Hidden amongst the trees on a plateau above Nagano city is an area called Togakushi. It is known primarily for its delicious buckwheat soba noodles (a traditional Nagano dish) and as the birthplace of Togakure-ryu, one of the Ninja arts. The area has several Ninja-themed facilities as well as a surplus of delicious soba noodle restaurants. You can visit the Ninja museum, eat or learn to make soba noodles, or play at the Ninja Village for children (and 20-something foreigners who haven’t grown up yet).
We went to the children’s Ninja village last year as a welcome party for new English teachers in the area. We donned our rental ninja outfits and braved a variety of obstacle courses, including one where failure means falling into a pond of water (don’t forget to bring a towel!). We tried our hands at throwing shurikens and navigating a house with trap doors and slanted floors. We definitely weren’t embarrassed that we were the only adults there that didn’t have children.
Fast-forward one year to Sunday, September 20th. Four of us decided to camp in Togakushi during the Silver Week holiday. We came back for more ninja, soba noodles and a new experience: to hike up the mountain that gave this area its name. We began by walking from our campsite towards the Okusha Togakushi shrine. There we passed many visitors coming to pay their respects and view the rows of beautiful cedar trees.
After 20 minutes of mostly pleasant walking we reached the shrine and each made a wish. Because I’d heard some things about this hike beforehand and have a fear of heights, I wished to live to see another day. I don’t think I was the only one. As we left the shrine and started up the hiking trail, we found ourselves more and more alone.
We quickly ascended the mountain and were surprisingly energetic. There were lots of interesting obstacles to overcome, including vertical climbs with chains and traverses over steep rock faces. The views along the way were obscured by clouds, but I enjoyed the climb nonetheless.
During a short break we met another climber who was coming from the oppositedirection. He had a large hiking pack stuffed with fancy gear. We thought he must be an expert, so we asked him about how his trek had been. However, he told us that he actually hadn’t reached the peak at all, but gave up upon reaching a point that was just too dangerous. My heart sank in my chest.
After a few more chains, there it was, the reason for my fears and our friend’s bail-out. The knife edge: a ridge slightly wider than my shoulders that dropped vertically for hundreds of meters on either side. I felt dizzy just looking at the cliff-face. While I had been annoyed by the fog until now, I began appreciating it for hiding the face of death itself.
It took a long time for all four of us to cross the pass, but we all made it over in one piece. I was thrilled. I stared into the face of fear and (nervously) laughed at it. I felt invincible. I hardly minded as I watched a 60-year old man walk gingerly over the same knife ridge that had had me on my hands and knees. I was a champion. And the view awaiting us from the top of Mt. Togakushi wasn’t so bad either.
It was another 4 hours down the mountain to return to our original campsite and there were a number of chains and passes through running rivers. The obstacle courses I faced in the Ninja village were fun, but the climb made me feel for just a while that I was actually awesome. Mt. Togakushi and its neighboring ridges have been here through all of Japan’s history, and have been climbed by monks and probably some ninjas as well. While I may not be a ninja, I have found that I have a constant craving for soba noodles after that hike.
(Our hike began from the Togakushi Okusha trailhead and ended at the Togakushi farm trailhead. It is rated as an 8-hour hike, but ended up taking us longer, and is recommended for moderate to experienced hikers due to its technical difficulty. Those with fear of heights or difficulty climbing/descending steep inclines should carefully consider the value of their lives before attempting it!)