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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.
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.
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.
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…
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.