Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mountains to Marshland

My second day started early--I went to sleep at around 7 and woke up at 4 am, setting and rising with the sun, I guess.

I looked forward to a grueling day--13 hours by the map. I've gotten to the point where I usually beat the map on ascents (for example, I made it up Mt. Nantai in Nikko in three hours when the map says five!) but descents I take slower for some reason. And on a day longer than 10 hours I generally tire at the end and slow down, taking a lot of rests. So while I hoped to gain some time during the climbs, I expected it to take at least a full 12 hours for me to get to Oze.

Seeing the peaks and ridges of the surrounding mountains from the ascent up Mt. Nenakusa against a bank of clouds broken by the rising sun was one of the greatest pleasures of the trip. Looking at the old mountains, older than I can truly comprehend, I wonder at the tiny, inconsequential fears and gains that punctuate each day. The mountains don't care and, just for a moment looking at those silent ridges, neither do I.

After passing the peak of Mt. Nenakusa, the trail descends into a valley, the Kinu River valley. A road comes from the east to the Kinu Marsh Onsen (Kinu Marsh Hot Springs), a large structure also called a "mountain hut", though "resort" would be more appropriate. I'd hoped for a vending machine in my decadent hiker dreams, but no luck.

At this point my time was looking pretty durn good. I'd managed to make in an hour (if I remember correctly) what was estimated on the map to take two hours. Maybe I could make this whole thing in half the time, 7-8 hours! I knew there was no chance, but I was still hoping to get in before dark.

I forgot to mention that I ran into a couple of hikers on the way down from Nenakusa I had run into a couple of hikers, one of whom told me there had been a bear sighted the day before. He had the exasperating habit of some older Japanese people to speed up their talking when they realize you don't understand what they are saying. He, like my friend's grandmother in Hiroshima and my landlord, spoke indistinctly and in an old-person's dialect, which is hard enough to understand in itself. But unlike the younger people (I'm talking under 70), who like to slow down and, if necessary, more clearly enunciate certain words, they all seem to speed up and, by necessity, become even less clear. I can usually catch the gist, at least, when younger people speak, but all I could catch from his jumble was "bear", "three cubs", and "Konze" (the mountain from the day before). I tried to sound frightened, but he clearly understood I didn't clearly understand. He walked on, talking to himself, apparently, because he wasn't talking to me anymore.

After passing the hot springs I was back on ascent, headed this time up to Kinu Marsh. There was a surprisingly pretty waterfall I visited quickly, filling up my water bottle. It took a good while to make up to the Kinu Marshland, maybe an hour. This area is a good prelude to Oze itself, with a nice, compact version easily accessible. Oze takes a bit more finagling to get to, though it is probably 50 times bigger.

At this point, my time gains were getting smaller (I was about 5 hours into it, I think). The area around the mountain hut I stayed in stays snowbound into June (there was a second door, higher than the main one, set into the building for just such occasions), and I think it is likely the maps times were adjusted for that. After a two hour gain at the beginning, I mostly got 15 minutes here and 20 there: faster, but in the end I still was trekking for over eleven hours.

I'll shorten the story a bit, noting two things before I get to Oze. First, I recommend climbing Mt. Kinunuma, though it's off the main trail: the map says a total of 40 minutes, but after taking off my backpack and leaving it at the junction, I made the trip in no more than 15 minutes (felt like I could fly without that 65 liter bag on my shoulders!). Note that the junction is not marked with a sign but with rings of tape around trees, the same tape used to mark the trail, so it can be a bit confusing. Still, if you are looking for it, it's hard to miss--there are about 20 rings around several trees.

Second, getting to the "mizuba" or spot to refill bottles with fresh water (a common and welcome addition to Japanese trails) near Akayasu Mountain is difficult and a bit dangerous. It is down a steep climb that is not clearly marked (I found a rope to help on the way back up).

Other than that the hike to Oze is a meditative, slowly downward descent over a soft ridge. From the mountain hut it took me a little over eleven hours, and though I was exhausted by the time I got there, I was happy I did it.

The eastern most campsite, where I stayed, is unique in that the sites are on wooden platforms. The campsite is actually the first man-made structure on the trail once you reach Oze, so I walked through, wondering how I would pitch my non-freestanding tent there. It took a while to get to the reception desk, in a large building called the Oze Huette (from German for "hut") and asked for the site furthest from the other campers (yay!). There were only a few campers, so I was off by myself though, had there been more campers I might have been surrounded by others. For reference, sites 8 and 20 are separate from other sites: you'll be able to hear other campers, maybe, but won't be able to see them!

The man at the desk told me I could pound stakes into the wood; I was too tired to tell him he was crazy. In fact, I was able to wedge my triangular stakes into the gaps between the planks, and it worked out just fine. I was tired so I decided to make ramen with some tofu hamburger, which didn't work out so well, but I didn't really mind; my body just wanted something to help repair the damage I'd done to muscles and knees during the day.

It was a clear night, and when I woke up in the night to go to the bathroom (very far from the campsite that I chose!) I came back and sat with my head sticking out of my tent for about a half an hour, just looking up.

I woke the next day ready for another trek. It amazes me how my body can repair most of the punishment I mete out in just 8 hours, very often adding a bit of muscle to help make it easier next time. I'll admit, though, that I was still worn out, and I decided not to climb a mountain that overlooks the Oze wetlands: my objective for the day was to make it to the bus stop and head home. Though that meant a good 5 hour walk, it was mostly flat.

I woke before the dawn, but that was hidden by the mountains anyway; I did take in the view of the misty marshlands before the sun rose, though. It was relaxing and peaceful, a respite after two days of constant travel. I filled up water bottles and was ready to go about 6 am.

Almost all of Oze is protected from the millions of visitors that come each year by the same planks I slept on. This setup also makes it possible for wheelchairs to enter the park, one of the few natural areas that is so accessible. That's not to say, though, that the trail isn't strenuous in areas, and in my condition I was huffing and puffing fairly quickly.

Oze is big, big, big. Not as big as Yellowstone, but big for Japan. The time I was there the expanse was almost entirely green, with few of the flowers Oze and all meadows are famous for. There were two flowers blooming at the time: a yellow and a purple (sorry, not very knowledgeable about flowers), and the water lilies in the many pools decorating the area were just beginning to send up their flowers, though none had yet bloomed.

It's very easy to get around Oze, so it attracts many people. It was a Monday morning, and yet by the time I was getting close to the bus stop, huge crowds of families and seniors hiking groups were already streaming along the path in the opposite direction. I was saying "Konnichi wa" with every breath at one point. I was glad I had stayed in the park and had seen the park before it welcomed amusement-park level crowds; I hope I am never there on a weekend with flowers in bloom.

In the end, Oze was pleasant, but I think I enjoyed most the area around the mountain hut and at the top of Mt. Nenakusa. I will be visiting there again soon. In fact, writing this post has really made me want to head out camping again; maybe next weekend!

Hike route 284300 - powered by Wandermap

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Good Walk

A couple of weekends ago I went for a walk to take me from the ancient resort highlands area of Nikko around Lake Chuzenji to Oze, a wetlands area popular with the gray set with its easily accessible meadow views and wide expanses of spring and summer flowers.

I've been to Nikko several times; this was my third time camping there. I usually ride my bike up the steep switchbacks of Iroha hill to get from Nikko city, home of the World Heritage Site Toshogu mausoleum, to Lake Chuzenji and Oku (or "far") Nikko. This time I was planning to hike out of Nikko and would not be returning, so I left the bike at home and took a bus from the Nikko city train station. I had to work that morning and had gotten a late start, so I just took the bus to the Shobugahama lakeside campsite and set up.

I've camped at Shobugahama several times, and it is a great place--you can camp right next to the water. The other times I've been there were weekdays and so it was less crowded, but this was a Friday night and I hadn't realized what I was getting into. The Japanese campsites I have been to are not the secluded affairs I am used to, offering clearly defined, individual campsites separated by shrubs or trees, but free-for-alls where you can plop down your tent inches away from neighbors. More often than not I have been there at off-peak times and was able to set up well away from any other campers, but this night was different. I wandered through a dense tent city for about 15 minutes before accepting that I would be right next to a family shooting off fireworks well into the night; and I was already tired. But there was a good side to this--I might have been out of luck without a reservation at an American campsite, but here, uncomfortable as it might have been, at least I was able to find somewhere to spend the night (and in the end it wasn't all that bad).

The next day I woke up at 5 am to eat and get packed up before taking another bus, this time from the side of Lake Chuzenji deeper into Oku Nikko. I had hiked up toward Mt. Shirane, the largest in the area, before, though I couldn't see much of it at the time because of buffeting winds and heavy rain and fog. This day it was clear as could be and I planned to only spend 5 hours hiking to reach my destination for the day, so I might have tried Shirane in the sunlight, but I was really tired from a wakeful night before I came and my night in the campsite with my ear near to neighbors chatting into the night. I thought I'd take it easy.

I took the more northern of the two trails leading from Yumoto (a destination in itself) toward Mt. Goshiki. Last time I returned from Shirane taking this same path down, and when it wasn't flowing with a small stream from the rain that "made interesting" the last 4-5 hours of that trip, it was muddy and treacherous. I must have fallen ten times. This time the worst precipitation was early morning dew on the grasses (bamboo?) hanging over the path. It was steep and the path was a bit hard to follow at times, but I made it. I decided to skip Mt. Goshiki with its view of Mt. Shirane and the many colored lakes at its foot (goshiki, by the way, means "five colors," for the five tiny lakes of varying colors in a valley below), I went north to Mt. Konze, leaving the familiar behind.

Mt. Konze seems to be popular and I ran into several hikers, especially on the far side. There is a fair view near (at?) the peak, but I didn't stay long; I thought the peak was higher up and kept going! But soon the trail headed down again, and I guessed at the reason for Konze's popularity after taking a look at my map: there is a pass where you can park your car and hike up to the peak in about an hour and a half. If I were to do such a thing, though, I would take the slightly longer trail to the next mountain I climbed: Yusengatake. The view from Yusengatake was much more enjoyable, I thought, and it was something like 270 degrees compared to Konze's 180.

When I was heading for Yusengatake I heard a loud yell. I couldn't make out the words, though it sounded like it ended with "". I found out the next day it was likely he had been yelling about bears or "kuma": apparently a bear was spotted with her cubs in the area. The voice didn't really appear frightened at the time, and I had no idea where it was coming from, so I waited, then moved on and hoped for the best.

I ended the day early in a fantastic "emergency hut" in between Yusengatake and Nenakusayama. As I said, I was exhausted, so even though it was only 12:30 I decided to call it a day.

I should explain here what an emergency hut is. Camping in the mountains is usually discouraged in Japan, so most hikers stay in 小屋, "koya" or mountain huts when they take longer treks. There are mountain huts on ranges all over Japan, many of them staffed and some offering fairly ritzy accommodations (for the mountains). I'd much rather camp, but the next best option is the 避難小屋, the emergency hut, unserviced but providing lodging in case of inclement weather or other emergencies. Often they are nothing more than a shed and really deserve the name hut: the hut I found in the Yatsugatake range years ago, for example, had nearly fallen down, and it was impossible to get inside (luckily there was space to pitch a tent nearby and I hadn't planned to stay in the hut anyway).

The map promised camping space at the hut near Yusengatake as well, but as soon as I saw the hut itself I had a feeling I'd be staying inside. This hut was like a lodge meant for wealthy skiers, minus the fireplace: it was newly built and the pleasant scent of pine flooded the inside, where there were two levels of wood flooring sturdily constructed. And besides, the land apparently meant to be used for camping was covered with pine saplings; obviously not much used.

The only thing this wonderful hut was missing was a toilet. But it had a couple of shovels, and so I hoped I wasn't taking too much of a leap using them for... my convenience. I wandered off the trail into the forest a bit, suddenly noticing how pampered we hikers are by the fruit of the labors of trailblazers: I looked around me and thought it wouldn't take much to get lost, even so close to the hut and trail. In any case, my body urged me to take care of things, and so I dug a hole, filled it, then covered it up again. I returned to the hut feeling lighter after my first experience doing what a bear does in the woods.

After that I took a nap, then woke and fought flies while I made dinner. Instead of buying dehydrated, processed meals with barely any nutrition, I've been carrying bags with the ingredients for favorite dishes and making meals from scratch in the woods. I bring ramen, too, just in case I'm too tired to bother, but I've done fairly well making mabodofu with freeze-dried tofu and mushrooms with quinoa (which cooks faster than rice). This time, though, I managed to knock the mushrooms and ginger I cut onto the ground at my feet, and so ended up missing out on a few of the finer touches. I stole some ginger from the next day's meal, so I was only missing mushrooms, and so was able to make something presentable. I went to sleep early, hoping I would have enough energy for what the next day, which looked to be a thirteen hour day.

I think I'll pause here...