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

Fukuda’s Daisetsu-yama (100 Famous Mountains #5)

The first lesson in any course about Japan usually starts with a brief overview of Japanese geography, which naturally starts with a list of the four main islands: Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu, and Hokkaido. What they don’t typically mention until you get much deeper into the subject is that Hokkaido is the odd-man out. While the former three islands have been inhabited and ruled by the ethnic group that we now call Japanese, Hokkaido only came under their authority in the late 1800s. Prior to that time, that northernmost island was largely unexplored by outsiders, though it was inhabited by a stone-age society of hunter-gatherers called the Ainu. As you read Fukuda’s essay on Daisetsu-yama or the previous one about Akan-dake, you can truly feel the nearness of that history at the time of his writing, from his discussion of Ainu place names and famous northern explorers to  his word choice in distinguishing Hokkaido from “Japan proper.”

 

5. Daisetsu-yama (2290 m)

I don’t know exactly when the name Daisetsu-yama (Big Snow Mountain, 大雪山) appeared, but it was originally called Nutak Kam Ushupe. We can see from the second volume of Mountaineering (『山岳』, 1907) that those people who call themselves the “Hokkaidoans” (Hokkaido-jin, 北海道人), noting the fact that this tallest of Hokkaido peaks hadn’t yet been given a Japanese name, had suggested christening it Shiroginu-yama (White Silk Mountain). From this it’s apparent that around that time at least the name Daisetsu did not yet exist. Probably the point at which the name came into general circulation was after we had already entered into the Taishô Period (1912-1926).

On old 1:50,000 scale maps as well, Nutak Kam Ushupe (ヌタクカムウシュペ) is listed as the primary name, and Daisetsu is marked in parentheses. Even the map’s name was labeled as Nutak Kam Ushupe. However, the newly printed ones have been changed to Daisetsu-yama. Given that there is now both a boat called the SS Daisetsu (大雪丸) on the Seikan Ferry (青函連絡船) and a train named the Daisetsu Express (大雪号), and that Daisetsu National Park has become known far and wide, it seems that the Ainu name will gradually sink into the shadows. The fact that Ainu names exist at all in Hokkaido is an awfully nostalgic thing for we classicists, but it’s hard to hold back the spirit of the times.

I heard that the original name was Nutap Kam Ushupe and meant “the mountain with rivers around it,” but they say that the “p” sound was overwhelmed and became indistinct so that it was heard as a “k,” resulting in Nutak Kam Ushupe. “The mountain with rivers around it” is an example of primitive people’s simple and straightforward way of naming things that truly gets to the point, for the headwaters of the two great rivers Ishikari (石狩) and Tokachi (十勝) spring forth from that mass of mountains and then proceed to flow around its base.

Regardless, now it’s Daisetsu-yama. Daisetsu-yama National Park also includes the Tokachi and Ishikari ranges, but here I will limit my discussion to the original Nutak Kam Ushupe — that is, to the group of volcanoes centered on Asahi-dake (Morning Sun Peak, 旭岳). That volcanic group is comprised of Hokuchin (北鎮), Haku-un (White Cloud, 白雲), Hokkai (North Sea, 北海), Ryô-un (凌雲), Pippu (比布), Aibetsu (愛別) and other peaks as well, all exceeding 2000 meters. Such high peaks are a rarity in Hokkaido, so their location at its very center makes them quite literally the roof of the island.

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Mt. Pippu and Mount Hokuchin
By AlpsdakeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

There are three trailheads that lead up into this mountain group: Sôun Gorge (層雲峡), Aizan Valley (愛山渓), and Yukoman-betsu (勇駒別). Abundant hot springs well forth at each one.

Among them the best known is Sôun Gorge, which has become a stop that cannot be omitted from any sightseeing tour of Hokkaido. Since magnificent hotels beyond the reach of the meager hiker line the roads, it has been decried as nothing more than a common hot spring village, but the scenery is beautiful nonetheless. When you happen to look up, you see the spectacular towering of Kuro-dake’s (Black Peak, 黒岳) solemn rocky summit right above your head, and the countless great waterfalls on the kilometers-long rock wall of columnar joints is also spectacular. The long gorges named Ôbako (大函) and Kobako (小函) were probably quite a marvel for the people who first pushed up into this valley.

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One of Soun Gorge’s many waterfalls
Public Domain, Link

Even that glorious scenery has been made into a trail so easy that guide girls now provide eloquent expositions there, but a Hokkaido University dormitory song was once sung as follows:

Jewel glossing Ishikari 瓔珞みがく石狩の
When I visit your source みなもと遠く訪ひ来れば
Its primeval forests darken 原始の森は暗くして
And the springs of snowmelt well forth jewels. 雪消の泉珠と湧く

What happiness must it have been for the pioneers who first explored this valley? The fact that this primordial forest, which had remained for so long, was tragically mowed down by the Ise Bay Typhoon (伊勢湾台風) is heartbreaking indeed.

There is a trail climbing directly to Kuro-dake from Sôun Gorge. Lightly dressed sightseers generally take the hiker’s bus to Ginsen-dai (Silverspring Platform, 銀泉台) and from that terminus climb as far as the scenic flower fields known as Dai-ichi Hanazono (Flower Garden 1 , 第一花園) and Dai-ni Hanazono (Flower Garden 2, 第二花園). With that they pull back, having touched on just one end of Daisetsu-yama. Only spritely people make their way further to Kuro-dake.

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Kuro-dake
By AlpsdakeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

When you compare it with Sôun Gorge, the other two trailheads are still relatively untouched. The deep coniferous forests of Yukoman-betsu would amaze anyone. Asahi-dake towering straight up above that forest is the pinnacle of noble beauty — it is not at all ashamed to be called Hokkaido’s highest point. When you pass the pleasant wetland called Tennyo-ga-Hara (Field of Nymphs, 天女ヶ原) while walking amid those trees, the path becomes steep and eventually you come out at Sugata-mi Pond (Looking-glass Pond, 姿見の池). At this beautiful pond located right below Asahi-dake the great eruption crater directly ahead forms a precipitous rock wall; in Jigoku Tani (Hell Valley, 地獄谷), which flows out from there, white smoke rises in several places. It seems bathers from Yukoman-betsu come as far as here to relax.

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Sugatami Pond
By 663highland, CC BY 2.5, Link

From there on the path is nothing but a steep slope heading up towards the summit along the ridge making up the southern edge of the crater, and on top of that it’s hard to walk on owing to the crunching eruption gravel beneath your feet. As you climb while stopping time and again to catch your breath, a majestic view unfolds. Stretching out peacefully far off beyond the Chûbetsu River (忠別川) is Takane-ga-Hara (高根ヶ原), looking entirely like a giant sports field. When you look down, you see a broad flat area covered in forest; amid the green, a number of small marshes shine in the sunlight. Hikers who come here for the first time will realize that, compared with the other mountains in our country, there is no place with a scale so extraordinary.

On the day that I stood at the summit of Asahi-dake I was met with a perfectly clear autumn sky, so naturally the Daisetsu, Tokachi, and Ishikari ranges seemed within hailing distance, but far off I was also able to more or less see all of the principal mountains of Hokkaido — Akan, Shiretoko, Tenshio, Yubari, and Mashike.

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The mountains of Daisetsu-yama
By Miya.mMiya.m‘s file, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

The typical course is to come out at Kuro-dake’s (黒岳) stone hut after passing by Mamiya-dake (間宮岳) and Hokkai-dake (北海岳) via Asahi-dake, but in the vast Daisetsu group paths branch out in all directions. On the course going down from Asahi towards Susoaida-daira (裾間平) and coming out at Numa-no-Daira (沼の平) there were few people and moreover I was able to enjoy scenery that was full of variation. Numa-no-Daira is a quiet marsh that still remains in a pristine state, and when you go there ponds of various shapes appear one after another to the left and right of the path. It was a beautiful wetland scene.

Aizan Valley too is a rustic hot spring. From there the road passes on to Hokuchin-dake — Daisetsu-yama’s second highest peak — after crossing over Nagayama-dake (永山岳) and Pippu-dake (比布岳), but the rugged form of Aibetsu-dake, which can be seen along the way, is also impressive. On the whole the mountains of Daisetsu all possess gentle curves and so are said to be somewhat feminine or graceful, but Aibetsu alone is a precipitous rocky peak and stands out all the more for that contrast.

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Aibetsu-dake
GFDL, Link

The long path that descends from Hokuchin and cuts across Kumo-no-Daira (雲の平) was a pleasant highland stroll where I lost track of the distance. There are many such large moors on Daisetsu-yama. If you were to bring that concentration to Japan proper, highlands apt to be boasted of just by their moors alone would be strewn about left and right. This extravagance, this wildness — these are the charms of Daisetsu-yama.

At the end of the Kumo-no-Daira Trail is Kurodake’s stone hut. Being that long ago it was the sole mountain hut within Daisetsu-yama, even today the only place where there are guards on the mountain is here. A wooden hut has been constructed and added to the original stone building. As this stone hut was formerly the historical basecamp of Daisetsu-yama, the inscription “Terra incognita” written on the gate might have been left behind by the students of Hokkaido University, who held the dream of exploration back in those days.

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Autumn in Daisetsu-yama National Park
By pakku, CC 表示 3.0, Link

Nearby the hut is Keigetsu-dake (桂月岳), whose name memorializes Ômachi Keigetsu’s (大町桂月) climb, but there are also many other peaks in addition to this one that, in the manner of Mamiya-dake (間宮岳) for Mamiya Rinzô (間宮林蔵), Matsuda-dake (松田岳) for Matsuda Ichitarô (松田市太郎), and Koizumi-dake (小泉岳) for Koizumi Hideo (小泉秀雄), were named after a person connected with Daisetsu-yama. As for me, I passed over Eboshi-dake (烏帽子岳) and Aka-dake (赤岳) before going down towards Ginsen-dai, and from there I took the bus to Sôun Gorge.


Translation © Brian Heise
All photos belong to Wikicommons

Fureai Saitama VII: The Path for Learning About Nagatoro’s History and Nature

The day that I visited the Path for Learning About Nagatoro’s History and Nature, I almost didn’t make it past the first few kilometers. This had nothing to do with the difficulty of the path — it’s not difficult by any stretch — and everything to do with the vast wealth of attractions that the town of Nagatoro has to offer.

To start with, there’s the Arakawa River, which is great for swimming, kayaking, taking a traditional wooden pole-boat tour, or even jumping into deep pools or just taking a scenic walk along its banks. I was so enticed that I almost didn’t leave. However, there’s more.

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A kayaker paddles through the canyon near Nagatoro Station

Right near the best swimming hole, not far from Kami-Nagatoro Station, is the Nagatoro Natural History Museum, where you can learn all about the local geology and ecology. From there, walk down the river path while watching the boats laden with tourists pass by until you reach the main Nagatoro Station, where you’ll find a shopping street filled with restaurants and gift shops. Follow the main street up towards the mountain and eventually you’ll arrive at Hodo-san Shrine (寳登山), but don’t forget to stop in at the silk museum on your way up the road.

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The torii gate at Hodo-san Shrine
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The main hall at Hodo-san Shrine
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Painted carvings on the entrance to the main hall at Hodo-san Shrine

If that wasn’t all, once you finally get up to the top of Hodo Mountain (宝登山), you’ll find a sweeping view of the Chichibu Basin. Feast your eyes on pleasant views of the Japanese Alps in the distance. Finally, for those who have grown tired of the hustle and bustle along the trail up to this point, few of the tourists hike further than the summit, so you’re guaranteed a quiet end to your hike.

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A view from the summit of Hodo-san

Given the constraints of the bus schedule at the end of the trail, I was forced to decide whether I would stay to enjoy all of these attractions or hurry on; in the end, I decided to take the trail.

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The trail follows a dirt road on the far side of Hodo-san

 

Up to the Top of Hodo Mountain

The path officially starts right outside Kami-Nagatoro Station. Get off and walk straight down to the road toward the river, then follow the riverside path to is end near the main Nagatoro Station. From there, follow the main road past the restaurants and up to Hodo-san Shrine. From here, getting on the trail up to the top of the mountain is a little confusing as it isn’t well marked, but just look for a road heading up the mountain and you’ll be on the right path — the trail and the road are one and the same, though alternate footpaths do cut straight up the mountain rather than following the switchbacks if that’s more to your taste.

As you climb, you’ll start to get some nice views of the valley below, but the best views are to be found at the top, where you can see sweeping panoramas of the truly high mountains off in the distance, including Ryôkami-yama (両神山), one of Fukuda’s 100 Famous. What’s more, there are quite a lot of nice facilities at the top due to the cable car running up there.  You can grab an ice cream or a bowl of noodles while you enjoy the view.

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Ryokami-yama is faintly visible beyond the ridge on the right

From the summit of Hodosan, the hike follows a rather leisurely and quiet forest path down the mountain to Highway 44, where you can catch the bus to Minano Station, a couple stops down the line from the start at Kami-Nagatoro Station.

 

The Forests of Hodo Mountain

As you climb the mountain, take a look at the forest. You’ll notice primarily four varieties of tree: cedar, cypress, sawtooth oak, and pin oak. These trees reveal the legacy of human activity on the mountain. The cedar and cypress form a man-made forest that has been cultivated over the centuries for building materials. The sawtooth and pin oaks grow wild in the open spaces where the former two varieties have been cut away, but afterwards left to nature. These two varieties do particularly well in such spaces is because they love good sunlight, so they take off well in such open spaces.

The pin oak, in particular, has historically been used to make both charcoal and fertilizer, so it’s ended up spread far and wide all over the Kanto. The forests of Musashino, which the earlier sections of the Fureai Trail in Saitama passed through, often consist of this kind of man-made forest. Though these forests were originally tended by human hands, these days they have been left to grow wild.

 

Wild Mushrooms

As a native of the Missouri Ozarks with its famous morel mushrooms, a rare delicacy that locals love to hunt for both to eat and sell, it comes as no surprise to me that a country such as Japan, home of the famous shiitake mushroom, would have a similar tradition. When the mushrooms are in season, it isn’t at all uncommon to see old villagers walking the hills looking for them and other mountain vegetables to bring to market. The slopes of Hodo-san as well are no stranger to such activities.

As with all edible mushrooms, there’s the danger of misidentification and poisoning. For example, the edible tamago-take (egg mushroom, 卵茸) and poisonous tamago-tengu-take (egg-goblin mushroom, 卵天狗茸) look rather similar, as do the edible urabeni-hotei-shimeji (red-pleated pouch mushroom, 裏紅布袋占地) and the poisonous kusa-urabeni-take (stinky red-pleated mushroom, 臭裏紅茸).

 

One of the challenges of mushroom hunting in Japan, even for natives, is the problem of names. Japan has only had a nationally designated standard dialect for about 150 years, and, as a result, there still remains many local names for these mushrooms that vary from region to region and even from valley to valley. For this reason, even if you learn the names from a guidebook, you might not actually be able to tell which mushrooms are safe and which ones aren’t. The official stance of the Japanese Park Service is to simply not pick mushrooms at all.


Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path for Learning About the History and Nature of Nagatoro (Nagatoro no Shizen to Rekishi wo Manabu Michi, 長瀞の自然と歴史を学ぶみち)
Map:
Click here
Access:
Start: Kami-Nagatoro Station (高原牧場入口バス停)
End: Negoya Bridge Bus Stop (根古屋橋バス停); this stop is not available in google, so check the timetable here
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Medium
Ideal Seasons: Summer
Camping Locations:* There’s a nice field on the far side of Hodo-san that’s great for camping; otherwise, consider renting a cabin by the river for 9,000 yen (about $90)
Length (distance): 8.8 km
Length (time): 3 hours and 10 minutes
Food access: Kami-Nagatoro Station, Nagatoro Station, the summit of Hodo-san

 


My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 170.5 km (9.5%)
Courses completed: 14/160 (8.6%)
Days Spent: 11

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

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


The Arrival at Odai-ga-Hara

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

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

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

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

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The Visitor Center
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A Mess Hall

 

A view to the Sea

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

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Hikers set out for Hide-ga-Dake

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

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

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

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

Odai-ga-Hara: Then and Now

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

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Withered trees

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

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

 

Cowstone Field and Great Serpent Bluff

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

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Cowstone Field (牛石原)

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

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

 

Shiokara Valley

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

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A blossoming rhododendron
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Rhododendrons
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Shiokara Valley
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Crossing the bridge

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

Back to the Valley

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

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

Famous mountain count: 6

© Brian Heise, 2018