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Archive for the ‘Tohoku hikes’ Category

Mt. Byobu, Miyagi Prefecture’s highest peak, lies in the southern half of the Zao mountain range. Although I’d been to the Zao range twice previously, it was time to give Minami Zao some attention. The clouds hung heavy over Yamagata city in the early Sunday morning gloom. The second bus of the day wove through the sleepy outskirts of Tohoku’s liveliest city before navigating the switchbacks to the idyllic hot spring resort town of Zao Onsen, where the office of the taxi company sat deserted in the thick fog. I rapped on a door, startling a middle-aged man reclined in a back room. He sprang to attention, offering to drive me to the trailhead at Katta-toge for a mere 8000 yen. I balked at the price, but had no other options considering the only bus off the mountain left at 1pm, a bus I had every intention of making. I bargained him down to 7000 yen and hopped in the back seat.

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The road up to Katta-toge meanders through a series of switchbacks across fields overgrown with weeds and pampas grass. In the winter these slopes are home to one of Japan’s most prestigious ski runs, but here in the cloud there was scarcely a sign of human encroachment. A bit further up the plateau, the taxi burst through the cloud perimeter, revealing a massive sea of condensation floating as far as the eye could see. The driver was so moved with the spectacle he shut off the meter just as it reached 6000 yen. “Thanks for giving me a reason to get out of the office”, he exclaimed, turning a glance in my direction with a broad smile stretching from ear to ear. At the trailhead I strapped on the daypack and immediately dove into a dense forest buzzing with the sweet smells of pine and wildflowers. The route dropped gradually to a long saddle that was home to a small emergency hut, which I decided to check out on the return visit. There’s no sense in wasting valuable time scoping out a sleeping space when the weather is cooperative.

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I pushed up towards the first peak of Maeyama, through a rocky area perched on the spine of the volcanic massif. Behind me, the mound-like form of Mt, Katta stood tall among the fortress of cloud, the switchbacks of the skyline road stretching across the slopes like the slashes of Freddy Krueger.

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The angle eased a bit before dropping to a small saddle at the base of the straightforward climb to Sugi-ga-mine, a nondescript peak sitting at 1745 meters above sea level. The trail was lined on either side by wildflowers of every color imaginable, lending the area to inclusion on the Hana no Hyakumeizan, the venerable list of 100 Famous Flower Mountains of Japan. This was in stark contrast to the igneous minefield of the rest of Zao. Indeed, the volcanic activity had long subsided further south in this range, giving birth to aromatic forests of pine, as well as a lush plateau of wetlands that the local ursine population use as a playground. The area bears a striking resemblance to the rolling hills of Mt. Azuma a bit further south of here, a range that is visible in good weather. By now the cloud had rolled in, wiping out the view and bringing that long promised rain with it. I pulled out my rain cover but continued hiking in short sleeves as the rain jacket would only keep the sweat from evaporating.

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On the far side of Sugi-ga-mine the trail dropped yet again, this time losing around 100 meters of vertical elevation before petering out into a marsh. I fueled up here, stuffing some chocolate and almonds into my mouth for the final 1.0km slog to the summit of Byobu. The undergrowth kept most of the moisture away until the creeping pine of the summit plateau left me fully exposed to both the wind and rain, but it was hardly chilly in the mid-August humidity. The views from here must be spectacular here on a blue sky day, but I just had to use my imagination in the fog that grasped tightly to Miyagi’s highest point.

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The rain had let up on the return journey, revealing those views that I may have been rewarded with if I had bothered to loiter around on Byobu long enough. By the time I got to Maeyama visibility had all but returned. The lunchtime bells signaling high noon wafted up from a concealed valley on my right, while the businessmen in Yamagata city on my left were just starting to duck out of their offices in search of a cheap bento. I dropped back to the saddle, taking the right fork for the short stopover at the emergency hut. The shed-like structure, built on stilts to help protect the fragile environment, could comfortably sleep 8 people. I used the wooden floor space to stretch out and dry some of my gear while tucking into remaining rations. A small toilet room sat off to one side, marked with signage created by a caretaker with a sense of humor.

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After adequate rest, I hit the trail again and turned left to return to where the taxi had dropped me off earlier in the day. Instead of ending the journey there, however, I crossed the road and followed a poorly maintained trail that shot straight up the side of Mt. Katta. Dense vegetation dripping with rain water swallowed the trail, requiring a monstrous effort of swimming, slashing, and ducking. It was easily the most taxing part of the entire hike, leaving me soaked from head-to-toe once the scree fields of the summit plateau were breached. Clouds continued their grip on the plateau as I checked the condition of the emergency hut where I had spend an exciting night during my first visit to the mountain. The fog was some of the thickest I’d seen yet. I’ve had better visibility in a steam sauna as I felt my way through the mess using my feet for navigation. At the bottom of the short descent I spotted the concrete structure of the rest house and visitor’s center, the bus stop sitting in the parking lot directly behind. I had only 5 minutes to spare, so I was left without a clear view of Okama’s elusive crater lake. The peak was clear only 30 minutes before, so I knew it was only a matter of time before the clouds cleared again. Defeated, I trudged towards the bus stop with my tail between my legs. After a quick detour to relieve myself, I plopped down on the soft upholstery of the charter bus that would shuttle me back to Zao Onsen. As the bus navigated through the curves of the skyline road, I reached for my camera to confirm the quality of my pictures. However, my camera was nowhere to be found. I searched under the seat and emptied my pack as panic started to sit in. The last place I had seen my camera was the restroom, when I placed it on the shelf above the urinal. “Noooooooooo”, I screamed.

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I hopped off the bus at Zao Onsen and immediately went to the tourist information center to solicit help. After a phone call, the kind attendant had some promising news: “yes, they did find your camera and will hold onto it for you.” Unfortunately, there was a catch: “the hut staff are all based in Miyagi, so if you want your camera you’ll have to either retrieve it yourself or have them mail it to you COD.”

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Since I was slowly making my way back down to Osaka, I couldn’t possibly travel without a way to visually document my journey. My original plan was to relax in a hot spring bath, but instead I marched up the road in anger, thumb outstretched in hope that someone would come to my aid. It was already after 3pm and the staff already told me that the rest house closed at 5pm, so I was running out of options. On the march up the road I passed by the entrance to the Zao Ropeway, a ski gondola that whisks visitors to the mountain ridge just below Jizodake. “Aha,” I said, “there is hope after all.”

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I abandoned the futile attempts at hitchhiking and bought a one-way ticket aboard the ropeway. “The last gondola is at 4:30pm”, explained the ticket agent. “How on earth are you going to return?” I reassured them that I knew exactly what I was doing and I would simply traverse across the ridge and hitch a ride down from the rest house. This did little to calm their fears, though, so I knew that lying would be my best option in case of further interrogation.

Next I went through the ticket gate, where the attendant once again inquired as to my reason for buying a one-way ticket. “Oh, I’m staying in the hut on the summit”, I answered. There were no further looks of fear or concern as I repeated my answer upon inquiry at every stage of the boarding and alighting process. Fortunately no one questioned my ability to  overnight by simply carrying a nearly empty 18-liter pack.

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The views from the gondola were breathtaking to say the least, as the mountains continued to float above the immense sea of cloud enveloping all of Yamagata Prefecture. At least 15 of the Hyakumeizan laid stretched out before me, but without a camera I merely had to capture such scenery with my prefrontal cortex. The clouds still hugged the ridge line, however, and once off the gondola and into the fog the real race begun.

The overgrown path

The overgrown path

The map time to the rest house read 90 minutes, but with less than an hour before the rest house closed I went to work. I flew up the steep climb towards the summit of Mt. Jizo, an area I had tramped through during my second visit to Zao. With nothing to see and no camera to capture the scenery anyway, I moved quickly, picking my way though a vast plateau of loose volcanic rock that was punctuated in places by wooden walkways. Beyond the summit the route dropped steeply to a saddle before rising again to the top of Mt. Kumano, Zao’s highest point and target for Hyakumeizan baggers. I reached the summit in only 10 minutes from Mt. Jizo. It was my third visit to the high point and my third time without anything as much as a view. From here, the trail dropped yet again until flattening out on a series of rolling inclines. My pace was a brisk walk averaging around 6 kilometers per hour, so it was hardly a surprise when I rolled into the rest house in less than 30 minutes from the top of the gondola. I asked for the manager, who was as happy to see me as I was him. I had saved him the trouble of having to deal with a lost item, and he had saved me the hardship of my upcoming trip to Chiba without a camera.

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I walked back outside and up to the lookout point for the Okama crater lake. Although I had seen the lake clearly during my last visit, it was still caked in a frosting of wintry white, and I desperately longed to see the emerald green hues that draw so many mouth-gaping tourists year after year. I waited patiently as the clouds started to dissipate. Mt. Kumano suddenly came into view, and indeed all of the surrounding peaks were clear of cloud………except for the crater lake itself!

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The fog hung heavy around the waters, but gave enough of a tease to satisfy my hunger. With that in hand, I walked down to the parking lot, stuck out my thumb, and immediately got a ride all the way to Yamagata station by a cheery young couple from Fukushima Prefecture.

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Zao once again put up an unexpected fight. Don’t let the modest size or ease of access fool you: mountains under 2000 meters can create just as much excitement and surprise as Japan’s loftier peaks. You just need to come mentally prepared and with enough flexibility to power through the obstacles. Speaking of which, it looks like my visit was timely indeed, as Okama crater lake is showing signs of increased volcanic activity, which may very well put the entire area off-limits.

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The power of the internet to bring like-minded people together is staggering. Before starting this blog I never would have imagined I could connect with fellow outdoor enthusiasts and aspiring authors alike. When an opportunity arose to do a walk with Tokyo-based blogger Miguel Arboleda, I seized the chance without hesitation. We agreed to meet at Kisakata station in Akita for a two-day excursion on the slopes of Tohoku’s tallest peak.

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After hitching a ride from Akita port, I arrived at the station a little early and wandered down to the beach in search of my companion. Sure enough, we reconnected at a beach glimmering in the morning sun. Sunbathers were just beginning to gather for a pleasant day at the coast but Miguel and I strolled back to the station to await the arrival of the shuttle bus. In the waiting area we were accosted by a duo of enthusiastic elderly hikers who literally kidnapped us and forced us into a taxi to Hokodate trailhead on the slopes of Mt. Chokai. The shuttle bus is by reservation only, so we needed to cancel our booking in order to take the taxi. Fortunately the driver took a detour to the MaxValue supermarket in order to for us get supplies for the next couple of days. We dashed through the aisles in a scene straight out of Supermarket Sweep, grabbing whatever we could while the taxi meter kept running.

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Our chauffeur dropped us off at a massive rest house and parking area packed with automobiles. Our initial plan was to stay at the emergency hut across from the visitor’s center, but it was covered in scaffolding and closed for renovations. Obviously the hut owner has no sense of financial wisdom: why on earth would you renovate your accommodation during the height of the Obon climbing season? Our only other option was to stay at the TDK emergency hut, a five-minute stroll up the concrete path. We rapped on the door of the stone structure, only to find that the owner had closed up shop for the day and wouldn’t return until the following morning. So, here we were with absolutely no place to stay. The cafeteria seemed like the most logical place to mull over our options, so over a bowl of beef donburi we realized that the covered porch in front of this very building would offer the best chance for a good night’s sleep, barring any mosquitoes or other intrusions.

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A small grassy area lay adjacent to the trailhead, so we took an afternoon nap while waiting for the fog to clear. After a few hours, the bone-chilling coolness of the brisk winds had us retreating back to the rest house for a cup of stale, burned coffee. Fortunately, the caffeine had raised our spirits and provided a much needed catalyst for heading out to explore. Stashing our gear in the small shelter housing the climber registry, we climbed up the concrete path towards the first lookout station. The summit of Chokai was now free of fog, and behind us a thin layer of cloud floated directly below, the waxing sun glistening gently off the glassy surface of the sea over a thousand meters below.

Miguel and I share an immense bond that few others can appreciate. Despite our strong connection with nature and mountains, we both struggle with debilitating health conditions that threaten to derail our upward progress. Followers of this blog are by now well aware of my cardiac and pulmonary obstacles, but Miguel is involved in a constant battle with his blood sugar, an entirely different kind of monster. Believe it or not, I’ve never been around anyone who is stricken with the illness better known as diabetes, and knowledge I have gained about the disease from Miguel’s experience is humbling. We tend to take our health for granted until our bodies stop functioning properly. It is only then can we appreciate what we have and to keep on living despite those obstacles.

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We each went our own pace on the walk. I was anxious to scout out the terrain for the real hike the following morning, so I pushed ahead towards the marshlands of Sai no kawara, which I reached just as the last rays of the sun were hitting the top of the ridge concealing the crater lake of Oike. I could be at the shores of the lake in less than 15 minutes if I pushed on, but that would mean descending in the dark without a headlamp, so I did the only sensible thing and turned around. Miguel and I were reunited at the first observation deck in time to see the last glows of light recede over the horizon.

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Once back at Hokodate, the parking lot came alive with scores of hikers setting up tents and preparing their evening meals. We laid out the sleeping gear and settled around a table that was set up on the porch of the rest house. Dinner was prepared and devoured while we shared stories about our lives. Even though I had met Miguel a couple of times before, it was our first time to camp and hike together as a duo, and we both agreed that our goal the following morning would be the volcanic lake that I was so close in reaching earlier that evening.

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Sleep came and went as cars steadily arrived at all hours of the night. Most of the late arrivers simply reclined their seats and drifted off for a few hours of shut-eye before starting up the volcano at first light. We were in no hurry, however, and slowly cooked up breakfast under the overcast skies. We stashed our remaining food supplies and garbage inside of climber’s registry hut and placed the rest of our gear behind the structure itself. We maintained a good pace for a while until Miguel started to feel a bit lightheaded. A quick blood check revealed a low blood sugar count, so out came the Calorie Mate as Miguel was forced to eat on an already full stomach. The scene provided a rare opportunity to take a more leisurely pace up the mountain. In most of my solo pursuits, I’m too focused on just reaching the summit that I neglect the natural beauty around me: the alpine flowers poking their heads above the grasslands in search of sunlight, the retreating snowfields that provide ample watering holes for a wide variety of insect and plant life.

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Once Miguel was feeling himself again, we hit the trail and passed by countless hikers out for a day stroll. Just before the final climb to the lake, a pair of middle-aged men approached from behind. Just before passing us by, the older of the two turned to his younger companion with the following words: “When you pass by the foreigners ahead of us, don’t look at them or greet them.” The temptation to confront them was great indeed, but sometimes you just have to let things go and accept the fact that there are bigots in all corners of this vast earth.

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We reached the lake and settled down for a well-deserved break. We were at the 7th stage point of the hike, with the summit just 500 vertical meters beyond. With more time, we would have no trouble getting to the top, but the only shuttle bus of the day left at noon, so we needed to be back at Hokodate in less than two hours. I’d been up Chokai before in very favorable weather, so turning my back on the peak wasn’t difficult to do. We’d set out to reach the lake and had done so without incident. That was victory enough for us.

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Back at the trailhead, we were shocked to find that the plastic bags we had stashed in the hut had been taken away. The only explanation was that the hut staff had assumed that a careless hiker has used the hut as a garbage dump and they’d thrown away the bags in disgust. Not only had they disposed of our garbage, but they had also taken all of our remaining food, including several fresh vegetables we had planned to use later in the day. It would be no use to confront the rest house staff, as they would likely scold us for attempting to litter on the mountain. We couldn’t get out of that godforsaken place fast enough!

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The second visit to Chokai was definitely enjoyable, but I just can’t shake Hokodate’s tarnished image from my mind. During the first visit, the hut staff were friendly and accommodating, making it one of the highlights of my Tohoku travels, but now the area is an oasis for cars, with a bus that only runs with an advanced booking and two mountain huts that shut their doors during the busiest season the year. Is this what we can expect in the future, when all hikers rely on their own set of wheels for day trips and the overnight accommodation is reduced to ruins?

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With a trip planned to Hokkaido in less than a week’s time, I scurried through the guidebook looking for one last peak to check off the list. The biggest problem with climbing the Hyakumeizan comes when you’ve already scaled the ones with easy access and are left with mountains in out-of-the-way places. Hence my current dilemma: which mountain would serve as my 53rd victim?

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Nasu seemed approachable: a quick shinkansen ride from Tokyo, followed by a short-ish bus ride. Sounds great on paper until you realize that I’m not based in Tokyo, further complicating matters. A night bus it was, dropping me off at Ueno just as the biggest star in the solar system peeked over the eastern horizon. With such an early start, I arrived at the parking lot for Nasu Ropeway before the gondola actually started running. It made no difference, however, as I wasn’t planning on the easy way up.

On the short paved walkway that led to the start of the path to Mt. Chausu, I raised the viewfinder of my digital SLR to my right eye and snapped a shot of the early morning cloud wisping from the summit plateau. The camera soon went black, unresponsive to my constant tinkering. I even tried changing the battery but nothing. Completely dead. There would be no photos on one of Tohoku’s most picturesque volcanoes.

Dejected, I placed my new deadweight at the bottom of my pack, vowing to return in due time to capture the scenery on film. For now I flew up a path towards a deep col below Mt. Asahi. Scores of schoolchildren stood by the wayside, allowing me to pass. They were on a school excursion up to Chausu’s crater rim, and commendable they were for not opting for the luxury of the gondola, though in their case it may have been more of a financial decision for the teachers involved. Regardless, I gave a few high-5s before darting past them. When I hit the ridge, it was simply a case of following the maze of paint marks higher and higher to the top of my first peak, where the igneous rock garden did not fail to impress. The majority of hikers simply come to this point, snap a few photos of the crater, and head back to the comfort of the souvenir shops below. Hyakumeizan baggers, however, have the added task of traversing over to Sanbonyari, the official high point of the mountain range.

The path back to the col was manageable, but the next section to Mt. Asahi was a chain-laden exposed traverse on a cliff of loose pumice and pebbly ash. Long drops to my right made every footstep critical. Fortunately the heart-pumping section was short, and after the cliffs of Asahi, the route dropped to a vast plateau filled with lush, verdant grasslands, contrasting greatly with the smoldering fissures slightly to the south. There were a few intermittent peaks of gentle ups-and-downs, with wooden boardwalks in the flatter areas to protect the fragile vegetation. The final push to Sanbonyari was long and relentless, taking nearly 90 minutes to reach. Half a dozen other trekkers relaxed on the narrow summit when I arrived, sitting on ‘leisure sheets’ while enjoying their immaculately packed lunch boxes. The peaks of Fukushima lay thick in dark cloud, while the vistas back to Chausu were also cut off by a secondary layer of fleet-footed cumulus.

The route back to the start was non eventful, which in my case meant no bear encounters, no twisted ankles, and no unexpected surprises. Back at the parking lot, I walked down the road for 30 minutes, stopping by a hot spring for a well-deserved bath before flagging down the bus back to the station. Nasu was a nice warm-up for the long-awaited matchup with Hokkaido’s greatest cinder cone Mt. Yotei, whose sheer scale makes up for its lack of firepower.

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Golden Week 2010. With the respiratory system slowly returning to a somewhat normal function, a date was set for the rematch with Mt. Zao. The antagonizing 12-hour overnight bus journey from Osaka to Yamagata station was just as unbearable as I last remembered, as a back spasm jolted me out of my slumber around the break of dawn. After a few stretches and an exchange of seats with my forever patient wife Kanako, I settled back down to relative comfort. One peek behind the window curtain to the wintry world outside zapped me with excitement, as the bus was strolling on the scenic byway separating Niigata and Yamagata cities. Cherry blossoms stood at full bloom in the early morning haze,  in stark contrast to the impossibly heavy snowdrifts of Mt. Iide towering directly above.

We arrived at Yamagata station with plenty of time to kill before the 9:30am direct bus to the parking lot at Katta-dake. The bus station attendant assured us that despite the overnight snowfall, the road to the summit would be open. Sure enough, the bus made its way towards Zao Hot Spring in near record time, navigating the hair-pin turns like a skilled bobsled driver. The cherry blossoms were at their peak, as Kanako and I strained our necks towards the windows. Occasionally we caught glimpses of Mt. Asahi and Gassan on the other side of the valley below, until they became enveloped in a summer-like haze of smog. Visibility wasn’t our friend, but at least the sun was out…..for now.

We hit a wall of traffic on the turnoff to Katta-dake as the clouds started rolling in. I wanted desperately to get to the parking lot so I could jump off and get a view of the lake before the clouds swallowed it for the afternoon. Shortly after 12pm, the bus reached the terminus, as Kanako headed to the upstairs restaurant to order some noodles. I, on the other hand, walked swiftly past the under-dressed crowds to the lookout for Okama lake. I’d been dreaming of the emerald green waters of the pristine volcanic lake for years, and was absolutely stunned to find the brilliant green hues replaced by a thick blanket of frozen snow. “Hmm”, I pondered, “I guess this lake isn’t thermal after all”.

Retreating back to the restaurant, we feasted on noodles before heading back out into the elements towards the summit of Katta-dake. Temperatures were well below freezing, and we got quite a kick out of watching the unprepared day trippers marching through the snow in high heels and short-sleeved shirts. Some of them, however, looked rather the worse for wear. One lady had lost all color and feeling in her toes, so I strongly urged her to get back to her car. Thus the access maxim rang true once again: The easier the access to the mountain, the dumber the people.

Katta-dake was absolutely deserted, as the tourists felt that the shrine a dozen meters below the summit was far enough for them. I took Kanako around the back of the summit to the emergency hut in which Yuuki and I had stayed during our first visit. It looked as desolate and isolated as I first remembered. If only we’d been able to have a view the first time round.

After our brief detour, we started the descent past Okama lake and the long gradual climb to the high point of Kumano-dake. Again, we completely left the crowds behind, as Kanako opted to test her balance by walking on top of the wooden fence still buried under the deep winter drifts.

The sun and cloud played together joyfully during our one hour traverse, painting the white landscape with a series of shadowy stripes as far as the eye could see. Were we really hiking in Japan in late spring?

The climb through the snow drifts took a lot longer than anticipated, but at last the lone explorers reached the official high point of Zao. Unfortunately, the afternoon haze in the valley lingered, so the jaw-dropping views of Asahi and Gassan were not to be had on this blustery outing. Hungry but too cold to eat, I forced some trail mix into my mouth and searched for a place to escape the subarctic wind. The summit shrine hung tightly to the hoarfrost of the previous night’s snow squall. Kanako, visibly shivering, was in need of an energy boost. “There’s a restaurant awaiting on the other side of Jizo-dake”, I stated, “let’s make a move”. I honestly had no idea whether the restaurant was open or not, but hid this information from my joyous companion, who literally sprinted towards the saddle on the opposite side. The ice and steep terrain stopped her in her tracks a few meters below me, as she beckoned to have me take the lead. I gladly obliged.

The sky directly behind the summit suddenly darkened, as a rain squall threatened to envelop us. “Oh boy”, I stressed “here we go.” I kick-stepped an easy path down to the saddle and wondered how far we’d be able to make it before the rain completely soaked our gear and made hypothermia a very real threat. Once again I carved a steep but direct path to the summit of Mt. Jizo. As soon as we reached the ridge the skies opened up, but my fear turned to delight as the precipitation fell as soft crystalline flakes. Snow! I’m convinced that the sign of relief that left my mouth could clearly be heard in the valley a thousand meters below.

White out conditions at 1800 meters above sea level in early May? You bet, and two of the happiest hikers in the world, jumping for joy and walking through the wintry wonderland.

The blizzard eventually released its grip on the mountain and the snow gave way to glorious sunshine again. We flew down the northern face of Mt. Jizo and into the comfort of the gondola station. Kanako and I were both excited to discover the restaurant was still open, so our reward for conquering Zao and surviving the crazy conditions was two piping hot bowls of soba.

Short on time, we took the gondola back down to the valley and checked into our accommodation, a small but friendly pension run by a semi-professional skier. The next day, after a stroll around the lake to check out the mizu-basho, we took the gondola back up to Mt. Jizo and continued where we left off, descending past skiers, tumbling down rotting ski slopes, and eventually navigating our way to the milky, angelic waters of the dai-rotenburo. Again, we were the only foot travelers on that stunningly beautiful day.

This year’s Golden Week was truly golden, as I could mark off yet another peak on my slowly dwindling ‘Hyakumeizan Revenge List.’

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The eastern half of the Azuma mountain range is undoubtly the most scenic section, but the target peak for Hyakumeizan baggers lies in the dreary, overcrowded west. The only logical solution was to do an east-to-west traverse, taking in all of the volcanic lakes and marshlands that make this area so breathtakingly beautiful. After a lengthy overnight bus journey from Osaka, I boarded a taxi to the turn-off for Takuyu Hot Spring at the base of the Bandai-Azuma skyline. Here, I simply held out my thumb and let my fingers do the talking, instantly hitching a ride to Jodo-daira, the start of my long trek. If I’d relied on public transit, I’d still be sitting at Fukushima waiting for the first bus out. Tight schedules and a tight wallet are not good companions.

The trailhead parking lot was massive, buttressed on either end by a visitor’s center and resthouse. Hoards of day-trippers out for a pleasant early autumn stroll gathered in droves, as I searched for a peaceful place to devour breakfast. After grabbing a free trail map from the information counter, I flew up the stunningly scenic path towards Mt. Issaikyo, an active volcano and the first target peak of the day.

Finding a good vantage point to photgraph Azuma Ko-fuji is not a simple task, for the gargantuan parking lot and toll road scar the landscape to no avail, but with a little creative cropping, the area can retain some of its natural beauty. It was one of those stunning akibare days with a stable high pressure system and crisp, blue skies. The cumulus cloud cover also made for an interesting backdrop. After 45 minutes of modest climbing, I sat on the summit of the volcanic flank, admiring the spectacle surrounding me.

Peering off the northern face, a clean, cobalt blue crater lake catches my eye. I stare down into the crystalline waters while studying the map. To my great satisfaction, I realize that the route I need to take skirts the edge of the pond before disappearing into an adjacent ridge. Descents never felt so wonderful.

On the shore of the basin, I peer back up at Issakyo’s pristine summit. At this moment, I realized that opting for the long traverse was the right choice, perhaps the only choice for true Hyakumeizan hikers. Westwards I marched, carving a line on the ridge that would please even the most veteran of skiers, for I was truly covering ground few others had done this season. Overgrown but still easily discernible, the trail dropped steeply to the valley before shooting up to the summit of Mt. Eboshi. From here, it was a gentle series of rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Mt. Bandai provided steady companionship to my immediate left as the target peak of Nishi-Azuma crept closer and closer. All thoughts of breaking the hike in half  at the hut below Higashi-daiten were abandoned. I was making good time through heavenly scenery on a pleasant day. Besides, I still had a few hours of daylight on my side.

The clouds began to roll in just as I started to reach the overdeveloped west. Fitting weather I must add, since it kept me from peering down into the neighboring ski resort and the eyesore of a gondola. As expected, the crowds increased 10-fold, but luckily they were all heading in the opposite direction off the peak. I replenished my bodily fluids at the water source just before the final climb, making sure to fill up an extra couple of liters to make my evening stay at the hut a little more comfortable. The path dove into the forest just before reaching the summit of Nishi-Azuma. I can’t believe that scores of hikers bypass such jaw-dropping scenery to the east in favor of this! A small lonely statue sitting next to an old wooden signpost reading “the highest point in the Azuma mountain range”. Sometimes height just doesn’t matter.

Up and over the peak I scurried, finding an immaculately clean and deserted emergency hut awaiting me on the other side. I settled in, cooking a modest meal on the wooden walkways in front of the hut. Sunset was literally lost in the clouds, but I prayed for better luck the following morning. Sure enough, my prayers were answered.

The tree-covered plateau in which the hut rests did not offer much of a view, so I left my pack in my sleeping area and rose to the perch of Nishi-daiten, where Mt. Bandai’s jagged edifice darted abruptly out of the surrounding cloud cover. Funny, I thought, in my quest to conquer Azuma I managed to climb all 3 of the daiten peaks at the same time. Happy accidents are always a good thing.

After a long digression, I came to the realization that I must return to Kansai at a decent hour to prepare for work the following day, so back to the hut I went to retrieve my gear.  A swift descent through a dense forest with lots of triangular trail markers several meters above the path. Apparently I was following the winter climbing path down a rarely-used and rather slippery trail. I somehow managed to avoid any lasting injuries despite ending up on my rear end nearly half a dozen times. Mental note to pay more attention to my footwork and not on trying to identify the tree types. Safely out of the mountains, I waited for the bus while admiring the collection of rustic inns several hundred years old. Wish I had more time to explore this area untouched by time. Perhaps after I get all of these peaks behind me.

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The odds were stacked against us. Arriving at Zao Hot Spring bus terminal shortly before 5pm, Yuuki and I filled up on water, preparing for the worst. The clouds hung heavy on the surrounding peaks, as we stared at the barren ski slopes, wondering if we could make it up before dark. Our first plan was to hitchhike to Katta-touge, where we could scale Mt. Katta and spend the night. Our back-up plan was to abandon all hopes of getting a ride and head up the steep slopes, camping along the way. Thumbs outstretched on the main road through the resort, we silently prayed.

Luck definitely continued to be on our side, as a family of four with two small children screeched to a halt. Yuuki and I jumped in, entertaining the toddlers for the duration of the 45-minute car ride. The parents couldn’t have been happier. The 4-door sedan meandered skillfully through the countless hairpin turns of the Zao Echo-Line before ascending into thick cloud and horizontal rain. “Are you sure you really want to get out here,” inquired the jovial father behind the wheel. We knew it was much too late to accept defeat. “Sure, no problem. Thanks for the ride.”

Visibility couldn’t have been worse as we tried to figure out which direction to go. A signpost pointed towards Mt. Byobu, but we wanted to go in the opposite direction. After walking through the toll gate of the Zao Highline, I spotted a 登山道 sign on my left which climbed straight up the spur to the summit of Mt. Katta. A short time later, in thick fog and chilling rain, we stood at a massive junction, completely unaware of our immediate environs. According to the map, there should be an emergency hut somewhere around here. We split up, feeling our way through the cloud until I stumbled upon what appeared to be an abandoned bomb shelter. Bingo!

Despite the decrepit appearance, our modest accommodation was perfect for keeping out the elements. Plus, it was free of charge and completely deserted, an oasis in an area with absolutely no flat place to pitch a tent. Dinner was served in between periodic checks on the low pressure system outside. Sure, the rain had abated, but any chance of watching the setting sun was hindered by some of the thickest cloud I’d come across. The next morning would be no different. After setting the alarm for 4am, Yuuki and I did a quick game of janken (stone, paper, scissors) to see who’d be in charge of checking conditions. I’ve never been strong at that game, and this time was no exception as I somehow managed to descend the ladder from my second story sleeping area and hobble all the way across the room and through the vestibule without even leaving my sleeping bag. I slid open the door, stuck my head outside, and retreated quicker than a groundhog on a dreary afternoon. “Let’s give it another hour”, I demanded.

Breakfast came and went, but our foe the cloud was stubborn. Finally, at 8am, we could bear it no longer and headed out into the mist to do some hiking. The main reason for our procrastination was Ookama crater lake, whose emerald green waters attract hoards of tourists from the nearby parking lot. Yuuki and I prayed that the cloud would lift enough for us to catch a glimpse of one of the most beautiful volcanic lakes in the world. Our pace was intentionally slow on the deserted path. The first tour buses wouldn’t arrive for another hour or so, but all we could see was a forest of white. We even tried to descent as close as we could to the lake shore, but to no avail. We simply accepted defeat and headed to the nearby high point of Mt. Kumano to try to appease the gods. I placed my wallet on the steps of the stone shrine, while Yuuki placed a rice ball alongside. Clap, clap, bow, clap. Both of our silent prayers were the same: bring us some sunshine!

Suddenly, as if by some unseen miracle, the clouds lifted! Directly in front of us lie one of the greatest panoramic views we’d seen on our trip. Yamagata city sat peacefully in the serene valley far below, with Mt. Asahi, Gassan, and Mt. Iide looking on with a watchful eye. Mt. Chokai towered above them all a little further to the northwest. “Quick, quick grab the camera,” I shouted, but it was too late. Our unspoilt view lasted preciously 5 seconds, as the cloud came in with increased intensity.

Over the next 30 minutes, the sun fought a fierce battle with the cloud, but on this beautiful mid-August morning, the planet would not prevail. I can’t describe the frustration of sitting in a bank of condensation while the world goes on under crisp blue skies just a few meters above, but I guess the only upside to the weather is that it gave me an excuse to come back to Zao under more favorable conditons. Yuuki and I accepted defeat, descending to the huge saddle at the base of Mt. Jizo before turning left and entering a dense forest. The path wove in and out of the ski fields before dumping us onto a bare slope just above the start of the Zao Sky Cable gondola. Naturally, we flew down the slope in search of a bath!

“You should definitely go to the Dai-rotenburo,” quipped the convenience store clerk, pointing in the exact direction from which we’d descended. If we’d only turned right when we left the trail! Yuuki and I started ascending again, through the ski fields we’d trotted through only moments before. The long, silent slog at the end of an even longer journey through most of Tohoku. We were both feeling the strain of Mt. Asahi, but that all disappeared when we caught sight of one of the most breathtaking baths I’d ever seen. A worthwhile investment of 450 yen.

Clean and refreshed, the mountain men bade farewell to the highlands and retreated to Yamagata city. Yuuki boarded a train for Saitama while I checked into a minshuku to sort out my laundry and prepare for the journey to Sado Island the following morning for the Earth Celebration. With the majority of Tohoku’s major peaks under my belt, I could now turn my attention to Hokkaido and the Kita Alps, where more unexpected adventures awaited.

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Mt. Asahi lies in a virtual no-man’s-land of rugged, inaccessible terrain roughly 35km southwest of my present position. After a modest meal and a quick break-down of camp, I crawled my way back out to the rural asphalt, hitching a ride to the shores of Lake Gassan. I walked a short distance over the immense concrete bridge to the beginning of route 27 and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Two cars had passed within the last 45 minutes, and the prospects were dim. Just when I’d convinced myself that a 20km stroll on abandoned byway were in order, a car screeched to a halt.

“Hop in”, the driver said, wondering what a blue-eyed, big-haired westerner with an even bigger backpack were doing out here. “Climbing Mt. Asahi”, I replied, full of hope for a ride to my destination. “You’ll never find a ride all the way there.” And he was right. Most hikers has started their ascent well before sunrise, and here it was nearing lunch time. The kind gentleman let me off at Ooisawa Hot Spring, where I stood patiently by the deserted highway, pondering life. 10 minutes later, the same man returned in his car and gave me a lift to the trailhead at Koderakousen. Once again I was saved.

The air hung heavy with humidity as I looked for any excuse to put off the impending ascent. As I emptied my bladder in front of a stack of rotting firewood, I spotted a small, v-shaped tongue prodding the space just in front of my left cheek bone. A snake was making its way slowly out of its hiding place to size me up for lunch. I needed no further persuasion: I loaded up the gear and hit the hills running!

My pack seemed much heavier than ever before, and I soon found the reason for the burden. Most of the major peaks over the last week or so were done with a lightweight day pack, but since I was traversing up and over Mt. Asahi, I needed to bring my gear. All of it. My pace slowed to a crawl, the only time in my journey where I was progressing slower than the alloted map times. Still, I had a lot of daylight left and knew I’d be camping on the saddle just below the summit. Just past the small clearing at the top of Mt. Kodera I reached a junction. I could either skirt the northern flank of Mt. Ko-asahi or head straight up and over the towering top. I’m a huge fan of viewing open expanses of nature, so I went for the tougher assault on Asahi’s smaller twin. Step by step I advanced, like a soldier on a death march. By the time I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat, with a large army of insects circling my heated cranium. It was here that I met my first hikers of the day, who’d come from the more popular approach via Asahi-kousen. We chatted at length about the Hyakumeizan while watching the clouds envelop the summit plateau directly ahead.

The path from the peak dropped suddenly down to a saddle, where it met up with the main trail. I grabbed everything in my path to prevent a journey-ending tumble down the steep terrain. Unscathed, I pushed onward, into the cool wind and mist. Intricate patches of wildflowers blanketed the grasslands, as the trail cut a large, unsightly swath of erosion on the backbone of the ridge. If it weren’t for the ropes keeping the hikers at bay there would be nothing left of the flora. With my energy zapped and my motivation waning, I peered out into the labyrinth of fog on my right and saw what appeared to be an angel. I rubbed my eyes and raised my lens, just as the mysterious apparition dissolved. “Probably just a Brocken spectre”, I muttered, too exhausted to dismiss it as anything else. I finally rolled into camp, where a clean, warm emergency hut was awaiting. I threw down my gear and surveyed the exposed and overcrowded campsite before heading inside to check-in!

The caretaker was easily twice my age and 3 times more energetic, giving me a quick rundown of the rules before shooing me upstairs to stake out a space for my sleeping mat. Somehow I always seem to end up at the top of the stair landing, but it sure beats having to crawl over several dozen bodies when nature calls. I grabbed my cooking gear and headed outside to prepare an early meal, when a young, tall figure greeted me in the landing. His name was Yuuki, a jovial landscape gardener from Saitama, who informed me that he came all the way from the trailhead of Mt. Itou in one day. “Very, very long”, he confessed. I quickly scanned the map, realizing the long-legged, 24 year old mountaineer had covered a distance of nearly 30km. We immediately hit it off.

Yuuki and I spent the rest of the afternoon filtering water and talking about life in the mountains. He’d once spent a summer working at Tengu-daira hut in the Japan Alps, where, due to the fickle weather of the peaks above Hakuba, he had managed to see the sunset only one time the entire season. Yuuki’s command of English was surprisingly inept: he’d obviously paid attention in his high school English classes, and he spoke with a fearless abandon that you hardly ever come across in a society filled with grammar-obsessive introverts. We raced up to the summit to watch the sunset, hoping for a slight break in the clouds. We never got more than a glimpse of the hovering ball of fire, but it sure was a nice break from the chaos of the hut below. “We’ll have to try again in the morning,” Yuki resigned, as we both hoped that sunrise peak would live up to its reputation.

3:30 am. In the predawn darkness, my new companion and I pack our gear away and trudge up the final 50 meters to the exposed knob of Mt. Asahi’s broad summit. The orange glow of the eastern horizon grows brighter as we survey our surroundings. The sea of clouds is endless as far as the eye can see, and we both knew it would be an epic moment. We waited patiently, devouring rations and dancing around to stave off the frost. As the sun made it’s way to the front of the stage, Yuuki and I looked around and realized that absolutely no one had followed us to watch the spectacle, opting for the warm confines near the hut. We couldn’t have had it any better.

My camera problems, which had plagued me most of my trip, had mysteriously resolved themselves, as nearly every photo I snapped on the rolls of film came through undamaged. To describe the light show in front of us would only do it unjustice, and I can truly say that Mt. Asahi went above and beyond the call of duty. This was the ephemeral moment in my Tohoku quest, and possibly the single defining moment in my entire Hyakumeizan saga. And here I was sharing it with one of the friendliest, funniest Japanese person I’d ever met. I raised my arms in triumph.

Scores of hikers swarmed the summit shortly after the celestial discus rose above Mt. Zao’s stately figure, so we made out abupt exit on the path towards Asahi-kosen. I was surprised and relieved to find that my new hiking partner was living up to his reputation as a hardcore outdoorsman, as he matched me step for step on the rapid descent. After dropping down into the tree line again, we stopped at a small clearing to rehydrate. While we were replenishing lost fluids, a loud, cracking sound erupted from the overgrowth directly beside us. A large, unknown creature was heading quickly drawing near. Before we could utter cries of dispair, an elderly gentleman appeared from the clearing. The sigh both of us let out surely echoed in the valley below.

After 90 minutes of trotting at breakneck speed, we reached a large river and swing bridge. The trail followed the secluded confines of the rapids as we adjusted to our new, significantly flattened terrain. We knew this area was the stomping ground for kamoshika, the elusive mountain serow that lives in the mountainous areas of Honshu. The harder you look for the creatures the more difficult they are to find, and we came up empty-handed. Still, the scenery couldn’t have been nicer. Shortly after 9am, we arrived as Asahi-kosen, a rustic mountain hut complete with its own hot spring bath. We chatted with the kind couple who ran the place, as they prepared the bath for us. Yuuki and I feasted on the most delicious bowl of buckwheat noodles I’ve ever had in Japan. All of the generous amounts of vegetables were picked in the surrounding area, including an eclectic mix of wild mushrooms I’d never seen before. We spent most of the morning at the hut, trying to figure out how in the world to get back to civilization. The hut owner informed us it would be about a 20km walk on the gravel road before we approached any sort of sizable road where traffic might be found. Hmmm….

During our relaxing soak, we heard the voices of other hikers who’d made their way off the peak. Perhaps we had a chance of getting a ride after all. After careful negotiations, we managed to share a taxi with an elderly couple who’d recognized us in the hut the previous night. We were all whisked off to Aterazawa station, where a train to Yamagata awaited. The couple refused our offers of money to help pay for the taxi. I asked Yuuki about his plans for the rest of the vacation. “I’m free”, he replied, which gave me a chance to offer a proposition. You see, even though I’d planned to finish my Tohoku adventure at Mt. Asahi, I still felt I had another mountain in me. “You wanna climb Mt. Zao tonight?”, I asked. Yuuki’s face lit up before he even had a chance to answer, and I knew it was on. We studied the maps on the train, figuring out the logistics of our awaiting challenge. Stay tuned as the never-ending adventure continues.

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After a leisurely day of restocking supplies and cleaning linens, I left the sleepy town of Tsuruoka and boarded a bus to the rustic shrine of Mt. Haguro, one of the 3 sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan. The bus dropped me off in a massive parking lot, announcing a brief 15-minute break before heading off to the trailhead at Gassan 8gome. I briskly walked towards Haguro shrine, regretting for not opting to stay in one of the many tranquil shukubo at the base of the peak.

Haguro represents birth, and I definitely felt a strange sense of awakening in the early morning light. Gazing at the thick mass of thatch holding up the main hall (the thickest thatched roof in Japan, so I’m told), I tried to imagine what life must’ve been like for the yamabushi several centuries before. My reverie was short-lived, however, as the announcement for the departing bus drove me back into reality: I had a mountain to climb.

Arriving at the Gassan trailhead, I geared up and quickly made my way through the splendid marshlands. Even though I was carrying a full pack, the previous week of scaling peaks primed my muscles for the task at hand. I maneuvered through the tepid grasslands like a fox scuttling towards its den. 600 vertical meters was powered through in less time than sitting through a major motion picture. Victory was mine!

Unfortunately, thick clouds filed in from the north, blotting out the view in all directions. While scores or tourists were taking refuge in the nearby hut, I walked quietly alone towards the bleak collection of structures housing the summit shrine. I paid my respects to the gods, hoping for a safe passage for the remaining peaks. With absolutely nowhere to peacefully rest, I exited the shrine and climbed the rocks immediately behind, where I found the true summit marker of the high point. The majority of Hyakumeizan baggers go no further than the shrine itself, but I preferred the solitude of my current position.

Once leaving the top, I continued onto the saddle affectionately labeled 牛首 (the cow’s collar). Summer skiers skidded awkwardly down the last remaining patches of snow. Instead of following their lead, I pushed along the ridge further south, dropping out of the clouds altogether before reaching the emergency hut at the base of Mt. Yudono. I studied the map, thought for a good quarter of an hour, and used the ‘might as well since you’re so close’ reasoning to justify my sidetrip to Yudono shrine. That way I could truly tell myself that I completed the Dewa-sanzan. The kicker was that I had to descend and return to my present position in order to traverse further south to Route 112 (my best chance of hitching a ride to Mt. Asahi, my destination the following day).

The path dropped rather steeply down a ravine towards the shrine. Chains and small wooden ladders made navigation easier but I was starting to regret my decision due to the sudden loss of several hundred feet of altitude. Still, the detour was interesting to say the least. The deity is housed inside of a geyser gushing hot spring water through the center of the shrine. There was also a foot bath for visitors to soak their wary feet and I did just that. After a 10-minute refresher, I glanced towards my immediate right and spied a small snake slithering its way toward the murky waters. I recognize a sign when I see one and instantly started the climb back towards the hut.

Exhausted, I glanced at my watch. 2:30pm. Deciding it was far too early to call it a day, I dropped down a track following a small stream. The map showed this route eventually meeting up with route 112 in about 90 minutes. Of course about 10 minutes into my decent the skies opened up and poured for, remarkably, the first time in my entire trip. Why do I always stow rain gear at the very bottom of my pack!?! To make matters worse, the path became treacherously slippery due to the abundance of wooden bridges crossing countless ravines. It was during one such crossing that I lost my footing, bounced off the back of my pack, flipped completely over the side of the ravine, and landed feet first in knee deep water. How I landed on my feet I will never know but I’d like to think it had something to do with my trio of shine visits. The bridge was about a meter above the stream and I could’ve done serious damage if I’d landed on anything other than my feet.

Stunned, but otherwise unharmed, I pushed on towards my destination. 5 meters later I stumbled upon a rather large and frightened fox who almost had me jumping in the river again. Deciding I’d had enough punishment for one day, mother nature released her grip on my testicles and allowed the rain to let up. Arriving at the road, I pored over the map once again. A 5-minute detour to my left lead to a campground surrounding a small lake. Another mile down the road lie a hot spring, followed by another, larger campground beyond that. My plan was to have a bath and then continue onto the lower camp which would put in a better position to hitch in the morning. The bath water never felt so refreshing and I garnered up the courage and strength to hit the road again. Arriving at the campground, my heart sank when the bad news was broken to me: “It’ll cost 3000 yen to camp here,” buffed the superintendent. I explained my situation and the fact that I’d just walked over 20km. “There’s another campground further up that only costs 500 yen.” The warden was pointing to the exact campsite I’d bypassed to come here! The look of horror on my face must’ve gotten to him. “Don’t worry, one of the staff will give you a ride,” smiled the boss.

With potential disaster averted, I could now focus my attention on geting some rest. Just as I was sitting up camp, the sun came out, glistening the hills of Gassan directly above me. I dozed off shortly after sunset, dreaming about the last major mountain in my Tohoku journey: sunrise peak!

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I set up camp in the park across from the sandy beach in Kisakata, immersing myself in the warm waters of the sea a short time later. My legs were still reeling from the marathon slog up Hayachine just a few hours prior, and I needed to recharge my muscular batteries if I had any chance of scaling the highest mountain in Tohoku the following morning. An early night was in order.

The first bus to Hokodate was nearly empty, but seemed to wind its way through every back street before finally meandering through the hairpin turns of the Chokai Blue Line. The modest parking lot housed a large restaurant, a visitors center, and Hokodate Sansou, my home for the night. I dropped off my heavy pack in the lobby, put my name down in the guest registry, and headed up towards the towering volcano with the most minimal of gear. The cloud hung tightly to the steep walls of Naso gorge as I immediately hit a large patch of snow. Little did I know that I’d spend the next 3 hours trudging through the remnants of the fierce Tohoku winters. Up until that point in my journey I’d yet to come across more than just a pint-sized patch of powder, but Chokai’s sheer size dominates the horizon for hundreds of kilometers and, as such, acts as a magnet for condensation throughout the year.

I popped out of the slush just below Ohama hut, where I took my first break to admire the beauty and tranquility of the serene crater lake. I could’ve easily spent the rest of the day sitting on the shores, watching the snow fields slowly deposit their wintry runoff into the frigid waters. But alas, I had a peak to climb, and the summit rose majestically directly ahead, completely free of cloud cover. A short time later I came across a trail junction. If I went right then I could stay on the ridge all the way to the top of Mt. Shichikou, one of the twin summits of Chokai’s rocky flank. If I opted for the left fork, then I could climb directly up to the high point of Shin-san. I was immediately drawn to one of the most picturesque cols in all of Tohoku, and the left trail dropped directly into the line of fire, knowing I could later descend via the ridge.

There’s nothing more I enjoy then marching through a river of snow in the middle of summer: the cool air lifting magically off the frozen surface, the contrast of the lush greenery all around. Chokai was quickly becoming my favorite peak in northwestern Japan and I was only starting my day. Upwards and onwards I rose, leaving the refreshing confines of the col and crawling through an immense boulder field. The path got steeper with each advancing step, but eventually I found myself sitting on the doorstep of the monster of a hut just below the final push to the summit. “We’ve got no water. You’ll have to buy it,” scowled the stern seasonal employee, pointing to a large cooler of ridiculously over-priced beverages. I knew he was lying, but there was no point in arguing. Shell out the 6000 yen to stay the night and I’m sure he’d lead me straight to the taps. I was not about to pay 500 yen for a 500ml bottle of water he’d probably filled at the hut, so I politely refused and continued the climb.

And boy, what a climb it was. An exhilarating natural jungle gym of gargantuan slabs of rock. Follow the paint marks and try not to fall into the gaps between the boulders. I finally reached the high point, which barely had space for 2 people. This was by far the narrowest summit of all of the Hyakumeizan, and here I was completely surrounded by a strange halo of cumulus clouds. Never in my life had I encountered such meteorological magic. The sun was shining directly above, but all around clouds were floating directly at eye level. Viewed from afar, one would assume that Chokai’s rocky flank were completely immersed in mist, but this was not the case. Dropping to the saddle between the twins, I broke out the water filter and started pumping fresh snow melt into my bottles. The sky never looked bluer.

After refueling, I climbed, rather steeply, to the top of Mt. Shichikou, Shin-san’s less popular twin and sat for the better part of an hour. And why not? I had finally deserved to slow the pace down. It was my 6th mountain in only 5 days and it deserved my attention! The next hour was perhaps the most pleasant ridge walk I’ve done in Japan. I was completing the loop back to the lake where I started my morning and the unique flora were putting on a performance. Sprawling fields of Kisuge lilies dotted the landscape, while pockets of indigenous Chokai thistle and Chokai fusuma flowers basked in the afternoon warmth.

Once back at the junction, I retraced my steps towards Ohama hut, turning left on a faint spur trail that wrapped its way around the scenic lake and through some rotting snow fields. Again, I filled up the bottles and leisurely reworked my way back to the trailhead and waited. Waited for what, you might ask? Well, for the sinking sun to turn Shin-san into a fiery inferno.

Further west, the cloud cover over the sea of Japan transformed the horizon into an artistic landscape. Tohoku couldn’t get much better than this.

I slept like a log that night, knowing that the approaching low pressure system would finally give me an excuse to take a much needed day off. The following morning I could simply head to the castle town of Tsuruoka and spend the day planning for the three sacred peaks of Dewa-sanzan.

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Climbing the Hyakumeizan without the luxury of a car is a bit like working the breakfast shift short-handed: you just have to make due with what you have. I stumbled out of JR Morioka station in a daze, floored by the realization that the first train on the Yamada line didn’t depart until 4:30pm. Apparently this line was not designed with hikers in mind. I tried my luck at the tourist information counter. “You’re better off taking the bus,” replied the helpful clerk, who informed me that the train line will more than likely be discontinued in the near future. On the bus I studied my hand-drawn map in hopes of getting my head around what i was in for: a 20km round-trip on a long, seldom-used trail not even marked in my guidebook.

The first part of the hike was along a series of gravel forest roads, where someone had put up hand-painted 登山口 (trailhead) signs to assist drivers in navigation. I definitely never would’ve found the path without them. I caught my stride upon reaching the true start of the hike, and flew up the deserted yet well-trodden trail through pristine wilderness. It was already after 10am and I was on an extremely tight schedule which I had to stick to if I wanted to be sitting on the summit of Mt. Chokai the following afternoon. Something just had to go wrong.

Water! After reaching a trail junction at the 6th stagepoint, I turned left and rose abruptly above the treeline. The clouds came in, chilling my sweaty figure as I reached the water source at the 8th stage. Bone dry! I’d planned my entire hike around this water source, and now I was down to less than half a liter for the remainder of the entire hike. I pushed on, reaching the main ridge and ran into a mass of hikers who’d taken the more popular approach. “Excuse me, were you on Mt. Iwate yesterday and Hachimantai the day before?”, inquired a kind couple directly in front of me. We struck up an instant friendship, for the retired husband and wife team were also climbing the Hyakumeizan. I quickly explained my water predicament and out came a 1/2 liter of oolong tea. “Take this”, the husband demanded. “We’re on our way down.”

Once reaching the summit, another group offered me a few mandarin oranges. This was truly turning into a concerted group effort as I ate a quick rice ball and took some summit photos. The mist covered everything in sight, while the top of Hayachine’s rocky perch contained a delipidated stone shrine and an unusual collection of mysterious metallic sword-shaped relics apparently laid by mountain priests.

I retreated the same way I came, walking the last 10km non-stop. The tea and oranges held out until I reached the forest road, where I ducked my head in a stream and re-hydrated my exhausted body before jogging the last kilometer to the bus stop. I arrived precisely 3 minutes before the bus departed, just as the skies opened up. The only downside to the entire trip was that all of my photos came out overexposed. I’d broken my camera at the very beginning of my Tohoku adventure (which explains the strange cropping on all of the Tohoku entries). I hope the sketches I put together will give you some sort of feel for the magic of Mt. Hayachine. I made it back to Morioka in time to catch the Shinkansen to Akita, followed by a limited express train to Kisakata, which set me up nicely for Mt. Chokai, the highest peak in Tohoku and the peak I’d been looking forward to most.

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