Winter 2017 Hiking VII: The Great Release

This post is part 7 of a 7-part series on my winter hiking trip in Chichi-Tama-Kai National Park in Japan. If this is your first time here, I recommend starting at the beginning.

The Way to Ôdarumi

Following the footsteps of my silent companion through the trees to the North side of Kokushi-ga-Take, I was blessed with sweeping views of Nagano (Longfield) Prefecture.

Nagano I
Nagano II
My Silent Companion

From there the trail descended steeply down towards the Ôdarumi Pass (“Great Release Pass,” 大弛峠), but to my delight the passage was made relatively easy due to the network of wooden stairs and platforms built all along this section. I made good time.

Along the way down, I passed a sign indicating the way to a place called “Garden of Dreams” (夢の庭園) down a spur trail. My companion hadn’t gone that way and I was in no mood to blaze trail through virgin snow, so I didn’t go, but the description from the sign made the place seem worthy of investigation. It read as follows:

Garden of Dreams
This garden, where nature has masterfully arranged boulders and shrubs upon the mat of alpine vegetation, was discovered in the year Shôwa 35 (1960) by Mr. Yamamoto Asatada, who was working as a superintendent for a mountain hut at the time. He introduced it to the world as the “Garden of Dreams.”

It sounded like a really nice spot; I’ve made a mental note to go back there some day when I have the time.

As I descended further, the view of the ridgeline leading onwards to Mt. Kinpu appeared, giving me a more tangible idea of what I would have to go to reach my next goal.

Stairs on the descent from Kokushi.

Consulting my map, I determined that the next highest peak visible from where I was, which I had hoped might be Kinpu, was probably Asahi-dake (Morning Sun Peak, 朝日岳), which is pictured below. The peak itself looked rather unimpressive that is, rather indistinguishable from any typical Japanese mountain, but what really caught my eye was a series of rock formations on the right side of the ridge. You can see them in the picture below; try clicking the picture expand it for a better look.


The Hut in Ôdarumi Pass

At long last I arrived at the hut. It was a fairly small building, not in the best condition but far from the worst that I’d seen. The front door was blocked with plywood held in place my just a wire wrapped around nails pounded into the frame on either side of the door. Unmindful of a certain children’s story warning about wandering into houses in the forest that don’t belong to you, I unraveled the wire, removed the boards, and went inside.

The building was divided into two sections: a small room with several tables and a closed down food counter, and a sleeping room with a small woodstove. The most welcome thing, though, was that the water source was there as advertised: a small spring coming out from a springhouse at the back of the building, accessible through a door at the back of the sleeping chamber. I was able to fill my bottles, though with some difficulty as there was no pool of water but just a shallow stream flowing directly out of the rocks. I drank my fill, then went back into the sleeping room, pulled out my alcohol stove, and cooked my last pack of ramen. The hot broth was certainly welcome after the last day or so of lonely cold.

Now came the decision: what to do. I followed my companions footprints down to the road and saw quickly that, rather than continuing down the ridge they went straight down the road to Nagano without even a pause. That decided me: I would not be continuing on to Kinpu. As much trouble as I’d had so far walking on trail already marked by my companion’s footprints, I wasn’t in any mood to expend the effort on traipsing through virgin snow, let alone having to discern the trail on my own.



Thinking about failing to reach a second famous mountain on this trip wasn’t as disappointing as I might have thought had I considered this proposition at the outset. I was, after all, more than satisfied with the beautiful views that I’d seen so far and I was about tired of the cold as well. What was mostly on my mind was what to do next. My first thought was to just stay in the hut for the night, making good use of that woodstove and the ample pile of firewood outside, and then head down in the morning. I walked back up to the hut and sat down at one of the tables in the dining area.

I didn’t sit their long before I became intensely aware of how cold it was in there, and I also began to think about how long I had to wait here until I’d be leaving in the morning. Checking the clock, I saw that it was 1:00 p.m. That meant a good 16 hours departing, half of which I’d be awake and in need of entertainment. It was, however, far too cold to take out my book without building up a good fire first, but I didn’t want to waste too much of the wood that the hut superintendent had prepared and left. I felt as though I should save it just for the evening when it got dark. But, though I had more than enough podcasts to last me on my phone, I couldn’t afford to waste the battery since I needed it for photos. It seemed like it would be an incredibly boring time.

Suddenly, I had a thought. I went down to the road, which offered a clear view both down into Nagano and back in Yamanashi, which suggested that I might be able to get signal. I booted up my wifi hotspot and sure enough, I had one, so I googled the bus timetable for the line at the bottom on the Nagano side and saw that the last bus would be leaving at 5:30, leaving about 4 1/2 hours to get there. Given that I’d be walking leisurely down a paved road, I figured I could easily make that bus with hours to spare. So now I had two options: stay here for the night, or go down.

With thoughts of a hot bath in mind, I decided to go down.


Deep Snow on the North Face

Apparently, I made a serious miscalculation. My expectation was that I would have a nice, easy, leisurely walk from Ôdarumi Pass down to the bus stop below in the small village of Riverside Bottom (川端下, Kawahake). After all, I’d be walking on a road, right? What I didn’t consider, though, was the fact that the ridge at this point ran exactly east to west, meaning that my path down was due north and therefore receives next to no sunshine this time of year.

What’s the problem with that? No sunlight means lower temperatures than other parts of the mountain; lower temperatures means snow melts less, or not at all; this means that the snow on this particular part of the mountain was the deepest I’d experienced yet. We’re talking knee deep or more in the worst spots. As it turned out, my leisurely walk down the mountain turned into a more than 4-hour trudge.

I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say that it was every bit as difficult as my ascent to the false peak ahead of Kokushi earlier in the day, and this time I was pushed on by the urgency of needing to catch that last bus. Luckily, the lower I went the more the snow receded until eventually the road was completely clear.

Frozen over.


A Nagano forest.
The last leg.

As I connected with the main road, I ran into an older Japanese man and his apparently 20-something year old son, both decked out in hardcore winter hiking gear and gigantic packs. I must have looked pretty odd and maybe even foolish to them wearing just my jeans and Uniqlo heat-tech windbreaker, but my gear had served me well.

By the time we finally reached the bus stop, it was just minutes to departure, but we made it. From there we rode down to the nearest train station, a really Podunk little spot with nothing more than a parking lot and vending machine. From there it was a good three hours back home, but when I arrived I had a hot meal and bath waiting for me. I guess that makes me a lucky guy.

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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© 2018 Brian Heise

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