Early November. An opportunity presents itself to explore the highest peaks of the Kansai area and time is precious. After delaying our departure by one day due to inclement weather, John and I head up the paved forest road to the gate marking the entrance to the sacred mountains of Omine, a place which to this very day is still officially off-limits to women.
The path weaved through dense forests ablaze with color and the two lone explorers pushed on towards the ridge. While the sun shone brightly in the valley below, the clouds hung tightly to the first target peak of Mt. Sanjo. Omine temple was absolutely deserted and the thick cloud made navigation a bit tricky, as we raced back and forth trying to find the turnoff towards Kosaka emergency hut. Future climbers take note that the sign reading kashiwagi (柏木) is the correct path to take. Not sure why they couldn’t have just wrote 大峰縦走ルート on the signpost….
We arrived at Kosaka just before dusk, opting for the warmth of the free hut. No use pitching a tent when you don’t need to. The next day we continued on the ridge, up and over the craggy cliffs of Daifugen, and down to the water source at Gyoja-kaeri. Just past this clearing we ran into our first hiker of the trip, a day-and-a-half from Dorogawa! Hiking on the weekdays out of season clearly has its advantages.
The ridge shone brightly in the crisp autumn air, the last of the autumn foliage hanging tightly to the deciduous canopy above. Statues lined the path at regular intervals, a reminder of the deep history of these mountains, and the thousands of Shugendo practitioners that came before us. Just after the turnoff to Gyoja-kaeri tunnel, the path gradient changed abruptly, as we were met with a never-ending array of wooden steps. I pushed ahead while John took the slow and easy approach. Arriving at Misen-hut ahead of schedule, I pitched the tent, paid the camp fee, and boiled up some water, waiting for John’s leisurely arrival. I wanted to get everything set up before dusk enveloped the ridge, and the swift pace kept us on schedule. Shortly before dusk, a rather inquisitive tanuki visited our makeshift kitchen, begging for free handouts. Apparently accustomed to receiving such refreshments from predecessors, the raccoon dog wandered uncomfortably close to our rapidly cooking meal. I thought for sure that the elusive creature would run off with our rations, so I threw some water on the helpless animal as a warning to keep a safe distance.
With hunger successfully relieved, we drifted off to sleep, awaking in the early dawn to witness another breathtaking sunrise. “Should we do the entire traverse?”, John asked, while checking supplies and map times. As much as I wanted to oblige, our delayed start meant that I needed to be at work the following evening, which didn’t allow enough time to get up and over Mt. Shaka and back to Osaka. Leaving our gear at Misen, the two of us climbed up to the high point of Mt. Hakkyo (the target point for Hyakumeizan climbers), snapped a few summit proofs, retreated back to Misen, and started the impossibly long climb down to Tenkawa-kawaai.
By impossibly long, I really meant it. Map times said to allow 4-1/2 hours for the 15km descent and it easily took that long, with our over-sized packs and the steep terrain. We half expected to run into a bear in the stunningly beautiful hardwood forest, but luckily the nocturnal mammals never surfaced. After a quick hot-spring bath in Tenkawa, we thumbed a ride all the way to Yagi station in eastern Nara, saving us a 4-hour bus ride. I headed back to Osaka while John started the long train ride back to Tokyo. The full traverse eluded up this time around, but I couldn’t help yearning for another stint with the sacred mountains of Kii Peninsula, which have since been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The only question would be, do I aim for a rematch with mighty Sanjo, or head to the uncharted waters of Shaka and the southern half of Omine?