The previous year Jeff and I had climbed Muka-yama on a fine spring day, and on our return from the summit had scouted out the start of the faint trail leading over to Muri-dake. Ever since then it had been on our minds to return and try the route, so 7am on a clear October morning saw us once more at the end of the forest road below Muka-yama. We parked next to the only other car and pulled on our boots.
The walk up the devastated forest road was familiar although had become more overgrown as the vegetation has begun to reclaim it. We passed the gloomy former trailhead and eventually emerged into the sun a little further up the valley. Last time the hillside had been covered in the brilliant fresh green of early spring, but now we had the colours of autumn; although the brilliant foliage was mainly gone at this elevation the spidery patterns traced by the white trunks of the birch and dakekanba ダケカンバtrees against a gray/brown backdrop are just as beautiful in a more understated way. Higher up we entered the haimatsu creeping pine zone and the melting frost and rime on the branches soaked our trousers as we brushed by, being too lazy to stop and pull on our waterproofs.
On Maemuka-yama we found the unmarked trail junction and turned off along the faint track. A lone figure could be seen coming down from the summit of Muka-yama. After a few hundred meters, where the path begins to drop down the ridge, we paused to look at the view ahead across the broad col to the long ridge snaking up to the summit of Muri-dake, just over 3km from where we stood. Inspired by the panorama we dropped down into the col, not regretting too much about having to lose the height. The trail narrowed and became fainter, but at least it remained a trail until we neared the bottom. At one point it passed inches from a sheer cliff edge, not a place to slip. After a while we realized that the other climber had followed us down, so as he got closer we stopped to let him pass. As he drew level he looked up to greet us, and the double take and look of surprise on his face to see two gaijin on the trail was priceless. ‘Ehhh …. On such a minor mountain …’, he exclaimed. We chatted for a bit before he continued on.
The fun really began near the bottom as the path petered out and we were reduced to struggling through the tangled undergrowth, pausing frequently to locate the next piece of pink marker tape to aim for. Luckily they were fairly easy to see as the leaves had gone from the trees. Fallen branches and intertwined sasa grabbed at our feet or slapped our faces as we cursed and fought our way through. As the slope steepened up the other side the downward growing sasa stalks proved particularly vexatious as we grabbed handfuls of the stuff to haul ourselves up. The occasional deer bounded away through the brush. This would not be fun in summer, we thought; not just because of the heat and lack of visibility in the trees but also as it was prime tick habitat. As someone who is paranoid about ticks, having contracted Lyme Disease in Hokkaido once before, I was constantly examining every speck on my arms and legs. This late in the season, though, the cold has usually seen them off and we found none that day.
Once out of the undergrowth the trail climbed up onto the main ridge up to Muri-dake. From here the walk was a delight, weaving in and out of small outcrops on the narrow ridge reminiscent at times of the larger hills in the Japan Alps. After a final pull up to a shoulder a hundred meters of connecting ridge deposited us on the satisfyingly narrow and rocky summit. Our fellow climber was already there and we chatted a bit more before he set off back. Alone on the summit we were tempted to linger and enjoy the stunning views in all directions, but knowing we had a long way to retrace our steps we contented ourselves with firing up the stove for some hot noodles and snacks before reluctantly taking our leave.
The return down the ridge was just as delightful as the ascent, and the drop down to the col proved easier as we were sliding down in the direction of the sasa roots this time. The pull back up to Maemuka-yama, however, a 250m climb, made us realize how tired we had become and seemed to take ages; it was late afternoon by the time we got to the top. Back on the main trail we hurried on down in the dusk. It was nearly dark by the time we reached the old trailhead and shortly after the light went completely as we negotiated the washed out road. Luckily a young moon provided just enough of a glimmer so that we didn’t need to get our head torches out. Back at the car after 10 hours we quickly chucked everything in the back and headed down to Sounkyo for onsen and pasta. Over dinner we reflected that while it had certainly been a tougher than usual day it had been well worth the effort.