Ellie & I depart Shimokita at approximately 7pm on Friday night, after work. We spend most of the evening winding our way down to the Tohoku Expressway which starts in Hachinohe. The first highway driving I’ve done since arriving in Japan. The road is new and relatively empty, and we are quickly out of Aomori and into Iwate prefecture. We drive until around midnight and pull into a rest stop, where we discover a relatively clean bathroom and an entire room full of vending machines, which not only offer cold & hot beverages, a wide array of cancer sticks, but also frozen food (yaki-soba anyone?) zapped to order. We brush our teeth, take out our contacts and lay out our sleeping pads & mats in the back of the Beast.
We are up by 6:30 and on the road by 6:45. We drive nearly down to Sendai in Miyagi-ken and pull off into another rest stop where we cook a breakfast of potatoes, eggs, tomatoes, and spinach on our stove. People look at us strangely, and one little girl is incredibly intrigued by my washing spinach in the bathroom sink. I am anxious about my shoe situation, regular trail runners on a multi-day hike, so we venture into the big city of Sendai (the largest city in the Tohoku region) to see if we can find an outdoor store that sells boots. We find two stores, neither of which carry anything worth buying in my size. I settle on a good pair of insoles and we get the hell out of dodge.
Soon after Sendai, we get off the toll road (approx 8700 yen/$90) and start heading West. A general direction that eases my heart. We pass sleepy little towns, a huge dammed up reservoir-come-tourist attraction, one fairly large city called Nan-yo, whose main industry appears to be grape and pear farming, and on to a quaint little village, Oguni, at the mouth of the Iide mountain range. Past Oguni, we start venturing onto even smaller, windier roads through the mountains, passing crystal-clear rivers, farmland, and giant, old houses that hearkan back to a time when family stayed to work the land, rather than brain-drain out to the cities. We pass the small township of Iide and drive another 20 minutes into the mountains and arrive at Iide-sanso, an onsen and ryokan (bed&breakfast) whose only purpose is to service the hikers coming through the trail head. We elect not to camp at the designated “hut” for 500 yen a head due to the loud and rowdy other hikers. Instead we ready ourselves for the next day, make some couscous for dinner, and sleep in the back of the Beast. Already, I love this car more knowing that with it, I’ll always have a roof above my head.
We are up and on the trail by 7am, having been woken several times in the night by other hikers driving in, parking, and loudly readying themselves for departure. Probably because it’s Silver Week, but also because I get the sense that most trails in Japan (take Fuji for example) are always a bit of a traffic jam, there are LOTS of other people also preparing to head into the same mountains. Most of them are above 50, wearing towels in all manners as neckwear, headwear, and sun protection, are carrying far more on their backs than they should, and tromping around noisily with their anti-bear bells dinging annoyingly away. Knowing this, Ellie & I elect to take a less common trail up the ridge, even though the distance is a little longer. We are rewarded by only meeting one other group of people during the first ascent.
Unlike hiking in the US, where switchbacks make the route up a little easier, trails in Japan literally go straight up the ridge line. Another big difference is the quality of the trails here. Unlike our (the US’) wide-spread infrastructure in building and maintaining trails, Japan doesn’t pay anyone to keep up the paths. The result is lots of erosion and tons of overgrowth. We spend the better part of the morning under green tree-line. Around noon, we crest a hill and are greeted with the most amazing site: mountains and mountains as far as you can see. The sky, Colorado blue, and the mountainsides covered with low-brush grass, Asian maple trees, bamboo: a patchwork of all oranges, yellows, and reds. Autumn has apparently come to Yamagata-ken, at 1,500 meters.
We break for lunch and have an easy two hours until the Monnai hut stop for the night. Seems that most trails in Japan have hut networks for through-hikers. Some better equipped than others, with blankets, stoves, and innkeepers that provide food. Some more basic: a small 2-storied building with communal rooms to put down your sleeping mats and a drop toilet. This first hut was in the latter category, and it’s a no-brainer deciding to pitch our tent outside, rather than sleep in a stuffy room with 20 loud and smelly strangers. We arrive around 3pm, and set up our tent near the water source. Sunset proves gorgeous this night, perched above the clouds, watching the sun drop under them into the horizon. With the sun, drops the temperature, and we make dinner and tea, shivering, climb into our sleeping bags to read by our headlamps, and are asleep by 8pm.
We are up by 5:30, out of the tent by 6, and still are some of the latest sleepers in tent city. Breakfast is warm muesli with extra raisins. Tea gets me where I need to be. We pack up and out and are rewarded with another beautiful day, climbing up and down peaks; I think we stood on top of 5 total mountains that day. At 1pm, we reach a junction where we have 3 choices: stop for the day (X), continue on to Honzan Hut by Iide Peak for another 1.5 hours (X), or drop our packs, move water and lunch into our strap-off top packs, and do a quick up-and-back of Dainishi-san, the highest peak in the Iide Mountain range at 2,105 m. The weather is beautiful, and despite Ellie’s blisters, morale is high, so it’s an easy decision. We decide for a long day, and are enjoying a lunch of sausage and cucumber at the peak by 3pm. By 4:30, we are back at our packs, fill up on water from one of the many mountain springs (of which we don’t have to filter!!) and are heading towards Iide.
At one point, the trail widens and flattens, and we find ourselves walking through almost a Kansas plains like scene, tall grasses swaying drowsily in the evening sun. At sunset, we are on top of Iide, where we find a small Jizo shrine and the wind picks up. We layer accordingly and start hiking towards the Honzan hut. Instead, we find a sweet little spot protected by a rock wall that shelters us enough from the crazy windstorm we have all of a sudden found ourselves in. Dinner that night, a highlight: tortellini, sun-dried tomatoes, and a pesto sauce. Hot water to warm our bellies inside and out. I fall asleep to the tent rocking in the wind, almost too toasty in my bag, by 7:45.
Tuesday is an early day. Ellie’s watch goes off at 4:45am to catch the sunrise. It’s cloudy, and we lollygag around until we see the sky start to pinken. Even with the murky horizon, though, as far as sunrises go, this one wasn’t half-bad. We eat breakfast and watch the night turn into daylight. We start down to the car, not realizing the trek we have in front of us. By far, the hike down is beyond difficult. The sky starts to spit on us, the wind abates not, and even with gloves on, my fingers are stiff and cold. Rather than dropping in elevation suddenly, this trail takes us down and then up another mountain, down and then up again. Over and over. My knees ache, my entire body hurts, and my mind is so focused on where to place my feet, that the whole process is entirely exhausting. The trail turns so bad at points, we cling to roots so as not to slide off. At other times, the route is so technical that I pack up my poles and clamber up and down rocks and tree branches at 70-85 degree angles, handholds becoming as important as placement for my feet. We pass thickets of bamboo, old-growth beech trees, pink barked birch trees, and see a couple snakes slithering away from our approaching footsteps.
After walking endlessly, not finding the junctions we expect to on our map, the river below finally comes into sight, and even the constant downhill is a welcome relief – knowing that much sooner we’ll be on flat ground. We reach the icy, gushing water at about 4:30pm, a full and exhausting day’s hike from starting peak. We fill up on delicious, chill river water, zapping it with the SteriPen to ward off against any nasty bugs. The trail along the river evens out, though it is thick with overgrowth. Finally, we arrive at the car a little before 6pm; it’s almost dark. After a much-needed and thorough bath at the onsen, soaking our weary bones, washing away 4 days worth of grime and sweat and dirt, we drive to the nearest town, fill up on greasy, delicious tonkatsu (though all we both wanted was a hamburger), drag ourselves to the car and manage to find an empty, quiet rest stop on the way to the highway. Dead and blissfully asleep by 10pm.
Drive home. Mentally and physically prepare for the return to “real” life. The happenings, images, and occurences of the past several days already receding into dreamy memories – a haven, a hiatus from the daily grind.
*Despite the intensity of our final day, it was beyond worth it. And, for the first time since I’ve arrived in Japan, there was no other place I would have rather been. Sure I could name a person or two I wanted adventuring by my side, but what I felt was such utter contentment and ease that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Not even a Blues and Brews weekend in Telluride would have been better than this. Not even close.