Posts Tagged ‘Hyakumeizan’

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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’.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


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!


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.


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 »


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



Mt. Rishiri

Mt. Rishiri





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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 »

After a fitful sleep, I cooked the last of my supplies before packing up and hitting the trail. The fatigue from yesterday still hung over me like a swarm of hungry gnats. The rays of sunlight peeked from behind a bank of cumulus. If I hurried to the ridge I just might get some long sought-after vistas. Biei-fuji’s curvy cone rose majestically to my right, but I skipped the summit in favor of the craggy spires of neighboring Mt. Biei. I crawled up the crumbling slopes, losing one step with each two taken in a futile duel with gravity. Clouds began rising from the valley below, threatening to steal my cherished views. I pushed myself harder than ever, clambering up the last few meters until topping out on the shores of a gargantuan ocean of mist.


Dropping my kit, I stood, mouth gaped wide, as nature put on her spellbinding performance. Mt. Tokachi pierced above the clouds like a lean-to placed gently among a softly sculpted field of snow. A deep gorge of hissing and steaming plumes of volcanic gas intermingled with the rapidly rising fog bank, two angelic figures engaged in a choreographed ballroom dance as I stood on the sidelines taking notes. Turning ninety degrees, the entire Daisetsuzan range that occupied my time for the last 5 days stretched out unabated, proof of my interminable drive to persevere through it all. Despite the rain, fog, wind and long distances, my trek had finally reached a point of unwavering bliss; even though I was stripped of panoramic views on both Mt. Asahi and Mt. Tomuraushi, the scenery spread out before me more than made up for it: I was bit by the hiking bug in a major way, the implications of which would alter the course of my tenure in life.


Dreadfully, the clouds soon caught up with me, swallowing me in its entirety as I started on the long slither across the boundless scree fields of Tokachi. Although only 30 minutes as the crow flies, the journey took the rest of the morning, as poor visibility and even poorer footing reduced my pace to an infant’s crawl. By the time I had reached the summit I had lost all drive to continue. I needed nourishment and fast, but what edibles could possibly remain after such a long journey? I released the pack to investigate, pulling out my food bag to find a package of dried miso soup, a few grains of powdered milk, and a half-filled container of angel hair pasta. It was a meal fit for Bear Grylls, but I’d need some fire. As I reached in to pull out the stove, my hand came across a small hard lump wrapped in plastic. An elderly hiker had handed me a couple of pieces of candy on the climb up Tomuraushi, and here they were staring out at me. Hmm, miso-and-milk pasta, or apple candy?


I put away my gear, sucking hard on the candy to try to squeeze every last morsel of energy from the sugar-packed coating. It wasn’t much but it gave me enough of a push to reach the junction for the hot spring. Mt. Furano, like Biei-fuji earlier in the day, would have to saved for another day. I worked my way through the accelerating winds and dense forest of cloud, reaching the top of a maze of stairs leading down through crumbling tufts of pumice. Hundreds upon hundreds of stairs stood between me and a hot bath, but the pressure of a relentless descent started to take hold, and my right knee let out screams of pain with each successive jolt. I had done the entire trek without a pair of trekking poles and I was starting to pay it. Once the path flattened out I was in a pirate’s limp, reaching the hot spring in time to refuel the body with both grub for the stomach and muddy sulfuric grub for the muscles.


Next on the agenda was a ride back to civilization, but first I had something else on my mind. I stuck out my thumb, and the driver gawked at my destination: “Fukiage? But you just had a hot spring!” The driver dropped me off a few kilometers down the road to the bath entrance, a 10-minute jaunt down a narrow mountain path. Fukiage gained fame in the 80s TV drama Kita no Kunikara, and the twin outdoor baths set in a thick forest of natural vegetation are a sight to behold. I stripped, soaking my spent body in the therapeutic waters. Unfortunately my peaceful soak was cut short by a group of camera-wielding Chinese tourists, who came to rubberneck at Japan’s endemic culture of grown men marinating naked in the great outdoors.


Once back out at the main road, I caught another ride a few more kilometers to a campsite, where I had planned to pitch my tent but got distracted by a brand-new hot spring accommodation called Hakuginso that had just opened. Not only was it affordable, but there was a kitchen that guests could use to cook meals, and the maze of outdoor baths in the garden made it a no-brainer. I settled into my room just in time to watch the rain fall in heavy sheets. Thus I had ended my trip in preciously the same way I had begun: in a sparkling new guesthouse in the company of Hokkaido’s ill-fated weather.

Read Full Post »

At dawn, I crawled out of the tent to clear skies and a sea of cloud resting on the valley below. I thought about climbing back up to the summit to take in the views but I had another really long day awaiting, so after breaking down camp and stuffing a cereal bar down my throat, I bade farewell to Hiro and Maki and continued along the ridge.


The route passed through a sea of bamboo grass, the maintenance decreasing in direct proportion to the distance from Minami Numa. I had finally reached the least traveled part of the traverse: most folks escape down to Tomuraushi hot spring before rejoining the mountain range further south at Tokachi. I fought my way through the overgrown mess, sweat darting from my tangled mound of hair like a malfunctioning sprinkler. Rays of sunlight pierced the openings in the foliage, transforming the landscape into a heat-shimmering sauna. Looks like summer had finally arrived on the roof of Hokkaido.


After several hours of stamina-zapping movement, the path opened up to a series of broad hills, whose contours guided me to a deep col sitting on the doorstep of the 2000-meter summit of Mt. Oputateshike. The humidity and heat had attracted the clouds, blotting out the peaks like an ashtray full of spent ash. At the low point in the valley stood a flat area with room for no more than two or three tents. A group of university students occupied the largest of the sites, tent pitched among a latte of thick mud. An ideal place to spend the night this was not, so after chewing on some beef jerky, I loaded up the gear for the agonizing march up the final climb of the day, losing the path countless times in the dense fog and escalating winds. The crawl to the top easily took two hours: the last three days of full-on trekking were taking its toll.


Once topped out, the pitch mitigated before dropping abruptly to yet another col at the front door of Biei-Fuji. A spur led to a small wooden hut situated on a flat shoulder of the volcanic cone. I dropped my gear and peeked inside the lodge. There was capacity for around 20 people, but I was shocked to find a group of nearly 40 occupying every square inch of the facility. There were even people who had laid their sleeping bags in the boot-covered entrance. I felt like telling them to bugger off and camp outside so I could have a warm place to sleep. After all, they were people who had just entered the mountain earlier that day, while I had been going nonstop for the better part of a week. In the end I asked about water sources and retreated to the lonely mist of  the deserted campground.


After setting up camp, I searched in vain for the only source of water: a small snowfield situated somewhere in the valley below. For the life of me I could not find it, and with darkness quickly setting in, I gave up, opting to filter and boil a puddle of rain water sitting next to my tent. I had reached a low point in my trek, but luckily there was only one more final push to the hissing steam vents of Mt. Tokachi, the final peak in the traverse.

Read Full Post »

The torrent continued the entire night. Upon waking at daybreak, I lay in the tent in a rain-enduced trance. Not wanting to soak my kit or myself, I simply decided to wait out the storm, no matter how long it took. I rolled back over and drifted into unconsciousness again.


Around 9am I awoke to the sound of birds singing. Unzipping my rain fly, I poked my head out in disbelief: the day before there were over 20 tents pitched in a labyrinth but now there was only one other, situated directly across from me. My gear shuffling had snapped my neighbors out of their slumber and they too looked google-eyed at the deserted state of our village. We both laughed, congratulating ourselves on the decision to make a late start. “My name’s Hiro,” offering his hand in a jovial western fashion, “and this is my girlfriend Maki.”


We shared breakfast under the dissipating cloud cover while discussing our trekking itinerary. The were headed for Hisago-numa campground a half-day’s walk from here, while I wanted to push on to Minami Numa on the other side of Tomuraushi. We reached an agreement: Hiro and Maki would join me if I would be kind enough to keep a tent space for them.


I left camp ahead of my companions, inching along the well-marked route through untouched swamplands before climbing the crest of a long slope. Here the terrain morphed into rolling hills sprinkled with boulders of every imaginable size. Depressions in the landscape framed ponds partially encased in ice, a reminder of the brevity of summer. Just past these frigid swimming holes a trail branched off towards the tranquil lagoon of Hisago, where a rustic mountain hut sat plopped on the far shore. It was straight out of a Snodonian daydream.


From here the bedrock intensified, and it became a hopping game from rock to rock before the path vanished into thick cloud. The temperatures plummeted, forcing me to reach for an extra thermal layer in addition to my gloves. A few hikers worked their way silently from the hidden reaches of Tomuaushi above. I pushed on for several more hours before finally topping out myself. The views were obstructed but the climb was over. I dropped 10 minutes down the southern flank to Minami Numa campsite.


I set up my gear on a quiet part of the sprawling campground, saving a bare patch of dirt for my new friends. Dinner was prepared and hastily devoured as the fog grew dimmer in the fading light. I relaxed in the tent, wondering if Hiro and Maki has given up back at Hisago. Just as I had resigned my fate to another night of camping alone, I saw two headlamps making their way through the maze of crags dotting the summit. My friends had finally arrived.


After pitching their tent, they invited me in for rose hip tea and homemade cookies. These two knew how to travel in style. It was great to find a pair of kindred spirits with an immense love of nature and life. After dessert, the three of us split some fresh Hokkaido herb that had us flying higher than the clouds covering our camp.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »