Flashback to 2001. After 7 months of living in Osaka, my first opportunity for an overnight hiking trip arises, as my co-worker Eric and I head to the highlands of Nara Prefecture for a 2-day hike through one of the most secluded gorges in Japan: the mighty Osugidani. After a bleary-eyed early morning train ride, we boarded the jam-packed tourist bus bound for Odai-ga-hara, which arrived at the plateau after a 90-minute slog on rural roads that have surely seen better days. The parking lot was filled to capacity by pensioners eager to catch the autumn colors at their peak. Only in Japan would the masses carry forward with their plans regardless of the weather. Once out of the bus we immediately sought shelter at the bus stop to escape the pelting rain and frigid winds.
New to Japan and low on gear, I threw on my trashbag-cum-poncho and snowboarding pants since I had no other gear to keep the rain away. I knew things would be fine as long as we kept moving. We marched up the crowded trail, along wooden walkways built to keep erosion at bay. Deer grazed casually on the surrounding greenery as the orange and red foliage fell steadily from the exposed timbers of one of Kansai’s most popular outdoor destinations. After a half-hour hustle, Eric and I reached the high point of Mt. Hinode, my 2nd Hyakumeizan. We took a 30-second break before heading off the peak towards the gorge, where we left 95% of the crowds behind.
The path must have surely been built by a knee surgeon, as the near 80 degree slope dropped incessantly into the valley floor. We would surely require the services of said doctor once we made it out of here, as the weight of our packs put constant pressure on the joints. We had a tent, sleeping gear, and food for two days, yet had no idea where we would actually make camp. Our first priority was getting off the mountain and into the gorge.
Eventually we reached a forest road that marked the entrance to Osugidani. Luckily the rain had let up, but the wet rocks proved treacherous. If not for the chains bolted in the rock we surely would have fallen into the river far below. The narrow path has little room for 2-way traffic, but our late start ensured we would encounter no other hikers the rest of the way. After an hour or so we reached the start of a number of impressive waterfalls that dropped with great thundering sounds into the emerald green waters of the gorge. Eric and I pushed on as steadily as we could in the quickly-fading light, reaching an open-walled shelter just in front of Nanatsugama waterfall. “This will do,” I exclaimed, as we started sorting through gear. The wooden platforms meant we wouldn’t even need to pitch the tent. We simply unrolled the sleeping bags, broke out the cooking gear, and got to work.
The next morning we awoke to find the shelter completely filled with elderly hikers. Arriving from nearby Momonoki hut, the crowd took over all available foot space, oblivious to our vain efforts to cook breakfast. Why they needed to stand in our bedroom to view the waterfall I’ll never know, but after 10 minutes of nonstop shutters, they finally got the hint after Eric and I chanted a chorus of sumimasens (excuse me, but do you mind?). We finished off the oatmeal and packed up in a flash, just before the 2nd wave of tourists took over. We continued traversing down the gorge, past the nonstop roar of crashing waterfalls, across high-flying suspension bridges, and out of the narrow mouth of the constricted river. After lunch we arrived at a large lake, just at the ferry took off. The next one wasn’t for several hours, so we faced a dilemma. Hike the 10+ kilometers up to the dam and bus stop, or let our thumbs do the talking. Our first attempt to get a ride in Japan was a success, as the driver ended up driving to the bus stop, where the bus had already departed. Instead of leaving us there, he sped down the road, caught up with the bus, and after a few incessant honks, the bus pulled over. We jumped on board, ending up at a rural train station that took us to Matsusaka and finally back to Osaka. All in all in was a successful mission, even if the first day was a complete washout.
One day I hope to do the traverse again, but the typhoon of 2004 has put an end to all efforts to revisit. To this very day, the trail between Momonoki hut and the forest road just before the steep climb to Odai-ga-hara has been closed, and there is no indication of when it might reopen. A bypass route has been built on a forest road so that hikers can still stay at Momonoki, but it doesn’t go through the gorge itself. Apparently most of the chains nailed into the granite walls are no longer there, and huge rockfalls still block the path. I’ll need to go have a look for myself to further investigate. Trails usually get rebuilt quickly in Japan, so there must be a compelling reason why access has not returned to one of the country’s most beautiful gorges.