Fukuda’s Tomuraushi (100 Famous Mountains #6)


All across Hokkaido the words of a language all but extinct lay scattered like fallen leaves from a dying tree. These are the relics of the Ainu, the hunter-gatherer people who dominated the northern island of Japan until the mid-19th century. Much like the native American names of places like Missouri, Mississippi, and Dakota, most people living in Hokkaido today have no idea what these words actually mean. As a bare 100 native speakers of the language still live today, even the average surviving Ainu doesn’t understand them.

Not surprisingly, the first generations of Japanese settlers in Hokkaido weren’t particularly interested in the meaning of these names, and so they were quickly forgotten even as the words themselves remained on their lips in daily use. However, some scholars did begin to wonder at their meaning and began working with what limited knowledge of the Ainu language remains to decipher them. This is no easy task, however, as they incurred a major phonetic shift when they entered (or perhaps were interred in) the Japanese lexicon, rendering them nearly unrecognizable.

For Fukuda, who throughout Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains shows a keen interest in toponymy, the question of what Ainu mountain names mean becomes a repeating theme. Tomuraushi, as we will see, is one such mountain.

6. Tomuraushi (2141 m)

The first time I was struck by the view of Tomuraushi was from Tokachi-dake. When you look north from the summit of Biei Fuji, beyond the long-ridged Oputateshike, there is a dynamic mountain, conspicuously tall and raising up a rough rocky peak like a bull’s horn. It was Tomuraushi, and she captured my heart firmly. I have to climb her. I resolved to do it.

Tomuraushi from Bie Town
By As6022014 – As6022014が撮影, CC 表示 3.0, Link

The next time was from the summit of Asahi-dake, Daisetsu-yama’s highest peak; this time I looked south at Tomuraushi, who was standing sternly in the clear autumn sky. She was as imposing as before. She is majestic, and has an air of transcendence, I thought. From this side her rocky peak appeared to become split in three, but that form was also quite good. I have to climb her. My resolution had become more and more firm. And so in the summer of the next year I attained my desire and stood upon her summit.

Following Daisetsu-yama’s Asahi-dake, Tomuraushi is Hokkaido’s second tallest peak. According to geography books, between the Daisetsu Volcanic Group and the Tokachi Volcanic Group is a chain of mountains spanning Hira-ga-Take (平ヶ岳), Chûbetsu-dake (忠別岳), Kaun-dake (化雲岳), and Tomuraushi called the Tomuraushi (戸村牛) Volcanic Group. However, Hira-ga-take, Chûbetsu-dake, and Kaun-dake hardly even stand out on that vast ridge; Tomuraushi alone is a distinctive mountain that resolutely asserts its individuality.

Tomuraushi from Chûbetsu-dake
By alpsdake – 投稿者自身による作品, パブリック・ドメイン, Link

Even the name Tomuraushi is appealing. Since it came from the Tomuraushi River on the upper reaches of the Tokachi, calling the mountain Tomuraushi as well seems fitting. Properly called tonra-usi in Ainu, the tonra means “limescale” and usi means “a place with a lot.” Thus it means “the river with lots of limescale.” They say it gets its name from the fact that its water is slimy due to hot spring minerals. However, Mr. Murakami Keiji (村上啓司), an expert on Hokkaido’s mountains, thinks that perhaps “Tomura” originates from the Ainu tom-ra. Tom means “of the stomach” and ra is a common shortening of rat, which indicates “mucus.” Ra by itself also means fish entrails, so at any rate it means something slimy.

Among Ainu mountain names, there are many that are quite good. The fact that they get assigned strange phonetic readings that destroy their original form is something that I’ve thought to be terribly unfortunate for quite some time. The fact that people want to preserve the correct way of saying Ainu mountain names is thanks to devoted scholars like Mr. Murakami.

I climbed from the direction of the Tomuraushi River with the help of the gentlemen on duty from Hokkaido University’s Mountaineering Club. We got on the forest road from from Kutsutari (屈足) and went as far as the fork on the upper reaches of the Tokachi River; from there we crossed over the ridge and put up our tents for the first night at Amano Hotspring (天野温泉), which was welling up by the Yû Tomuraushi River, a tributary of the Tokachi River. The Yû of Yû Tomuraushi means “hot water” or “hot spring.”

From there we went over a second ridge and as expected we came out at the Tokachi River’s tributary, the Kamuisanke River. This is kamuysan-ke in proper Ainu; kamuy (written 神居 in Chinese characters) were long ago believed to be a type of evil spirit. They say kamuy-wakka indicates water unsuitable for drinking — that is, water with poison in it. San-ke means “something flowing down,” so it ends up meaning “a river where cursed waters flow.” This is all secondhand from Mr. Murakami.

When we reached Tomuraushi, the path turned into a tumble of rocks, and the summit at which I arrived at long last was a great piling heap of stone. I took a seat on a boulder amid the mist and, though the view was shut off, the joy I felt at standing on the crown of that mountain for which I had longed was limitless.

A tumble of rocks
By Yasu (トーク) – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

For the descent we took the ridge road on the opposite side, but it was also long. We followed by the edges of small marshes and went up and down broad slopes. When we finally parted from the ridge and descended towards the right, below us was a snowy valley, and bellow the valley Hisago Pond (ヒサゴ池) stretched out. We set up our tents for the second night on its shore.

Daisetsu-yama from the summit of Tomuraushi
By Alpsdake投稿者自身による作品, パブリック・ドメイン, Link

When we climbed up towards the ridge through a broad moor the next morning, we were surrounded by a white, red, yellow, and purple cushion of alpine plants. Here and there were ponds of melted snow, and the moor unfurled without end. This magnificence, this expansiveness, this kind of serene landscape could not be found in Japan proper.

Kaun-dake (化雲岳) was a rocky peak standing in one corner of that ridgetop plateau, so we scaled up to its narrow crown and spent a moment chatting. Around that time the weather cleared at long last, and in the end it turned to a flawless blue sky. Wherever we looked, it was nothing but mountains. Of them all, I could not take my eyes off of Tomuraushi’s sternly squared rocky shoulder.

When you speak of Hokkaido’s mountains, the talk quickly turns to bears, and I had heard that the place where their appearance is most frequent is Tomuraushi. Sure enough, we happened to pass by a party of but one mountaineer and he told us, “I saw a bear just now, over there.” We hurried and peered down at the Chûbetsu River’s valley, where the old man had escaped from, but sadly we weren’t able to set eyes on any bear.

The descent to Tennin Valley (Tennin-kei, 天人渓) was also a beautiful plateau trail, at least until we entered the shrubs. I wonder how many times it was that I looked back at Tomuraushi from there.

Translation © Brian Heise, 2018
All photos belong to Wikicommons

Summer Trip 2018 Part 5: Sheltering in Northvale Pass

This post is Part 5 in a multi-part series on my trip to Japan’s Southern Alps in the summer of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 as well. And, of course, be sure to leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

Chapter 15: Sighting the Colt

The first time I was struck by the view of Tomuraushi was from Tokachi-dake. When you look north from the summit of Biei Fuji beyond the long-ridged Oputateshike there is a dynamic mountain, conspicuously tall, raising up a rough rocky peak like a bull’s horn. It was Tomuraushi, and she captured my heart firmly. I have to climb her. I resolved to do it.

Fukuda Kyûya, “Tomuraushi”
In Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains

Time and again Fukuda tells similar experiences of sighting a far off peak and becoming instantly infatuated, of feeling that insubstantial pull at the heart that draws a lover of mountains onward to the summit. I’ve climbed many mountains across Japan and Korea, but the first time I truly understood this emotion was the day I laid eyes on the Peak of the Colt in the old state of Kai (Kai Koma-ga-Take, 甲斐駒ヶ岳).

Tianyu and I had risen relatively late on the third morning of our trip in the Southern Alps, not being particularly keen to put on our wet clothes in the cool morning air. After a day of more rain than not on our long trek from North Peak Lodge to our present location on the lower slopes of Senjo Peak, the last thing we wanted was to feel the touch of wet, rough clothing on our skin once more. But, we were nonetheless coaxed out of our reticence by bright morning light: the clouds and rain had cleared during the night, allowing yellow rays to filter through the branches to land on our tent. Quickly we packed and set off on our way once more.

Tianyu in the trees
An old Suntory whiskey bottle near the pond
The marker at the top of Ina Mountain
Sunlight through the trees

The trees were still dense around us as we gradually moved upward, but we occasionally got glimpses of the mountains as we went. We saw far off Saltview Peak (Shiome-dake, 塩見岳) to the south, another of the 100 Famous Mountains. Closer, to the east were the North Peak and the Peak of the Gap, which we had passed over on the two previous days. They were beautiful, to be sure, but none of them surpassed the sweeping mountains-capes of the previous day. That is, until we saw the Peak of the Colt.

Saltview Peak (Shiomi-dake, 塩見岳) in the distance
A glade
The Peak of Gap (間ノ岳); our route from yesterday descends on the right
Red berries
North Peak (right) and Peak of the Gap (left)
The broad view

I might have missed the sight, intent as I was on photographing those mountains to the south and east. As we moved up the slopes, however, the trees open up like a window towards the northeast, letting in a stream of yellow morning light so bright I had to blink several times. There, right in the center of that window lay perfectly framed a great rocky dome of a peak raised resolutely against a blue sky laced with white wisps. It seemed formidable, impenetrable, and yet as elegant as a well-preserved French castle. Fukuda had said that Senjo needed time to appreciate its beauty, but this captured me instantly. I knew that I had to climb it.

The Peak of the Colt in Kai

From then on, I began to see the Peak of the Colt in Kai as my ultimate goal for the trip.

Chapter 16: Senjô

My footsteps quickened somewhat, urged on by the desire to pass the treeline to get a better view of the Colt. But, as we climbed higher mist began to roll in, and by the time we reached the level of the shrubby creeping pines, who crawled low enough to the ground that they didn’t block our view, the far off mountains were once more completely obscured.

Tianyu in the creeping pines; the clouds have already obscured the tops of the mountains

And then it began to rain. It was light at first, like the spray of mist from a waterfall. But as we went upward, as the trail became rockier, steeper, and more treacherous, so too the storm intensified. Gusts of wind threatened to push us off the mountain. Finally, we reached the summit, but we lingered hardly five minutes before moving on. We were wet, we were tired, and we were disappointed, but only a hundred or so meters down the mountain lay Senjô Hut (仙丈小屋), and we were keen to get inside to dry off and warm up. I resolved to wait out the storm and then hike back up to the summit. Tianyu said he would wait for me here.

Tired and wet explorers
A woodstove
Wind and rain

We both waited there for probably two hours, maybe three, but the rain never stilled and the clouds never cleared. Tianyu was spent.

“The pass down below has a bus stop. I want to catch the last one and go home. I think I’m done. It’s not the rain, it’s not the hard work…but I just don’t think I can take being so dirty another day.” Nonetheless, he was grinning as he spoke.

I had already given up hope that the storm would pass, so I agreed to go with as far as the bus stop. However, I didn’t have any intention of heading home with him, because tomorrow I would attempt stand on the Peak of the Colt.

Chapter 17: Old Friends and New Friends

It took a few more hours to finally reach the valley floor in Northvale Pass (Kitazawa Tôge, 北沢峠). There were two main routes down, a scenic ridge route and another that snaked downward along the side in the shelter of the trees; needless to say, we took the latter and were none the worse for it for the rain never cleared the whole way.

At the bottom we met a fairly well maintained gravel road with a large shelter filled with benches that served for a bus stop. Tianyu entered directly, dropped his bag, and sat down with a look of relief on his face. I, feeling rather chilled by the hours spent in the cold wind and rain, opted to go into the nearby Komorebi Lodge to get a cup of coffee and warm up. Tianyu decided to stay at the stop. Before I left he turned to me with a smile and said, “I had fun. Let’s do this again.” And that was the last I saw of him for more than month.

I tramped up to the lodge and stepped inside. It was dimly lit, but it was so dark outside that my eyes didn’t have to adjust at all. I found a spot to drop my bag, already beginning to mentally prepare myself for being more or less alone for the next 36 hours or so. Or so I thought.


While ordering a coffee the woman at the counter was so surprised that I could speak Japanese that she immediately leaped into a series of questions about what I was doing in Japan and where I was from. I started talking about my hiking projects, about trying to climb the 100 Famous Mountains and hiking the Fureai Trail. Soon she called over the rest of the staff and for some 30 minutes we all talked together, more like old friends than people who were meeting for the first time.

I was reminded about the night when I first met Tianyu and how we instantly became friends upon meeting. There truly is something about lovers of mountains that connects across culture and language. No matter the background, no matter the difference in age or income, we understand each other clearly. At that moment in Komorebi Lodge, I really felt for one of the few times in my life that I was in a place where I truly belonged.

“Hey look, the rain stopped!” someone pointed out. I looked out the window and, sure enough, bright sunlight was shining. We all went outside to look, and took a group photo.


With that I departed, but promised to return the next day. As much as I was enjoying myself, it was time to go set up my tent and prepare for my ascent to the top of the Peak of the Colt.

© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 3: Sunrise at North Peak Lodge

This post is Part 3 in a multi-part series on my trip to Japan’s Southern Alps in the summer of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 as well.

Chapter 8: A Shortcut to Whiskey

It was more than twelve hours since we woke up at sunrise, twelve hours of walking in search of beautiful ridgeline views and, most especially, sunset. But rain and mist had snatched away most of our photo opportunities, however. To be sure, we had managed to take some great photos, but I had to wonder what we had missed behind that grey rain curtain.

After setting up the tent, Tianyu fell fast asleep. I, on the other hand, still felt somewhat energetic, so I set off to the lobby of the lodge to buy an overpriced beer and jot down some notes. Before I could even put one word to paper, however, an older man, perhaps in his 40s, caught my attention with a wave and gestured for me to come join him and his companion, a younger man perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s.

Here we go again, I thought, prepping myself for the same old conversation I have with every old Japanese guy who wants to talk to me. Nonetheless I joined them, though I was somewhat irritated at having been interrupted. As soon as I sat down, though, the man passed a cup of brown liquid to me and asked, “Do you like whiskey?” I then decided that the distraction was welcome.

That run of the mill small talk commenced, but given the fact that my whiskey cup was immediately refilled each time it emptied, I considered pros and cons to be tipped in my favor.

Myself and the gentleman with the whiskey

“What are your plans for tomorrow?” I asked, wondering if perhaps they were headed in the same direction.

“We’re headed down to Broad Riverbed,” he replied. “We’d like to stay longer, but there’s a typhoon on the way.”

No way, I thought. There was nothing in the forecast when we left. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Here, let me show you,” he pulled out his smartphone and pulled up a weather report. Yes, even up here on this remote mountain, apparently you can still get 3G. Or so I thought; I later found out that the hut had wifi.

His phone confirmed my fears — a big typhoon was headed straight for us and predicted to arrive the following evening. It seemed likely that Tianyu and I would have to radically change our plans. I’d be damned if I had to cut my trip short, though. I began to search my memory of the map for a decent hut along our route where we might shelter out the storm.

Finally, the whiskey bottle was empty. I said goodbye to the old gentleman and his companion, then went back to the tent to get some sleep. The next morning we’d be up before dawn to catch the sunrise. I figured I’d decide what to do then.


Chapter 9: Sunrise at North Peak Lodge

We woke in the dim twilight of early morning to find that the mist had cleared. Off in the distance, we could even see Mt. Fuji. Quickly we set up the camera and began to wait for color. Soon, it appeared, creating a stark contrast against the old volcano’s blue outline.


As we watched, rays of red light signaled the nearness of the sun.

Had some moisture on my lens.
Low exposure to make those rays stand out.
The rays turned pink as they lengthened

People gathered to watch the show.


Tianyu takes a shot
Mt. Fuji’s silhouette
People beginning to take down their tents


Moments before the sun broke the horizon


Little by little the rays brightened until the sun rose above the horizon, bathing the world in orange light.

The golden shot.

Satisfied, we went to pack our gear. As I rolled up my bag and tent, I couldn’t help thinking that those shots made the whole trip worth it, even if we did end up holed up in a hut while waiting out the typhoon for the rest of our stay.

Before we set out, I went into the hut one last time to login to the wifi and check the weather. The result would determine our goals for the day. I waited with some trepidation as the snail-paced signal loaded the report. In the end, though, I was relieved: overnight the pressure system had shifted and with it the typhoon’s path, sending it careening west towards Hong Kong rather than north towards Japan. Next I checked the local weather and saw that we were scheduled to get heavy rain in the afternoon. Well, you can’t win everything it seems, but at least it wasn’t a typhoon. I decided to keep to the original plan.

I laid the map out on the ground and called Tianyu over to review.

“Today we’re going to climb up to the Peak of the Gap before descending down to this long, low ridge here. The thing we have to be careful about is the rain. The first hour or two after passing the summit is supposed to be a fairly dangerous section, really steep with lots of rocks and cliffs and whatnot. We don’t want to be caught on that when the rain comes, so we need to make good time.”

A look back at North Peak and North Peak Lodge
A standing stone


Chapter 10: The Peak of the Gap

Ai-no-Dake, the Peak of the Gap. It’s a pretty unusual name, isn’t it? Perhaps my translation brings to mind a great chasm of some kind. In reality, though, that impression is just the fault of my rather over-dramatic rendering; in fact, the original Japanese simply implies that the peak is located in the space between two other things. To avoid confusing implications, it might have been more accurate to call it the Peak in the Middle, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it, so I went with Peak of the Gap.

A craggy ridge extends from the Peak of the Gap toward Mt. Fuji
The valley we came up yesterday

Given this name, though, one has to wonder what exactly are the two things between which the mountain is located? As it turns out, the mountain is part of a set of three peaks known as the Three Whitepeak Mountains (Shirane Sanzan, 白峰三山); the other two are the North Peak, which we passed over the day before, and also Farmbird Mountain (Notori-yama, 農鳥山) further down the ridge to the south. The Peak of the Gap was so named because it happens to be located in the middle. When you take into account that the ridge runs north to south and the northernmost peak is North Peak, you can see where that mountain got its name as well. It may seem rather unfitting to name such high mountains, among the tallest in the country, so simply, but to me it matches their wild, rugged, and aloof character.

The Peak of the Gap in the distance
Deep into the alps
Another view back at North Peak

Tianyu and I made good time and arrived at the Peak of the Gap well before noon as the route wasn’t particularly difficult. There weren’t many serious ups and downs, but rather the trail remained relatively level, at least compared to yesterday’s hike, but it did follow along some steep slopes. A foot put in the wrong spot would send someone on a long tumble down. The weather stayed clear along the way, that is until we began to approach the top. At that point, wisps of fog started to blow over the ridge from the Fuji side, and by the time we stood at the top, we were mostly surrounded in mist again. For the second time, we reached a summit only to be denied the view. Nonetheless, we sat down for a good rest and some time to think. But, we couldn’t wait too long. The dark color of the clouds warned of rain and we were just about to start on the most dangerous section of the whole trip.

© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 1: The Anniversary

Chapter 1

Never again. That’s what I thought while I limped my way down from Goose Hill Pass one year ago. Sure, on that trip I saw some spectacular views that showcased the charm of that fairyland that is the Japanese alps.

A large meadow near Goose Pass

Not only that, I met for the first time my now year-long hiking friend Tianyu, who introduced Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains to me, setting me on the path that would lead me to the very story I’m about to tell you today.


But, I also endured 24 hours severe wind and rain, the fierce offspring of a typhoon that traveled the length of Japan from Kyushu all the way to that spur ridge in the mountains  where I happened to be. Though I spent the night safely with my new friend in a hut at the summit of Moss Peak (霧藻ヶ峰) and thoroughly dried myself out by the side of a roaring woodstove fire, the rain returned the next morning to drench me once more, leading to severe foot damage through the gradual accumulation of thousands of steps worth of infinitesimal wear exacerbated by the roughness of wet socks on skin.

The smokey interior of the hut

Never again, I said. From here on out, it’s only sunshine hikes for me.

Then there I was one year later, set to enter the high mountains once more, a bit older, a little wiser, and all the more desireful of sunny skies and, more importantly, dryness — because I would be carrying with me my first dSLR camera, recently purchased to bring the photos I started taking for this very blog from the amateur smartphone level to that of the pros. Putting together my desire for beautiful sunsets and sunrises, panoramic mountainscapes, and starry night skies together with the fear of ruining my new toy with an unhealthy dose of water, rain was to be avoided at all costs.


Chapter 2:
The Lay of the Land

I set my sights on the North Peak, Kita-dake (北岳). Standing at a height of 3192 meters, this lofty mountain located in central Honshu’s Southern Alps is second only to Fuji himself. Yet in spite of their similarity in height, these two mountains are of entirely different character. Fuji is a regal mountain, towering high above his nearby vassals, none of whom dare approach him, but rather cower at the edges of the basin where that king of mountains sits upon his purple throne. Kita-dake, in contrast, is a humble mountain who, though the tallest among his lot, is nonetheless merely the first among peers who share similar stature and mien.

An old photo of Fuji I took some ten years ago.

Furthermore, Fuji is a mountain of the civilized world, surrounded on all sides by human settlement, easily accessible; Kita-dake is a wild, tribal mountain to be found deeply isolated within a large range, inaccessible, unattainable mass of mountains. Even centuries ago, reaching the summit of Fuji was easier than reaching that of the North Peak. In the old days, a visit to the crown of Fuji would begin from one of the many villages at his feet before ascending up and back down in a two-day round-trip.

In contrast, a visit to Kita-dake’s rocky summit required a trek of at least two days along the Noro River, the great waterway that carved a deep valley cutting far into the alps to the peak’s very foot. Upon reaching the point called Broad Riverbed (Hirokawara, 広河原), where the river widens from a narrow canyon into a wide and rocky channel, the path turns to the ascent proper. It was a full-day’s ascent to the top from there, followed by the two to three days it would take to return back to the nearest city. In all, it must have taken at the least four full days, if not more, to make a round trip to and from that far peak.

Broad Riverbed (広河原)

Today, the situation has changed: the mountain can be summitted in but a single day owing to the construction of the Noro River Forest Road (野呂川林道), built some seventy years ago. Thanks to that winding mountain road cut into the steep valley walls, and the tunnels burrowed through the mountain to avoid places where it would otherwise be impossible to lay a road, the summit of the mountain can now be reached in but a single day from Kofu City, though the round trip would still take a minimum of two. Regarding this, Fukuda wrote, “Even the North Peak, which is a deep interior mountain, has become easily climbable. Should I be happy or should I be sad? For me, it is the latter.” When I imagine what the adventure of a Kita-dake expedition must have been like in Fukuda’s youth, I have to say that I feel the same way.


Chapter 3
The Plan

Nonetheless, man of adventure that I am, the fact that I could reach the summit Kita-dake in just a day necessitated a broader goal. Given how ripe the Southern Alps are with famous peaks (there are at least ten), I set out to summit as many as I could in the four or five days that I was limited to by the amount of food my bag could hold. After consulting the maps, I set my sights on the following course.

Tianyu and I would take the bus to Wide Riverbed in the afternoon of the first day and camp near Broad Riverbed Lodge (Hirokawara Sanso, 広河原山荘). The next day we would rise early and climb to the summit before descending along the ridge a little further to Kita-dake Lodge, which lay at the lowest point in the saddle ridge between Kita-dake and our next target, Ai-no-Dake, the Peak of the Gap. We would pass over this peak on the next morning, and following that we would descend along a steep and narrow rocky ridge to Three Summits Peak before descending down to a long, low wooded ridgeline that would carry us to Senjo-ga-Take (仙丈ケ岳) on the morning of the third day. Later that afternoon, we would arrive in North Valley Pass (Kitazawa Toge, 北沢峠), where we would spend a lazy time before getting up early the next morning for a round trip to the Peak of the Colt (Koma-ga-Take, 駒ヶ岳) before taking the bus back to civilization that evening. You can see the full map here.

Plans made, the next step was to pick the dates. Since I had two weeks of vacation time in August, I was sure that I could find four days of good weather in which to place this hike. Except for one problem: as I was reading through the booklet accompanying the map, I read a disheartening sentence: “Be aware that thunderstorms form over these mountains every afternoon, so be sure to carry your rain gear!”

Every day. Every day? Now way. I immediately went to the mountain forecast to check. Sure enough, storms were predicted for every single day. Every single damned day of my two week vacation would get a thunderstorm, and for one of the days even a typhoon. Remembering my fateful hike exactly one year before and my vow never to repeat it, it goes without saying that I was somewhat unhappy about these circumstances. But did I give up? No. I’m a little too stubborn for that.

The story continues next week. Be sure to check in for the first leg of the journey.

© Brian Heise, 2018

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

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


5. Daisetsu-yama (2290 m)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By AlpsdakeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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

Sugatami Pond
By 663highland, CC BY 2.5, Link

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

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

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

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

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

GFDL, Link

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

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

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

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

Translation © Brian Heise
All photos belong to Wikicommons

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

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

The Arrival at Odai-ga-Hara

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

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

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

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

The Visitor Center
A Mess Hall


A view to the Sea

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

Hikers set out for Hide-ga-Dake

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

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

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

A view to the sea
Enter a caption
Deer trails crisscross the bamboo grass
The broad view
Dylan walks the path

Odai-ga-Hara: Then and Now

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

Withered trees

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

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


Cowstone Field and Great Serpent Bluff

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

Cowstone Field (牛石原)

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

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


Shiokara Valley

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

A blossoming rhododendron
Shiokara Valley
Crossing the bridge

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

Back to the Valley

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

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

Famous mountain count: 6

© Brian Heise, 2018

Fukuda’s Shari-dake (100 Famous Mountains #3)

By now the readers of this series of translations must have noticed that each mountain ends with the suffix dake (pronounced dah-keh), meaning “peak.” As I assume most of my readers are not proficient in the Japanese language, one might ask why I have chosen not to translate this when indeed in other instances I do translate such suffixes, such as in the case of the chô, which means “town” (read on and you’ll notice several examples of this later in this piece).

The reason why I typically do translate these is simply because I believe that knowing that the place I’m referring to is a town or a moor or a lake is often important for the reader to properly get a feel for the scenery being described. However, in the case of dake, I feel that the prosody of the suffix itself is so evocative of the character of the mountain that I feel I need to retain it. Try saying the word out loud. Dake. Doesn’t the very sound call to mind rugged mountain slopes? Even at the expense of losing a certain amount of meaning, maintaining that feel is important enough that I have chosen not to change it.

I’m curious to know what you all think of it, though. Please leave a comment below and tell me whether you agree with my reasoning or not.

3. Shari-dake (1545 m)

Shari-dake (斜里岳) is one of the mountains that I’d longed for ever since I first saw her figure in a photograph, but I only met her in person for the first time early in the August of Shôwa 34 (1959). While riding a train headed for Abashiri (網走) from Kushiro (釧路), I crossed over the border of Kushiro and Kitami (北見) when she appeared grandly in the right-side window as the train went down toward Shari Moor (斜里原野). Although the weather that day had been cloudy since the morning with rain also mixed in periodically, when I came to the point where I could get that most beautiful sight of her, the heavens cleared refreshingly, allowing me to see the full form of that longed-for mountain calmly hoisting ridgelines left and right upon a backdrop of blue sky.

Shari-dake from Shari Town
By 663highland, CC 表示 2.5, Link

However, this was the only time when the heavens took my side. After that, I travelled by bus along the four shores of Lake Mashu (摩周湖) anticipating — even more than the rumored mystical color of the lake — the sight of Shari-dake, which ought to have been standing grandly in the background. Sadly, all was enveloped in a blanket of mist, and both lake and cloud were concealed in brilliant white. The next time, several days after that, I passed along a primordial roadway from Nemuro-shibetsu (根室標津) toward Shari Town (斜里町) on a bus with few passengers. Since this road followed along the eastern foot of Shari-dake I had been hoping to enjoy gazing up at her figure from there, but alas the ride ended with me having only for an instant caught a glimpse of a portion of that gently smooth ridgeline through the dull weather.

I wasn’t even able to get a view from Shari Town to the north. In vain I unfolded my 1:50,000 scale map and looked at the coarse but symmetrical contour lines fanning out to the north of Shari-dake like the tail of a peacock, but I was only able to imagine the scale of this mountain’s hem.

As can be surmised even from a map, Shari-dake is a mountain that spreads its roots out on a grand scale. One could even recognize that from the fact that the indigenous Ainu people simply called it Onnepuri (meaning “big mountain”), revering it as though it were a god. In the Ainu language, onne means “big” and nepuri means “mountain,” so it seems likely that the name Onnepuri came about by shortening and combining the two.

As seems to be the case with most of Hokkaido’s mountains, Shari-dake’s mountain climbing history is fairly recent. Until May of Shôwa 2 (1927) this beautiful pyramid mountain had no one but local people who tried to climb it; it was only then that a party first ascended the mountain on skis, starting from Mitsui Farm (三井農場) at the mountain’s northwest foot. At that time they just approached the summit before turning back, but in March of the next year a group attempting ski-climbing from Koshikawa Waystation (越川駅逓) on the northeast foot finally arrived at the top. That same year the first summer climb was accomplished as well.

Shari viewed from Kiyosato Town 
By Highten31投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

After that, a hiking trail was opened from Kiyosato Town Station (清里町駅) on the Senmô Line (釧網線), a shrine was consecrated at the summit, and local people began to climb in great numbers. A large guide map stands in front of Kiyosato Town Station on which are recorded the names of the prominent boulders and waterfalls along the trail.

Perhaps because Japanese people can’t feel at ease if they don’t place a shine at the top of a venerated mountain, a shrine was established on Shari-dake in Shôwa 10 (1935) at which are worshipped the two gods Ôyama-tsumi Taishin (大山津見大神) and Ame-no-Mikumari Taishin (天之水分大神). I heard that on the occasion of the solar eclipse of Shôwa 16 (1941) they built a torii gate at a shrine in Shirakabe dedicated to Dr. Nishina Masao, who had observed cosmic rays from the mountain. In Shôwa 34 (1959) the shinmei-zukuri style shrine was reconstructed. Even though they call it a shrine, it’s a little thing of about a meter in height. In any case, it’s a fact that Shari-dake has been raised to the status of a famous mountain in this area. Personally, I would rather just revive the beautiful name Onnepuri.

In order to climb Shari-dake, we three (my wife, my fifth-grade second son, and myself) went straight to Kushiro (釧路) from Hakodate (函館), and the next day went up the Senmô Line accompanied by Mr. Sato and Mr. Yokohama of the Kushiro Mountain Society (釧路山岳会). Mr. Kaburagi (鏑木) of Waseda University, with whom we had become acquainted in Kunashiro, also came along. On the afternoon that our party of six disembarked at Kiyosato Village Station, the sky cleared brilliantly and we there recorded our first sight of the beautiful figure of our sought-after mountain, standing there like a traveler. When we moved our eyes to the left away from Shari-dake — though we were not yet tired of looking — we were able to see the smooth summit of Unabetsu-dake (海別岳), and even further to the left we saw Shiretoko’s (知床) Rausu-dake (羅臼岳) in the distance.

That day we stayed at Kiyodake Lodge (清岳荘) near Fifth Station (approx. 600 m), a mountain hut the Forest Service had built the year before last (1957). The two fellows from the Kunashiro Mountain Association were carrying rucksacks so large that they rose higher than their shoulders, and yet within them all they had prepared — other than the meals and snacks for the family and I that is — was nothing more than sleeping bags and beer.

The next day we went up an old road, one which passes back and forth across the upper reaches of the Chesaku Etonbi River (meaning, they say, “the river with no fish”). Along the way there were a number of waterfalls, the most beautiful of which was Nanae-no-Taki (Sevenfold Falls, 七重ノ滝); we followed along edge of her seven flowing pools.

The summit of Shari-dake from Kumami Pass
By Highten31投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

We stood at the summit but were greeted with nothing but mist. We waited an hour in a shabby hut nearby hoping that the heavens to improve their mood a bit, but in the end it was to no avail. On the way back we took the new ridge road. We walked amid mist that from time to time cleared only to close once again, but in the end our mountain climbing addiction was fully satisfied by the beautiful highland scenery along that ridge road covered in azaleas and creeping pines.

Translation © Brian Heise, 2018
All photos belong to Wikicommons

Fukuda’s Rausu-dake (100 Famous Mountains #2)


The opening words of Fukuda’s essay on Rausu-dake provide good example of how dated the information in his book has become, speaking as he does of the Japanese loss of the Kuril Islands to Russia at the end of World War II as though it only happened recently. I even wonder whether or not many if any Japanese of my age even remember that those islands were once a possession of their country. As you read, keep in mind that more than sixty years have passed since it’s publication, and instead allow yourself to be immersed in a time now passed.

Rausu-dake (2)

When we lost the Kuril Islands Japan’s northeastern tip became Shiretoko (知床). Stretching out lengthily towards the Okhotsk Sea, this peninsula still leaves behind dreams for people who yearn for desolate hinterlands. Raising Rausu-dake (羅臼岳) as Shiretoko’s representative mountain is most certainly not unreasonable.

The Shiretoko Peninsula is a long and narrow protrusion of a mountain range with practically no level ground — the mountains press up to the edge of the sea. When you count its chief peaks from the direction of the peninsula’s base, you have Unabetsu-dake (海別岳), Onnebetsu-dake (遠音別岳), Rausu-dake, Iô-yama (Sulfur Mountain, 硫黄山), and Shiretoko-dake (知床岳), with Rausu-dake being the tallest. The entire range is volcanic, but they’re nearly all dead volcanoes — the only one currently active is Iô-yama.

The point when Shiretoko’s mountains started becoming a target for mountain climbing was not that long ago: even in Hokkado, these remote mountains were left behind until the very last. They were first climbed by the mountain-loving students of Hokkaido University; the fact that many of those ascents occurred during the snowy season was probably because winter was even better for walking the mountain than summer. This is because the mountain range is covered with vast numbers of creeping pines. When you try to approach any of the mountains, excepting Unabetsu-dake or Rausu-dake, you must prepare yourself for a hard fight with them.

Rausu-dake from Iwaobetsu
By 663highland, CC 表示 2.5, Link

The reason why Rausu-dake is also called Shiretoko Fuji is probably because from Rausu Village (羅臼村) it looks like a well-shaped cone peak towering right before your eyes. The mountain must be an imposing sight: from the village, located as it is on the sea’s edge, you look up to its 1661 meter summit from a distance of only eight kilometers. I say “must be” because though I stayed four nights in a village inn waiting for the weather to clear in order to climb Rausu-dake, in the end I never got the chance to look up at it — I’ve only guessed from photographs.

Rausu Village, the Shiretoko Peninsula’s sole city, has a movie theater, some permanent shops, and some bars along its one main road. The bars are apparently for the seasonal workers who gather here in the fishing season. A place lying outside the village has been made into a port, with crows swarming indiscriminately. Kunashir Island, which has now become Soviet territory, stretches out in the sea directly ahead.

I heard that in the Ainu language rausu means “a place where there are entrails and bones because the remains deer and bears that were caught were always interred there.” “Ra” apparently means “animal entrails” and “ushi” means “a place with many.” It would thus be proper to call it Raushi, and even on the old maps it is written with characters that read that way (良牛).

In the village there’s a temple called Jôtaiji (誠諦寺) whose chief priest Master Nishii Jôtai (西井誠諦師) put in much effort to develop Rausu-dake. It was also his efforts that led to the opening of the hiking trail from the village, which was completed in the year Shôwa 29 (1954).

Until then, those who set their hearts on Rausu-dake climbed from Utoro (宇登呂) on the north shore of the peninsula, passing through Iwaobetsu (岩尾別) on the way. If you follow the Iwaubetsu River from Iwaobetsu, you’ll find a hot spring; that place had become a good foothold mountain climbing in those days. Since Iwaobetsu is the closest to the summit in terms of distance, it’s probably why this was the first way to be opened.

Kinoshita Hut near Iwaobetsu Hot Spring 
By E-190E-190‘s file, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

I climbed from Rausu. If you follow along the Rausu River from the village for about an hour you’ll find a hot spring. There was a municipal inn built there, but their facilities included neither food nor bedding. From there you take to the mountain. Winding along the spine of a ridge covered in a coniferous forest, you eventually descend towards a valley turned yellow on one side by sulfur, and from there you ascend a steep slope following the base of the great, long rock wall they call Byôbu-iwa (Folding Screen Rock, 屏風岩), upon which you arrive at the great slope called Rausu-daira (Rausu Plain, ラウス平).

One side of Rausu-daira is a mattress of creeping pines, a rich expanse both carefree and beautiful. In season it becomes a field of flowers. Three Peaks (Mitsu-Mine, 三ツ峰) stands facing this plain; if you go further north beyond that, you’ll find a new trail has been opened in recent years that passes through Sashirui and Okkabake up to the active volcano Iô-yama. I hear that the cliffs forming the outer ring around that mountain make for a fierce spectacle.

Shiretoko’s Five Lakes and Rausu-dake
By 663highland, CC 表示 2.5, Link

I did stand at the summit of Rausu-dake, but it was wrapped in mist so nothing was visible. I only heard the fierce sound of the wind blowing up from the Okhotsk side.

Consequently, we shall judge that expanse based on an article written by the Rausu-dake Association (Rausu-dake Kai, 羅臼岳会). First, when you gaze east Kunashir Island floats below your feet, and beyond that the Pacific Ocean stretches outward; far off, you can see the Kurile Archipelago. When you look south there is No Name Lake (Mumei-ko, 無名湖; there are also people who call it Rausu Lake) reaching 5 kilometers in circumference nearby the watershed of the Chinishi-betsu River’s (知西別川) upper reaches; scattered around there are seven marshes of varying sizes. I’ve read that since the lake is obstructed by a jungle of creeping pines and Veitch’s bamboo, up until now very few people have reached that far. If you look west Utoro Harbor lies below, and beyond that is the wide expanse of the Okhotsk Sea. To the north, as I’ve already mentioned, the Sekiryô Range (脊梁山脈) stretches out from Mitsu-Mine towards Iô-yama.

Rausu-dake remains deep in my memory as a mountain at the furthest extremity of the country, and as a mountain wearing a northern look. Since a magnificent travel lodge has been built at Rausu Hot Spring in recent years, it seems that even here the number hikers has drastically increased.

Rausu-dake from Shiretoko Pass
By Captain76 – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

© Brian N. Heise
All photos belong to Wikicommons

Fukuda’s Rishiri-dake (100 Famous Mountains #1)


The following is a translation of Fukuda Kyûya’s essay on Rishiri Peak, the first from his renowned book Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains (日本百名山). The book, and this essay with it, was first published some 60 years ago, so as an actual hiking guide, the work is a bit dated. Moreover, more up-to-date information is already easily available in English on numerous websites written specifically for a foreign audience, whereas Fukuda was clearly writing with the interest of Japanese people in mind. Why then, should I translate this work? I have a few reasons.

First is Fukuda’s interest in the history of these mountains and his access to old and even ancient documents to illuminate that history. This goes beyond simply the premodern history of mountain pilgrimages and old military expeditions, but also extends to the more recent history of Japanese mountaineering itself, which only became a distinct practice separate from religious pilgrimages in the last 150 years or so. Fukuda, who was writing as a member of perhaps the second generation of Japanese alpinists, has unique and fascinating insights into the development of this activity in Japan, and those insights seep into his essays to illuminate a realm of Japanese history hitherto unmentioned in both within Japan and without.

Beyond that, Fukuda’s essay invariably includes accounts of his own experiences climbing these mountains. Through the words he chose to express his own feelings and emotions about these places, one can firmly comprehend one fact: this man loved these mountains. When I read his words, I myself feel in him a kindred spirit, another person who feels the same passion when standing atop a peak and seeing the broad sweep of shadowy valleys beneath the patchwork of clouds dotting an endless blue sky. When I read his words, I sense that so many others would feel the same welling of emotion that I do when I read them. I want to transcend that language barrier and give those who don’t read Japanese the chance experience this directly.

With that in mind, I hope you enjoy this, the first essay in Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains.

1: Rishiri-dake (利尻岳)

The beautifully fierce twilight figure of Rishiri-dake (利尻岳) viewed from Rebun Island (礼文島) is a thing I cannot forget. She was standing there with a sea separating us. She was standing there not with that harmonious shape which they call “Rishiri Fuji,” but with a towering figure of sharp stone. In the evening light that stone was dyed with gold.

Rishiri-dake from Noshappu Cape
By 夢の散歩 – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

Such a mountain as this — where a whole island is formed of a single peak, and moreover possessing a height of 1,700 meters — is not to be found anywhere in Japan outside of Rishiri-dake. Of course the whole island of Yaku-shima (屋久島) in the sea south of Kyushu is a mountain, and it even has an altitude of nearly 2,000 meters. But, since it’s numerous ridges stand grouped together such that they’re called “Eightfold Peak” (Yae-dake, 八重岳), the whole island does not pull tight to a single summit facing the heavens as Rishiri-dake does. The only such spectacular island on the sea is Rishiri-dake.

I find it terribly regrettable that that this magnificent mountain doesn’t appear in in either of our country’s classic mountaineering books, Shiga Shigetaka’s A Treatise on Japanese Landscapes (志賀重昂の『日本風景論』1894) and Taka Tôshoku’s An Atlas of Japanese Mountains (高頭式の『日本山岳志』1906), but this is likely because the mountain became known to the world relatively late.

The first Rishiri-dake travelogue to meet my eyes was that of Makino Tomitarô (牧野富太郎), which was published in the journal “Mountaineering” volume 1 issue 2 (『山岳』第一年二号). In August of Meiji 26 (1903) this botanist and his party made their ascent from Oshidomari (鴛泊). Following a road that was hardly a road at all, they spent two nights on the mountain. Given that there was a small wooden shrine at the summit, it appears that the locals had already been climbing the mountain. In accordance with the fact that so many plant names appear in the travelogue, Rishiri-dake is indeed the richest place in northern Japan for plant diversity; I’ve heard that the number of species alone that bear the name of the mountain reaches at least eighteen.

A cone-shaped island formed by an eruption, the centrally towering Rishiri-dake draws its hems down to the ocean in all four directions. Accordingly, the only place where people live is at the sea’s edge, and the bus that makes a round of the island connects all the towns and villages. It’s a matter of course that from wherever you look in the four principal towns of Kutsugata (沓形), Oshidomari (鴛泊), Oniwaki (鬼脇), and Senpôshi (仙法志), Rishiri is plainly visible. On the whole it’s a Fuji-shaped mountain, but depending on the direction that you look from, its appearance changes somewhat. Its form viewed from New Moon Marsh (三日月沼), located between Oniwaki and Senpôshi, is the most extreme: a sharp triangular pyramid rising up as though to pierce the sky.

Rishiri-dake from Otatomari Marsh.
By E-190E-190‘s file, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link)

As might be expected from a mountain on the sea isolated from the Hokkaido mainland, there are neither snakes nor vipers here. There aren’t even any of the bears that are part and parcel of Hokkaido mountains. Once when there was a forest fire in Teshio (天塩) on the opposing shore, the bears fleeing danger swam across to this island and took up residence for a time, but it seems at some point they disappeared. I suppose they probably swam back to their former home.

There are trails leading to the summit from Oshidomari, Oniwaki, and Kutsugata. The oldest one is the Oshidomari Trail, which Makino Tomitarô and company climbed; even today it’s the most widely used since the path is long and easy. The Omiwaki Trail on the opposite side is shorter in distance and full of variation, but one must risk the danger of following along a narrow rock ridge near the summit.

We climbed from Kutsugata. This trail is the newest and also the longest. Once you climb the gently sloping fields at the mountain’s foot and cross over the tree line, the view gets nice. The white waves breaking onto the seashore below look just as though they’re fringed with lace, with the long and narrow Rebun Island floating at their tips. The area was already an alpine zone blanketed in creeping pines stitched to the wayside by the red fruits of bunchberry.

Since it was after a big storm had died down, the atmosphere was clear, but a strong wind roared incessantly. In spite of the fact that the route below was sunny and clear, the clouds hanging over the summit would not disappear even for a moment. Because these clouds well up endlessly as the ocean’s air currents strike against the peak, there is nothing to do but to resign oneself to them.

Because the starting point is at zero meters above sea level, our leisurely climb to the misty summit more than 1700 meters high took about eight hours. The wind was so strong that we couldn’t stand still, but that strong wind occasionally drove away the mist, giving us a spectacular view right before our eyes: the giant rock pillar called Candle Rock (Rôsoku Iwa, ローソク岩), standing straight up like a tusk sprouting out of the ground. It looked all the more magnificent appearing and disappearing as it did amid the flowing mist.

For our return route we had planned to go down toward Oniwaki, but since the narrow rock ridge was dangerous in that strong wind, we decided to take the Oshidomari Trail. On that descent the trail was easy but also really long. When we entered the town of Oshidomari it had already gotten dark.

In the afternoon of the next day, we parted from Rishiri Island. The autumn sky was beautifully clear. As the boat heading toward Wakkanai (稚内) gained distance from the island, it became not an island but simply a mountain. It was a mountain floating grandly on the sea. It was a beautiful mountain calmly hoisting ridgelines left and right. Rishiri Island was in that moment Rishiri Peak. The island became more and more distant, and the land of Wakkanai came closer. Before long, even the mountain vanished. The last vestiges of Rishiri Peak were white clouds, welling up in the shape of a mountain on the surface of the ocean.

Rishiri Island
By Wikicommonsjoker投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

© Brian Heise 2018

Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains: Intro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 2017 Brian Heise