Category Archives: mountains of Japan

Wow! What a fascinating mountain!

I climbed Mt. Fuji once, way back in the summer of 2000. Back then, I’m sure I took interest in the volcanic rocks all around, but my memory of that hike is filled with two other outstanding impressions: my bout with altitude sickness and the amount of rubbish I found along the route up.

Word is that the rubbish problem is being better taken care of, though as I was told on my summer trek up the mountain for Journeys In Japan, the problem continues as more foreigners come to climb the mountain and people from certain parts of the world have less garbage disposal etiquette than others. Altitude sickness can be avoided by climbing the mountain more prudently—taking one’s time and stopping for the night on the way up in order to acclimatize. This time, that was not a problem. Rather than starting from the 5th Station at 2,400 metres and then hustling to the summit, we started from sea level and took our time with a one night layover due to bad weather at the 6th Station.

Ever since my first experience on Mt. Fuji, I always maintained that it was not such a beautiful mountain to climb but was rather a mountain to be appreciated while climbing other mountains. What a thrill to stand at 3,015 metres on the summit of Tateyama, on the opposite side of Honshu overlooking the Sea of Japan, and gaze across the ranges of the Japan Alps to the familiar stratovolcano rising above the Pacific!

But this time I held an entirely different opinion: Mt. Fuji was incredibly fascinating!

Moss Forest Path

We passed through mossy forests where jumbles of jagged volcanic rock were covered in thick, spongy moss that made the rocks look like a sea of green clouds. We stopped at a lava cave where monks from bygone days stayed for days or weeks as part of their asceticism. The real joy for me came as we rose above the tree line and so many varieties of volcanic rocks were practically all there was to see, save for a few hardy species of scrubby plants that held on to existence most of the way up the mountain.

Fujisan Lava Detail

During our one day layover, clouds and rain kept us hanging about the Shin Hoei Sanso. But when the rain abated for a spell, I was out examining the local rocks and spent a pleasant time finding subjects that, in lieu of being able to take home, I arranged and photographed.

The rest of the climb to the summit was only made difficult by the lack of time I had to photograph. While hiking through the Hoei Crater (the large cater on the southeast side of Mt. Fuji), I was directed to keep walking past the large volcanic boulders that appeared out of the fog. When the clouds parted to reveal the upper reaches of the crater, I had to face the camera and say a few words, only to turn and see an alien landscape of red slopes with exposed dykes of grey rock that looked like ancient walls from some long gone civilization.

Thankfully, at the summit I had about an hour and a half at the end of the day to scuttle about the crater rim and find interesting subjects. This was perhaps the highlight of the trip for me. At one spot, numerous boulders of rock looked as though they had been squeezed through a tube or flung like batter. Then there was the crater itself with so many colours! From my experience at the summit, I gained a whole new love and respect for Mt. Fuji.

The colours in the sky prior to the sunrise the next morning were incredible and the light in the clouds cast a glow on the rocks of the crater and rim. But I was on camera during this time and so I could not take time to photograph for myself. I knew that though. I had to accept it. Perhaps I can go back again someday.

From the very summit we had views across the three ranges of the Japan Alps (how nice it was to lay eyes on those old familiar peaks that I haven’t seen for eight years!), Yatsugatake, and the Kai Okutama Chichibu Mountains. It sure was crowded though with visitors standing in line for over twenty minutes just to grab a photo at the summit marker.

For now, let me tell you that if you have any interest or fascination with rocks, Mt. Fuji is an incredible mountain to climb!

Fuji Rim Lava Collection The Foot and the Falcon

Fujisan Crater 12

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Kegon Falls of Chichibu and a Highland Farm

With the Golden Week holidays beginning at the end of April and continuing through the first few days of May (May 1st and 2nd being regular work and school days), I had planned two early morning outings into the Chichibu Mountains of western Saitama. Unfortunately, unanticipated car trouble has for the moment kept me from making a second trip (a visit by train is still possible but I can’t be out there before sunrise); however the first trip was very successful.

Chichibu Highland Farm 秩父高原牧場

Coming down from Yorii via R294 and turning onto R11, then slipping onto R361, I followed the road up to the Chichibu Highland Farm area. Divided into several parts, the farm appears this time of year as patches of green grass broken by stands of trees and surrounded by forest. Farm houses and barns can be spotted here and there, and there are places for families to park and visit. At 5:00 am, though, I was more concerned about capturing the dawn scenery. Apparently, by the end of May, the fields should break out in colorful reds and pinks as poppies bloom.

02 Highland Morning

Nihongi Pass 二本木峠

The route reaches Nihongi Pass, and there is a small place to pull over and park. Here is a short trail leading up a small peak and a campground nearby. What got me to pull over was the explosions of varying shades of pink mountain azaleas amidst the trees. There was more pink than green below the tree canopy and it was certainly a stop worthy of the Scenic Saitama photo project.

08 Pink Eruption

A Secret Cave

My next stop was a small cave that I had discovered while driving back down R284 in April. At that time it was just a reconnaissance visit, but this time I returned and made a good time of examining the rocks. The cave is easily missed as it is down a steep slope and at the creekside, and grasses along the road partially obscure the view. Even while I was down there visiting, at least four vehicles passed on the road and not one driver looked down at me. The cave is yet another example of the many limestone formations in the mountains of Saitama.

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Kegon Falls of Chichibu 秩父華厳の滝

One of Japan’s most famous waterfalls is the punchbowl falls of Nikko in Tochigi: Kegon Falls. Draining from Lake Chuzenji, the water plummets over a lava rock precipice into a bowl-shaped cavity known as a punchbowl. Coming from British Columbia, I know at least two other excellent examples of such falls.

In Chichibu there is no lava rock, and no grand punchbowl. But there is a quaint little cascade that slips down a chert rock face and drops into a pleasant, shallow green plunge pool. This waterfall bears the appellation Kegon Falls of Chichibu. Though only a minnow in comparison to its namesake, the cascade itself is very lovely. The draining water tumbles through a gorge of striated rocks – the strata all crumpled and crooked – and flows down into a typical mountain ravine. There is parking, a small structure advertising soft ice cream for sale, and a path leading to view points below the gorge, below the falls, and above the falls next to a road. The road leads on to two more waterfalls, roughly 600 metres and 1,000 metres away.

Soft green crowns of flowing maple leaves surround the falls and plunge pool when viewed from the path leading to the road above, and I know that I will have to return in autumn when the maple leaves are turning colour!

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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.

M64 中岳温泉

Milky waters below the Nakadake hot spring

M40 エゾノリュウキンカ

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!

M67 裾合平の花畑と旭岳

Yet even more flowers with Asahidake in the background.

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Steaming gases on Asahidake.

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.

M24 コマクサ

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 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)

Meeting Martin

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It was a November afternoon, nine years ago, when I stood partway between the tent site and the summit of Jiigatake in the North Alps—the Kita Alps—of Japan. Obuchisawa had disappeared beneath a tide of clouds, and across the slow-motion waves of undulating vapour, Harinokidake and Rengedake rode the mists like islands. Far beyond in the western distance stood Yakushidake, one of the Hyakumeizan. Overhead, a different kind of sky was created by clouds with loftier ambitions. The tripod was placed on the slope and adjusted, the 35mm Minolta already mounted. Click! Whirrrr. The scene was captured on Velvia 50. Eight years later, that very scene adorns the cover of the English translation of Kyuya Fukada’s “Nihon Hyakumeizan” – One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

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How did this happen? By what stroke of tremendous good fortune did I find my photograph associated with the national institution that is Fukada’s Hyakumeizan, that personal list that became considered by so many as the definitive one? Good gravy! I don’t think I can recall exactly. But it has everything to do with the book’s translator, Martin Hood and the fact that we both share our mountain photography on Flickr.com.

It was no doubt Martin who made the first move. Someone who posted photos from the European Alps commented on my Japan Alps photos. That must have been how it started. And I am certain that I would be correct in surmising that an Internet friendship ensued from that point on. But it was only after learning the true name of this Flickr user (we both employ user names) that I recognized I had come across it before. While gathering information for my own book project on the Japan Alps, I came across several informative blog posts on a site called One Hundred Mountains, and furthermore, I seemed to recall having read an article somewhere online whose author was Martin Hood.

Martin, back in those days, was searching for a publisher for his translation of the Hyakumeizan book. He had begun it originally as a method of keeping up his Japanese when he left the country back in 1995. However, the project unexpectedly turned into book proposal and a blog that continues to this day to feature more and more of the most obscure and unheard off Hyakumeizan-related information to ever be presented to the English-speaking world. Initially, the book project itself faced great obstacles as promising publishers one after the other rejected the book. At last though, success prevailed with the University of Hawaii Press, and in December of 2015 the book at last entered the world to much fanfare by the blog’s most devout fans.

So how about that cover?

As Martin assembled photographs for the book, he—in all his good grace—consulted my self-published (blurb.com) book of the Japan Alps and selected a few promising images. Granting my permission, I sent the selected images as files to the art director at UHP. With a little artistic license and some computer editing, my photograph earned the distinguished honour of becoming the cover shot of this great literary work.

Some weeks ago, Martin managed to find his way over to Higashi Omiya Station, a hop skip and a jump away from my work place. It was far too brief, the time allotted for us two to finally meet after years of Internet friendship. Nevertheless, for about 56 minutes, the two of us sat across from one another at a small table in a burger and coffee shop and tossed questions and remarks back and forth like an Olympic table tennis match. We could have talked all afternoon, but Martin had another engagement and I had to get back to work. We both agreed, however, that when the Fates would next make it possible for our paths to cross, we would plan better and hopefully have more time, perhaps even enough for a day hike. I have my thoughts on Ryogamisan, a Hyakumeizan in Saitama.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Previously, I reported that a new photo book of the Japan Hyakumeizan – One Hundred (Famous) Mountains of Japan – had been published and one of my photographs appears in the book. Very excited about the book’s release, I hurried to purchase a copy only days after it went on sale. Then the story became more interesting.

My stock agency contacted me with questions about a mountain in the Kita Alps known as Kasagatake. As with the photo in the book, they asked me to identify the summit and confirm that the mountain in the photo was Kasagatake of Hyakumeizan fame. I asked what was going on, somehow imagining that perhaps some new interest had come to my photographs or the Hyakumeizan mountains. The story was as follows:

The photo of Kasagatake in the book was provided by another stock agency and it was the wrong mountain. Kasagatake is in Gifu Prefecture but the photo in the book was of a Sanbyakumeizan (300 Famous Mountains – there’s a 101 to 200 list and a 201 to 300 list) that also goes by Kasagatake. The location on the map, the elevation, and the brief summary of the mountain were all correct for the intended mountain but the photo was of a different peak.

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Kasagatake of Nagano, mistaken for Kasagatake the Hyakumeizan of Gifu

So the publisher was looking for a photo of the correct mountain and as it turned out, I had three with the agency. As I had it explained to me, the book is going to be reprinted with the correct photo. It still won’t be for some months but when the reprint comes out, I will have two photos in the book!