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Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011
One woman's Hyakumeizan
By GINGER VAUGHN
Special to The Japan Times
As I thumb through the tattered pages of my decade-old hiking guidebook, a sense of satisfaction coupled with disbelief takes over.
The bent cover and dog-eared pages, now brittle and stained from exposure to rain and sun, and from being shoved in a backpack over and over again, have held up surprisingly well — but as I've come to know, its picturesque photos of Japan's 100 great mountains, the so-called Hyakumeizan, do not do them justice.
And considering the time, expense and physical commitment it has taken to tick off all 100 as "been there, climbed that," it doesn't seem right that the great peaks of these islands could all be wrapped up so neatly in a two-part guidebook complete with maps and trail times.
That, though, is exactly what the writer and climber Kyuya Fukada (1903-71) did when he handpicked the mountains and between 1959-63 wrote his best-selling volume titled "Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Famous Japanese Mountains)." While most mountaineers here applaud Fukada's work and the inspiration it has given to so many lovers of the great outdoors, they also tend to agree that the country's 100 best peaks are those you choose yourself — just as Fukada did.
Nonetheless, soon after the book was published in 1964, the challenge was there for hikers around the country to lace up their boots and take to the hills in Fukada's footsteps.
My attempt to be the first foreign female to complete all the 100 mountains began after a two-year stint in Yokohama on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program.
A fellow teacher named Sean had taken me on a trail hike in the Tanzawa mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture, and just one glimpse from 1,600 meters up was all it took for me to know I would be enjoying a lot more views from high altitudes in the coming years.
It is amazing how quickly and slowly a year can go by when it's filled with mountain climbing, hitchhiking, odd jobs and all manner of unexpected happenings.
Now, flipping through the weatherworn pages of my journal, I read the first few accounts of traveling by bicycle through Hokkaido and I can't help but smile at my naivety and passion at the time.
In my original plan, I was very regimented and unwavering in my determination to climb the Hyakumeizan in one year.
Sleepless nights were spent creating the perfect hiking schedule and working out which mountain would be climbed during which time of the year, spacing them out to exactly take in 100 peaks in 365 days. In my quests to find the lightest gear, "less is more" became such a serious motto that I shaved my head early on to mark the start of my odyssey.
The schedule I had in mind and on paper was a simple but strict (and massively unrealistic) one. I wrote the name of each mountain to be climbed in red on a year-planner on my bedroom wall, assigned each a number and put the 100 numbers in date squares on the planner — so giving me a schedule with a precise date on which to climb each peak, with no room for rain checks. My daily budget would be ¥1,500; my shelter and home was to be a tent; and my transportation a bicycle donated by a sponsor, Scott USA.
The winter months were also slated for hiking, and I left little room for catching colds, bad moods, broken hearts or bankruptcy — all which have, of course, befallen me.
So, in August 2002 my Hyakumeizan challenge kicked off when I boarded a ferry from Tokyo to the port of Tomakomai in Hokkaido. All my belongings were snugly packed in panniers on my new hybrid bicycle, which I was confident would take me smoothly to the trailhead about 120 km from the port.
"Hmm, a foreign girl alone, climbing Mount Poroshiri? I have lived here for 50 years and that mountain is no joke," an old man at the visitors center in Batori warned me with a concerned look and a shake of his head as if I just didn't get it!
Pointing to the sky he said there would be a terrible storm the next day and I should pay heed. "Long fishermen's boots, do you have those?"
"No, but I have sandals," I said pointing to the Tevas strapped on my bike rack.
"Young lady, the water level is already pretty high from the rains, it is not a good idea."
Annoyed by his chidings, I thought that he'd surely never climbed Mount Poroshiri. What does he know? I huffed silently to myself — and with that and a "thank you" I rode off without looking back and giving him the chance to say more.
Soon enough, I was cursing the bumpy, unpaved paths and my heavy panniers. After 10 hours of cycling, the blisters on my feet were just another part of the gnawing pain of the rest of my body. Finally arriving at the trailhead for Mount Poroshiri — my first sub-goal — I collapsed into my tent too exhausted to care that I was covered in bugs and eating them with my ramen.
The next morning, it soon became clear that the old man was right. I had tried a few tricky maneuvers to avoid the streams, but soon I found myself up to my waist in water, my pack high on my back. The clouds glowered heavily and I was pushing myself as hard as I could to make it to the small mountain hut before the storm.
I got there just as the rain started to come down, and found plenty of other hikers filling the hut about a four-hour trek below the peak, which, at 2,052 meters, is the highest point of the Hidaka range in south-central Hokkaido. The crowd included a 22-strong tour group whose members turned out to be the highlight of the evening.
The wind howled and it was apparent that no one would be going anywhere, up or down, any time soon, so all 50-odd of us realized we'd have to make the best of it.
Deciding where we would all sleep was not an issue. If there was a square centimeter of available floor space it was occupied in seconds. That is where I first learned the word zakone, which means sleeping like sardines in a can. I was a well-fed sardine, though, because many of the older ladies were particularly interested in giving me chocolates and sweets, I think because I somehow looked like all of their granddaughters — or grandsons rather, with my shaved head.
When I proudly told them I was doing the Hyakumeizan, though, the room fell quiet as ears perked up to hear more. A lady from Nagoya who'd just given me an almond bar said she was on mountain number 87 — and asked about my progress.
"This is number one," I said, and soon the room was filled with hearty laughs, clapping and calls of "Gambatte ne!" ("Try your best!")
"Mountain number one and it's already raining on you — you must be an ame-onna," the Nagoya lady replied, referring to a woman whose presence brings rain. That was a new word to me, but it seemed to have stuck as many more days of downpours awaited me on my 100-summit quest.
The following day the skies were still heavy, but I felt warm and refreshed from sleep and plenty of calories. I left my gear at the hut and with just a liter of water and a few snacks quickly went up to the summit. The rain when it inevitably came was welcoming as it cooled me down, but then the wind picked up and threatened to flatten me on the way back down to the hut.
Once there, after grabbing my gear and changing into sandals for the hike back to the trailhead, I wondered if it might not be faster wading through the streams straight down to the trailhead rather than walking. Ninety-nine mountains still remained and there I was trying to figure out whether to hike or swim. Not the most encouraging start to my Hyakumeizan adventure.
It was on that first outing in Hokkaido that I realized that though cycling is a great means of transport, its appeal falls rapidly when going uphill after just having climbed a big mountain.
So hitchhiking became my new means of transport, and a much easier and more enjoyable one than I'd ever expected. Not only did it get me fairly speedily wherever I wanted to be, but it was a great way to communicate with locals, many of whom happily shared their knowledge about the locality, the mountains — and lots about their day-to-day lives.
Indeed, some people I met on my travels even shared their homes with me as well.
One time in northern Japan where Akita and Iwate prefectures meet, I was lucky to meet the caretaker of the Mount Hachimantai hut, a Mr. Chiba. He was a craftsman from the nearby Iwate Prefecture town of Tono, which is known for its theatrical Shinto dance style called kagura, its folk tales — and a mischievous green water goblin known as the Kappa.
Soon after I'd come down from the plateau-like 1,613-meter summit and arrived at the hut, Mr. Chiba offered me hot chestnuts right out of the pan without asking anything about me.
Then, sure enough, within a few minutes of us getting acquainted, the heavens opened and I sat there pondering my lodging for the night as the rain poured down. Like an old uncle, though, Mr. Chiba said without any fuss that I should stay with his family in town until the weather cleared.
Well, it didn't clear for a few more days but, like the proverbial silver lining, that allowed me to relax and join the Chiba family for a week of festivals where I learned kagura dancing and cheered his children on at a school athletic meet.
On my third day in town, I came across Mr. Azuma, the principal of the elementary school. "You must come to my house near here in Sanriku and eat some fresh awabi (gigantic clams)," he said at once. "They are delicious and the way my wife prepares them, I can confidently say they're the best in the world."