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Posts Tagged ‘Kamikochi’

Long before the transport ministry burrowed a giant tunnel through Naka-no-yu hot spring, there was only one way in and out of Kamikochi. The path lie in the east, through the quaint village of Shimashima, along a fork in the Azusa river that led to a small gap between Mt. Kasumisawa and Mt. Chou called Tokugo pass. Walter Weston was perhaps the first foreign face to set foot upon the plateau, whose depiction is recorded in a diary entry from the summer of 1891:   “The view from near the highest point of the pass is one of the grandest in Japan, so entirely does it differ in character from the ordinary mountain landscapes with their rounded outlines and verdure-clad slopes.” One mid-September morning, I set out with several members of the Hiking in Japan Facebook community in search of Weston’s lost view.

Tokugo1

On the flat, 3km walk from Konashidaira campground to the junction at Myojin hut, I set the stage by demonstrating my regular flat-ground walking pace, which my trusty companions watched with reserved envy. On challenging hikes I opt to cover as much of the easy ground as quickly as I can. A 5 to 6 km/h average walking speed is not entirely unheard of. As I rested outside of Myojin, Michael strolled in a minute or so behind me. Out of the rest of the members, he was the only most likely to keep pace for the remainder of the hike. Miguel, Naresh, Tomomi, and Baku each filed in one after the other, eager to enjoy the scenery as much as each other’s company. I’ve done that stretch of forest nearly a dozen times over the last decade or so, and the anticipation of possibly setting foot on some of the same stones Weston left his heel-print on was too much to bear.

Tokugo2

Michael led the way along the forest road that paralleled the swift moving mountain stream. In Weston’s time, the entire route most likely darted in and out of this water source, over weather-beaten boulders and snow sculpted waterfalls. I slowed up the pace, but once in the zone I knew that fighting my momentum would only expend more energy than necessary. That’s one of the main reasons why I never hike in big groups and also why I could never become a mountain guide: patience is one virtue that never stuck with me. To my utter surprise, our pace setter Michael had disappeared into the forest, long out of reach from my regular climbing march. I soon found myself completely alone as the route rose through a conservative array of lengthy switchbacks. Every now and again the views would open up towards the valley from which we had started, only to be enveloped by the thick greenery of the lush deciduous canopy.

Tokugo4

After crossing several small streams, I reached a signpost that indicated only 800 meters of horizontal distance to the pass. I contemplated taking my first break here, but one look at the altimeter had me rubbing my eyes as if I had seen a desert mirage: 2030 meters! The pass lay only 100 vertical meters above, and it would have been futile to rest when my goal lay so close at hand. I hit the high point about 10 minutes later, where a small flat area crammed with tents beckoned me closer. To the left, a small, red-roofed hut sat nestled on the Shimashima side of the pass. Middle-aged hikers milled about, led around by a thin-skinned tour guide who barked instructions to the two dozen customers who monopolized every available rest space. If this guide ever tired of his profession, I’m sure he could easily get a job as a JR train conductor for his love of unnecessary announcements. Yes, a 1:45pm departure, you say? Please remind me thirty more times over the next two minutes. My headache is forever grateful.

Tokugo5

I found Michael seated at one of the benches, and after a quick refueling, we searched for the million dollar view that Weston had touted in his book. A small sign in the campground pointed to a lookout point only 45 seconds away. We reached a small clearing, where a young woman with a bandanna on her head stood, hand outstretched, with her cell phone searching for reception. It turns out she worked at the hut, and this lookout point was the only place on the mountain where you could actually get coverage. Turning towards the west, the towering spires of Mae-hotaka demanded our attention.

Tokugo6

From this vantage point, it appeared as if the mountain gods had thrust a giant spear into the earth, severing the landscape into a creepy craggly chaos. I now understood what Weston was talking about. Imagine laying your eyes on the Hotaka mountains for the very first time from this vantage point. Weston describes it best:

“With the broad white pebbly bed of the Azusagawa sweeping round its southern foot, the tall form of Hotakayama rises before us face to face. The highest granite peak in Japan, 10,150 feet above the sea, its towers and pinnacles, that spring from ridges seamed with snow, give it its picturesque name, ‘the mountain of the standing ears of corn.’ Northwards a great arete connects it with Yarigatake, whose monolithic peak is yet hidden by intervening wooded heights, but as we descend a little to the left a fine view greets us of the pyramid of Jonendake standing due north of our pass and separated from it by Chogadake and Nabekamuriyama.”

Tokugo7

The descent that Weston speaks of is a little mystifying, as the trail climbs towards the left from the lookout point towards the tree-covered summit of Junction Peak. Perhaps the original location of the Tokugo trail was a little higher up or a bit further to the east?

Tokugo3

As much as I had wanted to descend the other side of the ridge and out to Shimashima, our campgear and fire awaited us back at Konashidaira. One day I will embark on the full 20-km journey from Shimashima to Myojin up and over the great Tokugo divide. Until then, I’ll just have to keep chasing Weston’s faded footsteps over Japan’s long-forgotten routes.

References

Weston, Walter. Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps. London: John Murray, 1896

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Sometime in mid-September, Miguel posted in the Facebook group about how wonderful it would be for “fans” of my other site to gather in the mountains and get to know each other. After some group feedback, we all settled in on a date and location: October 20 – 21 at Tokusawa campsite in Kamikochi.

Grace and I met up at Toyama station at 9pm on Friday evening, where she drove her beat-up car to Sawando parking lot. Our plan was to catch a shuttle early the next morning to Kamikochi. We arrived shortly before midnight and set up camp behind the car. Grace opted for the cramped warmth of the vehicle, while I braved the subzero temperatures of the tent. The stars twinkled brilliantly in the crystal clear air, as arriving automobiles insured that my fits of sleep would be short-lived.

After a quick canned coffee and some snacks, we boarded an early morning bus under the brilliant skies of a clear autumn Saturday. Since the weather was so incredible, we decided to alight at Taisho Pond for a longer but more scenic approach to Tokusawa campsite, the meeting point for the event. Mt. Yake glistened peacefully in the ripples of the calm waters, as photographers gathered by the shoreline to snap away at the mirror reflections.

Our next stop in route to camp was Tashiro-ike and the frost covered grasslands just in front of the water source. The Hotaka mountains rose abruptly from the base of the valley as if pulled up by an invisible force from the stratosphere. Down at the pond, a few professional photographers positioned their box cameras to capture the early morning mist rising from the lakeside. I’m sure some of these photos will make their way into magazines and books on Kamikochi in the future.

After passing by the bus terminal, the next logical rest area was the small restaurant/shop at Konashidaira campsite, where my friend Shu works. Shu and I caught up while Grace and I ate a breakfast set. The three of us talked about the record number of tents set up in Karasawa a few weeks back. During the October 3-day weekend, no less than 1200 tents were pitched in the highlands. This mountain boom is really starting to get out of hand.

Next up was the hut at Myojin-ike. Grace and I decided to save the pond for the return trip the next day, and simply sat enjoying the early morning sun. Grace was carrying enough gear to feed a large family, so our pace was slow but steady. Halfway along the flat walk between Myojin and our home for the night, we stopped along the shores of the Azusa river to rest. The lack of sleep from the previous night was starting to catch up. I was so exhausted I could hardly move, while Grace looked a bit knackered as well. In my younger years I used to be able to hike for hours and hours on little sleep, but age and my allergies have definitely caught up to me.

Alas, the two of arrived at camp and immediately spotted Miguel’s teepee tents. We exchanged warm-hearted greetings while he introduced us to Rie, who was about to venture off for a hike. Miguel informed us that Gameboy had strolled into camp in the morning, but had headed up to Karasawa for the evening, wearing only a pair of jeans! After dropping off supplies, Miguel and I headed inside to the hut, where I filled my belly with warm soba noodles and we traded stories. I’d known Miguel for years through his beautiful writing and stunning photographs, but this was our first time to meet face-to-face and we immediately hit it off, considering we have so much in common. Both of us come from design and architecture backgrounds, and we both suffer from debilitating health conditions.

The next campers to arrive were Sonia and Isao, a Brazilian couple living in Gunma Prefecture. Tomomi soon followed suit, having come down from Oku-hotaka in the morning. She looked absolutely beat, as anyone would after traversing through Dakesawa with a heavy pack. She kept insisting she had to go back to Kamikochi to get supplies for the pizzas she was going to make, but Miguel and I insisted that she stay, knowing that an extra 14km of walking would not do her any good. I’m sure there would be enough ingredients between the rest of us to make up for what she had not brought with her. Miguel and I diverted her attention to a more important task: putting up her tent correctly.

Miguel taught us the proper was to fasten tent pegs and some basic rope knots. We tried to figure out why Tomomi’s rain fly wasn’t sitting securely on the tent frame. “I think it’s on backwards,” I modestly suggested. Sure enough, a 180-degree turn and we were in business.

I believe Jana was the next to waltz into camp. She had caught a ride with Kevin and Mona, so we knew they wouldn’t be too far behind. As the afternoon light faded through the campsite, a makeshift dining table was set up on a plastic sheet, while the kitchen was assembled in the open Snowpeak shelter, out of the wind. Rie and Tomomi started making pizza, while Isao and Sonia took care of frying the Coxinhas. Grace began unpacking her gear while Miguel, Jana, and I looked on with disbelief. Eggplant salad, ham, cheese, bread, a full bottle of red wine, and just about every other thing imaginable. No wonder her kit was so heavy!

During all of the frantic preparations, I noticed that I had lost sight of Miguel. Turning around, I saw him sitting quietly in his tent, labored breathing, while chowing down on a snickers bar. I knew immediately that his blood sugar had dropped too low, and the only course of action was to let him tend to his blood sugar. Although it was my first time to personally witness a hypoglycemic attack, I knew enough from prior reading about diabetes to know what to do: leave him be. Sonia and Isao looked quite worried, but understood once I explained the situation in Japanese. Once his blood sugar returned to normal then I knew he would once again join the party. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later Miguel emerged from the tent and came back to the festivities.

Kevin and Mona were the next to join camp. Mona was a bit shy because of all of the people, but she eventually calmed down a bit as darkness enshrouded the campsite. Satomi was the final person to roll into camp, arriving just before dusk. Now that everyone was settled into their outdoor homes, the feast and storytelling began. We passed around plates full of food and everyone ate to their heart’s content. Despite our appetites, we had barely made a dent in all of the food. Between all of the appetizers, Jana’s salad bar, and Satomi’s couscous salad, we easily had enough food to feed the entire campsite.

In the midst of all of our reverie, a lone figure approached from the direction of the hut. “Excuse me, is the the Hiking in Japan gathering?”, cried the voice. Grigory, the Russian Superman, had arrived into camp. Armed with only a backpack, we made him feel right at home by forcing him to eat our food, filtering red wine though a coffee filter (don’t ask!)  and clearing out Miguel’s other tent so he had a place to sleep. Kevin even gave him his extra sleeping bag to use. Blankets were available for rent from the hut for only 500 yen, so there was no chance of anyone freezing to death this evening. We all gazed in disbelief as Grigory told us he had left Kita-hotaka hut in the morning, traversed through the Daikiretto, had gone up and over Mt. Yari, and then down Yarisawa all the way into our camp. It was easily over 20km of walking, so it was no surprise he turned up long after dark.

Sometime after 8pm, we wrapped up the leftover food and supplies and placed them in the open Snowpeak shelter and called it a night, halfway wondering if Gameboy would be the last to roll into camp. Forming a standing circle, we continued telling stories before Grace had to get back to hut before the 9pm lights out curfew. We easily could have stayed up all night chatting, but the majority of us were in dire need of sleep after taking so much effort to get there.

I climbed into my bivy sack and tried to adjust to the low center of gravity. As the night progressed, the winds picked up considerably. My bivy sack shook from side to side, while I could hear the supplies in the open shelter starting to move. Sitting up, I noticed Miguel out and about the camp, tying down the food and double-checking all of the tents to make sure they were securely staked into the ground.

A short time before sunrise, I heard another rustle in the campsite. Peering out of my bag, I saw that Grace was already out of the warm hut and preparing for breakfast. The alpine peaks were beginning to turn their crimson colors in the first light of the day, so I grabbed my camera to capture the scenery. Slowly the campsite came alive. Grace was cooking grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, while packets of coffee were passed around. Tomomi was the last person to emerge from her tent and rightfully so, as she looked the most weary the previous day. The warm rays of sun gradually filtered down into camp, while we shared more stories and ate fresh blueberries, courtesy of our Brazilian mountain sherpa Grace.

Gradually the tents came down one by one and it was time to bid farewell to Tokusawa and make our way back to civilization. We marched in unison, slowly drifting apart with our varying speeds. Grigory and I led the pack, followed closely by Rie. Once at Myojin hut we took a break and waited for the others to catch up. Luckily they were only a few minutes behind. It was here that the group finally split. Miguel, Tomomi, Kevin, Mona, Satomi, Sonia, and Isao headed directly to the buds terminal, while Grace, Grigory, Rie, Jana, and I took the scenic route via Myojin pond.

The pond was absolutely stunning in the incredibly clear weather. Mt. Myojin is often covered in cloud, so rare is a day when her reflections can shine bright and unhindered. The path between Myojin and Kappabashi is much more dynamic than the other side of the river: wooden walkways, vibrant foliage, pristine forests. Impressive enough to have Jana vowing to come back here the following weekend!

After a quick snack at the hotel in front of Kappabashi, we crossed the bridge and converged upon the bus terminal, where an incredibly long line snaked around the visitor’s center. Over 150 people were waiting to get on the shuttle bus. Grigory was worried that he would miss his bus back to Tokyo, while the rest of us wondered if we’d make it out of here today. Amazingly, the wait was only about 30 minutes, and were were soon on our way. Grace and I got off at Sawando and back to her awaiting car. She drove me back to Toyama in time to catch the 6:30pm train back to Osaka. The train ride took over 3 hours but I slept the entire time, awakened only by the hand of an elderly gentleman who was shaking me back to reality. All in all the gathering was a sounding success, and we hope to make this a yearly pilgrimage.

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“Are you going to bring your rain gear?”, shouts Paul from the other side of the tent. Looking around at the blue skies surrounding the alpine peaks, and the paltry 20 percent chance of rain forecast for the day, I reply in the negative. After all, with clear views of our target peak all morning, and no wind to speak of, how could the weather possibly change?

And with that, the two explorers set off from camp, armed with a fresh map and a few snacks. As we turned from the road to the trail, the temperature suddenly started to drop and the sun disappeared behind clouds that were concealed above a thick forest canopy. It definitely felt like rain was on the way, but perhaps we’d be lucky enough to miss the worst of it. It was Paul’s first time to climb the only active volcano in the Kita Alps, and it was my first chance to check out the route from Kamikochi, which became steeper with each ascending footprint.

After an hour of hiking, Paul and I reached a clearing at the base of a set of cliffs. We wondered which way the trail would go, spying the rocks above for a hint. “Straight ahead,” pointed my companion. We could just make out the throngs of a long aluminum ladder, bolted to a neighboring rock formation. As we reached the vertical climb, a lone Japanese hiker started the vertigo-inducing descent. One slip here would be deadly. I knew the climb up would be a breeze, but I dreaded the inevitable – having to come down that thing later in the day.

Once past the ladder, the path entered alpine territory, with an array of colorful flowers in full bloom, and a meandering trail laden with switchbacks. It was somewhere around here that the skies started to open up, turning from drizzle to an all out downpour. Now I really was starting to regret my foolish decision to leave the rain gear in the valley below.

We rested briefly at the hut until the rain abated. From the hut the path climbed on the true ridge of the mountain range, reaching a lookout point in about 10 minutes or so. Steam from volcanic vents rose up mysteriously in the murk and from the pumice boulders strewn carelessly about. This would not be a good place to be in an eruption, so I silently prayed Yake would not decide to belch while we were visiting. From here the trail drops steeply to a saddle and starts the final, relentless climb to the summit.

This would be as far as I ventured, however, as the skies erupted in a downpour much heavier than before. The clouds hung thick to Yake’s conical figure, as the rain penetrated my thin layers instantaneously. I’d been up Yake in preciously the same conditions before, and a revenge climb doesn’t make much sense when the view is blocked by clouds. I sent Paul off to the summit alone, while I gracefully retreated back to the hut. Once there, I ducked inside and ordered some instant noodles. We had no food in our packs other than a few bags of mixed nuts, and I was starving. I waited out the rain in the luxury of the hut while chatting with another solo climber who’d just come from Nishi-hotaka hut.

An hour later, the rain once again stopped and I headed back up to the lookout point in search of Paul. Mt. Yake drifted in and out of cloud as another man stood by the rocks, searching for his hiking partners. It seems that I wasn’t the only one who gave up on the summit attempt. After 15 minutes or so, 3 figures appeared on the crest of the ridge back down to the saddle. We shouted to them and they replied by waving their arms. I couldn’t remember what color rain gear Paul had on, so I waited patiently for the group to arrive. A young couple eventually wandered up, informing me that my friend was about a half hour behind them. The group worked for one of the hotels in Kamikochi and were up for a bit of a day hike on their holiday. As with the majority of hotel staff in Kamikochi, they were from Kansai. I think the people in Osaka are smart to escape the summer heat and accept employment in a beautiful area with temperatures that barely break 30. They offered me their leftover rice balls, which I gently tucked inside my pack, waiting for Paul’s return to break them out. After bidding farewell, I stood alone on the summit, 2100 meters above sea level, and peered into the murk. A lone figure in green rain gear slowly made its way down the steep trail, meandering as if in a drunken stupor. I yelled up to the ridge line, which seemed to snap Paul out of his contemplative trance. Once we were reunited, I stuffed the rice ball into his waiting fist and asked about the summit climb. “Brutal”, he replied. “I almost gave up after getting lost among the hissing boulders”. Our map marked this trail as difficult to pick up even in good weather, so I wasn’t surprised by the navigability issues.

The rice balls seemed to give up that much needed jolt to get us moving off the mountain. We slid past the hut, down the flower field, and over to the base of that vertical section of ladder. I took a deep breath and slowly lowered myself over the abyss.

I don’t know when I became such a softie when it comes to heights, but I was downright scared when making the 10 meter drop. The trickiest part was about halfway down, when two ladders were tied together. Due to the awkward angle, you couldn’t see your footing at all, and had to trust your instincts. Eventually we both made it through the danger zone and back into the darkened forest. I still had a bit of energy in me, but Paul looked completely zapped and he could barely keep himself on the trail. We took a break at the first available flat area, stretching out our weary knees and finishing off the last of the rations.

From here the walking became much easier, and we soon found ourselves back on the forest road. It was approaching 4pm, and we’d missed our window of opportunity at the hot spring, where the baths closed at 3. To make matters worse, the skies opened up again, soaking my hiking gear that had managed to dry on the descent. The temperatures plummeted, as goose bumps covered my exposed skin. I could definitely use a jacket now, I thought, picking up the pace back to the campsite. Luckily our home had a bath that closed at 7pm, so we jumped right in and thawed out our bodies.

Mt. Yake had definitely won the battle that day, and I couldn’t really call the revenge climb successful, as I’d been robbed of a view of Yake’s elusive emerald green lake. I promised myself that I’d be back for a third round, but this time armed with some rain gear and a decent lunch.

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

 

I broke down camp sometime in the early morning of my 3rd day in the backcountry. It’s amazing how quickly you can disassemble everything after a couple of days of practice. The high pressure system once again held up, as I followed the stream through  Yarisawa until the waters petered out into the alpine. The route was well-marked with tape on the creeping pine and yellow paint marks on the rocks. I kept a pretty steady pace, stopping only to replenish my water bottles once they’d been emptied into my dried belly. I’d pretty much put the maps and my watch away, instead relying on the movements of the sun to gauge my progess. Scores of hikers filed down through the valley after catching the first rays of the sun from Yari’s speak-like point. My target peak was clearly visible on the horizon, though it took nearly 5 hours of tough slogging to reach the ridge.

Once at the hut, I dropped my gear off and raced up the chains and ladders to the summit. Luckily, only a handful of people were making their way up the summit, since most trekkers were well on their way to their waiting accommodation by the toll of the midday bells. After a quick summit shot, I backtracked to the hut and ate a lunch of instant noodles. I chatted with a group of university students who were on an excursion through their school’s wandervogel club. They gave me some good advice about the ridge between Yari and Sugoroku hut, my target for the day. “It’s long but the path is easy to follow”, encouraged the leader of the group. After posing for photos, I once again fastened my sagging pack and picked my way through the paint rocks on the main spine of the northern Alps ridge. I soon caught up with 2 men also making the trek to Sugoroku, so it was nice to actually do part of the walk with some companionship for a change. Up until this point I’d passed hundreds of other hikers, but my late starts and awkward decisions meant I’d walked in solitude most of the time. We rolled into camp sometime before 6pm, as I searched for a place to pitch the tent among the city of trekkers. A word of advice for future hikers: the best campsites are usually gone before lunch.

Once settled in, the skies lit up in brilliant colors before the fog rolled in for good. Little did I know how shy these alpine ridges can be in the summer. The cloud usually comes in shortly after sunrise, hangs around most of the day, lifts a little before sunset, and settles back in most of the night before lowering itself to the valley floor before sunrise, only to repeat itself the next day. Of course, that’s the pattern during a period of high pressure, but once the storm systems start to move in, it’s an entirely different story as I was soon about to find out.

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Back in the summer of 2002, I attempted one of the longest traverses of my life on the so-called Roof of Japan, from Kamikochi to Tateyama in the Kita Alps. What follows is a breakdown of that long, treacherous journey. I learned not only a lot about mountaineering in that 10-day stretch, but also a lot about myself.

I catalogued my trip in a photo journal, the images of which you will see in this write-up. Stay tuned for the full report over the coming weeks, as I break each day down into great detail for others to learn from my (often) poor decision making.

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