Sunday, September 27, 2009

I met a spaceman; Southern Japan Alps II

My second day in the Southern Alps started with a climb back to Jizo-ga-take. This time I meant to actually get to its peak, or, really, as close as I could get to the peak. You can't reach the very top without a rope, but I got a bit of climbing practice in anyway, edging up the rocks that surround the main spires of the peak. This was again very pleasant, and I spent well over a half an hour sitting and taking pictures from Jizo's high vantage.

I climbed down. Today my objective was my objective for the entire trip--Kita-dake, a non-volcanic mountain that stands second tallest after Fuji, though a distant second at 500 meters less. I gritted my teeth thinking I'd have to go down for half the day before going up again: I think I've said before I hate descents more than ascents. But that is the way it worked out, and there was no avoiding it.

At first there was a slight ascent to Takamine, then I began a long descent, followed the entire time by a fool with a bell. Bear bells are very popular in Japan, even in areas with as much traffic as Shinjuku station. I have even gotten my own, but that is because I prefer hiking in the less popular areas; but I just don't see the need to use one when you see other humans every 5 minutes. Still, I wouldn't complain but the man had an amazing ability to stay just a perfect distance behind me that I couldn't lose him, and yet he only once passed me. His bell was distracting, and it followed me like Jason Vorhees for the 4 hours I was climbing down to Hirogawara, the beginning of the climb to Kita-dake.

But about an hour from the bottom I was distracted from the distracting bell. I caught up with a man who had started the day in front of me, moving at a fair pace, but had slowed down near ten o' clock. He was friendly, and we chatted a bit as we climbed down. We went at about the same pace, and though we didn't talk about much in particular, we'd say things like "be there soon" or "be careful here," etc. I normally avoid conversation in the mountains, but maybe the Jason bell had acclimated me to society again. At least I forgot about the bell.

When we reached the valley, we started talking a bit. He was a carpenter from Wakayama who built traditional-style buildings and furnaces. I thought that was interesting. He asked me what I thought of the Mayan 2012 apocalypse; I told him I didn't know much about it, though I was curious. Then he told me he had had a dream long ago of a plague of locusts and of people being pulled up into the sky; this made me a bit leery. But he had never read the Bible and, though I didn't ask, I'm guessing he'd never read the Left Behind series. His manner was self-deprecating and, unlike other people I've met who go into these odd sorts of conversations, he had no agenda that I could see; it sounded more like he was sharing his pastimes. So I continued talking to him.

Then he said, in a very charming way, (keep in mind this is in Japanese) "I think I might be a space man." I laughed; again, I would normally start winding up the conversation at this point, staring straight ahead and walking a bit faster. But he was not threatening in any way, so I continued to listen.

Just like the dream of locusts and of people being pulled into the sky, he had had a dream, he said, where he found himself looking down on the earth from above, thinking "I'd like to live there..." He then found himself being born. Because it was in Japanese, I'm not sure if he was saying this was a memory of a dream or a dream of a memory, but I think it was the latter. He asked me if I thought I was a spaceman, and I considered this for a second.

I am quite in love with the solar system, and with stars. I've always had a particular fascination with Jupiter and, more recently, his moon Europa. Jupiter is a fascinating object, so incomprehensible, and a lot like the mountains of the world, so far removed from the money-making survival and bureaucratic politics of daily life. But it is none the less real; maybe, to my spaceman friend and I, those things are more real than the pretend dramas of daily life.

I long wanted to travel to the other planets, and when I was a kid I loved poring over books that portrayed life and colonization of other worlds. But as I've gotten older, I have turned back to earth, and the compulsion to find other worlds is looking less and less like a creative act of imaginative expansion and more like a desperate way to leave behind our failures here. For the time being, the Earth seems enough to me, and I'd rather not be able to see bases on the moon, reminding me of our collective short-sightedness, when I look up at the night sky. (By the way, though the two ideas coincide, I am not making an environmental argument here).

So I said "Boku ha machigai naku chikyuujin desu." I am without a doubt an Earthman. When he said later that he felt more like a spaceman than a Japanese person, I said the same thing, I am not an American, I am without a doubt an Earthman. I think we both liked our symmetry.

My spaceman friend was not going to the top of Kita-dake; we were walking to the bus stop as this conversation was going on. He was planning to go to Senjo ga take, a mountain I thought I might reach the next day. We said perhaps we'd meet on Jupiter some day, and I left him and headed up the mountain.

On the way up I debated over and again what I should do the next day. I had planned, as I said before, to go in a spiral around to Kaikomagatake, but it was looking more and more like that would not happen, so I was considering just hiking around Kita-dake, taking it easy the next day.

In the end I settled on a campsite near the peak of Kita-dake; I reached it after 11 hours, and I didn't feel like climbing Kita-dake and then hiking another hour to the next campsite. At that point it was getting dark and clouds were overtaking the peak, so I decided I would climb to the top the next day and watch the sun rise. Depending on how I felt at that point I would decide what to do next.

The mountain hut/campsite was high up--3000 meters, or 9800 feet. It was rocky, but the ridge was fairly wide, and there were a large number of places to set up a tent. I wandered around for a bit, hoping perhaps I could avoid sleeping inches from others, and I saw an adventurous camper had set up in what seemed a bit of a legal grey-area for an acceptable camp-spot. It was far from the toilet, but I decided to set up in the same area, though I gave my adventurous friend a wide berth. I was relatively alone.

I was exhausted and it was very cold, so I planned to watch the falling sun, eat a bit of left-overs (ie, I didn't have the energy to cook), and then head to bed. I took some pictures of the sun until I couldn't stand the cold wind, ate, and studied the map for the next day. I was soon cocooned in my sleeping bag.

I woke up at 12 am. I don't know what woke me up, but I never did get back to sleep that day. I felt perfectly warm, and there was no light; I didn't feel hungry or thirsty. I was still exhausted, but could not sleep. I tried stretching, and reading, and I even ate a little something to see if that would help. But nothing did, and I sat in my tent until the sun came up.

The sunrise was spectacular. Though there was a bit of cloud cover and I couldn't see some of the smaller mountains, at my vantage point I was able to see through a clear space to Mount Fuji. I felt a bit like I was on Venus; I was certainly a long way from home. I took a few pictures, then lay in my tent again until the winds knocked the tent down.

In the end I decided to go home that day. Once I started hiking again I felt a bit more energetic, but I was truly exhausted after four days of inadequate sleep. After hiking 11 hours the day before, four hours' rest was just not enough, and I didn't want to deal with the occasional frustrations inherent in hiking in that condition. I climbed to the top of Kita-dake, then took a different route down than I had taken up the day before (that was a few hours' hike in itself), then got on the bus and the train home.

I wish I could have continued, as this is likely to be the last long vacation before the snows, but I do feel satisfied with my trip. Ho'o sanzan in itself was worth exploring, and Kita-dake is the tallest mountain I have yet climbed. If you want me this winter, I'll be jogging through the (much shorter) mountains of Okutama and Nikko!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Southern Japan Alps

This week is "Silver Week," or "Autumn Golden Week," a series of holidays with a name that refers to the more established "(Spring) Golden Week" in late April and early May. Like Memorial Day and Labor Day they signal the change of seasons, and it is common for Japanese people to travel to natural areas to take in scenery, hiking along with their bear bells and trekking poles, or taking the kids out to the local car campsite to hold a barbecue.

I decided to attempt a longer trip than usual, as this will probably be the last chance I get this year for more than a few days off (I had 6 days), so I went for the Southern Alps. Of three groups of mountains in Japan known as "Alps," the Southern Alps are the least developed and have the least visitors, though by no means was it empty!

The Southern Alps also contain the tallest mountain in Japan after Fuji, known as Kita-dake (North Peak). Kita-dake was my objective, though I planned to take in a large number of peaks in the range.

The first mountain, though, that I wanted to visit was Ho'o Sanzan, the Three "Phoenix" Peaks, Yakushi-ga-take, Kannon-ga-take, and Jizo-ga-take. I had seen pictures of Jizo-ga-take and was really impressed by the unique rock formations; when I found out how close it was to Kita-dake I knew I had to go that way.

A trip to the north part of the Southern Alps usually means a stop in the city of Kofu, known for its lack of wind (I suppose because of its location, surrounded on all sides by tall mountains?), then an hour-long bus ride into the mountains. I got off at the Yashajin trail-head for the approach to the first of the Ho'o Sanzan, Yakushi-dake.

Yakushi, Kannon, and Jizo are Japanese names for important bodhisattva: Yakushi is the Buddhist "doctor," Jizo is, in Japan, most often the protector of children, and Kannon is a hermaphroditic savior--as Kuan Yin in China, she is almost always female, where in India and Southeast Asia he is usually male; in Japan he/she is portrayed both ways, perhaps due to successive importation from the two regions. These bodhisattva are very popular in Japan and everywhere that Mahayana Buddhism is followed, and, with Amida-bosatsu, their names are used for mountains throughout Japan. I once climbed Amida-dake in the nearby Yatsu-ga-take range, something I wrote about in an earlier post.

My legs ached a bit more than usual, and I was a bit tired. I was actually starting late: I had planned to start my trip on Saturday, but for some reason I couldn't sleep until 3 in the morning, and with my train leaving at 5:50, I decided it would be best to start the next day instead. I slept well enough Saturday night, but I'd had several restless nights that week and, as most will know, it takes more than one night to recover from an inadequate sleeping schedule.

Four buses left for Yasha and their final destination, Hirogawara; myself, another person from overseas, and a tiny but sinewy old man were stuffed among the bags of passengers with proper seats. I managed to sit down for the hour-long ride among stuffed packs, and fell asleep several times before being awakened by a rough bump, then falling asleep again.

But at last we were off; I paid the bus fare and headed into the mountains. I'll be honest, I don't remember much about that first ascent towards Yakushi; I think it was overshadowed by my memories of the fantastic views and sense of awe I felt later in the Ho'o range. I may also have been a bit asleep at the time...

It was a clear day, one of the clearest I have experienced in the Japanese mountains. The mountains I was climbing were fairly high, too, and as I reached their peaks the vegetation fell off, until, at the peaks, there was little more than scrub and very tiny trees. So there were many inspiring views along the way, of Shiramine Sanzan (Kita-dake's group) to the west, Kaikoma-ga-take to the north, and Yatsu-ga-take, the mountains of Okuchichibu, and Fuji to the east. It was intoxicating to be in such fabulous company, and I felt a joy and sense of ease the entire time I was winding through Ho'o Sanzan that I just do not normally experience.

My photos do not do it justice.

This set of mountains is not covered in the English "bible" of Japanese mountains, the Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan, but the three mountains can be covered in one or two days, and I really consider them the highlight of my hiking so far in Japan. Kita dake certainly has its high points (pun intended), but the rock formations of Yakushi, Kannon, and especially Jizo really make the hike unique, and their position between Kita-dake and Fuji make them a great place to view the two.

Yakushi was first. I didn't expect much: being the third tallest of the three, Yakushi might not get as much publicity. But really, it has some attractive formations, and I spent a good amount of time taking pictures. It also affords good views of the other two peaks in the range.

Kannon, the tallest of the three, is crowned with hundreds of spikes of granite, and it made me think of her common representation with hundreds, meant to be thousands, of hands. That may be the reason the mountain was so named.

The descent towards Jizo was difficult because the road seemed to be made from some form of silicate, and I often slipped. But when I could, I stopped and snapped pictures of Jizo-dake, by far my favorite of the three mountains. I didn't in fact climb Jizo that day, as it was getting late; my destination was about an hour down, at a mountain hut with associated campsite.

Hiking is a bit odd in Japan. You climb for hours, and very often you will run into fellow hikers, especially in well-known places like the Alps. Without fail, just as in the US, people will say something, at least nod, and there is a protocol for passing and being passed. But once you reach the mountain hut/campsite, you are once again in civilization, and groups of hikers do their best to ignore other hikers.

This is why.

Except in Oze and the most famous parts of the Alps (the Central Alps' Kamikochi being reportedly the worst), when you are actually hiking you usually get at least a few moments alone. But when it is time to camp, or you get to a peak, you are almost certain to be surrounded by gobs of people, eating lunch, drinking sake, sometimes even listening to the baseball game on the radio or talking on their cell phones (what is "#~!ing wrong with people!). So, just like back at home, you have to shut out the other people except in the most dire situations, and try to forget you are sleeping 3 feet away from someone snoring and farting next to you (it happened!).

This really only bothers me when I'm trying to sleep, and luckily even the chatty Osaka boys a few feet away were in bed by 8 that night, so I was able to sleep well enough. It is an experience, though. Still, it is far better than being turned away for lack of space.

After a ramen and freeze-dried tofu dinner and looking at my map and dreaming of hiking the entire area around Kita-dake, followed by a few pages of The Lord of the Rings in Japanese (another story), I went to bed.