Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Hyakumeizan’

Alastair and I navigate the fog-smothered switchbacks of the Odaigahara Driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, a stillness in the rent-a-car as my thoughts drift, along with my drowsiness, to the impending climb up to Kansai’s highest mountain. My last trip here back in 2004 was under clear autumn skies and precisely 14 years later we find ourselves blessed with similar conditions as Alastair pulls the vehicle into one of the last remaining spaces at the western entrance to Gyojagaeri tunnel. Despite the 6am arrival time, it appears that most of the day trippers have opted for an even earlier start as we shoulder our packs in the frosty breeze.

The path ascends gently past a concrete dam, following a gurgling brook upstream to a wooden footbridge spanning the frigid waters. Crossing over, the gradient immediately steepens as the route follows a root-infested spur under an ochre canopy just beginning to catch the first few rays of the rising sun. We make good work of the ridge, spurred on by the promise of a clear day and brilliant foliage. Our rucksacks are stuffed with just enough nourishment and fluids to see us through the 1000 meters of elevation gain to the summit, and the first gusts of wind from above bring a distinctively late-autumn vibe to the air.

Alastair leads a steady pace to the ridge junction, where we merge with the main track of the Okugake-michi, the ancient pilgrimage route connecting Hongu in the south with Yoshino in the north. I am back in familiar ground but the 14 year lapse between visits does little to jog my memory, for the leaves have already left the comfort of their canopies to rest of the forest floor for the remainder of the year. Temperatures must be below average this year if the mountains are already bracing for the winter snows.

A gentle incline through a mess of toppled trees leads us to the summit of Benten-no-mori, named after the Japanese goddess of music. As if on cue, the unmistakable sound of a horagai conch shell pierces the silence as we gaze our heads upwards to the formidable wall of Mt Misen rising directly in front of us. Though we cannot see the gyōja aesthetic, we certainly feel his presence as he announces his arrival at a prayer site. A veil of swift-moving cloud holds the ridge in its grasp, threatening to rob us of a view as we descend to the saddle and hut foundation remnants at Shōbō-no-shuku. A life-size statue of Shugendo founder En No Gyōja is perched on a rock formation, lathered with wooden votive sticks below the geta sandals attached to his feet. Most hikers rest here, preparing themselves for the steep 400-vertical-meter climb to the summit of Misen, so as I motion to Alastair for a break I notice to my sheer surprise that he has already taken off at breakneck speed toward the summit.

Alas, the spellbinding power of the Hyakumeizan. So many people get caught up in the peak hunting lifestyle that they rarely pause to take in the scenery. Here I am, a decade removed from my own climbing of the 100 venerable mountains, and I find the pursuit both inspiring and partly disgusting. Over 90% of the hikers are here with the same purpose: to climb one man’s subjective mountain list that was created over 50 years ago. Now don’t get me wrong – the Ōmine mountains are an incredibly beautiful and haunting place, and Fukada’s inclusion of the range is well-warranted. However, I feel that these mountains are much better appreciated slowly, like a well-crafted French course at a Michelin-starred restaurant. In fact, I come to the realization that this is my very first, and could very well be my last, day trip in these mountains, and the other 4 Chapters of this saga were done as overnight pursuits.

Rather than chasing after the peak hunter, I keep him within eyesight, content with letting him navigate the switchbacks in front while chatting with a solo male hiker who is also bagging this peak. I explain that I have already finished the Hyakumeizan and am nearly helping my friend achieve the same self-serving goal. Luckily I am not the only one to feel the fatigue and Alastair’s pace slows to a crawl in direct proportion to the rise in the gradient. We reach the first of the hundreds of wooden steps built into the hillside as I put aside my hunger, lethargy, and fatigue and simply lower my head and count steps. I let my footfalls slow in accordance with my breathing and enter that hiking trance that has sustained me through so many hikes in Japan’s deceptively tricky mountains.

At the top of the summit ridge we turn right, ignoring a rock outcropping on our left that is now covered in fog and several steps ahead we can make out the roofline of Misen hut. A few dozen hikers loiter about the hut, most of them standing and waiting for the drifting cloud to part. Finally, Alastair agrees to a short break as I collapse onto a bench and stuff as much caffeine into my body as will allow. I explain that we’ll have a steep drop to a saddle, followed by an even steeper climb to the top of Hakkyō. After the caffeine kicks in, I lead my hiking companion up to Misen shrine, which offers a birds-eye view across the saddle to the summit piercing the sky like an A-frame building.

The path to the summit starts next to the hut, marked by a stone pillar reading Hakken (八剣山), which confuses more than a few hikers looking for the path to Hakkyō. The former name pays homage to a series of eight craggy spires along the Okugake-michi, with Hakkyō being the highest and most prominent of those peaks. The heavily-eroded track leads us to a narrow saddle with steep drops on our right, followed by an abrupt ascent through a series of gates erected to keep deer from eating the endangered Ōyamarenge (Siebold’s magnolia) shrubs. Patches of melting snow line the shaded face of the peak, a reminder winter does indeed commence in early November in this highland range. We regain the summit ridge just below the high point, with dizzying crags to the east offering a quick end to those whose footing is less than secure. A quick rock scramble is all that separates us from the top, so I take a deep breath and make that final push.

Two dozen peak hunters litter the summit, all jostling their way to the summit signpost for a proof photo. It amazes me how many people need to show proof to others that they have summited. Too many people nowadays are climbing the Hyakumeizan in order to increase their social media presence, which seems like the entirely wrong way to go about it. Peak hunting is an entirely selfish and self-serving purpose, and I have to admit back in my younger days, climbing these mountains took precedence over more important people in my life. Alastair and I retreat to a quieter rock outcropping and wait for a break in the clouds and crowds.

Ten minutes later, we have the entire summit to ourselves, reveling in the sunshine and relatively splendid views between breaks in the fog. Perhaps there is a reason to Alastair’s madness after all – push on at a breakneck pace so you can really relish the summit experience. Between bites of refreshments we snap photos and talk meizanHakkyō is Alastair’s 74th mountain, so I quiz him on the remaining peaks and offer a few tips. Those who attempt the 100 peaks usually find themselves inadvertently saving the toughest mountains for last. Indulged as we are in the deep mountain talk, we hardly notice a solo hiker emerge onto the summit through the rising cloud. “Haru”, I ask, unsure if we have indeed summited before her. “Yes”, she replies with her beaming Tohoku smile. Alastair and I congratulate her on reaching peak #83 in her question to climb the 100. “Shall we descend together?”, I inquire, hoping to add a little flavor to our descent back to the car. “Lead the way”, she quips.

Haru, Alastair and I spend the next two hours retracing our steps off the steep slopes of Misen and back to the parking lot at Gyojagaeri tunnel. It is in these relaxed post-summit walks that you can truly appreciate the beauty of the mountains that you give second thoughts to on the approach. Usually in climbs we are too busy inching our way up the slopes with our heads down, gasping for breath and summoning up those extra energy reserves from deep within. As we navigate the undulating folds of the broad ridge, I gaze to the southeast and notice the midday light reflecting off the golden waters of the Pacific in Mie Prefecture, while to my left the skyscrapers of Osaka city peek out from behind the slopes of Yamato-Katsuragi in northern Nara Prefecture. Only in these dizzying heights of the Kii Peninsula can you truly take in the scale of the place. Perhaps Hakkyō is worthy of a more thorough overnight inspection, and I know who to turn to for such an endeavor: a non-peak hunter.

Read Full Post »

The hardest part about planning a trip to the Kita Alps is finding a clear weather window in Japan’s notoriously fickle summer weather. The second hardest part of trip planning is figuring out a schedule that works for a trio of participants, all of whom are in various stages of the COVID vaccination process. With the Olympics in full swing and COVID-19 infections on an upward trajectory, we set our eyes on July 30th as our target date for an ascent of Niigata’s highest peak, my final summit of what I have dubbed the ‘Japan 47’ – the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures.

Paul picks me up at Shinano-Omachi station shortly before noon on Wednesday the 28th. The train journey northward takes most of the morning, involving transfers at both Nagoya and Matsumoto stations. Due to the pandemic, the trains are running at a fraction of capacity, with many business commuters curtailing their business trips in favor of online meetings and their own private transport. The mask stays on for the duration of the ride – I’ve grown so accustomed to wearing the protective fabric that even naps are a pleasant affair. In the past, I had always avoided wearing masks as it made me feel as if I was suffocating, but now I hardly notice the minor inconvenience.

After hitting a supermarket for lunchtime snacks, Paul guides his vehicle along the narrow curves of route 325 behind Kashimayari ski resort. At a broad clearing near the top of the lifts, a juvenile kamoshika serow crosses the lane in front of the car, nonplussed by our intrusion as the creature climbs the adjacent forested slopes in search of nourishment. We reach the end of the road and a wave of nostalgia hits, as this is where Fumito and I camped back in June of 2007 during our ascent of Mt Kashimayari. In fact, it is up this same Akaiwa spur route that I now show to Paul. Conditions are exactly as I remember them, with a concrete tunnel built under the dam at the start of the long route. The afternoon heat slows our progress as we ascend the incredibly steep spur towards Takachihodai. Due to our late start, it will be impossible to ascend Kashimayari this time around, but we make good work of the track and give up around after reaching an altitude of around 1700 meters, still 1000 meters shy of Niigata’s highest peak but it is the highest altitude I have climbed in 2021 so far, so every little bit helps.

The following morning dawns clear, so I walk out in front of Paul’s house to a clearing where I stare up at Mt Hakuba-norikura shining bright in the morning sun. These clear morning views are usually short-lived in the summer, with the usual fog and rain clouds moving in for the remainder of the day. After breakfast, Paul and I head up to Kurobishi-daira near the top of Happo ski resort for a quick ascent to Happo Ike before heading down to Hakuba to pick up our friend Naresh. Thick fog and light rain await us as we reach the parking lot, and after a quick assessment, the two of us decide to continue with our plan, knowing we can turn around should the rain showers worsen. Forgoing the ski lifts, Paul leads me up a gravel road through the ski fields until reaching what he has christened “the concrete slope of death”, as the road suddenly turns to paved concrete and ascends directly up the steepest part of the ski slope. We make good time by cutting our own switchbacks through the no-nonsense approach. Halfway up we cross paths with a solo hiker making an unsteady descent down the path which forces me to grimace, knowing our same fate awaits us just a couple of hours later.

At the top of the slope we enter a verdant marshland lined with nikkōkisuge lillies and other colorful wildflowers standing out through the monochromatic backdrop of thick fog. The rain has stopped, giving us hope that what remains above may be a little more promising. At the top of the final ski lift the proper hiking track begins and we run into our first sneakered day trippers of the morning. Most of them are working their way down through the mist. With several paths to choose from, we opt for the lower track, which skirts just below the main ridge past a lingering snowfield on broad wooden boardwalks helping to aid in the ascent. All of a sudden, the fog lifts, revealing a mouthwatering vista of Mt Goryu that sends our hearts racing with excitement. We push on, with the cloud eventually catching up to us as we reach the shores of the pond. Lingering for a few minutes in heightened anticipation, the views gradually open up, revealing brilliant skies of azure hovering above Hakuba-yari. While the remainder of the Hakuba sanzan lay enveloped in cloud, Paul and I are content with just getting a glimpse of the fantastic scenery awarded to those that choose to ascent the ridge leading to Mt Karamatsu. We push on a little higher, reaching an altitude of around 2100 meters – a great acclimatization exercise for the following day’s planned ascent of Mt Korenge.

After picking up Naresh at the station, we head off for lunch and to plan the logistics of our impending climb. With several options to choose from, we decide that sleeping at a park near Hiraiwa onsen affords our best chance of making it to Renge Onsen in time to ascend Korenge for the sunrise. This entails an early start, so after packing and resting at Paul’s house, we eat a quick dinner and head to the hot spring for a quick bath before laying our sleeping bags in the sheltered comforts of the public toilet complex at the end of a quiet road. All is calm as we close our eyes around 8pm, and with the alarm set for 12:45am, we attempt to catch some shut eye. Around 40 minutes later, a rumble in the distance grows louder as it appears that a very large lorry is headed directly for our campsite. A large spotlight shines towards us as the noise crescendos and skirts past our front door. In our rush to catch some sleep we have failed to realize that our meager accommodation sits just meters from the train tracks of the JR Oito line, and our intruder is non other than the infrequent train carriage shuttling passengers to Minami-Otari. Two more trains pass by during the evening, robbing us of a good night’s sleep but still – the show must go on.

We are on the road at 1am as Paul guides his vehicle up the deserted road under the cover of darkness. Our first signs of wildlife suddenly appear, as a wild boar ducks for cover on the grassy slopes while further along, we come face to face with a massive buck who simply stares at us from frightened eyes on the shoulder of the narrow road. Shortly before 2am we park, unload the gear, and set off on our journey towards the alpine. I take the lead, setting a gradual but steady pace past some strong sulfuric fumes wafting from somewhere above. The famed outdoor baths of Renge Onsen sit off in a clearing on our left, and while the appeal of a soothing bath is hard to pass up, we all silently agree that these things are best enjoyed after a hard day on the slopes, so we push on with anticipation.

Our route is lined with a multitude of switchbacks through a healthy forest of hardwoods, and as we reach a clearing we turn off the headlamps and enjoy the moonlit views of Mt Asahi and Mt Yukikura sitting elegantly under calm and starlit skies. Winds are calm, almost unnaturally so, teasing us into thinking that this high-pressure system is sticking around for the long haul. Sweat trickles down my brow as I focus on the rhythm of my footsteps – with such a large vertical elevation change, it’s all you can do to keep your mind off of how much further you have to go. Signposts are affixed at around every 200 vertical meters of elevation gain, and by the time we reach the Tengu’s garden just above 2000 meters in elevation, the eastern horizon hints that dawn will soon be upon us. We still have roughly 3km to go before reaching the tree line, and along the uneven boulders of the rough track, progress is slow but steady. In a race against the rising sun, the luxury of taking breaks has been shelved in favor of maintaining our steady progress. The clink of metal against the rock diverts my attention, and as I turn around I witness Naresh snap his trekking pole in two in an attempt to dislodge it between two stubborn boulders.

We with realization that our race with the sunrise is in jeopardy, I give permission for Paul to push ahead while Naresh and I hold up the rear. Paul wants to gaze at the first light of the new day from as high on the ridge as he can, while the two of us will be happy with ushering in the dawn by the shores of Hakuba-Oike pond. The track skirts the edge of a Erman’s birch forest before giving away to creeping pine and vast swaths of wildflowers carpeting both sides of the trail like a floral arrangement at a bridal fair. The red roof of Shirane-oike hut comes into view, together with the calm waters of the oval tarn. The sun remains hidden behind a thin layer of cloud on the horizon, giving us the upper hand. Naresh takes one look at me and pushes on ahead and for good reason: the higher we climb above the lake the better the vantage point of the rising sun.

It’s amazing how your body can adapt to the lack of sleep and relentless gains in altitude. We’ve been on our feet for nearly three hours and have not paused more than a few seconds to catch our breath, but I feel no fatigue nor drowsiness: it is as if sheer beauty of nature serves as my energy source. At the top of the rise, around an elevation of 2500 vertical meters, Naresh and I find what we are looking for: a small clearing of fist-sized stones which make for the perfect perch for our first break of the day. We have just minutes to spare before the first rays of light reach our face. What better way to celebrate than to break out my stash of chocolate covered coffee beans.

The temperature hovers around 15 degrees in stark contrast to the 30-degree temperatures a couple of thousand vertical meters below us. As the sun makes an appearance, we turn westward, mesmerized at the alpenglow hitting Mt Yukikura and Mt Asahi. Southwest of us, further above the undulating ridge, Mt Korenge sits in a thick swath of morning cloud. Is Paul sitting up in that cloud robbed of a view?

The path meanders past a series of large cairns and up into the true alpine zone, with a plethora of wildflowers, rock ptarmigan, and ever-expanding views to keep the mind off the sleep deprivation. Naresh takes up the rear, soaking in the scenery as I gaze skywards towards the cloud bank still clinging tightly to the summit. At the top of the rise, we reach the summit of Funakoshi-no-kashira and are awarded with our first clear vista of the Daisekkei along with the rest of the Ura-Tateyama mountain range lined up in succession. Stubborn cloud hovers around Mt Kashimayari and Mt Goryu, robbing us of a clear summit profile but our current vantage point demands our undivided attention. Naresh and I pause, taking it all in.

Descending to a saddle, with dizzying drops on our left down to the Ukijima wetlands, we follow the undulating contours of the ridge as it chauffeurs us up and over a series of false summits. I call out Paul’s name just before the crest of each rise before realizing in a dejected sigh that there is still quite some distance to go. Pushed on by an unseen force, the drive to summit Niigata’s highest peak, I continue, footfall by steady footfall, until I glimpse the fog-tinged silhouette of a dozen hikers standing on the true summit as the realization of my impending accomplishment starts to weigh on my emotions. Twenty years has this long journey taken me, not only up the Nihon Hyakumeizan but beyond, to the corner of every prefecture in this geographically diverse archipelago as I attempt to accomplish what no other foreigner, alive or dead, has ever done. My eyes moisten at the thought, but I fight back the tears and take my final steps with a smile instead.

Upon reaching the summit, a round of applause emanates from the other hikers as Paul offers his congratulations. As we set up for celebratory photos, the clouds suddenly part for the first time that fateful morning, leading to an improvised chorus of oohs and ahhs from our mountain spectators. I break out the banner my father-in-law made for me and snap a few photos in the unexpected sunlight. My watch reveals that it is just past 6:30 in the morning, the climb having taken us around four-and-a-half hours. We rest of the summit and enjoy a snack while Paul tries to coax me to continue my hike by summiting Mt Shirouma. Naresh has never climbed that peak but I am not interested in climbing it as the summit is still covered in fog. Plus, I have done what I set out to do, and there’s no reason to risk altitude sickness or a turned ankle by overstaying my welcome. Paul passes me the car keys while I sit on the summit, watching my hiking companions as they disappear toward the enveloping cloud.

With the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures now successfully climbed, I can now announce my retirement from peak bagging. While chasing mountain summits has been a lot of fun, I will no longer let my hiking destinations be determined by a list of arbitrary mountains. From now on, I will make my decisions based on my own criteria, which will mainly involve climbing peaks that look interesting, that lie further off the beaten path, and have not been included on anyone’s subjective list of ‘famous’ mountains. Stay tuned as I continue my travels deeper into the unexplored innards of this amazing country.

Read Full Post »

2014 was an explosive year for volcanic activity on Japan’s mountains. While worldwide attention was focused on the catastrophic eruption of Ontake in late September, an increase of seismic tremors under the Nakadake crater lake on Mt Aso caused a small scale eruption just two months later. This was the start of increased volcanic activity, culminating in the explosive 2016 discharge which sent billowing ash 11,000 meters into the sky, landing as far away as Kagawa on the island of Shikoku. Therefore, the last 6 years have caused a quagmire for the Hyakumeizan hunters, who would either need to break the rules or put their quest on hold before knocking off their final peak.

As a Hyakumeizan alumnus, I do my job to help out a few disciples by offering a bit of advice and, on occasion, an extra set of eyes and ears as I accompany them on their journey up the hallowed peaks. So when Alastair informs me that the restrictions on Mt Aso have now been lifted, I jump at the chance for a revisit to see exactly what nature has done to the peak. Such reopenings of trails on active volcanoes are usually short-lived, so it is definitely a now-or-never mentality as Alastair aims for peak #95 on his ever-shrinking list. Plus, he offers to do all of the logistics, including the driving to the trailhead. All I need to do is to board a train to Kyushu. Who could resist?

We pick up the rental car outside of Kumamoto station on a cloudless morning on the cusp of the Silver Week holiday. Japan has been on unofficial lockdown for most of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government seems obsessed with saving the economy at the expense of public health and has introduced a ‘Go to Travel’ scheme that basically involves paying common citizens to travel in Japan. Thus, here we sit in gridlock as half of the island of Kyushu seems intent on visiting the volcano.

Most of the major roads leading through the interior of Kumamoto Prefecture are still being repaired due to 2016 earthquake, meaning there is no easy or fast way to get to Mt Aso. Backroads are rammed bumper-to-bumper with slow-moving vehicles that edge their way along the edge of the outer rim of the volcanic crater, which has a circumference of nearly 114km, making it one of the largest in the world. 90% of the traffic is heading up towards Kusasenri and Nakadake crater, where overpriced restaurants and horse-riding attract throngs of tourists who have mostly kept their distance for the last 6 years. Once past the turnoff, traffic becomes much lighter. While there is a trailhead at Nakadake crater, we opt for the northern approach via Sensuikyo, the trailhead furthest from the active crater. If Aso decides to blow its nose, we have the best chance of survival.

The parking lot is crammed with cars as Alastair secures one of the last empty spaces just after 10am: we had hoped to be on the trail at least an hour earlier, but had not anticipated the traffic. The information center sits dark, shuttered behind locked doors that have likely been gathering dust for at least half a decade. The small toilet complex is unlocked and has fortunately seen a recent cleaning. The slopes just above the restroom are littered with cables dangling from the concrete pillars of the old ropeway system. During my first visit 18 years ago, the gondola was very much still in operation, shuttling lazy hikers a third of the way up the volcano to the edge of the ridge line. There is definitely a post-Sarajevo Olympic vibe here, though the cause of such decay seems to be neglect rather than war.

A path leads straight up the slopes and parallels the ropeway ruins, and it is this concrete path that I used on my first trip to the volcano, but during that time I became intrigued with another route called the Sensui-one spur that climbs a steep ridge just under the Takadake high point. It is along this route that Alastair and I now turn our attention. The trailhead entrance lies on the opposite side of the car park, marked with a small wooded bridge spanning the Sensui ravine. Along broken bits of concrete we initially prance, followed by a narrow path recently cleared of underbrush. The start of the spur is soon reached, offering a refreshing bit of rock-hopping along the weather-beaten pumice.

A generous lathering of yellow arrows delineates the route, but in the overcast autumn skies we can clearly trace the path all the way up to the summit plateau towering 600 vertical meters above. As we climb higher, the vistas across the valley behind us open up to the Kujū mountains rising majestically out of the fertile valley. A giant white stupa constructed near the trailhead feel distinctly southeast Asian, perhaps even Burmese in nature if someone would be kind enough to bring a truckload of gold paint.

Alastair and I make good work of the spur, powered by a self-imposed race against the volcanic gods. One sudden tremor or plume of steam on the horizon would mean a sudden abandonment of our climb and a quick scramble for shelter. Loitering on an active volcano is something that no one should do unnecessarily, so while our plan is to enjoy the hike, we keep the pace brisk and the rests brief.

It takes around 90 minutes to reach the Takadake crater rim – stretched out before us is an older, dormant crater lined with verdant grasses and affording stellar views across to Mt Sobo and Mt Okue to the east. Crisp autumn winds push in from the north, keeping us moving up the final few steps of the pyramidal form of Takadake. A few dozen other hikers lounge around on the summit, while the buzz of a drone pierces the still air. At least the lack of tranquility will (literally) keep us on our toes.

We pick up the track down to a saddle below Nakadake, where the gentle gradient brings thoughts of the Scottish hills to mind. The route takes us towards the active crater of Nakadake, which seems a bit like slipping out of the frying pan and into the fire, but an unforeseen force attracts us towards the pillar of steam billowing from the giant crater.

Continuing south, the first signs of the eruptions present themselves, as the entire landscapes takes on a tinge of brownish-gray dust, staining the signposts as if crafted by a spray gun artist. We are now within the 1km strike zone, an area that no other hikers have visited apart from the several dozen other trespassers staring in goggle-eyed disbelief.

 

The track drops to a narrow saddle and climbs to an overlook uncomfortably close to the active crater, but we push on, spellbound and transfixed like a veteran rubbernecker. Gazing directly down into the hissing crater, I wonder how long it will be before this vista will once again be off limits to all but the most dedicated volcanic researchers.

I turn around and trace my eyes up along the ridge we had just traversed, with the top hat of the Nakadake summit teetering on the edge of the abyss.  A pair of concrete bunkers sit just off the ridge, partially collapsed by the force of the series of powerful eruptions. While these emergency shelters offer protection from small stones, a cataclysmic eruption of the crater would perhaps allow you enough time to send a farewell text to a loved one.

A concrete path used to run from here to the top of the ropeway, but now it is nothing but the remnants of rain runoff with bits of cement piercing through the fresh layer of ash. We reach the top of the ropeway ruins, a structure that would probably have received less damage had it actually been hit by bombs. Perhaps the Nakadake crater showed its discontent by trying to wipe this eyesore off the face of the earth.

Luckily for visitors, the ropeway ceased operations in 2010, meaning no one was actually in the structure during the series of volcanic explosions. While this building may seem like a wet dream for the haikyo hunters, visitors are advised to stay well clear of the incredibly unstable structure, which seems hellbent on collapse with nothing more than a strong gale.

The concrete path that runs alongside the ropeway is slowly being taken by the forces of nature, making the path rather pleasant among the tufts of greenery swallowing the remaining remnants of surfaced walkway. We follow a handful of other hikers down the rolling slopes towards the parking lot.

It would make for a peaceful end to our hike if not for the thumping crescendo of an approaching helicopter. The chopper heads above the summit of Takadake, where a lone figure is winched down to the ground. In conjunction, a sextet of rescue workers ascends at a brisk pace to offer back-up. The lead is connected via radio to the chopper team, who are in the midst of a rescue operation. We give way to the team, offering words of encouragement for what will likely be the first of many missions on this busy holiday weekend.

Once back at the car, we final exhale a sigh of relief. Alastair can now count the remaining Hyakumeizan on one hand and now has everything west of the Japan Alps off his list. Just one peak in Hokkaido, one in Tohoku, and a trio of peaks in the South Alps stand between him and his goal of finishing the 100.

 

Read Full Post »

My first visit to Kobushi, an autumn ascent under perfect skies, is one of the highlights of my Hyakumeizan quest. Usually the rule of thumb when reclimbing the Meizan is to never re-attempt a peak you had perfect weather on the first time around. However, my return to Kobushi is for another purpose – Saitama’s highest peak.

Had I been attempting the prefectural high points during my Hyakumeizan days then I would not have needed to return. You see, Saitama’s highest mountain, Mt. Sanpō, is just 10 meters higher and a short 30-minute climb from the summit of Kobushi. Instead of the popular trail on the Yamanashi side, I start from the Nagano village of Kawakami and the idyllic surrounds of Mōkidaira trailhead.

Naresh, Alekh, and I navigate the narrow farm roads through Kawakami shortly past midnight on a calm Friday evening. The torrential rains of the previous day have given away to fair skies and a bright full moon. We park in a corner of the large parking lot and settle into a fitful sleep: Naresh pitches his tent while Alekh and I cram into the trunk of the automobile. Cars continue to trickle into the parking lot throughout the night, robbing us of a chance of uninterrupted sleep. At 5am we spring to life, fueled by the fresh cups of chai and a light breakfast of bread.

The path starts out as a gravel extension of the forest road, through a flat section of track smothered in thick moss, an homage to the wet weather that typically blankets the Oku-Chichibu highlands. Thick clouds move swiftly through the strong gusts pushing through the troposphere, the last remnants of the typhoon now battering the east coast of Hokkaido. The muted morning light brings out the verdant greenery of the primeval forests – we point our lenses in all directions in order to capture the sheer beauty of the place.

We soon reach a junction for a trail that heads to Jūmonji-tōge, an alternative finish point should we choose to do the full 18km loop hike. We continue straight, sticking to the right bank of the swift-flowing waters of the Chikuma river, mesmerized by the crystal clear water and hypnotic hissing as the river pushes past large boulders and twigs. This is easily one of Japan’s most pristine sections of river, with absolutely no sign of concrete nor any dam intrusions to its natural flow. A pair of fishers wade in the river, casting their bait in search of succulent sweetfish.

The track is clearly marked and easy to follow as the three of us push on in unison, slowly upward toward the source of the river. Parts of the route remind me of virgin swaths of the Minami Alps, dotted as they are in a twisted network of larch, spruce and hemlock, all rising upward towards the bright sunlight now beginning to pierce the clouds above. Most hikers approach Kobushi from Nishizawa gorge, along a long, steep spur dominated by views of Fuji and the South Alps. Having done both, I can comfortably say I prefer this hidden entrance to Kobushi’s lofty perch.

After a couple of hours we reach the source of the Chikuma river, the start of a long journey to the northeast to the Sea of Japan, 367km to be exact. Upon entering Niigata Prefecture, the river name changes to the Shinano, which many will recognize as Japan’s longest and widest river. Here, at an elevation of 2200 meters, the water trickles out of an underground stream, with a plastic cup in place so that visitors can sample the cool, refreshing water. We fill up our water bottles and settle down on a toppled tree log for a snack and a quick perusal of the map. An 8-point buck (east coast counting system for ruminant aficionados) grazes in the forest just above, oblivious to our gazing stares. Seeing such stags in the wild is a surprisingly rare sight, as most deer just stick to the twilight and dusk hours for their meals.

From here the path steepens, but after a twenty minute push we top out on the ridge, the start of familiar territory as I had traversed this exact route during my first walk along the spine of Chichibu. Turning left, we glimpse a view of the top of Fuji before reaching the edge of a landslide where the views really start to open up. Just above it, the summit of Kobushi baths in the late morning sun, hikers resting behind their wide-brim hats and ultraviolet arm sleeves. It takes just 10 minutes to reach the summit, just as the cloud begins its daily rise to blot out the views. We gaze at Fuji briefly before a few summit snapshots and an additional snack. Mt. Sanpō sits on a steep spur to the north, its bulbous form sitting backstage as a stand-in to the main star Kobushi.

The track north immediately loses altitude through a pristine primeval forest of towering conifers, the broad track lined by a carpet of healthy ferns. After bottoming out the path starts the long, somewhat steep, climb to the top of  Saitama. Between gasps for breath I use the GPS to gauge progress as we top out shortly before noon. In a celebratory mood, Naresh boils water for chai as we eat a filling lunch while admiring the abundant 6-legged creatures in flight. Despite the altitude, a swarm of dragonflies enjoy the wind gusts above the peak while a particularly persistent horsefly tests our patience.

Feeling energized by the caffeine, we continue walking along the ridge, committing ourselves to the full loop. It seems like a breeze on the map, but the immediate loss of 200 vertical meters to the aptly-penned shiri-iwa, or big ass rock as we have nicknamed it, has us rethinking our decision. The next hour or so on the sabre-toothed ridge is certainly kicking our ass – perhaps the real origin of the shiri-iwa nomenclature.

We take turns overtaking a trio of gung-ho hikers who share our astonishment of the undulating nature of the route. At the junction just below Bushin Shiraiwa, a craggy peak now off limits to hikers, we pause to catch our breath and wipe the sweat from our brows. Naresh is starting to feel the contours in his knees, so as he straps on the knee braces we look over the remaining stretch of trek – just one peak separates ourselves from Jūmonji-tōge, a peak by the name of Oyama.

Oyama, as it turns out, lives up to its ‘big mountain’ moniker. While the climb is short but steep, the descent along the northern face is adorned with more chains than Flavor Flav, a tricky ordeal on weary legs. We lower ourselves gently down the near-vertical cliffs and finally reach the mountain pass and hut just before my bowels explode in a fit of rage. I had been holding back the inevitable ever since summiting Sanpō, and the 200-yen tip charge for the western-style toilet is perhaps my wisest investment of the day.

Worn out but by no means exhausted, the three of us once again garner up the energy for the final descent of the day. Compelled by a desire to reach the car, the pace is swift yet unhurried, and upon reaching the shores of the Chikuma river can we once again smile at the marathon effort required to scale Saitama’s highest peak. Most hikers break this loop up into two days by overnighting on the mountain, a wise choice considering our battered state.

With peak #45 safely off the list, I can now turn my attention to the mighty mountains of Hokuriku for the final duo of peaks on the highest prefectural 47 list.

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

IMG_7993

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.

IMG_8038

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.

IMG_8050

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.

IMG_8092

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.

IMG_8099

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.

IMG_8112

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.

IMG_8176

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.

IMG_8195

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.

IMG_8191

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.

IMG_8213

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.

IMG_8224

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.

IMG_8281

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.

IMG_8251

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.

IMG_8124

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?

IMG_8299

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’.

IMG_8376

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.

IMG_8148

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.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

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.

Read Full Post »

Mt. Byobu, Miyagi Prefecture’s highest peak, lies in the southern half of the Zao mountain range. Although I’d been to the Zao range twice previously, it was time to give Minami Zao some attention. The clouds hung heavy over Yamagata city in the early Sunday morning gloom. The second bus of the day wove through the sleepy outskirts of Tohoku’s liveliest city before navigating the switchbacks to the idyllic hot spring resort town of Zao Onsen, where the office of the taxi company sat deserted in the thick fog. I rapped on a door, startling a middle-aged man reclined in a back room. He sprang to attention, offering to drive me to the trailhead at Katta-toge for a mere 8000 yen. I balked at the price, but had no other options considering the only bus off the mountain left at 1pm, a bus I had every intention of making. I bargained him down to 7000 yen and hopped in the back seat.

zao3-1

The road up to Katta-toge meanders through a series of switchbacks across fields overgrown with weeds and pampas grass. In the winter these slopes are home to one of Japan’s most prestigious ski runs, but here in the cloud there was scarcely a sign of human encroachment. A bit further up the plateau, the taxi burst through the cloud perimeter, revealing a massive sea of condensation floating as far as the eye could see. The driver was so moved with the spectacle he shut off the meter just as it reached 6000 yen. “Thanks for giving me a reason to get out of the office”, he exclaimed, turning a glance in my direction with a broad smile stretching from ear to ear. At the trailhead I strapped on the daypack and immediately dove into a dense forest buzzing with the sweet smells of pine and wildflowers. The route dropped gradually to a long saddle that was home to a small emergency hut, which I decided to check out on the return visit. There’s no sense in wasting valuable time scoping out a sleeping space when the weather is cooperative.

zao3-3

I pushed up towards the first peak of Maeyama, through a rocky area perched on the spine of the volcanic massif. Behind me, the mound-like form of Mt, Katta stood tall among the fortress of cloud, the switchbacks of the skyline road stretching across the slopes like the slashes of Freddy Krueger.

zao3-6

The angle eased a bit before dropping to a small saddle at the base of the straightforward climb to Sugi-ga-mine, a nondescript peak sitting at 1745 meters above sea level. The trail was lined on either side by wildflowers of every color imaginable, lending the area to inclusion on the Hana no Hyakumeizan, the venerable list of 100 Famous Flower Mountains of Japan. This was in stark contrast to the igneous minefield of the rest of Zao. Indeed, the volcanic activity had long subsided further south in this range, giving birth to aromatic forests of pine, as well as a lush plateau of wetlands that the local ursine population use as a playground. The area bears a striking resemblance to the rolling hills of Mt. Azuma a bit further south of here, a range that is visible in good weather. By now the cloud had rolled in, wiping out the view and bringing that long promised rain with it. I pulled out my rain cover but continued hiking in short sleeves as the rain jacket would only keep the sweat from evaporating.

zao3-5

On the far side of Sugi-ga-mine the trail dropped yet again, this time losing around 100 meters of vertical elevation before petering out into a marsh. I fueled up here, stuffing some chocolate and almonds into my mouth for the final 1.0km slog to the summit of Byobu. The undergrowth kept most of the moisture away until the creeping pine of the summit plateau left me fully exposed to both the wind and rain, but it was hardly chilly in the mid-August humidity. The views from here must be spectacular here on a blue sky day, but I just had to use my imagination in the fog that grasped tightly to Miyagi’s highest point.

zao3-10

The rain had let up on the return journey, revealing those views that I may have been rewarded with if I had bothered to loiter around on Byobu long enough. By the time I got to Maeyama visibility had all but returned. The lunchtime bells signaling high noon wafted up from a concealed valley on my right, while the businessmen in Yamagata city on my left were just starting to duck out of their offices in search of a cheap bento. I dropped back to the saddle, taking the right fork for the short stopover at the emergency hut. The shed-like structure, built on stilts to help protect the fragile environment, could comfortably sleep 8 people. I used the wooden floor space to stretch out and dry some of my gear while tucking into remaining rations. A small toilet room sat off to one side, marked with signage created by a caretaker with a sense of humor.

zao3-2

After adequate rest, I hit the trail again and turned left to return to where the taxi had dropped me off earlier in the day. Instead of ending the journey there, however, I crossed the road and followed a poorly maintained trail that shot straight up the side of Mt. Katta. Dense vegetation dripping with rain water swallowed the trail, requiring a monstrous effort of swimming, slashing, and ducking. It was easily the most taxing part of the entire hike, leaving me soaked from head-to-toe once the scree fields of the summit plateau were breached. Clouds continued their grip on the plateau as I checked the condition of the emergency hut where I had spend an exciting night during my first visit to the mountain. The fog was some of the thickest I’d seen yet. I’ve had better visibility in a steam sauna as I felt my way through the mess using my feet for navigation. At the bottom of the short descent I spotted the concrete structure of the rest house and visitor’s center, the bus stop sitting in the parking lot directly behind. I had only 5 minutes to spare, so I was left without a clear view of Okama’s elusive crater lake. The peak was clear only 30 minutes before, so I knew it was only a matter of time before the clouds cleared again. Defeated, I trudged towards the bus stop with my tail between my legs. After a quick detour to relieve myself, I plopped down on the soft upholstery of the charter bus that would shuttle me back to Zao Onsen. As the bus navigated through the curves of the skyline road, I reached for my camera to confirm the quality of my pictures. However, my camera was nowhere to be found. I searched under the seat and emptied my pack as panic started to sit in. The last place I had seen my camera was the restroom, when I placed it on the shelf above the urinal. “Noooooooooo”, I screamed.

zao3-9

I hopped off the bus at Zao Onsen and immediately went to the tourist information center to solicit help. After a phone call, the kind attendant had some promising news: “yes, they did find your camera and will hold onto it for you.” Unfortunately, there was a catch: “the hut staff are all based in Miyagi, so if you want your camera you’ll have to either retrieve it yourself or have them mail it to you COD.”

zao3-4

Since I was slowly making my way back down to Osaka, I couldn’t possibly travel without a way to visually document my journey. My original plan was to relax in a hot spring bath, but instead I marched up the road in anger, thumb outstretched in hope that someone would come to my aid. It was already after 3pm and the staff already told me that the rest house closed at 5pm, so I was running out of options. On the march up the road I passed by the entrance to the Zao Ropeway, a ski gondola that whisks visitors to the mountain ridge just below Jizodake. “Aha,” I said, “there is hope after all.”

zao3-7

I abandoned the futile attempts at hitchhiking and bought a one-way ticket aboard the ropeway. “The last gondola is at 4:30pm”, explained the ticket agent. “How on earth are you going to return?” I reassured them that I knew exactly what I was doing and I would simply traverse across the ridge and hitch a ride down from the rest house. This did little to calm their fears, though, so I knew that lying would be my best option in case of further interrogation.

Next I went through the ticket gate, where the attendant once again inquired as to my reason for buying a one-way ticket. “Oh, I’m staying in the hut on the summit”, I answered. There were no further looks of fear or concern as I repeated my answer upon inquiry at every stage of the boarding and alighting process. Fortunately no one questioned my ability to  overnight by simply carrying a nearly empty 18-liter pack.

zao3-8

The views from the gondola were breathtaking to say the least, as the mountains continued to float above the immense sea of cloud enveloping all of Yamagata Prefecture. At least 15 of the Hyakumeizan laid stretched out before me, but without a camera I merely had to capture such scenery with my prefrontal cortex. The clouds still hugged the ridge line, however, and once off the gondola and into the fog the real race begun.

The overgrown path

The overgrown path

The map time to the rest house read 90 minutes, but with less than an hour before the rest house closed I went to work. I flew up the steep climb towards the summit of Mt. Jizo, an area I had tramped through during my second visit to Zao. With nothing to see and no camera to capture the scenery anyway, I moved quickly, picking my way though a vast plateau of loose volcanic rock that was punctuated in places by wooden walkways. Beyond the summit the route dropped steeply to a saddle before rising again to the top of Mt. Kumano, Zao’s highest point and target for Hyakumeizan baggers. I reached the summit in only 10 minutes from Mt. Jizo. It was my third visit to the high point and my third time without anything as much as a view. From here, the trail dropped yet again until flattening out on a series of rolling inclines. My pace was a brisk walk averaging around 6 kilometers per hour, so it was hardly a surprise when I rolled into the rest house in less than 30 minutes from the top of the gondola. I asked for the manager, who was as happy to see me as I was him. I had saved him the trouble of having to deal with a lost item, and he had saved me the hardship of my upcoming trip to Chiba without a camera.

zao3-13

I walked back outside and up to the lookout point for the Okama crater lake. Although I had seen the lake clearly during my last visit, it was still caked in a frosting of wintry white, and I desperately longed to see the emerald green hues that draw so many mouth-gaping tourists year after year. I waited patiently as the clouds started to dissipate. Mt. Kumano suddenly came into view, and indeed all of the surrounding peaks were clear of cloud………except for the crater lake itself!

zao3-15

The fog hung heavy around the waters, but gave enough of a tease to satisfy my hunger. With that in hand, I walked down to the parking lot, stuck out my thumb, and immediately got a ride all the way to Yamagata station by a cheery young couple from Fukushima Prefecture.

zao3-14

Zao once again put up an unexpected fight. Don’t let the modest size or ease of access fool you: mountains under 2000 meters can create just as much excitement and surprise as Japan’s loftier peaks. You just need to come mentally prepared and with enough flexibility to power through the obstacles. Speaking of which, it looks like my visit was timely indeed, as Okama crater lake is showing signs of increased volcanic activity, which may very well put the entire area off-limits.

Read Full Post »

Hyakumeipan

Back in October, I found myself on the losing end of a battle with a respiratory ailment. The culprit turned out to be none other than the notorious mycobacterium tuberculosis. The verdict was guilty and I was sentenced to seven weeks of isolation in a TB ward here in Osaka. With so much free time on my hands and an abundance of white bread that made an unwelcome appearance on my breakfast plate, I set out to render all of Japan’s venerable Hyakumeizan in bleached flour form. I called my new invention the Hyakumeipan: the profile of all of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountain sculpted out of my morning toast.

While I did not get to complete all of the mountains, my daily posts were a hit with both active and closet mountaineers alike. Below you’ll find some of the highlights from my time spent in hospital dreaming of Japan’s esteemed peaks:

Snow-capped Fuji

Snow-capped Fuji

Mt. Yufu

Mt. Yufu

Mt. Kuro

Mt. Kuro

Tsurugidake

Tsurugidake

Mt. Rishiri

Mt. Rishiri

Utsukushi-ga-hara

Utsukushi-ga-hara

Sakurajima

Sakurajima

Mt. Ibuki

Mt. Ibuki

Mt. Meakan & Akan-fuji

Mt. Meakan & Akan-fuji

Mt. Yari

Mt. Yari

Fuji above the clouds

Fuji above the clouds

Read Full Post »

Two peaks stood between myself and the completion of the hallowed 100. The remaining duo are actually on the same ridge line, a mere two-day walk that I could easily tie together on a three-day weekend. Timing doesn’t always work out how you plan, however, and if there was any chance of finishing off the peaks before the arrival of the winter snows then I’d have to grab every available opportunity. So, preciously two weeks after coming down the jagged spires of Tsurugi-dake I was at the southern end of the alpine spectrum, attempting to knock off Tekari as a day trip.

This mission called for back-up, and my trusty companion Fumito came to the rescue. After running my plan by him he agreed to not only shuttle me to the trailhead but also to tag along on the agonizing climb. Instead of the drive from Shiojiri, I met Fumito at Toyohashi station in Aichi Prefecture, where he had been transferred to earlier in the year. Despite its proximity to the Minami Alps, it still took us several hours to navigate the rural roads leading to the trailhead at Irōdo. One we arrived it was a simply of matter of pitching the tent by the side of the gravel road and catching a few hours of shuteye before the early dawn would signal our departure for the formidable challenge.

We embarked on our expedition shortly after dawn under a thickening sky. The route weaved through an army of cedar trees lined up in marching formation. Each step brought modest gains in altitude, as the views started to open up the higher the path forged through the woodlands. Shortly before noon the cedar gave way to trees of the more deciduous variety, and the cool autumn air brought a tightening to my lungs that threatened to bring a premature end to our operation. I stopped briefly, sucking in large pockets of air deep into the lungs until the bronchial spasms subsided. I’d never had a problem with asthma before, so I needed to hurry up and finish these last two peaks before they finished me.

The lungs somehow returned to proper working order just as we reached the junction at Mt. Irōdo. We were now officially on the ridge that ran along the entire spine of the mountain range. The altimeter read 2500 meters: preciously 1700 vertical meters higher than our Toyota parked in the valley below. The two of us were absolutely spent from the exertion of energy, but the battle was far from over. Though the majority of the steeper bits were behind us, we still needed to tramp along a ridge laden with more ups-and-downs than most roller coasters. We each downed an carb-laced energy gel and a bag of mixed nuts and slowly glided through a wooded plateau affording views of Mt. Hijiri across the valley. The cloud had yet to invade my last remaining Hyakumeizan, but the barometer warned us that menacing weather was just around the corner.

The pace slowed to a crawl as we followed a dry creek bed through an area ablaze with the yellows and reds of an early autumn. Just below the terminus of Mt. Izaru a small mountain spring brought refreshment to our dehydrated bodies, and by sheer luck the grade eased up just as the eaves of Tekari hut came into view. Peering over the edge of the southern ridge, the conical massif of Mt. Fuji punctuated a rolling torrent of boiling cloud, presenting a spectacle that surely would have had Hokusai glowing with delight. After chatting with the hut owner briefly, we topped out on Tekari’s tree-lined summit shortly before 3 in the afternoon. It had been one gargantuan effort to get there, and the majority of climbers would simply settle into the padded comforts of the cozy hut, but we both had work the following morning.

Clouds swept in from the east, providing a much-needed catalyst to get us moving back towards the junction. I tucked the camera away snugly in my pack, knowing that photo ops would only slow us down. We hit the junction at Irōdo a little past 4 and trudged back down into the dominion of evergreens just as the skies opened up. The canopy above kept most of the larger drops from soaking our gear as we limped through a network of downed, moss covered cedars and lumps of weathered granite. By the time we reached our automobile the first signs of dusk flickered through the forest. It was a monumental climb of nearly 12 hours that both of us vowed never to repeat. One thing was certain: the final peak would be knocked off at a much more leisurely pace.

Read Full Post »

Before you read, you might want to refresh your memory with part 4 first.

The path down from the grassy highlands of Echigo-koma spit me out in a quaint hot spring village with a rustic public bathhouse. When you enter these facilities, you only need to replace your soiled shoes with clean slippers lined up at the entrance and feed your money in the vending machine in the lobby, which will expel a paper ticket that you hand to the attendant on-duty. Baths are a welcomed commodity after a tough hike, but they have the unfortunate disadvantage of zapping all of your energy if you stay in them too long, so I always give myself a time limit, especially when I’ve still got some miles to cover on foot. Once my cleanse was done, I made my way down to the shores of Lake Oku-tadami, where a small boat would ferry me across the lake. Though there is a route that weaves around the mountainous folds of the lake, the boat is a real time-saver and a must for those that suffer from car sickness. Besides, there would be a bus waiting for me on the other side to take me directly to the trailhead of my next peak. Hitching may have taken longer and I would be truly in a bind if no one were to pick me up. The boat ride itself involves a transfer halfway along at the dam on the outer edge of the lake. For some reason the dam is a big tourist attraction, but I opted to just relax by the shores until the other boat was ready for boarding. The bus was immaculately timed, and dropped me off at my awaiting accommodation in the pale, monochromatic light of the late afternoon.

I made my way to Furando Hut (literally Flemish hut), where the caretaker greeted me like one of his own family. I felt relieved, since I was turned away on the phone by the adjacent Seijirou hut because apparently my Japanese wasn’t good enough for the owner. Of course it wasn’t: he was speaking with a strong Tohoku accent on the phone and I couldn’t catch a single word he was saying. No matter, for I took matters in my own hands when booking at the Furando and perhaps the refusal was simply an omen to stay at the better accommodation. No ill feelings towards Seijirou, but a word of caution to all hut owners – treat me rudely and I will simply smile in your face and take my money elsewhere.

hira3

Despite the warm welcome, I spent the vast majority of the night in a ruthless battle with mosquitos. If I pulled the covers over my body then it was too hot for comfort. Without the blankets, I was getting eaten alive. I desperately needed rest, as one of the longest and toughest Hyakumeizan lay at my doorstep, beckoning me to enter. Sometime just before daybreak, I finally got up, switched on the light and went on the hunt, killing two of the bloated bloodsuckers before stuffing a towel under the crack in the door so that the rest of the family would be kept out of the feast. Ah, that was much better. Slumber and fatigue were victorious at last, but a member of the mosquito rangers got the upper hand, leaving my lower limbs covered in welts when my alarm finally jolted me from my self-induced coma.

hira4

The sky was as thick as my breakfast porridge when I entered the path at the terminus of a long winding forest road. I had my wet weather gear on in anticipation of the drenching, but the only precipitation fell in the form of sweat trapped beneath my rain jacket. I unzipped every opening, airing out my wilted chest like a pair of jeans hung out to dry. The route followed the curves of a serpentine spur leading up to a broad ridge far in the distance. Pine trees grasped tightly to the crumbly spine as I tugged onto whatever I could to help haul me up the natural jungle gym. Looking to my left, Mt. Hiuchi dominated the horizon, partially engulfed in a torrent of dark cloud and mist. Streaks of rain trailed out across the marshlands of Oze before being sucked up by more menacing clouds to the south. I stood on the outer edge of this monumental weather system, and it was only a matter of time before it too would nibble on my body for dessert.

hira5

By the time I reached the first target peak of Shimodaikura the clouds had enveloped me like an invading army. I ducked into the forest for the first of a series of rolling peaks towards the fast meadows of the summit plateau, which I could spot between gaps in the trees. Most of the vertical elevation gain had been knocked out in the first few kilometers, and I felt relieved that the ridge had been attained and the angle let up. Once I had trampled across the forested knob of Mt. Daikura, I broke out of the treeline and into a spitting rain – the front had caught up with me at last. I latched on the pack cover and tightened the zips around my windbreaker, hoping to keep some of my gear intact. Yet as soon as the rain had fallen it eased, revealing a sharp line in the horizon directly ahead. This cloud arc pushed overhead like a squeegee on a windshield of an SUV, and beyond this arc the cumulus vanished to reveal a cloudless sky. Finally, this stubborn system had yielded to the high pressure system before my very eyes.

hira6

When reaching the small pond on the summit of Mt. Ike-no-dake I was basking in brilliant sunshine. I stripped off my rain layer and sat by the shore, taking in the spectacle before me: the marshlands of Oze spread out directly below me like softened margarine on a piece of moldy bread, while the summit of Hira rose gallantly in front of me as if the mastiff itself were wearing a gigantic beanie. I could’ve easily spend the rest of the afternoon sitting here taking in the scenery, but unfortunately a guided group of over 40 hikers showed up from the southwest to spoil my nature commune. They had come from the shorter and much easier approach via a long forest road the leader had driven most of the way up. With the ever-increasing popularity of the 100 peaks, access is getting easier and easier, bringing a surge in crowds that would otherwise not have invested the time or energy to climb. Fearful that this swarm would spoil my day, I got a move on up to the high point. En route I passed dozens of other hiking groups, all of whom had taken the easy way up.

hira7

I tried as best I could to erase this intrusion from my mind, instead focusing on the flatlands dotted by picturesque cirques framing the Echigo mountains beyond. The summit of Echigo-koma, the peak I had summited yesterday lay buried in cloud but further south I could make out the peaks of Tanigawa and Naeba, which looked like nothing more than rolling hills from this vantage point. I looped around the summit, dropping past an area under construction – wooden steps and a toilet were being added to the hillside to accommodate the increase in visitors. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hut would be built here in the future, scarring the landscape once and for all. Don’t get me wrong – the peak was still incredibly beautiful but I would have preferred it a bit less crowded, especially since it was my very last Hyakumeizan outside of the Japan Alps.

hira9

On the way back down from the summit I stopped off at Tamago rock for a quick photo of the impossibly balanced boulders, wondering if this too, would become a relic of the past, toppled by the increased erosion of unwelcome intruders. The route back was just as long and agonizing as the way in, the sweat-inducing ascent replaced by a knee-knocking drop along the spiny ridge. Fortunately I staved off injuries and arrived back at route 352 just after 4pm. I let the thumb do the talking, hitching a ride all the way back to Urasa, where the train taxied back to Osaka via the sprawling Tokyo wastelands. Only three more peaks stood between me and the venerable 100. On to the Alps for the final push.

Read Full Post »

Mt. Fuji – The Start

Miki and I arrived at Fujinomiya 5th station shortly before 9pm in a thick vacuum of swirly condensation. Hikers milled about the rest house, tightening their laces and zipping their outer layers tight before disappearing into the shadows of dark scree. Each of us bought a 2-meter long wooden octagonal staff that would serve as both our hiking stick and as an memento of our nocturnal ascent. Each stagepoint en route to the summit will emblazon a seal into your stick along the way as proof of summiting the sacred volcano.  Soon after entering the path, we caught up to a short, stocky elderly man whose comedic intents bordered on the absurd. “I’m going to rest at the next hut,” he confessed, a mere five-minute stroll away. His strategy was to rest here for a few hours of sleep before rushing up the peak for the sunrise. We turned down his offer to accompany him and continued up the dusty rocks of the broad path.

fuji4

Headlamps made navigation easier as we slowly marched our way up the barren route. An hour after starting our ascent, we reached our first major hut at the 6th stage point. Hikers shuffled about, faces hidden behind the bright illumination beaming from their foreheads. After getting our staffs branded, we continued our upward march, breaking through the clouds a short distance below the stage 7 hut. Miki and I turned off our lamps, admiring the expansive stretch of galactic fireflies streaked across the blackened sky. Above us, a river of lamps snaked around the switchbacks to a vanishing point on the crater rim. With so many other climbers to light our way, we kept the lamps off and followed the masses in their solemn march towards their ‘been-there, done-that’ glory.

fuji1

By the time we reached the 8th stage point it was already past midnight. Altitude slowed us even more than the train of congested hikers. We were now about 3200 meters above sea level, but a curving arc of 500 vertical meters stood between us and the summit. We dug into our energy gels and candy bars, trying to conjure up enough stamina to make the peak before sunrise. We pushed on, clambering over pumice boulders and slippery scree towards our vertical horizon. Just below the 9th stage point the sky started to glow from behind the backlit cone. We were on the western side of the mountain, and the only way to see the sunrise from here was to keep pushing on to the crater. As the two of us reached the shrine gate marking the entrance to the summit plateau, dawn was already advancing over Suruga bay. We shuffled along to the summit of Joyugatake, securing a seat alongside a chorus of 50 other hikers dotted across the exposed perch. Our timing was perfect, as the golden ball hit the horizon less than 10 minutes after our arrival, sending the crowd into a sleep-deprived frenzy.

fuji3

While most people stayed to absorb the warm rays of the sun, we kept moving, scooting past the village of noodle stalls to the meteorological station sitting directly on the high point of Ken-ga-mine. Scores of mountains stretched out in all directions: little did I know that over the next decade I’d end up scaling nearly all of them. Drowsiness and fatigue were taking over our thoughts, so we continued along the crater rim, turning back down the route we had climbed through the night. Hikers by the hundreds continued their slow advance towards the summit. Most of these climbers had spent the night at one of huts along the way and had missed the sunrise completely.

fuji2

Miki and I walked in a zombie-like trance back towards the parking lot which we could see clearly in the depths below. We took our first break back at the 8th stage point, where nature came calling. I stumbled over to the decrepit shack concealing nothing more than a deep hole in the ground. I eased over the pit, squatting on an uneven set of wooden planks balanced on both sides of the void. After finishing my business, I headed back outside and turned with my back towards Miki to check for any misfirings. While Miki was checking my bottom and hamstrings, the voice of an elderly woman called from just in front of me: “you’ve got some on you!” I looked down, spying a spot of brown goo attached to my right thigh just above the knee.

fuji5

I broke out into a hysterical laugh, retreating back to the outhouse to clean up as best I could. Water and volcanic soil did the trick for the most part, and soon we were back on the trail following the river of switchbacks in an insomnia-powered daze. Just past the 6th stage point a field of short shrubs filled the lower depths of the volcano, providing a small but welcome swath of green among the burgundy hues. Back at the parking lot, we just made the 11am bus before collapsing into an exhausted heap. The driver had to wake us upon our arrival at Shin-fuji station.

fuji6

Fuji nearly chewed us up and spit us back out, but we had survived relatively unscathed. Despite our exhaustion, neither of us suffered from the altitude, which was a good sign considering I still had 99 more peaks to go.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »