After over a week of getting acquainted with Japan and Matsumoto, figuring out a confusing and somewhat frustrating permit process, and experimenting with potential food options for backcountry camping in Japan (a task that turned out to be a lot harder than you would think), we finally embarked to the mountains in an attempt to begin doing what we came here for—Amanda’s field work.
Looking even more conspicuous than usual in hiking boots, laden with big backpacks, and carrying an awkward, orange pole used for measuring the heights of trees, we boarded a bus that took us to a train, which then took us to Shinshimashima Bus Terminal, the gateway to Norikura. Our timing was less than impeccable, however, as we arrived at the station with a two and a half hour wait. And so we sat on a wooden bench and watched from under a roof as it began to drizzle, then pour. We tried different types of canned coffee from the giant vending machines. We watched the steady stream of people get off trains and onto busses, bound for the mountains with a wide variety of elaborate outfits and levels of preparedness.
Somehow, those hours passed, and we found ourselves riding in a bus that seemed way too big for the road it was driving on, gaining in elevation past giant hydroelectric dams, through an array of tunnels cut into the mountains. We were dropped off at a cabin, where we were promptly greeted by our host, Mitsugi—a warm, welcoming fellow who was well-acquainted with Amanda from her stay on Norikura last summer.
He showed us our room, then explained the uses of the four different pairs of shoes required to navigate one’s way around the cabin. Amanda giggled at a very overwhelmed me as I realized that basically, every time you went into a different room, you had to put on a different pair of slippers. One pair for the entrance area/dining room, one pair for the mud room, one pair for the bathroom, and one pair for the rest of the cabin. But before you go into your bedroom, you must take that pair of slippers off, as shoes (even slippers) in the bedroom is most definitely a no-no in Japan.
The cabin (and shoe) situation settled, we donned rain gear and headed out into the wet world, a world that at 2400 meters, was very different than hot, humid Matsumoto. Up here, it’s chilly. There is still plenty of snow, but amongst the snowy patches, there are also bright green shoots and stems and plants emerging from the ground. Flowers are beginning to bloom. Mountain streams are rushing, running high from a combination of snowmelt and the seemingly-continuous rain.
The trail we use to ascend partway up the mountain has been taken over by one of those streams, and is also covered in a layer of ice and snow in places. My leg plunges through a weak spot in the crust, luckily into not-too-deep water, and I can’t help but laugh hysterically at the situation—me, pulling myself out of knee-deep snow in the middle of summer.
Aside from the slippery-ness (hence the fleeting thought, I shoulda brought my crampons) and the occasional plunge through, the snowfields make for relatively easy walking, compared to the intense bushwacking that is required to navigate the shrubs covering most of the understory of the forest. And they offer a better view, one that I stop and take in often as we hike upwards. The fog rolling in and out in the blink of an eye, shrouding the hills and the valley below briefly before opening back up again, revealing rays of sunshine in the distance. The bright green colors of spring and fresh growth against the snow, the stark tans and grays and blacks of wet birch bark, the low-lying clouds covering the world in a fine, ever-moving mist. The pristine, tiny waterfalls. It all comes together to create a beautiful, almost surreal picture of a mix of the seasons.
I am pulled out of my awe by the need to begin work, and we spend several hours and the remaining daylight coring trees, taking measurements, and crawling through the underbrush before deciding to call it quits and head back down towards the cabin. On our way, we come across a snowy slope, free of rocks and other obstacles. Amanda looks at me, plops down on the snow in her slippery rain pants, and proceeds to slide all the way down. I quickly followed suit, whooping and laughing, gaining speed as bumps in the snow nearly throw me into the air. My feet kick bits of snow into my face as I jam them into the snow to stop myself from flying into the stream below. I stand up, still giggling, suddenly infinitely less tired from the long day.