Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Mountains, Temples and 'Mikey Mike'

Date: Sunday 11th August 2013

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

Weather: Cloudy at first but it soon cleared to be a very hot and bright day

4am isn't a time I would associate with holidays however with my mate Mike, arriving in Sendai at 5:30am, I got up, showered and dressed before leaving the hotel at 4:30am. With reception closed I put my key behind the reception desk and took the elevator down to the ground floor. The sun was just starting to rise; headlights were still needed but at least the temperature was cool. I left Yamagata at 4:46am. Amazingly the traffic lights were still set to 'automatic' and so I found myself waiting at junctions with no other sole around. I therefore put my foot to the floor and tried to get out of Yamagata as quickly as possible. No city; no traffic lights.

My speed started to increase as I headed away from Yamagata and into the mountains (which separate Yamagata from Sendai). Even at this time I had another car follow me and we twisted and turned as one as we made our way through sleepy villages and rice fields. All of the sudden the car behind disappeared and so, in truth, had the road. I pulled over, looked at my map, and tried to work out how on Earth I went from a major road to a country lane in the space of two corners. I found out that I hadn't gone wrong at all. Looking at my road map I had two options; I could either use the pay road, which consisted of a long tunnel through the mountains, or I could take the free road which, though it looked like a squiggle a child of three had drawn, I knew was a road that meandered up the mountainside. Being tight, and realising that being close to the top of a mountain at dawn might be pretty cool, I headed straight along the country lane and started to climb.

I didn't realise that the road actually went over the summit. The view was spectacular and I wasn't alone; three or four cars were parked on the summit and people were hiking along the mountain ridge. I kept on course and proceeded down the other side into agricultural terrain. Before hitting Sendai the road had one more big surprise, which consisted of a huge bridge crossing a huge lake. At one end the Japanese had built a dam and, when I occasionally peered over the edge, the drop was enormous. I must have still been quite high up therefore the road into Sendai must have gradually gone down hill, though I failed to notice.

Due to it being 6:30, on a Sunday morning, Sendai was as quite as a mouse. Mike was waiting where we agreed to meet and so, after picking him up, I headed straight out the way I'd came in and didn't stop until I'd cleared the outskirts of the city. Finding a convenience store we ate breakfast before continuing our trip. Today we were heading to 'Zao-San', a huge mountain with a beautiful crater lake (or so people had told me). Chatting all of the way we crossed the bridge over the lake and then took a left and followed the road up 'Zao-San'.

With the additional weight of Mike and his luggage, the car struggled to get up the mountain road. At best our speed dropped to 24 miles an hour and many motorbikes whizzed past. There was only one rest stop before we reached the summit area (which held a view of a waterfall and a temple). Once near the top I parked my 'out-of-breathe' car and proceeded on foot. We hadn't reached the 'rope way' yet (which my guidebook said would take me to the crater), but we had reached an excellent viewing point. Protected by a guard rail a huge canyon lay below us with a waterfall plunging all the way to the bottom. After photographing that to death we drove a little higher and saw a decent sized crater with a small river running through it (which, I think, fed the waterfall). The river wasn't that spectacular but the sides of the crater were fascinating. Due to the many minerals, the rock colour ranged from red to green to white to yellow. It was an extremely beautiful place; the only issue for us was the weather. As we looked further up 'Zao-San' the clouds got darker and thicker. Even though it wasn't a problem, at the moment, we knew that we had to ascend into those clouds and that the view of the crater (which we had come to see) would almost certainly be comprised. Still we decided to risk it and after photographing the canyon in front of us we started to walk up a path to our left.

When climbing continuously for forty minutes, 'one' starts to curse each and every doughnut he's ever eaten. On the one hand, I was surprised to find out just how unfit I was considering, only two years ago, I would have been walking miles almost everyday. On the other hand, since coming to Japan, my lifestyle has become more luxurious with a car to take me to work and many different types of food. I decided that I needed to get fit and fast. Like I said, we'd climbed continuously for forty minutes and the clouds had really come in. Mike was feeling a little cold however for me, the strong breeze was perfect. We rested at a small shelter and asked a Japanese person, who was a lot more prepared for the hike than either of us, just how far was left. '1 km' was the answer however, it was all up hill and swung around the mountains crater. The visibility had become so poor that only objects a few meters away could be seen and so, with 'health and safety' worries plus nothing to see, we took the mature decision and aborted the climb.

Once back at the car we proceeded upwards and towards a rest stop; the cloud was so heavy that fog lights would have been advisable however, my car didn't seem to have any. Due to the cloud we didn't realise it but we were parked in the car park for the rope way to the crater. Once the cloud had cleared a little, we could see the hut and so we proceeded forth, more for information than anything else. Once in the hut Mike had something to eat whereas I, still full from breakfast, gazed upon the photos of the crater longingly. Now I was here, I so wanted to pay the 1,400 Yen (£12.00) to go up to the crater lake. My heart was telling me that, once there, the clouds would be diverted, or pass over the top of the cater giving full visibility. However my logical brain was telling me otherwise. With directions to an onsen we left the hut. If the weather improves tomorrow (or on my trip home) I shall return, I thought to myself.

The car was thankful to be heading down hill for once. Sadly we were unable to find the onsen and so, at 11am, I had completed all that I'd planned for today. We pulled over and consulted our guidebooks. Yamadera (the town I missed yesterday) was our closest attraction and so we headed there.

As we approached the small village of Yamadera the skies had turned blue and the clouds white. Once out of the car I gazed sadly at the closest mountain range not knowing if that was apart of 'Zao-San' or not. In truth I had no idea if the weather had improved upon the mountain top or not however, it would be just my luck.

After parking up I read about the 'Yamadera temples'. Built upon one of the mountains which enclosed the village, I scanned the many mountain peaks to find one with buildings on it. At this point Mike had made it to a watermelon stand and was trying to barter the woman down; I moved over and apologised reminding Mike that he wasn't in Central America any more.

After stopping for a 'less that delightful' lunch we headed to the temples. Around thirty nudist temples had been created on this site, all along one long stone path which lead almost to the top of the mountain. After looking around the free temples, located at the base of the mountain, we paid the 200 Yen asking price and, for the second time today, started to climb.

The first part of the climb took us through a wood. The shade was welcome but the humidity was not. After breaking through the woodland the midday sun hit me like a hammer. I tilted my head downwards (to see where I was walking) and, I think, this was when I burnt the back of my neck however, I cannot be too sure. Hot and sweaty we looked at all of the temples before reaching a lookout. The view down onto the valley below was spectacular. It looked as though the village of Yamadera was built within a long valley with the mountains on ether side. The buildings took up the left-hand side of the valley with terraced rice fields taking up the right. I stood their and took it all in with, in truth, one eye still on the mountain range in front of me. As I turned to look back down at the mountain we had just climbed, the stone steps wound their way past shrines, trees and vegtation. With the blue sky above the whole place was amazing.

Just before leaving a man collapsed, quite literally, in front of us. The family asked me to help and we carried him into the shade. With no water left in my own bottle, and a large crowd starting to gather, I felt it was better to leave than be one of those annoying 'spectators' who, though fascinated, do nothing even remotely useful. As I left I saw a little girl who I'd seen a few times on my walk; she was the cutest girl ever and we spoke a little throughout our many meetings.

Once back in the centre of the village I found my car and started her up. I closed the door, leaving the air-con to run inside for a while, and me trying to stop Mike going over to the fruit stand to try and barter the price down again (I was unsuccessful, but so was he). Afterwards we got in the car and went back to Yamagata.

Mike hadn't pre-booked anywhere to stay and so, after a brief visit to a full hostel, we asked Yamagata's tourist information office where a cheap hotel was. Luckily it was only five minutes away. Mike checked-in and then we came back to the car to pick up his bags. He said that he would like to return to his hotel to settle in, freshen up and take a shower. In truth I wanted to do the same. We therefore went out separate ways promising to meet up at 5pm.

After I had purchased 'Omiyagi' (a cake souvenir) for all of my schools, we went out hunting restaurants which the tourist information lady had recommended. After seeing all of them we eventually settled on the last one she recommended and I ordered a soba dish. This is like ramen except the noodles are different and, because it's summer, it is not served hot. It turned out to be very nice though I was starting to get bored of the sheer volume of noodles by the end. After this we strolled around the town looking for a pub with little success. Eventually we found one but, having been up since 4am, I was starting to become very tired and so we only stayed for one drink.

We finished the night by agreeing to meet up at nine tomorrow morning. Our plan was to head out to Denwa-San; another mountain though this time, with a major religious meaning (it's one of the most religious sights in Japan). It should take us an hour to get there so we are looking at a full day excursion.

My final full day; where has the time (and sadly my money) gone!

Toodle Pip!

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