About a couple of months ago just after Golden Week, my friend Kageyama-san, an avid hiker and aspiring mountain guide, asked me if I’d like to join him in climbing Mt Tekari (2591m) in the Japanese South Alps or Minami Alps. As I had yet to climb this Hyakumeizan, I enthusiastically accepted. I had been wanting to climb Mt Tekari for a while but my plans had repeatedly been foiled by the bad weather, relatively short climbing season and difficulty of access.
He suggested going in early July, one week before the official opening of most of the mountain huts in the area. The plan was to stay at Yokokubosawagoya hut (called “Yokokubo” for short) and help the sole hut manager, Kimura-san, clean the hut up and get it ready ahead of the main hiking season, starting July 14th. He had met Kimura-san the previous year and they had hit it off. In return for our help, lodging and board would be free of charge. I was a little nervous about the cleaning up part since it’s is one area I’m not very knowledgeable about!
Getting to Yokokubo hut
We departed Tokyo by car at the crack of dawn on July 7th, and finally arrived at Hatanagi dam just after 10am. I say finally because the road after Shizuoka city consists of 2 hours 1/2 of winding mountain road – quite exhausting for the driver! we parked our car by the lake created by the dam, laced up our mountain shoes and shouldered our heavy packs – we were off! After 40 minutes of leisurely strolling along a dirt road, we reached our first challenge – the “Tsuribashi” or suspended bridge. Spanning about a 100 meters, this was the only way of crossing the lake that lay between us and the rest of the route. An idea that had been floated previously by Kageyama-san, would have been to ford the river higher up. However we had to abandon this unofficial crossing since it had rained quite a lot the previous days and the water level was unusually high.
Gripping the metallic wire on both sides I proceeded across the bridge at an even pace, keeping my cool as it wobbled more and more as I approached the center. Suddenly I was on the other side, and a few seconds later, so was Kageyama-san. Next challenge was the Yareyare pass. Yareyare in Japanese, is an exclamation of relief, and at first I thought my friend was joking when he called the pass thus. However when I reached the top, I was surprised to see that that was indeed the name of the pass!
After a short bit of downhill, we reached a river swollen by the recent rains. The path went quite close to the edge and if the water level had been any higher, we would have been stuck. Soon we reached bridge one of five. The bridges were a little scary since they were quite basic and in urgent need of repair. On top of that, the raging river made it feel that if you fell in, you were a goner. Finally we reached Usokkosawagoya, an unmanned hut from which the pass climbed unrelentlessly, but away from the river.
Kimura-san’s “Welcome Beer”
Four hours after leaving the car, we arrived at the Yokokubo hut. We were greeted by Kimura-san and two beers – “Welcome drink” he said. That was going to be theme for our stay, as our host Kimura-san always made sure we had a beer in hand after hard work. After a second “welcome beer”, our first task awaited us: we had to sweep the sleeping area on the second floor, and lay out the thermal mats, as well as a larger tatami rug on top. Since I was the tallest (by far) I was charged with getting the mats down from the rafters – “how on earth did you manage without me” I asked (they have a stepladder).
After this relatively straightforward task, we were done for the day since it was nearly 5 o’clock. Some rest, more beers were followed by a delicious rice curry dinner courtesy of Kageyama-san. We were 4 people in total since another person had come with Kimura-san to help out – Ozawa-san. We found out that during the rest of the year, Ozawa-san runs a small farm where he mainly grows wasabi and tea. He invited us to visit him one day and we agreed we would. In the mountains it’s early to bed, early to rise, although as no hiking was on the program for the next day we allowed ourselves the small luxury of going to bed a little later (9pm) and getting up a little later (6am) than the norm.
The mouse problem
The next day I was awoken by a rustling sound coming from a plastic bag containing my food supplies, lying near my sleeping spot. I opened my eyes and spotted a small shape moving inside. I shut them again thinking I must be dreaming. However I recalled that the previous day Kimura-san had complained that a mouse had somehow gotten inside the lodge – when he had first entered, earlier the same day, he found a bunch of ramen cups that had been opened in the kitchen. So I reopened my eyes, hopped out of my sleeping bag and tied the plastic bag into a knot “This must be the mouse and I have caught it!” I thought. I took the bag outside and dumped its contents on the ground nearby – no mouse. Either I had dreamed, or either the mouse slipped out in those few seconds I had my eyes closed. A little crestfallen, I returned to my sleeping bag for some more sleep.
During the day we found more traces of the mouse, or mice as we were now starting to think. More destroyed ramen cups, some chewed up pillows, and more annoyingly, the mouse had made a hole in a meat pasta sauce that was in another of my plastic bags (Kageyama-san has told me to get proper sealable cloth bags – I will definitely do so for my next trip). Luckily I had another intact pack of meat sauce, but since I was going to make pasta for the two of us, I had to add another course of dried food to the menu to make up for it.
For Kimura-san something had to be done – the hut would be housing dozens of paying guests a day starting from the following weekend, and he couldn’t have a bunch of mice wrecking havoc. So, since we were unable to locate the mice within the hut, nor their manner of entry and exit, he laid out a number of mouse traps on the first and second floors. The traps were very effective – by the time we went to bed, 3 mice had been caught on the 2nd floor, and overnight 5 more were trapped on the first floor. The mouse problem had been solved (sorry mouse lovers…).
The main cleaning
After breakfast, we cleaned and prepared the sleeping area on the first floor. It involved a lot of chucking mats, tatami rugs, cushions and rolled sleeping bags down the wooden flight of steps connecting the first and second floors. Since we were 4 people in total, we were soon done. Any excess mats were carried back up and placed into the rafters again to serve as spares, by your truly. Then we moved outside to reconnect the drinking water than came from a source of freshwater, located just across from the mountain torrent that ran down the mountain next to the hut.
The water came through a pipe, the end of which had been sealed off with some plastic. We connected it to a kind of bathtub we had carried up from next to the hut. The bathtub served as a reservoir – the water would accumulate there and then flow down another tube into a big tank standing right next to the hut. We then uncovered some corrugated metal sheets which we placed on a wooden frame right next to the river. It was fixed in placed with a plastic tarp, some rope and stones. The shady area underneath, opposite the flowing river, would create a cool space where vegetables could be kept. These, and the rest of the fresh food would be delivered by helicopter in a couple of days. Kimura-san constantly worried about the weather for that day. If the visibility was bad, the helicopter wouldn’t come, and he would have to make do without any fresh provisions for the start of the hiking season.
After that we uncovered and cleaned the washing basin where campers would have access to running water, which was connected via another hose. A third and last hose ran to a smaller washbasin outside the toilet area about 50 meters away. We cleaned that one too and made sure the water was flowing properly. Next we had to open the window flaps behind at the read of the small toilet outhouse. Again my height was of great use. Once that task complete, we retreated back to the hut and had some lunch – leftover curry rice from yesterday’s dinner.
After lunch, our final task awaited us – a thorough cleanup of the dining and kitchen area. Floors were scrubbed and wiped. Dishes were washed and dried. Every flat surface was dusted, unused or expired items were thrown out. This was perhaps the most exhausting and time-consuming task of them all. Even with the four or us, we were at it for over an hour. Finally it was done – the place was spick-and-span, and we could rest a while before an early dinner and early bedtime, since the next day we would rise at 5am for an early departure up the mountain.
To Mt Tekari and Back
Our hike the next day, up to the Chausu hut on the ridgeline and then on to the Tekari hut went without hitches. We spent an hour hanging out at Chausu hut chatting with the various people who had come up early to help the hut open, drinking tea and eating snacks. There was Kataoka-san, a mountain guide who I had met on a trip to the South Alps 7 years earlier. There was also a sake brewer who works in the hut in the summer, which is the off-season for sake-making. He showed me the charts he used to keep track of the his latest sake brewing session, with temperature, sake meter value, acidity, alcohol content for each day. I studied them with great interest.
Although the skies were clear in the mornings, the clouds had rolled in once we had left Chausu hut, and the rest of the hike was done with mostly no views. This didn’t matter too much as the surrounding forest was breathtakingly beautiful. Tekari hut wasn’t open yet either, but as with the other huts, the hut manager and staff had already arrived, and were busy getting the place ready. People can stay inside for free but they need to bring their own sleeping bags. The hut manager gave us some basic instructions about eating, lights out and the outdoor toilets but that was it. Snacks and alcohol could be bought if supplies remained from the previous year. Actually, most huts in the South Alps are kept open year round meaning that even if the staff aren’t there, which is usually the case from Early September to end June, the door is open and you can use the space for free as long as you are self-sufficient.
We didn’t summit Mt Tekari that day since it was totally white outside. The next day, the weather was again quite good and the views were amazing, especially of Mt Fuji, which is actually quite close. We made our way back to the Chausu hut, where we got to see the helicopter deliver supplies. Then we made our way back down to the Yokokubo hut, where we picked up some of our extra stuff that we had left during our 2 day-hike. The helicopter had successfully delivered the supplies, and Kimura-san looked quite happy and relieved. I refused a final offer of a beer since we still had a couple of hours of steep downhill hiking. We made it back to the car a little past 4pm. After a refreshing stop at a nearby hot spring, we set off along the very long twisting road back to civilisation. Hitting the highway was a relief, and we finally got back to Tokyo around 10pm.
It was quite enjoyable to hike the South Alps before the throngs of summer hikers. For most of the way, there and back, we saw almost no one. At one point, we crossed the Tekari hut manager with a chainsaw, but he was just doing trail maintenance. It was also an interesting experience to see how mountain huts in the Japanese huts get ready for the busy summer season. Finally, I was happy to contribute, even just a little bit, to the massive effort it takes to run the network of mountain huts, which enables the rest of us to enjoy the mountains throughout the year.
Helicopter delivering fresh vegetables to Chausu hut