In the early fall we were invited on a trip to climb Hodaka-dake (3190m), the country's third highest peak, in Japan's Northern Alps. Popular because the fall colors change early in the high mountains, the Northern Alps at that time of year are, like all other popular places in Japan, incredibly crowded. Unbelievably crowded. Thousands of Japanese hikers flocked to the Hodaka-dake route in outdoor gear so identical it appeared as if everyone was wearing uniforms, and often created traffic jams on the trails. This, combined with bad weather, made our Northern Alps excursion my most outlandish backcountry journey yet.
Beginning in the early morning from Kamikochi, we ascended through the Azusa valley into the deep folds of the Northern Alps. Despite the crowds, the morning weather and fall-color-kissed mountains were lovely, and our spirits were high. But by the time we'd reached the alpine lodges and camp ground at Karasawa, ten miles in, the weather had turned nasty. Like most hikers, unable to continue to other lodges, we were forced to stay at Karasawa. The room we were assigned, which would have been cozy for eight, was crammed wall-to-wall with a total of sixteen exhausted people. We slept a little, thankful at least for the warmth, and awoke to find that visibility at the higher altitudes was effectively zero. Unable to ascend the summit, we followed lines of hikers along a wet and exhausting return to civilization, which, with all the crowds, we felt we'd never actually left... We were thankful, however, for at least a little taste of wilderness...