Summer Walks Part 1

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Karasawa Watercolors

(Click on the photos for a new, interesting effect!)

With a whole summer exempt from work shades of childhood summer vacation crept back into my daily routine, all of four months with more time on my hands than I’ve had in over ten years. Of course, with bills to pay and food to eat and other people to think of, it wasn’t as if each day came on a silver platter. But it did leave me some time to set out on some walks that I’ve been meaning to do here in Japan for quite some time. In July and August I decided to pack my beloved backpack and take the time to walk in the North and South Japan Alps, to Karasawa, the Kurobegoro Route, and along Houou Three Peaks. I’d been to both Kurobegoro and Houou before, but the Kurobegoro vale being one of my favorite alpine areas in Japan, it would be like visiting an old and lovely friend.

Part of these walks was to see if my knees could handle the high ridges still and get up to the heights that I loved so much when I was younger. For the last seven years I’ve slowly adopted the techniques of ultralight backpacking (see here, too. This is where I spend a lot of time discussing and learning about refining my pack weight, gear, and walking techniques) and my pack weight has more than halved since my 18 kilograms pack weight from back in the nineties. This brings mountain walking so much more pleasure and I find myself actually slowling down more to take photographs and sometimes to just stand there drinking it all in. Still, the trails continue to be steep and the weather unpredictable. The two tents I was using hadn’t yet proved their viability in above treeline conditions so I headed into these walks with some trepidation.

The first series of photos here hail from my first walk from Kamikochi up to Karasawa, a two-day, easy climb.

Azusa River

This area was first made popular in Japan in 1880 by the British alpinist Walter Weston and traveller William Gowland, who named the peaks of central Honshu, “the Japan Alps”. Here the walk alongside the Azusa River is more like an afternoon stroll, with thousands of tourists visiting every year from all over the world.

River Rocks

The water runs almost turquoise through a subalpine valley of larch, beech, and birch. I couldn’t stop pausing to watch pristine water gurgling by; it is such an unusual sight in Japan.

Karasawa Crag

The climb began in earnest as the crags began to close in. Though cooler than Tokyo, the sun seared my skin like a furnace. Japanese climbers always carry towels around their necks to stave off the sun from their napes and to wipe off the continuous stream of sweat from the high humidity. I always love the great variety of creative responses to using the towels; some wrapped around people’s necks, some wrapped around their heads, some hanging like Arab kofias, some even draped around like wedding veils…

Karasawa Lily

It is little details like this that make climbing through the forests, when views to the mountains remain limited to peeks through the canopy, bearable. The only problem is that Japanese hiking parties often tend to mob up to fifty or a hundred strong, so stopping to admire anything in relative peace challenges your sense of “getting away from it all”.

Karasawa Icefield

Last winter brought record-breaking snowfall to Japan, making it, as one of my friends joyfully exclaimed to me, “The best ice-climbing conditions in a hundred years!” It also meant lots of leftover snowfields wherever the sun couldn’t quite make it.

Climbing the Last Stretch

The final approach to Karasawa lodge and campground was completely blanketed in snowfields. Not having brought my usual instep crampons for such occasions, kicking steps into the hard snow proved to be somewhat of a challenge with my trail runners. Nevertheless, even while huffing and puffing up the steep slope, the whole valley rang out with the sound of a Tyrolean horn. There was something haunting and magical in the sound, something welcoming and noble at the same time. Normally I’m not a fan of people causing a racket in the mountains, but this was something that fit right in. It gave me the imagined heroism I needed to finish the last leg of the climb.

Karasawa Clouds

To be greeted by the gods of the clouds was a fitting end to the day. Even when you’re beat from pushing your body all day, you feel small and humble enough to look up and pay reverence to the source of all that heavenly light.

Karasawa Campsite

Some kinds of mattresses, no matter how much you try to adapt to the surface, will never make good beds. Karasawa campground, while set in an sublime location and in spite of nearly an hour of fiddling with tent placement and guylines, was quite possibly the most uncomfortable camp I’ve ever slept in. All night someone’s skull kept pushing up into the small of my back.

Karasawa Superboy

Nearly everyone who came across this little boy on the way down from Karasawa stopped to gawk at him and exclaim amazement at his pack. The pack was actually his grandfather’s, and so big the hip belt wouldn’t close around his waist. While taking a snack break along the side of the trail I overheard the boy stoically announce to his grandfather that he would walk by himself, while carrying his grandfather’s pack, the entire fifteen kilometers back to the Kamikochi bus terminal, and that is exactly what he did. Ten kilometers on, while I was taking another break, he promptly walked right past me, looking no worse for wear. I have to say I was green with jealously at the determination and strength of such a young boy. I wished I had been like that, and exposed to such expeditions, when I was his age. I mean, he’s done so much walking already at his age that his boots are falling apart, the soles about done in!

I’d been wanting to visit Karasawa for years, but had always been dissuaded by the stories of the enormous crowds. The crowds were definitely there, but there is a tranquility and intimacy about the whole valley that mutes the human presence. I came home from this walk with a lingering affinity for all those other people who made the climb with me. There are some pilgrimages that defy your preconceptions.

12 Responses

  1. Good to see you’re keeping busy and getting out into the wilds, butuki. I know you need that to stay sane and happy. I like the new photo, too. Very dashing, and for some reason it doesn’t look self-aggrandizing like most website photos. Nice.

  2. Yes, it is wonderful to read about your joyful journey in your beloved mountains! Such beautiful photos bring this all alive. May you keep well and happy, butuki.

  3. Fantastic! Have you thought any further about doing the Larapinta Trail?

  4. The first picture seems alive, I swear the clouds are in movement. And thank you, for your face.

  5. Thank you for this. I find your writing and photography touching and inspiring. I wondered if you ever thought of writing a book? This is one of my favourite blogs: I think you have a rare gift and a rare spirit. It’s always a small fear of mine that with a blog, the person might decide to remove it for reasons unknown and the art then vanishes to reside only in memory.

  6. butuki-san, again wonderful photos and heartful writing.
    I agree with Kate.

    You said befroe you did not know if you were recovering/healing. Thing about about healing is it starts before we really take notice of it. Once we do it has come a long way…

    When you can see again the beauty of the world and not just the pain…you too have come a long way…

    Gambatte

  7. Andru- Thanks for your warm words. And the compliment about me and my hat! I actually made that thing. It looks pretty good in the photo, but in real life you’d probably be embarrassed to stand next to me in public when I wear it. I didn’t know sewing stretchy fabric was so hard!

    Marja-Leena- Your kind words always give me a smile, even on those days when smiling comes a little reluctantly.

    Jenny- You’re still here! Wonderful!. I’m glad you liked this post. I’ve been getting a little rusty at sitting in front of the computer for hours like I used to. The Larapinta is definitely still on my list of great hope-to-do trails. I need to train for it and learn a little more about desert walking before I attempt it. There is a possibility I will go to Australia in December or so, but that will depend on the schedule of my new job. I’ll let you know if I do go.

    Heather- It seems you’ve gone for more than finding a way to contact me! You’ve sat through another one of my long, self-absorbed rambles… and survived! Picking the photos for the posts sometimes is real agony, especially since I have to narrow it down from over 400 shots! It takes much more time to process the photos than taking the pictures out in the field ever did.

    Kate- What a compliment for someone to tell me that my writing actually would spur them to read a book of mine. Actually, yes, I do want to get books published. I’ve already written two of them (one travelogue, one children’s book) and am currently writing two more. I still have to overcome the hurdle of getting published… it’s hard to find editors here whom I can talk to directly, but that’s mainly because in recent years I haven’t pushed myself to get published like I used to. I have to get back to that.

    Zen- I’ve never been one to wallow in my sorrow for too long, although this time what has happened has shaken me to my very deepest convictions and it’s been difficult finding a kind and constructive way to the surface again. But I’m getting there. To everything its time and place.

  8. Oh hush. I’m currently reading through all of the rambles, and surviving quite well, thank you.

  9. Very nice story.
    Looking at the first photos, the last thing I expected was the crowd.

  10. May, it is hard to imagine thousands of walkers among those hills, isn’t it? And yet, photos lie, especially those of a photographer who wants to get away from the crowds. Every time I composed a photo I actively looked for images that didn’t contain lots of people in them. At any moment while I was taking these shots there was someone inevitably walking right behind me or right off the edge of the photo. That second photo of the river… do you notice the treed area on the right… well, just inside there ran the main trail up to the area I was hiking to. Right in that photo at that moment hundreds of hikers were passing through, you just can’t see them.

    So maybe I can say that my story and my photos are lies? Perhaps. But it is a pretty lie, isn’t it? (^J^)/”

  11. It is not a lie, it is a favor you made to your readers. You saved the best (that is, away from the crowd) part of your trip in your memory and shared it with us. So, thank you.
    There are circumstances when the the sight of a person makes me want to run away. A walk in the mountain would be one of those. And if the stranger talked to me, this would ruin the magic of the atmosphere, despite the fact that I would give a polite and friendly answer. Sometimes even a friend can be too much of a company.

  12. Nice walk.

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