THE ASCENT OF MOUNT KITAHOTAKA

It's hiking season in the Alps - the Japanese Alps, that is. A mountain hut built for 600 is just part of the challenge, writes Baiba Morrow
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The Independent Culture
At 5.30am, in the pre-dawn greyness, we were roused by loud but unintelligible instructions issuing from the loudspeakers. It was hard to believe we were on holiday. "Is this some kind of Orwellian wake-up call?" Pat muttered, his breath leaving clouds of vapour as it collided with the ice-cold air inside the Yari-dake Sanso mountain hut. With a typhoon raging outside, we knew we weren't going anywhere that day, and we snuggled deeper under the warm quilts. When the call was repeated, we realised we should abide by hut regimen, and shuffled along with the others into the huge cafeteria. We downed miso soup, rice, pickles and green tea and promptly went back to sleep.

This was the seventh day of our 250km traverse of the Japanese alps and we were getting used to roughing it, Japanese-style. Scattered across the mountains are 250 public and private facilities such as this one - 3,000m up, below the summit of Mt Yarigatake - so we were never far from comfort. The sansos, some of which can accommodate as many as 600 hikers, are luxurious palaces compared to the huts we were used to back home in Alberta. There, in the Rocky Mountains, they are small, modest shelters run by the Alpine Club of Canada, with no electricity or other modern conveniences. In Japan, they not only have public telephones, delicious food and vending machines that sell canned coffee, beer and cigarettes, but also televisions.

While these were modern intrusions which we resented, they did keep us updated with weather reports that warned us of the season's vagaries. Though the autumn months are typically plagued by typhoons, they can also be a time of clear high-pressure systems coming off the Siberian land mass to the north. We had chosen mid-September, mainly to avoid the crowds of summer and to catch some of the vivid autumn colours that so eloquently arouse the Japanese soul with their message of the fate of all living things.

The ad-hoc character of our team was dictated by availability. Adiseno, an Indonesian journalist whom we had first met while climbing in his country nine years ago, accompanied us for most of the way. Randy Helten, an ex- pat Canadian living in Tokyo since 1987, joined us for the north alps section as our indispensable interpreter. Even though his work with the global organisation Friends of the Earth dealt with Japan's high-level environmental issues, he later sheepishly confessed that he had had no idea that the mountains were so spectacular, rugged and seemingly remote. We had tried to find a Japanese member to join us for the whole trip, but all were too busy to take more than two or three days off.

We had begun our traverse in Morudo, a popular tourist destination on a high plateau just west of Toyama. The sun shone brightly as we fell in with the weekend crowds going up to Mt Oyama, a sacred peak that draws 60,000 hikers a year. Older people, dressed in classic alpine clothing straight from 19th-century Switzerland, bustled about with wooden-handled ice-axes and clunky leather boots.

On the top, adorned with a Shinto shrine, people were praying: clapping three times first, to awaken the gods, and then saying a prayer with palms together. On North American summits, a rock cairn usually marks human passage, the proof of a first ascent and of the pioneering spirit where man had tried to "conquer" nature. In Japan, where traditional Shinto belief stresses harmony with nature, mountain summits represent a sacred connection to the spiritual world.

We watched as the sun slipped from the azure sky into a sea of cloud, or unkai. To the south, our route lay before us: a footpath along a ridge crest that zig-zagged through a wild landscape of steep, narrow valleys and mountain walls that are virtually impossible to penetrate without a trail. In the distance, we could make out the pyramidal outline of the "Matterhorn of the Alps", Mt Yarigatake.

From up there it was hard to imagine that we were in the most densely populated country in the world. Luckily, geography has dictated its own destiny. With 80 per cent of Japan being mountainous and most unsuitable for urban and industrial development, many of the mountain regions have escaped the full brunt of the bulldozers and real estate developers. The North and South Alps, protected by the Chubu Sangaku and Minami Alps National Parks respectively, have become a haven for urban "refugees" and modern- day pilgrims who, like us, go to to the mountains to recharge their souls.

The sophisticated hut system that has developed over the last 80 years facilitates this mountain experience for the hundreds of thousands of nature enthusiasts who swarm to the alps during the summer. With huts strategically located at not more than three to five hours of walking apart, it is easy to escape for a weekend, a week - or, as we did, 40 continuous days - and walk with only a small rucksack and personal belongings. Bare tatami rooms (corridors with rows of bunks) are equipped with futons and quilts. Sometimes, during the hiking season (from 1 July to 31 August), it can be so crowded in the North Alps that if you get up to relieve yourself in the middle of the night, your spot won't be there when you return. Supper and breakfast are included in the charge of 7,500-8,500 yen per night.

The South Alps - the highest range in Japan, with 26 peaks over 3,000m high - are nearly deserted by comparison. Located less than 120km from Tokyo as the crow flies, they are ironically more remote and inaccessible than their northern counterparts. With no popular tourist resorts and few roads penetrating their hulking expanse, they are as close to wilderness as can be found in Japan. There is also a good hut system there, but generally with more primitive services.

We ended up spending three days at the Morudo Sanso, while typhoon number one rampaged with the cool fury of a samurai warrior in battle. Around us lurked craggy mountains with names which, when translated, evoked images of fire and brimstone: the Demon, the Sword and the Dragon King. Nearby in Jigoku-dani, or Hell's Valley, the Earth's crust had long ago been violently rent by volcanic forces that were now festering, putrid wounds oozing foul-smelling sulphuric gases.

The owner of the lodge, Chihiro Sacki, was a perfect host and made sure we lacked neither food nor drink. He was the third generation of his family to run the place and, together with his wife, was following a long tradition of mountain life. As early as the 18th century, priests and samurai warriors had ventured up there to protect the Tateyama region from, respectively, invading spirits and war-mongering mortals. The original 300-year-old hut built in the basin stands well preserved next to Sacki-san's modern lodge and is now a national treasure and museum.

On our last night there, Sacki-san organised an impromptu farewell party with his young staff. I was reminded of my own youthful dreams back home, lived out by leaving the urbanised density of eastern Canada and going to the Rocky Mountains of Banff National Park to find summer work. Disillusioned with the rampant consumerism and capitalistic growth of the Eighties, these young Japanese had come here looking for a similar kind of escape.

Everyone we met in the region was curious as to why we gaijin, or foreigners, had come to their mountains; few westerners are seen beyond the urban limits in Japan. Simply put, we told our new friends, our curiosity had been piqued by the many contradictions of this highly industrialised country, where the ultra-modern co-exists with the traditional: where Zen gardens, ancient temples and shrines stand in schizophrenic juxtaposition next to neon signs and love hotels; where vending machines offering beer and cigarettes line the trail up to sacred peaks.

We left Morudo hut, bowing with deep gratitude to our hosts before heading wistfully for the ridge tops.

As we trudged along the well marked trail, high above the steep valleys, gusts of wind carried pungent whiffs of sulphuric gases from the hidden slopes below - a constant reminder of the seething volcanic cauldron upon which Japan is built. By afternoon, the clouds had surged from the plains to the west and washed over us like the tide. We Canadians felt slightly chilled in the fog's damp and cloying embrace, but Adi - coming from an equatorial climate at sea level - was almost hypothermic. Over the days to follow, as this frustrating weather pattern continued, his body would acclimatise to the altitude but never the cold. He walked in silent misery, arms crossed over his chest as if to protect himself.

Each hut along the route had its own character. The Yari-dake Sanso, a 70-year-old sprawling wooden structure, was decidedly medieval. While its location was stupendous, perched high on top of a col below the sharp spear of 3,180m Mt Yarigatake, its interior - built on several levels connected by dark stairways - was gloomy, just like the weather. For the rest of the day we sat around a kerosene heater, alternately watching the occasional hiker being blown in through the door like a brittle autumn leaf and the huge bodies of blubber being shoved around on television in the ongoing national sumo wrestling championship.

The trail south of Yari to Kitahotaka Sanso was by far the most technical and exciting part of the whole alps traverse. Its popularity among mountaineers has earned it the nickname "the Ginza Traverse", after the popular shopping district in central Tokyo. The peaks sharpened into knife-edge ridges that forced the trail and us on to a precarious route along the very spine. The final obstacle of Mt Kitahotaka (3,106m) towered above us in a daunting steep rock wall. As we edged closer the route became evident and we carefully climbed in an exhilarating dance with gravity, clinging to chains and steel ladders. At the top, perched on the edge of a drop-off like an eagle's nest, was the Kitahotaka Sanso.

At 3,100m, this is the highest hut in Japan, excluding those on Mt Fuji. It was a small and intimate place with space for 50 people (or 200 at a pinch), our idea of what a mountain hunt should be like. But it had class as well. Fresh flowers in tiny vases adorned the tables in the cramped dining room, while paintings made by the manager's father graced the walls.

Schubert's Trout Quintet serenaded us as we ate a beautifully prepared supper and chatted with the hut's other dozen occupants. We were met there by three climbers, two of whom work for Yama-kei, Japan's premier outdoor publisher. Editor Hitadaki Miyazaki and freelance photographer Osamu Uchida had brought a climber by the name of Nishimura Toyakazu, or "Nishi", with the hope of photographing him, Adi and Pat on a technical rock climb on nearby Takidani.

Fifty-year-old Nishi, sporting torn Lycra tights and glacier glasses, was a climbing machine with an enviable heart rate of just 30. Married with three children, he had nonetheless quit his job at a paint company two-and-a-half years previously to become a full-time guide. Now he spends 250 days a year in the mountains. It was hard to keep up with his youthful gait as we proceeded to the base of the route. With afternoon clouds already swamping the sky and a dismal forecast for the morrow, we opted for a shorter route instead of the multi-pitch one that had been planned for the next day. The rock was solid, gritty and offered good protection.

We were now within a day's walk of Kamikochi, a popular tourist centre down in the Azusa Valley. It would be heartening to see that this mecca for the more than 8m annual visitors to the Chubu Sangaku National Park had thus far resisted development beyond the basic needs. Back home in Canada, thousands of Japanese tourists on bus tours rattle through the extensive shopping malls of Banff National Park, like steel balls in a pachinko game. By preserving parts of their own backyard, the Japanese can rely on the eagerness of other countries (such as Canada) to forfeit their wilderness values in return for perceived economic gain.

Thinking it would be hard to surpass the ambience of Kitahotaka, we continued on to Okuhotake Sanso, surrounded by the tight cluster of craggy peaks of Hotaka-dake, Karasawa-dake, Okuhodaka-dake and Machodaka-dake. The icy wind nearly blew us inside. The hut owner, Hideo Imeda sat contentedly in a hand hewn wooden chair basking in the warmth of a wood burning stove. Classical music filled the room with melody and soothed our wind blown spirits. His father had built the place 72 years ago when the logs had to be carried up from the valley below. Carefully crafted in natural wood, today the hut can accommodate 350 people and is partially lit by electricity from solar panels and windmills.

We plopped down in the comfortable couch next to Imeda-san. The other hikers in the room looked equally content. It was hard to imagine them back in their workaday worlds crammed into a shinkansen (bullet train) hurtling at warp speed to and from their offices. For them, these mountains offered a reprieve from the onslaught of daily life. For us, they were a fascinating microcosm of a complex culture.

"If only all mountain experiences were this gruelling," said Pat as he opened a can of beer and watched the sun set over the alps through the large picture window. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

Direct flights from London to Tokyo cost from around pounds 1,000 low-season return with British Airways (0345 222111)and from around pounds 1,200 over the summer . A return to Tokyo via Rome with Alitalia costs pounds 605 this month, further information from Trailfinders (0171 938 3366).

TOURS

Explore Worldwide (01252 319448) launched hiking trips to Japan last February. Tours include the Nakasendo Trail through the central highlands, staying in ancient inns. Tours depart July, September and October, from pounds 2,080 per person for a 14-day trip. Price includes return flights from London, accommodation, all travel and a tour leader.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Japan International Tourist Organisation at 167 Regent, London SW7 2BZ (0171 734 9638) offers extensive information on hiking in Japan. Help is available for independent travellers arranging detailed hiking itineraries.

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