In the last instalment, your humble scribe had managed the impressive feat of falling off a mountain along a precise magnetic bearing. Muddied but otherwise unhurt, he now prepares to continue – but more surprises await!
Feeling somewhat relieved, I headed off on the well-defined path. But while I was quite sure that the worst was behind me, I was – quite literally – not out of the woods yet so caution was still very much the order of the day.
The map I was using (www.kobito.co.jp) was bloody good; clear, accurate and detailed. Marked on the map was the precise location of every official trail signpost, together with accurate distances between each. So this meant it was very easy to use a system of dead reckoning to pin-point my position extremely accurately as I proceeded along the trail. This information could be vital if I encountered another situation where I lost the trail and had to navigate cross-country. The process of navigation is deceptively simple; I had worked out that in this terrain with my current load, I was travelling 100m every 90 paces. So by just counting out 90 paces, I could measure my progress very accurately. Every 100m I picked up a stone, and in this way I was able to count out distances of 5, 6 or 700 m between signposted waypoints with surprising accuracy.
To my left was the running water I had heard through the trees. The trickle of water gradually broadened into a mountain stream that gurgled and bubbled its way downhill through the increasingly rocky gully. The path crossed the stream and I stopped to wash the dirt from my arms, face and hair in the cool mountain water. I was feeling pretty good about everything in my secret mountain valley as I continued, with my bear bell clinking out the steps as I counted.
Rounding a bend in the trail, I encountered something I hadn’t reckoned on – a bridge. A simple wooden bridge had been constructed over a shallow rocky gully. As I got closer, I noticed that the bridge had seen better days. In fact, it was quite seriously decomposed in places. Untreated wood decays incredibly quickly in Japan’s hot and humid summers. From the faded date on the “Path Closed” notice, I guessed that the last time this path and its bridges had seen any maintenance was over a year ago at least. I gave the bridge a closer inspection: its main supports, while corroded, seemed robust enough. So with caution I edged along what I hoped was the strongest part directly over one of the beams (incidentally, the picture comes from www.yamareco.com)
Having crossed with no problems, I continued. The valley I was following had become progressively steeper and rockier as it followed the increasingly energetic stream downhill. I started to encounter more bridges. Some, looked almost new; some looked like they were in serious need of repair. The gullies crossed had become deeper and more rocky. A fall through the rotten wood onto the unforgiving rocks below would be catastrophic, and I once again noted that a leg injury could prove extremely serious in this environment as there was little chance of being discovered by passing hikers. I began to have concerns again over what obstacles still lay in my path.
My concerns became more substantial as the terrain underwent a change of character from easy wooded trail to challenging rocky ravine. Walls of limestone rose steeply either side of the trail, which periodically disappeared as it passed over mossy bedrock. There was no way except forward and back. The stream now became punctuated by short, rocky waterfalls and the path skittered back and forth across rock ledges stepping their way downhill. Bridges appeared more frequently, spanning gullies that were ever deeper. The state of some of these crossings gave serious cause for concern. Suddenly the path and river parted company, with the river dropping away very sharply into a completely impassable rocky ravine. Up in the distance I could hear a waterfall. The path climbed up sharply around a rocky outcrop, narrowing as it did so. Rounding a bend, I saw a sight that made me take a big gulp.
Clinging to the side of the ravine was a completely rotten wooden walkway, complete with DANGER sign. Below, nothing but empty space and mossy rocks. Shit! I was so close to the end of the trail. But this looked to be the most serious challenge yet. I stopped to really examine the obstacle. It was clearly totally rotten. The rocky wall to the left had some tree roots growing out of it which would provide some hand holds. Below the wood was a narrow band of rock, which I hoped would be resilient enough to prevent me dropping into the ravine if the bridge collapsed. I had no choice but to continue, so puckering-up and chanelling Indiana Jones, I gingerly picked my way across, alert for the sound of splintering wood and a sudden dropping sensation.
I made it back to solid ground. Phew.
The path once more became benign as it descended gradually through he trees. Behind me, I could hear the sound of rushing water, which I guessed marked the spot where the stream plunged over the rocky precipice. According to my map, I should now be approaching the end of the section which had been marked as closed on the sign I encountered. And sure enough, at exactly the point predicted, there was the signpost with rope strung across the path announcing its closure. I’d made it.
I clambered through the rope, and walked a few paces. Crossing a (well repaired) bridge, I was rewarded with the sight of one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have seen in Japan so far.
Shortly thereafter, the trail became a paved road, and shortly after that I arrived at the campsite. The adventure was truly over and I’d survived unscathed.
I wasted no time in pitching my tent in the pretty much deserted campsite, and getting myself sorted out for the night. An hour or so later, a light flicked on in the campsite office and I wandered over to pay my pitch fee. To me delight, there was a fridge, well-stocked with Asahi Super-Dry. After purchasing a few tins at vastly inflated prices, I retired to my boudoir to cook dinner and reflect on the day’s events.
Basically, I’d been lucky. My decision to proceed along a closed path had been risky, but it was a calculated risk – a calculated risk that had paid off on this occasion. The alternative would have led at best to a pretty miserable and pointless slog; at worse an even more dangerous situation in failing light on an unfamiliar path with exposed paths and steep scree slopes. Given my equipment and the fact that I am a confident navigator, I don’t feel my decision was a bad one.
Where I did feel that lessons needed to be learned was in my emergency procedures – what would I have done in the event that I had become injured or lost in the dense woodland? I had both tent and an emergency bivi bag on board, plus food and water, so sustenance and shelter would not have been a problem assuming I could get to my pack. But what about summoning help? Mobile phones are useless in Japan’s mountains. I had a whistle, but it was packed away in my emergency tin and therefore not immediately accessible. What would happen if I lost my pack?
Considering these points as the Super Dry buzz kicked in, I resolved to make the following changes:
1 – Attach whistle to pack straps so it’s easily accessible – useful for bear encounters too
2 – Carry smaller emergency kit in my belt bag. In the event that I lose my main pack for whatever reason, I still have shelter and some form of sustenance.
3 – Investigate some form of personal GPS beacon such as the Spot Gen 3
I guess these measures might seem over the top given that I am really a casual weekend hiker rather than a seasoned adventurer. But even so, as thousands of Japanese weekend backpackers find out every year, you can find yourself in trouble very quickly in Japan’s wooded mountains. I have no desire to become a statistic.