One woman’s Hyakumeizan

by Ginger Vaughn

Special To The Japan Times

As I thumb through the tattered pages of my decade-old hiking guidebook, a sense of satisfaction coupled with disbelief takes over.

The bent cover and dog-eared pages, now brittle and stained from exposure to rain and sun, and from being shoved in a backpack over and over again, have held up surprisingly well — but as I’ve come to know, its picturesque photos of Japan’s 100 great mountains, the so-called Hyakumeizan, do not do them justice.

And considering the time, expense and physical commitment it has taken to tick off all 100 as “been there, climbed that,” it doesn’t seem right that the great peaks of these islands could all be wrapped up so neatly in a two-part guidebook complete with maps and trail times.

That, though, is exactly what the writer and climber Kyuya Fukada (1903-71) did when he handpicked the mountains and between 1959-63 wrote his best-selling volume titled “Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Famous Japanese Mountains).” While most mountaineers here applaud Fukada’s work and the inspiration it has given to so many lovers of the great outdoors, they also tend to agree that the country’s 100 best peaks are those you choose yourself — just as Fukada did.

Nonetheless, soon after the book was published in 1964, the challenge was there for hikers around the country to lace up their boots and take to the hills in Fukada’s footsteps.

My attempt to be the first foreign female to complete all the 100 mountains began after a two-year stint in Yokohama on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program.

A fellow teacher named Sean had taken me on a trail hike in the Tanzawa mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture, and just one glimpse from 1,600 meters up was all it took for me to know I would be enjoying a lot more views from high altitudes in the coming years.

It is amazing how quickly and slowly a year can go by when it’s filled with mountain climbing, hitchhiking, odd jobs and all manner of unexpected happenings.

Now, flipping through the weatherworn pages of my journal, I read the first few accounts of traveling by bicycle through Hokkaido and I can’t help but smile at my naivety and passion at the time.

In my original plan, I was very regimented and unwavering in my determination to climb the Hyakumeizan in one year.

Sleepless nights were spent creating the perfect hiking schedule and working out which mountain would be climbed during which time of the year, spacing them out to exactly take in 100 peaks in 365 days. In my quests to find the lightest gear, “less is more” became such a serious motto that I shaved my head early on to mark the start of my odyssey.

The schedule I had in mind and on paper was a simple but strict (and massively unrealistic) one. I wrote the name of each mountain to be climbed in red on a year-planner on my bedroom wall, assigned each a number and put the 100 numbers in date squares on the planner — so giving me a schedule with a precise date on which to climb each peak, with no room for rain checks. My daily budget would be ¥1,500; my shelter and home was to be a tent; and my transportation a bicycle donated by a sponsor, Scott USA.

The winter months were also slated for hiking, and I left little room for catching colds, bad moods, broken hearts or bankruptcy — all which have, of course, befallen me.

So, in August 2002 my Hyakumeizan challenge kicked off when I boarded a ferry from Tokyo to the port of Tomakomai in Hokkaido. All my belongings were snugly packed in panniers on my new hybrid bicycle, which I was confident would take me smoothly to the trailhead about 120 km from the port.

“Hmm, a foreign girl alone, climbing Mount Poroshiri? I have lived here for 50 years and that mountain is no joke,” an old man at the visitors center in Batori warned me with a concerned look and a shake of his head as if I just didn’t get it!

Pointing to the sky he said there would be a terrible storm the next day and I should pay heed. “Long fishermen’s boots, do you have those?”

“No, but I have sandals,” I said pointing to the Tevas strapped on my bike rack.

“Young lady, the water level is already pretty high from the rains, it is not a good idea.”

Annoyed by his chidings, I thought that he’d surely never climbed Mount Poroshiri. What does he know? I huffed silently to myself — and with that and a “thank you” I rode off without looking back and giving him the chance to say more.

Soon enough, I was cursing the bumpy, unpaved paths and my heavy panniers. After 10 hours of cycling, the blisters on my feet were just another part of the gnawing pain of the rest of my body. Finally arriving at the trailhead for Mount Poroshiri — my first sub-goal — I collapsed into my tent too exhausted to care that I was covered in bugs and eating them with my ramen.

The next morning, it soon became clear that the old man was right. I had tried a few tricky maneuvers to avoid the streams, but soon I found myself up to my waist in water, my pack high on my back. The clouds glowered heavily and I was pushing myself as hard as I could to make it to the small mountain hut before the storm.

I got there just as the rain started to come down, and found plenty of other hikers filling the hut about a four-hour trek below the peak, which, at 2,052 meters, is the highest point of the Hidaka range in south-central Hokkaido. The crowd included a 22-strong tour group whose members turned out to be the highlight of the evening.

The wind howled and it was apparent that no one would be going anywhere, up or down, any time soon, so all 50-odd of us realized we’d have to make the best of it.

Deciding where we would all sleep was not an issue. If there was a square centimeter of available floor space it was occupied in seconds. That is where I first learned the word zakone, which means sleeping like sardines in a can. I was a well-fed sardine, though, because many of the older ladies were particularly interested in giving me chocolates and sweets, I think because I somehow looked like all of their granddaughters — or grandsons rather, with my shaved head.

When I proudly told them I was doing the Hyakumeizan, though, the room fell quiet as ears perked up to hear more. A lady from Nagoya who’d just given me an almond bar said she was on mountain number 87 — and asked about my progress.

“This is number one,” I said, and soon the room was filled with hearty laughs, clapping and calls of “Gambatte ne!” (“Try your best!”)

“Mountain number one and it’s already raining on you — you must be an ame-onna,” the Nagoya lady replied, referring to a woman whose presence brings rain. That was a new word to me, but it seemed to have stuck as many more days of downpours awaited me on my 100-summit quest.

The following day the skies were still heavy, but I felt warm and refreshed from sleep and plenty of calories. I left my gear at the hut and with just a liter of water and a few snacks quickly went up to the summit. The rain when it inevitably came was welcoming as it cooled me down, but then the wind picked up and threatened to flatten me on the way back down to the hut.

Once there, after grabbing my gear and changing into sandals for the hike back to the trailhead, I wondered if it might not be faster wading through the streams straight down to the trailhead rather than walking. Ninety-nine mountains still remained and there I was trying to figure out whether to hike or swim. Not the most encouraging start to my Hyakumeizan adventure.

It was on that first outing in Hokkaido that I realized that though cycling is a great means of transport, its appeal falls rapidly when going uphill after just having climbed a big mountain.

So hitchhiking became my new means of transport, and a much easier and more enjoyable one than I’d ever expected. Not only did it get me fairly speedily wherever I wanted to be, but it was a great way to communicate with locals, many of whom happily shared their knowledge about the locality, the mountains — and lots about their day-to-day lives.

Indeed, some people I met on my travels even shared their homes with me as well.

One time in northern Japan where Akita and Iwate prefectures meet, I was lucky to meet the caretaker of the Mount Hachimantai hut, a Mr. Chiba. He was a craftsman from the nearby Iwate Prefecture town of Tono, which is known for its theatrical Shinto dance style called kagura, its folk tales — and a mischievous green water goblin known as the Kappa.

Soon after I’d come down from the plateau-like 1,613-meter summit and arrived at the hut, Mr. Chiba offered me hot chestnuts right out of the pan without asking anything about me.

Then, sure enough, within a few minutes of us getting acquainted, the heavens opened and I sat there pondering my lodging for the night as the rain poured down. Like an old uncle, though, Mr. Chiba said without any fuss that I should stay with his family in town until the weather cleared.

Well, it didn’t clear for a few more days but, like the proverbial silver lining, that allowed me to relax and join the Chiba family for a week of festivals where I learned kagura dancing and cheered his children on at a school athletic meet.

On my third day in town, I came across Mr. Azuma, the principal of the elementary school. “You must come to my house near here in Sanriku and eat some fresh awabi (gigantic clams),” he said at once. “They are delicious and the way my wife prepares them, I can confidently say they’re the best in the world.”

That was enough to lure me to the beautiful little Iwate Prefecture town near the sea where the Azuma’s resided, and where I spent more days walking around and learning the culinary secrets of Mrs. Azuma’s perfect clams and her traditional tofu dishes.

A few years ago, the Azumas came to Tokyo and we met in Harajuku for dinner, but I lost touch with them soon after. Then, when the March 11 tsunami devastated so much of the Tohoku coast of northeatern Honshu, I instantly thought of them and called the local ward office to confirm their whereabouts. That and subsequent calls were to no avail, and I’m sure it won’t be long before I make a trip back up there in hopes of reuniting with the Azumas, and enjoying more of those huge juicy clams and the beautiful view from their kitchen window.

By this point spring had turned into fall and I was still on mountain #17. So, after a few more peaks I headed south to Kyushu where it was still relatively warm. The six Hyakumeizan there I completed in 10 days — just in time for me to take refuge from the oncoming winter at a ski resort in Gunma Prefecture.

There, I worked for four months, shoveling to the best of my ability hot curry onto trays for eager skiers at a restaurant off the first lift, waiting for the mountains to thaw. And what an amazing time I had, learning to snowboard and improving my Japanese — all with a beautiful view of the mountains outside my toasty-warm dorm room.

I was told by the manager that “to truly understand the heart of the Japanese, you must eat natto (fermented soybeans) for breakfast every day.” Well, yes — but with the first hint of spring at the end of March I escaped his “understanding” breakfasts, happily exchanged my snow boots for hiking ones and headed back to Yokohama.

By now, my plan to scale all 100 Hyakumeizan in 365 days had gone the way of all things — but not my resolve to scale them all, and before too long.

The first hike of 2003 began after Golden Week in early May when I boarded a ferry to Shikoku to climb Mount Tsurugi, one of the island’s two Hyakumeizan peaks.

It was on that 1,954-meter-high mountain that I became convinced I truly am an ame-onna — which in Japan also has the connotation of being an unlucky person who brings showers to sporting events and weddings.

While descending from that summit, in fact, I met a woman named Tomoko from Yamanashi Prefecture who ended up — after we’d spent the next two days of pouring rain together — wholeheartedly agreeing that I am indeed an ame-onna. Together we killed time at a nearby onsen (hot-spring) lodge and then, when the skies eventually cleared, spent the next week hiking four of the Hyakumeizan.

Through Tomoko, who was also climbing Kyuya Fukada’s 100 peaks, I also landed a job as a Mount Fuji hiking guide later that summer after completing most of the mountains in the North Alps of Nagano Prefecture. I had crossed off another 51 peaks in six months — which brought me to the 80th.

The next 10 peaks were done without urgency over a four-year span as I finished graduate school, changed careers and got married. But then I had to climb the final 10 Hyakymeizan peaks at a feverishly rate as I raced to finish them by my personal deadline of Oct. 15, 2011 — a deadline imposed on me in large part because Oct. 23 was the only available Timeout slot for this article!

Now, with all the 100 summits under my belt, I still find myself struggling to answer when people ask me which mountain I liked the best. That’s because the experience you have on a mountain depends on a variety of factors — from the weather, to whom you meet and how much sleep you had the night before.

But when asked which was the hardest mountain of them all, I used to say it was Mount Poroshiri, that very first one. Now, though, I say without a doubt in my mind that it was # 95: 2,141-meter Mount Hiragatake on the border of Gunma and Niigata prefectures that I climbed just a matter of a few weeks ago.

Besides the trail time being wrong on the old map I have, which gives it as 9½ hours (it’s 12 hours on recent ones), I was told that the mountain road that leads to the mountain had literally split and fallen into a river and been swept away by a flood this summer following heavy rain in Niigata.

The owner of the minshuku (guest house) I stayed at the night before my intended ascent had told me it was impossible to reach the mountain and I wouldn’t be able to climb it until next year. A nearby hut owner suggested that perhaps a helicopter could fly me in. That was fine by me, but the pilot said he couldn’t do it for three days because he was booked — and I didn’t have three days to waste if I was going to hit my Oct. 15 deadline.

Finally, after making a slew of desperate calls, a woman who owned a small shop nearby said she knew of a hiker who had come down from the summit two days before, but had arrived back looking very beat up. That was the only cue I needed, although I would have preferred the helicopter drop-off.

I jumped in the car and drove to what’s now a construction site where the road collapsed, and parked there. From there, the trailhead was 3 km away and the trail was overgrown and slippery from lack of use. Predictably, too, the clouds were heavy and I knew there’d be rain.

Along I went, slipping and sliding for hours without seeing anyone. I was enjoying the solitude when, suddenly, I heard bear bells behind me. I was hoping it wasn’t a bear with a sense of humor and a bell around his neck, but soon saw two men down below on the trail.

“Hey you,” the younger of the two yelled up. “A bad storm is coming and you have to come down. It’s dangerous, there’s going to be lightning.”

The pair had heard about me from the shop owner and had followed me up.

“You started too late and you won’t have enough daylight to finish,” the other man yelled out.

I knew they were right, but I was where I was. My watch read 11:51 and they had been following me for nearly two hours. I made a decision: If they could catch me, I would go back with them.

They were less than 50 meters away, and I smiled and said, “Yes you are right, it’s dangerous and it’s going to be a bad storm. You should go back.”

I heard the bells get fainter as I moved faster. I had no time to eat and my stomach was the most audible noise on the trail. I kept longing to devour the salmon packed in tinfoil in my pack, but the light was darkening and the heavens started to open at noon.

Soon, steady rain turned to a downpour that made it hard to see. It stung my face with cold and seeped in past my so-called waterproof outer layer of clothes. My boots were done for as I gained height rapidly and icy water from the summit poured into them. As well, I’d jammed my foot between some rocks and my left big toe was burning with pain. Oh well, it’d probably come off like some of the others that were likely frostbitten, but the goal was to keep moving or else I’d freeze.

I reached the summit at precisely 3 p.m. — but there seemed no way I could hike 12 km back to my car before the daylight disappeared. Faster and faster I went, trying to run as much as possible, but my feet didn’t understand and the weight of my pack, the endless downpour and the stress of trying to beat the clock was making me panic.

Hiking in the dark in bad weather on an overgrown trail that no one has been on in weeks is a bad idea. A very bad idea. I knew I needed to get down quickly, and desperation came with the darkness. I put on my headlamp and the whiff of salmon got the better of me.

Well aware that I could be tempting a bear (right before hibernation), I walked swiftly with the piece of salmon in one hand. The first bite was delicious, oil and flavor bringing relief, but then within seconds my feet were in the air as I slipped on a wet wooden plank. I hit the ground flat on my back and my precious salmon had flown into the forest. Not feeling the pain and fighting off tears, I looked for it exhausted and laughing hysterically, knowing it was pointless and I was wasting precious time.

It was dark and the temperature was dropping. I was moving fast but starting to get chilly and worried about my unfelt feet. I had heard about hikers who had hypothermia and had to remove toes. Thoughts like “I don’t want to lose any toes because it will be hard to wear flip-flops” went through my head — but I figured if you had to lose any body part, toes were probably the ones you’d choose to forfeit.

Keep moving, keep moving. Luckily I had made an effort to memorize key points on the trail, as I’d known a night hike was highly likely.

Four steep rocks with ropes to go down, climb over a few fallen trees, and no ladders — thank goodness. I prayed my light would hold up in the rain — if it went out, then I was done, as the overgrown trail was unmanageable in darkness with no visible moon or stars above.

The last 3 km seemed endless, and when I arrived at the demolished road I kissed the ground and said a prayer. Outside my rental car, I peeled off my clothes and threw them in the trunk and sat shivering in the front seat with the heater on full blast. My toenail had come off with my sock, but I was thankful all 10 nubs were there — and that I had completed #95, Mount Hiragatake.

The last mountain, my 100th Hyakumeizan, happened to be the one with the longest name of them all: Mount Uonuma-Komagatake, in Niigata Prefecture.

It was Oct. 14 and warm for the time of year as the sun beat down mercilessly on my jetlagged husband and brother who had flown in from the United States to support me on my final Hyakumeizan ascent.

This was it, but at first it seemed like just another mountain. As the 2,002-meter top came into view and I made my way to the pillar that marked the summit, my lips started quivering and my legs gradually came to a full stop, not allowing me to go any further as if somehow knowing this was the end of my long journey in the footsteps of Kyuya Fukada.

Behind me, I could hear clapping in unison, and soon enough I was ringing the bell I’d taken with me to announce I’d reached the top of my 100th Hyakumeizan.

It was not until we were descending, when dark clouds moved in quickly and we were soon soaked through, that I — a true ame-onna — felt not only the rain, but with it great a sense of relief.