Awake well before the 6.30 alarm that D. set to be on the safe side, as we have to make an early start today. It is a cold, windy morning with patches of blue sky but ominous dark clouds racing overhead. We are in a hurry to leave, so a cold breakfast and canned coffee before we drive to the Oirase Gorge, pausing only to take yet more autumn leaf pictures.
Arriving at Oirase Gorge, we mistake where to stop and as a U-turn is difficult on such a narrow windy road press on and finally stop in the mid-section of the gorge. We find a parking space easily, as it is still early, but, nevertheless there are a number of cars about, and prepare to walk. As we are packing our rain suit jackets in the day bag it begins to rain a little so we put them on.
The track proves to be much rougher than I had expected for such a well-worn tourist destination. It shows, perhaps, that preservation is more important here than easy access for tourists.
Mud and rain
The track along the steam is, of course, fairly flat but some points are a bit of a scramble. It was very wet and muddy. The light rain, that threatened as we set off, intensifies and on one or two occasions becomes torrential. We, like fools, have left our rain suit bottoms back in the van so suffer from wet legs.
The rain eases and, at times, the sun breaks through renewing the enthusiasm for photography. The gorge is spectacular. The glorious autumn colours, the high crags and the stream/ mountain torrent rushing through make for wonderful sights.
Even so, our spirits dampened by the rain, we consider catching a bus back but discover we have missed one by eight minutes and will have to wait fifty minutes for the next one so we press on.
As the weather improves, and we learn to navigate the bus loads of Chinese tourist, we persevere. We get stuck with one group. A family of four. These we keep passing and then they overtake us in turn as we pause to take pictures. The older man in this gang of four, as we come to think of them, is wearing lemon yellow trousers and brown leather slip-on loafers. Nevertheless, he gamely continues, well after other groups have turned back, and, as we do, ultimately arrives at Lake Towada.
Lake Towada 十和田湖
Here the landscape changes abruptly, opening out to a large lake with the distant mountains as a far horizon. There is a stiff breeze blowing off the water, whipping up white horses on a very choppy surface and it is very cold. It is not much of a destination but, luckily, a bus is due and we wait only a few minutes.
The road back through the gorge is chock a block with cars and tour buses. The tour buses just stop at each specific sight. At a crag or some waterfall with a name, allowing the passengers to take pictures. This creates havoc on the narrow road.
We get back to the car, hungry after nearly four hours walking. We grab some food from a Lawson’s and head into Towada to do some, very necessary, clothes washing at a coin laundry.
Driving a mountain pass in the dark
As it is getting late in the afternoon and darkness now falls just after five, it is time to make for the road station for the night. Michi no eki Ikarigaseki is still a fairly long drive. We head back the way we have come, back through the, now almost deserted, Oirase gorge. The road is narrow, winding and unlit. Our navi. tells us to make a right turn, which we do, but the road ahead is closed and gated so we U-turn and head further down the gorge to Lake Towada.
At the lake, still windy and ominous in the dark, we take a right and follow Route 102. This proves to be very winding, dark, steep and absolutely deserted.
As we climb it begins to rain steadily. We can see the rain falling constantly in the headlights but, when I turn on the windscreen wipers they complain squeakily of lack of water. I turn them off but no rain appears on the windscreen. It still appears to be raining steadily though, as we drive this winding, mountain pass for an hour or so and meet no cars.
Eventually, we descend to emerge at the other side of the mountains to find that half the road is gated and a man in a small truck with hazard lights ablaze waiting at the gate. (The next day we learn that the pass was closed at 6p.m. we passed through at 5.55.) In hindsight the “rain” may have been diamond dust. That is ice particles in the air, that blew off the windscreen without melting. It is was all rather spooky – like traveling at warp speed.
We drive on to the very large michi-no-eki Ikarigaseki on route 7 in Aomori prefecture. A significant number of shachuhaku (sleep in a car) vans are parked up but I am too tired to count them. Luckily, there is an onsen and I take a bath to ease the strain of 4 hours hiking and a similar time driving, 25% at warp speed.
＊Ikarigaseki onsen 350yen
The author is a long term resident of Japan who has and continues to travel the country extensively. Avoiding highways where possible, the author has driven from Kagoshima in Kyushu to Wakanai in Hokkaido covering 20,000 plus kilometres and counting.