A Snowy Spring Hike in Japan

Imagine this. It’s early spring in Japan. The flower trees are starting to get their first buds, everything is beginning to turn green again, and the best part – the weather is absolutely amazing! It’s the weekend and you’re just sitting down with a warm coffee and your old, well-worn copy of Jane Eyre, when your friend calls you up and asks if you want to go on an adventure into the mountains to find a famous blue lake.  What do you say? “Heck yeah!” of course!

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Statue at a temple overlooking the mountainside.

Okay, so one thing you should keep in mind before we move forward, is that I grew up in the flat, alligator-infested wetlands of Louisiana. For me, mountains, snow, and all of that other jazz is something that exists far, far away.  I have absolutely no common sense when it comes to these things. In fact, it didn’t even cross my mind that, hey, it might be a little bit colder up there in the mountains. So, of course, when I got dressed, I put on jeans, a flannel shirt, and a (very) light jacket – the perfect outfit for a nice, spring day in my little valley.

Creepy little statue
Cool? Creepy? Both? I can’t decide…

Less than an hour later, I found myself zipping through the mountains with four of my buddies. Believe it or not, we only got lost once! Or twice…. Okay, we got stupidly lost…several times. Let’s just say I’m never trusting a *cough* German GPS system again. Anyways, after a short photo-stop at a temple halfway up, we finally made it! Driving around the last curve we found ourselves in a little resort town on the edge of a florescent-blue river. This was it! We parked (in a very questionable spot if I’m honest,) and poured out of the car to take pictures. And to ask for directions. Seriously though, you wouldn’t think German GPS programs would still need so much tweaking.

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I could most definitely live in a little town like this.

After taking a few shots and eating some Yakimanju (a steamed bun that’s covered in a sweet soy sauce glaze and grilled) from a little old lady’s shop, we hopped back into the car and made our way to the lake.

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I’ve never seen water so genuinely blue.

Now at this point, I had obviously realized my wardrobe mistake. A thick layer of snow covered the ground and coated every inch of rooftop. The sun was warm, but a chill breeze flowed through the mountain air – and right through my jacket. It was freaking cold. But, I was determined! I wasn’t going to complain! After all, it wasn’t so bad. Yet.

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Who cares about warning signs and ropes? Let’s go!

A little way down the road we found a tiny onsen that was closed for the day. To its right, a tall hill with snow-covered stairs offered a better view of the lake. The stairway was chained off (probably because of the ice and foot of snow,) but we just pulled the “I can’t read this sign because I’m a foreigner” card and gaijin-smashed our way over anyway.

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How are these nerds so photogenic?

It took a while for everyone to climb the steps without slipping and domino-ing the person behind them, but we got to the top eventually, and oh was it worth it. What a view! Huge, snow-covered mountains towered above us on every side. To our right, a massive dam (that definitely looked like some kind of military compound) held the long, dark-blue lake in its place. Of course, all of the guys wanted to go see the dam, so no sooner had we gotten to the top of the stairs, we turned and climbed (or…slid) back down.

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I swear this has to be some kind of military complex just disguised as a dam.

Over at the dam, one of the guys set up his tripod to take a few pictures, while the other three were busy watching a group of ducks clustered around the only unfrozen patch of lake.

“Do you think they’re alive?” one asked.

“I dunno. They’re not moving much.”

“Do you think they’re frozen to the ice?!” (Yeah…I know. I never said my friends were smart.)

“There’s only one way to find out!” The third said, picking up a pebble to chuck at the unsuspecting fowl beneath. (Seriously, you’d think a professional group of engineers would act a little less like teenagers.)

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Poor little ducks. They just wanted to sleep.

Thankfully, the rocks only got far enough to hit the water. As if we were a group of flies that had finally gotten too annoying to ignore, one of the ducks raised its head, ruffled its feathers, waddled to a more comfortable patch of ice a few inches away, and went back to sleep. “Look! They’re alive! That one just moved!”

Finished taking pictures, our fourth friend wandered back over to the rest of the group and asked if anyone wanted to go look for one of the waterfalls. The idea took like wildfire and before I knew it we were back in the car…driving in circles…for another hour. Finally, we saw a sign that read “something, something waterfall – 2KM ahead.” We parked the car (in another questionable spot) and followed the trail!

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So cold…so very cold.

At first, the path was easy. It had maybe a foot or two of snow on top of it, but it was packed tightly enough to walk on. Then it happened. We were walking around a particularly narrow bend in the path when BAM! I sank down to my waist. I’ve never regretted jeans and a light jacket quite so much.

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Do little spirits live here?

After that, the pattern (for everyone) became sink, crawl out, walk a few feet, sink again, crawl out again, repeat. We lost one of the guys along the way – he said he was tired and cold and stubbornly planted himself on a log to wait for the rest of us. We did our best to spur him forward with tales of the bravery of different fictional characters, (after all, Bilbo didn’t give up so easily, did he?) but it was no use. In his defense, the last leg of the hike was particularly steep and slippery, but the waterfall at the end was oh so worth it!

I climbed down with the others, sliding down the path tree trunk to tree trunk until there it was. Broken into three or four tiny streams, half-frozen water slid over a jagged cliff-face into a narrow canyon that carried the water away down the mountain to join the rest of the river. Shimmering icicles clung together in sheets, dripping slowly as they melted in the spring sun. It was gorgeous.

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Much ice. Such pretty.

We took a few pictures, sat for a while under a small, snow-capped gazebo, and then climbed back up the hill. The sun was starting to set by the time we began our hike back, so it felt twice as cold as before. By the time we all stumbled back into the car, we were cold, wet, and exhausted. At the same time, however, we were all struck by the beauty we had seen and spent the drive home planning our next adventure.

P.S. I actually didn’t know most of the guys I went with that day, but afterward, they quickly became some of my closest friends.

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