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Posts Tagged ‘Nagano hikes’

In two weeks time, the rainy season would be here……or would it? Hiking in June is always a bit of a gamble, so when fair weather presents itself, I usually stop whatever I’m doing and head to the hills. So goes my attempt at mountain #81 – a peak whose Chinese characters translate as ‘covered in rain,’

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The train rolled into Minami-otari station shortly after 11pm. The station was deserted as I fiddled through my pack for the phone number of the taxi company. Fortunately, someone answered the phone and sent a taxi my way, saving me the long, monotonous stroll up to Otari-onsen. “The road’s closed beyond this point – you’ll have to walk from here”, remarked the driver upon dropping me off at a large barrier put across the road. I walked in silence for over an hour on the desolate forest road, hoping no creatures would come out in the night to size me up. Arriving at the trailhead around 1am, I scoped out a place to sleep
for the night. As luck would have it, there was an unlocked rest house with a wooden table and a clean concrete floor at the end of the parking lot. I settled in for a cozy nap.

My alarm rang much too quickly for my liking, but my eyes perked up while peeping outside for a look at the weather. Although it was still too early to tell, the calmness of the air suggested that the weather gods would be kind to me. Breakfast was leisurely devoured while poring over the map: an 800m elevation change over around 5km of hiking. Much easier than my epic ascent of Mt. Takazuma a few weeks earlier. The sound of voices broke my silent planning, as I looked up to find several minivans disgorging day hikers. “What?”, I screamed. Where they came from I had no idea, but I wasn’t about to share the trail with an enormous group of retirees, so I stuffed the map and breakfast into my sack and quickly escaped into uncharted territory.

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The trail quickly dropped into a vast marshland, with endless rows of mizubasho in full bloom. Here I was, completely alone, traversing through an area of pristine beauty that gives Oze a run for its money. Seriously, if you’re turned off by the crowds in Oze, I highly recommend coming here during on any morning in early June. This was definitely bear territory, as I lauded my decision to rest at the trailhead instead of attempting a night assault. The marshlands eventually gave way to a spectacular virgin forest of fir and beech trees, with a floor still buried under a deep layer of snow. Amakazari becomes a human traffic jam in the autumn, as hikers shove elbows for a glance at the vibrant foliage, but on this sunny Sunday in early June it was mine, all mine.

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Even though I had the entire mountain to myself, I kept a steady pace, constantly reminding myself that I had a very large group ascending somewhere behind me. Arriving at Arasugesawa, I caught a glimpse of the rocky summit rising high above me, to my left. All I had to do was descend down into the gully, up the other side, and climb up the massive shoulder to the ridge.

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Traversing through the gully proved more challenging than expected, as each step loosened the snow enough to send trees popping out of the snow beneath me. The first tree that popped up nearly gave me a black eye, so I did my best not to set off any more ‘land mines’. I wasn’t exactly sure where the trail went, but I was pretty sure it didn’t climb directly up the cirque. Sure enough, the trail continued straight on and I was climbing up towards the summit on a snow-free ridge after a steep, nasty slog. I passed by a pair of trail junctions but still didn’t run into anyone else. It looked like I’d be the first one to summit that day.

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Once on top, I said a quick hello to Mt. Asahi rising up in the distance across the valley. Mt Shirouma was slyly hiding under a gentle blanket of cloud, while Mt. Hiuchi looked on with envy. I could finally rest on the small summit and finish the breakfast I had started a few hours prior. I spent well over an hour soaking up the rays and observing nature’s gifts, while trying to make a crucial decision. Should I retrace my steps all the way back to Otari-onsen, or should I dive off down the north face of the mountain to Amakazari-onsen? Either way, I had a hot bath awaiting me.

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As I retreated from the summit towards the trail junction that would decide my fate, a figure appeared in the distance. A solo hiker in his early 50s, on his way to the peak I’d just escaped from. “Which way did you come from?”, I inquired, with fingers crossed for a favorable answer. “Amakazari-onsen”, replied the man. Here was my chance, as I gathered information about trail conditions, the hot spring, and……access. “No, I don’t think there’s a bus, but I can give you a ride to Toyama station if you can wait for me to summit”, as I internally rejoiced for lucking out yet again.

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I lazed about, observing the wildflowers and dreaming of the hot spring waters. My savior returned, and off we ventured to the junction. The no nonsense trail dropped straight down off the back side of the peak, through what can only be described as a ‘massive’ snowfield. I’m sure there are switchbacks during the summer hiking season, but before the rainy season it became a tricky game of kick-stepping, sliding and in some cases tumbling down the quickly rotting snow. A few hundred meters into our descent, we ran into an elderly gentleman with sweat pouring down his face. With his head wrapped in a bandanna and his body draped in flannel, he gave off a vibe of someone who’s known in the Nagano circuit. Sure enough, shortly after saying farewell to the energetic elder statesman, my hiking companion gave an explanation: “That man we just met is a very famous mountaineer. In fact, he was the one who built the trail from the Sea of Japan to Mt. Shirouma in the Kita Alps.” If only I could have remembered his name!

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We spent over an hour descending through the snow until picking up the trail about 3/4 of the way down the ridge. A short time later, we were soaking in the therapeutic waters, with its mixed outdoor bath located in front of the hut about 50 meters from the indoor baths. We totally caught a few clothed visitors off guard by trampling through the courtyard with only a short towel around our waists! Mt. Amakazari treated me very well, but I soon knew the summer rains would come to wash the snows away. Could I knock off another peak before it happened? The challenge was on!

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I’d climbed it before, but I couldn’t erase the image of the snow-capped 2500m volcanic mass from my daily thoughts. Fumito was keen on the idea, so one cold March morning we gave it a go: the northern face of Tateshina!

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We pulled into the parking lot of Shirakaba-Kogen Kokusai Ski Resort on a stunningly beautiful bluebird day, unloaded the equipment, and filed our plans with the ski patrol. At least someone would know what we were up to. Opting to save precious daylight, we shelled out the money for the gondola, which whisked us to the 5th stagepoint of the 10 stage peak. The trail was well-marked for the leisurely stroll through the fresh powder to the trailhead proper at the 7th stage. In the summer,the parking lot is packed with day hikers, but on this particular winter morning, not a single creature was in sight. It seems that no one had made it up this peak for a few weeks, as there were no tracks to follow. Good thing Fumito brought his GPS.

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We strapped on our 12-point crampons, gripped our ice axes firmly, and started the short, steep climb towards the towering peak. Weaving in and out of a dense forest, we spotted our initial destination in the distance: a large shoulder sitting at the base of the summit plateau. Up we traversed, through fluffy, knee-deep snow. We took turns taking the lead, frequently checking the time with each passing step. We’d set 3pm as a turnaround time, and were well ahead of schedule thanks to our sustained effort.

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Around 45 minutes later, we popped out on the shoulder, finding a large mountain hut almost completely engulfed in snow. “Boy”, I exclaimed, “looks like it’s been a good year!” Fumito agreed, commenting on the meter or so of accumulation on the roof. The summit lie directly in front of us: an easy 30-minute stroll in the summer, but a gargantuan task during the white season. Fumito took the lead, as I kept a great distance behind in case he triggered an avalanche. I started my ascent when he gave the thumbs up, and we did our celebratory summit dance several minutes later, in plain sight of Yatsu-ga-take. Time check: 2pm

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The wind was whipping on the peak, so we slithered back down to the sheltered confines in front of the hut and cook up some lunch. I opted for instant pho, while Fumito dug into the udon. Hot noodles on a cold winter day really refresh the spirit, and we arose with increased rigor. We’d beaten the beast of Tateshima at her tricky game, and trotted back through the ski resort just as the skiers were carving their final runs of the day.

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With my internal cravings finally calmed, I could finally get a good nights sleep, but not for long. You see, once you make the commitment to climb the Hyakumeizan, the list will haunt you like a long-lost lover, taking over your thoughts and controlling your mind.

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The peaks of Nagano Prefecture are relatively inaccessible from the Kansai region, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken the first Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka station in order to reach numerous trailheads. It was early May, the weather looked favorable, and I was on a very tight schedule. Mt. Tateshina beckoned, and the challenge was on to conquer it as a day trip from Osaka!

The first Shinkansen rolls out of Osaka at 6am, and you can be in Nagano city around 10am by changing to the Chuo Line in Nagoya, but I was headed further south, towards Lake Suwa and Chino station. The train seemed to take forever, but I finally arrived in time to catch the 11:20am bus. I asked the driver how long it’d take to reach the trailhead, and he said I could start hiking at 12:57pm! Oops, so much for my early start. Mt. Tateshina was hidden in cloud, so I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to get up there, but was praying that the weather would clear. Sure enough, by the time I reached the start of the hike the sun was shining brightly.

The track initially climbed through bamboo grass, but quickly disappeared under a large mound of snow. I spent the next 1/2 km or so walking on top of the white stuff, wondering how much would be left on the summit. The path started entered a gully and followed it straight up. There were a few patches of snow here and there, but nothing to warrant putting on my crampons. Yatsu-ga-take was rising majestically out to my right, though the clouds were still hiding the high point of Aka-dake. Higher and higher I went, until finally reaching the huge boulder field just below the summit. This is where things got tricky, as snow was still covering most of the path. The biggest problem with walking on top of an unstable snow field is that occasionally you’ll break through the snow and realize there’s nothing below you! I did this a few times but was luckily able to dig myself out. Finally I realized that venturing off the trail was probably a better idea, and I resorted to rock hopping up to the crater rim.

The views were wonderful, with the center of the crater still filled with snow. There’s a small shrine in the middle of the summit area, and it was somewhere between the high point and here that I dropped my lens cap. It bounced off a rock and slid deeply underneath. Actually, if you look closely on the summit you can find all sorts of rubbish squeezed between the rocks. A sad state of affairs, but it really is hard to retrieve something if you drop it, and I’d wondered how many others had done the same thing as I.

Running short of time, I flew back down the same path I’d come up, just in time to catch the last bus back to Chino station. I didn’t arrive in Osaka until just before midnight, but hey, my mission was complete and in the process, I came up with another goal: a winter ascent of Tateshina from the trickier north face. The challenge was on!

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I’ve always been a fan of hiking during satsukibare (五月晴れ), which, along with akibare (秋晴れ)are the two best times for fair weather hiking in Japan. Satuskibare is the time between the breakup of the winter monsoon and the start of the summer rain front, so it was with great enthusiasm that I boarded a night bus bound for Nagano city in mid-May.

The bus rolled into Nagano at a quarter to 7, allowing me enough time to grab some quick supplies before jumping on the first bus to Togakushi Kogen, the start of the hike. It had rained the night before, but the clouds were breaking up, and I was praying that the weather would be OK in the hills. I finally got to the start of the hike around 8:45am, and was so happy to see the sun out! The first part of the hike was through a cow pasture, and it’s the one of the few animals that I’m absolutely terrified of, thanks to a traumatic run-in with a bull as a child. Luckily, the creatures were nowhere to be found, and the site of the cherry blossoms in full bloom put my mind at ease.

I could see the peaks of Mt. Togakushi didn’t have too much snow left on them, so I was wondering if I’d need my crampons at all. The trail got steep rather quickly, and followed a wonderful stream that was gushing with fresh snow melt. I reached the emergency hut around 10am, where I got my first glimpse of Mt. Takazuma. “Holy cow!”, I moaned, as the obelisk-shaped peak darted towards the sky, completely covered in white! I was expecting a snow field on the saddle, but not this. I took a quick break and started my climb towards Mt. Gojizo (五地蔵). I hit snow after about 5 minutes, and it was so soft and fluffy, having fallen just hours earlier. I definitely wasn’t expecting fresh snow in May, but there it was, directly before my eyes. Good thing I brought my crampons!

The snow got deeper and the wind was pretty strong, but the clouds were gone. Mt. Myoko and Hiuchi got a fresh coating, and Hakuba was looking as if winter never left. The top of Mt. Takuzuma looked so far away and oh so steep. I was beginning to wonder if I could actually make it to the top, especially since I’d forgotten my ice axe. It’s always a difficult choice deciding what to bring on hikes during the spring. Heavy-duty vs. light crampons? Axe axe vs. trekking pole? I went for a combination of both, bringing my 6-point crampons but opting for a sturdy hiking stick.

I descended to the saddle just below the summit and put on my climbing irons. This was it. I took a deep breath and started the long climb. There were huge drops off to the left side, so I made sure to stay as far right as I could. The snow was really hard and compact, and kick stepping was tough without toe crampons, but I compensated by grabbing whatever lay in my path: buried trees, plants, rocks, you name it. The wind was howling from the right, pelting me with ice pellets from the neighboring trees and threatening to blow me off the side of the peak. Still, I clambered on, taking it one agonizing step at a time. Miraculously I made it to the summit plateau, where the path flattened out significantly. I took a quick break on top and tried to calm myself from the adrenalin rush. 11:45am. Not bad for an under-equipped hiker in winter conditions!

I flew back down to the saddle, running and jumping for joy. The hard part was over, and I simply retraced my steps back to Togakushi, where I feasted on delicious soba and surprised a group of retirees when I spread my things on the pavement to dry. I made the 4pm bus back to Nagano, and dreamed of a day when I can come back and conquer the spiny ridge of Mt. Togakushi.

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