Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Mountains, lakes and a nine hour drive

Date: Tuesday 13th August 2013

Weather: I do believe that a lottery is done to decide how the weather will be. Today my name got 'pulled out of the hat' because I had the right weather at the right time.

MP3 track of the day: Climb every mountain – Sound of Music

Yamagata, to me, will forever be associated with early starts:

  • I was checked-out by 7:00am.
  • I had put all of my bags into my car (had a quick look for my baseball cap – no such luck) by 7:15am.
  • I had gone to 'Vieda France' and devoured the same breakfast I had eaten yesterday by 7:45am.
  • I had got back in my car and was out of Yamagata by 8am.

The weather looked good and so, as promised, I headed away from home and up Zao-san, for the second time, to see if I could see this crater lake. As I wound my way up familiar roads, I kept one eye on the sky. From this low height all looked good; as of yet I couldn't see the summit but visibility seemed to be okay. I decided to proceed onwards ignoring the part of my memory which reminded me that, two days ago, the weather also looked good at this height.

It seemed to take forever to drive up this mountain. I realised that I'd gone a slightly different route, to two days ago, when I drove up one peak, only to decent back into the valley and to start climbing all over again. All the way I was willing the car, and the weather, to play their parts and when I eventually saw the 'rope way' I jumped for joy. You see two days ago, when I was standing at the bottom of the rope way, it lead into a thick white cloud. Today I was still only halfway up the mountain and, not only could I see the rope way in the distance, but I could see it's terminus and blue sky above that. I put my foot down and continued to climb with haste. Knowing my luck from yesterday I wanted to get their before that blue sky turned into cloud.

Instead of using the 'rope way' I drove on and paid 500 yen (instead of 1,400 Yen to use the 'rope way') to park within a car park next to the crater. I quickly put on my walking boots and almost ran to the edge of the crater to get a photo before the weather had time to change it's mind. Once a photo was taken I calmed down and took in the view; it was unbelievable. To my right was the path I'd walked up two days ago and I could even see the car park I'd parked in. Looking at the path, we had come so tantalisingly close to the crater two days ago and yet, because of cloud, we had no idea. Moving my head slowly from right to left I got a fantastic panoramic of the area. In front of me was a valley with a small stream running towards a waterfall; I could tell that it was the same stream which I'd photographed two days ago because I saw the different coloured rocks. To my left was the crater and within was a turquoise coloured lake; it was so beautiful. As I studied the map, given to me by the parking attendant, I realised that the path leading left, around the crater, was leading to the summit of Zao-san. Originally my plan for the day was to spend as little time as possible here due to having an eight hour (now nine as I'd driven one hour in the wrong direction) car ride home however, now here, I could see the summit and it was so close. I might never come back here, I thought to myself and, with that thought, I put one foot in front of the other in the direction of the summit.

Keeping the crater lake to my right I pressed onto the summit stopping occasionally to photograph the crater from different angles. I only did this every-so-often as my reserve battery was indicating that 33% or less of battery life was left; it would have been a shame to have come all this way without a photograph of the summit.

After a steep, but short, climb over some loose rocks I made it to the summit. I asked a woman, who sadly was waiting for husband to catch up, if this was the top and she said yes with a big smile. I, not being too sure, saw that there was a long, but narrow, plateau behind me with a small temple on. The temple seemed to be around a five minute walk away and, from this angle, it also seemed to be a little higher. I therefore walked to the temple, took a few shots, and then headed back towards the crater lake path and back towards the car park.

The time was now 10:30am and there was still one last thing to see. To get to the summit of Zao-san I had taken the left-hand path; the right-hand path was tiny but it did climb (almost vertically) towards another small shrine. I therefore bent my back a little to keep my weight forward and started to climb quickly. Once at the shrine I took a few photos before walking to the point where Mike and I had turned around two days ago. Once there I backtracked past the shrine and back to the car park. After purchasing a bottle of water I looked back in the general direction of the crater. The weather had been stupendous; I couldn't have asked for better. I might have been sunburnt (I did apply sun cream however, with no hat, it would have been a miracle to leave that place without a little more 'red' added to my white skin) but at that point I didn't care. Zao-san had given me a perfect parting gift and I thanked it for it. Also, while stood there, I tried to answer a question all of my friends asked me before leaving “...so do you think southern Tohoku will be better than northern Tohoku?...”. I have to be honest and say that it took me, almost until I was home, to reach a conclusion but, I would say, yes. It is only a small victory for Southern Tohoku and not, I think, for the reasons my friends would automatically decide upon. I would say that all cities within Tohoku aren't that great at all; the northern cities beat the southern ones only because their summer festivals are better. I didn't like Sendai or it's eastern coast, whereas in the north I didn't like Aomori city. The south wins because, even though the north has some really pretty scenery, the south has two or three 'jaw dropping' pieces and Zao-san is the best.

With the above debate going back and forth within my head, I drove out of the car park. The time was 11am and there was a huge queue of cars waiting for spaces. As I drove further down the mountain the queue must have been a good two miles long and I was thankful that I'd got here at 9am.

By midday I was back where I'd started in Yamagata. I filled up with fuel for the final time and made the 'great push north-east'. My journey home would resemble a huge set of steps. First, I would head north for about 3hrs before heading straight east for around the same time. Afterwards I would head north for an hour before heading east again for the same amount of time. Even though my route was direct, it wasn't the shortest in time; google had wanted me to stay on the '13' (the major road heading north/south on the western side of northern Honshu) for longer however, the '13' is pretty dull. Like my dad, I don't mind a longer journey if it means driving along more interesting roads; with this in mind I travelled up 2/3rds of the '13' before turning off and taking a road which would climb up a mountain and then fall down into the valley below (where there should be a huge lake). After this I would cross the '4' (another boring road which is the major north/south road on the eastern side of northern Honshu) and across some more mountains until I arrive in Tono. Once in Tono, which I have been to many times, I would follow my normal path home. As I said earlier, the time was midday and so I made a note to see how long it would take. I drove out of the petrol station straight into the second lane of the '13' and put my foot down.

I had reached the point where I was planning on heading east at around 2:30pm. To celebrate the fact that I was thirty minutes ahead of schedule, I allowed myself a short break at a local convenience store before hitting the road once more. According to my map, the next leg should be a more interesting drive and, as I looked at the mountains in the distance, I increased my speed in anticipation.

The drive up and down the mountains was indeed spectacular. Like all other mountains in northern Honshu, they rose up so straight and defiant that the road meandered tightly. The ever present forest, and the occasional landscape view, were indeed impressive however, it wasn't until I reached the lake that my jaw dropped for the second time today.

The lake turned out to be a man-made one, due to the biggest dam I've ever seen on one side. The road went along a huge bridge which turned in line with the edge of the lake, giving you a splendid panoramic view of the lake, the mountains and the forests. This lasted for, what seemed like, half an hour and with the sun setting the area put goose pimples on my arms.

Pressing on I entered a town which hugged the flanks of the '4'. Reluctant to cross I finally entered the eastern side of Iwate and, even though the mountains were still ever present, the scenery had changed in some way that made it feel familiar.

The mountainous roads continued to ascend and descend through spectacular scenery. The light was fading fast and it was almost gone as I drove into Tono. The time was 6:00pm and I was now an hour away from home (I had therefore managed to shave an hour off my journey; and I'd made three 'wrong turns'). Finally I turned right onto the '106' and found myself within very familiar territory.

As I approached the centre of Miyako I stopped for tea before parking up within my parking space. I had promised myself that, once home, I would do nothing but chill and sleep however, having found some energy from somewhere, I unpacked and sorted out all of my stuff before going to bed. As I lay there I thought about the last fourteen days. Three festivals, the biggest city in Northern Honshu, a top scenic site, two volcanoes, one castle, two Buddhist temple sites and a hell of a lot of driving. Not bad I thought to myself; not bad for £550.00 (forgetting the shoes I bought and the presents for my schools).

Toodle Pip!

Well this marks the end of this trip however don't be sad; in just over a week I'll be travelling once more. The destination this time is the island of Sado for a drum festival. It's going to be epic and it starts with a, sort of, nine hour 'rally stage' drive. More to come travelling fans!

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