East Alps Trip Part VI: Down and Out

© 2017 Brian Heise


Dawn. I awoke to see faint light through the window of Goose Hill Hut. I wondered if I should go ahead and get up, but I dozed off again before I came to a decision. When I finally did get up, it was still early, maybe 5:30 or so. I got up and began to pack up my things. As I moved about I was happy to notice that the pains that made all movement difficult the previous night had subsided while I was sleeping. Hopefully it would hold off until I got to the bus stop.

I was most interested in the damage to my feet, as you might imagine since those were my only means of conveyance. When I checked them the night before, I found that my ankles were looking pretty rough, though they didn’t feel as bad as they looked. While checking out that spot on my middle toe where the skin was mysteriously scraped away, I actually did figure out what had caused it. What I found was that the point where the skin was removed just happened to be exactly where the nail of the next toe over terminated in its outer corner. It turned out that it ended in a really sharp, pointed edge that lined up exactly with the hole in my skin. I realized then that this spot had been rubbing the other toe throughout the whole hike. Sharp though it was, it probably wouldn’t have caused a problem under ordinary circumstances, but since my feet were soaking wet, the skin was softer and easier to damage. It was a testament to how slow the process was that it took two days and some 30 or 40 km for enough skin to be scraped away that I could actually feel it. If you’re curious, below are a few pictures I snapped of this and the rest after I got home. It’s not that bad, but if you’re squeamish, be warned.

When I got outside in the morning, I was greeted by thick mist surrounding the hut such that I couldn’t see far in any direction, but judging from the dampness of the Earth it looked like the rain portended by yesterday’s dark sky and light sprinkles never materialized.

I mentioned a few posts back that I ended up having to drink untreated water from mountain streams starting on the second day after I drank up the four liters of bottled water that I had originally brought with me (I was drinking on average somewhere between three and four liters per day). Given how high up I was, I figured I didn’t have to worry much about bad stuff being in the water since I was so close to the tops of the mountains that it would have only been in the ground for a short time. Even so, I knew I was taking a bit of a risk and, well, that chicken came home to roost this morning.

As I was standing in front of a big trail map set up on a board at the head of the trail just outside of the hut’s grounds trying to get an idea of what the wider trail system for the area looked like when I felt that tell-tale gurgle in the gut that warns one of impending doom. I think I had probably two seconds from moment I realized the torrent was coming to the time it arrived, just enough time to throw off my pack and get in position, but not enough time to get to a more suitable location. I just hope a good rain comes by before anyone else has to use that map.

Musing in the Pass

Now that you’re thoroughly grossed out, on to the hike. It took about 15 or 20 minutes to get back up on the ridge and the actual location of Goose Hill Pass. Arriving at the top, it looked as though it would be a place to get some great photos — that is, if it weren’t for all the mist up there that morning. It did look pretty mysterious though, so I decided to sit down for a bit and enjoy the ambience.

Goose Hill Pass (雁坂峠).

The sign at the top proudly proclaimed this pass to be one of Japan’s Three Great Passes (三大峠), the other two being Sanpuku Pass (三伏峠, 2580 m) in the Southern Alps and Hari no Ki Pass (針ノ木峠, 2541 m) in the Northern Alps. Though I usually try to translate the names of the places I visit, I’m a bit unsure of the best renderings of these two, though I think they mean something like “Three Prostrations Pass” and “Thorn Tree Pass” respectively. At 2,082 m, Goose Hill was by far the lowest elevation of the three. As person who’s a bit anal about completing lists, knowing that I had climbed one of the three, I started thinking about trying to complete the set. Since I got back, however, I’ve done some research on them and I found out that the list is actually disputed: apparently, some sources list Summerdale Pass (夏沢峠, Natsuzawa Tôge) in Nagano in place of Sanpuku Pass. Maybe we can compromise and just say there are four great passes in Japan?

While I was sitting there contemplating climbing those Three Great Passes and absently staring at the sign, my mind drifted towards the character for “mountain pass,” 峠, and the beauty in the simplicity with which it illustrates the meaning of the word that it signifies. Han characters (kanji) generally comprise of a combination of several out of a total of 40-odd base characters that, when combined, add together convey a sense of the meaning of the word among other things. Anyway, the character for “mountain pass” consists of three parts, 山, 上, and 下, which mean “mountain,” “up,” and “down” respectively. When you put these together and you can easily infer that the character refers to a place on a mountain where you go up and down. Having been coined at a time when people were more interested in crossing mountains than climbing to the highest point like hikers tend to be focused on today, any ambiguity in the meaning fades away. That is, if your goal is to cross from one side of a range to another, the mountain-up-down would be the lowest part on the range, not the highest.

To me, the simplicity of the meaning combined with the history that birthed it lends it a sense of beauty, like looking at a temple that’s withstood the test of time. For literally thousands of years, people in Asia have been using this character to communicate the incredibly important idea about where to cross a mountain range. Anyone travelling a great distance would need to know this character in order to navigate the mountains and get to their destinations. It therefore was essential that the meaning be clear, even to the illiterate. Seven years ago, when I lived with a host family in Kanagawa while studying at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo, my host mom asked me what my favorite Han character was. I told her “river,” explaining that I liked it because I grew up next to a beautiful river. If she were to ask me again today, though, I would say 峠 is my favorite.

History gives a sense of depth and beauty, like looking off into the distance at a beautiful landscape. Even a landscape that would seem ordinary up close acquires beauty when seen from a distance, and knowing the ebb and flow of human life over time in a place reveals the beauty of human existence and a sense of the impermanence of things and the deep pathos of knowing that what we see today won’t endure forever. There’s a beauty in that too. Goose Hill Pass has that beauty.

Ironically, the natural beauty that should have been all to visible to me was clouded in mist and the history, which one would expect to be lost in the mists of time to one such as I who was so far from a library or an internet connection, was made readily available to me by a signboard nearby. It told of the long depths of human history that this pass played a part in, from prehistory up to the moment where I stood there. The earliest known visitors to this place were people of the middle period of Jômon culture (2500–1500 BCE), as revealed by artifacts found in the pass, but its long-term importance is further highlighted by the fact that the second book ever written in Japan, the Nihon Shoki (720 CE) makes explicit reference to it: in the section of the book entitled “The Record of the Emperor Keikô” (景行記), the 12th emperor of Japan in the traditional reckoning, the emperor’s son Yamato Takeru crossed the pass on his way north to wage war on the Ezo, a non-Japanese ethnic group that would eventually be eradicated from Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.

The pass’s importance would only grow over time, and it eventually became one of the the nine major highways of the historical province of Kai (甲斐), the Kaikusuji (甲斐九筋, literally “Nine Sinews of Kai,” the implication being that they were the linkages that held Kai province together). By the Japanese Middle Ages (roughly 1192-1600 CE), it had become an important thoroughfare for trade as well as for conquesting warlords to move their armies: aside from the numerous coins dating from the period that have been unearthed there, the historical record reveals that the warlord Takeda Shingen (武田信玄, 1521-1573 CE) used it as a passage for his armies. Beyond trade and war, religion also drew travelers to this place: over the centuries, countless people passed along the Chichibu Thoroughfare (秩父往還) that led through the pass as they completed the pilgrimage route of the Chichibu Kannon Holy Ground (秩父観音霊場).

From the Edo Period to the end of the Taisho Period (1600-1926), the pass also served as the route by which the silkworm cocoons produced in Ôtaki Village (大滝村) near Chichibu were transported to market in Enzan (塩山), located in modern day Yamanashi Prefecture. Even today the route is still an important route through Japan: National Highway 140 follows the same path, though today rather than passing over the mountain drivers can easily cross the mountains via a tunnel that runs directly below where I was standing at that moment. And there I sat, just one in nameless person continuing this history, making a passage that who knows how many people have been making for something like 4,000 years or longer.


What a strange progression of this post so far — to think that I opened with pictures of bloody feet and a recounting of the results of drinking untreated water, and now here I am waxing poetic and writing history. No more! At some point I snapped out of my reverie and began my long, slow descent down and out of the mountains.

I should note before describing the first part of the descent the painstaking efforts I had made to dry out my socks yesterday. Knowing that they wouldn’t dry out on their own before I finished, I had been stopping once and our to wring out my socks so that their slightly drier fabric might wick out the moisture from my shoes little by little. While it didn’t exactly make it a desert in there, at least by the end of the day I was no longer sloshing water with every step. Baby steps, they say. This morning, knowing I’d just be hiking straight down off the mountain, decided to put on my dry(er) pair of socks. Sure, the shoes were still wet on the inside, but it wasn’t that bad. I figured I’d just have damp feet, but not much worse. Anyway, it would be better than wearing the socks that I wore yesterday, which hadn’t really dried out much overnight.

Well, as it turned out, though it hadn’t rained the night before, all the foliage had acquired a rather thick dew from all the mountain mist condensing on them overnight. And, wouldn’t you know it, the first part of the descent before entering back into the forest was overgrown with mountain grass, the same stuff whose dampness had plagued me on the route from Kumotori to Minister’s Pass two days before. It wasn’t five minutes after I began my descent that I was right back to where I was yesterday morning. Oh well. At least I’d be home in a few hours, where I’d finally be able to take off my shoes.

After descending some steep switchbacks through the meadow, the trail eventually returned me to the forest and began to follow a small mountain stream. This, as it turned out, became a rather interesting development as the trail continued to follow the stream all the way down back to the road, allowing me to watch as stream after stream joined together changing it from a trickle at the start to roaring stream complete with waterfalls and other rapids. As I was in a bit of a rush, I didn’t take many pictures on the way down.

At some point during the descent, I met an old man on his way up. I remember checking the time and estimating when he probably started in order to make a rough calculation of how much longer I had to walk. I don’t remember the times exactly, but I remember guessing I had one more hour left. As it turns out, that was way off, meaning that I probably wildly miscalculated the time that he had started. If I had to guess now, I’d say the guy must have got on the trail before 6 am.

Regardless, I did finally reach the pavement around 9 am or so (if I remember right). I remember silently rejoicing at the time, forgetting that I had actually walked well over an hour on pavement from the bus stop on the first day of the trip, a fact that should have discouraged me from celebrating so early. I snapped an “after” selfie to use as a comparison to the one I took on day one. Aside from the greasy hair, I don’t think I look that different, but if these were scratch and sniff photos you’d definitely notice.

Anyway, long uneventful story short, I eventually got down to the highway, where I was lucky enough to find a rest stop only a short distance away. I guess I should mention at this point that during my research for the trip, I only went so far as figuring out whether there was a bus stop near the trailhead or not; I didn’t even bother to check and see where I was coming down, and I don’t even have a smartphone plan so I knew I wouldn’t be able count on googling my way back. In my defense, I thought it would be more exciting to just wing it. Well, that and I’m lazy about that kind of thing.

I can only imagine what I looked like as I stepped into the guest shop at the rest stop and started absently wandering around looking at the various local products on sale. Just being a foreigner made me stand out, but my limping gate mixed together with my greasy hair and smell must have been enough to make any obâsan say a nembutsu (in other words, make on old lady say a prayer).

Although I wasn’t particularly hungry, I figured since I hadn’t had a hot meal in days, I’d go ahead and shuffle into the dining hall and get a bowl of noodles. When I entered, though, there wasn’t anyone to be seen, customers or staff alike. I checked the time and realized it was still pretty early in the morning. Maybe they aren’t open yet, I thought, proceeding to search around for an 営業中 (open) sign. I found one, which gave me the justification for shouting out “excuse me” in Japanese loudly and hoping someone showed up. As soon as I did, a woman rushed out of the back, apologizing profusely. I guess since it was so early they didn’t expect any customers (Japanese people eat out for breakfast so rarely that most restaurants don’t even open until lunch). I ordered a bowl of udon and, what the hell, a beer too. I also asked her about the buses and she proceeded to explain, though I wasn’t able to catch much of what she said other than that there were two different buses that came up the valley and they each went to different train stations, and that the bus stop was nearby. The other details I lost, but since she handed me a brochure, I decided not to question her and just read it after I ate.

Having satisfied myself, I checked the brochure. It turned out that I had arrived in a place called Nishizawa Keikoku (西沢渓谷, “West Valley Gorge”). Apparently it was a locally famous tourist destination for outdoor activities, sporting many campgrounds, hiking trails, fishing spots, clear streams, and waterfalls. Looking at all the sites listed, I said to myself that I had to come back, though I realistically knew that I probably wouldn’t.

Aside from all the nature stuff, I also realized that I had hiked myself into Yamanashi Prefecture (山梨県, “Mountain Pear Prefecture”) and that the two buses the lady had mentioned went to Yamanashi Station and Enzan Station (the same Enzan mentioned earlier in connection to the history of Goose Hill Pass). Luckily, the brochure also roughly showed that the tracks running through both stations were headed for Tokyo, so it didn’t matter at all which bus I took. I only glanced at the timetable briefly, just enough to realize buses came every hour or so. I didn’t pay too much attention to the actual times since many timetables I’ve seen in Japan just list the departure and arrival times at the terminal, leaving anyone in the middle to guess when the bus might arrive.

After that I figured out how to connect to the wifi, so once I decided to give Ivy a call and let her know I hadn’t died in the storm. When I opened Skype, I saw I had one unread message: “The rain was really big, are u ok.” It was from Tuesday and today was Thursday. Hope she wasn’t too worried. She didn’t seem to worried once I got her on the phone though. Once we hung up, though, I had a somewhat chilling thought that if I had gotten into trouble Monday night, she probably wouldn’t have called out help until I didn’t come home on schedule. Sobering thought, but I’m not able to think of any way to solve the problem than to keep a realistic sense of my limits and try not to bite off more than I can chew. This time was the close call that will hopefully keep me more in line on the next adventure I go on.

Bus, Train, Subway, Home

In the middle of my call, I saw a bus pull into the parking, interestingly right as I was explaining to Ivy that I wasn’t sure when the bus would come.

“Oh, shit! It’s the bus! Gotta go!” I hung up and dashed across the parking lot, but the bus pulled away before I got there. As the bus pulled out onto the highway, though, it turned up the valley rather than down it, so I guess I hadn’t missed out after all. I took out the brochure and checked the timetable: sure enough, there was a bus time listed for exactly the current time, so at least I knew that it wasn’t one of those terminal only timetables. And, luckily, it turned out that a bus down was supposed to arrive in less than ten minutes (maybe it would be the same bus that just left).

When I got on the bus, the bus driver was conscientious enough to double check to make sure I was on the bus going to the right train station, which I guess shows that this is a common mistake. I told him that it didn’t matter since I was just going back to Tokyo, so I could go to either one. Seeing my heavy bag, he pointed to the empty wheelchair spot and said I could leave it there, so I did. I then sat down on a cushioned seat for the first time since Monday morning. It felt nice.

The bus began its hour-long descent out of the valley, winding here and their off the main road to hit a village here or there. As I road, a couple of old ladies got on in one village. I immediately became conscious of my smell, but they didn’t seem to notice. One of them saw my bag and said in that form accented Japanese that you often hear from the older generations, “That’s really heavy, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it certainly is.” As my studies of Japanese have mainly come from books, I tend to speak somewhat stiffly and formally. “However, it is lighter than the time when I started.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Cloud-catcher Mountain,” I replied, giving what I thought would be the most recognizable major landmark.

“Cloud-catcher Mountain! That’s so far!”

“Yes. It was four days and three nights.”

“Hehhhhh!” She let out that prototypical Japanese exclamation. “Sugoi!”

The conversation trailed off and I started to doze a bit. Later, another old woman got on the bus. The woman I had been talking too and her companion acted as though they knew the woman well and immediately began a jovial conversation. At one point the woman pointed at me and said, “He walked from Cloud-catcher Mountain, don’t you know!” I just smiled and continued to doze.

Down and down the bus went until eventually we reached the broad, flat valley that contains Yamanashi City. The bus first wound through rice paddies, houses, and scattered businesses, but the density of buildings gradually increased until the scenery began to look like a typical Tokyo suburb, though slightly shabbier. Finally, the bus pulled into the train station. As I stepped off the bus, I nearly gasped in the sweltering heat. Up in the mountains, the temperatures had been pleasantly cool to warm every day since the rain stopped; I’d forgotten that it was still August.

All of my time just sitting on the bus without other things to distract me made me acutely aware of how uncomfortably wet my feet were. I decided that if there was time, I’d definitely try to buy some slippers to wear from the rest of the trip home. In the station, I found that I had about 45 minutes until the next express liner into Tokyo, so I bought my ticket and then went back out to the street to look for a shop. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much there except a gift shop and a convenience store across the street. I checked both but found nothing, so I walked back to the train station, sat down on the platform and promptly took off my shoes. To say the smell was strong was an understatement.

While I was up in the mountains, the trail was often really steep or rough, so I was rarely able to make long strides when walking. The short steps that I had to take allowed me to entertain the fantasy that, though my feet and ankles hurt so bad, I was still able to walk somewhat normally. Now that I was actually able to take big steps, though, I had to realize that in fact I was walking with a rather pronounced limp and I wasn’t able to take more than agonizingly short steps.

The train arrived. I slid my feed back into the shoes just long enough to get to my seat, then brought them out once more. Numerous times throughout the ride into Tokyo people walked past me; I’m not entirely sure whether their glances in my direction were just my imagination, but if they weren’t I’m sure that they were probably regretting booking tickets in the same car as me. Either way, I chose to ignore it.

In any case, the train was not heavily packed, so no one had to sit close to me. Not so lucky on the subway ride back to Kinshicho and my apartment. I got off the train at Shinjuku, one of the largest and most crowded train stations in the world, limped to the the Chuo-Sobu line, and barely managed to snag a seat on a only lightly packed car. Lucky for me that I got a seat as I was pretty tired, but unlucky for the two people sitting on either side of me. Whatever, I didn’t care. I rode out to my stop, got off, and after a walk that was noticeably longer than usual, I entered the apartment. As I got ready for my first shower in four days, I was already contemplating my next trip…

 The post you just read is part 6 of a 6-part series on my hiking trip in the Japanese East Alps. Click the links below to navigate to the other parts.
© 2017 Brian Heise

6 thoughts on “East Alps Trip Part VI: Down and Out

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s