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Running Up Miune in Winter! A Glimpse into the Traces of the Ancient Highland Settlements on the Summit of Miune

Tengu Mound
Tengu Mound

The Terrifying Nature of Winter Mountaineering

Mother Nature’s mountains captivate people’s souls, and many mountain climbers step on her earth every day to reach the top of her summits. However, more than 200 precious lives are lost every year in Japan alone. 90% of these deaths were due to fatigue, illness, falls, tumbles, or losing their way.

Especially lately, there has been a recent onslaught of accidents involving middle-aged people. Nine middle-aged tourists lost their lives on Tomuraushiyama, a 2,141-meter-high mountain in Hokkaido on July 17, 2009. The tour company that organized the tour was not prepared for the sudden change in weather conditions, which led to the worst possible outcome. Not only did the rain soak the climbers and rapidly deprive them of body heat, the strong winds also sapped their strength, causing hypothermia and other symptoms that led to their deaths. This incident made me realize how terrifying climbing mountains can be.

Fuji Special Area Weather Observatory where automatic observations are made
Fuji Special Area Weather Observatory
where automatic observations are made
On December 18, Ukyo Katayama and his climbing group went missing while climbing Mt. Fuji. Mt.Fuji looks peaceful when viewed from afar, but many professional mountaineers have declared it to be one of the most terrifying winter mountains in the world. The summit area is regularly exposed to strong winds, and the climate changes unimaginably fast. On Mt. Fuji, Katayama’s group briefly pitched their tent at an altitude of 2,750 meters, but the wind blew away the tents of his two companions, and they froze to death after sliding 200 meters down the ice.

The Growing Desire to Run in the Winter Mountains

I think the first time I climbed a mountain was on a field trip to Hakone in elementary school more than 40 years ago. Thinking back to that faint memory from that time, I think I was walking along a trail path in a field with my classmates.

Many years later, I had never done any serious mountain climbing before, but the chance came my way to climb a mountain from a marathon. Under the guise of training for a competition, I I went running whenever I had time in the city, along the seaside, on mountain roads, or on the pilgrimage routes of Shikoku. Sometimes when I was on business, I would run in the middle of winter in Germany. I would run for long periods of time on the hills in short-sleeved running clothes in zero below freezing temperatures. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder why I wasn’t bothered by any of it.

Recently, I climbed the second highest mountain in Shikoku, Tsurugisan, many times. I enjoyed running up and down the mountain path to a mountain hut on the summit nearly 2,000 meters above sea level, and around the surrounding mountain peaks. At some point in my mind, I began to desire to climb these peaks. I told myself, “I want to climb the three peaks next to Tsurugisan!”.

Making a Plan to Conquer the Summit of Miune

Miune is located in Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku. This majestic mountain is comparable in height to Tsurugisan at 1,893 meters and is a mecca for mountain climbers. The area surrounding its summit is covered with colonies of miyama-kumazasa and kome-tsutsuji azaleas. There is even a large pond in the vicinity. The sight of a pond at the top of this high mountain covered with bamboo is so enticing to every climber who climbs the mountain.

I decided to climb the mountain alone this past December to reach the summit. I wanted to see this mysterious pond with my own eyes so I no longer had any doubts of its existence. There are a total of three climbing routes on Miune: from Nagoro or Sugo on the Tokushima prefecture side, and from Kouseki on the Kochi prefecture side. No matter how majestic the mountain is, it looked so easy to run when I looked at it on a flat map, so I initially planned to run up from Nagoro via the summit of Miune and Tengu-zuka in the back, then make a U-turn and run back down to head for Tsurugisan. However, the 40km traverse would normally take at least three days to complete. I had no idea that this was the case, but I gave myself the go-ahead, knowing that I would just have to be flexible.

Normally, it’s very cold at Miune in winter, but the cold snap on December 15 happened to break so the temperature was warmer and there was no snow at all, making it the perfect day for climbing. I boarded the first flight from Haneda to Tokushima, rented a car from Tokushima Airport, and arrived at Minokoshi, at the foot Tsurugisan. The ropeway at the foot of the mountain was closed for the winter, and all the shutters on the surrounding stores were closed shut. From there, I drove 10 km downhill to the trailhead, called Nagoro, at the foot of Miune. The road was quite steep and not even a single car passed me on the way down.

I then realized that I was going to have to run up the steep slope that I had run down on my own two feet. The trailhead in Nagoro is 910 meters above sea level, and the difference in elevation from the summit of Miune is a whopping 1,000 meters. I had a feeling that this was going to be a tough climb!

Enjoyed winter walking alone on Miune (running)

When I arrived at the entrance of the Nagoro parking lot, there was not a single car parked there except for construction vehicles, even though it was a beautiful day for climbing. I was a bit puzzled, but I changed into my marathon clothes in the parking lot and I started climbing. Of course, I did not have any emergency rations and I planned to drink water from mother nature, so I was empty-handed.

As I started running along the path of the forest, I first saw a gravel road under construction, but soon I was surrounded by nature and the steep incline of the mountain came into view at once. I kept running while keeping a close eye on the footprints on the trails, and then I headed nonstop for the summit. Along the way, there were small waterfalls, rivers, and other beautiful sights as I ran sweating and happy. However, from halfway up the mountain, the incline became steeper than I had imagined, with extremely narrow mountain paths and steep, rocky slopes that made me stumble in some places.

Mysterious pond at the Summit of Miune
Mysterious pond at the Summit of Miune
After about an hour and a half drenched in sweat running, I finally arrived at the edge of the pond at the top of Miune. It was a surprise to find a pond at the top of a mountain 1,900 meters above sea level. However, there are high mountains with large ponds near their summits like Miune. The beautiful and unique scenery looks as if it might be the remains of ancient visitors who established a high-altitude settlement around Tsurugisan.

There is also an evacuation hut by the pond in which I took a peek and found blankets inside and a restroom outside. From there, it is only 200 meters to the summit of Miune. On the way to the summit after leaving the hut, I saw two memorials for those who lost their lives in this area. I heard about a 22-year-old young man who lost his life here, and then the fear of winter mountaineering suddenly became very real. I then ran all the way up to the top where I could see a 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. The view was indescribably beautiful!

A Cold Sweat from the Crazy Mountain Weather

Clouds Forming on Tengu Mound
Clouds Forming on Tengu Mound
After a short rest, I turned west to depart for my next destination, Tengu-zuka, and to my surprise, the landscape that was so beautifully spacious in the distance earlier had suddenly changed, and the mountains were now covered with thick white clouds! What’s more, the clouds were moving toward us at a great speed. My surprise was short-lived. In no time at all, the mountains to the west were covered with clouds, and a sense of dread began to overtake me. According to the weather forecast, the weather was predicted to break the next day, and I was driven by the fear of the likelihood of bad weather. Already feeling tired, I decided to immediately change my plans and descend the mountain.

As I began my descent, I realized that before I knew it, my body was completely cold. I was sweating comfortably all the way to the top and did not notice it, but the temperature at the summit was so low that it must have been 5 degrees below zero. My hands, which only had thin marathon gloves on, were freezing cold and my whole body started shaking. I sped up my steps.

When running on mountain trails such as trail runs, the biggest fear is that you will fall down the mountain and get seriously injured, rendering you immobile. Also, if there is no cell phone signal, there is no way to let people know where you are, which means that you will be freezing cold in the winter. Therefore, to avoid knee injury, be careful not to fall, and repeatedly shout out in your mind, “Carelessness is the greatest enemy!” I ran down the steep slope of Miune. However, my heart’s cries were in vain. Just as I was about to reach the parking lot, I inadvertently slipped on a log and fell. I almost hit my spine, but I barely made it.

Some Things You Ought to Know About Mountain Climbing

After returning to the parking lot, I reread my guide titled Understanding Mountaineering, which is a very common mountaineering guide. I couldn’t help but smile wryly at the fact that I had ignored most of the tips that I had read from this guide. First of all, the guide said, “Choose a suitable schedule and course suited to your physical fitness,” however, I did not do my homework beforehand. Next, it said, “Fill out your name on the entry form provided at the mountain entrance,” but I just started running right up the mountain trail. Also, the guide said, “Please note that the Tsurugisan area is the only place in Shikoku where black bears live…” This was also news to me. “Choose a hiking backpack,” but I ran up the mountain empty-handed. Speaking of clothing, the guide also said, “Wear something warm and breathable,” but I only wore running tights and a sweatshirt over a running shirt on top in order to run faster. Continuing on, it said, “Wear lightweight, well-soled hiking shoes,” but I was wearing lightweight, thin-soled marathon racing shoes. This was definitely not good. I seriously regretted my poor choices. Finally, it said, “Be sure to carry rain gear, a headlamp, warm clothing, a change of clothes, and emergency rations. I was reminded once again that careful preparation is essential for mountain climbing.

Miune is the holy grave of past martyrs

This mountain’s name is 三嶺, or “Miune”. I am making an educated guess that the kanji for “three peaks” was applied to the name “Miune,” and I had a hunch that the pond at the top of the mountain was the remnants of the ancient Israelites, so I looked up the meaning of “Miune” in Hebrew.

One word jumped out at me. There is the Hebrew wordקדוש מעונה(kadosh miuneh). This word means “martyrdom.” It is assumed, then, that the mountain of Miune was in some way related to the ancient martyrs from Israel.

Perhaps Miune was a sanctuary for martyrs, or an ancient tomb. Hence, Miune is more secluded than other mountains and has been protected from the outside for a long time. Since holy water was essential to purify the dead, perhaps a pond was built at the top of Miune, and the pond is thought to have been preserved and not filled in again since ancient times.

Miune is a wonderful reizan that opens the door to our ancient past. The pond at its summit may have contained the thoughts of martyrs and may be a sacred legacy that was left for future generations.