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Agony in the Land of Oze

The mizubasho (Japanese skunk cabbage) blooms across the marshland as tourists snap their shutters along the paved forest road. Similar to a sightseeing stop, Oze remains perpetually crowded. However, for half of the year Oze is covered with snow and free of people.

We had parked our car in Togura and walked the 10-km. road to Oshimizu. Starting in late spring climbers would zip by, but the road still remained closed for the winter, and we were unable to get any vehicles through. However, the path was plowed, most likely by Oshimizu innkeepers who had come to clear snow. We finally arrived at the town of Oshimizu, one of the base camps surrounding the normally crowded Oze area in Gunma Prefecture.

It was the real deal from here on in; a journey which would take us into the heart of Oze’s heavy snowfall. I strapped up my snowshoes, grabbed my poles and said to Akira Satoh, “You ready to go?” He replied, “Let’s hit it!” The road from Oshimizu was covered in snow, and we started marching our way deeper into the hills. Normally the gravel path leading to a rest house at Sanpei-hashi Bridge is quite monotonous, but today it provided a perfect warm-up. After we passed this landmark, things changed quickly and we started up the climbing trail.

We traversed the “Fuyumichi-zawa,” a name which literally means a “winter road along the swamp.” We then pushed our way through some deep snow and cleared the swamp, only to find ourselves crawling up a steep slope. The inside of my jacket was covered in sweat and I began to breathe heavily.

(Commanding view of Ozegahara from the top of Mt. Hiuchi-ga-take.)

This continued until nightfall, the sun setting in less than an hour. Having risen early and arriving on little sleep, we decided to call it a day and pitch the tent. To tell the truth, we had become somewhat lost along the road and were glad to find such a suitable campsite.

Blue-bird skies greeted us on our second day and, as we trekked on the frozen white marshlands, Ozenuma suddenly appeared before us. Our next climb took us to the top of Mt. Hiuchi-ga-take where we set up camp overlooking the marsh. Today we had again continued hiking right up until sunset.

Our Oze expedition had gone smoothly thus far, but things got hairy in the afternoon of our third day. We had traversed along the valley where the Numajiri River flows from the Ozenuma marshland and finally arrived at the Shimo-tashiro crossing in Ozegahara. It was here where we spoke with the Hagiwaras who manage the Hinoemata Hut, and began to blaze our trail toward the peak and our next campsite. We assumed the campsite would be reachable in about an hour.

(Camping at the frozen Ozenuma Marsh and Ozejiri.)

“What?! The bridge collapsed?” I yelled.

We staggered and came to a standstill. Up to this point our trek along the woodland path overlooking Ozegahara’s marshland had gone just as planned. Everything changed when we noticed the bridge that should have been there had collapsed and sunk to the bottom of the river.
The river boxed us in to the north, south and east, meaning there was nowhere to go besides west from which we had just come. Both banks of the river were covered in deep snow, and the current had picked up considerably with the snowmelt, thus making crossing the river an unattractive option. If we fell in, there would be no escaping.

After some deliberation, we set out along the river to the south to search for a crossing, but no such place presented itself. Thinking there might be a new bridge to the north of the crumbled girder, we then trekked in the opposite direction. As you can imagine, nothing was there. The Ryugu Hut was within sight, but just outside our reach. This situation carried on until almost 3 o’clock. If something wasn’t done now, even tomorrow’s hike down would become difficult.

The destroyed path to the hut had me at wits end, and I pondered making a quick retreat to the Shimo-tashiro crossing where the Hagiwaras were. There might be a separate route available, or at the very least we could get a snowmobile ride to the top. It would be best to get to them before they headed back down the mountain.
Just then I heard Satoh yell, “Aren’t those snowmobile tracks over there?”

We saw two lines extending out into the distance and, although on top of each other, it certainly appeared to be two sets of tracks. These had to be the Hagiwaras. From the looks of the snowmelt surrounding the tracks, we guessed they had come through not in the morning but some time in the afternoon. We assumed that if we continued on in the direction of the peak, we would eventually run into the couple.

(The Hagiwaras taking off in their snowmobiles. These Oze “pros” know just where to pass through the snowfields, and their tracks brought great comfort.)

We made it past the snow bridge that spans the Numajiri River and crossed over a hill, at which point we heard engine sounds from behind.

“We thought it was strange that along the way your tracks came together. Where were you going?” asked the Hagiwaras. We told them of the fallen bridge and the wandering about and then confirmed their route. Our eyes met and without a word the offer was made to give us a ride on the snowmobiles. I informed them we were OK and expected to reach the peak by sundown. We let them know we’d appreciate their help if we couldn’t get back tomorrow. They mentioned they would return to clear more snow tomorrow and then sped off down the path to home.
Day Four. Yesterday we had arrived at Yamano-hana just before sunset. Heavy rain continued until the morning and a strong wind was still blowing with no sign of letting up. Thanks to some pesky crows on the way up, our food supply had dwindled considerably and all that remained were some trail snacks. The crows had actually worked the zippers open on our backpacks.

With weather conditions worsening, we made the decision to hurry down the mountain. Together we trudged down the long, winding path through the Hatomachi Pass and back down to our car in Tokura.

Special Thanks to BE-PAL Magazine

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