As a present to myself for getting a Japanese driving license (a full account of the process is currently pending, to be released as soon as I can write it without throwing my computer across the room) I took a road trip to Yamagata Prefecture this week! It didn't really go as planned, and I ended up coming back early, but I still had a good time. That's what I get for traveling in the rainy season, anyway.
First: What/Where the heck is Yamagata?
Initially, I'd planned on going even father north and doing a few backpacking hikes in Akita or Aomori Prefecture, but it turns out there aren't a lot of climb-worthy mountains that far north, so I set my sights on Yamagata Prefecture instead. Not only does it have a ton of great mountains, they also put more effort into maintaining their trails than Toyama does since there's not much else they can focus their energy on. Aside from the beautiful scenery, Yamagata is just about as boring as Oklahoma.
For this trip, I did a heavy amount of research, knowing that I should go into a solo backpacking trip well-prepared for whatever I might encounter. My preparation involved three steps:
1.) buy a hiking book about Yamagata trails.
2.) flip through it.
3.) decide what day to leave.
I don't like spending money and I also don't like having to deal with reservations, so I decided to car-camp to avoid both of those things. In terms of logistics, it worked pretty well. I didn't get arrested for camping somewhere I shouldn't have (didn't get bothered at all, actually) and it worked really well when I planned on hiking the next day. I could park at the trailhead, sleep, roll out of bed, terrorize some Japanese locals ("The Blond Beast, she emerges!"), and start hiking. The only problem was that I severely overestimated how comfortable it would be to sleep in my teeny-tiny Japanese car. I love my car, but I hope for the sake of my spinal cord that I have a better system in place next time I'm forced to sleep in it.
For comparison, here is a photo of Peggy (my car) next to my tent. My tent is just roomy enough that I can stretch out comfortably inside it, and it is literally the same length as my entire car. Even with the seats down, cramming into a space that size was challenging, and not in the "I find this challenge engaging and interesting!" kind of way.
Having completed step one and two of my travel arrangements at an REI-esque shop in Toyama City, I completed step three by deciding to leave on Sunday, August 10th. I packed up Peggy, cleaned my house extra-well (I didn't want any bug-related suprises when I got back) and got on the road at about 8:45 am, planning on driving straight through to Yamagata.
"That'll be about five hours," my iPhone lied.
By the time the five hour mark came around, I was only halfway there and more than ready for lunch. Thanks to the internet, I found an Indian place in Niigata City that offered an all-vegetarian lunch buffet, so that's where I headed. Havan Dining is located in a lovely spot next to one of the more popular beach areas in Niigata, which meant that every single resident of the prefecture was also flocking to that exact location and stealing all the parking. After wrestling a few children to the ground and beating up several police officers (just kidding) I found a place to park and settled in for an excellent lunch. I brought my hiking book with me, since the only other investigating I'd done was literally flip through it for two minutes before I bought it. I decided to tackle Itoudake, a two-day, twenty-three kilometer hike.
I didn't actually drive into a ravine. I did drive through a foggy mountain tunnel that I suspect was a portal into the spirit-realm.
It rained all night, and despite my hopes that it would stop by the next morning, it didn't. I decided to tough it out and do the trail anyway, because I'd been assured (lied to) by the weather report that the rain would peter out sometime that afternoon.
I didn't realize until I left Toyama that not all mountains in Japan are as crazy as the ones that I usually climb. Japan is pretty small, all things considered, so I assumed that most of the mountains were pretty similar. As I chatted with fellow hikers along the trails, it became pretty obvious that this isn't the case. The response I usually got when I mentioned where I live was basically "Wow. You go climbing in Toyama?"
The mountains in Yamagata were a pleasant surprise. The trails tended to be relatively steep in the beginning before flattening out a bit near the top, a little more plateau-ish than the straight-up isosceles action of the mountains in Toyama. The first trail that I tried involved three hours of hiking on the first day, a night camping at a lake, and then almost nine hours of hiking on day two. I was excited to finally try out my backpacking backpack and my new tent, so that didn't seem like such a big deal. Unfortunately, I ran into two problems.
1.) It just would not stop raining.
2.) I left my wallet in the car.
That kind of weather was clearly old hat for most of the other hikers on the trail, so they had their North Face water-repellent hooded rain jackets and their MontBell spats and their fancy air-tight hiking boots. I did not have these things, so I started resembling a drowned rat almost immediately. I would have been fine in light rain, but a steady drizzle was too much. The trail also included a ton of water crossings. It had been raining steadily all night, so the water was unusually high and my shoes were completely soaked through in the first half hour. By the time I got to the lake campground, I was soggy, cold and tired. To add further misery, I left my wallet in the car and couldn't pay the camping fee.
Funnily enough, the only people I met on the way back were a couple of maintenance workers who were having a nice leisurely chat in the parking lot next to my car in a goddamn rainstorm when all I wanted to do was take all my clothes off, but I guess that's life.
From Itoudake, I had a list of three things that needed to happen before I could start looking for a place to sleep. I needed to find a laundromat to dry my stuff, a public bath so I might become less smelly, and some food so I didn't die of starvation. By the time I did all three of these things, I was ready to drive up into the mountains again and find a cozy side-road to camp on. I felt a bit like Gollum, sneaking down to civilization for a taste of the real world before retreating back to my solitary cave.
Day two in Yamagata called for rain in the mountains and clouds in the city, so I decided to explore the town a little bit rather than attempt another hike. I stopped by a Starbucks to research interesting things to do in Yamagata City (turns out that there aren't any) and then spent most of the day doing some thrift shopping--my go-to city activity--and checking out the Yamagata Museum of Art as well as the old central hospital museum (on the left). Considering that Yamagata City is about half the size of Toyama City in terms of population, I suppose it makes sense that there isn't much to do. It's also true what they say about rural Japan: it's a good place to live, not a good place to visit (unless you like hiking).
It was nice to wander around a bit, and it gave me time to decide what hike I wanted to do the next day. After a lot of hemming and hawing, I had decided not to do another multi-day hike because of the questionable weather, but Wednesday was looking like a beautiful day. I was trying to decide between two hikes--a seven hour beast that wouldn't leave me much time in the afternoon to start the drive home--or a shorter, easier hike that I could finish in four hours or so and start back for Toyama pretty early. I chose the latter, and it was a great choice. Talk about a beautiful hike!
I found the trailhead that night and slept in my car (again). The moon was full and glorious, and I woke up at 4:30 am to see the entire city below me covered in fog. The mountains here are so mysterious, and it's one of the things I love about them. It's one thing to see them on a clear day, stark and hi-def like a slap in the face, but when they're covered in fog there's something secretive about them, like anything could be hiding there
After I got back to the car, I drove back to Niigata Prefecture to camp for the night, fully intending to stop by the tasty vegetarian buffet again on my way home. There's nothing like three night crammed in the back of a Kei-car to make you appreciate sleeping in a tent. I also saw the biggest spider I have ever seen in my entire life--I used the opportunity to take artsy photos of my car.
Despite the hellish traffic on the way home, I finally managed to make it back to Kurobe around 6:00 yesterday evening. The house was just as I'd left it--albeit a little toasty--and it hit me again how nothing really changes. I felt the same way when I went back to Colorado to visit during my Spring break. Vacationing is like slipping into a different world for a while; it might be exciting and it might be exhilarating, but nothing really changes while you're gone.
Hiking is teaching me a lot, though. I'm learning how to listen to myself and pay attention to my body's needs. I'm learning that it's ok to turn around sometimes if your boots are filled with water and you don't have any money. I'm learning that it's less about reaching the finish line than it is about enjoying the experience while you're having it. Maybe my car was uncomfortable, maybe most of my trip got rained out, but at the end of the day it was a meaningful experience, and that's what matters.