A couple of weekends ago I went for a walk to take me from the ancient resort highlands area of Nikko around Lake Chuzenji to Oze, a wetlands area popular with the gray set with its easily accessible meadow views and wide expanses of spring and summer flowers.
I've been to Nikko several times; this was my third time camping there. I usually ride my bike up the steep switchbacks of Iroha hill to get from Nikko city, home of the World Heritage Site Toshogu mausoleum, to Lake Chuzenji and Oku (or "far") Nikko. This time I was planning to hike out of Nikko and would not be returning, so I left the bike at home and took a bus from the Nikko city train station. I had to work that morning and had gotten a late start, so I just took the bus to the Shobugahama lakeside campsite and set up.
I've camped at Shobugahama several times, and it is a great place--you can camp right next to the water. The other times I've been there were weekdays and so it was less crowded, but this was a Friday night and I hadn't realized what I was getting into. The Japanese campsites I have been to are not the secluded affairs I am used to, offering clearly defined, individual campsites separated by shrubs or trees, but free-for-alls where you can plop down your tent inches away from neighbors. More often than not I have been there at off-peak times and was able to set up well away from any other campers, but this night was different. I wandered through a dense tent city for about 15 minutes before accepting that I would be right next to a family shooting off fireworks well into the night; and I was already tired. But there was a good side to this--I might have been out of luck without a reservation at an American campsite, but here, uncomfortable as it might have been, at least I was able to find somewhere to spend the night (and in the end it wasn't all that bad).
The next day I woke up at 5 am to eat and get packed up before taking another bus, this time from the side of Lake Chuzenji deeper into Oku Nikko. I had hiked up toward Mt. Shirane, the largest in the area, before, though I couldn't see much of it at the time because of buffeting winds and heavy rain and fog. This day it was clear as could be and I planned to only spend 5 hours hiking to reach my destination for the day, so I might have tried Shirane in the sunlight, but I was really tired from a wakeful night before I came and my night in the campsite with my ear near to neighbors chatting into the night. I thought I'd take it easy.
I took the more northern of the two trails leading from Yumoto (a destination in itself) toward Mt. Goshiki. Last time I returned from Shirane taking this same path down, and when it wasn't flowing with a small stream from the rain that "made interesting" the last 4-5 hours of that trip, it was muddy and treacherous. I must have fallen ten times. This time the worst precipitation was early morning dew on the grasses (bamboo?) hanging over the path. It was steep and the path was a bit hard to follow at times, but I made it. I decided to skip Mt. Goshiki with its view of Mt. Shirane and the many colored lakes at its foot (goshiki, by the way, means "five colors," for the five tiny lakes of varying colors in a valley below), I went north to Mt. Konze, leaving the familiar behind.
Mt. Konze seems to be popular and I ran into several hikers, especially on the far side. There is a fair view near (at?) the peak, but I didn't stay long; I thought the peak was higher up and kept going! But soon the trail headed down again, and I guessed at the reason for Konze's popularity after taking a look at my map: there is a pass where you can park your car and hike up to the peak in about an hour and a half. If I were to do such a thing, though, I would take the slightly longer trail to the next mountain I climbed: Yusengatake. The view from Yusengatake was much more enjoyable, I thought, and it was something like 270 degrees compared to Konze's 180.
When I was heading for Yusengatake I heard a loud yell. I couldn't make out the words, though it sounded like it ended with "...ma". I found out the next day it was likely he had been yelling about bears or "kuma": apparently a bear was spotted with her cubs in the area. The voice didn't really appear frightened at the time, and I had no idea where it was coming from, so I waited, then moved on and hoped for the best.
I ended the day early in a fantastic "emergency hut" in between Yusengatake and Nenakusayama. As I said, I was exhausted, so even though it was only 12:30 I decided to call it a day.
I should explain here what an emergency hut is. Camping in the mountains is usually discouraged in Japan, so most hikers stay in 小屋, "koya" or mountain huts when they take longer treks. There are mountain huts on ranges all over Japan, many of them staffed and some offering fairly ritzy accommodations (for the mountains). I'd much rather camp, but the next best option is the 避難小屋, the emergency hut, unserviced but providing lodging in case of inclement weather or other emergencies. Often they are nothing more than a shed and really deserve the name hut: the hut I found in the Yatsugatake range years ago, for example, had nearly fallen down, and it was impossible to get inside (luckily there was space to pitch a tent nearby and I hadn't planned to stay in the hut anyway).
The map promised camping space at the hut near Yusengatake as well, but as soon as I saw the hut itself I had a feeling I'd be staying inside. This hut was like a lodge meant for wealthy skiers, minus the fireplace: it was newly built and the pleasant scent of pine flooded the inside, where there were two levels of wood flooring sturdily constructed. And besides, the land apparently meant to be used for camping was covered with pine saplings; obviously not much used.
The only thing this wonderful hut was missing was a toilet. But it had a couple of shovels, and so I hoped I wasn't taking too much of a leap using them for... my convenience. I wandered off the trail into the forest a bit, suddenly noticing how pampered we hikers are by the fruit of the labors of trailblazers: I looked around me and thought it wouldn't take much to get lost, even so close to the hut and trail. In any case, my body urged me to take care of things, and so I dug a hole, filled it, then covered it up again. I returned to the hut feeling lighter after my first experience doing what a bear does in the woods.
After that I took a nap, then woke and fought flies while I made dinner. Instead of buying dehydrated, processed meals with barely any nutrition, I've been carrying bags with the ingredients for favorite dishes and making meals from scratch in the woods. I bring ramen, too, just in case I'm too tired to bother, but I've done fairly well making mabodofu with freeze-dried tofu and mushrooms with quinoa (which cooks faster than rice). This time, though, I managed to knock the mushrooms and ginger I cut onto the ground at my feet, and so ended up missing out on a few of the finer touches. I stole some ginger from the next day's meal, so I was only missing mushrooms, and so was able to make something presentable. I went to sleep early, hoping I would have enough energy for what the next day, which looked to be a thirteen hour day.
I think I'll pause here...