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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000

Walking the ridgetops in the Japan Alps


Staff writer

KARAMATSU PEAK, Nagano Pref. -- The sight of the red and green mountain huts nestled below the summit of Mount Karamatsu was a welcome one. It was there that I planned to rest my aching legs for the coming night.

These oniyuri lilies are among the species alpine hikers can enjoy on their way to the mountain huts at Karamatsu Peak.

Considering that I'd been hiking up hill and down dale for six hours since leaving Mount Shirouma soon after sunrise, I'd made it in good time.

In perfect hiking weather on day two of a three-day sojourn high in the Japanese Alps, I'd already admired dozens of different alpine flowers: white gentians, orange lilies, purple bellflowers and the diminutive pink, fragrant wild thyme.

From the well-worn trail which snaked its way over the mountain ridges of Shakushi, Tengu and Hakuba-Yari, I looked across at the peaks of Tateyama and nearby Asahi-dake. Far away on the distant skyline was my favorite, Yarigatake, Japan's second highest peak and one which I "conquered" several years ago.

My lungs were working overtime, not just because of the slightly thinner air at that altitude: I was breathing real air, taking in deep breaths of the delicate, pine-scented stuff -- the real McCoy, not some who-knows-what chemical sprayed from an aerosol can of room freshener.

Twice along the trail I stopped to watch families of ptarmigan (raicho, Lagopus mutus) mothers and their half-grown chicks. My biggest surprise: cresting the peak of Hakuba-Yari, I met a Japanese serow (kamoshika, Capricornis crispus), a beast between a goat and an antelope, munching its way along the path not 10 meters below me.

Our eyes met and, having given me the once over, she decided enough was enough. Slowly she moved off the path, picking her way very carefully across the steep incline until she disappeared from sight.

During the summer the Japanese Alps, North, South or Central, are magnets to thousands of people eager to escape the stifling heat and humidity of the lowlands for a few days.

Their relative proximity to both Tokyo and Osaka means that there is no shortage of hikers. Huts are overcrowded and early morning bottlenecks are common at favored places such as Tateyama, Kita-dake or any of the other well-climbed routes.

Mount Fuji, too, as anyone who has ever climbed that mountain, knows. But that's another story altogether.

The ascent of Mount Shirouma begins at Hakuba, a resort town where several 1998 Winter Olympics skiing events were held.

From the plaza in front of the station or from nearby Happo (for those arriving on the overnight bus from Tokyo or Osaka) the local bus departs several times daily for Sarukura, which serves as the trail-head for two places: Mount Shirouma, about five or six hours distant vertically, or Yari Onsen, about three hours along the forest trail, mostly horizontally.

Register your destination at the lodge before you set out. The trail for Shirouma is deceptively easy for the first hour as it follows the unmade track along the side of a valley where cold meltwater tumbles noisily over boulders in the river below.

The first stop is at the lower rest house where, on a clear day, you can look skyward and see the peaks of the mountain range above.

On sale, among the postcards, bells, mugs and cup noodles, are crampons for the assault on Daisekken, the broad expanse of snow which lingers all summer long.

This year, with more snow than usual remaining from last winter, the going is easy: There are no rocks or boulders to negotiate as you ascend, just a steep incline of dirty snow into which a well-climbed path has been worn, one that has seen several thousand pairs of hiking boots since the season began in the late spring.

Up, up, up, puffing and panting and taking a rest here and there until, after an hour and a half or more, the end is reached. The end of the snowfield, that is; the lodge at the peak still lies ahead, an hour or more distant.

The main lodge at Shirouma is on the southwest slope, just below the peak, and it's here that you get to know your fellow climbers: older men and women in their 60s and 70s, young college students, families with young children.

These will be your dining companions at dinnertime, your snoring roommates for the night and, at 5 the next morning, waiting with you in the queue to use the toilets!

Accommodation is hostel style, and for 8,600 yen you'll get a snug futon to sleep in and a Japanese-style dinner and breakfast. Not cheap, and don't even think gourmet, but it sure beats lugging your own tent and supplies halfway to heaven!

From Shirouma there are several routes to follow. I'd done the Renge Onsen trail before; I've been straight up and down a couple times, and I've also immersed my body in the soothing waters of Hakuba-Yari Onsen.

This time I opted for the trail to Karamatsu -- and I was glad that I did, because that day the weather at almost 3,000 meters was glorious.

There was only one drawback and that was one stretch of rock just below Karamatsu, known as Kaerazu-no-ken -- the dangerous place where there's no turning back.

The scary bit was at the beginning of the ascent where chains and ladders are used to scale the seemingly vertical rock face. I wondered several times what kind soul had carried these heavy items and fixed them into the rock. Whoever, they have my thanks. I'm no daredevil and I don't have a head for heights, so looking out from my precarious perch among the fissures, way up on the side of a mountain, sure didn't promote a feeling of relaxation.

"Just keep looking inwards," I told myself, not wanting to see the sheer drop below. At that particular point it seemed like the world was composed of two elements: rock and air. You look one way, and there is rock. You look the other way, and there is air. But I survived, and made it to the top, just once more having to scramble across a narrow plinth of rock near the summit.

Then, having rested and recovered from that final, gruelling 20-minute climb, I was whistling along on my way to Karamatsu-dake.

The lodge operators seemed a bit surprised at a foreigner appearing out of the mist on top of a mountain, but within minutes I was curled up, barrack-style, in the sleeping quarters.

That afternoon, after a long siesta, I ventured out to search for more ptarmigan, but they were hiding somewhere among the creeping pine and the boulders. Either that, or else they remained invisible in the mist which tightly shrouded the peak.

Instead, I settled for watching the ever-changing facade of the nearby mountains, alternatively appearing and disappearing in the mist until, at sunset, the brilliant rays of the sun broke through and bathed everything in an intense ethereal light.

Dinner was served at the early hour of 5:30 p.m., and well before 8 p.m. I was in bed, tired enough to crash out and sleep right through until just before 5 the following morning.

I was awakened early by people clunking around in the lodge, people packing rucksacks and rustling plastic bags like huge mice in the predawn darkness.

As dawn sent the first light of a new day over the peaks, someone shouted from below that breakfast was being served. One Japanese breakfast in two days was more than enough for me, though, and I declined, preferring to eat what meager supplies I could ferret out of the bottom of my pack: a 3-day-old potato croquet, a bruised apple and a squashed Snickers bar.

Before leaving I asked the advice of the lodge operator on the best route back down to Hakuba or Happo. He suggested taking the trail to Goryu, and descending from there to the nearest station and backtracking to Hakuba, but that would have taken several hours and it would have been a very roundabout way too.

Next time, I thought. I took the easy way out, not because I was tired of hiking but because of the time factor.

I slung my backpack on and headed downhill to Happo Pond. At the edge I took one last glance at the mountain peaks high above me in the swirling mist, and boarded the first of three ski lifts which in a matter of 15 minutes or so took me down to Happo Station and so home to Tokyo.



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