A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Friday, April 15, 2005

As the snow line rapidly rises, and the days get longer and warmer, snowboarding is coming off the menu. I’m not bitter, I’ve had a superb winter, with more snow than I’ve ever experienced; basically a season of powder days. The word from the locals is that this winter was a little heavier than normal, but I’ve already got my fingers crossed that the next one will be along the same lines. I’ve now got big plans for the summer, with a road trip around Hokkaido in the pipe line, tickets to Japan’s answer to Glastonbury (Fuji Rock Festival) and a lot of kayaking on the cards.

Even though all the resorts in Fukui closed their doors almost a month ago, there’s still snow on the mountains, so now it’s just a matter of a little local knowledge to find the best spots to hike up and ride down; enter our new best friend - Yasu.

Yasu is somewhat of a local legend here in Ono. As a mountain climbing fanatic, he has conquered some of the world’s gnarliest peaks in India, China, Pakistan and Nepal. He also has extensive knowledge of the local mountains, having climbed anything worth climbing, and to top it all off he is the proprietor of a chilled out little bar, which unlike most Japanese bars, stocks an interesting range of European beers including Hoegarden, Chimay and Guinness.

Last month my American friend Brandon, Yasu and I made our first decent together on the mountain of Kyogadake. With literally over a hundred peaks to chose from, we wouldn’t know where to start without Yasu, but with his expertise and experience we were set for a good day in the Fukui backcountry. Although my Japanese is limited so say the least, as is Yasu’s English, with pera pera interpreter Brandon on hand we all get along just fine.

There was quite a contrast between us foreign devils and the local. The American and I were fully geared up to the teeth with our brand spanking new snow shoes, collapsible poles, and back packs fresh off the shelves. In stark contrast, Yasu sported a pair of the oldest, but possibly coolest snowshoes I have ever seen, made from bamboo and tied to the foot with tattered old rope. The phrase ‘all the gear and no idea’ came to mind.

After having had to cancel our first expedition due to bad weather, we were duly compensated by a glorious spring day this time. By 9am we were all kitted up and ready to commence the hike. A deceptively easy start on a snow covered logging road lead us to the base of a steep and densely wooded slope. This was tough going, and saw Brandon lose both of his ski pole baskets (the circular piece of plastic that prevents your pole from sinking) in the deep snow, and experience some snow shoe binding problems which only made his ascent even harder.

“After that first slope, I thought Yasu would never take us with him again” Brandon was quoted as saying after the trial of battling through densely packed trees and a steep pitch. I too had to wonder what was going through our mountain climbing legend’s mind as he watched Brandon slide down the slope for the third time at one particularly tricky section, losing a snow shoe in the process.

However, from here on it was all downhill. Well, in fact it was all uphill, but with the trickiest slope now in the bag, the rest of the hike was comparatively easy. We slowly marched up the gentler, more open terrain, which after around 3 hours brought us to the top of a nicely pitched slope studded with ancient broad leaf trees.

After stopping for refreshments and photos, we switched boards for snow shoes and began the descent. The snow was somewhat inconsistent; one minute you’d be on hard wind blown, the next you hit a zone of light pow. We cruised through the trees, making as many turns as we could before coming to the bottom. As with all backcountry trips, it takes a lot less time to get down than it does to get up, and the ride was over all too soon.

We left our three lone tracks on the mountainside and made the way down to our cars. Our initial fears about Yasu never wanting to climb with us again were put to rest as we set a date for our next trip. We had past our initiation test, and Yasu was satisfied that we could now handle the next level, or as the Japanese say in katakanerised English, it was time for “Leberu Upu” (level up).

Ginanpo Mountain here we come.


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