Monday, July 18, 2005

Volcanoes, Hot Springs, Storm Troopers, Good food, Good beer and Good friends

Another couple of blow-me-away moments this weekend, thanks to the weather, good friends and of course good ol' Japan.

Yoshiyuki (who took us to Ashikaga a few weeks ago) planned a trip out to the Nasu Mountains on Sunday. After being awoken at 7AM by a bunch of firecrackers going off, I knew there was something going on near my place. As I was heading out my door to meet him and Scott, this is what greeted me coming down the street.

This is a holiday weekend in Japan and Utsunomiya has been jumping with a festival for a couple of days now. This is a portable shrine which is beginning its journey for the day from its storage tent a few doors down from my place, complete with drums, chants and a full set of replacement carriers for those who need to take a break.

So I met up with Scott and Yoshiyuki near Aeon and we headed off for the day. The traffic on the Tohoku expressway wasn't too bad until it got time to get off the highway… the exit for Nasu was backed up over 500M down the expressway. We took our place in the queue and it took us around 20 minutes to get off the highway and then another hour or more to actually make it the few kilometres to Nasu. Most of the traffic was turning left before the volcano though so we were glad we wouldn't have to fight crowds on the mountain. Here's a sign announcing Nasu and you can see some of the foothills in the background. Japan in summer is always quite hazy but Sunday wasn't so bad.

At a rest area a little over 1000 metres (not feet) over Nasu, I took this shot of the village.

There was this great little 3D topographical map of the area at the rest area so you could orient yourself and spot the different peaks. The volcano we were going to is called Chausudake and is the volcano shaped one between the two other mountains at the top.

This is a shot of Chausudake from the rest area. It's the only active Volcano in Tochigi prefecture and last erupted in the 1960s. Its elevation is 1915 meters. To put that in perspective for Ottawa folks (mostly for skiers I guess):
Camp Fortune - 179 meters
Mont Ste-Marie - 381 meters
Mont Tremblant - 875 meters
This Volcano would of course be dwarfed by the Rockies in Western Canada, Whistler ski resort hitting a whopping 2182 meters and elevations reaching 4000 meters in some spots, but I've never been to the Rockies, so this was pretty amazing to me.

After parking our car at around the 1200M mark and heading up the mountain another 300M by cable car, we had a bit of a climb ahead of us. This is the visitor centre and cable car drop-off on the slope of Chausudake.

Here's a shot of me at some of the last tuffs of vegetation on the way up the mountain. The initial climb wasn't so bad, elevation with hard-esque packed gravel under foot. Got a little more difficult when it turned to softer finer gravel and sand and we lost Yoshiyuki. Scott and I forged ahead.

Then the walk hits some different materials and starts to get interesting. Here's a nice shot of the mountains in the background.

At this point, we had to climb with the help of our hands, trying not to cause rock falls which could injure people below. This picture shows the changes from gravel to rocks and finally to a 60-70 degree climb in rocks.

Mini steam vent you can't really see… you can see some whisps though... the wind was rather strong at this point so the steam wasn't sticking around much... the sulphur smell was though...

There was a beautiful view from up here of course, of which the mountain off to our right was the best. It has a really interesting mix between vegetation and harsh soil which was fascinating. I would stop climbing every once in a while and just be transfixed by the view.

These are some fellow mountaineers we stopped for some pictures on the way up to the crater. They were quite pleased to spend a little time with us and many pictures were taken all 'round.

I was rather surprised when we came up the final rise and saw this Shinto gate at the top of the mountain near the crater.

There was this little shrine up there and some nice carvings on the rocks, lord knows how old some of those were.

Somebody had a heck of a climb with this chunk of rock on their backs…

This is a view across the crater to some other mountains.

Me and the crater

The crater was quite sizeable, if you can see a few specks near the top to the right, those are people and a signpost.

This is an active steam vent spewing sulphur into the air. The smell was pretty pungent at this point.

Scotto atop the volcano.

When I said in my last post that I was blogging from the top of a mountain I wasn't kidding. Say what you will about Japan, I bet they've got the best cell phone coverage of any place in the World.

Rocks and mountains.

In some ways it was easier climbing up than going back down, even though it was much more tiring. You have to carefully pick your way down to avoid chucking rocks at the people under you.

A last look at my favourite peak.

After heading back down by cable car, we drove partway down the hill and stopped at the killing stone which Scott wanted to see. This is the site of a few ancient legends, the better known of which is about the fox with nine tails. A long time ago, there lived a powerful entity which was a shape-shifter and changed into a beautiful woman in order to seduce the lord of the region. A fortune teller, having seen through its lies, brought the "woman" to this clearing. Taking an arrow which was given to him by a god, he shot the entity and turned it into a rock. Unfortunately, due to its powers, the entity still had the power to poison any animal even though it was merely a rock. Some time later, a powerful monk came and was able to finally defeat the entity and broke the rock into 3 pieces, one of which is still on the slope seen in the distance. There are vents near the stone which release noxious gases, a dead crow lay near the rock while we were there.

Statue overlooking the rock clearing.

This site was visited in 1689 by Basho, a famous Japanese Haiku poet and inspired him to write a haiku, I wasn't able to find an English translation.

There are also 1000 well cared for statues praying at this site.

After visiting the site of the Killing Stone, we headed down to an ancient Onsen, founded over 1300 years ago. It's called Shika-no-yu (Deer hot spring) because the story goes that an injured deer fell into the waters which feed this Onsen and was healed. The Onsens of Nasu are known for their healing powers due to the high mineral content in the water, which is a milky colour. This particular Onsen's water is piped out of the earth at a scalding 78 degrees Celsius before being cooled down to 41 or 43 degrees and piped into the public baths.

I think we may have shocked a few bathers in this old Onsen. Most foreigners are a tad uncomfortable with the whole "bathing with a bunch of naked old men" thing so most of them don't do the Onsen thing. Neither Scott nor Yoshiyuki had been to a public Onsen before, and of course neither had I. I guess it's not very often that foreigners visit this one Onsen as Scott and I were definitely the centre of attention as we entered the room, not necessarily a good thing when you're not wearing a stitch of clothing... lol. We ended up in a 43 degree bath and it was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life. Forget a massage, forget shiatsu, forget hot tubs... the Onsen is THE thing. As for the nakedness thing, it's not really anything to worry about, you have a small "decency" towel to cover up the goods and it's very much like a locker-room atmosphere. The water was soooo nice and I can still feel the difference on my skin and hair a day later after 2 showers, it's pretty amazing, and was definitely a good thing to do after a hike up the mountain. Apparently they visit hot springs after skiing, which must be quite nice.

After the Onsen we battled our way back to the Tohoku Expressway on heavier traffic then when we came in. But that wasn't the end of the day. After Yoshiyuki dropped us off and we thanked him profusely for an excellent day, then proceeded across the street where we hooked up with Shige and went to see Star Wars: Episode 3. IT WAS AMAZING!!! I really liked it, though I thought the last two weren't too special. It was really nice to see just how everything fits in and Lucas does a masterful job of tying off all the loose ends, you can really see how this can lead into Star Wars: A New Hope. After the movie we headed out to an Izakaya for some grub and some beers and then headed on home for some rest.

So there you have it, another amazing weekend in Utsunomiya, and I'm nice and relaxed heading into the work-week.

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