I really need to get a new hiking book. Rummaging through my Kansai mountaineering materials, I can’t seem to locate the hike my friend Paul is describing to me. Sandwiched between Muroji and Soni Kogen lies an apparent ridgeline lined with rocky peaks. “Sure, sounds good to me” I mutter over the crackly phone as we solidy plans for our foray deep into Nara Prefecture on the mid-week National holiday. The weather forecast is looking very promising indeed.
After a pleasant train ride through the quiet countryside, followed by a surprisingly scenic bus journey through a narrow gorge, we alight in Soni village, one of the hundred most beautiful villages in Japan. “There’s probably only 105 villages in the entire country”, I remark, unimpressed by the banal collection of homes, rice fields, and paved roads. We spot the signposts to our first target peak Byobu-iwa (屏風岩) and jubilantly march up the meandering surfaced road under stunningly blue skies and a brisk breeze. Our grins eventually turned to disbelief as we realized we’d be hiking on the road well over an hour just to reach the trailhead! Oh, the joys of hiking in the Kansai region, where 95% of the hikes involve a fair amount of paved footwork. We reached the start of the hike just in time, as my bowels were starting to uncomfortably back up deep into my gastrointestinal tract . Toilet paper was an added bonus at the clean public toilet.
Despite the packed parking lot, we didn’t meet a soul the entire climb up to the ridge. Perhaps they’d all come to admire the foliage from the warmth and comfort of their climate-controlled vehicles. The path rose quickly through a cedar plantation before reaching a saddle. Our intended route headed towards the left, but Paul and I were both interested in checking out the vertical cliff face of Byobu-Iwa, so we took the steep detour to the summit. Fortunately, the upper reaches of the rock formation were much too steep for the forestry service to manage, as we were rewarded for our hard work with not only vertigo-inducing views a hundred meters directly below our feet, but also a kaleidoscope of brilliant oranges and cheerful golds, the product of a deciduous forest preparing to shed its phosphorus skin for the winter. Cameras raised, we prepared to capture the scenery before pushing on to our destination.
After retracing our steps to the saddle, we continued westward on the ridge in a peculiar juxtaposition. The trail was sandwiched between the blazing virgin foliage on our left and the desolate monotony of the cedar forest to our right. I’ve come across quite a few of these scenes in my time, where the environmental destruction stops abruptly on the border of two townships. Sure enough, our left foot was in Soni, while the right one was in Uda. I wonder how the wildlife feels about the raping of its habitat.
A gentle 20-minute climb later we reached the deserted top of Mt. Sumizuka (住塚山), where a strategically-placed wooden bench awaited. We fired up the stove, cooking up a satisfying lunch of ramen and curry while admiring the strange woven patterns of cedar plantations and pristine forests. Japan truly must have been one of the most breathtakingly beautiful countries on the planet as recent as 70 years ago, before the post-war destruction properly began. Still, with a little bit of creative cropping you can still capture the essence of the beauty.
Bellies stuffed, Paul and I continued on the half authentic ridge line, dropping to a long saddle before rising over a series of false summits to the pampass-lined peak of Mt. Kunimi. There are several dozen Kunimi mountains scattered all over this land, and the views didn’t disappoint. We saw our only other people of the entire day on the bald summit, a pair of middle-aged hikers who’d just finished packing up before vanishing down through the forest. Here we were at 1000 meters above sea level in the peak of the autumn foliage and had found a spot completely free of the usual maple-crazed crowds. Across the valley, we could see the shaved scar of Soni Kogen, an area overflowing with tourists at this very moment, drawn to the beauty of the artificially planted pampas grass. Little did they know that there were pockets of pristine beauty barely 10 kilometers away, but these little secrets are best kept out of the mainstream media now, aren’t they?
After fiddling around with the timers on our camera for a good quarter of an hour, we were finally able to capture a bit of the spontaneity and bliss that comes with finding an unexpectedly pleasant hike. Talk about some lucky cropping….
Time check 3pm. With daylight waning and a dark forest yet to explore, the pioneers said farewell to the comfort and tranquility of Kunimi and set forth into the unknown. Well, that wasn’t entirely true since the half-virgin, half-artificial ridge line continued up and over the adjacent unnamed peak and down to the mountain pass. We’d finally met up with the Tokai Shizen Hodo, a pilgrimage route that’d take you all the way to Tokyo if you let it. The trail followed a quiet stream as we entered yet another cedar forest. After coming across the skull of what appeared to be a deer, we reached a junction pointing to an unfamiliar shrine nearly 4km away. Now we were starting to get a bit concerned, as we had less than an hour of daylight remaining and apparently quite a long way to go. Our steady pace quickened, as the route followed a multi-tiered waterfall dozens of feet below that was hidden by the dense network of cedars. One slip here and you’d surely break an ankle and tumble into no-man’s land. Still, we pressed on before finally reaching a forest road.
The road continued straight, past a few mountain houses before reaching some vegetable fields. Paul and I passed the time by singing popular 80s and heavy metal songs from our youth as the daylight grew shorter. We reached our first signs of life. An elderly couple stood by the edge of the road, repairing an open shelter in preparation for the upcoming winter. “No, there’s no bus from here”, answered the jovial woman, “you’ll have to walk to Muroji”. We’d already walked close to 15km and weren’t relishing in the fact that we’d have to walk 15 more, since it’d be well after dark when we’d arrive and weren’t entirely sure when the last bus left the temple anyway. We finally reached the main road and continued walking in a bit of a trance when a car came out of nowhere directly behind us. Paul and I hadn’t even discussed the prospects of hitching a ride, but my first instinct was to put my thumb up, partly as a joke since I knew no one would stop for us. The 4-door sedan slowly crawled to a halt about 50 meters in front of us. Paul and I looked at each other in utter disbelief as the husband and wife team signaled for us to get in. We’d gone from hopeless victims to 5-star generals in the blink of an eye as the driver lamented about the dwindling bus service in the Japanese countryside. This driver saved us at least 2 hours of long walking on a paved road and we couldn’t thank him enough.
Our eventful excursion to the mountains of eastern Nara was complete, but the memories will remain. The beauty of Kansai isn’t hard to find if you’re willing to put in the hard work and long miles to get there. I really need to get a copy of the hiking book that Paul was using.