Feature: The Tunnel
I was born and raised in Upstate NY (USA), just south of the Adirondack Park, and have always loved being in the outdoors. I got started skiing at about the age of 12 or so, and it was one of the few sports I actually wasn't half-bad at!
Shortly before graduating from high school, I decided I wanted to take a year off before beginning university and travel. I applied with the local Rotary Club Exchange Program and was offered a chance to live in Japan for a year and attend a Japanese high school. So at the age of 18, I boarded a plane and moved halfway around the world to live in a small town on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture - the location decided by the exchange program.
During that time as an exchange student, I came to discover that there was more to Japan than what I had imagined before coming over. Instead of skyscrapers, trains and endless crowds of people, there was the ocean, mountains and endless opportunities for outdoor adventures. It was this part of Japan that I quickly fell in love with.
Upon returning to the US a year later I began university and after graduating four years later, boarded a plane again and moved halfway around the world to start my first job as an English teacher in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture.
I was transferred shortly thereafter to neighboring Toyama Prefecture where I was introduced for the first time to the Northern Alps of Japan. The views of the mountains in Toyama are some of the most impressive I've ever laid my eyes on - most of the cities and towns lie just above sea level, and the higher peaks are at 3000+ meters, making for some breathtaking scenery. During my time as an English teacher I spent most weekends either hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter. That was mostly in the Toyama section of the Northern Alps, with the occasional trip to Nagano or Gifu. My favorite place to hit for a day ski trip was a small area in Southern Toyama called Snow Valley Toga - no crowds, a couple of steep runs, easy going patrols, and lots of snow. The place attracted a number of telemark skiers since it also served as a trailhead to a nearby BC touring mountain (Mt Kongodosan). So in the winter of '99 I tried telemarking and BC touring for the first time, and have been at it ever since.
But after five and a half years, I decided it was time for a change and initially planned to move back to the US. But before doing so, I wanted that one last "big adventure" in Japan.
I originally thought of doing a 2 month trek around the county, but the cost and logistics were a bit overwhelming. So rather than spend money on a last adventure, I thought, why not try to make some money; which is when I decided to try to apply for a job at one of the mountain huts.
To explain the hut system to those who don’t know - most of the popular hiking mountains in Japan have huts/lodges that provide food and lodging for the hikers/climbers/BC skiers that are on the mountain. Some are just a small, one room, prefabricated building. Others can sleep up to 500 people. Some are located high atop the ridges, while others are lower in a valley. They basically come in all shapes and sizes. Most hikers will spend the night as well as have dinner and breakfast, and then head out early the next morning (either off the mt or onto another hut).
Anyway I looked through a few hiking/outdoor magazines and sure enough, a few were looking for part time summer help. I spent about 2 weeks getting it in order and sent out 3 rirekusho (resume or CV) in Japanese to huts that had impressed me the most during my hiking trips. They weren't looking for a foreigner; in fact, they were a bit surprised when my resume arrived. As fate would have it, I ended up at Hotakadake Sanso, located on the border of Gifu and Nagano. The hut is located in the Yari-Hotaka area of the Northern Alps. Along the border of Gifu and Nagano (fairly close to Matsumoto). There are a few ways to approach it, but the most popular routes start from Kamikochi (Nagano) and take approximately 8 hours to reach the hut. A less popular route, but one used by the hut staff, is from the Gifu side of the mountains and takes approximately 6 hours to the hut. Well, eight years later I'm still working at the hut and have put the plans to move back to the US on hold for the time being.
The job is a seasonal one, with work beginning in mid April at which time we go up to the hut and spend about 2 weeks digging it out of the snow and getting it prepared for opening day - April 27th. The last day of operation for the season is November 5th, and on the morning of the 6th we hike down.
Work at the hut is a bit difficult to explain but basically it requires you to be a "jack of all trades", and a master of one. The full time staff (10 workers) each have an area of responsibility. However there is a lot of crossover, and in the end, everyone is responsible for everything. One member is in charge of the kitchen, another works the reception desk, another is the electrician, another the plumber. I do the carpentry and woodworking-related duties. The type of work really depends on the time of year, as well as the time of day. During the early spring season we have a staff of about 10 workers and once the hut is dug out of the snow, we are somewhat busy for about weeks during the Golden Week period. Once the Golden Week is finished, things quiet down considerably and for the next two months we are busy with repairs, regular maintenance and any special projects. This type of work can only be done during this time of year when there aren't so many guests; once the busy summer season begins, we usually average 150 - 250 guests per night. Once the summer season does begin (mid- July) we have about 15 part time workers join the regular staff. The part time workers are usually a combination of college students, arubaito, and ‘freeta’. Since we provide food and lodging to approximately 10,000 guests per year, the kitchen staff is quite busy with meal preparations throughout the day.
One of the things most people, including myself, often take for granted is a steady, reliable supply of water - turn on the faucet and water comes out. But at the mountain huts, a steady and reliable water supply is a luxury. Each hut has its own system for water collection; some are located near a stream or river and can simply tap into that. Others collect rain water. Some use a "pump up" method whereby they pump water up from a lower elevation to a higher one (common amongst huts on ridges). The Hotakadade Sanso Hut is unique in that although we are located on the ridgeline (approx 3000m), our primary water source comes from snow melt which is located at an elevation just slightly above us. And this is where the tunnel is dug. The distance from the hut to the tunnel is approx 200m, with change in elevation of approx 3 meters.
The location was discovered quite some years ago by the original owner of the hut. Basically after tunneling into the snow, there is a natural dam where the snow melt collects as water. Since the tunnel isn't dug until late June or early July the temps don't drop below freezing so it's just a slow snow melt for the next 2 or so months, and from that spot, a hose is run to the hut. It's 14 meters long and as you can tell by the photos, about 1.8m high and starts out about 2 m wide. It takes 3 guys about a day and a half to dig. One guys cuts the snow into blocks with a chainsaw, another "knocks out" the blocks, and the third uses a "snow dump" to dispose of the snow. As the tunnel gets longer a 4th guy usually jumps in between the 2nd and 3rd guys to help move the snow blocks. Additional support also comes from a "spotter" who hikes down from the hut and communicates to the diggers if the snow blocks are in danger of hitting any hikers/climbers. Luckily at this time of the year there aren't so many hikers so work can usually proceed without delay. However there are times when we'll have to pause working for 10 or 20 minutes. Also, while the digging is going on, other workers are preparing the cable and hose about to be strung. And most importantly, the ladies of the hut are preparing the 'bentos - one of the best meals to be had after a half day of digging.
Once the 14 meters has been dug, a cable is stung from the water collection tanks near the hut to the dam at the end of the tunnel. Once the cable has been fixed and tightened then a hose is clipped onto it and extended to the dam as well. After a bit of final adjust and digging, the hose is "inserted" into the dam and the water begins flowing back to the hut. For the next 2 months the water will flow steadily to the collection tanks near the hut where we are able to store 100 tons of water (1 ton = 1000). So although the snow melt will usually be gone by early or mid Sept, we are able to have enough stored water to last us till the end of the season (Nov 5th).
The water is really delicious. We also get the water tested every year and the results always come back with flying colors.
As someone who loves skiing, having the winter "off" makes this a dream job. I've done different things different years for the winters - worked retail in the US one year, worked at a US ski resort another year, ski bummed in Japan for a year, did nothing but ski one year, and lately I've been doing some (very) part time work in Japan for the past 2 winters (and almost full time skiing).
In addition to the 10,000 guests there's also another few thousand who pass through. Many of them will usually fill up their water bottles, have a cup of coffee, or grab a bowl of ramen, so we're also supplying water to them as well. One interesting tidbit, is that the average overnight guest "uses" 25 liters of water - this figure includes what they drink, the amount of water it takes to prepare their dinner and breakfast, toilet usage, etc. [And rumor has it, 25 liters is also the amount of water budgeted per person per day on the Space Shuttle and ISS (International Space Station)].