Posts Tagged ‘Tohoku hikes’

Climbing the Hyakumeizan without the luxury of a car is a bit like working the breakfast shift short-handed: you just have to make due with what you have. I stumbled out of JR Morioka station in a daze, floored by the realization that the first train on the Yamada line didn’t depart until 4:30pm. Apparently this line was not designed with hikers in mind. I tried my luck at the tourist information counter. “You’re better off taking the bus,” replied the helpful clerk, who informed me that the train line will more than likely be discontinued in the near future. On the bus I studied my hand-drawn map in hopes of getting my head around what i was in for: a 20km round-trip on a long, seldom-used trail not even marked in my guidebook.

The first part of the hike was along a series of gravel forest roads, where someone had put up hand-painted 登山口 (trailhead) signs to assist drivers in navigation. I definitely never would’ve found the path without them. I caught my stride upon reaching the true start of the hike, and flew up the deserted yet well-trodden trail through pristine wilderness. It was already after 10am and I was on an extremely tight schedule which I had to stick to if I wanted to be sitting on the summit of Mt. Chokai the following afternoon. Something just had to go wrong.

Water! After reaching a trail junction at the 6th stagepoint, I turned left and rose abruptly above the treeline. The clouds came in, chilling my sweaty figure as I reached the water source at the 8th stage. Bone dry! I’d planned my entire hike around this water source, and now I was down to less than half a liter for the remainder of the entire hike. I pushed on, reaching the main ridge and ran into a mass of hikers who’d taken the more popular approach. “Excuse me, were you on Mt. Iwate yesterday and Hachimantai the day before?”, inquired a kind couple directly in front of me. We struck up an instant friendship, for the retired husband and wife team were also climbing the Hyakumeizan. I quickly explained my water predicament and out came a 1/2 liter of oolong tea. “Take this”, the husband demanded. “We’re on our way down.”

Once reaching the summit, another group offered me a few mandarin oranges. This was truly turning into a concerted group effort as I ate a quick rice ball and took some summit photos. The mist covered everything in sight, while the top of Hayachine’s rocky perch contained a delipidated stone shrine and an unusual collection of mysterious metallic sword-shaped relics apparently laid by mountain priests.

I retreated the same way I came, walking the last 10km non-stop. The tea and oranges held out until I reached the forest road, where I ducked my head in a stream and re-hydrated my exhausted body before jogging the last kilometer to the bus stop. I arrived precisely 3 minutes before the bus departed, just as the skies opened up. The only downside to the entire trip was that all of my photos came out overexposed. I’d broken my camera at the very beginning of my Tohoku adventure (which explains the strange cropping on all of the Tohoku entries). I hope the sketches I put together will give you some sort of feel for the magic of Mt. Hayachine. I made it back to Morioka in time to catch the Shinkansen to Akita, followed by a limited express train to Kisakata, which set me up nicely for Mt. Chokai, the highest peak in Tohoku and the peak I’d been looking forward to most.

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3:30am seemed like a perfect time to start my approach to the towering volcanic edifice of Mt. Iwate. For starters, I was illegally camped in a park. I was also faced with a 20km round-trip monster of a hike: my first true test in my epoch-making Tohoku conquest.

After convincing myself that the trailhead must lie in the forest directly behind the green confines of the park, I meandered through desolate gravel roads for nearly an hour before retreating back to my campsite, re-orienting myself in relation to my highly inaccurate map, and turning due west until finding the true start of the hike. This was already turning into a headache and I’d barely even started.

The first part of the trail was pretty straightforward, as the increasing light of a dawning day made navigation without a torch entirely possible. If only it weren’t for the abnormally large amount of frogs attempting to commit suicide by intentionally hopping directly into my rapidly approaching footfalls. I reached Nana waterfall after an hour or so, only to find a rope strung across the trail. Apparently someone did not want me to climb Mt. Iwate from this side of the peak. I had 2 choices. Either turn back and spend the better part of the morning and afternoon trying to hitch to the other side of the volcano, or continue on a stealth mission into the unknown. I think you all know me well enough by now to know which option I chose.

Slipping underneath the rope, I continued through the dense conifer forest, as monstrous rock formations slowly came into view to my immediate right. Gradually the pine needles gave way to sulfur-stained mud and pumice, as I suddenly found myself ascending directly into an active thermal vent. “So, that’s why this trail is closed!”, I gasped, maneuvering through a gnarly collection of hot spring runoff and hissing hells with the speed and agility of a running back in motion. One false step and I’d be tonight’s headline, if anyone bothered to venture into this literal no-man’s land.

Eventually I reached a junction, slipped under the rope in front of me (I was now officially hiking legally once again) and turned left towards the saddle below the crater rim. The dew of the previous night made its way down the overgrown foliage and into my shirt, pants, socks and shoes. Here I was soaked from head to toe on a trail that had definitely seen better days. Future hikers should note that 99% of climbers approach via the Yakibashiri and Yanagisawa trails to the southwest and northeast.

After meandering through some heavily overgrown marshlands, the path followed a dry river bed to the plateau directly below the enormous crater rim. It was here that I met my first hiker of the day, and my first true break in the relentless ascent. Devouring every carbohydrate in my path, I regained my strength and inched my way up to the crater rim. When I say inched, I truly mean it, as one step forward resulted in 2 steps of lost altitude, thanks in large part to the ankle-deep screee. I was literally on my hands and knees for the better part of an hour, struggling to reach the rim of the active volcanic monster. Once on top it became an easy stroll to the high point, where the most incredible panoramic view awaited. I thought I’d had good views on Mt. Iwaki, but nothing compared to what lie before me. Not only could I see the last 3 peaks I’d climbed, but I could also see my remaining targets for the next 6 days: Mt. Hayachine, nearly a stones throw away, followed by Mt. Chokai to the southwest, with Gassan and Mt. Asahi lined up perfectly to the south of Tohoku’s highest peak. I raised my arms in triumph, as I new I’d beaten a peak notorious for lenticular cloud cover, horizontal rain, and gale force winds.

The only downside to my successful day was that I’d left my backpack and tent back in the park at the campsite, meaning I’d have to retrace my steps 11km all the way back to where I started. I set off with no time to spare, resoaking my clothes on the overgrown foliage, and literally jumping through the active thermal vents that caused so discomfort on the ascent. Back at the trailhead around 2pm, I grabbed my belongings and boarded a bus for Morioka. It was time to plan tomorrow’s climb of Mt. Hayachine, a peak that offered no easy route when relying on public transport.

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The car dropped me off in front of Hirosaki station just before 3pm. I quickly checked the bus schedule: 3:05pm departure for Dake-onsen. Not in time for the last shuttle bus to the 8th stage, but it would have to do. At the hot spring, I walked up the road with my thumb outstretched. 20 minutes later a kind woman stopped and gave me a lift to the toll gate. I pressed on, speaking with the attendant about the frequency of vehicles. She provided me an answer that almost gave me a coronary: “the toll road closes in 5 minutes, so I doubt anyone will be coming this way.”


As I stood there in shock, wondering how long it would take me to walk up a meandering toll road, I heard a small rumble from behind. I turned my head, rubbed my eyes twice and pinched myself to see if I were dreaming, for here came a red Toyota Corolla up to the toll booth. I quickly went to work, offering to split the fare with the driver in exchange for a ride. I was back in business!


The 8th station was nearly deserted as I put on my pack for the 20 minute hike to the 9th stagepoint. The sky was a bit overcast, with menacing clouds swirling just below. My map had an emergency hut marked at the trail junction to the traditional approach and I went to investigate. Small and cozy, the concrete bunker provided a dry roof overhead but not much else. Regardless, I dropped off my pack and headed up the ridiculously steep trail to the summit.


I’d made my goal of reaching the top of my second peak in one day, but the adventure was far from over. I found to my great surprise that there was an emergency hut directly on the summit that was unmarked on my map. It was in much better condition than the one I’d left my pack in, and it was completely deserted. The weather looked like it might hold out, and the panoramic views left me with only one decision: go back down and get the pack!


I retraced my steps and decided to leave the tent and other non-essentials in the first hut in order to lighten my load. Stove, check. Sleeping bag, roger. Water. WATER! In all my haste in racing to the summit I’d forgotten to fill up at the parking lot! Auugghhh! Not to fear, as a water source was clearly marked on the trail directly in front of me. But how far to the water source? Could I make it back before dark? These questions raced through my head as I scrambled down the dry gully.


150 vertical meters later I’d found what I was looking for, and filled up 3 liters of refreshing liquid. Sweat was pouring off of my forehead, as I still had to climb back up to the first hut, retrieve my belongings, and scramble back up to the top in time to watch the sunset.


My legs were quickly becoming gelatinous on the final summit push. All of that brisk walking around Hakkoda and my hasty decisions on Iwaki were starting to take their toll. My pace slowed to a crawl, and the last few steps seemed to take an eternity. Still, I’d done it. The timing was impeccable, as the sun broke through the clouds as soon as I’d set down my gear. The light show began. I cooked up some pasta as the sun began to sink.




and lower


and lower, until it sat on the edge of the Pacific. The tip of Hokkaido was clearly visible in the distance, as were the endless rows of pristine mountain ranges. Between myself and the setting sun lie the Shirakami mountains, some of the most unspoilt wilderness in this vast land. Mt. Iwate rose way off towards the south, and the first lights of Hirosaki and Aomori cities twinkled far, far below. Here I was, completely alone. “Hitori-jime!”, I shouted, which can be translated as “mine, all mine.”


I sat on the steps of the summit shrine, filling my belly with nutrients and observing the onset of darkness. The night was as calm as any I can remember. It’s hard to believe I was so close to civilization, yet so far removed as if on another planet. I gazed out towards Aomori city just in time to see the colorful light show. Scarlet flashes of light raced towards the sky, exploding in intricate circular arrays. The Nebuta fireworks festival was in full swing, and here I was with a bird’s eye view from 1600 meters above the valley floor. It doesn’t get much better than this.


I awoke well before dawn and stumbled back out towards the shrine steps. The cities of Aomori and Hirosaki still shimmered in the warm summer air as the horizon began to awaken. As long as I live I will never grow tired of watching the sunrise and sunsets, and I can think of no greater joy than witnessing the phenomena from the summit of a wonderful mountain.


Saying farewell to the rocky summit was one of the most difficult things I’ve done in a while, but I wanted to leave with an unspoilt image in my mind. In just a few hours, the peak would be crawling with hoards of daytrippers who’d opted to take the chair lift up. I wanted to avoid all of the mayhem, so I slipped quietly down the gully towards Iwaki shrine, past rotting snowfields and glorious mountain flora. The path was steep, slippery, and exposed, giving me an unexpected workout with the weight of my full pack. Once in the forest things became much easier, until finally arriving at the trailhead of the most traditional route up the peak.


With the peaks of Aomori Prefecture behind me, I set my sights on the volcanic peaks of Iwate prefecture. Next stop: Hachimantai.

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The ferry rolled into Aomori city in the early hours of a bright and beautiful August morning. As I made my way to the bus terminal, I couldn’t help but notice the unusually busy streets. The posters at the bus stop confirmed my suspicions, as the Nebuta festival was entering its final day. My mission, however, was to leave the throngs of spectators and head to the peaks south of the city for the first leg of my Tohoku Hyakumeizan Tour.


The bus ride was pleasant enough, but the wonderful weather brought out the impatience in me. “Hurry up,” I murmured, as the bus stopped for a bathroom break a mere 10km from Sukayu hot spring. The peaks of Hakkoda rose majestically to my left and I seriously thought about abandoning the bus in favor of hitching. Those last 10km seemed to take an eternity, as I was convinced the summer fog would foil my plans for a summit view. Immediately after pulling into the terminus, I went to work, stashing my huge pack behind the public toilets. Food, water, camera. Check. An extra shirt just in case.

The trail was well-maintained and I soon set a rather brisk pace, traversing through a volcanic gully before arriving at the Sennin-tai emergency hut junction. Round volcanic cones in the richest hues of green rose up from the marshlands in all directions, as the last hints of winter gathered in the form of rabbit-shaped snowfields. The water source here rose up from deep within the earth, forming a small, crystal clear pond of refreshing liquid. I had my fill before setting off for the final slog to the high point of Odake.


After passing a picturesque pond and weaving back and forth between the red pines and Maries’ firs, I reached the high point of Hakkoda, only to be met by crowds of hikers who’d come up from the more popular northern approach. Most hikers avoid the most scenic sections of the peak by opting for the luxury of the gondola, which whisks visitors to within 200 vertical meters of the summit. I was in no mood for dealing with crowds, so instead of exploring the neighboring peak of Akakura, I made a beeline back to Sukayu hot spring, indulging in the gigantic mixed bath that is rumored to hold up to 1000 people. Fortunately, there was hardly a soul in sight when I entered the refreshing waters. A quick glance at the clock knocked me back to reality, as it realized it was high noon and most of the tourists were probably in the neighboring restaurants. Noon? Why on earth didn’t I spend more time exploring the peaks?


I retreated next door for a bowl of noodles and was fortunate enough to sit next to a talkative pair of men who offered me a ride to Hirosaki station. Perhaps I’d even be able to knock off Mt. Iwaki before sunset, whose towering edifice dominates the skyline for miles around. One day into my quest and I was already well ahead of schedule. I vowed to come back to Hakkoda in the winter for some backcountry powder and juhyo (‘ice monster’) viewing.

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There’s something about a snow hike that brings out the child in me. Perhaps it’s a subconscious desire to relive the innocent, halcyon days of yesteryear when my hometown actually got a sizable amount of annual wintry precipitation. So when the chance arose to summit a respectable peak in Fukushima Prefecture in mid-February, I enthusiastically rose to the challenge.


A night bus, local train, local bus and short taxi ride later, my friend Yoko and I arrived at Adatara Snow Resort, ready to start our mission. Unaware of the snow conditions, I opted for a pair of 12-point crampons as well as a pair of Japanese snowshoes called wakan. I started with the crampons, but was ready to change if the show became too deep.


The trail followed the ski slopes for a short way before descending to a snow-covered road and entering a beautiful forest. The sun was beating down majestically in our secluded valley, and we had no idea that this would be our last sunlight of the weekend. As we climbed higher above the trees on the exposed ridge, the clouds seemed to move in like an audience at a planetarium, not noticing how crowded it is until the show’s about to start. It was right about here when we lost the track completely and the snow started coming down. Luckily, the wind stayed our of the tranquil valley we found ourselves in. Completely alone, but nowhere near being scared, for there was only one logical choice: stay on the ridge line until coming across a prominent geographical feature.


Sure enough, the landmark turned out to be Kurogane Hut, our home for the night. The luxurious hut, complete with its own hot spring bath, is one of the few huts in Japan that is open all year round. We quickly checked in and plotted our course for the afternoon. It would’ve been a waste to spend all afternoon in the hut when there was a spendid volcano towering above, so we did what any idiot would naturally do and set off for the summit! The hut owner warned us of the 2+ meters of snow on the long traverse, so it was time to break out the wakan.


Tough is not a word to describe our next 90 minutes on the mountain. Perhaps foolish would be more appropriate. Visibility was about 10 meters, but every time a gust came along it was quickly reduced to less than 100cm, but still we trudged on. The only thing saving us from a most untimely death were the huge bamboo poles the saints at the hut had installed to mark the path. Otherwise we’d have surely fallen into the smoldering crater on the north side of the mountain. Step by step, pole by pole, we advanced, powered by our own selfish drive to reach another Hyakumeizan peak. “Why couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?”, I muttered for what seemed like the twentieth time in as many mountains. Alas. our target was in sight.


Climbing the final rock formation to the summit shrine proved to be utterly agonizing with a pair of wakan on, so off they went for some free climbing on an icy face. Good thing the boulder is only 2 meters high! Snapping a quick photo, we began our sheepish retreat back to the warm hut. Dreams of retracing our footsteps proved to be just that, as the wind diligently erased all proof of our existence on the mountain. Now I know why winter climbing can be so dangerous! Most people consider avalanches to be the main risk, but I’d put my money on foul weather any day as the major cause of wintry mishaps. Fate was on our side, however, as the bamboo poles stayed in place long enough to warrant a safe return to the hut.


The next day, visibility was only slightly better, but the clouds and snow hung tight to the frigid summit. We did end up climbing back up to the summit again in order to complete the loop back to the ski resort, but sharing the peak with 30 other noisy climbers just wasn’t the same. Just as in the days of my youth, I finally realized what made frolicking in the snow so special: a chance to escape from the confines of banality and truly let loose.

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Mt. Iide was one mountain that had been on my list for quite a while, and I’d finally blocked out some time for the long, long approach. I’d prepared enough food to survive 3 days on the mountain, but managed to cram my sleeping bag, stove, food, and clothing into a 30 liter pack, opting to go without a space-eating sleeping pad. I booked the night bus to Niigata station, and all necessary train and bus schedules had been investigated. The only thing I had to worry about was the weather, for the forecast had lots of cloud marks and umbrellas!

The bus rolled into Niigata station, and I headed to a bakery to kill some time (there’s nothing like free air con!) before the first train. The train came soon enough, and I was waiting at Niitsu station in next to no time for the long, slow crawl to Yamato station. I’d managed a quick snooze before arriving around 10:15am on a national holiday in mid-July. The station was completely unmanned (why oh why did I pay the full fare?!), and the parking lot was completely deserted. So much for my plan to jump in a taxi! I searched for the phone number of the taxi company, hoping they’d be open on a national holiday. Sure enough, the dispatcher sent one my way, and before I knew it I was conversing with the driver, who sported a heavy Tohoku accent. He confessed that he’d lived in the town his whole life but had never been further than the Mt. Iide trailhead. The road leading to Kawairi was undergoing a massive widening project, and soon it would be a paved two-lane highway all the way to the start of the hike. It just goes to show how popular the Hyakumeizan are becoming. Mt. Iide used to be one of those mountains only the most hardcore hikers dare approached, but now (as evidenced by the massive trail erosion) it seems that every elderly pensioner is intent of conquering.

I arrived at Kawairi, filled up my water bottle, and quickly started on my way. It was 11am, and soon enough I’d gotten those familiar ‘kore kara’ comments from descending hikers. The map said it’d take 7-1/2 hours to reach the first hut of the day, but I knew that I’d easily be able to make it in half that time. Sure enough, I was sitting at Mikuni hut shortly before 2pm! The slog was long, and the humidity and insects just about did me in, but I had reason to celebrate. You see, the clouds were breaking up and fair weather was on its way. It was way too early to call it a day, so I continued over toward the next hut on the traverse, Kiriai koya. There was a lot of up and down, and the ridge would’ve been quite treacherous in foul weather, but I was blessed with warm sunshine and ever-improving views! I rolled into Kiriai a little past 3pm, and was shocked to see a rather large crowd gathered out front. At least 30 people were basking in the sunshine, chattering loudly about the next day’s plans. I took a quick respite and replenished my dehydrated body with much-needed water. I still had 4 hours of sunlight left, and I would’ve been a fool to shack up with all those noisy elderly hikers, so I clambered on. I heard the echoes of ‘kore kara’ fading behind me, but I powered through the massive snow fields without even looking back! I was half their age and probably had 4 times the amount of hiking experience. Plus, the weather was incredible. The climb up to Mt. Iide was long and relentless, but I was awarded with a wonderful hut with only 3 guests! I checked in, cooked some lunch, and took in the scenery. The clouds were just starting to lift off of Mt. Dainichi, the highest point of the mountain range. The sunset was setting itself up nicely, and I wasn’t about to sit in the hut drinking alcohol with the other guests. I took off for the summit of Mt. Iide, armed with my camera and a bottle of water. It only took 10 minutes from the hut to reach the top, and I’d made it just in time. Phenomenal was an understatement, and the sight re-confirmed my belief that the mountains of Tohoku are the best in Japan.

That night, I was victim to a drunken cacophony of the most grating kind – snorers! I’d thought I’d be safe with only 3 other guests in the hut, but all 3 of them must’ve been finalists in the national snoring competition. I’ve got to bring my earplugs next time, or at least some pebbles to throw at the offenders! I still can’t believe how much booze Japanese people drink in the mountains. I wonder how many mountain accidents are caused by alcohol? The guy sleeping near me drank 3 cans of beer, a cup of sake, and some whisky, but absolutely no water. Hmmm……..

The next day I woke up early to catch the sunrise and to find solitude. The weather was bizarre – a thick layer of cloud behind the hut, but crystal clear directly in front. I spent the next hour or so on the gentle ridgeline, alternating between warm, refreshing sunshine and a thick blanket of fog. By the time I got over to Mt. Dainichi the cloud had settled for good. Oh well, at least I had views the previous evening. I dropped my pack off at Onishi-goya for the 90 minute round-trip assault to the top of Iide’s highest point. Upon returning to the hut, I checked over the map. It was 9am and I had a good 4 hours or so to Kairagi hut.

The ridgeline was still buried under a meter of snow (was this really mid-July?). It wasn’t too treacherous, but really difficult to see which direction to go in the mist. I followed others footprints, hoping they knew the way. Occasionally the trail would pop out of the white stuff and climb past some alpine lakes. About an hour into the traverse I came across 2 volunteers in charge of trail maintenance. They’d set up folding chairs in the middle of the trail and were drinking beer at 10 in the morning! I can’t quite figure out what exactly they were supposed to do – it’s not like there was any bamboo grass to clear or anything. I pressed on, pretty much without stopping, and arrived at Kairagi shortly just before noon. The hut has a great natural spring, so I had my fill of refreshing water and got my bearings. A trail descended directly in front of the hut, down a massive cirque. This is one of the most popular access points for experienced climbers, and it makes the Daisekkei in Hakuba look like a bunny slope. I’d love to come back here to try this route someday. I noticed that the next hut was only 90 minutes away, so after a quick lunch I dashed off to the top of Mt. Kitamata. The clouds were starting to break up, and I wondered if I’d be treated to another spectacular sunset. The final hut of the traverse, Monnai, was staffed by 2 of the friendliest people on the entire mountain range. I get the feeling that most people bypass their hut in favor of Kairagi, which is a shame because I really feel that the hut staff make all the difference in the world when it comes to accommodation. I can even put up with snoring if the hut has a good vibe with friendly owners! They gave me advice about the trail down to Iide Hot Spring and shoved 2 ripe plums in my hands. I was overjoyed to say the least. I had 2 choices – I could check into the hut, stay the night, and hope for fair weather or I could descend down to the trailhead and enjoy the hot spring!

Needless to say, the bath option won out, and I set off around 2pm for the knee knocking 1400 vertical meter descent! My legs took a beating, and by the time I arrived at Iide-sanso I had 3 decent-sized blisters on my feet. But, hey, I did it! A tough, 35km traverse in just 30 hours! I checked into the hut, telling the manager that I just wanted a place to sleep on the floor – I had my own sleeping gear and food. He led me towards the back of the hut and showed me to my room. It was some kind of meeting room, with a large carpet and tables folded against the wall. It was easily twice the size of my apartment and I had it completely to myself. Plus, there was a kitchen upstairs with propane burners. I can’t believe I paid 2000 yen to stay at the emergency hut on Iide, but here I was staying at a proper hut with a kitchen and hot spring for 300 yen less! Anyway, it rained hard most of the night, and I knew I’d made the right decision. The next day, I took the bus and train all the way to Osaka, having marked another mountain off the list.

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