By some measures, Japan is the snowiest place on earth, and winter in areas such as the Tohoku region north of Tokyo add to that rep. The Zaosan (蔵王山) mountains, on the border between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, for example, gets around 12 metres dumped on its forested slopes each season. That’s a far cry from the 40-metre (120-plus feet) epic blanket that smothers the Japanese Alps around Nagano each year (there’s a reason houses in the countryside traditionally have a second front door, upstairs), but still more than enough to transform this range of stratovolcanoes, crater lakes, and subalpine fir trees into a magical fantastical winter wonderland each year…
For more than ten years R. and I have visited the Shinto shrine at the summit of Mount Mitakesan, the village of minshuku and restaurants below, the “Rock Garden” river course, and the trails to surrounding peaks such as Mount Otakesan and Mount Hinodesan.
In order to create this gallery of pictures from those trips, I have gone back to the earliest scans of pictures I shot back in the days of film photography, when my pride and joy was a Konica Hexar Silver camera and rolls of Fuji Velvia and Provia. I’ll continue to add pictures, though it will take time: we average maybe three trips a year, and we’re going again this weekend!
“Reaching Buddha:” Oze National Park, Golden Week 2016
Cold wind rain cold snow ice crampons more wind Blueberry Crunch Clif Bar in the rain strong wind heavy rain cold did I mention rain?
Even by the first weekend of May, the start of the Golden Week holiday here in Japan, the weather on main-island Honshu remains unstable: winter’s last breath mixed with summer’s first hot and humid blush results in the occasional mild and sunny spring day — perfect! — but just as often a temperamental kind of weather that scatters cherry blossoms and pins crows to their rookeries. It can be tough to get out of doors. This time last year, for example, snow-choked trails forced R. and I to stay off the mountains of the north Alps and instead stroll along the banks of the — admittedly still quite scenic — Azusagawa River in Kamikochi.
We learned our lesson from that Kamikochi trip. This Golden Week when the weather gods seem even more fickle than usual — especially in the mountains — R., my wife and travel companion, and I strapped on crampons and joined a group (from the travel company Club Tourism, if you wanna know) of more experienced mountain trekkers on an overnight trip to Oze National Park, and a one-day climb of Mount Shibutsusan.
Not that Shibutsusan is that high, at 2228 metres (7,310 feet), or much of a technical challenge. The wise gnomes at Club Tourism market the one-night course, with a stay at the Hatomachi mountain hut, to beginner mountaineers. Shibutsusan does, however, rate a place on the Hyakumeizan, or “100 Famous Mountains” list of Japan. From Hatomachitoge Pass the gain to the summit is about 700 metres. In winter Shibutsusan is apparently considered an expert-level climb; by the first weekend in May I’d say it’s moderate, and the snow and ice still demand crampons (“aizen,” in Japanese) and trekking poles. Zac over at Hiking in Japan gives the route from Hatomachitoge a 3 out of 5. Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan guidebook points out the trails are usually climbed only from late May, after the snow has gone.
I’m not a fan of group tours, for the usual reasons. Nothing breaks the spirit faster than having to a pass up a good photo op — snow on a cedar branch, say, or a cloud suspended in a shrouded valley — to keep pace with, oh, let’s say a guy in bright yellow La Sportiva alpine boots, knee-high red gaiters (“spats,” they’re called in Japanese) and 10-point crampons, who lets those cedar branches fly back in the face of whoever happens to be behind. For me in Japan, there’s added cultural and linguistic challenges, of course, as even now — after eighteen years in-country — I still have to have things repeated to me in simple terms, and I usually miss the kind of unspoken nuance which, say, means everyone has assembled at the trailhead ten minutes ahead of schedule and would be game for an early start – if they didn’t have to wait for me. It’s not cheap, either.
Then again, R. and I are still newbies to mountain climbing. Despite years now spent in the mountains – the Japan Alps, the Canadian Rockies – we have spent less time on the mountains, if you know what I mean. This was our first winter ascent of a mountain crossing snowfield traverses using crampons (we’d been introduced to crampons for glacier travel last spring, in Iceland). I felt a lot more confident pushing on to the summit through white-out conditions with guides — and fellow group members — who kept us on-trail and moving briskly.
‘Sides which, there was the added advantage that all the food and transportation and accommodation was arranged for us, so we could just focus on the experience of being in the mountains in winter. As R. put it, “I don’t have to be your personal tour guide this trip,” which is fair enough since it’s true that when we travel in Japan she does most of the planning. Being in a tour also allowed us to meet some interesting people, such as the cool single woman about our age who spends practically every weekend in the mountain and is training for an ascent of Tsurugidake, the most dangerous mountain to climb in Japan. R. and her hit it off, and spent much of the weekend chatting and generally getting along while I litewrally and metaphorically dodged those snow-covered cedar branches snapped back in my face by La Sportiva…
In any case, as you can no doubt tell, we had mixed weather trending towards… worse? On the Saturday we arrived, another group of climbers had to turn back from the summit after stump holing through fresh powder to the point of exhaustion.
Our summit day wasn’t until Sunday. On Saturday, while the other group struggled through the snow higher up, we limited ourselves to a walk through a dusted pine forest, meltwater falling like rain and a short jaunt to Ayamedaira highland, with a view – in better weather – of the Ozegahara Marsh and distant mountains. In fact, we had hiked this same section of Oze National Park back in October of 2012, when the marshland grasses had turned to gold.
By the time we returned to the small yamagoya mountain hut at Hatomachitoge Pass the snow had melted and we splashed downtrail in running water.
Same again on Sunday: we started the climb on wooden stairs slick with running water, and returned several hours later with meltwater literally streaming down the narrow, deepworn trail back to the yamagoya. One big difference: where Saturday had some clear sky, on Sunday it rained on and off all day, and strong winds along the summit ridge traverse – at times near whiteout conditions. Still we made it to the summit, 2228 metres, 7310 feet, and back again to the start of the trail at Hatomachi Toge Pass in six hours – five for the faster, stronger and more experienced members of our group. By the time we came back down, snowshoers and telemark skiers had all but taken over the backcountry trail, and snowboarders were teraing up a natural halfpipe in the trees.
Fun fact: many climbers make Shibutsusan the last stop on their Hyakumeizan pilgrimage, as the kanji Chinese characters in its name translate literally to “Reaching Buddha.”
Check out my gallery of Mount Shibutsusan in winter (basically the same pictures you see in this post), plus those from an autumn trip to Oze National Park and area in 2012.
花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu: “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”
A tangle of scrub pine, roots bone-white in the gunmetal blue of a Hokkaido dusk. Around us low, forested mountains rolled out to sea. In one direction, the Russian Far East; in another, Tokyo and main-island Japan. Only 1500 meters (4500 feet) above sea level, but the harsh climate of Hokkaido — Japan’s northernmost, frontier island — put us already well above treeline. Below, I knew, higuma brown bears, cousin to the grizzly back home in Canada, foraged among the bamboo grass for bedtime snacks. We stood in the triangular shadow of the summit as night crept up-slope, looked over a lightless wilderness, and marvelled at the irony of two city kids from Canada travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most urban and densely populated parts of Asia, to wind up alone on a mountaintop in bear country.
Grizzlies weren’t high on the list of things my admittedly eclectic research on Japan had prepared me for: a sporadic diet of Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Rain, Kurosawa movies, Akira, and Godzilla, had prepared me more for the 85 million-person conurbation on main-island Honshu, the Tokyo-Osaka megalopolis. Nature, for all I knew, was limited to the disciplined gardens of bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements, rather than big-N Nature red in tooth and claw.
But in fact, as I was quickly learning, this high tech, near-future, post-industrial nation still has plenty of countryside and even wilderness. In fact, in many parts of the archipelago it seems more like the people are squeezed into what arable land exists, mainly on the coasts, while large parts of the island interiors remain uninhabitable, and thus undeveloped.
Of course, Hokkaido is not main-island Honshu. In fact, that’s kind of the point:
Japan is a surprisingly big and diverse place. 6,000 islands hang pendulously from wintry Russian Far East, all the way to distant Taiwan in the semi-tropical south. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku and to an extent Hokkaido and Okinawa make up the bulk of what most visitors think of as “Japan,” but there are literally thousands of smaller islands which unfurl into the East China Sea.
Some islands are heavily developed, such as main-island Honshu with the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation (though, as you will learn, there’s still a lot of wildness left even on Honshu); others still have untouched forests of antediluvian fern and palm — such as on Iriomote — and millennia-old cedar — on Yakushima — at their mountainous hearts.