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June 29, 2007

Hiking the Chichibu-Tama National Park

Chichibu-Okutama National ParkChichibu-Okutama National ParkChichibu-Okutama National Park

This past week Tomoe and I got back on the trail again, hiking four days from Tokyo to Nagano - a trip with special significance because on the second day of the hike we exited Tokyo, after officially moving out the day before, via its highest point - the 2017m Kumotori Yama, and ended the fourth day in Nagano prefecture, our new home. I should be honest though, pointing out that we did not walk from our old apartment to our new (temporary) home, rather we walked from the outskirts of Tokyo to just inside the Nagano-prefecture border. We still ended up taking a 5 hour train ride to get up to the North of Nagano where we are currently living.

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We got off to a late start on day 1 as Tomoe put on her boots noticing that they were extremely loose. It took a few minutes to realize that she had somehow managed to pack her in-soles and send them off with the mover the previous day. Our only option was to head to the nearest ICI Outdoor shop and buy new ones. So with sole-less boots and full backpacks we bid farewell to our apartment and headed off to Okubo only to find that the Okubo branch had recently closed. We then walked another 45 minutes to the Shinjyuku branch, spent 20 minutes trying different in-soles, and another 20 to get back to the train. we didn't get on trail until after 2pm, so our first day was cut short. A decision that would effect the plans for every subsequent day and eventually causing the hike to be a day shorter than planned.

Chichibu-Okutama National ParkChichibu-Okutama National Park

Still, it was a beautiful hike. If you are looking for a great hike on not so crowded trails (on the last two days we encountered no other hikers), with a lot of routes and free huts huts or cheap camp-sites to choose from, I recommend the Chichibu-okutama National Park.

Getting back to day 1... Starting from Okutama station, the short hike up to about 1,400 meters was through pretty familiar territory. The big difference, however, was that this time there was green on the trees - and lots of flies. We set up tent outside the Takanosu hut where water was once again flowing (earlier in the year the water was nowhere to be found, so this time we carried an extra two liters with us. It came in handy though to douse the fire we had made to keep the bugs away)

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As soon as we opened the food bag, we were surrounded by a flock of deer, slowly closing in until we were forced to chase them off with wildly waving sticks. That night I could here them sneaking around from inside the tent and was a bit worried they might carry my backpack, where we had stashed the food as best we could, away. Lucky for us, the stupid neighbors had left all their food spread out in their camp so the deer all but ignored us.

Chichibu-Okutama National ParkChichibu-Okutama National Park

Day two started off beautifully. Clear skies and a beautiful sunrise, not too hot, not too cold. The highlight of the morning was Kumotori mountain where we said our official goodbye to Tokyo (see the high-five photo - and note the black specs above Tomoe's head... those flies were evil.), passing into Saitama prefecture. The afternoon deteriorated into rain, which makes for some great fog and misty mountain scenery with deeply colored forests. Unfortunately, it also made for a couple of cold hikers. We reached our back-up hut around 3 pm, took a short break and opted to keep going. Along the way we passed a couple of National Park rangers who warned us to be careful, while at the same time telling us "the lower route is officially closed, and we don't recommend it - but we just came that way with not problems". We opted for the higher route only to turn around an hour later when the path turned into a river, I almost got caught in a landslide, and we got colder and wetter.

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It was all for the best though, because when we got back to the back-up hut we found the rangers already there with the wood stove all stoked and ready for us to dry our clothes and get warm. The only thing that was a little difficult to warm up to was the 4,500 yen / night (about $45/person) for "su-domari", which means you get to use the roof and fire, but no food and no futon. We considered setting up tent, but figured that a cold night tonight would lead to a miserable day tomorrow. We opted to shell out the cash and slept well in the warm soft tatami room.

Chichibu-Okutama National Park

When we woke up at 5am on day three I was thrilled to find (Tomoe was not) a thick fog blanketing the area, creating amazing photo opportunities. Unfortunately, the fog lifted by 6:00 and blue skies abounded. We took off on the same ridge-route that we quit the previous evening. After about an hour we were incredibly glad that we had turned back. Surely we would have found ourselves with broken bones at the bottom of a gorge having slid off of one of the many narrow, steep rocks.

The fog returned on and off throughout the day as we passed through some higher elevations, making it up to about 2,200 meters. Once again it was beautiful. The trail we were on is a very historic trail, dating back hundreds of years when regional lords would use it to travel back and forth to Edo (Tokyo). Its hard to imagine them traveling on these paths, through these mountains with all their their horses, staff, and servants - and no synthetic clothing.

Chichibu-Okutama National ParkChichibu-Okutama National Park

We spend the third night at a small unmanned emergency shelter at Sasa-no-Daira. The hut had a wood burning stove, which is good to know in the event we take a winter hike there, but it was quite warm this night so we didn't need it. I desperately wanted to sleep outside in the tent, but Tomoe vetoed that plan and we had to stay in the dark musty decapitated hut. It was quite a different experience from staying at the beautifully maintained emergency huts of Okutama.

Chichibu-Okutama National Park

Day four presented us with some decisions to make. I had to be back in Hakuba for work in two days meaning that if we continue with the original plan we could make it, but it would be pushing it and require at least one 13 hour day (until now the longest day was 11 hrs). The original plan would also take us over two more of Japan's Hyakumesan - 100 famous mountains. The only short-cut would mean that we get home a day earlier than planned. There was no in-between. After a break nearby Kobushi-ga-dake (a hyakumesan itself) we decided to cut the trip short and hike down through the source of the Chikuma River. To make me feel better about it, I force some symbolism into the act by pointing out that the Chikuma River is the same river that passes through the area where we will eventually move to (first photo below), just before it empties into the Japan Sea.

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All in all it was another amazing hike. Hakuba, the Japan Alps, and Yatsugatake have heights (3000m), but I have really grown to love the Okutama / Chichibu area. While the mountains are a bit smaller, it is more than made up for with the abundance of trail options and free huts, and the likelyhood that you will be camping alone - compared to places like this (via Laughing Knees).

Chichibu-Tama National Park

June 21, 2007

Sakae Mura

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The villiage office of Sakae-Mura is the lowest point in Nagano prefecture. Just 200 meters above sea level, summers are not as cool as what I have been experiencing in Hakuba (700m) this past month, but still preferable to Tokyo in August. The winters though... This is what is known as Yukiguni - Snow Country. Kawabata Yasunari's novel Yukiguni was set in this very area and I have wanted to see it for myself since I first read it.

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A few years ago Tomoe and I went skiing to Gunma, just a bit south of Sakae Mura, where I had a small taste, but Gunma is only on the edge of snow-country. This past winter I spent two months in Otari, another part of the snow country, but there was a record low snow-fall. I still have yet to really experience the average four meters of snow (Sakae holds the record high for snow-fall in one year with 7.8m - a two story building) that explain why houses in Sakae Mura are built with doors on the second floor - yet no balcony or stairs, and why one old woman we spoke with (with no second floor) has to call her neighbor to dig a tunnel to her front door some mornings.

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The GoogleEarth map above shows the boundary of Sakae Mura in white. The orange line indicates Akiyamago, another name that has haunted my imagination for several years. An isolated mountain vally nestled into a deep, steep valley where only the strongest survive - and throughout history entire villages have vanashed - Akiyamago is somewhat infamous in Japan. Thanks to the steep mountains on each side of the valley, sunrise is late and sunset is early making it extremely impossible to grow a substantial rice crop, so throughout history people have survived on millet.

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Akiyamago may be one of the most isolated areas in Japan. I once attempted to ride my bike there from Tokyo but never made it because I just didn't believe my map when it said that the road I was riding ends at the Gunma/Nagano border. The fact that it is right smack in the snow-country makes it even more amazing that people can live there. In fact, only two years ago Japan's self-defense force was called in to help dig them out when they were cut off from the rest of the world for a month. When the old woman I mentioned earlier was a child, she recalls having to spend the winter down in the main town to attend school because there was no way to commute. Some things don't change though, and kids still spend the school year away from home.

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This is Sakae Mura and it will be our new home.

I should make it clear that we are probably not going to live in the Akiyamago area. Most likely we will live somewhere near or within the red circle (see map above) which is the path we walked on a recent three-day scout. Still, it is full-on snow country in the winter, and one of the most beautiful areas we have ever seen in the spring. Ridding through with a co-worker last week (who did not know that I would soon move there) I was pleased when he stopped the car to get out and take some photos, exclaiming "Wow! This is beautiful!". Perhaps its because, unlike Hakuba, there are no run-down abandoned hotels. In fact, there are no hotels at all. The only run-down buildings here are old style farm houses.

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Why would a white guy and a city girl who has never really seen snow move to a staunchly traditional Japanese villiage in the heart of Japan's snow country?

Aside from the village being beautiful, having everything we need and envisioned for our "big dream" business venture and our life, Sakae Mura is also the most welcoming place we have come across. Many villages in Japan are loosing people to cities, In fact, only two townships in Nagano are growing, and they are second-home areas. Sakae Mura is no exception so we somewhat expect a desire for new, young faces, but that's not all. Sakae Mura has also been wanting to do exactly what Tomoe and I have been planning in terms of outdoor/environmental education - but they don't have anyone to do it.

When an NPO that tries to match up city-folk, who want to escape their concrete hell, with needy townships heard about our plans, they called us to Sakae to introduce us. At first Saito-san, the man in charge at the Sakae city-office, seemed skeptical, but after an hour of chatting and presenting our plan we found ourselves being driven around the entire village and offered use of many of the facilities that surpassed anything we had ever imagined, spending an hour chatting with the mayor, and spending the night at Saito-san's home with his family.

It looks like we have found a new home.

I am still working in Hakuba for the summer because I don't want to quit on them right before the busy season, but we will certainly be taking several more trips to find a house and start getting settled.

There are many more photos of Sakae Mura taken by me here, and taken by other people showing winter, spring, summer, fall (Akiyama means "Fall Mountain" - apparently its an amazing sight) here.

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June 01, 2007

Into the Nagano Sunset

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So today I (we) leave for Nagano for the second to last time. While we each only have a backpack full of stuff, and the apartment looks just like it always has for the past year, somehow this feels more final. A delivery man is on his way this very minute to pick up birds cage. They will be riding the bus with us and have been unusually frenzied all morning - as if they somehow know that this is the last time they will see this apartment - flying back and forth to all their favorite hang-outs savoring one last chew on the wallpaper, spending longer than normal sitting on the windowsill and singing goodbye to their bird friends outside.

Tomoe claims to be feeling no apprehension about the move. I, on the other hand, am feeling more anxiety than expected. Mostly because, while everything is going well and opportunities abound, nothing is "certain". Even more-so for her. I already have work up there, and although it does not pay all that much, it's in line with my "life plan" (as if I had such a thing) and I am confident that as long as I am doing something, opportunities will continue to present themselves. For Tomoe though... To make the move from high-paced corporate ladder climbing world where she worked with people as smart as herself, people that her employer payed huge sums of money to recruit and train, to a small town where life is a lot more relaxed and most people are more driven by fresh powder than making vice-president by 35... I am nervous for her, or perhaps more for myself... that I will bear the brunt of her frustrations.

But Tomoe is just as much into this as I am, and wants it just as much. It's not a matter of is the right choice, we already know its the only choice. Here in Tokyo life stopped happening for us a year or so ago when Tomoe gave up the corporate ladder world and I put any new contracts on hold to take the Outward Bound courses. There is really nothing that we are leaving behind that can not be found again where we are going - unless you want to count Starbucks, smog, traffic, and desperate looking men in suits crowding the subway day after day after day after...

We will return one more time for three days later this month. In those three days we will pack, clean, and paint over all the damage the birds did to the woodwork. Once everything is on the truck and the landlord has checked the apartment, Tomoe and I will board a train to Okutama for one last hike. This time, however, instead of making a loop and returning to Tokyo, we will just keep on hiking straight into the Nagano sunset - and our new home.

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