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Archive for the ‘Yamanashi hikes’ Category

I’ve always avoided climbing Mitsutōge. Sure it’s steeped in history and tradition, but I just couldn’t overlook the TV antenna flanking two of the mountain’s three sacred peaks. During my last trip to Kawaguchiko, I opted for neighboring Kurodake, a higher flank and one of the 300 famous mountains. The vistas across the lake to the northern face of Japan’s highest mountain were tranquil if not inspiring, as few hikers visit its tree-lined heights. Mitsutōge, on the other hand, is crawling with visitors no matter the time of year nor the weather. A quick on-line search revealed a plethora of English-language blog posts and trail notes, coming in second to Mt. Fuji itself. Yes, the peak would remain off my Hiking in Japan site, but perhaps, I reasoned, it was still worthy of a quick exploration.

I arrived at Kawaguchiko station by bus from Matsumoto, and immediately swam through the sea of crowds to the coin lockers tucked away on the western side of the station. It took quite some time to sort through the kit and repack, and after a short trip to the restroom to deposit a load of a different kind, I scooted over to the bus information counter to inquire about the next bus to the trailhead. “The final bus just left”, came the response from the weather-beaten brows of the bored attendant, obviously worn down from the constant inquiries of visitors looking for the tourist information counter. I was counting on the 10:35am bus to the trailhead, but I was informed that this bus only ran on weekends. Dejected but still determined, I popped into the 7-11 to stock up on lunch. The clerk was particularly inquisitive yet relieved when I told her that Mt. Fuji was not my intended destination.

Back at the station, I easily hailed a taxi for the 5000 yen ride to the start of the hike. After passing by a troupe of foraging monkeys, the driver eased the vehicle along the exposed shoulder that followed the narrow mountain stream, depositing me at a large pile of snow piled up at the unmarked bus stop. I bade my chauffeur farewell and stared up at the ice-covered forest road directly in front of me. I took a sip from the water bottle before strapping on the 4-point crampons, whose spikes easily bit into the hard ice. This deserted road led me higher towards the western flank of the mountain, terminating at a small car park sparkling with a clean restroom.

From here, the trail lay buried under 50 centimeters of fresh snowfall. The crampons did little other than to serve as a depository for dense, wet snowfall, and after every third step I had to kick my feet together to dislodge the burdensome clumps of white clay. Still, it was better than having to sit down on the moist snow to unbuckle the crampons, so I held out until a bit higher on the slopes, where the snow conditions improved under the cool winds. I soon passed by a party of four sporting blue jeans and sneakers. I kicked steps past them as they looked on with an air of envy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of spring hikes in Japan, it’s to expect the unexpected and always carry the 4-pointers.

The wide path, which I am pretty sure doubles as a gravel highway in the summer, switchbacked through the sleeping forest towards the summit plateau. The going was easy as I simply followed the other footprints from like-minded mid-week summiters. An unmarked jeep sat on the shoulder of this path, buried up to its neck in wind-blown drifts. Perhaps the hut owner uses this mode of transport in the green season? Another jeep lay parked a bit further up the path, where a signpost led the way to Mitsutōge-Sansō, which I reached just a few minutes later. It was high noon and time for a snack. I settled into a bench that had luckily been swept free of snow and peered across the steep valley towards the puffs of cumulus that held Mt. Fuji in its grasp. Oh well, so much for the views of Fuji that draw thousands of climbers throughout the year.

After a quick bite, I dropped down to a saddle and up to Mt. Kinashi (木無山), the first of the trio of peaks. It was little other than a knob on the ridge, but after a bit of scrambling, I accessed the bluffs on the eastern side of the peak and took in this splendid vista:

Crowds were beginning to converge from all directions as I retraced the route back to the hut and along the ridge to a second hut and junction down to Mitsutoge station. The second, and highest of Mitsutoge’s triumvirate is a knobby knuckle by the name of Kaiun, reachable on a series of half-buried wooden steps. The summit signposts indicated that this was indeed Mitsutoge mountain. a huge disservice to a peak that literally means ‘good fortune’. Despite being usurped of a name, the weather did bring me the good fortune of viewing the entire chain of the Minami Alps clothed in a wintry white which was a pleasant consolation prize for not being able to see Fuji.

Sharing a mountaintop with twenty of my closest strangers does not rank high on my fulfilment list, so I dropped down the northern side of the summit, past a towering antenna, and down through the forest to an unmarked junction. My feet led me further to the north to the final summit Takanosu, literally ‘the hawk’s nest’. The mountain was impossible to miss, thanks to the virtual city of TV antenna that would make for a great place to bring up some hawk offspring if not for the electromagnetic waves. The summit was not only deserted of people, but severely lacking in summit signposts as well. Perhaps they were buried under the foot of snow blanketing the top.

Satisfied, yet hardly done, I looped back around to the junction below Kaiun and dropped steeply down a flight of slippery wooden stairs. The path dropped to a saddle and then, by complete surprise, turned left and traversed directly under the cliffs of Byobu-iwa that make Kaiun such a mecca for Kanto-based rock climbers. Though no spidermen were visible on this outing, the line of pitons fastened to the rock face suggest that the belay times on weekends must rival those of the queue at Space Mountain, but this is not a hypothesis I would even want to prove. The only rock climbing you’ll see me do is when I’m forced to do so, on the near-vertical routes in the Japan Alps, where fixed chains and ladders make the going easier.

As the path dropped lower, I took off the crampons and coasted past a series of Buddhist statues to a mountain pass adorned with stone Jizō. From here, it was a snow-free tramp through the darkened forest until popping back out on the pavement, where it was a dreadful walk of about an hour on the asphalt jungle. As soon as I arrived at the station, the skies opened up in one of those familiar spring downpours. This rain continued overnight and changed to snow, so when I woke up the following morning in Kawaguchiko, it was a winter wonderland. I wandered the sleeping streets before dawn in search of a nice place to capture the morning light on the cone.

Although I doubt I will visit again, it was good to have marked the mountain off the list. The peaks surrounding lake Saiko look worthy of further investigating, a chance that I hope to seize in the more comfortable green season.

 

 

 

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I woke up with a mouth drier than the sands of the Sahara. The previous day spent unprotected on the slopes of Mitsutōge sent the immune response into overdrive, resulting in a fitful night of rest. I stumbled out of my room and to the barista counter and order a double shot of espresso that helped to clear the sinuses. It would be a difficult task to muster up enough will to climb a mountain, but with my mountaineering reputation at stake, I borrow a one-speed bicycle and hit the tarmac across the arched slopes of Ohashi bridge. Once across, I navigated the handle bars left for the long counter-clockwise traverse of the western shores of Kawaguchiko.

Constant streams of arctic air washed over me from the north, hindering progress and forcing me into a crouching position. The espresso was doing its trick for now, but I needed to supplement that kick with a little sustenance, which I found a little further away in the baskets of Lake Bake bakery. The teriyaki and melted cheese wrap crawled down the back of my raw mouth with a bit of help from the half-frozen water bottle attached to the side of my tattered backpack. Across the shores of the lake, Mt. Fuji had already closed her curtains to visitors, so I stared at the billowing clouds and hoped for a positive change in the weather.

My motivation to climb a peak had now hit rock bottom – how was I suppose to hike to the top of a mountain noted for its spectacular Fuji vistas if the million-dollar views had already been withdrawn? At the Nagahama junction I veered west for the steep climb to a mountain pass towards Lake Saiko. About a quarter of the way up, my legs turned to jelly and I dismounted, half pushing, half cursing my way up the restricted switchbacks of the paved road. Just before the tunnel at the pass, I rested at the trailhead for Mt. Kenashi and Junigatake, half considering this longer approach along a jagged ridge but my internal calling got the better of me and I once again mounted the bicycle and coasted to the western lake.

By now it was already high noon, and with nothing in my backpack apart from a few snacks, I pushed my luck until finding a family-run lake view shokudō open for lunch. I tucked into a ginger pork lunch set, forcing the food down my throat even though I was hardly hungry. The fatigue hit me like a ton of bricks and I sat there looking at the lake and wondering if I had it in me to hit the trails or not. I knew I just needed a moment for the caloric equilibrium to return to my withered body.

My lunch was served with green tea, and after a few extra cups, I felt about as normal as I can get this dreadful season. For anyone who is lucky enough not to suffer from cedar allergies, allow me a minute to put it into perspective. Imagine placing a clothes pin on the bridge of your nose after someone has just put a few eyedrops of sand into your pupils. On top of that, a cruel demon has inserted a needle with a small hole into an opening just above the clothes pin and is pumping sea water straight into your sinus cavity, creating a crystalline waterfall that rolls down your nostrils and onto your upper lip. The constant battle between invading pollen and the strong defences of your immune system leaves your body wiped before you’ve even begun your daily activity.

I once again mounted my bicycle and cruised down to the trailhead of Mt. Junigatake, my target for the day. As I stood at the start of the strenuous hike and looked up at the wall of mountain towering over me, a wave of unease swept through my body. There was only one solution.

A decade earlier I would have fought off the fatigue and marched up the steep contours towards the ridge, but I needed another source of motivation, in the form of a hot spring bath. Now I know that the majority of people opt for the soak post-hike, but sometimes a break in tradition is the only solution. Besides, who in their right mind would build a hot spring directly opposite the trailhead, where it would be so much easier to hop in a bath than scale a giant peak?

I forked over the staggering 900 yen fee and made a bee line for the outdoor bath. Despite or perhaps because of this early afternoon hour, I found myself completely alone and soothed with my aching body. Now, everyone knows that taking a long bath will completely zap your energy, but you’ll be pleased to note my completely unfounded study about the energizing benefits of a short bath of roughly 7 minutes. Now, I know what you’re thinking: 900 yen for 7 minutes and no happy ending, but rest assured that this expenditure was necessary, because I hit the road with a new spring in my step.

By giving up on Mt. Juni, I turned my attention to a smaller ridge flanking the northern shores of Lake Saiko. The Tokai Nature Trail follows this row of mountains on its way towards western Japan, and it seemed like a good way to preserve my hiking reputation without doing myself in. I parked the bike at the trailhead and followed the switchbacks through a labyrinth of exposed tree roots and rotting snow fields. In places exposed to the direct sunlight, angle-deep mud did its best to impede my forward progress.

I settled into a good rhythm, and wondered if giving up my assault on Mt. Juni was justified after all. It only took about 40 minutes to breach the ridge and reach a viewpoint at Sankodai, which reads ‘the viewpoint of 3 lakes’. The 3 lakes in question here are Saiko, Shojiko, and Motosuko, but for some reason Shoji could not be discerned amongst the backlit forests of Aokigahara.

Mt. Fuji was still enveloped in heavy cloud, so I sat facing north, taking in the pleasant vistas across Saiko to Mt. Juni, whose jagged outline looked rather intimidating from this angle. Perhaps giving this one a miss wasn’t such a bad decision on second thought. A low rumble from the west grew louder as the source of the disturbance revealed itself: a trio of war planes swooped over the pass just below me, following each other in perfect succession. Perhaps they are gearing up for a showdown between Japan’s ballsy neighbor to the north.

The descent back down to the bicycle was slippery to say the least, but the trekking poles helped prevent a couple of potentially nasty spills. Back on the road, I completed the loop of Saiko and dropped back down the pass to Kawaguchiko and continued circumnavigating the golden shores. By now the chafing on my inner thighs from the hard saddle on my mode of transport had become uncomfortable, so I settled into Cisco Coffee for another caffeine boost and to give my legs a rest. Apparently all of their coffee beans are roasted in San Francisco, which makes you wonder about the quality of the java, being 8500 km away and all. Such things are best overlooked when you’ve reached your limit of physical endurance and are looking for a naturally-occuring drug for an extra boost in reserves.

Dark clouds rolled in, an omen of a change in the weather. The final kilometer of the ride back to the guesthouse was up a dreadfully long incline, and it was all I could do to keep from falling off my bicycle. I pulled into the entrance just as the first flurries of the approaching snowstorm blew off the slopes of Mt. Fuji.  I settled into a sofa in the lounge and let my body completely relax, every last ounce of energy zapped from my limp body. Despite the fatigue and discomfort, it sure beat lazing about all day wasting time on-line. Sometimes holidays are the best reminder that we’ve got to make the most of our lives, pollen be damned.

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Enzan looks like most places in Kanto: layers of reinforced concrete buildings clustered around the central train station. There is one noticeable difference, however. The medium-sized city in Yamanashi is home to one of Japan’s cheapest modes of transport. For just 100 yen, the community bus will shuttle you half an hour to the trailhead of Daibosatsu, my target for this tepid May morning. Despite the affordable price, the bus was only about a third full – it seems the majority of mountaineers in Yamanashi Prefecture prefer the flexibility and convenience of their own four wheels of luxury.

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The trailhead was flanked on both sides by a couple of mountain huts that have seen better days. I followed the grooves of the well-worn concrete road that eventually led to a dirt path through forests of beech and chestnut just beginning to awaken from a long, frosty winter. A soothing breeze blew in from the valley as the sky flexed its ash-tinged hues. I strolled along, lost in my thoughts while thinking ahead to the productive summer awaiting. Here I was on mountain #48, on task to reach the halfway point before the June rains settled in. Birdsong accompanied my tranquil reverie, offering a soundtrack that accompanied me all the way to the large village sprawled out at Kamihikawa Pass. Dozen of hikers milled about, stretching their legs or shuffling through their immaculate gear in preparation for the easy stroll to the high point. The development reminded me of the busier sections of Yatsugatake. With the overpopulation of the Kanto region, the mountains are put under an environmental strain unmatched in more rural areas of Japan. Basically the farther away from Tokyo you get, the lesser the impact.

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The next half an hour followed a road lined by even more cars and mountain huts. It seemed that half of Tokyo had come to frolic in the golden fields of the summit plateau, but why the immense popularity? I pushed on under the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji, whose snow-stained summit peeked out above a foamy latte of bulging cloud. When I reached Daibosatsu-toge, the answer to my riddle was finally solved: it turns out that the trail is part of the Oume-kaido, the main route between Edo and Kofu, the capital of Kai Province. The samurai pledging allegiance to the Tokugawa shogunate haunted these hills, and if the writings of Nakazato rang true, slaughtered an unarmed Buddhist monk upon these very slopes. Whether fact or fiction, the box office depictions of Ryunosuke Tsukue’s cold-blooded act put Daibosatsu on the map for jidai-geki fans.

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From the pass, the route spilled out into a vast open plateau, crowned by a pocketed forest of oak and cedar. Japan’s highest peak had by now sunk into the billowing elixir, but an array of other peaks shimmered in the afternoon haze. Groups sat scattered among the hill like spectators waiting for an outdoor concert to start. I kept on the move, climbing up to the edge of the meadow before ducking back into the woods to the high point of the mountain, where I dropped off the northern flank into a shaded swarm of virgin hemlock trees, one of Yamanashi’s 100 most beautiful forests if you can believe the literature. The deserted path was refreshing considering the immense crowds on the southern side of the mountain. I soon reached Marukawa hut, a rustic green-roofed structure sitting in an open meadow bathed in warm sunlight. If I had more time I would have definitely stayed here, enchanted as I was by the peacefulness of the wonderful setting. I sat on a bench, snacking on my late lunch while soaking up both the ultraviolet rays and the rural scenery.

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Reluctantly, I rose to my feet and completed the rest of the loop, reaching the trailhead with enough spare time to enjoy a bath at the hot spring a few minutes walk down the road. After my soak, the bus pulled up, completely packed with day hikers who had boarded at the trailhead above. I was barely able to squeeze into the doorway of the jam-packed bus. Perhaps those crowds I had seen earlier had not come by automobile after all. Still scratching my head, one glace at the guidebook revealed a partial explanation: this hike was designed as a two-day trek, with a layover at one of the many huts along the way. No wonder I was feeling so drained.

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March 21, 1971 is a day that should long be remembered among those with an affinity for the Hyakumeizan. A short distance below the rocky summit of Mt. Kaya, Kyuya Fukada, famed alpinist and author of arguably the most influential mountaineering book in modern Japanese history, succumbed to a brain hemorrhage while admiring the beauty of the purple iwakagami wildflowers. Ever since finishing my own ascent of the 100 mountains, I’d wanted to pay my respects to Mr. Fukada by climbing the peak in his honor, but timing was always an issue. Respiratory ailments have continued to haunt me over the last year or so, sometimes making simple strolls quite an ordeal, so could I muster up enough physical strength to endure an 800-meter vertical ascent?

Joining me on the auspicious early August expedition was none other than Julian Ross and his brilliant dog Hana, who both completed their own Hyakumeizan challenge around the same time as myself. They are now well on their way to finishing the 100 famous peaks of Yamanashi Prefecture, of which Mt. Kaya is a proud member. At a little past 6am on a cloudy weekday morning, the 3 brave souls started their epic climb. First stop: Kyuya Fukada park.

Set up as an ad hoc memorial to the Hyakumeizan author, the overgrown, wooded picnic area has definitely seen better days, as the namesake recipient himself would at least wanted to have a view of the Japan Alps instead of a neglected area at the end of a desolate forest road. After a quick prayer, we set off at a snail’s pace up the well-used path. Having experienced a mild asthma attack the previous evening, I set a conservative pace that had Julian admittedly concerned about my well-being. Indeed, my previous record of turning back on easy peaks had broken my confidence, but the only way to overcome my crutch was to face it head on by testing the cardiovascular system.

Steadily we rose above the valley, arriving at Lady’s Rock (女岩) with a pace faster than the allotted map time. My asthma was somehow held in check, perhaps by the spirit of Mr. Fukada himself. Halfway through our climb, I once again took the lead through the endless switchbacks to the ridge line, keeping a relatively slow but steady gait. After all, we were well ahead of schedule and had absolutely no view through the low cloud cover. The air hung thick with humidity, as the unseasonably hot summer air penetrated even the higher elevations usually accustomed to cool winds. The trail took a sharp turn towards the left once reaching the ridge line, where the views towards the north started to open up. A short climb later, we found ourselves staring at a modest stone pillar marking the exact place where Kyuya Fukada left this earth.

A brief moment of silence ensued, as both Julian and I wondered aloud whether Fukada made it to the summit or not before he met his maker. Onwards we pushed, as the terrain turned summit-esque with appearance of large boulders. “Less than 100 horizontal meters”, quipped Julian from behind. Good timing as well, as the chest began to tighten, signaling potential respiratory interference. It’s a good thing the summit were only a mere 1700 meters above the surface of the ocean rather than a monstrous 3000 meter peak.

The clouds held their grip on the mountain, and we were left without what the guidebooks describe as a stellar panoramic view. Summit photos were taken before we retreated the way we came. The chest didn’t bother me on the way down, as we were both able to enjoy a speedy descent back to the parking lot. I felt my first sense of accomplishment in a long time, especially considering it was my first successful summit of any mountain since the spring of 2009. I also experienced a strong feeling of closure in my Hyakumeizan quest, similar to the Shikoku pilgrims who return to Koyasan after their 88-temple journey to pay homage to Kobo Daishi. Thanks Mr. Fukada for providing me both the inspiration and the excuse to travel all over this land knocking off spectacular peaks. Your influence will not be forgotten.

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