#56 – HIUCHI-SAN
I peered down on rain slickened streets. Cloud hung low in the sky, having dumped another payload overnight. From my vantage point, some ten floors up above the entrance to Nagano Station, I watched a pair of oversized, fluffy bowling pins with legs and arms, sporting handfuls of flyers and awaiting the morning rush hour throngs. A flyer ambush was afoot and I sat back to watch the action.
I’d been forced to abandon the Plaza Hotel and seek other lodgings. My former Nagano home having been booked solid for the upcoming long weekend. I’d relocated to the Ikemon and breakfasted on high in it’s grubby, aerie-esque restaurant some soggy lettuce, cold wieners and fatty bacon the only morsels salvageable from a buffet brimming with a wide selection of food that appeared to have been left out in the overnight rain.
Returning to my room I read and packed, checking out as late as possible. The madness of the morning rush had subsided by then. The pins, I presumed, had headed off down an alley somewhere or maybe gone on strike. As grey day turned to afternoon of similar hue I hopped on a train bound for the Myoko Mountains rising to the north of Nagano. By evening I was satisfactorily ensconced in the Ikenoya Youth Hostel in Myoko-kogen. The forecast promised me clear skies for the next two days.
Oh, my, the sunshine! The weatherman done good. I boarded the bus out of Myoko-kogen under clear, blue skies. To the forests of Sasagamine was where I was headed and the trailhead to Hiuchi-san: mountain number fifty-six.
Arriving at the Takadani-ike Hut below Huichi by lunchtime I noticed a tent city beginning to take shape. I rested on a bench bathed in sunlight and gobbled down some morsels. Hikers milled. The sunshine and a soft, warm breeze tempted me to doze off. I resisted and leaving my pack beside the bench made for the summit unhindered by the load. Long weekends in the hills bring the crowds. Foursomes, fivesomes, sixsomes abounded. And larger ones, stretching to twenty head or more made their ways down past as I headed up. Everybody was out making use of the last clear days before winter struck the big hills. The place was so busy I wasn’t so sure I wouldn’t be running into that pair of oversized bowling pins handing out flyers halfway up Hiuchi.
A throng, but no pins, amassed on the wide, bald summit. I scrawled a black 56 on my palm and awaited my turn to pose alongside the summit marker, handing the camera to an obliging Japanese hiker as my turn came.
“So he’s going for the hundred!” an American voice boomed out of the Japanese babble as the crowd soaked up the sunshine and views. The lanky bloke, probably closing in on fifty moved into view and had me pinned.
“Yep, that’s the plan,” I retrieved my camera from the helpful photographer.
“What’s your bent? Geological significance? North to South?”
“Right now, man? Just gettin’ ‘em done with I reckon.”
Bill, a Minnesotan, another flatlander in the hills, lived in the town below the mountain. He’d spied me hopping out of the cab I’d caught up to the hostel from the station the day before and suspected I was heading for the heights.
It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to snow.
“Definitely possible in the Alps,” was not exactly what I wanted to hear. “Prepare for it.”
Up there on Hiuchi, on that gorgeous October afternoon, snow would have been the farthest thing from people’s minds. Golden grasses swayed in the breeze. Red berries adorned leafless thickets. Fluffy clouds floated by around us, framing the summit of the hissing cone of the neighbouring Yake-yama in a sea of cotton wool. The soaring peaks of the Northern Alps appearing as islands on a billowing sea of white.
“We often climb up here mid-winter and ski straight down the face there,” Bill continued pointing out the slope dropping away steeply at our feet.
“You’re bloody mad,” I smiled, not at all envious of such an endeavour. I guessed he was looking forward to the encroaching winter more than I was.
A good luck and shaking of hands, he rejoined his party and I headed back downhill. Spirits high, despite the talk of snow, I picked up my pack and pressed on toward Myoko-san in a golden afternoon light.
The trail to the hut below Myoko-san, where I was to camp for the night, skirted an escarpment lapped by white cloud. Beyond the billowing mass, the Sea of Japan formed the horizon and I thought back to the start of my journey, a lifetime of experiences away, chugging over those glassy waters to Hokkaido. Back then I dared not think about something as remote as topping out on mountain fifty six. All focus was just on getting going back then. Now the sights were set on getting over the Alps before winter and heading home. Snow had undoubtedly reached Hokkaido by then and was probably tickling the tips of Tohoku’s peaks too. The clock was ticking and didn’t I know it.