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Posts Tagged ‘Mt. Zao’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Golden Week 2010. With the respiratory system slowly returning to a somewhat normal function, a date was set for the rematch with Mt. Zao. The antagonizing 12-hour overnight bus journey from Osaka to Yamagata station was just as unbearable as I last remembered, as a back spasm jolted me out of my slumber around the break of dawn. After a few stretches and an exchange of seats with my forever patient wife Kanako, I settled back down to relative comfort. One peek behind the window curtain to the wintry world outside zapped me with excitement, as the bus was strolling on the scenic byway separating Niigata and Yamagata cities. Cherry blossoms stood at full bloom in the early morning haze,  in stark contrast to the impossibly heavy snowdrifts of Mt. Iide towering directly above.

We arrived at Yamagata station with plenty of time to kill before the 9:30am direct bus to the parking lot at Katta-dake. The bus station attendant assured us that despite the overnight snowfall, the road to the summit would be open. Sure enough, the bus made its way towards Zao Hot Spring in near record time, navigating the hair-pin turns like a skilled bobsled driver. The cherry blossoms were at their peak, as Kanako and I strained our necks towards the windows. Occasionally we caught glimpses of Mt. Asahi and Gassan on the other side of the valley below, until they became enveloped in a summer-like haze of smog. Visibility wasn’t our friend, but at least the sun was out…..for now.

We hit a wall of traffic on the turnoff to Katta-dake as the clouds started rolling in. I wanted desperately to get to the parking lot so I could jump off and get a view of the lake before the clouds swallowed it for the afternoon. Shortly after 12pm, the bus reached the terminus, as Kanako headed to the upstairs restaurant to order some noodles. I, on the other hand, walked swiftly past the under-dressed crowds to the lookout for Okama lake. I’d been dreaming of the emerald green waters of the pristine volcanic lake for years, and was absolutely stunned to find the brilliant green hues replaced by a thick blanket of frozen snow. “Hmm”, I pondered, “I guess this lake isn’t thermal after all”.

Retreating back to the restaurant, we feasted on noodles before heading back out into the elements towards the summit of Katta-dake. Temperatures were well below freezing, and we got quite a kick out of watching the unprepared day trippers marching through the snow in high heels and short-sleeved shirts. Some of them, however, looked rather the worse for wear. One lady had lost all color and feeling in her toes, so I strongly urged her to get back to her car. Thus the access maxim rang true once again: The easier the access to the mountain, the dumber the people.

Katta-dake was absolutely deserted, as the tourists felt that the shrine a dozen meters below the summit was far enough for them. I took Kanako around the back of the summit to the emergency hut in which Yuuki and I had stayed during our first visit. It looked as desolate and isolated as I first remembered. If only we’d been able to have a view the first time round.

After our brief detour, we started the descent past Okama lake and the long gradual climb to the high point of Kumano-dake. Again, we completely left the crowds behind, as Kanako opted to test her balance by walking on top of the wooden fence still buried under the deep winter drifts.

The sun and cloud played together joyfully during our one hour traverse, painting the white landscape with a series of shadowy stripes as far as the eye could see. Were we really hiking in Japan in late spring?

The climb through the snow drifts took a lot longer than anticipated, but at last the lone explorers reached the official high point of Zao. Unfortunately, the afternoon haze in the valley lingered, so the jaw-dropping views of Asahi and Gassan were not to be had on this blustery outing. Hungry but too cold to eat, I forced some trail mix into my mouth and searched for a place to escape the subarctic wind. The summit shrine hung tightly to the hoarfrost of the previous night’s snow squall. Kanako, visibly shivering, was in need of an energy boost. “There’s a restaurant awaiting on the other side of Jizo-dake”, I stated, “let’s make a move”. I honestly had no idea whether the restaurant was open or not, but hid this information from my joyous companion, who literally sprinted towards the saddle on the opposite side. The ice and steep terrain stopped her in her tracks a few meters below me, as she beckoned to have me take the lead. I gladly obliged.

The sky directly behind the summit suddenly darkened, as a rain squall threatened to envelop us. “Oh boy”, I stressed “here we go.” I kick-stepped an easy path down to the saddle and wondered how far we’d be able to make it before the rain completely soaked our gear and made hypothermia a very real threat. Once again I carved a steep but direct path to the summit of Mt. Jizo. As soon as we reached the ridge the skies opened up, but my fear turned to delight as the precipitation fell as soft crystalline flakes. Snow! I’m convinced that the sign of relief that left my mouth could clearly be heard in the valley a thousand meters below.

White out conditions at 1800 meters above sea level in early May? You bet, and two of the happiest hikers in the world, jumping for joy and walking through the wintry wonderland.

The blizzard eventually released its grip on the mountain and the snow gave way to glorious sunshine again. We flew down the northern face of Mt. Jizo and into the comfort of the gondola station. Kanako and I were both excited to discover the restaurant was still open, so our reward for conquering Zao and surviving the crazy conditions was two piping hot bowls of soba.

Short on time, we took the gondola back down to the valley and checked into our accommodation, a small but friendly pension run by a semi-professional skier. The next day, after a stroll around the lake to check out the mizu-basho, we took the gondola back up to Mt. Jizo and continued where we left off, descending past skiers, tumbling down rotting ski slopes, and eventually navigating our way to the milky, angelic waters of the dai-rotenburo. Again, we were the only foot travelers on that stunningly beautiful day.

This year’s Golden Week was truly golden, as I could mark off yet another peak on my slowly dwindling ‘Hyakumeizan Revenge List.’

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The odds were stacked against us. Arriving at Zao Hot Spring bus terminal shortly before 5pm, Yuuki and I filled up on water, preparing for the worst. The clouds hung heavy on the surrounding peaks, as we stared at the barren ski slopes, wondering if we could make it up before dark. Our first plan was to hitchhike to Katta-touge, where we could scale Mt. Katta and spend the night. Our back-up plan was to abandon all hopes of getting a ride and head up the steep slopes, camping along the way. Thumbs outstretched on the main road through the resort, we silently prayed.

Luck definitely continued to be on our side, as a family of four with two small children screeched to a halt. Yuuki and I jumped in, entertaining the toddlers for the duration of the 45-minute car ride. The parents couldn’t have been happier. The 4-door sedan meandered skillfully through the countless hairpin turns of the Zao Echo-Line before ascending into thick cloud and horizontal rain. “Are you sure you really want to get out here,” inquired the jovial father behind the wheel. We knew it was much too late to accept defeat. “Sure, no problem. Thanks for the ride.”

Visibility couldn’t have been worse as we tried to figure out which direction to go. A signpost pointed towards Mt. Byobu, but we wanted to go in the opposite direction. After walking through the toll gate of the Zao Highline, I spotted a 登山道 sign on my left which climbed straight up the spur to the summit of Mt. Katta. A short time later, in thick fog and chilling rain, we stood at a massive junction, completely unaware of our immediate environs. According to the map, there should be an emergency hut somewhere around here. We split up, feeling our way through the cloud until I stumbled upon what appeared to be an abandoned bomb shelter. Bingo!

Despite the decrepit appearance, our modest accommodation was perfect for keeping out the elements. Plus, it was free of charge and completely deserted, an oasis in an area with absolutely no flat place to pitch a tent. Dinner was served in between periodic checks on the low pressure system outside. Sure, the rain had abated, but any chance of watching the setting sun was hindered by some of the thickest cloud I’d come across. The next morning would be no different. After setting the alarm for 4am, Yuuki and I did a quick game of janken (stone, paper, scissors) to see who’d be in charge of checking conditions. I’ve never been strong at that game, and this time was no exception as I somehow managed to descend the ladder from my second story sleeping area and hobble all the way across the room and through the vestibule without even leaving my sleeping bag. I slid open the door, stuck my head outside, and retreated quicker than a groundhog on a dreary afternoon. “Let’s give it another hour”, I demanded.

Breakfast came and went, but our foe the cloud was stubborn. Finally, at 8am, we could bear it no longer and headed out into the mist to do some hiking. The main reason for our procrastination was Ookama crater lake, whose emerald green waters attract hoards of tourists from the nearby parking lot. Yuuki and I prayed that the cloud would lift enough for us to catch a glimpse of one of the most beautiful volcanic lakes in the world. Our pace was intentionally slow on the deserted path. The first tour buses wouldn’t arrive for another hour or so, but all we could see was a forest of white. We even tried to descent as close as we could to the lake shore, but to no avail. We simply accepted defeat and headed to the nearby high point of Mt. Kumano to try to appease the gods. I placed my wallet on the steps of the stone shrine, while Yuuki placed a rice ball alongside. Clap, clap, bow, clap. Both of our silent prayers were the same: bring us some sunshine!

Suddenly, as if by some unseen miracle, the clouds lifted! Directly in front of us lie one of the greatest panoramic views we’d seen on our trip. Yamagata city sat peacefully in the serene valley far below, with Mt. Asahi, Gassan, and Mt. Iide looking on with a watchful eye. Mt. Chokai towered above them all a little further to the northwest. “Quick, quick grab the camera,” I shouted, but it was too late. Our unspoilt view lasted preciously 5 seconds, as the cloud came in with increased intensity.

Over the next 30 minutes, the sun fought a fierce battle with the cloud, but on this beautiful mid-August morning, the planet would not prevail. I can’t describe the frustration of sitting in a bank of condensation while the world goes on under crisp blue skies just a few meters above, but I guess the only upside to the weather is that it gave me an excuse to come back to Zao under more favorable conditons. Yuuki and I accepted defeat, descending to the huge saddle at the base of Mt. Jizo before turning left and entering a dense forest. The path wove in and out of the ski fields before dumping us onto a bare slope just above the start of the Zao Sky Cable gondola. Naturally, we flew down the slope in search of a bath!

“You should definitely go to the Dai-rotenburo,” quipped the convenience store clerk, pointing in the exact direction from which we’d descended. If we’d only turned right when we left the trail! Yuuki and I started ascending again, through the ski fields we’d trotted through only moments before. The long, silent slog at the end of an even longer journey through most of Tohoku. We were both feeling the strain of Mt. Asahi, but that all disappeared when we caught sight of one of the most breathtaking baths I’d ever seen. A worthwhile investment of 450 yen.

Clean and refreshed, the mountain men bade farewell to the highlands and retreated to Yamagata city. Yuuki boarded a train for Saitama while I checked into a minshuku to sort out my laundry and prepare for the journey to Sado Island the following morning for the Earth Celebration. With the majority of Tohoku’s major peaks under my belt, I could now turn my attention to Hokkaido and the Kita Alps, where more unexpected adventures awaited.

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