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Last Days of Rome

Call it what you want. Boredom. Frustration. Fin de siècle ennui. Tokyo is a white hot skillet, a spitting stir fry of twenty million people, and I needed out.

The Kamikochi bus terminal at the foot of the Alps is as crowded as anywhere in the capital. And it’s only 5:30 in the morning. A human log jam of plaid shirts and last minute cigarettes. But speed and bad terrain are your friends when the August weekend crowds show up, and in minutes I leave the masses far behind and work my way up the familiar pan of the river and towards the spires of the Hotakas.

Few places in the Japanese Alps are as breath-taking as the Hotaka cirque. Two large huts and a multitude of brightly coloured tents huddle below the peaks, still streaked with snow. In my mind’s eye I trace the route; up the northern flank to Kita-hodaka, cut southwards along the ridge to Oku-hodaka, but my real goal is the dotted red line that the map marks between Oku-hodaka and Nishi-hodaka. That’s where I’m going, that’s where I’ll leave the crowds firmly behind.

By dusk, I’m there. The path has faded away, there are no signposts or markers here, just sheer drops on each side. I thread my way along the Uma-no-sei, the Horseback, and towards the tower of the Gendarme. On a little ledge below it, I unroll the bivy bag and contemplate my room in the sky as I watch the sun dip down through a boiling sky of clouds below.

Dawn comes in the blink of an eye, and I race back up to the peak of the Gendarme to meet it. Oku-hodaka stands directly in the line of the rising sun, black against the vermilion sky. Behind me, it casts a sky-wide Brocken; too large to fit the frame of the camera, a double and triple rainbow that arcs completely, perfectly sited at the summit of Kasa-ga-take on one end and the summit of Norikura-dake at the other. It was for my eyes alone.

The pack is light, and I’m fast. The map tentatively suggests seven hours for the ridge, with plentiful admonitions to the dangers of knife edge ridges and cliffs involved. Eschewing the intermittent ladders and chains, I free climb where I need to and revel in the speed. Just over two hours later, I reach the Nishi-hodaka hut and its crowds, just as the cloud starts to roll in. I’ve pushed enough for now. It’s time to brave Tokyo again.


Call it boredom. Call it frustration. Call it pushing your boundaries. Call it the last days of Rome, that distant thunder of the Visigoth hoards outside the city. I needed out.

The news broke: Japan has fallen from the world’s second largest economy, and now lies in third place behind China. The same day, I handed in my residency card at Narita Airport, and boarded a plane for Singapore. It’s time to see the sun rise over some different horizons. For the first time in a long while, there’s no map and I have no idea where I am going or where the boundaries are. I’ll know once I cross them. In the meantime, I remain “I, CJW ~ Hiking, Climbing & Mountaineering (mostly) in Japan”.

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