I’ve always been confused by the idiomatic expression back in the saddle. Shouldn’t it be back on the saddle? After all, we use the expression get back on the horse, not get back in the horse. Regardless of the proper prepositional nomenclature, I decided that 17 days after being discharged from the hospital was a sufficient time to allow my body to heal. Kanako wasn’t so enthusiastic. “Don’t go to the mountains so soon,” she demanded, “and don’t go by yourself”. We reached an agreement, allowing me to go to an easy mountain with a lot of people around in case I ran into trouble. Luckily we were using my definitions of “easy” and “crowded”.
I boarded a late morning train on the Hankyu line bound for Nishinomiya-kitaguchi, where I changed to the Takarazuka line. I take this route weekly for my work when the semester is in full swing, but today’s target lay a few stations to the north, at a place called Sakasegawa, the river of the back-flowing rapids. After changing to a local bus and creeping along a busy roadway lined with subsidized housing and golf courses, I alighted in front of the local high school, prepared my gear, and set off towards the hills. I came armed with something that I did not have on that fateful hike in January: a GPS device. I was taking no chances on this outing, carrying not only the electronic navigation system, but also a guidebook and a detailed Shobunsha map of the entire area. There would be no wrong turns this time around.
The narrow road to the trailhead was sandwiched between a broad park and river bank on the right, and dense brush and untouched forest on the left, with a collection of old, dying trees. Perched near the top of one of these trees was a kogera, the Japanese version of the pygmy woodpecker. Though I have heard the elusive birds a number of times, this was my first face-to-face encounter.
After walking on the road for a few minutes, a worn out signpost revealed a small clearing on my left. The route immediately dove into a forest of pine and brush, reminding me of some of the drier peaks in California’s coastal mountain range. Rubber stairs were fastened to the crumbling hillside, which aided in the steep climb. Sweat immediately poured down my glasses and into my mask: I needed to keep my facial protection to keep the cedar pollen at bay. My last allergy test revealed that my allergies had reached dangerously sensitive levels.
The gradient eventually leveled off when I hit the rolling ridge: the peaks weren’t massive but the contours and grade more than made up for it. Several trails darted off the ridge in a near vertical descent, in what the Japanese call a kiretto. The origins of this word are unclear, but one thing seems certain: even though it is written in katakana, it is not a loanword. The word comes from the Chinese characters depicting an open door (切戸). Generally, a kiretto is a v-shaped gap in a ridge, where the climber descends steeply to a saddle before climbing up again, much in the way that a door has a v-shape when left partially open. Due to my promise to Kanako to be safe, I opted for the easier route off the peak.
It felt refreshing to be among the greenery of the forest, moving along deserted ridges with amazing views of the dust and smog of Osaka city, a place that I continue to call home despite my plethora of health problems. Eventually I would like to relocate some somewhere “cleaner”, but when you’re severely allergic to dust mites on top of most pollen, there aren’t many options.
The first test hike was a resounding success. Other than the challenges that come with hiking in a full mask, the lungs held up. As long as I choose days with low pollen counts, I should be ready for a fun-filled (and safe) spring.