© Christopher Earls Brennen


"To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand."

From "The Revolt of the Masses" (1930) by Jose Ortega y Gasset.


Americans often comment in a rather self-satisfied way on how sexist other countries and cultures are compared with theirs. In such conversations, economically advanced countries such as Japan come in for particular criticism in this regard for prosperity is judged to leave little excuse for outmoded sexist attitudes. Frequently, however, those criticisms are made with only superficial knowledge of the culture in question and without recognition of the multiple facets that comprise any society. As with other stories in this collection, the present tale is an account of a mountain adventure. It was an adventure that yielded unexpected glimpses of Japanese society, insights that I had not recognized before.

Let me hasten to add that I make no pretense that I have studied sexism in Japanese society. This is simply a story, recounting one brief personal experience on the slopes of the mountain known as Hotaka-dake in the scenic Japan Alps. Of course, like any other visitor to Japan I had witnessed the bent old ladies shuffling home through the narrow city streets while loaded down with groceries. I had met the wives of acquaintances who seemed fearful of voicing opinions and intent only on serving every need of the husband and his guests. Of course, I had heard the indignant stories of western visitors who had been fondled on crowded subway trains. And on one occasion I had even climbed a sacred mountain, the summit of which was off-limits to women.

But, on these many travels in Japan, I had really only had the most superficial encounters with women. Probably, the only contact beyond the superficial had been with Sachie Kamijo, the wife of my good friend Kenjiro Kamijo. Sachie spoke excellent English and had spent a year in California when Kenjiro visited Caltech. She seemed fully in control of her life and surroundings, an equal partner with Kenjiro in all that they did together and as liberated as any American woman. Moreover, I had met dominant Japanese women who clearly ruled the home and, on the trains and in the cities, I had seen numerous groups of independent women enjoying the company of their own sex and embarking on outings and adventures far from their husbands and fathers. In contrast, in a hut high on the slopes of Fuji-san I had spent an evening transported back into some distant time of myth and make-believe when an old woman read the extended story of my life from the wrinkles in my palm (see "On the Peak of the Rising Sun"). Thus the range of intergender relationships seemed as broad in Japan as in the United States and it made me wonder yet again about the injustice of characterisations based on a few anecdotes.

We were Yoichiro Matsumoto, Nobuhiro Yamanishi and myself and, in Sept.2002, we had come to the resort village of Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps to enjoy these mountains, to climb Hotaka-dake and thus to complete our conquest of the three highest peaks in Japan. As other stories in this collection will tell, the three of us were seasoned companions and we looked forward to another challenge on this storied mountain range. Our spirits were somewhat dampened for we had arrived in Kamikochi in the pouring rain. Several years earlier we had endured endless rain on Kitadake; we hoped that this time it would ease up before the next day when we planned to summit Hotaka-dake. But for now it was pouring.

The best approach to Kamikochi, is to catch a Chuo line express train and travel from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Matsumoto (about 3 hours) the evening before your visit. We had done just that and stayed overnight in Matsumoto at the Ace business hotel just about 100yds from the JR station. Convenient to the bus station and with small but clean and neat rooms at a reasonable cost (Y6500 per night inlcuding a bag of breakfast) the Ace was a good choice. It is also wise to visit the tourist information center in the front of Matsumoto station before pressing on. Then take the Highland Express train (Matsumoto Dentetsu Line from platform 7 in Matsumoto station) to the end of the line at Shinshimashima (a 40min journey) and continue on a Highland Express bus for 1hr 20min to Kamikochi. The journey from Matsumoto to Kamikochi takes about 1.5hrs, the last stretch winding up the long and precipitous valley of the Azusagawa river.

Kamikochi, in Nagano Praefecture, is the center of Chubu-Sangaku (Japan Alps) National Park that features the spectacular mountain range known as the Northern Alps. Even in the summer, the Asusagawa river rages down this valley and, judging by the boulder fields, it must be subject to debris flows in the winter. It is the vigor of the Azusagawa that has carved this rugged valley and formed the steep south flank of the North Alps. Kamikochi itself is located nearly 5000ft above sea level at a point where landslides and lava flows (including one from Yakedake in 1915) blocked the normal steep descent and created a narrow flood plain that includes a lake called Taisho Pond and some lovely meadows and marshes. The end of the road is just upstream of the lake and there one finds the extensive facilities built to accommodate the tourists who flock to Kamikochi during the summer season. To avoid total gridlock, private cars are not permitted into Kamikochi during July and August; they must park further down the valley in Nakanoyu. The result is an incredible number of buses parked alongside the narrow road into Kamikochi.

Hotaka-dake from Kamikochi The upper Karasawa lodge

The tourists are justly attracted by the sylvan beauty of this place, the forest and the raging river, the tranquility of the meadows and marshes with miles of manicured hiking trails and the contrast with the rugged mountain ridge looming high overhead. That preciptous row of peaks includes Hotaka-dake, at 10280ft the third highest summit in Japan (after Fuji and Kitadake). Walter Weston, the Englishman credited with introducing alpinism to Japan, was the first westerner to climb the peaks of the Northern Alps. He summitted Hotaka in the early 1890s.

In anticipation of the rain I had brought my umbrella. Though I felt slightly silly hiking with an umbrella, I was very glad of it; the advantages far outweighed the feelings of silliness. And so it was that, about 8.30am in the morning, we left the bus stop in Kamikochi (elevation 4920ft) and followed the paved walkway to the center of the tourist area, the Kappabashi footbridge over the Azusagawa river (even in the summer, the river would be difficult to cross in any other way). Staying on the right side of the river, we hiked upstream along a dirt road that soon left the tourist area behind. The road continued over level ground sometimes by the side of the gravel flats deposited by the river, sometimes in the forest itself.

About 55min after setting out, we arrived at 5050ft at the first rest stop, the Myojin lodge deep in the forest. Like all such establishments in Japan, it caters to every hiker's needs and some the westerner would not think of (see below). Indeed Myojin even has its own English language web site (Kamikochi Myojinkan). The intent is thoughtful even if the content is slightly bizarre with several classic Japanese-English phrases:

With other hikers we paused in the shelter of the overhang for some respite from the rain, before resuming our hike along the dirt road. This continued level on right side of river, passing the Tokusawa Lodge and camping areas (looking quite miserable in the rain). Our spirits brightened as the rain began to ease and almost stopped as we arrived, 2hr 40min and 5.7m from the start, at the substantial Yoko-o Lodge (elevation 5350ft). This is located beside the river at a major trail junction and so there were crowds of hikers taking full advantage of the break in the rain to enjoy some lunch. We did the same.

After a 30min lunch we resumed hiking in better spirits, crossed the Azusagawa and its wash by the large, new suspension bridge and started up a pretty wooded tributary valley on the right side of a lively little river. Climbing steadily through pleasant mixed forest, the trail came to the Motoni bridge (at 5920ft, 4hr 15min and 7.5m from the start) by which we crossed to the left side of the cascade. At this point the climb steepened as the rocky trail ascended the steep west wall of the valley. To make things still more miserable it began to rain heavily again; indeed it would not ease until we were approaching the lodge higher up the mountain. About 800ft above the Motoni bridge the climb became less steep and the vegetation transitioned to lower scrub and bushes with lovely fall colors. Here it climbs along the open side of a stream toward the rocky moraine at the bottom end of a huge cirque or bowl gouged out of the side of Hotaka. Even in late summer a substantial snow lining remains in the cirque. The trail bifurcates just a few hundred feet below the crest of the moraine. The left fork goes to the lower, older Karasawa lodge in the bottom of the cirque (the campsite beside the old lodge seemed particularly forlorn). The right fork led us to the upper and fancier lodge a little higher up on the right wall of the bowl. We reached Karasawa or "Dry Stream" Lodge (elevation 7710ft) about 6hr and 9m from the morning start.

Though I had stayed in mountain lodges before, they continue to intrigue me for the small transient community that is created each night is significantly different from what one might encounter in the west. For one thing, virtually all the residents are middle class Japanese (as on past occasions I was the only non-Japanese out of about 100 residents). The uniformity of background yields a common expectation of behavior that makes for greater comfort under crowded conditions. And crowded we were. The lodge was chockful, every inch of space filled either with equipment, with people or with bedding. The first of the two floors of the relatively new structure was occupied with offices, kitchens, dining rooms and bathrooms. Flights of stairs climbed to the second floor where narrow corridors led to about 12 tatami bedrooms devoid of furniture. Each male or female bedroom held about 8 guests; indeed once the eight sets of bedding were laid out there was no floor space left. Hence we were required to leave all but our valuables in the hall. This in turn left only the narrowest channel for movement. Since much of our outer clothing and equipment was soaking wet this did at least have the advantage of keeping the bedrooms dry.

It seems to me that anywhere outside of Japan, these arrangements would have inevitably led to complete chaos. Somehow, in Japan, it works and, after the lights were turned out (by an unseen manager) we passed a quiet and restful night.

The lights came on again just before dawn and the first hints of daylight were softening the mountaintops as we packed and breakfasted, intent on getting an early start. The day had dawned dull but dry and we were anxious to take full advantage of the break in the weather. Leaving Karasawa about 5.30am, we followed a narrow trail through the low bushes, climbing steeply up the wall of the rocky bowl to the left side of lodge. It was here that we first encountered two women who, like us, had spent the night in the lodge. Since they spoke no English, I was not privy to the easy conversation that sprang up between them and my friends Matsumoto and Yamanishi. But it was clearly a relaxed exchange. The five of us gradually fell into step with one another since their natural speed was about the same as ours. I was at once struck by how comfortably this relationship developed. There seemed to be little of the guarded wariness that would characterize a similar encounter between a male group and a female group in the west. Indeed the lack of any sexism on either side seemed to me both remarkable and delightful.

Karasawa valley from near the ridge top On the summit of Hotaka-dake

The five of us climbed slowly up the side of the great cirque, Matsumoto leading (as always), followed by the stronger of the two women, then by Yamanishi, myself and the second woman. The bushes dwindled as we rose above the tree line and traversed around the side of the bowl. A beautiful panorama began to open up below us, the weather clearing but the valleys spotted with morning mist. The colors of the bushes we had climbed through were more dramatic from this vantage point, slashes of pure scarlet intermingled with green and yellow. About 1hr 10min from the start, at an elevation of 8970ft we paused to enjoy the view at a point where the trail transitioned onto a rocky spine heading for the mountain saddle high overhead. As we did so the sun broke through bringing a moment of delight. Soon we spotted the lodge at the saddle above us. It was a beautiful day and we reveled in our luck for the weather could be truly awful on the exposed mountain ridge ahead.

Just 1hr 50min after the morning start, we climbed the last few feet up to the precipitous, 9750ft saddle between Hotaka-dake and Karasawa-dake. A large lodge, Hotaka-sanso, occupies the entire length and width of the saddle with awesome views to the east and west. The ridge to the south rises precipitously from the saddle hiding the summit of Hotaka-dake from view. But the gentler ridge to the north allowed a good view of Karasawa-dake, at 10203ft an easy hike from the saddle. Without further delay we started up the steep wall leading to Hotaka-dake. Wire ropes and metal ladders eased the climb up to the summit ridge and the trail became easier as we ascended. Now, out of the shelter of the mountain, the air was much colder and we were even more thankful for the sun and the dry weather. As we rose, the other peaks in the range revealed themselves, most spectacularly, off to the north, the spear-like summit of Yari-ga-take (10433ft). Finally, 2hr 40min and 1.3m from the morning start, the rocky spine we were following culminated in the 10466ft summit of Hotaka-dake. There we were welcomed by a substantial crowd of elderly hikers and by a spectacular 360 degree panorama. Off to the southeast we could even make out the distinctive profile of Mount Fuji. The crowds meant that we had to wait for the opportunity to take our photographs by the small shrine on the peak itself. I wondered whether we would take seperate photographs but there was no question of that and we all crowded around the model shrine for the statutory summit shot. I also wondered whether we would now go our seperate ways but I later learnt that one of the reasons why the women wished to accompany us was that they were unsure of the route.

The wait had chilled us and so we resumed hiking once all the formalities had been completed. We were to descend by a different path and set off along the narrow ridge toward the southeast. This required a number of easy downclimbs before the trail leveled off and contoured around the west side of Maehotaka-dake to a trail junction on a rocky flat known as Kimiko-daira ("flat place") at an elevation of 9450ft. We reached this point, 1.3m from the peak, 4hr after the morning start.

From Kimiko-daira, the trail descends precipitously as it negotiates a spine of the massive headwall of the Alps. There are many chains and metal ladders to guard against a fall. It is a huge and exhausting descent of 2400ft with little respite. We stopped half-way down to have lunch and here we finally learned a little more about our companions. Yone Ikeda (Ikeda-san in polite Japanese) was the larger and stronger of the two women; she had a nephew who studied aerospace engineering at Kyoto University; Ogawa-san was the smaller, quieter one with a nice smile. They worked for a cosmetics company in Osaka and, as was evident from their fitness, they hiked regularly in the mountains near Osaka (Mount Rokko in particular). But this was their first visit to the Japan Alps and hence their uncertainity about route finding. Both women were married with children. During lunch they gave Yamanishi a small treat, Ocha-zuke (rice with tea), which he was surprised to enjoy in the mountains. Of course, I understood little of this at the time; Yamanishi had lived in San Francisco and this experience with western culture made him more comfortable filling in the details for me several weeks later.

As we resumed our descent the vegetation became more luxurious; near the bottom the fall colors were quite marvellous. Finally, after 2hr 20min of descent we came to the bottom of the headwall and to the Dake-sawa lodge ("Mountain valley/stream lodge") at 7119ft. Here we rested and braced ourselves for the final leg. Below Dake-sawa, the trail was easier but still rocky and steep. Gradually, however, it levelled off as we entered the pine forest near the Asazagawa river. Finally the trail emerged from the forest at the edge of the tourist area around Kamikochi.

This was the end of the trail through the wilderness and so we paused by the notice boards to congratulate each other on a great hike and a fine summit. Though we had been together for only a few hours we had already formed a bond that allowed us to enjoy those moments of joint celebration. I was struck by the warmth of that moment, a joy shared both by longtime friends and by two women with whom I could not even carry on the most elementary conversation. Somehow the shared experience in conquering Hotaka-dake had create a trust without words, a communication by deed and gesture. And it was a symmetric relation devoid of sexist bias.

But it was only a moment for soon we were following the tourist trail along the right side of the river and marsh heading back toward the center of Kamikochi. The trail was elevated on planks to preserve the habitat and led back to the main tourist facilities at the Kappabashi footbridge. After a rugged 5.1m day, we had returned to our starting point 8hrs after the morning start. There we parted from our two new friends who took great delight in my few parting words of Japanese. It had been another marvellous experience in a spectacular alpine environment. As always seems to happen to me in Japan, it had been an another adventure with unexpected insights into that delightful culture.

Last updated 27/1/03.
Christopher E. Brennen