Note: The events of this post took place June 21-22, 2014.
Friend-and-coworker J and I set out for Shinjuku Station to catch the 8:00 am JR Chuo Line Limited Express Super Azusa 5 train bound for Nagano Prefecture. With 36 platforms and 200 exits, we eventually make our way to the waiting train, only to learn that we cannot purchase reserve seats at the platform, so standing it is until enough commuters deboard and unreserved seats open 100 minutes into the two-hours-and-change trip.
Hefting our packs and trekking poles, we move quickly out of Chino Station, scanning a building across the street for where our guidebook tells us the bus stops. The bus only runs a few times a day, and missing this one will keep us here for long enough to make sure we won’t reach our goal before nightfall.
We hone in on the ticket counter, then find our way back outside to wait alongside a group of teens outfitted with too-big backpacks. When the bus comes, we load up, leaving the teens to wait for another bus and joining a few old men and a woman–all locals. About twenty minutes later, we are the only two left when the bus reaches its terminal stop, which is also our jumping-off point for the mountain.
When J and I had started discussing the idea some months prior of climbing one of Japan’s mountains, we initially had looked at a harder, more remote route. We later settled on Akadake, but not before I had purchased maps for the former location. What I didn’t do was subsequently buy maps for Akadake.
And that is how we found ourselves poring over a complimentary, decidedly contour-line-free tourist map with just enough marginally useful detail to prevent us from discarding it. After a bit of guesswork, we break out our trekking poles and decide to head up a trail that looks like it might be the one we’re supposed to use. It is.
We make good time up the wide trail–wide enough, it turns out, that we have to step to the side more than once to allow cars to pass. I’m not expecting this, but the autos are few enough that the evidence of civilization quickly dissolves again into the nature surrounding us.
Soon, we reach the first of several huts on the mountain. This one has parking (via the road) and plenty of Japanese enjoying the outdoors. We stop by a very small cliff (or a large boulder?) for a quick snack and some water, check the map again, and are back on the trail. For most of the next hour or so, we pass small groups heading both up and down the mountain, universally dressed to the nines in the latest outdoor fashion; when Japanese take up a hobby, the’re all in. We pass some stone and concrete water works and small man-made waterfalls. At some point, we stop for a quick lunch, a slice of cold pizza feeding a growing calorie deficit. For a period, we are walking on narrow raised duck boards, sometimes solid but resembling narrow railroad tracks at other times. The sound and sensation is out of place, but the footbridge network crosses gingerly back and forth across a fragile but exuberant stream that likely would be trampled flat without it.
After a time, we reach Akadake Kosen. I earlier convinced J to add a detour of an hour or so to allow us to pass through here. My reasons are completely selfish. Akadake Kosen is known for constructing a large man-made cube of farmed climbing ice, turning this hut accessible only by foot and located hours away from the nearest road into the nexus of Japanese ice climbing every winter. I hope to climb here when the mercury drops, but I’m eager to make the trip by foot at least once before everything is covered with snow. Now, the Popsicle, as the ice wall is called, lay in melted, dirty piles under thawing scaffolding and heavy cargo nets. Several backpacking tents stand on a flat area just up the hill. Though staying in the heated and protected huts is popular, some hikers elect to bring their own tents and pay only dollars a night for a small square plot.
The entire hut complex appears tired, as if this shoulder season were its first chance to rest in months.
After a quick stop for water, we bear to the right and continue another hour or more toward yet another hut, this one located close to the base of Akadake’s headwall. Here we take care to refill our water bottles before heading up one of several trails leading up the mountain’s West Face. We have decided to take the more direct of the options available to us, though I can see another line, far up and off to my right, perilously running up the face. We are just at treeline, and Akadake’s 6,280 feet of prominence is dizzying above us. We have nearly two kilometers of vertical distance to cover before nightfall, and one Japanese hiker reacts with disbelief when we tell him our plan to summit this afternoon. Rain has threatened almost since we began our hike, but the heavens have held, and we move quickly along the trail, hoping to make the peak before the weather turns.
The Jizou-one (地蔵尾根) trail, named for a small statue of a Japanese god watching over the upper reaches of the ascent, quickly turns more vertical than horizontal, with the steepest parts supplemented with iron steps, ladders or chain attached questionably to the rock. Probably due to the weather forecast, we meet few other climbers as we slowly work our way upward. The going is tedious; any level area is filled with the course-grain sand of the eroding rocks, inviting the use of trekking poles. These sections, though, last only until the next near-vertical climb, necessitating their stowing.
I’ve felt the altitude for some time now, but the physical exertion exacerbates its effects: increased heart rate, lethargy and a low-grade headache. J is doing better and I work to keep up, though he seems unusually willing to rest and wait for me to close the gap. It’s late afternoon now, and accompanying the dimmed sun are dense clouds riding a stiff breeze. Where before we could enjoy our progress above the treeline with views of our approach and the valley below, our visibility now is limited to perhaps fifty meters in any direction. The steepness is sustained, and the short switchbacks lend a sense of monotony to the experience. I’m very tired now, and both my breathing and heartbeat are accelerated. Why didn’t we take the more moderate line to the right I’d spotted earlier? Why had I insisted on adding the stop by Akadake Kosen and its accompanying distance?
After climbing silently for some time, it is odd to hear voices. I can’t tell where they are coming from, but it must be above; we are probably the only two people still climbing this far into dusk. With the clouds now thickened into a dense fog, we unexpectedly gain the ridge and see the source of the voices: two Japanese men relaxing outside a ridge-top hut featuring a low, enormous water tank. The whole structure resembles photos I’ve seen of hilltop military outposts in Afghanistan. J breaks the news that this is not our hut.
“We have to go up there,” he says, pointing to the ridge ascending another 250 vertical meters to our right. It is slow going. At one point we pass a hole in the ridgeline, the swirling clouds accentuating the feeling of extreme exposure; we’re nearly three kilometers above downtown Tokyo, our starting point this morning. Best to tread gingerly here. We seem to take forever picking our way up the rusted chains and unsure footing. It is now nearly 6:00 pm.
The hut. With one last effort, I step up even with the building’s entrance, a sliding door built into the weathered log-cabin construction. I’m about to enter when J suggests we climb the final fifteen meters to the summit. I actually wonder if I can make it. I do manage to note that we can leave our packs here by the hut, and we soon are standing atop Akadake’s 2,899 meters, the highest peak in the Yatsugatake mountains.
With no view to speak of, our celebration is short lived, and we’re quickly in the warm safety of the hut. The worker at the reception mentions that the lady who phoned to make our reservations, one of J’s Japanese coworkers, had an attractive voice. It really must get lonely living and working at the top of a mountain. We pay our money and are shown our bunks for the night, in a room shared by a dozen other hikers. Mercifully, we have arrived just in time for supper, so we put on a warm layer and move to the dining room, where we take thin cushions from a pile to sit on the floor around a low table. I am exhausted, and my body is screaming for calories,
but the altitude has robbed me of my appetite. I force down a few bites, but in the end I apologize to the chef for returning a nearly uneaten tray of food. I know that if I still can’t eat tomorrow morning, I will be in bad shape.
The chance to re-hydrate with soup and several electrolyte drinks is welcome, and by 8:00 pm–lights out–I am feeling considerably better. J and I entertain ourselves watching the antics of three Japanese ladies, probably in their 60s and clearly all friends, as they carry on about a respectably long list of topics.
The next morning, my headache is gone, my heart rate is lower and my appetite is back with a vengeance. Breakfast is at 5:00 am, and we plan to be back on the trail by six. This time my plate goes back empty.
We dress for rain; the weather has not improved, and a steady drizzle has been going since last night. When we have gathered our things and secured our packs, we head out down the steep exit trail located steps from the hut’s door. The going is treacherous. Water runs down the soaked, unsteady rock. We make full use of the chains, cables and handholds, down-climbing carefully and never fully trusting our feet. Our caution is vindicated–both of us lose footing more than once, safely anchored with our hands.
More than an hour later, we reach treeline and the downhill grade moderates enough for the runoff to turn our trail to mud. The light rain continues. Every eight steps, I need to pull up my rain pants; I later discover that the side waist adjustment released at some point, and I covet J’s suspenders while resolving to buy a pair of my own. We pass huge avalanche abatement structures as we near the bottom of the valley. Without snow, they are out of place and almost spooky, looming in the trees. Soon we are on a flat, wide rocky trail that leads eventually into an abandoned cement access road, plants pushing up through the weathered concrete. Another twenty minutes and we are traveling on a smooth, paved road. Buses pass us, bringing visitors to and from the nearby ski resort, now snowless but apparently optimized for the off-season, too. We eventually reach the municipal bus stop that will take us to Kiyosato Station–the guidebook says the distance is walkable, but we are tired enough to wait the forty minutes until the next bus. Across the street we duck into a combination cafe and shop selling local foods and souvenirs. After verifying the bus schedule with the proprietor, J and I move to one corner of the mostly-deserted shop and strip off our wet clothes, trading them for warm, dry versions. The woman who owns the shop is incredulous when we tell her we have come from Akadake this morning; she carries on about the weather and quickly seats us at a table near some space heaters to dry our jackets. There is enough time for lunch, and the soba noodles in soup with a tempura topping are deceptively delicious. I know intellectually the dish is average at best, but in the context of the past two days, it is sumptuous.
The bus drops us at the station, where we are able to purchase tickets to Tokyo. We make sure to pay extra for reserved seats; neither of us welcomes the thought of standing for the two-hour return trip. The station master says we can wait here, or take a local train to another station with enough time to catch our train farther down the line. We take the local train several stations down the line, only to discover that our new waiting place has far fewer amenities than Kiyosato. Ugh. But the train arrives soon enough, and we are back on our way to Tokyo. Though we won’t be doing that trip again without a favorable weather forecast, it is only a matter of days before J broaches the idea of another trip, after our respective summer travels. I hobble for days.