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Posts Tagged ‘Hokuriku’

The JR Kosei line shuttles Kyoto residents to and from Tsuruga city, providing a much-needed link between the Kansai and Hokuriku regions. The rail line hugs the western shores of Lake Biwa and service is often delayed in the winter due to high winds and horizontal snow conditions as the Siberian weather patterns push down from the north. A high-pressure weather pattern finally settles in, bringing stable conditions and an opportunity for a winter rematch with the Makino mountains of northwestern Kansai. Minami and I board at Kyoto station and sit on the left side in order to inspect snow conditions for our imminent climb. You can literally follow the snow line north as our carriage slithers past a bare Hieizan and under the snow-tinged ridge of the Hira mountains. Once past Omi-Takashima station, snow starts appearing on the flatlands, and once we alight at Makino station the surrounding ridges are cloaked in cape of thick white. Excitement builds with a tinge of trepidation – is there a path up that crystal fortress?

We strap on our snow gear and crunch through the frozen snowpack at the base of the mountain, following the footprints left by climbers flocking here during yesterday’s holiday. We have purposely chosen a weekday in order to avoid a bottleneck as well as to limit our chances of being buried by loosened snow of parties climbing above us. The slopes of the abandoned ski field we follow sit idle and neglected, a reminder of the fallout of the collapse of the skiing boom of the 1980s. We settle into our own pace, as I make steady progress in my snowshoes while Minami struggles with her spartan choice of 6-point crampons, which make the going tough as the snow starts to melt.

An early morning veil of cloud begins to break up, revealing patches of blue that the weather forecast had predicted. The route goes straight up the ski slopes before branching south to reach a broad spur and the start of a narrow traverse to reach the far end of the mountain slope. We take our time here, doing our best to avoid the leg-breaking drops to our left while literally hugging the snow on the uphill side. Conditions will certainly be worse in the afternoon, so I make mental notes of the terrain and store them inside my brain for safe keeping. We reach the junction on the far side and take a break so Minami can strap on her wakan. I strip down to just a short-sleeved shirt and the temperatures begin to rise well above freezing. Conditions feel decidedly late March despite this early February morning.

3.5 kilometers separate us from the summit ridge line, and it becomes immediately apparent that this will be anything but a gentle stroll in the mountains. The path meanders on a series of switchbacks, littered with the trace of yesterday’s climbers who have forgone the switchbacks on their hasty descents back to civilization. We stick mostly to the established switchbacks, except for the impromptu detours around snapped branches and toppled trees littering the track. We reach the crest of the first spur, an unnamed peak at an elevation of 562 meters flanked by an immense beech tree. A clearing on the southeastern edge of the plateau affords a view down towards Makino town and the famed avenue of metasequoia trees. We fashion a viewing bench by clearing away tufts of snow and settle down to a break of chocolate and take in the mesmerizing views.

The respite gives us an extra pep in our snowy steps as we reach a saddle and are faced with a long, demoralizing climb as we realize just how far we have to go – the ridge above still looks tiny and inaccessible from our vantage point. We push on through an immense forest of native beech trees creating a spidery network of shadows as the sun finally breaks through the clouds. With the rise in temperatures, the snow turns wet and heavy, weighing our feet down as we push through the soggy mess. A skier carefully works his way down from the slope directly ahead, cursing the conditions as he slides slowly though the weighty snowpack. There’s nothing to do except to lower our heads and push on.

An hour further on, and the tree cover finally begins to spread, revealing a spectacular glimpse of Hakusan and her majestic figure smothered in wintry white. This helps lifts the spirits, as well as our pace, as the first nippy breezes pushing in from the Sea of Japan strike our sweaty figures. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and push on through the improving snow conditions that the higher altitude brings. Soon we are faced with a steep climb on a bald knuckle of land that flattens out completely on the crest of the hill – the summit is reached!

Kanpū (寒風), which translates as ‘winter wind’, lives up to its name as we dig a bunker to protect us from the frigid gales duriung our well-deserved lunch break. The wind is at our backs as we gaze out over Hakusan and the rest of the peak scattered throughout the Hokuriku region. Far to the left or Hakusan, barely visible on the horizon, lies a wall of white peaks that can be no other than the Ushiro-Tateyama section of the Northern Alps. Who thought that such spectacles await those who put in the effort in the clear air of winter to reach such hidden heights of Kansai, which feel absolutely alpine despite their modest height of 853 meters.

After my winter accident, I never thought I could once again feel comfortable in the snow-capped mountains, but sitting here in my bald perch, I can once again see the appeal and attraction of the winter season. The key is with both the choice of the mountain and the timing. Oh – and a little navigational help goes a long way. Still, I feel completely content with just one snowy ascent a year, and what a gem of a hike await those who venture into the Makino mountains to feel the untamed beauty of northern Kansai. It is these thoughts that fill my head as Minami and I once again retreat back to the stillness of the beech forests, leaving behind the expansive vistas of Lake Biwa spreading out before us.

Snow conditions are even sloppier on the descent, but our footfalls are careful and calculated, as they should be on any mountain pursuit really. The climb down through the smooth snow takes just a fraction of the time, spurred on as we are by the promise of a hot bath at the trailhead. During this pandemic, I always try to avoid crowded places, and on this particular Friday afternoon we are rewarded for our effort by having the hot spring pretty much to ourselves. I head straight to the outdoor bath, letting the soothing waters penetrate my throbbing calf muscles while studying the ridge line we had just left an hour earlier. I will definitely be back, hopefully before the summer rains, when I can hopefully get another glimpse of Hakusan in her brilliant kimono of white.

 

 

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I thought my snowshoe hiking was done for the season. With temperatures already exceeding 20 degrees and the snow in the Kansai region but just a distant memory, I resign myself to a few easy hikes while waiting for the pollen to subside. In comes a text from my friends Hisao and Haru in Nagoya with an invite to climb Mt. Nōgohakusan in southern Gifu Prefecture, but the approach becomes daunting due to construction work on the forest road leading to the trailhead. To make matters worse, Haru drops out due to family commitments, so Hisao and I brainstorm ideas for a new target. I casually mention that I have never climbed Mt Dainichi-ga-take in northern Gifu and he enthusiastically jumps into action.

Right on cue, a cold pressure system moves in over the Sea of Japan, depositing fresh powder on our peak in the days leading up to our scheduled ascent. I board a nearly deserted Shinkansen train to Nagoya, ground zero for the coronavirus infection slowly gaining ground here in Japan. Donning a mask and cautious of what I touch, I make it to Hisao’s local station and we head off to a discount shop to purchase food for the hike. We hit the hay early, as the alarm is set for 4:45am. We are on the road by 5am under clear skies tinted yellow by the pollen and aeolian dust wafting through the air. Dense fog takes over after that, guiding us over a mountain pass and down into a broad valley in northern Gujō city where we break out of the clouds and are greeted with a sight to behold –  the towering white face of Dainichi staring us straight in the eye.

Hisao guides his Honda to the trailhead shortly before 7am under a cloudless sky. Half a dozen other cars sit in the narrow snow-covered parking lot as we sort through gear in eager anticipation of our climb. We’ve chosen the summer route, a path that Hisao has climbed once before. When heading to the mountains in winter, it is best to go to a place that at least one member of your party is familiar with. He assures me that it’s a straightforward route, but as we stare up at the summit plateau, the distance looks formidable. Can we really make it up there in just 3 hours?

The snow is patchy at the start, but I tempt fate by strapping on my snowshoes in the parking lot, surmising that it will be easier here where the snow is just centimeters deep. A narrow gully awaits us as we place our first footfalls into the soft snow. Hisao has opted to keep his wakan strapped to his pack, a wise decision as we soon reach a steep climb dominated by tree roots sticking out from under a thin covering of snow. It is tricky work in snowshoes, but I maintain a careful placement of footsteps until the snow becomes deeper with each successive gain in elevation. A few steep sections later and we pop out on the main ridge glistening with fresh powder snow – not something we expect to find on the second day of spring.

There is a clear trace to follow, but such footsteps were not designed with snowshoes in mind, so I spend most of the time forging my own path directly adjacent to the footprints. I sink down a foot or so with each step, as the wet snow buries my boots, making each advancing step feel as if I’m carrying a barbell strapped to both feet. Hisao is amused by my struggles, for he makes good progress by following precisely the footprints made by the climbing parties ahead of us, but I keep the snowshoes strapped to my feet, for carrying them on my rucksack would just add extra weight to my upper body.

Luckily the snow condition improves as we reach Ippuku-daira, a level plateau located at around 1300 meters of elevation which marks the halfway point in our ascent. We pause briefly, shedding layers as I refill my water bottle and stuff morsels of food into my dry mouth. Hisao is completely covered in sweat, and our idyllic break spot would be perfect if not for the cacophony of blaring loudspeaker J-Pop piercing through the air from Takasu Snow Park across the valley. We’ve purposely chosen this route to avoid the ski resort, but we can’t escape its grasp entirely.

Into the lead my trusty guide Hisao walks, flowing seamlessly through the deep snow while I continue to struggle. My hard work is paying off, however, as the impressive figure of Hakusan floats high above to my right, completely caked in wintry white. It’s hard to keep my eyes off of her, entralled as I am by her sheer beauty. Hisao maintains his breakneck pace, keeping about a quarter of a kilometer ahead of me on the rambling ridge line. The snow condition finally improve at 1500 meters in elevation, turning into dry crystalline powder, the trail being sandwiched between a large cornice on my left and a windswept ice crust to my right. I make amazing progress on the icy crust as my snowshoes glide smoothly over the surface while Hisao postholes with each advancing step. The howling wind has covered up the trace of the hikers in front of us and I soon overtake my partner for the final climb to the summit. I look behind me and watch Hisao struggle up the last few meters of deep powder while I push on with ease.

As we crest the summit plateau, the full force of the winds pushing in from the nearby sea hit us head on, nearly knocking us off our feet. A handful of backcountry skiers brace themselves against the gale, which fortunately soon subsides. The skiers have come from the neighboring ski resort in search of untracked powder, but I am glad we chose the long way up. It feels much more rewarding to climb a mountain from its base than the cheat by taking the gondola most of the way up.

Hisao and I take in the views and sunshine while eating our well-deserved snack of ichigo daifuku, a savory strawberry smothered with bean paste and wrapped in a soft blanket of rice cake. Hisao swears that wagashi make the best hiking treats, and over the years I’ve seen him eating not only mochi and dango, but bars of calorie-packed yōkan as well. Perhaps there is something to his fueling approach after all. I usually just go for a Calorie Mate and a rice ball and some chocolate, but I’m willing to take a more traditional approach for my next mountain meal.

With the winds picking up and temperatures starting to drop, we run off the summit plateau, kicking balls of snow far ahead of us while blazing our own path down the main ridge that we had climbed earlier. Hisao, now donning his wakan, keeps pace in the steeper sections, but as the path flattens out he needs to stick to the main trail as he sinks too deeply in the deep powder. I make my own path through untracked sections of snow and we return to Ippuku-daira in just half the time it took us to ascend. We shed layers and rehydrate before continuing on our march back to the car. We play an entertaining game of who can last the longest before taking off their climbing equipment, and once we drop off the ridge down the spur the snow cover becomes sparse and the mud takes over. We call it a draw and sit on a toppled tree trunk to take off the snowshoes, which by now have accumulated quite a thick layer of wet snow. I strap them on the outside of my rucksack as we walk the remaining snow-free distance back to the car, arriving shortly after noon.

Such epic climbs can only be topped by a soak in a local hot spring, so Hisao finds a beauty of a place on his car navigation system while we settle in for a refreshing bath and filling tonkatsu lunch. The dining room overlooks a narrow valley and we both wonder if this place will survive the impending viral and economic storm about to be unleashed in Japan.

 

 

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The mountains facing the Sea of Japan rarely get a break. The Siberian winds whip up moisture on their journey from Russia, depositing immense loads of powder snow that lingers until the arrival of the summer rain front, which keeps the Hokuriku region locked tight in a slippery vice grip. When it’s not raining or snowing, the peaks seek shelter behind veils of low-lying cumulus, withholding the vistas to all but only the most dedicated few. I had studied the meteorological charts for weeks, looking for a rare clear-weather window to explore Tsuruga’s most hallowed peak: the beech-crowned heights of Mt. Nosaka, ‘the wild hill’.

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My chance came on a Tuesday. Not the best of timing, but when that window opens, you have no other choice but to tempt fate and jump out. I boarded the Limited-Express Thunderbird train at the luxurious hour of 9am for the 90-minute sprint to Tsuruga, where the Obama line regurgitated me on the steps of Awano station. The cloudless sky burned a glorious shade of blue as I marched up the paved road to the A-frame bungalows marking the entrance to the forested path. Puddles of black ice waited to catch the unwary driver or, in my case, the lone hiker off-guard. Several times I slipped on the horizontal verglas, saving myself from a likely bruise with some quick handwork with the trekking poles.

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I soon hit snow, but held off on the crampons until there was unobstructed ground cover, and slowly marched along the easy-to-follow path. Judging by the well-worn prints, several climbing parties were already on their way to the top. The route crossed a stream several times before scaling a small metal staircase which marked the true start of the climb. Here I latched the 6-pointers firmly to my soles and continued my vertical progress towards the ridge. Through gaps in the bare tree limbs I could begin to see the contours of Tsuruga city expand directly below: it resembles most port towns in Japan except for the unusual concentration of nuclear power plants hidden in the coves to the west.

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After an hour of brisk ascending I topped out near the ridge and got my first unobstructed views of Hakusan’s curvy mastiff. It appeared as if the baker had gone overboard on the frosting for this gargantuan birthday cake to the deities. The peak was well on the way to an average snow year, and if the current rate of precipitation continues, it could very well set a new record for snow depth. Early January, however, is much too early to make such predictions. Besides, I had a mountain ahead of me to climb.

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At my first rest point, I met a lone hiker on his way down from the summit. “This is the best January weather in over 5 years,” remarked the tan-skinned elderly gent sporting a thick white beard. Despite the icy conditions, he was wearing only a pair of rubber rain boots and opted for the thickness of the untouched powder rather than the slick grooves of the main trail. He told me it would take about half an hour to reach the summit from here, even though the maps suggested a conservative time of 50 minutes.

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From here I reached the ridge, clambering over a series of false summits through a tunnel of elderly beech trees accustom to the stinging gales of winter. I soon spied the roof of the summit emergency hut protruding from the top of the next rise, and sure enough, about thirty minutes since leaving my haunches, I topped out to some of the best panoramic views I’ve seen in Kansai. The mountains of Gifu pierced the sky sharply, while a long strand of cloud hid the Kita Alps from view. Mt. Ibuki and the rest of the Lake Biwa Orchestra belted out a silent tune, while further to the west the peaks of northern Kyoto Prefecture begged for attention. That was still one area I had yet to explore, as access made a day-approach without an automobile all but impossible. I chatted with another group seeking shelter from the winds in the emergency hut. They were all from Tsuruga, and were quite surprised that I had come all the way from Osaka just to climb their local mountain. I explained that Nosaka was indeed one of the Kansai Hyakumeizan. They laughed that it was included on the list: “this is Hokuriku, not Kansai.” They had a point.

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Deciding to play it safe, I headed down preciously the same way I had climbed, forgoing any shortcuts off the mountain. I’ve taken enough risks on snow-capped peaks trying to shave a few minutes off a hike. The way down was actually more challenging than the climb, as the crampons threatened to send my ankles into contorted positions that the tendons were not designed to accommodate. Once I reached the river again, I took off the irons for the walk back to the pavement. One of the hikers I had met in the hut offered me a ride to Tsuruga station, where I was just able to make the train back to Osaka.

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I had now completed 71 of the Kansai 100, which left me with a new challenge: reach magic number 75 before the start of the rainy season. Time to start more intensive planning.

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