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 #17: Girl by the Ferris Wheel


Model Gwyneira Li rests in the sunshine near the Ferris wheel in Kasai Rinkai Park

Copyright Brian Heise, 2019

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Off the Beaten Path, Japan #16: Tokyo Ferris Wheel

The Ferris wheel in Kasai Rinkai Park, Tokyo

One of Tokyo’s lesser known but still fantastic green spaces is Kasai Rinkai Park, near the border of Chiba. It’s most iconic aspect is this large Ferris wheel, which is visible from quite a distance away. I was lucky enough to visit on a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon.

Off the Beaten Path, Japan #15: Stone Path

Copyright Brian Heise, 2019

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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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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

Summer Trip 2018 Part 3: Sunrise at North Peak Lodge

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

Chapter 8: A Shortcut to Whiskey

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

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

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

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

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Myself and the gentleman with the whiskey

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 9: Sunrise at North Peak Lodge

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

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

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Had some moisture on my lens.

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Low exposure to make those rays stand out.

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The rays turned pink as they lengthened

People gathered to watch the show.

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Tianyu takes a shot

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Mt. Fuji’s silhouette

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People beginning to take down their tents

 

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Moments before the sun broke the horizon

 

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

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The golden shot.

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

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

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

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

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A look back at North Peak and North Peak Lodge

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A standing stone

 

Chapter 10: The Peak of the Gap

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

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A craggy ridge extends from the Peak of the Gap toward Mt. Fuji

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The valley we came up yesterday

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

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The Peak of the Gap in the distance

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Deep into the alps

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Another view back at North Peak

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


© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 1: The Anniversary

Chapter 1
Rain

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

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A large meadow near Goose Pass

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

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Tianyu

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

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The smokey interior of the hut

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

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

 

Chapter 2:
The Lay of the Land

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

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

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

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

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Broad Riverbed (広河原)

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

 

Chapter 3
The Plan

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

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

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

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


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

© Brian Heise, 2018