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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.