Along the Southern Spine of Japan

Trip Start Jul 25, 2009
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Kita

Flag of Japan  , Chubu,
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Minami Alps of Japan. The name has a certain boast to it. Actually, anything with the word "Alps" does, but compared to some of the adventures I've read about from Chris Townsen's book on backpacking, and the little I've stumbled on through blogs and video documentaries...this is but a baby-step towards an ambition I hope pursue wholeheartedly.

How else could you step into the heart of nature, pitting yourself against potential weather and wildlife hazards, but with a humble and open heart?

I found myself with a 40-pound backpack (tent, sleeping bag and inflatable air mattress, 6 days worth of food with kitchen, clothes, camera, etc), boots laced into hoops and dangling on the back of it, wide-brim/cowboy-style hat worn atop head, on a 7-hour train ride to Kofu, a not-so-distant-yet-made-far-thanks-to-slow-train-line city, which was the bus-pickup for my entry-point into the Alps.

At first, I had a hard time choosing this location. For one, I couldn't really use my car to get into the Alps, since it would involve a return trip to my car, costing my an extra $60 or so. Furthermore, I figured that a 4-day hike would be sufficient to satisfy my building anxiousness for an escape into the wild. An 8-day option would be have been suicide, as you'll soon discover through reading on...

What a nightmare. I re-read my journal entries for the evening and morning in Kofu, and I can say now it was a 'unique' and 'enlightening' experience. At the time, however, I was ready to backup and head back to my haven in Toyone.

I had arrived late, around 9PM, and it would have been awkward (although possible) to find a stay at a local hotel. I had a tent, besides, wanted to get more experience with it, and finding places to sleep within a city. Beforehand, I had printed out some Google maps of the area, looking for green. There was an expansive castle grounds, and what seemed to be a mountain with some temples not too far from the station. I set for the nearby castle first.

It was dark, but a clear night. The stars were out, and there were young university students (who could easily have been mistaken for age, were they not drinking loudly in the park) cajoling about. It was well lit, and there was even someone either a) looking for lost objects, or b) patrolling the darker spots of the castle with a flashlight. I squinted for a minute, waited for them to step into the light or reveal their late-night flashlight inspections, but I soon gave up and decided to set for the mountain in the distance.

From my lookout point at the top of the tower, it looked country enough for me to get away with a camp-out. It wasn't well-lit, there was a temple path leading up to it, and it was close enough for me to walk to in 15 minutes.

But I was tired. And so anxiously, I set out, boots on (in case of snakes) for some sleep. I went down some narrow streets after the rail-crossing, where while trying to be as inconspicuous as I could manage with a towering backpack, heavy hiking boots and...well, obvious 'foreign' features, I still managed to get in front of a passing car, and really freak out an older salary man walking the gait of one who has gave one too many toasts to his superiors. I took the dark road with him, since it led the same way, and tried at first to slow my pace to stay far from him. I'm not a talented slow-walker, and he seemed to be slowing like a Walkman slowly running out of battery...so I picked up the pace and passed him. I soon came to the temple, which was closed off by gates, except for its pebble filed entryway with towering Jinja-gate. It was beautiful in the moon-light, but I knew my path was closed off from here, unless I be caught sneaking around some sacred such-and-such at the wee hours.

So I walked on, and found the entrance to a grape-yard farm. It surprised me, as this was a city, to have this place smack in the middle. But here it was, taunting me with trying to find a way into its depths. I paced back and forth for a bit, then chose one dead-end, only to find another that had a side-path which looked more like an extended private-driveway. I walked through here, and the darkness eventually revealed a paved walkway, connected one side of the mountain to the other. In between, was the graveyards.

I rejoiced at my luck! Here I was: close to the station, secluded, rain-covered grape-yards. I could hear the sounds of nature all around me: wind blowing the leaves softly against its metal encasing, the sound of birds settling into a sleep after a hot summer day, annoying mosquitoes buzzing right behind your earlobe, startling bursts of lion roars, wild-animals, crackling radios spitting out hyped-up Japanese conversation - while backed with annoying theme-songs, BANGS, bells going 'GONG', 'DING' or any other denomination you can think of...

"Wait a sec...? Startling bursts of noise? Radios you say?" I had settled into the worst possible choice of backpacking glory. "Settled" is hardly the word I'd choose either, considering that it took me faaaar too long to get that tent set up. The fruit, shade, and humidity attracted a large host of flies, who caught my tired and sweaty scent, and engaged in a full-frontal assault on my bare arms and legs. Whilst I sweat profusely under the humid heat of the grape-yard, my tightly bundled sleeping bag decided to take a fun leap down the sloping hill of my settlement. So, in an attempt to make the least amount of noise - lest I attract any official attention - I plummeted down the hill with my headlamp on, cursing, hopping over wire fences while looking up, then down, barely avoiding hazards while trying to keep an eye on my bouncing lifesaver (as it would get quite cold up in the mountains).

The bouncing bag was gaining speed. I was hardly aware of the stretches or near-death pitfalls I was jumping over, and I vainly looked ahead in hopes that I wouldn't lose my blanky over a cliff-edge, someones backyard, or worse...a murky pond.

Fate had it that I would be spared at least this doom. It rested just 4 minutes hike from my camp spot against a fence (the first time I've seen one serve its purpose...just about everything else seems to end up scattered in large garbage heaps over any other highway). The fence was on the side of the path, and below the fence, was a graveyard. It was right above the temple I spotted earlier, and I remember thinking "this is either good luck, or I'm going to be cursed in some way".

Still cursing, I trudged back up, and finished setting up my tent - ONLY after pouring on about half a bottle of 30 DEET. I disregarded the warnings, and immediately heaved relief as the bugs set out to trouble some other wild animal.

Throwing my bag into the tent, I quickly realized two things. One: I made a mistake by choosing a spot on a slope. If it rained, I would get soaked (read that in Townsen's handbook). Two: my pack would be heavy enough to drag my ass down, whilst in my tent.
So, I managed to position it in a way that had me constantly sliding in my own sweat all night, unable to use my mattress (since it was plastic, and that increased both the rate of sweating AND the velocity of my slow-fall), and completely uncomfortable on solid ground. My sleeping bag was completely useless. I stripped down to nothing, and closed my eyes in a vain attempt to sleep.

It was about 10:30PM. I have a journal entry that described my adventure that night. Here I wrote:
"The sounds I thought were conversation before, I have now discovered are not two people talking over there. It's a radio designed to sound like there's two people talking over there. Random noises (growls, bells, gongs, you name it) scream out of the %*#i@ng thing, and then it switches to some comfortable, yoga-like music. I'm half asleep, and then BANG. Lion roar. Explosion. This is hell."

You get the idea. To make things worse (and I'm glad I only realized this the next day), my alarm woke up me (yes...I actually got some sleep eventually) a whole hour and a half before I knew I would have to get up before the early-rise walkers would spot my tent up the hill. I worried constantly about policemen, grape-workers, walkers who report suspicious happenings, wild animals (since I did hear some monkeys, and some eerie squawks which sounded a lot like babies screaming....okay I'm exaggerating, but it was scary up there).

 Ask my folks and they'll tell you that I'm not a morning person. Lately, I've been making the slow shift into Japanese schedules (as it does take me an hour to get to work sometimes). I usually get up at 6AM. Here, I looked at my watch, and it read: 4:30. Dammit.

So I packed up, gave the finger to the well-hidden radio I was so well acquainted to, and went back to the castle for some breakfast. It was there that I met a young boy of thirteen, whom I gave offered some snacks and wieners to. Apparently, he gets up at 5:00 all the time, just for a morning castle stroll. I walked by a couple times before I said hello, and told him to sit. He was so damned awkward, but a good boy. I asked him about girlfriends, and watched him squirm. I asked him about boyfriends, and his mouth gaped. I don't think he ever smiled. Oh well, I liked his company for awhile. I showed him maps of where I was going, had some tea, and walked around the castle. It was cloudy, so we couldn't see much of the view, but I did see some men dressed in Hakame (long skirt-like pants intended for ceremonies) meeting up for a Kendo practice. 5:30. Dedication. I said hello to them as I walked by, admiring the open-concept of the temple they were practicing in, wishing I had what it took to stick to a single hobby for once, and moved on.

I spent the next few hours not doing much. My bank account was inaccessible until 8:00am. Some banks are better, but most are still terribly inconvenient in Japan. You need to know the hours in which they're open. 24-Hour ATMs are invariably rare, international ones a bit more accessible, but even my Japanese bank account is on the bottom of the list. Lesson learned: never go with the local Bank, especially if it's called Japan Agricultural. Freakin farmer unions.

So after some money and breakfast, I passed out on the street next to my bus station.

I awoke, and a Japanese man was staring at me. He was older, probably in his 60s (although I would soon feign surprise at how YOUNG he looked, and oh my, I never would have been able to guess that), carried a pack like mine, and had the eager look of someone who needed a friend - or just relief from his wife. There wasn't a wife, so this was looking even worse, so I desperately closed my eyes and wished him away, or that he would take me for one of those sleepers who sleep with their eyes opening and closing, on occasion.

He didn't buy either, the bastard.

I appreciate his kindness, and the friendly kinship that followed over the next day. But I had set out to do this on my own, a sort of personal challenge. What made this particular comrade more complicated, was that he was not Japanese, but Korean. He not only felt MORE alienated and threatened by Japanese culture than me, he also couldn't speak any English. He did have passable Japanese, people were convinced up until anything beyond "Konnichiha," but our conversations were almost strictly in very crude Japanese.

I realized something: this is how painful it must be for Japanese to hear my speak their language.

A bit of a lesson in humility, I suppose, but I don't really care to remember it. I tried a few cold shoulders, but my better nature kicked in and I accepted him company. He proudly introduced me as his friend to anyone who would listen, told me of his ambitious plans to climb Everest next year (wishful thinking, or proud but empty boasting....but I've been proven wrong, he is a tough guy), and generally kept up the pace the entire time. If I'm not mistaken, he was probably is better shape than me.

Then again, he did unload most of his weight at the station before the bus left, most likely for these two reasons: 1) he discovered, thanks to a handy eavesdropping Japanese person, that he could do his trip and still come back here later; and 2) he had me and my tent to help him survive the worst parts. Of course, he didn't tell me this until we got up to the top. I think he meant to buy me out with kindness, snacks, and some Korean Ramen once we got to a checkpoint. Most people were staying the night there, already cracking open beers and sake bottles.

I pondered whether I should bend my plan and stay here instead, the beers did look tempting. Instead, the calls of Mr. Korea kept me going. We went through a really tough part of the climb, probably the worst. I wasn't used to my backpack yet, the weight was really, well, weighing me down. I need breaks every 1 minute of hiking straight up this forest mountain path.

But it quickly opened up, and revealed something worth all the moments of discomfort up until this point: sunset at Japan's second highest peak. But unlike Fuji (the highest), it wasn't shy to show its goods. It didn't have the layers of mist, lack of landscape and overcrowdedness of Fuji. It wasn't a volcano. It was beautiful. The lowering sun lit up the side of the mountain we were coming up, literally along the spine (very top) of this part of the summit. We were going to stay at ******, which literally sits on the shoulder of the peak. I had a meal amongst others in jackets. The weather cooled considerably up here, where we were at the mercy of the wind from both sides. But it was flat, and there were washrooms, drinking water (only $1 per liter), and lots of room to set up a real tent. I pegged it down, set about cooking some noodles and a delicious meal over some hot chocolate, and I fell asleep almost immediately.

The next thing that tested my patience was my companion's wish to share my 1-man tent. Even when I told him we couldn't fit, his eyes seemed to show that he thought otherwise. So instead, he grabbed some randomly discarded planks of wood and a metal cover, and made a makeshift cover, and then wrapped himself up in his arctic blanket. I heard him snoring before I fell asleep, so I made some journal entries, and then passed out after some gorgeous sunset (and moon-rise) views

I wanted to catch sunrise, so I set my alarm for about 3:00AM, after going to bed around 9:00PM or so. In the middle of the night, though, my overdose of hot chocolate demanded some attention. So, hopping into the light, I made my way to the washroom. On the way there, my half-awake consciousness was pondering why they didn't turn on the strobe light to guide my way there, while I set up my tent earlier that night. On the way back, I realized that it was the moon.

The freakin' moon. It was so damn bright, I've never seen anything like it. It lit up the entire camp, yet it didn't penetrate my tent. I fell asleep, woke up on time, and began packing up. Even though he set two alarms, my buddy was sleeping on right through them. I was pretty annoyed at this point, and thought about having to set on 6 more hours of hiking with him over the day. At this point, we'd JUST make sunrise at the peak if we left. I hurriedly packed my things, but then I heard something...

...a stirring. A yawn. And then he was up! "Ohayo Gozaimasu!" Shit. I told him to hurry up and pack, or we'd miss sunrise. He stretched, started packing, and took his sweet ass time. I paced, and tried to show my sense of urgency and "I don't care I'm leaving without you" look, but he still took about 30 minutes. The hike was supposed to be about 50, and I was already late. When we did set out, the sun peaked about a 1/3 of the way up. We sat, admired it, and I told him I was going back to pack up, sleep more, etc. He took it in a good way, but I could see his disappointment, and I had a hard time hiding mine in my voice too.

Today, I feel selfish for doing that, but I had to. When would I get another chance at this? It was my first time really getting out there. I spent all summer fantasizing about this trip, and although I'm flexible enough to allow things to change, I could hardly hear myself think over his constant friendly/formal textbook Japanese. At least with most Japanese people, I can't understand what they're saying - and I just tune it out.

But here was clarity. I was finally alone, I had a quiet breakfast, able to disarm curious passerby with fake-bad Japanese, and I packed up and made the peak myself - only 5 hours after I intended to. I had a lot of hiking to do that day, but I was prepared for it.

My feet weren't. and I remember the words of an experienced mountain-hiker and friend while we watched a Japanese TV special on hiking the North Alps: "You should be wearing those now!" He was, of course, referring to one of the people being filmed as they sat in their bedroom playing DS - without the boots on! My feet were devastated. As I right this, the pain is gone, but the dead skin around the backs of my feet (both) are still peeling. That was more than a month ago. From Day 1, I had blisters on both feet, and it got so bad that I had about 2 layers of band-aids, and sought medical attention on the 3rd day (medical attention meaning anything more than bad-aids, which was a nice cooling salve, some anti-bacterial cream, iodine, and some proper-sized bandages).

Back to the hike. I had a moment that day. It was after trekking through mist-covered mountains, clouds so thick I could barely make out the precipitous mountain edges I was walking on. With certain death on either side, I proceeded carefully, cursing my bad luck. I spent the better part of the morning, and well into the afternoon, using my compass and map to ensure I was heading in the right direction. At one point, where three prefectures met and the trail split into three directions, I spent 30 minutes comparing the landscape to my map.

Aside: I think what differentiates Japanese mountains from those out West is that there is just so many more of them all bunched close together with varying degrees of sheer steepness. On a typographical map (the ones with lines to indicate the slope scale), the lines (even on a smaller scale) were so close together, it was dizzying trying to distinguish between mountains, let alone find the peak.

So, it was after wandering through these difficulties that I received my break. Just as I was coming to the final 50-meter hike straight up to the mountain named (INSERT HERE), the clouds broke and I was bathed in sudden and blinding sunlight. Being so high up, it was both frightening and energizing. I sprinted up, my heavy back feeling weightless on my previously exhausted body. My blisters were no more. I was breathing the air with a smile on my face, chuckling in excitement...and then there I was.

360 panoramic view...but it wasn't meant to last. Less than a minute later, the clouds rolling back in, and I was again surrounded in mist. But it was those few minutes, that I stared into the sun and thanked whatever it was that brought me this far...just so I could experience it. I knew I had quite a journey ahead of me, hiking aside, but I knew that it would be alright. It just felt like it would be.

Along the way to my second stay, I ran into another elderly man. He was Japanese, and notably quieter and more independent than my previous companion. He was slower as well, which enabled me to pass on by, with a couple 'Ganbatte's (do you best! / you can do it!), and I scaled some pretty dangerous slopes thereafter. I soon came across an older Grandmother, surprising, since she must have been at least 80 years old. I felt sheepish then, and stopped patting myself on the back. Later the next day, I would meet a woman sharing some sake in celebration for having completed the 100-hike challenge - taking the 100 best and most difficult hikes in Japan. I asked her how long it took her, and she told me about 10 years. I think she said she was in her 60s.

My second stay was at this beautiful little cottage that was nestled between two mountains. After reaching a beautiful lookout point, I spotted it in the distance. I considered staying for the night at a few prime cleared spots on the mountain as I descended, but I'm glad I didn't since the next evening was windy and I may have lost my tent up there. That, and I met some great people staying at the cottage.

When I first arrived, the owner humored me with Japanese, but I later discovered that on this trail, he had met his American wife, and now his son was visiting every summer for the past few years to help work on the mountain hut. It was a great job, I reckoned. Avoiding the colder seasons, along with the rainy season, he could just show up and take in the beautiful mountain scenery at its finest. We shared stories about Japan, talked about a variety of things, and parted ways to catch much needed rest (at least on my part).

I was disturbed half-way through getting changed by a one Mr. Suzuki. He had spotted me earlier, inquired where I was from (as everyone does), and was determined to have a conversation with me. About what, I wasn't sure. I remember being a little anxious, since I had no idea what his position on foreigners was; but it couldn't have been that bad, he seemed friendly. I was tired though, and the last thing I wanted was an evening of late night drinks. Although the Japanese can handle doing 8-hour hikes carrying a hangover and 3 liters of sake in their belly, I was hoping to make this trip an enjoyable experience - not just a memorable one.

And so, I met Suzuki at the appointed time (15 minutes later), where he had a few beers, two small bottles of sake, some beer-snacks, and a sour-looking friend on the picnic table. His friend, I soon gathered, had been intoxicated since I had cooked my meal an hour earlier. He was in no better shape, but he was truly harmless. His outbursts during our conversation were largely  harmless stereotypes about the strength of foreigners' drinking ability (depends on the person) the difficulty of the English language (depends on your first language), and the size of your...well...that also depends on the person.

But we proceeded along merrily. I discovered that Suzuki was the ex vice-president of a well to-do energy company. One of his first questions was whether or not I was for or against nuclear power. His English was good. I told him what little I knew about nuclear power. Having seen a documentary on the effects of pollution on a nearby Indian reserve in Canada, somewhere in southern Ontario, I was decidedly against all forms of environmental pollution. That Simpson's' episode on the three-eyed-fish also came to mind.

We went back and forth, and he told me about his various trips into Canada, particularly in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where he no doubt had big-person meetings about energy production in Canada, which is world-edge and leading in the production of isotopes and nuclear power (just ask my sister, she's doing a pro-project on it). I quickly realized I didn't really know that much about nuclear power, or power in general, and I quickly retracted my defense-systems and set the auto-pilot on for open-mindedness. He shared a lot about population growth, and sustainability, and it seemed that the easiest and most efficient system of energy was nuclear power. Is claimed it was clean, and that they are getting better and better at it.

The world Nuclear usually brings to mind lab-coats, glowing-green laboratories buried deep beneath civilization's limited visibility, and Kurt Vonnegut. Oh and Japan. Having recently listened to some speech contests on the effects of war, or god-forbid, another recitation of 'A Mother's Lullaby' (beautiful, but if you hear that enough times you begin wanting to nuke New Horizon, an English textbook all ALTs are familiar with, to smithereens), I can reflect on this conversation with new appreciation. It's not easy the stuff governments have to do to keep our standard of living up there, but it's happening, there's a cost, and one cannot simply condemn something without having done any research. Band-wagon protest loses its credibility in exactly this way.

Anyhow, I was getting tired, and the bouts of randomness from Suzuki's partner in crime was becoming more and more irregular- a sure sign that we should unwind soon- and so we shook hands, thanked each other for the conversation, and went to sleep.

That night, there was more thunder, and a little rain, but nothing that lasted into the next day. It was cloudy for most of the following hike, so much so that I had even more trouble this day than the last in coordinating my hike. There was a fork on the road that wasn't indicated on my map, and the path was quickly gaining difficulty as the wideness and dense forest I had just entered the day before disappeared for Mt. Shiomi - a truly beautiful peak.

At Shiomi, people were asking about my nationality, commenting on my Japanese, and offering me snacks to stick around. But I couldn't stick around. Having slept in that day, I missed the better part of the sunshine and lost much of the daylight that I would need to make a safe trip to my next spot. The hikers realized this, and one man even offered me to bunk with him. 
Friendly, friendly Japan. 

I should mention someone else too. He wrote a website about his encounter with me. I had no idea I had this impression, but he's a funny, modest person. The site is here. It's freaky, my picture is right up there, with my name (It's Jordan!). Whoa. I like it.
Anyways, this guy and I called out paths to each other at a particularly dangerous section of climbing. It was cloudy, and the path was steep, rocky, and generally unmarked. I opted for the shorter route to this hut, and I was glad I took it because there's no way I could have covered the ground after having slept in. Anyways, I ran into this guy at Shiomi, and he was the man who offered me the place to stay.

In Japan, people are trying to adopt you all the time.
 
 I had to gratefully refuse this offer, though, as I would need to catch my bus on-time for the return train back home in the morning. It was roughly 4 or 5 PM when I got to Shiomi, and the sun was quickly leaving me nothing but shadows. Luckily, the rest of the stretch was easy-to-follow walkways. I arrived at my location around 8 or 9, with only two other tents to share the large lot around me.

Yet no sooner had I fallen asleep, I was awoken by the sound of an army of squawking monkeys. They were giggling at each other, tramping around my tent, and using shiny mirrors to reflect the moonlight at my tent. A loud, booming voice -which I presumed to be their leader- shut them all up quickly with his loud barking. The scurrying stopped, the flashes of light faded away, and I was left wondering whether my tent was about to be invaded by a full-scale ambushed.

Whatever dream I was having was quickly dissipating, as the leader made some greetings in articulate Japanese, following by many 'Hai!'s and commands to bow. I realized, looking at my watch, that a group of students were holding a meeting outside my tent for the morning venture they were about to take - at 2:30 AM.

The same thing repeated itself in the morning, but with more yelling, giggling, and pans racketing in the building I was sleeping beside. I heard more greetings, and having quite enough, decided to cook some breakfast and get an early start on my final stretch to the bus stop.
In my navy blue long-underwear (thanks again Mom!), I stepped out into my hiking boots, and let out a loud yawn and stretched. It was silent, finally. The sun was shining on my face, and I turned around to grab my bag when I suddenly was taken aback by roughly 300 eyes staring at me.

They're morning venture accomplished, the troupe of Junior High School Students (awkward giggling, pre-pubescent voices made this obvious) were standing in square formation spread out over the empty tent-grounds. Everyone was facing my tent, and I was dead center, behind their principal or head-teacher.

With a smile, I went about my business, and didn't really mind them much. The principal asked me a few questions in English, and apologized at last for the group, and I didn't really mind. I needed to get up early anyhow, and I felt well rested despite my three days of trekking.

I ended my journey in sunshine along a slowly declining course, with makeshift log-bridges that were slippery from the morning dew, and little clearings that provided me with decent views. I ran into another foreigner, who had just finished the Northern Alps. I think his name was Dave, and he was going on a four week trip across the mountains, truly taking his time to enjoy the journey. He said he would spend about $100 or so a day, staying at comfortable Japanese inns, or mountain lodges, and keeping up a steady but comfortable pace. I envied his situation, but could totally see, after hiking just a portion of the mountains myself, why one would fall in love with a country with such a diverse landscape and climate.

From the warm beaches and white sands of Okinawa, the flat rice fields of Lake Biwa, the snow-packed mountains of Gifu and Nagano, to the majestic peaks of Fuji, Kita-Dake and Shiomi, Japan is a treasure-trove of experience for the 'safe' adventurer. I say 'safe', because although there are some dangers to be wary of, such as poisonous vipers, bears, cliff-drops, and extreme temperature, there is always someone ready and nearby with adequate facilities to help you. I of course relate this observation to my own experiences, and cannot yet imagine how living in Hokkaido, or the remote islands of Okinawa might be.

I plan to perhaps tackle the northern alps at some point, if I find time and money before I leave. All in all, this was a great introduction to mountain-climbing (not to be confused with rock-climbing), and a great chance to familiarize myself with my equipment and the environment.

I wouldn't want to repeat my episode in the grape-yard, however.
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