#98 – YAKUSHI-DAKE
As I walked the North Alps from Mitsumata, heading westwards towards Kurobegoro-dake, the sprawling mass of Yakushi-dake filled the western sky beyond the highland of Kumo-no-daira. From the top of Kurobegoro, Yakushi had visibly condensed, to the north by that stage, her massive presence remained, rising to a snow-capped crescendo of brilliant white beneath the midday sun. I traced the lines of the Yakushi-sawa, gouged out of the mountain’s southern flanks. The waters that carve those scars tumble down from Yakushi and joining those gathered up since Washiba barrel through a series of narrows, emerging on the other side as the Kurobe River proper.
What was once a majestic journey onwards north for those brilliantly blue hued waters, through ravine and down waterfall, is now for more than a moment snaffled by the languid waters of the Kurobe Lake, a result of the damming of the river in the shadow of Tateyama. There were trails down there in those upper reaches of the river beyond the the dam, squeezed in between the foundations of Kurobegoro and Yakushi on one side and the mountain plateau of Kumo-no-daira on the other. And more routes existed down beyond the high, arcing wall of the dam where the river was once again given free rein to leap and bound over boulders and beneath the ice bridges of the gorge. Japan’s Alps offered more than just mountaintop adventures. The trails winding through those ravines had caught my imagination.
At that time my attention was focused on higher ground. The Kurobe would have to wait. I descended the ‘back’ of Kurobegoro and spent the afternoon climbing over the nubbins dotting the way towards Taro-san and the hut just beyond it. Cloud rushed in from the south, and cavorted with the sinking sun before ultimately sweeping in on a strengthening wind and swallowing the views. I was traversing a broad stony section of ground, visibility was down and the jitters were up. As much as I attempted to convince myself otherwise, I had come to associate cloud with lightning and realised that riding out that storm on Shiomi-dake two summers ago had left a few open wounds in the psyche.
The hut below the gentle rise of Taro-san was a bundle of red-roofed structures, appearing somewhat drab in the gloomy conditions, but I knew there was warmth inside, soft futons, a roof between me and the phantoms I feared lurked overhead. I hurriedly vacated the world of cloud and wind and stepped inside the dark entranceway and hit up the lady at the cluttered reception for a square meal on either side of a good night’s sleep.
I was shown to my own quarters, such is the luxury of hiking during the work week at the end of the season, and later, dined with a few older gents, the only other lodgers that evening.
After breakfasting with them I gathered up my day pack and lethargically set to hitting the trail. An icy nip to the air had me hunkering deep into the folds of my jacket. Cloud had given way to a crystalline blue sky, and across the creeping pine I watched the Sun, crest the horizon to the left of Kuro-dake’s crown rising on a distant ridge. Kurobegoro appeared startlingly different from that angle, in contrast to the open welcoming atmosphere when approaching from the east, the mountain held on to its secrets like a cloaked figure with its back to the world.
I turned toward Yakushi-dake, making my way up into tracts of creeping pine and bamboo grass that bristled with frost in the shadowy hollows. Climbing higher onto Yakushi’s wind blasted ridges I passed wooden signposts half eroded away by the forces of nature. Lumps of wood that sported exposed rusty bolts where the timber had been scoured by wind, ice and flying grit.
Soon I hit the snow fields and found them an easy traverse. Not too long after that the summit came into view at the end of a snow-covered ridge. As I approached Yakushi’s crown, one of the fellows I’d overnighted with at the hut was down on his haunches firing up his camp stove.
“Coffee?” he offered and I happily encouraged him to brew up enough for two. A small shrine with glass panelled doors and a pile of stones on its roof sat on the summit and I wondered how often it required replacing, having seen the state of the wind scarred signposts below. Another hiker from the hut arrived and we took in the views, cloud obscured though they were, then I said ‘Sayonara,’ and headed back across the snow fields and down the long trail to the hut. My mountain business in the Japanese Alps, having spanned three seasons, had finally come to an end. It was time to bid farewell to the harsh realm of the thunderbird, where the brush pine creeps and the lightning dances on the chain laced ridgelines, where the ice clogged sawas churn with meltwater and the wind and snow and rain carve the landscape.
The sun shone but the wind blew hard on my descent to the hut. The lady huddled by the heater in the entrance reception called ahead for a taxi. I had about a three-hour descent, down a trail into the woods and to the road at a spot called Oritate below the western reaches of Yakushi-dake.
I collected my gear, and turned my back on the Alps and winter’s fastening grip and made for autumn at lower elevations. My knees knocked on the steep trail, there, the final glimpses of Yakushi’s summit was eventually lost in the treetops, the forest was bathed in a golden glow of sunlit beech.
Not that it ever crossed my mind wandering alone through the woods that afternoon, the sign at the trailhead announced: ‘You all in bear country.’ Gulp. Ninety-eight mountains down and I hadn’t laid eyes on one yet. I breathed a sigh of relief and waited in an open area for the taxi to show up. Bears be damned. I was steeling myself for a mauling of the hip pocket. The trailhead at Oritate sits above the Arimine Dam which is about as far away from the nearest town that side of the Alps. There once was a village in those parts, but these days it’s submerged, on the wrong side of the wall.
When I finally was retrieved from the wilds by the cabbie, no doubt rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of a fare running well over a hundred smackeroos, I noticed, high on the walls of the Wada River a distinct, if somewhat overgrown course cut out of the rock as we drove on the opposite side. It was a mossy, wet, rugged affair, interrupted by small landslides and tumbling waterfalls but it ran for a good length of time at a consistent elevation and I wondered if it wasn’t an old dam builders’ route similar to the one that wends up the gorge to the Kurobe Dam. It looked a tempting prospect for exploration but its state of disrepair made me leery at the same time.
At Arimine-guchi Station the cabbie relieved me of the Japanese equivalent of a hundred and thirty bucks and I waited for the train bound for the bright lights of Toyama, and the alluring prospect of a cozy hotel room, a warm shower, food and cold beer.