Last days of Rome

September 1, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Call it what you want. Boredom. Frustration. Fin de si├Ęcle ennui. Tokyo is a white hot skillet, a spitting stir fry of twenty million people, and I needed out.

The Kamikochi bus terminal at the foot of the Alps is as crowded as anywhere in the capital. And it’s only 5:30 in the morning. A human log jam of plaid shirts and last minute cigarettes. But speed and bad terrain are your friends when the August weekend crowds show up, and in minutes I leave the masses far behind and work my way up the familiar pan of the river and towards the spires of the Hotakas.

Few places in the Japanese Alps are as breath-taking as the Hotaka cirque. Two large huts and a multitude of brightly coloured tents huddle below the peaks, still streaked with snow. In my mind’s eye I trace the route; up the northern flank to Kita-hodaka, cut southwards along the ridge to Oku-hodaka, but my real goal is the dotted red line that the map marks between Oku-hodaka and Nishi-hodaka. That’s where I’m going, that’s where I’ll leave the crowds firmly behind.

By dusk, I’m there. The path has faded away, there are no signposts or markers here, just sheer drops on each side. I thread my way along the Uma-no-sei, the Horseback, and towards the tower of the Gendarme. On a little ledge below it, I unroll the bivy bag and contemplate my room in the sky as I watch the sun dip down through a boiling sky of clouds below.

Dawn comes in the blink of an eye, and I race back up to the peak of the Gendarme to meet it. Oku-hodaka stands directly in the line of the rising sun, black against the vermilion sky. Behind me, it casts a sky-wide Brocken; too large to fit the frame of the camera, a double and triple rainbow that arcs completely, perfectly sited at the summit of Kasa-ga-take on one end and the summit of Norikura-dake at the other. It was for my eyes alone.

The pack is light, and I’m fast. The map tentatively suggests seven hours for the ridge, with plentiful admonitions to the dangers of knife edge ridges and cliffs involved. Eschewing the intermittent ladders and chains, I free climb where I need to and revel in the speed. Just over two hours later, I reach the Nishi-hodaka hut and its crowds, just as the cloud starts to roll in. I’ve pushed enough for now. It’s time to brave Tokyo again.


Call it boredom. Call it frustration. Call it pushing your boundaries. Call it the last days of Rome, that distant thunder of the Visigoth hoards outside the city. I needed out.

The news broke: Japan has fallen from the world’s second largest economy, and now lies in third place behind China. The same day, I handed in my residency card at Narita Airport, and boarded a plane for Singapore. It’s time to see the sun rise over some different horizons.

For the first time in a long while, there’s no map and I have no idea where I am going or where the boundaries are. I’ll know once I cross them.

In the meantime, I remain “I, CJW ~ Hiking, Climbing & Mountaineering (mostly) in Japan”.


43 Responses to “Last days of Rome”

  1. Fraser on September 1st, 2010 1:38 pm

    Sweet post. Outstanding photos as usual…

  2. George Baptista on September 1st, 2010 1:58 pm

    Given your skills and speed, you could probably do a similar day-route (up Dakesawa, then traverse to Nishi-Ho). Of course, that would cut out the bivouac, and perhaps half the fun.

    Good one!

  3. Amy on September 1st, 2010 3:01 pm

    welcome to the equator. thoroughly enjoyed the photos and words that accompany them.

  4. Clint on September 1st, 2010 6:14 pm

    Sweet jesus Chris, those shots are amazing. Especially the Fuji shot. I just process all the shots my wife took when she climbed this last year. I was out of the country at the time and was mad jealous when I saw how amazing this place looked. Don’t tell anyone, but you definitely bested her in the photography department!

    So is your move to Singapore permanent? As small as that place is, I would love to live there since it is such a convenient hub for Asia.

  5. Gen Kanai on September 2nd, 2010 4:19 am

    Safe travels!

  6. Junko on September 2nd, 2010 7:25 am

    You are what???

    Take care…!

  7. Alex on September 2nd, 2010 7:40 am

    Lovely pics Chris, and a late afternoon antidote to the heat. Today is the 28th straight day of 30+ degree days in Tokyo – most nights it hasn’t dipped much below that, if at all. It is officially the hottest summer recorded in Tokyo since records began… your photos of snow-covered peaks in summer may have historical significance one day to add to their current aesthetic appeal!

    Lets go climb a rock when you get back…

  8. Alistair on September 2nd, 2010 8:30 am

    Finally I get my next fix of the best writing in blog land. I shall miss your tales of the Japanese Alps but you’ve sown the seed. I must go there! Good luck in your new adventures.

  9. CJW on September 2nd, 2010 9:35 am

    Fraser – glad you liked it!

    George – interesting, I’ll have to dig the map out and take a look. Although I do like my bivy…

    Amy – as much as I’ll miss the changing seasons (especially the chilliest one), equatorial life has a lot going for it. And it’s not like the region is short on mountains..

    Clint – that’s high praise, thank you. Permanent move… who knows? I plan to be back in Japan a lot. I will be (mostly) Hiking, Climbing & Mountaineering in Japan for some time, I imagine!

    Gen – cheers, and let’s try to catch up next time you’re down in the Lion City.

    Junko – ah, yes! Let’s try to set up that dinner with you & the team, & I’ll tell you all about it!

    Alex – I never thought I’d miss the weather in Singapore, but coming back to Tokyo has been a shock. Pretty grim this year. Although George (above) tells me that we might have a La Nina winter, which bodes for awesome snow… Will shoot you an email, definitely want to go sacrifice some skin to the rock gods.

    Alastair – if the seed has been planted, then the blog has done it’s job! And it’s not the end, but any means – I’ll be back…

  10. Shannon on September 2nd, 2010 12:28 pm

    Sad to see you go, but anticipating the pictures of your new adventures.

    Be well.

  11. Vlad on September 2nd, 2010 4:30 pm

    Moving to Singapore? Now I must come there so we can meet!
    Great as usual but the Fuji shot is aMazing with a big M. Probably because it resembles so closely the work of my favorite painter – Roerich (you can do a google search for images with only his name and you’ll see what I mean).

  12. Mikael on September 2nd, 2010 7:13 pm

    Took a few views to see the people in the last shot. Nice capture!

    Being able to choose your path in life, as on the mountain, is a privilege. Best of luck, and looking forward to see the pictures from along the way.

  13. James on September 3rd, 2010 1:08 am

    Your photos are absolutely magnificent! I just stumbled onto your site because I have been looking for someone’s account of doing the traverse from Oku-Hodaka to Nishi-Hodaka. I was wondering how this compares to Daikiretto or Tsurugi as far as the difficulty level. I was planning to go there next week. Thanks again for posting this as I think it is the only one on the web that is in English!

    The rest of your site is great too by the way. I am still checking out your other posts and wish I had found it sooner. Good luck in Singapore.

  14. Project Hyakumeizan on September 3rd, 2010 6:36 pm

    A post that arrested my attention on many different levels …

    - the photography: that rainbow is stunning: what was happening then – a light drizzle – or is that a cloud bow…?

    - the heat in Tokyo sounds horrifying – the hottest summer on record – night temperatures too, I presume. Are those strange convection clouds forming over the Kan-Nana ring road…?

    - but the biggest question of all is how we readers of your blog keep getting our Japan mountain fix if you are living in Singapore…?

  15. Martin Rye on September 3rd, 2010 8:28 pm

    In the high places you found something above the crowds that is priceless – peace and satisfaction that only a mountain view can bring. The fate of Japan lies with its people and their resolve to make it. As for you I hope the new sky and new dawn bring the joy to what you are seeking.

  16. Ben on September 4th, 2010 12:28 pm

    Wow Chris, I can’t believe you’re leaving Japan after all these years. That’s kind of a shock. I’ll continue to look forward to your excellent photos and stories from your new adventures in Singapore, Malaysia, and Sumatra. There’s no way you’re stopping with just Singapore!

  17. James Annan on September 5th, 2010 3:55 pm

    Thanks for your lovely photos. To echo the earlier James (not me) can you say a little more about the Nishi-hodaka ridge, how challenging it is as a (summer) walk? Info seems hard to come by…

  18. Willie on September 6th, 2010 11:33 am

    Hey there. Have thoroughly enjoyed the words and pictures here. Here’s to more adventures, from a long time reader, first time commenter.

  19. Joe on September 6th, 2010 1:31 pm

    Every post is a treat, eagerly devoured like a 5 year-old with an Easter egg.

    Here’s to new adventures and new challenges.

  20. Cherri on September 7th, 2010 3:13 pm

    Hey! Those are excellent mountain top views, just breathtaking…
    Great memories for you. Thanks fir sharing!

  21. Loco on September 8th, 2010 9:53 am

    As always, captivating photos with outer limits like beauty and extraordinarily complimetary prose. YOU, ICW, are a role model! I wish you happy trails and look forward to more from Singapore. Keep in touch, buddy, and stay as safe as a rugged mountain man can!

  22. Our Man in Abiko on September 8th, 2010 11:33 am

    Good luck in all you do. All of Abiko salutes you. I’ll have a cold one for you tonight.


  23. Peter Skov on September 8th, 2010 12:29 pm

    Chris, the light you got there is phenomenal! That’s the stuff I go looking for. That low across-the-horizon light under a cloud ceiling is perfect for mountain and desert photography.

    It’s fun to look at your photos since the beginning of your trek was where I went in May and it looks so different yet familiar.

    Your post is, as always, such a pleasure to read. However, even though I know of your near-future plans, reading about you handing in your residence card really put the finality into the idea that you are leaving Japan, and the mountains you love will be much farther away now. It was a shock for me to first hear that you were thinking to move on, but it was almost with great sadness I read your final paragraph in this post.

    I do wish you the best of success and hope that in future days I will still be enjoying your exploits in the mountains of Japan and other countries on this blog. Thanks for all the great reading and inspiration you have given me over the two years that I have known you on the Net.

  24. hanameizan on September 8th, 2010 11:46 pm

    It’s a great pity to see you leaving Japan, but I think you’ll be drawn back here, even if only on visits.

    And on the bright side, you will be closer to the mountains of NZ, Borneo and Indonesia, so I look forward to reading about your adventures on some new peaks.

  25. Cherri on September 12th, 2010 10:45 am

    Enjoy your travels! Great shots…stay healthy and happy.

  26. Philip Werner on September 12th, 2010 5:38 pm

    I’ve embarked on a similar journey, metaphorically speaking. Is this Singapore trip permanent? Are there mountains there? Be well.

  27. Maz on September 12th, 2010 5:53 pm

    Nepal’s not that far either – 4.5hrs. They’ve got a few mountains…

  28. CJW on September 13th, 2010 10:44 am

    Thanks Shannon – there *will* be new adventures!

    Vlad – definitely, if you ever find yourself in Singapore then do look me up. Thank you for introducing me to Roerich – stunning!

    Mikael – absolutely right, it is a privilege, and one I’m honoured to have.

    James – thanks, & I just sent you an email with a better description of that ridge!

    Project Hyakumeizan – firstly: that rainbow is, in fact, a Brocken. Oku-ho was directly in the line of the sun (you can see it’s pyramidal shadow on the horizon) and cast this enormous arc across the sky. Magical! Secondly, yes Tokyo has been horrendous this year, weather-wise. Thirdly…. well, the plan is to be back in Japan plenty & often. Hopefully for most of the colder months, too!

    Martin – beautifully put, as always, thank you.

    James – re the ridge, here’s what I sent to the other James:

    “I went Kamikochi-Kitahotaka-Oku-Gendarme, then the next day Gendarme-Nishi-hotaka-Kamikochi. I bivvied on a ledge just behind the Gendarme. There’s probably even room for a small tent up there, if you fancy avoiding the crowds at the hut – you’ll also get a hop on any teams the next day (which, if they are composed the usual unsteady geriatrics, will be slooooow). The only thing to be aware of is that there are no water sources at all between Oku and Nishi-ho – so you’ll need to stock up at the hut, no matter what. I took on about 4 litres (which did dinner, breakfast & the next morning very easily).

    The route as far as Oku-hotaka is really cruise-y – well marked, very easy terrain. From Oku, you’ll cross the Uma-no-sei, which is badly marked (as is much of the route) and very exposed, and then onto the Gendarme – I’d recommend taking some time and climbing up the back of the Gendarme when you get there (it’s easier than it looks from the front) and catching some great views of Yari, Fuji and the Alps from the top. From the Gendarme onwards, you’re on fairly straightforward terrain, but with quite a lot of exposure, loose rock and challenging trail finding until you get quite close to Nishi-ho (where the cable-car climbers start to appear). There are a number of well placed ladders and chains – although it’s quite possible (not to mention quicker and more fun!) to do it without using them. If you do encounter any slow moving groups, and you are confident, then you can shave a lot of time off by simply climbing around them, with a suitably wide berth of course.

    In all, from Oku to Nishi-ho, it took 2 hours and 53 minutes, so a lot quicker than map time. I thought it was a little harder than the Daikiretto from a route-finding perspective, although easier from an exposure perspective (having said that, I’ve never really understood all the fuss about the Daikiretto..).”

    Hi Willie – glad you enjoyed the blog, and always nice to know who’s reading!

    Joe – Indeed, here’s to new & more adventures!

    Cherri – thanks for reading!

    Loco – thanks, buddy – I’ll be back!

    Our Man – always happy to be the catalyst for downing a cold one :-)

    Peter – I’m always struck by how different the Alps are through the seasons. I was reading a post about a summer Yari climb when it occurred to me that I’d never done it without snow on the ground – looked completely different. Hopefully we can get out together in Oct before I head off.

    Hanameizan – I think we’ll be back plenty & often. I still haven’t given up on the search for somewhere in Yamanashi or Nagano. And as you say, Japan isn’t the only place in Asia with mountains.

    Cherri – thank you!

    Maz – ah, now you’re giving me some very bad ideas :-)

  29. CJW on September 14th, 2010 3:18 am

    Hi Philip – your comment got trapped in the spam filter for some reason :-( Singapore is… in my mind, not permanent. It’s more of a convenient base of operations as the various scars on the Japanese (and global) economy heal up. It’s also as flat as a pancake… but there are plenty of mountains close-by in neighbouring countries, lots of good rock, and flights back to Japan are cheap!

  30. CJW on September 14th, 2010 3:38 am

    Ben – sorry, you were another victim of the spam filter… Quite right, though, there’s plenty of good mountain action in the region!

  31. mikesblender on September 17th, 2010 6:38 pm

    Another one leaves Japan! Are there really mountains near Singapore to compare to the ones in Japan though? Looking forward to the next post though to see some of them.

    I’ll be back in Japan sometime in the future (visiting only) so maybe our paths will cross again.
    Best of luck!

  32. Jason Collin Photography on September 20th, 2010 2:46 am

    I was pretty shocked when mikesblender told me that you had moved to Singapore. I would not have guessed you would suffer from Tokyo burnout, but I of course totally understand how it can happen.

    You have already been up Mount Kinabalu, so I can’t guess what your first Singapore-based mountaineering post will be of.

    Also, why did you give up all your gear if you will be returning to climb in Japan?

    I look forward to your jungle hiking posts . . .

  33. CJW on September 20th, 2010 8:19 am

    Hi Mike – sadly, there’s nothing quite like Japan’s mountains nearby, but there should be enough to keep me happy. And Japan is only a few hours flight away, so I’ll be back plenty & often I hope – maybe see you next time?

    Hey Jason – yup, I’m off for a while, it’s time to take a break while Japan sorts itself out one way or another. I was thinking about Kinabalu the other day – there’s some good technical climbing on it as well, plus the via ferrata, which is supposed to be enormous fun. Who knows what else there is down there… Oh, and I didn’t give all my gear by any means! What got given away the other day was a mere fraction… :-)

  34. sgs on September 23rd, 2010 12:50 am

    Late to the (farewell) party, and what can I say? Your description and photographs of the west Hodaka ridge just shows that you are irreplaceable, Chris. So please do stick around!

  35. Woogey on September 29th, 2010 10:02 am

    I have to say… As a norwegian, I’ve always had the feeling I’ve been spoiled when it comes to the beauty of nature, but I’m not so sure about that anymore, and Japan is definately the target for the next holiday.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your journeys with us, as well as these fantastic pictures, which leads me over to a tiny request. It so happens I’m working on a task(school) about the geology, landforms, geological resources and climate (along with quite a lot of other stuff) of Japan, and I would love to use some of your photos there, as they are rather astonishing and eyecatching. I would of course give you credit for them.

    Anyway, thanks again for these uploads, it’s been a joy to read.

  36. CJW on September 30th, 2010 1:26 am

    Hi SGS – no fear, I’ll be back!

    Hey Woogey – Japan’s beautiful, you’d love it. But then, so is Norway. I’ve only ever been to Oslo on business, but maybe next time I can get out of the city… As for the photos, feel free to use whatever you need. There are more on my Flickr account (see the link above) – if there’s anything you want in a larger size, then just email me at cjw (at) and I’ll send it over!!

  37. vpn on October 4th, 2010 11:55 am

    i just discovered your blog and really like it

  38. James Annan on October 29th, 2010 7:51 am

    Thanks v much for the info about the ridge.

  39. casey on November 12th, 2010 3:04 am

    good luck with your move…looking forward to more pictures and stories from other climes…

  40. Julien on November 23rd, 2010 12:25 pm

    It’s really too bad you left Japan! I was really enjoying your photography and great writing. You really inspired me to get out to the mountains and climb everything in sight! Your blog has been such a great source for me. It’s so sad to hear there may be less entries about mountains in Japan but I’m looking forward to hearing about the places you explore next. If you don’t get out there soon, I’d love to see you put up your 4-season gear list!! I love your winter stories the best!!

    Good luck wherever you go!

  41. AceFace on November 28th, 2010 2:53 pm

    Welcome to Singapore! It’s a real pity that my weekly dose of escapism ie visiting your blog has ended but I’m sure we’ll see some S.E.A. hikes soon! Bali/ Lombok is a nice place to start I hear…

  42. The Envoy on December 26th, 2010 5:30 am

    Good luck in Singapore, Chris. Plenty of hills and mountains to climb in Southeast Asia.

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