Riding the rails out of Tokyo, there was only one plan in mind: climb the next ten mountains in the next two weeks and re-infuse the journey with some much needed momentum.  Though at the same time, any momentum gained, I feared, may eventually propel me headlong into snowstorms somewhere above 3000 metres, high in the Japanese Alps.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing.  I should’ve been bearing straight for the Alps there and then before rounding back to the lower dozen or so peaks for which instead headed.  But after weeks of rainy greyness, deceptive late September blue skies and temperatures still flirting with 30 degrees lulled me into a false sense of security.  I was sure another two months were at hand to waltz around the hills before any serious winter hit.

Remnants of a ‘Last Night in the Big Smoke’ hangover lurked as I was deposited at dusk in the tiny highland resort town of Kiyosato situated, supposedly, beneath Aka-dake, the highest point along the rugged Yatsu-ga-take Range.  Earlier showers had left the sky filled with heavy cloud so there was nothing more to do than take the guidebook’s word for it.  The remaining colour of the day faded away as nightfall slowly took hold.  Puddled streets reflected the waning light and black suited taxi drivers milled at the station entrance smoking and laughing together, lines of their weathered faces cutting deep as they guffawed wide, yellowy gap toothed smiles.  I plodded past, heavy footed, catching a whiff of their sweet tobacco smoke drifting on the cool air.  Down a side street I hunted out the hostel I’d booked myself into and, once inside, made myself at home.

south off yatsu-ga-take

I left behind half a pack’s worth of gear there before setting out the following morning.  The plan was to remain on the ridgeline after scaling Aka-dake and walk north into Nagano Prefecture over the peaks of Tateshina, Kiri-ga-mine and Utsukushi-ga-hara.  Once down off Utsukushi I’d hitch into the city of Matsumoto, jump on a southbound train and loop around, back through Kiyosato to reclaim my kit and then out the other side bound for Nagano City.

Morning mists were banished to blue by a burst of warm, welcoming sunshine and the mountains of Yatsugatake shone in the soft light as I stepped off a long stretch of tarmac out of Kiyosato and onto mountain trail once more.  The jagged visage of Aka-dake, appropriately tinged with a hint of red, rose above the foliage surrounding me, sporting the first tints of autumn.  At the top of an abandoned ski field, I found a spot in the sunlight to sit back for a few moments and soak up the warmth of its rays while a stubbornly chilly breeze tickled the back of my neck.  To the south, a turbulent cloud sea thrashed against the flanks of the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps, the highest mountain range in the land.  Fuji-san rose proudly out to their left, a thin belt of cloud encircling its midriff, another appearing to be sculpted by high winds, capping its summit.

fuji from yatsu-ga-take

Alone on the mountain trail, I tackled a steep, relentless climb towards the top of Aka-dake and disappointingly was overtaken by rising cloud before the views opened up.  Emerging from the woods clinging by their roots onto near vertical mountainside, I scrambled across sections of red rock, strung with silver chains and made the final push to the summit.  The breeze strengthened, buffeting my hat and causing me to don my jacket as I paused in a nook in the rock face. On the summit, hikers huddled on uneven, rocky ground like stony faced jizo.  Grimly chewing on their snacks and smoking their cigarettes. I found my own spot in the rocks to squeeze into and took up my own silent repose amongst them and munched down some chocolate almonds.  The peak was mine by breakfast.

To the north, off the red crags of Aka-dake, amidst the ladders and chains of Yoko-dake an elderly woman in a big floppy hat and bright red rainwear pulled me up and enthusiastically interrogated me regarding my intentions.  Informing her I was headed north to Matsumoto she sucked in a deep breath of air and shook her head, swooning at my seemingly audacious plan.

“Ahh, you are young and genki, ne?”

“Sometimes, I suppose,” I smiled.

Grinning back she offered up a “Kiyotsukete, take care.  Good lu-ku.”

“You too, ne,” I replied and slowly pulled myself up a wobbly ladder before the swirling cloud filled the air between us, masking our progress as we headed in opposite directions.

Alone again in the mountains the trail northwards took me away from the rugged southern extremities of Yatsu-ga-take to the gentler terrain of its northern reaches.

yatsu cloud

Clear skies returned as morning bled to afternoon.  As the sun slowly dropped to the horizon and I was sent back into the treeline before emerging again onto fields of creeping pine beyond Tengu-dake.  Firey cloud swept past the ramparts of the crumbling Io-dake and the harvest moon appeared overhead.  Dusk fell and passed on into evening I found myself striding through a dark wood of scatty pines.  I turned off the main trail, bearing westward and bound for the hut at Kuroyuri-daira, Black Lily Flat.  On a bare patch of damp earth outside the stately hut a sole foreigner set up his tent on a flat piece of timber, his camp stove breathing steam into the chilly air.  I summoned up a fatigued greeting as I wandered past, thankful that I’d promised myself a night indoors after the exertions of the day.

A party of half a dozen hikers from Tokyo were already merrily ensconced inside.  The place oozed rustic mountain charm and after I stoically dealt with the brief pain of parting with another fistful of yen, I allowed the warmth of that cosy place and its occupants to take hold…

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