Mt. Oku-Hotaka 奥穂高岳 stands at 3190 meters and is the third highest mountain in Japan. It is however, not one of the 3 Holy Mountains. It is part of the Hotaka mountain range or renpou 連峰 that sits between the prefectures of Nagano and Gifu in the Hida Mountains 飛騨山. It is known as the leader of the Northern Alps 北アルプスの盟主 which was itself formed 0.8 to 2.6 million years ago, and is situated in the Chubu-Sangaku National Park 中部山岳国立公園. Kamikochi 上高地 is at the base of the mountain range, and has a nature trail which encircles picturesque ponds, coniferous and riparian trees, as well as numerous wildlife.
We were going to attempt to scale Mt. Oku-Hotaka. The entire hike would take approximately 10 hours starting from Kappa Bridge at Kamikochi, up to Mae-Hotaka, on to a treacherous ridge line climb up to the peak of Mt. Oku-Hotaka, and then a separate route down ending at the scenic Taisho Pond 大正池. Two typhoons were passing by at the time; the weather was not the best, but carpe diem, we could only hope that it would still be manageable weather for a day hike.
We booked a Willer bus from Shinjuku, Tokyo that was bound for Takayama, Gifu, for ¥10550 for a return trip. As the name Takayama may refer to many places in Japan, it is known as Hida-Takayama 飛騨高山 to differentiate itself. It is a traditional Japanese village town that has retained an antiquated flair. It is also near to the straw cottages of Shirakawa-go 白川郷 which is a UNESCO site. It would stop en route at Hirayu Onsen 平湯温泉, where our accommodation was. Baths with water from hot springs everywhere!
After a 5.5-hour bus ride which included a 1-hour delay in traffic, we arrived at 2:30pm at the quaint little hot spring town of Hida. It was quiet, with few people strolling around the inns and visiting the shrine. It was a little reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Shining”. There are several ski resorts nearby, and I’d imagine the place to be much busier during winter. There are also no convenience stores in the area, with the nearest ATM being 10km away so do make preparations. The local mascot was the sarubobo 猿ボボ, or monkey child, which were mythical creatures that inhabited the mountains. They were the main characters of all the o-miyage お土産, local products usually bought as souvenirs or gifts.
Our 2-storey ryokan 旅館 was a mere couple of minutes from the bus terminal, and had 3 private onsen rooms including a rotenburo 露天風呂. It literally translates to “bath that is revealed to the sky”, and is actually an outdoor spa bath. The elderly innkeepers greeted us with much hospitality, and even took a photo and printed it on the spot as a memento for us! We chose to sleep all together on futons in the tatami-floored dormitory style room as opposed to private rooms.
After getting some yummy onsen tamago 温泉玉子 or hot spring eggs at the store nearby, we walked around town and found some pretty sweet straw cottages, one of which was a museum that held artifacts of the life there during the feudal and Edo periods. There were large farming and mechanical cast iron tools, straw footwear including waraji 草鞋 sandals, various kinds of pottery, as well as a huge fire in the middle of the den.
There were also a couple of foot baths that were free for use around town. After a hearty meal of soba and udon, we dipped in the onsen for a bit before ending the night early. The bus to the trail’s starting point was at 6am. On a side note, we learnt from a sweet hiker from Kyoto that the proper way to wear a yukata 浴衣 was left side over right, and that the converse was for the deceased!
Alas, the weather did not hold up and actually worsened. Crestfallen, we decided to just visit the ponds and nature trail. We alighted at Taisho Pond, which has a 300-meter deep sediment layer from eruptions from Mt Shiratani and Mt Yake, and has mysterious withered trees still standing in it. The weather was equally aghast. The mountains were shrouded in swirls of fog, and were a sight to behold.
3.5km away was the Kappa Bridge 河童橋; kappa are mischievous river imps In Japanese folklore who are usually blamed for mishaps in the waters. They are bipedal salamander-like creatures and have a plate of water on their heads. The water as we saw had a strong current and ate away at the bank of commercial establishments. Another 3.5km or so away was the Myojin Pond, a holy ground for prayers to the mountains and waters. I got some amulets or omamori 御守り that protect health and safety for my grandparents.
The rain situation got alleviated slightly and we took a 30-minute walk to the 平湯大滝, or Great Hirayu Waterfall. Legend has it that when the troops from Kai 甲斐, which is the Yamanashi prefecture 山梨県 in today’s context, invaded Hida, they took a rest at this waterfall. An old white monkey appeared and led them to a hot spring in the mountain. And that’s the story of how Hirayu Onsen was born. We also saw pictures of how it looks when it freezes over in February!
The nice ryokan keepers gave us vouchers to the Hirayu Onsen Forest 平湯の森 about a 10-minute walk away. It was huge and had 16 outdoor rock pools that were filled with hot spring water of varying temperatures. It was truly relaxing and liberating (everyone was unabashedly naked, in gender separated areas of course) to be looking at trees and mountains while the conscious was being lulled to a state of thoughtless awareness.
A powdered mix of the mineral components in the hot spring water may be purchased from the general store. Cheers to onsen at home! It was also odd to note that sake and beer brewed in Hida or Takayama may be found at the store, but the restaurants we went to only carried the usual suspects of Asahi, Ebisu and the like. Hida beef is also famous in the region, and ranks along with the more famous brands of wagyu such as Kobe and Matsusaka.
Overall it was a pity that we could not climb Mt. Oku-Hotaka, but the onsen and scenic trails proverbially brightened the rain clouds with a silver lining.