Off the Beaten Path, Japan #19: Sunset Slopes

Fairyland Sunset in Japan’s Southern Alps

A photo that I overlooked from my first attempt at a mountain photoshoot with my dSLR. Despite not really knowing what I was doing at the time, even an novice can’t fail in a place like this.

© Brian Heise, 2018

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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

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Off the Beaten Path, Japan #10

White Caps in the Distance

Hiking in mid-March following a relatively warm November, and moreover hiking through the foothills of Gunma on the edge of the Kanto, I didn’t expect many fantastic views. Imagine my surprise then when I crested the ridge to see a line of white-capped mountains stretching across the horizon. Needless to say, I was satisfied.

Fureai Trail Saitama Section IX: The Path Seeking Masakado Legends (Part 1)


Overview

On a day in November of 2018 I stood on the mountainside to the east of Nagatoro, overlooking a long arm of the Chichibu Basin stretching out towards the Kanto to the east. Below, the town spread out along the blue line that was the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川), and past that the wall of mountains beyond which lay Gunma Prefecture, the next stage of the Fureai Trail. For nearly a year now, I had been making my way steadily to this point. And along that ridge, the highest peak rose up, towering over the basin, a perfect vantage point. I had stood there myself some months before. Then it was a peak wrapped in mist so thick that I could hardly see more than a few kilometers. At that time, I had no idea what view was hidden from me, nor how important that view has been in the past.

Castle Peak at sunset

What I was looking at was Mt. Castle Peak (Jōmine-san, 城峰山), the focus of Section 9 of the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama Prefecture. At 1037.7 meters tall, the mountain is the tallest within Chichibu’s Jōbu Nature Park (上武自然公園) and commands a sweeping view of the mountains of Inner Chichibu (奥秩父), the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地), Nikko (日光), and also the mountains of Jōshinetsu (上信越). It’s a shame that on the day I passed through it was too misty to see any of that, but such is a common experience for hikers in Japan.

From the summit of Castle Peak; below, you can see Castle Peak Shrine

Given that the peak makes for such an excellent lookout position, it comes as no surprise that over the centuries it has been associated with prominent military figures, in particular the Heian Period (794 – 1185) rebel Taira no Masakado and also the Warring States Period (1467 – c. 1600) general Takeda Shingen. Even today there are numerous place names on and near the mountain that reflect this history: King’s Castle (Ōjō, 王城), Castle Mountain (Shiro-yama, 城山), Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城), and Castle Valley (Shiro-no-Sawa, 城の沢). As such, this section of trail makes an excellent stop not just for nature enthusiasts but also for fans of history as well.

The trail were Bellclad Castle once stood; now it’s just a flat spot atop a hill

At 14.3 km long, this section is the longest course on the trail since Section IV, all of which have been less than 10 km. As such, those who are more interested in hiking than simply strolling will definitely get their fill on this trip. The trail picks up some distance up the road from the end of Section VIII and is accessible by bus from Minano Station (皆野駅), but Google doesn’t have the bus line in its system yet, you’ll have to rely on this timetable. You should get off at Nishi Montaira (西門平). From the bus stop, walk further up the road a short distance until you see your first Fureai Trail marker.

bus timetable
The timetable from Minano Station to the bus stop at Nishi Montaira.

The first half of the trail sticks to footpaths all the way to the summit of Castle Peak, but shortly after descending down to Castle Peak Shrine, the trail begins to follow predominantly roadways, though there are still some sections of actual trail. Towards the end, this section meets up with Section X before ending at Tosen Bridge (登仙橋). Google can carry you home from there.


Points of Interest

“The Bugs’ Farewell” of Montaira

If you’re planning on hiking this section in mid-August, consider planning your trip for the 16th so that you can witness a distinct local celebration: Montaira Village’s Mushi Okuri or “The Bugs’ Farewell.” In this event, the villagers perform a sort of exorcism to remove evil spirits from the village who were once believed to cause disease, pestilence, natural disasters, and all sorts of other misfortunes. The event features a parade of people in traditional dress marching to the edge of town while playing musical instruments such as taiko drums and flutes or carrying special flags, called segaki hata (施餓鬼旗), all the while chanting a special prayer.

The Bugs’ Farewell
Photo credit: https://paruruharu.blog.so-net.ne.jp/2013-08-16

This parade occurs on the last day of the Bon festival, a Buddhist celebration for honoring deceased ancestors celebrated all over Japan and is often compared to the Thanksgiving holiday in North America. The last day of the festival, on which Montaira’s Bugs’ Farewell occurs, is known as Okuribon (送り盆), or “Farewell Bon,” because on this day people would traditionally hold a ceremony in which they bid the spirits of their ancestors farewell.

What sets the Bugs’ Farewell apart from the more typical version of the festival is that in Montaira the focus of this ceremony is not to see off the spirits of their own ancestors, but rather to do so for the spirits of those who don’t have families to tend their graves. According to tradition, people who die childless or whose family line dies off are left in a deeply unsatisfied state and therefore cause all sorts of trouble for those of us in the human world. To appease these ghosts, the people of Montaira began holding this special ceremony just for them, bringing them to the edge of the town like honored guests on the point of departure. The festival acquired its name because, once these spirits were satisfied, they would quit sending bugs to lay pestilence upon the crops.

Mountain Forts of the Warring States Period

The period from 1467 to roughly 1600 is typical referred to as the Warring States Period, or Sengoku Jidai (戦国) and is marked by a collapse of central authority and the rise of autonomous military states across the country who constantly vied with each other for territorial control. A number of great generals are remembered from this time, among them one Takeda Shingen (武田信玄), who became active in the area around Castle Peak towards the end of this period. For those of you who have followed this blog, you might be interested to know that he was the ruler of the old state of Kai (甲斐), where a certain Peak of the Colt (甲斐駒ヶ岳) is located.

Takeda Shingen by Utagawa Kuniyoshi [Public domain or Public domain]

By 1569 Takeda had established control of western Jōshū (上州), whose southern border happened to be the mountain range on which Castle Peak sits. During that same year he pushed further south, crossing the Kanna River (神流川) into that range (which was then part of Musashi (武蔵) province), where he established a line of forts to secure his frontier. Among the many that he built, the best remembered today are Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城) and the lookout on Mt. Castle Peak, both of which are located along Section IX; Kanasana Mitake Castle (金鑚御嶽城) Kamikawa Village (神川村); Tiger Hill Castle (Tora-ga-Oka Jō, 虎が丘城) and Kanao Stronghold (Kanao Yōgai Sanjō, 金尾要害山城) in Yorii Town (寄居町); Highpine Castle (Takamatsu Jō, 高松城) and Dragon Valley Castle (Ryū-ga-Tani Jō, 竜ヶ谷) in Minano Town (皆野町).

Near the end of the Warring States Period, rival daimyo managed to capture one of the castles in Takeda’s line, and after Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s unification of the country their reason for existence was lost, so they fell into ruin. Today, only their earthwork portions remain.

More to come!

There was quite a lot of information about this section, more than could fit in a single post. Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we discuss more about the history of the area. Until then, please enjoy some of photos from my visit!


Trail at a Glance

Trail NameThe Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
MapClick here
Access:Start: Nishikado-daira Bus Stop (西門平バス停)*
End: Tosenkyo Bus Stop (登仙橋バス停)
Difficulty: Moderate
Natural Beauty:Average (good views of distant mountains)
Ideal SeasonsSpring and Fall
Camping LocationsJomine-yama Campground (城峰山キャンプ場)
Length (distance)14.3 km
Length (time)4 hours and 50 minutes
Food accessnone

*No transit information available from Google. The bus that goes there departs from Minano Station in Saitama.


Haiji’s Trail Stats

Distance traveled189.1 km 10.5%
Courses completed16/16010%
Days Spent: 12

© Brian Heise, 2018

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Chichibu_basin

Fureai Saitama VIII: The Path Gazing Over the Chichibu Basin

On the day I hiked the Path Gazing Over the Chichibu Basin, the skies were threatening rain. I remember standing atop Gable Mountain (Happu-san, 破風山) looking out at the dark clouds rolling across the horizon obscuring the high mountains in the distance; nonetheless, the broad expanse of the basin lay clear ahead, painted in dark evergreen with geometric patches of grey townscape and pale green rice fields. Barely visible in the distance, the thin blue stroke of the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川) meandered across the valley.

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The view from Gable Mountain

Nearby, my coworker Derek rested on a low, rough-cut wooden bench. In that humid August air, we were both thoroughly drenched in sweat. I checked my phone. “It looks like the sun might come out in a few hours. If we’re lucky, we just might get some swimming done this afternoon.”

That was the original plan at least. Since the Path Gazing Upon the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺めるみち) is just a short 4.3 km section, we needed something to fill out the day trip. I’d ordinarily have been inclined to do a second section, but this one was isolated from the previous and the next by several kilometers of roadway, so I decided on another tack: a stop by the Rough River for some good swimming, something which had been longing for for a while. Wouldn’t you know it that the weeks of perfectly sunny skies would be punctuated with rain when I finally did. As it turned out, though we did get some rain the sun eventually did come out. During the rain, we got to enjoy a hotspring spa, and during the sun we went swimming in the river. I call that a win.

Course Overview

The Path Gazing Upon the Chichibu Basin officially starts some distance from the end of the previous section, but the two are connected by roadways marked with Fureai Trail signposts if one were to want to hike the whole distance. Once you arrive in the small village of Futto (風戸), however, the path turns left across the stream and up into the mountains. From there its a quick 4.3 km hike to the top of Gable Mountain (Hafu-san, 破風山) and back down to the pavement. Overall, it’s a fairly easy and quick hike well suited to people of all ages, but it still yields some fantastic views.

Attractions

Being such a short section of trail, hikers ought to plan to spend a significant amount of time enjoying the various attractions to be found along the trail and just after. Luckily, this section has a lot to offer, including a hot spring spa, a variety of flowering plants, and a bit of history and religion. Read on for details.

Mangan no Yu Hotspring

Mangan no Yu Hotspring is a popular local hotspring sure to be lively with visitors on any weekend. Equipped with a gift shop selling local products, an outdoor bath in addition to the typical indoor pools and saunas, and a cafeteria to boot, you could easily spend a whole afternoon here relaxing after the hike. It’s located very close to the start of the trail, but since the route makes a horeshoe loop up to the summit of Gable Mountain before dropping back down to the main road, its pretty easy to just walk right back down after you finish. Derek and I spent a couple hours there while we waited for the rain to let up, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

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Lunch at Mangan no Yu

The Flowers of Futto Village

A walk through a village in Saitama is certain to dazzle you with beautiful flowers, and Futto is no different. Even in August, everywhere I looked there were flowers of all colors blooming.

The Shade Rhododendron Colony in Futto

If you’re visiting in May, about 2 km into the hike you’ll come across a slope covered in pale yellow flowers: these are Futto Village’s colony of shade rhododendrons (hikage tsutsuji, 日陰躑躅). This evergreen shrub native to Japan grows approximately 1 meter high and can be found in shady spots on mountainsides all over Shikoku and Kyushu, but only grows in the southern half of Honshu. In fact, this particular colony is thought to be at the absolute extremity of their livable climate — no other known colonies exist further north.

keiskei_rhododendron
By Alpsdake投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 4.0, Link

Asebi

Known as Japanese Andromeda in English, asebi is a medium-sized shrub whose name written in Chinese characters literally means “horse intoxicating tree” and was so named because its poisonous leaves would cause horses who ate them to behave as though they were drunk. Interestingly, though, this poison had its benefits: in the old days, farmers would steep the leaves and stems in hot water and then spray the resulting tea on plants and livestock as insect repellent. I suppose we hikers today might use it in this way if we forget to bring our own repellent, but try it at your own risk.

Asebi typically grows from 1.5 to 3 meters high and can be found everywhere in Japan. Owing to its wide distribution, its has become known by a variety of names according to local dialects, including asebu, ashibi, and asebo, among others. It can be identified by its long,  thin, and waxy leaves that taper to a point, accompanied by its pale purple bell-shaped flowers, which bloom in March. Be careful not to mistake it for suzuran, another species that features similarly shaped flowers.

asebi_tree
By Liné1 – Personal picture taken with my IXUS 800 IS, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

Monkey Rock

About a half a kilometer from the summit of Gable Mountain is Monkey Rock (Saru Iwa, 猿岩), a outcrop right by the trail that stands about 3 or 4 meters high. The rock can be scaled easily around the back side without needing to do any real bouldering, and from the top one can get a decent view of the surrounding landscape.

Monkey Rock
Towards Hinozawa from Monkey Rock
The Chichibu Basin from Monkey Rock

Gable Mountain

The summit of Gable Mountain is easily the highlight of the trip. At a height of just 627 meters, at first glance it might not seem worth the trip, but in fact the summit offers a sweeping view of the Chichibu Basin as well as the high mountains beyond, making it a great destination for photographers and sightseers alike. I imagine the view would be especially beautiful on a starry night, where one could juxtapose the light of the town below with that of the moon. Just below the summit is a large pavilion that would make an excellent place to sleep for the night.

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The Chichibu Basin from the summit of Gable Mountain

Tagstand Pass

Shortly after descending from the summit of Gable Mountain one will arrive at Tagstand Pass (Fuda-tate Toge, 札立峠), where the trail joins with the Chichibu Fudasho pilgrimage route. This route covered 100 km and takes roughly 6 days to complete, during which pilgrims visit a total of 34 local temples, each of which offers a fuda, a type of paper tag used as a talisman; to complete the pilgrimage, one should acquire a fuda from each of these temples. This pass is located between the last two temples on the route, Kikusui Temple (Chrysanthemum-water Temple, 菊水寺) and Suisen Temple (Water-concealing Temple, 水潜寺). The route follows the Akahira River (赤平川) from the former in Hisanaga Village (久長集落) before descending down to the latter in Shimo Hinozawa, where pilgrims can receive their final fuda tag.

At first thought, one might assume that the name “tagstand” originates from the fuda tags associated with the pilgrimage route, but actually it comes from a different fuda tag. According to the stories, long ago in great times of drought, monks would climb up to this point to place special fuda to request the gods send rain.

Suisen Temple

The way to Suisen Temple follows a narrow ravine lined by rocky outcrops. As you approach the temple, Buddhist monuments start to appear on the right.

I wasn’t able to find a lot of information about the temple’s history, but the hall dedicated to the Buddhist deity Kannon located there was apparently built in 1828, so it’s a fairly historic building. It’s also the final stop on the Chichibu 34 Holy Grounds and Japan’s 100 Kannon Holy Grounds pilgrimages. Even today you can still sometimes see pilgrims passing through wearing the traditional white tunic and sedge hat.

The main object of worship here is a single block wooden statue of the Thousand Handed Kannon, which dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). The temple also venerates images of the deities Amida Nyorai and the Yakushi Nyorai. These two deities represent the Saigoku and Bando regions respectively, which along with Chichibu comprise the entire area within which the the 100 Kannon Pilgrimage is contained.

Unfortunately, as the temple occupied an extremely narrow valley and was set somewhat up a hillside slightly obscured by trees, it was impossible to get a decent shot of the building.

Trail at a Glance

Trail NameThe Path Gazing over the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺める道)
MapClick here
AccessStart: Futto Iriguchi Bus Station (風戸入口バス停)*
End: Fudasho Mae Bus Stop (札所前バス停)*
DifficultyEasy
Natural BeautyModerate
Ideal SeasonLate spring to early summer
Camping LocationsAround 100 meters from the summit of Gable Mountain there’s a pavilion that would make an excellent campsite
Distance4.3 km
Time2 hours
Food accessMangan no Yu Hotspring

*Note: No bus information available from Google. Take the bus from Minano Station.

The bus timetable. To go to the trailhead, take the bus from Minano. To get back, take the bus towards Minano

My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 174.8 km (9.7%)
Courses completed: 15/160 (9.4%)
Days Spent: 12

© Brian Heise, 2018

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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

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Fukuda’s Tomuraushi (100 Famous Mountains #6)

Forward

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

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

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


6. Tomuraushi (2141 m)

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

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

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

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

Tomuraushi_from_chuubetsudake_2006-8-25
Tomuraushi from Chûbetsu-dake
By alpsdake – 投稿者自身による作品, パブリック・ドメイン, Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Translation © Brian Heise, 2018
All photos belong to Wikicommons

Summer Trip 2018 Part 5: Sheltering in Northvale Pass

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

Chapter 15: Sighting the Colt

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

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

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

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

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Tianyu in the trees

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An old Suntory whiskey bottle near the pond

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The marker at the top of Ina Mountain

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Sunlight through the trees

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

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Saltview Peak (Shiomi-dake, 塩見岳) in the distance

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A glade

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The Peak of Gap (間ノ岳); our route from yesterday descends on the right

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Red berries

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North Peak (right) and Peak of the Gap (left)

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The broad view

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

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The Peak of the Colt in Kai

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

Chapter 16: Senjô

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

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

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

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Tired and wet explorers

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A woodstove

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Wind and rain

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

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

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

Chapter 17: Old Friends and New Friends

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

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

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

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Woodstove

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Bunks

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

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

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

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Friends

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


© Brian Heise, 2018