Golden is the week

May 6, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

I pulled the rope from the pack, and with it flooded the aroma of sunlight and the memories of the previous day’s climb on Mt Myogi. This morning, though, long unused belay muscles twinge, while somewhere under the mess of slings and karabiners in the corner sleep my boots, still dusty with the trail. On the way back from Myogi, the Other Englishman had phoned.
“I’m back in Japan. Fancy a walk tomorrow?”

Tanzawa is the easiest of the hyakumeizan, the hundred famous mountains, to reach from Tokyo. Easy to get to, easy to climb, I’d held it in reserve for just such an occasion. With the weather closing in, it looked like we’d have a perfect 36 hours to slot it in. Back from Myogi, I grab a few hours sleep, before again tipping out the pack and ransacking the cupboards for food. There’s no instant coffee to be found. Just half a dozen oddly shaped chinese herbal teabags that smell like feet. I throw them in the bag anyway and run for the station. The early train brims with the party people, wending their way home after a night in Roppongi, red-eyed and thick with the smell of cigarettes and alcohol and busted dreams of naughtiness. The Other Englishman gets on, and as the train moves from the tunnels and into the overground system, we note with approval the gathering sunlight that bodes a fine day.

Lao Tsu said that the five colours will blind the eye, and excessive company dulls the spirit. But it cuts both ways. Recent climbs have been splendid monochromes, white snow on cobalt skies, deserted, solitary, just a headful of thoughts and my own voice for companionship.  The steady stream of Golden Week climbers, making their way towards Tanzawa through the farms and fields at Okura, though, is a pleasant contrast. If the roots of Japanese mountaineering lie in the ancient pilgrimages, then this is the modern incarnation. Children and day-trippers in jeans and t-shirts vie with the hardcore, who lumber under their packs in expensive technical leggings and tough boots, but all are headed to the peaks to offer thanks to the twins gods of leisure goods and national holidays.

Our goal today is the peak of Hiru-ga-take, a short five or so hours from the foot of the mountain. The slope is steep, and I have slight pangs of envy as the OE recounts the story of his climb in February this year, when the snow lay thick on the ground. The wooden walkways and steps which protect the mountain from erosion, the inevitable penalty for the crime of existing so close to the world’s densest metropolis, are pitted and chipped by the crampons of those who climb during the colder seasons. Half the trail is sadly clad in these erosion protection devices, and each seems designed by a committee of sadists, who have carefully measured the gait and length of the human stride and then made steps that exactly don’t match it. We climb on, effortlessly switching the lead as one or other tires of seeking a line through the debris, until we sight the hut at the summit of Tou-no-take.

The Tanzawa range is less famous for what it is, and more for what you can see from it. Fuji rises out of the plain, unobstructed, to the west, while the Pacific glistens between the arms of the Ise and Chiba peninsulas. In autumn, the maples set its slopes on fire, and in a few weeks the white mizubasho will flower and draw the crowds. Tou-no-take is as far as many are content to come, but the cold wind suggests to us that it is time to move on and along the ridge to Tanzawa-san and beyond.

The ridge linking Tou to Tanzawa is crumbling and returning its material to the sea. Bridges and ropes, so bright that they can be scarcely more than a winter or two old, lie collapsed and fallen into the ravine. The crowds don’t follow, and we have the back of the mountain to ourselves. The managed forests of conifers give way to sparse deciduous woods, linked by pastures of wiry yellow grass; were it not for Fuji’s iconic frame floating on the near horizon, we could have been walking any of the moors or hilltops of home.

The summit of Tanzawa-san itself is nondescript, lower than both its neighbors, and we pass quickly over it. The landscape grows wilder, gashed only by the single track that makes its way along the ridge. Fuji hides. Like zen and ikebana, it knows that the most powerful transformations come when the unseen becomes the seen, and so it waits, hidden by the ridge before bursting from the sudden plain as we come over the crest. A boiling skirt of clouds spreads from its flanks, tumbling and seething, spilling over the Hinokibora ridge like milk. Our breath is momentarily taken from us, but with renewed energy in our souls we make for Hiru-ga-take, where the hut sits on the peak, heavy with the promise of views of Fuji unobstructed.

Yari-ga-take is named for its spear-like prominence, Shirouma for the outline of a horse which is said to appear as the snow melts from its flanks. Many Japanese mountains are named for their resemblance to some other thing. Hiru-ga-take, however, is named for its most famous fauna: the leech. Said to be so numerous in the warmer months that they drop from the trees onto unsuspecting climbers, they add an unexpected challenge to this otherwise straightforward mountain. Fortunately, spring has not yet reached the upper slopes of Hiru, and so we make the hut with our full compliment of corpuscles, and sit in the early evening light with a beer, each other, and Fuji for company.

We wake to a Scottish dawn of fog and chill; as expected the weather window is closing, and by 5 a.m. we’re sprinting towards Hinokibora-yama, the last climb of the trip. We can already taste the beer and feel the warm waters of the hot spring that wait for us down below, and pummel the course time to get us there all the faster. Up and over, and soon racing down the final ridge, we rejoin the world at the crowded campsite in the valley, where an army of giant Coleman tents have invaded and now cover every square inch. Our bodies quickly blend into the crowds, but our souls remain high.


24 Responses to “Golden is the week”

  1. Gen Kanai on May 6th, 2009 1:32 pm

    HDR, right? Cause if not then I’ll stop taking photos…

    Amazing images.

  2. Captain Interesting on May 6th, 2009 4:12 pm

    That last photo is particularly striking – it’s good to breathe the air of Tanzawa again, if only vicariously. Interesting about the leeches: confirms what I’ve heard about the sawas on Hiru-ga-take. Nomen is omen …..

  3. Martin Rye on May 6th, 2009 7:34 pm

    There is going for a walk and then there is that. Is Japan ever normal? I marvel at the beauty and wonder of it. magic, majestic, stunning, amazing. I don’t think words could do justice to the last photo?. A joy to read and view as always.

  4. I-CJW on May 9th, 2009 10:04 am

    Hey Gen – yes, the Fuji shots are all HDR. Low altitude and hazy conditions called for the application of a little technical wizardry. Glad you like them, though!

    Hi Captain – my father-in-law warned me about the dreaded hiru, but fortunately we are still too early in the season. I did find this in my researches though:

    Hi Martin – Japan is definitely never normal! I’m constantly amazed at what it throws at me. Given the haze, I wasn’t expecting much from the sunset – then we come over the crest, and see the clouds rolling off Fuji and over the ridge.. magic! The photos sadly don’t do justice to the way that those clouds seethed and fell. I really should have taken my video camera..

  5. wes on May 10th, 2009 12:47 am

    A beautiful account, and a reminder that I’ve got to write-up my Tanzawa entry as well.

    Great photos as usual.

    I recommend a winter ascent – there’s a certain day of the year when the sun sets directly behind the top of Fuji

  6. KamoshikaBob on May 11th, 2009 6:00 am

    Great pics and write-up, as usual. Looks like there’s at least two there you could put in the book.

    I can imagine what the spilling clouds would have looked like in real time… But your perspective from just above the cloud table is unique. Here in the Chikuma/Shinano River valley, I can occasionally watch clouds spilling over the 1000m Sekita range that separates us from the Japan Sea, but almost always from below, and usually with a high overcast.

    I also liked “the twins gods of leisure goods and national holidays”. I need to start planning my own Hyakumeizan forays for this year…

  7. Nigel on May 12th, 2009 1:29 pm

    Once again, great stuff Chris. Are you still based in Tokyo?

    I wondered where exactly Myogi is and what the hike is like there. From what month is it likely to be nice and green?

  8. George on May 13th, 2009 3:53 am

    Thanks for another great account. When I used to live in Tokyo we made one or two trips to Tanzawa, one time for hiking and the other for a rope-work course. I remember there being some pretty steep flanks there – if it had a decent snowpack it would be really fun to ski during the winter.

    I didn’t know about the yama-hiru though! The worst places around here for yama-hiru is the forested Mikuni-toge – Saragakyo area. I swear they can detect your breathing and jump down from the overhanging branches. ugh!

  9. I-CJW on May 13th, 2009 10:27 am

    Wes – hopefully I can time a winter ascent next year. The snow comes so infrequently to Tanzawa and goes so quickly… But I did see in the hut some photos of the sun rising over Fuji, as you describe. Further research required…

    KamoshikaBob – thank you, as always – it’s the first time I’d seen the clouds (taki-gumo, as I now know them to be called) spilling over the ridge. Just magnificent. Which of the Hyakumeizan are you planning on this year?

    Nigel – yup, still in Japan, maybe this is our year, finally?! To get to Myogi, take the shinkansen from tokyo, or regular train from Ueno, to Takasaki, then transfer onto the Shin’etsu Honsen as far as either Matsuida or Yokogawa. The hiking is nice round the foot of the mountain, and the climbing no more than 5.4-5.5 at the top. It’s getting green now, should be nice by month end or early June. Drop me an email if you need more info.

    Hi George – I wasn’t too worried about the yama-hiru until I watched the video posted above. I can well imagine they detect your breathing – the sight of that one making its way back to the blood on the guy’s foot send shivers down me. Double ugh!

  10. Armchair Asia on May 17th, 2009 9:46 am

    Did you/will you participate in recovery of the body of the American poet David Arnold?

    It seems like you have the skills to help.

  11. Armchair Asia on May 17th, 2009 9:52 am

    Sorry, “Craig” Arnold who likely died on Kuchinoerabu-jima.

  12. I-CJW on May 17th, 2009 12:10 pm

    Hi Armchair Asia – no, I was not part of the team from Tokyo that went down there – I’ve no search and rescue experience. As I understand it, all the teams have now pulled out.

  13. RedYeti on May 19th, 2009 6:43 am

    Wow – HDR used beautifully there Chris!

    I always hit “F11″ when reading your blog. That blows it up to full screen and lets me see as much as possible at once.

    Thought I’d mention it so others might also be able to enjoy it without clutter of the browser!

  14. Peter Skov on May 19th, 2009 7:06 am

    Whatever you do with your photos, they always have a certain atmosphere that I only see in your works. It might be a combination of your lens and your computer skills but even though we may see the same light your photos always have a mysterious quality of light and atmosphere.

    The fifth photo really did make me think of Scotland or the U.K. somewhere. It seems you have a way to capture scenes of mountain mist that look very British.

    I had a chuckle over the comment about tea bags that smelled like feet.

  15. I-CJW on May 20th, 2009 1:03 pm

    Hey RedYeti – went a little overboard on the HDR and after-processing on these, just to see what they’d turn out like. Glad you like them!

    Hi Peter – good to see one of your comments made it :-) Funny you should mention that fifth photo looked like the U.K. – that was the exact conversation I was having with the Other Englishman as we walked along that stretch. The combination of the mist, the tufty grass, the light – all very English/Scottish. Worst thing about those teabags was that they didn’t just smell like feet – they tasted like them too…

  16. hanameizan on May 25th, 2009 7:40 am

    I’ll second those comments of Peter – your photos do have a ethereal feel, even the ones that are not HDR.

    Thanks RedYeti for the F11 tip. At first I thought you were talking about aperture!

  17. Mountaingoat on May 27th, 2009 10:04 am

    Hey Chris, lovely shots.

    I camped on Hiru-ga-take a few years ago and in the morning as I packed up the tent I happened to find blood gushing down my leg. Yup, the place is aptly named alright.

  18. matt on June 11th, 2009 2:09 am

    My soul is high too when i view your photography.

  19. David on June 11th, 2009 1:35 pm

    Please forgive my addiction but I am really eager to see a new awesome photo series.

  20. CJW on June 19th, 2009 12:30 am

    Hanameizan/MG/Matt/David – thank you all for your kind comments, and my apologies for not commenting back sooner.

    The blog has been sick. It started with a sniffle, and then suddenly went into full cardiac arrest – couldn’t add new posts, couldn’t add comments, couldn’t view single posts… but I applied the paddles, did an MRI, put it on full-spectrum antibiotics and got a pulse (note: I may have been watching too much “House” recently). To cut a long story short, we’re now powered by a brand new MySQL database and shiny Wordpress 2.8 installation. It only took a month…

    Oh, and there’s a new post to go with it!

  21. Links (2009-09-14) | Unwohltaeter on September 14th, 2009 10:46 am

    [...] “Golden Is The Week” (sehr schöne Fotografien) [...]

  22. Japanese phrases on February 15th, 2010 7:21 am

    These photos are absolutely amazing. The first one almost looks fake it is so good.

  23. HGW on February 28th, 2010 3:37 am

    Wow, these pictures look like movie scenes, Absolutely amazing.

  24. CJW on March 2nd, 2010 9:42 am

    Japanese Phrases / HGW – the photos came out much better than I expected. Some of them are HDR processed, as the light was not quite as good as I wanted.

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