Gallery: Southern Alps Summer 2018

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?

Original Posts

Part 1: The Anniversary
Part 2: Seeking Sunset
Part 3: Sunrise as North Peak Lodge
Part 4: The Long Road to Senjo Peak
Part 5: Sheltering in Northvale Pass
Part 6: Split Heart Syndrome


© Brian Heise 2018

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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

Fureai Saitama VI: The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park

From the moment I opened my eyes on the morning that I walked the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park, I was in a sour mood. Eyes squinting and brow furrowed, I got my bag packed and shuffled off towards the train station with rough thoughts bouncing around my mind. And it wasn’t just that day — I my mood had been off for more than a week, which was exactly why I set out to hit the trail on that day.

There’s no better cure for a bad mood than spending hours traipsing through the hills by yourself. With nothing to distract you, no phones or computers or internet, you have all the time you need to untie that knot in your mind. And, on top of that, once you get it undone, then you find yourself surrounded by beautiful scenery and fresh air, which is good prevention from settling on something new to be mad about. For me, I was already in a humming good mood before I even reached the halfway point of the trail.

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The view of Chichibu from Bi-no-Yama Park

 

General Info

The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park starts right where the last section ended, at the Highland Ranch Bus Stop (高原牧場バス停) and can be reached by bus either from Seibu Chichibu Station (西部秩父駅) or from Oyahana Station (親鼻駅). The path follows the gentle slopes rising over a low ridge-line leading over to Oyahana Station and the Arakawa River Valley.

The main attraction of this trail is Bi-no-Yama Park, literally meaning “The Mountain of Beauty.” As one might guess from the name, the park is indeed quite beautiful on several levels. In the first place, it provides outstanding views of the Inner Musashi Mountain Range, along which the Fureai Trail has been travelling all the way through Saitama so far, but further off you can also get clear views of the towering mountains of Inner Chichibu and even the distant Nikkô Range in Tochigi Prefecture.

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Chichibu from Bi-no-Yama

On the park grounds itself, however, visitors can also enjoy a wide range of flowers most of the year, though the most famous are the 8,000 or so cherry trees that make the mountain a perfect destination in April. The place has so many trees that it has even earned the “The Kanto’s Yoshino Mountain,” a comparison to the most historic site of Japanese cherry viewing located in Nara Prefecture, not far from Kyoto.

In addition to the park, the trail includes several other attractions, including ancient stone road signs from the Edo Period, traditional houses, two of the area’s most important holy grounds, and also a historic silk textile production site. In all, it’s an easy and quick trail with good historical appeal as well.

 

Old Highways

Though far enough off from Tokyo to be a fairly independent area in the days before railroads, the Chichibu region was nonetheless close enough to benefit from the demand for products generated by that metropolis, which even a few hundred years ago was still one of the largest cities in the world. It is not surprising, then, that multiple byways connected this isolated mountain basin with that city on the bay.

According to The Revised Musashi Atlas (新編風土記稿), published in 1825, a total of three highways led from here to Edo: the Kumagaya Way (熊谷みち), the Kawagoe Way (川越みち), and the Agano Way (吾野みち). Those familiar with the Kanto will recognize the first two as important urban centers on the plain, which these two routes pass through respectively; the third is a more mountainous route that passes over Shômaru Pass (正丸峠) before moving through Agano on the way to the Tokyo. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that the Fureai Trail also passes along this way, although it sticks to the ridge-line whereas the old road follows valleys everywhere except the passes.

The main divergence of these three routes is located near the start of the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park in an area called Misawa, which is a historical site for silk production (see below). Seeing as silk was such a lucrative industry and in high demand in the capital, it’s likely that the crossroads were located here to facilitate transport of this product.

 

The Temple of Common Comfort

The first part of the trail leads gently up a paved road through the Misawa, a scenic hillside village.

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Misawa

Not long after departing the bus stop, you’ll arrive at a small temple known as the Jôraku-ji, the Temple of Common Comfort, which is affiliated with the New Shingon Sect. They say that the temple was founded some 300 years ago, though apparently it was lost to fire during the Tempo Period (天保年間, 1830-1844) along with all of its artifacts. The current main hall was rebuilt in 1852.

Unfortunately, it proved difficult to photograph as it was built so close to the edge of a steep hillside that only a small portion could be caught in a single frame. Hanging above the entrance, however, was the following piece of calligraphy.

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Calligraphy over the entrance of the Jôraku-ji

The principal deity of worship at the temple is Fudô Myô-ô (不動明王), the Immovable Shining King, whose wrathful visage is depicted wrapped in flames that burn away the impediments defilement that block the path to enlightenment. The main hall of the temple is dedicated to him, but next to it is located a smaller hall where the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of infinite life, is worshiped.

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The Amida Hall at Jôraku-ji

 

The Flowers of Misawa Village

Though not noted as particularly famous in the area, many of the locals have cultivated a wide variety of flowers in front of their houses. As you travel along the road through the village, take the time to enjoy their beauty.

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The Weavers of Kami-Misawa

Past the Temple of Common Comfort the trail continues along paved roads through the village. Though many of the buildings are showing their age today, in the past this place was once a area of vibrant economic activity due to local silk production. According to the information signs along the trail, the lack of land flat enough to grow rice in the Chichibu area led farmers to supplement their income with silk production, which could be carried out even on steep mountainsides. According to The Revised Atlas of Musashi, women were those principally in charge of this industry, both raising the silkworms and weaving silk textiles.

At the end of the Edo period in the mid 1800s, the number of villages exporting raw silk in the area expanded greatly, and even out of the way places like Misawa became prosperous. Chichibu is still famous today for its meisen (銘仙) silk, which is popularly used as kimono fabric owing to its durable thick weave. A signboard along the path here states that the sound of weaving machines can still be heard here, but I didn’t notice anything as I passed through.

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The trail takes to the forest
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A ruined old shed

 

The Temple of the 23rd Night

At some point the trail plunges into dense vegetation honing in on the trail such that it nearly forms a tunnel, but not long after it comes out again on pavement, and shortly thereafter you arrive at yet another temple — this time, it’s the Temple of the 23rd Night (Nijûsanya-ji, 二十三夜寺), an affiliate of the Shingon Sect.

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Perhaps it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that “the 23rd Night” is a reference to a specific cultural something that can’t be grasped just by the name alone. I was at a loss at first, but after some digging I found that “The 23rd Night” is a monthly religious ceremony that was once widely celebrated in Japan, though today I suppose few participate. The ceremony was apparently held on the 23rd day of each month by the old lunar calendar. On that day the congregation (that is, the men of the congregation most likely) would gather together to watch the moonrise while partaking in much food and drink, believing that a spirit would manifest itself.

This temple, it seems, has a long history. The temple records hold that one of the most important figures in early Japanese history, Prince Shôtoku, founded the temple. This man is not only remembered as the statesmen who promulgated the first written Japanese legal code but who also the first major proponent of Buddhism who worked to spread it far and wide across the land. They say that Shôtoku himself carved a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来), one of the principal Buddhist deities, and also built a thatched roof hut within which to enshrine it.

After that, Gyôki (行基), a 7th century monk, carved and enshrined a statue of the bodhisattva Seishi (勢至菩薩), who is now the principal deity of worship at the temple. Seishi is a god of wisdom, and his many followers believe that those who suffer hardship on account of their ignorance can be saved by the light of his wisdom.

I wasn’t able to determine the age of the current structures, but it seems unlikely that they’re very old since most temples make a point of promoting that and this temple didn’t make any reference to it. Nonetheless, it is a charming temple built in traditional style, and given the wear and tear on the exterior, it definitely has been around for at least some decades if not a century.

The signage on the trail is a little unclear at the temple, but to find the path again climb up to the front of the main hall and then turn left. The path will continue of the mountainside from there.

 

Cape Lilac

Among the various types of flora to be found along the Fureai Trail, one to look for on this section is the Cape Lilac, or sendan (センダン) in Japanese. This deciduous tree grows wild along the seashores and mountains of Kyushu and Shikoku, but is also often grown domestically in towns and villages. In May and June clumps of light purple flowers form at the tips of their branches, and in extremely rare cases, you can even find varieties sporting white flowers. They also produce elliptical fruits that turn yellow when ripe and often remain in large numbers even after the tree has shed its leaves for the fall, a good tell for identifying the plant. These fruits are called kurenshi (苦棟子) and are used as medicine, which I assume means they don’t taste so good. You can spot a specimen in the parking lot of the Temple of the 23rd Night.

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The Cape Lilac at the Temple of the 23rd Night
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Flowers on the Cape Lilac

 

Mixed Groves

In Japan, there is a variety of forest known as a “mixed grove” (雑木林), which is comprised of several varieties of trees rather than a more pure, single-species forest. Much of this section of trail passes through such a forest, though their are a few predominant species, such as the sawtooth oak (kunugi) and pin oak (konara). The forest floor in this area is also rich, not just in low growing plants but also in birds and insects.

Forests like this have had a close connection with Japanese society over the centuries. For example, villages have historically used sawtooth oak, chestnut, and pin oak to make firewood and charcoal, and even to grow mushrooms. On top of that, fallen leaves were used as fertilizer.

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A small graveyard amid the trees
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A stone monument to the god Asama Taishin
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White flowers

 

The Flowers of Bi-No-Yama Park

Less than 30 minutes after departing the Temple of the 23rd Night you will reach the main attraction of this section of trail: Bi-no-Yama, or the Mountain of Beauty. This mountaintop park provides not just gorgeous views of the high mountains all around from Chichibu to Nikko, but also sports a wide array of flowers that bloom all through the Spring, Summer, and Fall. The mountain is probably most famous for its 8000 or more cherry trees, which make the mountain a perfect destination for the Cherry Blossom Season in April, but you can also see various species of iris blossoms in from April to July, and also hostas and lilies in July and August. There are even some flowers still in bloom as late as mid December.

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The mountains of Inner Musashi

Outside of the cherries, however, two of the mountains most famous attractions are it’s fields of hydrangea (ajisai, 紫陽花) and azalea (tsutsuji, 躑躅). The hydrangea field is located on the east side of the park and contains more than 3,500 specimens over a space of 7.5 square kilometers. On the west side of the mountain, growing with a shady forest, is the field of bright red azaleas. I wasn’t able to find much info on the scale of the field and the flowers weren’t in bloom when I passed through so I couldn’t see for myself, but the pictures in the visitor center suggest that this is also quite a sight to see. Be sure to take your time to explore all the corners of the park to make sure you don’t miss anything interesting.

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A shrine in Bi-no-Yama Park

 

The Temple of 10,000 Blessings

Following Bi-no-Yama Park, the path descends downward more or less directly towards Oyahana Station, the end of the trail. However, once you reach the town below be sure not to miss the last attraction on this path, the Temple of 10,000 Blessings (万福寺). The temple is located fairly close to Route 140, the main highway passing near the station, but it’s easy to miss as the signage isn’t the best at that point. As you follow the road through town after getting off the mountain, keep your eyes on the right.

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Statues at the entrance to the Manpuku-ji

They say that the Temple of 10,000 Blessings was first founded in 1023 AD by the monk Kango Hôin (看鑁法印), but I couldn’t find much more information than that regarding it’s origins. As seems to be all too common with Japanese temples, the original structures and most of the temple’s artifacts were lost to fire in 1882, but miraculously the statue of the Amida Buddha, the principle deity of the temple, survived. The current structures date to 1932.

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The Manpuku-ji

Personally, I didn’t find the temple to be that impressive, but if you’re passing by you might as well stop in to have a look before you catch the train from Oyahana back to Tokyo.


 

Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park (Bi-no-Yama Kôen wo Tazuneru Michi, 美の山公園を訪ねるみち)
Map:
Click here
Access:
Start: Highland Ranch Entrance Bus Stop (高原牧場入口バス停)
End: Oyahana Station (Oyahana Eki, 親鼻駅)
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Medium
Ideal Seasons: Spring-Fall
Camping Locations:* None
Length (distance): 8.2 km
Length (time): 2 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Bi-no-Yama Park (seasonal only), Oyahana

*Note that these are not officially designated camping locations but simply places that I judge would be nice to put down a tent. Camp at your own risk.


My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 161.7 km (9%)
Courses completed: 13/160 (8.1%)
Days Spent: 10.5


© 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

100 Famous Mountains: Mt. Fuji Part 1 of 2

Welcome to the first post in my Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains series. This post details my climb of Mt. Fuji. Since this trip happened about 5 years ago, the quality of the photos is significantly lower than what you see from my more recent trips. Forgive me! They’re still pretty nice even if the resolution leaves something to be desired. With that, please read on to learn a bit about my experience on Mt. Fuji!


When you think of the greatest internationally recognized icons of your home country, what do you think of? Speaking as an American, I’d first think of the flag or the Statue of Liberty — some man-made thing or another. On the list of symbols that you could imagine, where on the list would you find a mountain? Maybe Mt. Rushmore would be in the top 10, but certainly not number one. Any others? I can’t imagine. More impossible to imagine would be that American children could grow up with well over a thousand years of artwork, songs, and poems depicting that mountain, that we’d learn about it in school and that every person in the country would feel almost a sense of national duty to climb the mountain once in their lifetime, like a visit to Mecca for Muslims or a trip to Israel for Jews. Well, if you can imagine something like that, then you can imagine what climbing Mt. Fuji must mean to a Japanese person.

At the time that the idea of climbing Mt. Fuji was first beginning to enter my mind, the significance of the mountain itself was unknown to me. I hadn’t even considered how odd a thing it was that I had even heard of the mountain. After all, the list of mountains outside the U.S. that I could list off the top of my head then couldn’t have been more than the number of fingers I had, and yet most that I did know were the giants like Everest, K2, and Kilimanjaro. At 3776 meters, Fuji is hardly comparable to them, or even to the few mountains in the Rockies that I got to climb when I was a teenager. And yet, for all that, I could only name 4 or 5 peaks in the US and if you showed me a picture I probably wouldn’t recognize them at all; but I could not only recognize a picture of Mt. Fuji but give its name as well. So powerful, then, is the cultural force of that mountain that it had entered the imagination of a small town Missouri kid long before he had ever even dreamed of visiting Japan, let alone climbing the mountain.

Now, with Fukuda’s book in hand, I’m revisiting the my memories of that mountain, the first of those 100 Famous Mountains that I climbed, so many years before I would even learn of that list. The story starts seven years ago, when I first visited Japan in the spring of 2010.


I knew from the minute that I committed to studying in Japan that I wanted to at least explore the possibility of climbing Mt. Fuji. Not being a particularly serious hiker at the time, the thought entered my head not so much from the perspective of wanting to do it for myself but more from the fact that I wanted to live up family hiking tradition around which I was raised. I grew up always hearing references to my dad’s old backpacking store, stories of Colorado and the Maroon Bells, and the Appalachian Trail too. Not to mention, of course, the few times my dad dragged me away from my video games to go hiking on the Ozark Trail, or down into the Irish Wilderness. I’d even done some hiking in Colorado a few times, but I had never yet to this point taken it upon my own initiative to seek out and climb one. Somehow though I felt some unspoken pressure of this family history on my shoulder, some sense of shame that I would feel at having had the chance to climb such an exotic mountain and yet pass it up.

Sadly, though, it was not to be. After doing some research, I found the top portion of Mount Fuji is covered with ice and snow until well into the summer, and for that reason the mountain is closed until then. I, unfortunately, would have to return to the states before the climbing season opened. That didn’t stop me from spending a week at Rivermouth Lake (河口湖), a beautiful and scenic town on the shores of its namesake, backed by Fuji’s omnipresence.

When I first caught a glimpse of the mountain, I was immediately impressed by its size: that single mountain seemed to take up the whole sky, towering over Rivermouth and all around it. But it wasn’t just the height of the mountain that gave it such and overwhelming presence. At less than 4,000 meters tall, it’s dwarfed by even average-sized mountains in Colorado. However, unlike the mountains in Colorado, where massive peaks are a dime a dozen, Mt. Fuji stands alone at the center of a large basin with not a single competitor, and the nearest other mountains don’t get within 1,000 meters of its height. It’s the contrast, then, that really lends the mountain it’s magnificence.

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Fuji at sunrise

During my week at Rivermouth, the area made a deep impression on me. I walked the lakeshore. I visited a Japanese-style hotspring for the first time with a couple British guys and an old French man that I met at the hostel. I road a day-long cycling trip around four of the five lakes at the foot of the mountain. I hiked a day-hike out to Three-Passes (三つ峠) despite having injured my foot while running in Tokyo. I even got to witness a horseback archery contest. I left with a feeling that would persist for years, telling me that this was where I wanted to live someday.

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Fuji from the trail to Three Passes (三つ峠

As amazing a time as I spent during that week at Rivermouth Lake, I left somewhat heavy hearted knowing that I might never get the chance to climb to the top. Little did I know that just over a year later I’d be living right across the sea on that little peninsula known as Korea, putting me within a reasonable distance of the mountain once more. Yet again, I put my sights on the “Wealthy Gentleman,” this time after having gotten several Korean mountains (including the two highest) under my belt.


Summer, 2012. I’d been living in Korea for a year at this point and my summer vacation was just starting. Naturally, after spending my first full year living abroad, my main plan was to go back home to visit my family and to drop back in to New York to visit my college friends. But, right there on the list with those two important goals were Japan and Mt. Fuji. Looking back, I realize this reveals a bit more about my priorities than I knew at the time.

With a quick flight out of Incheon, in less than two hours I was boarding a limousine bus from Narita Airport to Shinjuku, and from there I caught the last bus direct to Rivermouth Lake. I stepping off the bus into the cool night air, I felt a distinct sense of nostalgia at returning to this place after more than two years. Despite having only stayed here for a week, the place felt as familiar as my hometown. I looked up in the direction of the mountain, a massive black silhouette against the stars and moon. The next day I would get and catch the first train to Fuji-Yoshida Station, the closest to the trailhead I had chosen.

My research prior to the trip revealed that there were four main routes up the mountain: Yoshida on the north face, Subashiri on the east, Gotemba on the southeast,   and Fujinomiya form the south. Not being so confident in my Japanese to wander too far, I opted to go up the Yoshida trail since it was closest to my hostel at Rivermouth, allowing me to get started as soon as possible. For the return trip, I chose the same path to avoid the chance of getting lost on the way back.

Click the following link for a trail map: Mt. Fuji Trail Map

Another tidbit that I came across was that the paths to the top were divided into ten stations, and the upper stations, from the fifth on, had mountain huts in which you could stay for the night in order to get up super-early and catch the sunrise from the top. In accordance with my typical preferences, I decided to do this, not just for the pictures but because I wanted to do what seemed most difficult to me. Being cheap as I was, I decided to bring a sleeping bag and just lay down outside one of the huts to save the $60 it would cost to stay for the night. As I would later find out, this wasn’t exactly the smartest idea.

A final piece of info that I found — much to my annoyance — was the fact that roads had been paved about halfway up on all the trails, so anyone could just take a bus up to fifth station and start walking from there. Well, that’s no fun! I thought. Isn’t half the fun of conquering a mountain starting from the bottom? I couldn’t tell from the maps I found online whether trails started from the bottom or not, but I surmised they had to be there, so I decided to wing it a bit and just walk from Fuji-Yoshida station towards the mountain and see what happened. Luckily, I turned out to be right.

So with this research in mind, I made the following plan. In order to maximize hiking time on the first day, I would get up early enough to catch the first train to Fuji-Yoshida Station. I would walk from the station to the Yoshida trail, climb all day, getting as high as possible. I would then throw down my sleeping back outside a mountain hut in order to save the 60 or so dollars I’d have to spend to stay there for the night. I’d then get up before sunrise and hike the rest of the way up so that I could snap some of those legendary sunrise shots from the summit. After that, it would be a straight shot back down to my hostel to rest.

Unfortunately, there were two important factors that I didn’t consider. First, was the fact that I’d be making the final ascent in the dark, yet for some reason it didn’t occur to me to pack a flashlight. The second was how truly cold it would get so high up. Although I had heard that it would be really cold at night despite it being the middle of summer, I didn’t take this seriously enough. Sure, I hiked with my winter jacket and gloves, but I was only carrying a sleeping back rated for 40° F. Would that be enough? I thought so.

The morning of the hike went as planned: I woke up on time, bought supplies at the nearest convenience store, caught the first train, and arrived at Fuji-Yoshida Station before the sun had even crested the hilltops. As I walked through the empty streets of the city, Fuji rose overhead, tinged with pink in the dawn light. Gradually the buildings thinned to forest, the sun appeared, and the road narrowed and steepened. Finally, I arrived at a small parking lot accompanied by bathrooms, a small pavilion, and a sign reading “First Station” (一合目). I had found the trailhead.

The trail proceeded steeply straight up the side of the mountain with no switchbacks and, curiously, was set in a narrow ravine much deeper than I was tall. I suspected, given how many centuries people had been climbing the mountain, that this was caused by the erosion of so many footsteps over the years. I climbed and climbed through the forest closer and closer to the treeline. As I went, every so often I would pass a dilapidated old building. These were the remains of the huts at stations 1 through 4. I surmised that they had fallen into ruin after the roads to fifth station rendered them useless. During this section, I saw only a few other people.

It must have been noon or thereabouts by the time I broke through the treeline and reached 5th station. Here only scraggly pines were growing, and the ground was comprised of volcanic gravel and larger pieces of stone. And, of course, it was here that I began to encounter the crowds Fuji is famous for. It was also at the point that I finally had a decent enough view to take a picture or two.

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The view from 5th station
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Up the mountain from 5th station

For those who have never seen Fuji up close, the mountain is totally different that you’d expect once you get above the treeline; well, that is unless you’ve climbed in extinct cindercone before. When the mountain was active, it was the variety that built itself up by belching fine debries and sometimes larger chunks of detritous into the air, which rained down upon itself until a mountain formed that was more or less a huge pile of gravel and larger stones. And, that’s literally what it is. As I hiked up, it was not that much different that trying to walk up the kind of gravel mound I used to play in at the quarry when I was a kid, except on a much more massive scale. Every step upward was absorbed somewhat by this constant downward sliding of gravel, making me feel like I had to work twice as hard as I normally would have to go the same distance.

This constant erosion caused by the footsteps of tens of thousands of climbers every year creates a curious problem for the conservationist. How do you keep the mountain open to tourists without them destroying the mountain altogether? The solution as I found was with bulldozers. As I climbed, I could also see the operators of these machines hard at work literally pushing the eroded gravel back up the side of the mountain day in and day out. I found it incredibly bizarre. I also started to wonder if this was the reason why roads were build up the fifth station. Previously, I had assumed that it had been done with money in mind: make the mountain accessible to more tourists, attract more tourists, make more money. But now, I began to think that maybe the primary purpose of the road was to get those bulldozers up there to do their restorative work.

Up and up I went went with each exhausting step, but my spirits stayed high as I took in the spectacular views below, and I even enjoyed some light conversation with other climbers. I vaguely remember running into a group of Korean girls who were studying abroad in Japan, so I leveraged my broken Korean for a bit of awkward flirting.

Somewhere in the early afternoon, probably around three, the exhaustion really started to set in. Remember, I’d woken up before sunrise and had started walking just as the sun was coming up over the mountains, so by this point I’d been awake for over ten hours on a short night’s sleep. At one point, I just sprawled out on the gravel at a relatively flat spot and took a nap. Well, took a nap might be a bit of an understatement: I practically passed out on a pile of rock. At some point a person that I had spoken to earlier caught up to me and stopped to check and see if I was ok. I said I was, got up, and continued onward.

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A volcanic formation.
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Middlemount Lake (山中湖)
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A strange cloud.
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Whispy clouds blow past a mountain hut.

The sun got lower and the air got colder. A strange dark space appeared below me. It was like a big dark triangle extending over the land. I kept glancing back down at the valley trying to figure out what it was until suddenly, it occurred to me: I was looking at the shadow of the mountain in the setting sun.

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The infinity shadow.

I reached 8th station near sunset. It was really cold now and I was beginning to appreciate just how cold it was going to get that night. Also, I was beginning to realize just how insufficient my sleeping bag was likely to be. Sitting outside the hut and nibbling on a riceball, I considered my options. I had at least brought enough money for the hut, so I decided I’d best not risk it and just pay the money for a spot on the bunk. I went in, found the master of the house, and told him I wanted to stay for the night.

“Yoyaku ga arimasu ka?” Do you have a reservation?

“Iienai desu. Daijôbu desu ka?” No, I don’t. Is it ok?

“Sumimasen, mannin desu,” he replied. I didn’t understand.

Wakaranai,” I said.

“Full,” he replied in English.

Full? Oh shit.

The sun continued to set.

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Sunset at 8th Station.

Famous mountains climbed: 0.5/100


This post is part of an ongoing series on the Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains and is part 1 of 2 on a miniseries about Mt. Fuji. To view the other posts in this series, click here.

Like this post? Want to make sure I can keep on providing you with beautiful mountain pictures? Consider supporting this blog on Patreon or sending me a donation direct to Paypal using bnheise@gmail.com.

© 2017 Brian Heise

Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains: Intro

With winter vacation fast approaching, I found myself thinking hard about where I should go  hiking. My first thought, of course, was the Fureai Trail: with two weeks off work I could easily bang out 10 or more sections and get a big boost in my goal of hiking the whole thing all the while providing myself with weeks of material for this blog, but something nagged at me about doing this. That was, how could I spend my whole two weeks hiking trails that I do on a typical day off? In the end I had to abandon that idea.

My second thought was to start hiking one of the other trails that make up the network of paths that connect the whole country, from one tip to the other. Yet again, though, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied with the thought. These trails, like the Fureai Trail, tend to be biased towards making them more accessible, meaning they were more likely to be a day’s hike at the most between bus stops and train stations and to follow courses that even older hikers stand a chance at completing. I, on the other hand, was seeking something with a bit more of a challenge, places where I could spend days without crossing a single paved road. And of course, places with a bit more prestige. Then, just a few weeks ago when I was hiking the Section V of the Fureai Trail that I finally found my answer through a comment by my friend Tianyu, who for the second timed mentioned his dream of someday hiking all of Japan’s “100 Famous Mountains.” I pondered about his comment for about a day before making my decision: I’m going to climb those 100 Famous Mountains, which I have since found are heralded as the premier list of hiking mountains in Japan.

Compiled by the Japanese mountaineer and writer Kyūya Fukada back in 1964, the list of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains is hardly historic, but in the last few decades it attained cultural prominence after its endorsement by a Japanese prince and has since spawned numerous other famous mountain lists, though these are still the gold standard. The mountains included vary widely, but each was selected with scenery, view, and uniqueness in mind and, with just a few exceptions, mountains under 1,500 meters are excluded. Also, some mountains are included more for historical significance than anything else.

Starting in January, I plan to begin writing a series of posts on these mountains, in which I detail my own experiences climbing them as well as providing historical background, photos, and and probably some musings as well. I will post at least one in this series per month, with the other three focusing on my ongoing Fureai Trail project.

Having examined the list of mountains in full, I found that I’ve already climbed five of them. Those are as follows:

  • Mt. Fuji or the “Wealthy Gentleman” (富士山), climbed in July 2012
  • Mt. Tsukuba or “Zhu Wave” (筑波山), climbed multiple times throughout the year 2015-2016 (note: a zhu is a traditional Chinese musical instrument, but the name may have originated from the Ainu language meaning “Head Towering Over”)
  • Mount Nantai or “Man’s Form” (男体山), climbed in May 2016
  • Mount Kumotori or “Cloud-catcher Mountain” (雲取山), climbed in August 2017
  • Mount Mitake, “The Venerable Peak” (御嶽山), climbed November 2017

I’ll give accounts of my experiences on these mountains as well though these will of course be accompanied by much older and lower quality photographs and probably less detail since I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things.

For those of you who have been following my blog up until now, you might remember my experience of Cloud-catcher Mountain from back in August of this year. My plan for this winter vacation is to pick up where I left off at the end of that trip, ascending Goose Hill Pass once more and continuing down the ridge to the Peak of the Fist (甲武信ヶ岳, previously translated as Armored Warrior’s Fidelity), and on to Gold Peak Mountain (金峰山), and finally ending at the Auspicious Wall (瑞牆山), a total distance of around 45 kilometers that will take roughly four days due to the short daylight hours in the winter.

If you’re interested in viewing these future posts, I encourage you to subscribe on Patreon to make sure that I can complete this series. Many of these mountains are quite far from where I live and cost hundreds of dollars for round-trip tickets to them, not to mention the cost of food and other supplies. Any amount that you pledge, even just a single dollar per post, will go a long way towards making this series possible. Even if you don’t want to subscribe, I’d appreciate it if you like this post and share it on your social media so I can reach a wider audience. Thanks in advance for your support!


This post is part of an ongoing series on the Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. To view the other posts in this series, click here.

Like what you just read? Consider supporting this work on Patreon or sending me a donation direct to Paypal using bnheise@gmail.com.

© 2017 Brian Heise

Fureai IV: The History Path

I’ve been sitting at the bus stop in a small village called Upriver Mount (上川乗) for a while now, but it’s time to begin the next stage of the Fureai Trail: The History Path, so named for its role as a trade route between Tokyo and Koshu during the Edo Period. I follow the trail markers off the highway and up a steep paved path that passes narrowly between the houses a short distance before turning to dirt and disappearing into the trees. An old man is sweeping the path in front of his house.

“Good morning!” I call out smiling.

“The bears are out,” he replied.

“Is that so?” I said and continued on without a beat.

The trail ascends gradually and easily towards Shallowgap Ridge (浅間尾根), less than an hour. As I crest the ridge I see a meadow ahead of me and a panoramic view beyond. The landscape is clearly maintained here with all the fallen sticks neatly piled under trees, the brush between which has all been entirely cleared. What’s more, the trees are cherries. I’m disappointed that I’m not passing through in the Spring.

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The view from Shallowgap Ridge

From here the trail descends gradually and gently. Later I’ll learn that this is the reason why the ridge is called Shallowgap.

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Descent from Shallowgap Ridge.
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A view of the valley.
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Easy descent.
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Sun through the trees.

After about an hour I pass a traditional style tea house. It looks like a great place to end a hike, but it’s closed today. I take a moment to rest before continuing on. Not long after, the trail meets the road and for the next 40 minutes or so I descend the winding mountain road.

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Houses dot the mountainside.
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A tree getting in the way of my shot.
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Fall colors on the mountainside.
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A bright orange maple.
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A cluster of maples.

Finally I arrive at Clearmarsh Falls (払沢滝), the end of the journey. No bears.

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Clearmarsh Falls (払沢滝)
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Post hike udon

Recommendations

This section of trail makes a great day-hike. It’s pretty short and the slopes are easy, so you could finish it in just a few hours, maybe only three. This actually works out pretty well once you reach the far side since Cypress Moor Village (檜原村) is a decent tourist destination in its own right, featuring quite a few waterfalls and cultural activities to participate in. I won’t list them all here, but check it out if you’re near Tokyo and you want to take a weekend trip. After all, they recently commissioned an English guide map and they’re so proud of it that they force me to take one every time I come despite my protests that I can read the Japanese one.

If you plan an overnight trip, definitely definitely definitely camp at the shelter on Shallowgap Ridge (浅間尾根). The view is great (it’s the featured image at the top of this article), the ground is flat and soft with grass, and there’s even a small pavilion. It might be frowned upon to make a fire, but I will say there’s tons of branches pruned from the cherry trees that are piled up at their bases. Would anyone notice if a few went missing?

Access: 上川乗バス停
Ideal season: Spring

My Stats:

Distance traveled: 58.3 km (3.2%)
Courses completed: 4/160 (2.5%)
Days spent: 3


This post is part of an ongoing series on the Fureai Trail. To view the other posts in this series, click here.

Like what you just read? Consider supporting this work on Patreon or sending me a donation direct to Paypal using bnheise@gmail.com.

© 2017 Brian Heise

Fureai II: The Bird Path

It’s mid-morning at Little Buddha Pass. The fall air in the mountains is crisp and cool. It feels good. Frost is visible in the shadows, a warning for the coming night. My pack is heavy, but my knees feel stronger. Ahead the path is pavement. I’m not sure how far until I reach the trail.

It’s late. Later than I planned to be on the trail, but I’m not worried that I won’t finish. Tonight is an overnighter and I don’t care where I stop because I don’t care too much where I’ll finish tomorrow. Loose plans will tighten up as circumstances become more clear.

There are several old people walking with me. I always keep such company when I hike in Japan. Hiking is a sport for the old here; people my age are seldom seen. Later, some distance up the trail to Mt. Kagenobu, one them will speak to me, ask me where I’m from, where I’m going. I tell I’m from the states. She tells me her son lives in Washington, tells me how beautiful the flowers are there in the summer. I tell her I’ve heard of their beauty, but I actually haven’t. Isn’t it all too often that fictions are more pleasing to the ear that the truth?

I reach the summit of Mt. Kagenobu. At some point on the ascent I realized I forgot to bring chopsticks. I approach the mountain hut only to find it closed. No chopsticks. I resolve to carve my own, silently praising myself for my grit, perhaps also to distract myself from acknowledging having forgotten to bring them in the first place.

 

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From the slopes of Mt. Kagenobu
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Lake Sagami and Mt. Fuji
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Fuji framed by trees
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Lake Sagami and Mt. Fuji

My mind wanders as I walk. Thinking about carving leads to thoughts of knives and takes me back to a conversation from a year or two back. Sitting in some cafeteria at Washu, my friend has a package that she can’t open. I say not to worry and take my knife out of my bag and cut it open. She seemed appalled that I was carrying a weapon, to which I protested that a knife is a tool, not a weapon. I don’t remember her retort, only that I added that hammers are dangerous too, but if I happened to have been carrying a hammer in my bag she wouldn’t have had anything to say about it. Different cultures. She was a city girl and I was a country boy. Better than a decade living in cities can’t erase my comfort with knives.

The trail up until now far hasn’t been the Bird Path. The trail starts at the foot of Hightail Mountain and continues some 10 km or so to this point at Kagenobu. I walked that path some weeks ago and I prefer to not waste time walking the same trail twice. Every foot I step on the same path is one foot I’ll never place somewhere new. I have no time for repeats. But you? What do you find if you hike the whole path?

Imagine yourself on the train to Hightail Mountain. At some point you notice the large number of people wearing hiking gear. The train arrives and all the cars empty, even of those who aren’t dressed for hiking. The platform is packed and you realize these people are all going to climb the mountain. You take to the trail. It’s crowded. It feels like a theme park. The trail is even paved. Cable cars carry passengers up the mountainside, but it doesn’t seem to effect the number of people walking. You’re irritated. This isn’t what you came all the way out here fore. You could have stayed home and relaxed. Now you’re stuck on a mountain with thousands of chattering people, screaming kids. You resolve to climb to the top and then go straight home.

Multiple trails go to the top. You get off onto a side trail and the crowds thin a bit. This isn’t so bad, you think. But once you reach the top, the crowds reach their maximum. It’s liking walking through a rock concert. But you spot a map. The map shows the trail goes on. The map shows the kilometers of trail spreading on. You think, maybe if you go further the crowds will thin out and the day will turn out alright. So you go on. And you’re right. You might even notice trail markers for the Fureai Trail. You saw those same markers before in a place far away from here. It catches your interest. You decide to look into it when you get home. Maybe you’ll try to hike the whole trail.

 

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Grass, valley, ridgeline
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Skyline from Takao
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The Kanto through trees
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The Japanese Alps
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A bridge across the ravine

You reach Castle Mountain. The view of the Kanto is spectacular. Far off in the distance you can see the Skytree, and below it you know is your home. And if you keep walking you’ll be where I now stand at the summit of Kagenobu, enjoying a view of Mt. Fuji on one side, the Kanto on the other. It’s refreshing. But it’s time to move on.

 

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Ridges

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The summit of Shiroyama

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The trail is uneventful. I don’t take any pictures. One good picture is worth a thousand mediocre, and one perfect picture gets lost in a crowd of the average. I wait. As I walk, I scan the trail for good places to put a tent. Though I’m more than five hours away from where I will eventually camp, I’ve cultivated this habit from long experience. Determine the frequency with which you see good camp sites and you can estimate how long before sundown that you should start looking for your night’s abode.

Birds. This is the bird path. Why? Parus birds. They say that if you walk among the winter groves of this area, you’ll hear soft fluttering and of flocks of birds moving slowly about. If you look closely, you can see all kinds — mixed flocks of Parus birds. These birds live separately in the spring and summer breeding season and flock together in the winter. I guess I saw some these birds. I did see some birds anyway. Whether they were Parus birds or not I don’t know. Birdwatching was never an interest of mine.

After some hours, I arrive at Camp-horse Mountain and the end of the Bird path. This is what I was waiting for. The view at the top offers 360 degrees of view. I stay for a while taking shots.

 

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Jimba view
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Fuji from Jimba
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The trail ahead, from Jimba
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Snow on Fuji

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Horse statue on Jimba
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The ridge
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Fall colors

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Off across the Kanto, more than 100km away, I see the pale silhouette of Mt. Tsukuba through the haze and I think of someone I know there. I wonder what she’s doing right now.

Looking at the view, I know that I could get magnificent shots of Fuji at sunset and sunrise here, but I resolve to move on. The trail is steep down from the summit. The bird path comes to an end, but I still have three hours of daylight.

Recommendations

The bird path is a really great hiking course. It’s long enough to really be refreshing (almost 20km) and it has plenty of stunning views. It starts rough at Mt. Takao with all of it’s carnival-like attractions and crowds of people, but that makes the overall effect of the hike even better because you get to transition from that to the more beautiful and less crowded sections. The contrast it what does it.

As far as camping goes, this is a fairly popular section of trail, so again it’s not the best for camping, but there are many fairly good places to set up a tent. I personally recommend a spot between Shiroyama (Castle Mountain) and Jimba Mountain (Camp-horse Mountain), where there’s an abandoned mountain hut. The ground there is flat and soft and there isn’t anyone aren’t to complain about people setting up tents. The downside, though, is that the views aren’t that great. If you’re into mountain photography, do try to see the sunset from the summit of Jimba.

My Stats

Kilometers hiked: 35.6 (2%)
Courses Completed: 2/160 (1.3%)
Days spent: 1.5


This post is part of an ongoing series on the Fureai Trail. To view all posts in this series, click here.

© 2017 Brian Heise

Fureai Trail I: The Lake Path

Sunday morning. The trains in Tokyo aren’t as busy as they are on weekdays. I find a seat. I transfer in Ochanomizu to the Chuo Line, a direct shot to Mt. Takao. A little over an hour later I arrive at the station. I check in vain to see whether my web searches missed something, but it’s true: there’s no bus to the trail head at Plumtree Flat (梅ノ木平). I walk. The sun is bright, the sky clear. The autumn breeze is cool, not cold. The leaves of the maples tinted red but not yet in full color whisper. Cyclists passed on the road on their way into the mountains.

Arriving an Plumtree Flat, a picturesque Japanese countryside extends before my eyes, and a small wooden sign directs me down a dirt road, accompanied by a small stream joining the chorus of wind and branch. I feel, like I often do, that I’d rather be living in this kind of place than in Tokyo.

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Lake Path Trailhead at Plumtree Flat
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Path by a creek, Plumtree Flat (梅ノ木平)

Ahead, the trail meets pavement and passes through a series of traditional buildings. I can hear the sound of a koto, but I can’t tell if it’s a recording or not.

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A collection of traditional buildings, Plumtree Flat (梅ノ木平)
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Japanese Maple
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Large bus, small road.
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A gateway

I keep walking. The road turns to gravel as it enters the forest. Trail signs disappear. I see a pathway going up the mountain to my left. I can’t tell if it’s the right one or not, but I take it anyway. I meet the ridge and catch glimpses of the lakes that lend this trail it’s namesake.

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Castle Mountain Lake (城山湖)
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Port Oldwell Lake (津久井湖)

A statue. Not uncommon for Japan.

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A Buddhist statue

Hours pass. The trail crosses over Highway 20, the same road I walked to reach Plumtree Flat.

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Footbridge across Highway 20

Ascending back to the ridge, I reach the section of trail that I had hiked the previous week. Tired and hungry, I stop for lunch at the mountain hut at the top of Castle Mountain (城山).

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Castle Mountain summit (城山山頂)

I feel weak. I’m still recovering from a cold, one that only a day before had me considering cancelling the day’s hike. Knowing that I’d already hiked the trail in both directions from here, I decide to descend directly to Sagami Lake.

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Ascending to Castle Mountain
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Clouds from the summit of Castle Mountain
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Descent from Castle Mountain to Sagami Lake

On the descent, I lay down next to the trail to take a nap. I hear people whispering about me as they pass by. I ignore them.

I reach the bottom faster than I expected. There’s a small shack from which an old man is selling beer and manju. I buy a beer and take a drink. The clouds above the village caught my attention.

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Clouds of Sagami City

The trail guiding me to the station took me into a deep valley where a river flows. It’s the Sagami River, the sign tells me. I recall years ago when I lived with a host family in Atsugi. The Sagami River flowed by the house. Each evening, I walked on it’s banks and looked out at the mountains, admiring their beauty without knowing that I’d be standing here today.

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Bridge over the Sagami River
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Sagami River

 

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Bridge over the Sagami River
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Clouds in the sky and the water
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Bend in the Sagami River
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Bank of the Sagami River

 

Goodbye, Sagami Lake. I’ll take the train home.

Recommendations

One thing you’ll note as soon as you start looking at the maps for the first few courses of the trail is that the first two are pretty long (around 15km) and that half of both of them are the same section of trail from Hightail Mountain (高尾山) to Castle Mountain (城山). If you’re loath to hike the same section of trail multiple times, then I recommend doing as I did and going straight down the mountain to Sagami Lake from Castle Mountain or alternatively hiking to Hightail and then starting section two walking from Sagami Station.

Also, if you don’t want to spend a half an hour walking by the road to Plumtree Flat, there’s actually a trail straight from the station that goes up the ridge to connect with the trail. It bypasses Plumtree Flat entirely, but it will ensure that you maximize your time on the actual trail. If you’re interested, look for the Takao-Oto Course (高尾・大戸コース).

Finally, for those who like overnight hiking, there are some decent places to pitch a tent along the route, though as the trails in this area are really popular, it might not be to your taste to plan an overnight on this section of trail. However, if I had to recommend a spot, it would be the top of Castle Mountain since the views there are really good and there’s plenty of flat space. Do note there that there’s also a mountain hut where you can buy meals there. I wouldn’t recommend pitching your tent until the workers clear out as it might be frowned upon to camp right there.

My Stats

Kilometers Hiked: 16.2/1,799 (0.9%)
Courses Completed: 1/160 (0.6%)
Days spent: 1


This post is part of an ongoing series on the Fureai Trail. To view other posts in this series, click here.

© 2017 Brian Heise

The Kantô Fureai Trail: Intro

(It’s been a long hiatus, but I’m back to start a new hiking series documenting a project that I’ve just started: through-hiking the Kantô Fureai Road (関東ふれあいの道), a roughly 1,800 km hiking path that runs along the rim of the Kantô Plain, the largest flat area in Japan which happens to contain Tokyo and a large portion of the country’s farmland as well. Over the course of the next two years or so, assuming that I stay living in the Tokyo area and I don’t suffer a catastrophic injury, I’ll be going out more or less weekly to hike a section of the trail and I’ll be documenting the experience here. Unlike my previous series on my hike in the Chichibu Interior from a few months back, this series will be focused more on pictures and less on narrative since I expect that there won’t be so many exciting or interesting things happening. Each post will contain some background on the area, any noteworthy events that happened to me on the trail, and the rest will be pictures with captions. I hope you all enjoy it!

Trail Overview

The Kantô Fureai no Michi is 1,799 km long and consists of 160 separate courses, each usually around 10 km long, though some are closer to 20. The trail, part of a larger network called the Long-Distance Nature Trail (長距離自然歩道) that spans the entire country, winds its way around the Kantô Plain passing through six separate prefectures as well as areas administered by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which is its own distinct administrative unit outside of any prefectural government. The name of the trail roughly translates to “The Kantô Contact Road,” though a lot is lost in translating the word fureai, which indicates more that the road connects all of the areas of the Kantô together and also has implications of intimacy as the word is often used to describe spending time with loved ones or the contact of lips during a kiss. The fact that the trail loops around the edge of the Kantô also means that it circles around Tokyo as well, lending it a second name, Capital Nature Trail (首都圏自然歩道). Stay tuned for pictures and stories from section 1 of the trail: The Lake Path (湖のみち).

My Stats

Kilometer’s hiked: 0 (0%)
Courses completed: 0 (0%)
Days spent: 0


This post is an intro to an ongoing series on the Kantô Fureai Trail. Click here to view all posts in this series.

© 2017 Brian Heise