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

Golden Week 2018 Part IV: Senjo Peak

This post is part four in a multi-part series on my hiking expedition to Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park for Golden Week 2018. Be sure to check out parts one, two, and three as well.


Dawn Light

When I opened my eyes the next morning I could clearly see despite it being not long after 4 a.m. That, I think, is one of the things that those who live in more domesticated circumstances rarely experience: the fact morning comes so long before the sun. Departing my sleeping bag and hastily putting on my warmer clothes, I walked back to the rocky outcropping on the north face of Black Gold Mountain and looked out at the dim landscape washed blue in the moonlight.

The world looks different in the early morning. The colors are changed. Pale blue stands out while reds, yellows, and all other bright colors fade to a bear semblance of their daytime vigor. The light has been stripped bare.

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Moon over the ridge
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Mt. Fuji in the early hours

But then it changes — the first rays of sunshine, mixing with that pale blue light of the moon, but not enough to overpower it. Life. The bright pinks and reds of morning sun meet the blue to produce a pallet of colors unknown at any other time of day, even at sunset. What’s more, the colors are all the more vivid when standing in contrast to the recent darkness.

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This is the best time to photograph mountains, this first light of morning. This perfect moment possesses just the right level of light where all parts of the landscape become visible, where the brightness of the sun doesn’t obscure the valleys in shadow, nor does it wash away the details of the clouds. It is the single, perfect light and yet a light that so few people ever see.

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Kobushi-ga-Take
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Akegata Fuji
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Tianyu photographs Fuji

At some point I noticed that Tianyu and Dylan had joined me on the rocks, looking out at the ridge. Below us the path for the day stretched out, steadily lower until once more rising high to Kokushi-ga-Take. Beyond that far mountain we saw even further in the distance, so small in appearance and yet massive in reality, the far off snow-capped peaks of Nagano, which had been rendered invisible by haze and bright sunlight the previous evening. We looked on with a certain hunger, and with dreams of summer.


The Ridge from Black Gold Mountain

We set out before six.

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The bags are packed.
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Descent from Black Gold Mountain
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Through the trees.

It was a steep path down from Black Gold, but soon the trail leveled and we found ourselves on a sparsely wooded ridge, mostly level, and covered in an expanse of mountain grass, still pale tan having not yet recovered for the harsh winter. Mount Fuji lay plainly visible to our left.

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A saddle of mountain grass
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A saddle and Fuji
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Crossing the grass.
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Fuji

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Soon, we learned more clearly what that park ranger had warned us about regarding the path. As we entered into the mountain grass, the trail vanished. Or, to say more directly, the manmade path became indistinguishable from the countless deer trails crisscrossing the ridge, and much of the time we found ourselves simply wandering forward knowing only that we must stay on the ridge rather than go down. Rarely, we were able to spot faded ribbons tied to skeletal trees, old trail markers letting us know that he hadn’t strayed too far from the intended course.

This became a lesser concern, however, as the difficulty in following the path became superseded by the trouble of even making any forward progress at all, for we came to an area where the trees has nearly all been felled, but by what force we weren’t sure. Certainly it wasn’t a tornado, because the trees did not have the characteristic tornado damage in which they get broken off at the trunk a meter or two off the ground. No, these trees were simply knocked right over roots and all. Perhaps, we thought, a typhoon had done this work.

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Under a fallen tree
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A massive mushroom

Resting at the Fork

Eventually the mountain grass gave way to a thick and mossy forest of evergreen trees, and not long after we arrived at a fork in the road in the middle of a small clearing. We stopped to rest and check the map, whereupon we found that we were likely at a place called Kodomeki, only a short distance from White Birch Flat (白樺平). It was difficult to tell for sure, however, because there was no fork in the trail marked despite the fact that we could clearly see one before our eyes. With our target plainly visible to the north, however, we knew for sure which way to go.

Once we reached White Birch, it would be a few hundred meters of steep climbing up to the highest point in the park, a collection of two peaks within a stone’s throw from each other, but separated by big enough dip in elevation to each receive their own names: Kokushi-ga-Take (国師ヶ岳) and Kita-Oku-Senjô-Dake (北奥千丈岳).

Of those two peaks, long-time readers will already be familiar with Kokushi, the Peak of the Country Master, which I visited on my frigid winter trip earlier in December. Our path, however, would not take us there but to its sister peak Kita-Oku-Senjô, the highest point in all of Chichibu-Tama-Kai Park, standing at 2,598 meters above sea level.

Judging from the auspicious name of the mountain, I suppose the people to christened this mountain knew that it was the tallest on the range. The trunk of the name, Senjo (千丈), means 1000 Jô, a being an old unit of measurement that roughly corresponds to 3.03 meters. I suppose, then, that we could call it “3,000 Meter Peak.” Sadly, it seems that the christeners were off in their estimate, however, as the mountain actually stands about 400 meters shy of that mark. As for the prefix of the name, kita-oku means “North-Inner” and probably was meant to distinguish the mountain from the other, more famous, Senjô-ga-Take (仙丈ケ岳), which lies to the southwest and actually does surpass 3,000 meters in height.


Onward Once More

Our bellies satisfied with sausage and peanuts, we set out again in high spirits, for we were certain that we would reach the summit of Senjô by noon, leaving us with six hours to make it the rest of the way to Kinpu, our main goal. It looked like we were going to make it. However, in addition to those earlier problems, the trails hidden in the mountain grass and obstructed by fallen trees, we had yet one more challenge ahead of us on that final ascent to the ridge: snow.

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© Brian Heise, 2018

Golden Week 2018 Part III: Black Gold Mountain

This post is part three in a multi-part series about my hiking expedition to Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park in Japan during the Golden Week Holiday of 2018. Be sure to check out parts one and two as well.


The Race

We were racing the sun. Every minute that passed our never-tiring adversary gained ground on us. Our legs burned as we struggled up the rugged slopes from Nishizawa Gorge to the ridgeline that would carry us on our way to our goal of Ôdarumi Pass. We had to get there before the sun passed behind mountains.

But it was a race we knew we wouldn’t win. Having abandoned our original route for fear that it would be impassable, we found ourselves detouring along a spur ridge whose arc added many — precisely how many we didn’t know — hours to our trek. The sun raced relentlessly onward towards the horizon while we mortals were forced at times to rest.

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Taking a rest
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A flat spot near the ridge

Ascent to the Ridge

The real question was how far could we actually get? The answer to that question would determine whether or not we would be able to reach our goals: Kinpu and Mizugaki, two of Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains. I hoped that we could make it to White Birch Flat (Shirakaba-daira, 白樺平), where the trail crossed a forest road that wound along the mountainside. There was the base of the final ascent to the top of the main ridge near Kokushi-ga-Take, and from there only a little further to Ôdarumi. If we got that far, we’d only be a few hours behind, but not enough to make our goal unattainable.

Urged on by the knowledge that the path would change to a more comfortable gradient if we just got to the ridge, we pushed on hard, but our goal proved elusive. It took several hours of climbing before we finally emerged. From there, we were graced with our first good views of the trip: a look at the main ridgeline to the north and east. We could even see as far as Goose Hill Pass, both the end point of my Summer 2017 trip and the start of my Winter 2017 trip. We stopped to take some pictures and to rest.

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Directly ahead is Kokushi-ga-Take; on the left is Black Gold Mountain
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Looking down from the stone
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The path rises

To Black Gold Mountain

But the sun didn’t stop. It was already 3:00 pm, and according to the map, we weren’t even to Black Gold Mountain, the halfway point between White Birch and the end of the Nishizawa Trail. It was becoming apparent that we needed to set our expectations even lower. We carried on, and not long after we crossed a small pass with a clear view southwest, affording us our first views of Mt. Fuji.

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Tianyu takes in the view while I make for a better vantage point
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A grassy pass
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Mt. Fuji
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Tianyu gazes on Mt. Fuji
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“Nishizawa Black Gold Mountain
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Fuji from the pass
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Dylan gazes on Mt. Fuji

It was about 4:00 pm by then, just two hours until sunset. We knew we had to find a decent place to camp soon, and we knew if we pressed too hard we’d find ourselves at sunset without a good view to photograph. Finally, resigned to our fate, we set our sights on the summit of Black Gold Mountain.


Kurogane-yama

Black Gold Mountain. Kurogane-yama. Neither nationally famous nor even locally well-known, we had little information about the place other than the warning we got from the park ranger that the path was in disrepair. Indeed, the trail so far had been in significantly worse condition than that in Nishizawa Gorge, but it was hardly impassable. Regardless, it was clear that few people came this way. Indeed, though it was Golden Week, we had only seen one person since we left the valley, and that was an old man headed down the way we came. He had warned us of downed trees ahead.

When we finally reached the summit of Black Gold, we were first greeted by a breathtaking view of the main ridge: the northwest side of the mountain was covered by a mass of rock fragments preventing the growth of vegetation, leaving the way open and clear, providing a panoramic view from Goose Hill Pass on one side and passing along Kobushi-ga-Take and Kokushi-ga-Take before tapering down into the valley. On the furthest extremity, we could even see Mt. Fuji. However, at the summit of Kokushi the ridge turned northwest, obscuring our view of Kinpu and Mizugaki.

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Stones on Black Gold Mountain; in the distance, the ridge spans from Kobushi to Kokushi
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Photographing Fuji; tomorrow’s path lies in the distance
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Fuji from Black Gold
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The sun approaches the ridgeline
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Ahead is Kobushi-ga-Take; on the far right you can barely see Goose Hill Pass just above the trees.

And yet, looking carefully at a low spot, I could just see, hardly a speck, a small protrusion of rock rising just barely above the ridge. It was, it had to be, the famous spire of rock that marked the summit of Kinpu. Despite the vast distance between us and the fact that spire stood only 15 meters tall, even I could recognize that prominent feature, even though I had only read Fukuda’s description of it. It was so small, it was even invisible in the photographs I took.


Sunset

We set camp in the shelter of the pines just below from the highest point on the mountain. On my advice, we opted to forgo the tent and simply sleep under the stars side by side. Bags arranged, we set about making dinner: a pot of ramen and a pot of curry and rice cooked on my handy alcohol stove, which made from a couple of beer cans and held together by aluminum tape. As the stove is rather unwieldy I tasked myself with cooking; meanwhile, Dylan built a fire, though we decided to wait until full dark to light it.

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Cooking dinner
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Dylan builds a fire
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Camp
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Eating dinner
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My trusty handmade alcohol stove, with windguard made from a tin can.

The sun began to set. As luck would have it, it set directly behind the ridge ahead of us. We took countless photos, trying to capture that perfect balance of sunset light. It’s a delicate process, and only a few met my standards.

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Approaching twilight
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Dylan watches the sunset
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The last rays

Defeat

With that, the sun set and we admitted defeat. And yet, we felt no disappointment. For although we reach our goal we were nonetheless provided a stunning view that we had not at all anticipated, and was all the more beautiful for the knowledge that so few people passed through here to see it. Dylan even remarked that maybe we were the first foreigners to have done so. He might very well have been right about that.

Nearing full dark, Dylan lit the fire.

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Tianyu cooks a hotdog

The three of us sat close, absorbing what we could of the fire’s heat as the warm daylight air faded into a chilly highland night. Among the trees, the small patches of remaining snow foretold a wintery night. We passed around a whiskey bottle, but didn’t drink so much. Before long, we retired to our sleeping bags. It was only 9:00 pm. But, we were exhausted, and we had a long hike the next day to make up for our setbacks. We would rise at the first light of dawn.

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Moonlight

© Brian Heise, 2018

Golden Week 2018 Part II: Nishizawa Gorge

This post is part 2 in a multi-part series about my hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park during the 2018 Golden Week Holiday. Be sure to check out Part 1 first.


“Where are you headed?” the park ranger asked, eyeing our large packs with a look that could have meant suspicion or concern. Personally, I didn’t care which one it was — I was just annoyed that we’d been stopped.

The three of us — Tianyu, Dylan, and myself — were at the last checkpoint before hitting the trail to Nishizawa Gorge, a small bathroom and pavilion set up right before the end of the forest road and the start of the trail proper. Beyond the gorge lay Odarumi Pass and our eventual goal: the last two Famous Mountains in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park.

“We’re going to Odarumi Pass,” I said. “After that, it’s Kinpu and Mizugaki.”

“Along the ridge from Kobushi-ga-Take, I suppose?”

“No no. We’re going up through Nishizawa Gorge.”

His eyebrows furrowed slightly. “Ah…Nishizawa Gorge?”

“Yes. That’s right.”

“But there isn’t a trail to Odarumi from there.”

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The ranger looks at our map.

Just over an hour earlier, our party of three departed Enzan Station packed like sardines on a bus bound for the Nishizawa Gorge trailhead, admittedly without much certainty as to which way we’d be going or whether there would actually be a trail taking us where we wanted to go. Nonetheless, consumed with my characteristic irrational optimism born of a tendency to avoid thinking too much and just get on with it, I wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about this.

Turn after turn the bus groaned and struggled up the steep, narrow, winding road, and with each stop the crowd lessened until, finally, as we approached the man-made lake formed by a dam built across the gorge, we finally managed to sit down. Dylan, still suffering a bit from jet lag, was fast asleep in no time. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have much time to rest as we were now only minutes away from the last stop.

The final stop featured a decaying parking lot accompanying a few shabby old shops where old ladies from the local village offered food, drink, and souvenirs to the visitors — for a price, of course. We however, didn’t linger long eager as we were eager to hit the trail.

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We were greeted in the parking lot by a trio of hornblowers.

Moments later, our conversation with the park ranger occurred. I, rather than being worried by this, was actually just further annoyed as I knew damned well there was at least one route. I immediately brought out my map and started pointing out the two routes that I discussed in last week’s post last week.

To the first, he acknowledged that a trail did indeed once pass that way but that it had since fallen into ruin, so he was pretty sure we couldn’t go that way. As to the other, the one passing over Black Gold Mountain, he did confirm that it existed but he added, “It really isn’t in good condition at all. Maybe you won’t be able to go that way.”

I countered by pointing out the forest roads winding along the mountain and said, “Look, there are the forest roads too. One goes all the way up to Odarumi. Sure, it’ll take a long time to get there on those roads, but we can get there. Trust me, we’re just fine.” Finally, he relented and allowed us to pass.


From there, we entered into Nishizawa Gorge, a granite valley through which flows a swift and powerful mountain stream featuring some of Japan’s most scenic waterfalls. Ever since I heard of the place when I first visited this area last year at the end of my summer hiking trip, I remember thinking then that I probably wouldn’t ever be back in the area again. Low and behold, this was now my third trip, and I finally was getting to set foot there.

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Yamabuki flowers
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The lower flow, outside of the gorge.
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The trail started easy enough.
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Some purple flowers.
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Sanju Falls (三重滝)
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The going gets steep.
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Going down
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The path along the stream
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Resting on the rocks
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Below the cliff
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Waterfall in the shadows
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The grand finale I
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The grand finale II

It took us well over an hour to get to the end of the Nishizawa Gorge nature trail, and as we approached we began to look about with perhaps a hint of worry for anything that looked like the remains of an old trail splitting off from the main path, but by the time we reached the small outhouse marking the terminus of the route we still hadn’t seen anything that looked promising. Once there, though, it didn’t take us long to find a worn and faded old wooden sign announcing the way to Black Gold Mountain. The trail was clearly in significantly worse shape than the well-maintained Nishizawa Gorge Trail, as the Park Ranger had said, but it at this point it still looked easily passable, so we thought at least one way was open to us, albeit the one that would take much longer than we wanted. We stopped to rest, have a snack, and discuss our next move.

Before we had time to make any decisions, though, we spotted an odd looking old machine fastened to the ground, rusted but still recognizable as some kind of engine.

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The engine

Our curiosity piqued, we started looking around and soon found what it must have been for. A short distance away we found another faded sign, this one saying not to pass beyond that point. Passing beyond it, as you know I had to do, I found the remains of an old rail system running up the gorge right in the direction of our preferred route. In fact, as it turned out, it was the path we wanted to take: what I had thought was an old trail marked on the map was actually an old tram road.

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The old tram road

As one can see from the photo above, the trail was starting to wash out in places, and it was questionable whether or not it would be passable all the way up to the forest road that we wanted to connect with. Me, being the reckless adventuring type that I am, put in my vote for trying our luck this way. My two counterparts, however, voted for caution, noting that if we went that way we might get really far before finding out that the trail became impassable, so far that we wouldn’t be able to backtrack and get on the other path in enough time to complete the hike.

Reluctantly, I agreed. We would make for Black Gold Mountain and beyond that, Odarumi Pass. With any luck, we could be there by sundown. Or so we hoped.


© Brian Heise, 2018