Hiking the Hakuba Range (白馬連峰)

At the end of August, looking to escape the Tokyo summer heat, I took a highway bus from Shinjuku to Hakuba, the famous ski town in Nagano, for a three-day solo hike in the Hakuba Range.

Hakuba hike map

My 3-day hiking route and planned alternate course, in case of adverse weather.

Day 1: Wednesday, August 30

Happo Ike Hut (八方池山荘) –> Karamatsudake Hut (唐松岳頂上山荘) (4.56km)

The 6:35 AM highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal direct to Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal arrived on time at around 11:45 AM. First things first, I went to the Montbell store on the second floor of the bus terminal building to purchase a fuel canister. Then, I got directions and a bus schedule for post-hike logistics from the information counter.

To reach the beginning of my hike, I took the Adam Gondola and two ski lifts up Happo One (pronounced “oh-nay”, meaning ridge) Ski Resort. At the top of Adam Gondola, I purchased a Nozawana oyaki for lunch and ate it on the next lift up. (“Oyaki” is a Nagano specialty buckwheat steamed bun.) The lifts were set really low, and I swung my feet in the long grass. Dairy cows relaxed on the verdant green ski slopes.

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The lifts got me up to Happo Ike Hut by 1 PM. Upon asking where to get water, I was informed it was 100 yen for up to two liters. I had 500 ml on me and should’ve filled up at the bottom of the mountain for free. Rookie mistake!

The weather forecast for the week was rainy, and when the bus had driven into Hakuba Valley the clouds were hanging low, covering to tops of the mountains on both sides of the valley. But by the time I reached Happo Ike pond at about 1:40 PM, the fog had begun to lift. I took a coffee break and enjoyed the reflection of the Hakuba range in the pond.

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There’s a little shrine at Happo Ike to the dragon god who lives in the pond.

Beyond Happo Ike, you leave the tourists behind. Since I started hiking in the afternoon, I ran into only one other hiker on the way up to Karamatsudake Hut, where I camped for the night. He was an older gentleman who had driven up from Chiba in the morning, so we were on more or less the same schedule. Seeing the sleeping pad strapped to the outside of my pack, he asked if I was tent camping. He was curious how heavy my pack was. I said that the scale at the bottom of Happo One said 11 kilograms. He said his was 12 kg, and he was planning to stay at the hut, which meant he hadn’t packed food, tent, or sleeping bag… how come my pack was so light? Then, he realized he was carrying 2 kilograms worth of camera kit. I said, that totally explains it, because my tent is only 750 grams and my sleeping bag even less than that. That’s one benefit of having not gotten crazy about photography while hiking… yet.

I completed the anticipated 4-hour hike from Happo Ike Hut to Karamatsudake Hut in just about 3 hours. It’s a short hiking day, but I’d been up and traveling since 5 AM and was satisfied to call it a day. Welcomed by a sign offering draft beer, I checked-in and paid 1000 yen for a tent site. After a brief chat with the girl at reception about mountains in Taiwan, I set up camp. The campground consisted of scattered sites down the other side of the ridge from where I had climbed up, and offered amazing views of the Tateyama peaks dominated by Mt. Tsurugi.

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Karamatsudake Hut

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What my campsite looked like

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View of Karamatsudake Hut and tent sites

I’m relaxing and unpacking and somehow 1.5 hours disappeared. I climbed back up the ridge to go to the hut to use the restrooms, then returned to my tent to cook dinner as sunset fell on the archipelago of the Kita Alps in a cotton candy sea.

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Sunset on cloud-capped Mt. Tsurugi

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Scoping out the next day’s hike: looking north across Kaerazunoken

Day 2: Thursday, August 31

Karamatsudake Hut –> Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha (白馬岳頂上宿舎) (8.64km)

I am awakened in the middle of the night by rain inside my tent. It’s condensation being shaken off the inside of my tent by the wind blowing outside. I wiped down the inside of my tent with a small camp towel, changed the orientation of my head (since I had been sliding down toward one end of my tent) and slept much better for the rest of the night.

I had ambitious plans to wake up for sunrise but couldn’t actually motivate myself to get up. Anyway, when I finally got out of my tent there was pretty much zero visibility due to the mist. I packed up my tent and went to the hut to brush my teeth, pee, and make some coffee. Reception at the hut tried to sell me 1L of PET bottled water for 600 yen, but I purchased 1L of unfiltered river water for 150 yen and ran it through my Sawyer filter.

It was imperceptibly drizzling as I started the day’s hike and after about 20 minutes, I stopped for breakfast of a piece of Family Mart chocolate pound cake at the peak of Karamatsudake. It’s wrapper had conveniently puffed up into a balloon at high elevation to keep it from getting smushed in my pack.

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400 calories of chocolatey goodness

The next section of the hike was a rocky traverse called Kaerazu no Ken (不帰の険), which translates to “Cliffs of No Return”. It looked pretty sketchy based on the trip reports I’d read on Yamareco and my map had a dotted line labeled “danger”. So, in case of heavy rain and low visibility, I had a plan B of going south from Mt. Karamatsu and taking an easier traverse to Mt. Goryu. I was walking among wisps of cloud, but it wasn’t raining so I decided to follow plan A and go for it. Just past the first sign marking the beginning of Kaerazu no Ken, the trail wasn’t too bad. A family of ptarmigan waddled down the trail in front of me, unperturbed by my presence. But soon I had put away my trekking poles and found myself traversing cliffs on chains and swinging around rocky corners trying to stay balanced with a bulky pack on my back. Finishing the traverse without falling to my death, I was rewarded with a huge slogging uphill climb on switchbacks and then some more chains to the top of Tengu no Kashira (天狗ノ頭). From the top of Tengu no Kashira, you could see that the peaks to the south were super rocky and steep compared to the rolling ridge to the north, which looked much less extreme.

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Sign warning hikers of the start of Kaerazu no Ken

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Ptarmigan

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These chains will later make the cables at Half Dome a piece of cake

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“I think the trail goes that way?”

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“Snow river” in the valley that will not melt through to the next snow season

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View south of Tengu no Kashira

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View north of Tengu no Kashira

I was pretty spent by the time I got to Tengu Hut. The clouds thinned and parted a bit and I quite successfully dried out my tent and aired out my feet over lunch at a picnic table in front of Tengu Hut.

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Lunch, tent drying, and water-getting at Tengu Hut

However, by the time I started back on the trail again, the mist had dropped again and there was no visibility as I crossed the small snowfield after Tengu Hut, making it a bit scary as I couldn’t see where I was going. Then, there was a climb up brilliant white marble (?) scree to the top of Hakuba-Yarigatake. Since there was still no visibility, I took the easy route around Sakushidake (杓子岳) instead of summiting another peak. Past the Hakuba saddle there were supposed to be alpine flower meadows, but I couldn’t really see anything. I finally spotted a sign for the municipal run Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha hut (白馬岳頂上宿舎), paid my 1000 yen to camp out back and warmed up in the restaurant.

Day 3: Friday, September 1

Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha –> Tsugaike Shisenen Ropeway Station (6km)

Sometime during the night, I pulled my Buff down over my eyes and ended up sleeping past sunrise again. It was the coldest night I’d spent so far in my tent and sleeping bag, and when I awoke I stuffed my hiking clothes inside my sleeping bag to warm them up and unzipped the mesh door of my tent to my heat up some breakfast in the vestibule of my tent while still sitting in my sleeping bag. It’s a brilliant blue sunny sky out. Darn it! I missed a beautiful sunrise. After eating, I zipped my tent back up and put on my now toasty warm hiking clothes. The sun was just beginning to warm my tent as well, as I pushed my pack out through the tent door, collapsed the tent and collected my tent stakes. The tent was pretty dry from the sunny morning, so I didn’t have to worry about drying it during the day.

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Breakfast

I made my way up to the top of Mt. Shirouma. There is a another huge hut right there! Yesterday, I couldn’t see anything. This is why I like overnight hiking: you get two chances to see stuff. At Mt. Karamatsu, the night before, I had a beautiful sunset, but no view in the morning in the morning. Last night, there I couldn’t see anything when I arrived at the campsite, but this morning there is not a cloud in the sky.

Behind the privately run Hakuba Sanso hut near the peak, there was a spot on the ground that marked each of the landmarks in the distance. Looking southwest, I could see Yatsugatake. Unfortunately, there was no Fuji view that morning. Toward the south, I saw Shakushi and Hakuba-Yari peaks which I crossed yesterday. In the distance, I could see Yarigatake and Mt. Hotaka, and closer Mt. Tsurugi; toward the west, Toyama city and Noto penninsula surrounding Toyama Bay, further west, the Sea of Japan.

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Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha Hut

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View from Hakuba Sanso Hut

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There was more of this view in full 360 degrees from the top of Mt. Shirouma. Toward the northeast was the mellow ridge leading to Mt. Korenge that I would walk that day. The ridge rising above the clouds looked like the backbone of a sleeping dragon. And then it sank beneath the rising clouds.

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Dragon’s backbone of Mt. Korenge (View from summit of Mt. Shirouma)

After an initial steep decent, it was an easy and flat walk on crushed rock the size of large gravel. I passed by large cairns lurking mysteriously in the fog. The white rock changed to red, indicating iron content. My map showed a side trail leading on to the site of an old refinery and mine office.

The rocks on the slope up Mt. Korenge tinkled like glass when I walked over them. I picked one up and it felt lighter than it looked. An almost pumice. Atop Mt. Korenge, I took a break for a second breakfast of coffee, nuts and salami. I packed out an abandoned tupperware that obviously had held someone’s lunch in it. (It was a nice tupperware, but I was afraid to open it to wash it out and ended up just throwing it away when I got down to the gondola station at Tsugaike.)

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Mt. Shirouma behind me

At Hakuba Oike Hut, I picked up some water (free!) and admired the flat campground looking onto an alpine meadow. Should be pretty on a clear day. Where is the pond? I followed the sign for Tsugaike to the other side of the hut and see the edge of the water in the mist and the trail going around the pond. After following the trail for the while, I think, this is a huge pond! More like a lake? I could only see the edge of the clear green water but it feels like the trail has been going around it for quite a while. The trail becomes some pretty fun rock hopping with occasional X and O symbols directing the way. It was like this all the way to the top of Mt. Norikura, which is not much of a peak but the high point on a flat mountain top. (No use hiking here to snowboard down, you’d just be stuck!) Finally, the sky opens just briefly enough for me to see the whole Hakuba Oike pond and take a photo.

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Hakuba Oike pond

There was more rock hopping until I reached a small snowfield, and after the snowfield the rock hopping got quite a bit more challenging. Climbing down big boulders with a heavy pack on is much more difficult than with only a day pack, because you don’t want to destroy your knees and ankles from impact. Finally, finally, I reached the raised wooden platforms set over a marsh I’d been spying from up above.

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The wooden walkway was being replaced, and there were pallets of new wood to be installed off to the sides of the pathway. I hopped over onto one of the pallets and made myself comfortable. Since I didn’t really pack lunch for this last day, I end up cooking half a pack of quick cook pasta and a cube of kimchi jigae soup, since that’s what I have left. Yes, I have become one of those Japanese hikers that cooks hot lunch!

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Lunch break!

As I was packing up after my lunch break, one of the workmen made his way over and asked me when I was heading down. He was looking for someone to walk down with. I’m a little weirded out initially, but he started telling me about his job. He and his team have been up at Tsugaike since July living in two trailers by the top of the Tsugaike ropeway. His company also did the wooden walkways at Happo-Ike, which I passed the first day of my hike, as well as at Mt. Naeba and Mt. Hotaka. I commented that it was a nice job to be able to work in all those beautiful places. He replied that he only comes to the mountains to work, his hobby is golf. He pointed out some bear scat on the trail. I haven’t seen a bear while in Japan yet!

We ran into a hiker testing the water at a spring. This water is safe, he called out to us, so we stopped for a drink and a chat. This typical retiree hiker explained he thought it would be boring to just set a goal of climbing the Hyakumeisan, so his personal goal is to test all the water sources on the Hyakumeisan. He says that so far, all the water sources he’s tested have been potable. Good to know right?

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Guided by someone who’s walked up and down the trail everyday for months, I made it down to Tsugaike ropeway safely, with no injuries and finished my hike in good time. After getting to the bottom of Tsugaike Ski Resort, I consulted the bus schedule. I could’ve either hopped a bus direct from Tsugaike back to Tokyo, but I ended up busing back to Happo Bus Terminal where busses are more frequent so I could catch an onsen before returning to Tokyo.

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The ski resorts of Hakuba Valley come into view

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Tsugaike Gondola, the end of my hike

Logistics and Costs

I picked Hakuba for this last minute hike because the logistics were easy. I took a highway bus to and from Shinjuku, ski resort gondolas and lifts to and from the trail heads, and one of the Hakuba town buses from Tsugaike back to Happo Bus Terminal.

Shinjuku <–> Happo Bus Terminal Highway Bus: 8700 yen round trip

Happo-One Ski Resort: one-way up Adam Gondola – 1550 yen (1400 yen if you have a jRO search and rescue insurance card)

Tsugaike Ski Resort: one-way down the ropeway – 1360 yen

Tsugaike –> Hakuba bus: 560 yen

Tent site at Mt. Karamatsu: 1000 yen

Tent site at municipal Shirouma Hut: 1000 yen

Trip Tips

I wouldn’t have done Kaerazu no Ken by myself if it was raining. If it had been raining that morning at Mt. Karamatsu, my Plan B was to go south to Mt. Goryu, instead of north to Mt. Shirouma, because that ridge is less dangerous. Kaerazu no Ken was pretty sketchy and since I was alone, I was very careful and it took me 1.5 times the estimated course time on the map to complete it, because I didn’t want to lose my grip or footing anywhere and fall into an abyss…

There are two huts at the top of Mt. Shirouma, Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha (白馬岳頂上宿舎) and Hakuba Sanso (白馬山荘). Hakuba Sanso does not have tent sites.

There is free water at Tengu Hut, Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha and Hakuba Oike Hut, but not at Happo Ike Hut or Karamatsudake Hut.

Hiking in Taiwan: Dabajianshan (大霸尖山) 4-Day Solo Hike

On clear days, you can see Dabajianshan (大霸尖山) from my parents’ apartment perched on the hills southeast of downtown Hsinchu. The distinctive square shape of the peak makes it super easy to recognize. It’s on the 500NT note. Dabajianshan is the holy mountain of the Atayal people and where they believe their ancestors came from. The “ba” in Daba means “dominate”; it’s the same character used in「霸王」or warlord. All reasons I decided to climb it.

Most people climb Dabajianshan in a 3-day hike, staying two nights at Jiujiu (or 99) Hut, which is manned. However, a Chinese language hiking guide I read strongly suggested breaking up the hike into 4 days and tent camping at 3050 High Ground or staying at Zhongba Hut which appealed to me because I like to avoid crowds and had a romantic idea of seeing sunrise from Dabajianshan.

Trail journal below.

Day 1 – Monday, July 17

Dalu Forest Road (大鹿林道) to Madara Creek Trailhead (馬達拉溪登山口) (19.5km)

Dalu Forest Road is an easy walk. It’s a mostly gravel road crossed by many small waterfalls. I actually get to see most of the endemic and endangered birds and butterflies described on the interpretive signs along the trail. Good job with signage and conservation efforts, national park and forest service! The road winds up the side of the mountain and the view on the other side of the valley is not bad. But it does get tedious after about 10km. (And there is no where secluded to pee.)

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Beginning of Dalu Forest Road

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Gwanwu Waterfall – a popular day hike in Guanwu Forest Recreation Area but you can’t tell it’s this high from the bottom of the waterfall.

Dabajianshan used to be a popular two-day climb, but typhoons repeatedly washed out Dalu Forest Road so its been closed to private motor vehicles since 2008 adding an additional 20km each way to the hike. You can see how the road was damaged and how streams/waterfalls just run across the trail in the video below.

I drove up in the morning from my parents house in Hsinchu past Judong (竹東) and Chingchuan (sp? 清泉) (a beautiful hot spring village high in the valley where Zhang Xueliang, the once rival warlord to Chiang Kai-shek who was blamed for losing China to the Communist Party, was once held in house arrest), so by the time I arrive at the trailhead to turn in my permit it’s a few minutes past 11AM, and the ranger lets me though without watching the safety video, because he wants to get off his shift. You’re not suppose to enter the trailhead after 11AM because of the long walk up to 99 Hut (4 hour, 4km hike up from Madara Creek Trailhead), but I’m only camping at Madara Creek.  Since I get a late start, I meet only one other hiker going up that day when I’m hiding from the rain in a worker shack at the 15km mark. He has a thick accent and I imagine what exotic location he is from in China. (Later I find out it’s Macau.)

When I finally get up to the campground in front of the abandoned visitors’ center at Madara Creek around 5:45PM, the water is not running at the toilets which is troublesome because there aren’t any good places to do you business around there. (It is apparent people have been using the toilets anyway and they are really gross.) I’m staking in my last couple of tent pegs when two vans pull up filled with workers who will be staying the night. They take over the visitors’ center building, despite a sign posted saying that the foundations of the building are not stable so do not enter.

I was looking forward to relaxing and enjoying my solitude since I have the sole permit reservation for the campground, but now my peace is disturbed by a chainsaw and leaf blower as the workmen build a f-ing bonfire.

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They were there to cut the grass along the forest road the next day.

I retreat to the nearby forestry service workers’ hut and manage to have a quiet dinner overlooking the creek. After dark, there are too many bugs in the hut (elevation ~1800 meters), so I have to hastily pitch my tent inside the hut. This was not as relaxing as I hoped!

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Forestry Service Hut

Day 2 – Tuesday, July 18

Madara River Trailhead to Zhongba Hut (中霸山屋) via Jiujiu Hut (九九山莊) (9.5km), and evening visit to Dabajianshan (4km round trip)

I sleep in longer than I intended because it is so dark inside the workers’ hut and only finish packing when I hear a leaf blower go on. I finally cross the red Madara Creek Bridge and start hiking just before 8AM. This results in me getting hailed on in the afternoon thunderstorm on the way to Zhongba Hut. It’s been classic Taiwan summer weather recently – 午後雷陣雨 – not-a-cloud-in-the-sky mornings followed by afternoon thunderstorms.

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Looking back across Madara Creek Bridge towards some hikers coming down from the mountains that morning

Not very far up the trail, I dig my first cathole the first place it looks viable to go off trail. It’s difficult, but I hit a rock and after wedging the rock out, the hole reaches regulation depth. (Review LNT principles here.) Achievement unlocked! I’m back on the trail clipping my potty trowel to my backpack when a hiker coming down passes me. Lucky!

The climb up to Jiujiu or 99 Hut is a slog, except for around the 2.4KM mark where there is old grown cypress forest. I love the smell of hinoki! Apparently there are two kinds: Taiwan Cypress /扁柏/ヒノキ, and Formosan Cypress/ 紅檜/ベニヒ. I thought they were all the same. FYI a lot of the large cypress tori (e.g. at Meiji Jingu) and large hinoki baths in Japan are constructed out of Taiwan hinoki.

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Cypress forest

I wander into 99 Hut to checkout the facilities even though I don’t plan on staying there and get ambushed by the caretaker and the cook who make me sit and drink ginger tea and then oolong tea with them. The cook feeds me sausage and eggs left over from breakfast and gives me two tomatoes for the road. The caretaker names all the flowers in the photos I took on Xueshan and shows me photos of Dabajianshan that he’s taken in all conditions. “This year, it snowed April 1 at 99 Hut!” he says as he proudly shows me the photo. He’s incredulous I have only brought my phone for photo taking purposes. I finally extract myself by promising to stop by again on the way down.

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Mr. Chang, the caretaker of 99 Hut, and I

On Daba Trail there are four baiyue: Dabajianshan (3492m), Xiaobajianshan (小霸尖山 3360m), Yizeshan (伊澤山3297m), and Jialishan (加利山3112m). It is hailing pea-sized pellets at the time I reach the junction for Jiali Shan. I see two people turn off the main trail to climb Jiali despite the crappy weather, but I skip Jiali and Yize and head straight along the increasingly muddy trail to Zhongba Hut for shelter. I’m not that crazy about peak-bagging baiyue; I’d rather get dry. It’s a good thing that after the junction for Jialishan at 3050 meters, the trail is never very steep.

At 3:20 in the afternoon, I’m resting on the deck of the very cozy Zhongba Hut. Arrived, swept out the hut, and had a pee before it started raining again. Great facilities here! Cathole digging equipment and rainwater collection tank with water coming out of a tap just out back. I lost my trash bag out of the side pocket of my backpack, probably when I set my pack down to dig out my rain jacket. I hope I find it on the way back down or I’ll feel really bad.

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Zhongba Hut

The clouds part above Zhongba Hut around 5:50PM, so I decide to go to Dabajianshan and see what I can see.

Dabajianshan is hiding mysteriously in the mist when I approach. I bow and say a little prayer of thankfulness and hope for good weather and safety and then cross to the metal rails toward the traverse under the Daba peak to Xiaoba. There’s a sign attached by a chain to the metal railing, and I’m taking a selfie with the sign and white where Daba is supposed to be behind me, when suddenly the clouds part and I see Daba clearly on my phone screen. Of course, I immediately turn around and shout “Wow! Wow! Wow!” out loud to nobody.

If ever you arrived at the top of a mountain and were sure it was a god, it would be Dabajianshan. You can’t step on the top and conquer him (no longer permitted by law because it’s dangerous, and really you shouldn’t out of deference to aboriginal beliefs), but you can sit at his feet and look out onto the wondrous view he has. I don’t stay long, because I want to be back at the hut to cook dinner before dark, and I want to get an early night so I can be back up at Daba for sunrise.

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No, this is not a stock photo. I took it with my very own wee little iPhone.

Day 3 – Wednesday, July 19

Zhongba Hut to Dabajianshan and Xiaobajianshan and back (5km?), then down to 99 Hut (9.5km)

Zhongba Hut is snug and quiet, no bugs, no scurrying or other animal sounds. The only sound is the occasional commercial jet flying overhead. When I wake up at 4:20, I go outside and can still see many starts though the horizon is getting reddish. I make a coffee, bottle it up and go to have breakfast with Dabajianshan. On the way, I can see the twinking of a city’s lights in smog far down below.

I wondered if anyone would make a night climb from 99 Hut to see the sunrise, but turns out it’s just me. It’s an amazing experience to share the sunrise with Daba; one tiny human and a great mountain god.

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Sunrise at Dabajianshan

Indeed, as the 99 Hut caretaker had told me, at sunrise, Daba is first red (5:09AM) and then turns golden yellow (5:13AM). After sunrise, I cross under the square Daba peak formation and head for Xiaoba. The ridge between Daba and Xiaoba offers great views of Xueshan and the Holy Ridge, but I can’t take any good pictures because they are eastward in the direction of the rising sun.

I get lost at the bottom of Xiaoba. On the way up yesterday, 3 separate hikers had warned me that the ropes on Xiaoba were damaged, not reliable and that they had forgone getting to the top. Unable to find the ropes, I end up behind the formation on the east side, then come back around and make an attempt at climbing up the north face, but then decide I don’t really want to get dead. I’m about to give up when I find a marker and finally locate the ropes. There are plenty of good footholds and handholds along that route that the tiny, tiny bit of indoor bouldering experience I have is enough to make me feel comfortable enough to climb up and down without relying on ropes.

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Panorama from top of Xiaobajianshan (Xueshan Main Peak in the middle of the photo in the mountain range in the distance)

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I climbed this rockpile by myself and didn’t die.

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Ridge between Dabajianshan and Xiaobajianshan

When I get back to the bottom of Daba, I meet four recent college grads, two girls and two guys. I take a few photos from them and they take a couple for me. One of the guys points out Turtle Island, the distinct island off the coast of Yilan, in the distance, indicating that the lights I saw below before sunrise were probably Taipei. It’s about 8 AM, which means I got to spend 3 hours hanging out with Daba and Xiaoba all by myself.

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When I get back to Zhongba Hut, there is a guy inside passed out in his sleeping bag. I try to gather up my things quietly and prepare to pack-up and cook my breakfast on the deck outside the hut. After a bit, he gets up and comes outside for a smoke. “Where did you come from?” I ask, since no one was there when I left at almost 5AM. Turns out he’s a porter carrying gear and lunch (!) for the group of hikers I ran into on top of Zhongba lookout (中霸坪) on the way back here. He lives in Chingchuan. The group he’s with got up in the wee hours to see sunrise at 3050 High Ground near the junction for Jialishan and they will be having lunch at Zhongba Hut. I offer him a sachima (a type of Chinese pastry I packed as breakfast food). He wanders off the pee and then goes back to bed. [Aside: Not to judge… Okay totally judging… but if you can’t carry your own lunch on a day hike (since they stay two nights in a row at 99 Hut)… Catheter and bedpan, much?]

I climb Yizeshan and Jialishan and take the obigatory peak photos on the way back down to 99 Hut. By the time I get to the top of Jialishan the cumulonimbus have piled up threateningly.

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Yizeshan – laminated sheet someone left up there

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Jialishan – Notice cloud difference from previous photo

I manage to make it to 99 Hut at 2PM just before it really starts pouring and take up the caretaker’s offer to stay there (instead of back down at Madara Creek Trailhead — being a government facility, he does charge me the requisite 200NT) and the cook’s offer of hot dinner (complimentary). When the rain lets up I go take a nap until dinnertime.

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After dinner, I joined other hut stayers to watch the sunset, but the clouds didn’t quite clear in time, so we were treated to a cloud light show instead.

Day 4: Thursday, July 20

99 Hut to the beginning of Dalu Forest Road (23km)

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Sunrise at 99 Hut

I tried to decline hot breakfast the night before but am woken up at 4:30AM by the cook anyway. No matter, I wanted to get moving early anyway in attempt to finally beat the afternoon thunderstorms one of these days. I’m back through the old growth forest at 7AM and back across the red bridge at Madara Creek Trailhead at 8:40AM. Not much to say about the day except I leap-frog with the porter I met at Zhongba Hut all day, chatting occasionally, and cross paths with a group of 7-8 other young porters from the same company bringing 200kg of fresh food up to 99 Hut in anticipation of the weekend. The forest road is monotonous since I’ve seen it before and I end up listening to Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? on Audible. (She had something really insightful to say about confidence and entitlement at the end of the book. Really!) Cumulonimbus are looming again by 1:30PM but I manage to finish the trail just before 2PM and before any rain!

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Finish!

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Convenience store dog at the Hi-Life I stopped at in Judong to get coffee on the way home. It was, of course, super hot back at lower elevation and this dog was enjoying a nap in the AC. Must be tough being a Husky in Taiwan. #itsadogslife

Hiking in Taiwan: Know Before You Go

I grew up in Taiwan, but just completed my first two high mountain hikes (and bagged my first six Baiyue!) over the month of July. I am fluent in Chinese and have family here so it was probably easier for me to figure out how to do it than for most people. Really, it was my brother that figured out all the permit stuff. Anyway, it was amazing so I wanted to share the information I gathered that might be useful to any English-speaking folk that want to hike in Taiwan.

Hiking culture in Taiwan is heavily influenced by Japanese hiking culture, as it was the Japanese that first developed modern, western-style hiking culture in Taiwan during the colonial period. Of course the mountains were sacred places and important hunting grounds for certain aboriginal tribes in Taiwan before the Japanese arrived and many of the current trails used to be hunting trails or trading routes used by the native peoples. My impression is that hiking infrastructure is very similar to the Japan, but the mountains are wilder.

Like Japan’s Hyakumeizan (日本百名山), Taiwan has its 100 famous peaks, known as Baiyue (台灣百岳) (see list here). But Japan only has 21 peaks above 3000 meters, while all of Taiwan’s Baiyue are above 3000 meters. The eastern two-thirds of the island is basically a series of mountain ranges running parallel to each other. The mountains are extremely rugged and remote for such a small island. The Central Mountain Range is the length of the JMT, but there is no practical way to resupply by hiking out to a town so you cannot do an American-style long distance hike of it. People have hiked the full length of the Central Mountain Range, but more in the manner of a full-fledged hardcore mountaineering expedition.

Speaking of hard-core mountaineering expeditions, see documentary of hard-core Taiwan canyoning expedition led by Mike Harris from Canyons in Gunma here.

Permits

Permits are required to hike the major trails in Yushan National Park, Shei-pa National Park and Taroko National Park. There is a lottery to climb Yushan Main Peak, so you must apply for a permit at least a month in advance. For the majority of other trails, you must apply for a Park Entry Permit at least 7 days in advance. This can be done at the National Park Permit Application website: https://npm.cpami.gov.tw/. (The website also comes in English and Japanese.) Everything is automated. You select the trail you want to hike and the online application form will automatically populate your options for itinerary and lodging. Check availability of beds/tentsites on your desired route before choosing dates. Generally, all Saturdays will be booked out for popular trails as soon as registration becomes available (usually a month ahead). You will need an emergency contact with a Taiwan ID number and phone number.

After completing the National Park Permit Application, you should be directed to a link to apply online for a corresponding Mountain Entry Permit from the police bureau. You can apply online up to 5 days in advance of your hike, or you can actually do it last-minute in person at the police station closest to your trailhead. (Taiwan police are notoriously friendly and nice.) The permits are free, as are most mountain huts and campgrounds.

Park Entry Permit approval depends mostly on availability of space in the huts/campsites for your dates and the difficulty of the trail. You’ll see a difficulty rating on the permit application for your course. For anything more than an A rank trail, you will be required to provide evidence of adequate previous hiking experience (e.g. photo with summit marker). Solo hikers are required to sign a waiver co-signed by a family member, so your family can’t sue the park service if anything happens to you. Mountain Entry Permit is apparently just some anachronistic formality and is automatically granted if you have a Park Entry Permit.

You’ll need to print 2 copies of each permit after they are approved. You will deposit one copy of each with the ranger at the trailhead when you enter the trail and hold on to the second copy, which you may be required to show on the trail and will have to deposit back at the trailhead when you finish so that the park service knows you’ve come back down to civilization and are not lost somewhere.

Permits may be annoying but I think they are understandable for safety and environmental reasons. When you deposit your permit at the trailhead, depending on the mood of the ranger, you might be required to watch a mountain safety / leave-no-trace video. I jokingly call this “the defensive hiking video.” They have an English version for foreigners.

If you need help with permits, contact me.

Mountain Huts, Porters and Food

When you apply for a Park Entry Permit you also designate your planned lodging / campsites. The mountain huts and campsites in the national parks are free unless otherwise specified. For example, Jiujiu Hut (or 99 Hut) on Daba Trail charges 200NT per person per night. It’s run by the forestry bureau and has a live-in caretaker and hot showers. Management of the hut most people stay at for a Yushan / Jade Mountain climb is outsourced to a private company and supposed to be really nice, so you probably have to pay for that one too.

Mountain huts called XX山莊 (shan-zhuang) have facilities like designated bunks covered with a thin rubber mat (think cheapest yoga mat), a cooking area, toilets, running water, solar-powered lighting. This is where most people stay and will probably be lively and noisy with big groups and aboriginal porters and cooks. I saw these guys servicing hikers at both 369 Hut and 99 Hut: http://www.bununclimbers.com/. They were friendly and professional. At 369 Hut, the rate was 200 NT per kilo to carry your stuff to and from 369 Hut and 800 NT for a sleeping bag and hot dinner and hot breakfast, which was 100% real food, mainly consisting of local fresh veg, and didn’t look too shabby. So, even though the national park website will say there is no food service or bedding at the mountain huts, you can get it from a private provider if you contact one in advance. When I was coming down from Dabajianshan on a Thursday, there were 7-8 young porters carrying 200kg of fresh food in styrofoam coolers strapped to external frame packs up to 99 Hut in anticipation of the weekend. (On a side note, fascinating history of external frame packs here.)

Huts called XX山屋 (shan-wu) are intended to be used as emergency huts and don’t have any facilities. (Park service considerately provided a shovel and hoe for digging catholes at Zhongba Hut.) It appears the emergency huts in Shei-pa National Park have all pretty recently been rebuilt or refurbished and had rainwater collection tanks added and are quite nice.

Don’t expect the designated campsites to have any facilities; they are just places which are relatively flat and have water sources nearby.

Maps

Sun River publishes hiking maps for climbing Taiwan’s Baiyue very similar to Yama to Kogen hiking maps in Japan. They cost 200NT apiece and are should be available at any serious outdoor gear shop. I got the one for the Holy Ridge which covers most of Shei-Pa National Park. The map provided information about the huts, campsites, water sources, model itineraries, course times and elevation profiles for popular routes. If you can’t read Chinese, the map is still useful for matching Chinese characters to signs, water sources, hut locations, course times etc. Beware that trail conditions are constantly changing due to typhoons, earthquakes etc. and maps may not be fully up to date. Check the appropriate national park website for latest conditions before you go.

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Water

According to a Chinese language Taiwan mountaineering book my mom has, there is no water in the mountains of Taiwan that will make you seriously ill, there is only water that may not be very tasty to drink. The mountains are mostly sandstone, shale and half-metamorphosed shale-slate and when the water from the porous sandstone hits impermeable shale, it flows out in delicious mountain springs. Up on a ridge though, the water sources may be brown snow/rainwater ponds, so you’ll probably want a filter for that.

In Taiwan, it’s still not recommended to drink the tap water in the cities; so most people habitually filter or boil their water even if it looks fine. Use your own judgment or ask an aboriginal porter rather than some flatland Taiwanese person.

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Water seeping through cracks in the shale in the Black Forest under Xueshan Main Peak

Weather

As with any high alpine environment, the weather changes really quickly in the mountains. I hiked in July in the typical summer weather pattern of not-a-cloud-in the-sky mornings and short afternoon thunderstorms. Best time to hike, according to the caretaker at 99 Hut, is from September through December when the weather is most stable (after typhoon season and before cold fronts). You can hike most trails year round but snow gear (crampons, ice axe) may be necessary January-March and the difficulty rating on the trail is increased for permitting purposes.

In mid-July, at 3000 meters it got down to 8 degrees Celsius at night. Daytime temps above 2000 meters were so comfortable for hiking. It was a great escape from the sweltering sauna of Taiwan summer down below.

Dangerous Animals and Plants

If you see a Formosan Black Bear, you should go buy a lottery ticket because that means you’re really lucky. Their remaining habitat is the three national parks you will probably be hiking in but they are extremely endangered and sightings are extremely rare, so few that no meaningful estimate of the population can be done. Taiwan’s poisonous snakes are nicely distinct looking if you have the misfortune to have to tell a doctor which one bit you for anti-venom, but they don’t live at high elevation. Formosan macaques look small and cute but have been known to be aggressive, so don’t look them in the eye and don’t leave your pack unattended if they are around because they will go for your food.

There is a really scary plant to be aware of that is common in mountain forests called yaorenmao (literally “biting cat”). It’s a variety of stinging nettle. It’s covered with really fine little hairs that will prick and burn you with an acid venom if you accidentally touch it. It was all along segments of Dalu Forest Road on the Daba Trail when I hiked in, and the Forest Service had sent a private contractor to cut it down by the time I hiked out, so it’s good to know they are trying to keep it under control.

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Once bitten, you won’t forget what it looks like.

Elevation

Diamox / Acetazolamide is available over the counter at most any pharmacy in Taiwan for prevention of elevation sickness.

Cultural Quirks

For some reason, a lot of people hike in rubber boots, or wellies. I think that would be so hot and uncomfortable and ill-fitting. No one hikes in shorts; I got so many shocked comments. I guess you would think it’s cold in the mountains if you can wear jeans in the 39 degree sauna down at sea level.

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Take me back to the mountains!

Shinetsu Trail: What was in my pack?

I already wrote about my gear following my Yakushima Trek (read here), but Kiwi Sig Other thinks it’d be interesting for y’all to see what it looks like and how I pack. I’m just a beginner backpacker (lifetime 3 overnight backpacking trips) and made my gear choices based on other peoples’ great blogs and Youtube videos. On the Internets, newbies often post about all their gear and ask a more experienced community for a shakedown, but I haven’t ever weighed my stuff since I don’t have a scale and I think the key is probably to get out there with all your gear and figure out what works and what you can live without.

Overview

Here’s pretty much all the stuff I brought on the Shinetsu Trail, minus food and clothing worn.

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All the things in my pack for the Shinetsu Trail. How did I fit it all in there? With food, too!

From left to right, top to down- ish:

  • ULA Circuit pack, Sea to Summit Ultrasil Packliner (used this to protect sleeping bag and clothing from rain and also put food in here because of paranoia about bears and ants), some extra grocery bags to use as trash bags, a pair of disposable chopsticks as emergency eating utensil (I also carried a titanium spork thrown in my food bag), Montbell potty trowel attached to bag by cheap 100 yen store carabiner (also emergency eating utensil?).
  • Hiking poles with small draw string sack to cover tips (polite when using public transit in Japan).
  • Stuff generally stuffed in mesh pocket or otherwise attached on the outside of my pack: hat, sunglasses, potty kit (hand sanitizer and pocket tissues), tenugui (Japanese version of a bandana), small bottles of sunscreen and bug repellant (need better bug repellant, the stuff in the blue bottle was useless).
  • Stuff for camp: camp cookset, windscreen, swiss army knife, small ~300ml Thermos (this is my luxury item and I love it), Montbell Versalite Pack 15.
  • Water system: 1L PET bottle, 2L Sawyer Squeeze bag, Sawyer Squeeze filter, coupler for backwashing the filter.
  • Stuff in ziplock bags: First aid kit, electronics, toiletries, glasses. Not pictured: baggie for paper stuff. Details below.
  • Packed clothing: rain jacket, microfiber towel (I got this awesome sweat towel from volunteering at the Tell charity run. It is more absorbent and dries faster than a tenugui. Hit up Ben to see if he has any left…), merino wool Buff, glove liners, spare undies, spare socks, Uniqlo 100 weight fleece, Uniqlo Ultralight Down vest, Uniqlo Heattech Extra Warm top and bottom for PJs, tyvek drawstring bag used as clothing bag.
  • Big stuff: sleeping pad (cheap foam pad from the Amazon trimmed down with kitchen shears with four folds on the bottom separated so that the smaller section can be used as a sitting pad – Thanks for the advice, Ken!), sleeping bag, tent, tyvek groundsheet, tent pegs and cord for guylines in small ziplock. (Read more about my “Big Three” in my previous gear post.)
  • Not pictured: phone and minimalist wallet were carried in one of the side hip belt pockets.

Further Breakdown

First Aid Kit

I took Wilderness Advanced First Aid  with WMA Japan in May (hope to finally write up a post about that experience soon), which led to beefing up my first aid kit. This is what I threw together for now.

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What’s in my kit (roughly top to bottom, left to right):

  • WMA Field Guide and SOAP notes
  • a few packs of sterile gauze, blister patch and a few bandaids
  • tampon, ankle brace, stretchy bandage, surgical tape, vet wrap, duct tape, syringe for irrigating wounds (repurposed Sawyer filter backwashing syringe)
  • gloves, Advil, antihistamine, small tube of topical steroid for itchiness, small tube antibiotic ointment (I also intend to carry a small dropper bottle of iodine), a few safety pins (also good for hanging laundry on backpack).

This is a work in progress. I’ve got a swiss army knife and some other things in my pack that double as first aid tools. As with anything else in the outdoors, it all comes down to experience and your kit is only as good as your knowledge, so I highly recommend getting trained in Wilderness First Aid if you want to spend any extended period in the outdoors.

Here are some links I found useful about building your own first aid kit for hiking:

Electronics

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Self-explanatory: iPhone charger, earphones, earplugs, spare batteries for headlamp, headlamp, external battery that charges my iPhone 5 SE 3-4 times.

Toiletries

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Self-explanatory: Hotel disposable toothbrush, toothpaste, moisturizer, contact solutions, contact case, glasses (getting Lasik soon to so I won’t have to bring all the eye stuff).

Honestly, I didn’t use that face cream until after I finished the trip and I forgot to bring lipbalm. It’s probably generally humid enough in Japan in the summer that you don’t need to bring any moisturizer, sunblock will be enough. Here’s something I read recently that provides good perspective for women on how to let go of the need to groom and look good all the time: http://www.foxintheforest.net/be-wild-love-yourself/.

Paper things

IMG_2216Forgot to include this in my overview photo above, because I was using the contents to write my Shinetsu Trail blogpost. I carried a book, maps, a small journal and a pen in another ziplock.

Cook-set

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Playing matryoshka with my camp cooking gear

I bought a new 750ml titanium cookpot for solo-hiking, but when Genna decided to come along, I realized that now I have the perfect two person cook-set, because the smaller pot weights next to nothing and packs neatly in my old 900ml cookpot. My two-person cook-set consists of:

  • Snowpeak 900ml Aluminum Cook Set
  • Evernew 750ml Titanium Pasta Cooker
  • Windscreen – Aluminum tempura splatter guard (didn’t even have to cut it down, just folded it up!)
  • Fuel canister
  • Lighter (back-up matches in first aid kit)
  • Tiny titanium stove and stuff sack
  • Mesh sack that came with smaller cookpot (the smaller drawstring sack holds everything tightly together so the lid of the larger cookpot doesn’t bang around)

Here’s what cooking dinner looks like:

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All Packed Up!

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Ready to go in the morning!

Oh yeah, I actually made the last minute decision to clip some 100 yen shop flipflops to the outside of my pack. It was definitely nice to have camp shoes (especially after a swim), but they are not essential. Up in the air on whether I would bring them again.

Five Days on the Shinetsu Trail

The Shinetsu Trail is an 80 kilometer trail from Mt. Madarao to Mt. Amamizu along the ridge that separates Nagano and Niigata prefectures. I found out about it while hanging around Iiyama Station waiting for a Shinkansen when I was living in Nozawa Onsen. In Japan, it’s a rare “long trail” designed for multi-day trekking and not peak-bagging. It is not high elevation (the tallest peak is Mt. Madarao at 1382 meters) and there is not very much elevation change. There are no Hyakumeisan and no fancy mountain huts along the trail. Instead, the trail crosses many historic mountain passes between Nagano and Niigata, used for trade and travel between the domains of Shinshu and Echigo once upon a time, some of which have now become roads which provide easy access to various points of the trail. Some local minshuku down in Iiyama valley are signed up to provide accommodation for hikers on the Shinetsu Trail and will drive you to and from the appropriate trail heads each day. Or there are six designated tent sites along the trail. Four are barebones sites with pit toilets and a water source maintained by the Shinetsu Trail Club, an NPO, and two are existing commercial camp facilities.

Since my interest in the Shinetsu Trail was to use it as a practice hike for the JMT, I planned the hike as a 5 day 4 night tent camping (“tento-paku” in Japanese) backpacking trip and my friend Genna from Nozawa hopped along.

This is the story of how it went down.

Day 1 — Monday, June 19

Course: Chiroru Trailhead (チロル登山口) → Mt. Madarao (斑尾山) (start of Shinetsu Trail) → Akaike (赤池)

Distance: 11 km

Genna and I catch the Hakutaka 553 Hokuriku Shinkansen departing Tokyo 7:52 and arriving in Iiyama at 9:43. I had planned for us to catch a 10 AM bus from Iiyama Station to Madarao Kogen Hotel to start the hike. But, when we arrive at the bus stop in Iiyama, it turns out that the 10 AM bus only runs on weekends and holidays. Rookie mistake. So, we get a ride from a concerned taxi driver who warns us about mama bears with their cubs.

Since we take a cab, we are able to get the driver to drive us all the way to Chiroru trailhead (where the main lift ticket office is for Madarao ski resort in the winter). The climb up Mt. Madarao is basically straight up the ski slope, steep and hot, with no cover and, frankly, not very fun.

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I climbed the last bit to the peak from the top of the highest chair lift twice last winter for a backcountry tour. I thought it would be interesting to see what the mountain looked like in the summer. Everything looked totally different. The last time I was up there we hiked to the right of a huge cornice.

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Hiking up Mt. Madarao in February

Last winter, our guide Andy from North Nagano Outdoor Sports had explained that the snowpack on Mt. Madarao is very stable because the short bamboo (sasa) covering the mountain creates a great bonding layer for the snow. There were many bamboo shoots poking out on the hiking path but nothing tender enough to pick and eat.

At the fork right before the peak, we run into two sprightly young guys (college students?) with sleeping pads strapped to the outside of their packs. We run into them again loitering around the signboard at Akaike when we finish our first day’s hike around 4 in the afternoon. The boys pressed on and I found out from Instagram later that they thru-hiked the whole trail in 3 days and 2 nights.

It is an easy hiking day. We get to the top of Mt. Madarao to begin the trail just before 11:30 AM and reach our campsite at Akaike before 4 PM. We hike through beech (buna) and cedar (sugi) forests and couple small marshes, one full of skunk cabbage (already past flowering) and the other full of frogs that sings a chorus for our lunch. They were so loud!

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Official start point of the Shinetsu Trail

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Lake Nojiri

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Mt. Myoko – looked so cool! I want to climb Myoko now…

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Idyllic Akaike (That little building had running water and flushing toilets!)

After we set up our tents, Genna wades into Akaike for a swim. I sit at the edge icing my ankles saying, “I’m sketched out by unknown bodies of water.”

Genna goes, “Hope there aren’t any monsters.”

“You mean like that?” I point at a huge arm-length white koi swimming straight towards her, freaking Genna out.

My second hiking fail of the day is when I pull out my camp cook-set and realize I brought an empty fuel canister instead of a full one. Good thing Genna has brought a 230g canister that ends up comfortably lasting us the entire trip.

At night, the stars are so bright above our campsite. Each time I wake up without moving from my sleeping bad, I see the Big Dipper was hanging a bit lower as it descends toward the to horizon.

Day 2 — Tuesday, June 20

Course: Akaike (赤池) → Katsuraike (桂池)

Distance: 20.1 km

I wake up at 5:30 to a lot of condensation on the inside of my tent. I use my tenugui to wipe off the condensation, then wring out the tenugui and use it to wash my face on the way to the toilet. We cook breakfast and make coffee and set off at about 7:30 AM. We have 20.1km to cover in a day and neither of us has ever hiked that far before.

We find a beautiful panorama of Mt. Madarao, Mt. Myoko (妙高山) and Mt. Kenashi (毛無山) from a clearing just past Numaike (沼池) / Nozomiko (希望湖). So we take a snack break (second breakfast!) to enjoy the view and discuss that we should’ve camped there instead. For next time!

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After Wakui (涌井), most of the trail is on forest road (林道) with little cover on a hot and sunny day. 31 degrees when I check my phone. We break for lunch and put out damp tents to dry at Tomikura Gap (富倉峠) around noon. Just past Tomikura Gap are sweeping views of Iiyama Valley. Apparently, this is where famed warlord Uesugi Kenshin, daimyo of Echigo province (present day Niigata), set up camp to battle his rival Takeda Shingen who had conquered Shinshu (present day Nagano) during the Sengoku period (16th Century).

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Around 2PM, we are hot, sweaty and exceedingly grateful to reach a nice little pentagonal hut perched on the ridge near the top of Kuroiwayama ( 黒岩山) where there is a nice cross breeze. We strip down to sports bras to dry our t-shirts in the cool breeze.

We’d been a bit intimidated by the distance in the morning, but since most of the trail was forest road or old trading routes (graded for horses and ox carts), the trail was pretty flat the whole day and we arrive at our second campsite at Katsuraike about 3:30PM. We take a brief swim in Katsuraike to cool off (too hot and sweaty to care about monsters) and then sunbathed a bit to dry off. The forecast for Wednesday was rain and cloud cover began to come in at dusk. At Genna’s first report of hearing a mosquito, I zip myself into my tent for the night.

Day 3 – Wednesday, June 21

Course: Katsuraike (桂池) → Sekida Gap (関田峠)

Distance: 11.4 km on the Shinetsu Trail, plus 1.5 km to campsite

I wake up to a large tick clinging to the screen door of my tent looking like a kid trying to lick ice cream through a store window. Nope, I think, and flick it off with my finger into the grass somewhere. It’s a rainy morning but luckily there’s an empty rundown old house at the campsite serving as a makeshift shelter. In the shelter, we hang our tents to dry and cook breakfast. We get a late start to the day around 9AM after the rain lets up a bit.

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Getting water at Taroshimizu spring (太郎清水)

My rain jacket wets out almost immediately and turns into a sauna suit. The first 3.5km of the trail after Katsuraike is a tough uphill climb to the top of Togari Onsen Ski Resort with two small stream crossings along the way.

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When we reach Togari Onsen Ski Resort, we climb onto one of the ski lifts to dry off and cool down.

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Togari Onsen Ski Resort

Then there is a bit of a climb up the ski hill. Shortly after we get off the ski slope and back into the trees again, the rain stops. The clouds lift first over Iiyama valley and the wispy clouds hanging over Nozawa Onsen and the Chikuma River (千曲川) were so pretty. Thanks to the rain, we’re able to see frogs and mushrooms, snails and slugs on the trail. So, all in all, I’m actually glad we had to hike in the rain.

The narrow knife ridge up to Mt. Nabekura (鍋倉山) is definitely the highlight of the trail. We could see all the way to Naoetsu (直江津) and the Sea of Japan on one side and all the way up and down the Chikuma river valley on the other, all at once! Though the rain had stopped, it was still extremely windy from the storm and I had to remember to pay attention to my feet and not fall over.

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Nagano side

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Niigata side

Since the ridge is so narrow and windy, at some point near 1PM we simply squat straight down on the trail and eat a well-deserved lunch. We rest again at the top of Mt. Nabekura and again at Mt. Kurokura (黒倉山), where the sun comes out and we are able to dry our tents and put away our rain jackets.

Yesterday it was 31 degrees but today the temperature was in the low teens. I wore my thin leggings and merino wool long-sleeve hiking shirt (which dried like a champ), but otherwise probably didn’t need to bring these extra clothes

We detoured off the trail to Chayaike (茶屋池) which was worth it because it was a very pretty pond and had a lovingly maintained toilet.

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Our campground for the night, Green Pal Kogensou (グリーンパル光原荘) had apparently not opened for the season yet. It was still very windy when we arrived that we spent a lot of time looking for the most sheltered tent site, only to have the wind die down by the time we got our tents set up. We cooked dinner on the deck of the main green building at the campground with a view overlooking the mountains of Joetsu and the Sea of Japan.

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Day 3 on the Shinetsu Trail was green tunnel and killer vistas, what I imagined it would be like hiking the ridge between Nagano and Niigata. Day 1 was tromping around Madarao Kogen; Day 2 was mostly road walking; Day 3, we got to the good stuff.

Day 4 – Thursday, June 22

Course: Sekida Gap (関田峠)– Nonomi Gap (野々海峠)

Distance: 18.9 km on Shinetsu Trail, plus 1.5 km from campsite

I was thinking while hiking that there would not be much to say about Day 4, except that we started to see snow on the trail: snow patches tucked in shady areas, snowmelt ponds and muddy depressions where there had probably been snow until very recently.

Previous days we noticed that if we came upon a muddy bit, there would be a lot of flies. Well, today was pretty much all muddy, what with yesterday’s rain and the recent snowmelt, so there were a ton of flies.

The trail became challenging but monotonous; a lot of slippery, muddy ups and downs and “limbo trees,” what we decided to call tree branches/trunks crossing the trail at inconvenient height to either duck under or step over. There were great sweeping views of Niigata, but not as dramatic as yesterday. You couldn’t really see the sea because it was quite hazy without yesterday’s rain.

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We emerged at Nonomi Gap just as a group of retirees were being loaded onto a minibus. (They were a hiking group from Osaka thru-hiking the Shinetsu Trail in six days, staying two nights at Madarao Kogen and three nights in Togari Onsen.)

The bus driver asked where we were going and we were able to hitch a ride to our campsite 2km down the road at Nonomi pond (野々海池).

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Skunk cabbage blooming at Nonomi pond

The campsite looked nice enough. But as we put our tents up, we attracted a swarm of black flies. And then, they started to bite. The taps at the indicated water source were not running (probably turned off to prevent pipes from freezing in the winter), so we had to go down to the lake to get water, while being tailed by a vicious swarm of flies. Genna daringly waded into the pond with a plastic grocery bag to get less scummy water to fill the Sawyer Squeeze bag with and we both had to sacrifice ourselves to some flies to filter 4 liters of water for camp. Teamwork!

Our hardship turned out to be unnecessary, because on the way back I stopped by the toilet and found out the hand-washing tap by the toilet was running. It makes a good story (did I mention Genna almost stepped on a snake, I screamed my death scream and the nice guy working on getting the campsite ready for the season hopped in his k-truck to check if we were okay?), and I guess there had to some Type II fun on our trip.

Flies were still swarming our tents, so we boiled a pot of water, split it in two and literally dove into our tents. There must’ve been around 200 flies swarming the fly of my tent. The sound of the flies flying into the fly of my tent sounded like rain. I killed the 5 that got inside my tent when I dashed in. Then, there was nothing to do but eat and get ready for bed. I was pretty happy I didn’t have to get up and go to the bathroom at any time that night.

Day 5 – Friday, June 23

Course: Nonomi Gap (野々海峠) → Mt. Amamizu (天水山) → Daigonji Kogen Campground (大厳寺高原キャンプ場)

Distance: 6.2 km on the Shinetsu Trail, plus ~5 km to get to the trail and off the trail from our campsites 

I wake up to a brilliant symphony of birdsong. And only 8-10 flies still hanging around my tent. I have not left my tent since 6-something yesterday evening and contemplate getting up to go to the toilet. I check if Genna is awake yet and then go back to sleep. I wake up again and get ready for the day by packing up everything except what I need to wash up and make breakfast.

Having confirmed that Genna is up, I work up the courage to exit my tent, go to the toilet, wash my tenugui and brush my teeth. Flies do not follow me, and things are looking good. But, when we start boiling water for breakfast, the swarm reappears and breakfast is another split the hot water and dive for tents affair. After we’ve finished eating our breakfasts, it’s a non-stop dash to take down tents, pack up and leave, barely stopping at the toiler sink to fill up on water. We have to keep moving or the flies will catch up. I think we’re on the road around 7-ish, but I didn’t keep track because our priority was just to beat the flies. We look like Pigpen from the Peanuts comics, being followed by a little cloud of flies.

Up the trail from Nonomi Gap we reach a sunny clearing looking down over Niigata where the trail hooks 90 degrees to the right. We stop to make some coffee and dry our tents. It’s okay for a bit and then we start getting bitten again. We’re just finishing packing up when the group of senior citizen hikers from yesterday appears. As we move on ahead, I overhear their guide explain that our choice of coffee spot is the northernmost point of Nagano Prefecture.

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Misaka Gap, final pass before Mt. Amamizu

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View of Niigata from Misaka Gap

Then it’s more up and downs through muddy bits and the most significant snowfield we cross on the trail (still pretty small) and before we know it, we’ve reached to top of Mt. Amamizu, the official endpoint of the Shinetsu Trail. It’s only 10AM. We take a few photos, finish our coffee and get moving again before the flies gather too thickly.

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Another uphill. “Guess what day it is?” “Leg day!”

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Finish! Official endpoint of the Shinetsu Trail.

Down toward Matsunoyama trailhead, we meet an old man picking bamboo shoots with bear bells that sound like pretty wind chimes. In 80km, we’ve walked a bit backwards in the spring season, despite having come down in elevation. At the trailhead, we meet to bus driver that gave us a lift yesterday and chat for a bit about their group and he points us in the right direction for our last campsite at Daigonji Campground.

We decide to road-walk rather than take another trail to the campsite after I ask Genna the rhetorical question, “Have you had enough nature yet?”

We get to the campground just past 11 and the manager is not in yet. One of the guys working there cutting grass can’t believe we’ve walked all the way from Madarao and keeps saying “sugoi desune!” and pulls out some folding chairs for us to sit on. I ask if the restaurant is open. It is. So, instead of waiting for the manager, we go to the restaurant and have the most beautiful and delicious hiyashichuka (cold summer ramen noodles) I have ever seen in all my years of living and traveling in Japan.

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We put our hats back on for this photo cuz our hair was so greasy and gross. 😛

We also have two beers apiece which get us nicely buzzed since we haven’t had alcohol since??? Then we check in and ask about taking a bath, but the guesthouse is not open yet, so we can only use the shower in one of the cottages. We get the key to a cottage, which has a nice deck with a breeze. I do some laundry in the shower and hang it on the deck to dry and write the last of my trail journal lying on the deck in my underwear. It’s so nice. The perfect temperature, shade, no flies, breeze; a beautiful day. We chill on the deck of the cottage until we get kicked out of the cottage for the next guests to use the shower.

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After the hike, we chilled for the rest of the day and the next at Daigonji Campground doing nothing except laying around eating the rest of our food.

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Our view during dinner at Daigonji Campground

Post-hike Reflections / Advice

I was discouraged from doing this hike prior to July 1 by the Shinetsu Trail Club because they hadn’t completed train maintenance until last weekend and there was still a bit of snow and felled trees on the trail. Except for our last camp site, none of the tent sites we used were officially open. It wasn’t a problem because no one else was there and there were toilets and water sources at each camp site. I think the trail would be beautiful in earlier spring green, perhaps from May.

I’m glad I did not wait until July to do the trail because it was already really hot. It’s not high elevation, so it really did not cool down at night either. I only had condensation inside my tent the first night. In terms of warm layers, all I should have packed was a 100 weight fleece. I tried sleeping without my long johns on one night but since I use a quilt, my thighs were sticking uncomfortably to my sleeping pad so I had to put them on.

The prime season for hiking the Shinetsu Trail must be Autumn. There were so many varieties of Japanese maple lining the trail it must be very beautiful for fall colors.

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Out of season red leaves. A teaser for fall?

The Shinetsu Trail is still not so well-known among Japanese hikers. It’s refreshingly undeveloped, but well-maintained and adequately marked. Even though there is very little infrastructure on the trail after Togari Onsen, you are never more than a few hours walking to a town if you need to bail or get help. (I also had cell phone coverage the entire time.) It was a great trail to do a beginner long-distance trek. Perhaps because we were hiking before the official start of the season, the only other hikers we saw were the two boys the first day and then the group of ~16 retirees from Osaka that gave us a lift on the end of the fourth day. We did see a few other people during our hike doing forest road maintenance or picking spring mountain vegetables.

Matsunoyama Onsen near the end of the trail is a very cute little hot spring village and I’d probably try to stay there next time because Daigonji was still pretty much the middle of nowhere. Good thing Kiwi Sig Other showed up with a rental car so we could get back to civilization. It’s probably pretty easy to hitchhike down to civilization from the trailhead as the only people around are friendly locals who know about the Shinetsu Trail. The magic onsen water cured the itchiness of all my fly bites. Not bad for one of the Three Famous Medicated Onsen of Japan.

Contact me if you have any questions about hiking the Shinetsu Trail!

Yakushima: Gear List and Gear Reviews

What hiking blog would be complete without a post about gear? On my Yakushima trip, I finally got to test out my “big three” pieces of gear that I collected in anticipation of my JMT hike.

(Disclaimer: I’m testing out some Amazon affiliate links in this post. So, yeah, I’m really cool and you want to be just like me. So buy all the same things I have so I can make money and never have to go back to a desk job.)

Big Three

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I believe this is the most popular pack for PCT and AT thru-hikers. I met a guy at the hostel in Kagoshima who had hiked the AT and who was carrying the same pack. It comes in purple, so I was sold. I have long torso, so I ordered regular length with a small waistbelt. When I carried it back from the US it hurt my back weird and I was worried I got the wrong size. However, I moved the waist belt up as high as it will go and now it fits fine. When I put everything in the pack, it was heavy to lift, but once on my back it didn’t feel heavy. I guess that’s what you want in a pack right?

I did lose my 1L Nalgene bottle from one of the side pockets in northern Kyushu (probably from putting it on a luggage rack on the train), but aside from that functionality seems good.

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This tent appealed to me because it has no tent poles and can just be squished into its stuff sack, or anywhere. Also it is very roomy for a one-person ultra-light tent (no leaving pack outside under vestibule) and at $180 + $30 for seam sealing, it was cheap compared to other tents I was considering.

Some online reviews mention condensation issues, but I did not experience any, despite the rainy and humid conditions on Yakushima (but it wasn’t cold anywhere I used it). Other reviews mention a learning curve for pitching the tent right. The tent sets up with a trekking pole and minimum of 6 stakes. I got an extra stake and guyline to create more headroom and stability in the wind. I practiced setting the tent up once in Yoyogi Park before I left for my trip. Then I had a crash course in setting it up in a thunderstorm when I got to Yakushima and then a crash course setting it up in the rain with no stakes using rocks and concrete blocks when I arrived at South Village. At South Village, the next morning I did some adjustments to pitch the tent a bit higher to make the floor float properly and get more air flow, but I never got wet and the tent didn’t collapse overnight when I just hastily pitched it in the rain. The silnylon is a bit stretchy and billows in the wind but it’s quiet (doesn’t make any slappy noises), and since I put in an extra stake for headroom, the billowing didn’t bother me at all and I slept great. I was a bit worried about it not being freestanding, but now I’m not. This is a very comfy tent for people like me who like having good ventilation. May not be as good for people seeking warmth from their shelter (but not sure any tent provides that). Due to the shape, even though this tent has almost as much floor space as many 2-person ultralight tents, most of that floor space does not have headroom, so it really is only a 1-person tent, just with tons of room to spread out your gear.

If I buy a two-person tent in the near future (so Kiwi sig other can join me on some adventures), I’m considering the Tarptent Double Rainbow just because I like the name. I aspire to reach this level of stoke in the outdoors!

Perhaps my greatest enjoyment in life is sleeping, and this quilt is so light and warms up so fast it’s like sleeping in a cloud. I used this as my primary comforter all winter in Nozawa, when I figured I’d practice living without heat. After the first night in Shintakazuka Hut, I woke up and put on my still damp hiking clothes from the day before. I didn’t feel particularly cold even though I could see my breath in the darkness of the hut. Later in the day chatting with other hikers who had stayed at Shintakazuka, they complained it had been cold at night and that they had to get up and put on more layers. I wore a normal cotton T-shirt and some Uniqlo Heattech Extra Warm tights as PJs. I was never cold, so I guess my quilt worked great! I’m going to get a thermometer so that in the future I actually know how cold it was to gauge whether this sleeping bag is sufficient for the Sierras in early October.

The quilt was great for a place with climate as varied as Yakushima. Camping at subtropical sea level, I could unzip it flat and just put a corner over my belly. Here’s a great video about why quilts are better than sleeping bags:

For this trip I used the quilt with a cheap imitation Thermarest Z lite foam sleeping pad I got off Amazon.

All my campsites were flat with no pokey things, and I was pretty comfy. With my superpowers of being able to sleep anywhere, I can even side sleep on a cheap foam pad. Listening to people blow up air pads and have to faff with deflating them in the morning at the huts makes me think I will just stick with a foam pad. It was also super convenient to just throw down and mark my spot on the ferry.

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The only annoying thing is having a bulky thing strapped to the outside of your pack when the trail is super narrow and overgrown and you have to climb under trees or out of holes like on the Onoaida Trail, and I’m thinking of chopping it down a little so it packs better.

Footwear

I hiked in my Brooks Cascadia trail runners, partly as an experiment and partly because I was travelling to Yakushima following a yakimono tour in northern Kyushu and clomping around in hiking boots would’ve been annoying for the other part of my trip. The good thing about hiking in trail runners was that Yakushima is really wet. Because most of the island is a giant piece of granite with a thin covering of soil, wherever there is trail, there is likely water running down it. The hiking your shoes dry thing advocated by Andrew Skurka really works. When I pulled into camp early the second day, I put my shoes in a patch of afternoon sun and they were completely dry in less than an hour. On the other hand, on the third day, going down the treacherous Onoaida Trail, my ankles really suffered from lack of support.

Kitchen

I bought a super cheap tiny canister stoveand aluminum cook set from Amazon to try out.

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The tiny no brand Made in China stove worked great. I came up with a routine to boil 600ml of water at dinner and breakfast. I would pour 300ml into my little Thermos for a hot drink (coffee in the morning, herbal tea at night – actually one night I made umeshu oyuwari from some homemade umeshu generously offered to me by another hiker) and then use the remaining 300 ml for the hot part of my meal (instant ramen at dinner, two packs of instant miso soup for breakfast). So I’m now considering upgrading to this 700ml titanium cook pot.

Clothing

I brought way more clothing than necessary, but I used everything.

My basic hiking outfit was:

  • Long-sleeve Kathmandu merino wool hiking shirt (purchased in NZ)
  • Uniqlo Heattech leggings
  • Synthetic capri sweatpants I bought for bouldering
  • Darn Tough hiking socks (I wore through my two beloved pairs of Smartwool hiking socks over the winter so I replaced them with two pairs of Darn Tough socks to see which brand is more durable.)
  • A Gap sports bra and some synthetic sport underwear from Target

For outer layers I had:

  • Mountain Hardware fleece – This thing is pretty heavy, but very warm. Kiwi sig other purchased it for me secondhand from a gear exchange shop in Colorado Springs. I could’ve brought my Uniqlo ultralight down parka instead, which would have been lighter and less bulky for similar warmth, but I considered that Yakushima is really wet. I rolled this up at night and used it as a pillow, and for that use I was grateful for its bulk.
  • North Face lightweight rain jacket – Debated bringing this or a real Goretex hardshell. But lightness and packability won out. I was blessed with amazing weather so didn’t end up regretting my decision.
  • Uniqlo ultralight down vest – Extra puffy layer just for camp.

PJs/camp clothes:

  • Extra pair Darn Tough socks
  • Uniqlo Heattech Extra Warm leggings
  • Tokyo Snow Club T-shirt – represent!

On the first day of hiking, going upward in elevation, I was really sweaty when I showed up at camp and couldn’t wait to get into dry camp clothes. (In the morning, putting on cold, damp hiking clothes was fine; they warmed up and dried right away when I started hiking.) The second day, hiking at high elevation, I didn’t get sweaty and probably would’ve been fine sleeping in my hiking clothes. But all in all, I think I’m going to be a hiker that carries PJs. The sleep comfort is worth it!

Other weather protection:

  • Baseball cap – frontwards for sun, backwards when no sun (totally hit my head on a tree branch that was obstructed from my view by the brim)
  • Merino wool Buff – I like to wear this as a light beanie; it was needed for covering ears when hiking above tree line where it was really windy
  • Snowboarding glove liners – Gloves were needed above tree line. These cheap Mizuno “breath thermo” ones  really do stay warm when wet. However, they totally get destroyed by velcro on my snowboard jacket, snowboard boots, etc. Not a problem for hiking, fortunately. (I also have a breath thermo balaclava which I really like because it is really thin and doesn’t get too wet and gross when you breath through it.)
  • Sunglasses
  • Tenugui – bandanna/sweat towel

Onsen kit: (That’s right! A third set of clothes! Totally not ultralight hiking! Brought this stuff in anticipation of having two chill days at the hostel.)

  • Extra underwear and sports bra
  • Extra short sleeve synthetic t-shirt (I actually had two extra t-shirts so that in case I ended up hiking in a short sleeve shirt I’d still have a clean shirt at the end.)
  • Extra tenugui to use as towel
  • 2 sets single use packets of shampoo and conditioner
  • Shea body butter

Other

Water system – Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter and one of the 32oz bags that came with it. I used a 1L PET bottle as “clean” drinking water bottle but cooked with unfiltered water out of the Sawyer Squeeze bag. With this set up, I could carry 2L of water, which I never did except at camp. I carried about 500ml when I was hiking, but frankly, you don’t have to carry ANY water on Yakushima. It’s flowing out of everywhere. And no one was filtering the water either. I just filtered to practice using my filter. (Monkeys and yakushika were hanging around near the huts and I’m sure pee and poo in the water sources so…)

Trekking poles – I would have died on Onoaida Trail without trekking poles. I have PaceMaker Stix Expedition Trekking Poles. Not the lightest or most compact, but they have flip locks and cork grips and cost less than 50 bucks.

Toiletries:

  • Tsubaki (camellia) oil doubles as face oil and hair product – Luxury item! (I use this face oil made by the agriculture union on Toshima, one of the Izu islands that looks like a little cupcake floating in the sea. Why pay LVMH for a brand name when you can get it straight from the producer way cheaper. It also makes cool Tokyo omiyage since it’s technically a product of Tokyo.)
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • chapstick, sunblock
  • Potty kit – Hand sanitizer and 2 packets of pocket tissue (also had to use pocket tissue to wipe down cook pot, as you’re not allowed to wash your dishes on the trail)
  • Glasses, contact case, contact solution – I want to get Lasik.

Other camp goods:

  • headlamp
  • eye mask and ear plugs – Used ear plugs to block out thunderstorm the first night, probably don’t need eye mask on the trail since everyone sleeps when it gets dark and wakes up before light but may need it for travelling (hostel/ferry) so will probably still carry it.
  • first aid kit (advil and antihistamine, electrolyte tab, bandaids, blister patch, ankle brace)
  • Swiss army knife – not used, but good idea to have right?
  • journal, map and pen
  • nylon eco-bag – I used this to carry stuff around camp. I want to replace it with a tiny, ultralight backpack like this one so that I can use it to carry water and some essentials when I drop my heavy pack to go off on a side trail.
  • Some extra ziplock bags and trashbags to keep things dry in case it rained

I feel like gear wise I was very prepared. The first night I pulled out my headlamp and it wouldn’t turn on, but I was prepared with spare batteries. After this hike, the only things I would add to my kit are a thermometer, a proper orienteering compass (I have a crappy one stuck on my key chain), and a small packable backpack. As a final note, on the way back to Tokyo, Jetstar let me check my pack in (on a domestic Japanese flight) with my sleeping pad and trekking poles just strapped to the outside. (I left my fuel can and lighter at the hostel along with my unused wag bags for the next hiker.)

Yakushima Hike Day 3: Off the Beaten Path

When everyone’s packing up and leaving Yodogo Hut in the morning I catch dad from Morioka and inform him that, after sleeping on it, I have decided to take Onoaida Trail (尾之間歩道) and end my 3-day journey at Onoaida Onsen (尾之間温泉). I thank him for the confidence boost. If he thinks I can make it to Tachudake and back down to the 3-something PM bus out of Yakusugi Land, I should be able to make it down Onoaida Trail to the south of the island in good time. It’s going to be all downhill, right? I loved feeling like I was the only person on the trail yesterday so I’d like to go off the beaten path, I say. Before I really looked at any maps, my initial idea had been to hike north to south since my friends are staying at South Village, and I think there will be a sense of completion to say I hiked north to south across the island to meet them. He thinks its a fine idea and since we have both been hiking faster than the standard estimated course times thinks I’ll make it to Onoaida Onsen in 5 hours, which means I could probably finish before it starts to rain. We bid each other farewell and good luck.

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Yodogo at dawn

I arrive at Yodogo trailhead in less than an hour, use the toilet and ask the ranger about the weather. He asks me where I am going. I say, Onoaida Onsen, I hope to make it there before it starts to rain. The trail is long but you should not miss Janokuchi Falls (蛇之口滝) on the way down, he advises.

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Yodogo Trailhead

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Onoaida Trailhead

I study the trail description. 8.5 km down to the junction with Janokuchi Waterfall and then 3.5 km to Onoaida Onsen. “It takes about 6 hours and 30 minutes to walk down to Onoaida-onsen Spa.” Easy-peasy.

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Description at Onoaida Trailhead

“Onoaida” means “between the ridges”. The little trail guide that came with my map, says Onoaida Trail is impassable if the water level at Tainokawa crossing (鯛之川出合) is high, there are numerous stream crossings and the trail may not be well-marked, GPS is advised. It has not rained in the past two days, so I figure I’ll be fine. As I hoped, the trail does not look well travelled, but I identify a set of fresh boot prints, and it is reassuring to know that at least one other person thinks the trail is passable today.

According to the hiking etiquette book I received at Shirataniunsuikyo (白谷雲水峡)trailhead, if you use trekking poles, you are supposed to put rubber caps on the tips of your poles to protect the environment. I didn’t bring rubber tips with me and though 90% of the other people were using rubber tips, no one had called me out so far, not even any of the licensed guides. I figured that staying safe and not spraining an ankle was more important than following the rules, so I used my poles with their normal carbide tips anyway, but I did try to keep my poles on the trail, on wooden boardwalk or gravely or hard rock surfaces and away from any tree roots or moss covered surfaces. This was no longer possible as the trail seemed to consist entirely of tree roots or moss covered surfaces.

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It’s a few minutes past 7AM when I start down Onoaida Trail. By 8:30 AM, I reach what must be the lookout point to Nogidake (乃木岳). According to the map at the top of the trail, that places me about 3 km in and more than a quarter of the way down the trail. I’m making good time.

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Nogidake?

So far Onoaida Trail is like a better version of Shirataniunsuikyo, with a lot of interesting mosses and fungi and other plant life.

About 9:15 AM I’m at the first stream crossing, I assume it’s Tainokawa and that I’ve made it another kilometer as I climb up the other side.

Then it’s an endless repetition of climbing down to a small stream, rock hopping across it and climbing up the other side. Except the streams get bigger and bigger as I head down.

The trail is well-marked with pink tape, though sometimes I reach one piece of tape and must spin around, tiptoe or duck down to find the next piece of pink tape. A few hours in I find myself turning a corner peering around for the next pink tape, locating it and exclaiming, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

A sign along the trail explains that Onoaida Trail is an old logging route from the Edo Period (circa 1600), when yakusugi roof shingles were contributed by the locals to the lords of Satsuma Domain and up to first Toyotomi Hideyoshi and later the Tokugawa Shogunate. Since yakusugi are so large, they were cut into shingles at the site where the tree was felled and bundles of shingles were carried out of the mountains by people on foot. “Think of the labor of the men who laid out the stones of the trail,” exhorts the sign. A large part of the trail is a jumble of moss-covered stones. The trail description calls these “moss covered stone steps” which sounds very romantic and benign, but in reality, they do not resemble steps at all, they are slippery and there is no where to put your foot flat. In sections, it is obvious the trail has washed out leaving a red mud pit to climb around, or if that is not possible, down into and out the other side. I also climb over or under felled trees (at one point I almost have to take off my pack to get through). I slip and fall and scrape up my palm, bang up my shins, twist each ankle more than a few times and will later develop a giant bruise on my hip. (Later I learn that since it was a high snow year, the trail is probably in especially bad condition.)

It’s 1PM, I have been telling myself that I will break for lunch at the resting pavilion by the fork to Janokuchi falls but it is nowhere in sight. I’m starting to get worried. I’ve stopped observing the plant life along the trail and stopped taking photos.

I’ve already been hiking for seven hours, six on this god-forsaken horrible not-trail.

There’s a rustling in the brush and four young guys, probably in their early 20s and judging from their accents probably English, appear about 10 feet down the steep trail from me. The forest is so dense you can only see that far ahead.

“How much farther to the waterfall?” I ask hopefully.

“About one-and-a-half hours,” is the reply.

I can live with that. They say they are headed to Yodogo Hut for the night. I tell them I came from there and it’s beautiful. “This is a hard trail isn’t it? Does it get easier past the waterfall?”

“Not really,” says one of them and they proceed to tell me about how the trail is collapsed, they had to climb around it in part. Something inside me collapses in disappointment. I’d been hoping that at least the section of trail from Onoaida Onsen up to the waterfall would be better maintained since that should be the route for a day hike.

“It’s the same up ahead,” I say. “And there are a lot of stream crossings. You guys are the only people I’ve seen on this trail all day and I started at 7 am.”

“That sounds awesome!” one of them says and they plow on.

After they pass, I feel reassured that I am getting close to the waterfall and going to make it out of the woods before dark. Then, I start to feel bad that I didn’t emphasize more that its taken me over 7 hours to get here. Even if I am slow, I am going downhill. It’s going to be hard for them to make it to Yodogo Hut by nightfall; it’s already 1 PM, and it gets dark by 7 PM. Then, I rationalize: there are four of them, they looked like they had the right gear and they are young; they’ll survive.

Finally at 3:15 PM, I reach the pavilion at Janokuchi fork. I drop my pack and trekking poles under the pavilion, drink the rest of my water, stuff some granola cookie things in my face and take a break by running (okay walk briskly) to Janokuchi Falls. Without the weight of my pack, scrambling and hopping is a lot easier.

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A welcome sign of civilization!

 

I’m at the falls by 3:45, spend a few minutes snapping pictures and head quickly back.

I’m still hoping to get a quick onsen before I have to catch the bus. I’m already going to miss the 3-something bus I initially intended to catch, but there’s another one at 5-something.

I’ve started talking to myself. I’m praying to the weather gods out loud: “Thanks for all the awesome weather this trip so far. Thank you for holding off the rain. Please keep holding off the rain.” I’m cheering myself on: “Go team! Good job, Ankles. That’s it, Knees. Just hang in there for another hour. We’ve all been together 35 years and no one has failed us yet. Guess what? We are pretty bad ass! I promise to take good care of you. (When this is over.) We’re going to the onsen!”

The four guys were wrong. The trail following the fork to the waterfall is much easier. Wider and obviously much more travelled. Once you descend a certain elevation the trail becomes loamy and soft, as there is actual soil (including 1 meter of volcanic ash from a nearby explosion 6300 years ago) around the perimeter of Yakushima. The vegetation becomes subtropical and there are palm trees and interesting tropical looking flowers.

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At 5:30 PM, I emerge from the bush into the parking lot of Onoaida Onsen. Finish! I sit on a bench in front of the building for a minute and check my bus schedule while the stray cats fed by the guy at the front desk mill around. Great! If I’m in and out in 20 minutes I can totally make the bus.

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Onoaida Onsen

Onoaida Onsen is written up as “very hot, I don’t know how locals manage to get in” even on Japanese review sites because the spring water comes out of the ground at 49 degrees (Celsius) and the bath is about 46 degees. Whatever, I spent the entire winter bathing almost exclusively in the soto-yu at Nozawa Onsen (average temp around 45) and now think normal onsen temp of 40-42 degrees is nurui (not hot enough). The atmosphere is also a bit similar to the soto-yu at Nozawa Onsen. You have to bring your own soap and towels and while there are a couple shower nozzles, they are exclusively for hair washing. I wash myself like the locals using the bucket method with the hot water directly from the tub in the manner I picked-up in Nozawa. Onoaida Onsen is very barebones but the current wooden building is relatively nice and new and I liked it a lot.

As I’m leaving the onsen, it finally starts to rain. Finally, my rain jacket comes in handy. It’s a 20-minute walk down the road to the main road that circles the island. I make it to the main road just as a bus is about to pass. I flag the bus down, but it’s not the right bus! Turns out I read my bus schedule wrong and missed the bus I wanted to catch. It’s about 6:15 and the next bus going as far as Hirauchi (平内) isn’t for another hour. It starts to rain harder and I retreat to an abandoned vegetable stand alongside the road for shelter to consider my options. I guess I can wait for an hour as it grow dark, or… I can hitchhike?

I’ve never done this before, but I stick out my thumb and the third car picks me up. My driver is a super cool single-mom artist who lives in Hirauchi and makes hand-dyed and hand-sewn clothes. She says she’s originally from Shizuoka but drove down and across Japan looking for a new place to live and when she got to Yakushima, she knew this was the place for her. She drops me off at the hostel and gives me her number to keep in touch.

I check in to South Village and contemplate staying in a bunk instead of setting up my tent in the rain, but a bunk is three times more expensive than a campsite and campers get access to all the same common facilities. I’ve also hauled my tent for three days all the way across the middle of the island. The campsite is composed of raised wooden platforms, so I give myself a crash course in setting up my tent with concrete blocks and rocks instead of stakes. I manage to do okay. My friends Tina and Brig left me a nice note in front of their tent that they went to Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen. I go to the guesthouse to use the hair dryer, do a load of laundry, and forage for some food. Brig and Tina get back, we all eat dinner together and then watch Kiki’s Delivery Service on the big screen TV in the guesthouse. We turn on the heater. It’s basically glamping. We retreat to our tents at about 11 pm and I look forward to not hiking anymore tomorrow.

Date: April 20 • Start: Yodogo Hut • End: Onoaida Onsen • Distance hiked: 13.2 km
Achievements Unlocked: survived Onoaida Trail • survived not showering for four whole days • hitchhiked for the first time ever!

Bonus: Here’s a map showing the hike I completed. (Kiwi sig other thinks this makes my story make more sense.) Trip data and gear reviews to follow.

Yakushima Hike Map