The Japanese Countryside
This week the arrival of Logan's brother and sister-in-law, along with a couple of much-anticipated weeks off for Logan has kickstarted the "holiday" part of the trip. After spending the night in a capsule hotel in Tokyo before meeting our guests from the plane, we made a brief stopover in Tokai and then headed out into the beautiful countryside to the North of the main island of Honshou.
The train journey itself was very enjoyable. We deliberately chose a slower route along the coast to satisfy our hungering to see the Pacific Ocean, and then as we headed inland we rode through some beautiful mountain scenery lush with forests and rivers. When we arrived at our destination of Urabandai we took the free bus from the station to the hotel and were settled in just in time to find some lunch. By virtue of its situation in the mountains, Urabandai is primarily a ski resort and was therefore relatively quiet while we were there. We could see the ski routes carved out of the forests on the mountainsides, which was fun, but being there off-season did make it more of a challenge finding places to eat and drink. We found somewhere however, and all enjoyed our noodles, curry and tempura in the usual delightful hospitality of Japanese restaurants, and then set off to explore one of the natural highlights of the area.
There are many lakes and ponds in Urabandai, but there are five which stand out due to the effect of volcanic ash which settled there after the last eruption. The chemical composition of the ash in each lake is slightly different, resulting in the "five coloured lakes", each one a different colour, along a route about 2 miles long. The route winds through beautiful maple forest, helpfully shielding us from the worst of the afternoon sun. There were lots of viewing areas, plenty of bright orange and white Koi carp, insects of every shape and size (although mostly enormous), and even an ice cream stall at the end. The lakes themselves really were something special. They were mostly quite small, more like large ponds, but their colours were fascinating (especially to a couple of chemists) and the setting, with the blue skies above and fluttering maple leaves dipping into the water, was just beautiful. I heard a lot of birds but hardly saw any, with the exception of some unidentified ducks playing in the reeds on the largest of the lakes.
After a brief stop for a drink and a poke around the gift shop, we headed back through the forest to our hotel. We spent a pleasant evening having dinner and a drink in the hotel's izakiya-style restaurant and then turned in early with great plans for the morning.
Day two in Urabandai dawned bright and very early. With our rucsacs packed with supplies and water, we headed out at 7am to spend the day conquering Mt. Bandai, an active volcano which towers over the surrounding area at an impressive 1819m in height. After one slight false start due to confusing signage, our route took us at first quite steeply through dense forest. Insects were once again huge and plenty. Grasshoppers were so large that they caused actual movement of the undergrowth, swallow-tailed butterflies were the size of sparrows, and spiders made webs which spanned the whole path. And as for biting insects, we all came away with a few scars. This first part of the journey was reminiscent of Indiana Jones, what with all the insects, vines hanging down, trees fallen across the path and rivers and waterfalls alongside us. I found this steep initial climb very difficult, but it was nonetheless rewarding to gain so much ground so quickly, and we treated to some spectacular views along the way. Eventually, the forest gave way to a completely new and unfamiliar terrain of soft yellowy clay and sparse, dry-trunked pine trees. This is where we saw our first bear print, and proceeded rather quietly, feeling rather exposed. I'm not sure whether it was this or the lack of shade which hurried us along this part of the route until we found a cooler place to stop for some lunch. We were all grateful of the huge, juicy peaches we had brought with us, as well as the sandwiches and chocolate. From the plateau, we went back into the forest for the steepest part of the climb yet. Here and there, steps had been laid, but steps for whom I'm not entirely sure. Many of them were at waist height for me! Thankfully metal rings along the edges of the staircases helped us up and we finally made it onto the ridge. A friendly fellow climber assured us it was only 40 minutes to the top from here, so after polishing off the last of our snacks, we headed off to complete the mighty climb. On the way, we passed a wonderful cold, freshwater spring, from which we gladly refilled our by now lukewarm water bottles. The inevitable drawing in of clouds happened as we drew nearer the top, but we were all glad of the cooler air.
Finally we emerged on top of the peak. Despite the gathering cloud, the views from the top were stunning, and in many ways not all that dissimilar from views of the Lake District, if you adjust the scale a little bit. Due to the crowds and clouds,we didn't longer long on the peak, but dropped back down a little way to a little shack selling cold drinks and souvenirs. While were sat down, Japanese climbers offered us a share in their snacks. Despite the loveliness of this gesture, I couldn't honestly say that the tough fish jerky or dried seaweed was entirely to my taste! The hot cups of oolong however went down much better than I expected given the heat.
And then suddenly we were on our way down. In the absence of a good OS map of the area, we decided to go back by the same route as we had come, so there is nothing much extra for me to describe about the descent. We did see fresh bear prints across our own initial tracks in the clay soil of the plateau, which was rather nerve-racking, but happily we all ended our day's climb safely and without a bear in sight.
In all, our walk took us 10 hours. We ended the day with a hearty dinner of pizza, pasta and some very welcome beers, and then made the most of the hotel's wonderful onsen (hot spring baths) facilities. We were all in bed by 9.30pm at the end of an exhausting and exciting start to our holiday.