Out of Nagano the Kiso River’s headwaters bound down through the confines of the valley of the same name and broadening, empty into the Ise Bay not far from the sprawl of Nagoya, the largest city between Kyoto and the Tokyo/Yokohama conglomeration. Above the western walls of the Kiso Valley the Ontake Volcano soars to over three thousand metres, while the eastern side is lined with the abruptly rising spine of the Central Alps. Kisokoma-ga-take is the range’s highest peak tickling the underbelly of 3000 metres at the 2956 mark.
I left the bulk of my gear in Nagoya at a hotel and detached the top of my pack, stuffed it with a few bottles of water, Snickers and rain gear, slung it across my back and headed for the hills. A rain front was forecast to hit in a day or two and with a couple of peaks to knock off in the Central Alps and a burning desire to remain up in the mountains and traverse between them rather than return for a second outing, I was thrust into a race against time.
I took the train to the valley town of Agematsu on the Kiso River. There, an old pilgrim’s path, romantically named the Agematsu ‘A Course’, shot straight up the mountainside to the summit of Kisokoma-ga-take. The trail took a little time to locate and once spotted, I spent a few minutes poking around a quiet, relic strewn sanctuary, before gritting my teeth and commencing the monster 1800 metre climb. The goal of the day was the summit, no more, no less.
With my light load and a gorgeous forested trail to climb the day was nowhere near as strenuous as it could have been and once I popped out of the tree line the views, though somewhat cloud obscured towards the summit and out to Ontake, were tremendous.
Though I’d met absolutely no one on the climb there was quite a gathering of hikers strolling around the summit as I topped out latishly in the afternoon. Most of them, I assumed, had ascended via the ropeway on the other side of the mountain. A cheerful man in his fifties or so addressed me loudly, ‘Oh! Gaijin-san! Where are you from?’
And upon hearing my response of Australia, his brusqueness melted away and he began waxing lyrical on the beauty of Tasmania – one of his favourite spots on the planet. He took my camera from me and had me pose for my summit shot before I even thought about getting to it myself.
‘Where will you stay tonight?’ he enquired.
I shrugged, a few huts dotted the summit area. When I pointed to a large structure below us in a wide stony field with a few tents dotted around it, the man, who had introduced himself as Yasu-san by then, advised against it.
‘Down there is cold. The toilet smell. Very bad. Come with us.’
He was part of a small group, another man, sour looking and silent and a trio of cheerful ladies. I fell in with the party. Good company and a night away from smelly toilets seemed like a preferrable option.
‘We are from Shikoku. We are staying down there,’ he pointed toward a hut I’d climbed past, hunkered down in the boulder field just below the summit, large rocks spaced across its red roof to hold it in place when conditions grew grim.
‘Tomorrow where will you go? Utsugi-dake?’
Upon seeing the number ’91’ I wrote on my hand before I let him take the summit photo, Yasu-san guessed I was doing the hundred mountains and became intrigued with my adventure.
‘That’s the plan,’ I answered.
‘Bad weather is coming,’ he said and I nodded in response. Down at the hut, checked in and shown to my sleeping space on the top platform of two stretching the length of the dormitory I accessed the forecast on my telephone and it looked wet. I lay back and shut my eyes, the efforts of the day beginning to take effect.
‘Mr Willie, lets go see the sunset,’ Yasu-san was standing at the end of my sleeping space. Head and shoulders visible at my feet. Sure, why not…
Ontake, deep brooding blue, sat squatly despite its height, across the valley. Lodgers filled the tiny entrance way taking pictures of the setting sun, or just taking it in. After that we relaxed in the dining hall with the rest of his group. I was informed dinner would be served in two shifts, such was the size of the dining area and the number of lodgers shoe horned in for the night. Yasu-san bought me a can of beer and the ladies shared their white, rubbery, stringy strips of dried squid. I was leery at first, but what could I say, other than thank-you and eat it. It wasn’t so bad. The other man was simply introduced as a sea captain. He had a wild, thick black crop of hair and a hard face, one that seemed to join perpendicularly below the brow at the bridge of the nose, as if the boom on a yacht had swung around and collected him across the front of his skull. ‘Later,’ Mr Yasu said, ‘dine with us,’ and he organised for my name to be added to his group.
Later we dined together and as the Sea Captain carefully extricated all the carrots from his stew with the concentration of a surgeon, a hush grew over the hall as the weather forecast commenced on the small television at the end of the room. Umbrella symbols dominated the map of central Japan and Mr Yasu exhaled disappointedly. Things didn’t look good. It was a short hike down to the ropeway on the other side of the range and a long trip back to Nagoya, my gear and then probably Osaka after that, should the rain maintain its course and hang around. As beautiful as they were, I really didn’t want to have to come back to these mountains. Ah schedules and budgets – so much for enjoying my last days as a mountain bum…
At breakfast the hut master advised everyone that it was best to make their ways out of the mountains. Heavy rain was indeed bearing down upon us.
‘Will you take the ropeway?’ I asked MrYasu.
‘No we will take this course, we are prepared for rain,’ he indicated a trail running to the north east off Kisokoma as we studied my map.
I longingly stared at the red line running south along the high spine of the mountains. It constituted something like a nine hour hike if I included the dash to the top of Utsugi-dake and back down to the hut at the bottom of the summit assault.
Surely retreat was the only sensible option…