Hiking Japan: Living Journal Shizuoka Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Pouring Rain

Takazasu Hill

I stood at the entrance to the train station staring out at the weather. The town dropped down into the grey swirl of low clouds and seemed to hold tight against the wash of cold rain. Streams ran along the street and what few people had left the warmth of their homes hunched their jackets against the chill, trotting along the sidewalks to reach the station and get out of the wetness. The freezing wind howled at the opening to the station and buffeted me, urging me back inside. None of the mountains in the distance allowed themselves to be seen and I was sorely tempted to just turn around and head right back into the heated compartment of the train. The prospect of even one night holed up in a drafty tarptent, alone in the dark of the night time winter woods while the rain pounded away all around me just wasn’t my idea of a good time. I kept remembering waking up in the puffy comfort of my bed before dawn and lying there shaking my head at the strange things that I do for kicks. Who in their right mind wakes up during the hours of the dead to go walking on some windblown ridge?

My pack was light, the lightest I’ve ever gotten it for a several-day winter hike with camping, lighter even than the pack I used in the summer Alps last year. I worried that maybe it was too light, that I might spend the night shivering while snow came drifting down to laugh at me. But I’d checked and re-checked everything to make sure I had gotten it right and, in my head at least, I knew that I should be fine. But as these things always go, it’s one thing to theorize about something, quite another to actually get out there and raise your glass to the elements and make a toast. Weather has an upsetting habit of not respecting theories. Or toasts, for that matter.

Takazasu Tree

I spied the blond-haired adventurer deep in consultation with the local tourist information center lady. I knew he was an adventurer because he wore nothing but running shoes, a pair of navy blue training pants, a navy blue wind shirt and on his back a tiny backpack. Only adventurers challenge such winter weather with nothing by a thin film of nylon. He leaned over the tourist information center counter for an inordinately long time, so long I began to wonder if he was able to speak Japanese. The lady behind the counter seemed a bit piqued as she attempted to make head or tails of what he was saying. When they both looked stumped I stepped up and asked if they needed any help.

“Yes, that would really save me!” exclaimed the adventurer in a heavy French accent. “Hi my name is Eric!”


“I’m from Canada and this is my third day here. Three times I’ve tried to climb Mt. Fuji, but no luck.”

“Climb Mt. Fuji?” I stared at his outfit, from head to toe. “In winter?”

“Yes. It rained the first two days and I had to turn back. Yesterday I made it to 3,130 meters, but the snow got up to my chest and I couldn’t go any further. A Norwegian guy ahead of me was able to continue on. I only have a week left in Japan and I’m determined to climb Mt. Fuji before I leave.”

Unidentified Sitting Moth

“Not to doubt your determination, Eric, but are you sure you are prepared for Mt. Fuji? It’s a very dangerous mountain in winter if you don’t know what you are doing or have the right equipment. Every year people die on it in the winter. It’s extremely cold up there, plus some people have to worry about altitude sickness at that elevation.”

Eric hugged his chest and shivered in the wind as raindrops dripped off his chin. “It’s really okay! I’m from Quebec, I’m used to the cold!”

Concerned, I indicated his clothes. “Are you climbing in those clothes?”

“Yes! I work for UPS! You like the pants?” He laughed. “I need to buy some boots before I try Fuji again. You know where I can buy some cheap boots?”

We spoke a while about prospects for a sports shop in this area. I used to live near here and knew of nothing that might get him better geared up. Eric’s shivering got worse, so I showed him into the heated waiting room inside the station. I always wonder what to do in a situation when I meet someone about to head into a dangerous situation, but who doesn’t really understand what they are getting themselves into. I don’t want to push my worries on them, but also don’t want them to do something they will regret. While we spoke a local elderly man came up to us and asked me where we were going. I pointed out into the rain, at where the West Tanzawa range was supposed to be looming. Eric hit his chest with a big smile, “Mt. Fuji!”

The man glanced out in the direction of the mountains where I was planning to go and shook his head. “All those mountains look the same after a while. Pretty boring, don’t you think?” He turned to Eric and grinned. “Fuji! Really! I used to take care of one of the mountain huts at the ninth station. Mt. Fuji, eh? In winter! You have to be careful!”

Eric hit his chest again. “Don’t worry! I’m fine! I’m from Quebec!”

“What did he say?” asked the old man.

Fuji Bright

I missed my bus while talking to the two Fuji aficionados. While they attempted to communicate with one another about Fuji conditions I went to check on the weather again. A lightness had made its way into the grey billows of the clouds and it looked as if at least the rain might let up a little. Eric had decided to head back 400 kilometers west to Osaka for the night and would attempt Mt. Fuji again the next day if the weather improved. Since he was taking the bus over the pass where I hoped to start my walk I decided to join him and talk a bit more. It was good to have company before heading out into the cold. At the very least I hoped to spark at least a bit of curiosity in Eric over my own adventure. Nothing doing; Fuji was imprinted in his Quebecois mind.

Eric had never in his life climbed a mountain before. “You said you’ve been to Montreal, yes?” he asked.


“What is the highest land form you saw there?”

“Er, Mount Royal?”

“That’s right! No mountains! I never even saw a mountain before I came to Japan!” He laughed contentedly to himself, as if that was sufficient explanation for his attempting Mt. Fuji.

“We Quebecois are really tough! Much tougher than those slouches from Montreal! When we were fighting against the British it was the Montrealers who surrendered, but not us! We stuck it out to the end!” He grinned at me and snorted. “So you see, that’s why I came to Japan, the land of the samurai!” He folded his arms and laughed effortlessly.

From Takazasu

We parted at the junction between Lake Yamanaka and Kagosaka Pass. The rain had stopped and already signs of the sun had broken through the clouds. The west foothills of the Tanzawa range rose to the east, heading up into the still watery grey clouds.

“You’re a good luck charm, Eric,” I told him. “I wish you good luck on Mt. Fuji. Please do be careful and don’t take the mountain lightly.”

He waved from the bus, still smiling. “Don’t worry about me. I’m…”

“I know. You’re from Quebec!”

“That’s right! Don’t forget it!”

The bus pulled away and I was alone again with the weather. I started walking. With each step the clouds opened a bit more and by the early afternoon I had taken off my rain jacket and was sweating in spring sunshine. Lake Yamanaka dropped away behind me and the sky stepped back to welcome me into the folds of the ridges.

The One Nishi Tanzawa
Hiking Japan: Living Japan: Photos Journal Shizuoka Walking

Wild Walking in a Wild, Wild Wind

The wind is blowing again today and I suspect that the mountain I meandered over last weekend is sitting hunkered down again, its back braced against the fury of Mt. Fuji looming just a hop over to the west. Mount Mikuni, more of an undulating hump than a real crag, sits right on the eastern knee of Japan’s most massive mountain. Some time ago in the mists of prehistory Mt. Fuji had one of her 150 year tantrums and vomited a slurry of volcanic ash and tuff, creating a huge black and crimson skirt in which she sat primly guarding the rising of the sun. Mt. Mikuni was created out of her agitation and fidgeting, part of a series of wrinkles in the drape of her skirts. When you walk Mikuni it is like crunching through burnt granola, the soles of your shoes grinding the granules as if waiting to be scooped up with a spoon. And when I walked last weekend the leeward sides of hummocks and trees clung to the remaining snow drifts that churned underfoot like cold milk. All the while the crew cut beech and myrtle forest bowed under the onslaught of a wind that roared and shuddered overhead, at times booming so loud I couldn’t hear my voice as I shouted cautions to my partner. It was a frigid wind, hurling straight from the ivory lips of Fuji, indifferent to the tiny lives moving among the rocks.

And a moving, almost achingly beautiful, in a grey sort of way, encounter with a lone forest. I loved how small and insignificant I felt. At the end of the day it was as if my soul had been swept clean.

Kagosaka Cemetery
Somewhat ominous cemetery at the start of the trail…

Kagosaka Cemetery detail
… but with a tender bent.

Sika deer antler base
Base of a Sika deer’s antler.

Mikuni beech trail
Halfway along the trail.

Upturned beech
Upturned beech. The layer of soil is so thin that tree roots barely find purchase.

Upturned beech roots detail

Mikuni ice debris 1

Mikuni ice debris 2

Forest debris
Not sure what this seed pod is. Anyone know? Everything in the area was covered in moss.

Log fungus
Fungus on a log.

Myoin peak 1
The forest opened up to this vista. The last part of the walk wandered down a vast grassy slope looking upon Mt. Fuji and a wind-harried, slate-colored Yamanaka Lake.

Myoin peak 2

Mt. Fuji and Yamanaka-ko
View of Mt. Fuji and Yamanaka Lake.

Mt. Fuji and Yamanaka-ko from road

Mt. Fuji under the weather
Mt. Fuji Under the Weather

Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nature Shizuoka Walking


Approaching storm over Amida Peak, Yatsugatake Range, Japan, 2002.

Down here in Tokyo a summer storm might cause people to grumble about sopping pants hems and forgotten umbrellas, but rarely does it make for more than passing banter. Up in the alpine regions of the mountains, though, a storm can stop you in your tracks to reconsider all your plans.

On my first solo climb of the Japan Alps back when I was 24, the third morning of the traverse of the ridges found me crossing an open col, blissfully unaware of what the mountains were brewing up for me. One moment I was sauntering along, gazing at the 2,000 meter drop on both sides of the trail, the next I found myself staring at this gargantuan black cloud, rising up from the valley like Godzilla. Ten minutes later Godzilla was angry and started to blast the ridge with winds so strong that I soon found myself crawling on hands and knees to keep from being blown off the mountain.

Needless-to-say, I was utterly terrified. I hadn’t a clue as to what I should do. I crawled as far as my courage would take me, but each stretch from protected boulder to protected boulder was like jumping into a wind tunnel with your eyes closed. Twice I witnessed ptarmigans, those tough, surefooted mountain veteran fowl, blown across the ground like paper bags. I ended up behind one venerable outcropping, wet as a rat and whimpering. I must have huddled there for about an hour and I thought surely I would die there.

To my wonder and luck, three old Japanese men appeared out of the maelstrom, like prophets out of the wilderness. They were strung together by a lifeline and trudging slowly along the windward side of the ridge. When the leader came upon me he stopped and looked down. He must have thought he was seeing things, to have this skinny foreigner hunched in a ball, crying. He furrowed his brow and cocked his head, and seemed to take a while to find the right words to say. Nothing wise or momentous came out, just “And just what are you doing there?”

I must have babbled, because all three men glanced at each other, then began to laugh. The second in line patting me on the shoulder. “It’s not safe to stay here,” he said. The leader lifted me up and told me to join them, adding me to the trailing end of their lifeline. “Follow us and do what we do.”

We kept to the windward side of the ridge, making our way just over the final peak of the range, before taking a break amidst the creeping pine on the leeward side of the mountain. Here the wind stopped dead. We sat eating manderins and commenting on the tiger lilies that stood motionless in a sloping meadow at our feet. We could hear warbers burbling in the undergrowth and the steady drip, drip, drip of water falling off our wet hats and the dewey fronds of the creeping pine.

We got out of the storm after that, taking the path that led down the east side of the mountains, the bulk of the mountain blocking the worst of the storm. The three men hardly spoke a word the entire descent, just short, gruff murmurs of encouragement.

At the base of the trail they invited me to join them in the local hot spring, an old place with wooden bathtubs. We sat in the steam and sloshing water, rubbing our aching feet and sighing away the fear in our muscles. It was one of the best baths I have ever taken.

To this day I am forever grateful to those men for saving my life and for their generosity and discretion. They never made me feel ashamed. That’s what the mountains bring out in you. Why I love the mountains so much.

Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nature Shizuoka Walking

Spring in the Mountains

Tochitsubo Violets
Tochitsubo violets rearing their heads from amidst last year’s leaves. Ashitaka Mountains, Shizuoka, 2000

Behind my old home in the town of Susono, at the foot of Mt. Fuji, huddles a small group of mountains known as the Ashitaka Mountains. It is a small group of rugged peaks, the interior of which is mostly inaccessible because of near vertical slopes and rotten rock, created thousands of years ago by the violence of Fuji’s blast from out of it’s southern flank. Every year a few visitors make their way to the northernmost and tallest of the peaks, known as Echizen Peak. At about 1500 meters, not very tall by neighboring Fuji’s towering standards, the view of Fuji from the top is breathtaking. It is one of the few places where you can see Fuji in its entirety, giving the full sense of the volcano’s long rise from the surrounding highland.

The Ashitakas were the first mountains that I began to seriously climb and after having pointed my boots up its narrow track through all seasons and all weather, it came to occupy a special place in my heart. I could walk the trail in the dark and anticipate the rocks in the path and the four places where one edge of the trail dropped off into a crumbling precipice. I watched the mountain alter with the years, as typhoons off Suruga Bay ate away at the old volcanic rock, causing landslides along the steepest portions of the trail. One year an entire ravine collapsed, and a new path had to be bushwhacked through to the old trail up along the ridge. And the trail itself, after decades of tromping boots, eroded along the forested portions, gradually washing away into head high gullies through which, on rainy days, you could barely make your way along the slippery, iron-red mud. Only a tiny company of volunteers, all in their sixties and seventies, cared for the trail.

These same volunteers, who had been climbing the mountains since the thirties, had also built a tiny cabin just below the first ridge, a third of the way up the slopes. The cabin stood next to a natural spring, from which ice cold water bubbled, and in summer, frogs croaked unseen from within the rock fissures. I weathered a heavy rain storm in the cabin one autumn day. The floor was covered with layers of old blankets and an old, blotched guestbook sat on the window sill. As the rain drummed on the corrugated metal roof, I sat reading entries from past visitors.

A wooden plaque was nailed to the cabin door, which read, in Japanese, “Please make sure to latch the cabin door closed when entering or leaving, to make sure the macaques don’t get in and cause a mess.” The troop that roamed these mountainsides once appeared on an outcropping above me as I made my way up the rocky trail. Some of the members balanced upon the quivering, ropy tendrils of an akebi vine, munching on passion fruit-like akebi fruit.

The last time I went to Ashitaka was to camp at my favorite secret spot under a stand of four, towering, ancient Japanese cedars. The old grassy area where I used to nap on weekend afternoons had overgrown with brush bamboo and there was little space left comfortable for a tent. As night descended I listened to the snuffling and grunts of raccoon dogs, red foxes, and sika deer, but never saw a soul of one. At dawn I emerged from my tent, naked, and stood gazing for a long, slow time at Mt. Fuji catching the first fiery glow of the rising sun.

It is rare to have such solitary space, free from the possibility of someone happening along, in Japan. It is good to know that somewhere in the world there is a tiny, but significant place, where I can retreat to if I want to sit in silence, being part of the old world.

Far and Wide Japan: Photos Photos

Fuji Awakening

Lavender Fuji lg
Mt. Fuji at dawn seen from the peak of Kitadake, the second highest peak in Japan, in the South Japan Alps, 1984

Taken in the summer of 1984, the first time I climbed Kitadake (North Peak), the second highest mountain in Japan. I was clambering down the south slope of the mountain after a dawn ascent of the summit when I came across this classic view of Mt. Fuji floating serenely to the east above a lavender sea of clouds.