Makihata + Naeba – Miserable carparks, miserable mountains

The rain had started before I even managed to rent the car at Takasaki. The 50 km/h speed restriction on the expressway due to thick fog and rain did nothing to lift my low spirits, but I had resolved to hike this weekend regardless of the grim forecast. On either side of the country road heading up the valley, detached farmhouses stood in the center of their land, soft light filtered through the paper screen windows reflecting from the filled paddies. But in the total darkness, Sakurazaka carpark at the base of Makihata was unnerving. As the car headlights swung around, I was greeted by large signboards screaming in bold red letters “DO NOT use the Nukubi course or Tengu course. Extreme danger!”, “Hike at your own risk – we take no responsibility!”, “DO NOT dig out the refuge hut with ice-axes”, “Sawa route closed due to landslide”, “Bears – beware!” It was enough to make me head for the climbers’ card box (for the first time) to fill in a route card, but there were none…

I decided to hike as fast as possible, with a jacket but without Goretex bottoms. Surely the gaiters would keep the water out? This was stupid. Within half an hour, there was a pond in each boot. The path was a stream, and the rain became increasingly horizontal higher up. Would the dog get blown off the ridge in these winds? She really was not happy and kept stopping to shake off the water,

or rub her face in the snow, perhaps to find relief from the painful driving rain. And we both kept getting caught by the spring-loaded branches of silver birches that had been bowed down into the snowpack by the burden of winter but were now primed for release by a misplaced foot.

What constitutes the top of a hyakumeizan? The solid signpost and height marking of 1967m were unmistakable, but the GPS and map showed that the highest point was another 5 minutes up the snowfield. I didn’t care – I was grateful for whoever had decided that this was the top, and beat a hasty retreat, stopping briefly at the refuge hut which surely is the best I have seen, a solidly constructed timber hut complete with ensuite toilet.

Upon descending, there was now a second car, but the three occupants from Tokyo had decided it was not worth going up today, and upon seeing me emptying out water from boots, pack and pockets, kindly made me a bowl of steaming salty miso. Thank you.

Naeba was little better, the rain still beating down as I parked in the desolate ski ground, the sordid remnants of the season now littering the mountain. Broken poles, ripped netting and discarded junk disfigured the slopes. Once again, there was no one else on the mountain, no footprints in the mud or snow. I was glad to get up, down and away.

 

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Tsukuba

I had been putting this one off. I have edited so many brochures for companies in Tsukuba that wax lyrical about the verdant beauty of the surrounding countryside and magnificent nature to be found on Mt Tsukuba that I knew it couldn’t be true. But before the weather gets even hotter and my temper shorter, the time had come to get this one out of the way, so I slunk away from the computer while still light.

It felt illicit, carrying a rucksack on the trains amid salarymen midweek. I drove up and along the skyline road, looking out over the night lights of Tsukuba and Tsuchiura below. On this clear night, it was beautiful (if not natural), and I would have stopped at one of the many viewing areas had each one not been occupied by a lovers’ car.

In the carpark at the base of the cablecar, a group of bored teenagers had ridden up on their decked-out mini mopeds and were lounging around the vending machines with nothing better to do than occasionally race each other around the carpark. They were all wearing identical furry hamster-like headcovers instead of helmets. Perhaps it was the dresscode of their gang, but they were certainly not in the style of British Hell’s Angels. I asked one of the rodents where the path to the top was. “You’re not going now? There was a wildboar up there last week. Aren’t you afraid of animals?” he asked. “It’s not the animals I’m afraid of,” I replied truthfully.

In the dark, the mountain was mysterious, the route made interesting by rock formations dedicated to deities and the heavy scent of cedars. I pitched the tent halfway down, protected by a shrine and thick forest to the rear, with views over the city lights from the tent entrance. Perfect. But the peace was soon shattered by the serious car racers, who came shortly before midnight, practiced spinning their cars close to where I had parked mine, before screaming down and back up the hairpins, tyres squealing until around 2 am.

The dawn brought quietness, but the light revealed the horror of the cablecar station area. Yes, Japanese culture truly is different, as are the planning regulations.

 

 

Daibosatsu + Kumotori – Excess baggage

Must have been some nasty accident, I idly assumed. From a distance, they had looked like workmen at the turn-off to Kasayama, but as I cornered the bend, they were clearly policemen. At 7 am on a Thursday morning? Another few kilometers on, and the other turn-off to Kasayama was similarly staffed with police. Something must have happened up there. But I didn’t stop to think. I was on my way home after an evening walk up Daibosatsu accompanied by the eerie screeches of deer under a full moon, followed by a dawn piston up Kumotori.

As I drove further down the sweeping curves toward Enzan, there were police at every road and track connecting with route 411. And what were all these young men doing, bags slung over their shoulders, loitering in the open spaces? Then I noticed one of them adjusting his earpiece, and it was not an ipod. I pulled up alongside, startling him. “Are you police?” I asked directly. He nodded. “And why are there police everywhere this morning?” I continued. “The Crown Prince is coming to hike.”

10 minutes later, after three patrol cars at intervals and several intimidating white police motorcycles, the whirring of a helicopter heralded the arrival of the Prince’s motorcade. A further two motorcycles immediately preceded the sleek black car. As it passed, the Prince’s face leaned forward against the glass. He appeared to be staring at Hana, straining at the leash of a dishevelled gaijin in muddy running gear by a country roadside at 7:30 in the morning.

I hope he enjoyed a quiet hike in the hills.

 

 

Nasu + Adatara + Azuma + Bandai + Zao

It was a struggle to get to sleep. Nothing to do with the back of the car, but the excitement of the day ahead. The moon was melting the last wisps of cloud and I was sure it would be a snow-free day tomorrow, unencumbered by crampons and heavy jacket. Half a bottle of sake put out the lights.

At 3.30, when the irredeemably cheerful cellphone alarm went off, the carpark at the foot of Nasu was awash. Again. It took another hour to decide that things weren’t going to get better, abandon hopes of many peaks, and prepare for a slog. But it was not the weather that was grim, for that soon cleared. Rather, the deep mud of the path and dense undergrowth slowed progress.

 

There was no one else up here at this time. Not on the summit, not on the descent. Not until within 30 minutes of the start when the first hikers were starting out and the tour buses were arriving. They had missed the exhilaration of the dawn.

Adatara was a walker’s peak, with a cablecar taking out most of the altitude gain and hence attracting the older generations. But it was a surprise to see more than 20 army soldiers walking up, in fatigues and all equipped with a Garmin Etrex poking out of multi-pocketed shirts. Without exception, they immediately stepped off the path to make way for other hikers. Biased perhaps, but I cannot imagine such well-mannered British squaddies.

The map of Azuma shows at least four potential routes. I had planned to take the Northwest route from the back, but the helpful staff at Adatara suggested that the cablecar from the south might be running at a weekend. A quick call to Kin for an internet search brought the good news that it had just started running again today. The game was on again after the late start this morning. Would it be possible after all? I immediately switched from leisure mode, raced to the car, chucked the gear in, emptied some food into Hana’s carrier, and was off. Whenever caught momentarily at traffic lights or behind a slow car, I took the chance to refill the Camelbak, replace the empty Powergels and emergency food, swap the maps, reset the GPS, eat and drink, and calculate the times and possibilities. It was like a triathlon transition. But I had not even considered, let alone study, this south route on Azuma.

I emerged from the top station of the cablecar, relieved that Hana had not been spotted under cover of my jacket and pack. The ticket girl at the bottom had unequivocally confirmed that no climbers had been up today, but in the cavernous cafeteria at the top were two fit-looking men in winter gear, huddled over steaming mugs of coffee with their gear still dripping from the rain. “Have you been up?” I asked.”Yes, we were the first, but the weather wasn’t good.” Easy to find the route? “Sure, just follow the footsteps. But you’re not going now? The last lift down is at 4 pm.” It was 12:30 and they were concerned, but there is no better driving force than a deadline.

At the top of the first peak at 1900 meters, the snow was still burying the tops of the younger pine trees. The rain had turned to fine hail, and I had lost the two men’s tracks amid the trees and mist. It was just 30 minutes, a dip and a rise, to the true peak, but they had warned me that it was easy to get lost. In my haste, I had brought no light, little food, and the sky was a thunderous black, rolling up from where I had come. I did not feel comfortable. This is how accidents happen. “Sounan”. I often wonder how it happens. I did not wish to become a newspaper story. But the GPS clearly showed the route to the peak and there was no objective danger, other than plunging into any of the tapering 3-meter deep holes around the tree trunks and getting sandwiched. Several years ago we had had to dig out a friend who slipped into such a hole.

Hana was perhaps more elated than me to be bounding back down the slopes, nose to our footprints, leading the way. We were back comfortably within two hours, and just a few kilometers across the lake, Bandai was beckoning to us in the afternoon sunshine.

My images of Ura-Bandai, captured in magazines, had been of frozen lakes and the deepest snow, but the reality by mid May was wonderful hard bare rock. The legs were showing signs of weak instability, and Hana too was no longer racing ahead to attractive smells, but the lack of perceived danger made the climb so much easier and enjoyable.

By the time we reached the base of Zao, it was after 9 pm. There were another couple of cars, and there was a sudden exchange of conversation within the neighbouring SUV. What the heck was a foreigner doing with a dog, setting off into the night? But by now the moon was out again, and in spite of the three to four meters deep snow banks on the roadside, the ridge path was entirely devoid of snow. Without a torch, I walked slowly along the well-maintained path toward the fifth peak of the day,

savouring the exquisite mix of satisfied exhaustion. And we even made it back to the village at the foot of Zao by 10:35 pm, just 10 minutes to spare before the public onsen closed.

This was one of those days for which I thank my mother and father.

Arashima + Ena

At the base of Hakusan, I bailed out without even getting out of the car. The tourist center had been wrong on the phone that week. The road was still closed with a very firmly chained and bolted gate. 8 hours map time in the snow would have been acceptable, but an extra 10km each way walking on a road in the rain was not. At first light, I drove to Arashima, to sit in another wet and deserted carpark. What was I doing here? Wanting to head for the nearest train station but feeling the pressure of admitting to another failure on this blog, I went up and down as fast as possible, then headed off for Ena to do likewise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least on Ena there were signs of life, with other hikers to chat with, complain about the weather, talk about the dog. “Don’t her feet hurt on the snow?” one asked. Hardly. At the first patch, she lay down to lick, then sprinted up the strand of snow bank in sheer delight.

It had been another long weekend, with more than 900km of driving. On returning late Sunday night and creeping into the flat, there was a small note atop a box of chocolates waiting for me in the entrance. “I’m so sorry for making you go in the rain,” it read. It’s not just the mountains and dog I love.

Omine + Odaigahara + Ibuki

“The forecast is looking bleak,” I pleaded to Kin. “Go. It’ll be good to learn about running in the rain,” she replied, none too softly. She was right, of course, but the thought of a warm weekend at home was tugging at my weakness. Reluctantly, I booked the car and train, and set off into the late Friday night from Osaka station as the first spots of rain splashed onto the windscreen and filled me with dread. They would not stop until returning to Tokyo two days later.

At least I was with Hana. I had suspected that dogs were not allowed on the shinkansen, so had hidden her carrier beneath a pile of bags, bento box and goretex gear – and did the same when picking up the car. Fortunately she never makes a sound, so much so that I have on occasion peered into the carrier to check she’s still breathing.

There is something about driving at night, away from the bright lights of the last town, deeper and deeper into the mountains until there are neither cars on the road nor any sign of habitation, that goes against a very basic human instinct. Dogs disappear into the forest away from their owners to die on their own, and driving up that unknown road felt that way. I’ve been living in a city too long.

After 3 hours of fitful sleep (Mitsubishi Colt designers should try sleeping in their own design), it was with immense reluctance that I pulled us both out of the sleeping bag and into the rain for a slippery ascent up the tree roots of Omine. After an hour, a huge figure sitting silently in the rain loomed out of the mist and my heart jumped, but it was just a bronze statue.

On the way up, I had seen a small lonely tent deep in the mottled buna forest. I imagined that the occupant had come to escape from his problems for the weekend, intentionally choosing a remote location when the weather was poor. On the descent, I met the occupant trudging slowly up. After a few words of exchange, he silently unshouldered his large pack, burrowed deep, and pulled out a large bag of quality green tea from his hometown. “Here, please take this,” he said. “I like giving to people.”

After a quick run up Odaigahara on the path-turned-river, the worst part of the hyakumeizan followed. The drive to Ibuki took 5 hours, for the route went through Nara, where the Chinese premier happened to be sightseeing and the entire police force had been mobilised to ensure that no cars could approach. At the entrance to Ibuki, the toll road collector asked, “Sure you really want to go up today?” “Yes, I won’t be long.” “Well, that’ll be 3000 yen and you won’t see anything up there in the fog.” The vast carpark was running water, with not a soul to be seen.

 

After just 20 minutes round-trip, another 3 hours of driving followed, chewing Black-Black gum and slapping my face to stay awake. This was not fun, so I called Kin. “I’m sooooo sorry,” she said, remorseful after packing me off like that.

Shibutsu + Hotakayama – Fear of the unknown

  

The map stated that the road to Shibutsu was closed in May and June. And that the south route to the peak was closed to climbing due to ice fields at this time of year. From the top of Shirane yesterday morning, the unbroken white flanks of Shibutsu had certainly looked daunting and not for running. But are the Cairngorms or French Alps “closed” in winter? I conjured up visions of a frightening route, so was rather surprised to find that not only was the road to the trailhead still open, but that on the trail was a steady stream of spring skiiers, shuffling up on skins toward the summit or carrying snowboards.

Hotakayama, in contrast, proved difficult even to get to. The road to the start point on the west of the mountain was closed. The map showed several alternatives. The east side looked the next shortest, but a chain had been hung across the start of that road, beyond which the road had collapsed into the river. This would add an unwelcome hour and the rain was just starting to fall as I reluctantly headed up through an abandoned ski field. Almost immediately I was in wet slushy snow and thick mist. The wind increased higher up and I began to feel uncomfortable. The chained section was short but almost vertical, and required lifting Hana onto a ledge above my head as water poured down the face onto both of us. I climbed above her, then leaned down and gathered her up to join me. Madness. Just 15 minutes from the top, struggling to beat a way through dense rhododendrons on the ridge, I conceded defeat and turned back, only to notice a group picking their way back down through a small avalanche field one hundred meters below. I descended to meet them and followed their guiding tracks in reverse to the summit. I was so relieved not to have to tackle this route again.