Another winter upon us, and another free Friday with mountains on my mind, but where to go? Logistics are always the most difficult to pin down, with frantic searching and double-checking of train and bus times. I’d finally narrowed it down to 2 peaks in northern Kyoto: Mt. Minago, the tallest peak in the prefecture, or Mt. Kumotori, a tamer hill one valley west. Both involved an early departure, but the lure of the waters of Kurama hot spring resulted in a last-minute victory for the cloud taker.
The Keihan train sped through Osaka and Kyoto prefectures before dumping me off at Demachiyanagi station a little before 10am. I found the bus stop and hurriedly grabbed a sandwich from a nearby vendor. The bus departed preciously at 10am, and kept making repeated announcements about norikae (Japanese for transfer). I wasn’t sure what the driver was on about, as my bus was supposedly a direct route to my destination. A few stops further on, a retired guy in his early 60s boarded the bus with a pair of short skis! With absolutely no snow to show for in Kyoto city, I struggled to comprehend his intended destination. Nagano, perhaps?
Just short of Kurama, the bus pulled into a parking lot and everyone was ordered off. We were whisked into an adjacent bus with chains on the tires. “So that’s why we needed to change buses”, I exclaimed, congratulating myself on not forgetting the crampons for this mission. As the bus followed the contours of the train tracks, the first snows began to appear. What started out as a gentle dusting quickly grew in stature as the bus gained altitude on the desolate forest road. We had now entered what is commonly known as yukiguni (snow country), a term usually reserved for the big snows of Nagano and Niigata Prefecture, but mother nature had decided to spring on the Kansai region this year.
The skier got off at the mountain pass, while I stayed on for another 10 minutes to the scenic village of Hanase. The butterflies in my stomach suppressed my appetite, as I forewent lunch in favor of trying to find the trailhead. No signposts in sight. Just a foot of fresh powder all around and not a soul to witness it. I was clearly in over my head, and knew crampons would be totally useless with this much soft snow. Still, I stubbornly strapped them on and followed a faint set of foot prints up the road.
I soon reached an abandoned restaurant belonging to the adjacent lift of a deserted ski run. The recent lack of snowfalls over the last decade had surely bankrupt the place, but I was happy for a dry shelter to sit down and ponder my next move. I tightened up my snow pants snugly around my boots, reached for a waterproof layer to ward off an approaching snow squall and reluctantly entered the forest.
The tracks I was following were probably laid over a week ago, but the indentations were still clear enough to discern in the white canvas of the forest floor. That, and the generous amounts of tape affixed to the cedar trees, made navigation surprisingly easy. Navigation, however, wasn’t the problem at hand. Depth was.
After 20 minutes of following a docile stream, I’d found my first signpost of the day, and continued following the scuffs in the snow on a rather tricky traverse with long drops on the right. One slip here and I’d surely tumble to the bottom of the valley. Finally, after a sweat-filled slog, I reached the mountain pass, where the tracks completely stopped. My navigator decided that this was far enough, and I was left with a couple of options. Deciding it was too early to retreat, I continued following the summer trail through a nasty gully filled with thigh-deep powder. After 200 meters I abandoned this idea and re-climbed back to the junction. Rather than getting trapped in a deep ravine, I opted to stay on the ridge. Despite being marked with tape in the trees, this route was not on the maps. Perhaps it is a winter approach only?
Time check: 1pm. The only convenient bus back to town left at 3pm, so I set a 1:45pm turnaround time, no matter how far I’d get. With each advancing step I sunk below my knees, as the snow searched for any available gaps to invade my trousers. Hiking through the dense undergrowth was a breeze compared to reaching an open area exposed to the sky. Here, the snow drifts were waist deep and no match for an under-equipped day hiker. What on earth were my snowshoes doing at home? I was really starting to regret that foolish decision. Clearly I’d underestimated the power of the Kitayama mountains. Somehow I gathered up enough courage to keep pushing on, thinking the summit must lie just over the next rise.
The best part of the entire slog was the scenery. The views would occasionally open up and the sun even started to come out. The snow in the trees was absolutely magical: the heavy weight would occasionally be too much for the brittle limbs, as large clusters of snow bombs came crashing down every few minutes. A direct hit could very likely knock me out, so I refrained from any unnecessary lingering. Finally, I reached the crest of a rather long climb and was met with a steep drop, followed by a series of larger climbs rising in the distance. Time check: 1:45pm. I needed at least another hour to reach the summit, but some things can wait.
Dejected I was not, as the slow retreat back to the bus stop began. It took about 45 minutes to make it back to the mountain pass, where I picked up the pace down through the cedar forest. I made it back to the abandoned ski resort at 2:45 and stopped to drink some water. I was really starting to get hungry at this point and ungracefully tore open the packaging of my sandwich, stuffing a handful between my teeth. I chewed and walked as the sun shone in full force. The hum of an aircraft caught my attention, and a helicopter swooshed overhead as if to check on my progress. Could the local have actually called in a rescue copter? Highly unlikely, I thought, but you never know. After all, I never saw the copter again after that.
Back at the bus stop, I changed out of my wet clothes and paced back and forth, waiting for the bus. It turns out it was 10 minutes late, but as I boarded the bus, I found the reason for the tardiness. I got on the bus and was immediately ushered to an empty seat by two young gentlemen standing near the door. “What the…”, I started to say, until I noticed another guy holding a large camera. By now, the usher was squatting next to me, and I noticed the NHK press badge. “Oh…”. In a hushed voice, I asked the crew what they were filming. “Tabi bangumi” (a travel program). Sure enough, 3 seats in front of me sat one of the most beautiful Japanese women I’d ever laid eyes on, staring out the window as if in a forced reverie. The cameraman filmed the entire sequence. A short distance later, at the next bus stop in fact, the entire crew and actress said a quick thank you and alighted. Bizarre.
I got off at Kurama onsen and immediately headed to the outdoor bath, soaking my battered body and finally regaining feeling in my toes. A bath after a hike is always nice, but the satisfaction is tenfold when losing a fierce battle to mother nature. Mt. Kumotori sure put up a much bigger fight than its Kanto counterpart, and revenge will be mine. I just need to bring the snowshoes next time.