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.