Several years ago, before we were married, my wife and I stayed at a ryokan located a ways off the highway in the forested mountain slopes of Ryogami Village, near Chichibu City, Saitama. It was a memorable stay for a few reasons, one of which being that it was election night in Saitama, and the TV only received three channels – two of them covering the election ballot count and one broadcasting a symphony orchestra’s performance. The building itself was very old and the surrounding trees seemed to be making every effort to reclaim the wood within its sagging structure. The local wildlife, a wasp confused by the light in our room and a centipede of appreciable size found on the corridor wall, seemed right at home. The much touted mineral hot spring was indeed nice though the bath itself was a plain square concrete enclosure. However, the thing that made the biggest impression on me was how the rainwater that night sloshed its way down through holes in the roof and splashed like a running faucet in the corridors on either side of the rooms. One hole opened just next to the stairway to the front entrance and the water freely used the steps to make an indoor cataract. On the opposite side, just before the shared toilets, two more showers splashed onto the floor and one had to take care not to get a wet yukata hem while accessing the facilities. The proprietor, who rarely appeared (except for my wife and I the place seemed deserted), was apparently unconcerned about the shower and waterfall within her forest inn.
The following day, we went in the intermittent rain to see Marugami-no-Taki, the only one of Japan’s hyakusen waterfalls (one hundred selected waterfalls) in Saitama. Our trek up the muddy path was met by a few grumpy-looking mountain toads who, in spite of their natural disgruntled expression, were undoubtedly enjoying a soggy stroll in the slick muck. At the base of the falls we could appreciate at least the beauty of ribbons of water sliding rapidly over the face of the dark rock; however, the weather and trail conditions discouraged us from climbing up the steep switchback path to view the falls from a higher vantage point.
Skip ahead to the present and on March 29th of this year my co-worker, Basti, and I decided to take a day off for a hike. I had my sights set on another hyakumeizan at first, but Basti’s ankle was still recovering from a very bad break that occurred last autumn in a skateboarding accident. When I suggested waterfalls he seemed to favour them over a long climb. As luck would have it, my Internet mountaineering friend, Chris White, was staying in Yokoze, near Chichibu. Chris and I have known each other since May of 2008 when I saw photos of his Golden Week climb of Kaikomagatake and he saw mine of neighbouring Houousan. We had climbed the two mountains during the same period and through photo sharing on Flickr we came to know each other. Yet in all that time we had never met. Chris was up for a visit to MarugamiFalls and Basti and I met up with him that morning at Yokoze Station.
The drive to the falls took us through a narrow mountain valley that at times looked more like a canyon with steep cliffs on either side of us. At the car park, we took the short hike up to the base of the waterfall. As there had not been much rain recently the falls were rather tame looking. After some time shooting around the base of the falls, we followed the switchback trail to the top, but instead of turning right to view the falls in their full glory, we turned left and began hiking above the falls and up the course of the small stream deep into the upper reaches of the valley above. Spring was only just shaking off the brown curled autumn leaves on the ground. The scenery was pleasant, the weather agreeable, the photography satisfactory. But our hike seemed only to lead ultimately to the mountain ridge beyond. And so we decided to begin turning back, shooting as we went.
One curiosity we encountered was two man-made stone structures. They looked like domes of large rocks built into the earth of the mountain. At one, we discovered a chimney that dropped a metre or so into darkness and some old rusting tools. Chris explored a little farther up the mountain and found a third structure in fairly good shape with an opening serving as an entrance way. We pondered the purposed of these now moss-covered and crumbling assemblages of rocks.
On the way back we finally stopped to take in the full view of the falls – two shorter falls above the long slope’s main cascade. Next we planned to drive down to the Ara River and shoot around some exposed rocks I knew about; however, access was via a privately run campsite and we were told that it was closed until April 1st. Instead, we headed over to a small limestone cave located near the Urayama Dam, near the western base of Bukouzan. Situated beneath an impressive limestone wall, the cave requires a 200 yen fee in order to enter. The path first descends into an opening in the limestone, though in many places “windows” to the outside have been patched up with concrete and rocks. Electric lights illuminate the way and it’s interesting to see moss and small leaved-plants growing inside the cave, around the artificial light sources.
The cave has several usual limestone cave features such as flow stone and stalagmites, but it is not particularly large nor is it anywhere near as impressive as some of the world’s most famous caves. In comparison to even Japan’s most famous caves, this one is hardly worth mentioning. But as it is the only one I have visited in Japan so far I find it interesting enough that this was my third time there. The limestone is grey and rough where it is exposed to the air but where pieces had recently broken off the stone inside looked like a rugged, unpolished smoky blue marble. And where the exposed rock intruded on the pathway and had been smoothened by thousands of feet, it resembled the blue ice deep within a glacier.
Upon returning from the cave with our cameras about our necks, the caretaker woman directed our attention to a sign saying that photography inside the cave was forbidden. This came as a surprise to me. She explained, however, that some people had not taken care enough while taking photos on the steep and narrow ladders and there had been accidents, namely people falling off the ladders with camera in hand! As some parts of the route through the cave look up into dark open chasms above and oblique views into gaps and openings all around, I can understand how one could become a little disoriented while looking through a viewfinder and clinging onto the short rails of the ladders.
Our cave exploration over, we spent a little more time looking at a collection of photos showing how Bukouzan has changed over the last four decades. Chichibu Cement, now owned and operated by Taiheiyo Cement, has been excavating limestone from the mountain for more than a few decades and the face of the mountain has been drastically altered as it is hacked away at, a sad thing to see so unmistakably obvious in the photo collection.
The final thoughts for the day concerned a sign whose illustrations indicated a bizarre world of limestone formations above the wall that loomed over us. I had attempted to climb up some 13 years ago with a friend but we mistook the sign and ended up following the slope of the mountain until we hit upon the private road of the cement company. Now the clouds were coming in and the day was getting late. Chris and I both knew that we wanted to know how the rocks looked up there but it was not something we would attempt this day. Perhaps another time. There are always things to explore in this part of Saitama.