Enroute to Sarukura (1250m asl), gateway of the Northern Alps, we sojourned at a cozy lodge, Sherpa after a long days’ drive. Sherpa is perched on a hilltop at Otari, the heart of Nagano. After an evening of satisfying natural hot spring (Onsen) soak and the most delectable traditional Japanese dinner, we packed, slept and was ready for an experience of a lifetime.
The meetup point was packed with eager hikers and explorers both foreign and local. Heading to Hakubayari Onsen, our destination for the day, the trail through a patch of luscious Japanese beech forest was mild and gentle. It is a famous trek – the forest was dense, and so was the crowd. Hikers greeted us with ‘Konnichiwa’ or good afternoon in Japanese and it was only polite to return the gesture. The forest path slowly joined a gravel path that eventually run across several mountain streams. After 5 hours of hike, we arrived at Hakubayari Onsen (2100m asl), the highest natural hot spring in Japan. The tangy smell of sulphur and a league of naked men gathered at the open, steaming pool inadvertently unfold. I gazed away but the men were nonchalant and buoyantly chatted away. We set tent, warmed ourselves at the onsen (private women’s only onsen for me) and prepared dinner with the gas Bunsen we lugged along. We slept soundly only to awaken the next morning to the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever seen in my life!
We departed as early as 6am for the first 2 peaks, Hakubayarigatake (2903m asl) and Shakushidake (2812m asl). Summer in Japan are almost always accompanied by sudden rainfalls and typhoons. Our campsite for today is situated past the second peak and we must get there by 1pm, latest. During the hike, we were surrounded by magnificent panoramic views of dramatic peaks and sweeping valleys. We traverse through craggy narrow ridgeline undulating the mountainous terrain. It is no wonder Hakuba boasts the best views of the Northern Alps. We reached slightly after lunchtime in good weather. We rested with snacks and a draft of beer or two before setting tent, fire and of course, dinner.
Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha with Mt Shirouma at the back
It was dark. It was 3am. But that was the time that we needed to get up to hike to the 3rd summit for sunrise. Donned with our warmest gears and headlamps, we hastily packed our tents, pots and gas, adjusted those heavy backpacks on our stiff backs and walked for an hour to Shiroumadake (2932m asl). It felt like carrying a full-grown toddler the whole time. At the peak, we patiently waited for the dense clouds to part and for the sun to peek, illuminating the bumpy contours of the alps, warming not only our body but our souls too. There was just so much beauty to take in. From here onwards, it would be roughly 4 hours downhill to Tsugaike before taking the ropeways back to Hakuba, where public transportations are available. Words could not describe the sense of relief my aching shoulders felt upon releasing the baggage off my back. Exhausted, we stayed the night at Matsumoto town guest house to clean our clothes, gears and to plan and re-equipped ourselves for the next traverse – Hotaka Traverse.
Hotaka traverse is a glacier and part of the Kita Alps. People had already warned me to be careful and that how many had died every year on this traverse. Refreshed, again we lugged on our fully supplied, maximum weight backpacks and set off to Kamikochi (1500m asl). We hiked this way up for 3 hours to Dakesawa valley. The first part of the hike was through a forest which felt pleasantly similar to Hakuba. However, here, we too realised that there were significantly less hikers, with almost everyone of them carrying a bell (to ward off bears!), helmets and ropes. Some even had harnesses on them! Upon reaching Dakesawa, we met a group of Japanese mountain rescue team in distress search of someone in danger on the mountain. Perhaps this is one way of letting us know that we are on a less friendly mountain. Leaving the rangers to their work, we proceed to campsite, located adjacent to the great glacier valley. We had a scrumptious dinner of ‘yakiniku’ or BBQ braised beef and slept.
It is 4am. We were warned that this is a very strenuous day. We could already guess the difficulty of this traverse by counting the number of tents on this camp site (4 compared to 30 on Hakuba). Day 5 camp marked our most challenging day; 9 hours of 5km hike, trekking what they called as boulder fields where the number one killer of hikers here is not snake, hornets, ax murderers or even bears – it is falling. Those helmets, ropes and harnesses now finally made sense. Chains were obnoxiously affixed to steep slopes, making this traverse more of a CLIMB than a hike. A lot of vertical clambering with stone cold groping will be required. The sheer weight of our backpacks certainly did not make this any easier too. We were just grateful that it wasn’t raining. Otherwise, I doubt that I would be sitting down writing this article this very moment.
The traverse we ventured was adorned with razor back ridges with steep drop offs on either side. Rocks were painted with ‘X’ meaning “this way is a bad choice” and ‘O’ meaning “this way is a slightly less bad choice”. Taking your eyes ever so briefly off the trail may render you helpless on a ridge edge. Maximum alertness is vital for survival. I did stop occasionally to look back and my stomach contracted impetuously each time. Even having a hiker in front of you may pose as a threat as loose rocks may be kicked directly at you. Most paths only accommodated one hiker at a time. Boulders after boulders later and we finally reached the 4th Peak, Maehotakadake (3090m asl) after 5 hours and Okuhotakadake (3190m asl) 3 hours after, the 3rd highest peak of Japan featuring a shrine atop a large pile of rocks. At this very moment, a sea of clouds came hovering in, warning us of sinister weather approaching. We headed northeast to reach campsite. Okuhotaka Koya has an impressive lodge equipped with food, warm lodging and wifi for a fee of ¥11,000 or RM400 per night. Our camp site however, was rather interesting as it sits right on the ridge at the upper side of the hut. My legs were pulsing and my feet were throbbing yet, we set tent and made fire regardless of how we felt.
At nightfall, strong, violent wind came galloping at us like a troop of horses. Waves after waves of immense velocity came hitting our synthetic fibre of a tent. I was unable to sleep, partly from the noise and partly from anxiety. I held tightly to my sleeping bag, timidly and silently prayed. Why am I doing this again? – The view at dawn swept my doubts away. Tired and frazzled, we awoken to Day 6 and last day of our adventure – 8 hours and 20km to go.
As they said, ‘What goes up must come down’. Ah, I wonder which is worse; climbing up in fear or climbing down looking at fear itself. After a steep and slow 3-hour descent, vegetations in the form of Syberian Dwarf Pines slowly came to sight. The climbing is over and now to gradually descend for 7 hours. We walked as fast as we could, hoping to outrun the upcoming typhoon which is due to hit us. We passed Karasawa, Yoko-o and finally, Kamikochi again. By evening, we checked back to the same guest house at Matsumoto town, took a long indulging hot spring bath before heading for dinner at the hotel. We splurged on dinner, accompanied by warm rice sake and cold Kirin beer while reminiscing our adventure. We were finally able to unwind and laugh, when suddenly we heard heavy raindrops on the Japanese Inn’s rooftile. We looked at each other with smiles on our sunburnt faces – We are indeed lucky.
“They said never be afraid to try. They said being afraid is the only way to feel alive.”