January 19, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Yuka’s retreats have acquired a certain notoriety. Native American medicine men, Hawaiian Kahuna, Japanese witches, at some point all and more have been called upon and woven into the rich experience she runs. A counterweight to Japan’s mechanistic materialism, few are the participants who return home without a renewed sense of where they belong in the world. Or so I am told.

Her first retreat of the new year was going to be different. A connection to nature, and the wilder places of Japan. And so it is that I found myself guiding five snowshoe neophytes through the snow filled forests of Togakushi, Nagano.

Togakushi is the land of the yamabushi, the mountain monks, and long rumored to be the training ground of medieval ninja warriors. Shrines and temples dot the landscape, and the terrain lends itself to the impossibly steep stone stairs at the entrance to each one. Not for Togakushi the easy, paved entrances of the city shrines; those who would seek the patronage of the gods here must first  prove themselves.

Nowhere is this more so than the long trail to the Oku-sha, the shrine which huddles below the crags of Mt Happonirami. At the entrance to the trail the group grapple with their snowshoes for the first time, newborn foals with ungainly feet. Their laughter peals out into the forest and along the towering cedars which line the route through the fresh snow. Then, each wrapped in their own thoughts, I carve a trail and they follow. The weather closes in as we approach the Oku-sha, half-buried as it is in deep snowdrifts. The villagers will work hard through the winter to keep its roofs clear, but it is a herculean task and Happonirami continually threatens to avalanche the shrine from above.

The Jetboil works hard, hissily melting snow and boiling up a couple of litres of hot chocolate. It’s enough to get them back to the road, and from there we seek out Shinshu’s finest buckwheat soba noodles. It’s warm, and the girls have filled their exercise quota for the day, and are opting for the hot springs over another trek into the backcountry. All except T, who is adamant that she wants to get back out. As the snow lightly falls, we strap into the snowshoes and head out over the hills to Kagami-Ike, frozen now, but which in summer would reflect the Togakushi mountains in its limpid depths.

There’s not a sound as we travel through the deep powder. The landscape is a charcoal painting, no sound but the quiet sluff of the snowshoes. “This is better than any meditation”, T confides. At the lake, the only tracks in the snow belong to the rabbits; we’re the first ones to see it this winter. I step out a little way from the shore and tentatively dig down, only to hit slushy snow rather than solid ice. It’s still too early in the season to walk all the way to the middle, to the lone tree trunk that juts defiantly from its center.

Our lodging is one of the temples that sits further down the mountain on the old pilgrims’ trail, a family-run shukubo. You find them wherever you find the yamabushi monks. Part esoteric Buddhist, part animistic Taoist, and something else that I can never quite figure out. Mountain climbing, perhaps. I sit in the entrance way, cleaning and mending the groups’ snowshoes. The head priest comes out for a cigarette, and we talk about Togakushi until he invites me to come and see the hidden treasures of the temple. A dozen scrolls hang in a small room, 14th century representations of the Togakushi mandala and the local saints.

After dinner, the group goes off to meditate. The priest comes to find me again, and from the garden we watch the clouds race across the full moon that lights the snow-covered mountains, fortifying ourselves against the cold night with warm cups of Tateyama sake.

The following days dawns to a slate coloured sky, a promise of good powdery snow to come. Togakushi has captured each member of the group in a different way, and they’ll spend the day exploring what interest them. One goes to play her flute at each of the five main shrines, another to watch the snow fall from the comfort of the hot spring, another wants to walk from the shukubo to the main temple.

Yuka and T want to snowshoe in the backcountry again. I take them through the forest at the foot of Mt Togakushi for a few hours to the banks of a river, where the rocks that rise from its bed are covered in pillows of snow. The wind picks up as we start back and shortly we are in a blizzard, three quiet figures making our soft way across the icy landscape with heads bowed. Togakushi forces such reverence.


25 Responses to “Retreating”

  1. George Baptista on January 19th, 2009 2:14 pm

    I love to ride my board down mountains, but I’d gladly put it away for the day and just bring along my snowshoes if I had a chance to hike along that trail in the 4th photo.

  2. Jason on January 19th, 2009 2:30 pm

    Thank you for the people shots this time! I liked seeing the contrast of their brightly colored jackets with the whiteness of the snow.

    I would have liked to of gone on a retreat like this.

    I really like the snow capped rocks in stream photo (tone and composition in particular).

  3. Captain Interesting on January 19th, 2009 6:23 pm

    Your graphic account of Togakushi and the picture of that noble avenue of cedars sent me reaching for The Text. Yes, one of the Togakushi mountains is included in Nihon Hyakumeizan. Here’s what it says about the shrines:-

    “Togakushi was a sacred site for both the Shintō and Buddhist faiths from the early Heian period. In its heyday, between the late Heian and the high Kamakura periods, the Inner, Middle, and Golden Shrines were established, each with halls and cloisters that conceded nothing in splendour to those of Kōya and Hiei. Ensuing wars and fires laid the greater part of these shrines in ashes, but even today the high, thick-thatched roofs of the Middle Shrine hint at what might have been…”

    Many thanks for recreating the glory that was Togakushi…

  4. Cassandra on January 19th, 2009 7:14 pm


    There are few things I find as beautiful and evocative as your accounts and photos on this journal. As one who appreciates all things alpine and rarely finds words in short supply, I am left truly speechless. You have my utmost respect and admiration.


  5. Clint on January 19th, 2009 9:41 pm

    Amazing pictures and writing as always. I always despised snowshoes for the reason that they seemed like more effort than skinning or just post holing it through the snow. You are all better than me!

  6. cjw on January 20th, 2009 2:16 am

    George – that trail is only 45 minutes drive from Nagano if you’re interested. I’ve added a Yahoo map link to the photo in Flickr – Flickr’s own geotagging is worse than useless for Japan given the poor resolution of the maps they use. It’s a short 2km from the road to the shrine through those cedars, but it gets plenty of snow during the winter and there’s a lot of backcountry to explore as well. By the way, the most recent photos on your site are stunning – hopefully there’s another 100+ book in the works?

    Jason – yes, finally, photos with people! Not a patch on your portraits, but I’m trying. Guiding quite lends itself to portraiture rather than scenery, as you tend to be more focused on taking care of the group anyway. It’s good discipline, though – mountains tend to stay where they are, whereas people have a habit of moving around just as you hit the shutter. And thank you for your support on JapanSoc, as always!
    Captain – I confess it was Mt Takatsuma that fist lured me to Togakushi a couple of years ago. Both the mountain and the area impressed upon me the incredible quality of Fukada-san’s hyakumeizan. Although, driving up to Nagano along the Joetsu highway, I got my first dramatic glimpse of Myogi-dake and couldn’t help but wonder how that one had escaped his attention…

    Cassandra – that’s high praise indeed, and much appreciated. Hopefully it’s a small antidote to the persistent madness of our markets. It certainly works that way for me.

    Clint – you reminded me of Colin Fletcher’s musings on the subject, “Snowshoes allow you to travel (sweating hard, but sinking less than a foot at every step) across snow into which you would otherwise go on sinking forever if God had not arranged that human legs eventually converge.” (from The Complete Walker, IV).

  7. Tornadoes28 on January 20th, 2009 4:18 am

    The girls look like they were really enjoying the snow. I love the picture of the cedar tree and the light shining through.

  8. Ben on January 20th, 2009 4:36 am

    I think we definitely need a guy’s wandering trip like this as well. Though with you, Jason, and I, the sound of the camera shutters going off might drive off that encompasses sense of silence!

    Question though, how do you do your white balance in the snow? What about keeping the lenses from fogging? Mostly I just let the lenses cool down before taking photos, but now and again it still happens with the lens filters.

  9. cjw on January 20th, 2009 5:43 am

    Hi Tornadoes28 – yes, they all loved it. I’ve shot some video as well which, at some point, I’ll get around to editing and will post. That trail with the cedars is really quite spectacular. I wanted to get a shot of the group walking along through it to give an idea of the sheer scale of those trees – but the problem with leading a group is that, well, you have to be in the lead…

    Ben – that’s something we should definitely look into. Although, as you rightly point out, I sense our progress might be along the lines of 5 minutes walking, 10 minutes photographing, 5 minutes walking..

    White balance is almost impossible to get right in the snow I’ve found, especially when it’s overcast. I usually set the camera to WB=cloudy, and stop up and down the exposure manually until I get something that works. More often than not, though, it requires a bit of alteration afterwards in Photoshop.

    I keep my camera tethered to my rucksack on the outside, so it doesn’t fog. Battery goes in an inside pocket or glove when it’s really cold. The viewfinder fogs up, but I can usually give it a wipe or, in extremis when I have gloves on, a lick also does the job :-)

  10. Clint on January 20th, 2009 7:20 am

    I thought I loved my gear, but licking my camera is not something I have gotten into yet. I guess I should look into that.

  11. shitamachi on January 20th, 2009 9:04 am

    I love your blog. Right now I have no time to visit the japanese alps, but at least I can read your blog and enjoy the pictures.

  12. julian on January 20th, 2009 9:43 am

    You must have enjoyed having company after all your solitary wanderings on the high peaks.

    Do you shoot in raw & jpeg?

  13. Tony on January 20th, 2009 10:35 am

    Awesome! Very nicely composed.

  14. cjw on January 20th, 2009 12:50 pm

    Clint – it’s a little known fact that Nikons are strawberry flavored, Canons are chocolate..

    Shitamachi – thank you for coming by. I’ll try to keep you supplied with good shots of the Alps until such time as you can get up there yourself!

    Julian – yes, it was nice to have company for a change. They were a great group too, a lot of fun, not a single un-enjoyable moment. I shoot in JPEG, large size. RAW just takes up too much room (both on the stick and the PC), and I figure I’m always going to convert to JPEG anyway so I might as well let the camera do it.

    Tony – thanks! Glad you enjoyed.

  15. wes on January 20th, 2009 2:27 pm

    Just checking in to say hello and that I haven’t vanished off the face of the earth. Beautiful photos as usual, and probably a nice change to be snowshoeing on the flat ground and not up some avalanche-prone behemoth. I recommend coming back to the area for an April climb of Mt. Takazuma, when the show pack should be more stable!

  16. cjw on January 21st, 2009 3:10 am

    Hey Wes, good to hear from you! I did Takatsuma a couple of years ago in early August, it’s a good mountain, but an April ascent might be fun – the approach would require some ice tools though. Actually I was looking at the ridge that leads up from the west to Happonirami, and though “hmmm, there’s no marked trail, but…”. So many mountains, so little time..

  17. Chris B on January 24th, 2009 11:13 am

    On behalf of all Hawaiians or part Hawaiians..

    The word is “Kahuna”.

    Mahalo’s for your Kokua!!!

  18. David H. on January 25th, 2009 3:30 pm

    Beautifully written and beautifully photographed, as always. Your blog is more interesting and more enjoyable than many of the books I read on the outdoors and photography.

  19. I-CJW on January 26th, 2009 11:23 am

    Chris B – good to know – the text has been amended appropriately!

    David H. – thank you, that means a lot to me.

  20. butuki on January 28th, 2009 2:28 pm

    An absolutely delightful, piece! All the photos and words go together so well! I liked all of it but the two photos that really stopped me were the one of the arbor of cedars and the snow covered river rocks.

  21. Peter Skov on January 30th, 2009 2:18 am

    It was very refreshing to see photographs of people enjoying themselves in the snow. Have you ever seen “Outdoor Japan” magazine? With your writing and photographic skills you could definitely contribute. I particularly liked the photographs of the three woman walking on the snow and the one of Yuka(?) smiling behind the other two women. But a few of the others were also great to capture the mood of the day. The corridor of trees has some great light and colour.

  22. I-CJW on January 30th, 2009 3:39 am

    Hi Butuki – glad you enjoyed the post, I think you’d like Togakushi a lot if you get the time to make it up there. I didn’t see anyone camping, but I think it would be a great place to pitch a tent for a couple of days in winter, and take leisurely snow-shoe strolls around the plain. Hmm, I might just have to do that myself next month..

    Hey Peter – it was fun to have some company for once! I’ve read Outdoor Japan a few times, & I probably will shoot them an email – thanks for the suggestion!

  23. Chris Ward on August 24th, 2010 1:59 am

    Have you been back to climb the mountain? The hiking trail starts to the side of Okusha, and is a pretty mean climb up, with lots of chains and rock faces, culminating in the notorious “ant-walk”, a thin strip of rock with steep falls on either side. It’s a heart-pounder, and unfortunately has claimed a lot of lives. Most recently last weekend someone fell to their death up there. Thankfully such incidents are few for the number of hikers, but its not a mountain to mess with in bad weather or out of season unless you’re an experienced climber.

    And yeah, there are still ninjas there, one of them teaches me!


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