Summer Trip 2018 Part 6: Split Heart Syndrome

At long last, the final part of the story of my 2018 visit to Japan’s Southern Alps. Be sure to check out parts one, two, three, four, and five if you haven’t seen them yet. If you like this post, be sure to leave a comment below!

 

Chapter 17: Noticing Small Things

“I’m going on break in an hour; how about joining me for a walk on the nature trail down the valley?”

That was Sumako, who worked at Komorebi Lodge in Northvale Pass (北沢峠) high in Japan’s Southern Alps. She and I had become friendly the day before while I was recovering after some six hours hiking in the wind and rain, readying myself for the next day’s climb to the summit of the Peak of the Colt. But now it was late in the morning the next day and I had not yet started left the hut — because it was still raining.

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Rain

But by now I had given up all hope of reaching there: though the rain varied in intensity from light drizzle to a torrent, it just wouldn’t stop. So now, here I was with Sumako, walking the forest in a light spell, I with my heavy full-frame dSLR and she with a small Nikon point-and-shoot. I was looking around trying to capture the beauty of the forest, but Sumako kept leaning in close to the ground or to trees to take macro shots.

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The forest path

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“What are you looking at?” I asked.

“Mushrooms,” she replied. “I always like coming out here to take pictures of them.” There are so many interesting ones in this area. They have so many beautiful shapes and colors! Most people don’t even notice them.”

It sounded like she might have been talking about me. I looked down at the camera in my hand, fitted with a wide angle lens, specially designed for those perfect shots of distant mountains, but poorly suited for photographing anything up close. I had hardly considered that such small scale beauty existed, let alone that it was worth photographing. But when she came forward to show me the shots she’d saved on her camera, I realized how wrong I had been. From then on, I have tried to pay more attention to that.

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Chapter 18: How Times Have Changed

The trees opened up and we came out at a paved road, and by the road stood a small mountain lodge, beautifully constructed from pine.

“I know the old couple who owns this lodge,” Sumako said. “They’ve lived here for decades you know. They even built this lodge with their own hands. In those days, there wasn’t even a road here. You had to walk from the bottom.”

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The interior of the lodge

As we approached, an old man came out. He waved to us.

“Suma-chan! Hello!”

“Hello, grandfather,” she replied.

“I have an interesting story today. You won’t believe it. An an elderly gentleman passed by here. He said he had walked all the way from Ina City. And what’s more, it wasn’t because he just liked walking — he didn’t even know there was a road here! Apparently all he knew about the area was from a map that he had acquired some thirty years ago, before the roads were put in. And to think, it took him several days to get here but he it would have been only a few hours if he had just taken the bus.”

I could only imagine what kind of simple country fellow would have ended up doing something like that, especially since a simple internet search would have yielded all that information. Sumako just smiled, but I imagined it was more in response to the man’s will and determination that it was at his expense.

“My, the times have changed,” the old man said, looking out at the misty valley. But some have hardly noticed.

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Chapter 18: Split Heart Syndrome

Raindrops glinted on the window of the bus. The engine rumbled to life and the wheels began to turn. Outside, the Noro River raged in gorge far below, swollen with rainwater. Countless waterfalls tumbled down from the high ridges and down rock faces to feed the torrent. It was beautiful. And in a few hours it was gone and I was home.

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What do you call the feeling you get when you see the flowers of spring, knowing they will be disappear in a week? What’s the feeling you get when you look at a photo of your children from a decade before knowing you’ll never see them like that again? That feeling of knowing that something precious will never endure. The Japanese once called it mono-no-aware, or the pathos of existence.

I feel it now when I think about home. The place I knew as a child faded away like an old polaroid, and I hardly noticed until it was gone. I think that’s what they meant when they said you can never really go back. I thought it meant you wouldn’t want to, but really they meant that the place you knew wouldn’t be there even if you did go back. Nostalgia and homesickness roll into one — the pain of the past tied to the memory of a home that no longer exists.

And though I had been in Northvale Pass for hardly a day, I felt these feelings as I watched the scenery pass me by. It was like watching cherry blossoms fall spring, or the red maples as they fade to brown every autumn. It was like moving to a new city, knowing that the moments you shared with the people you’re leaving will never come back. The place and the people will always be different. They’ll change without you. And you’ll change too.

Remember that hackneyed old piece of wisdom? Home is where the heart is. It doesn’t really capture the truth of the emotion. A person who leaves home always finds a new one. And yet a person can’t have more than one heart. So what do you do? You go to a place, and it gets into your heart, but when you leave, you can’t take the place with you so instead you leave behind a piece of yourself. In the end, you’re split. From the first cut, you can never escape that feeling, because you’re chased by the knowledge that wherever you are, you’ll be bleeding for a place where you’re not. But you don’t want to go back because if you do you’ll be left with a whole new wound. Yet, for some reason, you just keep going.


© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 5: Sheltering in Northvale Pass

This post is Part 5 in a multi-part series on my trip to Japan’s Southern Alps in the summer of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 as well. And, of course, be sure to leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

Chapter 15: Sighting the Colt

The first time I was struck by the view of Tomuraushi was from Tokachi-dake. When you look north from the summit of Biei Fuji beyond the long-ridged Oputateshike there is a dynamic mountain, conspicuously tall, raising up a rough rocky peak like a bull’s horn. It was Tomuraushi, and she captured my heart firmly. I have to climb her. I resolved to do it.

Fukuda Kyûya, “Tomuraushi”
In Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains

Time and again Fukuda tells similar experiences of sighting a far off peak and becoming instantly infatuated, of feeling that insubstantial pull at the heart that draws a lover of mountains onward to the summit. I’ve climbed many mountains across Japan and Korea, but the first time I truly understood this emotion was the day I laid eyes on the Peak of the Colt in the old state of Kai (Kai Koma-ga-Take, 甲斐駒ヶ岳).

Tianyu and I had risen relatively late on the third morning of our trip in the Southern Alps, not being particularly keen to put on our wet clothes in the cool morning air. After a day of more rain than not on our long trek from North Peak Lodge to our present location on the lower slopes of Senjo Peak, the last thing we wanted was to feel the touch of wet, rough clothing on our skin once more. But, we were nonetheless coaxed out of our reticence by bright morning light: the clouds and rain had cleared during the night, allowing yellow rays to filter through the branches to land on our tent. Quickly we packed and set off on our way once more.

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Tianyu in the trees
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An old Suntory whiskey bottle near the pond
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The marker at the top of Ina Mountain
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Sunlight through the trees

The trees were still dense around us as we gradually moved upward, but we occasionally got glimpses of the mountains as we went. We saw far off Saltview Peak (Shiome-dake, 塩見岳) to the south, another of the 100 Famous Mountains. Closer, to the east were the North Peak and the Peak of the Gap, which we had passed over on the two previous days. They were beautiful, to be sure, but none of them surpassed the sweeping mountains-capes of the previous day. That is, until we saw the Peak of the Colt.

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Saltview Peak (Shiomi-dake, 塩見岳) in the distance
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A glade
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The Peak of Gap (間ノ岳); our route from yesterday descends on the right
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Red berries
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North Peak (right) and Peak of the Gap (left)
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The broad view

I might have missed the sight, intent as I was on photographing those mountains to the south and east. As we moved up the slopes, however, the trees open up like a window towards the northeast, letting in a stream of yellow morning light so bright I had to blink several times. There, right in the center of that window lay perfectly framed a great rocky dome of a peak raised resolutely against a blue sky laced with white wisps. It seemed formidable, impenetrable, and yet as elegant as a well-preserved French castle. Fukuda had said that Senjo needed time to appreciate its beauty, but this captured me instantly. I knew that I had to climb it.

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The Peak of the Colt in Kai

From then on, I began to see the Peak of the Colt in Kai as my ultimate goal for the trip.

Chapter 16: Senjô

My footsteps quickened somewhat, urged on by the desire to pass the treeline to get a better view of the Colt. But, as we climbed higher mist began to roll in, and by the time we reached the level of the shrubby creeping pines, who crawled low enough to the ground that they didn’t block our view, the far off mountains were once more completely obscured.

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Tianyu in the creeping pines; the clouds have already obscured the tops of the mountains

And then it began to rain. It was light at first, like the spray of mist from a waterfall. But as we went upward, as the trail became rockier, steeper, and more treacherous, so too the storm intensified. Gusts of wind threatened to push us off the mountain. Finally, we reached the summit, but we lingered hardly five minutes before moving on. We were wet, we were tired, and we were disappointed, but only a hundred or so meters down the mountain lay Senjô Hut (仙丈小屋), and we were keen to get inside to dry off and warm up. I resolved to wait out the storm and then hike back up to the summit. Tianyu said he would wait for me here.

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Tired and wet explorers
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A woodstove
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Wind and rain

We both waited there for probably two hours, maybe three, but the rain never stilled and the clouds never cleared. Tianyu was spent.

“The pass down below has a bus stop. I want to catch the last one and go home. I think I’m done. It’s not the rain, it’s not the hard work…but I just don’t think I can take being so dirty another day.” Nonetheless, he was grinning as he spoke.

I had already given up hope that the storm would pass, so I agreed to go with as far as the bus stop. However, I didn’t have any intention of heading home with him, because tomorrow I would attempt stand on the Peak of the Colt.

Chapter 17: Old Friends and New Friends

It took a few more hours to finally reach the valley floor in Northvale Pass (Kitazawa Tôge, 北沢峠). There were two main routes down, a scenic ridge route and another that snaked downward along the side in the shelter of the trees; needless to say, we took the latter and were none the worse for it for the rain never cleared the whole way.

At the bottom we met a fairly well maintained gravel road with a large shelter filled with benches that served for a bus stop. Tianyu entered directly, dropped his bag, and sat down with a look of relief on his face. I, feeling rather chilled by the hours spent in the cold wind and rain, opted to go into the nearby Komorebi Lodge to get a cup of coffee and warm up. Tianyu decided to stay at the stop. Before I left he turned to me with a smile and said, “I had fun. Let’s do this again.” And that was the last I saw of him for more than month.

I tramped up to the lodge and stepped inside. It was dimly lit, but it was so dark outside that my eyes didn’t have to adjust at all. I found a spot to drop my bag, already beginning to mentally prepare myself for being more or less alone for the next 36 hours or so. Or so I thought.

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Woodstove
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Bunks

While ordering a coffee the woman at the counter was so surprised that I could speak Japanese that she immediately leaped into a series of questions about what I was doing in Japan and where I was from. I started talking about my hiking projects, about trying to climb the 100 Famous Mountains and hiking the Fureai Trail. Soon she called over the rest of the staff and for some 30 minutes we all talked together, more like old friends than people who were meeting for the first time.

I was reminded about the night when I first met Tianyu and how we instantly became friends upon meeting. There truly is something about lovers of mountains that connects across culture and language. No matter the background, no matter the difference in age or income, we understand each other clearly. At that moment in Komorebi Lodge, I really felt for one of the few times in my life that I was in a place where I truly belonged.

“Hey look, the rain stopped!” someone pointed out. I looked out the window and, sure enough, bright sunlight was shining. We all went outside to look, and took a group photo.

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Friends

With that I departed, but promised to return the next day. As much as I was enjoying myself, it was time to go set up my tent and prepare for my ascent to the top of the Peak of the Colt.


© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 4: The Long Road to Senjo Peak

This article is Part 4 of a series on my visit to Japan’s Southern Alps in the summer of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 as well.

Chapter 11: Gazing on Senjo Peak

We got our first glimpse of our destination for the next day before we even set out from North Peak Lodge. Having finished photographing the sunrise, I walked back up to the crest of the ridge to see what had been hidden behind the clouds and mist on the previous evening. Looking out across the wide valley where the headwaters of the Noro River begin their long journey to Broad Riverbed, I spotted a lone mountain raising a rocky head high above the surrounding land. I knew that this had to be Senjo Peak.

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Senjo Peak (千丈岳)

Of all the mountains in the Southern Alps, Fukuda, author of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains, liked this one the best.  He wrote:

“More than anything, she has a good form. She’s neither a simple pyramid nor a dull mass. It’s that point of being neither dull nor frivolous that I like. She has a refined quality. You wouldn’t notice at first glance, but after looking again and again you gradually come to understand her virtues. She’s that kind of mountain.”

Truth be told, I also didn’t notice anything particularly special about it when I first looked — it was just another of the many beautiful mountains. After reading Fukuda’s words again, though, I did begin to appreciate the shape of the mountain a bit more. The thing that Fukuda draws attention to specifically is fact that it has three well-formed cirques, that is spots where ancient glaciers carved out depressions in the mountain’s surface that resemble amphitheaters. Two of these are visible in the above photo. Although cirques are not unheard of in Japan, according to Fukuka, possessing so many of such quality sets it apart.

When I stood there gazing off at the mountain, though, I was more interested in that long, low ridge extending southward, as seen on the left side of the photograph. This was our route of approach, and I was rather pleased to have the rare chance to get such a clear view of it ahead of time. After passing over the Peak of the Gap later that morning, we would descend back below the treeline and into that forested ridge, where we would camp for the night. On the next morning, we would then finish our ascent to that far off peak.

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The red line marks the route.

Chapter 12: Race Against Rain

By the time we reached the summit of the Peak of the Gap, though, Senjo was no longer visible: the mist had returned and the clouds had darkened, warning of an impending storm. We knew we had to be on our way. Once below the treeline on the ridge, we would be safe no matter the weather, but between us and there was a steep and rocky descent to Three Peaks (Mibu-dake, 三峰岳), and from there and even steeper and more treacherous descent to the treeline. We set off.

At Three Peaks, the clouds pulled back somewhat, revealing gorgeous ridgelines. Sun even managed to shine through in places. I pulled out the camera to take some shots, feeling like we may have dodged the rain after all. However, as I was packing it away, I noticed that some raindrops had fallen on my lens.

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Panorama from the saddle at the base of Three Peaks
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The descent from the Peak of the Gap
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Panorama from the summit of Three Peaks

We began our descent once more, but we had hardly made it fifteen minutes when the sky opened up on us.

 

Chapter 13: Rain, Then and Again

We were wading through a thicket of creeping pines (haimatsu, 這松) when the rain arrived. These low alpine shrubs form nearly impenetrable masses of brush on high mountaintops all across Japan, and even when there are well maintained trails they tend to reach out rough tendrils to snatch at passerby. In our case, given the narrowness of the rocky ridge, they actually served to make us safer as they prevented us from tumbling down to the left or right regardless of how slippery the path was; on the downside, those spindly needled branches, similar to those on a fir tree, held tight to the rainwater. That is, until we brushed up against them. At that point, all of that water would tumble straight down our shins and into our shoes, soaking our feet. So much for water-resistant boots.

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Tianyu standing waist-deep in creeping pines

At one point we came to a spot where the trail suddenly dropped some eight or ten feet almost straight down with nothing more than a chain strapped to the pines to assist in the descent. In fact, it wouldn’t have been all that daunting in good conditions wearing just a day pack, but with the trail slick with mud and with us carrying a good four days worth of supplies, we had a tough time getting down it.

Eventually though, the rain dropped off as we entered the forest below. We both hoped that, like yesterday, this would be the end of it. However, less than an hour later it returned, only harder than before. Though we were certainly happier to be getting this rain under the shelter of the forest, we were nonetheless pretty dour at this point. We walked in silence for about two hours when the rain finally let up again.

 

Chapter 14: Thunder on the Ridge

It was a pretty gentle downhill stroll from the time we hit the treeline until we reached the lowest part of the ridge, where a spur trail down to the Noro River’s headwaters descended on the right. According to the map at the end of that path there was another mountain hut, roughly an hour’s hike. When the rain had been harder, we debated going there to stay the night and to get out of the rain, but since it had lightened up we chose to keep on to our original destination for the night, a small pond located just before the start of the main ascent to Senjo Peak.

Between us and there, however, was a pair of minor peaks. They weren’t anything high enough to even deserve a proper signboard, but they did require about a hundred meters up and another down to cross over them, so we definitely still had a bit of work ahead of us. It seemed like it would be worth it, though. Our map had marked on the summit of the second peak the characters 露頭, indicating a rocky outcrop. In other words, a good view. As I hadn’t been able to take a single shot since Three Peaks on account of the rain, I was looking forward to it.

As we were descending the far side of the first rise, though, we started to hear something faint off in the distance. It was a booming sound, like maybe a jet hitting sonic boom, or quarry dynamite. But of course, it wasn’t either of those. It was thunder.

“Shit. Tianyu, we gotta get to the pond before the storm comes. I don’t want to set the tent up in the rain.”

With that, I kicked it into high gear. I scrambled up the steep slope to the second peak, sometimes on hands and knees, clambering over rocks and grasping tree roots. Suddenly, the trees fell away and I found myself standing atop a giant rock sticking out above the branches. All around me was mist. I could see just as far as the edge of the rock and the tips of the trees peeking up, but I had no way of knowing just how far there was to fall on either side. Every ten to fifteen seconds, thunder boomed. I had expected this to be an excellent moment for a breathtaking view, but instead I found myself feeling supremely vulnerable.

Shortly after we descended from the rock, the rain came. It wasn’t as heavy as earlier that afternoon, but we were nonetheless drenched all over again in minutes. I think it was probably after another half an hour of walking that we finally came out at the pond. Or what passed for one anyway. There was a beautiful grassy meadow with a puddle in the middle. It certainly looked like it could be a pond if it filled up more, but given all the rain we had recently I had to wonder if it ever would get that far.

Tent set, we crawled inside, stripped off our wet clothes, and wrapped up in our sleeping bags to warm up. In fact, despite being the middle of summer, it was quite chilly with all of that rain coming down. I turned on my NHK news podcast to pass the time.

“Mountain disaster in Gunma Prefecture! Four dead! This morning at 8 a.m…”

I quickly shut it off. Being in mild risk of hypothermia, we weren’t at all in the mood to hear about that kind of thing. We decided to wait out the night in silence.


© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 3: Sunrise at North Peak Lodge

This post is Part 3 in a multi-part series on my trip to Japan’s Southern Alps in the summer of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 as well.

Chapter 8: A Shortcut to Whiskey

It was more than twelve hours since we woke up at sunrise, twelve hours of walking in search of beautiful ridgeline views and, most especially, sunset. But rain and mist had snatched away most of our photo opportunities, however. To be sure, we had managed to take some great photos, but I had to wonder what we had missed behind that grey rain curtain.

After setting up the tent, Tianyu fell fast asleep. I, on the other hand, still felt somewhat energetic, so I set off to the lobby of the lodge to buy an overpriced beer and jot down some notes. Before I could even put one word to paper, however, an older man, perhaps in his 40s, caught my attention with a wave and gestured for me to come join him and his companion, a younger man perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s.

Here we go again, I thought, prepping myself for the same old conversation I have with every old Japanese guy who wants to talk to me. Nonetheless I joined them, though I was somewhat irritated at having been interrupted. As soon as I sat down, though, the man passed a cup of brown liquid to me and asked, “Do you like whiskey?” I then decided that the distraction was welcome.

That run of the mill small talk commenced, but given the fact that my whiskey cup was immediately refilled each time it emptied, I considered pros and cons to be tipped in my favor.

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Myself and the gentleman with the whiskey

“What are your plans for tomorrow?” I asked, wondering if perhaps they were headed in the same direction.

“We’re headed down to Broad Riverbed,” he replied. “We’d like to stay longer, but there’s a typhoon on the way.”

No way, I thought. There was nothing in the forecast when we left. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Here, let me show you,” he pulled out his smartphone and pulled up a weather report. Yes, even up here on this remote mountain, apparently you can still get 3G. Or so I thought; I later found out that the hut had wifi.

His phone confirmed my fears — a big typhoon was headed straight for us and predicted to arrive the following evening. It seemed likely that Tianyu and I would have to radically change our plans. I’d be damned if I had to cut my trip short, though. I began to search my memory of the map for a decent hut along our route where we might shelter out the storm.

Finally, the whiskey bottle was empty. I said goodbye to the old gentleman and his companion, then went back to the tent to get some sleep. The next morning we’d be up before dawn to catch the sunrise. I figured I’d decide what to do then.

 

Chapter 9: Sunrise at North Peak Lodge

We woke in the dim twilight of early morning to find that the mist had cleared. Off in the distance, we could even see Mt. Fuji. Quickly we set up the camera and began to wait for color. Soon, it appeared, creating a stark contrast against the old volcano’s blue outline.

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As we watched, rays of red light signaled the nearness of the sun.

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Had some moisture on my lens.
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Low exposure to make those rays stand out.
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The rays turned pink as they lengthened

People gathered to watch the show.

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Tianyu takes a shot
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Mt. Fuji’s silhouette
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People beginning to take down their tents

 

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Moments before the sun broke the horizon

 

Little by little the rays brightened until the sun rose above the horizon, bathing the world in orange light.

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The golden shot.

Satisfied, we went to pack our gear. As I rolled up my bag and tent, I couldn’t help thinking that those shots made the whole trip worth it, even if we did end up holed up in a hut while waiting out the typhoon for the rest of our stay.

Before we set out, I went into the hut one last time to login to the wifi and check the weather. The result would determine our goals for the day. I waited with some trepidation as the snail-paced signal loaded the report. In the end, though, I was relieved: overnight the pressure system had shifted and with it the typhoon’s path, sending it careening west towards Hong Kong rather than north towards Japan. Next I checked the local weather and saw that we were scheduled to get heavy rain in the afternoon. Well, you can’t win everything it seems, but at least it wasn’t a typhoon. I decided to keep to the original plan.

I laid the map out on the ground and called Tianyu over to review.

“Today we’re going to climb up to the Peak of the Gap before descending down to this long, low ridge here. The thing we have to be careful about is the rain. The first hour or two after passing the summit is supposed to be a fairly dangerous section, really steep with lots of rocks and cliffs and whatnot. We don’t want to be caught on that when the rain comes, so we need to make good time.”

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A look back at North Peak and North Peak Lodge
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A standing stone

 

Chapter 10: The Peak of the Gap

Ai-no-Dake, the Peak of the Gap. It’s a pretty unusual name, isn’t it? Perhaps my translation brings to mind a great chasm of some kind. In reality, though, that impression is just the fault of my rather over-dramatic rendering; in fact, the original Japanese simply implies that the peak is located in the space between two other things. To avoid confusing implications, it might have been more accurate to call it the Peak in the Middle, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it, so I went with Peak of the Gap.

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A craggy ridge extends from the Peak of the Gap toward Mt. Fuji
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The valley we came up yesterday

Given this name, though, one has to wonder what exactly are the two things between which the mountain is located? As it turns out, the mountain is part of a set of three peaks known as the Three Whitepeak Mountains (Shirane Sanzan, 白峰三山); the other two are the North Peak, which we passed over the day before, and also Farmbird Mountain (Notori-yama, 農鳥山) further down the ridge to the south. The Peak of the Gap was so named because it happens to be located in the middle. When you take into account that the ridge runs north to south and the northernmost peak is North Peak, you can see where that mountain got its name as well. It may seem rather unfitting to name such high mountains, among the tallest in the country, so simply, but to me it matches their wild, rugged, and aloof character.

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The Peak of the Gap in the distance
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Deep into the alps
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Another view back at North Peak

Tianyu and I made good time and arrived at the Peak of the Gap well before noon as the route wasn’t particularly difficult. There weren’t many serious ups and downs, but rather the trail remained relatively level, at least compared to yesterday’s hike, but it did follow along some steep slopes. A foot put in the wrong spot would send someone on a long tumble down. The weather stayed clear along the way, that is until we began to approach the top. At that point, wisps of fog started to blow over the ridge from the Fuji side, and by the time we stood at the top, we were mostly surrounded in mist again. For the second time, we reached a summit only to be denied the view. Nonetheless, we sat down for a good rest and some time to think. But, we couldn’t wait too long. The dark color of the clouds warned of rain and we were just about to start on the most dangerous section of the whole trip.


© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 2: Seeking Sunset

This is part two in a multi-part series covering my experiences hiking in Japan’s Southern Alps in August of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1 as well.

Chapter 4: Good Omens in Kofu City

And so I set out for the mountains with a healthy amount of trepidation. The forecast was predicting thunderstorms every day, and I was carrying well over $1,000 of camera equipment with me whose resilience to the weather I was not entirely sure of. Added to that worry was the fact that wouldn’t be able to take the sunset and sunrise photos that I bought the damned thing for if it were even cloudy, let alone rainy.

In spite of the forecast, when I arrived in Kofu City early in the afternoon, the weather was bright and sunny, and though the sky was populated with a herd of white clouds, they didn’t seem in the least bit threatening. I immediately set out to the top of the castle near the station to see if I could get some good shots of the alps. Unfortunately, they were all obscured by clouds, but on the bright side, they were rather photogenic clouds.

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The entrance to Kofu Castle
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Clouds obscure the mountains
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The bailey at Kofu Castle
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Clouds over Kofu City
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An old dojo

Satisfied with the castle, I went back down to the station to get some lunch and a beer while I waited for Tianyu to arrive.

Chapter 5: Premonitions at Broad Riverbed

Tianyu and I boarded the bus to Broad Riverbed (広河原), basecamp for the North Peak (北岳), at around 2:00 pm and set off across the basin towards that broad mass of mountains rising in the west. While we were still within the city, flecks of raindrops started to appear on the windshield, but I wasn’t perturbed at all since the sun was still shining brightly. I figured that it was just a spot shower, and indeed it was: the rain stopped before we even reached the foothills.

The ride to the basecamp took a full two hours of winding along a narrow mountain road cut into the side of a steep slope and occasionally passing through tunnels. Outside our windows, we drank in the views of rugged ridgelines backed by clouds. By the time we got off the bus finally, we had yet to seen another hint of rain.

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Clouds in the valley on the way to the Broad Riverbed

As one might expect from the name, Broad Riverbed was, in fact, spot in the valley in which a rather wide riverbed lay. This was the Noro River, which runs along the foot of North Peak on it’s east side before curving northward all the way around to reach its headwaters on the northwest side of the mountain. Tianyu and I explored around the area a little before making our way over to the campground to set up our tent.

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Broad Riverbed
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The campground
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Tents at Broad Riverbed Campground
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Stacked stones

And then the rain came. It happened so fast we had no time to prepare, but just to dive into the tent and drag in the things we needed to keep dry. I hugged my camera bag tightly to my chest and waited. After fifteen minutes or so, though, the rain slowly tapered off to a light drizzle and then stopped completely. We felt pretty lucky that that was all we got, but we were now a little bit more worried about what might happen the next day.

 

Chapter 5: The Grey Curtain

The first thing we noticed when we woke was that the sky was clear. Feeling high spirited in our good luck, we packed quickly and began the ascent. It was steep, and our packs laden with four days of food weighed our bodies down heavily, but not our spirits. Quickly we progressed up the trail, and arrived at Whiteroot Pond Hut (白根御池小屋) before 10 am. We stopped there for a long rest. The Three Phoenix Mountains were visible on the next ridge, backed by gorgeous cloud cover. With such perfect photography weather, I was eager to get past the treeline, so we departed quickly.

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Left to North Peak, right to Broad Riverbed
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Boardwalks over treacherous areas
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Whiteroot Pond Hut
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Adventurers
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The campground at Whiteroot Pond Hut
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The Three Phoenix Mountains
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Looking down on Whiteroot Pond

From the hut the trail went almost straight up the slope towards the ridgeline, so it was hard going and we made slow progress. Suddenly, thick mist began to roll down on us from the ridge above and not long thereafter the heavens opened up in a torrential downpour so strong that even our ponchos were of no avail and we were quickly soaked. Channels of erosion opened up in the pathway right before our eyes, and slipping quickly became a pressing worry. When we reached the ridgeline about an hour later, however, the rain stopped just as suddenly as it started. We were thankful for that, but we had to endure the knowledge that after more than six hours of climbing in sunny weather we had finally broke past the treeline only to be surrounded by an impenetrable layer of mist.

 

Chapter 7: Silver Glass

It was probably around two or three in the afternoon when we arrived at the Hut on Kita-dake’s Shoulder (北岳肩の小屋), the last refuge before the summit. We settled down for a bowl of noodles and a cup of wine to take the edge off the hard climb. Checking the map, we determined that we had enough time to summit North Peak and then proceed as far as North Peak Lodge (北岳山荘) at at the bottom of the saddle between it and the Peak of the Gap (間ノ岳). At this point, I had pretty well resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t get any good shots that day.

No matter how much attention I put into my ramen and wine — and I can tell you, it was a lot — it wasn’t enough for me to miss a shift in the color in my peripheral vision from white to green. Turning my head slightly, I saw that a gap had appeared in the mist, revealing a swath of mountains to the north. I let out a shout, grabbed the the camera, and dashed off down the ridge, leaving behind a momentarily bewildered Tinayu. But he caught up to me in no time.

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Tianyu prepares to eat his noodles
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The clouds open up

We set off from the hut with our spirits lifted. Though mist still wrapped the mountainside, great gaps kept opening here and there, offering glimpses of what lay beyond. At one point, I turned back to photograph the way we came and caught Tianyu grinning like he’d just won a million dollars.

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Towards the North Peak from the Hut on North Peak’s Shoulder

Unfortunately, not long after we resumed the curtain slammed shut once more and shortly thereafter the rain returned, though only a light drizzle this time. We spent a futile half hour on the summit waiting, but the situation didn’t change, so I busied myself with photographing the flora.

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The North Peak’s grey summit
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Mountain Flora 1
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Mountain Flora 2

We continued on in disappointment along a rough, rocky, and treacherous descent toward the lodge. After a time, we saw its red roof far below us. Sunset was approaching as we neared, when suddenly the clouds pealed back revealing a brilliantly shining sun illuminating green slopes touched with outcroppings of white rock. Far off, the ridges of the North Alps were visible. In that moment, I was reminded of a passage from the Lord of the Rings: “[T]he grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

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Approaching sunset
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Looking down on North Peak Lodge

A crowd gathered from the lodge, and together we and some 40 people watched, waiting for the brilliant colors of sunset to arrive. Minutes from the point when the sun would touch those far off northern alps, however, a bank of mist rolled in from behind and swallowed us up. The mist turned brilliant gold, a bare hint of the gorgeous sunset that had just fallen beyond our reach. After waiting for a few minutes, we gave up went to set camp.


© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 1: The Anniversary

Chapter 1
Rain

Never again. That’s what I thought while I limped my way down from Goose Hill Pass one year ago. Sure, on that trip I saw some spectacular views that showcased the charm of that fairyland that is the Japanese alps.

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A large meadow near Goose Pass

Not only that, I met for the first time my now year-long hiking friend Tianyu, who introduced Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains to me, setting me on the path that would lead me to the very story I’m about to tell you today.

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Tianyu

But, I also endured 24 hours severe wind and rain, the fierce offspring of a typhoon that traveled the length of Japan from Kyushu all the way to that spur ridge in the mountains  where I happened to be. Though I spent the night safely with my new friend in a hut at the summit of Moss Peak (霧藻ヶ峰) and thoroughly dried myself out by the side of a roaring woodstove fire, the rain returned the next morning to drench me once more, leading to severe foot damage through the gradual accumulation of thousands of steps worth of infinitesimal wear exacerbated by the roughness of wet socks on skin.

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The smokey interior of the hut

Never again, I said. From here on out, it’s only sunshine hikes for me.

Then there I was one year later, set to enter the high mountains once more, a bit older, a little wiser, and all the more desireful of sunny skies and, more importantly, dryness — because I would be carrying with me my first dSLR camera, recently purchased to bring the photos I started taking for this very blog from the amateur smartphone level to that of the pros. Putting together my desire for beautiful sunsets and sunrises, panoramic mountainscapes, and starry night skies together with the fear of ruining my new toy with an unhealthy dose of water, rain was to be avoided at all costs.

 

Chapter 2:
The Lay of the Land

I set my sights on the North Peak, Kita-dake (北岳). Standing at a height of 3192 meters, this lofty mountain located in central Honshu’s Southern Alps is second only to Fuji himself. Yet in spite of their similarity in height, these two mountains are of entirely different character. Fuji is a regal mountain, towering high above his nearby vassals, none of whom dare approach him, but rather cower at the edges of the basin where that king of mountains sits upon his purple throne. Kita-dake, in contrast, is a humble mountain who, though the tallest among his lot, is nonetheless merely the first among peers who share similar stature and mien.

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An old photo of Fuji I took some ten years ago.

Furthermore, Fuji is a mountain of the civilized world, surrounded on all sides by human settlement, easily accessible; Kita-dake is a wild, tribal mountain to be found deeply isolated within a large range, inaccessible, unattainable mass of mountains. Even centuries ago, reaching the summit of Fuji was easier than reaching that of the North Peak. In the old days, a visit to the crown of Fuji would begin from one of the many villages at his feet before ascending up and back down in a two-day round-trip.

In contrast, a visit to Kita-dake’s rocky summit required a trek of at least two days along the Noro River, the great waterway that carved a deep valley cutting far into the alps to the peak’s very foot. Upon reaching the point called Broad Riverbed (Hirokawara, 広河原), where the river widens from a narrow canyon into a wide and rocky channel, the path turns to the ascent proper. It was a full-day’s ascent to the top from there, followed by the two to three days it would take to return back to the nearest city. In all, it must have taken at the least four full days, if not more, to make a round trip to and from that far peak.

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Broad Riverbed (広河原)

Today, the situation has changed: the mountain can be summitted in but a single day owing to the construction of the Noro River Forest Road (野呂川林道), built some seventy years ago. Thanks to that winding mountain road cut into the steep valley walls, and the tunnels burrowed through the mountain to avoid places where it would otherwise be impossible to lay a road, the summit of the mountain can now be reached in but a single day from Kofu City, though the round trip would still take a minimum of two. Regarding this, Fukuda wrote, “Even the North Peak, which is a deep interior mountain, has become easily climbable. Should I be happy or should I be sad? For me, it is the latter.” When I imagine what the adventure of a Kita-dake expedition must have been like in Fukuda’s youth, I have to say that I feel the same way.

 

Chapter 3
The Plan

Nonetheless, man of adventure that I am, the fact that I could reach the summit Kita-dake in just a day necessitated a broader goal. Given how ripe the Southern Alps are with famous peaks (there are at least ten), I set out to summit as many as I could in the four or five days that I was limited to by the amount of food my bag could hold. After consulting the maps, I set my sights on the following course.

Tianyu and I would take the bus to Wide Riverbed in the afternoon of the first day and camp near Broad Riverbed Lodge (Hirokawara Sanso, 広河原山荘). The next day we would rise early and climb to the summit before descending along the ridge a little further to Kita-dake Lodge, which lay at the lowest point in the saddle ridge between Kita-dake and our next target, Ai-no-Dake, the Peak of the Gap. We would pass over this peak on the next morning, and following that we would descend along a steep and narrow rocky ridge to Three Summits Peak before descending down to a long, low wooded ridgeline that would carry us to Senjo-ga-Take (仙丈ケ岳) on the morning of the third day. Later that afternoon, we would arrive in North Valley Pass (Kitazawa Toge, 北沢峠), where we would spend a lazy time before getting up early the next morning for a round trip to the Peak of the Colt (Koma-ga-Take, 駒ヶ岳) before taking the bus back to civilization that evening. You can see the full map here.

Plans made, the next step was to pick the dates. Since I had two weeks of vacation time in August, I was sure that I could find four days of good weather in which to place this hike. Except for one problem: as I was reading through the booklet accompanying the map, I read a disheartening sentence: “Be aware that thunderstorms form over these mountains every afternoon, so be sure to carry your rain gear!”

Every day. Every day? Now way. I immediately went to the mountain forecast to check. Sure enough, storms were predicted for every single day. Every single damned day of my two week vacation would get a thunderstorm, and for one of the days even a typhoon. Remembering my fateful hike exactly one year before and my vow never to repeat it, it goes without saying that I was somewhat unhappy about these circumstances. But did I give up? No. I’m a little too stubborn for that.


The story continues next week. Be sure to check in for the first leg of the journey.

© Brian Heise, 2018

Fureai Saitama Intermission: Thoughts on the Shores of the Rough River

A Walk Through Minano Town

Heat waves shimmered over the pavement as I made my way steadily through Minano Town (皆野町), moving steadily across the wide valley that separated Section 6 and Section 7 of Saitama’s portion of the Fureai Trail. As usual, I didn’t pay too much attention to the maps when I set out, but now that I lacked the guidance of trail markers, I took a closer look. I was surprised to find, though, that I would soon be crossing the Arakawa, or Rough River, whose mouth flows into Tokyo Bay not far from where I live. I hadn’t had any idea that this was where it’s upper reaches lay. Nonetheless, at that moment it was just a mere curiosity as I hadn’t found the river particularly interesting being that it was nothing more than a channelized waterway flowing sluggishly out into the ocean. Really, there wasn’t a thing rough about it.

But I walked on. Soon after crossing the train tracks the road descended quickly and suddenly the ground fell away on either side leaving behind just the road, a narrow bridge spanning a shallow gorge. Below a wide river flowed swiftly eastward along a rocky cliff on the south shore, and on the north there lay a long, flat gravel bar where a group of people sat relaxing in the sunshine. A few children were playing in the shallows and great wooden boats laden with tourists launched periodically. I stopped for a moment to enjoy the cool breeze blowing off the water, and the sound and scent of fresh flowing water. Soon, I wandered off in thought.

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The Rough River

Other Rivers

Some 10 years ago I was employed as a van driver in New York City shuttling people back and forth between the Fordham University’s Bronx and Manhattan campuses. This was my first time living so far away from home for such an extended period of time, and naturally as the months passed I gradually began to recognize the things that I had taken for granted in my old life that I was now beginning to sorely miss. One of those things was the sound and smell of fresh riverwater.

My hometown was a rather isolated little place located in the northern half of the Ozark Plateau in Southeast Missouri. The whole area is a dense thicket of forests filled with nearly impassable underbrush and low but steep hills and dry creekbeds, but running through the biggest of the valleys were beautifully clean, pristine rivers flowing with dark green and blue mineral water. It was along these rivers that settlements in the area invariably formed, settlements like Van Buren along the banks of the Current River, my home. As a child I couldn’t imagine letting a summer pass by without spending every moment possible swimming, fishing, bluff jumping, or just relaxing by that cool water while enjoying a sound and smell that words can’t quite capture as well as the experience.

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Owl’s Bend on the Current River, March 2017

“What do you miss most about home?” The passenger sitting next had been moving one by one through those same few questions that just about everyone asks when they find out you weren’t born in the place you happen to be at the moment. At the time we were speeding along next to the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan, blessedly without any traffic to slow us down. That broad body of salt water stretched out to the Jersey side, a drab grey color wafting forth an unpleasant odor that I was all too glad to be far enough away not to smell. Somewhere down there I knew a fair amount of trash was floating.

I didn’t miss a beat. “I miss having a river.”

She gave me a puzzled look, and then gestured out the window. “But that’s a river, isn’t it?” she said.

I returned her look with one of my own. Of all the wonderful things that the river I grew up with had to offer, this polluted urban monstrosity of a waterway offered not a single one. Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that didn’t think of it as a river at all.


The Rough River

It’s been years now since I’ve lived on the shores of a fresh mountain river, but the memory of a childhood lived in such a place never really fades away — it just goes dormant until something wakes it up. Something like sights, sounds, and smells of the Rough River in the summer.

Later I walked down to the riverside, where I watched some tourists from southeast Asia jumping off a large rock into a deep pool as kayakers practiced in a nearby rapid. From time to time, those large wooden boats laden with visitors passed by.

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The Rough River

Meanwhile, I sat by the water with my bare feet dangling in, reminiscing about times past, and summers long ago spent with my friends on the Current River. I craved to spend a summer like that again, but these days I don’t have a single friend nearby who appreciates these rivers the way I do and more than a few who can’t understand why I’d want to spend a hot summer day there when I could just stay in with the air conditioner. After some thought, I decided I was just as happy to be here to enjoy it alone.


© Brian Heise, 2018

100 Famous Mountains: Odai-ga-Hara (Part II)

This post is part 2 of a two part series on my visit to Odai-ga-Hara, one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. Be sure to check out part 1 first.


The Arrival at Odai-ga-Hara

After about 5 hours in transit, we finally arrived at the Odai-ga-Hara National Park parking lot, the end of the road. It seems rather unbelievable, but this whole highway winding through the mountains for so many kilometers seems to have been built for the sole purpose of reaching the park and nothing more. The older I get and the more conscious I am of the cost of things, I had to wonder how much taxes were spent making a road whose only purpose is to make it easier for hikers to visit a famous mountain. I for one, who prefers mountains to remain somewhat inaccessible, would think that money could have been better spent somewhere else.

We had known from the start that the bus would take us relatively close to the top of the mountain, we didn’t quite realize was that the parking lot was located hardly stone’s throw from Hide-ga-Take, the highest point in the park. Odai-ga-Hara, being in reality more of a plateau than a peak, apparently meant that the only place suitable to place a parking lot in these rugged and steep mountains would either have been right at the bottom or right at the top. It seems the latter was chosen.

The consequence to the hiking experience at this mountain was drastic. Far from experiencing a rugged hike to the top of an inaccessible mountain, the path turned out to be a relatively level circular nature walk fit for even young children and the elderly. Without a doubt, it was the most accessible of the 100 Famous Mountains that I’d visited so far. Even Mt. Tsukuba, which stands less than 1000 meters high, is still steep enough to be a somewhat formidable climb to the casual hiker, assuming they didn’t just decide to take the cable car up.

On the bright side, though, the facilities at Odai-ga-Hara are excellent. There are several mess halls and a gift shop as well as a beautiful visitor center filled with displays, though everything is written only in Japanese. Additionally, there are also two lodges — lodges I say, not shanty huts like I’m used to finding in such high places — so those interested in catching the view of the sunrise from the platform at Hide-ga-Take can do so without having to spend the night in a tent. I have to say I was somewhat disappointed that I wouldn’t get the chance to experience it myself.

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The Visitor Center
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A Mess Hall

 

A view to the Sea

There are several hiking routes around Odai-ga-Hara ranging from less than an hour to the longest at a total of three hours; naturally, we took the longest route, which wraps around the outer edges of the park and visits the park’s most scenic views. We set off with a crowd of other hikers.

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Hikers set out for Hide-ga-Dake

The trail initially passes through a relatively sparse forest floored with bamboo grass as it winds up a moderately steep slope. Along the way, we passed a spring welling up along the side of the trail, the result of rainwater seeping in through the plateau above and re-emerging here.

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A clearing backed by pines
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Sparse forest and bamboo grass
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A spring gurgles across the path

Upon reaching the top the trees fall back and the view opens up completely, revealing a broad vista extending of into an expanse of blue sky descending down seemingly much lower than it should until, at second glance, one realizes that the blue below the cloudline is none other than the ocean. Apparently the mountain road that carried us here brought us deceptively long distance, all the away across the peninsula to the sea.

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A view to the sea
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Deer trails crisscross the bamboo grass
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The broad view
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Pines
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Dylan walks the path

Odai-ga-Hara: Then and Now

The only photo of this mountain to be found in my edition of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains shows a dense, foggy forest completely covered in a thick layer of moss. However, the land around us was nearly treeless and floored not by moss but by bamboo grass. It was an entirely different scene. How did the mountain come to be the way it is today?

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Withered trees

The cause of the change was the Ise Bay Typhoon, also known as Typhoon Vera, which is recorded as the worst storm in modern Japanese history. The storm made landfall in September 1959, making a direct hit on the Kii Peninsula before swinging northward and running almost directly over the entire northern half of Honshu before swinging east out over the Pacific Ocean. According to the Wikipedia article, an equivalent of roughly $5 billion of damage was inflicted and more than 4000 people died. To get an idea of the massive scale of the storm, Fukuda himself laments about the fact that it knocked down a primordial forest at Daisetsu-yama in Hokkaido, roughly 1000 km north of Ôdai-ga-Hara.

Apparently, the fierce winds of the typhoon struck down most of the trees in a large swath of the park. With the forest thinned, the mossy ground became exposed to direct sunlight and so became unable to maintain it’s water content. Consequently, it died off, leaving open ground for the bamboo grass to move in. The result is the wide open fields you see today.

 

Cowstone Field and Great Serpent Bluff

Scenic as the fields of bamboo grass are, there isn’t much variation in the landscape through most of the route, though in general as you travel further away from the ocean, the tree coverage begins to thicken some, which I suppose is due to the fact that the elevation lowers somewhat, which probably provided some shelter from the strongest winds of the Ise Bay Typhoon.

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Cowstone Field (牛石原)

However, not long after passing Cowstone Field, where the statue of Emperor Jimmu stands, the trail leads down to possibly the most majestic view of the whole park: Daija-gura, Great Serpent Bluff (大蛇嵓). There, the trail descends right down to the edge of the cliff. With no trees obstructing the view, one is treated to a wide panorama of the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, including some massive waterfalls tumbling down the cliffs in the distance. Though they look tiny from so far away, one can imagine the their immense scale.

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The path to the bluff
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Mountains
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The waterfall, close up
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The bluff

 

Shiokara Valley

The last section of trail is also the steepest, descending sharply down into Shiokara Valley, a deep ravine cut by the main stream flowing out of the park. On the way, the trail passes through a colony of rhododendrons. When we visited, they were only a few light pink blossoms had opened, but it was enough to imagine how spectacular it would look when they reached their peak.

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A blossoming rhododendron
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Rhododendrons
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Shiokara Valley
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Crossing the bridge

Passing over it via a suspension bridge, the trail rises steeply again before depositing hikers back in the parking lot. Dylan and I made a bee-line for the mess hall hoping for a beer and a late lunch, but to our surprise the place was already shut down for the day despite the fact that it wasn’t even 3 o’clock yet. Disappointed, we settled down and waited for the bus back.

Back to the Valley

Once we finally returned to the station, we decided to spend a bit of time walking along the shores of the Yoshino River. The place was quite scenic and appeared to be an excellent place to spend an afternoon. Personally, I would easily have traded the day we spent pushing through the crowded temples of Kyoto for one spent enjoying the cool waters of this nearly deserted mountain river.

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A bridge on the reservoir
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The Yoshino River
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Gravel on the Yoshino River

Famous mountain count: 6

© Brian Heise, 2018

100 Famous Mountains: Odai-ga-Hara (Part I)

The Statue on the Mountain

Far south of Tokyo, there lies a broad, flat, and fertile plain crisscrossed by rivers, hemmed in by mountains to the north, south, and east, and fronted by sea to the west. This is Kansai (関西), the cradle of Japanese civilization, the area of the country most rich in history, and more than a little myth and legend. It is home to the old capital Kyoto (京都), the older capital Nara (奈良), and the land of the founders of the first Japanese state, the Yamato (大和).

Clearly a haven to fans of famous temples and castles, the region leaves little excite those who seek famous mountains. But isn’t wholly devoid. South of Kansai lies the Kii Peninsula (紀伊半島), a veritable thicket of mountains comprising of two great ranges, the Ômine (大峰) and the Daikô (台高). At the highest point of the latter of these lies Ôdai-ga-hara (大台ヶ原), a sprawling plateau filled with wide fields of bamboo grass beneath broad blue sky. In one of these fields large stones lie left and right like resting cattle, and here and there small, crystal clear pools of water gather several meters in diameter.

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The field of bamboo grass
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A clear pool

And there in the field stands a tall figure of man. Sword at his waist, bow in hand, and falcon perched atop, his right hand is raised to block the sun as he gazes out into the east. This is a statue of Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan. Though it’s hard to say whether Jimmu existed at all, let alone whether he ever stood in this field, the image is powerful: the warrior king delving deep into the wild mountains accompanied by his hunting falcon, braving danger while surveying the land over which he ruled. It’s a story told by no more than the name of the man and the place.

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The statue of Jimmu

Going South

On the day I stood there back in May of this year (2018), a cold mountain wind was blowing to spite the warm sun. Accompanied by Dylan, my geologist friend from Minnesota, we were feeling thoroughly satisfied at having reached this place after failing in our attempt to reach two other mountains of a three-day trip in the alps of central Honshu just a few days before.

At the end of that earlier trip, Dylan and I had finally arrived back in Tokyo around 5 p.m. We were exhausted but we had no time to rest as we were due to board the bus to Osaka just before midnight. After a trip to the sauna and the laundromat to fulfill our needs for physical and material cleanliness, we met up with Ivy and Sophie, a couple nice Chinese ladies, for dinner at a local Thai restaurant before rushing off to Ikebukuro, where we were joined by Sky, another friend from China, shortly before boarding the bus. With that, we five set off south for the Japan’s L.A. Needless to say, we slept easily the whole way.

It seemed like no time had passed at all when we arrived, and so the sightseeing began, including visits to sauna’s, reconstructed medieval castles, and temples galore at the nearby old capitals of Nara and Kyoto. Not one much for conventional tourism, I focused on enjoying the company of the China trio while biding my time for the real goal: Ôdai-ga-Hara. After failing to reach Kinpu and Mizugaki hardly 24 hours earlier, we was eager to get at least one mountain off the list this vacation. Nonetheless, we waited patiently as the appointed day approached, frequently checking the forecast and hoping for a clear day though we were determined to go regardless of the weather conditions.

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Osaka Castle (大阪城)
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The Tôdaiji Temple (東大寺)

 

The Day Begins

Warm sunlight peaking through the window of our condo signaled that it was time to get up. Bags packed from the night before, we simply shouldered them and then made for the station, where we caught a train bound for the historic Yoshino (吉野) area, the place which lends its name to the most famous variety of Japanese cherry, the Somei Yoshino (染井吉野), which can be found in parks all over Japan and the world. If you’ve ever seen cherry blossoms in a park, chances are it was of this variety.

Our train wound its way through the dense Osaka suburbs, but once we crossed into Nara Prefecture the buildings began to thin, and before long we found ourselves in beautiful countryside backed by the mountains of the Kii Peninsula rising off in the distance. Soon the train reached the shores of the shallow Yoshino River and not long after that we got off at Yamato-Kamiichi Station (大和上市駅), where we transferred to the bus that would lead us deep into the mountains to the entrance of Ôdai-ga-Hara.

The bus was filled to the brim. Apparently plenty of people were hoping to spend an afternoon hiking around this famous mountain.

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Hikers boarding the bus
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The Yoshino River (吉野川)

 

Into the Mountains

The bus pulled out from the roundabout at the station and hit a narrow highway running along the river, which it preceded to follow for quite some time. I dozed off periodically. We got higher and higher, passing dams that turned the river into a series of reservoirs, and then suddenly the bus swerved onto an single lane road that proceeded steeply up the face. Occasionally we met cars going in the opposite direction; they had to back up until they reached a wide spot, for there was no chance that this bus was going to back down.

We thought the view had been good before, but it couldn’t compare to the point at which we passed through a tunnel to the other side of the ridge, where we were first graced by a clear view of the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. That thicket of mountains stretched out as far as the eye could see with not one inch of level space between them. It was completely unlike what we had experienced hiking in central Honshu. There, great ridges hundreds of meters higher than these rose up, but between them lay wide and fertile valleys. There, we were always able to see human habitation from the high open spaces, but here there was nothing but mountains and sky.

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Mountains on the Kii Peninsula

The gorgeous scenery made us all the more eager to reach the mountain, and yet at the same time we were perfectly content to take in the view passing by right outside our window.


This post got a little long, so be sure to keep your eyes open for part two, coming next week!


© Brian Heise, 2018

Golden Week 2018 VI: The Return to Tokyo

This post is part six of a multi-part series on my Golden Week 2018 vacation. Be sure to check out parts one, two, three, four, and five as well.


What Is the Good Life?

Dylan and I reached the valley floor before noon on the third day of our trip. There we found Kawahake (川端下), an small farming village nestled in the embrace of two long spurs emanating out from the main ridge above, one from Asahi-dake and the other from Kokushi-ga-Take. The whole hike down the forest road from Ôdarumi provided us with plenty of views of jagged rock formations standing like watchtowers guarding the village below. At some point down the slope, we began to follow along a pristine stream flowing with turquoise water. Beyond that were the fields, which the townsfolk were plowing in preparation for the planting season. Left and right, vibrant flowers bloomed in reds, blues, whites, and purples. In all, it as a thoroughly idyllic place.

As Dylan and I walked along the road towards the village proper, and there the bus stop, I couldn’t help but imagine what kind of bliss it would be to grow up in a place like this, to spend your childhood amid such beauty, to hike the mountains and climb the watchtowers, and to build a strong body and an appreciation for growing things.

But after a moment, I repudiated the thought with the bitter knowledge that being born surrounded by beauty is to be unable to truly appreciate it. Beauty lives in the uncommon and the unfamiliar. Things seen every day, however beautiful, lose their luster under the weight of the ordinary, and just as a field of flowers once well tread will die, so too will the impression of beauty be marred by frequent viewing. In fact, the children who grow up here will likely only dream of getting away to Tokyo to seek their fortune, never realizing that the stuff of dreams was all around them from the start. Then, for the rest of their lives they will just be left with the memory of what they left behind, but find themselves too entrenched in their lives to ever really go back.

Perhaps the only consolation is the thought that it’s better to have known that life and given it up than never to have experienced it. Or could it be better to live life without knowing what you’ve lost?


The Kômi Line

After a quick lunch at the bus stop in Kawahake, Dylan and I boarded the bus to Shinano, where we then transferred to the JR Kômi Line (JR小海線). My first trip on this line was back in December; due to the short winter days, I rode this stretch entirely in darkness, and so I failed to truly appreciate what a wonder this section of track is. Stretching roughly 80 kilometers through the highlands of Nagano from Kobuchizawa Station (小淵沢駅) to Komoro Station (小諸駅), this scenic route traverses the fertile farmlands of the Saku Basin (佐久盆地), wide green fields backed by some of the tallest mountains in Japan, among them a fair collection of Fukuda’s 100 Famous. Given the beautiful views along this route, this train is a destination unto itself, although there are also plenty of attractions at many of the stops along the way. It’s definitely on my list of places to go back to.

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Shinano-Kawakami Station (信濃川上駅)
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The last remnants of winter snow
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Farmland in the Saku Basin
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More farmland

Back in Tokyo

It took us some three hours to get back to Tokyo, but we had hardly a minute to relax as we needed to prepare ourselves for our pending trip to Osaka. There we had yet one more mountain waiting for us — after all, you couldn’t believe that I would let a vacation go by without reaching a single one of the 100 Famous Mountains. Yes indeed, from the start I had considered the possibility of a misadventure, and so I made a point of setting aside one day in Osaka to go up into the densely packed mountains of the Kii Peninsula (紀伊半島) south of the city. This is one of Japan’s most historic regions, painted with legend surrounding the earliest history of the Yamato people, and home to two members of the 100 Famous Mountains. Of those, I chose Ôdai-ga-hara (大台ヶ原). Be sure to check in next week to get the story on our visit to this renowned peak.


© Brian Heise, 2018