When I returned to Japan for a week of work, Tamada-san gave me another opportunity to see some real mountain trails – this time without a snowstorm! We selected a loop around Lake Motosuko, which included some stretches of the well known 100 mile race that circumnavigates Mt. Fuji – Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji (UTMF). While the course includes a mix of pavement and trail, it is known to be extremely difficult in sections. For this run I would get a small taste. Who knows, maybe one of these years I might hunker down for the full course meal…
We started where the small black and white X is on the right side (east) of the lake, and made our way counterclockwise since this would give us options on the south depending on how we were doing. Happily the weather was nothing like last time on Mt. Takao. The drive was easy (thanks to Tamada-san for driving!) and it was a fantastic day for a run.
Tamada-san led us down a short stretch of pavement to warm up, which as it turns out may have been the fastest pace of the day. We soon arrived at a soft single track trail that led the way into the canopy.
While we started out running…it did not take long for the steep uphill to take its toll and we quickly began hiking to pace ourselves.
The slower speed allowed me to observe lots of details in the forest I certainly don’t see in Idaho often – leaf covered trail with nearly iridescent green growing out everywhere, a tree that appeared now and again with soft red blossoms that looked related to the hedges I saw in the city (Tamada-san said it was, although this one had a name that indicated it was of the mountains), new shapes of leaves. Luckily I didn’t have to worry about the Japanese hornets at this time of year and instead could listen to a complement of birds all new to me. The rich sound backdrop felt more like a tropical rainforest.
After a very long warmup, we suddenly popped out onto an open mountaintop with a small shelter and a large marker. Mt. Fuji was obscured by clouds, but we could see lakes to the east nestled amidst tree covered mountains and with small villages tucked in around each. While matching the terrain to our map and figuring out where we were, the clouds cleared just enough for us to see the top of Mt. Fuji.
We then had a little bit of a descent to savor, trying to remember what it was like to run again. This speed did not last long as we passed through another viewpoint and trail junction, then began our turn south around the lake. Here we encountered a rare pair of hikers, husband and wife I surmised. Their packs jingled with bear bells. I remembered then that the bells were required gear for UTMF as Tony Huff highlighted in his race video and I could hear them as he followed others down the steep slopes. Tamada-san wasn’t too worried about the bears so I wasn’t either, but we did spot a large deer crash through the trees a few minutes later.
The trail never really made up its mind to be up or down as we effectively contoured around the lake, but for the most part we lost altitude and made good time to the next key junction. Here it was possible to descend to the road proper I think, but given our good pace so far curiosity got the better of us and we opted for the “expert” section which stayed high. Just a short distance down this trail revealed a sign promising a place of scenic beauty at the Nakanokura Pass. Tamada-san read it, smiled, and paused to take out his wallet and show me a 1000 yen bill.
Then we took the short stairs down to the viewpoint where we had the best view of Mt. Fuji we would get all day! We spent some minutes savoring the view, aware it might not last.
From here we continued on the expert trail, which became interesting. The fun began almost immediately with a scramble down rocks and roots.
This section of trail required attention to stay on track but I didn’t need my compass since it stayed on the ridge under the dense trees. Short sections opened up from time to time.
We reached the next junction in which included the option to descend to the campground and the lake. We both felt good and it was plenty early, so it seemed a no brainer to tackle the next expert stretch and make a longer loop out of it, seeing more of the IMTF course after the next turn. A short distance later we saw the stairs.
Here we stopped for a moment to enjoy the saddle and shade while I munched a bar I brought from home. We studied the map and Tamada-san noted this looked like it was going to be very tough. The contours all pointed up…and the elevation indicated a jump from 1333m to 1771.6m. That was over 400m of climb…at least 1300 feet vertical in about 1km of horizontal!
While the way was marked with bits of worn yellow or dark red flagging, sometimes a little pink, it required considerable attention to spot these and even so it was hardly a trail at all. There were moments when we dropped into a little saddle and what appeared to be the trail contoured around the ridge with footprints. But almost inevitably this would lead us astray. The bits of flagging (which at times became widely spaced) would disappear and so would the trail. After a couple of recursive loops, it finally dawned on me after reviewing the map one more time that we simply had to point up regardless of what was in the way. If in doubt, climb and never drop from the ridge. Once I accepted this then the bits of flag would appear and spur us on.
The climb became relentless. Fortunately we were under a thick canopy of trees so the direct sun was minimal, but it was more humid than I was used to, more like 60%. (I understood by now however this humidity was nothing yet, summer was not really here.) The trees hindered any sense of where the top might be. We just soldiered on and the vegetation changed subtly, a little more lush and then boulders with trees growing in them to scramble about. Mists drifted through the forest, hard to photograph Then finally a clear line of demarcation emerged with a thigh high thicket of bamboo. We waded through the scratchy wood stalks to reach a little clearing with a sign indicating we had achieved the summit.
We stood at the summit of Mt. Amagatake, 1772m and squinted hopefully in the direction of Mt. Fuji into solid cloud. It was likely a grand view but we had our moment earlier. With tired legs we descended a real trail, but one crossed with bamboo roots threatening to trip us up now and then and surprisingly slick mud that knocked me on my rear end a couple times. it was a very steep descent, sometimes requiring big steps down around tree roots that gave one pause.
From time to time we would get a glimpse of the beautiful valley and part of Mt. Fuji as the clouds shifted. The vegetation changed rapidly and eventually the bamboo dissipated. With some rolling climbs and descents on the lower ridge we eventually hit the next major junction where two Japanese hikers stood talking. It was slightly shorter to continue directly on, but it was clear this was yet another leg testing summit. Tamada-san noted he was a little bit tired, and my legs informed me of the same, so we turned to descend to the lake.
This was a steep but fun rollercoaster of a trail, with just enough rocks to keep us on our toes and switchbacks to enjoy the ride. We emerged into a heavily managed open forest area with very large trail signs and we turned towards the car and the road. Once on the pavement we made our way along but still quite a bit above the lake itself. There was little traffic on the narrow way and it was fairly peaceful.
I convinced Tamada-san to run some in his fatigue, feeling like we were at the end of a 50 miler instead of a seemingly casual jaunt around the lake. I could tell my quads would be talking to me the next day on the plane, as I hadn’t done any descents like that in many months (certainly not at Pickled Feet). The ankle was holding up fine with only some ache now and then, and I was cheerful.
After we passed the campground there was an opening to go down to the lake itself. A dark beach made up of worn igneous lava rock left no doubt of the volcanic activity that made this gem, and it was easier than sand walking down to the shore. The water felt warm here, nice…might have been fun to wade out but it was getting late and I just washed most of the trail mud off my hands instead, then splashed my face. Back on the road and a turn later we found a large parking area, a little shop (which even sold garden seeds!), vending machines (Tamada-san went for his favorite recovery hydration), and tourists taking pictures by the sign. One couple was American and took our round for the photo books. They asked if we were biking (we saw many road bikers in racing form on the last stretch of road) as they puzzled out our gear, but I simply explained we ran around the lake. “That would be a good run!” he commented. It was indeed.
We found the car after clambering up the big flight of stone steps to the parking lot, and Tamada-san suggested we eat some lunch. I was vaguely famished – I had a very light breakfast before 6:30 and just a bar midway through the run. Although there were restaurants right there in the lot, he followed his intuition instead to a small restaurant a little further down the road he had never been to. While they were out of the rice curry, their specialty, they had several other interesting options on the menu that Tamada-san helpfully explained as there was no English to be had. I selected a salted salmon dish and Tamada-san went for the local udon noodle bowl. The fish arrived traditionally prepared with the skin and head, making for a very picturesque plate, and I realized I had my chopsticks work cut out for me. It was delicious though and I had no regrets. We spoke of upcoming races and big weekend hikes. There is much of the world yet to see!
Distance for the day: 12.3 miles (about 20km)
Time: 6 hours, 7 minutes, more or less (including breaks)
Climb: plenty – at least 400m, maybe 1000m total.
More photos from the run and others from my trip are here: Smugmug Japan 2015