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In the southern part of the Izu island chain, approximately 300km from Tokyo, lies the idyllic island of Hachijō. Formed by tectonic uplift and volcanic activity, the gourd-shaped isle is home to excellent hiking and breathtaking hot springs, if the tourist literature is to be trusted. An in-depth investigation was necessary to determine the validity of such claims.

I set off from Takeshiba port on the Tachibana Maru, a high-speed, energy-efficient vessel that bears a striking resemblance to a Norwegian passenger liner. The color scheme, designed by renowned illustrator Ryohei Yanagihara, is apparently a tribute to the original Tachibana Maru ship that sailed these very waters in the Taisho era. The ship bobbed up and down in the turbulent sea like a rubber duckie in a hot tub, but the ferry eventually reached Sokodo port an hour behind schedule under strong gusts and menacing skies. After dropping off the kit at the nearby hostel, I set off on bicycle to explore the island. Thick cloud smothered the upper heights of Hachijo-fuji, so I simply needed to wait until a fair-weather window presented itself.

The guy manning the tourist-information counter recommended an electric bicycle and for good reason – the island is anything but flat and getting to the secluded hot springs on the southern tip of the island was an immense challenge without some kind of mechanical support. The ride was smooth enough, and after an hour of steady pedaling I reached the main cluster of hot spring baths at Nakanogō. My eyes were immediately drawn to a signpost pointing to Urami waterfall. I parked the bike and hit the trail into the jungle, following the narrow path as it crept deeper and deeper into the thick, vine-laced interior of the island. After twenty minutes of steady climbing the falls came into view. The water fell from a rock face about 10 meters above the jungle floor into a small pool stained brown with runoff from the higher reaches of the rain-sopped massif of Mt. Mihara. The path went directly behind the waterfall. I stood there some time admiring the spectacle of the wind sculpting the water into a twisted palette reminiscent of a typhoon-fueled rain squall. The hike was just the appetizer, however, and the main course awaited back at the parking lot.

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A small narrow path just opposite the entrance to the falls led down to a small open shelter housing an exquisite open-air bath. Ever the bastion of modesty, the Tokyo-controlled island requires all visitors to wear a bathing suit into the mixed-bathing facility. Ill-prepared as I was, I bowed my head at a small shrine, asking for permission to use my boxer shorts in lieu of a proper suit and slowly eased into the steaming waters.

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The first hot spring had lived up to its reputation, but how about the mountains? The next morning provided the answer. I awoke to clear skies and bright sun. Although the trailhead starts at the 8th stage point high on the flanks of the conical volcano, the only true way to appreciate the scale and immensity of the Fuji lookalike was to start from the beach, kitty-corner the hostel. I strapped on the day pack shortly after 9am and hit the trail, er I mean pavement of the main road leading inshore. The road from the ferry terminal led directly to the trailhead – all I needed to do was to follow the switchbacks and resist the urge to stick out my thumb. In search of lunch, I ducked my head into the first shōten I came across, shelling out 250 yen for a two-liter bottle of water. The convenience store, if you could call it that, only sold dried food, but the elderly woman behind the counter informed me of a larger supermarket just up the hill that sold onigiri. I marched up the road, eyeing the lines of the volcano as they converged towards the skyline that was starting to thicken with cloud. I picked up some yakisoba and a couple of rice balls at the store, wincing at the 88 yen signs affixed to the two-liter water bottles next to the checkout counter.

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The road up to the trailhead meandered through the forests choked with tropical vegetation as steady streams of rental cars glided past. All I needed to do was stick out my thumb and any one of them would have come to my aid, but I was set on doing the entire mountain, road and all. It took about an hour to reach the start of the trail which, I found to my horror and disgust, was also made of concrete. The original trail consists of over 1200 steps made out of volcanic pumice, but a newer concrete channel snakes alongside the route, as if to beckon lazy hikers onto its slithering back. Is this what the suits in the government offices of Tokyo do with their extra budget money?

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I pushed on in utter disappointment, but the state of the trail was the least of my concerns. A thick blanket of fog had engulfed the mountain, blotting out the views and my motivation to continue further on. I had reached the crater rim and was less than 50 vertical meters from the summit, but sat stooped on the volcanic pebbles cursing my ill-fated timing. If only I had hitched a ride earlier in the climb. The yakisoba helped lift the spirits as did the row of hikers dotted about the crater rim, drifting in an out of the cloud vapor. I pushed on, opting to head in a clockwise direction in an effort to get the buddhists on my side.

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I reached the summit a short time later and raised the hands in triumph: it’s not everyday you can spend the morning on the beach and enjoy lunch on the top of an 850-meter high volcano. The crater rim was beautifully sculpted, both by the eruptions throughout the centuries and by the strong storms that often batter the summit highlands. The path consisted of ankle-deep mud in places and waist-deep bush in others. Every now and again the mist would start to break up only to be replaced by another layer of cloud. I reached a small clearing which apparently offers wonderful vistas, and a voice deep inside of me ushered me to pause. I surveyed the crater rim and spotted a group of four hikers heading counter-clockwise in the direction of my vicinity. As they crept closer, their fuzzy silhouettes came into focus. At the same time, a small pointy island floating offshore also came into view. By the time the quartet had arrived the cloud veil had miraculously lifted.

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I peered down into the crater, the sheer drops forcing me to take a few steps back. It was frightening to think about how close I may have come to sinking into that void with such poor visibility earlier. There was a sheer drop of around a hundred vertical meters into what I now recognized as a double-crater. Hachijō-fuji had graced me with her awesome presence and I was star-struck and enamored with her searing beauty. When I completed the circumnavigation of the volcano the sun had made a much-welcome appearance, transforming the ash gray waters of the Pacific into an aquamarine paradise. A pair of hikers sipped on hot coffee at the junction back to the trailhead. I chatted with them a while before ducking down a path that led directly into the crater floor. A shrine was set up in the center, lined with smooth rocks that looked like they were picked from a riverbed. Messages were inscribed on the stones in a variety of styles and colors, the meanings of which I could not perceive.

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I did eventually make my way back to the junction and down to the parking lot, where the latte-drinking couple from earlier were resting in the warm sunshine. They offered me a ride down to town and, in homage to Yuichiro Miura, I took them up on the offer and was soon back at the supermarket where I had purchased my provisions earlier in the day. I stumbled back to the port and collapsed in my bed, hatching up another insane climbing plan for the following morning.


		
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With the oppressive heat of summer now in retreat, I reconnected with my new-found friend Fumito for our first overnight outing together. As you may recall, the budding mountaineer saved me from the elements on Ontake, so it was time to repay the favor by showing my new kohai some of the hiking basics on Tokyo’s most popular alpine playground, Yatsu-ga-take.

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I boarded a late afternoon bullet train to Nagoya and jumped on the Shinano Limited Express train, which was starting to become my regular commute to Nagano’s air-deprived highlands. Fumito met me at Shiojiri station, and after a relaxing meal, he smuggled me back to his company dormitory so I could stealthily crash the floor of his room. We had set a departure time of 5am, which offered us the best chance of avoiding his managers and potential punishment for letting a regular folk into the private housing unit.

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Fumito and I coasted down the Chuo expressway, stopping for a quick rest at Lake Suwa before navigating the vehicle to the gargantuan parking lot that marked the trailhead entrance at Minoto. I’ve seen my share of large parking lots before, but this one looked as if it was surgically transplanted directly from the Carrier Dome. Scores of hikes stood in circles, methodically stretching their muscles in synchronized unison. Do these mountaineering groups choreograph these warm-up stretches at their monthly meetings? Is Gregory Peck somehow inolved? There was a 1-hour walk on a paved road just to reach the start of the trail. Wouldn’t this suffice as a warm-up? We sure thought so, trodding up the gravel path through the shaded forest towards Akadake hut. Despite the name, the hut is nowhere near the summit of Yatsu’s highest peak, but perhaps this was the first hut built in the area, so it could choose whatever name it wanted? The hut names seem to suggest this unspoken pecking order, with the hut directly below the summit of Akadake aptly named “Mt. Aka Summit Hut”. How does that account for the hut at the end of the valley, Gyoja-hut, whose name translates as “pilgrim”. Did the shugendo practitioners of yesteryear use this as their base? A lot of questions needed to be answered, so we wasted no time in continuing our investigate traverse.

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It took a couple of hours on a long gentle path to finally reach this pilgrim hut, which was surrounded by more people than I’d seen on any mountain sans Tateyama and Mt. Fuji. Scores of walkers milled about, polishing off their early lunch in the brilliant sunshine. Fumito and I settled on a bare patch of dirt, since all the picnic tables were occupied by chain-smoking fogies, families kitted in matching gear, and other random groups of outdoorsy types. Despite scaling over 30 of the 100 peaks, children were a first for me. Sure, I ran across a few in Tateyama, but those groups took the bus there. These elementary-aged kids had to walk in with their parents! So is this where the Tokyoite families take their kids to enjoy nature? Are these guardians going to drag their kids up Akadake as well?

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I popped in the hut to inquire a little about the history. “Yes, there have been Esoteric Buddhists here since the Kamakura era”, noted the hut manager, a soft-spoken white-haired gentlemen who looked as if he’d seen his fair share of days above the tree line. “In fact, there used to  be a temple where we are standing.” The first mystery was solved. Now it was time to investigate the areas with thinner air and rockier profiles. After tucking our heavier camp gear behind the hut, Fumito and I hopped up the Jizo route to the start of the alpine ridge. Once we hit the spine, we turned right, following the paint marks and increasing crowds towards the crest of the rise which marked Akadake’s summit. The going was slow but steady, with a bank of cloud on our left to help keep us company. A small, weather-beaten shrine greeted us on the plateau, along with a smaller hut which would not have looked out of place on Mt. Fuji herself. The vantage point from the top is immense, or so I’m told. The cloud cluster swarmed us as soon as we topped out, cutting off the views towards Japan’s highest peak to the east.

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Down the other side of Aka we skated, grappling the chains as if repelling into an unexplored abyss, which in our case was a thick blanket of grey condensation. Shortly above Naka-dake we broke out of the cloud line, overtaking a father-and-son team whose abseiling techniques baffled the mind and could probably be considered a form of abuse in most industrialized nations. The middle-aged father took the lead, escorting his 5-year old son along the knife edge ridge on a makeshift lead. The rope nestled the child’s waist as the man grew more and more impatient with the toddler’s ever-slowing progress. What did this failure of a father figure expect? His son to be jumping from boulder to boulder as if at the local neighborhood playground? I encouraged the young one as best I could while glaring at the irresponsible guardian. If I were the father I would have picked up my child and carried him the rest of the way off the peak, but perhaps this was one of those “toughen up” lessons for the kid. I’m pretty sure this boy will grow up with a nightmarish hatred of the outdoors in the future.

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After hitting the col below Nakadake, Fumito and I raced up to the summit of Mt. Amida, our second peak of the Yatsu range. The cloud once again hung thick to the bald summit, as I said a silent prayer for the climbing party that had perished on the summit the previous winter. Yatsu is well-known for its winter climbing opportunities but they don’t come without a price. Every year a handful of hikers leave Tokyo for a weekend jaunt only to return home in a 90 by 230 non-porous sack.

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Once back at Gyoja-hut, we retrieved our bulky kit and awkwardly stumbled to Akadake-kosen, our sleeping ground for the evening. Just after setting up camp, the hot spring baths of the spacious hut were joyfully explored. What relief to aching feet do such luxuries provide. I was now beginning to see why half of Tokyo come out here on the weekends. Dinner was cooked under the gently fading light as Fumito and I got to know a little more about each other. He was born and raised in Kagawa Prefecture, moving to Nagano a couple of years ago to work for Chubu Electric Co. Ontake, where we had met just a few months prior, was his very first hike. Unlike other inexperienced hikers, who opt to join costly outdoor clubs or team up with experienced mountaineers, the 24-year old male took the initiative and headed to the hills alone. That takes a lot of guts in a society that prides itself on group thinking. I could feel our friendship growing closer, especially when taking out a half-frozen chicken breast from his well-wrapped food supply !

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That evening, I popped out of the tent at irregular intervals. The air, calm as a sleeping child, lay still while the stars put on a brilliant celestial show. The outline of the higher peaks above drew a black line across the sky, the lights of Kanto beyond. Lights flickered from neighboring tents, complementing the chitter-chatter of late-to-bed campers keeping beat with the camouflaged crickets of summer. The attraction of this tranquil valley continued to stick like an invisible magnet: this was yet another reason why the people of Kanto come in droves. Access and convenience is one thing, but beauty and serenity eclipse all else.

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Shortly after 3am, Fumito’s alarm sounded. Breakfast consisted of a few morsels stuffed in our day packs: we had a sunrise date with Iodake, and wasted no time in our ascent. Headlamps donned, we dashed through the forest like a lost fawn in search of its mother. Shortly after leaving the hut, we spied the red tape marks on the right side of the trail, following them until they reached the base of a monster rock formation. Skirting along the right edge, a large gully presented itself and beckoned us in. Through the maze of boulders a route became apparent, though it certainly was not the main path to our destination. We had ventured off trail, but decided to go with the flow anyway. A series of near vertical cliffs awaited. This would be tricky without ropes, but the glow on the horizon provided enough of a light source to show the areas we should avoid. A climbing route this most certainly was: perhaps one of the famed ice climbing routes that attract the more dedicated ice axers. Spotting a gap in the rocks, I popped out just below the main ridge, startling a rather large kamoshika, who stood there and stared on like a caretaker discovering two fearless trespassers. It was my first encounter with the elusive Japanese mountain serow, a cross between an antelope and mountain goat, though this one had the body of a wild boar. The creature moved on while I assisted my companion with the final 50 meters to the ridge. We had topped out at the base of a candle-like projection. To our right, behind a knee-high rope, lie the real hiking path. I later found out that our torch-shaped pinnacle was no other than the Shodoshin, seen in the right part of this photo. In the dark, we had somehow avoided the Daidoshin and found the only non-technical climbing route in the area. The mountain gods were truly watching over us.

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When we finally reached the ridge, Mt. Fuji was there to greet us on the other side, though I expected her to be much bigger. Yatsu is still a distance away from the cone when compared to the Minami Alps, and most good shots of Fuji from the Yatsu range are done with zoom lenses, which present an optical illusion. That, coupled with the smog of a rising day, ensured that everything but the tip of Fuji lay obscured in haze. Turning left, we shot up and over Yokodake, along the ridge, and down to the saddle and shrine just below Io. After reaching the summit of Io, we looped back around on the real trail back to our campsite. How we veered off this nearly two-meter wide trail I’ll never know, but I blame it on the altitude and sleep deprivation. Back at camp, we prepared a more substantial breakfast before breaking down camp and heading back to our awaiting car.

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On the drive back to Shiojiri, I suggested we stop by Utsukushi-ga-hara so I could knock another peak off the list. Fumito slept in the car while I jogged past the cows with nothing more than a pair of sandals. In spite of initially planning to summit only Akadake, we had managed to climb 4 of Yatsu’s 8 prominent peaks. Someday I hope to return to finish off the remaining four, if I can only figure out a time to go when the crowds are at their most manageable.

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A free weekend in late November and I find myself once again in the urban chaos of Tokyo. Every time I come here I vow never to return, yet somehow always end up rubbing elbows with the masses on the Yamanote line. My plan this time around is to climb a mountain, ANY mountain! I turn to my trusty companion Yuuki who I haven’t seen since that fateful day over 2 years ago when I finally knocked off the Hyakumeizan. We quickly narrow our choices down to 4 peaks: the scenic lake and conical perfection of Haruna-fuji, the impossibly twisted rock formations of Mt. Myogi,  a grand hike to Oodake at the foot of Okutama, or the overdeveloped mess of Mt. Takao. All 4 of these prestigious areas I had never had the opportunity to explore, but after a review of the logistics, we opted for the one with the easiest access.

We set off from Ebisu station at the crack of dawn, and the train was already packed with day-trippers heading to the hills. At Otsuki station the masses disembarked on their way to Lake Kawaguchi and Mitsutoge, while a healthy portion of budding outdoor types held on for the final push towards Takaosan station. Chung-chung: the doors of the mighty metal box swung open and disgorged hundreds upon hundreds of tourists, all headed for our intended destination! I’d been warned about the crowds beforehand but truly couldn’t believe my eyes. Yuuki and I jostled our way though the ticket gates, grabbed a free map, and escaped to the nearby toilets.

Nourishment was at the top of our list, but unfortunately the nearby soba shop was still closed, so we grabbed some rice balls from a street vendor and marched in unison with the other zombies towards the cable car entrance. “We should be alone on this path” I quipped, pointing to the red Inari Yama Course (稲荷山コース), a sturdy, 3.1km ridge walk meandering through pristine forest. Our summation was that 90% of the daytrippers would choose the paved course under the gondola. We were partially right in that only about 15% of the visitors chose the long route, but on this hectic autumn Sunday we’d forgotten to factor in the crowds. What’s 15% of 20,000 again? You get the picture.

Despite climbing nearly 200 peaks in Japan, this was the first time I’d actually come face to face with a bona fide tozan traffic jam. Although we didn’t keep official count, I’d venture to say we overtook close to 400 people on the easy climb to the summit. I know that sounds a bit far-fetched, but if we passed one person every 7 meters (which I’m absolutely sure we did since we were overtaking people the entire way) then it begins to sound a bit more believable, doesn’t it?

Even though the map said it’d take 90 minutes to the summit, we were sitting on the top in under 50 minutes, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather and our skillful maneuvering though the sea of humans. On the summit the path merged with 5 other routes to the top, where the visitors easily numbered in the thousands. Easily. Yuuki grabbed a beer while I staked out a place to sit down. Imagine sitting in the middle of Shibuya crossing and you can get some sort of idea what we were faced with. The toilet queue was even longer than it was at the station, as I gave up entirely and munched on my soggy rice balls. Luckily for us, Japanese people have some sort of mysterious affliction to the sun, as we sat on the very best location on the entire summit, soaking up the rays. Yama girls in all directions slowly emerged, pristine with delicately layered swaths of make-up and only the finest and most fashionable outdoor goods. Down-filled skirts with the gaudiest of socks pulled halfway up their spandex covered shins. Where on earth did they get these god-awful fashion ideas? “Here”, cried Yuuki, pointing to the reverse side of our map, which revealed the following illustration:

The two explorers retreated in disgust, but not before purchasing a bag of mikan oranges from a neighboring food stall. Hoping to avoid the crowds, we traversed 30 minutes further north to the summit of Mt. Shiroyama (城山), where sizable crowds and an extensive network of restaurants greeted us. We settled down at a wobbly picnic bench and devoured our oranges while watching the fashion victims. Would this madness ever end?

The next target peak of the day was Mt. Kagenobu (景信山), where we discovered an even larger collection of restaurants and the same relentless crowds. Desperate times called for desperate measures, as Yuuki bought another beer and we splurged on hot noodles and oden. There were so many people that the restaurant was calling out orders by the customers’ last name. The shop clerk nearly fell off his chair when I told him to just call me gaijin. Sure enough, heads truly turned when the cook shouted out gaijin san, ooda dekimashita (hey foreigner, your order is ready!) I carry my Osaka sense of humor with me wherever I go.

Halfway into our luxurious feast, the faint sound of a helicopter wafted through the air. Scanning the horizon, we spotted what looked to be a news helicopter approaching to film the crowds. “It’s heading for us”, I exclaimed! As the copter noise grew louder I became intrigued with the sheer size and unfamiliar red tint on the porpoise-shaped nose. “Hey, that looks like a rescue copter”, Yuuki shouted, spotting the Chinese characters for the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department on the belly of the aircraft. The copter circled the peak once before hovering above the summit directly behind the restaurant. Off we went to investigate.

Two rescuers quickly abseiled to a grass clearing and hurriedly scampered to a nearby picnic bench. An unidentified figure laid motionless, the victim of either over-consumption of alcohol or acute heart failure. I’m not a huge fan of gawking and peacefully retreated back to my waiting meal. Several more firefighters descended from the copter for back-up assistance, as another half a dozen climbed from the parking lot at Kobotoke (小仏) Again, this was another first for me in Japan, though I must admit that it’s not something anyone should have to witness up close. Earlier in my mountaineering career I saw a recovery operation at Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it was from a safe 20km distance. Seeing a copter hovering 20 meters away is an entirely different story.

Yuuki and I took the rescue as a sign that we should abandon our attempt to climb Mt. Jinba (陣馬山) and take the easy escape route to the south. Along the way, we passed the rescuers we’d seen on the summit and thought about asking what happened, but again, it’s not something that I really need to know about. Someone couldn’t make it off the mountain under their own power and were successfully airlifted to safety. Does the cause for that assistance really matter?

Safely arriving at the paved forest road, we turned left and raced towards the bus stop. Upon arriving, we realized that we had 45 minutes to wait until the next bus and would be the 50th person in line to make that bus. When I mentioned to my companion that it’d be a lot faster and more interesting to hitch a ride back to Takao station, his eyes lit up like an 8-year old on Christmas morning. “Yes, just like old times”. You see, Yuuki and I had our fair share of flagging down rides on Mt. Zao and Mt. Nantai and were eager to brush up on our skills.

Yuuki has developed an uncanny technique for hitching rides. Left arm fully extended, thumb outstretched, he reaches up with his right hand for the bill of his blue Kavu hiking hat, lowering the cap as if to ask for a donation while slightly bowing his upper torso. A quick twinkle of the eye to the driver and whammo: a free ride to our chosen destination. We walked down the asphalt road towards town and thumbed down whatever came toward us. First a motorcyclist gave a quick nod, followed by the firetrucks, who chuckled from the comfort of their cabs. The first driver that stopped had a car-full of kids and absolutely no room for us, but just wanted to stop and politely tell us he couldn’t take us. The next car pulled over and we slyly crawled in, much to the disbelief of the other Japanese hikers who’d opted for the 10km hike back into town. Back at the station, we boarded a Tokyo-bound train, vowing to never visit this place again. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Takao has its merits, but the heyday of strolling through an untamed piece of nature so close to the capital is truly gone forever.

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