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Posts Tagged ‘Tohoku’

With a trip planned to Hokkaido in less than a week’s time, I scurried through the guidebook looking for one last peak to check off the list. The biggest problem with climbing the Hyakumeizan comes when you’ve already scaled the ones with easy access and are left with mountains in out-of-the-way places. Hence my current dilemma: which mountain would serve as my 53rd victim?

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Nasu seemed approachable: a quick shinkansen ride from Tokyo, followed by a short-ish bus ride. Sounds great on paper until you realize that I’m not based in Tokyo, further complicating matters. A night bus it was, dropping me off at Ueno just as the biggest star in the solar system peeked over the eastern horizon. With such an early start, I arrived at the parking lot for Nasu Ropeway before the gondola actually started running. It made no difference, however, as I wasn’t planning on the easy way up.

On the short paved walkway that led to the start of the path to Mt. Chausu, I raised the viewfinder of my digital SLR to my right eye and snapped a shot of the early morning cloud wisping from the summit plateau. The camera soon went black, unresponsive to my constant tinkering. I even tried changing the battery but nothing. Completely dead. There would be no photos on one of Tohoku’s most picturesque volcanoes.

Dejected, I placed my new deadweight at the bottom of my pack, vowing to return in due time to capture the scenery on film. For now I flew up a path towards a deep col below Mt. Asahi. Scores of schoolchildren stood by the wayside, allowing me to pass. They were on a school excursion up to Chausu’s crater rim, and commendable they were for not opting for the luxury of the gondola, though in their case it may have been more of a financial decision for the teachers involved. Regardless, I gave a few high-5s before darting past them. When I hit the ridge, it was simply a case of following the maze of paint marks higher and higher to the top of my first peak, where the igneous rock garden did not fail to impress. The majority of hikers simply come to this point, snap a few photos of the crater, and head back to the comfort of the souvenir shops below. Hyakumeizan baggers, however, have the added task of traversing over to Sanbonyari, the official high point of the mountain range.

The path back to the col was manageable, but the next section to Mt. Asahi was a chain-laden exposed traverse on a cliff of loose pumice and pebbly ash. Long drops to my right made every footstep critical. Fortunately the heart-pumping section was short, and after the cliffs of Asahi, the route dropped to a vast plateau filled with lush, verdant grasslands, contrasting greatly with the smoldering fissures slightly to the south. There were a few intermittent peaks of gentle ups-and-downs, with wooden boardwalks in the flatter areas to protect the fragile vegetation. The final push to Sanbonyari was long and relentless, taking nearly 90 minutes to reach. Half a dozen other trekkers relaxed on the narrow summit when I arrived, sitting on ‘leisure sheets’ while enjoying their immaculately packed lunch boxes. The peaks of Fukushima lay thick in dark cloud, while the vistas back to Chausu were also cut off by a secondary layer of fleet-footed cumulus.

The route back to the start was non eventful, which in my case meant no bear encounters, no twisted ankles, and no unexpected surprises. Back at the parking lot, I walked down the road for 30 minutes, stopping by a hot spring for a well-deserved bath before flagging down the bus back to the station. Nasu was a nice warm-up for the long-awaited matchup with Hokkaido’s greatest cinder cone Mt. Yotei, whose sheer scale makes up for its lack of firepower.

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The eastern half of the Azuma mountain range is undoubtly the most scenic section, but the target peak for Hyakumeizan baggers lies in the dreary, overcrowded west. The only logical solution was to do an east-to-west traverse, taking in all of the volcanic lakes and marshlands that make this area so breathtakingly beautiful. After a lengthy overnight bus journey from Osaka, I boarded a taxi to the turn-off for Takuyu Hot Spring at the base of the Bandai-Azuma skyline. Here, I simply held out my thumb and let my fingers do the talking, instantly hitching a ride to Jodo-daira, the start of my long trek. If I’d relied on public transit, I’d still be sitting at Fukushima waiting for the first bus out. Tight schedules and a tight wallet are not good companions.

The trailhead parking lot was massive, buttressed on either end by a visitor’s center and resthouse. Hoards of day-trippers out for a pleasant early autumn stroll gathered in droves, as I searched for a peaceful place to devour breakfast. After grabbing a free trail map from the information counter, I flew up the stunningly scenic path towards Mt. Issaikyo, an active volcano and the first target peak of the day.

Finding a good vantage point to photgraph Azuma Ko-fuji is not a simple task, for the gargantuan parking lot and toll road scar the landscape to no avail, but with a little creative cropping, the area can retain some of its natural beauty. It was one of those stunning akibare days with a stable high pressure system and crisp, blue skies. The cumulus cloud cover also made for an interesting backdrop. After 45 minutes of modest climbing, I sat on the summit of the volcanic flank, admiring the spectacle surrounding me.

Peering off the northern face, a clean, cobalt blue crater lake catches my eye. I stare down into the crystalline waters while studying the map. To my great satisfaction, I realize that the route I need to take skirts the edge of the pond before disappearing into an adjacent ridge. Descents never felt so wonderful.

On the shore of the basin, I peer back up at Issakyo’s pristine summit. At this moment, I realized that opting for the long traverse was the right choice, perhaps the only choice for true Hyakumeizan hikers. Westwards I marched, carving a line on the ridge that would please even the most veteran of skiers, for I was truly covering ground few others had done this season. Overgrown but still easily discernible, the trail dropped steeply to the valley before shooting up to the summit of Mt. Eboshi. From here, it was a gentle series of rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Mt. Bandai provided steady companionship to my immediate left as the target peak of Nishi-Azuma crept closer and closer. All thoughts of breaking the hike in half  at the hut below Higashi-daiten were abandoned. I was making good time through heavenly scenery on a pleasant day. Besides, I still had a few hours of daylight on my side.

The clouds began to roll in just as I started to reach the overdeveloped west. Fitting weather I must add, since it kept me from peering down into the neighboring ski resort and the eyesore of a gondola. As expected, the crowds increased 10-fold, but luckily they were all heading in the opposite direction off the peak. I replenished my bodily fluids at the water source just before the final climb, making sure to fill up an extra couple of liters to make my evening stay at the hut a little more comfortable. The path dove into the forest just before reaching the summit of Nishi-Azuma. I can’t believe that scores of hikers bypass such jaw-dropping scenery to the east in favor of this! A small lonely statue sitting next to an old wooden signpost reading “the highest point in the Azuma mountain range”. Sometimes height just doesn’t matter.

Up and over the peak I scurried, finding an immaculately clean and deserted emergency hut awaiting me on the other side. I settled in, cooking a modest meal on the wooden walkways in front of the hut. Sunset was literally lost in the clouds, but I prayed for better luck the following morning. Sure enough, my prayers were answered.

The tree-covered plateau in which the hut rests did not offer much of a view, so I left my pack in my sleeping area and rose to the perch of Nishi-daiten, where Mt. Bandai’s jagged edifice darted abruptly out of the surrounding cloud cover. Funny, I thought, in my quest to conquer Azuma I managed to climb all 3 of the daiten peaks at the same time. Happy accidents are always a good thing.

After a long digression, I came to the realization that I must return to Kansai at a decent hour to prepare for work the following day, so back to the hut I went to retrieve my gear.  A swift descent through a dense forest with lots of triangular trail markers several meters above the path. Apparently I was following the winter climbing path down a rarely-used and rather slippery trail. I somehow managed to avoid any lasting injuries despite ending up on my rear end nearly half a dozen times. Mental note to pay more attention to my footwork and not on trying to identify the tree types. Safely out of the mountains, I waited for the bus while admiring the collection of rustic inns several hundred years old. Wish I had more time to explore this area untouched by time. Perhaps after I get all of these peaks behind me.

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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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Mt. Asahi lies in a virtual no-man’s-land of rugged, inaccessible terrain roughly 35km southwest of my present position. After a modest meal and a quick break-down of camp, I crawled my way back out to the rural asphalt, hitching a ride to the shores of Lake Gassan. I walked a short distance over the immense concrete bridge to the beginning of route 27 and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Two cars had passed within the last 45 minutes, and the prospects were dim. Just when I’d convinced myself that a 20km stroll on abandoned byway were in order, a car screeched to a halt.

“Hop in”, the driver said, wondering what a blue-eyed, big-haired westerner with an even bigger backpack were doing out here. “Climbing Mt. Asahi”, I replied, full of hope for a ride to my destination. “You’ll never find a ride all the way there.” And he was right. Most hikers has started their ascent well before sunrise, and here it was nearing lunch time. The kind gentleman let me off at Ooisawa Hot Spring, where I stood patiently by the deserted highway, pondering life. 10 minutes later, the same man returned in his car and gave me a lift to the trailhead at Koderakousen. Once again I was saved.

The air hung heavy with humidity as I looked for any excuse to put off the impending ascent. As I emptied my bladder in front of a stack of rotting firewood, I spotted a small, v-shaped tongue prodding the space just in front of my left cheek bone. A snake was making its way slowly out of its hiding place to size me up for lunch. I needed no further persuasion: I loaded up the gear and hit the hills running!

My pack seemed much heavier than ever before, and I soon found the reason for the burden. Most of the major peaks over the last week or so were done with a lightweight day pack, but since I was traversing up and over Mt. Asahi, I needed to bring my gear. All of it. My pace slowed to a crawl, the only time in my journey where I was progressing slower than the alloted map times. Still, I had a lot of daylight left and knew I’d be camping on the saddle just below the summit. Just past the small clearing at the top of Mt. Kodera I reached a junction. I could either skirt the northern flank of Mt. Ko-asahi or head straight up and over the towering top. I’m a huge fan of viewing open expanses of nature, so I went for the tougher assault on Asahi’s smaller twin. Step by step I advanced, like a soldier on a death march. By the time I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat, with a large army of insects circling my heated cranium. It was here that I met my first hikers of the day, who’d come from the more popular approach via Asahi-kousen. We chatted at length about the Hyakumeizan while watching the clouds envelop the summit plateau directly ahead.

The path from the peak dropped suddenly down to a saddle, where it met up with the main trail. I grabbed everything in my path to prevent a journey-ending tumble down the steep terrain. Unscathed, I pushed onward, into the cool wind and mist. Intricate patches of wildflowers blanketed the grasslands, as the trail cut a large, unsightly swath of erosion on the backbone of the ridge. If it weren’t for the ropes keeping the hikers at bay there would be nothing left of the flora. With my energy zapped and my motivation waning, I peered out into the labyrinth of fog on my right and saw what appeared to be an angel. I rubbed my eyes and raised my lens, just as the mysterious apparition dissolved. “Probably just a Brocken spectre”, I muttered, too exhausted to dismiss it as anything else. I finally rolled into camp, where a clean, warm emergency hut was awaiting. I threw down my gear and surveyed the exposed and overcrowded campsite before heading inside to check-in!

The caretaker was easily twice my age and 3 times more energetic, giving me a quick rundown of the rules before shooing me upstairs to stake out a space for my sleeping mat. Somehow I always seem to end up at the top of the stair landing, but it sure beats having to crawl over several dozen bodies when nature calls. I grabbed my cooking gear and headed outside to prepare an early meal, when a young, tall figure greeted me in the landing. His name was Yuuki, a jovial landscape gardener from Saitama, who informed me that he came all the way from the trailhead of Mt. Itou in one day. “Very, very long”, he confessed. I quickly scanned the map, realizing the long-legged, 24 year old mountaineer had covered a distance of nearly 30km. We immediately hit it off.

Yuuki and I spent the rest of the afternoon filtering water and talking about life in the mountains. He’d once spent a summer working at Tengu-daira hut in the Japan Alps, where, due to the fickle weather of the peaks above Hakuba, he had managed to see the sunset only one time the entire season. Yuuki’s command of English was surprisingly inept: he’d obviously paid attention in his high school English classes, and he spoke with a fearless abandon that you hardly ever come across in a society filled with grammar-obsessive introverts. We raced up to the summit to watch the sunset, hoping for a slight break in the clouds. We never got more than a glimpse of the hovering ball of fire, but it sure was a nice break from the chaos of the hut below. “We’ll have to try again in the morning,” Yuki resigned, as we both hoped that sunrise peak would live up to its reputation.

3:30 am. In the predawn darkness, my new companion and I pack our gear away and trudge up the final 50 meters to the exposed knob of Mt. Asahi’s broad summit. The orange glow of the eastern horizon grows brighter as we survey our surroundings. The sea of clouds is endless as far as the eye can see, and we both knew it would be an epic moment. We waited patiently, devouring rations and dancing around to stave off the frost. As the sun made it’s way to the front of the stage, Yuuki and I looked around and realized that absolutely no one had followed us to watch the spectacle, opting for the warm confines near the hut. We couldn’t have had it any better.

My camera problems, which had plagued me most of my trip, had mysteriously resolved themselves, as nearly every photo I snapped on the rolls of film came through undamaged. To describe the light show in front of us would only do it unjustice, and I can truly say that Mt. Asahi went above and beyond the call of duty. This was the ephemeral moment in my Tohoku quest, and possibly the single defining moment in my entire Hyakumeizan saga. And here I was sharing it with one of the friendliest, funniest Japanese person I’d ever met. I raised my arms in triumph.

Scores of hikers swarmed the summit shortly after the celestial discus rose above Mt. Zao’s stately figure, so we made out abupt exit on the path towards Asahi-kosen. I was surprised and relieved to find that my new hiking partner was living up to his reputation as a hardcore outdoorsman, as he matched me step for step on the rapid descent. After dropping down into the tree line again, we stopped at a small clearing to rehydrate. While we were replenishing lost fluids, a loud, cracking sound erupted from the overgrowth directly beside us. A large, unknown creature was heading quickly drawing near. Before we could utter cries of dispair, an elderly gentleman appeared from the clearing. The sigh both of us let out surely echoed in the valley below.

After 90 minutes of trotting at breakneck speed, we reached a large river and swing bridge. The trail followed the secluded confines of the rapids as we adjusted to our new, significantly flattened terrain. We knew this area was the stomping ground for kamoshika, the elusive mountain serow that lives in the mountainous areas of Honshu. The harder you look for the creatures the more difficult they are to find, and we came up empty-handed. Still, the scenery couldn’t have been nicer. Shortly after 9am, we arrived as Asahi-kosen, a rustic mountain hut complete with its own hot spring bath. We chatted with the kind couple who ran the place, as they prepared the bath for us. Yuuki and I feasted on the most delicious bowl of buckwheat noodles I’ve ever had in Japan. All of the generous amounts of vegetables were picked in the surrounding area, including an eclectic mix of wild mushrooms I’d never seen before. We spent most of the morning at the hut, trying to figure out how in the world to get back to civilization. The hut owner informed us it would be about a 20km walk on the gravel road before we approached any sort of sizable road where traffic might be found. Hmmm….

During our relaxing soak, we heard the voices of other hikers who’d made their way off the peak. Perhaps we had a chance of getting a ride after all. After careful negotiations, we managed to share a taxi with an elderly couple who’d recognized us in the hut the previous night. We were all whisked off to Aterazawa station, where a train to Yamagata awaited. The couple refused our offers of money to help pay for the taxi. I asked Yuuki about his plans for the rest of the vacation. “I’m free”, he replied, which gave me a chance to offer a proposition. You see, even though I’d planned to finish my Tohoku adventure at Mt. Asahi, I still felt I had another mountain in me. “You wanna climb Mt. Zao tonight?”, I asked. Yuuki’s face lit up before he even had a chance to answer, and I knew it was on. We studied the maps on the train, figuring out the logistics of our awaiting challenge. Stay tuned as the never-ending adventure continues.

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After a leisurely day of restocking supplies and cleaning linens, I left the sleepy town of Tsuruoka and boarded a bus to the rustic shrine of Mt. Haguro, one of the 3 sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan. The bus dropped me off in a massive parking lot, announcing a brief 15-minute break before heading off to the trailhead at Gassan 8gome. I briskly walked towards Haguro shrine, regretting for not opting to stay in one of the many tranquil shukubo at the base of the peak.

Haguro represents birth, and I definitely felt a strange sense of awakening in the early morning light. Gazing at the thick mass of thatch holding up the main hall (the thickest thatched roof in Japan, so I’m told), I tried to imagine what life must’ve been like for the yamabushi several centuries before. My reverie was short-lived, however, as the announcement for the departing bus drove me back into reality: I had a mountain to climb.

Arriving at the Gassan trailhead, I geared up and quickly made my way through the splendid marshlands. Even though I was carrying a full pack, the previous week of scaling peaks primed my muscles for the task at hand. I maneuvered through the tepid grasslands like a fox scuttling towards its den. 600 vertical meters was powered through in less time than sitting through a major motion picture. Victory was mine!

Unfortunately, thick clouds filed in from the north, blotting out the view in all directions. While scores or tourists were taking refuge in the nearby hut, I walked quietly alone towards the bleak collection of structures housing the summit shrine. I paid my respects to the gods, hoping for a safe passage for the remaining peaks. With absolutely nowhere to peacefully rest, I exited the shrine and climbed the rocks immediately behind, where I found the true summit marker of the high point. The majority of Hyakumeizan baggers go no further than the shrine itself, but I preferred the solitude of my current position.

Once leaving the top, I continued onto the saddle affectionately labeled 牛首 (the cow’s collar). Summer skiers skidded awkwardly down the last remaining patches of snow. Instead of following their lead, I pushed along the ridge further south, dropping out of the clouds altogether before reaching the emergency hut at the base of Mt. Yudono. I studied the map, thought for a good quarter of an hour, and used the ‘might as well since you’re so close’ reasoning to justify my sidetrip to Yudono shrine. That way I could truly tell myself that I completed the Dewa-sanzan. The kicker was that I had to descend and return to my present position in order to traverse further south to Route 112 (my best chance of hitching a ride to Mt. Asahi, my destination the following day).

The path dropped rather steeply down a ravine towards the shrine. Chains and small wooden ladders made navigation easier but I was starting to regret my decision due to the sudden loss of several hundred feet of altitude. Still, the detour was interesting to say the least. The deity is housed inside of a geyser gushing hot spring water through the center of the shrine. There was also a foot bath for visitors to soak their wary feet and I did just that. After a 10-minute refresher, I glanced towards my immediate right and spied a small snake slithering its way toward the murky waters. I recognize a sign when I see one and instantly started the climb back towards the hut.

Exhausted, I glanced at my watch. 2:30pm. Deciding it was far too early to call it a day, I dropped down a track following a small stream. The map showed this route eventually meeting up with route 112 in about 90 minutes. Of course about 10 minutes into my decent the skies opened up and poured for, remarkably, the first time in my entire trip. Why do I always stow rain gear at the very bottom of my pack!?! To make matters worse, the path became treacherously slippery due to the abundance of wooden bridges crossing countless ravines. It was during one such crossing that I lost my footing, bounced off the back of my pack, flipped completely over the side of the ravine, and landed feet first in knee deep water. How I landed on my feet I will never know but I’d like to think it had something to do with my trio of shine visits. The bridge was about a meter above the stream and I could’ve done serious damage if I’d landed on anything other than my feet.

Stunned, but otherwise unharmed, I pushed on towards my destination. 5 meters later I stumbled upon a rather large and frightened fox who almost had me jumping in the river again. Deciding I’d had enough punishment for one day, mother nature released her grip on my testicles and allowed the rain to let up. Arriving at the road, I pored over the map once again. A 5-minute detour to my left lead to a campground surrounding a small lake. Another mile down the road lie a hot spring, followed by another, larger campground beyond that. My plan was to have a bath and then continue onto the lower camp which would put in a better position to hitch in the morning. The bath water never felt so refreshing and I garnered up the courage and strength to hit the road again. Arriving at the campground, my heart sank when the bad news was broken to me: “It’ll cost 3000 yen to camp here,” buffed the superintendent. I explained my situation and the fact that I’d just walked over 20km. “There’s another campground further up that only costs 500 yen.” The warden was pointing to the exact campsite I’d bypassed to come here! The look of horror on my face must’ve gotten to him. “Don’t worry, one of the staff will give you a ride,” smiled the boss.

With potential disaster averted, I could now focus my attention on geting some rest. Just as I was sitting up camp, the sun came out, glistening the hills of Gassan directly above me. I dozed off shortly after sunset, dreaming about the last major mountain in my Tohoku journey: sunrise peak!

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I set up camp in the park across from the sandy beach in Kisakata, immersing myself in the warm waters of the sea a short time later. My legs were still reeling from the marathon slog up Hayachine just a few hours prior, and I needed to recharge my muscular batteries if I had any chance of scaling the highest mountain in Tohoku the following morning. An early night was in order.

The first bus to Hokodate was nearly empty, but seemed to wind its way through every back street before finally meandering through the hairpin turns of the Chokai Blue Line. The modest parking lot housed a large restaurant, a visitors center, and Hokodate Sansou, my home for the night. I dropped off my heavy pack in the lobby, put my name down in the guest registry, and headed up towards the towering volcano with the most minimal of gear. The cloud hung tightly to the steep walls of Naso gorge as I immediately hit a large patch of snow. Little did I know that I’d spend the next 3 hours trudging through the remnants of the fierce Tohoku winters. Up until that point in my journey I’d yet to come across more than just a pint-sized patch of powder, but Chokai’s sheer size dominates the horizon for hundreds of kilometers and, as such, acts as a magnet for condensation throughout the year.

I popped out of the slush just below Ohama hut, where I took my first break to admire the beauty and tranquility of the serene crater lake. I could’ve easily spent the rest of the day sitting on the shores, watching the snow fields slowly deposit their wintry runoff into the frigid waters. But alas, I had a peak to climb, and the summit rose majestically directly ahead, completely free of cloud cover. A short time later I came across a trail junction. If I went right then I could stay on the ridge all the way to the top of Mt. Shichikou, one of the twin summits of Chokai’s rocky flank. If I opted for the left fork, then I could climb directly up to the high point of Shin-san. I was immediately drawn to one of the most picturesque cols in all of Tohoku, and the left trail dropped directly into the line of fire, knowing I could later descend via the ridge.

There’s nothing more I enjoy then marching through a river of snow in the middle of summer: the cool air lifting magically off the frozen surface, the contrast of the lush greenery all around. Chokai was quickly becoming my favorite peak in northwestern Japan and I was only starting my day. Upwards and onwards I rose, leaving the refreshing confines of the col and crawling through an immense boulder field. The path got steeper with each advancing step, but eventually I found myself sitting on the doorstep of the monster of a hut just below the final push to the summit. “We’ve got no water. You’ll have to buy it,” scowled the stern seasonal employee, pointing to a large cooler of ridiculously over-priced beverages. I knew he was lying, but there was no point in arguing. Shell out the 6000 yen to stay the night and I’m sure he’d lead me straight to the taps. I was not about to pay 500 yen for a 500ml bottle of water he’d probably filled at the hut, so I politely refused and continued the climb.

And boy, what a climb it was. An exhilarating natural jungle gym of gargantuan slabs of rock. Follow the paint marks and try not to fall into the gaps between the boulders. I finally reached the high point, which barely had space for 2 people. This was by far the narrowest summit of all of the Hyakumeizan, and here I was completely surrounded by a strange halo of cumulus clouds. Never in my life had I encountered such meteorological magic. The sun was shining directly above, but all around clouds were floating directly at eye level. Viewed from afar, one would assume that Chokai’s rocky flank were completely immersed in mist, but this was not the case. Dropping to the saddle between the twins, I broke out the water filter and started pumping fresh snow melt into my bottles. The sky never looked bluer.

After refueling, I climbed, rather steeply, to the top of Mt. Shichikou, Shin-san’s less popular twin and sat for the better part of an hour. And why not? I had finally deserved to slow the pace down. It was my 6th mountain in only 5 days and it deserved my attention! The next hour was perhaps the most pleasant ridge walk I’ve done in Japan. I was completing the loop back to the lake where I started my morning and the unique flora were putting on a performance. Sprawling fields of Kisuge lilies dotted the landscape, while pockets of indigenous Chokai thistle and Chokai fusuma flowers basked in the afternoon warmth.

Once back at the junction, I retraced my steps towards Ohama hut, turning left on a faint spur trail that wrapped its way around the scenic lake and through some rotting snow fields. Again, I filled up the bottles and leisurely reworked my way back to the trailhead and waited. Waited for what, you might ask? Well, for the sinking sun to turn Shin-san into a fiery inferno.

Further west, the cloud cover over the sea of Japan transformed the horizon into an artistic landscape. Tohoku couldn’t get much better than this.

I slept like a log that night, knowing that the approaching low pressure system would finally give me an excuse to take a much needed day off. The following morning I could simply head to the castle town of Tsuruoka and spend the day planning for the three sacred peaks of Dewa-sanzan.

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Route 341 is a long, curve laden thoroughfare that would take me to the turnoff for the appropriately named ‘Hachimantai Aspite Line’, the main access route for my target peak of the day. As with the majority of the Hyakumeizan, my biggest challenge would lie in how to get there. The plan was to hitch along the busy road after taking the train to a station that offered a good chance of finding a ride: an easy task when you’re armed with Google maps, but an absolute crap shoot when referencing the area on the back of a ‘Yama to Kougen’ map at a scale of 1:350,000.

I lost the dice roll on this one, as I foolishly decided that the station after ‘Hachimantai’ would get me even closer to my desired destination. The train, much to my horror, turned away from route 341 and headed further inland. I jumped off at Yuze Hot Spring and immediately started backtracking along the deserted road. Future hitchhikers should note that Rikuchuusato station does, in fact, offer the best place to catch a ride. Lesson learned. After a 30-minute stroll, I managed to find the road of my choice and stuck out my thumb. “Toroku Onsen”, I answered, when the first car stopped to ask me my destination. The kind elderly couple took me to the start of the Aspite road, where I happened to check the bus schedule. “Wow, only 2 minutes until the next one,” I exclaimed, deciding to abandon my final hitch in favor of a guaranteed ride to the peak.

A gigantic parking lot and rest house were patiently awaiting as I exited the empty bus. I silently ate my lunch and prepared myself for the 10-minute death march to the summit, for Hachimantai has been completely robbed of its dignity through a series of intertwining concrete paths. While the paths do meander through a couple of scenic alpine lakes, the masses of crowds mar the beauty of an area once teeming with tranquil ponds. Still, I pushed on to the high point, taking a quick photo before descending to a large lake below. Instead of heading straight back to the massive parking lot, I thought Hachimantai deserved at least a few hours of my time, and I was duly rewarded for my investment.

The trail between Ryoun hut and Mt. Chausu was completely deserted and utterly breathtaking in its beauty. Pristine marshlands, migratory birds, and fantastic weather kept my spirits uplifted on the easy stroll. Just below the summit of Mt. Chausu I caught my first glimpse of the towering cone of Mt. Iwate. If all went according to plan I’d be sitting on the crater rim in the morning. I reached the summit, spending close to an hour in complete silence observing the spectacle all around. It was nice to know that, despite the encroachment of man-made obstacles, there were still areas spared the wrath of public works spending.

I meandered down to the Aspite line, waiting in vain for one hour until someone finally picked me up and took me to Hachimantai hot spring. The campground was closed and completely deserted, so I used this as an excuse to camp in an exquisite public park with unobstructed views of Iwate’s massive crater. The stage was set for the 4th peak on my unprecedented journey and the first of the tough mountains.

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As the shinkansen whisked its way towards Koriyama station, I pored over the maps and reflected on the mayhem of Nikko. Why couldn’t I just accept the fact that I’d knocked off 2 gargantuan peaks over the last 2 days, and head back to Osaka in peace? Logic and determination aren’t the best of friends when a man is on a climbing mission.

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The last train rolled into Inawashiro station shortly before midnight, and I quickly scouted out a dark and quiet area just north of the station to roll out the sleeping bag. I was tempting fate by not putting up the tent, but fortunately the weather deities continued to be kind to me. I awoke before dawn with an unobstructed view of my target peak. I pulled out my camera to capture the scenery, realizing to my grave horror that I had only 4 exposures left and no extra film. 1 photo would have to be saved for the summit sign, so that left just 3 photos for an amazing mountain with foliage at its peak on a clear, cloudless day.

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I meandered through deserted streets until finding the path at the bottom of one of the ski lifts and started the steep climb. I’d like to have a talk with the cruel soul who decided to lay a trail up the black-diamond run without a single switchback, but I guess it saved a bit of mileage in the end. Gaining elevation quicker than Boeing 757, I reached the summit of Mt. Akahani around 7:30am, where the towering figure of Bandai’s volcanic summit came clearly into view. Click. 2 more left on the roll and lots of incredible scenery ahead.

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The path descended into a vast area of marshlands, with pockets of active thermal vents hidden in the dense undergrowth. This col is actually the remains of an ancient caldera, and the high point of Mt. Bandai is just one of several peaks towering on its rim. Warning signs had me sticking snugly to the trail, as had tales of less fortunate victims succumbing to the deadly gases. Click went the shutter at the low point of the flatlands, as I stowed the camera deep into my pack, lest I should give in to a sudden impulse. “The last of the film will be used on the summit”, I declared.

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Once out of the col, the course turned south, following the flank of the main ridge to the summit. Paint marks on the rocks were a reminder of the foul weather found throughout most of the year, but on this particular day you could clearly see where you were going. A short while later I reached a large trail junction connecting the peak with the more popular route from the north. A small hut selling refreshments sat in the pint-sized clearing, but alas they weren’t stocking film. The crowds also increased somewhat on the final push to the high point. Lake Inawashiro, my starting point earlier in the day, sat calmly below, while Mt. Azuma and Mt. Iide, ny only 2 unclimbed peaks in Tohoku, watching on with eager eyes. Snap, snap. The sad sound of my camera rewinding the depleted roll. Despite having taken the least number of shots out of any of the 100 mountains (except perhaps for Mt. Ishizuchi, where I couldn’t even take my camera out in the torrential downpour), I still have a strong memory etched into my brain, for I can close my eyes and retrace the exact route, 3 years after the fact. The power of a long but unforgettable weekend.

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Tohoku – Preface

Rewind to the summer of 2006. My first foray into the northernmost region of the main island and I was on a mission. Knock off as many of the Hyakumeizan as possible in a 10-day period without a car. Here is how the trip went:

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Day 1 – Ferry to Aomori, bus to Sukayu hot spring. Climbed Mt. Hakkoda and soaked in the baths. Hitched over to Mt. Iwaki and stayed on the summit.

Day 2 – bus to Hirosaki, train to Rikuchusato, hitched to Hachimantai, strolled through the marshlands, hitched to Hachimantai hot spring and camped.

Day 3 – Climbed Mt. Iwate via the Nanatsu-taki trail, bus to Morioka and stayed in a cheap minshuku.

Day 4 – bus to Hiratsuto, climbed Mt. Hayachine via a long, seldom used route on the northern face, bus back to Morioka, shinkansen to Akita, local train to Kisakata, camped on the beach.

Day 5 – Bus to Hokodate, climbed Mt. Chokai, stayed at Hokodate hut.

Day 6 – bus to Tsuruoka, stayed at a cheap minshuku (my first day off!)

Day 7 – bus to Gassan 8-chome (via Mt. Haguro), climbed Mt. Gassan, descended to Yudono shrine, climbed back up to the ridge and down to Gassan ski resort and camped there.

Day 8 – hitched from Gassan to Kotera-kosen, climbed Mt. Asahi and stayed at emergency hut below the summit.

Day 9 – climbed Mt. Asahi, watched the sunrise, descended to Asahi-kosen, ate the most delicious bowl of soba in my life, took a well-needed bath, shared a taxi to Aterazawa, train to Yamagata, bus to Zao Onsen, hitched to Katta-toge, stayed in the emergency hut.

Day 10 – climbed Mt. Kumano, descended to Zao hot spring, soaked in the “dai-rotenburo”, bus to Yamagata, stayed in a cheap minshuku and collapsed from exhaustion.

Day 11 – bus to Niigata, ferry to Sado Island, enjoyed the Earth Celebration before heading back to Osaka.

I’ll write about each of these days as separate chapters in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more…

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