Amos and I have been very, very lucky to have so many visitors. When I think about it, what it means to visit us in Japan, with the 14-hour flights, the time off of work, the expense of travelling, it makes me deeply grateful that our families and friends would make such a monumental effort to show up to say hello, to sit in our living room, to see where we live. When I really think about it, it leaves me a little breathless. It's so generous.
With all that people do to get here, the least I can do is play tour guide for a bit. Show them the temples and the markets, hoping that in some way to help I can be of help. "This is how you get subway tickets," I'll say. Or "Here's how you order that with / without cheese / meat / ice."
As such, I've seen Tokyo three times, and Kyoto at least five. Stay here, eat here, see this, this, and this. Get the ¥500 all day bus pass; skip the subways. I know the express trains for the airport, both Nagoya and Tokyo, and the Shinkansen and JR Pass websites are bookmarked. Amos and I have a list of restaurants to take people in Nagoya, as it's a city without much do to but eat, drink, and sing karaoke alongside the ubiquitous salarymen. There are worse places to live.
But. Then. Well. There are the friends who say Can we go somewhere new for you? The friends that have travelled already and prefer to be off the beaten path. The friends who you grew up with in Colorado, when you spent your summers hiking 14-ers. When these friends visit, you can get a little creative in your travel plans.
Seeing the Japanese Alps had been on my bucket list since we moved here. In this country of crowded cities and hyperfunctioning urban infrastructure, I was anxious to see another side of Japan. To top it off, here was the chance to explore it with girls I've been hiking with since forever. And at the height of 'color season.' I'm from Colorado, so I have high standards for fall leaves, but everyone told me Japan wouldn't disappoint. (Spoiler alert: It didn't.)
We took the train up to Takayama and caught the bus to Kamikochi, transferring at the Hirayou Onsen. (Cars aren't allowed into Kamikochi, so even if we had driven, we'd have parked there then caught the bus.) We camped in Kamikochi, which is kind of like the 'basecamp' for the Alps, with hotels and campsites and little stores. After the last bus for the night departed and the heavy crowds subsided, we walked by the dark river under the stars and drank Asahi Black and tiny travel glasses of wine we bought from vending machine (To which my friend took a sip, thought for a second and said, "This isn't dark beer is it?" No, no it's not, but its as close as Japan gets.) In the morning, we lounged over subpar instant matcha lattes while we watched a pair of monkeys stroll into camp. It was awesome.
We got on the trail around 7AM, the earliest we could head off while still being able to check our tent and carry lighter packs. The first couple hours were quite flat, as we hiked alongside an empty river bed, heading deeper into the valley. Along the way, we passed several campsites and rest areas where we could buy snacks, use the restroom, or -- had we hiked in the pervious night -- camped. Tents were still set up, waiting the return of their summiting hikers, and, like the Japanese outdoor fashion, the tents were much more colorful than those back home. They dotted the field and made we instantly jealous of the bright yellows and reds, compared to my drab green and brown PNW tent. Note to REI: I'd bet that the bright Japanese colors could be very popular for the American market, based soley on the amount of money I've spent on colorful Japanese gear.
We hiked along until we reached Yokoo Campground, where we turned off and crossed the Katsura River (that's a photo of the bridge, above). From there, we finally started gaining some elevation, though the going was very, very slow because of the crowds. It was a bit escalator-ish at times, but people-watching the hiking groups and outdoor enthusiasts helped pass the time. We only saw two other Westerners -- a couple from Sweden -- and they had been in the Alps for seven days and we were the first non-Japanese people they had run into.
Walking with two tall, blonde girls did lend itself to some enthusiastic konnichiwas (and the occasional hello!). My friends really began to nail ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, sumimasen, and before long they were fluent in the hiking greetings of Japan. When we would say konnichiwa, I would see people register our accents and look up, shocked, to see three gaijin girls hiking up in the backcountry. It made the time pass pretty quickly.
Our original destination was the Hotaka-dake (穂高岳), but due to our relatively late start, the crowds on the trail, and the clouds that were rolling in by 1PM, we decided to call it good at Karasawa Hut, at the base of Karsarwa-dake (涸沢岳). The hut looked much more inviting than the trail, and we wanted to make sure we were there in time for dinner. The Karasawa Valley is known for being one of the most beautiful to see the autum colors. Hot tea on a balcony overlooking the valley quickly won out over continuing along the trail, and it was fantastic, if chilly.
In planning the trip, we had hemmed and haw'd if we should stay in tents or the backcountry huts. The huts have clear advantages: they are heated, you sleep on a futon and can pack light without your sleeping bag, pad, and tent, and you can get a hot breakfast and dinner. On the downside, they are not cheap (¥9,000 or about $113 per person) and they can be quite crowded, as they don't turn people away. Staying in a tent is much easier on the wallet, as campgrounds are only ¥500 ($6), but you have to haul up your gear and food, and the campsites are situated in a rock field. Ouch. We were in mid-October, so the weather was iffy, even if the colors were fantastic. Given all of this, we opted for the huts. The vegetarian of our group opted out of the meals, since they were quite meat heavy, and saved about ¥3,000. Had she been so inclined, she could have gotten udon or ramen for about ¥800 at the cafe, but she swears her dehydrated miso soup was delicious. What a liar face.
(This is hiking and backcountry Japan. Roughing it is all relative.)
After checking into the hut, we made our way down to our room, only to discover that it was crowded enough that there were 3 people to a futon. The beds were two bunks, one on top of the other, and stretched the length of the room. There were 32 spots for people, half on top, half on bottom. That translated to about 10 inches per person. Even for the slim Japanese, those are laughably close quarters. There was no way to fit, unless we spooned. With 18 of our newest Japanese friends.
Let's just say that the next day, a boyfriend back in the States got an email that read "So last night I slept with 60 year old Japanese man..."
Honestly, though, it wasn't that bad. Yes, it was terribly crowded and some people were quite loud snorers. Lights came on at 4AM, and our breakfast was shortly thereafter. But it gave my friends and me a wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with Japanese hikers of all walks of life. Japan is such a safe country that we weren't worried about our unattended bags or someone trying to get fresh. When we grabbed a drink in the small bar, or when we sat and looked at a map in the bunkroom, or when we were brushing our teeth, people came up to us and asked us where we were from, and how our day was, and which route we were going to take tomorrow. Some people were easy to understand, some were not, but it was much more time spent hanging out with people who live in Japan, rather than simply taking a photo of a monument or temple. I don't want to discount that -- sightseeing is a fantastic part of any trip, and the temples in Japan are amazing -- but it's nice to have a beer with someone who lives in the country you're visiting.
The next day, even though we were leaving bright and early (what else do you call a 4:30AM breakfast call?), we opted out of summiting Karasawa-dake or continuing on to Hokata-dake since we were due back in Takayama that night and we didn't want to miss the last bus. We took our time getting home, stopping for a hot lunch, saying konichiwa and sumimasen to each person as we passed. The steep part went quickly, and, as expected, the walk on the flat section seemed to take forever. I am easily annoyed by out-and-back trips, as opposed to loops, and I tried to keep my inner complainer in check.
We ended up on a bus that routed us back to Takayama and we arrived at our little ryokan in time to enjoy the onsen. We had meant to be there for a festival, but I miscalculated by a day, and we arrived to a shut-up Takayama, with quiet streets and dimmed lights, recovering from the night before. We searched and found a teeny and charming French restaurant, took one of the three tables, and toasted to a successful, if too short, visit to the Alps.
What to know, if you go:
- Make sure you have a map, and know the kanji of where you would like to go. We purchased a great topo map in Kamikochi, but we also bought the last copy, so I'd try and have it before you arrive. Some names were in English on the map, but all the trail signs were in Japanese.
- Hiking in the Alps is pretty straightforward. The trails are well maintained, there is a well developed network of huts, and you can purchase food and drinks and limited supplies as you ascend (but be warned, prices do increase with elevation.) We were able to change our plans easily and be adjust to our energy levels, crowds, weather, &c.
- That said, these are some big mountains. The Lonely Planet's Hiking in Japan books suggests a route from Oku-hotaka-dake (奥穂高岳) to Yari-ga-take (槍ヶ岳), which includes a section known as the Daikiretto (大キレット, Japanese for "Big Cut"). Our initial idea was to follow this route for a three day trip, but we rethought that idea after reading more about the Daikiretto. Lonely Planet makes it seem difficult but manageable, a section easily accomplished by experienced hikers with no technical skills. Friends, I think this is WRONG. In reading more about it and speaking with people on the trail, including the two Swiss hikers we ran into, the Daikiretto is serious and potentially lethal stuff. You should bring ropes, a helmet, and be a very surefooted and experienced climber. I'm not saying don't do it, but do your homework first. These mountains deserve respect.