This incredible spell of immaculate weather is likely to end soon, so I need to take advantage of it somehow. The problem is, temperatures hover in the mid to upper 30s, and with the humidity higher than most of my students grades, the only option is to head to higher ground. The previous day, a Friday, dawned clear and warm, but peculiar rainmarks dotted the forecast. Deciding to take the ‘wait and see’ approach, the clouds rolled in on cue around 11am, and Osaka was presented a bewildering thunderstorm just before the lunchtime crowds hit the neighboring cafes. Today, however, the same clear skies showed themselves at dawn, and the umbrella marks were thankfully left off the menu. My original plan of hitting Odai-ga-hara fell by the wayside when I missed the 7:15am train. As I flipped through the guidebook, I noticed a peak on my 300 mountains list nestled deep in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. The train departed at 9am, so I grabbed my gear and embarked on another journey into Kii Peninsula’s rugged terrain.
After taking the Nankai Koya line, and being herded into the sardine can otherwise known as the Koyasan Cable Car, I ran in front of the crowds in order to be seated at the front of the bus bound for Okunoin. “You must really know the system”, commented the elderly woman sitting next to me. We were the first to disembark the train and had prime seating for the cable car journey. This also put us as some of the first passengers on the now overflowing bus. I’ve learned over the years to always make an effort to be the first one off the train, especially when hitting crowded trails or transferring to buses for popular destinations. Once disembarked, I trotted off to the intersection where the Koya-Ryujin Skyline began. According to the signposts, I had a 30-km hitch to reach my destination. This time around, I had the hindsight to make a signboard in advance. Would it help my cause?
The most important thing when hitching a ride is patience. Remember that it only takes one ride to get to your destination. Giving up or looking desperate will not help your cause. It was 11 o-clock sharp, the skies were as blue as as Diana Ross’s album of the same name, and I still had plenty of daylight left. The second car that passed by stopped, nearly wiping out a cyclist as it pulled over to the wayside. His name was Takumi, and he was giving his elderly parents a lift from the hospital to his hometown of Ryujin-mura. My driver dropped me off at the michi-no-eki, which houses a small souvenir shop, a restaurant, and a tourist trap of a tower called the Gomadanzan Sky Tower. I immediately went to the second floor restaurant and ordered an overpriced lunch set. I’d need sustenance on this journey, and this was my only option. After lunch, I bypassed a tempting visit to the tower in lieu of hitting the hills.
I’m sure Mt. Gomadanzan must have been one spectacular mountain in ancient times. The proximity to Koyasan made it an ideal location for the practice of Esoteric Buddhism, but that all changed when the road was built to connect Koya with Ryujin onsen, one of the most famous hot springs for beautifying the skin. Nowadays the passage is filled with tour buses navigating the treacherous switchbacks, as well as adventurous bikers who often underestimate the hairpin turns and end up plummeting into a deep abyss. The views on the byway are eye-bulging, as the asphalt thoroughfare literally hugs the ridge for most of the journey. This is what put me off about the mountain. From the parking lot it’s only a 10-minute walk to the summit!
Despite the proximity, I knew that heading to Wakayama’s highest peak should provide me a bit of a respite from the scorching summer heat and I was not let down. The path immediately ducked under the cover of a deciduous forest canopy, the likes of which I had not seen in some time. How this area was spared the wrath of the cedar planters is beyond me. This is what the path looks like a mere 50 meters from the crowded parking lot.
I’ve been told that the peak becomes crammed with onlookers during the autumn season, but on this warm August afternoon I had the entire place to myself. I reached the top of my target destination after a gentle 500 meter stroll. The views opened up a bit to the west, marked by a signboard proclaiming this as one of Wakayama’s 100 best places to watch the sunset. Who comes up with these lists anyway? Bored prefectural employees that spend most of their time driving along these forest roads in hardhats? Once on the summit, a side spur continued on the ridge to Mt. Ryujin, the true high point of Wakayama Prefecture. The path was immaculate, as the views started to open up towards the northeast, across the endless fold of mountains of the Kumano Kodo. Somewhere at the end of my sight line lay Hongu shrine and the pristine shoreline of outermost section of the peninsula.
NHK! Leave it to Japan’s government-run broadcaster to ruin a great mountain. As I rounded the final bend to the top, not one but 2 behemoth towers awaited me. I had not scene such scarring since my conquering of Okinawa’s highest mountain back in February. I tried to stay positive. At least I wasn’t sharing the mountain with half of Kansai.
After retreating back to Gomadanzan, I turned left and headed back down towards the Skyline, crossing it at one point before escaping into the forest once again on a bit of a post-summit nature walk. I used this opportunity to better familiarize myself with tree names. The forests surrounding the peak are apparently home to over 2000 species of tree and plant-life, conveniently marked for ease of recognition. I can know confidently identify some of the tree names that Japanese guidebooks frequently make reference to. In all of my previous mountain excursions, I had been complacent with only being able to safely pick out 3 trees: the mighty sugi (cedar), the stately matsu (pine), and the majestic buna (beech). My imaginary conversation with myself sounded something like this: “So that’s what a mizunara looks like. Ok, but the tsuga looks like it’s in the pine family. Oh, according to my dictionary it’s a hemlock! And that crazy orange-looking tree? It’s a himeshara!”
The easy trail followed alongside a paved forest road that split off from the Skyline. Most of the road was completely hidden except for the last 500 meters, which required walking alongside the deserted and slowly degrading road. At the terminus there was a rest house which served basic refreshments and housed a large picnic area for school groups. From here the path ducks back into the forest, meandering along a 3-km traverse to connect back up to the main road. I rested here for the first time since starting my hike, sitting on the lush grass and enjoying the cool breeze. Long breaks tend to make me sleepy, so I rested only long enough to down a handful of mixed nuts and a half a liter of water. The route passes through a rhododendron park and past a couple of bird-watching platforms before crossed a handful of steep mountain streams. The final 400 meters to the trail’s end was through a cedar forest, my first of the entire day! It was no surprise, as most of the forest roads are built for the sole purpose of logging and plantation planting. At least the deeper, more secluded areas of the peak retained their unspoilt beauty.
With the hike behind me, I stood at the edge of the Skyline, turning my signboard over so it read “Koyasan“. When I made the sign earlier that morning I knew I would have to hitch back to civilization. The biggest problem, though, was that all of the traffic was heading towards Ryujin hot spring, the opposite direction from Osaka!
As I waited for a car to approach, I weighed the options. “Perhaps I should just start walking along the road until someone stops”, I muttered. I knew from my past experience that this almost never works, because you often run into cars who would likely stop but are in the middle of a curve so they can’t safely stop to pick you up. “I’ll give it 3o minutes”, I added, knowing that all it takes is one ride to get me where I needed to go. The first couple of cars that passed by kept on going. They were definitely driven by elderly local who had weary eyes for dirty, blond-haired foreigners. The next car slowed for an instance but continued on their journey. “Perhaps, they’ll turn around after discussing the situation”, I dreamed. Many times this happens, as most Japanese are not able to make snap decisions without discussing them with either their other passengers, or after some deep internal dialog. Time check: 25 minutes. My feet were tired from all of the walking but I stood my ground. The fourth car, a white minivan pulled up and immediately stopped. “Get in”, exclaimed the father from the driver’s seat. They didn’t even have the courtesy to pull over out of the road in case a biker came flying around the corner. I always make a habit of hitching in places that have a broad shoulder or turnout so cars can physically get out of traffic to pick me up. It doesn’t always work.
“We’re not going to Koyasan“, explained the driver, “but we can drop you off somewhere in Nara.” All I really needed was a ride to a train station. Any train station would do, but the party of 3 insisted on driving me as far as they were going, which turned out to be Saidaiji, three hours to the north. A father and son returning from a fishing outing, accompanied by the son’s best friend, who was gung-ho about testing out his English. The son, a member of Japan’s Self Defense Force, knew a few phrases from joint drills with America’s finest. Some of the phrases that came out of his mouth were not fit for a child’s ears. We spend the next couple of hours chatting about life in Japan, as I taught some useful vocabulary, which mostly involved words related to the scenery at hand.
My adventure was an astounding success. Not only did I knock one more peak off of Japan’s Highest Prefectural Peaks list, but I also got to explore some amazing virgin forest without overheating in the August sun. This rekindled my spirit for more mountain adventures. Would I have a third round with Odai-ga-hara, or are the mountains of northern Kyoto and Shiga calling me?