Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A long run on Adatara

Looking down at Numanotaira, the crater of Tetsu-zan in the Adatara range

The Adatara group of mountains in Fukushima, Japan consists of several stratovolcanos, including the highest, Minowa-yama 1718m (5,636ft), the active Testu-san 1709m (5,607ft), Funamyojin 1667m (5,469ft), Osho-yama 1601m (5,252ft), and Adatara-san itself 1699m (5,574ft)

Checking  out the route of an epic 53km (32 mile) mountain race provided a flimsy excuse to do the magnificently irrational and unreasonable, which is all that is ever required. It follows a star-shaped route over the tops, across and through the valleys of this dramatic and slightly scary area. A two hour drive, on which I was overtaken at speed by a demon grandma screaming along in her K van, brought me to the foot of Minowa-yama at the north end of the range. I had my revenge on the old folks though. Such was my blistering speed, I overtook at least seven septegenarians over the day. Ha. Eat my dust suckers....literally, no teeth you see.

Looking back northwards to Azuma volcano from the 'path' on Minowa-yama

How far you get on days like these depends a lot on the terrain , and what looks runnable on the map can turn out to be a battle through vegetation, as the paths grow back in so quickly, so I was prepared with an open mind and a full pack. The last 2k up to Minowa-yama was up a slippery clay path obscured with bamboo, so running risked clouting rocks and protruding branches. It would be fun and games in the rain, requiring a rich Anglo Saxon vocabulary.

A long spur heading down to the east was luckily more used, so provided you are slim enough you could see your feet, but the trees closed overhead at head height, forming a green tunnel strewn with blue flowers. Very pretty, but requiring running in homage to Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, hunched over and lurching to avoid branches. Running isn't supposed to hurt your neck, is it, master?

This utterly pointless height loss took me down to a river cutting down from Tetsu-zan. An elder was relieving himself in a smiling sociable kind of way, facing in my direction and barring the far end of the log bridge. Public peeing is not a matter for embarrassment for middle aged Japanese men, who stop willy nilly. He was decent and friendly by the time I reached him, and he had all his teeth. He was checking the bridge on behalf of the local onsen hotel, which depends on walkers, and he gave me a sweet. 

Chained waterfall routes in the valley east of Tetsu-zan

A gentle beginning to the climb back up, following the river on the other side of the valley, became more dramatic with drops and tumbling waterfalls, which had attracted a group of solemn women gorge scramblers. Further up I refilled my bottle. The water was a surprise, tasting strongly of minerals, which are probably either very good or very bad for you. There turned out to be a mountain hotel further up, so I hope their cesspit is in good order. Perhaps it wasn't minerals I was tasting...

Sanctuary! Adatara san from the bell near the top of the cable car

Popping out of the valley the hotel's rough track allowed some ordinary running, before more height loss and a climb up the ski ruined slopes up to Adatara. It was a busy path near the top, as most people get the cable car most of the way up, ideal for children and the elderly, like the man keen to try his English who was revisiting the peak after climbing it in his youth. There is an exorbitantly expensive cafe at the cable station, made more expensive by their habit of filling the glasses with ice before putting drinks in, halving the measure.

Such human irritations were wiped out by the panoramic views from the top of Adatara-san. I decided to give the 8 or 9 km southern loop of the race a miss, as it climbs Osho-yama to the south, then drops into the valley below before climbing to Funamyojin-yama, which is only 1km along the ridge from Adatara-san.

Osho-yama (1601m) on the southern end of the Adatara range

Tetsu-yama (Iron mountain) looking north from Adatara-san

Pretending not to be knackered 5 hours in

The rich ochre of the bare mountain path, gravel like gold nuggets spitting out from my studs, led to the rim of the volcanic crater itself. Let's be clear, this is not altogether a safe place to be. It was last active only in 1996, and fourteen years does not seem nearly enough when you are standing on the edge looking down at Numanotaira , the flat crater bottom, 350m below, which just looks plain wrong. There is a strong sulphurous smell, and steam or gas rises in places on the steep weather-worn orange and white slopes, down which it would be a very bad idea to go.

The crater from Tetsu-zan

In 1900 an eruption claimed the lives of at least 72 people, mostly miners digging sulphur - actually from the crater itself, god help them. To bring this closer to you, and to help you feel lucky if you are feeling a bit jaded at the computer (or tired from a hill run) it is worth looking at contemporary sulphur mining in Indonesia in a similar situation. The explosions and subsequent flows also swept away the refinery, lodging houses and hot spring buildings in the valley blow the outflow from the crater. I would shortly cross it.

Funamyojin-yama 1667m on the southern edge of the crater

Rejoining the race route over Funamyojin-yama, another descent and climb followed, this time very rough through the crags that rim the crater. The valley of the Io-gawa (the sulphur river) is littered with the remains of the 1900 disaster, and a tangle of modern pipes taking down onsen water and sulphur. The water in the river was hot enough for two people to be bathing their feet in it as an impromptu hot spa. It is an oppressive place I wouldn't want to linger in. Half the victims were caught trying to escape down this valley.

The sulphur river

Piping down hot sulphur-laden water for extraction

Some happier people in happier times were encountered on the next hill. Whoops and yells came from the slope strewn with house sized boulders where some young climbers seemed to be not settling down for the night. After getting over the bad step onto the crags at the top of the northern side it was up to the emmergency hut 500m NW of the top of Tetsu-zan. A happy couple just beat me there, and didn't mind me having a look at their love nest.

He drew a line down his chest, the gesture to explain that he had had an operation. That must lend an added edge to the pleasure of still being able to get up here and spend the night in such a place, cosy at 5,000ft with miles of space all around, mountain silhouettes receding into the evening light. Just look at the smiles on their faces. I forced some chocolate on them to buy some sitting down time, then headed off to re-climb Minowa-yama, which had been my first peak in the morning.

Testsu-san and the emmergency hut at dusk: what were they doing now?

I knew the light would fade fast now - it is dark by 6 o'clock in September, and the night can fall like a door shutting. I was glad that I could still run after 9 hours, and by now I was tuned in to these washed out boulder and root strewn paths. The sun put on its best evening frock and twirled its way into the night over the lakes of Urabandai as I quickstepped it down. 

I only needed my puny little light for the last few yards on the road so that the cars could see me. That demon grandma might still be around.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Bear attack

You wait for ages for a bear, then three come along at once

It had been a good celebration, after all, the volleyball team had won an area trophy, and  beverages had been consumed. He got a taxi home at 9.30, but didn't ask it to drop him at his door - the main road would do, and he would walk up. When you have grown up with bears around and nothing happens to you for thirty odd-years, you assume nothing will happen for the next thirty. It was dark on the small road up through the village and the allotments, but he saw it coming for him, a black bear that had probably been surprised raiding the kabucha pumpkins. It was on him fast, raking his back and legs with deep claw marks, and catching his nose as he scrabbled to stand up again and run. He managed it, and made it to his door, bleeding but in one piece, thankfully for his wife and two young children.

Lots of stitches and a few days in hospital later, he was home again. Enquiries and solicitations were met with abashed apologies - they were really were so very sorry to have caused people worry, really very sorry. Had the bear been shot? Well, probably that wasn't going to happen. After all, it was just unlucky, and what with the numbers of people working and growing vegetables and rice in the hills above the village, it would be dangerous for hunters to begin shooting there.

This was the first bear attack in our village for ten years, but it had felt that it was only a matter of time. Despite the regular warnings of sightings on the council's public address system, the fireworks let off in the evening, and people exchanging stories about which of their crops had been raided, there was no discernible change in people's behaviour. It is seen as a chance occurrence, that happens or not, and so be it. In fact we had a party of our own in the village that night, after which my wife's cousin, wove uncertainly with a big smile on his face, down the main road, despite our protestations and offers of a lift "Daijobu, daijobu..." he said, fuzzily ("It's OK, its OK..."), and as luck would have it, he was.

Suddenly it filled the windscreen, huge and sprinting in freeze frames, Muybridge style, burnt into the retina, lolloping across the road, bleached in the full beam headlights, it's shaggy pelt flowing in waves like an Afghan hound.  Half way up the road past the ski centre in the dark at 8.30, our first full on broadside sight of a bear - a big one. We must have surprised it crossing back into the woods from raiding the allotment on the right. I'm glad the brakes worked. I'm glad I wasn't on my bike. We sat for a few minutes as it sank in, a thing not to be forgotten in a hurry. Further on, more moonstruck animals leaped before us - a Tanuki, and a few minutes later, a Japanese marten ran down the road in the lights for half a mile, not turning into the safety of the forest. A night of full moon, a week before the attack.

It's head, comically exactly and unmistakeably bear-shaped, after eighteen months of expecting to see one any day, poked out like a theatrical prop on a stick from between someone's house and their car at the edge of the village - the biggest village that stands in for an actual town round here. Bloody hell, that is actually a bear! What happens if someone steps out for a smoke or to nip to the shop? It clocked my headlights, and ducked back in sharpish, looking sheepish (for a bear) a bungling teenage criminal looking for a main chance. My first bear sighting, luckily from a car, ten days before the attack.

The trucks and cars on the valley road are probably more dangerous, but with that progression, we really don't need a fourth bear.

Friday, 10 September 2010


A 1,624m (5,328ft) mountain near Tadami in Fukushima, Japan
The long summit ridge of Mt Asahi, from the only clear path to it. The top is on the right

If you feel, as I do, the occasional  need to scourge the flesh, scrub the eyeballs with some blinding beauty, and give yourself a good corrective battering against the laughably grand forces of gravity, the weather and geological time, then Asahi-dake, with it's 3,800ft of climb in 4km on the path approaching from the north east, will assuredly do the trick. Sitting on the edge of a wilderness area with few paths, it's scrub-covered summit ridge stretches from north to south, cut by cliffs and snow-scoured sweeping slabs.

Creepy mannequins slump by the signs around the 'cook your catch' fish farm, the only house at the end of a ten minute drive up a single track black top deep into a steeply cut valley leading off route 239 south of Tadami. Though they had an acre of empty grass, the man in the lean-to workshops asked me to park at the official mountain car park up the rough road beyond, which threatened to bottom out the car. Having nursed it, and an uncharitable thought or two, through to the empty car park, I jogged jingling into the salad, disguised as a runner, rucsac well stocked with gear, bear spray, and 2 and a half litres of water for the hot and humid day.

Into the salad - the lush beginnings of the path
After a gently climbing 1500m of recently strimmed path following a stream, the route kicks up into the regular zigzags of the climb proper. A spring near the bottom of this was the last water, and the serious business of sweating began, dissolving into a solution equal parts blood, salt and foliage, the skin loosing it's usual power as a barrier between the self and the landscape. It was hot and heavy, frogs and grasshoppers leaping from the path, always upwards and under trees, until the gaining the ridge gave some respite and an expansive view of an avalanche scarred wilderness.

Snow erosion scars, with only the ridge crests sustaining mature trees

The top of Mt Asahi was now bobbing in and out of view, as the path climbed the ridge butting onto it from the north east. Beautiful trees contorted by snow and age live here, their mangled roots grappling the path for control. The biggest are  labelled with their girth and height, lending a disconcertingly park-like air to this wild place. The substantial unmanned metal hut 500m NE of the top was also disconcertingly locked - something that should never happen in a place where emergencies might easily demand it to save someone's life. Mine for example! The poetry of sweating prose aside, I have no desire to merge entirely just yet...

Easy roped rock slabs amongst long grass lead to the ridge of Asahidake itself, and a welcome slump gazing over the crags and pathless depths to the west.

 Looking back not far from the top

Looking west from the summit ridge

The top itself is defaced by an ugly aluminium cylinder with plaque on top. It looks like a prop from a failed 70's science fiction plot and it is not actually on the highest point for some reason, but don't hold that against this wonderful mountain. Suitably scourged, scrubbed and battered by the climb, I had the place to myself, and was feeling all roughty-toughty, he-manly and terribly adventurous.

Cue cursing and thrashing from the bushes on the overgrown section of the ridge leading in from the wilds. Out popped two exhausted young men, throwing their big sacs down and laying down by them. They had only been and gone and done five days backpacking through the trackless mountains. That means fighting your way through scrub, bamboo and trees on the ridges, cutting a way where needed, carrying a lot of water as well as gear. Their three mates were still thrashing through it as we chatted. It also meant they got through the huge electric storm the night before, camping at a high level. They wouldn't own to have actually enjoyed the whole thing, but they at least had enough humour left to suddenly strike poses when I asked to take their pictures. Nice.

Hero 1: perky

Hero 2: pensive

Distant rumbles and a darkening sky heralded a repeat performance of the previous day's storm, and I was glad to be able to run down and get off quickly. I hoped that they weren't depending on the hut. As the rain became a downpour and the very convincing (if a little overdone) sound effects came closer I hoped the boys were OK. Of course they were.

The thunderheads piling up