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Posts Tagged ‘Gunma’

10 minutes. If only I had bothered to check the bus schedule before setting off from Tokyo. The next bus wasn’t until early afternoon, but I had a mountain to knock off before returning to Osaka and couldn’t waste time loitering in Maebashi. I consulted with the wallet, trying to determine if the finances could handle a taxi ride up to Lake Onuma. The door of the taxi opened: I used my best Japanese to ask about the damage. “About 7000 yen”, replied the white-gloved, immaculately groomed chauffeur. If climbing the Hyakumeizan didn’t bankrupt me, I don’t know what would.

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The taxi ride itself was non-eventful, but as we climbed the asphalt switchbacks up and over Hachou pass, I was shocked to discover Mt. Akagi covered in an expansive shroud of greyish fog. There was no turning back, however, as the financial investment meant I’d climb this peak – rain, cloud, or shine. Once out of the taxi, I checked the bus schedule for the return journey and scooted down the paved asphalt byway to the start of the trail to Koma-ga-take.

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Buzzed with the excitement of the impending climb, I marched up the steps built in the hillside trail like a long-lost samurai in search of its master. After hitting the ridge, I turned north, topping out on the horse-shaped peak just in time to see the clouds lift and Akagi’s majestic form pop into view. The weather was absolutely wonderful in the late spring sunshine. The peaks of Nikko sat gracefully to my right, while the bushy summit of Mt. Kurobi rose towards the sky, a long col between here and the top. Bare of foilage, the tree branches waited patiently for winter to release its brittle grip. A large patch of snow hung firmly on the shady reaches of the western face as if expecting frozen friends to return, but with May just around the corner, it would be a long wait.

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After dropping to the col, the route skirted a short knife-edge ridge before ducking into the dense thicket of trees just below the high point, which was marked by a small unassuming shrine. Resting for a brief moment, I turned towards the lake, following a path whose designers had a shortage of patience when it came time to lay out the route. Perhaps they were just following the prints of our 4-legged friends, because it was easily one of the steepest and gnarliest trails around. Step after unrelenting knee-knocking step it dropped, ignoring geographical features en route to the shoreline, where the roadway provided much-welcomed relief to my aching joints. I returned to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare until the next bus, surveying the explored pages of my guidebook in search of more of Gunma’s unclimbed treasures.

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The peaks of Gunma lay out of grasp, and with a national holiday weekend on the horizon, I seize the opportunity to push into the ‘retirement’ zone of the Hyakumeizan by knocking off three peaks in rapid succession. I board an early morning train for the resort town of Minakami, where a local bus not much larger than a minivan scooted along route 63 to Hotaka bridge, the closest bus stop to the trailhead. Close in this case meant a 2-hour slog up a hard-surfaced road that most lazy denizens utilize with 4-wheeled luxuries. I hoped to cash in on this technology, so out went the thumb and 20-minutes later I end up in the back seat of the chef of Houdaigi campground, who gladly shuttled me to the campground, which was still an hour short of the trailhead. Any progress, however, is much welcomed when you’re at the mercy of rural drivers. 15 minutes later, the same chef came out and drove me the rest of the way, having any doubt that other people would pick me up. By now it was pushing 11am, so after a chorus of prolific thanking, I entered the lush forest towards Hotaka’s modest form.

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Trails designers are a mixed bag. While some go hog wild on the switchbacks, others just want to get the job done as quickly as possible, ignoring any geographical features in their way. Hotaka’s designer was a mutant hybrid: at first the switchbacks glided gently to the rolling ridge, where all hell broke loose. The emergency hut sitting just off the trail wouldn’t look too out of place in an abandoned prison yard. Imagine a cross between a greenhouse and a massive drainage tube. Why anyone would want to bed down here outside of a dire situation is beyond me. The path gingerly led to an awkward collection of gargantuan rock formations, where the trail stopped dead at the base of a series of vertical ladders. What the….?

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I pulled out the map, and there squiggled in kanji were the letters 岩峰群: no kidding!  The maps were surprisingly void of those 危 symbols used to note dangerous areas of the route. If anyone from Shobunsha is reading this, then update your maps please! Once past this bone-breaking climb, the path eased somewhat, gliding gently over a series of rolling hills to the Hotaka’s broad summit, my 65th peak. High altocumulus  provided a white roof to the scenery, while an eternal blanket of fog sat a few hundred meters below, stretching as far as the eye could see. In the background, the cone of Mt, Fuji rose above all else. I didn’t even know Japan’s highest peak could be seen from here.

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After a quick summit snap, I strolled along the ridge a little more to the top of Ken-ga-mine before looping back around the where I started the hike. I finished just as a group of 3 were packing up their gear, and after a quick inquiry, they offered to take me back to Minakami station. An added bonus to an already productive day. Shortly after starting down the road, a large goat-like animal crossed the road directly in front of our car, pausing on the shoulder to stare back at us. Even though I had never seen one before, I knew immediately it was a kamoshika. Here I was within one meter of the creature, and my camera was sitting in the back of the car!

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At Minakami, I boarded a local train to Doai station, the deepest train station in Japan. This would be my home for the night, since it was just a short distance from the start of the steep path to Mt. Tanigawa, my target for the following morning.

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