The images follow the events in Chapter 6 of Climb. The captions are “extra features” – information that didn’t make it into the book.
May 31 – June 1, 2018
Japan’s high speed rail system, also known as the “bullet train,” makes travel fast and convenient. This is the shinkansen I rode on my trip to Aomori in late May of 2018. Japan has seven major shinkansen lines, all operated by Japan Railways (JR). From north to south, they are: the Hokkaido, Tōhōku, Joetsu, Horikuru, Tōkaidō, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen. I rode them all during my 100 Summits year.
Rice has been a vital part of the Japanese economy, culture, and diet for centuries. It’s difficult to travel anywhere in Japan (outside the largest cities) without seeing rice fields in various states of growth and harvest. I spent many contemplative hours watching the sky reflected in the rice fields from the window of a shinkansen streaking across the countryside.
Japanese business hotels are clean, convenient, and inexpensive (my average cost per night was $50-$75 U.S. on the [many] nights I spent in business hotels before and after climbs – and most of the time, that price included breakfast). This was my room at the Hotel Route Inn (a popular chain) Hirosaki Ekimae. Hirosaki is the name of the town in western Aomori where the hotel is located, and “Ekimae” means “in front of the [train] station” – which it was. I could see the hotel from the station exit. The room also had a full en suite bath, which I appreciated after a full day hike.
When I said it was too foggy to see Aomori Prefecture’s famous hills and forests on the morning I climbed Mt. Iwaki, I meant it was foggy.
The only car in the parking lot belonged to the visitor center manager; I was the only passenger on the Skyline Bus to the mountain. This was not an encouraging start to my third hyakumeizan climb.
I look far less enthusiastic here than I actually felt. Probably a combination of concern about dropping my phone (which doubled as my camera) off the chairlift, getting up too early (I did not sleep well before my early climbs) and feeling slightly concerned about being the only climber on the mountain.
Like most “sightseeing lifts” in Japan, the Iwaki Lift doesn’t bother raising riders any higher than absolutely necessary to ensure your feet don’t drag on the ground. Mt. Iwaki does get quite a bit of snow, but the lift doesn’t operate during the winter months, so this height works just fine.
Although I saw no snow on the upper portion of the trail, large patches remained on the lower slopes. I hadn’t expected snow, so seeing it this close to the lift was both exciting (I love snow) and nerve wracking (at this point, I had no plans to hike in snow at all, and had no gear or training for it).
When planning this climb, I misunderstood the guide and thought the lift went all the way to the summit. Fortunately, I came prepared to climb.
I did not come prepared to climb with bears. Most Japanese hikers wear jingling “bear bells” to help prevent startling a bear, or accidentally getting between a mother and her cubs. When bears hear the bells approaching, they usually move away, keeping everyone safe. Unfortunately, on the day I climbed Iwaki, I had not yet acquired a true bear bell (the little fish I bought at Akagi Shrine, though musical, was not truly loud enough for this purpose).
In my mind, “mountains” looked a lot like a child’s drawing of Mt. Fuji . . . roughly conical in shape. It did not take long for Japanese mountains to disabuse me of that laughably incorrect preconception.
In most circumstances, photographs do a terrible job of conveying steepness. Case in point: the photo above. This slope was steep enough that, in places, I had to use my hands to maintain my balance.
And this slope was even steeper. Standing upright, I could reach my arms forward and touch the rocks ahead of me farther up the trail. The slope itself was only about 100 meters in length (Americans: the length of a football field); as I went up, I worried about how I would get back down.
The trail to the summit of Mt. Iwaki is the curling line of stones that disappears off the left side of the picture and continues up the left side of the slope beyond. From here, it took about 25 minutes to reach the summit.
Remember the clouds and fog at the visitor center? The hike to the summit carried me through those clouds and into the sun above. This was my first experience climbing through a layer of clouds into the sun, and also the first time I had ever seen the “sea of clouds” when I wasn’t in an airplane. It’s difficult to describe the awe and wonder I felt looking out on this scene.
The trail to the summit of Mt. Iwaki. At the time, it didn’t feel nearly as scary as this image makes it look – but it really was that steep.
The bell on the summit of Mt. Iwaki has a deep, loud voice. I gave it a nice, loud ring. I originally planned to eat lunch on top of the mountain, but I abandoned that plan almost at once due, to the number of bees flying around the summit, especially near the bell. I’m allergic to bees, and although I carried an epi-pen, I didn’t fancy actually needing to use it.
This was right before the bees showed up. The squint is due to the fact that I still didn’t own a sun hat. (I did have polarized glasses, but accidentally left them back in Tokyo. I was a mountaineering novice, but an expert forgetter.)
Japanese insects are talented–and highly dedicated–photobombers. An amazing number of my pictures have winged insects flying through them, and this image of the torii (sacred gate) at Iwaki Shrine is no exception. (In case you’re still looking, he’s on the right, between the crossbars.)
The back of the small shrine that sits atop Mt. Iwaki. Mountains are sacred to the Shintō faith, both in their own right and as dwelling places for other deities. For that reason, many Japanese mountains have summit shrines.
The altar at Iwaki Jinja (Iwaki Shrine). The mirror indicates that the resident deity is present at the shrine; the metal candelabra in front of the altar is used for burning candles, as an offering. (Worshippers who wish to burn a candle would need to carry it to the summit for this purpose.)
This is the same slope as the one that appears above, with the caption “I wasn’t scared about climbing up,” but this photo was taken at the top, looking down. It still looks less steep in the picture than it actually was, but this gives you a better idea of what it looked like. The little red-roofed building at the bottom of the slope is an emergency hut, where hikers can take shelter in a storm or if other needs arise. The blue-roofed hut directly above the emergency hut is the upper chair lift station. If you follow the sloping line of the mountainside to the right of the chair lift station, you can just make out the visitor center to the left of the snow fields, far below.
The clouds had begun to break apart as I rode the chair lift back to the visitor center, allowing this glimpse of the forested hills that surround Mt. Iwaki. “Aomori” (青森) means “blue/green forest;” the prefecture is named for these deep green forested hills, which sometimes look blue at a distance.
As I prepared to board the bus to return to Aomori City, I realized the clouds had dissipated enough to give me a clear look at the Iwaki Lift.
Aomori Prefecture is famous for (and justifiably proud of) its local apples. In CLIMB, I mention a famous apple treat I enjoyed the evening after my climb of Mt. Iwaki–but sadly, it never occurred to me to take a photograph. (I ate them too quickly, and by the time I thought of it, they were gone.) As a consolation prize, here’s a photograph of another unique Aomori treat: soufflé pancakes topped with local Aomori apples, cinnamon, and sugar.
I hope you’re enjoying this “behind the scenes” photo-companion to CLIMB! Please click through and join me for Chapter 7: Fear is a Liar
* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).