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Yatsugatake - May 1989

For Golden Week I planned to go on a 3-day hike in the Japan Alps. The question was "where?" and "with whom?". My initial thoughts were to do the Omote Ginza route from Nakabusa Onsen to Mount Yari. Several friends were vaguely interested in this hike but as the day approached I had no firm takers. I probably would have gone on my own, but the news of 12 climbers being swept off the mountain near Kitahodaka earlier in the week made me a little apprehensive. A telephone call to the Enzanso Lodge confirmed that there was still a lot of snow on the trail, although it was open as far as Otensho. Determined not to be cheated out of a couple of days in the mountains I phoned my friend Ishikawa-san who was planning a two day hike to Kimpu san. Due to deep snow on Kimpu, Ishikawa san informed me that he was heading for Kumotoriyama instead. Having climbed Kumotoriyama twice and having found it to be of little interest scenically, I decided not to go with him. I decided to tackle Yatsugatake on my own.

 

Getting up at 5-30 a.m. it was a rush to get ready and off to Shinjuku Station for the Azuza #1 train leaving at 7 o'clock. I arrived at the platform at 6-50 a.m. to be met with chaos as people pushed and shoved to get on the train. I managed to squeeze in to the entrance of one carriage with just enough room for my feet and my rucksack. Even with one minute to go before departure time people were still trying to force their way on to the train, some climbing over my rucksack to get in! At last the doors closed and we were on our way. It was a two hour 25 minute ride to Chino, and the only problems came when we stopped at stations on route. It was so difficult for people to get out, and there were always more people trying to get in. Not being able to move my feet in the crush it was a case of going in to suspended animation until we arrived at Chino. Arriving at 9-25 a.m. I purchased a ticket for the bus to Mugikusa Toge, due to depart at 10-05 a.m. The bus ride up to Mugikusa Toge was quite pleasant and we arrived around 11-25 a.m. I was surprised to see the amount of snow still remaining on the ground, and there was quite a cold wind blowing. After a ramen lunch at Mugikusa Toge Lodge I was ready to start walking just before noon. I had intended to head off towards Lake Shirakoma as we had done on the previous October's trip, but the snow was quite deep and almost all of the hikers were heading up a well trodden trail towards Maruyama, a small peak at 2,329m, so I followed suite. It was not difficult climbing up the fairly steep hill despite the snow, and at this stage I did not need my crampons. However I had a ski pole with me and found it to be most useful, despite the nuisance of carrying it.

Mugikusa Toge Lodge

 

Takami Ishi Lodge

At Takami Ishi lodge
After Maruyama the trail continued southwards towards Nakayama at 2,496m. I had hoped to get as far as Neishi Lodge that afternoon but by then the weather was changing for the worse. A very strong wind got up and black clouds appeared overhead. As I reached the foot of Higashi Tengudake it began to hail, with thunder and lightening overhead. Here I met a Japanese couple descending Higashi Tengudake, and learned that there was a total "white-out" at the top and that it would be difficult to find the way to Neishi Lodge that afternoon.
Cloud coming in over Higashi Tengudake
Rather than take unecessary risks I decided to back track to Kuroyuri Lodge which took about 20 minutes. I was glad that I did as the wind became even stronger and at times you had to stand still and lean in to it for fear of being blown over. I soon arrived at the lodge and paid for the night's stay, Yen 3,700 excluding the evening meal and breakfast. Over 160 people were staying at this small lodge that night, as many people had been caught in the bad weather and had taken refuge at the Lodge. I was told that they would call my name later and allocate me a space on the floor to sleep! I was able to remove my wet clothing and sit down by the fire to eat some food. I was not able to make any coffee as the small area designated for camping stove use in the Lodge was already full to capacity.
Everything was cleared away and the bedding was put out for the night. The entire floor was covered and each person was allocated 50 cm width to sleep. I was given a place on the second floor, and when I got my sleeping bag down my head was touching the person behind me and my feet were touching the person the other side. There was not enough room to swing a mouse by its tail, let a lone a cat! Having manage to get in to my sleeping bag and gone though Houdini-like contortions to remove my hiking trousers, I was told that there was more room downstairs. I was reluctant to move as I had settled in nicely, but it was already beginning to get very warm on the second floor and I thought that it might be cooler downstairs. When I got down all the good sleeping places had been taken, and all I could get was the hard wooden floor near the door. With no futon underneath and being subject to the blasts of cold air each time the door was opened it was not the ideal spot. With the light being left on all night so that people could find their way in and out of the toilet, with a man snoring like a 250cc motorbike, and with the cukoo clock going off on the hour every hour through the night I did not get much sleep. To cap it all I was in the area used for camping stoves, and was awakened at 4-30 a.m. with a flurry of activity as people got their stoves going to prepare breakfast.
 
 

Kuroyuri Lodge

 

I got up, made a cup of coffee and had my rucksack packed ready for a 5-30 a.m. start. The weather had changed completely and the sun was giving a wonderful yellow glow over the snow outside. I put my crampons on and was amazed at the wondeful feeling of climbing the steep snow covered slope away from the lodge as the spikes bit in to the frozen top layer.

 

Leaving Kuroyuri Lodge

The campsite

With a headache after the terrible nights sleep I decided to go to the top of Higashi Tengudake to get the view, and then to head off the mountain.
Higashi (Left) and Nishi (Right) Tengudake

Nishi Tengudake viewed from Higahsi Tengudake
The climb up Higashi Tengudake was quite strenuous and got a bit tricky at the top. I was pleased that I had decided to go back to Kuroyuri Lodge the night before as it would have been difficult to find Neishi Lodge in the whiteout. By now the weather was beautiful and I was reluctant to stop, so I decided to carry on as far as Iwodake to get a view of the highest peak in the range, Akadake at 2,899m, with the intention of backtracking to the start point of the hike, Migikusa Toge. The climb to Iwodake, 2,742m, was a real slog wearing crampons, and I had to stop several times for a breather. However the view at the top was spectacular and made the climb well worth while.
 

Iwodake (Left), Yokodake (Centre) and Akadake (Right) viewed from Higashi Tengudake

 

Natzusawa lodge, with Iwodake in the background

 

Neishi Lodge (Centre) on the approach to Iwadake via Natsuzawa Toge

 

I was surprised how warm it was at the top and at the number of people there, and despite the deep snow one man stripped off to his waist to sun bathe. I took quite a long rest at the top of Iwodake, making a cup of coffee and taking many photographs.
By now I realised that it would be a long walk back to Mugikusa Toge, and it seemed better to carry on along the ridge to find another way off the mountain. Dropping down from Iwodake I passed Iwodake Sanso which was completely covered with snow. Men were on the roof of the lodge shovelling the snow in to a wooden chute so that it slid well away from the lodge.

 

Having left Iwodake at 2,742m and dropped down a considerable way I now faced another stiff climb to the top of Yokodake at 2,835m. The last part of the climb was quite hairy, with significant drops on either side as I traversed along a knife edge of rock made more treacherous by ice and snow.

Tricky approach to Yokodake, 2,835m

Yokodake 2,835m

 

 

Here I went quite slow, often scrambling on all fours as I traversed this section. Then came the final push to the top. This starts with a metal ladder taking you past a difficult part, and then there was another knife edge covered in deep snow with big drops on either side. This was quite a test of nerve for those who do not like exposed ridges, and I was glad to be past this and on to the summit.

Yokodake 2,835m

Now the view of Akadake was quite spectacular, and I started my way down to Akadake Lodge.

Looking towards Akadake 2,899m

I was quite surprised to come across one craggy outcrop to see a kamoshika basking in the sun. This was the first time I had seen one of these animals peculiar to Japan, and it looked like a cross between a dog and a goat, with small horns. I was able to get within 8 feet of it and to take a few photos, but it was a little disturbed by my presence and slid off down the mountain disdainfully.

Kamoshika, with Akadake in the background

Leaving the kamoshika behind I approached Akadake Lodge where the Jizone trail drops off the mountain to the west to the safety of the valley. By now I was quite tired and decided to take this trail rather than climb snow covered Akadake. I was able to convince myself that it was sufficient to photograph Akadake this time, having climbed it the previous October. Again I think I made the right choice as getting off the mountain down the Jizone trail was quite tiring and required great concentration. The first part was a descent of a steep snow covered ridge, and as the sun had softened the snow each step had to be taken with great care. I was pleased to get off the ridge and into a small but steep valley section. I passed one couple on the way down who had no poles or crampons, and shortly afterwards I heard a shout as one of them lost his footing and was hurtling down towards me at great speed. I quickly stepped out of his path and he carried on sliding down the valley, ending up in a bush at the bottom! The descent did not take too long and soon I was at Gyosha Lodge, which was surrounded by tents. It was a spectacular setting in the sunshine, with the lodge, the brightly coloured tents and the vertical rock walls behind. It was almost a holiday atmosphere as it was so warm, and I changed in to my shorts as I quaffed an ice cold Asahi Super Dry beer at the lodge.

At Gyosha Lodge

 

Although I was now in my shorts, I left my gaiters and crampons on for the walk down the valley over the snow, sinking occasionally to me knees when I went off the trail slightly. I eventually arrived at Minotoyama Lodge, having been hiking for nine and a half hours that day, and I was relieved to see a bus waiting there. I soon learnt that it was not for public use, however, and that I had another 50 minutes to walk down the valley to the bus stop at Yatsugatake Lodge. After a short rest I set off with renewed vigour knowing that I would soon be off the mountain. I arrived at Yatsugatake Lodge at 3-50 p.m. with the next bus due at 4-35 p.m., but fortunately a man who I had passed earlier on the trail said that he had his car there and would drop me off at Kobuchizawa Station. He was actually returning to Tokyo and offered me a ride all the way, but thinking of the Golden Week traffic jams I declined and got out at the station. I was able to catch the 4-52 p.m. express from Kobuchizawa heading for Shinjuku, and was overjoyed at being able to get a seat for the two hour twenty minute journey.