Category Archives: Japan – Places of Interest

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Four

M61 間宮岳

The crater rim with Asahidake in the far distance.

Fuujin, the Aeolus of these eastern islands, was out playing on our third and final day up on the plateau. The plan had been to hike to the summit of Asahidake, the highest point in Hokkaido, but the wind was so strong this morning. The guide warned that it wouldn’t be worth anything because we’d be fighting to keep from being blown off the summit. The director already had a back up plan: we would bypass the mountain and descend by the Nakadake hot spring route.

We set out with clouds gathered over the highest peaks and went once more over to the crater. There was no stopping for flowers this morning. As we began climbing above the crater, the wind became even stronger. When it blew crossways over the trail, I had to walk leaning sideways into the wind in order to keep balance. We looked back across the plateau and saw Kurodake in the distance. We climbed up slopes of snow stained red from the dust of red volcanic rocks. There were many colours in the stones up here: brick red, mustard yellow, near-black grey, purplish red, ash grey, rusty brown.

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Looking back to Kurodake. Ryoundake is on the left.

On our right was Hokuchindake, the second highest peak in Hokkaido. Here we turned left and followed the crater rim, the wind once more coming at us in force. Then the trail split and we turned right, descending below the southern slopes of Asahidake. An impressive cleft opened up in the rocks and below that, yellow and white mineral deposits in the stream told us that we had reached the hot spring. I always take notice of the rocks in hot spring areas because they look so different. Some look like concretions of volcanic particles while others look like corroded volcanic rocks. Bubbles emerged from a pool that someone had created by encircling part of the stream with rocks. Thick wrinkled mats of moss grew on the otherwise sparsely vegetated slope above the stream.

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Milky waters below the Nakadake hot spring

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Marsh marigold bloom along the stream below the Nakadake hot spring.

Continuing further down the trail, we once more encountered broad meadows of wildflowers, and the cameras went into action yet again. The clouds were slowly lifting and patches of blue released searing beams of sunlight upon our necks. There were streams flowing through tunnels of snow and small ponds. Great monoliths of volcanic rock stood upended amidst the greenery in the distance. Then at last we came around to the northwest face of Asahidake where steaming fumaroles hissed and roared. This was near the gondola and with a well-built boardwalk going around ponds and offering views of the steaming holes and mountain reflections (on still days). Tourists flocked in the area, a good number of them Chinese and Korean. After a little more filming, our journey in the mountains came to an end here. Below we said farewell to Mr. Morishita and two of the porters but kept the young Yamada for our continuing adventures. Tomorrow we were going to seek out the Ezo brown bear we needed someone to carry the tripod!

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Yet even more flowers with Asahidake in the background.

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Steaming gases on Asahidake.

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Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Three

M50 北鎮岳と凌雲岳Playground of the weather gods. The sky was clearing up overhead while the sun sank behind a thin explosion of clouds. Twice, a weak evening light crept across the northern volcanic landscape, spotlighting snow patches and lava rock, but there was no final climax, no stupendous finale of alpine light. Though I was inside my tent and sleeping around eleven o’clock, Mr. Tsujinaka stepped outside and saw the Milky Way stretching clearly across the heavens.

I didn’t need to go outside to know what the weather was like at 3 a.m., though. As the wind battered my tent, the sound of rain drops being flung against the fabric was familiar enough. At four, I stuck my head out into thick fog and handfuls of rain being tossed in the gusts like rice at a wedding. The morning plan to record the sunrise from the nearby Keigetsudake was unquestionably off, and word was that the morning shoot was on hold until the weather improved. The rain abated soon, however, and I set out alone to photograph along the trail not far from camp. The wildflowers had droplets clinging to them and, as I was to discover, there was a variety of volcanic ejecta to examine.

At last, bright patches began appearing in the sky and our crew set off to return to the summit of Kurodake. One porter joined us, carrying the large tripod, while the other two went down the mountain for supplies (beer and other things).

On Kurodake, the sun broke through the clouds again and once more we were bestowed with views across the landscape. Then we went from Kurodake back down and crossed the plateau to the edge of the great crater on the southwestern side of the complex. As we walked, Mr. Morishita explained about the flowers and plants. We passed more windswept scenery and places profuse with greenery and blossoms. Some plants had finished blossoming, others had yet to produce flowers, and then there were a couple of dozen that were in bloom.

Species like the komakusa (Dicentra peregrina), iwabukuro (Pennellianthus frutescens), and the Ezo tsutsuji (Therorhodian camtschaticum) grew in the sand and gravel of the windy areas. They grew low to ground because of the strong winds that persist year round, and many of the species had fine hairs for trapping moisture from fog. The komakusa has a single rhizome of 50 to 100 cm length and, according to Mr. Morishita, the plant can move its location up to 10 cm in a year.

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Dicentra peregrina – komakusa. The queen of alpine flora in Japan.

The creeping pine, a.k.a. the Siberian dwarf pine or Japanese stone pine, is called haimatsu in Japanese (Pinus pumila). It gets its English names from being both low-growing and its nature of slowly moving across the ground. Mr. Morishita pointed out how the shrubs were bare and dried with roots exposed on the windward side but produced green needles and cones on the leeward side. He explained that the plant continues to set down new roots from the front while its rear (windward side) becomes exposed and desiccated. Thus the plant slowly advances away from the wind. Creeping pine indeed!

For me, the most remarkable plant was the chishima tsugazakura (Bryanthus gmelini). What appeared as tiny white blossoms standing no more than three centimetres above a mat of pine-like needles was actually a shrub. Mr. Morishita drew our attention to the woody branches and roots that were exposed where the wind had removed the soil. Looking at it that way, I could see how a miniature tree was growing essentially underground and only the leaves and blossoms rose above the soil. As with other windy area species, this plant also produced new roots on the leeward side of the wind as the windward side became exposed. Several other species grew together in clumps of clay-like soil and made little islands of green that stood above the flat, grey volcanic sand and gravel. The landscape took on a whole new impression for me as I saw it now as a dynamically changing scene of hummocks that were eroded from one side while small plants gripped the soil and survived by perpetually moving as their roots were exposed.

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Bryanthus gmelini – chishima tsugazakura. Just pretty flowers…?


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…or a subterranean shrub?

In areas of deep snow, blossoms grew in broad hummocky swaths. Here the wind was less damaging and the soil was covered in vegetation. In places, small pools of water were surrounded by false-hellebore, low straw-like grasses, and various species of blossoming plants. The highest plant here was the Japanese rowan, nanakamado (Sorbus commixta), which grew in lush, green bushes. These too had a game plan of not growing too high as rabbits would seek out their twigs to nibble as the deep snows melted. By staying low, they assured themselves of un-nibbled twigs for producing buds once the snow was gone.

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Green meadows indicate places that receive deep snow in winter.

Before long, my head was swimming with thoughts about how these plants had each adapted to this harsh world high above the green hills beyond the slopes of the volcanoes. But soon we reached the crater and the clouds, which kept lifting and sinking, once again rose to reveal the landscape before us. The crater was wide and flat and a branch-work of streams in grey and yellow fed a central stream, the Akaishi River, which flowed out of the crater and through a gulley across the plateau. It eventually tumbled down over the cliffs of the Sounkyo Canyon. Mr. Morishita explained that there was once a lake in the crater but the waters had made a breach and the lake flowed out.

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The source of the Akaishi River: inside the main crater of the Taisetsu Volcano Group

The walk back to camp was quick-paced with only a few stops for further filming. The sun came out over Keigatsudake and the young Yamada and I made the quick climb to the summit. From here we looked out over green forest and some distant emerald fields. The only structures we could see were a couple of the hotels in Sounkyo. The wind was ferocious, however, and after a little we went back down. Yet again, there was no grand sunset, no alpine light. Nonetheless, a successful day of shooting had come to an end.

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Two

There were eight of us. Leading the way was the guide, Mr. Morishita, a thirty-something man from Chiba who had fallen in love with the nature of Hokkaido and was now working as a guide, leading folks into the mountains all over the island. I followed him and listened as he explained about the vegetation and the landscape. Behind me was the cameraman, Mr. Tsujinaka. TV camera operators always strike me as being so calm and mild-tempered, and Mr. Tsijinaka was no different. He was also taller than me. Tethered to his camera by microphone cord was Mr. Okawa. When he had stepped up to me at the airport to introduce himself as the sound recorder, I had immediately recognized him and interrupted him, “Okawa-san! Long time no see! We worked together on Yakushima four years ago.” Indeed, he was the same sound engineer from my first Journeys in Japan gig.

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Camera and sound – shooting ukon’ utsugi blossoms

The director, Mr. Ichino came next. We had first met during my winter trip to Yakushima and he had called on me last year to climb Akagisawa in the Kita Alps and explore Kumonodaira for the TV program. This was my third time working under his direction. Bringing up the tail, or sometimes rushing up to the front to be out of the camera view, were three young men serving as porters. One was twenty-five and studying for his masters degree in Sapporo and the other two were first year university students. The 19-year-old Yamada made an impression on me as he was so enthusiastic about mountains and commented on the first day, “To be getting paid to climb mountains is the best!”

We descended from Kurodake down the slope from the summit to a broad and almost level bench. The clouds would sometimes erase the world and leave us walking in grey mist. Other times they would grant us glimpses of the green-coated, rugged lava landscape off to the distant left. Mr. Morishita pointed out more species of wildflowers and I kept recording their names in my iPhone note pad. As I looked at the obviously wind-blasted environment, I began pondering why so many species of flowering plants had made their homes in this harsh landscape. Why not only a few species?

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Iwabukuro – Pennellianthus frutescens

The path descended once more and the vegetation rose up around us. Japanese rowan took over for the creeping pine and the flowers beneath the green canopies stood taller. The familiar white blossoms of bunchberry dogwood appeared in a large patch. I remarked to Mr. Morishita that these flowers had grown in the woodlots of my neighbourhood. In fact, whenever I climb mountains in Japan I always encounter familiar plants that I know from the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, Canada. The climate of higher elevations in Japan is similar to that of the latitude of my homeland.

26M ゴゼンタチバナ

Gozentachibana – Bunchberry dogwood Cornus canadense

We emerged from the greenery to cross a large strip of snow filling a shallow ravine and on the other side we were met by a wonderful garden of green hummocks with white blossoms. I was glad to know that the shelter and tent site were just around the corner because that meant I could steal moments of downtime to dash over here and photograph the scenery properly with a tripod. While on the move, I have to always capture everything handheld, which I prefer not to do if I can use a tripod. When I go out to photograph on my own, the camera stays mounted on the tripod.

05M チングルマの花畑

Chinguruma – Geum pentapetalum

The shelter buildings were simple and rudimentary, single-floor, wooden structures. There were only rooms for sleeping and toilet facilities, which required pedaling a wheel-less bicycle to churn a large screw that mixed up the waste with sawdust and bacteria. There was a table and a couple of chairs next to a small bookshelf and a reception desk that sold a few items like bear bells. Outside were picnic tables, and following a path through some bushes led one to the tent site. Tents were provided by our guide and his crew and each of us got his own one-man tent except for the guide and his team, who shared a large dome tent spacious enough for all of us to sit inside and share meals together, which were also prepared by the guide and his team.

This is where we stayed for two nights and from where we made out excursions out to explore and learn about the flowers and other plants. This is when Mr. Morishita would share with us his knowledge of alpine flora.

22M コマクサ

Komakusa – Dicentra peregrina

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part One

Alpine wildflowers. I like them. I stop to photograph them. I know a few of their names. And now I was standing amidst the rugged rocky peaks of a volcano complex in the centre of Hokkaido for the purported reason of having come to see wildflowers. Not the volcano. Not the steaming fumaroles and the sulphureous deposits. Not the dozen or so varieties of volcanic rock. I said I was here to see the wildflowers and was told that my interest in geology was not important to the program. Well, okay then. Let’s check out the wildflowers.

Taisetsusan

Big Snow Mountain – Taisetsusan. That’s the Japanese name. The aboriginal Ainu people called it Kamui Mintara – the Playground of the Gods. Central Hokkaido is home to some volcanic mountain ranges, and the highest summit of them all is Asahidake – 2,291 metres – in the Taisetsusan Mountains. The whole area is a remarkable natural wonder: a volcanic plateau with soaring cliffs replete with cascading ribbons of white water, hot springs, volcanic cones and craters, noxious volcanic gases, and beautiful ponds. It is also host to vast alpine meadows, and from base to summit, there are approximately some 270 species of wildflowers.

I was asked to be there for an upcoming episode of Journeys in Japan, my fourth appearance on the program. Previously I had climbed mountains on Yakushima and scrambled up waterfalls in the Kita Alps. Adventure and new challenges had been the order in the past. This time I was going to explore alpine meadows and learn about flowers. I was excited about the trip! There was the possibility of climbing Asahidake, which would have been my 35th Hyakumeizan. There was also word of a species of flower that grew only near a bubbling mud pit and nowhere else in the world. Visions of a Japanese Rotorua came to mind. In addition, part of the itinerary included seeking out the Ezo brown bear, the higuma. For me, the wildflowers would be but a pleasant bonus.

Taisetsusan’s summer weather is a wreck. High peaks stand above the pastoral hills and fields where cows graze, and those peaks trap every current of moist air passing through, forcing them up into the cooler air and causing clouds and rain to frequently hold parties at the higher elevations. A playground indeed. For the weather Gods. Our director had been there three weeks earlier, running the course that he’d planned for the program. Running through fog and strong winds and not seeing a damn thing! “Why did I come here?” he reflected as he told us about his reconnaissance trip. “It was just training for running in the mountains.”

The weather Gods were there for the summer break. The first night it rained in the Sounkyo Canyon where we stayed in a hotel. But the sun came out in the morning and we rode the gondola and chair lift under blue skies. True to mountain weather form, however, as we made our way up the trail to Kurodake, clouds drifted in and erased the view.

The flowers were blooming. It was no surprise to see many varieties of blossoms or even to see large swaths of alpine flowers. But as the guide began pointing out species after species, I began to appreciate why Taisetsusan was known for its flora. 

A bush-like plant called ukon’utsugi was particularly interesting. A tube like blossom in pale yellow, it had a clever method of communicating to insects about its pollen. The inside bottom of the blossom was a golden orange colour, which is easily seen by visiting insects. This is like an open for business sign, saying, “Pollen here!” Once the pollen has been removed, the colour changes to a deep red – “Pollen sold out!” In this way, insects can soon find where to get pollen and the plant can ensure insects don’t waste time searching depleted pollen stores.

The clouds enveloped the mountain. At the summit, I smiled and shook hands with my guide in a grey shroud. To our surprise, another film crew was there. With two cameras and larger staff, the NHK Hyakumeizan TV program crew were also covering a story on Taisetsusan.

It was then that the clouds began to part and views across the highland between the peaks were revealed to us. Cameras were parked on tripods and the precious moment was captured. The clouds played a game of conceal-and-reveal a couple of times more before we began to move on, descending toward the Kurodake shelter and tent site. Now we were heading into the world of alpine vegetation. I did not anticipate how interesting it was going to be.

9M ウコンウツギ

Ukon’utsugi – Weigela middendorffiana

17M チシマキンバイソウ

Chishima kinbaisou – Trollius riederianus

19M チシメフウロウ

Chishima fuurou – Geranium erianthum

44M 黒岳より北鎮岳

View from the summit of Kurodake – Hokuchindake (centre) and Ryoundake (right)

An Unfinished Petra?

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A couple of years ago, there was a TV commercial in Japan for Google with a group of traveling friends who ask Google to locate the “Japanese Machu Pichu”. Google gives them the Takeda Castle in Hyogo Prefecture. Certainly there are some similarities – the stone remains of a mountaintop construction – but of course the scale of the Takeda Castle is much smaller, the mountain much lower, and the purpose of the initial construction quite different. It brings to mind how the highest ranges in Japan were christened the Japan Alps after the loftier and more extensive ranges of Europe.

Are these misnomers or do they bring false expectations? Are they exaggerations or blatant “wannabes”? Take them as you like. But I found the Petra of Japan last weekend.

I had originally planned to drive up Mt. Akagi to the crater lake and shrine for the national holiday on the 11th, but a road condition update stated that snow tires or chains would be necessary after last Thursday’s snow. Being aware that I may require a backup plan, I began searching the Web for places of interest around Mt. Akagi. That’s when I stumbled across a photo of the Yabuzuka Quarry in Ota City, just near the border to Kiryu in Gunma Prefecture.

The photo depicted towering stone walls cut into volcanic tuff. There seemed to be openings with chambers beyond. Trees and vegetation hung over the sheer cliffs. It immediately made me think of Petra in Jordan even though there were no ornate carvings and the rock type was not sandstone. What was the story behind this place? Upon first glance, I did not know it was a quarry. Further investigation revealed it to be so. Regardless of it not being an abode of ancient peoples, I wanted to go there, and it became the first stop for my companion and me early that holiday morning.

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There was no large parking lot and no tourist centre. No one and no structure was present to indicate that we were entering a historic site. A narrow road led into the hills and to the side there was a small graveled clearing capacious enough to accommodate at the best three economy-sized vehicles. A well-aged sign indicated that this was the entrance to the Yabuzuka Ishikiriba, or stone-cutting place. A simple path lead through the forest and into a gap cut into the hillside. Once through a narrow opening we stood in the centre of the old quarry, cliffs rising straight up all around us and an amphitheater leading off to the left to some dark chambers with a second open chamber before us. Steps appeared cut into the rock here and there but none ever reached ground level. Holes had been bored into the rock in places and in the one open chamber some wooden poles and platforms remained in place several metres above the ground. If this was Petra, it had only just been started before becoming abandoned.

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This, however, was not a Japanese Petra. The Yabuzuka Quarry was first opened in the middle Meiji Period. Around 1903 the quarry officially opened with up to 350 workers at its peak. The tuff – a rock made of compacted and consolidated volcanic ash from 20 million years ago – was easy to cut and was used as foundation stone in buildings. It was discovered though that tuff is very porous and easily absorbs water (it makes a great water filter as I learned in Miyagi two years ago). The rock here also contains small stones so that it was not the best quality for construction use, cheap though it was. By the Showa year 30 (1955) the quarry was closed. High up on the ceiling in the open chamber one can see some Kanji written in red and the year 1959.

The Yabuzuka Quarry makes for an interesting visit, and nearby there is the Yabuzuka hot spring spa, a country club, and a reptile centre.

It’s no Petra but we easily passed a couple of hours photographing the quarry ruins.

To see more photos, please visit my album on Flickr.

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