#90 – HAKU-SAN
With the world of work deep sixed I was a mountain bum once more. I had three weeks, possibly four, to climb ten of the bigguns before winter set in for the season. Any longer than that and it was a game of Russian roulette at 3000 metres. When I say Russian, I mean Siberian and and when I say roulette I mean replace either the red or black with white, snow white, sailing in on the cold fronts or jet streams or whatever those things are called that sweep in from the wintry wastelands of Siberia and dump their payloads on the high mountains of Japan. Other than that all was looking good, well, save for the seasonal threat of a rogue typhoon popping up over the horizon from the other direction. If I could negotiate this potential meteorological pincer movement, it was a pretty doable schedule. Though missing a connecting train ride to the trail head on day one didn’t help and nor did the hundred dollar taxi ride to make up for it, but hey, I guess forking over all that cash helped elevate my bum status from the word go.
Haku-san is a sprawling confluence of mountains that fills the remotest corners of three prefectures: Fukui, Gifu and Ishikawa – the latter two sharing the spoils of the summit, while Fukui-ken has to settle for some of the lower reaches. Fukada-san grew up in the shadow of Haku-san, the largest mountain west of the Japanese Alps and upon his return from the front in China in 1946, he sought solace in the mountain’s all familiar presence. ‘A mountain watches over the home village of most Japanese people,’ he wrote in his Haku-san essay. ‘Tall or short, near or far, some mountain watches over our native village like a tutelary deity. We spend our childhood in the shadow of our mountain and we carry it with us in memory when we grow up and leave the village. And however much our lives may change, the mountain will always be there, just as it has always been, to welcome us back to our home village.’
I’d climbed into the Haku-san National Park with my old buddy Patrick from the Gifu side of the mountain in June, only to be turned back by a combination of wildly optimistic trail times on our map and a tight schedule. Even then, with the summer well under way the mountain top was still draped in snow drifts and at the elevations we reached, snow lay in large blankets throughout the forests. The mountain remains in winter’s white embrace for a good part of the year, hence it’s name, Haku-san, and as old Fukada likes to let us know, the Mont Blanc of Japan.
For round two, I climbed alone from the Fukui side. From the trail head at Hato-ga-yu, an onsen lost in the hills. The forests remained a deep green in spite of autumn’s appraoch and I ascended through the woods and out of the tree line to the small, comfy emergency hut sitting in a meadow of bamboo and frost tinted weeds, just below the peak of San-no-mine. High cloud to the west partially obscured a gorgeous sunset while swirling mists hung in the deep folds of the mountains below the hut. As the overcast sailed westward, a fingernail moon appeared high overhead.
I shared the hut with a trio of gentlemen. We chatted about the mountains in Japan and my home in Australia by candle light and I tried to guess which of the three was going to be the raucous saliva slavering snorer. Upon waking the following morning I was pleasantly surprised to have slept quite well on the hard floor and to have shared the place with three blokes that slept like babies. Sometimes you just get lucky. The toilet situation at the hut was another matter. I had peeped in upon my arrival and instantly braced myself as my lunch threatened to climb back up my neck. It appeared as though an earlier visitor had been in the habit of employing his arse as some kind of high pressured spraying device and had hosed down the little elongated squat trough in a spatter of fecal matter. I glanced up to the ceiling of the cubicle to check if his head hadn’t left an indentation and gagging, wandered outside and off into the knee high bamboo behind the hut, locating a much more agreeable spot in which to water the horses.
In a chill wind, the four of us watched an exquisite sunrise. Ontake and Norikura pierced cloud that appeared as a broiling sea of molten gold stretching to the horizon. Upon returning inside we breakfasted and packed up our gear and headed in opposite directions. I was bound for higher elevations, the chaps were headed out of the hills.
I climbed through fields of bamboo, lightly frosted with glistening whiskers of ice. The summit of Haku-san appeared beyond San-no-mine, lit by the sun and cloaked in the earthy hues of autumn. I hiked across two more peaks and into Nanryu-sanso where the huts were being shuttered for the season and accepting no guests. Prepared for the eventuality, I pitched the tent at the nearby campground, had an early lunch of Snickers and Pringles and slowly headed for the summit.
Cloud danced over the mountain top which for most of that final climb had remained bathed in sunlight. The crater pools below its northern face appeared and disappeared between swirling curtains of white dancing on a light wind. Happy to be back in the hills and standing on another peak, a little autumnal melancholy diluted my mood knowing that this time it wasn’t to be for an extended period.
The next morning after breakfasting and shaking a heavy dew off the tent and shoving all my gear into my pack, I took the steep trail down to Bettodeai, thanking heavens I hadn’t climbed that way. I arrived at pretty much nothing more than a bus stop in the hills, and discovered that the buses had stopped running for the season – well at least on weekdays. I walked the road and knocked the rust off my hitching thumb and was soon collected by a cheerful old couple in a little rattler of a hatch who deposited me at the bus depot in the first town out of the hills. With Haku-san done and dusted along with Tateyama and Fuji-san, I had climbed Japan’s three holiest mountains. With what I hoped were the mountain gods’ blessings in my pocket I could turn toward the final ten peaks on my agenda. It was time to ride the rails to the big smoke of Nagoya and turn my attention to the peaks of the Central Alps.
Haku-san quote from Martin Hood’s ‘One Hundred Mountains of Japan,’ the translation of Fukada san’s Nihon Hyakumeizan.