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Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011

Yatsugatake wanderings in the wet


By SKYE HOHMANN
Special to The Japan Times

The old volcanic peaks of the Yatsugatake Mountains describe a narrow crescent across the forested plains and hills in this corner of Honshu where Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures meet. The southern slope of the range is a near-perfect sweep, a quadratic equation graphing the land up into the sky, and from a distance it has a magnetic pull on the eyes, drawing them upward.

News photo
Up and away : Siberian dwarf pines and azaleas on the higher slopes. SKYE HOHMANN PHOTOS

Only rarely can you ever see the summit of a mountain from its foot, but here the many peaks catch and hold clouds even in the warmer months. On clear days, though, those summits still elude the lowland eye as they rise behind a screen of fir trees that scent the air with resin.

The morning on which a friend and I headed for those hidden heights was gray and humid as we shouldered our heavy packs and made a late start in the dusky forest light.

Neither of us had much experience on big mountains. Though we had been hiking in other places, these peaks were something different: they rose up above us steep and green and awesome between the trees like giants with their heads in the clouds.

We had chosen to climb the side of the range and scale the 2,805-meter peak of Mount Amida before camping below the mountain hut on the shoulder of Mount Akadake, at 2,899 meters the range's highest point.

It would be a long day, seven hours according to the trail times on the map, but we were fearless and thought we knew what we were doing. However, roaming among the evergreen forests that clothe the lower slopes of the mountain, it took us nearly an hour to find the trail head. From there it was easy walking at first, and we caught up on the year we'd spent apart. Living on opposite sides of the globe, there was plenty to talk about.

Then the path began to climb in earnest. We fell silent as we wound our way up out of the conifers and through a larch forest that gave way slowly to birches and azaleas. Plodding on and on it was a sweaty slog with my heartbeat pounding in my ears as the trail switchbacked steeply uphill through the trees.

We stopped for a late lunch of convenience-store rice balls and vitamin drinks atop a small summit and consulted the map. Given the trail times, we reckoned we were on the summit of Mount Amida. It seemed unimpressive.

We pushed on, ever upward.

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The be-shrined summit of Mount Akadake.

Finally emerging from the trees onto slopes covered with the tangled mat of Siberian dwarf pine that grows at higher altitudes, we rounded a corner and found ourselves briefly looking into the strange ancient face of a Japanese serow (Nihon kamoshika) before the goat-antelope bounded nimbly away in search of solitude higher up the mountain.

It wasn't until well into the afternoon that we realized we had been completely misreading the scale of the contour lines. That was about the same time as the ragged, rust-colored peak of Mount Amida loomed up ahead through the mist, before being again hidden from view.

Consulting the map more carefully, it was apparent that we'd miscalculated more than the scale of the map's contours. This, unfortunately, was my fault; my (limited) Japanese ability had meant that picking the route was my job. I looked again, but more closely, at the hut under the summit of Mount Akadake. "No camping" it said right there on the map.

It was going to be a longer day than we had planned. However, it is a testament to our friendship that since then my companion has never once given me grief about this. Even as we pulled ourselves hand over hand, arms weary and shaking, along the ropes that lead to the summit up the sliding sandy sides of the mountain, she only laughed.

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My hiking companion on the forested lower slopes.

On the rocky pinnacles of the peak itself we were spaceless, timeless, unmoored in the fog. Ladders stretched over chasms that disappeared into the mist below us. It was impossible to tell how far the drop was down beneath us.

Between the summits of Mount Amida and the higher Mount Akadake a smooth saddle describes an improbably soft curve linking the two ragged, eroded peaks.

Clouds hung in the air above us as we cut off the side of the col and down into the deep valley below. The chilly air warmed as we descended. It was only an hour's easy descent to the Gyoja Hut, but we arrived exhausted and with shaking legs in the campground. Under the shadow of the high peaks, evening was beginning to close in.

We ate first, wolfing down the hot instant noodles that are so much better in the mountains than anywhere else. It was nearly dark by the time we came to pitch the tent — which was when we discovered that we were missing its poles.

After scouring the edge of the forest for fallen wood, we came back with a few short sticks to prop up the nylon. Inside, the close ceiling gave a sense of hiding beneath the covers. We giggled ourselves to sleep like children at a slumber party, happy to be adventuring together.

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The saddle leading to Mount Akadake.

The next day dawned cool and clammy. We crawled out of the tent and looked up at the close clouds. Rocky cliffs, red with minerals, vanished into the grayness above. The forecast was for rain.

We left our packs in the trees outside the campground just as it was beginning to drizzle. Then, covered head to toe in waterproof gear, we set off for the peak.

It was a hard, silent climb, though the sound I've now come to associate with summiting mountains or hiking for distance is that of my own breathing. We were in cloud before we reached the tree line.

Looking back now, I feel that we were often mere steps away from giving in, from turning downhill and heading home. The trail that winds up the bare volcanic rock of the peak is not an easy one as it's steep and slippery with the rust-colored scree that gives the mountain its Japanese name of Akadake, meaning "Red Peak." Every so often, we'd stop for a sip of water, a word of encouragement, and continue.

I've climbed those mountains since, and I've stood on top of Mount Akadake twice in fine weather and gazed out over the distances to the Alps on one side and Mount Fuji on the other. For all that, though, I've never felt quite as elated as I did that first time, standing there suspended in cloud with nothing else in the universe but a friend and the mountain.

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Nature spirits: This small shrine reflects the Shinto significance of the forests that cloak the lower slopes of the mountains.

Despite our rain gear we were drenched to the skin when we reached our packs on the way down. Hoisting them once again onto our sore shoulders, we followed the valley out of the mountains, racing the quickening river downhill. Rivulets of water streamed over boulders, and the river rushed white over tumbled rocks and through slippery ravines.

The air was pine scented and wet — and magical. My friend looked at me, her face running with water, and grinned.

"I hope that we're still doing this in years," she said. I couldn't have agreed more.

Trail heads for the Yatsugatake Mountains can be reached by bus or taxi from Chino or Kobuchizawa stations, which are around 2 hours out of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo by Azusa Limited Express on the JR Chuo Line. Though you can climb the peaks into the cooler months, it's best to leave the mountains to the experts once the snow begins to fall. Even in summer, they can be very cold at night or in bad weather, and warm layers of clothes, waterproof rain gear, a topographic map and drinks are essential for any hike. Mountain huts, scattered throughout the range, serve hot meals and have basic accommodation. Many also offer camping.


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