Posts Tagged ‘Mt. Kumotori’

Another winter upon us, and another free Friday with mountains on my mind, but where to go? Logistics are always the most difficult to pin down, with frantic searching and double-checking of train and bus times. I’d finally narrowed it down to 2 peaks in northern Kyoto: Mt. Minago, the tallest peak in the prefecture, or Mt. Kumotori, a tamer hill one valley west. Both involved an early departure, but the lure of the waters of Kurama hot spring resulted in a last-minute victory for the cloud taker.

The Keihan train sped through Osaka and Kyoto prefectures before dumping me off at Demachiyanagi station a little before 10am. I found the bus stop and hurriedly grabbed a sandwich from a nearby vendor. The bus departed preciously at 10am, and kept making repeated announcements about norikae (Japanese for transfer). I wasn’t sure what the driver was on about, as my bus was supposedly a direct route to my destination. A few stops further on, a retired guy in his early 60s boarded the bus with a pair of short skis! With absolutely no snow to show for in Kyoto city, I struggled to comprehend his intended destination. Nagano, perhaps?

Just short of Kurama, the bus pulled into a parking lot and everyone was ordered off. We were whisked into an adjacent bus with chains on the tires. “So that’s why we needed to change buses”, I exclaimed, congratulating myself on not forgetting the crampons for this mission. As the bus followed the contours of the train tracks, the first snows began to appear. What started out as a gentle dusting quickly grew in stature as the bus gained altitude on the desolate forest road. We had now entered what is commonly known as yukiguni (snow country), a term usually reserved for the big snows of Nagano and Niigata Prefecture, but mother nature had decided to spring on the Kansai region this year.

The skier got off at the mountain pass, while I stayed on for another 10 minutes to the scenic village of Hanase. The butterflies in my stomach suppressed my appetite, as I forewent lunch in favor of trying to find the trailhead. No signposts in sight. Just a foot of fresh powder all around and not a soul to witness it. I was clearly in over my head, and knew crampons would be totally useless with this much soft snow. Still, I stubbornly strapped them on and followed a faint set of foot prints up the road.

I soon reached an abandoned restaurant belonging to the adjacent lift of a deserted ski run. The recent lack of snowfalls over the last decade had surely bankrupt the place, but I was happy for a dry shelter to sit down and ponder my next move. I tightened up my snow pants snugly around my boots, reached for a waterproof layer to ward off an approaching snow squall and reluctantly entered the forest.

The tracks I was following were probably laid over a week ago, but the indentations were still clear enough to discern in the white canvas of the forest floor. That, and the generous amounts of tape affixed to the cedar trees, made navigation surprisingly easy. Navigation, however, wasn’t the problem at hand. Depth was.

After 20 minutes of following a docile stream, I’d found my first signpost of the day, and continued following the scuffs in the snow on a rather tricky traverse with long drops on the right. One slip here and I’d surely tumble to the bottom of the valley. Finally, after a sweat-filled slog, I reached the mountain pass, where the tracks completely stopped. My navigator decided that this was far enough, and I was left with a couple of options. Deciding it was too early to retreat, I continued following the summer trail through a nasty gully filled with thigh-deep powder. After 200 meters I abandoned this idea and re-climbed back to the junction. Rather than getting trapped in a deep ravine, I opted to stay on the ridge. Despite being marked with tape in the trees, this route was not on the maps. Perhaps it is a winter approach only?

Time check: 1pm. The only convenient bus back to town left at 3pm, so I set a 1:45pm turnaround time, no matter how far I’d get. With each advancing step I sunk below my knees, as the snow searched for any available gaps to invade my trousers. Hiking through the dense undergrowth was a breeze compared to reaching an open area exposed to the sky. Here, the snow drifts were waist deep and no match for an under-equipped day hiker. What on earth were my snowshoes doing at home? I was really starting to regret that foolish decision. Clearly I’d underestimated the power of the Kitayama mountains. Somehow I gathered up enough courage to keep pushing on, thinking the summit must lie just over the next rise.

The best part of the entire slog was the scenery. The views would occasionally open up and the sun even started to come out. The snow in the trees was absolutely magical: the heavy weight would occasionally be too much for the brittle limbs, as large clusters of snow bombs came crashing down every few minutes. A direct hit could very likely knock me out, so I refrained from any unnecessary lingering. Finally, I reached the crest of a rather long climb and was met with a steep drop, followed by a series of larger climbs rising in the distance. Time check: 1:45pm. I needed at least another hour to reach the summit, but some things can wait.

Dejected I was not, as the slow retreat back to the bus stop began. It took about 45 minutes to make it back to the mountain pass, where I picked up the pace down through the cedar forest. I made it back to the abandoned ski resort at 2:45 and stopped to drink some water. I was really starting to get hungry at this point and ungracefully tore open the packaging of my sandwich, stuffing a handful between my teeth. I chewed and walked as the sun shone in full force. The hum of an aircraft caught my attention, and a helicopter swooshed overhead as if to check on my progress. Could the local have actually called in a rescue copter? Highly unlikely, I thought, but you never know. After all, I never saw the copter again after that.

Back at the bus stop, I changed out of my wet clothes and paced back and forth, waiting for the bus. It turns out it was 10 minutes late, but as I boarded the bus, I found the reason for the tardiness. I got on the bus and was immediately ushered to an empty seat by two young gentlemen standing near the door. “What the…”, I started to say, until I noticed another guy holding a large camera. By now, the usher was squatting next to me, and I noticed the NHK press badge. “Oh…”. In a hushed voice, I asked the crew what they were filming. “Tabi bangumi” (a travel program). Sure enough, 3 seats in front of me sat one of the most beautiful Japanese women I’d ever laid eyes on, staring out the window as if in a forced reverie. The cameraman filmed the entire sequence. A short distance later, at the next bus stop in fact, the entire crew and actress said a quick thank you and alighted. Bizarre.

I got off at Kurama onsen and immediately headed to the outdoor bath, soaking my battered body and finally regaining feeling in my toes. A bath after a hike is always nice, but the satisfaction is tenfold when losing a fierce battle to mother nature. Mt. Kumotori sure put up a much bigger fight than its Kanto counterpart, and revenge will be mine. I just need to bring the snowshoes next time.

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The hardest part about hiking in Japan is getting to the trailheads, as I’ve reluctantly had to accept the harsh “all buses leave from Tokyo” mentality that various bus companies have adopted over the last several years. Alpico Group is the biggest culprit, drastically slashing their money-losing night bus services from the Kinki region to the Japan Alps, forcing Kansai-based hikers to travel all the way to Tokyo just so they can get to the mountains at a decent time! My dreams of catching an Osaka-Chichibu overnight bus were indeed just a dream, as I settled on a cramped, crowded one to Ikebukuro, which allowed me to catch the first train to Chichibu. My mission this time? Complete the Mitsumine-Kumotori traverse on a beautiful national holiday weekend in March.

I made all of the necessary transfers, and got off the bus at the base of the now-defunct Mitsumine gondola shortly before 9am. While most of other other bus passengers were queuing for the easy ride to the top, I opted for the long, winding trail. I try not to waste my money on such technological conveniences (unless I’m snowboarding that is). The trail was quite scenic, passing a few waterfalls on its steep climb to the summit. It took me about 90 minutes to reach the shrine, which, along with Mt. Haguro in Yamagata Pref., is one of the most beautiful mountain shrines in Japan.

I took a quick break, filling up my water bottles at the shrine, and started on the long ridge walk over to Kumotori. Being late winter, there was a nice 40cm snow base throughout the cedar forest. The snow depth gradually increased until reaching the bald summit of Kirimo-ga-mine. It was there that I spied my first view of Mt. Asama, still smoldering from the eruption a mere 6 months ago. From this angle it reminded me a bit of the volcanoes in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington state. I continued traversing along the ridge, enjoying the pleasant snow scenery and wonderful views. Even though there was close to a meter of snow on the ground, I never once used my crampons on the climb (the snow was soft enough without them).

I made my way up and over Mt. Mae-shiraiwa, arriving at a hut that was closed for the winter. Running short of water, I broke out the camping stove and water filter, melting a few liters worth of fresh snow. Ah, life on the mountains in winter – you never have to worry about running out of water! Another hour or so later, I arrived at an abandoned, run-down hut. “Wow”, I thought, “I expected Kumotori-sansou to be in a bit better shape than this”. My intuition told me that this somehow wasn’t the right place, so I continued climbing. Sure enough, around 10 minutes later I show up at the massive hut and checked in. It turns out the ruins I’d found earlier were indeed the remains of the original hut.

In order to save a little money, I’d brought my own food and cooked up a feast alongside a few other brave hikers. We’d been quarantined to a small, dark and COLD part of the hut to cook our meals, while almost everyone else opted for the warm luxury of the dining hall (and overpriced meals). Luckily, each room had its own kotatsu table, and after dinnner I quickly claimed a spot directly under the radiating heat. My nose ran continually the entire night, thanks in part to the timely release of cedar pollen from the surrounding forests – damn this hay fever!

The next morning the sunrise was stunning! I filled my belly with oatmeal, quickly packed up my things, and headed to the summit. Mt. Fuji was rising brilliantly out to the northeast, and was free from clouds the entire day. On the northern part of the summit, I came across a wonderfully kept emergency hut, where 5 brave souls had bedded down for the night. I couldn’t even imagine how cold it must’ve been, but at least they’d saved some money. Down I went to a saddle, where another mountain hut awaited me. Crowds! Tour groups! More descending – ice! Time to put on the crampons. Up and over Mt. Nanatsuishi and down to another hut. Decisions had to be made. Stay on the ridgeline? or take the easy bypass trail? I opted for the exercise and up to Taka-no-su I went. Up and down, up and down. I even tried my hand at glissading in some very slushy snow: I don’t recommend it.

The final climb up to Mutsuishi seemed to take forever, but after that it was (literally) all downhill. The snowdissipated until I was hiking in fallen leaves. “Yikes”, I exclaimed! “Fallen leaves with a layer of black ice underneath”. This was truly some treacherous hiking, for the leaves completely concealed the patches of frozen water.

Back to civilization and cedar farms I went. Upon arriving in town, I glanced back to the mountains behind me. I saw a small patch of smoke emanating from where I’d just come from. Was someone burning rubbish? All of a sudden, the smoke intensified and huge red flames licked the surrounding greenery. We had a bona-fide forest fire on our hands. Not knowing exactly what to do, I pointed out the towering inferno to every passerby I encountered. The tactic seemed to work, as helicopter crews arrived within minutes to extinguish the flames. I’d really hoped there were no other hikers coming off the mountain, because it looked like it was in the exact vicinity of the hiking trail. With firefighters on their way, I retreated to the hot spring for a well deserved soak.

By the time I’d come out, there was no sign of the fire, so it appeared to have been quite localized and minimal in damage. Perhaps cedar farms don’t burn as well as virgin forests?

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