Mt Hodaka, Kita Alps, Japan
Report by Darren DeRidder
My first experience in the mountains of Japan was in the North (or "Kita") Alps, on Mount Hotaka. It is several years ago now that I first went to Kamikochi and wandered up into the valleys, into alpine cirques and across the airy ridges. But I still remember quite clearly what an impression it made on me, and I think it's fair to say that the experience had a real impact on the future course of my outdoor life. Since that time I have been to many places around the world for the love of being high up in the mountains, but the Japan Alps were where I really started getting serious about climbing big mountains, starting with Mount Hotaka.
I had been quite active in rock climbing in Japan for several months and that is primarily the reason why I became interested in the Japan Alps. My friend told me that they were very beautiful and that many people visited the Japan Alps to go hiking and climbing during the summer. Speaking to some of my Japanese climbing partners about the alps, I was told that they were in fact very beautiful and that a trip to the alps would be well worth-while. Whether or not I could actually do any rock-climbing there was unclear, but simply to hike in the mountains was a very attractive prospect. And, I was told, it was definitely possible to climb right to the very top of some significant summits as trails had been prepared all along the way.
Normally I would be the type of person to shun the use of trails when climbing to the summit of a mountain, especially a trail that had fixed chains and ladders on the difficult sections. It seems to me to be a violation of the natural state of such a place. It also encourages people who lack the right skills and experience to go into potentially dangerous mountain terrain. The number of accidents that occur in the Japan Alps during high season is alarming.
In any case, the plans were laid, the reservations made at the mountain huts. I bought maps and charted a course which allowed us an extra day just in case we were held up for some reason. And at the start of Golden Week holidays, we got on an overnight bus and rode up to Kamikochi. Didn't sleep much on the bus, the seats being small and the road being roundabout. Almost everyone on the bus appeared to be going hiking. Backpacks were crammed in the carriage underneath and in the overhead bins. Everyone was wearing outdoor clothing: knickers, wool socks, caps, leather boots, and so on. People seemed to be a little excited or tense, like this was the start of a big adventure. We rolled into Kamikochi early in the morning, unloaded our things, and stood there wondering where we were and what there was to do.
Kamikochi is probably the main mountaineering base in Japan. It is a very commercialized, tourist-oriented little town with hostels, gift shops, and a big bus terminal. The Azusa river flows right past the town and a scenic footbridge crosses the river. The trail up the Azusa valley and the higher peaks follows alongside the river upstream. Early in the morning, nothing much was happening. The shops were closed and it was quite cool outside. We used the restrooms, filled up our canteens with water from a fountain, then shouldered our backpacks and walked along the trail. We would be staying at a minshuku (Japanese guesthouse) a few kilometers past Kamikochi on the first day.
Day one was thus spent walking to the minshuku, checking in, and then doing some easy hiking on the mostly level trails back towards Kamikochi, stopping at Taisho-Ike and other viewpoints along the way. Taisho Ike is a pond which was formed recently when a small man-made dam was placed across the riverbed. Dead trees which were flooded by the rising waters stick up out of the shallow pond. In the early morning mist this is a mysterious looking place. The Japanese see this as a very romantic place. Personally, what I saw looked like a man-made pond with a bunch of dead trees sticking up out of it, but the pictures I've seen of Taisho Ike in early morning mist are indeed lovely.
It was on the way back to the Minshuku that my friend asked me about my walking style. "Do you put your heel down first or your toe down first?" she asked. Apparently she had been hiking all day by putting her toe down first. When she switched to putting her heel down first it made a great difference. Apparently many Japanese women actually walk this way. It might be because they are used to wearing high heels or because Japanese people have worn "geta" (wooden shoes) for centuries. With our walking technique sorted out we continued back to the Minshuki, going pretty slowly. I started wondering wether we would actually see the top of Mt. Hotaka.
The second day was spent going up from the Azusa valley into Karasawa, a cwm on the South-East side of the Hotaka massif. It is more than halfway between Kamikochi and the summit in both elevation and distance, and is quite a hike. At Karasawa there is a large camping area and two huts which accomodate hikers from Spring thru Autumn. At times the trail was rather muddy and narrow, and we found ourselves stuck behing long queues of slow-moving hikers. If nothing else, they helped us not to push our pace too quickly. My friend suddenly decided, however, that further progress was impossible until a full lunch had been served. My lunch plan of granola bars, dried fruit and gorp didn't cut it, apparently, so we ground to a halt and an argument ensued. Fortunately, a kindly "Ojisan" (older man) came walking by and struck up a conversation. The granola bars probably kicked in at that point and my friend was able to be coaxed into accompanying the older gentleman along the last few kilometers of steeply climbing trail. I had no experience with people suffering from low blood sugar and couldn't really understand the reason for the delay. Nearing Karasawa the path steepened and became a chore to ascend. I took both packs and went ahead to the hut to check in. We had made it in reasonable time and enjoyed the rest of the evening quite a lot, having a nice meal at the hut and visiting with other friendly hikers from all over, including one fellow from Alaska with a huge pair of boots and a collection of hiking yarns to match.
The campsite at Karasawa was amazing. Being Golden Week, there were an incredible number of people out for hiking in the North Alps. Karasawa and the summit of Hotaka must certainly be one of the most popular mountain areas in Japan. There were hundreds of tents pitched on the rocky ground, all different colors. The whole valley was very colorful because of all the tents. Higher up there is a permanent snow-field and some people were actually skiing down or hiking across it.
The hut was even more of a shock. We were shown into a room and assigned a spot to sleep on the floor. Futons had been laid out, but there must have been three or four people crammed into the space of a single tatami mat. All you could do was to lay sideways, squished between two other people. It was really impossible to sleep.
The next day it was raining. Most of the people left to go back down. Few people came up from below because of the weather. The hut emptied out. Because I had planned an extra day, we decided to pass the day in the hut and take our chances the following day in climbing Mt. Hotaka. It was quite nice to sit in the hut and chat with the few other hikers who remained. Several of them had a lot of experience and interesting stories to relate. We went outside to hike up the trail a short ways and get some fresh air when the rain stopped for a short time. Again we had a good dinner in the hut and because there were far fewer guests in the hut that night, we had a small side room which we shared with only a couple other hikers, and we were able to sleep well.
I awoke early in the morning, just before dawn, as is usual in the mountains. Faint light was creeping in, and in the quite hut I could hear the masses of air circulating in the valley outside, somewhat like the sound a seashell makes when you hold it to your ear. Soon the lights went on and everyone got up for breakfast. Although there was mist rising up into the cwm and visibility was poor, we decided to climb up, together with the kindly "ojisan" we had met before. Allowing him to set the pace, I found, was a very effective way of keeping the friend from complaining about the hike. As a trio we made our way up the switchbacking trail to the summit ridge, following a line of other hikers. Near the summit block a steep section was besieged with fixed iron ladders and chains. A fellow with straw sandals and a big straw hat, who must have been pretending to be a Yamabushi (mountain monk), swarmed past us as we climbed the ladder, creating a bit of a fright and causing me to curse the general assembly of hikers for their generally insensitive behavior.
All along the way the path had been strewn with garbage left by hikers. A lot of the older Japanese women on the trail would move very slowly and talk very loudly. The crowds and the noise ruined the serenity of such a beautiful place, unfortunately. In general I wasn't too impressed by the majority of hikers on the trail, although the ones who were friendly enough to speak to me were quite well mannered and seemed to care about keeping the environment free of trash. I decided that on the descent I would pick up litter along the way and collect it in a plastic bag.
Just after the steep section with the ladders, we arrived at the summit. It was a great feeling to be standing at over 3000 metres on top of one of Japan's highest mountains. As we climbed the weather had improved dramatically so that on the summit we were surrounded by impressive views all around under a clear, deep blue sky. At the summit we asked someone to take a picture of the three of us standing by the summit cairn and holding the signboard which says Oku-Hotaka-Dake and the elevation of the peak.
The mountain is called Hotaka or Hodaka, depending on the context, and this particular peak, the highest point of the Hotaka massif, is called Oku-Hotaka-Dake, meaning "Far Hotaka Peak" I think. There are other peaks along the ridge bearing the name "Hotaka" or "Hodaka" as well. The next point of interest along our route was "Mai-Hotaka-Dake" or "Front Hotaka Peak". Somewhat lower in elevation, it is situated to the south of it's higher neighbor. The trail from this point forward was mostly downhill, so the going was easier. There were only a few sections where the trail crossed steep rocky slopes, and these were passed by careful down-climbing or with the help of fixed chains to use as handholds.
Although the trial itself did not pass over the summit of Mai-Hotaka-Dake, it was not a long way to the summit and so laying our packs down, the Ojisan and I sprinted up to the summit just for the fun of it. The climbing was a bit more technical and crossed some rather steep rock, at which point I was glad to have some rock climbing experience. Although it was never difficult, it could have been a little frightening in one or two spots for an inexperienced scrambler. The detour didn't take long at all and we were rewarded with good views, warm sunshine and a good summit photo at the top.
Back on the trail again we proceeded at our own paces to Dakesawa, where there is another hut. It was quiet and not too crowded, as it seemed many people were descending all the way to Kamikochi. We had hiked enough for one day however and retired into the hut to enjoy a good meal. It had begun to rain lightly so we were also glad for the shelter, even though it was rather cool inside. Very few Japanese buildings have central heating, and a damp chill is an ever present feature of most houses throughout the cooler months. The building was an interesting structure with many traditional Japanese features, and I would have been quite interested in poking around in all the rooms and corners, but I stayed in the main areas so as not to disturb people.
The following day we returned to Kamikochi. There were very few other people on the trail, and since our Ojisan friend had continued on to Kamikochi the previous night, we hiked as a two-some back down the path towards our original starting point. The trail down from Dakesawa was steep and less used that the trail to Karasawa, but it was not hard to follow. We arrived back at the minshuku near Kamikochi by late afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed a nice hot bath and a good dinner before a good nights rest in our own bunk beds. The following morning we walked the short distance back to Kamikochi along the wide flat trail and met our bus back to Nagoya.
For the most part, the trip had been quite enjoyable and successful. I was intrigued by the North Alps and the many different peaks I had glimpsed. Having been there once I was now determined to return and climb Yari-ga-take, a peak at the far end of the Yare-Hotaka massif which is the third highest mountain in Japan and which is known for its pyramid-shaped summit block. It is sometime referred to as the "Matterhorn of Japan" because of the pyramid-shaped summit block, but in fact the steep summit block is quite small in comparison to the rest of the mountain, which is mostly a long hike up a steep valley to the crest of a ridge. I did indeed return to Kamikochi soon afterwards, but that is another story.
Since climbing Hotaka I have climbed many of the other high mountains of the North, Central, and South ranges of the Japan Alps. Yet for quite some time, Mount Hodaka in the North Alps remained the standard to which I compared the other mountain adventures I have undertaken there. It was certainly one of the most beautiful settings that I had the priveledge to visit in Japan.
(photo by jlhopes)