This post is part 5 in a multi-part series on my trip to Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park in Japan earlier in May. Be sure to check out parts one, two, three, and four as well.
Back in Ôdarumi Pass
As we rested our tired bodies by the warmth of a gas heater in the hut on Ôdarumi Pass, we were well aware even before discussing it that we would probably fail to reach Kinpu Mountain. After a hard fight with deep snow drifts and downed trees on our way up to the summit of Kita-Oku Senjô, we were about two hours behind schedule. It was 1:30 then, and though under good conditions it wouldn’t take more than four hours to hike the ridge over Asahi-dake to our destination, but given that the trail was still covered in several inches of melting snow creating a treacherously slippery muddy mess, we expected it to make much longer than that. Also, that snow and mud would make it difficult to find a suitable place to set camp if we got stuck somewhere in the middle, and we also didn’t feel comfortable walking it out in the dark. Certainly, we’d have to stay here for the night and possibly make a go for it the next morning, but that would be cutting it close time-wise.
For Tianyu, it was over. A grad student at the University of Tokyo, he couldn’t spare another night when submission deadlines were knocking at his door. He would go down that afternoon. For Dylan and I, it didn’t look much better. If we couldn’t make it to Kinpu tonight, we would end up cutting our return to Tokyo the next day uncomfortably close to the departure time of our bus to Osaka. It seemed unwise to take that risk, so, we thought, we would probably stay here for the night and then follow Tianyu down the road north into Nagano Prefecture, and from there take the long train ride around the west end of the ridge to get back to Tokyo.
So we decided to give up. For the second time, I had failed to reach Mount Kinpu. For the second time I had underestimated the hindrance snow would prove for me. For the second time I would take that winding forest road down to Kawahage Village. There was no question that I felt some disappointment about this.
But we weren’t walking away empty handed. Over the course of the last two days of hiking, we had seen some of the most beautiful views I’ve yet come across all of my hiking experience. We saw the clear green waters of Nishizawa Gorge.
We saw the long ridgeline of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park extending from east to west as far as the eye could see.
We watched the sun set behind Kita-Oku Senjo Peak from the rocky summit of Black Gold Mountain.
And we saw Fuji in the distance, hoisting her hems high up towards her snowy veil while a wreath of wispy clouds surrounded her crest.
For sure, we had more than enough beautiful scenery to make up for turning back before reaching Kinpu.
Dylan and I walked with Tianyu to the beginning of the forest road where we exchanged promises for the next vacation in August: we would be here again. As the two of us watched Tianyu’s descent towards the first bend in the road, where he then disappeared from our view, I noticed a trail of discolored patches in the remaining snow — the vestiges of my own footprints and those of my silent companion, calling back memories of the hours we had traveled together on those frigid days back in December.
The Troubles After White Birch
We had finally made it to White Birch Flat by around 11 a.m earlier that morning. It seemed like ages ago that we had held hope of making it this far by the first night, but actually it was not even a day ago that we abandoned that goal. Yet here we sat resting on a bed of yellow grass by the weathered asphalt of the forest road, watching the silent flow of a small, clear stream. True to the name, white birches stood left and right.
Given the time, we were feeling pretty hopeful. Yes, we were about half a day behind our original plans, but we were now just about 200 meters below the highest point on the trip: Kita-Oku-Senjo. Once we reached that, it would be a quick drop down to Ôdarumi Pass and from there only a few more hours to Kinpu. Surely we could make it before sundown, we thought. We were eager to get on our way.
Sadly, it was not to be. Shortly after resuming our hike we found a trail utterly blocked by fallen trees so thick that getting past them with our large packs proved exceedingly difficult, and often we were forced to stray far off from the trail to get around them.
But that was only the start. As the trees gave way the patches of remaining snow that had dotted the trail before now became deep drifts riding up like waves. Their surface was frozen solid enough to walk on some of the time, but only just enough to lure us into a false sense of security before dropping us knee or even hip deep into the cold.
What made it all the more difficult was that there weren’t even any other footprints to follow that could at least forecast to us the weak places: we were the first people to come this way since the last big snow. Consequently, our progress slowed almost to a halt.
Needless to say we were in low spirits through much of this section. But, just as even a small snack to a starving man is more precious than gold, for us suffering through the thick trees and deep snow, finally arriving at the top of Kita-Oku Senjô provided us with a feast for our eyes that was more then enough to sate our hunger. We took in the view, gazing off at the far-off mountains of Nagano, one ridge closer than they were last night. And, for the first time, we got a clear view of Kinpu, tantalizingly close. It felt like we could catch it with a stone if we threw one.
But of course, you already know that we never got to set foot on that golden peak.
This post is part four in a multi-part series on my hiking expedition to Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park for Golden Week 2018. Be sure to check out parts one, two, and three as well.
When I opened my eyes the next morning I could clearly see despite it being not long after 4 a.m. That, I think, is one of the things that those who live in more domesticated circumstances rarely experience: the fact morning comes so long before the sun. Departing my sleeping bag and hastily putting on my warmer clothes, I walked back to the rocky outcropping on the north face of Black Gold Mountain and looked out at the dim landscape washed blue in the moonlight.
The world looks different in the early morning. The colors are changed. Pale blue stands out while reds, yellows, and all other bright colors fade to a bear semblance of their daytime vigor. The light has been stripped bare.
But then it changes — the first rays of sunshine, mixing with that pale blue light of the moon, but not enough to overpower it. Life. The bright pinks and reds of morning sun meet the blue to produce a pallet of colors unknown at any other time of day, even at sunset. What’s more, the colors are all the more vivid when standing in contrast to the recent darkness.
This is the best time to photograph mountains, this first light of morning. This perfect moment possesses just the right level of light where all parts of the landscape become visible, where the brightness of the sun doesn’t obscure the valleys in shadow, nor does it wash away the details of the clouds. It is the single, perfect light and yet a light that so few people ever see.
At some point I noticed that Tianyu and Dylan had joined me on the rocks, looking out at the ridge. Below us the path for the day stretched out, steadily lower until once more rising high to Kokushi-ga-Take. Beyond that far mountain we saw even further in the distance, so small in appearance and yet massive in reality, the far off snow-capped peaks of Nagano, which had been rendered invisible by haze and bright sunlight the previous evening. We looked on with a certain hunger, and with dreams of summer.
The Ridge fromBlack Gold Mountain
We set out before six.
It was a steep path down from Black Gold, but soon the trail leveled and we found ourselves on a sparsely wooded ridge, mostly level, and covered in an expanse of mountain grass, still pale tan having not yet recovered for the harsh winter. Mount Fuji lay plainly visible to our left.
Soon, we learned more clearly what that park ranger had warned us about regarding the path. As we entered into the mountain grass, the trail vanished. Or, to say more directly, the manmade path became indistinguishable from the countless deer trails crisscrossing the ridge, and much of the time we found ourselves simply wandering forward knowing only that we must stay on the ridge rather than go down. Rarely, we were able to spot faded ribbons tied to skeletal trees, old trail markers letting us know that he hadn’t strayed too far from the intended course.
This became a lesser concern, however, as the difficulty in following the path became superseded by the trouble of even making any forward progress at all, for we came to an area where the trees has nearly all been felled, but by what force we weren’t sure. Certainly it wasn’t a tornado, because the trees did not have the characteristic tornado damage in which they get broken off at the trunk a meter or two off the ground. No, these trees were simply knocked right over roots and all. Perhaps, we thought, a typhoon had done this work.
Resting at the Fork
Eventually the mountain grass gave way to a thick and mossy forest of evergreen trees, and not long after we arrived at a fork in the road in the middle of a small clearing. We stopped to rest and check the map, whereupon we found that we were likely at a place called Kodomeki, only a short distance from White Birch Flat (白樺平). It was difficult to tell for sure, however, because there was no fork in the trail marked despite the fact that we could clearly see one before our eyes. With our target plainly visible to the north, however, we knew for sure which way to go.
Once we reached White Birch, it would be a few hundred meters of steep climbing up to the highest point in the park, a collection of two peaks within a stone’s throw from each other, but separated by big enough dip in elevation to each receive their own names: Kokushi-ga-Take (国師ヶ岳) and Kita-Oku-Senjô-Dake (北奥千丈岳).
Of those two peaks, long-time readers will already be familiar with Kokushi, the Peak of the Country Master, which I visited on my frigid winter trip earlier in December. Our path, however, would not take us there but to its sister peak Kita-Oku-Senjô, the highest point in all of Chichibu-Tama-Kai Park, standing at 2,598 meters above sea level.
Judging from the auspicious name of the mountain, I suppose the people to christened this mountain knew that it was the tallest on the range. The trunk of the name, Senjo (千丈), means 1000 Jô, a jô being an old unit of measurement that roughly corresponds to 3.03 meters. I suppose, then, that we could call it “3,000 Meter Peak.” Sadly, it seems that the christeners were off in their estimate, however, as the mountain actually stands about 400 meters shy of that mark. As for the prefix of the name, kita-oku means “North-Inner” and probably was meant to distinguish the mountain from the other, more famous, Senjô-ga-Take (仙丈ケ岳), which lies to the southwest and actually does surpass 3,000 meters in height.
Onward Once More
Our bellies satisfied with sausage and peanuts, we set out again in high spirits, for we were certain that we would reach the summit of Senjô by noon, leaving us with six hours to make it the rest of the way to Kinpu, our main goal. It looked like we were going to make it. However, in addition to those earlier problems, the trails hidden in the mountain grass and obstructed by fallen trees, we had yet one more challenge ahead of us on that final ascent to the ridge: snow.
Ôdarumi Pass (大弛峠). It had been about five months since I last stood there. At that time, it was a frigid winter world. Temperatures in those high mountains never even got close to the melting point even at the height of the day, and even if it did the wind chill would hide that fact. Then, the slopes were covered in a deep layer of snow, making each step a treacherous struggle. There was not a sign of human passage save for the single trail of footprints that I had been following for the last day. Sitting in a deserted mountain hut, I tried to decide whether I would push on to those two Famous Mountains, Kinpu (金峰山) and Mizugaki (瑞牆山), or abandon the attempt and return to Tokyo.
Now I stood there once more. On this day I was blessed with a clear sunny sky and balmy temperatures. Green was just starting to appear on the tips of tree branches, and the rhododendrons had finally unfurled their leaves. A layer of snow still lingered, but what remained was melting fast and already marked by the passage of many feet. A collection of tents rose like flowers in spring, and the hut was lively with the sound of chatting hikers, and the smell of cooking curry wafted from the kitchen.
Checking the map
But yet again, I found myself needing to contemplate whether or not to go on to stand at the summits of Kinpu and Mizugaki, or whether to go down empty-handed once more. This time I wasn’t so much hampered by snow as by time. Could I reach our goal and get back down in time to get back to Tokyo in time to catch the 11pm bus to Osaka? Would reaching the tops of those mountains even be worth it if we didn’t have time to savor the experience?
Two days before this quandary, I arrived at Enzan Station (塩山駅) early in the morning on a sunny but hazy May 1st. It was Golden Week, that collection of national holidays grouped at the beginning of the month that resulted in a full week without work or school for the whole country. With the roads, hotels, and major attractions set to be full to the brim with tourists of all walks, I predictably eschewed them all and instead made straight for the mountains, this time accompanied not just by Tianyu but also by an old acquaintance of mine from back in my St. Louis days: Dylan Young, a geologist from Minnesota.
Tianyu, longtime readers will remember, is the first hiking friend I made in Japan, the intrepid amateur hiker who, like me, was foolish or brave enough to attempt climbing Tokyo’s highest mountain in the middle of a typhoon. After a long night drying ourselves next to a blazing woodstove in a mountain hut on the summit of Moss Peak, we naturally became fast friends. Dylan, a new character to grace this blog, is a friend I made when I was a student at Washu. Though not a studying there himself, him and I both happened to be renting rooms from the same landlord in the garden district of St. Louis. Being of the same age and similar temperaments, and both having a taste for good beer, we two got on just fine. Who knew that some years later we’d both be hiking together in Japan?
When Dylan and I arrived at the station, Tianyu was already waiting for us there. Expecting a crowded bus up to the trailhead — we wouldn’t be the only ones attempting to escape the throng by hermitting in the mountains — we hurried down to the bus stop only to find a massive crowd already waiting there, far more than could possibly fit on one bus. Naturally, we were a bit worried about this as buses up into the mountains went out on average less than once per hour; if they didn’t send a second bus then we might end up more than an hour behind schedule.
Waiting for the bus
Luckily, after about a fifteen minute wait, two buses rather than one rolled into the bus circle, and in no time were packed tight and on our way up to Nishizawa Gorge.
The two main goals of this particular trip were, of course, Mt. Kinpu and Mt. Mizugaki, those two peaks that slipped through my fingers on my last trip back in the winter. However, at the outset we weren’t exactly clear about how we were going to get there in the first place. Why on Earth would I plan a trip like that, you might ask? Well, it’s mostly due to a couple of my own idiosyncrasies that confounded with the limited routes available to create this situation.
First, as a person rather obstinate about doing things to absolute completion, I was interested not just in summiting the two mountains above but also in hiking out the rest of the ridge, picking up where I left off last in Ôdarumi pass. However, that pass is located in a somewhat difficult to access place on the ridge, so getting there in a reasonable amount of time isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. The fastest route is, of course, the forest road winding up the north face of the ridge. It’s a comparatively gentle slope going up, but on the downside it’s on the Nagano side, meaning a long and expensive train and bus ride just to get started. Getting on the trail from the southern Yamanashi side would take much less time and money.
From the Yamanashi side, however, the most certain path available is also incredibly long: you have to go up to Kobushi-ga-Take via its south face, then head west along the ridge for more than ten kilometers to Ôdarumi, a route that altogether takes easily more than a full day of hiking. We, however, we hoping to get there by the end of the first day.
A further point that made both of the above routes somewhat unsatisfactory is the fact that I had taken both routes on my last trip and I’m somewhat loath to hike the same section of trail twice if I can help it. After all, every minute I spend on a path I’ve hiked in the past is one minute I’ll never spend on a trail I’ve never walked.
While puzzling over the maps of the area online, however, I found a minor trail going almost directly to Ôdarumi from the Yamanashi side — and what’s more, it went straight through Nishizawa Gorge, which is famous for it’s large collection of scenic waterfalls. According to the map, at the end of the nature trail touring the valley, there was an old path that connected up to a forest road. Following the forest road up the mountain a distance, we could then get on another old path that would connect us with the main trail not far from Ôdarumi, passing along an area ominously called Goblin Ridge (天狗尾根). What could be better?
The problem was, however, that I wasn’t really sure whether the trail was still maintained, and if it wasn’t, whether it would still be passable at all. Certainly if this were the only option I’d have to choose another route: after all, who wants to ruin a whole trip by hitting a dead end before lunch on the first day?
What finally decided me on this route was the fact that there was indeed one more path leading up to Ôdarumi from Nishizawa Gorge. It, like the other, was a minor trail of uncertain condition and on top of that it didn’t go directly up to the main ridge but instead followed a somewhat roundabout route along a spur ridge via a peak called Black Gold Mountain (黒金山), a route that I estimated would be a seriously hard one day hike or a day and change at a more reasonable pace. Taking such a route would certainly place us in danger of not being able to get back in time for the midnight bus to Osaka.
Certainly it wasn’t an ideal route, but since it gave us an alternative if the preferred route wasn’t accessible, it made our minds up: we’d head up Nishizawa Gorge and then take the shortest path that was open, with the hopes that at least one of them would be. So it was that he hit the trail on May 1st without really knowing how things were going to turn out. This seems to be the way most of my trips go.
“The earliest mountain disaster that I know of is that of Kobushi Peak.” Fukuda’s words lift off the page as I read them, causing me to shiver slightly. I lowered the book and glanced around the train, but the other passengers were oblivious to my discomfort.
The disaster occurred roughly a century ago, before hiking had become the national pastime that it is today. A group of five intrepid young freshman from Tokyo University, then Tokyo Imperial University, set off to climb Kobushi-ga-Take. In those days, it was an isolated place, located far up in the mountains outside of Tokyo. There were no buses deep into the valley like the one that Tianyu and I would take, let alone paved roads for them to drive on. It was a different era, but even in those days young boys still felt the drive to seek adventure. They weren’t unlike me.
From the village where they started, a round trip to Kobushi would take several days on rough trails without signs that the locals made for their own use. Maps, if they existed, would have been crude by today’s standards. Nonetheless, the boys probably would have been fine if it weren’t for the torrential rain came, causing them to lose the path. According to Fukuda, all but one died of exposure — hypothermia, I would imagine.
The thing that brought me pause was less the fact that I was about to hike Kobushi in just over two weeks but rather my last trip to that same mountain range. I thought about my own torrential downpour and my knowledge if things had gone differently, I very well might have not come back down myself.
Despite how unsettled I was on that day on the train, those thoughts were pretty far out of my mind on the first day of the trip — quite in spite of the fact that hypothermia was a much more serious risk this time around. At this point, though, I was much too distracted by the fact that I had just discovered that the bus that I had planned to ride home at the end of the trip wasn’t running this time of year. Searching for an alternative, I scanned the map I had laid out on my lap for another stop near Mount Mizugaki that might still have buses running. There was only one road going to that spot, so my best hope was that maybe only the last stop or two were closed but the rest of the line was open. I traced the road with my finger and found another stop, and another, and another, but I checked them one by one on google and none of them had buses stopping there this time of year. Apparently the whole line was closed.
Searching around more on the map, I found a stop far down the mountain on the north side. It would require backtracking from Mizugaki back to Mount Kinpu to get to, but it was better than nothing. I checked online and sure enough, buses were still stopping there. Next I checked the time markers on the map, but to my disappointed I realized it was unlikely that I’d be able to go to Mizugaki and then get all the way back Kinpu and back down on the original timetable I had set — I’d have to tack on another day, but I wasn’t sure I had enough food for that.
I sighed. It was clear that I’d just have to go straight down from Kinpu and leave Mizugaki off this trip. The hike hadn’t even started and already one of the three famous mountains on Fukuda’s list was scratched off. On the bright side, though, at least I’d have an excuse to come back here again, and in better weaher. So, I guess it wasn’t a total loss after all. I explained my plan to Tianyu.
“Oh, that’s interesting. That’ll take you down into Nagano. It’s a lot longer trip back from that side.”
“How much longer?”
“I don’t know. I think it takes something like six hours from there to Tokyo.”
“I was actually thinking about hiking down into Nagano from Kobushi myself. I don’t think I’ll have time though. I need to get back for some work at my university.”
The bus finally pulled up to our destination: the michi no eki (i.e. road stop) in Nishizawa. This time of year, the place is completely shut down. The most you can expect is a soda out of the machine (more expensive than down in the valley) and flush toilets (happily free). We both made sure to make our acquaintance with our last chance at the latter for the next few days before moving onward.
The path to Karisaka Tôge from the michi no eki for the first hour or so is a roughly paved forest road that runs steeply (much steeper than I remembered) up into the mountain before terminating suddenly immediately after crossing a small brook. Looking at the spot the second time around, I couldn’t help but wonder why on Earth anyone had built this road to nowhere. Probably a waste of taxpayer money, and one that ruined an hour’s worth of hiking to boot.
Although we were fairly warm as we hiked up due to the energy we were exerting on the moderate incline, many sections of the roadway were covered in a rough coating of ice — somewhat foreboding given that we were still about one vertical kilometer short of the height of the ridgeline.
We stopped to eat a snack before hitting the trail proper.
“So you said you have something you need to do at the university the day after tomorrow, right?” I asked.
“That’s right,” Tianyu replied.
I frowned, thinking. “So…you need to arrive back home by tomorrow night?”
“When was it that the last bus was leaving?” I suppose I neglected to mention earlier, but Tianyu would be hiking right back down to the same bus stop that we just got off at, making a big two-day circle route.
“Let me check.” Tianyu took out his phone, but there was no signal.
“Well,” I said, “We can estimate based on the picture I took of the timetable down at the train station.” The last bus arriving at the station was around 4:30, and I already knew it took about an hour by bus to get from the gorge all the way back down, meaning that the last bus probably would leave around 3:30 or so tomorrow. Again I pulled out the map and checked the time estimates for the trail and found that it would take approximately three hours to go from the top of Kobushi directly back to Nishizawa Gorge Trailhead (西沢渓谷入口). “Ok then. We need to arrive at the top no later than twelve tomorrow. We better get moving!”
And so our race to Kobushi started.
Return to Goose Hill
The trail to Karisaka Pass rises gradually along the stream flowing down Kudozawa Valley (久渡沢), a narrow offshoot of Nishizawa, before ascending a steep set of switchbacks up to the pass itself. Aside from the fact that the lush trees were now devoid of greenery and that the waterfalls were all covered in a layer of ice, the trail was much the same as it had been back in August. One point that I had been a bit worried about, which we came to quite quickly, was a point where the trail crossed directly over a steep rock face down which a tributary to the main stream was flowing. As I had expected, this had almost completely frozen over, creating an ice slick that threatened to send us shooting down to the bottom of the valley should we take the wrong step. Luckily, I was ready: reaching into my pack, I produced two sets of shoe spikes, which I had bought years ago in preparation for a winter climb of Halla-san, the tallest mountain in south Korea. Unfortunately I never got to use them since the day before the hike a huge blizzard came, leading to an indefinite closure of the mountain. We put them on and effortlessly crossed the ice.
About two hours after we got off the bus, the trail finally diverged from the stream to start the final ascent up to the pass. The trail here makes a series of switchbacks as it goes up the incredibly steep slope. At this point, though, the trees finally started to thin out to reveal the valley below and Mt. Fuji in the distance, a major contrast to the mist-shrouded hilltop that I had visited back in the summer.
The wind was brutal up there, whipping our clothes as we took in the view. It was a tough climb, so we took a moment to rest, but without the constant exercise, the windchill factor started to get to us a bit. I put on my vest and sock hat.
Checking the clock, I saw that it was already just after one. We were almost two hours behind schedule. At this point I knew full well that we likely wouldn’t be able to make it to the shelter by nightfall and that we’d have to put down the tent after all. That in and of itself grants its own problems though in that we’d likely lose another whole hour of hiking from the next day due to the logistics of camping on this kind of mountain range. Given that the sun would be fully set by 4:30 and the fact that in the narrow, rocky ridges of this range would prevent us from just throwing a tent down anywhere, I estimated that we’d have to set camp at the first spot we found after 3:00 pm, leaving us a full hour and a half of daylight to find the spot, set camp, and gather firewood for the long night. At this rate, tomorrow was looking like it would be a tough day if we were going to make it to the summit of Kobushi by noon. We had to move on, and fast.
From Goose Hill to Somewhere
The route from Karisaka Pass to Kobushi Peak is rough and treacherous. The path follows along a narrow ridgeline steeply dropping hundreds of feet downward on either side and rising and falling abruptly by about 200 meters between each of the peaks along the way, Karisaka-rei (雁坂嶺, “Goose-hill Ridge”) and Happu-san (破風山, “Mt. Ripping-wind”). According to the map, it should take just under three hours to get to the shelter, which lay in the saddle between Happu and Kobushi. Given that it was about 1:30 when we left the pass, it seemed like we might barely have a shot at arriving there before sundown.
The first part of the path, up to Karisaka Ridge, was deceptively easy — although the path was ascending, it was certainly gradual by the standards of way up to the pass. We made decent time as we walked.
Following Karisaka Ridge, the trail descended sharply by more than 200 meters. By the time we reached the bottom, it was a little after three. As expected, the trail before that point left us no options for pitching a tent, but in the saddle the ground was mostly flat, a lot wider, and also had plenty of firewood laying about. I weighed the options with Tianyu: get out our flashlights and try to push out the rest of the way to the shelter, or just stay here where we know we’ll have a hot fire for the night. We both agreed that the place with a guaranteed supply of firewood was best, so we dropped our bags and set camp.
Things got cold (colder really) fast after the sun went down, but we got a big fire burning really quickly. Time to warm up! Tianyu and I spent the next few hours stuffing our faces and chatting about this and that, the highlight being of course the hot ramen that I cooked over my handmade alcohol stove. Nothing gets you warm like a pot of spicy ramen delivered straight to the gullet. About an hour before bedtime, which we set as 9 p.m., I broke out the whiskey bottle and we (mostly I) had a few drinks.
Easily the best part of winter hiking is evenings by the fire, huddling close and truly appreciating with perfect context what it means to be warm. Possibly the worst part is putting out the fire knowing you’ll have to spend a long, cold night waiting for sunrise. I luckily slept soundly through most of the night, due to the combination of waking up at 4 a.m. coupled with the strenuous exercise. Tianyu wasn’t so lucky as the dual assault on his ears of the whistling wind on top of my own snoring ensured that he spent many a long hour awake while waiting for the sun.
This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.
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Where to go hiking for winter vacation? It’s a tough decision. Hiking trails are a dime a dozen in Japan, so anywhere you go is bound to have somewhere nice to go walking, but I was interested in something with a little more prestige. Having already hiked Mt. Fuji, though, where should I look for prestige? Thanks to a conversation I had with Tianyu, my hiking buddy, I came to the conclusion that I should seek out one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. But which one? They span the whole length of the archipelago, so I really could go almost everywhere.
Hokkaido? Fukuda, author of the Famous Mountains list, writes about many interesting mountains from small islands comprised of a single volcano rising into the air from sea level to a height of more than 2,000 meters, to mountains at the very northern extreme of Japan and also ones deep in the interior, far from civilization and covered in primeval forests. One problem though: Hokkaido is absolutely frigid in winter. I visited there for the snow festival back in 2010 and I was shocked by the situation. Firstly, the high temperature every day was well below freezing, and on top of that, the roads, sidewalks, and every other surface was covered by a layer of permanent ice. All the cars and buses were fitted with chains, and pedestrians had to walk carefully every with the constant awareness that he or she could slip and fall at any moment. Put that together with the fact that I’d never done extreme winter mountain hiking before and I didn’t think I had either the equipment or skills to survive it, Hokkaido was out.
What about Kyushu? It’s probably warmer down there since it’s the southernmost of the four main islands. I’d done a cycling trip through the mountains down there a couple years ago too and it was really beautiful. This time, though, the problem wasn’t cold but money: I checked the cost of tickets to the area and it looked like I’d have to pay about $600 for a round trip, and that wouldn’t include any other expenses. I wasn’t prepared to make that big of a monetary commitment on such short notice, so I abandoned that idea too.
At some point, my mind drifted back toward my trip from earlier this year, where I spent four days hiking in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, whose eastern border sits on Tokyo’s western side. There’s already one famous mountain there, I knew: Kumotori Yama or “Cloud-catcher Mountain,” which I had climbed on my last trip. Maybe there were more in that park. After all, when I came down last time, I did leave thinking that I wanted to go back and hike out the rest of the ridge. I consulted Fukuda’s book and found that indeed yes, there wasn’t just one but three other famous mountains in the section of the ridge that I hadn’t hiked yet: Kobushi-ga-Take (甲武信ヶ岳, “The Peak of the Fist”), Kinpu-san (金峰山, “Mount Goldpeak”), and Mizugaki-san (瑞牆山, “Mount Vibrant-cliff”).
With this information, the decision was a no-brainer: I’d pick up where I left off in the summer, hiking from Karisaka Tôge (雁坂峠, “Goose Hill Pass”) past Kobushi-ga-Take and another peak called Kokushi-ga-Take (国師ヶ岳, “Peak of the Country-master”), finally ending with Kinpu-san and Mizugaki-san before descending down to Mizugaki Lodge to catch the bus back to civilization. All together, it would be a roughly 36 kilometer trek with a cumulative total of just over 4,200 meters of ascent and about 3,800 meters of descent over the course of four days. Taking into account my shortfalls from my previous trip to the area, I set my goals for each day a bit lower to make sure I wouldn’t have to push so hard, though as the weather forecast this time didn’t include any typhoons, I didn’t expect any setbacks like I had last time.
My plan was as follows. I would catch the first bus to Nishizawa Gorge (西沢渓谷) at 8:00 am and hit the trail at Karisaka Tôge Trailhead (雁坂峠入口), then hike up the same path I came down last time. From there I’d head west towards Kobushi and stay the night at Sasadaira Shelter (笹平, “Bamboo-grass Flat”) and start again the next day at 7:00 am. The destination for day two would be Ôdarumi Tôge (大弛峠, whose name could be interpreted to mean “Great Letdown Pass”), passing Kobushi-ga-Take and Kokushi-ga-Take along the way. The third day would begin at 7:00 am once more, continuing on the ridge to Kinpu-san and eventually ending at Fujimi-daira Hut (富士見平小屋, “Fujiview Flat Hut”). The next day I’d hike up to Mizugaki-san and then backtrack down the mountain to the bus stop at Muzugaki Lodge. All in all it looked like a great plan; however, sometimes plans have to change, and as it would turn out so would this one.
I mentioned this plan to Tianyu as he’d expressed interest in climbing Kobushi-ga-Take previously. He was interested, but as the only time he’d ever spent the night on the mountain was the time he and I got stranded in that hut together earlier in the year, he was understandably a little leery about going up for an over-nighter in this cold winter weather. And who wouldn’t be? I’m and experienced hiker with numerous winter trips under my belt and even I was worried about the cold in those high mountain passes and peaks. After checking the weather reports for the summit of Kinpu, I saw that nighttime temperatures were ranging from -8° Celsius at best to -16° at worst. This naturally got me a little concerned since my my current sleeping bag was only good to -10°. I immediately ordered a new one on Amazon, a cheap Chinese brand but one that was supposedly good to -20°. After a few days Tianyu came around too, deciding to come along for the first day and a half before going back down, after which I’d continue on alone.
So it Begins
The day before the trip, I found myself travelling all over my neighborhood to the various shops searching for supplies, from food to clothing. That evening, bag packed, I paced the apartment nervously. Did I have everything I needed? Did I have the right attire to survive the cold? Would this be my last hike ever? I knew I was about to go on a trip that would test the limits of my abilities and, if something went wrong, could very well end in life-altering injury (frost-bite amputations, for example) to death (hypothermia). Most concerning was the issue with rescue should anything go wrong: since I was planning a four-day trip, if I got into trouble no one would even start looking for me until I didn’t come home on the fourth day. The prospect of being stuck up there for days in that cold was bad enough, but the thought of doing so without food was worse. I literally stuffed my bag to bursting with snacks just in case.
Due to my nerves and excitement, I was in no mood to sleep, so I sat at my computer surfing the internet, waiting for myself to calm down enough that I might drift off. A message came in on Facebook. It was Tianyu. He linked me to a bus timetable for the Nishizawa Gorge bus and pointed out that the first bus was 9:00 am, not 8:00 am. I looked again and he was right: I had read the timetable backwards. The 8:00 am bus was going in the opposite direction, away from Nishizawa. It looked like we’d be getting started an hour later than we’d planned. No problem, I thought. I planned the trip with plenty of extra time anyway. We’d still get to Sasadaira Shelter by nightfall, if just barely. Or that’s what I thought anyway.
At some point I did fall asleep, but be that as it may I was still already awake again before my alarm went off. I got up, dressed, and caught the first train (5:14 am) from Kinshicho Station in Tokyo to Yamanashi City, where I would meet Tianyu.
To my surprise, I wasn’t sleepy at all on the train. Needing to save my phone’s battery so I could take pictures on the trip, instead I took out Fukuda’s book and began reading about Kinpu and Mizugaki. Just under two hours later, I arrived at Yamanashi City Station, and shortly thereafter Tianyu joined me. After picking up a few last minute items from the convenience store, we boarded the first bus. As it wound steadily up the mountain road into the valley, we wondered whether or not we were biting off more than we could chew. As it would turn out, circumstances would conspire to cause troubles for me on this trip, but from angles I hadn’t considered at all.
“So, what’s your plan again?” Tianyu asked.
I pulled out my map, pointing out the course as I described it above.
“Which bus are you taking back?” He asked.
I pointed it out on the map.
“Is it still running this time of year?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” I replied.
“You better check. Some buses to the mountains stop running in the winter.”
I frowned. “Well, can I use your phone to check?”
He handed it to me. I googled the bus timetable for the bus stop in Japanese, already knowing well that there wouldn’t be one in English for such an out of the way place. I looked at the page, but I couldn’t quite make out whether it was running or not. I handed the phone back to Tianyu. “What does this say?”
“It says the bus is finished until March.”
“What?!” How was I going to get back after my trip was finished?
The bus continued up and up into the mountains, leaving me less than 30 minutes to figure out a solution.
This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On a beautiful day, it’s hard to feel down or discouraged. When you feel that bright sunshine on your skin, it seeps in, warms you up, and lessens your pain. Especially after you’ve spent two hard days hiking in the clouds and rain, a little sunshine is does wonders.
I woke up on the morning of the third day since I hit the trail to bright sunshine on the fly of my tent. I came to slowly and groggily opened the tent and crawled out to see a deep blue sky with beautiful wisps of white clouds drifting across it. It was the weather I’d been waiting the whole trip for.
Weather — check. Body condition? I got up and started wandering around the grounds testing out my feet and chafed areas. Everything seemed fine — or at least I didn’t feel any pain. It was shaping up to be a good day, but even so, I was in no hurry. I really took my time as I ate my breakfast and packed up my things.
I sat down to eat in the genkan of the hut since there were some steps to sit on. As I ate, I began to look at the posters on the walls of the room. Some of them were hiking posters, one had some female Olympic athlete on it, but there were also some more curious ones, like a collection of wanted posters, about nine in total. Each one had a big mugshot of the person in question with a list of crimes, which varied from person to person, but each did have one thing in common: 殺人, murder. What an odd thing to post in a hikers hut. I wondered if maybe it was common for wanted men to come hide out in these parts.
Looking at their photos, I noticed they all had a certain look about them. It wasn’t in the way they were dressed or even their expressions or haircuts. It was their faces. Something in their faces sent me eerie danger signals. I felt like if I saw one of those faces on the street, I’d be looking over my shoulder for the rest of the night.
Having finished my breakfast, I broke out the maps to check out today’s hike. According to my plan, I would hike today to Kobushi ga Take (甲武信ヶ岳, “Peak of the Fist,” 2475m), camp out on the ridge, and then go back down the mountain the next morning to catch a train back to Tokyo. Looking at the map, I had quite a ways to go, and having been set back by the rain and expecting to be delayed by my injuries, I knew it would be tough to make it all the way today, but I resolve to give it a shot.
Now came the dreaded part: all of my chores finished, I had to put my shoes back on. However, in the absence of a fire the night before, they hadn’t really dried out at all. If you’ve never experienced the feeling of putting sopping wet shoes and socks on dry feet, I can tell you it’s not at all a pleasant experience. Even I, who experienced this many times on adventures with my dad when I was a kid, haven’t gotten used to it yet — only more reluctant to waste time procrastinating. One by one I pick them on, grimacing as the wet fabric clung to my foot so tightly that I had to ease it gradually down the length of my foot and up my calf. I suffered through it though. Shoes on, I shouldered my pack and climbed the ten minutes back up to the top of the pass.
To Goose Pass
The first leg of the trip today was a roughly four-hour stretch from trail from Minister Pass (将監峠) to Goose Pass (雁峠), during which I would pass through Cow King’s Hall Flat (牛王院平), Mountain God’s Ground (山の神土, 1872m), Palace Boulder (御殿岩), Larch Slope Mountain (唐松尾山, 2109m), and Kasatori Mountain (笠取山, 1953m). I set out.
The first part of this stretch was Cow King’s Hall Flat, a large relatively flat area filled with beautiful meadows that lay between the more typical steep slopes of this particular ridge. I was rather amazed at the difference between this area and what I had hiked through the previous day and wondered what forces caused this area to be so different. Thinking back to my home in the Ozarks, I noticed how geographically out of my element I was. On hikes through the hills back home, I can read the landforms like a book and give you a reasonably good explanation for how they came to be the way they are. Here I can’t offer more than just telling you what they looked like.
I remember naively thinking that this was just what this region of the mountains was like and that the trail would persist like this for the rest of the day. No such luck, though: things returned to a more typical treacherously sleep mountainsides in no time. It was in this area that my sopping wet feet started to give me trouble again, especially around my right ankle, which had been the most painful part yesterday. I made sure to be extra careful about how I stepped so that I minimized friction. Luckily I got some great views, so the pain didn’t get me down too much.
One thing I regret in retrospect, though, is my decision to skip Palace Boulder, which required about a 20 minute trek down a side trail. Given my hurting ankle and the fact that I needed all the time I could get to meet my goal for the day, I opted to to pass it by. Before writing this post though I decided to do a bit of research on it and it turns out its a really beautiful spot. I guess I missed out.
One slightly creepy moment on the trail was when I passed a middle-aged man somewhere on this section. Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought anything if I hadn’t seen those wanted posters earlier that morning, but the guy had that exact unsettling aspect to his face that I thought I saw in those mugshots. What’s more, usually when hiking I get good vibes from fellow hikers, either from the smiles and greetings of “O-tsukare sama desu!” in the more gregarious cases to a casual nod and smile in the more taciturn. This guy, though, had a complete lack of affect, but I sensed that my presence was not appreciated by him. In my imagination, this was because he was hiding from the authorities. Perhaps he was wondering whether he would need to track me down and finish me off. Or maybe my thoughts just run wild when I’m alone for so long. Either way, that was the last I saw of that guy.
Those thoughts disappeared though once I put some distance between him and myself. As I walked, I began to think more about the kanji I was seeing on the signs in the area and the insights I was able to get about the places and things I was seeing by being able to read them. For example, one of the mountains that I passed over was called “Larch Slope Mountain,” presumably because of all the larches growing there. What I found interesting though, was the Japanese word for larch (which I hadn’t seen before then), karamatsu (唐松), which means literally “Tang pine.” For those less familiar with East Asian history, the character kara (唐) refers to the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) of China. I couldn’t guess just from the name why larches would be called Tang pines, but it indicates that there may be an interesting history behind this tree. Perhaps it isn’t native to Japan but was actually brought here when China was ruled by that dynasty. It’s hard to say just from the name, though, because the character continued to be a catch-all name for China long after the dynasty actually fell, so it’s possible that the name might not have any connection to the dynasty itself. Either way, I enjoy the speculation, and when you have no one to talk to for days, you’ll take what you can get.
As I continued onward, I came to a fork in the trail. Checking the map, I found that if I went one way I would ascend to the summit of Kasatori Mountain, and if I went the other way I could circumvent it and go straight to Goose Pass on more or less even ground. Yet again, influenced by the pain in my ankle and concerns of time, I chose to skip the peak. At this point I was seriously considering just giving up at Goose Pass.
As I continued on, I came to a place called Mizuhi (水干), whose name literally means “water-drying” though at the time I misread the second character as 千, which means 1,000. This place, as it turns out, is the origin of the Tama River (多摩川), which flows 138 km from this spot to Tokyo Bay. Upon realizing this, the meaning of this place’s name becomes clear: if you follow the river long enough, you reach a point where the water dries up. That’s this point. I filled my water bottle and continued on.
Lunch at Goose Pass
Not long after I came to Goose Pass. Similar to Cow King’s Hall, Goose Pass was a wide flat area covered with meadows rather than forest. It was absolutely gorgeous, so much so that I resolved to continue hiking regardless of the pain in my foot.
I hiked through the meadows looking for a good place to sit and have lunch. The map said that there was a hut in the pass, so I searched it out, but it turned out to be in ruins like some of the huts I saw on the previous day, so I walked a little farther and a collection of benches at a crossroads in the trail. Perfect.
Across the wide meadow, the mountain whose peak I had recently bypassed, Kasatori Mountain, rose up in a sharp cone-shape, revealing the reason for it’s name. The first character in Kasatori is 笠, which is the Japanese word for those cone-shaped bamboo hats that we Americans typically associate with Chinese farmers. Looking up at the mountain, it’s cone shape was definitely reminiscent of a kasa (not to be confused with the other kasa, 傘, which means “umbrella”). The summit was bare of trees as well, so the view must have been good. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to climb it.
I sat down and stripped off my shoes and socks, ringing out as much water from the socks as I could before laying them out to dry on the bench. The sun was shining bright and hot at this point, so I thought I might be able to get them at least a little dry. Next I pulled out the maps to examine the trail ahead. It looked like another three hour stretch to the next pass and mountain hut, Karisaka or Goose Hill (雁坂), and over the stretch I would pass over three peaks, Swallow Mountain (燕山, 2004 m), Old Ritual Mountain (古礼山, 2112 m), and Crystal Mountain (水晶山, 2158m). After that was yet another three hour stretch until the next hut. At this point, though, it was 12 o’clock and I figured I needed about an hour to rest and recover before going on, meaning I’d set out at 1 o’clock, arrive at Goose Hill at 4 o’clock, and if I went on I wouldn’t be to the end until 7 o’clock. On top of that, none of these estimates were factoring in rest breaks. I didn’t really want to end so early as 4 o’clock, but I also didn’t like the idea of hiking after dark. Not that I worried so much for safety since I was carrying a headlamp, but I just didn’t want to walk that long — I just wasn’t in the physical condition for it. After some deliberation I reluctantly decided that I should end the night at Goose Hill Pass and then go straight down the mountain the next morning, cutting out the last stretch up to Kobushi Peak. I hated giving up like that, but I knew I also needed to be practical. Having made my decision, I resolved to spend the remaining time in my hour off enjoying the view and eating my lunch.
I sat gazing off into the distance lost in thought, taking in the sites and the sounds of Goose Pass. The sun was warm on my skin, but the breeze was cool, whistling through the grass and the trees. Birds were chirping and insects were buzzing. And there was another sound too. It was so faint at first I didn’t notice it, but it eventually built up to the point where I couldn’t miss it: the sound of bells. I looked around to find the source and spotted another hiker making his way down the steep slope next to me that I would be ascending myself shortly. The sound was ringing out from a set of bear bells he had dangling at his waist. I watched him as he gradually made his way back and forth down the switchbacks on the grassy slope. As he approached, though, I realized that I was hearing bells not just from his direction, but from directly ahead of me, down the hill and out of sight. Shortly, though, another hiker came into view, first head, then shoulders, and torso as he ascended into my field of vision. Both hikers arrived at the benches at about the same time.
We all nodded a greeting to each other and then proceeded to eat lunch, but no one said a word. We didn’t need to. We were all hikers, so we all knew why we were here, and it wasn’t for conversation. We were here to be alone and get away from other people, so we all instinctively knew not to spoil that for each other. We ate in silence. After they finished, they stood, nodded once more, and left. Neither one went the direction I was going.
By the benches there was an information board explaining a bit about the vegetation in the pass. According to the board, the Tang pines growing in this area had not always grown here, but were planted during the Taisho period (1912–1926). Apparently wildfires caused by slash and burn agriculture during the reign of Emperor Meiji (1868–1912) had broadened the bare areas on the mountains, leading to recurring landslides and flooding. To protect against these disasters, efforts were made to plant the forest. Accompanying the words was a grainy old black and white photo of a mountaintop without a single tree. Regarding the mountain passes, the board explained that the meadows, which typically appear on the Yamanashi side of the ridge, were also formed as a result of forest fires. After the original trees burned away, meadow plants moved in, such as bistort, knotweed, and woundwort. As much as I was enjoying the view, I had to say that I couldn’t complain about the environmental destruction that those forest fires had caused. The board went on to say that the Saitama side of the passes are typically occupied with sub-alpine conifer forests. Some representative plants from these areas are Veitch’s silver fir (白檜曾), Maries’ fir (大白檜曾), and creeping woodsorrel (深山酢漿), if those names mean anything to you.
On a side note, I wanted to say that I find the literal meaning of the Japanese names for things interesting due to the insights into Japanese culture that they provide — as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I take pains to make sure I translate everything to make sure those nuances aren’t lost on you, the reader. Aside from the Tang pine, three plants I listed above, bistort, knotweed, and woundwort, also have interesting names (I couldn’t find a way to render the others in English so I opted to not translate them). Anyway, those three are called “Juniper Tiger’s Tail” (伊吹虎の尾), “Tigerstaff” (虎杖), and “Autumn Giraffe Grass” (秋の麒麟草) respectively. The typical English names just don’t have the same flavor, do they?
Onward to Goose Hill Pass
I watched my clock closely during my break, intent to make sure I didn’t rest a minute less than the full hour that I promised myself. Although I was anxious to get on the trail again, I wasn’t at all anxious to put on my wet socks. Just as I did earlier this morning, though, I laboriously pulled them on in spite of their clinging to my skin.
That chore completed, I stood up only to feel a sharp pain in the right side of my middle toe on my right foot, like a needle being jabbed in. Thinking something had fallen into my shoe, I took it off to check, but I didn’t find anything, so I put the shoe on once more only to feel that same sharp pain. I took off my shoe again and the sock as well, but there was nothing. I examined the painful spot to see that there was a small spot where the epidermis was missing, exposing tender dermis below. I didn’t have a clue what had caused this, but since there was nothing I could do about it, I figured I’d just have to endure this pain like all the others I was feeling. I put my shoe back on and set off towards Swallow Mountain.
As I ascended, the pain in the side of my toe started to blend in with the rest and after a while I hardly noticed it anymore. After climbing a steep, narrow, rocky ridge for about an hour, I came to Swallow Peak. The peak itself turned out to have not much of a view since it was covered with trees, but there were several beautiful flat grassy areas with magnificent views between higher rocky areas that would have been perfect to pitch a tent. I imagined leading people up there to a camping party where everyone would praise me for knowing such an awesome spot. But it didn’t take me long to burst my own bubble on that fantasy, realizing that I don’t know anyone who would actually enjoy such a thing. What a shame.
All day I had been enjoying beautiful sunny skies with puffy white clouds scattered about. As I walked slowly up the comparatively shallow, grassy slopes dotted with the skeletons of dead trees of Old Ritual mountain, however, the situation changed suddenly: a wall of dark grey clouds rolled over the mountain top, blocking out the sunlight to the point that I would have sworn it was early evening if I didn’t have a clock on me. It looked like a storm was rolling in. Goddammit.
I started to pick up the pace. As much as I didn’t want to have to spend all afternoon sitting around the hut with nothing to do, I figured I’d rather spend a lot of time waiting around dry in a hut than get soaked again. The sky got darker and darker and I felt occasional raindrops, but by the time I arrived at the top of Crystal Mountain, it still hadn’t started yet. I was getting hopeful that I could make it to the hut dry.
Descending the far side of Crystal Mountain, I saw a big change in the environment. Throughout the hike I had passed through many mountain meadows contained within forests of deciduous and evergreen trees shading a forest floor of mountain grass. Here, though, I found a forest of mostly conifers looming over a floor consisting of broken rocks and other debris covered in a thick layer of moss. I hadn’t seen anything like it the whole trip.
As I made my way down the slope I came to a fork in the path, with the sign saying that the right fork would lead to Goose Hill Hut. I’d remembered from the map that the trail to the hut was supposed to be at the pass, but this was clearly not the pass yet. I supposed this was a shortcut, so I took it. As it turns out, I was right: in less than a half an hour the hut came into view.
This mountain hut consisted of a complex of buildings, perhaps four in all. Most were locked up tight, but one building was open. I slid open the door to find a dirt and stone floored room with a wood stove in the middle, a raised floor space along one wall covered in tatami mats, and a steep staircase going up to a loft area. Home for the night!
I dropped my bag and scouted out the rest of the area, locating the bathroom, the water supply (fresh flowing mountain springwater), and the camping area. The camping area was particularly dismal, with very little space for tents and most of it was filled with rough rocks. If I had entertained any thoughts of pitching my tent for the night, they were gone now. If my choice is between tatami and rocks, I’ll pick the tatami any day.
I had arrived at the hut right on schedule, that being 4:00 o’clock. I had some hours to go until sundown and I’m typically way too ADD to just sit around, but the pain in my feet and my chafing crotch was more than enough to make me totally satisfied to sit still for a few hours. I went back to the main building, pulled out my sleeping bag, crawled inside, and proceeded to listen to podcasts as I waited for the sun to set. As the evening wore on, I even pulled out the bottle of Chinese white liquor (白酒) that I’d brought along, which I’d left untouched up to this point (completely out of character for me). Between the influence of the liquor and my own exhaustion, I was fast asleep.
This post is part five of a six-part series on my hiking trip in the East Alps of Japan in the summer of 2017. Click the links below to navigate to the other posts.
The day after the storm wasn’t bright sunny as I had hoped — rather, it started off with a shroud of mist. But, thanks to my campfire, I was completely dried out, and though the morning air was cool, even in my running shorts and T-shirt, I wasn’t at all cold so I set out in high spirits. The ascent was incredibly steep for a while, but once I reached a certain height on the ridge, things began to stabilize a bit. I was making good time and felt I had a good chance of making for the time I lost the previous day. I passed the landmarks one by one:
Okiyodaira (お清平, “The Pure Flat”): a flat area on the ridge where the trail that circumvented Moss Peak that I passed yesterday reconnects.
Mae-Shiraiwa-no-Kata (前白岩の肩, “The Shoulder of the First White Boulder Mountain”): as it sounds, a small hump on the side of the first White Boulder Mountain.
Mae-Shiraiwa Yama (前白岩山, “The First White-Boulder Mountain,” 1776m): a rather unimpressive peak, covered in trees that obstructed the view.
The trail starting off.
A mountain toad.
Mae Shiraiwa Yama (“The First White Boulder Mountain”)
The previous night my companion had mentioned seeing other huts like the one that we stayed in, but mentioned that none of them were in as good of condition as ours. I figured he was referring to a few places marked on the map that ended in the character ato (跡), meaning “ruins” or “remains.” Some time after I started, I came upon one of them: the remains of White-Boulder Hut (白岩小屋跡).
When he said they were in bad condition, I didn’t expect anything this bad — the building was in a state of total decay, the interior a mass of filth and rotting blankets. The place had clearly been completely abandoned without even a cursory attempt to salvage anything. I had to wonder what had led to such a situation. My best guess was that the national park service of Japan overestimated demand and built too many shelters on the mountain, leading some of them to be abandoned when they turned out to be unprofitable. I had seen similar abandoned huts when I hiked Mt. Fuji some years before, though they were more easily explained by the fact that a road now went halfway up the mountain, making all of the shelters below that point useless.
While poking around for a bit, I noticed a small sign indicating that a side-trail led to water. Having completely finished one of the two two-liter bottles I was carrying, I decided to go fill up. Even though I didn’t have any purification tablets, I reasoned that a case of diarrhea was preferable to dying of thirst.
A view down the side of the mountain. It’s a lot steeper than it looks.
The water collection point, a trickle of a stream destined to become a river somewhere.
My spare bottle filled, I prepared to depart the ruin. And then it started to rain. By the time I reached the summit of White Boulder Mountain (白岩山, 1921m), it was coming down hard. So much for getting dried out the night before.
White-Boulder Mountain. Wasn’t much to see.
Another mountain toad.
I trudged along through the rain past Imo no Ki Dokke (芋の木ドッケ, “Potato-Tree Peak, 1946m), Daidawa (大ダワ), and on to Kumotori Lodge. The lodge was quite an impressive place, doubly so considering my expectations from the ruins I had seen earlier. It was a two story high cabin, perhaps two school buses long, with hardly a sign of wear and tear. Of course, to me, as wet and cold as I was, it could have been an outhouse and I would have been happy to see it. I immediately went inside.
The lobby sported a wide genkan, and beyond a bin of slippers; to the right was a vacant desk, beyond it a few benches and some heaters, and directly ahead of me was a refrigerated glass container filled with drinks, including beer (￥500 or about $5 for a 12oz). Although I ordinarily would be rather enthused at finding out I could get an ice cold beer on the side of a mountain, in my current state the thought of drinking an ice-cold anything didn’t appeal to me. Rather, I was more interested in getting my feet out of my wet shoes and warming up a bit. I immediately proceeded to the former activity, the second being somewhat more difficult. Grabbing a pair of slippers from the bin, I proceeded to explore the establishment.
I walked the entire building from one end to the other, first and second floor. Each room was completely empty of occupants, and the dining hall was also empty. It was as if the entire place was abandoned.
It seemed strange that there was no one here since the place seemed fully functional, with electricity running and all. I figured someone had to be around, but since I didn’t see anyone, I just decided to sit down in the lobby and rest for a bit and try to warm up. After sitting for a while, I thought I heard someone moving around in the direction of the dining hall. I got up and went in there to see a Japanese man behind the counter. I got his attention, saying just “Hello” in Japanese. He turned around and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was resting before going to Kumotori Mountain. He said it was before opening, so I had to wait outside. I protested, noting the rain. He said I had to wait outside and that there was a small shelter where I could sit and get dry. Grumbling, I complied, but once I stepped outside I saw that the rain had stopped while I was inside and it was almost sunny. Finally! I ate a bit, filled my water bottles, and continued the climb. As it turned out, it wasn’t that far to the top of the mountain.
Mount Fuji, barely visible through the clouds.
The main path to the summit, the route that my companion from the previous night took to the top.
Some of the many deer I saw on this trip.
The view, as you can see above, was mostly obscured by clouds, so I didn’t take a lot of photos. Onward.
As I was making the final ascent to the summit of Kumotori Mountain, I started to notice a bit of chafing around the groin. This was somewhat unusual for me — I’d never chafed before when hiking. Then again, I’d never been so thoroughly soaked for such a long period of time either. This problem would make the rest of the hike less pleasant than I would have preferred, but it would quickly be put in second place next to the issues that would develop with my feet.
Considering the amount of walking I do on a daily basis, blisters are not something I worry about, and indeed even on this trip, where I ended up hiking four days with wet feet, I didn’t get a single blister. What I did get was friction burns on both sides of my right ankle caused by the wet high tops of my hiking shoes rubbing against my soaking wet socks, which in turn rubbed against my ankle with each step (interestingly, no problem on the left side). This issue would gradually get worse throughout the course of the day.
Looking at the maps, reaching Kumotori Mountain wasn’t even half of what I had to do to make up for the time I lost yesterday. I had to move fast. Luckily, since I was already up on the ridge, the amount of vertical distance was small — I had to cover mostly horizontal distance. As I descended from Kumotori, however, I did start to notice an issue with the trail, that being that it didn’t seem to be in the best shape. As it turned out, Kumotori was a popular hiking area, and the far region from Shôgen Pass (将監峠, “Magistrate Pass”) and beyond was also such an area (as I would later find out, that region contains one of Japans “Three Great Passes” or 三大峠). However, the trail connecting them contained nothing quite so impressive as either area, and thus got a lot less foot-traffic and consequently much less attention from the trail maintenance crews. Even the best maintained areas were highly overgrown with mountain grass, which was still dripping with rainwater, ensuring that my feet would only get wetter as the day progressed, not drier. Furthermore, the trail in this section wound along an incredibly steep dirt ridge and was just narrowly cut into the edge, leaving a precipitous drop on my left throughout the whole way. More than once, the edge of the trail would collapse as I stepped on it, nearly throwing me down the side of the mountain, where doubtlessly I would tumble until a tree managed to end my descent. Luckily that didn’t happen. On top of all this, the steepness of the ridge and the looseness of the soil made the area prone to landslides, the remains of which appeared frequently. Some of them were pretty fresh, possibly caused by the heavy rains from the night before. Some had even affected the trail.
One of many bridges over treacherous spots.
Another mountain toad.
The trail overgrown with mountain grass.
The descent from Kumotori.
Wolf Flat (狼平)
As I walked, the pain from the chafing in my groin and right ankle gradually increased and I began to realize that I had to update my plan a little bit. In particular, there was one peak, Hiryû Yama (飛竜山, “Flying Dragon Mountain,” 2077m), that I would have to abandon. Climbing it meant I would need to ascend for 20 minutes and then backtrack 15 to get back on the main trail and continue. In my current state and with my limited time, I decided to just bypass it. Checking the time estimates for the trail, I figured I could get to Magistrate Pass before dark, where I would find a mountain hut with an adjacent campground. I made this my destination.
The hours passed along with the kilometers as I walked this mostly unimpressive stretch of trail. By sometime around 6:30, though, I finally limped in to Magistrate’s Pass. I was not in a good mood. My feet were still soaking wet, and the chafing wasn’t helping. I located the mountain hut, a dirty, poorly constructed building that looked like it had barely been slapped together. The place seemed totally abandoned, and after poking around for a bit I determined that it had.
I was exhausted and in pain. I set up my tent and, too tired to even try to light a fire, I ate my dinner of Johnsonville brawts cold, crawled into my tent, and promptly fell asleep. As I was drifting off, I decided that if I wasn’t feeling better in the morning, I’d hike straight down the mountain from where I was, find the nearest bus stop, and get back home to rest and recover.
This post is part four in a six-part series on my hiking trip in the East Alps of Japan in the summer of 2017. Click the links below to navigate to the other posts in this series.
One of the things my dad used to always warn me about when hiking was not to get wet feet on account of the blisters it usually causes: after all, it’s no fun limping out the last few miles of a hike. He also warned about getting wet in general on account of hypothermia: he always said that it was a danger even when it doesn’t seem that cold out. I remember him telling me about how delirious and disoriented he and one of his buddies got when they got rained on during a winter trip back when he was in college. And whenever I do happen to get a little wet on a hiking trip, also I’m reminded of the man and his two sons who got rained on while hiking the Ozark Trail one winter back in Missouri. It was January at the time, but a warm day so they weren’t dressed too heavily. A sudden storm blew up and they got soaked pretty good. As evening drew on, the temperature dropped and they got cold. And disoriented, as one will when you get hypothermia. Then they got lost. They died.
I found myself thinking of them as I sat in a small pavilion on the side of that mountain in the Japanese East Alps, somewhere above the Taiyôji. The rain had begun again since I left, and stronger and heavier than it had been before. The trail had become so saturated that a small stream was now flowing down it, and the rain was coming down hard enough that even my water-resistant shoes were soaked through and through, not to mention the rest of me. I was getting cold.
Hiking in the rain is no joke, but in August in Tokyo the temperatures never get very cold — in fact, they never get cold at all. For that reason, I wasn’t too worried about the typhoon. In the hot summer, it’d surely just help cool me off and make the trip more pleasant. I’d therefore set off with nothing more than a T-shirt and my running shorts. Of course, up there in the mountains the temperatures were actually cooler than they were down in the plain, and doubly so because of the rain and wind from the typhoon. Luckily, the body heat I was generating from hiking combined with the cheap poncho I bought at 7-11 were doing fine to keep me plenty warm, but whenever I took a break, as I was now, I would quickly start to cool off. Conscious of my body temperature, I set off again. As I walked, I started to wonder what color my lips were. A sure sign of hypothermia is blue or purple lips, or at least I remember being told that when I was a kid. I didn’t have a mirror, though, and it was raining too hard to take a picture with my phone.
Despite all this, I was still in good spirits. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, what a story this will be! Who goes hiking in a typhoon? I must be pretty bad-ass.” As the afternoon wore on, though, I started to get more and more annoyed with the weather. I was thinking particularly about setting up my tent tonight. I intended to use my poncho as a ground cloth, but that of course would require me to take it off while I set up the tent, which I wasn’t at all enjoying the thought of. Nor was I thinking that I would enjoy sleeping wet in my sleeping bag all night. On top of that, given the intensity of the rain, I wasn’t sure how well my tent would be able to keep my dry either.
Eventually I came to a fork on the path. Though I couldn’t take out my maps because of the rain, I remembered the spot: the trail would split in two, one going up to a peak, Kirimo ga Mine (霧藻ヶ峰, “Moss Peak”), and the other bypassing it and going directly towards the destination I had originally planned for the night, Kumotori Lodge (雲取山荘), which is located high on the ridge near the summit of the mountain of the same name, the most famous peak on the hike. I wasn’t entirely sure what the lodge would be like, but given the name I figured I’d be able to get out of the rain and dry off for the night. A worthy destination for one in my situation. Unfortunately, I’m stubborn, so instead of taking the shortcut I decided to go straight up to the peak.
As I climbed onward, though, I couldn’t help but think again about the man and his two boys who died on the Ozark Trail all of those years ago. They were hiking in an apparently safe, familiar location, and yet by some accident they managed to end up dead. Here I was in a completely unfamiliar environment, hiking in the last gasp of a typhoon soaked to the bone with a downpour that was only getting stronger. I couldn’t help but wonder if this might be the time that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Knowing that it was difficult to tell that you were getting delirious with the cold when you were in fact delirious with cold, I had to constantly question my own mental state: Am I tired, or is the cold setting in? It was an interesting feeling, probably akin to being a patient in a mental institution who feels like he’s sane, but isn’t quite sure given his situation.
These thoughts and others came and went as I scaled Moss Peak. When I was surely approaching the top, I rounded a corner of the trail to see a small structure ahead of me, make of brown wood with an outer wall fronting an inner structure hallway linking two entrances on either side. Looks like a bathroom, I thought. But by god it was shelter from the rain! I immediately went inside. Sure enough, it was a bathroom, and smelled like one too. But it was dry in there at least.
Once I managed to dry out my hands sufficiently, I pulled out my maps to check how long it was to the lodge, thinking I might just be able to push it out for another hour. Not so lucky. I was still several hours away according to the map. I really didn’t want to spend that much more time in the rain. I was cold, I was wet, and frankly I just wanted to wait it out somewhere dry. Then slowly it dawned on me: I was in a dry place right now. Sure, it was a stinky dry place, but it was a dry place after all. I could just throw down my sleeping bag in here and I could spend a dry, smelly night and then continue on early in the morning, hopefully after the storm had passed. If I was lucky, I might even be able to make up the time I would be giving up this evening. But then I got to thinking. Why is there a bathroom up here on the top of a mountain? There can’t just be a bathroom, can there? Surely there must be more. I resolved to go back out into the rain and check.
I got back on the trail and started walking again. It went down a little and along the base of a small cliff face. Rounding the far side of the cliff, a small cabin came into view. It looked locked up tight, but it had a covered porch and !! under the porch, protected from the rain, stacks and stacks of dry wood. !! Dry wood !! I might be able to make a fire and dry out!! If the exclamation points haven’t appropriately conveyed my mood, I was positively elated.
I immediately got under the porch and dropped by my bag. Right in front of me were three metal panels covering what was clearly a door space. Thinking they had to be locked, I tested them anyway and, unexpectedly, they slid sideways without any effort, revealing sliding glass doors behind them. These, I thought, had to be locked. No way they would be left open. But, I tested them and they too slid right open. I went inside.
What I found was a small room lined by benches, and underneath each was stacked even more dry firewood. Furthermore, right in the center of the room was (I couldn’t believe my luck) a woodstove! It wasn’t long before I had a roaring fire going.
Having thus assured that I wouldn’t spend the night fighting hypothermia, I began making myself at home, storing my bag, setting up my shoes and socks by the fire to dry, and getting ready to make dinner. Digging around in my bag for my package of Johnsonville cheese-filled brawts (yes, you can buy those in Japan), something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye through the front door. I turned to look and just about jumped out of my skin when I saw a face looking in at me. Who on Earth would be on the mountain in a typhoon? I thought to myself without a hint of irony. I walked to the door and opened it the rest of the way. What I saw was a sopping wet Asian man with close-cropped hair carrying a small backpack.
“Konnichiwa,” I said.
“Hello,” he responded.
“Well, come on in!”
He entered, dropped his pack, and proceeded to strip off his sopping wet raincoat and shoes. As I continued with my mission to make dinner, we began to talk. It turned out this guy was a Chinese college student in his masters or PhD, I can’t remember which now, at a university in one of the provinces adjacent to Tokyo. He apparently loved going on hiking adventures, though his generally consisted of going out alone for a single day. Apparently he was doing a Kumotori Mountain course that I’d viewed while planning this trip, an overnight trip that I rejected because I figured I could have done it in just one day. Apparently he thought the same and probably could have if he hadn’t been slowed down by the typhoon. At this rate, he figured he wouldn’t be able to make it down before the last bus left for the night.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay here,” I said. “It’s warm, you can dry out, and then go down first thing in the morning.” At this point I handed him a brawt fresh out of the fire, on a slice of plain white bread.
“This is great! You must be a really good cook.”
“Nah, it’s just that anything warm tastes good when your wet and cold on the side of a mountain.” I started preparing a brawt for myself. “So what brought you up on the mountain all alone like this? Don’t any of your friends like hiking too?”
“No, not really. Most of my friends aren’t interested. They think I’m crazy to go out on the mountain alone all day like this too.”
“They must think I’m really crazy then! I’m going to be out here for four days!”
“All by yourself? Isn’t it scary to sleep on the mountain alone?”
“Well, it is at first, but you get used to it after a while. After a while, it’s starts to be pretty nice. It’s like, well I always take these trips when I have a vacation. You know, after a few days up in the mountains, completely alone, you get a few benefits. Like, first, you spend three or four days doing something this difficult, and when you get back to work, it feels like your starting a vacation instead.”
He nodded with a contemplative look on his face.
“On top of that, being alone is good too. When I don’t have anything to distract me, I have no choice but to fight out my demons, you know? Like, if there’s anything that’s bothering me, like if someone did something bad to me or if I did something wrong and I feel bad about it, I have the time to work it through in my head. And what’s more, when I’m all alone, I have the time to recognize the positive points of the people in my life who I don’t like so much. When they’re completely out of my life for a few days like this, I can really know what life would be like if that person weren’t a part of my life anymore. I guess what I mean is, it helps me know which people I should cut and which I should keep, if you know what I mean.”
“You could be a philosopher.”
“Maybe.” Inwardly I thought maybe I was just living out my own Jeremiah Johnson fantasy, but I figured the reference would be lost so I didn’t say it out loud.
“You know, in my imagination, I think all Americans are like you.”
“Well, I’m definitely not like most Americans.”
“What do you mean?”
“Most Americans wouldn’t go up into the mountains all alone for four days, let alone do it in a typhoon.”
“Real Americans aren’t at all like what you see in the movies.”
As the evening wore on, the storm continued to intensify, especially the wind. We both felt with greater and greater certainty that we’d made the right decision to stay here for the night. By 8 o’clock we started to get tired though, so we decided to turn in for the night.
– – –
Dawn comes early in Japan, that’s one thing I’ve noticed while living here. It comes doubly early in the mountains. I think I first noticed the light at about 4:30 am. By five the two of us were both up and getting ready to go. Thanks to the fire, all our clothes were mostly dry, and to our pleasure we discovered that the storm had died out overnight too. We were ready to continue on our way. But first! We had to take a few photos. Funny, but we forgot to take one together.
Stay tuned next week for Part IV in the series, where I work hard to make up for lost time and learn some hard lessons about hiking long distances with wet feet!
This post is part three in a multi-part series on my four-day hiking trip in the East Alps of Japan. To view the rest of the posts, use the navigation links below.