Friday, April 8, 2011

Weirdest. Hike. Ever.

Our plan was to go backpacking and snowshoeing when we got back from our month's trip to America, but Joan's leg injury from walking in bad boots and then an impromptu Nitendo Wii Dance Party competition put her out of commission.

I had been chafing at the bit to get out and do some backpacking as the weather was quite warm and pleasant. To the west of us, still technically in Tokyo, are some mountains (really big hills) that have a lot of trails and some mountain huts. Hiking is very popular in Japan, and on weekend mornings, the west-bound trains are full of people fully decked out in way too much gear on their way to day hikes.

On topographical maps I had purchased earlier, I had identified some emergency huts where one can stay for free. We had stayed in similar huts up in Hokkaido and wanted to see if it was the same down here. Eventually, there is a four or five-day backpacking trip that I want to try in the Okutama region. I also had bought new hiking boots - big, Italian, full-leather monsters - that needed to be broken in. I had done hours of walking in flat Musashisakai but nothing uphill.

So, with a good forecast, I picked out an ambitious overnight route that would visit a hut midday with an overnight in a second one. The next day would stop by a third hut before descending back into the valley to catch a train home in the afternoon. This would be perhaps my first solo trip.

I will let the photos do most of the talking about what I saw. They can be seen here at this link:

The main problem was that I started developing a blister on the heel of my right foot from the new boots - rats! I decided to switch to my Teva sandals and kept pushing up the trail. It was fine until I hit the snow; the sandals don't have much traction. So, I put the left boot back on and struggled up the steep trail, slipping and sliding. This combined with about a month and a half of not much exercise and a backpack was quite slow and exhausting. When I finally made it to the top of the snowy, icy ridge, at least two hours behind schedule, I was tired and a little shaky. I decided to change the plan and just continue to the first hut to spend the night. I could reassess in the morning and decide then.

Well, when I reached the area where the emergency hut was supposed to be, on the side of the mountain, it wasn't there. However, there was a newer toilet hut, as well as a lot of weird buildings and structures - but no people. I pitched my hammock on what I assume is an old helicopter landing pad, based on structure and painted markings to catch my breath and enjoy the last of the sunshine - also to experience some of the most excruciating leg cramps I have ever had.

After awhile, I put my sandals back on and started spooking around, thinking about where I might sleep. I had not brought a tent, just a sleeping pad, bag, and hammock for relaxing. The mountain tea hut looked all raggedy and run down from the outside but seemed functional on the inside. Almost everything was still in place; it really felt like aliens had suddenly abducted everybody. Nothing was locked. Just down hill, there was another building that was a small ryokan (inn) with a dining room, dismantled kitchen area and sleeping rooms upstairs, with closets full of futons and blankets. I initially thought about making a nest up in one of the rooms.

Then I went down to the larger building, which looked like a 1970's commune retreat center.
From what I could see, I think it is a temple or retreat center for a Daoist religious group. While mostly empty, most of the building is in fine shape. However, in the central, round tower room, where many alters and other religious items where still on full display, the roof was leaking and causing extensive water damage. It was weird, weird, weird!

I spent a full 30 minutes exploring the warren of rooms and hallways before decided to stay in a
sun-warmed, carpeted and dry room with a fantastic view of Tokyo and closets full of futons and blankets. The room had some items (rolls of toilet paper, flashlight, box of clothes, etc.) that made it look like some had been staying there somewhat recently. I found some religious publications from as recent as 2008.

With my stove on a low table in front of the windows and sitting in a lawn chair I found in a storage closet, I made a dinner of instant ramen and watched the night fall on Tokyo. As it grew dark, the lights below began to create a sea of sparkling colors. It was completely silent and weird, weird, weird.

Finally around 8 pm, exhausted and, quite frankly, bored to death, I crawled into my nest of futons and blankets and fell asleep, listening to the unknown creaks, drips, bangs, and other sounds of the building.

I awoke at dawn and made coffee. Wrapped in a blanket, I watched the sun rise over Tokyo and
enjoyed its heat. Feeling much about the prospects of the day, I made a plan to hike to the second hut to check it out and head down from there. It was too far to make it to the third hut, and I didn't want to push my luck with the new boots. I had found a roll of duct tape in the tea house and was able to tape up the heel enough to hike the rest of the day.

Starting around 7 a.m., it was a great hike along the snowy ridge on a beautiful and sunny day. After about four hours, I reached the other mountain, where I cooked lunch and tended to my heel. From there, I headed down a trail

to the Okutama station, about three hours away. The downhill section was great as it took any pressure or friction off my heel, and I made good time.

Along the trail down the valley, I found some other excellent waterfall swimming opportunities and other interesting sites. And yet, another weird thing. I was striding along a flat section of the trail, at the base of a cedar-covered slope alongside the river, when seemingly out of nowhere, a large dead animal was just lying on the side of the trail, really
startling me. It turns out it was a "kamoshika"- a rare goat-antelope. There were no obvious signs of injury or decomposition: old age? sickness?

Eventually, I reached the end of the trail and started hiking along the road down to the bottom of the valley. It eventually joined a larger road that followed the Tamagawa river and led to the train station. With relief, I caught a train and sank into a seat.

Overall, it was a good but weird trip. I am excited to go back to explore the area and go deeper into the mountains. However, I need to figure out the boot situation and will try to drag someone else along next time. Many of you will not be surprised to hear that solo hiking is not for me!

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