I was late. The train would arrive in ten minutes. It would take about 12 minutes to get from putting on my shoes by the front door to hustling through the neighborhood streets to the train station, crossing the bridge, and getting down to the platform. So I would miss the train. I cursed while fumbling with my shoelaces, and, sweating profusely in the chilly air, I hefted my backpack and charged out the door. I guess waking up at 3:30 in the morning after 2 hours of sleep wasn’t helping my mood either.
Everything went wrong from there. I did catch the next train, but it got stuck halfway to my destination when someone decided to mosey across a train crossing and hold up the entire train line. When I did finally arrive at my final station, and half run through the downtown business district, I stopped to buy a Starbucks latté, glad, at least for something to make the morning nicer. The bus station from where I was supposed to take the long-distance bus west to Kamikochi wasn’t where I thought it would be, so I ended up circling the buildings, frantically looking for the bus terminal. with only 10 minutes to spare before it took off. Still unable to find it, I called my friend Satomi, who was also going the following day, about where the bus terminal might be. She tried to explain, but it made no sense to me, because the location of the bus station wasn’t obvious. While we talked, I set the extra duffel bag I was carrying down on a planter, and promptly knocked the latté to the ground, spilling its contents all over the sidewalk. No, not a good morning at all!
It did finally get sorted out. I found the bus terminal, got on the bus, and relaxed, as the bus headed into a perfectly blue Friday morning, straight for the Japan Alps.
After spending a month traveling and walking in the Pyrenees in August, coming back to Tokyo had brought me right back to the crowded trains, endless concrete, and overly preoccupied lifestyle that characterizes this city. The transition from a month of mostly silence amidst the mountains, with only intermittent conversations with various fellow travelers along the way, sent a wave of melancholy through me, enough that, paradoxically, I despaired of getting myself outside. Japan, after so long away in an environment much closer to my own family culture, seemed like a land of endlessly working souls who knew no rest and spoke an alien language. Even the food seemed monotonous, tasting always of soy sauce or miso paste. So it was about time that I joined a group of like-minded people who also loved walking in the mountains and sharing conversation, food, and knowledge in that cheery, gung-ho way that mountain walkers have.
The Facebook group, “Hiking In Japan”, started by Osaka mountain enthusiast Wes Lang, had been steadily growing ever since people got wind of a group of walkers in Japan who loved mountains. I’d been steadily following the posts and occasionally actively posting myself; my feeling was that somehow a group of people in Japan with both a serious interest in hiking, yet also a sense of fun and silliness, had somehow touched the right combination. One evening, while reading yet another post by some members who seemed as if they would enjoy meeting one another, I suggested that we actually try to get people together and meet somewhere in the mountains… the very place that we all loved most.
So it was that the Kamikochi Camping Event got started. Wes set up the event invitation page and many of the members started suggesting places to meet, dates, and what to do. Since members lived all over Japan, the first thing was to choose a place central to people living in Tokyo and Osaka, which meant somewhere in the North or Central Alps. At about the same time one member, Tomomi, and I, hit upon meeting in Kamikochi. I remembered the huge open camping ground at Tokusawa-en that I had visited twice before, and how easy it was to walk there, and Tomomi thought about the accessibility of Kamikochi, being about equal in distance from both Tokyo and Osaka. Most people seemed happy with that, so Tokusawa in Kamikochi it became.
It was a beautiful morning on the bus, with not a cloud in the sky, but I only saw it in between bouts of deep naps. Normally I can’t sleep on buses, but I was so tired, that as soon as I sat down I was out. Every now and then I’d wake and peer around, catching glimpses of the last vestiges of Tokyo petering away, droning through the still-green hills of Oku-Chichibu, a view of the snow-dusted peaks of the Houou Sanzan range and taller Kai-Koma Peak, whizzing through the dry woods east of Kofu, making a wide detour around the wide base and sharp peaks of Yatsugatake, sailing above the edge of a deep slate blue Lake Suwa, and a momentary spying of the Central Alps off in the distance. I slept right through the last portion of the journey, only waking when the bright yellow wash of Kamikochi’s larch forests engulfed the windows of the bus in the last spurt up to Kamikochi Bus Terminal.
Outside, the parking lot was so choked with tour buses I couldn’t see the terminal itself. The spaces between the buses bustled with throngs of leaf peepers, and a low din of hundreds of voices hovered in the chilly air. Going by the view of the Hotaka range above the bus tops, I maneuvered my way out of the parking lot to a quiet bench among the trees, where I pulled out a sack of lunch and sat on the bench munching a rice ball. The air was cold enough to prompt me to pull out my microfleece midlayer and windshirt. I sent a message to the event group on Facebook, warning everyone to dress warmly.
Because I was carrying a duffel bag stuffed with several tents and extra stoves and pots, I didn’t want to linger too long walking, so I set off at a brisk pace, by-passing the hordes of walkers. It was a flat, easy trail along the banks of the still wild and untouched Azusa River. But though I moved fast, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to gaze at Mae-Hotaka peak looming above the trail, or the scarlet leaves of the Nikko maples. A few times I whipped out my camera and got down on my knees to photograph the autumn colors in the underbrush, or just stood there, feeling the cold breeze. The numbers of walkers gradually trickled down to a few slow walkers who would most likely stay at the mountain lodges.
The waning sun had already dropped into the crook of the mountains to the west by the time I reached Tokusawa-en campground and lodge. Deep shadows crept across the expanse of grass, and to my surprise, most of the camping spots had already been claimed by earlier arriving walkers and their ubiquitous dome tents. I registered at the lodge, then quickly set up my pyramid tent and one of the extra group tents in one larger area so as to have some claim on tent space the following day. Night time fell fast and in the waning light I made a simple dinner of couscous in a bag with corned beef mashed inside, egg drop soup, my special olive oil and garlic sauce, chopped carrots, and instant cappuccino. It was cold enough for my fingers to be stiff while I prepared the dinner, but once I sipped the soup and chowed down on the couscous-meat entree, and then savored the steaming coffee, my whole body warmed up. I sat for a long time quietly sipping and watching the stars wink on above. The muffled noises of the campground died down, and soon I felt quite alone, with only the dimmed light of the lodge to remind me that people were still about. I finally crawled into my sleeping bag when the coffee was done.
My summer sleeping bag was barely warm enough to help me make it through the freezing hours. I kept waking up shivering, even with my puffy down jacket on. I would roll over, tuck in the edges of the sleeping bag a bit tighter, adjust my fleece cap and down hood, and try to get back to sleep. One time I woke up with a start and bumped my head on the shelter walls, sending a cascade of frost drifting down over me. I reached up and ran my finger through the white crystals. Like grippy, powdery snow.
Morning sunlight was sifting through the translucent white walls of my shelter when I woke. I’d actually made it through a cold night using mostly summer gear! I’d been wondering how cold I could go; now I knew. Definitely not comfortable, but I didn’t die, either. Feeling groggy, but elated, I struggled out of my sleeping bag and zipped open the door. The whole world had been powdered in frost, and everything was limned in a white crust of sugar. High above the trees the first fiery rays of the sun caught the fingertips of the mountains, while down here a chilly shade cast across the field of grass, and when I stood to go get water for breakfast, the grass crunched beneath my shoes.
I spent the morning exploring the minute corners of the leaves and branches around the campsite, photographing ice crystals and seeking to get the traces of light beginning to spill into the valley. Other campers had already finished breakfast and started to pack up their tents by the time I surfaced and took note of how the whole campground had lit up as the sun cleared the mountains to the east. Whole trees of yellow and red glowed with in the warmth of the morning, and people began to spread out on the grass to close their eyes and bathe in the sunlight, or sit and murmur over their cups of steaming coffee.
Around that time, as I sat on a bench, one of the Hiking In Japan members sauntered up to me, a Chinese man wearing loose jeans and a big grey backpack, and introduced himself as “Fred”, or Gameboy, as he was known in the group. We sat talking for almost an hour, not quite able to get ourselves to move in the early morning warmth. He explained that he had arrived at dawn and had walked in the darkness here to Tokusawa. He was heading up to Hotaka Hut much higher up in the mountains and would stay there overnight. I was worried about his jeans, since he had told me earlier that he had only walked a few of the hills around Hong Kong, but never really a bigger mountain, though he said he’d been to Kamikochi before. I couldn’t really say much, except to take care and hope that he made it to Hotaka all right. It was a long walk.
Soon after he left, Rie, another member, happened by and asked me if I was Miguel from Hiking In Japan. She was cheerful and easy to talk to, and once she had her dome tent set up (in a nice sunny spot, unlike my shelter), we went to the hut to have some curry at the restaurant there. She was delighted when she discovered they also sold beer in vending machines, so we each got one, and over a merry conversation about each others jobs (teaching), we whiled away more time as the afternoon slowly passed on by.
Just as we returned to our tent sites, Wes, the leader of Hiking in Japan, called my name from across the campground, and there he was striding toward me with that characteristic mop of wispy brown hair, and trailing behind him, fairly tuckered out from carrying a huge cooler bag along with a full backpack, was Grace, the tireless Brazilian hiker who seemed to be hiking every other day. Seeing Wes was a bit of a strange thing: I felt immediately as if I already knew him quite well, though this was our first time to meet in person. We’d been in touch through our blogs and through Facebook, for quite a few years and upon meeting we gave one another a big embrace. Grace was shy, though we’d talked to one another a few times as friends, we still didn’t know each other well. Wes and Grace had stayed overnight at the car park outside the national park and had walked in since early in the morning, via Lake Tashiro. They both looked pretty tired, since it had been freezing the night before and neither had gotten much sleep. Rie announced that she was going to go for a short hike, probably towards the Panarama Walk on the way to the famous Karasawa valley, where most of the hikers who passed the campsite were headed up to.
Hungry, Wes asked me if I would join him for something to eat at the restaurant. I’d already eaten, but I was looking forward to talking with Wes, so headed in with him and bought a can of coffee while he ordered some soba. We sat chatting about people we know and hikes we had done over the summer and also about our respective diseases, his asthma and my diabetes. There was something reassuring in opening up about something that gave us both extra worries to think about when hiking, and sometimes scary experiences. Not many people really understand what it is like.
Back outside, Sonia and Isao, a couple from Brazil, arrived with their selection of Mountain Hardwear gear, including a very nice 2-person tent that I had never seen before. They had a peaceful air about them, and though I had never met them before I immediately felt comfortable talking with them. While they set up their tent, yet another member came wandering into the camp… this time Tomomi, the Japanese woman who had suggested Kamikochi as a place to gather, and who had walked over the hard route in the Hotakas since early this morning. She looked totally worn out, but immediately announced, “I’m just going to leave my pack here and go down to Kamikochi Bus Terminal to pick up the food I brought.” (she had offered to hold a cooking class for everyone). Wes and I stared at her in disbelief, since it is a two-hour walk one way, four hours there and back. “Don’t worry about the food, Tomomi,” we told her. “You did a hard walk today. Get some rest.” I think she must have been relieved, because she collapsed to the ground and sat there resting for a while before getting up to put up her big two-person tent. Wes and I assisted her when the fly didn’t go on right. I showed her and some of the others how to tie guyline knots while Wes realized that the fly had gone on backwards, an easy mistake to make with the design, because it wasn’t obvious which side was which.
At about that time a big whoop came across the campground and there was Jana, a tall American who along with Wes gave a lively presence to the gathering. It was Jana who had the most active presence of mind in taking photos of the whole event and who started a lot of the topics in the group conversations. She dropped her pack and made a point of going from person to person to greet them and get their names.
Dinner preparation had already started, with Grace pulling out item after item after item from her cooler bag and backpack. The rest of us looked on in disbelief at the sheer amount of food she had brought. She alone had containers of different kinds of salad, wheels of cheese, finger food made with palm hearts, bread, a bottle of wine, paté, avocado dip, ham and slices of cold cuts, smoked salmon, tuna salad, and olives. Tomomi, together with Rie, started making her miniature pizza’s under that open canopy, while Isao and Sonia pulled out their burner with big pot and deep fried coxinhas, a Brazilian dumpling. Jana started on her caesar salad.
Kevin and his young daughter Mona arrived just as it began to get dark. Kevin was an old friend whom I had met before and we’d been touch for years through our blogs and emails. He lives on a farm in rural Nagano, grows his own vegetables and rice, and runs an adventure company (One Life Japan) that takes people on bicycling and walking tours around his area. He was carrying a huge sack along with a baby carrier. It was my first time to see Mona in real life, though I’d seen many of her photos on Kevin’s Facebook page. Her charm and playfulness immediately had everyone vying for her attention.
Satomi, my friend, arrived after sunset. I just barely made her out in the dim light, slowly walking up the path. She’d taken the long way around via Lake Tashiro and had taken her time. Her right leg gave her a lot of pain, and so she couldn’t move fast along the trail, but she’d wanted to see something of the area and make the most out her time in Kamikochi.
Everyone joined in on making the meal and helping with cooking. Satomi started her tabouli. With the sun now gone, a chill crept through the campsite and people pulled on their warm layers and rubbed their hands to try to stay warm. We gathered in a circle around a sheet spread out on the grass and with our headlights shining onto the food, talked long into the night, Jana asking everyone to describe an object that they always brought out hiking, Wes telling tall tales from his ventures hiking around Japan, Kevin inserting hilarious jokes that had everyone laughing quite loudly. My only regret, for myself, was not making more effort to get the conversation balanced by speaking in Japanese. More people probably would have opened up if we hadn’t focused so much on English.
In the midst of this a voice suddenly spoke up out of the darkness outside the circle, “Excuse me, is this the Hiking In Japan group?” It was Grigory the Russian I had exchanged emails with days before. He had told me he would be climbing from Kita-Hotaka from early this morning, but hadn’t been sure if he’d make it all the way down to Tokusawa today. That he had was quite astounding. He’d traversed the dreaded Daikiretto (a section of the trail that dropped off vertically in a precipice and that you had to cross using your hands to hold on) and Yari peak, all in one day. A great distance of lots of ups and down over very rough terrain. We invited him into the circle and he sat down with a big smile on his face, happy to get a banquet to feast upon. We named him the “Russian Superman”. He hadn’t brought a tent or sleeping bag, so we improvised by opening up one of my group tents, Kevin lent him a summer sleeping bag, and he rented a ¥500 blanket from the hut. He didn’t even have a ground mat, and though it was freezing out, he reported that he’d slept like a baby the following morning. Only a Russian!
8 o’clock was lights out in the camp, and we were making quite a bit of noise, so it was finally time to wind down the party and get in our tents. Grace hadn’t been able to carry a tent and sleeping bag in addition to all her food, so she’d opted to stay at the hut. She seemed a little regretful when she walked off to the hut. But at least she was the only one in the group guaranteed to stay warm! She had a wood stove in her room!
I zipped up the door of my pyramid and got ready for the night. I’d also rented one of the wool blankets from the hut to beef up my sleeping arrangements, but this evening was warmer than the night before, so I never really needed the blanket. No frost formed in the night. I’d drifted off to sleep, when I became aware of a big roaring sound from the mountains sides, and a strong loughing of my shelter walls. I woke and realized that a big wind had picked up and the whole mountainside was booming with billions of dried leaves rasping under the arm of the wind. I listened a while and became concerned that it might strengthen and blow all our stored food away or snatch up one of the badly staked tents. So I got up and battened down the stores of food under the open tarp, and then went around to each tent to announce to the person inside that I was checking on the stakes. All of the tents needed securing, some quite a lot. When everything was tight and free from flapping, I returned to my shelter and sat by the entrance, looking at the Milky Way sprayed across the sky straight above. Wes lay quietly in his bivy sack a little off from my shelter. I wasn’t sure if he was awake, so I tried to keep my movements quiet. I pulled out my camera and tried to take some time lapse images of the stars, but I hadn’t figured out how to do that with this camera yet, so none of the images were clear.
When I returned to my sleeping bag, I barely put my head down on the inflatable pillow before I was deeply asleep.
The shelter walls were bright with morning when I awoke. I could hear the metal clang of pots outside so I zipped open the door and saw Grace sitting there preparing breakfast for everyone. Others were still asleep, though Wes stirred in his bivy sack and looked around. Grace looked up with a shy but joyous smile that gave away just how much she enjoyed being out here and being with other hikers. Again, she had food galore, this time making grilled ham and cheese sandwiches using a sandwich grilling tool. Others came awake as the campsite awoke, and soon Rie, Satomi, and Sonia were busy helping prepare the breakfast. Wes, continued to lie in his bivy right next to the kitchen area, staying warm and regaling everyone with stories of encountering bears and hitchhiking way off course with a carload of cute girls. Tomomi was the last to wake, probably still exhausted from the walk the day before.
We took our time eating breakfast and telling stories, and as the sun broke over the ridge and bathed the campsite in a warm autumn light that lit up all the yellow and red leaves, we fanned out across the ground and lost ourselves in taking photos for a while. Jana got us to gather and pose for a series of group shots, and we all felt like a family, making silly jokes, lingering by the tents, laughing a lot. But buses were waiting and the need to travel the long distances we had all come, plus the hordes of other walkers all heading in the same direction, meant that we eventually had to take down the tents, pack up, and start home. Reluctantly we said good-bye to the campsite, and, carrying whatever leftover food there was and the extra tents and other gear, we sauntered back along the path towards Kamikochi Bus Terminal.
Some of the member wanted to take the slightly longer way around to Myojin Lake, while others needed to get back in time for the buses. I walked with Satomi, Tomomi, Sonia, and Isao, to head straight back, while the others turned off to head to Myojin Lake. I felt a sadness at the parting of the fellowship. It wasn’t often that I met with and spent an unforgettable time with likeminded friends. Still, I had a chance to talk with Isao and Sonia, who I discovered had walked the Camino de Santiago. It had changed both their lives and seemed to figure in much of how they saw their way of life now. I wanted to talk more about their adventures with them. Tomomi I discovered was a nautical engineer, actually fixing parts on ships herself, and traveling abroad as a consultant for ship parts. In Japan, a woman doing such work is extremely unusual, but, as she put it, “I believe that if you want to do something, just do it. Being a woman is no excuse.”
So, I had met some amazing people and found a group that I could relate to and feel comfortable with. It was hard to say goodbye. And two days just wasn’t quite enough, especially since we hadn’t done any real hiking together. It would be great to get these people together for a walk of several days and together share the hardships and joys of being out there, on the peaks, in the wind and rain, laughing, crying, cursing, consoling, helping one another. Perhaps another time soon.
Satomi and I said good-bye to Tomomi, Sonia, and Isao, and boarded our bus for Tokyo. The cold had settled in again, and the afternoon sun burned a fiery orange on the distant peaks. Neither of us had much to say at first, perhaps because we both felt the lingering sadness of having something special end, but also from that slow-burning fatigue following a walk through the autumn woods. My last view of Kamikochi was over the glittering waters of the dam, all signs of the trees and autumn colors lost in the shadows.
Neither Satomi nor I anticipated the monster traffic jam going back to Tokyo. But that is something better left out of the story.