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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 4: The Long Road to Senjo Peak

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.

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Senjo Peak (千丈岳)

Of all the mountains in the Southern Alps, Fukuda, author of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains, liked this one the best.  He wrote:

“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.

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The red line marks the route.

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.

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Panorama from the saddle at the base of Three Peaks
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The descent from the Peak of the Gap
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Panorama from the summit of Three Peaks

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.

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Tianyu standing waist-deep in creeping pines

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.


© Brian Heise, 2018

Summer Trip 2018 Part 2: Seeking Sunset

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

Chapter 4: Good Omens in Kofu City

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

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

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The entrance to Kofu Castle
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Clouds obscure the mountains
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The bailey at Kofu Castle
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Clouds over Kofu City
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An old dojo

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

Chapter 5: Premonitions at Broad Riverbed

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

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

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Clouds in the valley on the way to the Broad Riverbed

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

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Broad Riverbed
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The campground
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Tents at Broad Riverbed Campground
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Stacked stones

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

 

Chapter 5: The Grey Curtain

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

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Left to North Peak, right to Broad Riverbed
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Boardwalks over treacherous areas
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Whiteroot Pond Hut
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Adventurers
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The campground at Whiteroot Pond Hut
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The Three Phoenix Mountains
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Looking down on Whiteroot Pond

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

 

Chapter 7: Silver Glass

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

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

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Tianyu prepares to eat his noodles
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The clouds open up

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

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Towards the North Peak from the Hut on North Peak’s Shoulder

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

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The North Peak’s grey summit
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Mountain Flora 1
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Mountain Flora 2

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

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Approaching sunset
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Looking down on North Peak Lodge

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


© Brian Heise, 2018

Golden Week 2018 Part I: Picking Up Where We Left Off

Again at Ôdarumi Pass

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.

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?

Enzan Station

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.

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Intrepid heroes: Tianyu, Dylan, and me

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.

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.

Uncertain Plans

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.

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The route to Odarumi Pass from Nagano is marked in solid red

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.

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The main ridge: Kobushi-ga-Take is directly ahead, with the ridge rising on the left towards Odarumi Pass
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The route via Kobushi-ga-Take, marked in solid red

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?

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Confirmed path is marked in read; the uncertain portion is marked in purple; the forest road is marked in black.

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.

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The alternate route is marked in blue.

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.

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Going up

© Brian Heise, 2018

Winter 2017 Hiking VII: The Great Release

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

The Way to Ôdarumi

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

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Nagano I
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Nagano II
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My Silent Companion

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

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

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

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

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

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Stairs on the descent from Kokushi.

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

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The Hut in Ôdarumi Pass

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

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

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

 

Considerations

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

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

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

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

 

Deep Snow on the North Face

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

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

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

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Frozen over.

 

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A Nagano forest.
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The last leg.

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

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


This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.

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

© 2018 Brian Heise

Winter 2017 Hiking VI: The Country Master

A Rough Path to the Country Master

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

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

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

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

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

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Fuji after a tough climb.

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

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

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“Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park ‒ Kokushi-ga-Take ‒ Altitude 2592 meters ‒ Yamanashi Prefecture”
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Mt. Fuji from the summit of Kokushi-ga-Take
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The high mountains of Nagano Prefecture loom in the distance.

 

Translating the Name

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

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

 

Onward to Ôdarumi Pass

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

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

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A rock.

 


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

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

© 2018 Brian Heise

 

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

On Surviving Solo Hikes

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

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

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

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

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

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The view from the slopes of Tokusa

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

“No problem,” he replied.

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

 

The Race to Kobushi Continues

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

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

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

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Where we came from: Mt. Hafu in the distance

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

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A last shot of Fuji before entering the trees.

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

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

 

A Parting on the Peak

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

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Fuji from Kobushi, just below the summit.
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Nagano
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Is that Kinpu in the distance? I hoped so.
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Nagano directly ahead, my route is on the left.
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A last shot of Fuji.

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


This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.

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

2017 Winter Hiking III: The Race to Kobushi

The Peak of the Fist

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

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

 

The Race to Kobushi

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

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Morning at camp

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

“Damn, we have to hurry! Let’s move!”

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A last shot from camp

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

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Mt. Fuji from the side of a boulder

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

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Mt. Fuji, Nishizawa Gorge, and another ridge connected to Kobushi
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Mt. Fuji and the foggy Yamanashi City
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The trail ahead, Nagano in the distance
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Back towards the Kanto and Tokyo

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

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The descent to the shelter and Kobushi beyond.
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A wider shot of the above

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fuji from in front of the shelter

This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.

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

2017 Winter Hike Part II: Return to Goose Hill

The Disaster on Kobushi Peak

“The earliest mountain disaster that I know of is that of Kobushi Peak.” Fukuda’s words lift off the page as I read them, causing me to shiver slightly. I lowered the book and glanced around the train, but the other passengers were oblivious to my discomfort.

The disaster occurred roughly a century ago, before hiking had become the national pastime that it is today. A group of five intrepid young freshman from Tokyo University, then Tokyo Imperial University, set off to climb Kobushi-ga-Take. In those days, it was an isolated place, located far up in the mountains outside of Tokyo. There were no buses deep into the valley like the one that Tianyu and I would take, let alone paved roads for them to drive on. It was a different era, but even in those days young boys still felt the drive to seek adventure. They weren’t unlike me.

From the village where they started, a round trip to Kobushi would take several days on rough trails without signs that the locals made for their own use. Maps, if they existed, would have been crude by today’s standards. Nonetheless, the boys probably would have been fine if it weren’t for the torrential rain came, causing them to lose the path. According to Fukuda, all but one died of exposure — hypothermia, I would imagine.

The thing that brought me pause was less the fact that I was about to hike Kobushi in just over two weeks but rather my last trip to that same mountain range. I thought about my own torrential downpour and my knowledge if things had gone differently, I very well might have not come back down myself.

 

Bus Troubles

Despite how unsettled I was on that day on the train, those thoughts were pretty far out of my mind on the first day of the trip — quite in spite of the fact that hypothermia was a much more serious risk this time around. At this point, though, I was much too distracted by the fact that I had just discovered that the bus that I had planned to ride home at the end of the trip wasn’t running this time of year. Searching for an alternative, I scanned the map I had laid out on my lap for another stop near Mount Mizugaki that might still have buses running. There was only one road going to that spot, so my best hope was that maybe only the last stop or two were closed but the rest of the line was open. I traced the road with my finger and found another stop, and another, and another, but I checked them one by one on google and none of them had buses stopping there this time of year. Apparently the whole line was closed.

Searching around more on the map, I found a stop far down the mountain on the north side. It would require backtracking from Mizugaki back to Mount Kinpu to get to, but it was better than nothing. I checked online and sure enough, buses were still stopping there. Next I checked the time markers on the map, but to my disappointed I realized it was unlikely that I’d be able to go to Mizugaki and then get all the way back Kinpu and back down on the original timetable I had set — I’d have to tack on another day, but I wasn’t sure I had enough food for that.

I sighed. It was clear that I’d just have to go straight down from Kinpu and leave Mizugaki off this trip. The hike hadn’t even started and already one of the three famous mountains on Fukuda’s list was scratched off. On the bright side, though, at least I’d have an excuse to come back here again, and in better weaher. So, I guess it wasn’t a total loss after all. I explained my plan to Tianyu.

“Oh, that’s interesting. That’ll take you down into Nagano. It’s a lot longer trip back from that side.”

“How much longer?”

“I don’t know. I think it takes something like six hours from there to Tokyo.”

I frowned.

“I was actually thinking about hiking down into Nagano from Kobushi myself. I don’t think I’ll have time though. I need to get back for some work at my university.”

The bus finally pulled up to our destination: the michi no eki (i.e. road stop) in Nishizawa. This time of year, the place is completely shut down. The most you can expect is a soda out of the machine (more expensive than down in the valley) and flush toilets (happily free). We both made sure to make our acquaintance with our last chance at the latter for the next few days before moving onward.

The path to Karisaka Tôge from the michi no eki for the first hour or so is a roughly paved forest road that runs steeply (much steeper than I remembered) up into the mountain before terminating suddenly immediately after crossing a small brook. Looking at the spot the second time around, I couldn’t help but wonder why on Earth anyone had built this road to nowhere. Probably a waste of taxpayer money, and one that ruined an hour’s worth of hiking to boot.

Although we were fairly warm as we hiked up due to the energy we were exerting on the moderate incline, many sections of the roadway were covered in a rough coating of ice — somewhat foreboding given that we were still about one vertical kilometer short of the height of the ridgeline.

We stopped to eat a snack before hitting the trail proper.

“So you said you have something you need to do at the university the day after tomorrow, right?” I asked.

“That’s right,” Tianyu replied.

I frowned, thinking. “So…you need to arrive back home by tomorrow night?”

“Right.”

“When was it that the last bus was leaving?” I suppose I neglected to mention earlier, but Tianyu would be hiking right back down to the same bus stop that we just got off at, making a big two-day circle route.

“Let me check.” Tianyu took out his phone, but there was no signal.

“Well,” I said, “We can estimate based on the picture I took of the timetable down at the train station.” The last bus arriving at the station was around 4:30, and I already knew it took about an hour by bus to get from the gorge all the way back down, meaning that the last bus probably would leave around 3:30 or so tomorrow. Again I pulled out the map and checked the time estimates for the trail and found that it would take approximately three hours to go from the top of Kobushi directly back to Nishizawa Gorge Trailhead (西沢渓谷入口). “Ok then. We need to arrive at the top no later than twelve tomorrow. We better get moving!”

And so our race to Kobushi started.

 

Return to Goose Hill

The trail to Karisaka Pass rises gradually along the stream flowing down Kudozawa Valley (久渡沢), a narrow offshoot of Nishizawa, before ascending a steep set of switchbacks up to the pass itself. Aside from the fact that the lush trees were now devoid of greenery and that the waterfalls were all covered in a layer of ice, the trail was much the same as it had been back in August. One point that I had been a bit worried about, which we came to quite quickly, was a point where the trail crossed directly over a steep rock face down which a tributary to the main stream was flowing. As I had expected, this had almost completely frozen over, creating an ice slick that threatened to send us shooting down to the bottom of the valley should we take the wrong step. Luckily, I was ready: reaching into my pack, I produced two sets of shoe spikes, which I had bought years ago in preparation for a winter climb of Halla-san, the tallest mountain in south Korea. Unfortunately I never got to use them since the day before the hike a huge blizzard came, leading to an indefinite closure of the mountain. We put them on and effortlessly crossed the ice.

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Tianyu on the slope.

About two hours after we got off the bus, the trail finally diverged from the stream to start the final ascent up to the pass. The trail here makes a series of switchbacks as it goes up the incredibly steep slope. At this point, though, the trees finally started to thin out to reveal the valley below and Mt. Fuji in the distance, a major contrast to the mist-shrouded hilltop that I had visited back in the summer.

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Nishizawa Gorge, Yamanashi City, and Mt. Fuji
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A little higher up
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Down the ridge from Karisaka Pass. Beyond is Suisho-san (水晶山, Mount Crystal), the last mountain I passed over on my previous trip.
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Down the valley from the top of Karisaka Pass.

The wind was brutal up there, whipping our clothes as we took in the view. It was a tough climb, so we took a moment to rest, but without the constant exercise, the windchill factor started to get to us a bit. I put on my vest and sock hat.

Checking the clock, I saw that it was already just after one. We were almost two hours behind schedule. At this point I knew full well that we likely wouldn’t be able to make it to the shelter by nightfall and that we’d have to put down the tent after all. That in and of itself grants its own problems though in that we’d likely lose another whole hour of hiking from the next day due to the logistics of camping on this kind of mountain range. Given that the sun would be fully set by 4:30 and the fact that in the narrow, rocky ridges of this range would prevent us from just throwing a tent down anywhere, I estimated that we’d have to set camp at the first spot we found after 3:00 pm, leaving us a full hour and a half of daylight to find the spot, set camp, and gather firewood for the long night. At this rate, tomorrow was looking like it would be a tough day if we were going to make it to the summit of Kobushi by noon. We had to move on, and fast.

 

From Goose Hill to Somewhere

The route from Karisaka Pass to Kobushi Peak is rough and treacherous. The path follows along a narrow ridgeline steeply dropping hundreds of feet downward on either side and rising and falling abruptly by about 200 meters between each of the peaks along the way, Karisaka-rei (雁坂嶺, “Goose-hill Ridge”) and Happu-san (破風山, “Mt. Ripping-wind”). According to the map, it should take just under three hours to get to the shelter, which lay in the saddle between Happu and Kobushi. Given that it was about 1:30 when we left the pass, it seemed like we might barely have a shot at arriving there before sundown.

The first part of the path, up to Karisaka Ridge, was deceptively easy — although the path was ascending, it was certainly gradual by the standards of way up to the pass. We made decent time as we walked.

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Near Karisaka Ridge
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Fuji from Karisaka Ridge
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Colors begin to appear as the sun moves towards the horizon.
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In the distance is Happu and Kobushi beyond.
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The snow-covered path slopes downward.

Following Karisaka Ridge, the trail descended sharply by more than 200 meters. By the time we reached the bottom, it was a little after three. As expected, the trail before that point left us no options for pitching a tent, but in the saddle the ground was mostly flat, a lot wider, and also had plenty of firewood laying about. I weighed the options with Tianyu: get out our flashlights and try to push out the rest of the way to the shelter, or just stay here where we know we’ll have a hot fire for the night. We both agreed that the place with a guaranteed supply of firewood was best, so we dropped our bags and set camp.

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The sun begins to set on Mt. Fuji
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太陽
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Mt. Fuji at sunset
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The sun disappears behind Happu
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Darkness and light

Things got cold (colder really) fast after the sun went down, but we got a big fire burning really quickly. Time to warm up! Tianyu and I spent the next few hours stuffing our faces and chatting about this and that, the highlight being of course the hot ramen that I cooked over my handmade alcohol stove. Nothing gets you warm like a pot of spicy ramen delivered straight to the gullet. About an hour before bedtime, which we set as 9 p.m., I broke out the whiskey bottle and we (mostly I) had a few drinks.

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Tianyu by the fire.

Easily the best part of winter hiking is evenings by the fire, huddling close and truly appreciating with perfect context what it means to be warm. Possibly the worst part is putting out the fire knowing you’ll have to spend a long, cold night waiting for sunrise. I luckily slept soundly through most of the night, due to the combination of waking up at 4 a.m. coupled with the strenuous exercise. Tianyu wasn’t so lucky as the dual assault on his ears of the whistling wind on top of my own snoring ensured that he spent many a long hour awake while waiting for the sun.


This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.

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