Asama + Utsukushigahara + Kurumayama + Tateshina

Today started with failure. The rain drumming down on the car roof during the night became sharp particles of driving ice at 2000 meters, and Hana was not happy. In fact, she was severely disturbed and started running madly in ever-widening circles on the hard snow crust. I had goretex, she had nothing. It would be worse higher up. It was not a difficult decision, so we beat a hasty retreat. Asama will still be there later in the year.


The monstrosity that sits atop Utsukushigahara is surely, to quote Craig McLachlan, “not what Mr. Fukuda had in mind”. At Kurumayama (Kirigamine), the road almost runs over the top, and any possibility of communing with nature today was destroyed by packs of motorbikers on their Harleys. These are two “mountains” that should be de-listed.

I had failed to climb Tateshina two months ago. Even with snowshoes, the deep fresh snow without the tracks of other hikers had proved too much. Today the weather was clement and there was a good track in the snow. The 360-degree views under a cool blue sky compensated for the horrors of the first three climbs today.



A Honda Fit is not a large car. Just 1300cc, and less than 4 meters long. But with a storm breaking and the wind blowing the car off the road, the tent was not an option. At 10pm, We backed the car into the covered entrance of the information center building so that we could access at least the boot in the dry, and found that the seats folded down flat and would *just* take a 174cm body lying fully stretched. Actually, it was very cozy, with the rain slamming down on the roof and the wind rocking the vehicle.

In the wet morning, I retrieved the dog’s plastic cage which had been blown across the carpark and down the hill, and started off up Daisen, soon to meet a 20-something rosy-cheeked girl bouncing down the mountain, looking like she did this every morning before breakfast. She must have started at dawn before the storm had eased.

Tougher than me.

Ishizuchi + Tsurugi – Doping

7:30 am was a late start. The first ropeway at this time of year was not until 9 am, although during the festival in July, it runs from a crisp 4:30 am. Walking added another 800 meters of ascent, but was still the quicker option. Immediately beyond the start of the forested trail, a cluster of dilapidated, abandoned houses were quietly being enveloped by nature. Large stone platforms, once perfectly constructed to form flat foundations, were crumbling and now covered by succulent mosses. The sponge bed of soft pine-needle branch ends, snipped off by the birds during the winter to eat the tender flesh within, was kind on the feet while the trees provided welcome shade.

 Once above the main Joju temple, I passed one pilgrim dressed all in white, but wearing nothing better than soft-soled Nike trainers. He would struggle on the remnants of the snow that were clearly visible on the massive, steep rock flank of Ishizuchi. Somewhat higher up, a rather better equipped old man explained that he had climbed the mountain every April for the last 17 years, but at 70 years old, it was getting harder and he had failed last year due to snow. The peak of Ishizuchi, although not technical, was sufficiently steep to produce a surge of adrenalin, for I do not cope well with heights. If Hana bounded too far up the rock slabs, it was a very long drop over the precipice. I could occasionally hear her claws scrabbling for grip, her front legs splayed wide as she slid back down the slabs. On the descent, we reached the old man at a short traverse across a snow slope, whereupon he decided to abandon again.

I was tired. Accumulated tiredness, sore muscles, and beginning to doubt whether I could string together multiple peaks on successive days. I hesitantly suggested to Kin that we could simply return to Honshu, and enjoy a couple of days of sightseeing and onsens. Perhaps even stay at nice hotels, rather than a tent in concrete carparks. “Absolutely not,” she retorted. “This is a trial, and whether you fail or succeed, you won’t learn unless you try.” She’s tough when I need it most.

So, during the long drive to Tsurugi, with 42 kilometers of narrow mountain road passing through dying villages, I drank a bottle of Zero Coke and took an Amino Vital sachet. By the time I set off from the empty carpark of Tsurugi, with the mist coming down, the wind picking up strength and the drizzle turning to rain, I didn’t care. I felt like I had drunk a rocket. An absolute high, no trace of leg fatigue. We were up and down within one hour. If a hobby hiker can feel like this on just 300-yen’s worth of legal substances picked up from a convenience store, I can understand why, according to one survey, approximately 50% of professional athletes would take drugs if doing so guaranteed them Gold, but that they would then die after 5 years.

Aso, Sobo + Kuju

The concrete bunker at the base of Aso provided a safe shelter should the mountain have chosen to erupt during the night, but the choking stench of sulphur was unsettling. It was a relief to emerge at 4 am and start up the eastern route under a full moon, with the city lights far below conveying the reassuring proximity of people, for there was no one else up here. A narrow-focus LED mini-handtorch clearly picked out the yellow paint marks on the rocks, and upon reaching the ridgeline, I was greeted by a pre-dawn chorus of skylarks.

From the summit of Takadake, I crossed along the ridge as dawn broke and the hazy deep blue hue gave way to the welcoming brightness of day, then descended the western route. But what an obscenity! The hiking trail, for a full kilometer down to the carpark, was sealed with rubberized asphalt. Puh-leease.

Sobo felt good – a steep straight climb up, with no undulations to delay the gain in altitude. On the descent, what appeared to be an old forest worker in workman’s overalls was climbing up, followed by two very young men in smart suits and ties, immaculate black office shoes, clutching clipboards and camera. What were they up to?

Kuju did not feel good. It was by now a cloudless sky and hot afternoon, and we were both tired. The undulating route seemed interminable, and Hana lay down on the cool, shaded ground whenever I paused. We passed a French father with his two sons. Stopped at a fork in the trail, they were lost. They had no map, and could read no Japanese!

Back at the car, a health check of one tired dog revealed that the pads on her back paws had been rubbed raw. Sorry.


Kaimon + Kirishima

Bakugeki is not located in the heart of Kagoshima, but last night it was full and the food was excellent. The only missing ingredient was the owner, a co-worker of Kin, who had bravely moved from Tokyo back to her hometown of Kagoshima years ago to start this restaurant with her partner. But today was her day off. The reverse of the menu featured monthly comments from the staff, where we learned that her partner had persuaded her to start hiking, as evidenced by a picture of her spanking-new red Italian hiking boots.

As I descended from Kaimon, those fancy red hiking boots were unmistakable, with not a speck of mud on them. And at the same moment, she recognized the unusual combination of a gaijin running with a dog. It was 15 years since we had last met!

In contrast to the dozens of hikers on Kaimon, Kirishima (Karakunidake) was deserted, save for a sole figure resting on his pack at the peak, gazing out over the gathering clouds split by shafts of late afternoon sun. Interested in Hana, the foreigner explained that he regularly took his German shepherd hiking in the European Alps. “Any problems with rangers?” “Well, occasionally because the dog is off the lead, but I just ignore them.”

Yakushima/Miyanoura – Broken promise

I didn’t sleep much last night. The dream was a call to my guilt. A watchtower stood at the entrance to the Yodogawa tozanguchi, and was manned by two fierce sentries. They were not going to let me pass with a dog. I had read of a Japanese taking his Papillon dog into the park through the exit, which was unmanned. But here, the sentries were keeping watch of both the entrance and the exit. I chose not to reveal my fears to Kin, but thought long and hard about whether I should take Hana up the hill.

Once on the trail, the concentration required to navigate the tree roots dispelled any worries about being in a World Heritage Site with a dog. But under the law, it is *not* illegal. Releasing or capturing fauna and flora is.

I heard them long before I saw them. Nothing to do with natural heritage, approximately 30 pensioners were chattering loudly as they picnicked in the sunshine amid the swaying sasa grass. The first guide said nothing. The second, “No dogs. No no.” “So which is worse, I bring 1 animal, or you bring 30?” was on the tip of my tongue, but all that emerged was “Sumimasen”. The dog doesn’t talk, doesn’t litter, doesn’t drop food. And, unlike the third guide, does not smoke. Having come this far, it was a relief not to be defeated and to reach the top without physical deterrence.

Driving slowly back down the mountain road, Yakushima deer and monkeys were stationed where cars could pull over, surely only because people have fed them in the past. Yes, if you really want to protect this heritage, please do not build a massive road across the mountainside, and do not allow people into the park.

And the broken promise? Nothing to do with dogs. After a successful climb, we stocked up in the supermarket for a feast, where cans of beer were glistening with sweat in the moist air and positively calling out “Buy me, buy me!”. We had promised not to drink during this week of climbing.

Assault on Kyushu + Shikoku

The plan was to see what was physically possible in a few days, sharing the driving in a small rented car. I often slept after each climb while Kin drove to the base of the next mountain, but we had agreed not to drive through the night this time. After all, it was supposed to be a holiday of sorts.

Dogs get royal treatment on planes, hand-carried separately from the luggage and put into the pressurized, heated hold. Upon arrival, they are taken out of the hold first in a special truck, and appear before the luggage carousel even starts moving. Certainly more comfortable than the unbearable heat within the cabin on a full flight.