch. I collapsed in a heap of sweat and took in the views. Although the sun was shining brightly in the brilliant blue sky, my nemesis otherwise known as fog was rising quickly out of the west. I knew I’d soon be swallowed by the thickening inferno, but was content with at least getting a view up this far.

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I pushed on another 20 minutes until reaching the main ridge. I turned left, following the contours to the summit of Komagatake, my 96th peak. I sat in the thick mist, barely able to move after such an exhilarating ascent. No views to speak of, but there was still one more chance the following morning.

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The path down to the emergency hut was short but steep, and I quickly dropped off my stuff and checked-in. The first thing I noticed was the abnormally heavy weight of my hiking slacks. I’d completely forgotten to take out my wallet before starting the climb and it became a wrinkled, sweat-filled reservior. I changed into some dry clothes and draped everything on the benches outside to dry. I laid out all of my money separately, placing stones neatly on top of each. The caretaker just laughed and gladly waited before accepting the modest accomodation fee.

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Clouds swirled all around, providing some unexpectedly picturesque scenery in the late afternoon wind. A storm was definitely brewing, but when or how long it would last would be unknown. The caretaker kept a close watch behind his binoculars, searching for other approaching hikers. Fortunately no one else showed up, so I was given free reign of the entire place.

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That night nature put on one spectacular light show, as I raced up and down the stairs in order to catch a glimpse of the electrical storm. The hut kept me well-insulated from the elements as the rain fell down in great sheets. Imagine if I were stuck in a tent on the exposed summit. Sometimes emergency huts can be a mixed blessing in disguise, even if they leave an unsightly blight on the landscape.

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I slept soundly as the hard rain continued until the morning. Breakfast was leisurely consumed as I casually plotted out my plan for the day, which involved a steep descent into narrow valley that offered a warm bath as bait. The thoughts of the silky waters drove me to my feet, and the unexpected letup of the rain was as added bonus. I grabbed the caretaker and we headed back up to the summit together.

Never give up on a mountain just because the weather is cloudy. It just may surprise you.

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The sight of a thousand peaks floating above the drenched valleys is indescribably mystical. I flew down the mountain in an elevated mood. The skies remained dark but dry all the way down to the base of the peak, as I once again blessed the low pressure system on her impeccable timing.

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One more peak to go on this epic weekend. Would my lucky streak continue or would I finally receive my long overdue punishment? Only Hira-ga-take would be able to answer that.

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Mt. Makihata

Niigata is notorious for nasty weather, and the fact that I’d climbed all of the surrounding peaks in less than ideal conditions had me a little worried, so when the bullet train rolled into Echigo-Yuzawa station on a morning in late July, I rollled my eyes and pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. A majestically azure sky, without a cloud in sight. “Well, at least the town has good weather, but how about 1500m higher up, in the land of eternal fog?”, I pondered. I’ve become accustomed to the fickle mountain weather, and the higher you go the more unpredictable it can be. Luckily, Mt. Makihata stands at an elevation of 1967m above sea level. Sure it’s high enough for fog, but still 1000m lower than the Japan Alps, so maybe I’d be in luck. The 20-minute train ride to Muikamachi seemed to take forever, especially since I could stare out across the valley to the wonderful silhouette of Makihata, completely free of clouds!

I quickly jumped in a taxi upon arriving at the station, not wanting to waste precious fair-weather hours sorting out the bus to the trailhead. Along the way I passed some homes heavily damaged from the Kashiwazaki earthquake that struck just 2 weeks prior. I was wondering if the mountain I was about to climb had suffered any damage! The taxi driver offered to drive me all the way to the trailhead, but I opted to save some lunch money and just walk for 20 minutes from the bus stop. I filled up my water bottles at the start of the hike, and quickly reached the nukubi-sawa trail junction. Should I take the conservative course to the right, or the adventure route to the left? The signs said the nukubi course was for expert hikers only, but the photos I had seen during my on-line research made it appear feasible. A decision was made. Three cheers for adventure!

The trail was flat at first, passing some vegetable fields before reaching the nukubi river. The trail was very clearly marked, and spent most of the time weaving back and forth on both sides of the river, with lots of river crossings. Fortunately, there were plenty of rocks which made the crossings a piece of cake. Majestic waterfalls, crystal clear pools, vibrant foliage, and one of the bluest skies I’d seen in a while. Oh, if I’d only remembered my sunscreen!

I reached a crucial trail junction about halfway up. My map said that both routes would take you to the top, so I went for the left fork, which was a big mistake, as the track basically ran up the middle of the river! After falling in the water, I retreated back to the trail junction in favor of the right fork. Future reference for anyone attempting the nukubi route – turn right when you hit the big river fork! This trail was more logical, sticking to the bank of the river while climbing next to some impressive waterfalls. The track, however, soon turned into snow! Late July and here I was hiking in an enormous snow field!

I’ve always been a fan of snow hiking, as it’s much easier on the feet than boulder hopping through a river. I just had to be careful not to break through to the river I was walking on top of! Up, up, and up I went, spending close to an hour on the white stuff, until hitting a huge ice fall which completely blocked the path. I’m glad I wasn’t here when this thing fell off the top of the mountain. After some creative maneuvering, I found the trail proper and popped out on the ridge line. I’d made it! Needless to say, I wouldn’t recommend descending via the nukubi trail, as climbing up is a heck of a lot easier than descending.

I turned left at the junction, and ate my lunch on top of Mt. Warenuki. The weather had held, with stunning views of every peak I’d had the displeasure of climbing but never seeing – Mt. Tanigawa, Naeba, Hotaka, Shibutsu, Myoko – my nemeses. While none of these peaks had any cloud, a glance in the opposite direction showed Mt. Echigo-koma and Hiragatake completely covered in nasty-looking fog. These are 2 peaks I have yet to climb, so was this an omen?

The stroll over to the high point of Mt. Makihata was a breeze after what I’d done, with so many beautiful flowers and alpine lakes. By this point both of my arms and my face had turned a bright red from the constant sun exposure. Live and learn I say! After a quick break on top, I headed down to the emergency hut – easily one of the nicest in Japan. There’s a nearby water source, and you flush the toilet by riding a stationary bicycle! As I was only up for the day, I said goodbye to the hut of my dreams and flew down the mountain via Mae-Makihata, on the trail that most people use to access the mountain. Back at the trailhead, with plenty of daylight to spare, but I still had to find a way back to Muikamachi station. I had over 2 hours to kill until the bus came, so I started walking down the road, hoping to use my thumb. After a few minutes, a car had stopped, offering me a ride to the station. It was a group of people I’d met on the mountain!

Mt. Makihata had been a rare success in a region of consistently foul weather. When I arrived at Tokyo station, there were announcements that the Niigata shinkansen was delayed because of a strong aftershock! How lucky was I on the timing? If I’d waited for the bus, then I would’ve felt the aftershock and could’ve been stranded. My morning shrine visits are finally starting to pay off.

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