With autumn quickly spreading its chilly fingers over northern Japan, I’ve been anxious to spend every last minute outside that I can in a last ditch effort to get some quality vitamin D before winter turns me ghostly pale and I burrow under my kotatsu until April. A few weekends ago, five friends and I made the five-hour drive south to Yamagata prefecture, where we climbed Mount Chokai. Chokai, at 2226m, is the tallest peak in the Tohoku region and straddles the border between Akita and Yamagata prefectures.
Thanks to a cloudy cap that shrouded the summit from view, we didn’t get a clear look at Chokai when we began our hike on Saturday afternoon. If we had, we probably would have been a bit less confident. Chokai has many trailheads and because many of the staffed cabins had already closed for the season, we headed up the Mansuke trail, along which lay an un-staffed cabin that was open to anyone hiking up the mountain. It wasn’t until after talking to another Japanese hiker that we learned that the Mansuke route is both the longest and most difficult of the trails. In fact, our new friend informed us that, in all the years he’d been hiking Chokai, he’d never seen foreigners on it.
Since climbing Fuji in July, I’ve become a bit cocky about hiking. I’ve conquered the tallest mountain in Japan. How hard could “Fuji of Akita” (as Chokai is nicknamed) be?
Judging by how my quads were screaming in pain five days later, pretty damn hard. Of our group of six, two of us – myself and the organizer of the trip – had climbed Fuji. By the end of our hike, we both agreed that Chokai, while far lower than Fuji, seemed like much more of a legitimate hike. Fuji’s trails are all well maintained, and save for the last steep ascent to the summit, it’s not a very difficult climb. There are no real natural obstacles. You’re never hiking through the forest, and the summit is always visible.Chokai, on the other hand, had us clambering over boulders, jumping over streams, and walking on six-inch ledges that looked out over nothing but a foggy drop. I should probably mention that I was also hiking in my running shoes. This hike turned out to be a lot more intense than any of us were expecting.
The aforementioned un-staffed cabin is technically the property of a local high school’s mountaineering club. Anyone who wants to kip there for a night is more than welcome to; all the club asks is that you drop 210円 into a collection box. I was honestly blown away by this place. Anytime we’d heard it discussed in conversation, the word 小屋 (koya), which can be translated as “hut,” was used. Because of that, my expectations were not exactly sky-high. I was just hoping for a roof that didn’t leak. Much to our relieved surprise, “hut” definitely did not do it justice. There was no electricity or bathroom, but the mountaineering club had MacGyver-ed their way into setting up running water, thanks to a nearby stream. There was a wood-burning stove, a second floor, and plenty of thick blankets to keep us warm while we slept. Suffice to say, it was everything that the subpar 小屋 – in this case, “hut” is definitely the right translation – of Mount Fuji aren’t. I’d be ready to call this place my summer home on Chokai if I could.
We weren’t the only ones crashing at the cabin, either. A few other groups and solo hikers had made it there before us (an unfortunate mistake involving an unmarked trail led to us taking the wrong path for forty minutes), so the cabin was warm and merry with company. It was an unexpected and welcome treat to make a few short-term friends while we indulged in our onigiri and cup o’ noodles dinner.
The next morning, we set off bright and early to conquer the rest of the mountain. After three hours or so, half of our group decided that they’d had enough and decided to return to the car, rather than continue to hike in the increasingly bitterly cold gusts. A rainstorm the night before meant that the ground was slick and spongy in places, so it wasn’t the stablest of hikes. Being the klutz that I am, I myself ended up slipping off the narrow trail into shoulder-high holes twice. Thankfully they weren’t any deeper, or clambering out of them would’ve been a lot harder.
The landscapes of Chokai’s upper regions were gorgeous. Swirling banks of clouds meant that we’d catch a glimpse of Chokai’s snow-capped, craggy summit for a scarce minute or two before it disappeared again into the dense fog. Most of the grasses had turned golden by this time, and they provided a stark contrast against the verdant evergreen shrubs and burnished red of the autumn leaves. The higher we hiked, though, the more those colors started to leech away, replaced by the gray of the rocks and the white of the snow.
Yeah. Snow. And not just a few flurries, either. Before we began our trek, the organizing JET had called a local visitor’s center, just to map out our plan with someone familiar with the mountain. According to them, the chance of snow was “slight.” Even if we did encounter snow, it would only be a light dusting.
Ha. Mother Nature is a fickle bitch.
We ended up hiking through a legitimate snowstorm. Any grasses stubborn enough to grow were encased in ice. Visibility became a paltry ten meters or so, and we had to watch every step, for fear that we’d slip and fall. The buffeting winds certainly didn’t help, and our hike quickly became more of a slog. “Ten more minutes. Ten more minutes, and we’ll definitely be at the summit,” became my mantra. (And I must have repeated it five times.)
Much like my hike to the summit of Fuji, our trek up Chokai was a bit anti-climactic. Snowstorms aren’t exactly the best climate in which to catch a gorgeous panoramic view. All together, we probably spent about eight hours climbing up Chokai (for reference, climbing Fuji took me four hours)…and I’d say we spent about two minutes at the peak of our hike. All three of us were itching to return to warmer ground and thaw our frozen extremities.
Chokai was gorgeous, without a doubt, but it thoroughly put me through the physical wringer. By the time we made it back to our car, the sun had set. (Another thing I learned from this trip…I’m not such a big fan of hiking through the forest in the dark, even with an awesome, Cabela’s-supplied headlamp.) We were exhausted, both physically and mentally…so naturally we ended the day with a trip to a nearby luxury onsen. After fourteen hours of climbing, a near-scalding hot bath was exactly what the doctor ordered.