2017 East Alps Trip III: The Night on Moss Peak

One of the things my dad used to always warn me about when hiking was not to get wet feet on account of the blisters it usually causes: after all, it’s no fun limping out the last few miles of a hike. He also warned about getting wet in general on account of hypothermia: he always said that it was a danger even when it doesn’t seem that cold out. I remember him telling me about how delirious and disoriented he and one of his buddies got when they got rained on during a winter trip back when he was in college. And whenever I do happen to get a little wet on a hiking trip, also I’m reminded of the man and his two sons who got rained on while hiking the Ozark Trail one winter back in Missouri. It was January at the time, but a warm day so they weren’t dressed too heavily. A sudden storm blew up and they got soaked pretty good. As evening drew on, the temperature dropped and they got cold. And disoriented, as one will when you get hypothermia. Then they got lost. They died.

I found myself thinking of them as I sat in a small pavilion on the side of that mountain in the Japanese East Alps, somewhere above the Taiyôji. The rain had begun again since I left, and stronger and heavier than it had been before. The trail had become so saturated that a small stream was now flowing down it, and the rain was coming down hard enough that even my water-resistant shoes were soaked through and through, not to mention the rest of me. I was getting cold.

Hiking in the rain is no joke, but in August in Tokyo the temperatures never get very cold — in fact, they never get cold at all. For that reason, I wasn’t too worried about the typhoon. In the hot summer, it’d surely just help cool me off and make the trip more pleasant. I’d therefore set off with nothing more than a T-shirt and my running shorts. Of course, up there in the mountains the temperatures were actually cooler than they were down in the plain, and doubly so because of the rain and wind from the typhoon. Luckily, the body heat I was generating from hiking combined with the cheap poncho I bought at 7-11 were doing fine to keep me plenty warm, but whenever I took a break, as I was now, I would quickly start to cool off. Conscious of my body temperature, I set off again. As I walked, I started to wonder what color my lips were. A sure sign of hypothermia is blue or purple lips, or at least I remember being told that when I was a kid. I didn’t have a mirror, though, and it was raining too hard to take a picture with my phone.

Despite all this, I was still in good spirits. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, what a story this will be! Who goes hiking in a typhoon? I must be pretty bad-ass.” As the afternoon wore on, though, I started to get more and more annoyed with the weather. I was thinking particularly about setting up my tent tonight. I intended to use my poncho as a ground cloth, but that of course would require me to take it off while I set up the tent, which I wasn’t at all enjoying the thought of. Nor was I thinking that I would enjoy sleeping wet in my sleeping bag all night. On top of that, given the intensity of the rain, I wasn’t sure how well my tent would be able to keep my dry either.

Eventually I came to a fork on the path. Though I couldn’t take out my maps because of the rain, I remembered the spot: the trail would split in two, one going up to a peak, Kirimo ga Mine (霧藻ヶ峰, “Moss Peak”), and the other bypassing it and going directly towards the destination I had originally planned for the night, Kumotori Lodge (雲取山荘), which is located high on the ridge near the summit of the mountain of the same name, the most famous peak on the hike. I wasn’t entirely sure what the lodge would be like, but given the name I figured I’d be able to get out of the rain and dry off for the night. A worthy destination for one in my situation. Unfortunately, I’m stubborn, so instead of taking the shortcut I decided to go straight up to the peak.

As I climbed onward, though, I couldn’t help but think again about the man and his two boys who died on the Ozark Trail all of those years ago. They were hiking in an apparently safe, familiar location, and yet by some accident they managed to end up dead. Here I was in a completely unfamiliar environment, hiking in the last gasp of a typhoon soaked to the bone with a downpour that was only getting stronger. I couldn’t help but wonder if this might be the time that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Knowing that it was difficult to tell that you were getting delirious with the cold when you were in fact delirious with cold, I had to constantly question my own mental state: Am I tired, or is the cold setting in? It was an interesting feeling, probably akin to being a patient in a mental institution who feels like he’s sane, but isn’t quite sure given his situation.

These thoughts and others came and went as I scaled Moss Peak. When I was surely approaching the top, I rounded a corner of the trail to see a small structure ahead of me, make of brown wood with an outer wall fronting an inner structure hallway linking two entrances on either side. Looks like a bathroom, I thought. But by god it was shelter from the rain! I immediately went inside. Sure enough, it was a bathroom, and smelled like one too. But it was dry in there at least.

Once I managed to dry out my hands sufficiently, I pulled out my maps to check how long it was to the lodge, thinking I might just be able to push it out for another hour. Not so lucky. I was still several hours away according to the map. I really didn’t want to spend that much more time in the rain. I was cold, I was wet, and frankly I just wanted to wait it out somewhere dry. Then slowly it dawned on me: I was in a dry place right now. Sure, it was a stinky dry place, but it was a dry place after all. I could just throw down my sleeping bag in here and I could spend a dry, smelly night and then continue on early in the morning, hopefully after the storm had passed. If I was lucky, I might even be able to make up the time I would be giving up this evening. But then I got to thinking. Why is there a bathroom up here on the top of a mountain? There can’t just be a bathroom, can there? Surely there must be more. I resolved to go back out into the rain and check.

I got back on the trail and started walking again. It went down a little and along the base of a small cliff face. Rounding the far side of the cliff, a small cabin came into view. It looked locked up tight, but it had a covered porch and !! under the porch, protected from the rain, stacks and stacks of dry wood. !! Dry wood !! I might be able to make a fire and dry out!! If the exclamation points haven’t appropriately conveyed my mood, I was positively elated.

I immediately got under the porch and dropped by my bag. Right in front of me were three metal panels covering what was clearly a door space. Thinking they had to be locked, I tested them anyway and, unexpectedly, they slid sideways without any effort, revealing sliding glass doors behind them. These, I thought, had to be locked. No way they would be left open. But, I tested them and they too slid right open. I went inside.

What I found was a small room lined by benches, and underneath each was stacked even more dry firewood. Furthermore, right in the center of the room was (I couldn’t believe my luck) a woodstove! It wasn’t long before I had a roaring fire going.

The smokey interior of the cabin. Outside looks super bright, but that’s just because of the exposure due to the dim inside of the cabin.

Having thus assured that I wouldn’t spend the night fighting hypothermia, I began making myself at home, storing my bag, setting up my shoes and socks by the fire to dry, and getting ready to make dinner. Digging around in my bag for my package of Johnsonville cheese-filled brawts (yes, you can buy those in Japan), something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye through the front door. I turned to look and just about jumped out of my skin when I saw a face looking in at me. Who on Earth would be on the mountain in a typhoon? I thought to myself without a hint of irony. I walked to the door and opened it the rest of the way. What I saw was a sopping wet Asian man with close-cropped hair carrying a small backpack.

Konnichiwa,” I said.

“Hello,” he responded.

“Well, come on in!”

He entered, dropped his pack, and proceeded to strip off his sopping wet raincoat and shoes. As I continued with my mission to make dinner, we began to talk. It turned out this guy was a Chinese college student in his masters or PhD, I can’t remember which now, at a university in one of the provinces adjacent to Tokyo. He apparently loved going on hiking adventures, though his generally consisted of going out alone for a single day. Apparently he was doing a Kumotori Mountain course that I’d viewed while planning this trip, an overnight trip that I rejected because I figured I could have done it in just one day. Apparently he thought the same and probably could have if he hadn’t been slowed down by the typhoon. At this rate, he figured he wouldn’t be able to make it down before the last bus left for the night.

“Well, you’re welcome to stay here,” I said. “It’s warm, you can dry out, and then go down first thing in the morning.” At this point I handed him a brawt fresh out of the fire, on a slice of plain white bread.

“This is great! You must be a really good cook.”

“Nah, it’s just that anything warm tastes good when your wet and cold on the side of a mountain.” I started preparing a brawt for myself. “So what brought you up on the mountain all alone like this? Don’t any of your friends like hiking too?”

“No, not really. Most of my friends aren’t interested. They think I’m crazy to go out on the mountain alone all day like this too.”

“They must think I’m really crazy then! I’m going to be out here for four days!”

“All by yourself? Isn’t it scary to sleep on the mountain alone?”

“Well, it is at first, but you get used to it after a while. After a while, it’s starts to be pretty nice. It’s like, well I always take these trips when I have a vacation. You know, after a few days up in the mountains, completely alone, you get a few benefits. Like, first, you spend three or four days doing something this difficult, and when you get back to work, it feels like your starting a vacation instead.”

He nodded with a contemplative look on his face.

“On top of that, being alone is good too. When I don’t have anything to distract me, I have no choice but to fight out my demons, you know? Like, if there’s anything that’s bothering me, like if someone did something bad to me or if I did something wrong and I feel bad about it, I have the time to work it through in my head. And what’s more, when I’m all alone, I have the time to recognize the positive points of the people in my life who I don’t like so much. When they’re completely out of my life for a few days like this, I can really know what life would be like if that person weren’t a part of my life anymore. I guess what I mean is, it helps me know which people I should cut and which I should keep, if you know what I mean.”

“You could be a philosopher.”

“Maybe.” Inwardly I thought maybe I was just living out my own Jeremiah Johnson fantasy, but I figured the reference would be lost so I didn’t say it out loud.

“You know, in my imagination, I think all Americans are like you.”

“Well, I’m definitely not like most Americans.”

“What do you mean?”

“Most Americans wouldn’t go up into the mountains all alone for four days, let alone do it in a typhoon.”


“Real Americans aren’t at all like what you see in the movies.”

As the evening wore on, the storm continued to intensify, especially the wind. We both felt with greater and greater certainty that we’d made the right decision to stay here for the night. By 8 o’clock we started to get tired though, so we decided to turn in for the night.

– – –

Dawn comes early in Japan, that’s one thing I’ve noticed while living here. It comes doubly early in the mountains. I think I first noticed the light at about 4:30 am. By five the two of us were both up and getting ready to go. Thanks to the fire, all our clothes were mostly dry, and to our pleasure we discovered that the storm had died out overnight too. We were ready to continue on our way. But first! We had to take a few photos. Funny, but we forgot to take one together.

Taken from the porch in the rain.
The view of Moss Peak.
The view from Moss Peak.
The cabin.
“Chichibu Interior National Park, Moss Peak, 1523 meters above sea level.

Stay tuned next week for Part IV in the series, where I work hard to make up for lost time and learn some hard lessons about hiking long distances with wet feet!

This post is part three in a multi-part series on my four-day hiking trip in the East Alps of Japan. To view the rest of the posts, use the navigation links below.

© 2017 Brian Heise

2017 East Alps Trip II: Taiyôji

How does one reason themselves into hiking in a typhoon? Well, for me it wasn’t hard. I wanted to be on the trail bad, so I was prepared to do just about anything to make that happen. Fortunately or unfortunately, circumstances also made this easy. The typhoon was scheduled to hit on the southern shores of Kyushu (九州), the southernmost of the four main Islands of Japan, and would travel up the length of the archipelago until finally passing over the area where I would be hiking. Surely, I thought, with all of that time travelling over land the storm would be mostly dissipated and by the time it gets to me it’ll hardly be worth mentioning. This is the mental work I put in to get myself to ignore the fact that I clearly knew: the typhoon would hit, probably Monday afternoon.

Typhoon be damned! I left my Oshiage (押上) apartment, caught the Hanzomon Line (半蔵門線) and rode out to Ikebukuro (池袋), where I transferred to the Red Arrow Express bound for Chichibu. In high spirits (present in spite the look on my face in the picture below), I watched as the urban sprawl of Tokyo gradually faded into rice paddies and mountains.

Looking serious on the Red Arrow Express.

I stared out the window at the passing mountains and villages as each stop was heralded over the loudspeaker by a stiff, professional sounding female voice, first in Japanese and then in British accented English. As the train approached its final destination, I saw a mountain looming over the approaching town with half its face cut away exposing grey stone. It reminded me of the limestone quarries I saw back in the Ozarks when I was growing up, but on a much larger scale. As much of a fan as I am of the benefits that industrial progress has brought to us all, seeing such permanent mark left on the land as that always gives me a bad feeling in my stomach.

Waiting for the bus outside of Chichibu Station.

Stepping off the train, I made straight for the bus station and, after waiting a few minutes, caught the bus that would take me to the Taiyôji Entrance (太陽寺入口) of the park. In a way, one could view the speed with which I entered and departed the town as representative of my attitude towards this trip as a whole: I really didn’t care about anything except getting on the trail as fast as possible. This town, far from an attraction, was just something I had to pass through to get on the trail. I hadn’t even read anything about the it or its attractions until I started writing this post a few minutes ago, but I did find an article on Japan Visitor that gives some interesting details. Apparently its a town with quite a history. I should probably go back some day and visit some of the other sites, but I probably won’t.

A small mountain village on the way to the Taiyouji Entrance.

The bus to the Taiyôji Entrance winded slowly up narrow mountain roads for about an hour before I finally stepped off at my destination. I was on a quiet stretch of road with a mountain stream running along it. A bridge crossed the stream ahead, and a sign clearly indicated that this was the way to go to reach the Taiyôji. I set off.

After years of hiking around Japan and Korea, I’ve become accustomed to the difficulties one might face in actually finding the trailhead once getting off the bus. In this case, there was no obvious start of a trail, but I had learned from experience that often it could be quite a walk along a road before coming to it. Since I knew the trail had to pass through the temple, I decided to just follow the road knowing that even if I had to follow it all the way there, I would definitely find the trail once I arrived.

The heat and humidity was intense as I walked up the road. I’m not sure quite how long I walked, but according to my map it should have taken about an hour and forty-five minutes to reach a place called “Ô-hinata” (大日向, “The Great Sunny Place”). Eventually I did arrive there to find a small fishing hut, a noodle restaurant and, finally, the start of the trail. Knowing this would be my last chance at a hot meal for the next few days, I dropped into the noodle shop and ordered plate of cold udon. I know, I’m a genius.

The weather up to this point had been great: mostly overcast, but with occasional bursts of sunshine. While I was eating my udon, however, I noticed that small drops of water were beginning to appear on the glass roof above my dining platform. “It’s just a few drops,” I thought. “Nothing to worry about.” Well, by the time I left it was raining pretty good. I put on my poncho and resolutely set out.

I quickly found a problem with the poncho: although it was effectively keeping the rain off me, in the muggy summer heat I was quickly drenched in sweat on the inside. I briefly decided to just remove it and cool off in the rain, but I found that, despite the heat, the rain was actually quite chilly. Dressed as I was in gym shorts and a T-shirt, I decided to brave the sweat and put the poncho back on. Better hot and sweaty than a case of hypothermia. I trudged on, and before long I was drenched inside and out.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but it’s raining quite hard right now.

As I rounded a turn in the path, the rain gradually tapered off and a gateway came into view: it was the entrance to the Taiyôji, the Temple of the Broad Sun.


The Story of the Taiyôji

According to legend, in the ancient days of the gods this valley occupied deep and hidden place where tengu, or heavenly dogs (sort of long-nosed goblin-like creatures) lived. Isolated for long aeons, it was here that the Buddhist priest Bukkoku Kokushi (仏国国師) founded the Temple of the Broad Sun, or Taiyôji, in 1313 CE.

The story of Kokushi and the temple begins in the period of political unrest in Japan at the end of the Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代, 1185–1333) through the Nambokuchô Period (南北朝時代, “The Period of the Northern and Southern Courts,” 1336 – 1392). Born in Kyoto as the third son of the reigning emperor Go Saga (後嵯峨天皇, literally “The Later Heavenly King Rugged-Mountain”), Kokushi would join the priesthood at age sixteen, perhaps to escape factional fighting in capital. Seeking a place to practice asceticism, he traveled to the Eastern Provinces, today the area around Tokyo and the Kanto Plain. There he became a priest at Kenchôji Temple in Kamakura, one of the most famous and powerful Buddhist temples in Japan at the time.

After some time at the temple, he decided to leave the temple to seek a deeper form of enlightenment and after much hardship arrived in a valley that was said to be so remote that not even birds and beasts could enter it. It was in that valley, a place completely indifferent to the political struggles of the outside world, that Kokushi founded the Taiyôji. At least, that’s the story according to the temple’s own website, not exactly what one could call the most credible of historical sources.

Visiting the Taiyôji

I of course didn’t know any of this at the time, nor did I care. I was just happy that the rain had stopped, counting myself lucky that the typhoon had in fact turned out to be not so much trouble after all. I walked down the path as you saw in the picture above, and as I got closer I caught a glimpse of the two wooden statues flanking the entrance, a fairly typical greeting for a Japanese temple.

Passing through the gate I saw the Hondô (本堂) or Main Hall (pictured below) directly ahead, and also a collection of other buildings arrayed further up the mountainside. The temple had clearly seen better days. Despite its auspicious name, the buildings were looking somewhat worse for wear. The wood was faded and dully with age (not unusual for a Japanese temple), but much of it was also chipped and eaten away as well. Overall, it was a pretty drab and dreary place. Being as wet as I was, I wasn’t in much of a mood for pictures, so I didn’t take any other than panorama of the Hondô below, nor did a spend too much time exploring the complex. Though, as I found later, if you interested in getting more acquainted with this place, you can do a temple stay for about $90.

The Taiyôji Hondô.

The whole time I was there, I didn’t reflect much on the curious point that the rain, which was a dying typhoon mind you, mysteriously stopped upon approaching a temple whose namesake was the “Broad Sun.” Nor did I then consider the curious fact that the rain resumed once more, and worse than before, shortly after I left the temple. Even more ironic is the fact that later that night I would throw a live cricket into a fire and, in response to my companion’s surprised look, say, “What? I’m no Buddhist.” True story.

This post is part two of a multi-part series. Click the buttons below to view the rest of posts in this series.

© 2017 Brian Heise

Summer 2017 East Alps Trip: Intro

Hey all! I’ve been silent for quite a while, but I’m hoping to put out some regular content for the next few days as I do a series on my recent hiking trip in the Japanese East Alps (東アルプス). I envision the series as being part background on the the places I visited and part being a narrative of the events itself, with pictures of course! Stay tuned in the next few days. I hope to get out one post per day. Until then, here’s a brief overview of the trip.



Vacation was less than a week away and I knew without a doubt that I was going hiking (the decision was made easy by the fact that my bicycle is on a boat somewhere in the Pacific, so biking was out). But, as usual, I waited until the last minute to make any definite plans. I tend to justify this retrospectively by saying that I just enjoy flying by the seat of my pants, but maybe the truth is I’m just a bit lazy about it. With days to go, I had to answer the question, where would I go?

Pulling up a map of the Tokyo area on Google and checking the various mountain ranges on the edges of the Kanto Plain, I found that Chichibu City (秩父市) in Saitama Prefecture (埼玉県) offered the fastest and cheapest access to the mountains. With the search thus narrowed, I now had to actually find a course. This time I googled Saitama hiking in Japanese and found some nice courses, but most of them were only a single day. I wanted to go hiking at least three days. The longest course I could find was Kumotori Yama (雲取山, “Cloud Catcher Mountain”), but it was only an overnight trip. I knew I needed to find a site with complete trail maps for the entire area so I could plan to my own specifications.

The answer came when I discovered Yamakei Online, which is easily the best website for planning hiking trips in Japan that I’ve discovered so far. It has complete trail maps for all of Japan’s major parks, with water access points, major landmarks, elevation, shelters, and mountain huts and lodges all marked. What’s more, you can plot your own trips by clicking on the points on the route that you want to take. Check out the plan I made for my trip here. There is one downside to the site, however — it’s only in Japanese! You’ve gotta have a pretty good grasp of the language to navigate the site with ease. For those who are interested, I am considering writing a tutorial on how to use the site even if you can’t read Japanese that well yet. Leave a comment below and let me know if you want me to write it.

So what trip did I decide on? A 50 km trek from Taiyôji Temple (太陽寺, “Broad Sun Temple”) to Kobushi ga Take (甲武信ヶ岳, “Peak of the Armored Warrior’s Fidelity”) and then down to Nishizawa Gorge (西沢渓谷, “Eastmarsh Gorge”) to catch the bus back to civilization.

The map of my course. To view in greater detail, click here and scroll down until you see the map.
The change in elevation over the course of the trip.
Course Statistics
Horizontal distance 50.8km Course time 30 hours
Cumulative change in elevation (up) 6,193m Cumulative change in elevation (down) 5,393m

I was set to go and psyched up. I had work on Saturday, Sunday I would buy supplies, and Monday I would catch a train to Chichibu bright and early. Only one thing: I had to check the weather of course. Fast forward to Sunday night. Bag is packed, alarm is set, transportation itinerary is planned. One small problem, though. According to the weather report, a typhoon was scheduled to hit Monday. But was that gonna stop me?

This post is part one in a multi-part series. Click the buttons below to navigate to the other posts in this series.

© 2017 Brian Heise