Posts Tagged ‘Mt. Chokai’

The power of the internet to bring like-minded people together is staggering. Before starting this blog I never would have imagined I could connect with fellow outdoor enthusiasts and aspiring authors alike. When an opportunity arose to do a walk with Tokyo-based blogger Miguel Arboleda, I seized the chance without hesitation. We agreed to meet at Kisakata station in Akita for a two-day excursion on the slopes of Tohoku’s tallest peak.


After hitching a ride from Akita port, I arrived at the station a little early and wandered down to the beach in search of my companion. Sure enough, we reconnected at a beach glimmering in the morning sun. Sunbathers were just beginning to gather for a pleasant day at the coast but Miguel and I strolled back to the station to await the arrival of the shuttle bus. In the waiting area we were accosted by a duo of enthusiastic elderly hikers who literally kidnapped us and forced us into a taxi to Hokodate trailhead on the slopes of Mt. Chokai. The shuttle bus is by reservation only, so we needed to cancel our booking in order to take the taxi. Fortunately the driver took a detour to the MaxValue supermarket in order to for us get supplies for the next couple of days. We dashed through the aisles in a scene straight out of Supermarket Sweep, grabbing whatever we could while the taxi meter kept running.


Our chauffeur dropped us off at a massive rest house and parking area packed with automobiles. Our initial plan was to stay at the emergency hut across from the visitor’s center, but it was covered in scaffolding and closed for renovations. Obviously the hut owner has no sense of financial wisdom: why on earth would you renovate your accommodation during the height of the Obon climbing season? Our only other option was to stay at the TDK emergency hut, a five-minute stroll up the concrete path. We rapped on the door of the stone structure, only to find that the owner had closed up shop for the day and wouldn’t return until the following morning. So, here we were with absolutely no place to stay. The cafeteria seemed like the most logical place to mull over our options, so over a bowl of beef donburi we realized that the covered porch in front of this very building would offer the best chance for a good night’s sleep, barring any mosquitoes or other intrusions.


A small grassy area lay adjacent to the trailhead, so we took an afternoon nap while waiting for the fog to clear. After a few hours, the bone-chilling coolness of the brisk winds had us retreating back to the rest house for a cup of stale, burned coffee. Fortunately, the caffeine had raised our spirits and provided a much needed catalyst for heading out to explore. Stashing our gear in the small shelter housing the climber registry, we climbed up the concrete path towards the first lookout station. The summit of Chokai was now free of fog, and behind us a thin layer of cloud floated directly below, the waxing sun glistening gently off the glassy surface of the sea over a thousand meters below.

Miguel and I share an immense bond that few others can appreciate. Despite our strong connection with nature and mountains, we both struggle with debilitating health conditions that threaten to derail our upward progress. Followers of this blog are by now well aware of my cardiac and pulmonary obstacles, but Miguel is involved in a constant battle with his blood sugar, an entirely different kind of monster. Believe it or not, I’ve never been around anyone who is stricken with the illness better known as diabetes, and knowledge I have gained about the disease from Miguel’s experience is humbling. We tend to take our health for granted until our bodies stop functioning properly. It is only then can we appreciate what we have and to keep on living despite those obstacles.


We each went our own pace on the walk. I was anxious to scout out the terrain for the real hike the following morning, so I pushed ahead towards the marshlands of Sai no kawara, which I reached just as the last rays of the sun were hitting the top of the ridge concealing the crater lake of Oike. I could be at the shores of the lake in less than 15 minutes if I pushed on, but that would mean descending in the dark without a headlamp, so I did the only sensible thing and turned around. Miguel and I were reunited at the first observation deck in time to see the last glows of light recede over the horizon.


Once back at Hokodate, the parking lot came alive with scores of hikers setting up tents and preparing their evening meals. We laid out the sleeping gear and settled around a table that was set up on the porch of the rest house. Dinner was prepared and devoured while we shared stories about our lives. Even though I had met Miguel a couple of times before, it was our first time to camp and hike together as a duo, and we both agreed that our goal the following morning would be the volcanic lake that I was so close in reaching earlier that evening.


Sleep came and went as cars steadily arrived at all hours of the night. Most of the late arrivers simply reclined their seats and drifted off for a few hours of shut-eye before starting up the volcano at first light. We were in no hurry, however, and slowly cooked up breakfast under the overcast skies. We stashed our remaining food supplies and garbage inside of climber’s registry hut and placed the rest of our gear behind the structure itself. We maintained a good pace for a while until Miguel started to feel a bit lightheaded. A quick blood check revealed a low blood sugar count, so out came the Calorie Mate as Miguel was forced to eat on an already full stomach. The scene provided a rare opportunity to take a more leisurely pace up the mountain. In most of my solo pursuits, I’m too focused on just reaching the summit that I neglect the natural beauty around me: the alpine flowers poking their heads above the grasslands in search of sunlight, the retreating snowfields that provide ample watering holes for a wide variety of insect and plant life.


Once Miguel was feeling himself again, we hit the trail and passed by countless hikers out for a day stroll. Just before the final climb to the lake, a pair of middle-aged men approached from behind. Just before passing us by, the older of the two turned to his younger companion with the following words: “When you pass by the foreigners ahead of us, don’t look at them or greet them.” The temptation to confront them was great indeed, but sometimes you just have to let things go and accept the fact that there are bigots in all corners of this vast earth.


We reached the lake and settled down for a well-deserved break. We were at the 7th stage point of the hike, with the summit just 500 vertical meters beyond. With more time, we would have no trouble getting to the top, but the only shuttle bus of the day left at noon, so we needed to be back at Hokodate in less than two hours. I’d been up Chokai before in very favorable weather, so turning my back on the peak wasn’t difficult to do. We’d set out to reach the lake and had done so without incident. That was victory enough for us.


Back at the trailhead, we were shocked to find that the plastic bags we had stashed in the hut had been taken away. The only explanation was that the hut staff had assumed that a careless hiker has used the hut as a garbage dump and they’d thrown away the bags in disgust. Not only had they disposed of our garbage, but they had also taken all of our remaining food, including several fresh vegetables we had planned to use later in the day. It would be no use to confront the rest house staff, as they would likely scold us for attempting to litter on the mountain. We couldn’t get out of that godforsaken place fast enough!


The second visit to Chokai was definitely enjoyable, but I just can’t shake Hokodate’s tarnished image from my mind. During the first visit, the hut staff were friendly and accommodating, making it one of the highlights of my Tohoku travels, but now the area is an oasis for cars, with a bus that only runs with an advanced booking and two mountain huts that shut their doors during the busiest season the year. Is this what we can expect in the future, when all hikers rely on their own set of wheels for day trips and the overnight accommodation is reduced to ruins?

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I set up camp in the park across from the sandy beach in Kisakata, immersing myself in the warm waters of the sea a short time later. My legs were still reeling from the marathon slog up Hayachine just a few hours prior, and I needed to recharge my muscular batteries if I had any chance of scaling the highest mountain in Tohoku the following morning. An early night was in order.

The first bus to Hokodate was nearly empty, but seemed to wind its way through every back street before finally meandering through the hairpin turns of the Chokai Blue Line. The modest parking lot housed a large restaurant, a visitors center, and Hokodate Sansou, my home for the night. I dropped off my heavy pack in the lobby, put my name down in the guest registry, and headed up towards the towering volcano with the most minimal of gear. The cloud hung tightly to the steep walls of Naso gorge as I immediately hit a large patch of snow. Little did I know that I’d spend the next 3 hours trudging through the remnants of the fierce Tohoku winters. Up until that point in my journey I’d yet to come across more than just a pint-sized patch of powder, but Chokai’s sheer size dominates the horizon for hundreds of kilometers and, as such, acts as a magnet for condensation throughout the year.

I popped out of the slush just below Ohama hut, where I took my first break to admire the beauty and tranquility of the serene crater lake. I could’ve easily spent the rest of the day sitting on the shores, watching the snow fields slowly deposit their wintry runoff into the frigid waters. But alas, I had a peak to climb, and the summit rose majestically directly ahead, completely free of cloud cover. A short time later I came across a trail junction. If I went right then I could stay on the ridge all the way to the top of Mt. Shichikou, one of the twin summits of Chokai’s rocky flank. If I opted for the left fork, then I could climb directly up to the high point of Shin-san. I was immediately drawn to one of the most picturesque cols in all of Tohoku, and the left trail dropped directly into the line of fire, knowing I could later descend via the ridge.

There’s nothing more I enjoy then marching through a river of snow in the middle of summer: the cool air lifting magically off the frozen surface, the contrast of the lush greenery all around. Chokai was quickly becoming my favorite peak in northwestern Japan and I was only starting my day. Upwards and onwards I rose, leaving the refreshing confines of the col and crawling through an immense boulder field. The path got steeper with each advancing step, but eventually I found myself sitting on the doorstep of the monster of a hut just below the final push to the summit. “We’ve got no water. You’ll have to buy it,” scowled the stern seasonal employee, pointing to a large cooler of ridiculously over-priced beverages. I knew he was lying, but there was no point in arguing. Shell out the 6000 yen to stay the night and I’m sure he’d lead me straight to the taps. I was not about to pay 500 yen for a 500ml bottle of water he’d probably filled at the hut, so I politely refused and continued the climb.

And boy, what a climb it was. An exhilarating natural jungle gym of gargantuan slabs of rock. Follow the paint marks and try not to fall into the gaps between the boulders. I finally reached the high point, which barely had space for 2 people. This was by far the narrowest summit of all of the Hyakumeizan, and here I was completely surrounded by a strange halo of cumulus clouds. Never in my life had I encountered such meteorological magic. The sun was shining directly above, but all around clouds were floating directly at eye level. Viewed from afar, one would assume that Chokai’s rocky flank were completely immersed in mist, but this was not the case. Dropping to the saddle between the twins, I broke out the water filter and started pumping fresh snow melt into my bottles. The sky never looked bluer.

After refueling, I climbed, rather steeply, to the top of Mt. Shichikou, Shin-san’s less popular twin and sat for the better part of an hour. And why not? I had finally deserved to slow the pace down. It was my 6th mountain in only 5 days and it deserved my attention! The next hour was perhaps the most pleasant ridge walk I’ve done in Japan. I was completing the loop back to the lake where I started my morning and the unique flora were putting on a performance. Sprawling fields of Kisuge lilies dotted the landscape, while pockets of indigenous Chokai thistle and Chokai fusuma flowers basked in the afternoon warmth.

Once back at the junction, I retraced my steps towards Ohama hut, turning left on a faint spur trail that wrapped its way around the scenic lake and through some rotting snow fields. Again, I filled up the bottles and leisurely reworked my way back to the trailhead and waited. Waited for what, you might ask? Well, for the sinking sun to turn Shin-san into a fiery inferno.

Further west, the cloud cover over the sea of Japan transformed the horizon into an artistic landscape. Tohoku couldn’t get much better than this.

I slept like a log that night, knowing that the approaching low pressure system would finally give me an excuse to take a much needed day off. The following morning I could simply head to the castle town of Tsuruoka and spend the day planning for the three sacred peaks of Dewa-sanzan.

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