This post is part three in a multi-part series about my hiking expedition to Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park in Japan during the Golden Week Holiday of 2018. Be sure to check out parts one and two as well.
We were racing the sun. Every minute that passed our never-tiring adversary gained ground on us. Our legs burned as we struggled up the rugged slopes from Nishizawa Gorge to the ridgeline that would carry us on our way to our goal of Ôdarumi Pass. We had to get there before the sun passed behind mountains.
But it was a race we knew we wouldn’t win. Having abandoned our original route for fear that it would be impassable, we found ourselves detouring along a spur ridge whose arc added many — precisely how many we didn’t know — hours to our trek. The sun raced relentlessly onward towards the horizon while we mortals were forced at times to rest.
Ascent to the Ridge
The real question was how far could we actually get? The answer to that question would determine whether or not we would be able to reach our goals: Kinpu and Mizugaki, two of Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains. I hoped that we could make it to White Birch Flat (Shirakaba-daira, 白樺平), where the trail crossed a forest road that wound along the mountainside. There was the base of the final ascent to the top of the main ridge near Kokushi-ga-Take, and from there only a little further to Ôdarumi. If we got that far, we’d only be a few hours behind, but not enough to make our goal unattainable.
Urged on by the knowledge that the path would change to a more comfortable gradient if we just got to the ridge, we pushed on hard, but our goal proved elusive. It took several hours of climbing before we finally emerged. From there, we were graced with our first good views of the trip: a look at the main ridgeline to the north and east. We could even see as far as Goose Hill Pass, both the end point of my Summer 2017 trip and the start of my Winter 2017 trip. We stopped to take some pictures and to rest.
To Black Gold Mountain
But the sun didn’t stop. It was already 3:00 pm, and according to the map, we weren’t even to Black Gold Mountain, the halfway point between White Birch and the end of the Nishizawa Trail. It was becoming apparent that we needed to set our expectations even lower. We carried on, and not long after we crossed a small pass with a clear view southwest, affording us our first views of Mt. Fuji.
It was about 4:00 pm by then, just two hours until sunset. We knew we had to find a decent place to camp soon, and we knew if we pressed too hard we’d find ourselves at sunset without a good view to photograph. Finally, resigned to our fate, we set our sights on the summit of Black Gold Mountain.
Black Gold Mountain. Kurogane-yama. Neither nationally famous nor even locally well-known, we had little information about the place other than the warning we got from the park ranger that the path was in disrepair. Indeed, the trail so far had been in significantly worse condition than that in Nishizawa Gorge, but it was hardly impassable. Regardless, it was clear that few people came this way. Indeed, though it was Golden Week, we had only seen one person since we left the valley, and that was an old man headed down the way we came. He had warned us of downed trees ahead.
When we finally reached the summit of Black Gold, we were first greeted by a breathtaking view of the main ridge: the northwest side of the mountain was covered by a mass of rock fragments preventing the growth of vegetation, leaving the way open and clear, providing a panoramic view from Goose Hill Pass on one side and passing along Kobushi-ga-Take and Kokushi-ga-Take before tapering down into the valley. On the furthest extremity, we could even see Mt. Fuji. However, at the summit of Kokushi the ridge turned northwest, obscuring our view of Kinpu and Mizugaki.
And yet, looking carefully at a low spot, I could just see, hardly a speck, a small protrusion of rock rising just barely above the ridge. It was, it had to be, the famous spire of rock that marked the summit of Kinpu. Despite the vast distance between us and the fact that spire stood only 15 meters tall, even I could recognize that prominent feature, even though I had only read Fukuda’s description of it. It was so small, it was even invisible in the photographs I took.
We set camp in the shelter of the pines just below from the highest point on the mountain. On my advice, we opted to forgo the tent and simply sleep under the stars side by side. Bags arranged, we set about making dinner: a pot of ramen and a pot of curry and rice cooked on my handy alcohol stove, which made from a couple of beer cans and held together by aluminum tape. As the stove is rather unwieldy I tasked myself with cooking; meanwhile, Dylan built a fire, though we decided to wait until full dark to light it.
The sun began to set. As luck would have it, it set directly behind the ridge ahead of us. We took countless photos, trying to capture that perfect balance of sunset light. It’s a delicate process, and only a few met my standards.
With that, the sun set and we admitted defeat. And yet, we felt no disappointment. For although we reach our goal we were nonetheless provided a stunning view that we had not at all anticipated, and was all the more beautiful for the knowledge that so few people passed through here to see it. Dylan even remarked that maybe we were the first foreigners to have done so. He might very well have been right about that.
Nearing full dark, Dylan lit the fire.
The three of us sat close, absorbing what we could of the fire’s heat as the warm daylight air faded into a chilly highland night. Among the trees, the small patches of remaining snow foretold a wintery night. We passed around a whiskey bottle, but didn’t drink so much. Before long, we retired to our sleeping bags. It was only 9:00 pm. But, we were exhausted, and we had a long hike the next day to make up for our setbacks. We would rise at the first light of dawn.
© Brian Heise, 2018