Off the Beaten Path, Japan #5

Blue Fuji

From the top of Mt. Otake in western Tokyo, Fuji rises blue in the early morning light.

Golden Week 2018 Part IV: Senjo 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.


Dawn Light

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.

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Moon over the ridge

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Mt. Fuji in the early hours

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.

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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.

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Kobushi-ga-Take

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Akegata Fuji

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Tianyu photographs Fuji

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 from Black Gold Mountain

We set out before six.

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The bags are packed.

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Descent from Black Gold Mountain

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Through the trees.

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.

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A saddle of mountain grass

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A saddle and Fuji

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Crossing the grass.

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Fuji

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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.

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Under a fallen tree

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A massive mushroom


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 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.

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© Brian Heise, 2018

Winter 2017 Hiking VII: The Great Release

This post is part 7 of a 7-part series on my winter hiking trip in Chichi-Tama-Kai National Park in Japan. If this is your first time here, I recommend starting at the beginning.

The Way to Ôdarumi

Following the footsteps of my silent companion through the trees to the North side of Kokushi-ga-Take, I was blessed with sweeping views of Nagano (Longfield) Prefecture.

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Nagano I

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Nagano II

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My Silent Companion

From there the trail descended steeply down towards the Ôdarumi Pass (“Great Release Pass,” 大弛峠), but to my delight the passage was made relatively easy due to the network of wooden stairs and platforms built all along this section. I made good time.

Along the way down, I passed a sign indicating the way to a place called “Garden of Dreams” (夢の庭園) down a spur trail. My companion hadn’t gone that way and I was in no mood to blaze trail through virgin snow, so I didn’t go, but the description from the sign made the place seem worthy of investigation. It read as follows:

Garden of Dreams
This garden, where nature has masterfully arranged boulders and shrubs upon the mat of alpine vegetation, was discovered in the year Shôwa 35 (1960) by Mr. Yamamoto Asatada, who was working as a superintendent for a mountain hut at the time. He introduced it to the world as the “Garden of Dreams.”

It sounded like a really nice spot; I’ve made a mental note to go back there some day when I have the time.

As I descended further, the view of the ridgeline leading onwards to Mt. Kinpu appeared, giving me a more tangible idea of what I would have to go to reach my next goal.

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Stairs on the descent from Kokushi.

Consulting my map, I determined that the next highest peak visible from where I was, which I had hoped might be Kinpu, was probably Asahi-dake (Morning Sun Peak, 朝日岳), which is pictured below. The peak itself looked rather unimpressive that is, rather indistinguishable from any typical Japanese mountain, but what really caught my eye was a series of rock formations on the right side of the ridge. You can see them in the picture below; try clicking the picture expand it for a better look.

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The Hut in Ôdarumi Pass

At long last I arrived at the hut. It was a fairly small building, not in the best condition but far from the worst that I’d seen. The front door was blocked with plywood held in place my just a wire wrapped around nails pounded into the frame on either side of the door. Unmindful of a certain children’s story warning about wandering into houses in the forest that don’t belong to you, I unraveled the wire, removed the boards, and went inside.

The building was divided into two sections: a small room with several tables and a closed down food counter, and a sleeping room with a small woodstove. The most welcome thing, though, was that the water source was there as advertised: a small spring coming out from a springhouse at the back of the building, accessible through a door at the back of the sleeping chamber. I was able to fill my bottles, though with some difficulty as there was no pool of water but just a shallow stream flowing directly out of the rocks. I drank my fill, then went back into the sleeping room, pulled out my alcohol stove, and cooked my last pack of ramen. The hot broth was certainly welcome after the last day or so of lonely cold.

Now came the decision: what to do. I followed my companions footprints down to the road and saw quickly that, rather than continuing down the ridge they went straight down the road to Nagano without even a pause. That decided me: I would not be continuing on to Kinpu. As much trouble as I’d had so far walking on trail already marked by my companion’s footprints, I wasn’t in any mood to expend the effort on traipsing through virgin snow, let alone having to discern the trail on my own.

 

Considerations

Thinking about failing to reach a second famous mountain on this trip wasn’t as disappointing as I might have thought had I considered this proposition at the outset. I was, after all, more than satisfied with the beautiful views that I’d seen so far and I was about tired of the cold as well. What was mostly on my mind was what to do next. My first thought was to just stay in the hut for the night, making good use of that woodstove and the ample pile of firewood outside, and then head down in the morning. I walked back up to the hut and sat down at one of the tables in the dining area.

I didn’t sit their long before I became intensely aware of how cold it was in there, and I also began to think about how long I had to wait here until I’d be leaving in the morning. Checking the clock, I saw that it was 1:00 p.m. That meant a good 16 hours departing, half of which I’d be awake and in need of entertainment. It was, however, far too cold to take out my book without building up a good fire first, but I didn’t want to waste too much of the wood that the hut superintendent had prepared and left. I felt as though I should save it just for the evening when it got dark. But, though I had more than enough podcasts to last me on my phone, I couldn’t afford to waste the battery since I needed it for photos. It seemed like it would be an incredibly boring time.

Suddenly, I had a thought. I went down to the road, which offered a clear view both down into Nagano and back in Yamanashi, which suggested that I might be able to get signal. I booted up my wifi hotspot and sure enough, I had one, so I googled the bus timetable for the line at the bottom on the Nagano side and saw that the last bus would be leaving at 5:30, leaving about 4 1/2 hours to get there. Given that I’d be walking leisurely down a paved road, I figured I could easily make that bus with hours to spare. So now I had two options: stay here for the night, or go down.

With thoughts of a hot bath in mind, I decided to go down.

 

Deep Snow on the North Face

Apparently, I made a serious miscalculation. My expectation was that I would have a nice, easy, leisurely walk from Ôdarumi Pass down to the bus stop below in the small village of Riverside Bottom (川端下, Kawahake). After all, I’d be walking on a road, right? What I didn’t consider, though, was the fact that the ridge at this point ran exactly east to west, meaning that my path down was due north and therefore receives next to no sunshine this time of year.

What’s the problem with that? No sunlight means lower temperatures than other parts of the mountain; lower temperatures means snow melts less, or not at all; this means that the snow on this particular part of the mountain was the deepest I’d experienced yet. We’re talking knee deep or more in the worst spots. As it turned out, my leisurely walk down the mountain turned into a more than 4-hour trudge.

I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say that it was every bit as difficult as my ascent to the false peak ahead of Kokushi earlier in the day, and this time I was pushed on by the urgency of needing to catch that last bus. Luckily, the lower I went the more the snow receded until eventually the road was completely clear.

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Frozen over.

 

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A Nagano forest.

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The last leg.

As I connected with the main road, I ran into an older Japanese man and his apparently 20-something year old son, both decked out in hardcore winter hiking gear and gigantic packs. I must have looked pretty odd and maybe even foolish to them wearing just my jeans and Uniqlo heat-tech windbreaker, but my gear had served me well.

By the time we finally reached the bus stop, it was just minutes to departure, but we made it. From there we rode down to the nearest train station, a really Podunk little spot with nothing more than a parking lot and vending machine. From there it was a good three hours back home, but when I arrived I had a hot meal and bath waiting for me. I guess that makes me a lucky guy.


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.

Like this post? Want to make sure I can keep on providing you with beautiful mountain pictures and hiking stories? Consider supporting this blog on Patreon or sending me a donation direct to Paypal using bnheise@gmail.com. Even if you can’t support, please like, subscribe, and share!

© 2018 Brian Heise

Winter 2017 Hiking VI: The Country Master

A Rough Path to the Country Master

I was starting to get frustrated. Not long after breaking camp on the morning of the third day of my winter trip the trail had turned steep. Really steep. And, true to Japanese trails, it was going straight up the side of the mountain without a single switchback. But that wasn’t the problem I’m used to that kind of thing by now. What made this so bad was the snow. Hiking up such a slope would be difficult in normal conditions, but the slippery layer of snow on top of it caused me to slide back down the mountain with each step, reducing my forward distance to only a few centimeters per step, which had the effect of more or less tripling the effort required to ascend the slope. Even with my spikes on, I wasn’t getting enough traction to prevent this. At times I even had to crawl on my hands and knees.

It was one of those times where hiking wasn’t exactly enjoyable. On top of the fact that I was exhausting myself ascending the steep, snowy slope, the intense cold meant stopping to rest didn’t really give me any respite: as soon as I stopped moving I started to cool off fast, forcing me to press on again, and when I did stop to rest, I was forced to stand because everything was covered in snow so there was no place to sit that wouldn’t leave me with a soaking wet rear end. It was even hard to take pictures since I was using a smartphone and had to take off my gloves to get a shot. Throw on top of all that the fact that the water that I’d meticulously unfrozen by the fire the night before (a challenging task considering the water was stored in plastic, so I couldn’t let it get too hot) had already frozen solid yet again, leaving me with no drinking water.

At this point, I was about ready to walk my ass right back down off the mountain once I made it to Ôdarumi Pass on the far side of Kokushi-ga-Take. And it looked like it would be a breeze to get back down from there: according to my maps, a mountain road passed through there and it looked like it might be paved. After all this, a leisurely walk down paved forest road sounded rather welcome in comparison to trudging onward through the snowy trail, even if it did prevent me from getting another of Fukuda’s famous mountains added to my list.

On the bright side, given terrain, I felt like I had to be the final ascent to Kokushi, so I couldn’t be that far off from Ôdarumi either. And aside from the road awaiting me there, there also promised to be a mountain hut and a water source.

At last, exhausted, I reached the top and was greeted by a stunning view of Fuji.

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Fuji after a tough climb.

I was unfortunately not as pleased with the sight as you might expect. Upon reaching the top, I quickly noticed that there was no marker signaling this as the top of Kokushi, and further, it was plainly evident from the view ahead that there was still quite a lot more ascent to go and that only after descending down into another saddle. I rested as long as I could before I got too cold, then pressed on.

It’s hard to keep track of time when you’re out on the trail alone; it’s doubly hard when it’s too cold to take out your phone and check. I haven’t a clue how long it took for me to finally come out on top of Kokushi, just that the moment when I finally hit level ground at the top was a great relief. What made it all the better was the fact that the spot was rocky and also directly exposed to the sun, meaning that the snow had mostly melted, leaving me with a decent place to sit and rest.

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“Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park ‒ Kokushi-ga-Take ‒ Altitude 2592 meters ‒ Yamanashi Prefecture”

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Mt. Fuji from the summit of Kokushi-ga-Take

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The high mountains of Nagano Prefecture loom in the distance.

 

Translating the Name

Though I’m not as well versed in Japanese mountain lore as Fukuda, I noticed straightaway a bit of history contained in the name Kokushi-ga-Take, so I sought to translate it to make that a little more apparent to my readers, but getting the right nuance proved difficult. The last part, ga-Take (ヶ岳), was easy enough: it just means “The Peak of.” The rub was the first part, Kokushi (国師). As you’ve read so far, I’ve translated it, perhaps overly literally, as Country Master, but the nuances that these words bring to mind mislead one from the meaning that the Japanese word is meant to convey. To begin with, the word “country” in the context of my rendering of the name suggests the idea of the countryside, the antonym of urban and synonym of rural. However, the character koku (国) refers exclusively to country in the sense of a large swath of land, as in the example, “Russia is a vast country.” The second part, “master,” also is a bit misleading as the character shi (師) does not refer to one who controls something, like the master of a house or an estate, but in the sense of a person who has mastered a form of learning or a skill. Thus, though we can literally translate the name as country master, the implication of the words in English is entirely different from the connotations of the Japanese.

What, then, is a kokushi, a country master? As one might guess, it has a deep historical meaning going back well over a century, though today the word is probably not well known to the average person. The word, as it turns out, is actually a political title under the ritsuryo legal system, which was implemented in its earliest form in 645 C.E as an imitation of Chinese style legal systems based on Confucianism and Legalism. Initially, Kokushi was a title given to a Buddhist monk and denoted a person who was dispatched to various locales, or koku, by the imperial court in order to supervise their temples and clergy members as well as to explicate the sutras. Later, kokushi would come to refer to a high monk whose duty was to explain Buddha’s law to the emperor. In this way, then, we can understand kokushi as referring at first to a master (i.e. teacher) sent to the country and perhaps later as a master who came from the country. How the title came to be attached to this mountain, though, I can only guess.

 

Onward to Ôdarumi Pass

With level ground finally at hand moving became easy in spite of the deep snow. Or at least it was so much easier compared to the path behind me that it felt that way. I hurried along, glad to finally be within reach of the hut in Ôdarumi Pass. As I tend to do whenever the going gets easier, I began to think again about continuing rather than giving up. After all, I was eager to reach Kinpu and add another one of the 100 Famous Mountains to the list of those I’ve climbed. However, at the same time I had to acknowledge the snow. According to the map, it would be quite a few hours more to reach the next hut after the one in Ôdarumi and I definitely wanted to make sure I stayed in one tonight. The distance wouldn’t be a problem under normal conditions seeing as it was just pushing noon now, but the snow would undoubtedly slow me down.

In the end, I resolved to let my silent companion make the decision for me: if she went on, then I would too; if her steps led me off the mountain, then that way I would go. In a way, it was kind of a cop out since I was basically just putting the decision someone else’s shoulders. Luckily, my companion didn’t mind.

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A rock.

 


This post is part 6 of a 7-part series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series for more photos and stories from the trail.

Like this post? Want to make sure I can keep on providing you with beautiful mountain pictures and hiking stories? Consider supporting this blog on Patreon or sending me a donation direct to Paypal using bnheise@gmail.com. Even if you can’t support, please like, subscribe, and share!

© 2018 Brian Heise

 

2017 Winter Hiking Part IV: The Parting at the Peak of the Fist

On Surviving Solo Hikes

Before you go on a solo hike, it’s critical to make sure you have a detailed itinerary and that you give it to someone close to you before you leave: if something goes wrong and you end up stuck out there, you want someone to send help, and you want them to be able narrow down the area where you might be as much as possible.

This point was driven home to me pretty hard on the last day of my summer hike, when I finally got wifi and received a text message from Ivy asking whether I was alright after the typhoon passed over three days before. The thing that hit me rather suddenly was the date stamp — she had sent it the morning after the typhoon and hadn’t sent another since. Clearly she assumed I was fine and that I just couldn’t get signal up in the mountains and indeed, her assumption was 100% correct. But in that moment I asked myself the question, what if I hadn’t been alright? What if I got into trouble on that first night on Moss Peak? What if I’d been stuck up there all that time before Ivy finally realized she needed to send help? This was followed by an even more chilling thought: I hadn’t even told Ivy where I was going. It was such a basic error, but it could have cost me my life.

Now, back in the same mountain range in December of the same year, I made efforts to rectify this situation, providing Ivy with a detailed day-by-day plan indicating where I would be on each day. On top of that, I instructed Tianyu to contact her when he got home on the second night to let her know I was fine when he last saw me. If she didn’t receive that message, she could assume that we were both in trouble and that were somewhere between the Karisaka Trailhead and Kobushi Peak, narrowing the search area to less than half. On the other side, if she did get Tianyu’s message but I didn’t send her a message some time in the afternoon of the last day, then yet again she’d still have a narrower area where I might be. It was a good plan.

Except for one problem: we were about half a day behind schedule and on the first day I had had to change the last day of the hike to end at a completely different destination — heck, in a completely different prefecture — on account of the fact that the bus route that I wanted to take down was closed for the winter season. This, I gradually realized over the course of the first day and a half, put me in a potentially more dangerous situation than the one I was trying to avoid: if something were to happen on the last day, the rescue parties would end up searching in the wrong place, meanwhile assuming that I definitely wouldn’t be in the place I actually was. I was in an incredibly dangerous situation.

Leaning against a rock on the slopes of Tokusa Mountain (木賊山, “Horsetail Mountain”) and taking in the view, I waited for Tianyu to catch up so I could explain this to him.

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The view from the slopes of Tokusa

“Make sure you tell Ivy my new plan when you get home tonight, alright?”

“No problem,” he replied.

I felt somewhat more secure, but of course whether I actually was or not was dependent on whether or not Ivy got the message, a fact that I wouldn’t be able to verify until I got down off the ridge.

 

The Race to Kobushi Continues

It was about 10:00 a.m. earlier that morning, the second day of our trip, when Tianyu and I left Sasadaira Shelter (笹平避難小屋) with a bare two hours to reach Kobushi-ga-Take and still have enough time for Tianyu to get back down to catch the last bus. I, on the other hand, would be continuing along the ridge alone, higher and higher into colder, snowier territory, all the while hoping that my last liter or so of water would last me until I reached Ôdarumi Pass (大弛峠) sometime tomorrow.

If one were to simply consider the distance, we actually weren’t all that far — a mere 2.4 kilometers. Such a small distance is deceptively simple, especially for those like me who are used to terrain like the Ozarks in southeast Missouri. Back there, 2.4 kilometers over two hours would be a piece of cake in those low, rolling hills. Make no mistake though: the mountains of Japan are completely different, rife as they are with abrupt changes in elevation sometimes spanning well over of meters of elevation change over a single kilometer of trail. This was one of those locations: over that short distance we needed to ascend a full 400 meters, or 166 meters per kilometer. For the uninitiated let me just say that that’s means a crazy steep slope.

Ordinarily on such slopes I’m pretty content to take my time and not rush since I hike more for the view and the psychological benefit than I do for the exercise. Unfortunately we were in no position to take it easy, so we rushed upwards as fast as we could, which, mind you, with our heavy packs wasn’t all that fast, but it was incredibly strenuous. I personally was breathing heavily and felt hot enough to not even notice that the temperature was well below freezing. Tianyu, despite the fact that this was his first winter hike and his first over nighter to boot (including his first time hiking with such a heavy bag), didn’t offer a single word of complaint, though the expression on his face told me pretty clearly that he was suffering.

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Where we came from: Mt. Hafu in the distance

As can be seen from the photo above, we crossed a decent sized patch of rock and sand on the ascent, but eventually the trail passed into forest again and, thankfully, leveled out. Eventually we came to a fork in the trail, with one side heading up to the summit of Tokusa Mountain and the other remaining level as it curved around the north side of the mountain, a more direct shot to Kobushi. Given our time contraints, we followed the latter path.

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A last shot of Fuji before entering the trees.

The snow was noticeably deeper here, not at all surprising given that the sun probably never shines here in the winter. In no time, we arrived at Kobushi Hut, which sits just below the final ascent to the top. I checked the taps, hoping that I might be able to get some water (recall that I only had a little over a liter to last me until sometime tomorrow), but everything was locked down tight for the winter and were likely completely drained anyway on account of the cold — no doubt if any water was left in them, they’d be frozen solid.

The hut was right along the main path — the most direct — from Nishizawa to Kobushi, and accordingly we started to see other hikers passing by on their way up and back down. I felt somewhat relieved seeing them, thinking that Tianyu might be able to bum a ride if he couldn’t catch the last bus. After a rest that was probably longer than we could afford, we ascended the last 100 or so meters.

 

A Parting on the Peak

When Fukuda wrote of the top of Kobushi, he said that the place had little to recommend it outside of the name, but though I wouldn’t go so far as to say the view was spectacular, it was still nice, with a sweeping view encompassing Fuji to the south and Nagano to the north, plus an excellent look at the ridge ahead of me extending off westward. Off in the distance, I saw what I hoped was Mt. Kinpu, the next famous peak on my itinerary for the trip.

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Fuji from Kobushi, just below the summit.

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Nagano

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Is that Kinpu in the distance? I hoped so.

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Nagano directly ahead, my route is on the left.

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A last shot of Fuji.

It seemed rather anticlimactic to walk so far, to endure such cold and physical exertion, to spend such a short amount of time on top. But, after what seemed like only five minutes, Tianyu had to leave. We said our goodbyes, shook hands, and departed, he back towards Tokusa Mountain and Nishizawa below, and I ahead towards Kinpu, alone. Or so I thought. It wouldn’t be long before I was joined by a new companion, one that would accompany me in silence for the rest of the trip.


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.

Like this post? Want to make sure I can keep on providing you with beautiful mountain pictures and hiking stories? Consider supporting this blog on Patreon or sending me a donation direct to Paypal using bnheise@gmail.com. Even if you can’t support, please like, subscribe, and share!

100 Famous Mountains: Mt. Fuji Part 1 of 2

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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Fuji at sunrise

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

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Fuji from the trail to Three Passes (三つ峠

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The view from 5th station

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Up the mountain from 5th station

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

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

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

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

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A volcanic formation.

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Middlemount Lake (山中湖)

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A strange cloud.

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Whispy clouds blow past a mountain hut.

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

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The infinity shadow.

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

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

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

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

Wakaranai,” I said.

“Full,” he replied in English.

Full? Oh shit.

The sun continued to set.

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Sunset at 8th Station.


Famous mountains climbed: 0.5/100


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

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

© 2017 Brian Heise

2017 Winter Hiking III: The Race to Kobushi

The Peak of the Fist

Kobushi. When I first set out to render this name in English, I was baffled about how to go about getting it into any form that sounded elegant at all. All along the ridge I passed such places with interesting and lyrical names like “Cloud-catcher” (雲取, kumotori) and “Goose Hill” (雁坂, karisaka). But Kobushi Peak was different. Whereas these and most other place names consisted of two characters that together lent easy interpretation, Kobushi consisted of three separate characters that seemed to bare no logical relation to each other: ko (甲), meaning “armor” or “carapace”; bu (武), meaning “warrior”; and shi (信), meaning “faith,” “belief,” or “fidelity.” I struggled to make sense of these and eventually settled on “Armored Warrior’s Fidelity,” which is how I rendered it in my posts from earlier this summer. And yet, I was somehow unsatisfied with it.

It didn’t take reading more than a few entries in Fukuda’s “Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains” (日本百名山), however, to notice the man’s deep interest in toponymy, so I turned to his essay on Kobushi for reference. What I found was that the mountain got it’s name from it’s location on the border of three ancient Japanese states, Ko-shû (甲州), Bu-shû (武州), and Shin-shû (信州), and so the name is actually an acronym — literally “The Peak of Ko, Shu, and Shin.” Adding to the draw of this name, though, is the fact that this acronym actually spells out another word in Japanese, kobushi or “fist” (拳), a connection I hadn’t made before focusing as I was on the meaning of the characters rather than the sounds. I find this dual meaning fascinating because you get a completely different mental image from the name depending on whether you hear it or read it. When you see the characters etched into the wooden signs on the mountain, you immediately perceive the connection to those three ancient states. When you hear the name Kobushi-ga-Take, the meaning is quite different: “the Peak of the Fist.”

 

The Race to Kobushi

Feet like ice in boots that froze overnight, hands like ice from stripping off the heavy winter gloves for increased dexterity when breaking camp, we stood ready to set out on the second day of our trip. Although we planned to get up early and catch some sunrise photos, apparently our exhaustion from yesterday’s climb coupled with our early start kept me from waking up until around 7:00, in spite of the howling wind that was still blowing each time I stirred from my sleep enough to notice. Tianyu wasn’t so lucky, though: when I asked him how he slept he said that between the cold and the howling wind, he didn’t sleep so well. He did remark that I seemed to have slept just fine, which I thought was probably a subtle way of saying that I snored a lot.

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Morning at camp

I checked the clock: it was just after 8:00. We had less than four hours to get to the summit before Tianyu had to hurry back down to the bus, and that would still be cutting it dangerously close.

“Damn, we have to hurry! Let’s move!”

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A last shot from camp

Our campsite was in a deep saddle between Karisaka Ridge (雁坂嶺, “Goose Hill Ridge”) and Mount Hafu (破風山, “Mt. Tearing Wind”), a steep 200 meters or so below either summit point, and it wasn’t long before we were half-crawling our way up the far side. Remarking on the steepness, Tianyu noted that it’s good that we didn’t decide to try night-hiking our way to Sasadaira Shelter (笹平避難小屋) on the far side of Hafu, where we had originally planned to stay for the night.

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Mt. Fuji from the side of a boulder

Reaching the top of Hafu, we found it to not really have a true peak, but was really a long stretch of fairly constant elevation between the saddle we left and the one we were heading towards, although a slight rise at either end of it got their own designations as East Hafu Mountain (東破風山) and West Hafu Mountain (西破風山), each right around 2,300 meters of elevation. From up there we started to get some sweeping views, including, far off in the distance, the snow-capped mountains of Nagano (長野, “Longfield”). The views may have been welcome, but we were just as happy, if not more so, to be keeping to a relatively constant elevation.

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Mt. Fuji, Nishizawa Gorge, and another ridge connected to Kobushi

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Mt. Fuji and the foggy Yamanashi City

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The trail ahead, Nagano in the distance

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Back towards the Kanto and Tokyo

Just beyond West Hafu the trail, as expected, took a sharp turn downward several hundred meters to the next saddle, where Sasadaira Shelter (笹平避難所) lay. The trees on this side of the mountain were small and shrub-like, leaving the path ahead open. Below we could just barely make out the shelter, and in the distance we could see Tokusa Mountain (木賊山, “Horsetail Mountain,” named for the plant, not an actual horse’s tail) and, just beyond it, Kobushi-ga-Take.

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The descent to the shelter and Kobushi beyond.

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A wider shot of the above

If walking along the ridge that was Mt. Hafu was nice, and making the descent was nicer: even though it was quite steep, the going wasn’t so difficult, so we were able to make good time. We reached the bottom of the saddle before we knew it, and straightaway we dropped our packs.

The hut was small, but in relatively good condition with a sign outside indicating fresh water was a 20 minute walk down off the ridge. Peeking inside, we saw a dirt floored area with a small woodstove and a raised sleeping platform towards the back. There weren’t the piles of high quality firewood like we had found in the shelter that saved us from the typhoon back in the summer, but there was a small collection of deadwood that someone had left behind. It probably wouldn’t have been enough for the whole night, so I at least wasn’t too disappointed that we didn’t make it this far the previous day.

I sat down at a picnic table outside, pulled out the maps, and began to assess our progress. Time was a problem. At this point it was already past 10:30, leaving us less than an hour and a half to get to the top of Kobushi before Tianyu had to go back. I was starting to worry that he might have to give up within a stone’s throw of it. This was no particular problem for me, but I could imagine how much it would suck to get that close but not make it.

What worried me more at that moment though was the question of water. I had only set out with 4 liters and 2 was the absolute minimum I was comfortable with for a single day. After yesterday’s hike and dinner and breakfast ramen, I was getting into my second two liter bottle, and what’s more, Tianyu was almost completely out having brought only a single two-liter bottle with him, so it was looking like I was going to have to share. Given that I had another two days of hiking ahead of me and due to the cold temperatures I wasn’t completely sure I’d be able to find water that wasn’t frozen over, I felt a distinct need to hike down the hill and fill up both my bottles.

The problem, of course, was time. The sign said the water source was 20 minutes down the mountain, and coming back up would certainly take longer than that, meaning filling up would lose us the better part of an hour, guaranteeing that Tianyu wouldn’t make it to the top and possibly guaranteeing he wouldn’t make the bus either. I got out the map to check and see if there were any other water sources marked on the map.

Bad luck. The next one was Ôdarumi Pass (大弛峠), where I had originally planned to stay tonight, but I was pretty sure given our delays I couldn’t get there until sometime the next day. This left me with two options: get the water and ask Tianyu to accept that he wouldn’t even get to the top of the mountain that he came here to climb, or try to stretch my last liter or so until I could get to Ôdarumi. I laid this out for Tianyu, telling him that if we went on, I wouldn’t be able to give him any more water — he’d have to go thirsty until he could get back down later this afternoon.

He agreed. It was with a certain amount of trepidation, then, that we set out once more, racing the clock now not just for Tianyu’s bus, but also for my water supply. I hoped this wouldn’t be more than a minor discomfort, noting that in the worst case scenario I could probably melt some snow with my alcohol stove if I got desperate. Melt some dirty, pine-needle ridden snow. I didn’t relish the thought.

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Fuji from in front of the shelter


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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