Off the Beaten Path, Japan #26: Kurobi Peak

Kurobi-dake and Koma-ga-Take rise up over the crater lake Ono below

On the second day of my trip to Akagi Mountain in Gunma Prefecture Japan, Tianyu and I climbed to the top of Jizo-dake, where we were able to gaze across the caldera to Kurobi-dake, the highest peak on the mountain. We had stood on that summit yesterday, but the sky was so crowded by clouds that we couldn’t hardly see a thing. Thankfully, on this day we were blessed with good weather.

Off the Beaten Path, Japan #25: From the Summit of Jizo Peak

In contrast to the previous days thick haze, we were blessed with clear sunny skies on the second day. From the top of Jizo Peak, we could see snow-capped peaks in the distance. Down in the Kanto, the world is full of color, but winter hasn’t yet left the peaks.

Off the Beaten Path, Japan #18: Kanna Lake

Mountains fold into mountains beyond the shores of the lake

When I visited Kanna Lake, I remember being really disappointed with the photos I took. It was winter, and everything was grey and brown, and the lack of color caused the photos to suffer. But then I decided to experiment with black and white, which I’d never tried before. The result was rather pleasing, I think. What do you think? Leave a comment below!

© Brian Heise, 2018

Support what I do and drop a tip in the tip jar. Be sure to like and comment as well!

Off the Beaten Path, Japan #15: Stone Path

Copyright Brian Heise, 2019

Support what I do and drop a tip in the tip jar. Be sure to like and comment as well!

Gallery: Southern Alps Summer 2018

The following are my favorite photos from my 2018 summer trip to Japan’s Southern Alps. Click the photos to enlarge them, and look below for links to the original articles in which they were featured. As always, please like, share, and leave a comment below! Which photo did you like the best?

Original Posts

Part 1: The Anniversary
Part 2: Seeking Sunset
Part 3: Sunrise as North Peak Lodge
Part 4: The Long Road to Senjo Peak
Part 5: Sheltering in Northvale Pass
Part 6: Split Heart Syndrome


© Brian Heise 2018

Did you like this post? Want to make sure I can keep at it? Then drop a tip in the tip jar!

Summer Trip 2018 Part 2: Seeking Sunset

This is part two in a multi-part series covering my experiences hiking in Japan’s Southern Alps in August of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1 as well.

Chapter 4: Good Omens in Kofu City

And so I set out for the mountains with a healthy amount of trepidation. The forecast was predicting thunderstorms every day, and I was carrying well over $1,000 of camera equipment with me whose resilience to the weather I was not entirely sure of. Added to that worry was the fact that wouldn’t be able to take the sunset and sunrise photos that I bought the damned thing for if it were even cloudy, let alone rainy.

In spite of the forecast, when I arrived in Kofu City early in the afternoon, the weather was bright and sunny, and though the sky was populated with a herd of white clouds, they didn’t seem in the least bit threatening. I immediately set out to the top of the castle near the station to see if I could get some good shots of the alps. Unfortunately, they were all obscured by clouds, but on the bright side, they were rather photogenic clouds.

IMG_6662
The entrance to Kofu Castle

IMG_6663
Clouds obscure the mountains

IMG_6669
The bailey at Kofu Castle

IMG_6672
Clouds over Kofu City

IMG_6678
An old dojo

Satisfied with the castle, I went back down to the station to get some lunch and a beer while I waited for Tianyu to arrive.

Chapter 5: Premonitions at Broad Riverbed

Tianyu and I boarded the bus to Broad Riverbed (広河原), basecamp for the North Peak (北岳), at around 2:00 pm and set off across the basin towards that broad mass of mountains rising in the west. While we were still within the city, flecks of raindrops started to appear on the windshield, but I wasn’t perturbed at all since the sun was still shining brightly. I figured that it was just a spot shower, and indeed it was: the rain stopped before we even reached the foothills.

The ride to the basecamp took a full two hours of winding along a narrow mountain road cut into the side of a steep slope and occasionally passing through tunnels. Outside our windows, we drank in the views of rugged ridgelines backed by clouds. By the time we got off the bus finally, we had yet to seen another hint of rain.

IMG_6699.jpg
Clouds in the valley on the way to the Broad Riverbed

As one might expect from the name, Broad Riverbed was, in fact, spot in the valley in which a rather wide riverbed lay. This was the Noro River, which runs along the foot of North Peak on it’s east side before curving northward all the way around to reach its headwaters on the northwest side of the mountain. Tianyu and I explored around the area a little before making our way over to the campground to set up our tent.

IMG_6743
Broad Riverbed

IMG_6720
The campground

IMG_6723.jpg
Tents at Broad Riverbed Campground

IMG_6741
Stacked stones

And then the rain came. It happened so fast we had no time to prepare, but just to dive into the tent and drag in the things we needed to keep dry. I hugged my camera bag tightly to my chest and waited. After fifteen minutes or so, though, the rain slowly tapered off to a light drizzle and then stopped completely. We felt pretty lucky that that was all we got, but we were now a little bit more worried about what might happen the next day.

 

Chapter 5: The Grey Curtain

The first thing we noticed when we woke was that the sky was clear. Feeling high spirited in our good luck, we packed quickly and began the ascent. It was steep, and our packs laden with four days of food weighed our bodies down heavily, but not our spirits. Quickly we progressed up the trail, and arrived at Whiteroot Pond Hut (白根御池小屋) before 10 am. We stopped there for a long rest. The Three Phoenix Mountains were visible on the next ridge, backed by gorgeous cloud cover. With such perfect photography weather, I was eager to get past the treeline, so we departed quickly.

IMG_6746.jpg
Left to North Peak, right to Broad Riverbed

IMG_6763
Boardwalks over treacherous areas

IMG_6769
Whiteroot Pond Hut

IMG_6773
Adventurers

IMG_6774
The campground at Whiteroot Pond Hut

IMG_6787-Pano
The Three Phoenix Mountains

IMG_6793
Looking down on Whiteroot Pond

From the hut the trail went almost straight up the slope towards the ridgeline, so it was hard going and we made slow progress. Suddenly, thick mist began to roll down on us from the ridge above and not long thereafter the heavens opened up in a torrential downpour so strong that even our ponchos were of no avail and we were quickly soaked. Channels of erosion opened up in the pathway right before our eyes, and slipping quickly became a pressing worry. When we reached the ridgeline about an hour later, however, the rain stopped just as suddenly as it started. We were thankful for that, but we had to endure the knowledge that after more than six hours of climbing in sunny weather we had finally broke past the treeline only to be surrounded by an impenetrable layer of mist.

 

Chapter 7: Silver Glass

It was probably around two or three in the afternoon when we arrived at the Hut on Kita-dake’s Shoulder (北岳肩の小屋), the last refuge before the summit. We settled down for a bowl of noodles and a cup of wine to take the edge off the hard climb. Checking the map, we determined that we had enough time to summit North Peak and then proceed as far as North Peak Lodge (北岳山荘) at at the bottom of the saddle between it and the Peak of the Gap (間ノ岳). At this point, I had pretty well resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t get any good shots that day.

No matter how much attention I put into my ramen and wine — and I can tell you, it was a lot — it wasn’t enough for me to miss a shift in the color in my peripheral vision from white to green. Turning my head slightly, I saw that a gap had appeared in the mist, revealing a swath of mountains to the north. I let out a shout, grabbed the the camera, and dashed off down the ridge, leaving behind a momentarily bewildered Tinayu. But he caught up to me in no time.

IMG_6801
Tianyu prepares to eat his noodles

IMG_6811-Pano
The clouds open up

We set off from the hut with our spirits lifted. Though mist still wrapped the mountainside, great gaps kept opening here and there, offering glimpses of what lay beyond. At one point, I turned back to photograph the way we came and caught Tianyu grinning like he’d just won a million dollars.

IMG_6873.jpg
Towards the North Peak from the Hut on North Peak’s Shoulder

Unfortunately, not long after we resumed the curtain slammed shut once more and shortly thereafter the rain returned, though only a light drizzle this time. We spent a futile half hour on the summit waiting, but the situation didn’t change, so I busied myself with photographing the flora.

IMG_6879
The North Peak’s grey summit

IMG_6884
Mountain Flora 1

IMG_6885
Mountain Flora 2

We continued on in disappointment along a rough, rocky, and treacherous descent toward the lodge. After a time, we saw its red roof far below us. Sunset was approaching as we neared, when suddenly the clouds pealed back revealing a brilliantly shining sun illuminating green slopes touched with outcroppings of white rock. Far off, the ridges of the North Alps were visible. In that moment, I was reminded of a passage from the Lord of the Rings: “[T]he grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

IMG_6986-HDR.jpg
Approaching sunset

IMG_6927.jpg
Looking down on North Peak Lodge

A crowd gathered from the lodge, and together we and some 40 people watched, waiting for the brilliant colors of sunset to arrive. Minutes from the point when the sun would touch those far off northern alps, however, a bank of mist rolled in from behind and swallowed us up. The mist turned brilliant gold, a bare hint of the gorgeous sunset that had just fallen beyond our reach. After waiting for a few minutes, we gave up went to set camp.


© Brian Heise, 2018

Fureai Saitama VI: The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park

From the moment I opened my eyes on the morning that I walked the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park, I was in a sour mood. Eyes squinting and brow furrowed, I got my bag packed and shuffled off towards the train station with rough thoughts bouncing around my mind. And it wasn’t just that day — I my mood had been off for more than a week, which was exactly why I set out to hit the trail on that day.

There’s no better cure for a bad mood than spending hours traipsing through the hills by yourself. With nothing to distract you, no phones or computers or internet, you have all the time you need to untie that knot in your mind. And, on top of that, once you get it undone, then you find yourself surrounded by beautiful scenery and fresh air, which is good prevention from settling on something new to be mad about. For me, I was already in a humming good mood before I even reached the halfway point of the trail.

IMG_8010-2
The view of Chichibu from Bi-no-Yama Park

 

General Info

The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park starts right where the last section ended, at the Highland Ranch Bus Stop (高原牧場バス停) and can be reached by bus either from Seibu Chichibu Station (西部秩父駅) or from Oyahana Station (親鼻駅). The path follows the gentle slopes rising over a low ridge-line leading over to Oyahana Station and the Arakawa River Valley.

The main attraction of this trail is Bi-no-Yama Park, literally meaning “The Mountain of Beauty.” As one might guess from the name, the park is indeed quite beautiful on several levels. In the first place, it provides outstanding views of the Inner Musashi Mountain Range, along which the Fureai Trail has been travelling all the way through Saitama so far, but further off you can also get clear views of the towering mountains of Inner Chichibu and even the distant Nikkô Range in Tochigi Prefecture.

IMG_8033
Chichibu from Bi-no-Yama

On the park grounds itself, however, visitors can also enjoy a wide range of flowers most of the year, though the most famous are the 8,000 or so cherry trees that make the mountain a perfect destination in April. The place has so many trees that it has even earned the “The Kanto’s Yoshino Mountain,” a comparison to the most historic site of Japanese cherry viewing located in Nara Prefecture, not far from Kyoto.

In addition to the park, the trail includes several other attractions, including ancient stone road signs from the Edo Period, traditional houses, two of the area’s most important holy grounds, and also a historic silk textile production site. In all, it’s an easy and quick trail with good historical appeal as well.

 

Old Highways

Though far enough off from Tokyo to be a fairly independent area in the days before railroads, the Chichibu region was nonetheless close enough to benefit from the demand for products generated by that metropolis, which even a few hundred years ago was still one of the largest cities in the world. It is not surprising, then, that multiple byways connected this isolated mountain basin with that city on the bay.

According to The Revised Musashi Atlas (新編風土記稿), published in 1825, a total of three highways led from here to Edo: the Kumagaya Way (熊谷みち), the Kawagoe Way (川越みち), and the Agano Way (吾野みち). Those familiar with the Kanto will recognize the first two as important urban centers on the plain, which these two routes pass through respectively; the third is a more mountainous route that passes over Shômaru Pass (正丸峠) before moving through Agano on the way to the Tokyo. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that the Fureai Trail also passes along this way, although it sticks to the ridge-line whereas the old road follows valleys everywhere except the passes.

The main divergence of these three routes is located near the start of the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park in an area called Misawa, which is a historical site for silk production (see below). Seeing as silk was such a lucrative industry and in high demand in the capital, it’s likely that the crossroads were located here to facilitate transport of this product.

 

The Temple of Common Comfort

The first part of the trail leads gently up a paved road through the Misawa, a scenic hillside village.

IMG_7957
Misawa

Not long after departing the bus stop, you’ll arrive at a small temple known as the Jôraku-ji, the Temple of Common Comfort, which is affiliated with the New Shingon Sect. They say that the temple was founded some 300 years ago, though apparently it was lost to fire during the Tempo Period (天保年間, 1830-1844) along with all of its artifacts. The current main hall was rebuilt in 1852.

Unfortunately, it proved difficult to photograph as it was built so close to the edge of a steep hillside that only a small portion could be caught in a single frame. Hanging above the entrance, however, was the following piece of calligraphy.

img_7959.jpg
Calligraphy over the entrance of the Jôraku-ji

The principal deity of worship at the temple is Fudô Myô-ô (不動明王), the Immovable Shining King, whose wrathful visage is depicted wrapped in flames that burn away the impediments defilement that block the path to enlightenment. The main hall of the temple is dedicated to him, but next to it is located a smaller hall where the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of infinite life, is worshiped.

IMG_7961
The Amida Hall at Jôraku-ji

 

The Flowers of Misawa Village

Though not noted as particularly famous in the area, many of the locals have cultivated a wide variety of flowers in front of their houses. As you travel along the road through the village, take the time to enjoy their beauty.

IMG_7964

IMG_7965

IMG_7966

IMG_7967

IMG_7968

IMG_7969-2

The Weavers of Kami-Misawa

Past the Temple of Common Comfort the trail continues along paved roads through the village. Though many of the buildings are showing their age today, in the past this place was once a area of vibrant economic activity due to local silk production. According to the information signs along the trail, the lack of land flat enough to grow rice in the Chichibu area led farmers to supplement their income with silk production, which could be carried out even on steep mountainsides. According to The Revised Atlas of Musashi, women were those principally in charge of this industry, both raising the silkworms and weaving silk textiles.

At the end of the Edo period in the mid 1800s, the number of villages exporting raw silk in the area expanded greatly, and even out of the way places like Misawa became prosperous. Chichibu is still famous today for its meisen (銘仙) silk, which is popularly used as kimono fabric owing to its durable thick weave. A signboard along the path here states that the sound of weaving machines can still be heard here, but I didn’t notice anything as I passed through.

IMG_7973
The trail takes to the forest

IMG_7974
A ruined old shed

 

The Temple of the 23rd Night

At some point the trail plunges into dense vegetation honing in on the trail such that it nearly forms a tunnel, but not long after it comes out again on pavement, and shortly thereafter you arrive at yet another temple — this time, it’s the Temple of the 23rd Night (Nijûsanya-ji, 二十三夜寺), an affiliate of the Shingon Sect.

IMG_7985

Perhaps it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that “the 23rd Night” is a reference to a specific cultural something that can’t be grasped just by the name alone. I was at a loss at first, but after some digging I found that “The 23rd Night” is a monthly religious ceremony that was once widely celebrated in Japan, though today I suppose few participate. The ceremony was apparently held on the 23rd day of each month by the old lunar calendar. On that day the congregation (that is, the men of the congregation most likely) would gather together to watch the moonrise while partaking in much food and drink, believing that a spirit would manifest itself.

This temple, it seems, has a long history. The temple records hold that one of the most important figures in early Japanese history, Prince Shôtoku, founded the temple. This man is not only remembered as the statesmen who promulgated the first written Japanese legal code but who also the first major proponent of Buddhism who worked to spread it far and wide across the land. They say that Shôtoku himself carved a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来), one of the principal Buddhist deities, and also built a thatched roof hut within which to enshrine it.

After that, Gyôki (行基), a 7th century monk, carved and enshrined a statue of the bodhisattva Seishi (勢至菩薩), who is now the principal deity of worship at the temple. Seishi is a god of wisdom, and his many followers believe that those who suffer hardship on account of their ignorance can be saved by the light of his wisdom.

I wasn’t able to determine the age of the current structures, but it seems unlikely that they’re very old since most temples make a point of promoting that and this temple didn’t make any reference to it. Nonetheless, it is a charming temple built in traditional style, and given the wear and tear on the exterior, it definitely has been around for at least some decades if not a century.

The signage on the trail is a little unclear at the temple, but to find the path again climb up to the front of the main hall and then turn left. The path will continue of the mountainside from there.

 

Cape Lilac

Among the various types of flora to be found along the Fureai Trail, one to look for on this section is the Cape Lilac, or sendan (センダン) in Japanese. This deciduous tree grows wild along the seashores and mountains of Kyushu and Shikoku, but is also often grown domestically in towns and villages. In May and June clumps of light purple flowers form at the tips of their branches, and in extremely rare cases, you can even find varieties sporting white flowers. They also produce elliptical fruits that turn yellow when ripe and often remain in large numbers even after the tree has shed its leaves for the fall, a good tell for identifying the plant. These fruits are called kurenshi (苦棟子) and are used as medicine, which I assume means they don’t taste so good. You can spot a specimen in the parking lot of the Temple of the 23rd Night.

IMG_7979
The Cape Lilac at the Temple of the 23rd Night

IMG_7980
Flowers on the Cape Lilac

 

Mixed Groves

In Japan, there is a variety of forest known as a “mixed grove” (雑木林), which is comprised of several varieties of trees rather than a more pure, single-species forest. Much of this section of trail passes through such a forest, though their are a few predominant species, such as the sawtooth oak (kunugi) and pin oak (konara). The forest floor in this area is also rich, not just in low growing plants but also in birds and insects.

Forests like this have had a close connection with Japanese society over the centuries. For example, villages have historically used sawtooth oak, chestnut, and pin oak to make firewood and charcoal, and even to grow mushrooms. On top of that, fallen leaves were used as fertilizer.

IMG_7994
A small graveyard amid the trees

IMG_7999
A stone monument to the god Asama Taishin

IMG_8005
White flowers

 

The Flowers of Bi-No-Yama Park

Less than 30 minutes after departing the Temple of the 23rd Night you will reach the main attraction of this section of trail: Bi-no-Yama, or the Mountain of Beauty. This mountaintop park provides not just gorgeous views of the high mountains all around from Chichibu to Nikko, but also sports a wide array of flowers that bloom all through the Spring, Summer, and Fall. The mountain is probably most famous for its 8000 or more cherry trees, which make the mountain a perfect destination for the Cherry Blossom Season in April, but you can also see various species of iris blossoms in from April to July, and also hostas and lilies in July and August. There are even some flowers still in bloom as late as mid December.

IMG_8031
The mountains of Inner Musashi

Outside of the cherries, however, two of the mountains most famous attractions are it’s fields of hydrangea (ajisai, 紫陽花) and azalea (tsutsuji, 躑躅). The hydrangea field is located on the east side of the park and contains more than 3,500 specimens over a space of 7.5 square kilometers. On the west side of the mountain, growing with a shady forest, is the field of bright red azaleas. I wasn’t able to find much info on the scale of the field and the flowers weren’t in bloom when I passed through so I couldn’t see for myself, but the pictures in the visitor center suggest that this is also quite a sight to see. Be sure to take your time to explore all the corners of the park to make sure you don’t miss anything interesting.

IMG_8041
A shrine in Bi-no-Yama Park

 

The Temple of 10,000 Blessings

Following Bi-no-Yama Park, the path descends downward more or less directly towards Oyahana Station, the end of the trail. However, once you reach the town below be sure not to miss the last attraction on this path, the Temple of 10,000 Blessings (万福寺). The temple is located fairly close to Route 140, the main highway passing near the station, but it’s easy to miss as the signage isn’t the best at that point. As you follow the road through town after getting off the mountain, keep your eyes on the right.

IMG_8045
Statues at the entrance to the Manpuku-ji

They say that the Temple of 10,000 Blessings was first founded in 1023 AD by the monk Kango Hôin (看鑁法印), but I couldn’t find much more information than that regarding it’s origins. As seems to be all too common with Japanese temples, the original structures and most of the temple’s artifacts were lost to fire in 1882, but miraculously the statue of the Amida Buddha, the principle deity of the temple, survived. The current structures date to 1932.

img_8047.jpg
The Manpuku-ji

Personally, I didn’t find the temple to be that impressive, but if you’re passing by you might as well stop in to have a look before you catch the train from Oyahana back to Tokyo.


 

Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park (Bi-no-Yama Kôen wo Tazuneru Michi, 美の山公園を訪ねるみち)
Map:
Click here
Access:
Start: Highland Ranch Entrance Bus Stop (高原牧場入口バス停)
End: Oyahana Station (Oyahana Eki, 親鼻駅)
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Medium
Ideal Seasons: Spring-Fall
Camping Locations:* None
Length (distance): 8.2 km
Length (time): 2 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Bi-no-Yama Park (seasonal only), Oyahana

*Note that these are not officially designated camping locations but simply places that I judge would be nice to put down a tent. Camp at your own risk.


My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 161.7 km (9%)
Courses completed: 13/160 (8.1%)
Days Spent: 10.5


© Brian Heise 2018

 

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.

IMG_2093
The Visitor Center

IMG_2299
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.

IMG_7855.JPG
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.

IMG_7861
A clearing backed by pines

IMG_7863
Sparse forest and bamboo grass

IMG_7866
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.

IMG_7873.JPG
A view to the sea

IMG_7886
Enter a caption

IMG_7892
Deer trails crisscross the bamboo grass

IMG_7898
The broad view

IMG_7908
Pines

IMG_7914
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?

IMG_7897
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.

IMG_7920-cut
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.

IMG_7926
The path to the bluff

IMG_7928
Mountains

IMG_2253
The waterfall, close up

IMG_2255
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.

IMG_7933.JPG
A blossoming rhododendron

IMG_2275
Rhododendrons

IMG_2286
Shiokara Valley

IMG_2288
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.

IMG_2318
A bridge on the reservoir

IMG_2326
The Yoshino River

IMG_2350
Gravel on the Yoshino River


Famous mountain count: 6

© Brian Heise, 2018

Golden Week 2018 Part III: Black Gold Mountain

This post is part three in a multi-part series about my hiking expedition to Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park in Japan during the Golden Week Holiday of 2018. Be sure to check out parts one and two as well.


The Race

We were racing the sun. Every minute that passed our never-tiring adversary gained ground on us. Our legs burned as we struggled up the rugged slopes from Nishizawa Gorge to the ridgeline that would carry us on our way to our goal of Ôdarumi Pass. We had to get there before the sun passed behind mountains.

But it was a race we knew we wouldn’t win. Having abandoned our original route for fear that it would be impassable, we found ourselves detouring along a spur ridge whose arc added many — precisely how many we didn’t know — hours to our trek. The sun raced relentlessly onward towards the horizon while we mortals were forced at times to rest.

IMG_7739
Taking a rest

IMG_7741
A flat spot near the ridge


Ascent to the Ridge

The real question was how far could we actually get? The answer to that question would determine whether or not we would be able to reach our goals: Kinpu and Mizugaki, two of Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains. I hoped that we could make it to White Birch Flat (Shirakaba-daira, 白樺平), where the trail crossed a forest road that wound along the mountainside. There was the base of the final ascent to the top of the main ridge near Kokushi-ga-Take, and from there only a little further to Ôdarumi. If we got that far, we’d only be a few hours behind, but not enough to make our goal unattainable.

Urged on by the knowledge that the path would change to a more comfortable gradient if we just got to the ridge, we pushed on hard, but our goal proved elusive. It took several hours of climbing before we finally emerged. From there, we were graced with our first good views of the trip: a look at the main ridgeline to the north and east. We could even see as far as Goose Hill Pass, both the end point of my Summer 2017 trip and the start of my Winter 2017 trip. We stopped to take some pictures and to rest.

IMG_7745.JPG
Directly ahead is Kokushi-ga-Take; on the left is Black Gold Mountain

IMG_1485
Looking down from the stone

IMG_1490
The path rises


To Black Gold Mountain

But the sun didn’t stop. It was already 3:00 pm, and according to the map, we weren’t even to Black Gold Mountain, the halfway point between White Birch and the end of the Nishizawa Trail. It was becoming apparent that we needed to set our expectations even lower. We carried on, and not long after we crossed a small pass with a clear view southwest, affording us our first views of Mt. Fuji.

IMG_1491
Tianyu takes in the view while I make for a better vantage point

IMG_1493
A grassy pass

IMG_1494
Mt. Fuji

IMG_1495
Tianyu gazes on Mt. Fuji

IMG_1497
“Nishizawa Black Gold Mountain

IMG_7748
Fuji from the pass

IMG_7750
Dylan gazes on Mt. Fuji

It was about 4:00 pm by then, just two hours until sunset. We knew we had to find a decent place to camp soon, and we knew if we pressed too hard we’d find ourselves at sunset without a good view to photograph. Finally, resigned to our fate, we set our sights on the summit of Black Gold Mountain.


Kurogane-yama

Black Gold Mountain. Kurogane-yama. Neither nationally famous nor even locally well-known, we had little information about the place other than the warning we got from the park ranger that the path was in disrepair. Indeed, the trail so far had been in significantly worse condition than that in Nishizawa Gorge, but it was hardly impassable. Regardless, it was clear that few people came this way. Indeed, though it was Golden Week, we had only seen one person since we left the valley, and that was an old man headed down the way we came. He had warned us of downed trees ahead.

When we finally reached the summit of Black Gold, we were first greeted by a breathtaking view of the main ridge: the northwest side of the mountain was covered by a mass of rock fragments preventing the growth of vegetation, leaving the way open and clear, providing a panoramic view from Goose Hill Pass on one side and passing along Kobushi-ga-Take and Kokushi-ga-Take before tapering down into the valley. On the furthest extremity, we could even see Mt. Fuji. However, at the summit of Kokushi the ridge turned northwest, obscuring our view of Kinpu and Mizugaki.

IMG_1506
Stones on Black Gold Mountain; in the distance, the ridge spans from Kobushi to Kokushi

IMG_1508
Photographing Fuji; tomorrow’s path lies in the distance

IMG_1538
Fuji from Black Gold

IMG_7753 alternat
The sun approaches the ridgeline

IMG_7754
Ahead is Kobushi-ga-Take; on the far right you can barely see Goose Hill Pass just above the trees.

And yet, looking carefully at a low spot, I could just see, hardly a speck, a small protrusion of rock rising just barely above the ridge. It was, it had to be, the famous spire of rock that marked the summit of Kinpu. Despite the vast distance between us and the fact that spire stood only 15 meters tall, even I could recognize that prominent feature, even though I had only read Fukuda’s description of it. It was so small, it was even invisible in the photographs I took.


Sunset

We set camp in the shelter of the pines just below from the highest point on the mountain. On my advice, we opted to forgo the tent and simply sleep under the stars side by side. Bags arranged, we set about making dinner: a pot of ramen and a pot of curry and rice cooked on my handy alcohol stove, which made from a couple of beer cans and held together by aluminum tape. As the stove is rather unwieldy I tasked myself with cooking; meanwhile, Dylan built a fire, though we decided to wait until full dark to light it.

IMG_1519
Cooking dinner

IMG_1522
Dylan builds a fire

IMG_1524
Camp

IMG_1526
Eating dinner

IMG_1542
My trusty handmade alcohol stove, with windguard made from a tin can.

The sun began to set. As luck would have it, it set directly behind the ridge ahead of us. We took countless photos, trying to capture that perfect balance of sunset light. It’s a delicate process, and only a few met my standards.

IMG_7765
Approaching twilight

IMG_7771
Dylan watches the sunset

img_7759.jpg
The last rays


Defeat

With that, the sun set and we admitted defeat. And yet, we felt no disappointment. For although we reach our goal we were nonetheless provided a stunning view that we had not at all anticipated, and was all the more beautiful for the knowledge that so few people passed through here to see it. Dylan even remarked that maybe we were the first foreigners to have done so. He might very well have been right about that.

Nearing full dark, Dylan lit the fire.

IMG_1531.JPG
Tianyu cooks a hotdog

The three of us sat close, absorbing what we could of the fire’s heat as the warm daylight air faded into a chilly highland night. Among the trees, the small patches of remaining snow foretold a wintery night. We passed around a whiskey bottle, but didn’t drink so much. Before long, we retired to our sleeping bags. It was only 9:00 pm. But, we were exhausted, and we had a long hike the next day to make up for our setbacks. We would rise at the first light of dawn.

IMG_7773.JPG
Moonlight


© Brian Heise, 2018