In which our heroine cues the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.
The first weekend in October, I left my
hobbit mouse hole for an adventure at Toyama Prefecture’s Tateyama 立山. A fellow Program member from a neighboring city had suggested it a month or so ago, but our plans didn’t solidify until, oh, about the Friday night before our Saturday departure. And so, as the sun rose on Saturday morning, I found myself walking toward the train station with a backpack full of onigiri, vitamin water, and long underwear. Our plan was to hike from Murodou 室堂, the trailhead for the Tateyama Range, to Tsurugidake 剱岳 via the trail that leads from Oyama 雄山 and Oyama Shrine 雄山神社 to Oonanji-yama 大汝山 toward (for most of the way) Bessan 別山.
I met up with my friend during one of the many train transfers, and we arrived at Tateyama Station around 11 am. From there, we bought round-trip tickets for the cable car and the bus that would take us to Murodou (4190 yen). The cable car went up a steep hill, not entirely unlike a rollercoaster going up the tracks before a huge drop off. We transferred to a bus that took us up to the Murodou station/base via an extremely steep route. Travelers, beware—if your bag is over 10 kg, you will be charged an additional 300 yen! The road to Murodou has several stops for the tourist hotels and ryokan. We, however, would be staying in a “hut” (more on this later) near Tsurugi-dake, and so we enjoyed the fall colors of the mountain and the in-bus video about the various flora and fauna of the Tateyama Range as we rode to the end of the line.
At Murodou, I learned the first crucial difference between hiking in the Rockies and hiking in Tateyama: in Tateyama, as with most other mountain trails and parks, you’ll almost always encounter a place with a WC every two to three hours. Why? Have you looked at this mountain?
It’s not like you can trot off behind a tree to relieve yourself. There’s no natural shelter on Tateyama, just rocks and scrub. Hooray for the WC!
In addition, you should pack food and water, but if you won’t starve if you show up without any. At Murodou, you can buy food for the hike or have a restaurant lunch, and you can get drinks from vending machines or fill up your Nalgene with water from Tateyama’s spring at the base. And, because this is Japan, at the station, you can buy all manner of souvenirs, such as the Tateyama Hello Kitty phone charm, featuring Kitty dressed as a ptarmigan.
The second difference between hiking Tateyama and the Rockies is that Tateyama is more like “mountain climbing” than “hiking in the mountains.” You spend a good amount of time scaling rocky inclines, following the sometimes faded arrows and marks painted onto large rocks and boulders. Of course, it varies by trail, but there’s more of a danger here of backsliding on loose rocks. You can do it without special hiking equipment, but you’ll need a hiking backpack that can properly distribute the weight of your pack. This will prevent you from falling over while climbing and, by placing the weight on your hips, from getting tired from carrying it.
After purchasing a map and some pork- and vegetable buns, we set off on the trail toward 雄山 Oyama around 1 pm. This part is was one of the most difficult of the trip. Between walking on the uneven stones and the lack of incline, it’s just an unpleasant little hike till you get to the actual “climbing” part, which looks harder but feels easier. After beginning the climb up, we reached the First Station 一ノ越 (ichinokoshi), which has a pay WC and and shelter with a vending machine. We stopped for a bite to eat, then pushed on toward the Oyama Shrine 雄山神社.
Oyama is a particularly interesting peak because of the Shinto shrine there. For 500 yen, a priest will do a ritual for you (presumably for your safe travels). I had a safe-travels o-mamori tied onto my belt loop, so I decided against the ritual. A low sound of a horn bellowed nearby. To go towards Oonanji-yama 大汝山, you have to sort of go behind some rocks by the torii, and near this spot was a man wailing on the Horn of Gondor. I’m not entirely sure what that was all about, but it made for a great photo.
From here, the path followed the divide of the mountains toward Oonanji-yama 大汝山 and Bessan 別山. We had some spectacular views of Miratake Pond ミラタケ池 and Jigoku-dani 地獄谷 from here. Around 4 pm, we started to get concerned that we wouldn’t make it to the “hut” (more like a hikers’ hostel, but hut is the cover-all term you see in hiking guides) at which we intended to stay overnight. About this time, we encountered the map marker from hell. It was so worn down from the elements that it was barely legible, and by barely, I mean that fairly crucial kanji were missing in a series of places with similar names. Luckily, I could make out enough of the kanji for us to decide which path to take toward Tsurugi-dake’s nearby “huts.”
We ended up arriving at a “hut” called Tsurugi-gozen Goya 剣御前小屋 at 5:30. This is the third and largest “hut” from Tsurugi-dake, and we had actually intended to get to Mae-zurugi 前剣 and climb Tsurugi-dake the next day. However, the sun was nearly set, and the staff advised us to stay the night because even the second hut was an hour away. Sadly, we couldn’t get close enough to Tsurugi-dake to do it the following day. It was supposed to take 6-7 hours to climb it and return to the hut; in addition, we had to get off the mountain and take the hour-long bus-and-cable-car combo back to Tateyama Station, which would take another 3-4 hours. I had to get on a train at 5 pm—a disadvantage of living far away and in a place where the trains don’t run late, so we had to give up on that. I fully intend to return to attempt it next summer by using our shorter return path and a three-day weekend, though.
Tsurugi-gozen Goya is, as I understand, one of the largest huts on Tateyama. The cost of spending the night is 6000 yen. If you want to include meals in the package, it’s 10,000 yen for one night + 3 meals; 9000 yen for one night + two meals (the package we chose); 8000 for one night + one meal; and 7000 for one night + a bento lunch. The food was really excellent, although I fear it was not terribly vegetarian-friendly. People with dietary restrictions may want to pack food and inquire about the menu before purchasing a meal plan.
Here we have dinner: on the side, there’s rice, vegetable and beef soup, hot tea, pickled daikon (best pickles I’ve had yet!); edamame and okra with bonito; and on the plate: potato salad, tomatoes, cabbage, fried fish, oranges, and beef and veggie stir-fry. All you can eat. Dinner is at 6 pm; you can sign up for the 5:30 am or 6 am breakfast when you check in. Breakfast was vegetable soup, hot tea, rice, scrambled eggs, apples, and some of those tiny fried whole sardines (that I mistook for seaweed).
Regarding the accommodations, there is a nice communal room with a kerosene heater and lots of (Japanese-language) books and manga to borrow. The bedrooms can lodge up to four people. You get a futon and some blankets. Lights-out is at 9 pm, but you can get head-lamps from the front desk to borrow for reading or bathroom trips. October is late in the season, so we had a room to ourselves, which was great because it meant we could divvy up the blankets from the third bedding set. It was very cold that night, but, between the long-johns, hoodie, and all the blankets, I stayed warm.
The bathroom is co-ed, with a curtained-off area for urinals, and six waterless toilet stalls: three for women and three for men, featuring at least one Western-style toilet! There’s toilet paper and hand-sanitizer, and a sink with cold water for washing, but it’s non-potable. However, after meals you can purchase 1 liter of hot water or tea for 100 yen if you need a drink or want to wash in luxury. There’s not really any private place to clean up, though.
We got up a little after 5 am for the 5:30 breakfast. I grabbed my camera and borrowed some of their outdoor slippers and headed out for a bit to see the sunrise. This area is extremely windy and cold before the sun comes up, so morning hikers (and photographers) should dress warmly! I recommend wearing a water-proof rain jacket to protect against the winds.
I was lucky enough to see the big orange harvest moon setting in the west as the sun rose in the east around 5:20 am.
Concerned about time (and having to work on Monday), we decided to take the shortest way down and left the Tsurugi-gozen Goya around 7 am. We headed down through Raichou-zawa 雷鳥沢, or Ptarmigan Vale. There are two paths that go down, so we took the less steep one—which was still steep, but manageable. I slipped once, but just landed on my leg and butt. As we descended, the sun came out and the winds died down, so we had to stop a couple times to remove layers, change into cotton socks, etc. The fall foliage in Raichou-zawa is breath-taking in early October, and people who are not interested in hiking in the mountains could definitely go from Murodou to Raichou-zawa via Jigoku-dani as a nice, easy day trip. At the bottom of Raichou-zawa is a campground and a WC, so I stopped there to change out of my long-johns.
From Raichou-zawa, we followed the trail to Jigoku-dani 地獄谷, The Valley of Hell. Located in a crater, this place was the source of the sulfur we’d been smelling all morning. There’s a concrete walking path that takes you past boiling ponds, a river of sulfur-water, and plumes of volcanic gases. There are multi-lingual signs here: You cannot enter Jigoku-dani after 6 pm because you may fall into one of the boiling ponds. The volcanic gasses are toxic and smell a little like chemical household cleaners, so it’s best to keep moving.
From Jigoku-dani, we ascended a towering staircase that took us up and away from the sulfur to placid Miratake Pond ミラタケ池. On the hill by the pond is a onsen which gets its hot water from 地獄谷. From here, it took about 5-10 minutes to reach the trailhead at Murodou, the place we had started our journey on Saturday. The descent took about 3 hours. Normally, it should take two hours, but stripping out of our layers, taking photographs, and my having to answer my cell phone at one point slowed us down a little. The descent is easy, but I found climbing the steep stairs out of Jigoku-dani tiring.
This is an absolutely amazing hike. There’s a huge variety in the terrain, and, as a hiker who loves to choose Rocky Mountain National Park’s “strenuous” day hikes, I was quite please with the difficulty–it was challenging but not impossible. Hiking Tateyama was such a different experience that hiking in Vermont and Colorado. From the treeless slopes to the rest stations, everything felt new. I fully intend on spending my summer 2010 weekends hitting every mountain I can afford to climb, so I hope those of you in the area will join me!
•If you can, get a copy of Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer’s Guide to the Mountain Trails by Paul Hunt. I have a used 1988 edition, but the information is still accurate. The book has hiking plans, bilingual maps, and descriptions of the areas. Sadly, it’s out of print. I hear Lonely Planet has hiking guides to Japan, but I can’t speak for their quality.
•For people moving to Japan during hiking season (July – October): bring your hiking gear with you or have it shipped promptly. You do not want to miss an opportunity to climb the mountains of Japan due to lack of gear. You should have a good hiking backpack (doubles as a suitcase for long trips on the train!), sturdy gym shoes or hiking boots, a poncho or rain jacket, a hat, appropriate socks, and a number of layers. Going in the summer, you won’t need as much, but for a fall hike, you’ll need a couple long-sleeved t-shirts, long underwear, and thick socks, especially if you plan to stay overnight at a hut.
•Go with someone who can read kanji. I can’t tell you how many signs we encountered with no English or romaji. Our map was all in kanji. Also, aside from the multilingual signs in Jigoku-dani, all the “danger, keep out” signs were in Japanese. Never have I been so glad to have passed the JLPT 2-kyuu.
•Start at the trailhead as early as possible. Not only will you get a better view without the afternoon clouds, you won’t have to worry about the sun setting before you reach your destination. The sun sets around 5:30 pm in Japan in the fall, and it’s dangerous to hike on these mountains after dark. If you want to do Tsurugi-dake, go from Murodou up the path through Raichou-zawa. That way, you can get to the huts within 4 hours (2 hours to Tsurugi-gozen Goya). The route we took from Murodou through Oyama and Oonanji-yama took about 4.5 hours.
•Don’t bring onigiri unless you can finish them before your stay overnight. A riceball that’s frozen from the cold at the hut and thawed in the hike down is pretty foul. Seriously.