Sunday, September 9, 2012

Five Mountain Odyssey: Part 2

After Kumotori, I took the train to Nagano.

The biggest thing I remember about Nagano is how much my legs hurt and how incredibly hungry I was. The morning after I got there, I went and bought breakfast. I was ravenous and in all likelihood gorged myself far too quickly, which would explain the stomach cramping and overall body shock that resulted, leaving me to find a spot to sit in the shade until the discomfort passed. For a little while, though, I was worried I needed to find a doctor. Luckily, things got better.

I did see a big shrine in Nagano: Zenkokuji. It was pretty enough, but after that I sought out an international exchange center to use the internet, and then went to a nice but cheap public bath right near my hostel.

Although some westerners find themselves too embarrassed to enter a public bath or onsen--where people bathe communally, naked--the warm, misty environment and the big hot baths (free from soap--which is a rule), the profusion of water, and the overall feeling that I can devote an hour to cleansing and relaxing--when usually showers are a hurried affair--appeals to me. First, you wash off at a cleaning station, where you sit on a stool, and use a handheld showerhead and soap to clean yourself. Then, free of both dirt and soap, you go into the hot bath and relax your body. After you're thoroughly de-stressed, you soap off again. It is an incredibly relaxing ritual to me.

The trailhead.
That night, I prepared for departure. The next day I would climb up Mt. Hiuchi and stay overnight on top in a mountain hut where I had made a reservation. My legs and shoulders were still terribly sore, but my schedule was already set. I had little choice but to continue to follow it.

So the next day I took trains and a bus to the stop up in the hills for starting to hike the mountain. The trail had many more people than Kumotori, and I was moving slow because of my soreness, so I had to let several groups pass me.

I did get lucky, however, in seeing a few birds that posed obligingly for me. Despite my aching legs, I also made it to the mountain hut by 3 PM, giving me plenty of time to hike the extra one and a quarter hours to the summit of Hiuchi and then back in another hour.

Apparently, some others did not think so, however. As soon as I got to the hut, checked in, was assigned my futon spot, and told the hut folks I'd be hiking to the summit and back, the two elderly men immediately told me I couldn't do it in time. Sunset was still four hours away. Perhaps the people at the hut doubted my ability, or couldn't tell time, or couldn't add. At any rate, I told them "anyway, I'm going" in Japanese. They laughed.

I confess that one thing that bothers me about Japanese culture, is the propensity of the Japanese to laugh at people condescendingly when someone has said something they either don't agree with or don't understand. I gave them no more of my attention, and set out to climb to the summit. I was hoping very much to see ptarmigan (an alpine bird with furry toes) on the way, as it's a rare bird and you can only see it on the tops of a few mountains in Japan--Hiuchi being one of them.

Mt. Hiuchi, reflected in an alpine pond.

I started out on my hike, having left almost everything at the hut, and thus lightening my load considerably. It was a beautiful hike. Definitely, the top of Hiuchi is one of the prettiest mountains I have ever had the luck to see. The alpine meadows and ponds were unlike anything I'd seen before. It was a steep, uphill hike most of the way to the summit, and the trail was a bit overgrown. It also started drizzling and got rather chilly near the top, but I made it there along with a Japanese couple, so luckily we were able to take photos for each other. I turned to head back down immediately.

I made it! Mt. Hiuchi summit.
Unfortunately, I saw no ptarmigan, but I did see a few others birds, including a male-female pair of Eurasian Bullfinches, which I'd never seen before. I only got a photo of the female, which is a little bit too bad because the male had beautiful pink cheeks.

I made it back to the hut well before dark, but did I rub it in to the Japanese men who had said I couldn't do it? Nope. I just went on up to my bunk to get my food. I then went back down to the common room, but was told I couldn't use the common room unless I'd paid for meals--which was an option during the reservation process, which I chose to decline (I ended up being happy I had, because dinner was curry-rice--one of the cheapest meals you can produce, and also one I dislike, and would have cost me about $20, including breakfast, too).

Eurasian Bullfich -- female
A bit miffed by the rule, I returned to my bunk to eat there, write in my travel journal, and listen to a book on MP3 before sleep. Downstairs the diners were watching a TV run by a generator--which I simply couldn't understand. Why would you hike all the way up into the mountains, into nature, distant from all the overwhelming media bombardment, and then sit around a TV? Moreover, why would the hut waste all that gasoline on it, when they could be conserving and running little more than a few light bulbs? I guess some people just can't survive without staring at a TV screen for a few hours a day. Granted, I was putting my earbuds in to listen to a book, but somehow, I consider mindlessly staring at a screen to be different from enjoying a book. (For those curious, I was listening to "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen.)

The hut I stayed in.
Altogether, the hut was crowded and noisy, and so not the most peaceful and relaxing place (and not really worth it for $50, in my opinion), but the other option would have been trying to sleep outside on the mountain. There was a tent area near the hut, though, and if I'd packed a tent, that might have been a better option than the hut, providing more privacy and more of a natural experience. I also chose to sleep in my sleeping bag on top of the futon provided, because I doubted that up on top of a mountain the futons were washed very often. The night was full of snoring, but I did my best to endure the cramps in my sore legs (NSAIDs help!) and was awakened by the dawn light through the windows in the morning.

The new day's mission was to climb over the neighboring Myoko peak, and down to Tsubame Onsen to catch a bus back to civilization. It was the hardest part of my whole trip, and I'll write all about it in my next blog entry.

Thanks for reading!

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