Monday, January 4, 2016

Kaimon Dake, Jan. 2, 2016

(New Year's display in the main Chuo train station. Happy New Year!)

About 2 years ago, I went to Yakushima and did a bit of mountain climbing there on the second day. When I returned to Kagoshima by ferry, I saw a big, pyramid-shaped mountain down at the southern end of the Satsuma peninsula. I saw it again once when I took the ferry between Kagoshima city and Sakurajima, although it was kind of a faded shadow at that distance. I resolved that I would climb it at some point while I was still in Kagoshima. Then, the opportunity presented itself on Jan. 2nd. It's called "Kaimon Dake" (Open Gate Mountain), and is often referred to as the "Mt. Fuji of Kyushu".

(Not many people waiting for the train at 5 AM on a Saturday during the New Year break.)

The thing about getting to Kaimon Dake is that first you need to get to Ibuski, which is 1 hour away by train, and the trains only run about 4-5 times a day. The climb is recommended to take 5 hours (3 hours up, 2 hours down) and you need to do it during daylight hours. In January, that's between 7 AM and 4 PM. The ideal is to get to the mountain at about daybreak, and the earliest train at that time leaves Kagoshima at 4:50 AM. And there's a short layover at Ibuski when you change trains, and another 30-minute ride to get to Kaimon station. Total fare one way is 1,250 yen (about $10 USD). The night of Jan. 1st, I got to bed at 10 PM, but I couldn't fall asleep until 3 AM. I woke up just before the alarm went off, so I only got 1 hour of actual sleep, and I couldn't sleep on the train down to Kaimon. I got out of the apartment at 4:20, and arrived at the station at 4:40. It was just above freezing, so I was wearing a t-shirt, with a long-sleeve cycling jersey over that, and a windbreaker, gloves, and long-leg cycling pants under my regular jeans. By the time I got to the train, I was feeling toasty. I had both cameras, a couple energy bars, 3 rice balls, a 500-ml bottle of water, and my maps and itinerary. I was ready, but just really tired.

The train got in to Kaimon station at 6:40 AM, and the mountain was just a black shadow in the black sky. Two other guys got off with me, and we decided to get started together. It's a 20-minute walk to the trail head. inside the Kaimon park. Most people recommend taking a taxi, but there weren't any waiting at the station at that time, and we figured that the walk would be a good way to warm up. However, there was a solid slope up the entire way, and we were getting tired before we even reached the park. The sun rose pretty quickly and we could easily see the trail by 7 AM. One guy split off to find a resort spot that had a foot hot spa, and me and the other guy went to the trail head. The official Kaimon Dake website recommends that climbers sign a sheet at the park HQ to warn the rangers in case something goes wrong and they'll know to look for you. But, the building at the trail head didn't have a sign-in sheet, so the other guy left while I was looking for it. Which is why I neglected to take a photo of the trail entrance sign to get an idea of how long the trail is.

(Sun rise near a junior high school on the walk to the park.)

I caught up to the guy as he was resting at checkpoint 4. The website map shows that the trail goes clockwise around the mountain from the park entrance (at 12 o'clock on the map), heading mostly straight south-south-east, before starting to curve more sharply around the mountain, and hitting the top at 10 o'clock on the map. It looks like half the distance on the route is from the entrance to checkpoint 4, meaning that I've probably gone 2.5 km by now. That's at 500 meters, and the entrance is at 200 meters, so I've climbed 300 meters along a 2.5 km walk, and I still need to go 400 meters up in the next 2.5 km. By now, it's maybe 7:20 AM, and it's getting warm. Both of us take off our jackets and gloves, and just go with t-shirts. We get started again, and pretty soon I'm getting really tired. I have a tendency to push myself too hard on these kinds of climbs, so I tried to pace myself better. But there were just too may tree roots, loose gravel and boulders to climb over, and I hadn't gotten myself in shape in the days leading up to the climb. So I fell off the back and just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. I did get another bottle of water from the vending machines at the park entrance, and I started munching on a Clif bar. But, I wanted both hands free to grab onto rocks and tree roots, so I had the water bottle and the big camera in the backpack, and I only broke out the water bottle when I took a break. (The small camera was in a bag on a belt loop.)

At about 600 meters, there was a break in the trees. It's now 8 AM. The sun is high above the horizon, but the reflections off the clouds and water are creating a false dawn.

(Looking south at Higashi Kaimon (East Kaimon).)

(Close-up of the water's edge.)

(Lake Ikeda, a large volcanic crater lake.)

By now, I'm being passed by other people that started after me, and there's even people coming down the trail, apparently having reached the top already. This confuses me - either they stayed on the peak overnight, or they started climbing when it was still dark and before I'd gotten to the trail head. Anyway, I'm feeling like I'm the slowest person on the hill. This is eventually disproved later on; there are 2 or 3 people over age 80 that are slower than me. We're still at about 500 meters. Notice the yellow and white sign on the tree, announcing that this is air rescue point #4, if you need a rescue helicopter. Cell phone service does work at this point, so you're expected to call the number at the bottom of the sign to request help. The trail continues up and to the right.

Checkpoint 6, at about 600 meters. 1.6 km left to go.

Sometimes, the trail is harder to find. Other times, it's just pure boulder climbing. There are wooden steps in a few locations, and 2-3 wooden ladders with knotted rope handholds. And sometimes, it's a few thin boulders propped up against the cliff face. The more iffy locations had 20-foot drops into the trees and bushes if you're not careful.

Checkpoint 7. 1.1 km to go, at about 700 meters. That's one foot up for every 5 feet forward.

Sometimes, it's 2 feet up for every 1 foot forward...

Air rescue point 3. From here, you can see Amami, Yakushima and Tanegashima on a clear day.

Today is not a clear day.

I thought the light spots on the ocean looked funny, so I took a photo of them. 30 seconds later, the clouds shifted and they were gone.

Checkpoint 8. The climbing is getting a lot harder, so the signs are occurring more frequently to keep you from giving up.

Not that that's a bad idea. On the way up, the tree roots are nice to use as stairs. On the way down, they turn into hundreds of trip and slip hazards.

Checkpoint 9. 400 meters left to go, and at least 50 meters left to climb up.

Yes, you either have to climb over, or through the boulders to keep going up.

Air rescue point 2.

Notice the complete absence of hill between the current trail location, and the ground 2,500 feet below. There is a reason I am not getting any closer to the edge of the trail to take additional photos. There is a reason I'm not taking additional photos, period.

Ok, maybe one more.

I'm finally very close to the top. There's a shinto shrine here, with a coin box for donations. I have no idea how often someone comes up here to check if the box is full, toe clean out the old sake cups when they biodegrade, or to carry the heavy sack of coins back down the hill. (Or, for that matter, to check if the trail needs repairs.)

Several sake bottles to the left of the box. Nothing in the shrine space, though.

Yup. At the top now. I think this guy is from China. I couldn't get him to take my photo for me. Now, from the shinto shrine to this point, which only took 30 seconds to traverse, the air temperature has dropped 20 degrees and the wind has really picked up. I dig my wind breaker from my bag, and I keep wearing it all the way back down the trail. With all of the breaks I took, it's almost exactly 3 hours from the trail head to the mountain peak.

Lake Ikeda, a volcanic lake, and home to Issie, the Japanese version of Nessie. 233 meters deep.

The peak marker. "Kaimon Dake, 924 meters".

I wanted proof that I'd gotten up here, so I took a selfie with the small camera, which is not suited to selfies.

So, I tried again, with Ikeda in the background.

Supposedly, there is a cave nearby that had been used by enlightened sages, or "Tengu". The sign describes how the Tengu came to Kaimon Dake, and then says "keep out of the cave".

(Kaimon Dake at street level. Notice that the peak is now enshrouded in clouds.)

The hike back down was nearly as brutal as the way up, taking 2.5 hours and requiring several rest stops. It included bouldering, tripping over the roots and vines, and sliding in the loose gravel. In fact, the gravel was much more treacherous on the way down than on the way up. I did slip and fall backwards once, but I got lucky and didn't injure anything. At ground level, I bought more water from the nearby vending machine, then tried to find something to do in the 1.5 hours before the next train was due. There's a recreational center with a foot hot spa 10 minutes away in one direction, but it was closed. The town itself had nothing - no vending machines, no open stores, no konbini, or restaurants.

They did have one shrine hosting hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year), but it was so crowded that the police were enforcing the lines snaking out and around the block. I didn't want to stand in line and possibly miss my train, so I returned to the station to just wait.

Lots of people. The shrine also had traditional music playing, but I couldn't tell if it was live or a CD. I really wanted to go to one of the kiosks and buy some food, but you had to get in line to get into the shrine grounds for that first.

The train station. The next train was at 2:08 PM. Again, there's nothing here, including a train station building. You get a numbered ticket when you get on the train, and pay the fare either when you get off before Ibusuki, or inside one of the stations any place up along the line to Kagoshima Chou station. Fortunately, the 2:08 train went directly to Chou station, so I didn't have to wait to change trains in Ibuski. However, rain started coming down about halfway along the ride, and it was drizzling in Kagoshima when I got home. I arrived at the apartment at 4 PM. I was exhausted, dehydrated, hungry (the train was packed with no place to sit down, or to try to eat an energy bar), and very, very stiff. Fortunately, my muscles weren't as sore the next day as I was expecting.

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