Kami-no-roka concluded: via a forgotten ridge path to the valley of the Takase and a well-deserved brew
Until now, we hadn’t given much thought to how we’d get back to Tokyo. The plan had to take account of two salient facts: one, we were now sipping our beers in a stormbound hut in the middle of Japan’s Northern Alps, and, two, Sawa Control’s corporate BMW was spotted out at Ogisawa, a carpark on the wrong side of the mountains.
The television – Mitsumata-renge is a well-appointed hut – set our minds at rest about the weather. The typhoon had passed, delivering a last cold front like a back-hand smash. That accounted for the thunderclap we’d just heard, but tomorrow would be better. We opened the map. Aha, we could go over Washiba-dake and then take a long ridge route, the Takemura Shindo, down to the valley. We asked the hut warden for his opinion.
“Sa …,” he started. Now, any opinion qualified with a hesitant “Sa…” should alert the listener to potential trouble, especially in the mountains. Despite its name, nobody had tended the ‘new path’ for a long time, the warden advised. There might also be rotten sections, he added. I wanted to ask how “rotten”, and what might lurk in that ‘also’ but Sawa Control cut short the discussion: “Well, we can go and have a look,” he said, using a phrase that has prefaced many a fine mountain day and also some not-so-fine ones.
Next morning almost dawned fine. Climbing the slopes of Washiba-dake, we looked across a sea of vapour towards Yari, a crisp silhouette against the electric blue of the rising daylight. But we never saw Washiba’s famous crater lake: as soon as the sun’s rays touched the clouds below, the vapours boiled upwards and blotted out our view.
On the other side of the peak, the fog cleared to reveal a white mist-bow below us. By chance, we must have been standing more or less where the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyuya locates the Kurobe’s source:-
Speaking of the Kurobe, Washiba is the cradle for the infant plashings of this river, famed for the depths of its gorges below. Stand on the summit of this mountain and you can see, plain as daylight, how the young Kurobe starts life. The source is a modest rill that you could cross with a stride. Soon it is raging on its way, through deep-cut chasms, into pools and hollows, plunging over waterfalls. Its headwaters are like the face of a boy fated to a turbulent youth.
Then the fog rolled in again. We continued along the ridge, over eroded spines of frost-shattered rock. At 11.30am we stood atop Masa-dake, the turn-off point for the Takemura Shindo. Scudding clouds of chilly drizzle helped us to a quick decision: by taking the ‘new path’, we would gain the shelter of the main ridge and turn our backs to the weather.
At first, the ploy seemed to work. Then, just at the point when it would have been too tedious to go back, the path vanished. A washout had gouged into the ridge, taking the trail with it and leaving a steep face of crumbling earth to cross. We teetered across on some sketchy footholds, trying to ignore the misty abyss below. “Another one of these and this will start to be not such a great idea,” I muttered, forgetting that, minutes before, I’d been singing the new path’s praises.
But we were not challenged again. Rather, the trial of the washout had won us admittance into a secret garden. Descending first through creeping pine, then autumnal groves of mountain birch, we wandered past flaring brakes of rowan bushes, raindrops brimming on their crimson leaves. The cloudy skies heightened the colours, turning them into a spectacle we’d remember for ever.
We crossed an intermediate peaklet and sank into evergreen forest at around the 2,300-metre mark. In the gloom under the trees, we had to hunt for the path’s continuation. The hut warden had spoken truly; few come this way these days.
Not for the first time, I had the feeling that the Japan Alps were once much busier. Paths like this one are falling into disuse, and huts in remote valleys have vanished altogether. We seemed to have missed out on the heyday of Showa-era alpinism.
Lunch was taken in a wooded col, sitting on a carpet of ferns. Further on, the panda grass grew deeper until we were walking through shoulder-high glades of it.
Dropping below the clouds at last, we saw opposite the crumbling yellow ramparts of Sulphur Ridge, a strange semi-volcanic excrescence that runs up towards Yari. Fumaroles wisped into the sullen air from its lower slopes, which were streaked with sulphur deposits like off-colour snowfields.
The Kurobe gave us up with reluctance. We arrived at the foot of the ridge at 4.30pm with a 15-kilometre yomp to the nearest roadhead still ahead of us. A debate ensued whether to break into our emergency rations – a bar of Kendal mintcake – but the occasion was not solemn enough to warrant it. Instead we took out the stove and brewed up. We reckoned we’d earned a cup of tea.