Where to go hiking for winter vacation? It’s a tough decision. Hiking trails are a dime a dozen in Japan, so anywhere you go is bound to have somewhere nice to go walking, but I was interested in something with a little more prestige. Having already hiked Mt. Fuji, though, where should I look for prestige? Thanks to a conversation I had with Tianyu, my hiking buddy, I came to the conclusion that I should seek out one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. But which one? They span the whole length of the archipelago, so I really could go almost everywhere.

Hokkaido? Fukuda, author of the Famous Mountains list, writes about many interesting mountains from small islands comprised of a single volcano rising into the air from sea level to a height of more than 2,000 meters, to mountains at the very northern extreme of Japan and also ones deep in the interior, far from civilization and covered in primeval forests. One problem though: Hokkaido is absolutely frigid in winter. I visited there for the snow festival back in 2010 and I was shocked by the situation. Firstly, the high temperature every day was well below freezing, and on top of that, the roads, sidewalks, and every other surface was covered by a layer of permanent ice. All the cars and buses were fitted with chains, and pedestrians had to walk carefully every with the constant awareness that he or she could slip and fall at any moment. Put that together with the fact that I’d never done extreme winter mountain hiking before and I didn’t think I had either the equipment or skills to survive it, Hokkaido was out.

What about Kyushu? It’s probably warmer down there since it’s the southernmost of the four main islands. I’d done a cycling trip through the mountains down there a couple years ago too and it was really beautiful. This time, though, the problem wasn’t cold but money: I checked the cost of tickets to the area and it looked like I’d have to pay about $600 for a round trip, and that wouldn’t include any other expenses. I wasn’t prepared to make that big of a monetary commitment on such short notice, so I abandoned that idea too.

At some point, my mind drifted back toward my trip from earlier this year, where I spent four days hiking in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, whose eastern border sits on Tokyo’s western side. There’s already one famous mountain there, I knew: Kumotori Yama or “Cloud-catcher Mountain,” which I had climbed on my last trip. Maybe there were more in that park. After all, when I came down last time, I did leave thinking that I wanted to go back and hike out the rest of the ridge. I consulted Fukuda’s book and found that indeed yes, there wasn’t just one but three other famous mountains in the section of the ridge that I hadn’t hiked yet: Kobushi-ga-Take (甲武信ヶ岳, “The Peak of the Fist”), Kinpu-san (金峰山, “Mount Goldpeak”), and Mizugaki-san (瑞牆山, “Mount Vibrant-cliff”).

With this information, the decision was a no-brainer: I’d pick up where I left off in the summer, hiking from Karisaka Tôge (雁坂峠, “Goose Hill Pass”) past Kobushi-ga-Take and another peak called Kokushi-ga-Take (国師ヶ岳, “Peak of the Country-master”), finally ending with Kinpu-san and Mizugaki-san before descending down to Mizugaki Lodge to catch the bus back to civilization. All together, it would be a roughly 36 kilometer trek with a cumulative total of just over 4,200 meters of ascent and about 3,800 meters of descent over the course of four days. Taking into account my shortfalls from my previous trip to the area, I set my goals for each day a bit lower to make sure I wouldn’t have to push so hard, though as the weather forecast this time didn’t include any typhoons, I didn’t expect any setbacks like I had last time.

My plan was as follows. I would catch the first bus to Nishizawa Gorge (西沢渓谷) at 8:00 am and hit the trail at Karisaka Tôge Trailhead (雁坂峠入口), then hike up the same path I came down last time. From there I’d head west towards Kobushi and stay the night at Sasadaira Shelter (笹平, “Bamboo-grass Flat”) and start again the next day at 7:00 am. The destination for day two would be Ôdarumi Tôge (大弛峠, whose name could be interpreted to mean “Great Letdown Pass”), passing Kobushi-ga-Take and Kokushi-ga-Take along the way. The third day would begin at 7:00 am once more, continuing on the ridge to Kinpu-san and eventually ending at Fujimi-daira Hut (富士見平小屋, “Fujiview Flat Hut”). The next day I’d hike up to Mizugaki-san and then backtrack down the mountain to the bus stop at Muzugaki Lodge. All in all it looked like a great plan; however, sometimes plans have to change, and as it would turn out so would this one.

I mentioned this plan to Tianyu as he’d expressed interest in climbing Kobushi-ga-Take previously. He was interested, but as the only time he’d ever spent the night on the mountain was the time he and I got stranded in that hut together earlier in the year, he was understandably a little leery about going up for an over-nighter in this cold winter weather. And who wouldn’t be? I’m and experienced hiker with numerous winter trips under my belt and even I was worried about the cold in those high mountain passes and peaks. After checking the weather reports for the summit of Kinpu, I saw that nighttime temperatures were ranging from -8° Celsius at best to -16° at worst. This naturally got me a little concerned since my my current sleeping bag was only good to -10°. I immediately ordered a new one on Amazon, a cheap Chinese brand but one that was supposedly good to -20°. After a few days Tianyu came around too, deciding to come along for the first day and a half before going back down, after which I’d continue on alone.


So it Begins

The day before the trip, I found myself travelling all over my neighborhood to the various shops searching for supplies, from food to clothing. That evening, bag packed, I paced the apartment nervously. Did I have everything I needed? Did I have the right attire to survive the cold? Would this be my last hike ever? I knew I was about to go on a trip that would test the limits of my abilities and, if something went wrong, could very well end in life-altering injury (frost-bite amputations, for example) to death (hypothermia). Most concerning was the issue with rescue should anything go wrong: since I was planning a four-day trip, if I got into trouble no one would even start looking for me until I didn’t come home on the fourth day. The prospect of being stuck up there for days in that cold was bad enough, but the thought of doing so without food was worse. I literally stuffed my bag to bursting with snacks just in case.

Due to my nerves and excitement, I was in no mood to sleep, so I sat at my computer surfing the internet, waiting for myself to calm down enough that I might drift off. A message came in on Facebook. It was Tianyu. He linked me to a bus timetable for the Nishizawa Gorge bus and pointed out that the first bus was 9:00 am, not 8:00 am. I looked again and he was right: I had read the timetable backwards. The 8:00 am bus was going in the opposite direction, away from Nishizawa. It looked like we’d be getting started an hour later than we’d planned. No problem, I thought. I planned the trip with plenty of extra time anyway. We’d still get to Sasadaira Shelter by nightfall, if just barely. Or that’s what I thought anyway.

At some point I did fall asleep, but be that as it may I was still already awake again before my alarm went off. I got up, dressed, and caught the first train (5:14 am) from Kinshicho Station in Tokyo to Yamanashi City, where I would meet Tianyu.

To my surprise, I wasn’t sleepy at all on the train. Needing to save my phone’s battery so I could take pictures on the trip, instead I took out Fukuda’s book and began reading about Kinpu and Mizugaki. Just under two hours later, I arrived at Yamanashi City Station, and shortly thereafter Tianyu joined me. After picking up a few last minute items from the convenience store, we boarded the first bus. As it wound steadily up the mountain road into the valley, we wondered whether or not we were biting off more than we could chew. As it would turn out, circumstances would conspire to cause troubles for me on this trip, but from angles I hadn’t considered at all.

“So, what’s your plan again?” Tianyu asked.

I pulled out my map, pointing out the course as I described it above.

“Which bus are you taking back?” He asked.

I pointed it out on the map.

“Is it still running this time of year?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” I replied.

“You better check. Some buses to the mountains stop running in the winter.”

I frowned. “Well, can I use your phone to check?”

He handed it to me. I googled the bus timetable for the bus stop in Japanese, already knowing well that there wouldn’t be one in English for such an out of the way place. I looked at the page, but I couldn’t quite make out whether it was running or not. I handed the phone back to Tianyu. “What does this say?”

“It says the bus is finished until March.”

“What?!” How was I going to get back after my trip was finished?

The bus continued up and up into the mountains, leaving me less than 30 minutes to figure out a solution.

Just below Karisaka Tôge

This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.

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