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Journeys : Feb March 2011
The boss, Mr Nishida, has opened a coloured brochure and is enthusiastically pointing to his power station and explaining its many highlights. But apprentice operator Kazuo wants to describe his ascent that day of Mt Tateyama – on Japanese holidays there’s no time to talk shop. Kazuo doesn’t have as much English as his boss but he knows enough to say ‘Change subject please’. He pours another splash of bourbon to shift my attention from power station to peak. I’ll be climbing it next day – and it’s a peak worth talking about. At 3015 metres, Tateyama-san is the highest of a chain of mountains in Honshu’s North Alps. Overlooking Japan’s old northern coast road just as Mt Fuji dominates the Tokaido route in the south, Mt Tateyama is almost equally revered. Just getting there from the south-easter n side of the mountains is an intriguing journey in its own right. From the enormous Kurobe Dam, the Kurobe- Tateyama Alpine Crossing involves travelling by train, coach, underground electr ic trolley bus, cable car, aerial ropeway and another underground bus before popping out of a tunnel on the Murodo Plateau, a highly-active volcanic zone at an altitude of 2400 metres, with the serene peaks of the Tateyama R ange all around. But in typical Japanese fashion, Murodo itself is anything but serene – there’s an expanse of bitumen for tour bus parking, a visitor centre, a five-star hotel and a shopping complex full of tour groups following the bobbing flags of their unifor med guides. Mountain lodges, each with its own hot- spr ing baths, are dotted about the plateau, but I head for the campsite on a track that leads through Jigoku-dani, the Valley of Hell. Spur ts of sulphur sprout up to build poisonous yellow stalagmites, blue-grey water boils in steaming grottoes and stinking gases drift through the air – it’s a relief to discover that the camping area is well upwind. Everywhere I camp in Japan, my strange little orange tent attracts interest. An ultra- lightweight Nor th Amer ican design, the MSR Missing Link is halfway between a conventional tent and a simple fly sheet. It’s a great way to get into conversation – just pitch the tent and wait for curious locals to come and look. Returning from their climb, the nuclear power station boys detour through the campsite to inspect the tent and invite me to their party that night. Kazuo sticks his head inside and pokes a finger at the w ings that shelter the opening. ‘Ah, velly loomy!’ Yes, it’s spacious all right – but as storm clouds gather later that afternoon, I wonder how it will cope with wind and rain. I soon find out – there’s a brilliant burst of lightning, crashing thunder then a torrential downpour. Rivulet s of stor mwater flow ominously close but the tent stays dry and upright. I boil a brew, find some jazz on my iPod, zip open the lee-side entrance and watch a young couple having fun with a dome tent that wants to be a parachute. Finally they give up and sprint for the amenities block. I meet them there after the storm, packing up before retreating to the comfort of a lodge. She is demure and silent – he’s drenched but cheerful. “ First tr y of tent!” he says happily. Next morning it’s my turn to make the ascent of Tateyama. I cross an icy, sky-blue tor rent on a narrow plank bridge, then climb through low alpine forest to scree slopes, kicking steps across tongues of snow that lie in deep creases on the mountain’s flank. Tateyama is home to the snow ptarmigan, a rare member of the grouse family. The track to the summit crest zig-zags up Raucho-zawa – the Vale of the Ptarmigan. After an early start, I’m alone on the route and I’m lucky enough to see several ptarmigan rustling through thickets of dwarf conifers. Two hours’ steep climbing later I begin the undulating traverse along the top, taking a break at a couple of well-appointed huts to enjoy Japanese oddities such as beer vending machines at 3000 metres and resident caretakers surfing the net on their laptops. Mist is swirling as I reach the Shinto shrine on the true summit of Tateyama. I clap my hands, toss a tinkle of coins into the collection box, send some thoughts homeward and tap the bell to alert the mountain gods. Do I honestly think the spirits are listening? No, not really. But I do it because it feels right and is strangely satisfying – and because it seems crass and disrespectful just to turn my back and walk away. And because, well, just in case ... 16 February / March 2011 Destinations Previous page: Camp beneath Mt Tateyama. This page: Cable car above Kurobe Dam; power plant party
Apr May 2011