I don’t necessarily believe that love at first sight is possible between human beings, but I know it is possible between humans and nature. When I saw the Hotaka Mountain range I fell head over heels.
The bus station is accompanied by a gift shop and an information center. All of the structures in the park look like part of an alpine village, I felt like I was in Vail or some Colorado ski town. From the bus terminal we walked to Konashidara campsite, about .5 km down a little nature trail.
Konashidara is the closest campsite to the bus station. There are two more further out of the tourist center but walking there with a 13kg backpack was out of the question. Kondashidara has cabins available to rent, as well as pre set-up tents, we had our own tent, so we were able to camp for only 800 yen/person/night. Lucky for us they had blankets and mats available to rent as well, (which we didn’t realize until the second day so we spent our first night freezing under a pile of clothes) costing another 500 yen, making it our cheapest accommodation so far in Japan at 2,100 yen/night for two people.
Our neighbors were a group of senior citizens (men and women) who all had their own packs and gear and came to hike together for the weekend. They told us they spent the day doing the Mt. Yakedake hike and were up well past we were celebrating their success.
After a rough first night’s sleep we awoke to a brisk mountain morning and rallied ourselves for Mt. Yakedake. Because of our limited supplies and time we were stuck with day hikes only, the mountains have several cabins making it a feasible trip to climb the whole range in a few days, or at least get a few peak in during one trip. At first I was disappointed that we weren’t going to be able to do any mountains over 3,000 meters. I went into the Yakedake hike with low expectations, however it did not disappoint.
The trail started at a slow incline through the beautiful forest of Kamikochi. It took us about 40 minutes until we started to get some real incline, including a few steep ladders and a treacherous looking bridge.
Then another half hour or so until we came into a clearing past the treeline. From there we could see what we thought was the peak (we were right) and watched as we saw a small rock slide down what looked like the side of the trail. It didn’t last long and we saw hikers behind it so we figured it was probably caused by someone mis-stepping on the descent and it was still safe to continue.
After the treeline it was a series of short switchbacks until we reached a mountain cabin where we took a short break. We had only been hiking for an hour and a half and the peak didn’t look too far away, our map said it was a three-hour ascent so we thought it had to be wrong if we were this close already.
I should have known better. After the cabin was a small patch of forest and then we entered a clearing on a small hill where we could see the rest of the ascent to the peak and the surrounding alps.
Did I mention Yakedake is an active volcano? As we drew nearer, the grass disappeared into rock and we started to see smoke springs from the side of the mountain.
The last hour of the climb was the most challenging. It was steep sulfuric gravel with no ropes or hand rails, making it easy to slip, one wrong step and it would be a long way down. However, the more dangerous it became the more beautiful. The rocks were red and white and orange, the path would have been difficult to follow if it weren’t for the yellow circles spray painted on the rocks to indicate the right way. We were proceeding slowly and carefully and we could see people on the peak, yet every step seemed like we were still so far away.
Finally, we rounded the last corner and made the final climb to the peak. The last little bit was an actual climb involving all four limbs.
On top was one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. Within a 360 degree view you can see the Hokata range with its beautiful cirque and the glacially clear waters of the (name of river), a small village on the left of the (other mountain range) volcanic smoke seeping out of the bare white stone of Yakedake itself, and the biggest surprise of all; a hidden glacial pond that can only be seen from the peak. All that diversity in one view.
We didn’t have a chance to linger at the peak for long. I noticed that most hikers were our age as opposed to middle-aged and elderly as in Taiwan, ( I was bursting with excitement that maybe when I move to Japan I can have girlfriends who are actually active and have the same interests I do!).
The longest part of the descent was right near the peak, we went very slowly as not to slide down the side of a volcano, what took us almost 45 minutes in ascent took us about 30 descending. Right before we reached the cabin we passed two hikers who warned us that they saw a bear, they seemed a little jittery and excited at the same time so we didn’t think they were messing with us when we asked how big it was and they said “well, it was not so little”. And we thought all the bear warning signs were a gimic to get people to buy bear bell souvenirs, good thing we bought one the day before.
We didn’t see any bears on the way to the cabin, and after stopping for a short lunch break the rest of the trail was easy. Switchbacks, forest, nature trail, campsite.
It was a good lesson to remember, the height of the mountain doesn’t determine its difficulty or it’s beauty. Mt. Yakedake was one of the best trails I have ever been on, anywhere.
We spent the rest of our time in Kamikochi relaxing and enjoying the tourist nature trails on a Monday without tourists. We even saw an entire family of monkeys.
Before leaving I made a silent promise to the Hotaka Mountains that I would return for them someday soon. If it is indeed true love it can wait, for now it is time to explore.