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?
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.
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.
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 tonrameans “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.
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.
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.
This article is Part 4 of a series on my visit to Japan’s Southern Alps in the summer of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 as well.
Chapter 11: Gazing on Senjo Peak
We got our first glimpse of our destination for the next day before we even set out from North Peak Lodge. Having finished photographing the sunrise, I walked back up to the crest of the ridge to see what had been hidden behind the clouds and mist on the previous evening. Looking out across the wide valley where the headwaters of the Noro River begin their long journey to Broad Riverbed, I spotted a lone mountain raising a rocky head high above the surrounding land. I knew that this had to be Senjo Peak.
“More than anything, she has a good form. She’s neither a simple pyramid nor a dull mass. It’s that point of being neither dull nor frivolous that I like. She has a refined quality. You wouldn’t notice at first glance, but after looking again and again you gradually come to understand her virtues. She’s that kind of mountain.”
Truth be told, I also didn’t notice anything particularly special about it when I first looked — it was just another of the many beautiful mountains. After reading Fukuda’s words again, though, I did begin to appreciate the shape of the mountain a bit more. The thing that Fukuda draws attention to specifically is fact that it has three well-formed cirques, that is spots where ancient glaciers carved out depressions in the mountain’s surface that resemble amphitheaters. Two of these are visible in the above photo. Although cirques are not unheard of in Japan, according to Fukuka, possessing so many of such quality sets it apart.
When I stood there gazing off at the mountain, though, I was more interested in that long, low ridge extending southward, as seen on the left side of the photograph. This was our route of approach, and I was rather pleased to have the rare chance to get such a clear view of it ahead of time. After passing over the Peak of the Gap later that morning, we would descend back below the treeline and into that forested ridge, where we would camp for the night. On the next morning, we would then finish our ascent to that far off peak.
Chapter 12: Race Against Rain
By the time we reached the summit of the Peak of the Gap, though, Senjo was no longer visible: the mist had returned and the clouds had darkened, warning of an impending storm. We knew we had to be on our way. Once below the treeline on the ridge, we would be safe no matter the weather, but between us and there was a steep and rocky descent to Three Peaks (Mibu-dake, 三峰岳), and from there and even steeper and more treacherous descent to the treeline. We set off.
At Three Peaks, the clouds pulled back somewhat, revealing gorgeous ridgelines. Sun even managed to shine through in places. I pulled out the camera to take some shots, feeling like we may have dodged the rain after all. However, as I was packing it away, I noticed that some raindrops had fallen on my lens.
We began our descent once more, but we had hardly made it fifteen minutes when the sky opened up on us.
Chapter 13: Rain, Then and Again
We were wading through a thicket of creeping pines (haimatsu, 這松) when the rain arrived. These low alpine shrubs form nearly impenetrable masses of brush on high mountaintops all across Japan, and even when there are well maintained trails they tend to reach out rough tendrils to snatch at passerby. In our case, given the narrowness of the rocky ridge, they actually served to make us safer as they prevented us from tumbling down to the left or right regardless of how slippery the path was; on the downside, those spindly needled branches, similar to those on a fir tree, held tight to the rainwater. That is, until we brushed up against them. At that point, all of that water would tumble straight down our shins and into our shoes, soaking our feet. So much for water-resistant boots.
At one point we came to a spot where the trail suddenly dropped some eight or ten feet almost straight down with nothing more than a chain strapped to the pines to assist in the descent. In fact, it wouldn’t have been all that daunting in good conditions wearing just a day pack, but with the trail slick with mud and with us carrying a good four days worth of supplies, we had a tough time getting down it.
Eventually though, the rain dropped off as we entered the forest below. We both hoped that, like yesterday, this would be the end of it. However, less than an hour later it returned, only harder than before. Though we were certainly happier to be getting this rain under the shelter of the forest, we were nonetheless pretty dour at this point. We walked in silence for about two hours when the rain finally let up again.
Chapter 14: Thunder on the Ridge
It was a pretty gentle downhill stroll from the time we hit the treeline until we reached the lowest part of the ridge, where a spur trail down to the Noro River’s headwaters descended on the right. According to the map at the end of that path there was another mountain hut, roughly an hour’s hike. When the rain had been harder, we debated going there to stay the night and to get out of the rain, but since it had lightened up we chose to keep on to our original destination for the night, a small pond located just before the start of the main ascent to Senjo Peak.
Between us and there, however, was a pair of minor peaks. They weren’t anything high enough to even deserve a proper signboard, but they did require about a hundred meters up and another down to cross over them, so we definitely still had a bit of work ahead of us. It seemed like it would be worth it, though. Our map had marked on the summit of the second peak the characters 露頭, indicating a rocky outcrop. In other words, a good view. As I hadn’t been able to take a single shot since Three Peaks on account of the rain, I was looking forward to it.
As we were descending the far side of the first rise, though, we started to hear something faint off in the distance. It was a booming sound, like maybe a jet hitting sonic boom, or quarry dynamite. But of course, it wasn’t either of those. It was thunder.
“Shit. Tianyu, we gotta get to the pond before the storm comes. I don’t want to set the tent up in the rain.”
With that, I kicked it into high gear. I scrambled up the steep slope to the second peak, sometimes on hands and knees, clambering over rocks and grasping tree roots. Suddenly, the trees fell away and I found myself standing atop a giant rock sticking out above the branches. All around me was mist. I could see just as far as the edge of the rock and the tips of the trees peeking up, but I had no way of knowing just how far there was to fall on either side. Every ten to fifteen seconds, thunder boomed. I had expected this to be an excellent moment for a breathtaking view, but instead I found myself feeling supremely vulnerable.
Shortly after we descended from the rock, the rain came. It wasn’t as heavy as earlier that afternoon, but we were nonetheless drenched all over again in minutes. I think it was probably after another half an hour of walking that we finally came out at the pond. Or what passed for one anyway. There was a beautiful grassy meadow with a puddle in the middle. It certainly looked like it could be a pond if it filled up more, but given all the rain we had recently I had to wonder if it ever would get that far.
Tent set, we crawled inside, stripped off our wet clothes, and wrapped up in our sleeping bags to warm up. In fact, despite being the middle of summer, it was quite chilly with all of that rain coming down. I turned on my NHK news podcast to pass the time.
“Mountain disaster in Gunma Prefecture! Four dead! This morning at 8 a.m…”
I quickly shut it off. Being in mild risk of hypothermia, we weren’t at all in the mood to hear about that kind of thing. We decided to wait out the night in silence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Ôdarumi Pass (大弛峠). It had been about five months since I last stood there. At that time, it was a frigid winter world. Temperatures in those high mountains never even got close to the melting point even at the height of the day, and even if it did the wind chill would hide that fact. Then, the slopes were covered in a deep layer of snow, making each step a treacherous struggle. There was not a sign of human passage save for the single trail of footprints that I had been following for the last day. Sitting in a deserted mountain hut, I tried to decide whether I would push on to those two Famous Mountains, Kinpu (金峰山) and Mizugaki (瑞牆山), or abandon the attempt and return to Tokyo.
Now I stood there once more. On this day I was blessed with a clear sunny sky and balmy temperatures. Green was just starting to appear on the tips of tree branches, and the rhododendrons had finally unfurled their leaves. A layer of snow still lingered, but what remained was melting fast and already marked by the passage of many feet. A collection of tents rose like flowers in spring, and the hut was lively with the sound of chatting hikers, and the smell of cooking curry wafted from the kitchen.
Checking the map
But yet again, I found myself needing to contemplate whether or not to go on to stand at the summits of Kinpu and Mizugaki, or whether to go down empty-handed once more. This time I wasn’t so much hampered by snow as by time. Could I reach our goal and get back down in time to get back to Tokyo in time to catch the 11pm bus to Osaka? Would reaching the tops of those mountains even be worth it if we didn’t have time to savor the experience?
Two days before this quandary, I arrived at Enzan Station (塩山駅) early in the morning on a sunny but hazy May 1st. It was Golden Week, that collection of national holidays grouped at the beginning of the month that resulted in a full week without work or school for the whole country. With the roads, hotels, and major attractions set to be full to the brim with tourists of all walks, I predictably eschewed them all and instead made straight for the mountains, this time accompanied not just by Tianyu but also by an old acquaintance of mine from back in my St. Louis days: Dylan Young, a geologist from Minnesota.
Tianyu, longtime readers will remember, is the first hiking friend I made in Japan, the intrepid amateur hiker who, like me, was foolish or brave enough to attempt climbing Tokyo’s highest mountain in the middle of a typhoon. After a long night drying ourselves next to a blazing woodstove in a mountain hut on the summit of Moss Peak, we naturally became fast friends. Dylan, a new character to grace this blog, is a friend I made when I was a student at Washu. Though not a studying there himself, him and I both happened to be renting rooms from the same landlord in the garden district of St. Louis. Being of the same age and similar temperaments, and both having a taste for good beer, we two got on just fine. Who knew that some years later we’d both be hiking together in Japan?
When Dylan and I arrived at the station, Tianyu was already waiting for us there. Expecting a crowded bus up to the trailhead — we wouldn’t be the only ones attempting to escape the throng by hermitting in the mountains — we hurried down to the bus stop only to find a massive crowd already waiting there, far more than could possibly fit on one bus. Naturally, we were a bit worried about this as buses up into the mountains went out on average less than once per hour; if they didn’t send a second bus then we might end up more than an hour behind schedule.
Waiting for the bus
Luckily, after about a fifteen minute wait, two buses rather than one rolled into the bus circle, and in no time were packed tight and on our way up to Nishizawa Gorge.
The two main goals of this particular trip were, of course, Mt. Kinpu and Mt. Mizugaki, those two peaks that slipped through my fingers on my last trip back in the winter. However, at the outset we weren’t exactly clear about how we were going to get there in the first place. Why on Earth would I plan a trip like that, you might ask? Well, it’s mostly due to a couple of my own idiosyncrasies that confounded with the limited routes available to create this situation.
First, as a person rather obstinate about doing things to absolute completion, I was interested not just in summiting the two mountains above but also in hiking out the rest of the ridge, picking up where I left off last in Ôdarumi pass. However, that pass is located in a somewhat difficult to access place on the ridge, so getting there in a reasonable amount of time isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. The fastest route is, of course, the forest road winding up the north face of the ridge. It’s a comparatively gentle slope going up, but on the downside it’s on the Nagano side, meaning a long and expensive train and bus ride just to get started. Getting on the trail from the southern Yamanashi side would take much less time and money.
From the Yamanashi side, however, the most certain path available is also incredibly long: you have to go up to Kobushi-ga-Take via its south face, then head west along the ridge for more than ten kilometers to Ôdarumi, a route that altogether takes easily more than a full day of hiking. We, however, we hoping to get there by the end of the first day.
A further point that made both of the above routes somewhat unsatisfactory is the fact that I had taken both routes on my last trip and I’m somewhat loath to hike the same section of trail twice if I can help it. After all, every minute I spend on a path I’ve hiked in the past is one minute I’ll never spend on a trail I’ve never walked.
While puzzling over the maps of the area online, however, I found a minor trail going almost directly to Ôdarumi from the Yamanashi side — and what’s more, it went straight through Nishizawa Gorge, which is famous for it’s large collection of scenic waterfalls. According to the map, at the end of the nature trail touring the valley, there was an old path that connected up to a forest road. Following the forest road up the mountain a distance, we could then get on another old path that would connect us with the main trail not far from Ôdarumi, passing along an area ominously called Goblin Ridge (天狗尾根). What could be better?
The problem was, however, that I wasn’t really sure whether the trail was still maintained, and if it wasn’t, whether it would still be passable at all. Certainly if this were the only option I’d have to choose another route: after all, who wants to ruin a whole trip by hitting a dead end before lunch on the first day?
What finally decided me on this route was the fact that there was indeed one more path leading up to Ôdarumi from Nishizawa Gorge. It, like the other, was a minor trail of uncertain condition and on top of that it didn’t go directly up to the main ridge but instead followed a somewhat roundabout route along a spur ridge via a peak called Black Gold Mountain (黒金山), a route that I estimated would be a seriously hard one day hike or a day and change at a more reasonable pace. Taking such a route would certainly place us in danger of not being able to get back in time for the midnight bus to Osaka.
Certainly it wasn’t an ideal route, but since it gave us an alternative if the preferred route wasn’t accessible, it made our minds up: we’d head up Nishizawa Gorge and then take the shortest path that was open, with the hopes that at least one of them would be. So it was that he hit the trail on May 1st without really knowing how things were going to turn out. This seems to be the way most of my trips go.
This post is part 7 of a 7-part series on my winter hiking trip in Chichi-Tama-Kai National Park in Japan. If this is your first time here, I recommend starting at the beginning.
The Way to Ôdarumi
Following the footsteps of my silent companion through the trees to the North side of Kokushi-ga-Take, I was blessed with sweeping views of Nagano (Longfield) Prefecture.
From there the trail descended steeply down towards the Ôdarumi Pass (“Great Release Pass,” 大弛峠), but to my delight the passage was made relatively easy due to the network of wooden stairs and platforms built all along this section. I made good time.
Along the way down, I passed a sign indicating the way to a place called “Garden of Dreams” (夢の庭園) down a spur trail. My companion hadn’t gone that way and I was in no mood to blaze trail through virgin snow, so I didn’t go, but the description from the sign made the place seem worthy of investigation. It read as follows:
Garden of Dreams
This garden, where nature has masterfully arranged boulders and shrubs upon the mat of alpine vegetation, was discovered in the year Shôwa 35 (1960) by Mr. Yamamoto Asatada, who was working as a superintendent for a mountain hut at the time. He introduced it to the world as the “Garden of Dreams.”
It sounded like a really nice spot; I’ve made a mental note to go back there some day when I have the time.
As I descended further, the view of the ridgeline leading onwards to Mt. Kinpu appeared, giving me a more tangible idea of what I would have to go to reach my next goal.
Consulting my map, I determined that the next highest peak visible from where I was, which I had hoped might be Kinpu, was probably Asahi-dake (Morning Sun Peak, 朝日岳), which is pictured below. The peak itself looked rather unimpressive — that is, rather indistinguishable from any typical Japanese mountain, but what really caught my eye was a series of rock formations on the right side of the ridge. You can see them in the picture below; try clicking the picture expand it for a better look.
The Hut in Ôdarumi Pass
At long last I arrived at the hut. It was a fairly small building, not in the best condition but far from the worst that I’d seen. The front door was blocked with plywood held in place my just a wire wrapped around nails pounded into the frame on either side of the door. Unmindful of a certain children’s story warning about wandering into houses in the forest that don’t belong to you, I unraveled the wire, removed the boards, and went inside.
The building was divided into two sections: a small room with several tables and a closed down food counter, and a sleeping room with a small woodstove. The most welcome thing, though, was that the water source was there as advertised: a small spring coming out from a springhouse at the back of the building, accessible through a door at the back of the sleeping chamber. I was able to fill my bottles, though with some difficulty as there was no pool of water but just a shallow stream flowing directly out of the rocks. I drank my fill, then went back into the sleeping room, pulled out my alcohol stove, and cooked my last pack of ramen. The hot broth was certainly welcome after the last day or so of lonely cold.
Now came the decision: what to do. I followed my companions footprints down to the road and saw quickly that, rather than continuing down the ridge they went straight down the road to Nagano without even a pause. That decided me: I would not be continuing on to Kinpu. As much trouble as I’d had so far walking on trail already marked by my companion’s footprints, I wasn’t in any mood to expend the effort on traipsing through virgin snow, let alone having to discern the trail on my own.
Thinking about failing to reach a second famous mountain on this trip wasn’t as disappointing as I might have thought had I considered this proposition at the outset. I was, after all, more than satisfied with the beautiful views that I’d seen so far and I was about tired of the cold as well. What was mostly on my mind was what to do next. My first thought was to just stay in the hut for the night, making good use of that woodstove and the ample pile of firewood outside, and then head down in the morning. I walked back up to the hut and sat down at one of the tables in the dining area.
I didn’t sit their long before I became intensely aware of how cold it was in there, and I also began to think about how long I had to wait here until I’d be leaving in the morning. Checking the clock, I saw that it was 1:00 p.m. That meant a good 16 hours departing, half of which I’d be awake and in need of entertainment. It was, however, far too cold to take out my book without building up a good fire first, but I didn’t want to waste too much of the wood that the hut superintendent had prepared and left. I felt as though I should save it just for the evening when it got dark. But, though I had more than enough podcasts to last me on my phone, I couldn’t afford to waste the battery since I needed it for photos. It seemed like it would be an incredibly boring time.
Suddenly, I had a thought. I went down to the road, which offered a clear view both down into Nagano and back in Yamanashi, which suggested that I might be able to get signal. I booted up my wifi hotspot and sure enough, I had one, so I googled the bus timetable for the line at the bottom on the Nagano side and saw that the last bus would be leaving at 5:30, leaving about 4 1/2 hours to get there. Given that I’d be walking leisurely down a paved road, I figured I could easily make that bus with hours to spare. So now I had two options: stay here for the night, or go down.
With thoughts of a hot bath in mind, I decided to go down.
Deep Snow on the North Face
Apparently, I made a serious miscalculation. My expectation was that I would have a nice, easy, leisurely walk from Ôdarumi Pass down to the bus stop below in the small village of Riverside Bottom (川端下, Kawahake). After all, I’d be walking on a road, right? What I didn’t consider, though, was the fact that the ridge at this point ran exactly east to west, meaning that my path down was due north — and therefore receives next to no sunshine this time of year.
What’s the problem with that? No sunlight means lower temperatures than other parts of the mountain; lower temperatures means snow melts less, or not at all; this means that the snow on this particular part of the mountain was the deepest I’d experienced yet. We’re talking knee deep or more in the worst spots. As it turned out, my leisurely walk down the mountain turned into a more than 4-hour trudge.
I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say that it was every bit as difficult as my ascent to the false peak ahead of Kokushi earlier in the day, and this time I was pushed on by the urgency of needing to catch that last bus. Luckily, the lower I went the more the snow receded until eventually the road was completely clear.
As I connected with the main road, I ran into an older Japanese man and his apparently 20-something year old son, both decked out in hardcore winter hiking gear and gigantic packs. I must have looked pretty odd and maybe even foolish to them wearing just my jeans and Uniqlo heat-tech windbreaker, but my gear had served me well.
By the time we finally reached the bus stop, it was just minutes to departure, but we made it. From there we rode down to the nearest train station, a really Podunk little spot with nothing more than a parking lot and vending machine. From there it was a good three hours back home, but when I arrived I had a hot meal and bath waiting for me. I guess that makes me a lucky guy.
This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.
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I was starting to get frustrated. Not long after breaking camp on the morning of the third day of my winter trip the trail had turned steep. Really steep. And, true to Japanese trails, it was going straight up the side of the mountain without a single switchback. But that wasn’t the problem — I’m used to that kind of thing by now. What made this so bad was the snow. Hiking up such a slope would be difficult in normal conditions, but the slippery layer of snow on top of it caused me to slide back down the mountain with each step, reducing my forward distance to only a few centimeters per step, which had the effect of more or less tripling the effort required to ascend the slope. Even with my spikes on, I wasn’t getting enough traction to prevent this. At times I even had to crawl on my hands and knees.
It was one of those times where hiking wasn’t exactly enjoyable. On top of the fact that I was exhausting myself ascending the steep, snowy slope, the intense cold meant stopping to rest didn’t really give me any respite: as soon as I stopped moving I started to cool off fast, forcing me to press on again, and when I did stop to rest, I was forced to stand because everything was covered in snow so there was no place to sit that wouldn’t leave me with a soaking wet rear end. It was even hard to take pictures since I was using a smartphone and had to take off my gloves to get a shot. Throw on top of all that the fact that the water that I’d meticulously unfrozen by the fire the night before (a challenging task considering the water was stored in plastic, so I couldn’t let it get too hot) had already frozen solid yet again, leaving me with no drinking water.
At this point, I was about ready to walk my ass right back down off the mountain once I made it to Ôdarumi Pass on the far side of Kokushi-ga-Take. And it looked like it would be a breeze to get back down from there: according to my maps, a mountain road passed through there and it looked like it might be paved. After all this, a leisurely walk down paved forest road sounded rather welcome in comparison to trudging onward through the snowy trail, even if it did prevent me from getting another of Fukuda’s famous mountains added to my list.
On the bright side, given terrain, I felt like I had to be the final ascent to Kokushi, so I couldn’t be that far off from Ôdarumi either. And aside from the road awaiting me there, there also promised to be a mountain hut and a water source.
At last, exhausted, I reached the top and was greeted by a stunning view of Fuji.
I was unfortunately not as pleased with the sight as you might expect. Upon reaching the top, I quickly noticed that there was no marker signaling this as the top of Kokushi, and further, it was plainly evident from the view ahead that there was still quite a lot more ascent to go — and that only after descending down into another saddle. I rested as long as I could before I got too cold, then pressed on.
It’s hard to keep track of time when you’re out on the trail alone; it’s doubly hard when it’s too cold to take out your phone and check. I haven’t a clue how long it took for me to finally come out on top of Kokushi, just that the moment when I finally hit level ground at the top was a great relief. What made it all the better was the fact that the spot was rocky and also directly exposed to the sun, meaning that the snow had mostly melted, leaving me with a decent place to sit and rest.
“Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park ‒ Kokushi-ga-Take ‒ Altitude 2592 meters ‒ Yamanashi Prefecture”
Translating the Name
Though I’m not as well versed in Japanese mountain lore as Fukuda, I noticed straightaway a bit of history contained in the name Kokushi-ga-Take, so I sought to translate it to make that a little more apparent to my readers, but getting the right nuance proved difficult. The last part, ga-Take (ヶ岳), was easy enough: it just means “The Peak of.” The rub was the first part, Kokushi (国師). As you’ve read so far, I’ve translated it, perhaps overly literally, as Country Master, but the nuances that these words bring to mind mislead one from the meaning that the Japanese word is meant to convey. To begin with, the word “country” in the context of my rendering of the name suggests the idea of the countryside, the antonym of urban and synonym of rural. However, the character koku (国) refers exclusively to country in the sense of a large swath of land, as in the example, “Russia is a vast country.” The second part, “master,” also is a bit misleading as the character shi (師) does not refer to one who controls something, like the master of a house or an estate, but in the sense of a person who has mastered a form of learning or a skill. Thus, though we can literally translate the name as country master, the implication of the words in English is entirely different from the connotations of the Japanese.
What, then, is a kokushi, a country master? As one might guess, it has a deep historical meaning going back well over a century, though today the word is probably not well known to the average person. The word, as it turns out, is actually a political title under the ritsuryo legal system, which was implemented in its earliest form in 645 C.E as an imitation of Chinese style legal systems based on Confucianism and Legalism. Initially, Kokushi was a title given to a Buddhist monk and denoted a person who was dispatched to various locales, or koku, by the imperial court in order to supervise their temples and clergy members as well as to explicate the sutras. Later, kokushi would come to refer to a high monk whose duty was to explain Buddha’s law to the emperor. In this way, then, we can understand kokushi as referring at first to a master (i.e. teacher) sent to the country and perhaps later as a master who came from the country. How the title came to be attached to this mountain, though, I can only guess.
Onward to Ôdarumi Pass
With level ground finally at hand moving became easy in spite of the deep snow. Or at least it was so much easier compared to the path behind me that it felt that way. I hurried along, glad to finally be within reach of the hut in Ôdarumi Pass. As I tend to do whenever the going gets easier, I began to think again about continuing rather than giving up. After all, I was eager to reach Kinpu and add another one of the 100 Famous Mountains to the list of those I’ve climbed. However, at the same time I had to acknowledge the snow. According to the map, it would be quite a few hours more to reach the next hut after the one in Ôdarumi and I definitely wanted to make sure I stayed in one tonight. The distance wouldn’t be a problem under normal conditions seeing as it was just pushing noon now, but the snow would undoubtedly slow me down.
In the end, I resolved to let my silent companion make the decision for me: if she went on, then I would too; if her steps led me off the mountain, then that way I would go. In a way, it was kind of a cop out since I was basically just putting the decision someone else’s shoulders. Luckily, my companion didn’t mind.
This post is part 6 of a 7-part series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series for more photos and stories from the trail.
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