Senjogadake + Kaikomagadake

The tied-back cloth over the head, rubber boots and knowing nod to the bus driver marked him out from the collection of regular hikers waiting for the first 6 am bus. In his sixties with not an ounce of spare fat on his frame, he wasted no time sitting down next to me and letting me know that he had been up Senjogatake more than a dozen times, and was involved in repairing the hiking paths and patrolling the national park.

Hana was in the carrycase hidden under the bench, silent as usual. I knew that I should not advertise her presence, but when she suddenly snorted at a scent carried on the breeze, the ranger did a double-take, eyebrows raised. I ignored his suspicious glance and asked him about the irony of the Minami-Alps rindo, forced through the Alps to satisfy construction companies and politicians, but arousing sufficient hostility to put the project on hold for a while.

And so it was with relief that the first bus of the season came and one hour later, disgorged a dozen passengers at Kitazawa-toge. The bus should have been running a month ago, but the winter damage had been severe this year, and major repairs were underway to keep the road concreted precariously to the cliff faces.

No private cars are allowed, not even bicycles. Last year, I had cycled the route through to Kofu in the dead of night, long after the gate guardsman at the bottom had gone home. A decade ago, I had started at dawn while the gate was unmanned, but halfway up, was shouted at by road workmen. Then 30 minutes later, a police car with flashing lights came racing up from behind and pulled me over. [Oh please can’t you find something better to do on a Sunday morning.] “Not allowed to cycle here,” he admonished, “Get in the car!” I did, with the bike, and he drove me to the top, Kitazawa-toge. “Get out,” he barked. Then, with a knowing smile, “This side is Nagano prefecture, my responsibility. That side is Yamanashi,” and sped back down the way he had come.

With this life of crime behind me, today I was eager to get away from the milling crowd at the pass. I prepared myself quickly and unobtrusively, let Hana out of the bag at the last minute, then ran up the path. I heard a cry of “Aarghh, it’s a dog” echoing as I disappeared around the first bend and was off up the hill.

There was no-one else up here yet, the skies were clear, and the morning was ours to enjoy.


Back down at Kitazawa pass, at the command of “House”, Hana obediently went back into hiding in her carrycase while I restocked on snacks and water, then once again, made a dash for the start of the Kaikomagadake trail. No sooner was she out of the bag than an SUV patrol car with flashing light came up the road. “Oh $#@*!” You would think it was sin city itself. I ducked into the forest and was quickly hidden from view.

Having done the long Kuroto-one route on the eastern side last year, I had assumed this shorter western route would be easy, but the route involved a few rock scrambles and helping hand for Hana. In retrospect, the maki-michi would have been the easier, but less fun option. The small shrine at the top was decorated with straw sandals. Do the real pilgrims walk back down barefoot?

I had checked the departing bus times and from the top of Kaikoma, the bus at 1 pm now looked a possibility and would avoid a long wait for the next one. Without a break, we scrambled back down to Kitazawa pass with 10 minutes to spare, put the dog in her case, and who should turn up but the ranger who had preached to me this morning. “Enjoy your jaunt up Senjo?” he asked, with just a whiff of condescension. “Yes, and Kaikoma”. “What the top?” he asked, his face registering total disbelief. “Yes, the top. Of both.” It was his turn to snort; he never said another word.

But that was just fine, because the bus driver was a real local character, pointing out the waterfalls, peaks, route names, and not least Nokogiri, which from here was a terrifyingly serrated ridge that renewed my awe for cjw’s report of two months ago.

The elderly driver stopped the bus and pointed to the ridge. “See that hole in the rock?” It was true, even from a distance of 3 kilometers on the opposite side of the valley, we could clearly see a needle’s eye formation just below the ridge. “Well, that’s Shika no mado (鹿の窓,  The Deer’s Window). And as I’m the bus driver, I’m allowed to boast a little.” And as he spoke, he pulled out a large black and white photo of himself in his youth, standing proudly in that window alongside a lady, whom I imagined now to be his wife.

“And over there, see that massive rock face?” We all peered across the valley. It was preferable to looking down the vertiginous cliff to the river some 2000 feet below. “If you look closely, you can see a path across the face. That’s a deer track. They come to lick the salt. This whole area used to be under the sea.” If he was fibbing, he was good at it.

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Houousan

The dog was not happy to be turfed out of bed at 3 am, and neither was I, but having been rained off last weekend I felt pressure to seize this dry window during the rainy season.

Route 20 was populated only by the long-distance trucks hammering along and avoiding expressway tolls, then the last 10 km of rough dirt shook off the vestiges of sleep.

I parked the car at the trailhead by an abandoned hut that was being devoured by the forest, and headed up. After 20 minutes of climbing, the trail temporarily broke out into a clearing that was the true end of the road, another 300 meters higher. Still, in a Honda Z weighing close on a ton but powered by only 660cc, perhaps it had been quicker to hike.

There appeared to be no one else on the mountain, and upon reaching the rocky summit of Yakushidake, the Southern Alps hit me with their rugged grandeur. A jagged ridge puncturing the sky with almost 100 km of trail stretching to Tekari at the southernmost end. Kaikomagadake was already bereft of snow, but Ainodake was still struggling to shake off the winter. And the main route up Kitadake (Daikambasawa, below) was still a lethal snow gully streaked with rockfall from the Buttress.

The open ridge to Houousan was one of the most enjoyable walks so far, with views as far as Norikura and Hakuba, and quiet save for the cascading snowmelt far below. I trotted along the white/grey gravel that gives the mountains their whitish appearance from the Chuo line valley, and on the return, met the first and only hiker (thanks for the photo, H).

It felt unreal to be back down in that valley and at work by 10am, looking up at where I had snatched a morning worth living.


Hakkoda

The day brought more mist and drizzle, but Hakkoda was far from deserted. Parked cars lined the road over the pass, but these were not  of hikers. The sansai (mountain vegetables) must be special, for the collectors were serious, dressed in full goretex waterproofs or rubber overalls worthy of a Tsukiji fisherman. Periodically during the climb, from the seemingly impenetrable bamboo grass on either side of the thick muddy path, came the sounds of Sunday morning NHK. Enka singing. And by the time I descended, the pickers were carrying bulging rucksacks filled with their hauls.  The dog was happy too – an exceptionally muddy path to roll in, and snow to play with.

Hachimantai + Iwaki

Drizzle, mist, cold, and almost no one else on either mountain. Not surprising today.

Fortunately Kurikomagadake is on the list of 200 mountains, otherwise we might well have been buried in the landslides. Even 100 kilometers from the epicenter, the pension house shook violently and all the guests, mouths half-open during breakfast, looked nervously at each other. As always during any earthquake, I wondered what tragedy was unfolding at that very instant, and it would not be until the evening that we would learn the news.

Hayachine + Iwate

On a fine Friday morning, Hayachine had a rather different feel to the peaks so far. Friday. I had taken the day off and come with Kin to clear the Tohoku peaks this weekend at a leisurely pace, but everyone else on the mountain appeared to be in retirement and in even less of a hurry. It felt rather decadent.

But for the dog, it was already too hot and she lagged some way behind, to the delight of the elderly hikers. “Wan-chan, wan-chan, gan-ba-re, gan-ba-re,” came the chanting. I should have taught her to do a roll upon hearing the word “kawaii“.

The mountain top was festooned with religious paraphernalia. Are Western peaks similarly adorned? And who decides which religion should dominate a mountain? First-come, first-served perhaps, but the swords, jizo, shrines and concrete holding most of it in place still seem to be a desecration of nature. Why should religions have such special dispensation?

By the time we made it to Iwate-san, it was mid-afternoon and the day’s hikers were descending and had almost reached the base. I left Kin to her studies in the car and climbed steadily, enjoying the firm footing of rough volcanic rock and the steady gradient. As usual, I played games with the watch, counting paces, timing 10-minute intervals, and guessing the altitude reached after each interval. Often disappointing, today it was satisfying to gain 1000 m in the first hour, and the chilly air meant the dog could keep close behind. But upon reaching the base of the final cinder cone, the weather deteriorated very rapidly indeed

and it became a race to reach the top before the storm hit. The sky turned as dark as the volcanic scree underfoot, and the clouds descended and clawed at the summit. I crouched low as we moved up the crater rim, Hana instinctively hugging the leeward side of my legs in search of some shelter from the shredding blasts of wind. And upon reaching the top, the world turned white and hail started to batter us, squashing the dog’s face

and threatening to blow both of us off.  This was dangerous, the moment when an enjoyable hike could go wrong. We ran. Ran hard. Down past the resolute jizo standing sentinel along the ridge, double-check the junction, and race for the unmanned shelter below.

It had taken no more than 20 minutes to ascend into hell and return. Perhaps the gods were avenging my earlier dark thoughts about them.

Hiuchi + Aizukomagadake

At 5 in the morning, I was back at the Kokuminshukusha, which is the base of not only the climb to Hiuchi, but also the entrance to Oze National Park. With this being Mizubasho season, coaches and cars were disgorging hikers in the hundreds. Argh! But mercifully the majority of them were heading off toward the marshes, and the climb up Hiuchi was relatively quiet.

Perhaps my “summer has arrived” conclusion on Tanigawa was premature. Aizukomagadake was still very firmly locked in winter, much to the delight of the dog, who loves to rub her face and scratch her back in the snow, and then charge around me in loops of ecstasy.

Following is the snow condition on top of Hiuchi on June 8, 2008. There was a very solid set of steps kicked into the snow. Being cautious, I put on mini-crampons just for the final 30 meters, but it was not a dangerous long slither in the worst case. In contrast, Aizu was blanketed in snow, albeit completely safe.

Echigokomagadake + Hiragadake – Burnout

The day had started so well. The thick mist of the night drive to Echigokomadake had lifted by first light. The surrounding mountains of Niigata were streaked with snow-filled gullies that revealed the contours more clearly than the monotone white of winter and dappled greens of summer. With a 4 am start, I was accompanied only by the birds, and finally caught a clear view of the owner of the song that can be heard on almost any mountain in Japan at dawn, a type of warbler. And it was a plucky bird, determined to stand its ground and defend its territory with song.

From the refuge hut several hundred yards from the summit, I carefully traversed the snowfield to the clouded ridge, then ran back down to the car, for the longest peak awaited.

Within 30 minutes of the relentlessly steep start to Hiragadake, it was clear that the body was not cooperating; the knees were swollen and according to altimeter watch readings every 10 minutes, I was gaining altitude considerably slower than normal. Even Hana was struggling. The sun was out, her tongue was an alarmingly vivid devil red, and periodically she would stop to lie down in the cool shade amid the twisted roots of the pines.

From below, the flank of Hiragadake was rippled with raw brown landslides alternating with forested spurs, but the ridge was still snowbound, which slowed progress further. I felt no sense of elation upon reaching the summit, merely a desire to get down and get the day over with. Hana simply closed her eyes as if to sleep.

Slithering back down the banks, I paused to chat to an ascending group of three hikers who were now setting up camp on the snow, and commented on the fine, large animal pelt that flapped on the back of a tall, rugged old man. Was it deer, perhaps? He shook his head, raised both arms, and took aim with his imaginary rifle. “Bang!” he said, “It was a wild dog. I shot it in the mountains.”

No sooner than leaving them than the rain started. This was not what the sun god of Yahoo Weather had forecast. And it was irritating. I had taken my wet clothes from Echigo and draped them over the car to dry in the sunshine during the hike up Hiragadake, but they would be soaked by now. They were, and the running shoes, which I had left on top of the car, were now filled with pools of rainwater. Again.

I drove to the base of Hiuchi and headed for the onsen in the Kokuminshukusha to contemplate. I now had no dry hiking clothes, so short of a laundromat, needed a room. But the place was full. And the restaurant was serving guests only. Unless I wanted to eat a souvenir box of Mizubasho candy, I had no food either. Despondent, I set off down the valley in search of food, and was lucky to spot what looked to be a prefabricated Portakabin tucked away in the forest by the river. There were four numbered cubicles and a sign advertising vacancies in the “bungalows”. The room was spartan, but I needed nothing more than a roof to keep off the pounding rain. The door of the adjacent room was open and the occupant came out to greet me. It turned out that he had stopped doing the hyakumeizan at No. 85 because Kyushu and Shikoku were “too far”, but was still climbing mountains and had notched up almost 1,200 peaks. When I set off the next morning, he was already up and getting ready to go, wearing CWX running tights. He was 73 years old.