Posts Tagged ‘Togakushi’

The Gathering VIII

Planning an event during Japan’s fickle autumn weather is no easy task, and with a typhoon threatening to derail this year’s gathering, we all keep our eyes glued to the capricious predictions of the meteorologists. As the storm edges toward the archipelago, it becomes apparent that Nagano will be spared the heavy rain and winds predicted to batter the Boso Peninsula, so we move forth with preparations for the 8th annual Hiking in Japan gathering.

This time around, we head back to Togakushi, the location of the 3rd gathering and a splendid volcanic plateau jutting up from the river banks of Nagano city. I head up by train after work on Friday evening, arriving at Nagano station shortly before 10pm for a quick catch-up with my friend Trane before checking into my hotel for a short bout of sleep. The next morning, Miguel, who has just completed an exhausting overnight bus journey from Kobe, stumbles into the hotel lobby. I stumble down the elevator myself, grasping an unsteady cup of matcha, forcing some caffeine into my body in an effort to shake off the drowsiness. Paul from Hike and Bike Japan soon pulls up in his car and the three of us make our way along wet roads to the campground.

Rie and James have already started their climb up to Takazuma, so Miguel, Paul and I pick out a quiet area of the grassy campground and set up our tents. Miguel’s shelter is one-part tent, two-parts coffin but it does provide necessary cover from the elements. Paul’s is a more conventional set up, and since I’ve opted for just a lightweight tarp I stow away my excess gear in his tent before the two of us head to the Iizuna trailhead. Miguel stays behind to watch over camp, settling in for a nap accompanied by the soothing sounds of birdsong.

Iizuna’s track cuts directly through the Togakushi Eastern Campground, following a forest road before darting up into a thick forest of planted Japanese larch. Paul and I catch up since our late-July meeting in Osaka. Relating stories of a previous trail running race along our very same ascent path, we rise up away from the valley to a small marshland on the edge of the ski resort. Late summer flowers bloom along the side of the trail, which the grasslands take on their customary golden hues of autumn. A short climb later, we top out on Mt Menō, the first peak on Iizuna’s summit ridge of rotund volcanic cones. By now the clouds have closed in, depositing misty moisture on our eyebrows as we turn our eyes towards the summit buried somewhere in the murk.

The two of us make good work on the ridge, reaching the broad summit plateau in unexpected sunshine. We settle onto an improvised set of oblong boulders and share snacks and stories with a jovial group of local hikers. An elementary school soccer team lurks nearby, eavesdropping on our conversation in hopes of grabbing a snippet or two of free English vocabulary. After a quick summit photo, we drop off the northern face of the peak to a small saddle ablaze with autumn foliage before ascending a short distance to Iizuna shrine. From here, it’s a steep drop back to the forest, with Paul demonstrating his mountain sprinting skills down some truly tricky terrain. We slow down the pace once back in the treeline and continue sharing stories on the remainder of our loop hike back into camp.

Camp has turned into a small village, with HIJ members engaged in a variety of leisurely activities, few of which involve loitering at camp. Paul and I round up Naresh, Miguel, and Michael and head to Café Fleurir for warm pizza, tasty curry gratin, and several cups of coffee as one by one the other members of our party join us around the table. Bjorn and family have come straight from the stables after an adventurous afternoon of horse riding. John arrives after the long drive from Mt Nantai and shares stories about the infamous toll booth at the trailhead. Edward and friends also stop by briefly to say hello before ducking back into camp. I have a word with the owner about providing a candle in Naresh’s special cake – a surprise for him having recently finished climbing the Yamanashi Hyakumeizan. Follow Naresh’s blog here as he begins to tell his mountain adventures.

Bellies full, we all head back into camp to start the cooking duties. Paul starts in on the fire while Rie and James start cutting the vegetables for nabe. Bjorn and family settle into a corner of the covered kitchen to churn out another amazing bowl of guacamole. Alekh, Anna, Edward, Michael and Miguel lend a helping hand as well, shuttling ingredients between workstation and delivering prepared food to the common serving table. Naresh splits his time between the fire and kitchen, making sure everything is going according to plan and on schedule. Just as in previous gatherings, it becomes apparent that we once again have way too much food but we make a valiant effort to consume whatever is served.  Grace arrives at camp carrying her signature homemade cake – awing everyone with her baking prowess and making us full before the main dish even begins to boil.

As the first bowls of nabe come off the stove, Naresh and John have already begun roasting marshmellows for S’mores. Miguel places our framed photo of Michal closer to the fire, telling everyone about the contributions he made to the group before his untimely departure on his eternal celestial journey. Stories are told, laughs are shared, and even heated political discussions ensue but the conversation is eventually brought back to a topic we can all agree on: the beauty of Japan’s mountains.

One by one the campers drift off to sleep, some too comfy around the fire to retreat to their shelters until the embers of the campfire begin to grow dim. Mother Nature times her arrival perfectly as well, holding off on the rain until all of us have bedded down for the evening. The rain continues most of the night and slows to a drizzle as we all emerge from our cocoons.

In the filtered light of morning, the camp denizens converge on the covered kitchen area to indulge in copious cups of hot chai and an assortment of leftovers and calorie-rich muffins. Paul and James head off for a morning jog while others reluctantly discuss plans for heading back to civilization. Each year, we cram a full weekend’s worth of activities into, well, a weekend. I float the idea of perhaps trying to have next year’s gathering scheduled over a 3-day weekend, with an exciting group hike sandwiched between two nights underneath the stars. Who’s with us in 2020?


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The Gathering III

Every year I organize a gathering of mountaineers and hiking enthusiasts from my other site. The last two events were held in Kamikochi and a report of those trips can be found here and here. Miguel and I once again put our collective heads together over a cup of coffee at Yamagata station. While Kamikochi is a very nice location, I wanted to try a different place in hopes of keeping things fresh. The only problem with Kamikochi is that it is a destination in and of itself, which means that people attending the gathering would likely have been in the area regardless of whether the event was being held or not. Holding it at a different venue meant that people would actually have to go out of their way specifically to attend, which might help limit the number of participants. As the Facebook group continues to grow (surpassing 1500 members), we could be in serious trouble if even half that number decided to join in the event. Once the caffeine kicked in we brainstormed locations until agreeing on both a location and date: Togakushi Kogen in mid-September.


I set out the day before the event on an early morning Limited Express train that barreled through the Kiso valley en route to Nagano city. The cloudless sky and incredible visibility meant that the Kita Alps escorted me through the urban sprawl of Matsumoto to the highlands of Hijiri Kogen, teeming with farmers trying to finish up the rice harvest before the onset of typhoon season. At the crest of the gentle rise the train glides past Obasute station to the secluded valley in which the Olympic host is so securely nestled. Legend has it that in feudal times of strife and famine, families used to abandon their infirmed elderly on the slopes of this mountain. Hard to fathom that an area with a tarnished past could be home to such breathtaking vistas.


At Nagano station, I meandered through a giant maze of construction scaffolding on the way to bus stop number seven, where a bus shuttled me to Togakushi campground shortly past four in the afternoon. The cloud had already swallowed the surrounding mountains while I explored the vast grasslands of the camping area in search of a suitable place to set up base camp. Nestled at the end of the grounds near the bungalows sat a semi-secluded area with a surprisingly nice kitchen area and plenty of room for guests. Being an auto campground, I wanted to reserve an area where cars wouldn’t be able to park, since it detracts from the nature aspect of our outdoor experience. Fortunately it was an eerily quiet Friday evening, with only a handful of other campers dotted across the sprawling park. I knew that would all change the following day.


The mountain drifted in and out of foggy consciousness as dusk set in. I cooked up a two-course meal of Vietnamese pho and carbonara pasta as the evening glow fizzled out. Tucking into my grub, I spotted two pairs of eyes glowing at the edge of my camp. Mistaking it for a feral cat, I turned on the headlamp, where, to my great surprise, a juvenile anagram (Japanese badger) waddled lazily into my front yard in search of nourishment. I watched for several minutes as the animal eventually found the bed of an adjacent stream more worthy of its attention. I’ve come across plenty of tanuki and several foxes, but badgers were a first.


I hit the hay at the criminal hour of 8pm, hoping to somehow make it through the long night with at least a few hours of shut-eye. Between the barking of deer, the caws of the crows, and the screeches from wild owl, it was a fitful one, but once the first glows of light wafted into the tent at 5 in the morning, I felt somewhat refreshed. A hearty breakfast of leftover bread and oatmeal was prepared while I stared up at the wall of cloud still clinging heavily to the surrounding mountains. I had the option of an easier ascent up Mt. Iizuna, or the 5-star clambering up the cliffs of Togakushi. Fortunately the decision was made much easier when the first text message arrived just before 5:30. Paul and Rie were on the way and wanted to know which peak I had in mind for the morning. Togakushi had always been high on my radar, and having unexpected companionship sealed the deal.


They arrived just as I was polishing off the grub and set up their tents in the area adjacent to my shelter. We were cautious not to leave too much space lest a car camper should intrude. As we were catching up and discussing the day’s plans, Yuta from Osaka showed up with a companion. They were planning to climb Mt. Takazuma and possibly Togakushi on the return if time permitted. It was barely past 6 in the morning and we already had a clan.


The three of us set off on the climb (detailed in a forthcoming post) and made it back safely sometime before 2pm. Rie really wanted a hot spring bath, while Paul and I were absolutely famished. When given the choice between a meal and a bath, I always let the stomach do the talking, so we settled into one of the outdoor seats at Cafe Fleurir, an amazing place run by a husband-and-wife team. We split a pizza while each ordering a bowl of yaki curry, which is cooked in a similar way to gratin but there’s curry and rice in the ceramic cooking pot. The owner came out with his telescope and showed us the knife-edge ridge that got our hearts pumping earlier in the day. We looked for hikers but couldn’t find any at such a late hour in the day.


After lunch, we literally crawled back into camp, our stomachs about to burst from the caloric overload. Naresh and family were already settled into their cabin, so after a quick change of clothes we all got to work preparing the meal before we lost the light of the sun. The first stop was the campground registration area, where we rented cooking pots and bought wood for the campfire. The next step was firing up the grill, and our resident pyrotechnician Yuta went right to work. Rie assisted in making guacamole as Naresh’s talented wife Seema made the vegetarian taco fillings. Of course, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so Paul chimed in with our first-ever Hiking in Japan slack line.


After slacking, it was time to get down to business and make tacos. The grill was fired up, and Naresh’s children Prakhar and Pranita (and family friend Shrimal) made sure our tortillas were grilled to perfection. Toshi strolled into camp next, fresh from his ascent of Mt. Togakushi. We actually passed by him on the ridge, as he was doing the hike in reverse, something he did not recommend. The next member to join the party was David, who had just come down from Mt. Iizuna. Just before we were about to tuck into dinner, a car pulled up and a young man asked if this was the Hiking in Japan event. Kohei from Shizuoka has joined the celebration. He was new to Hiking in Japan but we welcomed him like family, and his fried chicken and beer were most welcome.


As if things could not get any better, just as we were losing the last light of the day, a black sport-utility vehicle pulled into camp, a car which I definitely recognized from a hike in Hokkaido last month. It was Grace the Yamaholic making a cameo appearance. She could not stay for the camp event as she had plans to climb Yakeyama the following day, but she had come straight from the top of Mt. Kurohime to join us for a short time. Of course she brought some of her famous carrot cake with chocolate frosting.


There was plenty of food to go around for all of us, and as the temperature dropped we all huddled around the glowing campfire for stories and conversation. Sometime during the evening, Paul, Kohei, Yuta and I decided to wander north of the campsite through the cow pastures in search of firewood. We eventually found some tree branches and brought them back to camp. On the way back, we spotted a man with a large tripod and high-quality camera taking night shots. It turned out to be Naresh’s son Prakhar, whose passion for photography and good music had us all impressed.


Naresh prepared dessert, which consisted of David’s Belgian chocolate along with an improvised take on S’mores: we’d forgotten to get graham crackers so substituted Saltines in their place.  A sweet and salty version of America’s favorite campground snack if you will. They did the trick but next year we’re definitely not going to forget the graham crackers.


The next day dawned clear, and I roused Paul out of bed so we could capture the first rays of the day glowing off of Mt. Togakushi. It was a decision neither of us would regret. After, Kohei, Rie, Yuta, Paul, and I drove to Kagami ike (mirror pond) to capture the reflection of Mt. Togakushi in the still waters.


Back at camp, David had already departed on his early morning ascent of Mt. Takazuma (and Togakushi as well), so we didn’t get to say goodbye to him. We ate leftover tacos for breakfast, which had us absolutely stuffed. Toshi headed back to Matsumoto after he took an early morning stroll while Naresh and his family headed out on a day hike to the shrine and mirror pond. Yuta and Kohei set off for Mt. Togakushi, so soon it was just Rie, Paul, and I packing up the last remnants of camp. We left a little thank-you note and gift for Naresh to thank him for all of the hard work he put into the event.


Rie drove Paul and I back to Nagoya, where we were already thinking about Gathering #4 next year, which we all agreed should be held at Togakushi again. There are still several peaks in the area neither of us had climbed, so any excuse to get back to one of Nagano’s best hiking areas is most welcome.


There were several people whose presence was dearly missed. Co-organizers Viviana and Miguel both ended up getting sick and could not attend. Kaoru and Michal both had dates with their lovers (oops, I mean mountains!), and Tomomi was in China on a business trip. And if there’s anyone else i neglected to mention then my sincerest apologies. The Ontake eruption and the start of a busy semester have both preoccupied my thoughts.


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