Getting Started

On a beautiful day, it’s hard to feel down or discouraged. When you feel that bright sunshine on your skin, it seeps in, warms you up, and lessens your pain. Especially after you’ve spent two hard days hiking in the clouds and rain, a little sunshine is does wonders.

I woke up on the morning of the third day since I hit the trail to bright sunshine on the fly of my tent. I came to slowly and groggily opened the tent and crawled out to see a deep blue sky with beautiful wisps of white clouds drifting across it. It was the weather I’d been waiting the whole trip for.

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Early morning on Minister Pass.

Weather — check. Body condition? I got up and started wandering around the grounds testing out my feet and chafed areas. Everything seemed fine — or at least I didn’t feel any pain. It was shaping up to be a good day, but even so, I was in no hurry. I really took my time as I ate my breakfast and packed up my things.

I sat down to eat in the genkan of the hut since there were some steps to sit on. As I ate, I began to look at the posters on the walls of the room. Some of them were hiking posters, one had some female Olympic athlete on it, but there were also some more curious ones, like a collection of wanted posters, about nine in total. Each one had a big mugshot of the person in question with a list of crimes, which varied from person to person, but each did have one thing in common: 殺人, murder. What an odd thing to post in a hikers hut. I wondered if maybe it was common for wanted men to come hide out in these parts.

Looking at their photos, I noticed they all had a certain look about them. It wasn’t in the way they were dressed or even their expressions or haircuts. It was their faces. Something in their faces sent me eerie danger signals. I felt like if I saw one of those faces on the street, I’d be looking over my shoulder for the rest of the night.

Having finished my breakfast, I broke out the maps to check out today’s hike. According to my plan, I would hike today to Kobushi ga Take (甲武信ヶ岳, “Peak of the Fist,” 2475m), camp out on the ridge, and then go back down the mountain the next morning to catch a train back to Tokyo. Looking at the map, I had quite a ways to go, and having been set back by the rain and expecting to be delayed by my injuries, I knew it would be tough to make it all the way today, but I resolve to give it a shot.

Now came the dreaded part: all of my chores finished, I had to put my shoes back on. However, in the absence of a fire the night before, they hadn’t really dried out at all. If you’ve never experienced the feeling of putting sopping wet shoes and socks on dry feet, I can tell you it’s not at all a pleasant experience. Even I, who experienced this many times on adventures with my dad when I was a kid, haven’t gotten used to it yet — only more reluctant to waste time procrastinating. One by one I pick them on, grimacing as the wet fabric clung to my foot so tightly that I had to ease it gradually down the length of my foot and up my calf. I suffered through it though. Shoes on, I shouldered my pack and climbed the ten minutes back up to the top of the pass.

To Goose Pass

The first leg of the trip today was a roughly four-hour stretch from trail from Minister Pass (将監峠) to Goose Pass (雁峠), during which I would pass through Cow King’s Hall Flat (牛王院平), Mountain God’s Ground (山の神土, 1872m), Palace Boulder (御殿岩), Larch Slope Mountain (唐松尾山, 2109m), and Kasatori Mountain (笠取山, 1953m). I set out.

The first part of this stretch was Cow King’s Hall Flat, a large relatively flat area filled with beautiful meadows that lay between the more typical steep slopes of this particular ridge. I was rather amazed at the difference between this area and what I had hiked through the previous day and wondered what forces caused this area to be so different. Thinking back to my home in the Ozarks, I noticed how geographically out of my element I was. On hikes through the hills back home, I can read the landforms like a book and give you a reasonably good explanation for how they came to be the way they are. Here I can’t offer more than just telling you what they looked like.

I remember naively thinking that this was just what this region of the mountains was like and that the trail would persist like this for the rest of the day. No such luck, though: things returned to a more typical treacherously sleep mountainsides in no time. It was in this area that my sopping wet feet started to give me trouble again, especially around my right ankle, which had been the most painful part yesterday. I made sure to be extra careful about how I stepped so that I minimized friction. Luckily I got some great views, so the pain didn’t get me down too much.

One thing I regret in retrospect, though, is my decision to skip Palace Boulder, which required about a 20 minute trek down a side trail. Given my hurting ankle and the fact that I needed all the time I could get to meet my goal for the day, I opted to to pass it by. Before writing this post though I decided to do a bit of research on it and it turns out its a really beautiful spot. I guess I missed out.

One slightly creepy moment on the trail was when I passed a middle-aged man somewhere on this section. Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought anything if I hadn’t seen those wanted posters earlier that morning, but the guy had that exact unsettling aspect to his face that I thought I saw in those mugshots. What’s more, usually when hiking I get good vibes from fellow hikers, either from the smiles and greetings of “O-tsukare sama desu!” in the more gregarious cases to a casual nod and smile in the more taciturn. This guy, though, had a complete lack of affect, but I sensed that my presence was not appreciated by him. In my imagination, this was because he was hiding from the authorities. Perhaps he was wondering whether he would need to track me down and finish me off. Or maybe my thoughts just run wild when I’m alone for so long. Either way, that was the last I saw of that guy.

Those thoughts disappeared though once I put some distance between him and myself. As I walked, I began to think more about the kanji I was seeing on the signs in the area and the insights I was able to get about the places and things I was seeing by being able to read them. For example, one of the mountains that I passed over was called “Larch Slope Mountain,” presumably because of all the larches growing there. What I found interesting though, was the Japanese word for larch (which I hadn’t seen before then), karamatsu (唐松), which means literally “Tang pine.” For those less familiar with East Asian history, the character kara (唐) refers to the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) of China. I couldn’t guess just from the name why larches would be called Tang pines, but it indicates that there may be an interesting history behind this tree. Perhaps it isn’t native to Japan but was actually brought here when China was ruled by that dynasty. It’s hard to say just from the name, though, because the character continued to be a catch-all name for China long after the dynasty actually fell, so it’s possible that the name might not have any connection to the dynasty itself. Either way, I enjoy the speculation, and when you have no one to talk to for days, you’ll take what you can get.

As I continued onward, I came to a fork in the trail. Checking the map, I found that if I went one way I would ascend to the summit of Kasatori Mountain, and if I went the other way I could circumvent it and go straight to Goose Pass on more or less even ground. Yet again, influenced by the pain in my ankle and concerns of time, I chose to skip the peak. At this point I was seriously considering just giving up at Goose Pass.

As I continued on, I came to a place called Mizuhi (水干), whose name literally means “water-drying” though at the time I misread the second character as 千, which means 1,000. This place, as it turns out, is the origin of the Tama River (多摩川), which flows 138 km from this spot to Tokyo Bay. Upon realizing this, the meaning of this place’s name becomes clear: if you follow the river long enough, you reach a point where the water dries up. That’s this point. I filled my water bottle and continued on.

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Mizuhi, the origin of the Tama River.

Lunch at Goose Pass

Not long after I came to Goose Pass. Similar to Cow King’s Hall, Goose Pass was a wide flat area covered with meadows rather than forest. It was absolutely gorgeous, so much so that I resolved to continue hiking regardless of the pain in my foot.

I hiked through the meadows looking for a good place to sit and have lunch. The map said that there was a hut in the pass, so I searched it out, but it turned out to be in ruins like some of the huts I saw on the previous day, so I walked a little farther and a collection of benches at a crossroads in the trail. Perfect.

Across the wide meadow, the mountain whose peak I had recently bypassed, Kasatori Mountain, rose up in a sharp cone-shape, revealing the reason for it’s name. The first character in Kasatori is 笠, which is the Japanese word for those cone-shaped bamboo hats that we Americans typically associate with Chinese farmers. Looking up at the mountain, it’s cone shape was definitely reminiscent of a kasa (not to be confused with the other kasa, 傘, which means “umbrella”). The summit was bare of trees as well, so the view must have been good. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to climb it.

I sat down and stripped off my shoes and socks, ringing out as much water from the socks as I could before laying them out to dry on the bench. The sun was shining bright and hot at this point, so I thought I might be able to get them at least a little dry. Next I pulled out the maps to examine the trail ahead. It looked like another three hour stretch to the next pass and mountain hut, Karisaka or Goose Hill (雁坂), and over the stretch I would pass over three peaks, Swallow Mountain (燕山, 2004 m), Old Ritual Mountain (古礼山, 2112 m), and Crystal Mountain (水晶山, 2158m). After that was yet another three hour stretch until the next hut. At this point, though, it was 12 o’clock and I figured I needed about an hour to rest and recover before going on, meaning I’d set out at 1 o’clock, arrive at Goose Hill at 4 o’clock, and if I went on I wouldn’t be to the end until 7 o’clock. On top of that, none of these estimates were factoring in rest breaks. I didn’t really want to end so early as 4 o’clock, but I also didn’t like the idea of hiking after dark. Not that I worried so much for safety since I was carrying a headlamp, but I just didn’t want to walk that long — I just wasn’t in the physical condition for it. After some deliberation I reluctantly decided that I should end the night at Goose Hill Pass and then go straight down the mountain the next morning, cutting out the last stretch up to Kobushi Peak. I hated giving up like that, but I knew I also needed to be practical. Having made my decision, I resolved to spend the remaining time in my hour off enjoying the view and eating my lunch.

I sat gazing off into the distance lost in thought, taking in the sites and the sounds of Goose Pass. The sun was warm on my skin, but the breeze was cool, whistling through the grass and the trees. Birds were chirping and insects were buzzing. And there was another sound too. It was so faint at first I didn’t notice it, but it eventually built up to the point where I couldn’t miss it: the sound of bells. I looked around to find the source and spotted another hiker making his way down the steep slope next to me that I would be ascending myself shortly. The sound was ringing out from a set of bear bells he had dangling at his waist. I watched him as he gradually made his way back and forth down the switchbacks on the grassy slope. As he approached, though, I realized that I was hearing bells not just from his direction, but from directly ahead of me, down the hill and out of sight. Shortly, though, another hiker came into view, first head, then shoulders, and torso as he ascended into my field of vision. Both hikers arrived at the benches at about the same time.

We all nodded a greeting to each other and then proceeded to eat lunch, but no one said a word. We didn’t need to. We were all hikers, so we all knew why we were here, and it wasn’t for conversation. We were here to be alone and get away from other people, so we all instinctively knew not to spoil that for each other. We ate in silence. After they finished, they stood, nodded once more, and left. Neither one went the direction I was going.

By the benches there was an information board explaining a bit about the vegetation in the pass. According to the board, the Tang pines growing in this area had not always grown here, but were planted during the Taisho period (1912–1926). Apparently wildfires caused by slash and burn agriculture during the reign of Emperor Meiji (1868–1912) had broadened the bare areas on the mountains, leading to recurring landslides and flooding. To protect against these disasters, efforts were made to plant the forest. Accompanying the words was a grainy old black and white photo of a mountaintop without a single tree. Regarding the mountain passes, the board explained that the meadows, which typically appear on the Yamanashi side of the ridge, were also formed as a result of forest fires. After the original trees burned away, meadow plants moved in, such as bistort, knotweed, and woundwort. As much as I was enjoying the view, I had to say that I couldn’t complain about the environmental destruction that those forest fires had caused. The board went on to say that the Saitama side of the passes are typically occupied with sub-alpine conifer forests. Some representative plants from these areas are Veitch’s silver fir (白檜曾), Maries’ fir (大白檜曾), and creeping woodsorrel (深山酢漿), if those names mean anything to you.

On a side note, I wanted to say that I find the literal meaning of the Japanese names for things interesting due to the insights into Japanese culture that they provide — as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I take pains to make sure I translate everything to make sure those nuances aren’t lost on you, the reader. Aside from the Tang pine, three plants I listed above, bistort, knotweed, and woundwort, also have interesting names (I couldn’t find a way to render the others in English so I opted to not translate them). Anyway, those three are called “Juniper Tiger’s Tail” (伊吹虎の尾), “Tigerstaff” (虎杖), and “Autumn Giraffe Grass” (秋の麒麟草) respectively. The typical English names just don’t have the same flavor, do they?

Onward to Goose Hill Pass

I watched my clock closely during my break, intent to make sure I didn’t rest a minute less than the full hour that I promised myself. Although I was anxious to get on the trail again, I wasn’t at all anxious to put on my wet socks. Just as I did earlier this morning, though, I laboriously pulled them on in spite of their clinging to my skin.

That chore completed, I stood up only to feel a sharp pain in the right side of my middle toe on my right foot, like a needle being jabbed in. Thinking something had fallen into my shoe, I took it off to check, but I didn’t find anything, so I put the shoe on once more only to feel that same sharp pain. I took off my shoe again and the sock as well, but there was nothing. I examined the painful spot to see that there was a small spot where the epidermis was missing, exposing tender dermis below. I didn’t have a clue what had caused this, but since there was nothing I could do about it, I figured I’d just have to endure this pain like all the others I was feeling. I put my shoe back on and set off towards Swallow Mountain.

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The view from the slope, before entering the trees again.
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My lunch spot below with the cone-shaped Kasatori Mountain rising on the left.

As I ascended, the pain in the side of my toe started to blend in with the rest and after a while I hardly noticed it anymore. After climbing a steep, narrow, rocky ridge for about an hour, I came to Swallow Peak. The peak itself turned out to have not much of a view since it was covered with trees, but there were several beautiful flat grassy areas with magnificent views between higher rocky areas that would have been perfect to pitch a tent. I imagined leading people up there to a camping party where everyone would praise me for knowing such an awesome spot. But it didn’t take me long to burst my own bubble on that fantasy, realizing that I don’t know anyone who would actually enjoy such a thing. What a shame.

All day I had been enjoying beautiful sunny skies with puffy white clouds scattered about. As I walked slowly up the comparatively shallow, grassy slopes dotted with the skeletons of dead trees of Old Ritual mountain, however, the situation changed suddenly: a wall of dark grey clouds rolled over the mountain top, blocking out the sunlight to the point that I would have sworn it was early evening if I didn’t have a clock on me. It looked like a storm was rolling in. Goddammit.

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Clouds getting darker.
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A premonition of rain.

I started to pick up the pace. As much as I didn’t want to have to spend all afternoon sitting around the hut with nothing to do, I figured I’d rather spend a lot of time waiting around dry in a hut than get soaked again. The sky got darker and darker and I felt occasional raindrops, but by the time I arrived at the top of Crystal Mountain, it still hadn’t started yet. I was getting hopeful that I could make it to the hut dry.

Descending the far side of Crystal Mountain, I saw a big change in the environment. Throughout the hike I had passed through many mountain meadows contained within forests of deciduous and evergreen trees shading a forest floor of mountain grass. Here, though, I found a forest of mostly conifers looming over a floor consisting of broken rocks and other debris covered in a thick layer of moss. I hadn’t seen anything like it the whole trip.

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More moss than Moss Peak.

As I made my way down the slope I came to a fork in the path, with the sign saying that the right fork would lead to Goose Hill Hut. I’d remembered from the map that the trail to the hut was supposed to be at the pass, but this was clearly not the pass yet. I supposed this was a shortcut, so I took it. As it turns out, I was right: in less than a half an hour the hut came into view.

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Goose Hill Hut

This mountain hut consisted of a complex of buildings, perhaps four in all. Most were locked up tight, but one building was open. I slid open the door to find a dirt and stone floored room with a wood stove in the middle, a raised floor space along one wall covered in tatami mats, and a steep staircase going up to a loft area. Home for the night!

I dropped my bag and scouted out the rest of the area, locating the bathroom, the water supply (fresh flowing mountain springwater), and the camping area. The camping area was particularly dismal, with very little space for tents and most of it was filled with rough rocks. If I had entertained any thoughts of pitching my tent for the night, they were gone now. If my choice is between tatami and rocks, I’ll pick the tatami any day.

I had arrived at the hut right on schedule, that being 4:00 o’clock. I had some hours to go until sundown and I’m typically way too ADD to just sit around, but the pain in my feet and my chafing crotch was more than enough to make me totally satisfied to sit still for a few hours. I went back to the main building, pulled out my sleeping bag, crawled inside, and proceeded to listen to podcasts as I waited for the sun to set. As the evening wore on, I even pulled out the bottle of Chinese white liquor (白酒) that I’d brought along, which I’d left untouched up to this point (completely out of character for me). Between the influence of the liquor and my own exhaustion, I was fast asleep.


This post is part five of a six-part series on my hiking trip in the East Alps of Japan in the summer of 2017. Click the links below to navigate to the other posts.

© 2017 Brian Heise

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