8 long years I’ve waited, searching for the perfect opportunity to get revenge on this soggy plateau. My last visit consisted of rubbing elbows with hundreds of other tourists in a torrential downpour before escaping into the serenity of Osugi gorge. On this unseasonably blustery Culture Day in early November, I decided to roll the dice.
Between bouts of sleep, Kanako and I had wondered about the crowds during the 90-minute train ride to Yamato-Kamiichi station. Would the cold keep away the ill-equipped or would it only encourage the masses to go for a Tuesday drive to the plateau? I’d conspicuously kept my fingers crossed during most of the journey: what if the rain of the previous night happened to fall as frozen flakes on the summit? Nah, not at 1800m so early in the season in Western Japan.
“Odai?”, asked the bus staff as soon as we alighted at the station. “Please register over there”, said the jovial man in a freshly pressed suit, pointing to the waiting room filled with half a dozen other bus passengers. “Hmmm,”, I pondered, why the sudden need to keep track of visitors on one of the easiest hikes in Japan?
The bus ride started out non-eventful, following the upper reaches of the Yoshino river through an area of public works devastation. Dams, concrete river embankments, suspension bridges to nowhere. The Nara Prefectural government has done their finest to ensure our taxpayer money is put to full use. The 90-minute journey became a lot more interesting, however, as we reached the turn-off for the long, windy road to summit. A police blockade was set up, turning back all vehicles without chains. Apparently the higher beings had heard my silent pleas and rewarded me with the first snowfall of the year.
Anyone who’s been to Odai-ga-hara can tell you that the access road carved into the ridge is enough to turn even the strongest stomach: hairpin turns, blind corners, and gnarly drops hundreds of meters into a vast canyon below. Yet, the police roadblock kept only but the most adventurous at bay. Arriving at the rest stop around 10km short of the terminus, the driver let us out while he put on the chains. Ever seen the autumn leaves coated with a dusting of fresh, crystalline powder?
We all boarded the bus again with a sense of excitement not witnessed for quite some time. Cameras glued to the windows, as every turn brought a view more spectacular than the last. Elderly couples in an unrehearsed chant of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ . Up into the clouds where the bus fell silent. Did we really know what we were getting ourselves into?
The parking lot was 90% empty as we bolted for the small rest shelter adjacent to the toilets. I lent my rain pants to Kanako who’d come a little unprepared, while I opted for the double fleece approach. It was well below freezing and the humidity in the air didn’t make things much better. Still, we only had a 100 vertical meter climb to the high point, generously spread out over 2km. I prayed my asthma would be kept at bay.
“I have a confession to make,” boasted the bright-eyed Kanako, “this is my first time to see fresh powder!” Of course. I’d nearly forgotten that my lovely wife had spent most of her life in Osaka Prefecture, away from the brutal winters of the land to the north. We’d been on a handful of snow hikes together, but nothing compared to the soft, fluffy snow lying all around us.
The route began its gentle incline towards the top of Mt. Hinode, as I slowed my pace. My breathing was somewhat normal but I felt weak due to lack of nutrients. I let a kind couple from the bus ahead of me as I confirmed the location of my inhaler, just in case. Reaching a trail junction, we turned left for the final push to the summit. The cloud hung tightly to the ridge line, robbing us of a view, but the mist only seemed to make the plateau that much more magical. Even the wooden staircases took on a much more scenic form.
Reaching the summit, I gasped at the horror that lie before me. Directly adjacent to the summit marker lie a monstrous 2-story wooden viewing platform. This certainly was not here during my initial visit nearly a decade before, so when, and more importantly, why was this hillside further desecrated? The parking lot and access road are both free of charge, so where could the money have come from? Perhaps Odai-ga-hara got the idea from Hachimantai, which also has an eyesore of a platform directly on the summit. It certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth.
After a short break on the summit, we retraced out steps back to the junction. Not wanting to risk bringing on an asthma attack, we abandoned the loop hike in favor of a short stroll back to the parking lot. Considering the conditions, lack of cell phone coverage, and scarcity of other hikers, we probably made the wise choice. The visitor’s center was warm and inviting, and I had some research to do for my hiking site anyway.
“No, the trail through Osugidani will certainly not be re-opened either this year or next year”, explained the kind receptionist. Apparently the swing bridges were washed out in the typhoon of 2004 and the Mie Prefectural government doesn’t seem to have it high on their priority list. “It’s a shame that the gorge is not in Nara,” I dejected, for there’d surely not only be new bridges by now, but perhaps an entire valley encased in concrete.
A warm noodle lunch was served at a neighboring restaurant, as the clouds began to break up. If only we had extra time to stay overnight, then perhaps we’d be rewarded with a view. Alas it was not to be. On the bus ride back down we dropped out of the clouds again and got the vistas we’d so greatly been hoping for. The bus driver was not kind to us, however, as we had to settle for photos from the windows again. If only we’d had our own means of transport, then we could stop whenever or wherever we wanted. Still, it takes a steady hand and lucky timing to capture photos such as this…..
or even this, from the window of a moving bus.
On the train ride back to Osaka, I promised Kanako that I’d bring her back to Odai-ga-hara again in better weather. “Why would I ever want to come back?” she exclaimed. “I want to cherish this memory in my heart forever, and if I come back here I’d only be disappointed.” This is perhaps the most insightful thing I’d heard in a long time, and oh so true. Farewell Odai-ga-hara, for I too, want the images of our splendid adventure to remain unspoilt for the remainder of my life. Even if we revisited hundreds of times, we’d never be able to duplicate what we’d been so fortunate to witness.