I originally wrote this just over a decade ago. For years, the only surviving copy was in a box among Ian’s mementos of his first “tour of duty” in Japan. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it’s back.
So, what are two Australians doing lying on a bench at a bus stop in Kofu at 2:30 in the morning? Trying to get some sleep, of course!
Our aim: to climb Hoosanzan, the three peaks of Mt. Hoo. (Literally Mt. Phoenix)
Our epic journey (for want of a better cliché) begins at Kokubunji station a little before 11:80 PM. I find myself waiting for Ian, wondering if my pack, probably a good 20kg, is too heavy, and if there are any more trains for Kofu tonight. Kofu is a fair distance – it doesn’t even appear on the local rail map, giving rise to another concern: do we change at Hachioji or not? Will we be better off trying to get a bus from Tachikawa? Hitching a ride from Hachioji?
All this trouble because we have to arrive at the Yakushi mountain hut by 4:30 the following afternoon if we are going to get fed there. From Yashagami no mori the climb takes about seven and a half hours. And, so we are told, the only bus from Kofu that will get us there in time leaves at 4:30 AM. If we can’t get to Kofu tonight, we’ll be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Ian arrives and I am amazed at the size of his pack, or rather the lack thereof. He is dressed like a day-tripper, while I’m fitted out like a soldier from recon platoon: cold weather gear, rain gear, crampons, enough food for 6 meals, cooking equipment, a first aid kit, five and a half litres of water…if we get stuck up there, Ian is going to be glad he’s with me.
We take the next train – it goes as far as Hachioji. From there? Pot luck.
I know nothing about Kofu. Well, not exactly. It’s the capital of Yamanashi Prefecture, but more importantly (at least in the minds of its residents, it seems) it was the home of Takeda Shingen, one of the major players in the civil wars during the 16th century. He lost no territory during his lifetime despite having enemies both east and west, but the Takeda clan was defeated after his death. Of course, none of this information is particularly useful to me at this time.
We arrive at Hachioji and – to our joy – there is one more train that passes through Kofu. We will be there sometime early in the morning. Fate has smiled upon us – for now
Our train arrives just before 12:30 and we have a rather uneventful and sleepless trip to Kofu.
Upon arrival at Kofu, we conduct a quick recce – locate the bus stop and the nearest convenience store for snacks – I haven’t eaten since around 5 o’clock. We quickly consume our goodies and lay down on the benches to try and catch some sleep. I’ve slept for about half an hour all night.
Sleep does not come easily. Some of the creatures of the night are to be heard – people walking in what appear to be tap shoes (how else do you explain the amount of noise they produce?), gangs of motor scooter riders, and those hoons with their low-slung cars whose engines rumble as they cruise around at low speed. By four in the morning I’ve slept for less than 2 hours. Climbing that mountain isn’t going to be easy.
By 4 AM it’s already relatively light. There are light grey clouds overhead, and in the distance I can make out some mountain peaks. They look pretty steep.
4:30 comes but our bus does not. This does not look promising. A taxi cruises past, and the driver asks if we’re going to Yashagami no mori. I affirm this.
“There are no buses.”
“There are no buses until next month. Look.” He shows me the timetable.
It’s nearly an hour and a half by bus. There’s no way we can possibly afford to take a taxi.
“Normally it’s around ¥10000, but I’ll take you there for ¥6000.”
And so less than an hour later we are officially at the start of our climb. The weather promises to be mild, but also to block out those spectacular views of the Southern Alps.
We’re feeling a little fresher after our taxi tide and make good speed for the first hour, and discuss how much Shawn will wish he came with us. About an hour in we decide that breakfast is a good idea. I set up my cooking gear, boil some water, and ramen and coffee are soon to be had.
Coffee is vitally important on these trips. In addition to the sugar and caffeine factor, a hot cup of coffee is a major psychological boost. We had an expression in the Army:
“Who brews, wins”
I also use the time to strip off my t-shirt, as I’m sweating quite a lot. I know it’s going to be cold higher up, and I don’t want sweat-soaked clothing touching my skin.
We continue upward, but not too steeply, so we are making pretty good time. We talk about other hikes, reminisce about our fabulous trip up Kumotori last year, and ponder what wildlife we may see. I haven’t made so many hikes, but I haven’t seen any significantly sized wildlife. Ian has been lucky enough to see a serow.
We’re not worried about “meeting” a bear (to use student terminology), but with the buses not running and the weather not so great, our chances of seeing something bigger than a woodpecker are not bad.
By around 11 we’re both ready for a half hour break, we put down our packs, sit down, and… zzz. Ian is out as soon as his head touches the ground. I sleep for probably 15 minutes, Ian nearly double that.
Our bodies feeling a tad better, we push on. The sky is becoming greyer, the wind increasing, and a few spots of rain are falling. It’s getting cooler as we go up. And suddenly we come across snow. I haven’t been consciously aware of the change in forest, probably because of the large area of burnout that we have passed through.
Whereas lower down there were quite a few broad leaf trees, up here we are limited mostly to cedars and pines.
We trek through the snow a little further but find the going increasingly difficult – the snow is a mixture of hard and soft. In one spot our feet sink down only a few centimetres, in another we sink down to our shins.
We decide to have a hot brew and put on our crampons and rain gear. The trail is only marked by occasional pieces of red tape wrapped around trees, although there are a few tracks left by previous adventurers.
By early afternoon we find ourselves heading downhill, out of the snow and into a natural bowl, and here lies the Minami mountain hut. We plan to stop here just to get out of the rain and to cook-up. It is a fairly rough and ready affair, but the owner comes out, calls us out of the rain, and offers us some coffee. Can’t say no to that.
We feel guilty about eating our own food after that, so we order some instant noodles for lunch. These can be bought for a mere ¥100 in town, but it’s cold and wet, and we’re tired, so we are willing to accept a 400% mark-up.
The owner calls the Yakushi hut over the radio to inform them of our arrival. The conditions are not to be toyed with up here: this is probably a matter of keeping track of who is on the mountain.
We don our rain gear and crampons and set off again. Although the actual distance to our final destination for the day is less than 2km, it is going to take a considerable amount of time to get there, as the slope is quite steep.
We continue through the cedars, but this time we pass a number of boulders as well, a hint that we are getting close to the peak. Sure enough, we emerge from the forest onto a rocky outcrop. The snow also thins out to nothing. It is like a scene from a sci-fi movie, all gravel and boulders. It must be too windy here for the snow to remain for long. What little vegetation there is seems tortured and twisted.
We stop to look around and climb over some of the boulders. Although it’s a relief to have the weight of my pack off, I’m anxious to get moving again. The wind is picking up, and the clouds in the distance are heavy and black. I don’t want to be out in the open when the rain really starts.
Even though the hut is only about 500 metres away, it takes some time to get there.
We scramble over rocks, our crampons not making the task any easier. At last we make the final stretch to the hut, arriving around 3:30.
The hut itself is a fairly Spartan affair. We hang up our damp gear in the “drying area” and go inside.
If the hut is Spartan, the hospitality is colder than the weather. We are greeted with paperwork to fill out and the ¥7000 per head bill, then told the rules and meal times.
Not so much as a “You must be tired” or “Welcome.”
We are shown the sleeping quarters. Now relieved of my pack and movement, I’m feeling the cold. My boots are soaked, as are my socks, and of course, feet.
The owner brings in a tiny kerosene heater. It produces slightly more heat than my gas lantern. There is no way this thing is going to even take the chill out of this place, much less heat it.
My mind drifts back to that great hike up Kumotoriyama, where our classy hut cost us the same, but we had heated rooms and a massive heater in the common area. There, at the end of December, I had to strip down to my underwear to sleep. Here, at the end of May, I pull out my winter gear that I didn’t need during our winter hike.
We snooze for a good two hours before waking up in time for dinner. We shuffle out to the dining area in the earth-floored entrance. Dinner is curry, which is most welcome.
We gobble down the curry and raid the rice tub.
Suddenly we have company, three more hikers. Does this mean we have to share the rice?
Bed is calling, but it takes some time to work out how best to dry my socks. Hanging them over the ledge of the sleeping area as close to the heater as possible seems futile.
Wearing them is pointless as I just end up with icy cold feet. Then I remember another trick from the Army – I take my socks to bed with me. God bless the Army.
We sleep fairly soundly, I’m only awoken a couple of times, once by the sound of snoring (Ian!), and once by rain.
5:30 comes around, which means breakfast. I go to retrieve some gear from my pack and find that there are a number of leaks in the “drying” area. Our damp gear has now become saturated. Not happy.
Breakfast is rice, miso soup and some rather non-descript pickles. I consume maybe five bowls of rice, and probably the same number of miso. And not just to get the pickle taste out of my mouth. According to the TV news – yes, they have a TV up here – it’s raining all over the whole country today. Typical – I chose this time of year specifically to avoid the rain. I bet it will stop raining the moment we get home.
We complete our morning routine and prepare to go. I wish I had taken my gloves in last night – they are soaking wet, and I’m not sure they’ll keep my hands warm. Still, there’s always the “wet suit” approach – the water in the gloves quickly heats up to near body temperature, providing some kind of insulation. Still, at least I have my full-body Goretex® rain suit.
The landscape is a mixture of snow, gravel, boulders and some gnarly little plants, mostly naturally dwarfed trees. A bonsai collector’s paradise. Except for the weather.
We’re feeling a little like extras in a low budget science fiction movie, but at least it’s not too steep. We have three peaks to visit, then the descent, and hot bath. Close your eyes and think of the hot bath.
To be honest, the climb is not too bad at this stage. The cloud sometimes thins enough to see some of other mountains, and occasionally we can look down sheer drops. On a clear day this would be a magic view.
This is Japan, and no trip up a mountain would be complete without the presence of some tiny shrine somewhere, especially not a mountain with peak names like Kannon and Jizo. Here and there we pass a few statuettes of the Buddhist deities, small change scattered about them.
Our humor picks up – “I wonder what the guys at work are doing now?”
We are higher than the highest point in Australia, and we’re still climbing.
“Wait a minute, I know this direction – it’s up!”
We make it to Yakushi-take, then to Kannon-dake, the highest point of the mountain – 2780 metres above sea level. There is a long descent and a long ascent towards Jizo-dake, and it takes its toll on our legs. Often we think we can see the peak just ahead, but it’s just the clouds concealing the part of the mountain we’re on.
We finally make it out onto a small open stretch of gravel covered with statues of Jizo.
This is Sai-no-kawara, the River of the Dead. In popular Japanese interpretations of Buddhism, this is like the Styx, the river (or “liver” as some of our students prefer to pronounce it) that separates the land of the living to the land of the dead.
Up ahead we can see the third peak, but the rain and wind have picked up and our enthusiasm has been dampened. Nor is the gradient terribly inviting.
Bugger that, we’re heading down.
Climbing down a mountain often generates a different kind of pain from climbing up. The assent usually plays havoc with one’s thighs, the descent can be murder on the knees and ankles. In a couple of places I can feel my knees extend and then the gravel under my feet gives way, causing hyperextension. We’d better be careful.
After a while, the slope begins to flatten out, we see less gravel and more snow, and the trees increase in height. The third hut on the mountain comes into sight. If nothing else, we know there will be some kind of shelter from this rain.
Upon arrival we find that the hut is dosed, but at least there is some kind of veranda we can sit under and have a snack.
There is a sign pointing to our final destination. About 3 hours walk. OK, we can do that.
The gradient and depth of snow increase, our speed decreases. Although the mountain side is very steep, our trail takes us along contour lines, making our descent unbearably slow. To make matters worse, the snow on the trail conforms to the slope of the mountain, making keeping balance quite difficult, especially with a heavy pack. Also, there are patches of hard and soft snow. One time I step down a gap and my right leg sinks to over knee depth in snow. I lose my balance and fall, twisting around and landing on my back. I’m like a turtle, completely helpless. At least it provides a laugh for Ian, whose knees are not feeling too good.
Another time the snow under my left leg gives way and I slip off the trail and start sliding down the mountain. Luckily (?) I am able to stop myself on some sharp tree stumps.
The descent seems endless. Hours pass and we still can’t see the bottom. We finally get below the snow line and can remove our crampons. The rain brings out the green of the forest, and it’s not hard to think of some Tolkien-esque world. Were we to catch sight of a pair of hobbits, it would not seem strange.
Our sole relief is a rather silly sign, consisting only of arrows pointing in the directions of the two important points on the trail and the Japanese equivalent of “You are here” in the middle.
Wonder how many rocket scientists it took to think of that one.
On the subject of signs, our whole trip has been punctuated with unsightly signs everywhere telling us to “love nature” and “protect the forest”. Don’t the idiots who erect those eyesores realize that they are destroying the beauty of this place? Still, this is the country that has the foresight to erect signs everywhere, informing people of matters they may be unaware of, like “Groping women on the trains IS a crime.”
Glad they put up that sign, heaven knows what trouble I night get into otherwise.
As the gradient increases, the pain in our knees does likewise. How far have we come?
I mean, I have climbed Mt. Fuji (twice!)[i], and the descent took less time.
After what seems a downward eternity, I catch sight of a regular shaped, dull, aqua-coloured mass.
In the Army, we emphasized that the “5 S’s and 1 M” (shine, shape, shading, shadow, silhouette and movement) were how things were seen in the bush. The roof of this lodge has failed the camouflage test on 5 counts. Bless it. It is the most beautiful sight we have seen for hours.
Encouraged by what we see, I scramble down as best I can for a forward recce, while Ian hobbles down in old-man style.
Initial scans are not encouraging: while the place is large and solid, there also appears to be no- one in.
But wait. We spy smoke coming from the chimney. It’s not completely deserted.
An old woman inside spots us and comes out to enquire about our intentions.
Yes, we can spend the night here.
Sorry, she can’t do lunch.
“Wash the mud off your gear and come inside.”
And so we not only get to sit in a warm room with a kotatsu, we get to sit in a warm room with a kotatsu and drink hot coffee.
The proprietor, a woman in her 60’s we guess, has possibly never seen white people before. This, and the lack of other guests to distract her, makes for some really good service.
She shows us to our room. It is large and has ample bedding for four people. There is also a small kotatsu. Heaven.
We go outside to finish cleaning up our gear, then haul it upstairs to dry out on the balcony and the small strip of wooden boards in our room.
Then it’s time for a bath.
The bath seems too hot, so Ian adds some cold water. Mistake. The bath just hasn’t been “stirred”, so now it’s actually tepid rather than hot. Still, it’s a bath and it’s not cold. Shaving has never felt so good. Not to mention clean, dry clothes.
After bath time is, of course, bed time. We gonk for a good three hours before dinner. And what a dinner! Apart from a few odd pickled mountain vegetables, there’s plenty of rice, crockets, battered fish, and kamo nabe, a kind of duck stew. Ian is prepared to forgo his vegetarian persuasion tonight, and not just due to appetite. This food is GOOD. The proprietor stands over us, making sure we have enough to eat, like someone’s doting grandma, or maybe a woman with sumo aspirations for her kids.
We are absolutely buggered, for want of a better phrase, and hit the sack around 8. What a sleep!
We get up in time to get most of our gear into shape, clean up the puddle of water that has formed on the floor, and enjoy breakfast. Again, rice-a-plenty, plus omelets.
With about an hour until the taxi comes (sorry, no buses at this time of year!), we finish packing and explore the place a little. It’s a tad run down, probably due to the owner’s age and a declining client base – older people – but is certainly reasonably priced and friendly.
Our taxi arrives and we set off for Nirazaki station, about an hour’s drive away.
Typical – within about 15 minutes it stops raining, the first time in more than 30 hours.
We don’t see a house for nearly 20 minutes, and a lot of the trip, despite officially being in Kofu, seems to be a stretch of highway passing through rice paddies. Suddenly we are in populated areas and near the station.
A few minutes later we say goodbye to our cabbie and are ready to board the train home.
Incidentally, the weather becomes clear and sunny the next day. Typical.
[i] I had climbed twice from the fifth station at that time. The following year, Ian and I did a crazy climb starting at Lake Motosu, about 10km from the base of Fuji.