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Archive for the ‘Oze’ Category

4:30am. Yuuki and I crawl out of the warm futon, and venture out onto the frozen lake. Kanako stays clinged to her bedding, enveloped in her ensuing dream. Our plan? Watch the sunrise and assess snow conditions for our target peak of the day.

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Peaceful, tranquil, magical. All alone, one crunchy step at a time, we traverse. The morning fog hanging on the horizon like a partially extinguished cigarette. Hiuchi rises gracefully from the edge of the lake, still wrapped in a blanket of cloud. We set out a plan of attack. Yuuki will climb ahead of us, laying an easy track to follow to the first peak of Manaitagura, where he’ll wait for us to arrive. Then, we’ll attack the adjacent peak of Shibayasugura, the official high point. 1-2-3 go!

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Breakfast was demolished in record time, and off we trekked through the lonely forest. Even though it was Golden Week, we found ourselves completely alone, on an unparalleled traverse to Tohoku’s highest summit. Yuuki moved along skillfully in the distance, while Kanako and I took a more leisurely approach. Gradually the views opened up, until we found ourselves staring straight down into the iced-filled bogs of Oze. Soon the place would be overrun with thousands of elderly folks rubbing elbows to capture the Mizu-basho in full bloom. The flower, unluckily named skunk cabbage in English, is what makes this marshland so well-known throughout Japan. Heck, there’s even a song about it!

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Our first target peak for the day slowly came into view – a pyramidal collection of strata dominating the horizon for miles around. A perfect lump of white mass, sans three large rock projections poking their heads above the snow drifts, as if to take their first fresh breath of spring. Kanako and I soon caught up with Yuuki on the summit of the first peak. He’d had over an hour’s worth of peaceful rest, and was rearing to have a go at Shibayasugura. I willingly obliged. By now the crowd on the summit had grown tenfold, thanks in part to the mass of hikers who took the easier approach from Mi-ike.

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Yuuki and I quickly descended to the saddle. Kanako was left with camera duties on the ‘safe’ peak. Slipping, sliding, and occasionally breaking through the snow down to our thighs, we arrived at the foot of the behemoth monster. One brave solo hiker saw what we were up to and quickly caught up with us. “Umm, which way should we go?”, I hesitantly inquired, not willing to admit that I was just the slightest bit apprehensive about our impending climb. I’ve climbed my fair share of treacherous peaks before, but I have to admit I was downright intimidated. The only footsteps led directly up the mass of ice, a near vertical ascent. Easy on a cool day with the right equipment, but here we were, without ice axes or full crampons, trying to decide our next move. The other solo hiker couldn’t wait for our indecisiveness, and quickly laid out a trickly traverse towards the right. Not knowing his experience level, we opted not to follow (there’s nothing worse than someone falling on you) and chose the vertical ascent.

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Since I had 6-point crampons, I was designated lead climber and quickly started kick-stepping a stable path. Yuuki only had 2-point crampons, so I made sure to dig my feet firmly into position before taking the next step. Miraculously, we were both able to successfully navigate the dense walls, popping out on the ridge just ahead of the other climber. On we raced to the summit of my 88th peak. Standing on the rocks, I waved enthusiastically back across the saddle to my waiting wife and the large crowd now gathered. The mass of onlookers were cheering us on, guzzling beer and quizzing my wife about my background.

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On the decent, we opted for the path our lone hiker had carved, since it was much gentler and more navigable that our ascending route. Once out of the danger zone, Yuuki and I glissaded back down to the saddle and raced back to my waiting wife. A chorus of cheers and hi-fives ensued, followed by offers of alcoholic refreshments, which we politely refused. Yuuki, on a tight schedule, descended ahead of us, intending to make it all the way over to Oshimizu in time to catch the last bus. Kanako and I had already booked another night in the hut, so we set a more manageable pace for ourselves. The bath at the hut was most welcome, as we even bought matching ‘quick dry’ souvenir shirts to celebrate our success.

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Reality set in the next morning, when we had to descend down to Oshimizu and back to the urban confines of Osaka. The rush of knocking off another famous mountain kept me saturated for the rest of May, but with another dozen left on the list, the hunger remained.

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Our first excursion into Oze National Park was a bit of a washout, so could we fare better on our second journey to the park?

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We left the hut on Aizu-komagatake early, for we had quite an agenda: a 1200 vertical meter drop to the village of Hinoemata, followed by a 10-km hike on a paved road to Numayama-toge, topped off by a 2-hour slog down to Oze numa and Chozo goya, our home for the night.

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The initial descent didn’t take too long, and we were soaking in a hot spring bath by noon. After negotiating a ride to the massive parking lot of Mi-ike, we took a deep breath, geared up, and started up the deserted road to the mountain pass. Guests staying at the nearby hut gazed in disbelief. Perhaps we’ve been the first (and last) people to cover the entire distance on foot. Most people opt for the shuttle bus, but the road was still officially closed to traffic for another week, so we had no other choice.

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About 20 minutes into our journey, Yuuki, Kanako and I heard a startling noise coming from the forest to our immediate right. The source of our fright soon became clear, as a group of mountaineers were making their way down a steep gully. Donned with 12-point crampons and carrying ice axes, the brave group had apparently spied a shortcut halfway down their descent of Mt. Hiuchi and decided to explore. Either that, or they were looking for bear. They belted out a ‘konnichiwa’ in unison and hovered two meters above the road on the edge of a massive snow bank. And I thought my group were the only ones with a sense of adventure!

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Another 10 minutes later, and we were met by a nervous Japanese couple coming from the opposite direction. It seems that they went for a gentle, romantic stroll after lunch and stumbled across a mother bear and her two cubs! And here we were, walking directly into bear territory. We kept our eyes and ears peeled but unfortunately the furry creatures were nowhere in sight. We continued our monotonously eternal slog, reaching the mountain pass after a grueling 2-1/2 hour journey.

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The fun was just beginning, however, as we still had to climb up and over the mountain pass and down into the frozen Oze marshlands. On the crampons went and into the forest we dove. Miraculously, the three of us were filled with an unexpected boost of energy, perhaps finally relieved to be walking on something other than asphalt! The snow was crunchy and the path marked by red paint marks on the trees. Pushing ahead, we finally reached the mountain pass and it was all downhill from here but once again our energy was zapped. We split up, walking in single file as if induced by a mysterious spell. Fatigue had gotten the better of us and we literally crawled across the frozen flatlands to the hut, where we had a hot meal and bath awaiting us.

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With so much walking behind us, we collapsed into bed and dreamed of our destination the following morning: Mt. Hiuchi!

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Click on the pictures below for the full-size images:

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Oze Chapter 1 – Shibutsu

I’d always had Oze on my list of places to visit, so it was with great excitement and anticipation that I set off one weekend in September to conquer Mt. Shibutsu and possibly Mt. Hiuchi. This time I brought my wife Kanako along , as well as my trusty hiking partner Yuuki (from the “Notorious Nikko” post).

Kanako and I jumped on the night bus from Osaka, planning to meet Yuuki at Numata station early on a Sunday morning. As the bus pulled into the station around 7:30am, we were greeted with the all-too-familiar site of pounding rain and dark, menacing clouds. Yuuki, being the frugal chap he is, took a local train and wasn’t due in until 9am, which left Kanako and I with plenty of time to kill. Luckily, we spied a cafe above a souvenir shop and next to a convenience store perpendicular to the station. Not only was it open, but they had a breakfast menu and seats overlooking the station roundabout, where we could watch the weather and locals. Usually in fine weather I’m quite the impatient person, but in nasty weather I do my best to procrastinate as long as possible.

Yuuki finally rolled into town, and we all took our appointed place in line at the bus stop. Just as the bus was arriving, an older gentlemen came over to talk to us. “Would you like to share a taxi with me? It’s the same price as the bus.” The thought of shelling out 2500 yen for a 2+ hour ride on a cramped bus didn’t sound appealing, but spending the same amount of money for a comfy 45-minute ride to the trailhead did, so we all threw out gear in the trunk and headed for the hills. What a brilliant idea! If you’re going to spend the money anyway, you might as well ride in style.

We arrived at Hatomachi-toge just before noon, and had a difficult decision to make. Climb now or save it for tomorrow? Just as we were starting to ponder, the clouds suddenly dropped and we had a clear view of the summit! You’ve never seen a more eager group of hikers grab their gear and head up to the hills as us! Overused is an understatement for the Shibutsu trail, as the nearly 1 meter gully we were ascending was completely bare of vegetation. The map makes Shibutsu look like a walk in the park, but it’s a suprisingly long and steep climb, especially once you hit the main ridge line. Appropriately enough, just as we did so the fog and rain returned to the peak, leaving 3 disappointed hikers. Still, we didn’t give up our quest to sit on the summit, just in case the views decided to open up again.

We finally made it to the top around 2:30pm, but the clouds hung thick, with a light drizzle and soft wind. Yuuki and I are some of the fastest hikers around, but Kanako struggled to keep up, so I had a crafty idea for the descent. The map said the trail down to Oze is solely for ascending and no one should attempt to climb down from the summit. I hate these kind of rules, but I guess someone must’ve broken their leg at some point so the officials decided to make it “safe” for everyone else. Anyway, my wife didn’t want to take the closed trail and I didn’t feel like arguing, so we decided to descend back to Hatomachi. “Kanako, since you’re a slow hiker, why don’t you descend first, and Yuuki and I will catch up a few minutes later. I’ll carry your backpack until we catch up with you. Then you have to carry it.” Boy, did the smile light up on her face, as she vanished into the mist. Yuuki and I cooked up some instant ramen, because we wanted to give Kanako a nice head start. We departed about 15 minutes later. I carried my pack on my back and my wife’s on the front, just like a turtle-esque western backpacker wandering through Europe with too much baggage!

I have over 2 decades of hiking experience under my belt and I’ve been know to fly down mountains at a fraction of the time the guidebooks allocate, but Yuuki and I could not seem to catch Kanako. At one point we passed 2 Japanese hikers on their way up. “Did you see a young girl descending by herself?”, I asked. “Yeah, she was trotting along at a healthy pace,” they answered. By now, the wooden planks on the trail had become perilously slippery due to the colllection of excess rainwater, and I showed off my best John Travolta moves in order to stay upright. Inevitably, I took more than a few nasty tumbles, but with backpacks on both sides I barely felt a thing. Yuuki and I finally made it back to the trailhead, only to find my wife with a bar of chocolate in one hand, and a bottle of tea in the other, with the hugest grin on her face!  But, hey – we made it off Shibutsu in only 45 minutes!

We descended to Yama-no-hana and stayed in a nice hut.  The next day the weather got worse, so we bagged the idea of climbing Hiuchi and headed back to civilization.  Hiuchi would have to wait until spring.

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