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Posts Tagged ‘Hakusan’

The first step in climbing the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures involves an online search for a list of the peaks. To the uninformed, one may surmise that there must surely be 47 mountains on the list, but due to the fact that a handful of highest mountains straddle prefectural borders, the target list is reduced to 43 unique summits. 24 of those peaks also double as Hyakumeizan, so those who have finished the 100 just need to climb an additional 22 mountains to complete the list. Unfortunately, some of these mountains defy the limits of what is considered an ‘accessible’ mountain.

San-no-mine is one of those mountains. Situated on the border of Fukui and Ishikawa Prefectures, the peak is part of the Ryōhaku mountain range and doubles as the southernmost 2000-meter mountain in Japan. It also lies along the Hakusan ridge line, just an additional two hours further south of Bessan. This is the exact same ridge I traversed during my first trip to the sacred summit and indeed, during that fateful traverse I overnighted at San-no-mine emergency hut. Little did I know at that time, but Fukui’s highest peak is situated directly behind the hut on a knob of hill named Echizen-Sannomine. But our story becomes a bit more complicated, as this tuft of bamboo grass is actually not considered to be a peak but just a chiten (地点) or highest point in the prefecture. The highest mountain honor goes to neighboring Ni-no-mine, a further hour from the emergency hut and my target for a long-overdue return to the Kamiuchinami district of Ono city deep in the heart of Fukui.

Joining me on the weekend festivities in mid-September is no other than my trusty companion Paul M.. Neck-deep in writing and editing his PHD dissertation, Paul graciously agrees to not only accompany me on the long journey, but to also drive the entire way, eliminating the need for a expensive taxi or unreliable journey by thumb. He picks me up in Kobe city as we head north along the newly-completed Maizuru-Wakasa expressway for the 4-hour journey to the trailhead. Long drives on Japan’s frantic road system are truly taxing affairs, and we break up the drive by stopping off to visit Eiheiji Temple just outside of Fukui city. Home to the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, the sprawling temple complex is truly one of Japan’s most interesting places. But you wouldn’t know that if you just walked along the towering cryptomeria trees flanking the long promenade to the main entrance.

The grounds themselves are pleasant enough but the real treasure is what lies beyond the walled entrance of the compound. To be honest, we are none-too-thrilled about forking over 500 yen for yet another temple in Japan. So many times you pay the fee and enter a temple that is nearly off-limits to visitors sans a random garden or common tatami worship space. And most of the more famous temples of Japan that are worth seeing are so overrun with tourists that they take on a Disneyland atmosphere. Not so at Eiheiji. Paul and I enter the reinforced concrete building and step into a lecture room led by a Soto monk clad in black. He stands in front of an enormous wall painting of the temple complex, pointing out each area of the grounds along with a set of stringent rules about acceptable behavior. I scan the room and realize that there aren’t any other foreign tourists among the 30 or so Japanese visitors to the temple grounds. Indeed, during the 3 hours that we spend exploring the temple and surroundings, it becomes clear that this temple has yet to be discovered by the rowdy Asian tourists that have completely overtaken most of the other popular sightseeing spots in Japan. It reminds me of a time before the Chinese and Korean tourism boom, when you could actually enjoy a place surrounded by well-mannered Japanese tourists who respect the local customs.

Eiheiji is truly one of those ‘must see for yourself’ kind of places, and I will definitely return for a visit if the opportunity presents itself. On the way back to the car, we stop off for an iced coffee float before the drive to our inn at Kadohara. The sleepy village brings back memories of my ascent of Mt Arashima, and the idyllic train station near the trailhead. After checking in, we head down to the station, where I find that the run-down toilet has been completely torn down and replaced with a much larger restroom in a park on the other side of the train tracks. Resisting the temptation for a revisit to Arashima, we retreat back to our room for an early night and an even earlier start. Breakfast is served at 6am as we fuel up for the impending climb.

Paul M. manuvers his vehicle up the hairpin turns to the trailhead under a brilliant sky of crystal blue. San-no-mine towers over the road like a Spinosaurus that once roamed these very forests of Fukui. We brush off the temptation to visit the Dinosaur Museum – instead we gaze our eyes upwards to the gold-tinted alpine scenery. Stowing unnecessary gear in the car, we enter a trail that immediately loses altitude to reach a forest road that leads up towards Karikomi Ike, one of Fukui’s most renowned places for autumn foliage. The September greenery has kept the crowds at bay for now, so we march in unison up the deserted road before reaching the trailhead through a lush forest of beech and oak.

The path immediately gains altitude towards a steep spur. It takes a few minutes to settle into a rhythm and to shake off the morning fatigue, but once our body adjusts to the incline we make good time, reaching the crest of the spur in about 90 minutes. We rest briefly on the gnarled roots of a cypress tree while replenishing minerals lost to sweat. A cool northerly breeze kisses the spur, sending us into action to stave off the chill.

The wind lifts the fog upwards from the secluded valley, lapping the trail in a mimic of an excited canine that blots out the view. As an upside to the reduced visibility is the lack of a visual gauge to our progress – there’s nothing more disheartening to be staring a huge climb straight in the face and being able to see, inch by inch, how far you truly have to go. We lower our heads and advance, footfall by heavy footfall, into the unknown.

Well, not entirely into the unknown, as I had actually been down this trail once before during my first traverse of Hakusan, but it was so long ago and in such decrepit conditions that the scenery feels completely new. It’s amazing how your mind can play tricks on you, a spur that seemed so easy just a decade ago can prove so formidable through the passage of time. That’s what age will do to you.

A fortress of rock emerges from the mist, the path hugging the northern edge of the precipice along a maze of slippery boulders. Using hands to help propel us forward, we reach the top of the aptly-penned Ken-ga-iwa to glance a patch of blue sky at the top of a crest directly above. Paul and I look at each other in amazement, wondering if we could, perhaps pierce through this cloud veil and rise above its misty sea. The fog and sun are embraced in a fierce battle for supremacy, the northernly winds continue to throw sheets of mist towards the bright rays of sun. Glimpses of jaw-dropping views are erased faster than the shaking of an Etch A Sketch as the two intrepid trekkers continue to soar above it all.

Just below breaching the 2000 meter mark, the warming rays of the sun are too much for old-man cloud to handle, and smiles stream across our faces at the incredible early-autumn scenery spread out before us. We pause briefly upon reaching the emergency hut, the very same one I used as shelter many moons ago. Knowing these views could be taken away at any moment, we pick up the pace and reach the summit of San-no-mine just in time to take in the million-yen views. Our work is far from done, however, as we still have two more mountains to cover.

We retrace our steps back to the hut and settle into a quick lunch before the unmarked climb to Echizen-Sannomine. A faint trail leads into head-high bamboo grass behind the hut. I take the lead, pushed on by an unseen force to the top of the hill. We meet two other hikers who have just begun their descent. They inform us that the summit is at the top of the next crest, which we reach a short time later. Here we find a small summit signpost. It’s a good thing that I did my research before heading out, because without prior knowledge there would be no way to know that Fukui’s highest point is along this completely unmarked swath of land.

With the highest point now off the list, we return to the hut and start our descent towards Ni-no-mine, the official highest peak of the prefecture. The trail loses about a hundred meters of vertical elevation before reaching a saddle and short climb to the summit. A signpost just off the trail reads Ni-no-mine but my GPS informs me that the actual top of the mountain lies beyond in an incredibly dense maze of two-meter-tall bamboo grass. Paul decides that this is best tackled as a solo mission and enjoys a well-earned break as I dive straight into the labyrinth. This brings back memories of Mt Mikuni, a monster of a bushy ridge that lies in, you guessed it, Fukui Prefecture.

Climbing hand over fist, slashed by razor-sharp leaves, and stumbling over toppled trees hidden beneath the mess, I reach what I surmise to be the summit. Or at least it’s what I’m calling the summit. There is no higher place to go, and while I am unable to find a triangulation point or summit signpost, I claim victory on my right to claim Fukui’s highest mountain successfully climbed. My guess is that the majority of 47 Pref-baggers consider Echizen-Sannomine suffice for their criteria. I find no fault in that.

By the time we retrace our steps back to the emergency hut, I am a battered mess. I engulf an caffeine-infused evergy gel as we start our descent back to the valley. The fog has now returned, thicker than ever and depositing a fine mist all over the route. I settle in on a steady pace, not wanting to stop for fear of bottoming out on my energy reserves. The tricky drop before Ken-ga-mine puts to rest those fears, as my feet slip out from under me and I land straight on my bottom on a wet rock. That episode sends a shot of adrenaline back into my system that sustains me for the rest of the hike.

The parking lot is once again reached just before 3pm while we psyche ourselves up for the long drive back to Kobe. Paul declares that a hot spring is in order, and nearby Hato-ga-yu  does the trick, easing the pain from our overworked muscles. We made good time back to Kobe, as we manage to avoid most of the traffic jams by heading back through Maizuru through pockets of rain cloud. With Fukui’s highest mountain now off the list, just one mountain stands between me and my quest to climb the highest peak in every prefecture. With the winter snows soon to envelope the higher peaks, the race is on to claim victory on Niigata before my climbing window closes.

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My first trip to Hakusan was a total washout, and ever since that dreadful ascent back in 2004 I was looking for a chance to appreciate the mountain without having to bag a peak on the list. That’s the beauty of a re-climb, as there’s no pressure to summit the mountain at all. With that in mind I once again teamed up with Fumito, who was still recovering from a rock climbing trip to nearby Gozaisho. He picked me up at Nagoya station shortly before noon and then pointed the car north, through Gifu Prefecture and then onto route 158, where we passed by the trailhead to Mt. Arashima. It was very tempting to pull the car off to the derelict ski resort for an afternoon ascent, but we had our eyes set on the big hike tomorrow.

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We arrived at Ichinose just after 4pm and set up camp near the river in the tranquil campground. Due to the immense popularity of Hakusan, private cars are no longer allowed to Bettodai during the weekend and Obon peak, so we simply had to wait for the first shuttle bus at 5am the following morning. We killed time in the rustic hot spring bath across from the bus stop, soaking up the minerals that we hoped would provide some extra energy for the impending climb.

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The alarm rang at 4am and we quickly sprang to work, cooking up a bowl of pasta and fresh coffee while breaking down camp in the dark. By the time we reached the bus stop at 4:45am, the queue snaked around the corner and we were denied entry to the 5am bus. Luckily there was another bus that left just 10 minutes later and we piled in for the 20-minute journey to the trailhead. Bettodeai was just as I had remembered it, though with tenfold the crowds. There’s something very unfortunate about hiking during the summer holiday peak, and that is having to share the trail with several hundred other climbers. The parking lot at Ichinose can accommodate 750 vehicles, so an attendance of over 1000 people is not unheard of in this season.

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As we prepared our gear, I noticed that every single hiker seemed to be crossing the suspension bridge which leads to the  Saboshindo route. This trail was closed during my first visit to the mountain, so I was very tempted to explore this route. However, it seemed best to avoid the throngs of people and use this route on the descent, so instead of crossing the bridge, we turned left and entered the Kankoshindo trail. This is the same trail that I took during my first ascent, but it honestly did not look familiar at all. The first part of the path climbed through a healthy broadleaf forest that sat still in the early morning glow. Fumito set off on a snail’s pace from the start, and I was really starting to wonder if we would even make it above the treeline before dark, but he soon found his rhythm and we walked in unison towards the ridge line. We spent most of the first hour in complete solitude, once being passed by a trail-running duo who seemed more intent on getting exercise than on enjoying the scenery.

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The map said to allow 1 hour and 40 minutes to reach the ridge, but we did it in just under 60 minutes. So much for Fumito’s slow pace. Even with our snail’s advance we were still passing groups along the way. The ridge marks the point where the Kanko route merges with the Zenjodo route, the traditional path up the mountain. In ancient times, these so-called “paths of meditation” converged from provinces surrounding the sacred peak. As we turned right and followed the worn stone steps along the undulating ridge, I thought of the 8th century Buddhist monk Taicho, who declared the volcano a holy site. Obviously he was drawn to the unparalleled beauty of the place – the wildflowers covering the slopes like a warm, soft blanket, the lingering snowfields which loiter around in the hot summer months, waiting for mother nature to reapply their coats of frozen paint. His devotion to the mountains spawned an entire religious sect, and this route we were now following led devotees from Echizen province to the sacred highlands above both the trees and clouds.

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We settled into a steady rhythm, pausing at a large overhanging boulder that stretched all the way across the trail. We ducked under the protruding slab and sat, absorbing the fresh rays of sunlight that by now had made their way over the summit plateau directly in front of us. The warmth of the sun also brought the cloud, which threatened to swallow us and transform the mountain into that all-too-familiar world of fuzzy mist. We picked up the pace, reaching the emergency hut at Tonogaike just as my bowels released their pent-up rage. If not for the clean toilet at the recently reconstructed hut I would have surely made quite a mess on the trail.

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The hut was in shambles during my last visit, but the sparkling new shelter would make for a fantastic place to overnight if not for the lack of fresh water. We were now above 2000 meters in height, and had a rather daunting ascent of 700 more vertical meters until reaching the summit. We were truly in a race against the clouds, and one in which we would likely not win.

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Continuing unabated, we soon reached the junction of the Sabo shindo route, where the crowds increased a hundredfold. All of those hikers crossing the bridge at the start of the hike had now caught up to us, and we followed the freight train of sleep-deprived zombies up above the tree line. The path flattened out in a broad plateau, with wooden planks constructed to help control the massive crowds. These wooden walkways certainly were not here during my first trip, but they did make the going much smoother until they petered out at a headwall of a steep, boulder-strewn stretch of mountain. Step by step we advanced, the steep rise spitting us out right at the doorstep of Murodo village. By village I truly mean it. In addition to the sprawling visitor’s center, there was now a fully functioning post office, souvenir shop, and cafeteria that could accommodate hundreds of hungry hikers. The complex officially sleeps 750 people, but I imagine that on this particular day, they were prepared to accept double that number.

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We perched ourselves on a bench on the far side of the A-frame structure, just in front of the main shrine that was currently being renovated and completely reconstructed. The pockets of the Hakusan sect truly run deep. The summit of Mt. Gozen floated in and out of the cloud like a seal bobbing in a turbulent sea. With a bit of luck we’d catch her during the ebb and not the flow.

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I forced four Calorie Mate bars into my parched mouth, the dry biscuits sticking to my palate as an indicator to increase the fluid intake. With 400 calories now beginning their conversion into energy, I took the lead, marching slowly but steadily up the array of stone steps that lead to the high point. I pushed all the way to the high point without a break, as the clouds had once again pushed off the plateau. At the top of Mt. Gozen, I finally caught sight of what makes Hakusan so special, for Mt. Gozen is just one of a trio of volcanic cones, dotted with pristine volcanic lakes and patches of lingering snow.

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Dropping my pack among the exposed rocks, I chatted with a Vietnamese team of climbers who had come from Kanazawa for a taste of Japan’s alpine offerings. Most of the other hikers were either from the Hokuriku or Kansai regions, so I felt right at home exchanging pleasantries and mountain information in the warm sunshine. It’s not very often that you can sit at the summit of a sea-facing 2700-meter volcano in calm winds and a t-shirt and live to tell about it.

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Fumito eventually reached the top, and the two of us drifted into various states of reverie. I reflected upon the stark difference of scenery that fog-free weather can make, while Fumito sucked on his cigarette like it was his last. He’s tried to give up the addiction several times, but the urge to puff had always been stronger. Regardless, he is probably the most mindful smoker in this entire country, always retreating to an unoccupied corner to satisfy his urges.

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The cloud had once again swept over the plateau, so instead of dropping down to the lakes, we retreated back to Murodo in time for lunch. We feasted on udon noodles in their clear Kansai broth, a taste I have grown fond of over the years. I can’t stand the dark soups of the Kanto region. It’s as if Tokugawa Ieyasu forgot to bring along chefs from Kyoto when he moved the capital to Edo and had to improvise his broth by adding soy sauce, the worst possible ingredient available at the time. The same can be said of monjayaki, which looks just like a failed attempt at okonomiyaki, made by someone who had never eaten a real version of Osaka’s staple dish.

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The noodles fueled us for the long climb back to Bettodeai. Back at the junction we veered left and onto the Sabo shindo, which switchbacked through the thick fog and down to an emergency hut that had also been recently rebuilt. Along the way, we passed several hundred other climbers, all of whom were planning on overnighting at Murodo. Among the throngs were a healthy smattering of children under the age of 10. I will only put my daughter through such hardships if the request for punishment is voluntary.

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Again, we were the only people descending this route, which seems preposterous as it is a much easier drop than the Kango path that we took on the ascent. I would much rather climb an impossibly steep trail than suffer through a knee-knocking descent. Besides, isn’t a clockwise circumambulation a sign of respect to the deities?

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The route, to our utter astonishment, skirts a concrete forest road in immaculate condition. The concrete follows a mountain stream until terminating at a corrugated-metal structure housing a pulley system for transporting supplies to the mountain huts. With the system resembling that of a ski gondola, it’s no wonder they just don’t open a proper ropeway for lazy tourists. Perhaps that is something in the works in time for the 2020 Olympics, in which one of the events will probably be ‘Sacred Peak Bagging’.

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Adjacent to the gondola structure is what can only be described as a public works project gone awry, a virtual lego-block, multi-tiered network of concrete dams that rises the entire length of the valley to source of the stream itself. One strong volcanic tremor would likely send the entire structure cascading down to the trailhead far below. Despite Hakusan’s designation as both a national park and one of Japan’s 3 most sacred peaks, the environmental destruction continues unchecked.

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Back in the treeline, the trail meandered through a pristine forest of towering hardwoods. In these healthy forests, I always scan the tops of the larger trees in order to catch sight of any black bears lounging in the natural hammocks above the chaos below. Pausing beneath once such tree, I raised the lens, only to find later upon closer inspection that there may have been an ursine beast lazing in the afternoon sun. You be the judge.

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Fumito and I were both in pain by the time we reached the shuttle bus stop at the trailhead. My shoes have overstayed their welcome, creating hotspots on my battered feet from the worn-out treads and weakened cushioning system. Or maybe I’m just getting too old for these 1500-meter vertical ascent/descent day hikes.

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Every summer, from roughly mid-June to the middle of July, a stationary front settles in over the western half of Japan, bringing long periods of uninterrupted rainfall. Known in Japanese as the tsuyu (plum rains), this torrential rain can often bring landslides, flooding, and treacherous hiking conditions. There’s a public holiday called Marine Day that is conveniently placed at the end of this wet spell. Mother Nature, however, doesn’t necessarily decide to move her weather front out of the archipelago on exactly the same day every year, which can leave hikers in a bit of a predicament. So started my quest to climb the highest mountain west of the Japan Alps.

The overnight bus pulled into Kanazawa station, where I searched out for the bus stop to Bettodai , the starting point for the long climb up Hakusan, whose Chinese characters translate as White Mountain. Known for its deep drifts in the winter, the peak is a straightforward climb up a steep valley filled with wonderful flowers and lingering patches of snow. As the bus raced up the valley towards the trailhead, the rivers flowed in a torrent of chocolate brown, the dams overflowing with debris amidst a thundering roar of whitewater. The rain continued to fall steadily as a looked around at the half a dozen other passengers. After disembarking, I headed to the small shelter of the bus stop, put on the rain gear, and marched steadily towards the treeline. My plan was simple: hike up to the high point and head south along the ridge, pitching camp at the flatlands of Nanryu.

A third of the way up, I ran into my first group of nylon-clad hikers. “Oh your pack is way too loose”, quipped the fearless middle-aged leader. Grabbing the load lifters, he pulled on them as tightly as they would go, unaware that I was intentionally wearing them loose to keep the weight off my shoulders and onto my hips. I let out a gentle squeal, grimaced as inconspicuously as I could, dropping the pack off my torso the minute the group started on the trail ahead of me. I intentionally gave them an extra long head start lest I bumped into them again and Mr. know-it-all tried to offer more backpacking tips. The higher up the valley I headed, the thicker the cloud cover. Soon I disappeared from view all-together, stumbling across a decrepit-looking emergency shelter in the flower fields before Murodo. Resting briefly, I munched on some chocolate to help restore the stamina. I had hardly slept on the overnight bus, and the constant frigid rain meant any breaks were life-threatening. After what seemed like an eternity, the trail I was on ran head-long into the large hut and temple complex just below the high point of Gozen-hou. The temperature was hovering around freezing, with a strong wind blowing rain every direction imaginable. I couldn’t fathom having to camp in this dreadful weather, so I did what any sensible mountaineer would have done and checked into the hut. Since I wasn’t having meals, the hut staff directed me to an adjacent building, where I joined a dozen or so other brave souls who were cooped up for the night. After warming myself with a hot cup of tea, I ventured back out into the murk to reach the summit, officially checking mountain #18 off the list.

The next day the weather fared no better, but in my stubbornness I kept with the program and headed up and over Mt. Bessan anyway. The trail dropped for an hour or so to Nanryu, where the hut and campsite lay exposed to the wicked wind and fiery rains. I had to keep moving to stay warm, so I sped past the hut and up the ridge towards the exposed rocks of my target peak’s bare figure. I only encountered one other soul, who, crouched behind a rock just shy of the top, warned me of the dangers:  “strong wind, cold”. I was in my red nylon super rainsuit, but knew he must have been suffering in his plaid shirt and wrinkled cotton vest. I continued along the ridge as if in a trance, reaching the emergency hut on the other side of San-no-mine just before 3pm. Dropping my gear, I sat on the wooden sleeping platform, took a deep breath, and declared that I would walk no further that day. I had a dry and warm place to sleep, and my only other option was to descend to the valley below and camp in what must surely be a swampland. My only predicament was where to find water. Grabbing my water filter, I went around the back of the hut and started trying to pump rain water from some nearby puddles. I had only managed to get about 200ml of liquid before giving up in frustration. “There has to be a snowfield around here,” I exclaimed. With a new sense of urgency, I went into hunting mode, scanning the fog-covered horizon in search of a sign of snow. Unfortunately, snow and fog happen to be nearly the same hue of white, so my only option was to find with my feet what I couldn’t sense with my eyes. Climbing the crest of a hill behind the hut, I shot down the other side, slipping on a patch of slushy white gold. Snow! And remarkably close to the hut as well. I filled up a pot full of frozen crystals and went to work, melting enough snow for not only tonight’s dinner, but enough to see me off the mountain the following day.

No other souls presented themselves at the hut the rest of the day. I cooked, cleaned and organized, collapsing in my sleeping bag shortly after the darkness enveloped the mountain. Listening to the sounds of the steady rain ricocheting off the metal roof, I silently praised myself for my decision to overnight here. The rain continued on well into the next morning, as I kept thinking of excuses to delay my departure. Eventually the thoughts of a warm bath proved too great to refuse, and I slipped out of my warm home and down the steep spur into the forest. I stumbled across several large snakes who were probably not used to have their stomping grounds invaded. The trail looked as if it had received only a handful of visitors this year alone, but thankfully there were enough signposts to make things navigable. Once at the campground, I peered at the bus timetable only to discover that it had been discontinued! I was in the middle of nowhere and a long way from anything, but at least the rain had finally let up. No cars to hitch a ride from, and no one to ask for directions. I knew the hot spring lie at the bottom of this valley, but walking there on a sealed asphalt road in the mist was easily of the worst things I had done in my short time in Japan. It took nearly 2 hours before I reached the bathhouse, which fortunately was open. I had a relaxing bath while trying to sort out the bus, which didn’t seem to be running today. In fact, there didn’t seem to be much traffic at all. The bath owner suggested that I should try to hitch out of there, so after my cleansing I walked out to the main road and stuck out my thumb. A prefectural utility truck pulled over and ushered me in. “There’s no train, so you’ll have to take a bus”, advised the government workers. They were out clearing debris from the road and warned me of the mudslides that had hit other parts of the prefecture. At Echigo-Ono station, I boarded an empty bus bound for Fukui station, but still couldn’t understand why I couldn’t take the train.

The bus scooted along abandoned roads, following a heavily swollen river that had emptied its contents into the neighboring villages. The locals were sweeping water and mud out of their homes and storefronts. Apparently while I was braving the elements at Murodo, the river jumped the banks and flooded not only Fukui city, but most of the houses between there and Echizen-Ono. To make matters worse, the train line lie in a twisted contortion along the banks of the river, stripped of its foundations. I now knew the reason for the lack of trains, and wondered if such a rural line with only 1 track would ever get rebuilt. I considered myself extremely lucky to have been able to make it out of there at all. If the flood waters had crested only a few days later, then I surely would have been trapped.

White Mountain gave me nothing but trouble. I’ve heard it’s a lovely peak. There are even some scenic volcanic lakes dotted around the summit, but I never got to experience the beauty of the place. Perhaps a re-visit is in order, but only during the dry season.

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