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Posts Tagged ‘Hiking in Japan’

There are some mountains that seem to be cursed, with an unseen force placing obstacles in your way as if subtly suggesting you stay away.  Mt. Kuruhi is one such peak. It all started around 15 years ago during a winter visit to the rustic hot spring town of Kinosaki in northern Hyōgo Prefecture. Kanako and I drop our things at a minshuku on the edge of town and walk along route 3 and under the tracks of the JR San’in line to the trailhead. We are greeted with a rotting snow base of 70 centimeters, so on go the crampons as we head up an incredibly steep and unstable spur. The further we climb, the more rotten the snow. We manage a modest 100 meters of vertical elevation gain before making the wise choice to retreat back to the hot spring baths. Mt. Kuruhi would have to wait for another time, preferably during the green season.

Fast forward to January 2020 as I search for a hike to usher in the new decade. A brief pocket of high pressure moves in over the Sea of Japan, bringing a rare day of sunshine sandwiched between days of continuous rain and cloud. Due to the unusually warm winter, the first snowfalls have yet embraced the Kansai region, so I bite the bullet and board the 7:32am train for Kinosaki. The train departs under leaden skies and enters a thick blanket of fog soon after navigating the tunnels to Kamioka. The mist is thick and accompanies me for most of the 2-1/2 hour train journey. It is only after reaching Toyooka city to the far north does the sun start to vaporize the mist. A brilliant shade of blue shines in its place.

I alight among the weekend crowds and make my way over to the ticket counter to purchase the return leg of my journey, and settle on the 3:30pm train. That will give me 5-1/2 hours to hit the peak and an onsen, which should be more than enough time, right?  I exit the station amidst a strong winter gale blowing in from the north, forcing me to reach for the hat and gloves. Route 3 is just as I remember it, a flat thoroughfare squeezed between the train tracks and the banks of the Maruyama river. There’s hardly room for a shoulder on this thin stretch of highway, so I pick up the pace and duck behind tufts of overgrown weeds to avoid those careless truck drivers who never budge an inch. I always wonder if it’s some kind of sadistic game for these lunatics, whizzing as close to pedestrians as they possibly can as their way of showing us who’s boss.

It takes about 20 minutes to reach the turnoff to the trailhead, but I am blocked by a wall of construction cranes barring my way. The good old end-of-year construction is in full force, as the river bank “needs” an extra layer of concrete to help keep those flood waters at bay. Through the fenced off forest road I can literally see the trailhead 50 meters ahead, but the gatekeeping flagmen point to a road sign indicating the need for a long detour to start my hike. Although there is no construction in progress on the trailhead side of the road, I am denied entry and have no other choice but to comply with their demands. I continue walking past the construction zone and turn into a small hamlet, completing a large and unnecessary doubling back to reach the start of the hike. This will add an extra 30 minutes to an already tight schedule.

The detour takes me past weathered houses and down a narrow lane running between rice fields on my right and vegetable gardens tucked up against the steep slopes of the mountain to my left. Barking sounds soon emanate from a patch of napa cabbage as a 20-strong troupe of macaques flee my abrupt invasion. They know they’re not supposed to be raiding the farmers fields but they’re also far from amused to be caught in the act. While most retreat to the trees, the alpha stands ground, hissing as me as I avoid eye contact and make myself appear as big as possible until reaching a wider section of road where I can give him proper berth.

Once past the primate menace I duck through a fence erected across the road and reach the trailhead under completely different conditions from my last winter climb there. The lack of snow is clear, but unfortunately the mountain is still in the process of drying out from a series of rain spells. I strip down to my base layer and shoulder my pack up the steep switchbacks toward the top of the spur. The exposure here is real and I question my decision to have even attempted this peak in the snow. A pair of buddhist statues have been erected every several hundred meters or so, serving not only as trail markers but also to pay homage to Mt Kuruhi’s Shugendō roots.

The views really open up as the track navigates through a narrow tussock of head-high boulders, revealing salivating river views directly below. The noise of the construction cranes breaks the silence here, so I continue up through a nice section of oak and maple to the top of the ridge. I reach the top of the spur, simply known as the 304m peak, with a sign indicating that the summit is just a 55-minute stroll away. In the back of my mind, I ponder having a quick break to rehydrate but suppress those urges as the summit looks so close from here, with just a quick drop to a saddle and what must be an easy climb along switchbacks to the top.

I drop to the bottom of the col and past a series of mossy boulders for the start of the climb which, to my utter disbelief, goes straight up the northern face of the peak. Devoid of ropes, trees, and anything else to aid with progress, it soon becomes a battle with gravity and the weathered soil. Due to the steep angle, the trail acts to funnel rainwater down the mountain slopes like a giant slip-and-slide. Leaf litter, twigs and rocks have all been swept clean in a recent downpour, leaving a clear track of very wet mud to plod through. Progress grinds to a halt as a struggle ensues to inch up the near-50-degree slopes. At one point, I slip upward, kissing the ground with my face as I slide a few meters downward on my belly. Surely the ghosts of the fallen mountain ascetics are shaking their heads at me now.

After brushing the mud off my face, I change tack and climb off trail by grabbing onto tree limbs and pulling myself up to finally reach the upper parts of the peak, where the angle gives a bit. A grove of beech trees make an unscheduled appearance, and at only 400 meters in vertical elevation, must surely be some of the lowest beech trees in Japan, as most grow above 800 meters in elevation in most of central and southern Honshū.  The summit plateau finally starts to appear above and after a few hundred horizontal meters of non-eventful walking, I reach a toppled tree blocking the path. There is no away around it except to squeeze under it, so back into the mud I go, squirming through like a skillful salamander.

The path soon splits, and my map tells me to head left to Hachijō-iwa. I reach the rock formation and am greeted by a statue of Fudo Myo-o carved into a rock. The stone offers excellent views and would make for a great place for a Shugendō priest to chant, which was surely done in the earlier times. The vantage point also affords vistas of the entire Tajima Province, so no doubt a feudal lord or two made their way up here to keep an eye on their kingdom. I consider pausing here for lunch but am content on feasting when I reach the summit. I continue on, only to find a giant NHK antenna and paved road greeting me upon my arrival. This place truly is cursed.

“Have a seat” beckons a speckled gray-haired gentleman, offering a sweet roll from his lunchtime stash. “I drove up here for birdwatching” explains my host, pointing to his white utility vehicle parked just a few meters away. Our talk naturally turns to mountains, and despite my initial disgust for the summit desecration, I warm up to my host and am shocked to find out that he has climbed 90 of the Hyogō 100, a venerable list of a hundred mountains all situated within the prefectural boundaries of Hyōgo. He points to the folding rows of peaks on the horizon and namedrops: Higashi-Tokonoo, Awaga, Ōe, Hyōnosen, Aoba. These are all part of the Kansai and Kinki Hyakumeizan, but his knowledge of the area is far greater than mine, as he points to smaller, lesser known summits that he has explored. You could literally climb a different mountain every day your entire adult life and still not climb every mountain in Japan.

He offers me a coffee and we continue chatting about mountains and birds, the lack of snow this winter, and a rustic mountain hut below the slopes of Daru-ga-mine that is host to an annual music festival. I could literally sit all day here in the sun, taking in the views and pleasant conversation, but a glace at my watch reveals that it is nearing 1 o’clock, and I’ll need to pick up the pace. Forgoing the urge to ask him for a ride, I shoulder the pack and trot off down the paved forest road, cutting switchbacks through steep trackless swaths of forest.

The signposts inform me that I am on a section of the Kinki Shizen Hodō, a 3200km loop trail circumnavigating the entire Kinki region. I’ve been on sections of this long-distance route throughout my various conquests, but the lack of consistent signposts has put me off attempting the entire track. Instead, I pick up sections here and there on the mountain ridges. The initial part of the trail follows the paved forest road but abruptly turns northeast at a hairpin turn. In my swtichback-cutting haste I miss the turnoff but turn back after confirming with the GPS that I am very far off route. Why does this mountain have it in for me?

Mistakes corrected, I blaze a competitive speedwalker pace towards the top of the ropeway at Mt Daishi. To ease the burden on my feet, I stick to the soft blankets of moss and mud on the shoulder of the road, gliding along skillfully as the ridge has done a complete 180-degree turn and I am now staring directly across a steep valley right back at Mt Kuruhi. The cacophony of giggling girls draws closer, and around a bend in the road I reach the bustling top of the Michelin-starred gondola. Frolicking holiday couples compete for selfie space among the narrow railings lining the observation deck. I gaze down at Kinosaki and shake my head at the monstrosity that was built to shuttle lazy visitors 50 vertical meters above the town below.

With good riddance I duck back into the forest towards Onsen-ji temple. The rocky path meanders under the ropeway for just a short distance of 500 meters to the temple. I accelerate the pace, bounding off the stones like a mogul skier on a world record run, full of confidence and dreaming of the soothing bath waters just minutes away. Those that let their guard down always pay the price, however,  and sure enough, as if on cue, my feet slip out from under me and I go airborne, mimicking the moves of a pro wrestler as I land flat on my back, body slamming my camera between the ground and my rucksack. I break the fall with my wrists, sending sharp pains up both biceps as I let our a curdling stream of obscenities. I stand up slowly with my camera rolling down the path as I realize that it is not longer attached to me. The force of the impact has completely destroyed my camera strap. The lens and body seem to be working fine, however, so I stuff the camera into my pack and continue at a much more cautious pace.

The two-story pagoda soon comes into view, and after passing through the impressive temple gate I am back in town. The conveniently-situated Kōnoyu hot spring bath is just across the street so I limp over for a quick soak in the waters. It has taken me just 45-minutes for that last 5km stretch from the summit to here, giving me just enough time for a bath before a quick exploration of town before my train. The bath soothes my wounds but leaves me zapped of energy. My pace grinds to a crawl as I purchase a steamed crab bun and stroll down the streets in search of a coffee. Kinosaki has enjoyed quite the resurgence due to the tourist boom. Most of the shabbier buildings have either been torn down or renovated, giving a “little Kyoto” feel to this once-neglected hot spring town.

I reach the train station at 3:25pm and sink into my seat for the train ride home. Shortly after leaving the station, the skies open up in a fury, with lightning striking the surrounding peaks and the rain coming down in buckets. Anyone who says Kuruhi isn’t cursed need only spend a day in her unforgiving company.

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The rural hamlet of Ōhara in the northeastern corner of Kyoto city has been a well-known getaway destination for centuries, and on weekend mornings the 45-minute bus journey from Demachiyanagi station is usually filled to the brim with the tourist crowds. However, it’s more than just the temple hoppers that invade the town, as the village is completely surrounded by mountains, the most prominent of which is the sacred Tendai peak of Hieizan, whose lofty perch is usually visible from the main road on clear weather mornings. It will take about 6 hours to reach the summit from here, but that doesn’t stop the kaihogyo practitioners from their nightly runs along the ridge line towering directly above the bus stop.

Intrigued, I search for more information about this array of lesser-know peaks in Hieizan’s shadow and come across a list of 10 prominent peaks, known in Japanese as the 大原の里10名山. It turns out that two of the mountains (Minago and Minetoko) feature on the list of Kansai/Kinki Hyakumeizan, meaning that I only need to climb 8 additional peaks for this new goal.  So sets the stage for my goal to knock off the Ōhara 10.

Here are the Ohara 10:

Mt Minago (皆子山) – 972m

Mt Minetoko (峰床山) – 970m

Mt Naccho (ナッチョ aka 天ヶ森) – 813m

Mt Mizui (水井山) – 791m

Mt Ama (天ヶ岳) – 788m

Mt Yakesugi (焼杉山) – 718m

Mt Daibi (大尾山) – 681m

Mt Suitai (翠黛山) – 577m

Mt Konpira (金毘羅山) – 573m

Mt Hyōtankuzure (瓢箪崩山) – 532m

 

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It’s hard to believe that 7 years has already passed since our first meeting of the mountaineering minds in the grassy fields of Tokusawa. Each year, ‘the planning committee’ springs into action, doing the behind-the-scenes work to ensure that everyone is well-fed and warm enough to survive a night out among the elements. Last year’s gathering coincided with the Banff Mountain Film Festival, so it only seemed natural to once again pair these two auspicious events into one thrilling weekend in late October.

Since relocating to Minami Otari village earlier in the year, Paul D. is instrumental in persuading us to hold this year’s gathering at Amakazari Kōgen campground at the trailhead to Mt. Amakazari, a peak I have fond memories of summiting during my own Hyakumeizan quest.

Access to Minami Otari is by no means easy, so I head up a day early to explore what this lesser-known village has to offer. It also affords a chance to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen for the very first time, a train line that has had the unexpected consequence of transforming Kanazawa from a ‘Little Kyoto’ to a ‘Little Tokyo’. The skies are a brilliant blue on the smooth ride through the Hokuriku plains. Tsurugidake, Tateyama, and Yakushidake follow my progress through a white-capped gaze, my first time to ever view this spectacle from one of Japan’s most notorious regions for wet weather. Paul picks me up from the station and we head for sustenance at an idyllic soba shop housed in a traditional dwelling lit by hanging gas lanterns. In this part of Nagano, cold buckwheat noodles are dipped into a miso broth with an accent of ground sesame and walnuts, the toppings pulverized by mortar and pestle. Paul and I grind the spices into a fine powder before adding them to the succulent broth and feasting on the handmade strands of soba. Once the noodles are successfully consumed, the server brings a warm cauldron of soba yū to pour over the remaining broth for a hearty finale to a satisfying meal. Paul and I are both boosting with energy and head to forests in search of a hidden village.

The village is worthy of a separate blog post, so interested parties will just have to wait a little while longer for the details. We make it back to Hakuba village in time for a quick stop at the North Face store and dinner at a local bar. Heavy rain moves in overnight and continues steadily through the morning. Yuta has just arrived by overnight train and bus, so Paul and I swoop down to meet him. Looking for a place to escape the rain, we all head to Sounds Like Cafe, a trendy hangout for the local powder hipsters in the winter season. The cafe is nearly empty at this early hour, and the smoked salmon and mashed avocado breakfast plate really hits the spot, washed down by a cup of fresh coffee. We all gaze our attention to a stunning photograph of a small alpine pond with brilliant mirror reflections. We gander a quick guess before giving up on our search for the name of the elusive location. A few minutes later, Yuta scrolls through photos of his recent trip to Shimonoroka and low and behold, on a hidden plateau on a seldom-used path sits the very exact pond adorning the walls of the cafe – Yuta had been there just one week ago but had no idea he had visited the place!

After breakfast we stop by the local supermarket for supplies and run into drone-master Edward. After shopping we agree to reconvene at Paul’s apartment to wait out the weather. At the first hints of sunshine we head further up the valley by car to Amakazari campground, reaching the damp grasslands just as the sun starts to illuminate the hillsides ablaze in autumn color.

One by one our trusty companions arrive: Naresh, Bjorn and family from Tokyo, John from neighboring Matsumoto, Rie, Hisao and David from Nagoya, and last but not least Michal (RIP), who is always with us in spirit. We pitch our tents along a thin sliver of green grass and start preparing a late lunch/early dinner of kimchi hotpot. With everyone carefully engaged in dinner preparations, Naresh, Paul, Bjorn and I head to the wetlands to take in the autumn scenery. Paul forages for ripe sarunashi, the underrated kiwiberry fruit that grows wild in this region. After taking enough photos to fill several memory cards, we stroll back to camp and feast on warm soup and hot dogs!

Shortly before sunset we head by car to Iwatake ski field for the film festival. Due to the wet weather the location has been moved indoors, but we all appreciate the added heat that comes with assembling in the large multipurpose space. Just before showtime, we convince Kaoru and Alastair to join us, and Paul slips out on a marathon driving session through the backstreets of Hakuba to pick them up. He returns just in time for the start of the film festival.

The films this year are a mixed bag. Last year it was a thrilling ride from start to finish, with every film competing to outdo the last. We all left there with a feeling of awe and an invigorating drive to head to the hills. This year, however, there were a few duds mixed in among the more brilliant footage. Sky Migrations was one such letdown. While it is a somewhat fascinating look at migratory birds, it is best appreciated on a comfy sofa cuddled up to a loved one, and not really suitable for a crowd of extreme sports addicts.

After a quick group photo, we all head back to the campsite to start the campfire, but the damp air produces a very smoky outcome, with most of us suffering smoke inhalation well before the fire produced enough heat to keep us warm. Some of us turn our attention to star photography while others drift off into a shivered reverie.

I awake at dawn to the hum of a drone. Peering outside, I find Edward taking his craft for a spin. I join him for a ‘virtual’ tour of the sky above. Mt. Amakazari sits free of cloud but the Kita Alps are cloaked and the sunrise just fails to impress. Luckily no one had made the suggestion for a midnight climb of Amakazari to view the sunrise. The autumn foliage glows warmly in the first hues of the new day. One by one the camp denizens awaken from their slumber and start their day. Paul makes the suggestion to head to Kama Ike to check out the colors and most of us head there on the double. The calm air produces perfect mirror reflections on the surface of the clear mountain pond. The beech trees wear their yellow coats proudly and look down on the spectacle with an air of content. Whatever disappointment we suffered at the film festival is now lost in reflection.

Back to camp we eventually retreat for a leisurely breakfast and quick throw of the frisbee. For some reason this is always my favorite part of the gathering due to the peaceful and calm vibe at camp just before the resignation that it must come to an end. While most of camp heads to the open-air baths of Amakazari Onsen, John and I reluctantly retreat back to Matsumoto, where I eventually catch a train back to Osaka, but not before an impromptu takeaway pizza lunch in the aptly-named Alps Park, with its impressive view of Mt Jonen to help keep us company.

With the 7th annual event now behind us, it’s already time to start looking ahead to 2019 and the next gathering. Judging by our track record, it is sure to be a memorable event. Let’s hope that Grace the Yamaholic will make a much-welcome reappearance!

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Another autumn had arrived, almost as swiftly as the one that felt like it had just passed. The meant another meeting of the mountaineering minds in the form of our annual gathering. I think it was Paul who had mentioned Hakuba as a possible place for our rotating event, and with the Banff Mountain Film Festival passing through the area in late September, it seemed like a natural match.

Rie, Paul, Hisao and I all met in Nagoya for the 3-1/2 hour drive to Lake Aoki on the southern edge of the ski mecca of Hakuba. With Rie behind the wheel, it was a delightful drive fueled by the intense competition of our 4-way Name that Tune battle. Paul connected his phone to the car stereo and set thematic playlists on random while we all fought for the envious title of champion. The rules were simple: 1 point each for the Artist and the Song Title, followed by an extra point if you could name the movie in which it appeared. Points could be split between several people, and the first person to reach 25 points was crowned winner. We kick off the proceedings with the 80s, with Paul and I neck-and-neck to the very end. He won by just a point while we moved onto the 70s and 90s, where I was schooled pretty heavily.

Upon reaching the lakeside campground in the mid-afteroon, we were delighted to see that Naresh, Bjorn, Miguel, and Eri had already settled into camp. Miguel brought along his inflatable kayak along with a separate blow-up sofa that we all took turns inadvertently bouncing off of. In a move rarely seen in the past 5 gatherings, I set to work in the kitchen, cooking up some chicken and pasta that left the others flabbergasted. Usually in my role of host, I somehow manage to slip away during the busy prep work of dinner, but here I was taking the lead and actually serving other people for once. I have to admit that I wanted to get everyone stuffed and satisfied before we headed up to Iwatake ski resort for the main event. Miguel’s homemade moussaka was a big hit to say the list, and served as a delectable delicacy for our humbled minds and curious stomachs. Meanwhile, Viviana’s video chat from Austria made us feel nostalgic for the old days when she was stilling based here in Japan. Shortly after, we all gathered in front of Michal’s memorial tarp for group photo antics.

As the sun receded towards the horizon, we bought firewood and rented a foldable stove and waited to see if Ed would arrive in time for the film festival. He was running a bit behind schedule, so he agreed to meet us at the campsite afterwards as the 7 of us crammed into Naresh’s minivan for the 20-minute ride to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. This annual film festival tours the world, and every year reaches Japan’s shores in the busy autumn season. However, there is usually only one outdoor showing in Japan, with the other dozen or so viewings relegated to a stuffy indoor theater. It seems silly to watch mountaineering films in the warm comforts of the theater instead of natural surroundings in the open air, which is why we all decided to descend onto the dew-covered slopes of Iwatake. The pre-show festivities were already in full swing upon arrival, with a live DJ spinning some smooth house tunes and a half dozen food and beverage vendors spread out in front of the ski lodge. A slackline even made a guest appearance as Paul rubbed elbows with a few school children who were using the contraption as a makeshift trampoline.

The festival started promptly, and upon entry we were all presented a free gift from the masters of headgear over at Buff, the main sponsor of the event. We all received different designs, with the lucky ones the recipient of a 100% merino wool head wrap, which retails for just over 5000 yen. Considering that entry to the festival is only 1500 yen, we all considered ourselves ahead of the game, even for us unlucky few that were given 100% cotton head garments in lieu of the high-quality sheep hair. A drone flew over the crowd to shoot a promotional video for Buff, and we were all encouraged to show off our gifts.

55 Hours in Mexico, a short film created by Outdoor Research, kicked off the festival documenting a weekend assault of Mexico’s Orizaba, the third highest mountain in North America . That was followed up by Doing it Scared, an inspirational tale of a British climber overcoming a disability to tackle a spire that was the cause of his crippling accident. When We Were Knights, the tragic story of a fallen wingsuit diver, brought tears to everyone’s eyes while Young Guns showed off two teenage prodigies that are now treading new ground in the realm of Sport Climbing. After a brief intermission, the second half of the festival commenced with Danny MacAskill showing us all that anything is possible and impossible on a mountain bike. Next up came a backcountry ski mission to Alaska where a handful of gravity defiers swooped down near-vertical walls of powder snow to the gasps and yelps of the snow-hungry locals here in Hakuba. The evening ended with the Reel Rock classic A Line Across the Sky following Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s traverse of the Fitzroy massif in Patagonia. By the time the show was finished, our jaws were sore from having them hanging nonstop in gaped misbelief while watching the truly inspiring footage.

Once back at camp, we set up the campfire and told stories until well past our bedtime. We brought Michal’s photo over from his memorial tarp that we had erected in the campsite. This tarp was given to me by his widow and I vowed to carry on his memory for as long as we continue to hold these annual gatherings. Ed fired up his drone to show us the horsepower but we held off on the surveillance footage for the time being.

 

The next morning dawned bright and clear, with pleasant early-autumn skies. After a brief visit down to the lakeshore to catch up with Justin, we spend most of the morning trying to finish our leftover food between turns in the kayak. Miguel’s moussaka and Bjorn’s pancakes kept our stomachs filled to capacity, with sips of coffee and chai thrown in for good measure. Paul tried very hard into coaxing me into a climb to Yari onsen, but I just wasn’t feeling up for it. The weeks of exhaustion from climbing four major peaks in the Minami Alps had caught up with me, and I needed a proper rest to fully recover. Regretfully, I had to turn down the very tempting offer to accompany him and we all ended up heading back to Nagoya, but not before stopping off at an onsen and indulging on the Kurobe dam curry. We also had a rematch of Name That Tune, with songs from the 50s that I had once again lost by mixing up Elvis and the Beatles and calling the new group ‘Beavis’. Miguel and Eri headed back to Kobe, Naresh back to Tokyo, Ed on his way to Ueda, and before we knew it another gathering had come to an end, but not before some obligatory lakeside drone photos.

 

This year’s gathering was very small compared to the ones in the past. It’s a tough call: have it in a touristy place such as Kamikochi and several dozen will show up, but host it in a far-off place that you need to go out of your way to find and only the most dedicated and hardcore attend. I think I know which one I prefer.

 

 

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The Calendar Footage

Now that the official Hiking in Japan wall calendar has been released, I’m starting a new monthly series on the Tozan Tales about each mountain that made the final cut. Those in possession of the calendar can get some interesting ‘behind the scenes’ footage while learning more about some of Japan’s lesser-known summits. There’s still time to procure one if you’re looking for a great holiday gift. An added bonus is that you can start using the calendar immediately, since the first month is December 2017.

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The Gathering V

It’d been a rough summer for everyone, especially when the news trickled down from the slopes of the Eiger. We’d lost one of our own, a member of our extended family who had attended the second and fourth meetings of the mountaineering minds. I knew this one would be for Michal, but where would be the best place? Back at Kamikochi, where I first had the pleasure of meeting him? Or a return to Suzuka, which turned out to be our very last encounter?

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The answer, it turned out, proved to be none-of-the-above, as Rie put forth a location in southern Nagano by the name of Jimbagatayama. The 1400-meter summit affords views of both the Minami and Chuo Alps, two places that were like a second home to our fallen hero. Rie, Miguel, Eri, Paul, Naresh, Tomomi and I settled on a date in early November and commenced with the all-important preparation.

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On Friday, November 4th, I boarded an early evening train to Nagoya to crash on Paul’s floor. Being based in Chubu would save an early morning train ride at the crack of dawn and allowed the two of us to catch up since last hiking together during Golden Week. Paul was busy preparing two pots of chili in the kitchen and I jumped right in to offer assistance. Between stirs of the simmering chili pot, Paul told me a little about his trip to Kyrgyzstan and his other recent mountaineering endeavors. He set up the computer as we accessed Michal’s Vimeo account and downloaded all of his self-shot and edited videos for use at the next day’s event.

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Rie showed up at our door at 7am the following morning. Paul shared some banana cake that the Yamaholic had sent him in thanks for the laptop he’d sent to her. Unfortunately, the Yamaholic would be unable to attend this year’s gathering, but her presence was felt with every bite of our morning meal.  We loaded the kit into the back of Rie’s car and sped off to the bakery to pick up focaccia sandwiches and other finger bites from a local bakery. Before heading to Nagano, we needed to help Rie recce the highest mountain in Kasugai city for an upcoming school excursion. Never underestimate a 400 meter mountain. What looked like a small hill from the parking lot turned out to be a lot tougher than initially thought. The trail climbs to the ridge and then follows the Tokai Shizen Hodo for a while before topping out on the summit of Mt. Miroku, which afforded hazy vistas of Ontake and Hakusan.

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Once back at the car, we drove under Enasan and into Nagano Prefecture towards Jimbagata. Due to a bit of miscommunication, we detoured slightly to Komagane to pick up Joseph, who just managed to squeeze into the back seat among all of our warm weather camping gear. Rie navigated the tight switchbacks of the forest road with ease, as we pulled into the barricaded path to the campground entrance. Miguel had warned us on an earlier message that parking would be extremely limited due to construction on part of the campground. The Hiking in Japan members sprung into action, and with everyone’s assistance we had our cache of gear hauled into camp. Shelters were set up on an attractive stretch of grass on the edge of the plateau.

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While the weather still held, I gathered up the troops for the short walk to the summit of Jimbagata, where we admired the views and gathered around the lens for a group photo. En route I ran into Ian Kerr, a fellow hiking enthusiast and fellow member of the Hiking in Japan group who happened to be on the mountain by chance. He gladly joined us on the summit and we had an opportunity to chat a bit about the mountains. With over 1700 members of the Facebook community, you’re bound to run into fellow armchair mountaineers wherever you go.

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The panoramic views coaxed us into peak-dropping, as our fingers pointed to mountains on the horizon. The entire Minami and Chuo Alps were visible from our perch, sans Hououzan and Kai-koma, which were concealed behind the broad flank of Mt. Senjo. Members eventually trickled back down to camp in order to commence meal preparations. Tomomi had yet to arrive, so we couldn’t start the campfire since we were waiting for her portable fireplace to arrive – open fires are not permitted on the plateau in order to preserve the delicate ecosystem. An emergency hut stands adjacent to the tent sites, and it would make for a great refuge in foul weather if not for the scaffolding surrounding its sturdy walls. The hut is currently undergoing renovations, and rumor has it that the new hut will be staffed and will charge for future accommodation.

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The sun began to drop behind the Chuo Alps, which sent us all into a frenzy to catch the alpenglow on the Minami Alps. Naresh broke out his camera, as Paul contemplated doing a time lapse shot, but decided that the scenery was too good to capture with just one shot. Just at the brilliant hues of crimson and ochre reached their climax, my phone vibrated with news that Tomomi and Midori had arrived. I dropped back down to the campsite and recruited a few members to help us all ferry the supplies to camp. Since the regular parking lot was closed for renovations, it was a long walk of about 8 minutes from the temporary lot to the campsite, but we all pitched in without the slightest bit of hesitation. Alastair had to regretfully head back to Lake Suwa for a soccer game the following morning, which must have been a difficult decision as the celebration was just getting started.

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By now our small camp was thriving with activity. Guacamole was being prepared by Bjorn and company, while Rie cooked savory garlic ajillo over the campstove. Paul stirred the chili while Miguel got started on the campfire. Tomomi and Baku mixed the greek salad as Midori broke out the bottles of Nagano wine for all of us to sample. The drop of the sun behind the horizon sent the temperatures plummeting, which in turn sent us all scrambling for extra layers of clothing and jostling for a smoke-free space around the campfire. The wind kept changing directions, so we all had our bouts of smoke inhalation. When the fiery coals built up enough, Tomomi stuck the dutch oven on the fire while Paul set up the laptop. We streamed Michal’s videos and reflected on the inspiration he provided to us all. I had brought a framed photo of Michal that Paul set up in an empty chair. It still felt like a dream to us, like Michal was just out on a holiday and would be back any day now. Three months is still too early to get over the loss of a loved one, but we knew that Michal would still want us to carry on, to live life to the fullest and to spend quality time with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. When I first set up the Hiking in Japan community on Facebook, I truly thought it would just be a way to promote my website. Little did I know that it would take on a life of its own and would serve as a catalyst to bring a core group of hikers together to share their experiences and create everlasting memories.

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After an hour or so, Tomomi took the dutch oven off the fire and opened the lid to reveal baked chicken, potatoes, onions that were cooked to perfection. Just as in the previous four gatherings, we had way more food than could possibly be finished by us all, but it’s much better to be over-prepared than to come up short-handed. We barely had room for Smores, but a few token sandwiches were made with Naresh’s jumbo-sized marshmallows. Viviana made a guest appearance via Skype while we passed the phone around. With bellies threatening to burst, several of us left the comfort of the campfire to re-climb the summit of Jimbagata in search of meteors. The Leonids were just beginning their annual celestial display, and with the sunken crescent moon, the stargazing conditions were prime. We craned our necks and managed to see a dozen or so of the shooting stars over the course of 90 minutes or so. Paul was particularly apt at finding the streaking light as I always seemed to be looking in the wrong part of the sky. Still, we had fun trying to play with the camera settings to capture the night spectacle.

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Sometime after midnight, we all retreated to the warmths of our sleeping bags. I collapsed almost immediately, and the next morning I was one of the last to rise. The sleeping bag was much too warm to squirm out of to enjoy the sunrise, so I laid under the tarp while the early risers prepared breakfast and stoked the fire back to life. Joseph set up a coffee bar in the corner of the sheltered cooking area while Miguel and Rie made hot panini sandwiches. Bjorn worked the griddle magic and passed fresh pancakes around to all. Eri cooked scrambled eggs over the campfire. Everyone was pitching in to cook something except me. I was selfishly wondering around in a bit of a daze, too exhausted and clumsy to be able to lend anyone a hand, something for which I regret. Naresh made fresh chai for everyone until being interrupted by an urgent telephone call. He had a serious, troubled look on his face. I sensed that he had just been the recipient of some bad news.  It turns out he had a family emergency and needed to get back to Tokyo as early as possible. We rearranged for Bjorn and family to ride with Midori while I helped Naresh gather his belongings and saw him off as he sped back to Tokyo.

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The first rays of warm sunshine filtered through the campsite, which put us all in a bit of a lazy trance. We were all having way too much fun and didn’t want it to end. The cleanup began slowly at first, as we all put off the inevitable. We managed to break down camp shortly before noon and posed for one last group photo before disbanding. Paul, Rie, and I headed back to Nagoya but not before stopping on the banks of the Tenryu river for one final glimpse of the Chuo Alps. Miguel and Rie also stopped by, as Paul brought back our juvenile spirit by showing us the best way to roll down a grass embankment.

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All in all it was another successful event, that never would have been possible without everyone’s assistance and support. I tend to put off making a decision about the annual gathering until the last minute, too distracted and sidetracked by other things going on in my life. In an effort to amend this, Paul suggest we make a decision about the 2017 gathering while we had the momentum.  With the Banff Mountain Film Festival making its tour of Japan in September, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tether our annual gathering to this unique collection of film shorts. And since Hakuba hosts the festival in a rare open-air theater, it seemed like our next gathering was just destined to stay in Nagano. And so it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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