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Archive for July, 2011

The ferry rolled into Miyazaki port bright and early on the cusp of the Marine Day weekend. John and I disembarked, thumbing nearby traffic for a lift to the hills. After a few minutes, a car screeches to a halt and we’re ushered in. We immediately head off in the complete opposite direction, towards Shirahama beach in the southern part of the prefecture. Hitching in Japan is very rarely direct, with most locals taking you under their belt with errands to run or other sightseeing missions in sight. Eventually, the driver pointed us westward, into an intense rain storm that threatened to knock the wipers off the vehicle. We pulled into a lone shop by the side of the deserted road, where the driver talked hurriedly with the owner. “This is my mother’s shop”, explained our guide. “She’ll give you a ride the rest of the way to Ebino Kogen”. Despite our repeated protests, the obedient mom did as instructed, driving us at least 100km out of her way. We couldn’t have thanked her enough.

Camping was looking like a lost prospect in the relentless rain. John and I procrastinated as long as we could in the outdoor bath of the tourist hotel, weighing our options. The guidebook mentioned a cheap rotenburo near the trailhead to Koshiki-dake. John called up the place, reserving two spaces in the cabin. Our spirits were lifted with a guaranteed dry place to sleep. After checking in, we killed more time by alternating between soaks in the milky waters and frisbee in the small but empty parking lot.

The rain continued more or less unabated the entire night. After checking out of our modest accomodation, we donned our rain gear and headed up towards Mt. Karakuni, the highest peak in the Kirishima mountain range. Wetsuits would’ve been much more appropriate attire, as we quickly became drenched from head to toe. Apparently the rainy season was still very much here, but we stubbornly pushed on like two untrained basset hounds searching for food. Somewhere near Shinmoe-dake the rain began to abate, but the cloud hung thick in the humid air. Here we were tramping through some of the most breathtaking volcanic scenery on earth and we couldn’t see a thing.

Up and over the volcanic hills we pushed, reaching the parking lot at Takachiho in the late afternoon. The campground was completely flooded as we once again had to weigh the options. Pitching the tent in the vestibule of the visitor’s center seemed like the most feasible option, until we found the perfect place: nestled in the forest about 50 meters north of the parking lot stood a lodge housing some display cases of indigenous insects. It was obviously built for use by school groups on day excursions, yet remained unlocked as if to beckon us in. We dropped off our gear, leaving a window unlocked in case the park service came by to lock it up for the night. More time was killed with parking lot frisbee, with both of us running for cover every time a vehicle approached. We didn’t want to be seen by anyone, less the park authorities. Once darkness set in, we cooked up dinner and prepared to settle in for the night, when I noticed a peculiar-looking arthropod. It appeared to be a cross between a bush-cricket and praying mantis, and they were everywhere! We tried to kill them off one-by-one, but soon realized it’d take us half the night. Would these mutant creatures bite? We didn’t want to take any chances, so we pitched our tent inside of the hut!

Before settling down for shut-eye, I subconsciously locked the front door of the lodge to keep any unwanted wildlife from entering. Sure enough, around midnight, John and I were both awoken by the beams of a torch outside of the entrance. The unidentified person tried to open the door to the hut, shining the headbeam directly into our tent. “What the..”, we both thought, too paralyzed by fear to move. Who on earth would be snooping around these parts so late at night? I thanked myself in hindsight for locking that door. The person never came back, so we could only ask ‘what if’ questions the rest of our trip.

The next morning, we packed our gear and started the long, steep slog to the summit of Takachiho. Once again, the cloud hung heavy and the wind threatened to sweep us into the crater of what I’m told is a very impressive volcano. We fearlessly pushed on towards Higashi Jinja and the bus stop at Haragawa. After dropping down to the river bank and dam, the sun finally decided to rear its ugly head, 40 hours too late in our opinion. Once hitting the main road, we stuck out our thumbs again, this time catching a ride with a friendly middle-aged women driving alone through the mountains. We wanted to go to the beach, any beach, and had absolutely no idea how to get there. “I’m a cop,” confessed our driver. “Let me call up the boys to ask for advice.” As if this trip could’nt get any more surreal. The phone call went something like this:

“I’ve just picked up 2 foreigners. They want to go to the beach. Which road is the best to drop them off so they can hitch?”

Amazingly, the cop dropped us off at the beginning of route 222 in the town of Miyakonojo. She gave us words of encouragement before driving off into traffic. We waited all of about 10 minutes before another car came to our rescue. A young male out on a leisurely drive, who jumped to attention when being told of our destination. “The beach sounds like a great idea!”, quipped our new friend Kenji. He himself had done some hitchhiking a few years back and knew how difficult it was to get rides. “I know a great beach!” We drove off into the late afternoon light like best friends reunited after a decade abroad. We reached the coast, heading north along the breakwater, until arriving at our home for the night, Shirahama! John and I both looked at ourselves, awestruck to be back at the same beach the first driver had brought us to 2 days earlier. Kenji ended up hanging out with us most of the night, and even drove to the convenience store for us to fetch some beer. We taught him how to throw the frisbee as the fireworks in Miyazaki harbor exploded brightly on the horizon. John and I pitched the tent right on the beach, under a thick grove of palm trees. Life really couldn’t get any better.

The next morning, the sun finally showed its full strength, as the temperature really started to heat up in the tent. After a morning swim, the beach came to life with families, budding surfers, and…..the Japanese Self-Defense Force! Military trucks unloaded scores of muscular men donned in white t-shirts and camo pants, each holding a pair of gardening shears. “Uh-oh..”, John and I screamed, “they’re here to prune the trees!” Despite having several dozen groves of palm trees to choose from, you can guess where they started their pruning. Our vocal protests did nothing to quell them, and they didn’t even have the decency to wait until we’d taken down our tent! The only logical explanation is that the beach owners wanted to make money from parasol rentals. Either that, or the gov’t needed to use up their budget. We beat a hasty retreat back to Miyazaki city, killing time before the ferry back to Osaka.

Kirishima definitely lived up to its name, but I definitely need to get back there to better appreciate the scenery. With the recent eruption of Shin-moe, my quest for revenge may take some time indeed.

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The intense heat of an Osaka summer tends to turn even the hardiest outdoorsman into an air-con addicted recluse. Something had to change. Perhaps an evening climb of Osaka’s easterly neighbor could help relieve the cabin fever.

I set off from Namba station a little before 5pm, arriving at Ishikiri about 20 minutes later. Although I’d climbed Mt. Ikoma several times before, it was my first attempt along the old stone-lined pilgrimage route. The initial 10 minutes involved weaving through a twisted maze of expensive homes on hilly, narrow back streets. I knew I had to go up, but where exactly? Shooting through a narrow passage, I crossed a rickety, rusting corrugated-metal bridge that spit me out at the foot of a temple. Jizo statues lined the scuffed concrete road: a sign I’d finally found the correct approach.

The concrete snaked through the dense forest, passing over tranquil streams. There were no shortages of hidden shrines and long forgotten temples along the deserted route, a testament to Ikoma’s mighty past. Mosquitos inched their way towards my exposed skin, forcing me to push on despite the rapidly flowing sweat dripping from my brow. Arriving at the shut gates of Oku-houji temple, I poured water from the hand-washing basin all over my steaming head and face. Water flowed down my back and into my hiking pants, but the relief from the heat was well worth the drenching my clothes received. The relief was short-lived, however, as the mosquitos and sweat returned with each advancing step.

I soon reached a paved forest road, where the massive metal TV towers came into view. The path crisscrossed this deserted road several times before reaching a rather tranquil lookout, where I saw my first unobstructed views of the mammoth basin of Osaka city glowing in the late afternoon light.

The stone-lined path flattened out a bit before climbing one final set of wooden steps to a clearing. At this clearing, my jaw dropped upon seeing a parking lot full of cars and a queue of day-trippers lining up to ride the chairlift to the top of the mountain. I knew of the monstrosity that awaited me but had not been mentally prepared to actually witness it. Inhaling deeply, I crossed the road and marched up the concrete steps to the summit, keeping a steady eye on the shimmering horizon to my left.

Skyland Ikoma was built on the summit of Mt. Ikoma in 1929, the same year a cable car was carved on the eastern face of the mountain. One of Japan’s oldest amusement parks, Skyland is home to the oldest continuously operational ride (the airplane tower, from 1929) and one of the best panoramic views of any amusement facility in the world. Despite this distinction, the area has definitely seen better days, and if not for the financial assistance of owner Kintetsu railway, it would’ve already met the same haikyo fate as Nara Dreamland in the valley below. On this steamy summer evening, however, the place bustled with energetic kids, sleep-deprived parents, and a rather large collection of household pets, all searching for a brief break from the boiling temperatures of the city.

I settled onto a neighboring bench, ignoring the chaos around me, eyes fixated on the stellar views of my home city six hundred meters beneath my feet. The sun inched its way down to the horizon while the cool breeze slowly dried my sweat-drenched body.  I lazily searched for nourishment buried in the bottom on my daypack: a melted chocolate bar and a handful of cashew nuts would have to do.

While most of the crowd dissipated after sundown, I stayed glued to the bench, observing the soft hues of the evening take over. Cloud cover is often much more colorful long after the last rays touch the horizon.

The finicky headlamp finally came on after a 20-minute struggle bringing it back to life. None too confident it would last on the descent, I sprang to my feet and hoped for the best, using my nocturnal instincts to guide me when the lamp wouldn’t. Eventually I made it back down to the temple, where a series of fluorescent lights eased my navigation back into the city. For some strange reason, the temperature and humidity actually rose after sundown and I arrived at the station in more of a sweaty mess than my earlier climb. Perhaps it was an omen for the slowly approaching typhoon….

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Kanako and I woke up at 6am, shuffling around the room trying to figure out what gear we needed for our early morning climb. The sky looked a bit hazy, with soft light filtering through a thin blanket of high atmospheric cloud. After a modest breakfast, we dropped our extra gear in the lobby of the shukubo and strolled off towards the start of the mighty volcano. The monk told us a bath would be waiting upon our return, so we had good reason to stay within schedule before the afternoon bus.

The initial climb past Amida temple was a breeze, thanks in part to the large stone steps that soon gave way to wooden steps. These climbing aids soon vanished into the deep snowpack, however, and the kick-step march to the ridge line commenced. The path was hardly deserted, as the clear weather and start of Golden Week brought out the first significant crowds of the year. Safety in numbers I suppose, as long as someone above doesn’t trigger a snowslide!

The cold, wet slush permeated through my well-worn footwear, soaking my merino wool socks well before the 5th stagepoint. Now wasn’t the time to ponder a new pair of shoes, but I wondered if that Montbell shop in the valley below could perhaps deliver gear to the mountain? Now that would be service worth payting for! Kanako and I continued our death march will increased rigor once we were above the trees. Reaching the concrete bunker of a hut at the 6th stagepoint, we caught our first glimpse of the intricately rocky edifice of Daisen’s serpentine figure. Impressive.

Daisen is no stranger when it comes to signposts, as every 100 meters of elevation gain is clearly marked as if to taunt you to a time-trial. I can’t help thinking if these landmarks were put there to help with mountain rescues, or perhaps for groups to scribble in their meticulous notebooks: “reached 1400m at 7:42am. Rested for 3 minutes and 27 seconds. 3 komakusa flowers spotted.”. It kind of takes the fun out of climbing, don’t you think?

It was right around this 1500m mark that I’d made a stark realization. I could barely see down to the village where we started, which was only about 2 kilometers away. The Sea of Japan and Yonago city? Competely enveloped in this yellowish haze. “Wait a minute,” I thought “this is kousa!” For those who don’t live in Japan, every spring the country in inundated with sand blowing from the deserts of China. It picks up pollutants on its way through the mainland and deposits them in Korea and Japan. Usually this aeolian dust occurs in early to mid March, not in early May! I erroneously thought that the strong winds from the previous storm would blow all the pollutants further east, not bring more with it. Although I’d timed the weather perfectly, I’d forgotten to factor in the yellow sand.

Oh well, we might as well enjoy the snow at least. The fearless couple pushed on, reaching the wooden planks just below the summit of Misen. Soon the hut came into view, still half-buried under the winter snows. Several dozen people rested on the platforms of Daisen’s bald summit. We picked a place as far away from the smokers as possible before digging into our lunch boxes. Even though it was much better than my first time around, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of disappointment for not getting good visibility. We didn’t even bother with the knife edge ridge to Ken-ga-mine, as there wasn’t enough snow and the cloud was threatening to come in. Still, being here was much better than sitting in the middle of the city.

The time to descend was once again upon us, so we decided to put on our crampons. We’d done fine enough without them on the climb, but wanted a little extra grip for the downward journey. Scrambling back to the emergency bunker at the 6th stagepoint, I peered over the edge towards the steep, desolate gully. I motioned over to Kanako, who quickly joined me as I started kick-stepping a zig-zag path down the 50 degree slope. I ignored the shouts from the others on the ridge line, who obviously underestimated my abilities. I’d already checked out this path during my recon mission the previous day, and the scuff marks proved my initial thoughts, that others had used this gully as a climbing route. Sticking to the beech trees in case of avalanche, I carved a navigable path, hopping from tree to tree while my trusty partner quickly followed suit.

Once the slope eased a bit, I headed out to the main chute and kick-stepped a route straight down. Kanako, obviously bored with my delicate hoof prints, came swooshing past in full glissade mode, trekking pole raised above her head and a gigantic grin on her face. “Two can play at this game”, I shouted, lowering myself into her chute path and quickly overtaking the fearless leader. I was gaining speed quickly through the melted mush, but kept in control long enough to snap a few photos.

At the bottom of the avalanche chute, I looked back at the ground we’d covered: 200 vertical meters in less than 10 minutes. Through the trees we spotted the emergency hut I’d discovered yesterday, where we stopped for lunch. My backside was completely soaked, including the entire contents of my wallet, but the slidding was well worth the drawbacks.

Soon enough, we arrived back at the shukubo, where I hung my clothes out to dry in the sun. We even had time for a quick cup of coffee and the cafe we’d visited the previous day, before boarding the bus back to Yonago. Our onward journey took us to Tottori and its sand dunes, but the thoughts of Daisen’s unforsaken rocks remained. A winter ascent is awfully tempting….

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