The white stuff  

Monday, 24 March 2014

It's probably true to say that most gaijin Tokyo-ites' first experience of mountain hiking in Japan is a trip to Takao san. Located about an hour away by train, it's readily accessible and extremely popular for family outings and afternoon strolls in the woods. There are a number of generally well-signed trails up the mountain and around the summit that present varying degrees of challenge to the visitor. Along with the trails there is a cable car and chair lift that feeds a steady stream of visitors to the the summit; that stream becomes a torrent in nice weather. So much so that Takao san can become unpleasantly crowded and is therefore avoided like the plague by many hikers seeking a bit of intimate quality time with nature.Hachioji-Shi-20130505-00328

Thankfully, however, the Japanese built-in herding instinct also means that the average recreational walker tends to shun even well-maintained trails such as Takao san when the weather is not ideal. Being British, we are of course not deterred by a bit of weather, so I've often found Takao san to be a convenient destination for a quick couple of hours in the fresh air during week days when the weather is a bit inclement.

Tokyo got hit by a very heavy snowfall this year - the heaviest for 30 years apparently. Outside of the urban areas, the snow was up to a metre deep in many places, with many of the mountain trails and roads closed and avalanche warnings in place on even some of the closer peaks. Naturally this is all very frustrating to those looking for a couple of hours escape. Especially those who had taken the opportunity of a recent trip to Europe to pick up some new hiking kit, and was itching to get out there and start playing.

So it was that I hatched the (in hindsight, perhaps not the wisest) plan to take a quick run up Takao san. I was concerned that I would miss out on seeing the woods bedecked with snow. I needn't have worried on that score!

Armed with cooker, tarp and emergency gear I set off from Takao san guchi station at about 10am for what I thought would be a gentle schleppe up Route 2 / 3 to the summit. Pretty soon after starting my ascent, it became apparent that this was going to be a lot harder slog than anticipated.


The snow was deep. When I say deep, I mean it had completely covered the path to a depth of 50-100cm or more. Traffic on the path had packed it down in places, but in many places it was quite treacherous. As I ascended, I found I was getting stuck more and more where the hardened surface of the snow wasn't enough to hold my weight and my feet kept suddenly disappearing into the depths, pitching me over on numerous occasions.  what made it worse was the fact that the path is very narrow at best, but the snow had pretty much obscured the edge of the path, so that what looked like solid ground was actually merely a fluffy overhang above a steep, wooden gully strewn with rocks and very unforgiving branches. This really was a job for snow-shoes and crampons - and I had neither with me! Big mistake.

IMG-20140228-00574 After a couple of hours of wading through thick snow, I made it to the top. A digger had cleared some of the roadway on the top section so it was possible to see just how much snow was there. My hiking poles are about 120cm in length.

I had arrived very much later at the top than I'd planned, and I was mindful that I still needed to get down before nightfall, so I decided to head straight off down Route 6. I could have chosen Route 1, which is paved all the way. But in all honesty I would have viewed this as a bit of a cop-out after working so hard to get up by a more challenging route. So turning myself around, I headed off for Route 6. IMG-20140228-00575 There was lots more fun to follow?

Route 6 starts down the mountain with a couple of long step sections. Although there was snow, it wasn't too deep and the steps themselves were fairly clear. I passed a couple of people coming up the path dressed in fairly inappropriate clothing for the conditions - i.e. trainers, so I surmised that if they had made it thus far the conditions further down were probably OK. How wrong I was!

After a fairly benign start, Route 6 drops into a stream bed gully, strewn with rocks and potentially ankle-twisting traps. Here the snow had really drifted heavily so the stream was completely and totally buried about a metre down. But it was still there, running under the show! Every so often, I could see massive potholes where some unfortunate had dropped through the crust into the stream below, which was happily burbling away under it's icy blanket. Clearly, with very few people around, twisting an ankle (or worse) and getting trapped in these conditions would be a serious problem, so I moved as cautiously as possible given the fact that I only had a couple of hours to negotiate my way down.

IMG-20140228-00576 Here again, the path had been completely buried so in many cases is was just not  possible to determine what was stable ground and what was just wind-blown snow. What made it worse was that pine twigs had blown down onto the surface, making it look like a muddy path - but it wasn't! The real path lay 30-50cm below it. At one point my foot sank unexpectedly into a pothole and I pitched over backwards, just managing to stop myself from rolling over the edge and into a rocky gully below.

A bit further down the path, you come across a famous spot called the Biwa Waterfall. It is here that monks undergo their rigorous Misogi training - sitting under an icy-cold mountain waterfall while reciting Buddhist mantras. To protect the monks from the prying eyes of tourists, a screen has been erected along the top of the cliff edge. Normally, I can comfortably walk under the screen supports without having to duck too much. On this occasion, I was forced to climb over them. IMG-20140228-00577

I eventually made it down OK with plenty of time to spare. It certainly turned out to be a considerably more eventful trip than anticipated. And a valuable one: The big takeaway from this little adventure is that the Japanese backcountry is not to be taken lightly. Even on well-travelled routes like Takao san, conditions can be treacherous and you really, really need to be well-equipped and well armed with information on the weather conditions. Most popular mountains have websites where it's possible to get day-to-day updates on weather. I also learned that crampons and snowshoes are pretty much essential items here. They will be on my Xmas list for this year!

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