Saturday, 21 November 2009

Takamori-yama, frosty dusk

Takamori-yama is a 1100m (3,609ft) top, 5km south of lake Numazawa in Kaneyama-machi, Aizu, Fukishima prefecture. In the little local mountain route booklet, available from the council offices in Kawaguchi, it is given a 'medium' difficulty rating. That equates to a rugged Scottish mountain, with some exposure to big drops and narrow ridge sections. As with most wooded mountains, the trees mask this , giving it a deceptively innocuous appearance from afar.

Takamori-yama hiding it's dodgy bits in the first frost of the winter

Having managed to get my Achilles tendon going just in time to nab a few hasty tops before the heavy snow arrives, I decided on a late-afternoon run up Takamori-yama. Not having time to explore a route from the valley I headed for the lower of two possible starting points on the small mountain road that snakes around two sides of it mid way up.

This was obliterated by a works site, however. What was a pleasant wild stream has just been concreted in, with weirs and 'landscaped' banks. It isn't near any houses, so why this was necessary wasn't immediately clear. Money for the contractor and work for someone, I suppose. I fully understand why a lot of effort has to go into making this region relatively safe from landslides, avalanches and flooding. And people need work. On the other hand it sometimes seems that hardly a stream remains free of concrete. These unassailable steps decrease the bio-diversity in the rivers considerably, as some species are not be able to cope. They are also ugly, and tourism is till this area's main industry. However, this area is less spoilt than most, and there is still an awful lot of unspoilt beauty here.

Mount I-ide (2105m) and it's range to the north in Yamagata-ken

Quickly riding my hobby-horse up to the other starting point on the south west, I headed up through the pines at the base and onto the steeper sections. It is only 3km from the road to the top, which the guide suggests takes 1hour 50. It was 3.10pm and the best of the light had gone. It would be dark before 5. I love this time of day, but it does require extra care, and I took any tricky bits very slowly. These are quiet hills at any season, but now there would be no chance of anyone coming by, and I didn't fancy spending a night up there, well equipped though I was.

Calling out 'Allo, allo, allo!' and jingling my way up to let the bears know a handy pre-hibernation snack was on it's way, I wondered if  this traditional English policeman's greeting had ever been heard among these cliffs and trees before. I had the feeling that if any arresting was going to be done, the mountain was going to be doing it.

Once on the ridge it became clear that, as always, this mountain had teeth. The path topped an impressive drop straight down to the valley below, and then became a sharp ridge less than a metre wide in places. Twice, trees that had grown bang in the centre had to be hugged like dear friends to get round them onto the path beyond. Several rock steps waited, slick with moss, and the path round a section of one consisted of vegetation which flexed underfoot. I considered turning back, but decided to concentrate more. A lot more.

It is always worth remembering that if you fall there is a good chance you won't be found, as mountain rescue is informal, they don't have search dogs, or use helicopters, which in any case can't spot you under trees. So as I was saying, I concentrated more. The sooner they get some concrete up here, the better. Oh...did I say that out loud?

Grow a pair: what the well dressed fell runner is wearing this season

As you can see in the picture, it was very cold, brass monkeys in fact, but those are bear bells on my chest, not simian testicles. Incidentally, that isn't necessarily a figure of speech, as I have seen  the wild monkeys that inhabit this area, all intact as far as I am aware. Maybe I spend too long alone in the woods, but whenever this subject comes up I call to mind the legend of Pope Joan, the female pope reputedly stoned to death while giving birth during a papal procession. This is supposed by some to have led to the tradition of checking any new pope's wedding tackle (probably not the best choice of words) by feeling them. An image to be treasured, I am sure you'll agree.

I also have a bear pepper spray in the green pouch, a sensible precaution that I would advise everyone to carry in the Japanese mountains.  Be staunch, be free, but don't be lunch is my motto. I got mine in Aizu-Wakamatsu at the small but well-stocked outdoor shop, as you can't import or fly with them. Expensive, but offering a little more peace of mind, having a young son to return home for. The chances of meeting a bear are pretty slim, as they tend to avoid you if they know you are around, but people have been attacked in all mountain areas of Japan, including Aizu this year. Think of them like Rotweilers wandering around in the woods on their own, only without an owner to call them off if they get testy. Despite deliberately making noise I have been surprised to surprise surprisingly hard of hearing dear, goats, monkeys, birds and snakes - so I guess it is only a matter of time.

The out and back 6 km took 1 hour 45, about half of the advertised walking time. That gives some idea of how much this ground can slow you down, with its combination of wet leaf mould, tripping roots, and exposure. In more runnable terrain one third of the walking time or less would be more typical for a mountain runner.

Before leaving the ridge for the now be-nighted woods below, I put my head torch on, just in case any stone-deaf bears had difficulty seeing me bungling along in their personal  night-time fiefdom, like a banished jester in a folk tale. In-authentically, it ended well.

Note: While I was writing this, the house shook with a small earthquake