Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

X

Hiking Volcanoes in a Country Where Mountains are Religion

Watching the sunrise from Mt. Nantai
Watching the sunrise from Mt. Nantai

 

Back in July, I visited Japan for a week to visit my elderly grandparents, but was able to slip away from family obligations at night. Instead of hitting the karaoke bar, my sister, cousin and I went to climb Mt. Nantai, an active stratovolcano and the tallest of the Famous 100 “peakbagger’s list” in the Canto region.

Mt. Nantai rises more than 4,000 feet from the plains.
Mt. Nantai rises more than 4,000 feet from the plains.

Nantai-san is considered a holy mountain and is guarded by Shinto monks who close off the trail all year—until midnight on August 1st (in fact, I had tried climbing this mountain several years ago and was thwarted due to the monks’ regulation). Shinto is an ancient religion that, among other things, reveres nature and finds gods—big and small—in the outdoors.

The climb begins with a ritual to wash your hands before visiting the gods. Image courtesy Kat Thomas
The climb begins with a ritual to wash your hands before visiting the gods. Image courtesy Kat Thomas

I expected that the three of us would be among the only people who would climb Mt. Nantai at midnight as soon as the gates opened. After all—how many people really want to climb 4,000 feet over 3 miles in the middle of the night???

A monk guards the gate to the trailhead.
A monk guards the gate to the trailhead.

1500 people! Shinto still informs some Japanese consciousness and that is why the annual opening of Mt. Nantai—the highest peak in the same region as Tokyo—was a big deal. The town of Nikko where my grandparents live, is booming with UNESCO world heritage sites and areas of historic and cultural significance that everyone in Japan learns about in school. On top of that, but the opening coincided with a full moon. Old, young, and middle-aged, we crowded by the closed trailhead gate, waiting for hours in line on the shores of Lake Chuzenji (the highest alpine lake in Japan).

Shobo tried to ford *that* river!
Shobo tried to ford *that* river!

According to legend, in 766 AD, a priest named Shōdō climbed Mt. Nantai to pray for the country’s prosperity. The peak itself, the shrine at the base of the climb (aka “the trailhead”) and a UNESCO world-heritage shrine down the mountain in the town of Nikko all are connected by that monk’s climbing story (he had some trouble with a ford that a god ended up helping him on by building a sweet bridge).

Traditional musicians sing from an elevated platform as part of the pre-hike festivities.
Traditional musicians sing from an elevated platform as part of the pre-hike festivities.

At midnight, the monks struck the gong and the first wave of 100 people went through. A priest blessed them. Then, in a line that recalled childhood visits to Disneyland, or more recent visits to some Denver brunch spots, we slowly ascended a steep stone staircase.

Lanterns at the shrine at the bottom of the mountain.
Lanterns at the shrine at the bottom of the mountain.

The hike itself is broken into 8 different stages. Separating the stages are break areas. Monks dressed all in white were spaced out along the route to offer encouragement and help for those in need. Between the first and second stage, there is a wooden miniature shrine. From there, the trail becomes an Appalachian/Long Trail-esque dirt and root path in the woods.

The 3rd wave crowd bursts towards the trail
The 3rd wave crowd bursts towards the trail

The third stage is marked by a paved road, which we followed up via switchbacks until we came upon food and drink carts set up particular for the mountain-opening festival. After a snack, we headed up to 4th stage: the steepest part of the trail—a rock climb that recalled the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This climbing was particular difficult in the dark and done while waiting for others. Nonetheless, I felt good about “going as fast as I could” but not leaving my little cousin in the dust.

Buta niku jiru, or pork soup, was a salty treat half way up. Only 100 yen! (less than a dollar). Image courtesy Kat Thomas
Buta niku jiru, or pork soup, was a salty treat half way up. Only 100 yen! (less than a dollar). Image courtesy Kat Thomas

Covered shelters mark the cut-offs between the 6th to 8th stages. Although you could certainly sleep in these in an emergency, they were pretty dingy.

The alpine area lit by moonlight and early morning glow
The alpine area lit by moonlight and early morning glow

After the 8th stage, the trail became dirt again and became less steep. Once we hit treeline, the hike became fantastic, though, and the type of hike I rarely get to do in Colorado and that makes hiking in Japan such a hoot for me.

We walked on loose volcanic soil—red, black, yellow and grey. The paths were lined with funky rock formations. And the top of the mountain was home to shrines. The true summit of the peak had a large katana on the top of the mountain, although there was a huge summit area replete with a ramen vendor (which I took advantage of) and additional shrines. Although it was warm enough to hike the trail in a t-shirt and 1.5 oz Montbell windshirt (Japan, afterall is fairly tropical), the summit was cold enough that my cousin started shivering and we all pulled out our hats and down.

My little cousin ascending the loose volcanic soil
My little cousin ascending the loose volcanic soil

One of the coolest parts of the hike was walking alongside actual pilgrims—students training for their mountain monk qualifications (as it was explained to me in dumbed down Japanese). These pilgrims were dressed all in white and gathered together to the shrine on top to pray and blow a ceremonial horn. This practice has been going on for centuries. Its inspiring to think that while we may think making lists of mountains you want to climb (called “peakbagging” by some) is actually an ancient affair practiced by many cultures.

The summit katana! Image courtesy Kat Thomas
The summit katana! Image courtesy Kat Thomas

As a hiker, there is something so powerful about knowing that climbing mountains and witnessing the gods underneath them is something that people have done for centuries. There’s such power in knowing that even hundreds of years ago, people knew the more mountains you climb and the more time you spend in nature, the closer you become to wisdom and spirituality. That an entire country could see the value of time in the outdoors and even find a little wisdom from the experience is a miracle.

The gate when not guarded by monks at midnight, looses some of its creepy/mystical charm
The gate when not guarded by monks at midnight, looses some of its creepy/mystical charm

So for those reasons, I’ll forgive the crowds. I’ll thank them for the awesome miso soup I had half way up the mountain. And I’ll return to the US, happy to see some wild places with no ramen on the summit, too.

More posts about climbing volcanoes in Japan here.

Tokaido Nature Trail: Logistics and Planning

The trail up to the northern termini of the Tokaido Nature Trail
The trail up to the northern termini of the Tokaido Nature Trail

In the U.S., the term “nature trail” denotes the one-mile long interpretative boardwalk next to a parking lot. It’s the place for toddlers in strollers, not a place for hardcore backpacking. So, as I scoured the internet for wild long distance hiking trails in Japan, I was skeptical to find the Tokaido Nature Trail. While the Shikoku Pilgrimage (aka Temple Trail) remains Japan’s most famous long distance trail, I wanted to walk a less publicized, more primitive path. Yet the Tokaido Nature Trail does just that—travels 1,000 miles from Tokyo to Osaka along mountains and forest reserves. I was a little surprised to find such a trail exists in Japan, especially one whose termini are so easily accessible to a car-less foreigner, yet this summer, I set off to hike on one of Japan’s longest and least publicized footpaths.

Almost all the information on the Tokaido Nature Trail is in Japanese, including the maps. Although I am ashamed to say I can’t read much Japanese, I became quite proficient at comparing Japanese characters on signposts to characters on my map. In addition, I am thankful to my mom, a native Japanese speaker, who painstakingly helped me translate maps and internet-based material. My goal in writing a series of blogposts about the Tokaido Trail is to provide a bit more information on the trail in English to would-be long distance hikers.

Mom enjoys some konnyaku yam cake at one of the food stands along the “trail”
Mom enjoys some konnyaku yam cake at one of the food stands along the “trail”

My mom joined me for the trip out to the northern termini of the Tokaido, Mt. Takao, easily accessible by train from Shinjuku, the financial district of Tokyo. Somewhat like Mt. Katahdin, Mt. Takao is a termini that is a destination in itself. Even for hikers who have no interest in doing the Tokaido trail, Mt. Takao is still worth visiting. I shared the first part of the popular trail with school children in matching bright caps on a field trip.

Japanese garden lines a stairway up to a temple.
Japanese garden lines a stairway up to a temple.

There are several routes up Mt. Takao, including taking a tram halfway up. My mom says that the temples, shrines, and old growth cedars along the trail are not particularly interesting to native Japanese people, but as a foreigner, it was fun to see them along the trail. Perhaps for a break from the climbing, my mom stopped to make a wish to the Buddhist angels for my safe journey.

View from Mt. Takao
View from Mt. Takao

In standard Japanese fashion, we found several restaurants complete with celebrity-signed photos at the summit. Yet, Takao-san is also home to several rare plants and animals (including a Japanese monkey preserve). On a good day, the climber is rewarded with views of Mt. Fuji and Tokyo. Unfortunately, summer smog and mountain fog made all but SkyTree Tower visible to us. Mt. Takao is easily visited by tourists and brochures and maps exist in many languages.

Well marked signs mark the Tokaido Nature Trail
Well marked signs mark the Tokaido Nature Trail

Now safely at one termini of the Tokaido, I departed on my own down Takao and onto Shiroyama mountain. To my frustration, maps in Japan rarely express distance between two points, instead opting to show the approximate time to hike between two areas. As an ultralight hiker, I imagine my pace is somewhat faster than the suggested times listed on maps. Eventually, I found myself solidly on the well-marked Tokaido Trail—complete with signs at each intersection in English! I was ready to set off on my journey alone.

Click here for Part 2 and more on the Tokaido Trail

 

Hiking in a nuclear disaster zone

Fields of <i><a href="http://en.japantravel.com/view/nikko-s-kisuge-daira">Kisuge-daira</a></i>, yellow mountain day lilies, cover the hillside. Locals told me that 2013 was the best <i>Kisuge-daira</i> display in 20 years.
Fields of Kisuge-daira, yellow mountain day lilies, cover the hillside. Locals told me that 2013 was the best Kisuge-daira display in 20 years.

When Americans think of Fukushima, they don’t usually think of awesome hiking. Yet, this summer, I found myself walking in a place I had, until then, only associated with nuclear disaster. I had gone to Japan to hike and, despite being in a country known for its population density, to find wild places of solitude rarely visited by people, especially by other Americans. A friendly older local/avid hiker named Hoshi told me of a traverse of complex volcanoes along Mt. Nasu, renowned for its steep climbs, alpine views, and wildflowers. Although he had been hiking there for decades, he had never seen a foreigner on the Nasu Five Peaks. Despite understanding only about 70% of his rural-Japanese-accented description, the traverse seemed to meet all my hiking criteria. I hopped in Hoshi’s car and along with a tiny, vivacious 60-year old woman who looked 30 named Junko, we drove a few hours through monkey-filled forests to our trailhead.

A small-scale farm and village in rural Japan
A small-scale farm and village in rural Japan

Hiking culture in Japan is different than in America and I was not sure what to expect.  So when Hoshi tried to flag down a car to give me a ride to the ridge, I had no idea what was going on. Was the road to the trailhead inaccessible to his golf cart sized car? Flat rice paddies surrounded me in any direction, with sidewalk-narrow roads separating the small family farms that mark the rural landscape of Japan. A heavy mist hid the steep, volcanically formed mountains towering above the villages. Hoshi finally flagged down a car, but after a short conversation with the driver, decided to park his car at what was either a community center or a temple—still not sure—and walk with me to a shrine at the edge of the mountains.

After a steep, swithback-less climb up from the trailhead, the village below was shrounded in clouds.
After a steep, swithback-less climb up from the trailhead, the village below was shrounded in clouds.

To my surprise, the trailhead was lined with what looked like race registration tents and a dozen people! Following Hoshi’s lead, I paid a fee and signed in (everyone was shocked and surprised that an American was at the event—this was the first time they’d seen a foreigner on this range either).  They gave me a red ribbon to attach to my pack—I suppose a symbol of luck for hikers—as well as a box that looked like a matchbook. Then, I was handed a paper cup filled with sake and some purple knitted socks, which I apparently had won as part of my registration.

Everyone else, including the locals I had driven with, got on a bus that was going to another trailhead, but they pointed to let me know that to complete the full range, I should start right at the shrine. At this point, I expressed some worry over not having a map. Hoshi handed me a heavy guidebook completely in Japanese with a topo-less map of the region. As it was raining rather hard now, the pages immediately got soaked. Putting the book away, I headed on the wide, paved path behind the temple, a bit incredulous that this would actually lead to the mist hidden mountains.

The paved path quickly turned to a former logging road, and then followed a steep, rocky route straight up a stream. It was quite slippery in the rain and I was immediately reminded of the Long Trail in Vermont, except that this was a thinner, more primitive path, without the impeccable maintenance.  Despite the weather, I quickly warmed up with the vertical ascent.

The shrine at Sanbonyari peak
The shrine at Sanbonyari peak

 

I reached a fork on the trail, and although I could not read the Japanese lettering on the sign, hazarded a guess that my route continued uphill. As I ascended, the deciduous trees slowly turned into deep scented Japanese cedar. The trail hugged a ridge with steep drops on either side. Much like the Appalachian Trail, I climbed roots hand-over-hand. I even scaled a few rope ladders over particularly steep sections. In the mist, it was easy to imagine I was the only hiker who had walked this trail in years. Looking at my watch, I realized that at my usual speed, I should have reached the first peak already, yet was not finding a high point. Had my inability to read the sign meant that I had walked the wrong way?

I finally reached a signed peak where I was surprised to find two drunken, older men downing beers on the rainy, grassy summit. They were shocked to find a woman hiking alone in such a remote place. I dug out the soaked guidebook and tried to match the name of the first mountain in the book with the lettering on the sign (actually, since I couldn’t read the name, the shape of the lettering). They didn’t match. I had gone the wrong way. I finally mustered enough courage to ask the drunken men if they could find our location on the map. Miraculously, they pointed at the range’s first mountain. I was in the right place! Apparently, there were multiple names for that mountain and the map name did not match the sign name. As I left, feeling elated, the drunken men handed me some candy.

I continued on the range, hitting several peaks along the way, until I reached the grandest mountain of the range, the former volcano Sanbonyari Peak. Despite the rain, many people were gathered at the summit, where a dog-house sized shrine marked the top of the peak. Again, people were surprised to see a woman hiking alone.

From here, the range became crowded and physically much easier.  The trail itself was a narrow tunnel through shoulder-high brush and there were no clear places to pull aside for a bathroom break. I was supposed to meet Hoshi and some of his friends on top of a mountain and was counting peaks and crests along the route, worried that I might miss him.

Hoshi, Junko, and the birthday crew
Hoshi, Junko, and the birthday crew

Surprisingly, I almost tripped over Hoshi and six other people pulled over on the edge of the trail at a bump which hardly warranted the name IshiYama!Hoshi’s birthday crew were huddled in a clearing free of bushes barely the size of a solo tent’s footprint, gathered around a stove cooking ramen. In 12,000 miles of hiking, I had never seen anyone so intent on cooking ramen that they’d squat in the mud and bushes in the pouring rain! I put on all my layers and the hot broth barely took off the chill. Eventually, enough of the group was uncomfortably cold, so we continued on.

Mountain lilies color the ridge
Mountain lilies color the ridge

The trail now traversed a ridge through the alpine zone. The views would have been great if the mist had not been so thick. But as far as I could see in any direction, there were Kisuge-daira,  mountain day lilies. We were traveling in a sea of yellow. In Japan, hanami, flower viewing, is a national past time, and the lilies attract people from across the country to hike the Nasu Five peaks. I felt honored to partake in the cultural tradition to catch the Kisuge-daira during its short peak bloom.

 

Close up of the mountain lily
Close up of the mountain lily

Although this trail was very popular, its maintenance standards were different than trails in America.  This part of Japan receives so much rain and its soil is so loose that trail upkeep emphasizes width over stability. As a result, I found the path steep and muddy. Slipping was inevitable. I passed another hiker who had fallen on the traction-less mud and blood was rushing from his hands and face. Never before had hiking poles seemed like such a grand invention! As we descended the ridge to an unpaved forest road, a bus was waiting to take us back into town.

As Hoshi dropped me off at the train station to go back to Tokyo, he insisted I pick up some brochures from the region. One brochure had the name of the region written in English: Fukushima. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, the mountains around Fukushima protected the nuclear radiation from the Fukushima power plant from spreading to the rest of  Japan.  As much as I trust my Sawyer filter, I was relieved I didn’t need to drink from the streams.

Vegetation taking hold of a thatched roof house in rural Japan
Vegetation taking hold of a thatched roof house in rural Japan

A survey of radiation levels after Fukushima showed that Mt. Nasu had much higher radiation than natural; areas not too far from the peak had 50 times the limit (search the interactive map for “Nasu”). Suddenly, my hike became more than a walk through a remote, unknown mountain range.  It became a walk steeped in international significance and controversy.

The Nasu Five Peaks (black star) relative to the epicenter of the Fukushima natural disaster. Map by Liz Thomas using data from <a href="http://www.nnistar.com/gmap/fukushima.html">Radiation Dosage Map measured by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology</a>
The Nasu Five Peaks (black star) relative to the epicenter of the Fukushima natural disaster. Map by Liz Thomas using data from Radiation Dosage Map measured by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology

Despite the earthquake and radiation, people like Hoshi continue to hike these mountains as they have for decades. As a foreigner, I was honored to walk the Nasu Five Peaks. Despite all the bad news that we’ve heard about the Fukushima region since 2011 and all the damage that has been done, the joy of walking mountains doesn’t change.