IJT tour leader, Steve Parker, loves a walk. He also loves Japan. No wonder that he decided to walk the Japanese Alps and create an amazing and adventurous tour for 2014.
I spent a considerable amount of time during July and August hiking some of Japan’s stunning 3000m peaks with InsideJapantours’ clients looking for adventure and achievement to add to their cultural fascination of this great country.
The Chubu Sangaku National Park offers something for all levels of hiker – the lower area is a pristine river valley experience – the Asuza River winding its way through forests of larch, cedar and giant ferns. Its so-called Kappabashi Bridge is the photographic hotspot of the area – scores of daytrippers line the bridge to get that great alpine shot up the Dakesawa valley to Hotaka Dake Peak – Japan’s 3rd highest.This summer’s work was largely in the high Northern Alps, so-called after the publication of hiking tales by a British/Sudanese missionary, Walter Weston, in the late 1800s. My first challenge in July was to check the trail and snow levels for an upcoming trip through the Karasawa Valley to Hotaka Peak (3190m).This area, a particular favourite for hikers in autumn, owing to the painted citrus and cherry red colours of the autumn foliage, is a different world in the late spring/ early summer months. Japan’s Alps receive some of the highest levels of snowfall on the planet and it doesn’t disappear quickly – even when temperatures in the valley below are touching the mid-30s! (Celsius). With this in mind – the steep nature of the terrain and the extensive snowfields to encounter, I realised that crampons and an ice axe were essential. After 2 hours on the steepening trail up from the Karasawa stream, where the heat was intense and the greenery abundant, it was time to get the “extra” kit out. The adventure was unfolding.
Early July is not a busy time to summit via this valley. After trudging in bite-sized steps over the snow for 3 hours, I saw but one sole hiker in the daunting mists and winds that buffeted me as I hit the upper slopes of the Karasawa Valley, at around 2700m. We stopped to chat on a precarious area of loose scree, both genuinely enjoying a stranger’s company for the 5 minutes that we had taken to refuel on chocolate and water, yet not wanting our body temperatures to cool too much. My crampons were coming off after 3 hours of workout, as I had finally reached the spine of tricky rock known as “zaitengrad”, extending down from the Hotaka ridgeline above. My fleeting friend, a mountain guide from the southern island of Yakushima, was descending, so strapping on the spikes. We advised each other on the trail ahead, said farewell as I set off once more, clambering and scrambling for a further hour, grateful for the strenuous nature of the trail that pushed my body and kept it warm in the deteriorating conditions.
I have led mountain tours in various countries, but I was now alone, getting cold and tiring in the fading light and gloomy cloud cap that shrouded views of the hut above and the summit. The staff at the friendly Hotaka Sansou Hut seemed almost as pleased to see me as I was them. This was a mere hot coffee stop, however, and as I stepped out of the hut to continue, I felt a pang of dismay and regret, as if I were leaving close friends. Along the lower right side of the ridge towards Mae Hotaka Peak brought respite from the elements and even afforded me the occasional views down the slopes and into the valleys beneath me – it is quite amazing how a single momentary view can lift the spirits. This was somewhat short lived, however, as I met my first stretch of snowfield for 3 hours. Although just 20metres wide, at a 35-degree gradient stretching down hill, this was, the toughest 15 minutes of the entire hike. Crampons on and the trusted ice axe out, I realised that one slip here and it was an unwanted 300m toboggan run down the gully to exposed rocks below. No help, no escape. Adrenaline leaked out of my pores as I dug footings meticulously across the gully and hammered my axe deep into the snow above for grip. As frantically as I dug footholds, my crampons slid off my pedal ledges on occasion, exerting a lot of pressure and responsibility on that axe. It held fast for me though, and after an exhausting traverse, I calmed the nerves and treated myself to an energy bar and peanuts.
Finally, after reaching the lower section of Mae Hotaka peak it was time for the long-awaited yet gruelingly steep descent over wet rock and down challenging loose scree. The knees were creaking and cracking under the strain, even with my hiking poles to relieve some of the burden. By now, the views of the glorious, verdant-carpeted Asuza River valley and my ultimate objective painted a heartwarming canvass in front of my eyes. That said, I realised that too much wonderment at the clearing vistas could be a lethal distraction as I gingerly clambered down to the Dakesawa valley for the final 1 hour “stroll” back down to the river side.
Time seemingly trudges more slowly than a weary hiker, so the last trail-marking sign indicating 45 minutes to go seemed like an gross underestimate. Of course, the sign told no lie but also told of my impatient desire to reach the flat riverside, find a hot spring bath and reward myself with a beer. Finally, after what seemed like 3 hours in my desperately tired mind and hungry core, I found myself back among the day trippers, snap happy on the Kappabashi, unaware of what really lurks in the peaks above. I felt smug and quite the great adventurer, as if the secret was all mine. However, luxury temptations brought me back to a state of humility as I soaked my limbs and then sat and contemplated the whole adventure over a cold riverside beer. A job well done!Two weeks later, I returned to the same Hotaka Range in the Northern Alps with an Insidejapantours’ hiking group. The summer had pushed on somewhat by then, melting considerable swathes of the snow I had encountered and easing our trail considerably. We laughed, puffed, grimaced and bonded in an unforgiving, but stunning environment. This tour is breathtaking – literally.
Historic Mountain Trails hikes across the Alps this July 2014 along with walking sections of the old Nakasendo Way and climbing the new UNESCO World Heritage listed Mt Fuji.