The following are my favorite photos from my 2018 summer trip to Japan’s Southern Alps. Click the photos to enlarge them, and look below for links to the original articles in which they were featured. As always, please like, share, and leave a comment below! Which photo did you like the best?
All across Hokkaido the words of a language all but extinct lay scattered like fallen leaves from a dying tree. These are the relics of the Ainu, the hunter-gatherer people who dominated the northern island of Japan until the mid-19th century. Much like the native American names of places like Missouri, Mississippi, and Dakota, most people living in Hokkaido today have no idea what these words actually mean. As a bare 100 native speakers of the language still live today, even the average surviving Ainu doesn’t understand them.
Not surprisingly, the first generations of Japanese settlers in Hokkaido weren’t particularly interested in the meaning of these names, and so they were quickly forgotten even as the words themselves remained on their lips in daily use. However, some scholars did begin to wonder at their meaning and began working with what limited knowledge of the Ainu language remains to decipher them. This is no easy task, however, as they incurred a major phonetic shift when they entered (or perhaps were interred in) the Japanese lexicon, rendering them nearly unrecognizable.
For Fukuda, who throughout Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains shows a keen interest in toponymy, the question of what Ainu mountain names mean becomes a repeating theme. Tomuraushi, as we will see, is one such mountain.
6. Tomuraushi (2141 m)
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 and 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.
The next time was from the summit of Asahi-dake, Daisetsu-yama’s highest peak; this time I looked south at Tomuraushi, who was standing sternly in the clear autumn sky. She was as imposing as before. She is majestic, and has an air of transcendence, I thought. From this side her rocky peak appeared to become split in three, but that form was also quite good. I have to climb her. My resolution had become more and more firm. And so in the summer of the next year I attained my desire and stood upon her summit.
Following Daisetsu-yama’s Asahi-dake, Tomuraushi is Hokkaido’s second tallest peak. According to geography books, between the Daisetsu Volcanic Group and the Tokachi Volcanic Group is a chain of mountains spanning Hira-ga-Take (平ヶ岳), Chûbetsu-dake (忠別岳), Kaun-dake (化雲岳), and Tomuraushi called the Tomuraushi (戸村牛) Volcanic Group. However, Hira-ga-take, Chûbetsu-dake, and Kaun-dake hardly even stand out on that vast ridge; Tomuraushi alone is a distinctive mountain that resolutely asserts its individuality.
Even the name Tomuraushi is appealing. Since it came from the Tomuraushi River on the upper reaches of the Tokachi, calling the mountain Tomuraushi as well seems fitting. Properly called tonra-usi in Ainu, the tonrameans “limescale” and usi means “a place with a lot.” Thus it means “the river with lots of limescale.” They say it gets its name from the fact that its water is slimy due to hot spring minerals. However, Mr. Murakami Keiji (村上啓司), an expert on Hokkaido’s mountains, thinks that perhaps “Tomura” originates from the Ainu tom-ra. Tom means “of the stomach” and ra is a common shortening of rat, which indicates “mucus.” Ra by itself also means fish entrails, so at any rate it means something slimy.
Among Ainu mountain names, there are many that are quite good. The fact that they get assigned strange phonetic readings that destroy their original form is something that I’ve thought to be terribly unfortunate for quite some time. The fact that people want to preserve the correct way of saying Ainu mountain names is thanks to devoted scholars like Mr. Murakami.
I climbed from the direction of the Tomuraushi River with the help of the gentlemen on duty from Hokkaido University’s Mountaineering Club. We got on the forest road from from Kutsutari (屈足) and went as far as the fork on the upper reaches of the Tokachi River; from there we crossed over the ridge and put up our tents for the first night at Amano Hotspring (天野温泉), which was welling up by the Yû Tomuraushi River, a tributary of the Tokachi River. The Yû of Yû Tomuraushi means “hot water” or “hot spring.”
From there we went over a second ridge and as expected we came out at the Tokachi River’s tributary, the Kamuisanke River. This is kamuysan-ke in proper Ainu; kamuy (written 神居 in Chinese characters) were long ago believed to be a type of evil spirit. They say kamuy-wakka indicates water unsuitable for drinking — that is, water with poison in it. San-ke means “something flowing down,” so it ends up meaning “a river where cursed waters flow.” This is all secondhand from Mr. Murakami.
When we reached Tomuraushi, the path turned into a tumble of rocks, and the summit at which I arrived at long last was a great piling heap of stone. I took a seat on a boulder amid the mist and, though the view was shut off, the joy I felt at standing on the crown of that mountain for which I had longed was limitless.
For the descent we took the ridge road on the opposite side, but it was also long. We followed by the edges of small marshes and went up and down broad slopes. When we finally parted from the ridge and descended towards the right, below us was a snowy valley, and bellow the valley Hisago Pond (ヒサゴ池) stretched out. We set up our tents for the second night on its shore.
When we climbed up towards the ridge through a broad moor the next morning, we were surrounded by a white, red, yellow, and purple cushion of alpine plants. Here and there were ponds of melted snow, and the moor unfurled without end. This magnificence, this expansiveness, this kind of serene landscape could not be found in Japan proper.
Kaun-dake (化雲岳) was a rocky peak standing in one corner of that ridgetop plateau, so we scaled up to its narrow crown and spent a moment chatting. Around that time the weather cleared at long last, and in the end it turned to a flawless blue sky. Wherever we looked, it was nothing but mountains. Of them all, I could not take my eyes off of Tomuraushi’s sternly squared rocky shoulder.
When you speak of Hokkaido’s mountains, the talk quickly turns to bears, and I had heard that the place where their appearance is most frequent is Tomuraushi. Sure enough, we happened to pass by a party of but one mountaineer and he told us, “I saw a bear just now, over there.” We hurried and peered down at the Chûbetsu River’s valley, where the old man had escaped from, but sadly we weren’t able to set eyes on any bear.
The descent to Tennin Valley (Tennin-kei, 天人渓) was also a beautiful plateau trail, at least until we entered the shrubs. I wonder how many times it was that I looked back at Tomuraushi from there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
As we watched, rays of red light signaled the nearness of the sun.
People gathered to watch the show.
Little by little the rays brightened until the sun rose above the horizon, bathing the world in orange light.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.