Thursday, September 12, 2013

Vacation Japan: the end

Morning: emperial palace garden with pond and plants and walls, get hungry, have lunch at curry place in Tokyo station (after looking at long lines for most Ramen places), take train to Akihabara electric-quarter, walk around (second hand store, gaming hall/arcade, etc.), back to Shinjuku, rest;
In the evening: take train to Ramen place next to the river in Ichigaya, very good Miso-Ramen, afterwards walk along the river, find lively neighborhood (Kagurazaka), walk around its little back alleys with interesting-looking bars and restaurants, then back to Shinjuku and hotel.
watch tower at the edge of the emperial palace gardens
Friday: Day trip to Kamakura
take train to Kamakura (~1h), visit Engaku-ji temple, hike along trail through woods and hills, past statue of Minamoto no Yoritomo (with lots of school kids having lunch), Zeniarai-Benzaiten shrine with water and even more kids in the glade, more hiking with more kids, down the hill to the Daibutsu (great buddah) in the Kotoku-in temple, through Hase (see-side village) to train station, on little train back to Kamakura, find lunch in Bowls donburi cafe, visit Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine with lotus pond and turtles and main temple and more, then back to train station and Tokyo, rest at hotel;
Evening: walk around Shinjuku, through yakitori-alley, find it too stressful, beginning of death march to find place for dinner, end up at Udon place in underground mall, back to hotel.
Sanmon of Engaku-j
hike through bamboo groves
bridge over Genpi pond
Hongu of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu
Morning: breakfast/brunch buffet at hotel (continental, english, japanese,...), late start, very hot and muggy, several outdoor and electronic stores around Shinjuku, late lunch with stuff from Supermarket to eat in room (as not speaking language and being able to read menus got too frustrating), rest;
Evening: dinner in Ebisu at Ippudo (a family friendly Ramen place), very restful for a change, drinks later on in beer garden on rooftop of department store in Shinjuku (Andrea with difficulty of ordering). 
view from our hotel room in Shinjuku

beer garden on top of Keio department store in Shinjuku
pouring rain, pack, visit Japanese Natl. Museum in Ueno park, have lunch at museum, visit some more, back to hotel to pick up luggage, take metro and express train to Haneda instead of Anamori-Inari (one stop before for airport hotel, Hotel Jal City Haneda), track back, find hotel, check in, arrange bus for next morning, rest, walk to Anamori Inari shrine, last Ramen dinner at place opposite hotel, sleep.

take bus at 4:10 for airport, check in, have breakfast in lounge, watch typhoon news and hope to get out before it hits, fly via London to Basel, home

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Japan vacation, hiking day eight.

After a breakfast that is much better than we had expected from the hotel, we are underway at around 7:30. We seek out the gondola station in the Happo One ski area, buy tickets, and head up the mountain. One gondola and two chair lifts later (funny chair lifts set in summer mode so that we can almost drag our feet on the ground) and we are at around 1830m, with a bunch of other people, and we head up the trail. Down in town and on the lifts up the sun was shining, but up here we are in clouds. Crap.
chairlift with botanic guide
We get started with the climbing, working our way through the crowd, until we hit the pond at about 2070 m and see the real trail ahead heading up into the clouds. The thought of spending another day doing ridge hiking through a cloud and then the bad weather forecast for the next day leads us to sit down for a bit and take stock.

all in clouds ....
After a bit of back and forth and discussion, we make the call to skip the next ridge and just head back for a couple extra days in Tokyo. Back down we go to the lifts and then the gondola, and then we are back in Happo. We stop at the tourist info office to find out about connections back to Tokyo and then start the walk back to the train station. About 10 minutes after leaving the office we realize that the bus connection we want to Nagano probably starts there and then goes to the station, so we are doing a stupid walk, but now it's too late. Ah well...

We take the very scenic bus ride through the mountains to Nagano, pick up some lunch stuff there, and then take the Shinkansen to Tokyo. This is fast, smooth, and painless (aside from the fact that there's no wifi on the train and greg keeps losing his 3G connection).
Back in Tokyo we head to the Japanese National Tourist Office to get some help booking a hotel room (we learned something last night). It's tough because of the upcoming three day weekend, but three of the staff together manage to find us a place in Shinjuku, which is what we're looking for. We find the hotel, check in, shower, grab some excellent tempura, pick up our bag from the last hotel, and then retire for the evening.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Japan vacation, hiking day seven.

Another start under sunny skies, we could definitely get used to this!
looking back towards the Goshiki-ga-hara hut
We start out across the plain from the hut with the Tate-yama, today's primary peak, in clear view. The path takes us along wooden walkways, lots of work going on here to preserve/restore the landscape, and then down off the end of the plain to the Zara-toge saddle (2348m) and then to the inevitable climb after the saddle. Up, up, up we go until we hit the peak of Shishidake (2741m). Then, of course, down, down down again to the next saddle, then up up, around the next peak. Down another bit, and then up, up to the peak of Jodo-san (2831m), where we take a wind-sheltered energy bar break leaning against the the stone wall around a research station. The views of the Tate-yama and the surrounding area are fantastic. The density of people is also definitely higher than what we have been used to. 
looking back along the ridge with the Goshiki-ga-hara hut (right) and even Yarigatake in the far back
looking towards Tate-yama (with buildings on top)
After the break, we descend to the Ichi-no-koshi hut (2705m), sitting nicely in a saddle and completely overrun by people on their way up to the Tate-yama. We take in the somewhat disappointing  view down to Murodo and then start climbing towards the peak. We do the 300m in about half an hour, with more than a few overtakes on the way up (this peak is too easily accessible, too well known and counts as one of the three most holy mountains in Japan, so loads of people are underway). The less said about that, the better. At O-yama (3003m) we soak in the views and the crowds, pay to be allowed the last bit up to the shrine on top of the peak, take in part of a ritual up there (hopefully that was a blessing that the monk gave to the group!), and then continue on the path to the next peak of the group, Onanji-yama (3015m), the highest point of the Tate-yama group. Here we scramble  to the top, chat for a bit with a group of middle-aged Japanese guys after taking a picture for them, take some pictures ourselves, and then continue along the ridge. 
shrine on top of the Tate-yama (3003 m)
on top of the Onanji-yama (3015m), the highest point of the Tate-yama group
We decide to skip the scramble up to the last peak on the ridge and start the long descent into the Raicho-zawa valley. This is more than 600m down and is in the unfortunate middle zone between difficulty enough to be interesting and easy enough to be able to not really pay attention. In short, it's long and kind of boring. At the bottom we find a place too cross the river, go through the big campground, and the climb up towards the huts. We are both pretty damn hungry, so we stop for lunch at the first open place we find. 
volcanically active Murodo plateau
After lunch we head to the station of the Alpine Route transport thing and do the seemingly very long trip down via trolley bus, gondola, funicular, walk, and then a final trolley bus. This is, even on a Tuesday in the off season, full of people and somewhat chaotic. A real experience. At the bottom we grab a bus into Shinano-Omachi. Due to a bad connection, we end up having to wait an hour for a train to Hakuba, so we grab a quick snack and something to drink while we wait. We finally get the train, ride through to Hakuba, find a hotel using the info center near the train station (nice system: they found a place for us, we paid them, they gave us a printed coupon that we took to the hotel), walk to the hotel, check in, enjoy showers, and the go grab food. We end up at a place we had walked by that looked decent. This turns out to be a yakiniku place that brings a pot full of coals to the table; you order the stuff that you then grill. A huge change from what we have been eating and very fun way to end a long day.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Japan vacation, hiking day six.

We wake to blue skies, very clear air, and great views. Yeah!

After breakfast we are on our way shortly after 6. We head back up the Yakushidake, repeating the route of the previous night, this time with even better views. After the shoulder we follow the ridge the rest of the way to the top of Yakushidake (2926 m), with its small house holding a Buddhist altar and soak in the views. Then off we go along the ridge.
Great ridge walking...
...with views!
Great ridge walking with views.... This is what we're here for! We have tons of fun with the varied path, sometimes normal walking, some block, some a bit scrambly, great stuff. Along the way we pass a couple folks who had also stayed at the hut, we will see them again at the Goshiki-ga-hara hut later. At the end of the ridge we start a long descent towards the next saddle. This is at times steep, at times shallow, and it even includes some ascents (of course...). We cross a few others coming up against us. After a good bit of this we hit the Sugo-nokkoshi hut (at 2300m). This looks fairly old and pretty basic. We fill up our water bottles and continue down. Now the descent is mostly through the woods and involves some bits requiring a bit of concentration since the rocks are wet and slippery down here. We do an energy bar break in a particularly nicely sunny spot with a good view.
through the woods
At the saddle (2130m) we start the mandatory climb back up (ah... ridge walking). This is a long one, a net of around 500m up with loads of fairly big ups and downs and some nice scrambly bits along the way. We do eventually get to the peak of the Ecchuzawadake at 2591m and enjoy a nice lunch break (the lunch boxes from the Kurobegoro hut) to rest our legs and let us soak in more of the views (including the hut, which seems misleadingly close). 
lunch box

Onwards we go down the other side of the peak, across a broad, gently descending plain, until hitting the next saddle at 2356m. Now we have the last climb of the day. Up we go, again on a very fun path with some scrambling, up up up, until reaching the peak at 2616m. Now we just have a short descent, and then we cross the plain on wooden walkways until we reach the Goshiki-ga-hara hut (2500m) at around 2:00.
on the peak for our lunch break, clouds start moving in
We check in, have a cool beverage to celebrate the day, chat with an American living in Japan for a bit, and then head up to our room (we actually have a six tatami room to ourselves). A some point in the afternoon there is a loudspeaker announcement that we, of course, don't understand, but Andrea runs into the American who tells her that there are hot showers available for men for the next 20 minutes, then for the women. Alright! Greg runs down and discovers that it's even better than that: they have a big tub full of hot water like at an onsen. Awesome! Greg takes full advantage, then Andrea takes her turn, and then, with both of us clean and noodled from the hot water, we head for dinner.

We need more days like today and less of those crappy rainy days!

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Japan vacation, hiking day five.

When we wake up it's still raining like hell, so we take an unplanned rest day and just spend another night at the hut. It's a quiet day of reading, flipping through Japanese mountain magazines, and playing games on the ipad. 

In the afternoon it actually clears up, so we head outside at around 3:30 to stretch our legs and climb up to the first shoulder of the Yakushidake. As we are on our way down, it starts to sprinkle. Oh hell! Not wet again! We walk really fast/jog the rest of the way down and manage to get back to the hut with only slightly damp jackets.
Random aside: lots of the folks staying in the hut were there to climb the Yakushidake (one of the hundred famous mountains); they were not to be dissuaded by the torrential rain, so a bunch of them went ahead and climbed it, leaving at 4am to be there for a sunrise that was certainly not visible. They came back soaked, but happy. It takes all kinds. :-)

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Japan vacation, hiking day four.

When we get up for breakfast at 5:00 the hut is in cloud. We both hope that these are just low clouds and that we will be able to climb past them. After a nice breakfast we are underway by six. We set out in the clouds and head off across the plain, through the scrub bamboo and evergreens, climbing gently. After a bit we end up on a narrow path through forest (a real change), where after a painful "whack", greg learns to start keeping and eye out for over hanging branches. 
forest walking for a change

We gently climb a couple hundred meters, never leaving the cloud, until we reach some rocks and the way starts to climb more steeply the last couple hundred to the ridge. Up top we are not, unfortunately, out of the clouds. Continuing to hope against hope, we climb up the last bit to the peak of the Kurobegorodake (2840 m). Still not above the clouds, of course. Ah well, at least there is a cool Buddhist shrine thing (not really a shrine, but we don't know what the proper term is).
shrine on top of the Kurobegorodake
Back to the path we go and continue on our way with abut of steep descent and then some ridge following. This is all in clouds and, to be honest, somewhat tiresome. Andrea made a good point on one of the earlier days: the primary purpose of hiking is too see cool stuff. We aren't seeing much of anything. After a while we switch over from clouds to heavy clouds. A while after that it turns to light rain. This postpones our lunch plans (we have nice lunch boxes from the Kurobegoro hut, but there is not much point in stopping for lunch in the rain. As we start to descend the ridge towards the next hut we hit a stretch of nice wood walkway that is reminiscent of the Hohe Venn in Belgium. The real bonus with this is that it's good for fast walking, which becomes important now that it is really raining. We get to the Tarobei hut (at 2330 m) and do lunch there; it's great to get out of the rain and eat something warm. 
wood walkway in the clouds
After some discussion and planning, we decide to continue on to the next hut, the Yakushidake hut. It is only about an hour and a half and that way we can try to preserve our overall plan. So, full of a warm lunch, we set out in the rain. It's not particularly pleasant going, so we move pretty quickly and make good time on the interesting trail up to the next high bit of the ridge. It's too bad the weather is such crap; this bit would be fun. The last bit to the hut has a really nasty wind from one side that drives the rain in... Great. Boy is it great to get to the hut, take off the wet stuff, change into dry clothes, hang the wet stuff in the drying room, and get checked in. We are the only people there so far. We have read that this area is not heavily traveled, so we are expecting a quiet night. This changes over the course of the afternoon as one group after another of soaking wet hikers arrives. By the time we get to dinner time, the hut is mostly full and dinner has to be done in shifts. We didn't factor in that it is Saturday night and that this hut is the logical overnight stop for the two-day trip up to Yakushidake.
as of yet empty sleeping room
This is our first taste of chaos in Japan. The Tokyo subway during rush hour is unbelievably full, but everything is very orderly. This hut is no longer orderly: the drying room is a complete chaos (it's not much of a drying room anyway, with no vent to the outside, the little dehumidifier in there doesn't stand a chance); the first shift of eating turns into chaos as we have to all queue up to get rice, miso soup, and tea; and the sleeping rooms are packed and loud (there isn't much common area in these huts, so people seem to hang out and talk in the sleeping rooms). I shudder to think what it must be like at one of the bigger huts. :-)

Friday, September 06, 2013

Japan vacation, hiking day three.

We are up for breakfast at 5:00. Outside it is a miraculously clear morning; the few low clouds just serve to increase the drama of the it-yet-quite-risen sun. A few head lamps are visible making their way up the Yari-ga-take (3180 m); kind of surprising, we had expected to see crowds doing that. The Japanese at our table seem even more hectic than usual, the guy next to us explains that the sun will be rising in eleven minutes, so they have to hurry. We nod and continue eating at our normal pace. The four westerners are the last people to leave the breakfast room. ;-)

After we get outside, we make a last minute change of plans and decide to go ahead and do the quick climb to the top of the Yari. Andrea has been agitating for this, but Greg was really not particularly excited about climbing up in a crowd and tacking an extra hour and a half onto what looks like it might be a fairly long day. Greg changes his mind when he sees how clear it is and notices that there don't seem to be a huge number of people on their way up at the moment. We ditch the packs and start up. We do eventually end up getting stuck behind a line of people, but it doesn't take too terribly long to get to the top. It's definitely nice that there are two trails up: one for the ascent and one for the descent. Up there the views are stunning and the crowd isn't too bad. We wait in line so Greg can take a picture of Andrea at the shrine, then wait in line again to start back down. The trip down takes longer than the ascent and is somewhat irritating, but we do get a great view of the first helicopter of the day coming in to resupply the hut. We grab our packs and set off.
on top of Yari-ga-take
view from the top of Yari-ga-take to the hut and along the ridge from yesterday
waiting in line on the way down

The first stretch takes us down a couple hundred meters from the peak to a nice trail that follows the ridge to the northwest. Good walkings along this in the sun, enjoying the views all around, up some, down some, the usual ridge walking. It is interesting and strange to just walk for an extended period of time and to not be concentrating so much. Oh, and the sun is awfully nice too. After a bit we climb up to the Momisawa-dake (2755 m) and descend to the Sugoroku hut, where we stop for a food break. We supplement the last of day one's buns with a bowl of udon soup and then continue on our way. 
sunny ridge walking
Now we climb for a while to the peak of Sugoroku-dake (2860 m) and follow from there the ridge up and down, across another few peaks, crossing the occasional group coming the other way, just generally enjoying ourselves. At the peak of Mitsumata-renge-dake (2841 m), we take another short break, chat a bit with a couple Japanese hikers, then turn west and start descending. 
view from the peak of Misumata-renge-dake
The path takes us down, down, down, through constantly increasing vegetation, under 2500 m for the first time since day one, until we reach the Kurobegoro hut. This is smaller (only 60 people) and very nicely situated on a wide broad saddle. We are the only guests when we check in (another guy comes later). We spend the afternoon enjoying the quiet and peace and appreciating the views from the terrace.
quiet afternoon at the hut
Dinner is very, very good; a great finish to a very nice day of walking.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Japan vacation, hiking day two.

It's pretty crappy outside when we get up for breakfast at 5:15, but at least it's not raining any more. After a good breakfast (again fairly varied contents of the plate), we pack our stuff up and are underway by 6:15. We are in a cloud and things are wet, but it's not raining and is pretty warm. The plan is to do the first bit of ridge, across one hairy bit, to the next hut and then decide there what comes next. We would like to do the Daikiretto ("big gap"), but since it is supposed to be somewhat hairy, we are holding off the decision until we see the conditions.

After climbing up to the peak of the Karasawadake (3110 m) just next to the hut, we start to descend along the ridge. This is definitely entertaining walking/scrambling. Too bad we can't see anything and everything is wet (footing is still fine though).
along the ridge
We do some ladders and some chains and some plain old scrambling up and down the ridge. After a bit we hit a group of nine coming against us over a scrambly bit. We hang out for a few minutes to wait for them to pass (cannot imagine what this must be like on weekends in the high season!) and then continue on our way. A short bit later we hit another big group; this one we weave our way through. Onward and onward we go with more great ridge scramble-walking, the weather steadily improving, until we get to the peak of the Kitahotakadake (3106 m) and right underneath the Kitahotaka hut. By this point we can actually see bits of blue sky and have a view along the Daikiretto, past the Minamidake hut, to the Minamidake peak (3032 m) and even the Yarigatake (3180 m). Conditions are good! Let's do that ridge! After a short break and a snack we set out.
view along the Daikiretto with the Yarigatake peaking out though the clouds
At first we have to head down a good bit until we get to the first scrambling and chains. This isn't that much more dramatic than the first piece we did, but it sure is great to see something and have most everything dry. The first stretch is primarily down about 300m, we cross a couple other groups coming up, but its not overly crowded. Eventually we hit the low point, continue on for a bit, and then do a quick lunch break in a sunny wind sheltered spot, before starting the climb up the other side. We've got lunch boxes from last night's hut (rice, fish, egg, and some vegetables wrapped in a leaf with some kind of stewed whole fish in a separate bag) and enjoy the first half of them immensely.
scrambling down...
...and scrambling up

After lunch we start climbing again. This is another good mixture of scrambling, chains, and ladders and takes us up pretty quickly the 300m to the next small peak. Directly behind this is the next hut, the Minamidake hut. We don't stop here except to figure out which way to go at the crossing (the guy from the hut helps out here by pointing us in the right direction. Up, up, up we go on a normal path to the peak of the Minamidake (3032 m). Now the weather is starting to turn; we are in clouds and not twenty minutes after we finish the Daikiretto the rain starts... Now that is timing. The last bit we spend in the slowly increasing rain, following the ridge up and down, mainly walking, but with a bit of scrambling, until we hit the tent spaces for the Yarigatake hut. Through those and then we hit the hut itself. Ahhhh.... It's nice to be dry and in the warm. We check in, change clothes, get stuff in the drying room, eat the second half of our lunch, plan the next couple of days (well, plan as much as we can given that the weather is a great unknown), and then have a rest before dinner.

Dinner isn't quite as good as the previous night, but it does feel somewhat less hectic... maybe we are just getting better at ignoring the Japanese eating speed. ;-)

This was a really excellent day of hiking. It was tremendously fun to have the long ridge pieces that required concentration.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Japan vacation, hiking day one.

We breakfast at 7:00 with a pretty elaborate Japanese breakfast that you could also have served us as dinner and we wouldn't have complained. We are checked out and on our way by shortly past 8.

We follow the river for a bit along the nature trail through the woods before hitting the fork of the "mountain trail" that we will follow for the next while. This starts to take us up the end of the valley on a very nice trail through the woods, up, up, up. There are several places where we would no doubt have a great view if we weren't in fog/low clouds. Ah well... It's not raining yet. We are more or less alone on the trail; a couple people pass us coming down and one guy passes us on his way up.
up up up through the woods
Eventually we hit the Dakesawa hut. This does seem to be open for business and it looks like it has places to sleep (we had tried to figure this out from Tokyo without any luck. We do a short break, drink a bit of water and then continue our way up the path to the ridge. This steadily steepens, making us really wish we had some steady views; instead we just get the occasional glimpse down to the valley floor. Up, up, up we go, passing a few more people coming down, steadily up. After a while the trail starts to get very nicely scrambly, so we are having plenty of scrambling fun. The wind is picking up, so we get the occasional very nice bit of view (damn these clouds!). We do a short lunch break (too windy for a long one) at the point where the path forks to go up to the Maehotakadake. Given that it's nothing but clouds up there, we opt to skip that peak and just continue on our way. Now the path is leading us along a bit under the ridge... It is seriously windy - with some brace yourself with the wall gusts. Verrrrry nice that we are under the ridge and not directly on it.
path a bit under the ridge
Further along we go, gently climbing, the wind and clouds buffeting us from the side, until we hit the peak of the Okuhotakadake (3190m). We take a couple pictures and do a very short break in a wind-sheltered spot and then head on; it's not much farther to the hut, and the idea of getting under shelter is very, very appealing. 
peak of Okuhotakadake (3190 m)
On the way down it starts actively raining (ick! But at least it didn't start an hour earlier), so we are both very glad to reach the hut (2983m) and get into the warm indoors. The next step is figuring out the procedures and etiquette of a Japanese mountain hut. We manage to get through this without too much trouble (we do something wrong with taking the wrong slippers, but get past that quickly), make our beds, and settle in for the evening.

The weather certainly wasn't ideal, but it was still a nicely varied day of walking. And we did our first peak in Japan. :-)

Dinner was an interesting experience: good food, many things on the plates, only the rice and miso served family style. It's served super early (5:00), so we just kind of hung out for a few hours before heading off to bed at around 8:00. Fortunately this hut has more hanging out possibilities than Swiss huts.