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Posts Tagged ‘Kanto hikes’

The lights came on at 6am, which, for Japanese mountain hut standards, is a late start. The amicable caretaker prepared a modest meal consisting mostly of pickled vegetables and rice: precisely the same food we ate the previous night, but such is life in a dwelling with no running water. I was so tired and hungry I could’ve eaten anything, and my wife didn’t exhibit the faintest sense of dismay. I raced excitedly back and forth between my simple breakfast and the window, trying to catch a peek at the horizon. I definitely didn’t want to miss this photo op, so I grabbed my gear and bolted for the frigid solitude of darkness.

The horizon slowly changed hues, while I jumped around in circles trying to stave off hypothermia. Unsurprisingly, none of the other 4 guests followed in my footsteps, deciding that a warm kerosene heater was more important than watching nature’s light show.

Most people think that the moment the sun scrapes the edge of the horizon as the most beautiful part of the sunrise but I beg to differ. Still, I knew the others would eventually follow suit and join me in welcoming a new day.

Shortly before daybreak, Kanako and I turned out eyes (and lenses) away from the glow of the east and faced mighty Fuji, for it was time to give the birthday girl one last present on our unforgettable trip. Atmospheric conditions seemed perfect for nature to deliver the phenomenon known as akafuji, forever memorialized in a Hokusai print of the same name. “Here it comes,” I screamed.

“Quick, get one of me,” my wife demanded. It was perhaps the only time in my life where watching the actual sunrise took second stage to the spectacle occurring further west.

Even the Shirane-Sanzan joined in on the fun.

One of the other 3 guests joining our early morning camaraderie was a curious young gentleman named Satoshi Nagata, who spent the better part of the morning taking panoramic photos for his remarkable website, Panorama 360. Web technology now allows designers to create realistically stunning three-dimensional views that, when viewed on a large screen, appear to magically transport the viewer to the scene in question. Click here to see Satoshi’s composition on the morning of December 28th, 2005. My crouched figure appears at the edge of the photographer’s skewed shadow, while the bright yellow jacket of my lovely wife prepares to snap a photo of the other husband and wife team. We later all gathered together in the lobby of the shelter, where the warden presented the birthday girl with a commemorative shikishi, a square personalized celebratory signboard.

After a long exchange of pleasantries, we geared up and bade farewell to our generous host, and all headed in unison towards the bus stop at Tono. Crampons definitely helped with the icy bits below the summit, as we all cruised towards Jizo-taira (地蔵平) before a short climb towards the junction at Himetsugi (姫次), the highest point on the Tokai Nature trail that stretches from Tokyo to Osaka. It was here that we entered the tree line and lost the jaw-dropping views of Japan’s most revered peak. I used up the last of my film, zooming out to capture the entire stretch of the Japan Alps hovering in the distance.

On the bus ride back towards the metropolis, I reflected upon the year, which started with a long traverse in March of another one of Tokyo’s famous peaks, Mt. Kumotori. From there I embarked on two separate traverses in the Minami Alps, followed by a relatively productive autumn which knocked off a few of the more challenging day hikes. I still had 7 more peaks to go before hitting the magic #50, but was determined to reach my goal before the next rainy season. Time to plan.

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As we dropped off the northern reaches of Tou-no-dake’s bald flank, the path turned to crusty snow and ice. We held off on crampons for the time being, sticking slowly and firmly to the exposed edges of the wooden steps. Kanako seemed to enjoy her first true descent on the unbroken traverse.

Once out of the trouble zone, we cruised on the heavily-eroded sun baked ridge towards the summit of Mt. Tanzawa. We thought about abandoning our goal of Mt. Hiru in favor of staying at Miyama hut, but my internal voice told me to keep moving. It was 2:30pm when we reached the signpost.

Kanako seemed to be possessed by some unnamed spirit, for even though she was starting to show signs of fatigue, she never complained about it. Fueled by the power of the anniversary of her birth, I once again let her take the lead on the windy path, hoping she’d settle in on a steady pace.

We hit our next roadblock at a place called Oni-ga-Iwa (The Devil’s Rock). The loss of daylight was now clearly noticeable on the pink tinted hills, as the path turned into a tricky rock scramble. Kanako, none too confident on the steep terrain, froze with unease. Patches of ice made the descent downright treacherous, but it was too late to put on the crampons. Acting as her guide, I talked her through the area step-by-step like a choreographer working through a particularly complex dance routine. Reaching the final saddle before our target, I looked back on the towering inferno.

My wife’s energy was zapped, as her pace turned to a crawl. I raced ahead to drop off my pack on the summit, only to find my wife gazing blissfully at a pack of wild deer upon my return. “Just a few more meters” I quipped, well aware that she’d be quite content with her current position. “I’ve got a present awaiting.”

I led my wife by the hand, pulling her the last few steps towards Mt. Hiru’s impressive vantage point. Directly in front of us, the glowing ball of the Solar System’s brightest star sank rapidly behind Japan’s highest peak.

We gazed silently in disbelief,

as dusk fell on the sprawling metropolis a thousand meters below.

“This is the best birthday present ever,” proclaimed Kanako, who suddenly realized that the best gifts in life are those which cannot be bought. We slowly retreated to the warm hut, startling the caretaker with our ‘late’ arrival (even if it was only 5:30pm). I had another gift planned for the following morning and was praying that the high pressure system would honor my request.

Part 3

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We both woke before dawn, anxious to flee the capital city before the onslaught of the morning commute. Leaving the warm confines of Madoka’s cozy apartment, Kanako and I head southwest to Shibusawa, home to the Tanzawa mountains and our playground for the next two days of celebrating my wife’s 28th birthday. Things just had to go smoothly.

From the bus stop at Okura, we flew up the forest road under picture perfect skies, chatting gingerly about life in the mountains. I knew we had a tough 1400m ascent staring us straight in the face, but refrained from spoiling the birthday girl’s chipper mood by keeping this information to myself. Entering the forest, we started our relentless climb up the spine of the mountain range that runs through the heart of Kanagawa Prefecture on the outskirts of Tokyo. The path snaked past a couple of teahouses before entering an area of golden grasslands.

“Turn around”, I said, after letting Kanako set the pace for our morning goal of Tou-no-dake. “Woah”, replied the newly-turned 28 year-old beauty, whose cries of joy turned to wails of delight upon discovering the towering cone in the distance was indeed Mt. Fuji.

The smiles continued unabated as we reached the knob that housed Sonbutsu hut. It was just past noon as we took a quick lunch break and observed our surroundings. “When do we check-in”, asked my wonderful wife, as I gently led her to a clearing overlooking the peaks to the north. “As soon as we reach that hut”, I proclaimed, pointing to a point way off in the distance. Most hikers do not attempt to make it to Hiru-ga-take in one day from Ogura, but I knew exactly what I was doing…..or did I?

Part 2

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The night was long. Too long. Bitterly cold, I drifted in and out of consciousness, counting down the minutes until daybreak. Retreating to the hut to cook some breakfast, I pored over the map. Last night’s companions had already started the long slog to Mt. Kinpu, so I sat all alone, thinking about the big day ahead. “Let’s hope the weather holds”, I prayed, remembering the depressing mist of Kinpu the previous afternoon. I stepped out of the hut, looking upwards. Not a cloud in sight. Breaking down camp never felt so good.

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The trail climbed behind the hut, revealing jaw-dropping views of the Minami Alps to the south, separated by the city of Kofu in the valley over a thousand meters below. Mt. Asama was completely caked in a thick layer of powdery frosting. It took about 40 minutes to reach the junction at Mae-Kokushi. Off came the pack for the 5-minute detour to Mt. Kitaokusenjo (北奥千丈岳), the highest point of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. 2600m above sea level and not a soul in sight. The snow was waist deep on the exposed peak, and it was only November! I retraced my steps to the junction and slogged on to the top of Kokushi-dake (not to be confused with Kobushi), where Ms. Fuji was patiently waiting. I let out a warm “nice to see you again” before settling down to a mid-morning snack.

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Refueled and refreshed, I head down the back side of the ridge, completely losing the track in the knee deep snow. Scant few traverse along the path I was heading, making my adventure so much more exciting. There was only one way to go – down to a long, flat saddle and up the other side to Kobushi. The more I descended the thinner the snow became, until I finally hit bare soil at the low point. I took off the crampons and surveyed Mt. Kobushi across the valley. I could see the summit, but I still had several hours of ups and downs before reaching my goal. I clasped my hands together and offered a small request to the gods: “stay with me sunshine”.

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The next hour or so was fairly uneventful, until reaching rather peculiar set of footprints. “That’s funny”, I thought “it’s much too cold to go hiking barefoot this time of year”. Wait a minute, this human only has 4 toes. The lump in my throat grew ever so slightly larger, and the reality of the situation finally sunk in: BEAR PRINTS!~

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I immediately froze, making as much noise as humanly possible, for I had no idea how fresh the prints were and wasn’t really keen on finding out either. The bear definitely knew where the path was, as I followed the prints for well over a kilometer, until reaching the junction just below the final summit climb. The prints descended down into the valley below, while I dug in the crampons for the final steep slog. Again, not a soul in sight, except for Ms. Fuji again, glistening blissfully in the distance. With peak #76 successfully scaled, I descended to the mountain hut just below the summit. It was still open for business, and I thought long and hard about the cold, miserable previous night spent in the tent, checked my finances and……checked in! A very wise investment of 3000 yen for a warm futon.

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I awoke early the next morning, hoping to catch the sunrise from the summit. Alone, I waited for well over an hour before realizing that the sun wasn’t coming out today. The views were still stupendous in the eerie wintry grayish-blue overcast landscape that lie before me.

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Frigid air and quickly numbing toes warranted an early escape to lower altitudes, and off I departed for Nishizawa gorge. I had another reason to head down to civilization: Fumito was on his way down from Shiojiri to meet me at the trailhead. Only 1400 vertical meters between us, which was knocked off in a flash. I stashed the pack behind a group of toilets, and Fumito and headed on a nice stroll through the gorge, followed by a meal of”houtou’ (famous soup of Yamanashi Pref.) and a warm bath.

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So there you have it – 3 peaks knocked off in 3 lovely days.

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Late November and the thirst for adventure never fully quenched. I plotted the course carefully, seizing yet another opportunity to knock off a few peaks on a holiday weekend.

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The taxi ride from Nirasaki station to the trailhead couldn’t have been more pleasant. The autumn colors boasted their fiery brilliance, the first snows of Yatsu-ga-take clung steadily to the rocky landscape, and a chatty taxi driver who doubled as a knowledgeable tour-guide for the 1 hour journey. “That’s Kaya-ga-take, where Kyuya Fukada himself parted this earth near the summit”. I made a mental note to remember this peak, deciding to come back and pay my respects at Mr. Fukada’s momument after completing the Hyakumeizan. My 2-night, 3-day, 30km traverse from Mizygaki-sansou to Nishizawa gorge was about to begin and the weather was looking promising as I paid the wallet-draining taxi fare.

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I kept a moderate but steady pace, reaching the junction for Mizugaki in roughly half the time the maps said it’d take. Off came the heavy pack, and up I went towards the rocky summit. The trail basically shot straight up to the summit, with hardly a switchback in sight. It’s a good thing there wasn’t any snow or ice on the peak, or I definitely wouldn’t have made it. The top was deserted, and gave me ample opportunity to inspect the snowy hump of neighboring Mt. Kinpu, my second target for the day. The Minami Alps floated above the clouds across the valley, bringing images of the Himalayas to mind.

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Back at the junction, I checked the watch and map: 11:45am – 4 hours and 700 vertical meters to go. The hut at Dainichi was absolutely deserted, but the water was flowing, so I had my fill. I knew the climb was only beginning, so I put it off as long as I could until the chill of the autumn wind got me back on my feet. Left, right. Left, right. The first signs of snow. “I’d hold off on the crampons for now”, I retorted, not wanting to waste precious daylight or energy for the dexterous task. Left, right, left, right and then, pow! A slip on the ice and a tumble of a meter or so. “That’s it”, I resigned, “time for the crampons!” Things became more bearable after that, until reaching the jagged ridgeline, where I kept popping through the snow and sinking down to my waist. It’s wasn’t that the snow was that deep. On the contrary, the snow concealed the pockets of air below and wasn’t quite packed enough to hold my own weight. And, to top it all off, the clouds rolled in out of nowhere, fortfeiting my chance of catching the vista of Fuji.

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The summit was a desolate place. Maybe it was the fact that I was completely alone, enshrouded in a thick, white mist. The world below seemed so small, so distant. What was I doing climbing all of these mountains alone? Could I really complete all of the Hyakumeizan? Then, the reality set in. Why all the negative thoughts? This was mountain #75 after all! 3/4 the way through the 100 mountains and only 2 hours away from civilization. I threw the pack on and flew down the trail towards Oodarumi-toge.

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It’s amazing how quickly you can descent in the snow, without the worry of tripping up on loose rocks. Therapeutic on the feet I’d even say. The hut at the mountain pass was open, but I had other plans. It would’ve been a shame to bring the tent all this way without using it, so I went to the hut to check-in. “Pitch it anywhere you’d like”, the owner exclaimed, not bothering to charge me the regular camping fee. “Feel free to join us for dinner around the stove”, he added. You’d never seen a faster pitch than the one I managed in the fading light of the day, as I literally threw up the tent, grabbed my campstove, and headed inside. The other guests were planning an early morning climb of Mt. Kinpu, so I traded trail information in exchange for hot sake.

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I settled into camp shortly before midnight, dreaming of tomorrow’s long walk over to Mt. Kobushi, mountain #76. Would weather be my helpful companion or heart-breaking nemesis?

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