Thursday, 26 August 2010

So Yama and Mae Yama: Lake Numazawa's volcanic rim

A beautiful and (relatively) easy mountain circuit around the rim of an extinct volcano in Kaneyamamachi, oku Aizu, Fukishimaken

The anti-clockwise route climbs this ridge from right to left

The Numazawa volcano last erupted an estimated 5,000 years ago, leaving a caldera, now a lake 100m deep. There are two main mountains on the immediate rim: So Yama 816m (2,677ft) and Mae Yama 835m (2,739ft), both with tree covered cliffs dropping to the lake, with an undulating wooded ridge between. The circuit of the lake is completed via a lakeside path and road.

So Yama, from the climb up Mae Yama

This makes for a good medium distance run of around 2 hours - how much quicker or slower than that will depend on heat and fitness, with mostly runnable paths - unusual for this area!

As an adult walk it is a brisk 5 hours or a leisurely 7 and a half or so with children - at least that is how long it took my 8 year-old.

Glimpses of the deep viridian of the lake, with cliffs above

Starting at the signposted path up the hill past a small shrine at the northern end of the lakeside road the route zigzags onto the ridge towards So Yama. This is sharp in places and with a couple of spots requiring care, but rewarding and interesting. So Yama has masts on the top, but the view is lovely, and the descent onto the joining ridge through pleasant woodland. An undulating path takes you to the base of the climb up Mae Yama, with an easy escape route to the SW if needed.

It is a stiff pull up to the top of this loaf shaped mountain, with one corner on the path requiring care as it is by a drop disguised by scrub. The top proper is in trees, but there is a wonderful if a little nervy viewing point a little further on the path as it begins to descend.

Our visiting friends the Purvis's equipped for the wilds with smiles, dreams of flight, court shoes and plimpsoles - but no bones broken. On Mae Yama.

On a clear day you can see 50 miles from here, with the enamelled lake and it's toy village like a model in touching distance below. It's best to keep concentration though, as this is on top of a cliff, and the edge of the friable rock platform is breaking away. The descent zigzags down a rough path through shaded deciduous forest, with some venerable old beech trees with massive moss covered boles. Following the stream at the bottom gets you to the lake glimmering through dark pines and a lovely lakeside path to finish with.

Lake Numazawa Festival

This photo by Mike Barratt

Bowing back

Every evening the spider outside our living room repairs the day's damage to it's web. It is made of a few hawser-like threads stretched from the porch roof to floor, an impressive distance. If you walk into one inadvertently you would be shocked by the strength of those tiny threads.

Across the road a man is suspended from a cable, pulling himself along and paying out a wire. The council is paying the installation costs of fibre optic broadband, providing a 200mbs  service to every house for the internet, telephones and television. This will hopefully increase the range of people who may be able to work from this beautiful place through the internet. As it stands most people either find work in construction, maintenance and road repair, in seasonal casual work for the council, or tourism - or have to leave to find it.

I have a chastened admiration for the people I see working in the oppressive heat and humidity that has killed 132 people through heatstroke acrosss Japan this summer, with 31,579 people hospitalized since May 31 (Fire and Disaster Management Agency). Working in full uniform and safety gear, especially on concrete and tarmac that intensify the heat, must be killing - yet you never see anyone shirking and they all seem to do their work thoroughly and with good heart.

The  toll it takes is clear if you see them in their lunch break. Usually they eat then take a short nap, laying out mats on the roadside or in the cab of vehicles. Recently though, I passed a group of men exhausted by the heat whose heads had dropped in sleep where they sat eating, the insects shrieking in the trees overhead and trucks thundering by inches away.

The people who direct traffic around roadworks have it especially hard in the heat, standing in full sun all day in one spot, with nothing to distract them, burning to a deep brown. I can't imagine the pay is good, and it is work often done by the elderly who can't do heavy work any more. Yet they do it with precision and care, bowing to each driver as they pass. Bowing back is for me anything but a formality.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Scare bears

One of the bi-products of there being many hairdressers in the area stares out like a young Marc Almond, with album cover weirdness, through the netting surrounding a pumpkin patch. Hairdressers are as numerous in Aizu villages as pubs in English ones, and one folically well-connected smallholder has enterprisingly blagged some mannequins in a spirit of surreal husbandry to scare away the many bears that are now causing anxiety by coming into the local villages in unprecedented numbers.

In the next-door village a particularly persistent black bear was unfortunately shot dead last week. It had taken to sleeping in a rice field rather than the usual tree platforms in the woods, and it was probably only a matter of time before it attacked someone - and there are several children in the village. Like a children's tale, 30km away a woman stepped out of her house in the early morning to tend her garden and was mauled by three bears, though happily she survived. This was probably by a mother with two cubs, which stay together for their first two years.

We have always taken them seriously (and taken suitable precautions), but bears are no longer a fairytale or theoretical construct for me now. Having waited eighteen months to see one, I recently saw two in the space of ten days, fortunately from the safety of the car. The first poked it's head out between someone's car and their house at 9.40pm in the biggest village - emphasising that you really can see them anywhere. The second dramatically ran across a mountain road at 8.45pm. Luckily I was able to stop in time, but the image of it filling the windscreen in the headlights as it lolloped along, big and muscular with thick fur rippling with the rhythm of it's gait will stay with us. It was a full moon, and the wildlife was waiting to throw itself in front of us that night - shortly after a Tanuki appeared, followed by a Japanese Marten, which ran on the road in front of us for 500m instead of heading for safety.

Laughing in the face of forensics: a bear takes the subtle approach to corn-related crime.

There are more bears appearing in the villages than in living memory. Is this because the winters are milder and more survive, because there has been a change in the food supply in the woods, or, as the locals postulate, because there are fewer mountain allotments to raid than there used to be? They are mad for corn, pumpkins, and water melons, and who can blame them - Aizu vegetables are wonderful and provide more nutrition than anything to be found in the woods.

Mt Onigatsura

Mt Onigatsura, a 1,465m (4,806 ft) mountain in Fukushima ken, Japan 
Aptly named 'The demon's face.'

Mt Onigatsura, along with Minamidake (1354m) and Kitadake (1465m), forms a dramatic pinnacle and cliff-strewn ridge heading SSW from Asakusadake. It is a stunningly beautiful sawtooth with three tops. The path over it skirts yawning gullies and avalanche-scoured drops falling into into the wild valley between it and Mt Asakusa. Grand sweeps of forested mountains flow towards Niigata to the west. The path looks from a distance as if it will involve some exposed scrambling. It doesn't, but it is often close to  edges. For example, you can see the path skirting the very top of the tooth in this photograph.

I 'ran' it both ways, starting at the tunnel at the head of the pass on route 252 west of Tadami, doing the full ridge and adding Asakusadake (1584m/5197ft), and heading back the same way, having done the other routes before. This took 4 hours 40 minutes in all, including a 20 minute stop, so as a walk it would be double that, or more. It is a good obvious path, but steep in places and rough underfoot, with the usual tree roots and scrub to deal with.  It requires concentration when near the edges and moving quickly. There is no water on the ridge, and not as many people go this way. With the exception of a few on the top of Asakusa-dake, I saw one person all day on the ridge, and it was a fine Sunday.

Shallow cave on the ridge, with Asaksadake in the background

It being in August, the path was beautiful with a profusion of wild flowers. Legions of dragonflies filled the air - some of them the huge green ones with bodies four inches long and bigger. When they fly close to your face it is like being scrutinised by an alien spaceship.On the more runnable section towards Asakusadake I surprised five snakes, whereas a walker at the top had seen only one on the same section. A king amongst slugs was encountered on the path too, grazing un-phased by the drama of it's lofty neighbourhood.

Any resemblance noted in speed and appearance entirely offensive, OK?

Thankfully the (literally) killing heat of the last ten weeks had eased a little, and the elevation of the ridge above 1,000 metres made the temperature pleasant by comparison, though still warm, and if I may put it thus, sluggish.

This is a classic route and the best I have done in Aizu so far. If you can arrange pick-ups it could be combined to make a long traverse accross Asaksa-dake from north to south by using the NE ridge, or done in a southern circuit including the path which directly climbs steeply to the summit of Asaksa from the small station on the Tadami line to the south. All would be long day walks needing early starts and plenty of water and gear.