Justine and Mary stayed the night on Saturday so that they wouldn’t have to wake up as early and drive as far on Sunday morning to hike Ichifusa. We planned to meet Shara and Rebeca at the only conbini in town to grab breakfast and lunch and then caravan to the mountain, where we’d meet Krista and her family. As we were getting ready that morning and even on the drive up to the trailhead, Ian listened to the Louisville/UK game until signal was lost on his phone. (The score was the first thing he checked when he regained signal that evening.) The road to the trailhead is a winding, narrow switchback, and we couldn’t believe how many cars were already in the tiny parking lot. There were so many that cars lined the side of the tiny roadway going down the mountain. Luckily for us our car is a baby, so we easily pulled into a small spot that was somewhat reclaimed by the mountain that couldn’t fit drivers with bigger cars. Rebeca followed the lead of the other Japanese drivers and pulled to the side of the tiny road. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do.
We had to wait a little while for Krista and her family to meet us there, and just standing there it was a bit chilly. I wore three layers knowing that it would probably be a bit cool on the mountain, but at that moment, I wished for more! (Although, thank goodness that it wasn’t anywhere near as windy as it was on Saturday…we would have froze, and our lifeless bodies would have been blown off the mountain!) Once Krista met up with us, we started. Ian and I have never been all the way to the top. We tried three times: 1) We were too inexperienced and started waaaaaaaay too late, 2) Ian wasn’t feeling it, and 3) We weren’t exactly sure where the trailhead went, so we had an ADD moment and explored a stream instead. I like to think of the trail in three parts: 1) relatively flat and similar to your common walk-in-the-woods trail, 2) stone steps/rooty trail (below, left): Some of the stones are a foot apart, so your quads and hamstrings definitely get a workout, and then there is a section that is covered completely in thick gnarled roots, so picking steps is very tedious. The first time we tried Ichifusa was right after a rain, and the roots basically became an uncomfortable slip-and-slide, and 3) hell (below, right—this is even a GOOD part of the trail). Hell includes nearly vertical “trails” in which you climb (sometimes even on hands and knees) up “ladders”, tangles of roots, slippery mud, over boulders and logs, under downed trees, and tediously across narrow washed out pathway. Unfortunately, the majority of the trail is #3. #1 and 2 last for maybe half an hour to a mountain temple. This is a good resting place and even has a bathroom. Don’t get too excited….it’s no more than a drop toilet. (Which made me think…how unfortunate would it be for an animal to fall to its death in all of that muck? I’m sure it’s happened! )
After the temple (above, left), the pathway quickly turns into #3. Krista and her family turned back shortly after the temple since her sister was walking on a hurt ankle, but we pushed forward, breaking frequently (below, right). Despite the difficulty of the path, our spirits were still high…at this time. We were amazed to still find icicles clinging roots (above, right) and couldn’t resist the urge to crush the frozen mud beneath us. Up, up, up we marched, occasionally running into other Japanese hikers descending (bottom, left). We joked that they probably started at the crack of dawn in order to already be finished with the mountain! Just like the musicians from Saturday, if hiking is a Japanese’s hobby, he/she does it like a pro. They greeted us, curious to see foreigners on Ichifusa. They asked where we were from, and we explained that we’re from America but we work in Japan. Each group encouraged us to GANBATTE (which means fight/good luck/stay strong) up the mountainside. As lunch time approached, we knew that we should be getting close to the top and asked other hikers on their way down how much longer. Each group had the same answer: about an hour to the top. We asked three different groups within the span of an hour, and each group gave us the same response: an hour. It became a running joke in our group. Even whenever we could see the peek and it was no more than ten more minutes, we laughed and said that it would probably take another hour.
The view from the top was quite impressive. We were very blessed that day with good clear weather. Since Ichifusa is the tallest mountain in our area, we could see all of our gun (pronounced “goon”—it’s the equivalent to a county at home) and into the next prefecture. In the picture below, our gun is the little valley with all of the white “dots” which are actually buildings. I never realized how mountainous Japan is until I was up there. Yes, we drive through the mountains all the time, but on Ichifusa, it was mountains as far as the eye could see. Beautiful! We all gobbled up our lunches, excited to have food in our bellies and enjoyed an hour of laying in the sun and taking pictures. I’m not going to lie…had everyone not been talking, I probably would have fallen asleep in the sunlight.
Then it was time to begin our trek down……If we thought that scaling up twisted root paths and finding footing in mud was difficult going up, it was ridiculously difficult on the way down. In addition, all of our legs had the “Jell-O” effect in the fact that our muscles were already weak, tense, and ready to give out. Each of us had a different place that hurt—Mary has weak ankles, Justine has bad knees, Ian’s calves were killing him, and the muscles at my hip were screaming. There were a couple of almost accidents when someone’s leg would give out or would trip. High spirits were gone, and as we limped the last leg of our journey, none of us were happier to see the cars!
We stopped in Mizukami, Krista’s village, on the way home to see the cherry blossoms (below). Oh how beautiful they were! Thousands of pale pink petals almost made the trees look snow covered. Mizukami is known for its cherry blossoms and hosts an annual festival for them. Unfortunately, the festival was wrapping up by the time we got there, so we took pictures and left. I realize now that we should have gone to the onsen (hot springs) for a good soak to loosen up the muscles, but we didn’t. Instead we went out to eat to replenish the lost calories. After dinner, everyone went their separate ways, and I was never happier to only live five minutes away!! Ian I got showers and immediately crashed, falling into a deep, deep, exhausted sleep.