Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Outdoors Ultralight Backpacking

Wind and Snow

Yatsugatake Windblown Hill

Her words still ring in my ears as I step off the ropeway onto the freezing, windswept plateau of the Pilatus terminal at the northern end of the Yatsugatake range. “I LOVE YOU, Miguel!” It is a confirmation of all I had been looking for and waiting for over the last few months, a statement that stills my stormy heart and promises to wait for me when I descend back to the world of trains and schedules and meetings and sullen students. We have overcome the woes of distance and newly immersed intimacy, at last announcing that we are truly together.

I lower my pack and survey the trails. Skiers up from the ropeway wait in line for head of the trail, to fly down the artificially-made snow to the snowless plain below. Though the thermometer reads -15ºC and it is early January, hardly any snow covers these alpine heights. The snowpack is so hard that walking in my running shoes is as easy as jogging along a beach. I remove my mittens from my pack, but leave the overboots inside and the snowshoes lashed to the front. I glance up at the balding white pate of the hill overlooking the plateau. A sharp, icy blue wind sweeps down from heights and fingers my collar. I laugh. Those old feisty fingers, ready to strip me bare and rush away with my shelter and food!

Yatsugatake Underbrush
Yatsugatake Looking Back

A voice calls out from behind me, naming me. “Miguel? Miguel from BPL?”

I shoot my head around, completely not expecting that. Two Japanese walkers, donned in ultra-lightweight gear stand there grinning. I have no idea who they are.

“You don’t know us, but we know you from the Backpacking Light site. Miguel, right?”

I nod in confusion. “How do you know me?”

“You’re famous in Japan! Everyone who does ultralight hiking in Japan knows you.”

“Really?” I pause. “Really???”

We introduce ourselves and talk about Mr. Terasawa and Mr. Tsuchiya, two people all three of us know who have done a lot to introduce ultralight concepts to Japan. They laugh and point at my pack, a specialized harness with waterproof drysack, instead of a traditional backpack: “Is that the BPL Arctic Pack?”

I nod.

One of them shakes his head and approaches with his camera. “May I take a picture of it? I’ve never seen one in person before.”

I laugh in turn. “We UL enthusiasts really are crazy about lightweight gear, aren’t we!” I spy his own pack and laugh again. “Just as I thought. How did you sleep last night? Tent or tarp? Or bivy?”

“We used a tarp coupled with a bivy. It went down to about -20 last night and I was worried that our lightweight gear wouldn’t be enough, but I was surprised that by using my clothing system with the layered bedding system I was actually very warm.” He eyes my pack again, “What about you? How are you camping?”

I shake my head in embarrassment, “I’m not camping. I’m staying at a mountain hut.”

Both their eyes pop. “You’re kidding!”

“I know, I know. Now my reputation in Japan is shot.”

“No, not that bad. At least you’re wearing running shoes!” They point at my light hikers. “No one but an ultralighter would do that on a winter mountain!” They laugh and nod to each other.

We shake hands, take a group shot, and promise to contact one another and get a whole band of UL people together in Tokyo some time, perhaps to go for a camp out here or in Okutama, west Tokyo. They head north towards Futago Ike (Twin Ponds) and I watch their silhouettes climb the through the rock garden and disappear at the crest.

The sun is already lowering toward the west and day walkers and skiers have begun to thin out. I have about three hours until sundown.

Yatsugatake Winter BPL Fans
Yatsugatake Track
Yatsugatake Krummholz

Only a few hundred meters out of earshot of the ropeway the forest settles into a deep hush. My shoes creak through the dry snow and my breath sounds loud amidst the snow laden fronds of the larches that line the path. Footprints from walkers who had passed all day break through the snow along the trail and tell stories of where they were going or how they were feeling. One set of snowshoe tracks breaks away from the main trail and wanders for a bit amidst the dark trunks of the larch forest before being forced back to the main trail by the thickness of the brush. Crisscrossing the human tracks I can make out hare tracks, ermine tracks, Japanese marten tracks, and another one that I can’t identify. Nothing seems to be happening as I plow through the landscape, but the tracks tell a different story. Life goes on all around and beings live out their family stories.

The light begins to fail and the shadows clench me in the gathering cold. With the light going so flees my daytime euphoria and the concerns about reaching the hut take over. My thoughts return to Y. and all the trials we’ve been through over the last few months. While it is true that she had told me that our relationship was sound, she had said the same thing only three weeks earlier, before her bout of silence. Just the fact that she cannot join me on this walk, like on almost every endeavor we talked to doing together, ensures that doubts begin to creep in again. I stop in a clearing and watch the fiery orange alpenglow touch the last brow of peak to the east, while standing down here in this blue forgetfulness. I feel small and vulnerable, totally alien to this snowy world. And Y., far away, doing holiday part-time work and not getting enough sleep, and feeling cold and frustrated as the wind blows through the station where she works, and losing confidence in her ability to keep a relationship going… Why was I not there, beside her, keeping her warm? Why all this distance? Why the vagaries of chance, that we would fall in love, only to encounter a minefield of responsibilities and lingering effects of past relationships?

I long to call her, hear her voice, counterbalance the silence and cold of these woods, but there is no reception. And I begin to wonder what that, “I love you” meant. It sounds like an echo, a sublime way of saying good bye.

The trail takes me up a ridge and drops into a bowl of rocks where it seems the shortened trees gather for a motionless conference. When I enter the space I almost feel like an intruder and a vague anxiety stirs somewhere in the center. I don my snowshoes when the trail begins to get icy so as to get the traction of the snowshoe crampons. Halfway down the descent the straps of the old snowshoes snap and render them useless. The light continues to fall and I scramble through the rises and falls, trying to keep from taking a spill on every descent and rise. It is not a long way, thank goodness, and I finally make it to the access road that heads up to the hut. I abandon the trail and huff it through the gloom until the familiar pointed roof comes into view above the treetops.

Yatsugatake Shadows
Mugikusa Heat

The owner of the hut, a soft-voiced man in his forties, stokes the stove for me and offers me a cup of hot barley tea. I gratefully accept and cup it in my palms. He hangs my gear on the rack over the stove and puts my broken snowshoes into the corner. He pulls up a stool and sits across the table from me, sipping his own cup of tea.

“Is this your first time here?” he asks.

“No, I’ve been here many times, even in winter, but this is my first time to stay.”

“It’s a good place. Quiet and friendly. That’s why I stayed,” he said. “You just missed the crowds, though. Yesterday there were more than fifty people here and it was full of music and laughter. I think there will only be eight of you tonight, though.”

I sip my tea, pensive. Then after I while I say, “The mountains are so beautiful, but without people you really can’t live here, can you?”

He shakes his head. “We have to work together to survive here. The high mountains can be really hard if you’re not careful.”

“Like relationships,” I murmur. He raises his eyebrows, confused. I shake my head. “I’ve recently gotten involved with someone and it is rocky and often so easy to lose our way. Here I am with someone and supposed to feel like I belong and full of hope for the future, but instead I feel lonely most of the time. When I try harder to reach out, she draws away, unwilling to set the path together. The harder I try to get closer the further away she seems to draw. I don’t know what to do.”

He nods and smiles, not knowing what to say.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Shouldn’t be talking about things like that. We’ve never even met before.”

He leans forward and points at my cup. “Another cup of tea?” He gets up and bustles about in the kitchen. He returns with big kettle and sets it down on the table. “Don’t think,” he says. “Have another cup of tea.” He pours more tea into my cup and smiles. “The fire is warm, no?” He nods and smiles again.

Comet Over Mugikusa

I wake from a deep sleep to the sound of laughter outside in the subzero night. Foggy-brained, I sit up and remember that three of the lodgers had decided to get up at four in the morning to look for a comet that only comes up on January 3rd. I pull back the curtain, but the window pane is covered in a thick layer of ice. I can make put a blurry wisp of light waving in the blackness of the window. Laughter again. And the sound of a door rolling shut.

I lie in the darkness of the room for a long time, debating whether to face the freeze of the room or stay here under the blankets, warm. I reason that life is about getting up and getting out there, but that it is also about lying a bit longer under the covers and getting some proper sleep. But then I figure that comets don’t come about very often and I really should get up and see one. So I haul the blanket off me and throw on my down jacket and march out of my room, down the dark hallway, and down to the warm glow of the stove room. I pull on my running shoes and, making the same racket with the door as the person earlier, I step out into the night.

First the cold. Hard and bitter and right down from the stars. I have forgotten my gloves so I stick my hands deep into my down jacket pockets. The air, when I look up, seems gelid, like a still lake, and beyond it shine the stars. Thousands of them. All spilt across the velvet dress, so distant and impersonal that the cold seems perfectly suited to their needs. Below them, on the dark hillside, stands an almost insignificant little group of people, pointing their pinprick of a flashlight up at the heavens and remarking on the constellations. I shuffle through the snow and climb up to their lookout. Their flashlight swings down to identify me then back up at the stars. I see shadowy arms reach up and point. Voices murmur at close hand, punctuated by bursts of quiet laughter.

They never find the comet. We stand looking up until the cold finally penetrates our defenses and we all decide to head back to the stove room to warm up. We position ourselves around the fire, putting our hands out to flames to receive the benediction of heat. The hut owner brings out a tray of coffee and biscuits and we sit around for hours, until dawn, discussing Japanese youth, the effects of the recession, how to make a firebrand, even the way to read a star map. At one point, not having an answer to a question, one of the hut helpers takes out her cell phone and connects it to a specialized antenna, where she consults the internet. I ask if I might use the antenna to check for any messages I have gotten. They say sure.

I connect my cell phone and let the feelers scan the invisible voiceways for word from Y. Nothing. The receptacle remains empty. Feeling like the man on the moon, I write a short message and send it out to her, casting it into the dawn darkness, “I love you.” Letting it resound like an echo where no sound reverberates.

“I love you,” the message says. The words that draws together the strings of the universe and can make a measured difference in the strength of even the tiniest beating heart, if only it is heard.

Mugikusa Clan
Yatsugatake Snowshoeing

The comet group stays awake until breakfast is ready and, still bleary-eyed, but full of laughter, we sit over our bowls of miso soup and diced cabbage and omelette and continue our lively discussion on all topics from the four corners of the world. We get onto the topic of children, since one of the women there has only just recently started getting outdoors and the other members wonder how she manages to take care of her children while she’s out here. “Well, they’re older now and can more or less take care of themselves,” she says. “But, I figure it’s time my husband stay home sometimes and give me the chance to do some of the things I love doing. I’ve always wanted to go hiking in the mountains. I don’t want to get old and feel I haven’t done anything I wanted to do.” She beams. “Who would have thought I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning in the mountains to go outside to look for comets!”

I ask about children and if she thinks that when they are young it is impossible to do all these things together. She thinks a moment and shakes her head. “In fact, I think their lives are richer for the experiences and the chance to learn what the world is about. Learning how to mentally deal with climbing a mountain or riding a bicycle long-distance or even put up a tent and survive a storm all helps make you stronger and more confident. My family did a lot of that when the kids were younger and I think the kids grew up with an appreciation for what their abilities are. Not all of them like being outdoors, but none of them is afraid of being out there.”

The dishes are quickly cleared off the table and with a whisk of a towel the crumbs are wiped away and the company disperses. Five minutes after the room was filled with the banter of people whose eyes were bright with stars, the room returns to being empty. I stumble upstairs to the bedroom to pack and get ready for the walk out of the mountains.

Yatsugatake Snowfield Trees
Yatsugatake Windswept Sasa

While jogging along the trail in the late morning sun, the heat reflecting off the snow, my cell phone suddenly vibrates in my shoulder strap pocket. I stop and pull it out. I press the open button and check the message. One. From Y.

“If you have time, meet me at Kofu station around 1:50. Can’t wait to see you. I love you.”

Winter Yatsugatake Hare Tracks and Table
Categories
Art of Living Japan: Living Journal Nagano Simplicity

Friends and Community

I realize that I have been away a long time. Lately I am finding it harder to get my thoughts together and to sit at the computer, writing. I start putting a few words down and then just give up. I become restless and distracted, feeling perhaps that the time I sit at the computer is time wasted from an active engagement with the real world, and as the years go by this time in the real world has grown with poignance and significance.

At the university that I am working at I’ve made a few friends with whom I get together three times a week after work to do Crossfit workouts. Besides beginning to finally get myself back in really good shape (after 24 years I did my first 53 pull ups again the day before yesterday), the time spent with these friends has made all the difference in emotionally handling being in this place. I find myself eagerly looking forward to the workouts and even when I am not feeling too well I try to make it there just to hang around with everyone.

It is almost as if I’d forgotten just how important other people are in my life, how much they reflect who I am and help me find purpose in making it through each day. I’m finding that so much of my reasons for getting so depressed and despondent over the past two years had to do with being alone and spending too much time with my own thoughts. Now I finally have people I can laugh with and share common experiences with and both let out the pain I am feeling and to listen to theirs. I still don’t like this place and the work, but with these friends it has all become a lot easier.

So two weeks ago when Kevin from Bastish.net invited me to visit him and his wife Tomoe on their farm in Nagano, north of here, I was both nervous and fascinated about the possibilities of what a different lifestyle, one based on sharing and sticking close to one’s beliefs, might be like. For a long time I had wondered if it would be possible to find a place in Japan where people still took care of one another and lived close to traditional Japanese values, in part a place where the land still meant something deeply spiritual and sustaining to those who lived on it.

For three days Kevin and Tomoe took me into their lives and showed me just how rich such a community could be. It seemed every moment of the day had some neighbor visiting or stopping by or saying hello on the street or driving by to offer some vegetables or bread or rice cakes. The other people Kevin had invited and I joined Kevin and Tomoe for walks in the hills to gather wild edible fiddleheads, or dig out rocks in their fields, or take a stroll through the town to look at the old farm houses and temples. There was talk of the hard winters such as this last one where the snow reached three meters (in 1945 the snow reached 7 meters deep!) and everyone had to pitch in to make sure all everyone could get through the winter. The first night three friends of Kevin and Tomoe, a family that supplied the village with delicious, homemade bread leavened with apple juice, dropped by suddenly and the modest dinner immediately turned in to a feast for nine. We laughed and joked and drank champagne and beer and wine while gobbling down barbecued local produce and I have not felt so at home and peaceful and satisfied in a long, long time.

It is what I long for.

I don’t know if I can be satisfied being a farmer, or if living in a such a rural community without access to books and talk with non-Japanese can be rewarding enough for me to put down roots in such a place, but it definitely is the right direction. LIfe is still uncertain for Kevin and Tomoe, and they both struggle with how they are going to make a living once their savings run out. But perhaps that is part of what living in such places entails, that you find a way to live there and that is what makes you strong and that is why you rely on the community to make it through hard times. It feels right.

That is the direction I want to go, and though, like Kevin and Tomoe, I am uncertain about how to go about doing it, I think my life will be the richer for bringing in community as the slate of my way of life. And I think it is the future for us all.

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano People Walking

Summer Walks Part 3- So September Blue

Houhou cloudwalk

View of the Shirane-Three Peaks, with Mt. Kitadake, the second highest mountain in Japan, off to the right side. Here Mt. Noutori rises above the clouds. The valleys hid in shadow below, while the world above basked in late summer sunlight.

Conversations heard along the trail.

“Where did that dog come from?”

“What dog?”

“The one standing there on the trail, looking down at us.”

“Wow. How’d he manage to get down those rock faces? We had to use chains!”

“And he’s just standing there, politely waiting for us to pass. A mountain dog with good manners!”

“Looks like he’s just out for an afternoon stroll. I wonder if he’s going or coming?”

“Coming, I guess. If you were from around here and knew this killer trail, would you be starting up right now?”

“He probably thinks we’re a little daft.”

“No doubt. Do you think that’s a smile on his face?”

“Look, I think he wants to pass now. I guess all this babbling has ruined his solitude.”

“Best let him pass then.”

“There he goes, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.”

Mt. Kannon

Looking back over the ridge toward Mt. Kannon. The whole array of peaks in the Houou Three Peaks range pay tribute to Buddhist luminaries, like the bodhisattvas Kannon and Jizo. Everywhere you walk tiny shrines and offerings to statuettes concentrate the presence of walkers’ involvement with the place. One ridge, where numerous walkers have died, shelters a group of jizo statues in memory of the walkers’ spirits. An almost eerie sense of others watching pervades the whole mountain range.

“I did not say that I didn’t want to wait for you, or that…!”

“You always have to show how tough and manly you are! Why can’t you just slow down?”

“I am slowing down. I’m trying to match your pace…”

“What, so you think I can’t climb this trail? You think I’m too weak to handle it?”

“I didn’t say that. I just don’t like falling behind and having to walk right behind some stranger in front of me.”

“Oh, so you think everyone here is too slow? FIne! I’ll just pick up my pace and make sure to be better than everyone else! See you later!”

“Hey, don’t do that. Come on. Where you going? Oh, come on. Don’t be silly…”

Houhou Fuji Man

Like a dark queen Mt. Fuji rises to the southeast. Though the deity that lives in the volcano is considered male in Japan, Mt. Fuji has always seemed like a female monarch to me. In the over thirty five years I have seen her, including five years living right at her base, where she surveyed me below in my apartment window, she has never revealed herself the same way twice. Dark and fiery red on summer days, wreathed in clouds in autumn, even gliding ghostly white on moonlit nights, she sits aloof and alone in her vast throne between the surrounding, more timid mountains.

“Are you all right?”

“I feel sick. I think I pushed myself too hard.”

“Here. Try some water. It might make you feel a little better.”

“I wasn’t trying to slow you down.”

“I know.”

“I’ve only been in the mountains once this year.”

“I know.”

“I slept badly all night.”

“I know.”

“That climb was really hard !”

“You can say that again! It was so steep and slippery I couldn’t even stand still to take a break!”

“I still haven’t forgiven you yet.”

“I know.”

Houhou Shy Fuji BW

The last peak before Houou descends into the valley. Seemingly from the top of every creeping pine, windblown larch, and outcropping, nutcrackers called and winged amidst the drifting clouds. Called “hoshi-garasu” (star crow) in Japanese, their spangled breasts flashed white as they whisked by.

“Would you like another chicken dumpling?”

“No thanks. It’s too hot to eat chicken.”

“Really? It goes well with the pork broth rice balls. Follow it with some salt-pickled celery. Nice and crunchy!”

“I don’t see how you can stuff yourself like that in this heat. You’re like a drunk salaryman.”

“Better grab some while they’re still available. This walking does wonders for the appetite. Sure you don’t want some? They’re remarkably good. I thought they were your favorite?”

“You’re unbelievable. You’ve begun savoring convenience store food. All discrimination right out the window.”

“In the mountains everything tastes good. Sure you don’t want one? Last one!”

Houhou Skycrags

Stunted yellow birch hold on tight to the rocks to survive the relentless winds. The rock garden above Kannon Peak Mountain Hut seemed like something out of a surreal painting, the colors and forms so intense and twisted.”

“The woods smell nice.”

“Balsam fir. I got some of the sap on my fingers. Here, take a whiff.”

“I like just lying here under the trees. I could lie here all day.”

“Too bad we have to get back to work tomorrow.”

“My legs feel like rubber bands. Don’t think I can take another step.”

“We have some time. Let’s just close our eyes and forget about the time for a short while.”

“Shhh. Listen. The wind rustling the leaves.”

Larch woods appearing out of a lifting mist, along the steep trail out of Gozaishi Kousen.

“That sign said forty minutes till the end!”

“How many minutes has it been?”

“One hour and thirty minutes.”

“Perhaps the sign was meant for faster walkers.”

Houhou Surreal

“This ice cream really hits the spot! I think it’s the best ice cream cone I’ve ever had!”

“Do you think we have time for a hot spring bath? I could really use a bath right now.”

“The bus comes in twenty minutes. I don’t think so.”

“Hope the other bus passengers will survive my influence! I don’t have a change of clothes.”

“Well, you might knock them all unconscious, so probably you don’t have to worry about their reactions… Ow! That hurt!”

“Serves you right! Hey, can I take a bite of your ice cream? I’m already finished with mine.”

Fuji Puff

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Walking

Summer Walks Part 1

Karasawa watercolors

(Click on the photos for a new, interesting effect!)

With a whole summer exempt from work, shades of childhood summer vacation crept back into my daily routine, all of four months with more time on my hands than I’ve had in over ten years. Of course, with bills to pay and food to eat and other people to think of, it wasn’t as if each day came on a silver platter. But it did leave me some time to set out on some walks that I’ve been meaning to do here in Japan for quite some time. In July and August I decided to pack my beloved backpack and take the time to walk in the North and South Japan Alps, to Karasawa, the Kurobegoro Route, and along Houou Three Peaks. I’d been to both Kurobegoro and Houou before, but the Kurobegoro vale being one of my favorite alpine areas in Japan, it would be like visiting an old and lovely friend.

Part of these walks was to see if my knees could handle the high ridges still and get up to the heights that I loved so much when I was younger. For the last seven years I’ve slowly adopted the techniques of ultralight backpacking (see here, too. This is where I spend a lot of time discussing and learning about refining my pack weight, gear, and walking techniques) and my pack weight has more than halved since my 18 kilograms pack weight from back in the nineties. This brings mountain walking so much more pleasure and I find myself actually slowling down more to take photographs and sometimes to just stand there drinking it all in. Still, the trails continue to be steep and the weather unpredictable. The two tents I was using hadn’t yet proved their viability in above treeline conditions so I headed into these walks with some trepidation.

The first series of photos here hail from my first walk from Kamikochi up to Karasawa, a two-day, easy climb.

Azusa River
This area was first made popular in Japan in 1880 by the British alpinist Walter Weston and traveller William Gowland, who named the peaks of central Honshu, “the Japan Alps”. Here the walk alongside the Azusa River is more like an afternoon stroll, with thousands of tourists visiting every year from all over the world.

Karasawa River rocks
The water runs almost turquoise through a subalpine valley of larch, beech, and birch. I couldn’t stop pausing to watch pristine water gurgling by; it is such an unusual sight in Japan.

Karasawa crag
The climb began in earnest as the crags began to close in. Though cooler than Tokyo, the sun seared my skin like a furnace. Japanese climbers always carry towels around their necks to stave off the sun from their napes and to wipe off the continuous stream of sweat from the high humidity. I always love the great variety of creative responses to using the towels; some wrapped around people’s necks, some wrapped around their heads, some hanging like Arab kofias, some even draped around like wedding veils…

Karasawa lily
It is little details like this that make climbing through the forests, when views to the mountains remain limited to peeks through the canopy, bearable. The only problem is that Japanese hiking parties often tend to mob up to fifty or a hundred strong, so stopping to admire anything in relative peace challenges your sense of “getting away from it all”.

Karasawa snowcap
Last winter brought record-breaking snowfall to Japan, making it, as one of my friends joyfully exclaimed to me, “The best ice-climbing conditions in a hundred years!” It also meant lots of leftover snowfields wherever the sun couldn’t quite make it.

Yumi Karasawa
The final approach to Karasawa lodge and campground was completely blanketed in snowfields. Not having brought my usual instep crampons for such occasions, kicking steps into the hard snow proved to be somewhat of a challenge with my trail runners. Nevertheless, even while huffing and puffing up the steep slope, the whole valley rang out with the sound of a Tyrolean horn. There was something haunting and magical in the sound, something welcoming and noble at the same time. Normally I’m not a fan of people causing a racket in the mountains, but this was something that fit right in. It gave me the imagined heroism I needed to finish the last leg of the climb.

Karasawa clouds
To be greeted by the gods of the clouds was a fitting end to the day. Even when you’re beat from pushing your body all day, you feel small and humble enough to look up and pay reverence to the source of all that heavenly light.

Karasawa campsite
Some kinds of mattresses, no matter how much you try to adapt to the surface, will never make good beds. Karasawa campground, while set in an sublime location and in spite of nearly an hour of fiddling with tent placement and guylines, was quite possibly the most uncomfortable camp I’ve ever slept in. All night someone’s skull kept pushing up into the small of my back.

Karasawa superboy
Nearly everyone who came across this little boy on the way down from Karasawa stopped to gawk at him and exclaim amazement at his pack. The pack was actually his grandfather’s, and so big the hip belt wouldn’t close around his waist. While taking a snack break along the side of the trail I overheard the boy stoically announce to his grandfather that he would walk by himself, while carrying his grandfather’s pack, the entire fifteen kilometers back to the Kamikochi bus terminal, and that is exactly what he did. Ten kilometers on, while I was taking another break, he promptly walked right past me, looking no worse for wear. I have to say I was green with jealously at the determination and strength of such a young boy. I wished I had been like that, and exposed to such expeditions, when I was his age. I mean, he’s done so much walking already at his age that his boots are falling apart, the soles about done in!

I’d been wanting to visit Karasawa for years, but had always been dissuaded by the stories of the enormous crowds. The crowds were definitely there, but there is a tranquility and intimacy about the whole valley that mutes the human presence. I came home from this walk with a lingering affinity for all those other people who made the climb with me. There are some pilgrimages that defy your preconceptions.

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Walking

Deep Woods

Larch Woods
Larch forest, Shirakoma Lake, Yatsugatake Range, Japan, 2003.

Returning from the mountains this last weekend was like descending from a great height. For three days I walked along fern festooned paths, my head literally in the clouds, all the while counting raindrops that seemed to have taken over the whole world. Originally the walk was meant to start along the higher, steeper crags of the South Alps, but with all the rain this summer landslides took out the one road that leads up to the riverine valley of Hirogawara. A whole mountain range that in normal years is overrun with hikers, this year sits in relative silence as most walkers avoid the astronomical ¥25,000 ($220) taxi fare for the long detour.

Yatsugatake was a good choice though. Keeping my tent staked out in one place allowed for light jaunts up along the ridges around the pond. Everything stayed dry in the tent. On the second day, while attempting to climb up to the ridge dropping off into a sheer cliff to the south, thunder rolled in like the stomping boots of some giant strider in the clouds. Two walkers came stumbling down from above, calling out that they had just recieved notice on their cell phones that a huge thunderstorm was brewing and that a deluge would accompany it. I heard the thunder pass overhead and rumble away south, so my experience told me that most likely the rain would pass. Big, fat, chilly drops began bombarding the trees and I stood hesitating, caught between the need for safety, and the desire to traipse along the ridge. Caution held out, and I retreated down the mountain, only to be greeted at the base with streams of sunlight through the trees.

Some slow walking along the perimeter of the pond revealed light, texture, and color of all the basic elements of water, fire, air, and earth. It was like stepping along with some slow music that caught the eye and begged to be taken seriously. And with each discovery of some subject for the camera, the steps slowed further, until at times I barely moved a pace before I was kneeling and examining something through the lens or just sticking my nose right up against the curiosities. Insects, roots, leaves, swirls of water on the pond, the light tiptoe of mist across the tree tips, the strings of lichen bristling from branch notches… There was too much to see. I could have lost myself in the passages from one discovery to the next moment. It had been a while, but the mountains opened their complexity and allowed me to wallow for a while.

Packing up and pulling up stakes brought back thoughts of the crowds and rush of Tokyo. Another world. Like a great magnet, the roads drew me back down out of the ether and back into the boiling pot. I’m still in a bit of a daze, straddling the stones between neccessity and desire.

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Walking

Holding Still

Shirokoma Lake
Evening descending over Shirakoma Lake, Yatsugatake Range, Japan, 2002.

On my first day of my six day walk down the length of the Yatsugatake range last summer, I camped by this lake. With evening the temperature plummeted and few campers were out and about. For two hours I sat at the end of the pier with my eyes closed, listening. I heard the lapping of the waves, the moan of the wind on the ridge above, a lone nightjar whose eerie laughter echoed across the water, and, almost a murmur, the quiet voices of campers huddled in their sleeping bags.