Adventure to the Japanese Alps

From when I locked the front door of my apartment behind me, to when I returned back home, was roughly a massive 17 hours!! What an insane adventure Saturday was.

I’d been to Hakuba before to go snowboarding, and had always wanted to go back in the summer to go mountain climbing/hiking but just never really got the chance. Then last week, I was scrolling through Instagram and came across a beautiful picture of a misty lake surrounded by the most beautiful autumn colours – and it just happened to be located in Hakuba! The photographer said the colours would last just another few days up in the mountains. I already had a busy weekend planned, but could I squeeze this in?! I sat at a restaurant with my iPhone and researched the details of the trip and the cost, scribbling down notes on a napkin. It was going to be a hectic and expensive day. But I was so keen to see the lake and who knows when my next chance would be. To go or not to go?! Like most decisions in my life, I based it on the saying “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years”. And that was that!

The train ride from Shinjuku to Hakuba Station was direct, but 4 hours long. It was a rapid express train that runs only once a day, departing at 7:30am. Being a sunny Saturday, it was packed! The entire reserved-seat section was booked out, and the non-reserved section where I got on, was even more intense. I had to stand in the aisle for the first hour! As we got further into the countryside, people started getting off, and I eventually found a window seat to call my home for the next couple of hours.

The train pulled into Hakuba at 11:30am. The place was of course unrecognisable compared to winter when it’s covered in snow. I stood in awe at the bare, towering mountains forming a backdrop to the town. I desparately wanted to get up there as soon as I could! From the station, it was a short bus ride and then a 10 minute walk to the Gondola, the first of 3 lifts. It was fascinating seeing the foliage becoming more and more colourful the higher I went. It’s amazing what difference just a few hundreds metres in altitude makes!

The final lift took us up to 1830m above sea level. I felt like I was up in the clouds. The air was cool and fresh, and the sun warm and welcoming. And those autumn colours!! And that beautiful blue sky! It was all insanely spectacular! I felt so lucky to be there, and was happy I’d decided to go even just to see this.

After taking in the exceptional view, both up the mountain and back down over the valley, it was time to start hiking. It would take about 45 minutes to climb another 230m. The path alternated between loose stones, wooden stairways and boardwalks. It was fairly tiring – though nothing like the gruelling Mt Fuji. It probably didn’t help that I was holding an ice cream in one hand and my camera in the other!

And then, there it was. My destination. From a distance, the lake looked like a puddle amongst the gigantic mountains! The autumn colours were just past the peak viewing time, so it wasn’t as bright and amazing as it had been lower on the mountain, but it was still so pretty! There were dozens of people around the lake, having lunch and taking photos. A light breeze meant it was hard to get that perfect mirror reflection, but as soon as the wind died down, you could hear all the camera shutters going off! We’d get about a 2-second window before the reflection was completely erased! I was fascinated by the tree-less mountains in the background. They literally could have been a painting; it hardly looked real. The evidence of snow left from last winter is a sign of how chilly it was. After hanging out at the lake for about 45 minutes, I had to start moving again to warm up. So, I bid farewell to this special corner of the world and made my way back to the chairlifts.

I took my time going back to Hakuba, stopping to eat a delicious locally-caught salmon croissant, as well as admire the pretty sunset. I had planned to catch the 4:36pm train, but missed it. Like a lot of rural towns, trains run very infrequently through Hakuba. The next one wasn’t until 6:14pm, which meant it was past 11pm when I finally got home.

It was an epic day, a little crazy even for me perhaps, but what’s life if you don’t do things like this every now and then? The journey there and back was just as much a part of the adventure as seeing the lake was, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat!

 

 

Kamikochi: a Summer Escape

In the middle of summer, when the concrete jungles are stifling and humid and you are barely managing to get through each day, you can either spend your weekends inside with air-conditioning… or you can leave the city and head UP!

One of my favourite summer getaways to date has been to the remote Hida mountains of Nagano prefecture. Tucked away in a valley near Mt Hotaka is an area called Kamikochi. Although at the base of a mountain range, it’s still 1,500 metres above sea level! The surrounding peaks are all around 3,000 metres high. The area is part of a national park and the only way to enter is via a special sightseeing bus or taxi. The park is open from mid April to mid November, before they close it off for the snowy winter months.

Stepping off the bus, I felt like I’d stepped straight into a picture-perfect fairytale. Through the lush green forest, the first thing I saw was the well-known Kappa Bashi suspension bridge. The water swirling past under the bridge was crystal clear and seemed to change from teal to turquoise to emerald depending on where you looked. The river looked so pure and inviting. Of course, this water was running down fresh off the mountains and was ice cold. Even dipping your toes in would give your body a shock! And the mountains… Wow! It was a drizzly, overcast day. Looking up towards Mt Hotaka, I could see a lot of white. It couldn’t be snow, could it?! I thought I may have been imagining things. But when the clouds and mist lifted, the white streaks were still there in the crevices of the mountain. I couldn’t believe I was seeing snow just a few hours away from cities that were sweltering in 35 degree heat!

The area around Kappa Bashi is closest to the bus terminal, and as such is packed with tourists. But if you go 5 minutes in any direction, the crowds quickly disappear. There are a few trails, some with boardwalks, others just a path through the forest. Some hikers take on the vertical climb up to one of the peaks, but I decided just to follow the river downstream towards the volcano Mt Yake.

Along the way, I came across all sorts of wonderful sights. There are a bunch of swamps and marshes where the water is so still it looks like glass. Taishiro Pond is also one of the most photographed spots in the area. An ex-colleague, who is also a photographer, gave me a stunning photo he took of this pond in winter when the whole place was covered in mounds of untouched snow. I’m not sure how he was able to get in there in January (maybe that’s a whole other story), but I was very impressed!

There’s also plenty of wildlife to see. I came across a family of monkeys carrying bark they’d ripped off trees. It was very bizarre! A few were up in the trees and for a brief second I thought I was seeing koalas! They weren’t worried about the humans passing by and went about their business as though we didn’t exist.

At the end of the trail was Lake Taisho. On a still, clear day, you can see a beautiful mirror reflection of the mountains. This large pond was actually created from a volcanic eruption in 1915. Oh, so I guess we should say… Happy 100th birthday! The lake is known for the trees which stand decayed in the middle of it and since 1928 it has been protected under a law because of its natural scenic beauty.

Kamikochi truly is one of the treasures of Japan!

Kamikochi

Kamikochi
Lake Taisho

Autumn in the Mountains

If you saw my “Hello, Autumn” post, you might recognise this place as one of my top picks for autumn this year. I’m happy to say I have checked the Torokko Train off the list. I got to experience the amazing Unazuki Onsen and Kurobe Valley in Toyama prefecture a couple of weekends ago!

It’s always hard to predict when the best time to visit a koyo (autumn leaves) spot will be. The forecasters usually say something like mid-October to late-November, in the hopes that the peak happens sometime in that time frame. For our trip, we got extremely lucky! The leaves were more or less at their peak. These photos don’t do it justice at all! The mountains were covered in splashes of vibrant yellows, oranges, reds and greens. And together with the emerald-coloured river, there were stunning views in every direction. On top of that, the forecasted rain miraculously mostly held off, leaving us with a beautiful light fog throughout the valley.

The Torokko Train left from Unazuki Onsen station, and travelled for over an hour through the valley following the Kurobe River to the final stop, Keyakidaira. At the end, we got off and checked out some walking trails. I was in heaven! If it wasn’t for my friends prodding me to keep going, I may have stayed there forever! When we eventually got back to Unazuki at the end of the day, we relaxed in the Unazuki Onsen rotemburo (outdoor hot springs), from which we could look out and see the train snake around the mountainside on the other side of the river! I think it will go down as one of the most memorable trips I’ve had in Japan!

Conquering Japan’s Highest Mountain

Can’t believe it’s been over a week since I was clambering up the rocky face of Japan’s highest mountain. Already it feels like a distant memory. My body has fully recovered; all hiking gear has been washed and put away. If it wasn’t for my “Mt Fuji stick” standing in the corner of my apartment, and the 250 odd photos on my camera, I could almost believe it never actually happened! It was a tough hike, I won’t lie. But it was worth it, just to see this:

Mt Fuji
Land of the rising sun

***

Our group of 18 (friends, and friends of friends) took the 2:40pm bus from Shinjuku Station, arriving at the 5th station of Mt Fuji 2.5 hours later. There are actually 4 different 5th stations, each connecting to different trails on Mt Fuji. We decided on Fuji-Subaru 5th Station which is the entrance to the Yoshida Trail, the most popular route.

Mt Fuji
Mt Fuji from the bus

Mt Fuji

A few things surprised me when we got to the 5th station. Firstly, it wasn’t that busy. There were actually two big events on in Tokyo the same night, which may have drawn a lot of people away: the Edogawa Fireworks and the Itabashi Fireworks, which combined is attended by about 1.5 million people! Whatever the reason, it was all good news for us. Mt Fuji is notorious for its super crowded, narrow trails where you have no choice but to follow long lines of slow tour groups.

Secondly, the 5th station is basically a commercialized base camp. There’s a bunch of souvenir shops and everything’s expensive. It’s here that you can pick up the well-known ‘Mt Fuji walking stick’. I ended up getting a medium-sized one for 1,200 yen. The idea is that at every mountain hut on the trail, you get the stick branded (and pay 300-400 yen each time, mind you!). It’s like an achievement memorabilia. It’s also pretty useful too, though there were times when I really needed both hands to climb up the steep rocks.

And thirdly, I guess this one is also due to luck, the weather was amazing! It was about 20°C and not humid. I know we were 2300m above sea level, but it was such a change from Tokyo! We could see the top of the mountain very clearly, although clouds were sweeping by pretty quickly. Down below, all we could see were white puffs. We were literally up in the clouds. Then as the sun set, the sky quickly changed to dark blue with streaks of pink and orange. It was very pretty. How lucky that we would be able to see both the sunset and sunrise from Mt Fuji!

Mt Fuji
5th station, looking up
Mt Fuji
5th station, looking down
Mt Fuji
Sunset from 5th station

So, the idea was to hang around the 5th station for 2 hours, get used to the altitude, relax, and eat dinner. With our headlamps on, backpacks fastened, we started climbing just after 7pm. The first leg, to the 6th station (2390m), took about 25 minutes. It started off with a gradual slope, and then there were a bunch of big stairs before it turned into a steep climb. I was stuffed before we even reached the first hut! Little did I know it would just be a warm up for what was to come. The group didn’t even make it 100 metres before all separating! I’m actually pretty sure we were never together again as a group. That’s the thing with big groups; everyone has their own pace. Catching our breaths at the 6th station, we had a 5-minute break before continuing on. On the way, we were super lucky to see about 3 different fireworks shows going on in the towns below!! The tiny explosions of colour were so cool. We stopped a couple of times just to watch them (it was also a good excuse to have a few sneaky breaks to catch our breath).

About one hour later, we reached the 7th station (2700m)…. or so I thought. I excitedly got the first stamp on my stick, and then we were on our way again. But after just 10 minutes, we were already at the next hut! I realized there was more than one ‘7th station’. The first one was ‘Hana-goya’, and the one we were at was ‘Hinode-kan’. There were another 5 until the 8th station! I’m still not even sure which is the proper 7th station, if there is one!

Between the 6th station and the top (10th station), there are 14 mountain huts. Some are really small, others big. Some cater for people who want to sleep, some are just quick toilet stops. It gets a little confusing figuring out if you’re at the new 7th station or the original 7th station or the 7.5th station or just one of the in-between huts!

Mt Fuji
View of towns below
Mt Fuji
Branding at Hinode-kan 7th station
Mt Fuji
Narrow path past Hinode-kan

The next 1 hour 15 minutes were actually not too bad. The initial shock of how tiring it was had settled, and we were able to get into a steady rhythm. We chatted with each other along the way. It was so nice to hear people call out 頑張って!(You can do it, keep going!). Although everyone was in their own group, all the groups were ‘together’. There was an atmosphere of camaraderie, for sure.

We got to ‘Taishi-kan’, the first of the 8th stations (3100m) at 10:15pm. It was starting to get really cold, especially whenever we stopped for a break. It was time to put on warmer gear: windbreaker, beanie, scarf, and gloves. We stayed for about 10 minutes, enjoying awesome, much-needed cups of coffee and cocoa. I would have liked to sit down for longer, but we just had to keep pushing onwards and upwards!

Mt Fuji
Branding at Taishi-kan 8th station
Mt Fuji
Fire pit
Mt Fuji
Trail of lights in the darkness

 

The next few hours were just a slow, slow, shuffle. Lots of hikers had decided to bunk down on the side of the mountain, using special sheets to cover themselves and protect them from the bitter cold wind. It looked a bit depressing actually, like a mass of dead bodies. It didn’t make me feel any better, passing them, nor did it make me want to join them. We just kept going, only thinking about putting one foot in front of the other. It was pitch black, and we relied heavily on our headlamps to make sure we didn’t trip over any rocks or bump into any guide poles – although I did slam my head into a metal pole at one point which hurt really bad.

It started to get especially tough after midnight. The going was painfully slow, the air was thin, and my body was telling me to stop every five steps. Sometime around 1:00am, I felt like I just couldn’t keep going. Two friends and I slumped down on the side of the path. As we sat there, all we could hear were the heavy footsteps and the deep breathing from the hikers going past. Occasionally, we’d hear the click of a portable oxygen can in use. It made me feel a little better knowing that almost everyone else was struggling, too.

After eating some food and resting our legs, it was time for the final push to the top. We ran into some of our group members who had also been taking a break just up ahead. Our little reunion gave me a boost of energy and before I knew it we were at the next landmark: the 9th station (3600m), a torii gate with two stone lions either side. It was 2:00am. We had more or less reached the top! We were ecstatic!

Mt Fuji
Half of the group! (photo courtesy of a friend)

We reached the summit a short while later. The adrenaline wore off quickly. It very, very freezing cold! The temperature was around 4°C but the wind chill made it feel below 0. Plenty of people warned me about the temperature at the top, but I just never imagined it being that bad. My toes were numb and my neck was cold despite having so many layers wrapped around it. Thankfully, this is Japan, and you can find heated-drink vending machines even at 3776m (or there abouts). I grabbed a can of hot cocoa, which warmed my hands for about two minutes before turning into an ice cold drink!

There were a couple dozen people already at the summit, and more arriving by the minute. We found a place away from the crowd below a small barricade of rocks, and huddled together, using blankets, raincoats, sheets, whatever we could to wrap ourselves up and protect us from the biting winds. We had two hours to try get some rest, but I was shivering so much I couldn’t sleep at all. I told myself, I will never complain of the summer heat ever again!

Daybreak came at 4:00am. Dark clouds covered above us, and beautifully framed a clear horizon. A perfect gradation of blue, orange and red appeared, and we knew the sun was not far away. We moved further around the mountain and found a great place with hardly any people.

Mt Fuji
Dawn

The view down below and off into the distance was sublime! The mountains below were submerged in wisps of clouds. Everything was so still and peaceful. We could see the ocean out to the far right, and three or four lakes below. The clouds above were tinged with pink from the sun just beyond the horizon. I was absolutely filled with awe. A friend gave me the idea to share this wonderful experience with our friends and family via Skype. Technology is pretty awesome! My hands were shaking from being so cold, but I managed to send a few video messages to the family.

Mt Fuji
Dream land
Mt Fuji
Branded, for life

And then, it was sunrise at 4:45am. The moment we’d been waiting for. The reason people climb through the night. The sneaky thing seemed to pop up out of nowhere! But within minutes, the entire sky was lit on fire. It was one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen! The reflection on the mountain face was almost as impressive as the sky. It was such an intense red. A friend commented that it looked like we were on Mars!

Mt Fuji sunrise

 

Mt Fuji
Welcome to Mars!

After basking in the glorious sun, we decided to leave for two reasons. One, it was so cold. And two, we really needed to go to the toilet. Like, really, really badly. There were two toilets at the summit, but the line looked about two hours long. I’m not exaggerating at all. So after a quick look at the big, scary, icy crater, we started back down at 5:15am. We finally were able to release our poor bladders at the 8.5th station!

Mt Fuji
Crater… Diameter is about 490m.
Mt Fuji
A very short rainbow right over a torii shrine!
Mt Fuji
Hikers adding a bit of colour to the scenery
Mt Fuji
One of the many torii gates on Mt Fuji

The journey back to the 6th station consisted of a steep, zigzag, gravel trail. You could take breaks at the corners of the zigzags, but there were no flat areas at all. It started off great! We were flying down, passing all the slow groups. I would even say it was pretty fun. But unfortunately for me, the fun didn’t last long. My toes we being pushed into the front of my shoes, and it felt like my toenails were being pushed back into my feet. With every step it was getting more and more painful. I was forced to put on the brakes and go extremely slow. I ended up walking almost sideways to relieve the pressure on my big toes. This went on for about two hours. Horrible.

Mt Fuji
Overtaking on the outside edge!
Mt Fuji
Steep descent
Mt Fuji
Taking a break to admire the view

By the time I reached the 6th station (at 7:45am), I was in too much pain and had to change my hiking boots to my sandals. Luckily the worst of the hike was over, and the remaining track was fairly flat and easy. My feet definitely appreciated the open air!

At long last, we returned to our starting point at just after 9:00am, 14 hours after having set off. We collapsed on the ground, in a zombie-like state. Everyone was wrecked. As different members of our group arrived back, we were all saying the same thing: ‘never again, never again’.

***

If I had to give advice to someone looking to climb Mt Fuji, I’d say prepare for mid-winter weather at the top (heat packs are a life saver); go at your own pace (it’s important not to race up, otherwise you could get altitude sickness); go to the toilet whenever you can, even if you don’t think you need to go; and remember to eat energy food and drink water, as it’s easy to forget when you’re concentrating on climbing. I only drank about 1 litre of water the whole time, although the recommended amount is 1.5-2 litres.

We actually had a lot of really awesome things go our way which I’m grateful for: the weather was perfect – no rain, a clear sky for sunrise, and no harsh sun on the way down; it wasn’t very crowded; and most importantly, everyone returned safely. But even thinking back to it now, I still don’t think I’ll climb Mt Fuji again! I’m happy with my one-and-only experience.

A Spring Adventure: Tateyama Alpine Route

I was in a dream, standing on a vast plateau of snow, 2.5km above sea level, looking up to Mount Tate (3015m) and the surrounding alps. In every direction, as far (and high) as the eye could see, there was blinding ‘whiteness’. Snow-covered mountains sparkled under the bright sun. Clouds, although deceivingly soft and delicate looking, would roll by at such a high pace that in a matter of minutes, the striking blue sky would be smothered in a complete white-out.

On one side of the plateau, the mountains reached up to the heavens. Though, with no trees to contrast against the white slopes, it was hard to grasp just how massive these mountains were. It wasn’t until I discovered that those tiny black moving dots on the side of the mountain were actually skiers, that I realised the true scale! By the way, this is no ski resort… there are no ski lifts. The only way to ski down the mountain, is to first trek to the top! Those guys are tough!! I love snow sports, but that is taking it to whole other level!

The opposite side of the plateau is where most visitors tend to go. Beyond a pretty crater lake (which is frozen and covered in snow until June) and ‘Hell Valley’ where volcanic gas constantly billows out of the ground, there is actually a ryokan hotel with restaurant and indoor hot springs. It seemed a bit weird to see a man-made object plonked in the middle of the natural surrounds, but where there are people, there will be buildings!

Besides all of that, however, is something that stands on its own as the main attraction. Something that had been on my bucket list for ages, and is the reason I came to know about the whole place… the Tateyama Snow Corridor.

After five months of closure during winter, a narrow road is dug out for the opening of the alpine route which is accessible from April to November. They use machinery that cuts away at the compacted snow, and shoots it up in the air away from the road. At the deepest point near the Murodo Plateau, the height of the wall has been known to reach up to 20 metres after a harsh winter with heavy snowfall!

It’s a place I would highly recommend if you enjoy being in the great outdoors. So let me show you how to get there.

Tateyama
Toyama Station
Tateyama
Tateyama Station
Tateyama
Steep ascent with beautiful views

After an overnight bus ride from Tokyo, we arrived very early in the morning (around 5:30am) in Toyama on Japan’s west coast. After grabbing some breakfast, we went from Toyama Station to Tateyama Station via the Toyama Chiho Railroad and Tateyama Cable Car. Even at 6 in the morning, there were plenty of other people all headed for the same place, so we basically just had to follow the crowd. Along the way we passed beautiful, clear rivers and so much vibrant greenery!

The next leg was from Tateyama Station to Murodo Plateau via the Tateyama Highland Bus. Here, we travelled through a cedar forest full of ancient trees and wild animals. Some cheeky monkeys were playing on the road, grinding all traffic to a halt. When the coast was clear, we continued up the winding road through thick fog – sometimes we couldn’t see anything at all out the window. As we got higher up the mountain, the banks of snow on either side of the road got higher and higher, until we literally couldn’t see over the top of them.TateyamaTateyamaTateyamaTateyamaTateyama

 

And finally, we made it! The mighty snow corridor! The walls towered over the people and buses, stretching 13m straight up. One section of the wall is designated the ‘graffiti wall’ for aspiring artists such as myself :-P You can see messages written by people from all around the world!

Tateyama

 

The wall was very cool, but the best part for me was the spectacular plateau and mountain range. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Tateyama
Snow-covered crater lake and Mt Tate in the background
Tateyama
Turquoise Mikurigaike Lake
Tateyama
Jumping for joy!
Tateyama
Hell Valley – volcanic gas
Tateyama
Watching the clouds swiftly roll by
Tateyama
I spy… teeny tiny skiers!

And finally, a postcard sent from the highest post office in Japan (2,450m)! The lucky recipient should get it soon!

Tateyama

Autumn Mission: Mt Takao

It’s been a busy past few weeks! Today is the last day of November, and soon autumn will be all over for another year. I’ve managed to get to a bunch of different places to check out the autumn leaves, mostly outside of Tokyo. The higher altitude places have passed their peak, and lower down here in the city, things are starting to look good!

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I went out to Mt Takao, in Tokyo’s far-west. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day. Not a cloud in sight. We met at Shinjuku station mid-morning, and could tell already that it was going to be crowded on the mountain. Loads of hikers filled the train, and we were lucky to get seats for the 1 hour journey. Arriving at Takaosanguchi station, we quickly realised just how many other people had had the same idea as us! I have never seen a mountain so packed!!

Crowd outside the station
Crowd outside the station
Crowd at the entrance of Mt Takao
Crowd at the entrance of Mt Takao
Burst of yellow
Burst of yellow ginkgo trees

Wanting to escape the mass of people, we went quickly on our way. Hiking up the trail was a bit slow, because it was basically ‘follow the leader’ most of the way. I was slightly amused at one girl who was hiking in heels… Girls in Japan are crazy, I tell ya!

Mt Takao in autumn

Green green green
Green green green
Mt Takao in autumn
Suspension bridge
Mt Takao in autumn
Never ending stream of hikers!
Starting to see colours as we reach the summit
Starting to see colours as we reach the summit
On top of the world!
On top of the world!

But even then, when we reached the top, it felt like we were back in the middle of the city. There were so many picnics happening under the trees; everyone was taking a million snaps of the leaves from all sort of angles; there were even loooong lines for the ice cream van! It was so strange to be in what felt like the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain, yet for there to be so many people! 

Picnic central
Picnic central
Beautiful corridor of colours
Beautiful corridor of colours
On fire!
On fire!

Mt Takao in autumn

Mt Takao in autumn
Seeing red

We didn’t end up staying at the top for too long, as you can probably imagine! The hike down was just as crowded as the hike up, but we’d mastered the skill of overtaking, so it didn’t take us long! Back at the bottom, we were greeted by the sounds of taiko drums. There’s always something special about hearing those deep, powerful beats.

Taiko performance
Taiko performance… go girls!
I heart this puppy!
I heart this puppy!
Man hole!
Man hole!
Final snap of the colours
Final snap of the colours

Despite the crowds, I really enjoyed the day trip to Mt Takao. The weather was stunning and the autumn colours were inspiring. Plus, spending time with a friend and getting some exercise… a pretty great way to spend a Sunday if you ask me! :-)