Thursday, November 15, 2007
Somewhere in the middle of Honshu, in Nagano prefecture, Japan, lies an amazing expanse of mountain wilderness. Thousands of acres of “wilderness” spread before you punctuated by countless granite peaks. In a country with the population density of Japan, this is indeed a blessing. I call it wilderness in quotes, because in Japanese style, it is dotted with elaborate mountain huts, cable cars, and has fixed protection bolted into the granite walls with the most daunting lines. Yet, standing atop Yarigatake at sunrise the day after a North Pacific low passed through, you feel as if you are at the doorstep of heaven. A sea of gray clouds spreads beneath you, barley touched with the pink of a new day. Black peaks, jutting through the cloudy blanket, mark the horizon and it is quiet, silent actually.
Jill and I hiked over these mountains, known collectively as the Japanese Alps, and into that mysterious and sacred world that hides in these islands. Just like the temple cedars that inspire silence, a walk into the Japanese backcountry transports you to a magical world. It is a world so peaceful and profound, that just sitting in it, you know truth. All questions are answered in that silence, and everything is beautiful. This is the world of Anime, of Shinto, and of Buddha.
Crossing these mountains is the ridgeline trail known as the Daikiretto. Depending on how you count, its 5 or 10 kilometers of ridge that crosses between Yarigatake and Hotakadake. Yet, this is no ordinary ridge. On either side there is wonderful exposure, valleys plummeting down thousands of feet, the bottoms often obscured by clouds. The trail, although bolted with ladders and chains to assist the unprepared over the hardest lines, is still mind numbing. Straight up and down incredible granite cliffs, it’s hard to pick the trail, even though it’s well marked with white maru’s. We were hiking with camping gear just to make it extra special. Every couple of hours or so, we encounter a mountain hut, usually rustic and wooden, but replete with chocolate, Asahi, and even camp style cafeterias. These huts were like apparitions, forgotten as soon as they were behind us. Sitting in camp, watching the alpenglow color the clouds orange and red, and the stars blinking on in sheet of purple, devouring a bowl of instant ramen, you knew it was good. In a warm sleeping bag I dreamed of the pine trees and the granite vistas and revisited the silence. The next day, we down climbed a large avalanche chute, slowly re-entering this world. There were birds singing, the sun was warming little granite outcroppings, and the river was collecting itself from the runoff channels. Flowers were bright blue and yellow, and a few maples were getting an early start into fall. Eventually we came out to the trailhead, suddenly stepping into a quaint little town. Already the memory of that place began to fade like a wonderful dream. If it weren’t for the smiling, moss covered Buddha statue offering a wooden drinking ladle, we would have wondered if it even really existed at all.