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Archive for November, 2013

6am. Not the greatest of departure times, but when Grace the Yamaholic comes calling, you drop what you’re doing and willfully oblige. Grace, Nao and I headed north on the highway, past the dense collection of skyscrapers of Osaka, around the dirty factories of Amagasaki, and north to the hinterlands of Sasayama, to explore the uppermost reaches of the Taki Alps, one of Kansai’s hidden treasures. Though only rising to a modest height of 700 meters, our two target peaks of the day held some challenging surprises.

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Under a backdrop of subarctic winds and pre-dawn frost, we unloaded our gear at the mountain pass and prepared to face the first rays of the new day. It was 7:30am when we took our initial crunchy steps on peak #1, my earliest start in years. The route rose abruptly from the narrow saddle, a fresh coating of crystal powder covering the crisp leaves of a forgotten autumn. I took the lead, with Grace and Nao bringing up the rear. This allowed me to not only digitally capture the lonesome scenery of the barren woods , but also to offer a sense of scale by depicting my fellow climbers in a sleepy grimace as they struggle up the unforgiving contours of Mitake’s hallowed perch.

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Mt. Mitake, the ‘honorific peak’, is common nomenclature for mountains holding religious significance, the greatest of which is the Shingon stalwart Ontake (御岳), which by no coincidence, utilizes the same characters of the Tokyo version of Mitake (御岳). Both mountains are covered with temples and shrines that attract both pilgrims and tourists alike. Kansai’s Mitake, on the other hand, has 4 different possible kanji readings: 御嶽、御岳、三岳、or 三嶽. Why there are so many readings for one mountain cannot be easily explained, but may be due to historical changes in the Japanese language, coupled together with the pen name preferred by the villagers living at the base of the peak. Even the trail designers seemed confused: the first sign at the pass indicates 御嶽 while further up the mountain you find 御岳 more prevalent, until reaching the summit, where you find both 御岳 and 三岳.   The reality might be that no one truly knows the answer to this riddle, so for now this enigma will have to remain enigmatic.

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The pitch of the route intensified. Steel links of chain draped from the craggy slabs like Rapunzel’s braided locks, leading us up to a broad saddle painted with smooth streaks of white. Our footsteps tell us that the snow must have fallen just hours if not minutes before our arrival. Subpolar gusts flowed from our right while ultraviolet rays forced their way westward, colliding in a vaporous swirl directly in our path. We were in the line of fire, so I quickened the pace until reaching a more sheltered area home to a shrine-enclosed grotto, where a centuries-old jizo statue peered out to check on our progress.  A little further along we reached the high point of the peak which was christened with a cellular phone relay station. I’m sure the yamabushi would not be impressed.

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After returning along the same trail back to the mountain pass, the three of us took refuge in a day shelter to refuel before starting towards our second target peak of Kogane. My watch read 8:45am. I’m usually just rousing myself out of bed around this time, but in the early hours I had already knocked off the highest point in the Taki Alps. A bear-warning sign welcomed us into Kogane’s cedar-heavy drainage, which we followed a short distance to the ridge, which retained its deciduous blanket of naked branches. The trail was easy to follow for the next few minutes until vanishing abruptly at the base of a family of sandstone bluffs. Looks like we had our work cut out for us.

I took the lead, forging a route through a notch in the rock before dropping just as steeply off the backside. This teeter-totter continued through a section of trail that was giving Mt. Myogi a run for its money. The views opened up back towards the gentle knob of Mitake before diving back into the trees for the final few steps towards the topmost pinnacle. We stopped a while to catch our breath while admiring the pleasant views and even more pleasant conversation.

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Nao and I have both finished climbing the Hyakumeizan, so we had a lot of chat about. Grace, who was three-quarters of the way through her own pursuit, served as our mountain kōhai. It’s rare that you find yourself in the company of Hyakumeizan baggers, so the conversation naturally drifted to stories from our hikes spiced up with advice for the remaining peaks on Grace’s list.

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Bone-piecing gales soon had us retesting back into the forest, which led us back to the thermal comforts of our automobile. On the way out, a stop to Sayasama’s Sunday temple market was in order. The village is one of the few untouched Edo-era castle towns left in Kansai. Spared the wrath of the Allied Forces air raids, the main street is like a step back to the dawn of the samurai era. Shops adorning the main street spread baskets of fresh produce all along their open facades: yardstick-sized green onions, Chinese cabbage that could double as bowling balls, and baseball bats disguised as daikon radishes fought for attention among the hefty bags of kuromame, a local fiber-packed delicacy. We entered a quaint noodle shop in search of warm soba noodles molded by the hands of time.

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On the drive back to Osaka, our newly-formed trio spoke of future Kansai hikes into the hinterlands of Omine and the Kumano Kodo. We made it back in the early afternoon, giving me enough time to enjoy the rest of my day. Perhaps these early starts aren’t such a bad thing after all.

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There are certain people in your life that you always plan on meeting up with but never do. I was determined not to let Ted Taylor fall into that category. We met briefly over a mexican dinner in Osaka several years ago, where we talked about doing a hike together. It was time to etch those plans into concrete, so we set a date and place: mid-July in Ikoma.

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We met during rush hour at Kyobashi station on the platform of the JR Gakkentoshi line. The platform itself is tricky to access: you have to first traverse halfway along the Loop Line platform before dropping down a  hidden staircase to another set of tracks that run perpendicular underneath. I’d forgotten about this anomaly, arriving at our meeting point just as a train pulled in for boarding. Ted and I caught up as the standing-room only carriage rocked us awake. We disembarked at Shijo-nawate station, hopping on a bus to an unnamed pass on the edge of the Ikoma mountain range. With a bit of good luck and perseverance, the end of the afternoon would see us at the far end of the Ikoma’s outstretched contours, some 25km to the south.

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The first part of the walk, through a prefectural park under a scenic broadleaf canopy, offered a pleasant warm-up for our long walk. The path was littered with signage that became more and more absurd the deeper we forged into the woods. The best was perhaps for the one about the runaway wheelchairs. It was Osaka’s brazen attempt at barrier-free design, though I wondered how many lion-hearted members of the disabled community would be game for these tricky forested strolls.

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After crossing a dirt dam over a pint-sized reservoir, the route dove back into the woods, skirting a narrow ridge before dropping sharply down to route 8. Our tranquil descent to the pass was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of gobbling which could only come from one bird species. Sure enough, on our right, sitting just off the road in a narrow gulch where the folds of two ridges met, was a small animal farm with several large turkeys. On crossing the road, we were met by a trio of locals assembling animal traps by the side of the road. Were they catching wild turkeys for their ever-growing collection of farm animals? “Rascal,” replied the scruffier of the group. Perplexed, I asked for some clarification. “Arai-guma”. I had no idea there were even raccoons in Japan, but after some post-hike research I realized the man was referring to Rascal the Raccoon, a highly successful late 70s animated series that led to the illegal importation and introduction of thousands of raccoons as pets. The animal protection laws here in Japan leave a lot to be desired: the raccoons grew up, became a nuisance to their pet owners, and we were released into neighboring parks and forests. The nocturnal creatures can now be found in 42 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. “Have a look by the rice fields”, continued our animal guide. Sure enough, at the end of the concrete path we found two live raccoons trapped in one small cage. The farmers were assembling the new traps so they could separate the two animals and allow them more space while setting up new traps to capture more of the elusive beasts. Ted and I jokingly wondered if all of the farmers would be wearing coonskin caps in the future.

From here we reached the beginning of the Ikoma skyline toll road. Instead of the road, we stuck to the path that roughly parallels the scenic byway for the entire ridge, though we were staying below the actual summit, on an ancient path on the Osaka side of the religious mountain. The path alternated between dirt and concrete most of the way up, through an area shockingly spared the post-war deforestation and conifer plantations that have turned most of the central part of the archipelago into a monosyllabic mess.

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Our walk provided us with plenty of time to finally get to know one another. One of the first questions on my mind was about the title of his blog Notes from the ‘Nog. I had always assumed that ‘Nog was short for noggin, but Ted quickly cleared up that misinterpretation. “I used to live in Yonago when I first came to Japan,” explains my companion. It turns out that locals have penned an affectionate nickname  for the eastern Shimane Prefecture city: the ‘Nog. “So while my blog actually has a double meaning, either Yonago or noggin depending on your mood.” Ted is now based in Kyoto and didn’t feel like changing the name of this creative writing platform. This is some inside information I never would have gotten if I had only been a casual follower of his blog, and it only strengthens my resolve to meet every Japan-based blogger at some point during my Asian tenure.

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Eventually we crossed the main path connecting the summit on our left with Ishikiri station on our right. We could have turned left here and reached the summit in only 15 minutes, but there is remarkably no path that runs uninterrupted along the tops of the peaks. This is due to the massive collection of broadcast antenna occupying the entire southern flank of the plateau. Being private property, everything is fenced off, so the only way to follow the true ridge is to walk on the toll road itself. Otherwise, you need to drop down to our present location and skirt around those obstructions, which is exactly what we did. Through rhododendron and hydrangea we flowed, dropping to a secluded temple near route 308 in time for a well-timed lunch. We’d already covered 10km by that point, and the humidity of the early summer was already starting to get to us. Unfortunately neither of us had brought a change of clothes, which meant the only way to dry things was to wring them out and let nature do the rest.

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After reaching 308, the trail climbed back up to intersect another access route coming in from Hiraoka. It was here that we found a small rest house which stocked detailed maps of the entire mountain range. Ted picked up one for his collection while I snooped around for an isotonic drink. From here we climbed and climbed, back up the ridge to Narukawa park, a peaceful resting place offering stunning vistas to the sprawling plains of Osaka and Higashi Osaka cities. To our left, we could clearly see the antenna-lined summit of Ikoma, a indication of how far we had come. To our right, the ridge stretched out as far as the eye could see, with Mt. Takayasu’s meteorological dome providing the optimal navigation piece. Though feeling drained, we decided to aim for that tower, knowing it would be a series of relatively easy undulations along the rolling ridge.

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Ducking back into the shaded protection of the forest, our route skirted by a peculiar collection of gazebos shaped like giant toadstools. It was as if a tribe of aging hippies had built a psychedelic hermitage back in the 70s that was suddenly abandoned. Or perhaps they were built by the legendary yokai that are rumored to haunt Ikoma’s upper reaches after dusk. The mushroom huts provided speculative conversation fodder that lasted until our next rest point at the base of a towering metal lookout station that appeared to double as an Olympic diving platform for a grass-lined pool. On the second floor of this spellbinding structure lay an area teeming with shiny aluminum locks. Apparently couples come here to confirm their binds of commitment by inscribing their names on the locks and fastening them to a makeshift shrine. This is where the vertigo-inducing climb to the top of the platform commenced. I started up first while Ted prayed to the shine for structural stability in the aging beams that supported the insanely cantilevered top. I stood at the top, trying to stabilize my extremities long enough to admire the views. I’m usually not that acrophobic but this exposed square had me shaking and quivering. After switching places, Ted also felt a strange sense of fear, as if the entire platform would come tumbling down at any moment. Ikoma is filled with strange powers indeed.

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Our water reserves were beginning to suffer under the intense heat of mid-afternoon, the hottest part of one of July’s hottest days this year. We pushed forward, past yet more of those mysterious giant concrete fungi before reaching a temple complex from an unknown sect of Buddhism. From the chain link and locks, we could only surmise that it must be some obscure cult feeding off the special powers of dead spirits. It was not an inviting place. A few minutes later and we stood at the base of the white tower of Takayasu, where we found a cable car station with vending machines. We checked the time. It was already after 4pm and I had a lesson in Osaka from 7. We didn’t have time for the final 5km of the ridge, so we accepted defeat and took the funicular railway back down to civilization. Both of us vowed to come back and complete the rest of the ridge in due time. A task that has yet remained unfinished.

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Mt. Inamura clawed at my thoughts like a feral cat seeking attention. She needed to be summited soon, so these pangs of regret would dissipate. Late September, and a window of fair early autumn weather presented itself. The commute would be long. The hike even longer. With a wall of typhoons lined up in the Pacific ready to batter the Kii Peninsula, I took the bait and once again boarded that early morning bus from Shimoichi-guchi. This has become such a routine that I was beginning to wonder if the bus drivers would start to recognize me.

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From the bus stop at Dorogawa, I marched through town alone, past the shops just beginning to awake from their quiet slumber. Old ladies milled about, sweeping the first remnants of autumn from the facades facing the shoulder-less street. After 10 minutes of steady marching, I found the trail to Inamura on my right, marked by that familiar rectangular box for hikers to fill out their climbing intentions. Ever since my near-death experience in January my faith in the authorities had fallen to record-low levels. Not that I ever filled out those forms before. I came armed with new back-up: my mountaineering insurance card, courtesy of the fine folks at jRO.

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The route led through the unimpressive cedar forests and past an impressive cave before meandering along the edge of a collection of smaller peaks to the junction below Kannon-mine. From here, the trail continued blazing just below the ridge line across a series of wooden bridges built over the many streams flowing down from the heights above. The higher I climbed the less dense the cedars became, until they petered out completely into a field of ancient oak trees and thick bamboo grass. This is Omine as a last remembered, untouched by deforestation and only affected by the hands of time. Shortly before noon I reached the modest mountain hut set up on a saddle just below the final push to Inamura. Day hikers spread out on the picnic table, soaking in the rays while replenishing their lost abdominal reserves. A quick snickers bar did the trick for me, and I forged ahead into a fog bank licking the upper reaches of my target peak. By the time I arrived I was in a world of white, but breaks in the clouds revealed a glimpse of Mt. Sanjo across the steep valley. The serene silence was broken occasionally by the syncopated wailing of a conch shell: mountain priests hidden somewhere in the mystic murk engaged in a esoteric religious exercise. I sat back, soaking in the crisp air and dogmatic rhythms.

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In the midst of my reverie, I leaned too far forward, knock my trekking pole off the edge of the summit viewing platform and down the side of a cliff. Coming to my senses, I gently climbed down the steps, slid under the platform and scooted to the edge of the abyss. My stick was caught in a tree that I somehow managed to kick free. Once safely retrieved, my next target peak was the impossibly steep rocky perch of Mt. Dainichi. The summit sat adjacent to Inamura, a treacherous cliff separating the two rocky spires as if split by a giant knife. I eased into the approach, crossing a metal bridge built over the gaping hole while trying my best not to look down. A few ladders and chains later, I sat on top of Dainichi’s exposed flank in a rare break in the cloud. The sun rained down on the bald summit as I dug into a rice ball. Two other men soon joined me on the summit. We shared stories about Omine before retreating in unison back to the hut.

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From there, the two men headed towards Sanjo while I shot down the trail which I had blazed earlier in the day. At the Kannon junction, I rested on some exposed tree roots while chatting up an elderly duo resting nearby. I had an easy walk back to Dorogawa, but was interested in the longer route via Kannon-mine, and my new information source assured me that the route wasn’t too difficult. I needed a few minutes to psyche myself up for yet another big climb. I had already traversed nearly 15km and extra reserves of energy were needed. This was a two snickers kind of day.

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The path climbed up an impossibly steep slope towards a series of false summits which grew longer in succession. What was I thinking? Well, at least the trail was deserted and the views back towards Inamura were pleasant enough. Kannon’s tree-smothered top eventually came into view, and down the far side I slid, nearly giving myself a heart attack by chancing upon two deer grazing in the woods next to the trail. Alarmed, they sprinted deeper inside, rustling leaves and toppling branches in their quest for protection. A few minutes later, the trees swiftly gave way to susuki grass, with a stone monument marking a scenic overlook. A group of several dozen hikers wearing orange t-shirts lay seize to the place. Two of the younger members slid over, made room for my slumped and beaten figure. They appeared to be participants of some strange religious group, but my inquiry as to their nature went unanswered.

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The final descent awaited, and with aching knees I ducked back into the green canopy, arriving at the bus stop with only minutes to spare until the next bus. The grand peaks of Dorogawa were now off the list. It was time to turn my attention to further south along the Omine ridge, on the more remote peaks closer to Hongu shrine.

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With the success of the first Kamikochi gathering, it came time to start thinking about another meeting of the mountaineering minds in Kamikochi. Miguel and I talked about possible dates, and with the feedback of other members of the Facebook community, we nailed down the weekend of the autumnal equinox as the official date. The rules were the same as last time: find your own way there and bring some food to share.

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This time around, instead of the grassy fields of Tokusawa, we set our sights on the forested flatlands of Konashi-daira, a short hop from the bus terminal. This would allow not only children to attend, but for other mountaineers to use our site as a base camp for the weekend. Miguel and Brant headed in early on Thursday to secure a site with a picnic table, as I caught the 6am train from Osaka on Friday morning. I made surprisingly good time, arriving at Kamikochi bus terminal in the late morning with some of the best September weather I’ve seen in the Alps.

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I immediately located Brant (and family) and Miguel, set up my modest camp, and met up with another member Dean, who had come with his wife and young child. We spent most of the day getting to know each other, with the kids chasing monkeys and the adults chasing mountain dreams. As the afternoon lost the battle with evening, Brant, Miguel, and I retreated back to camp, making a cosy fire and preparing a wonderful curry dinner. As we settled in around the fire, a familiar face strolled into camp. It was Michal, a friend from Osaka who had just come in from a long trip up the Yatsumine ridge on Tsurugi. Michal went right to work, honing his Czech-trained fire crafting skills, keeping the inferno blazing brilliantly the rest of the night. Sitting around the fire sharing stories made us all soon forget the tough effort it had taken to get there, with traffic jams, crowded transport, and noisy tourists.

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The next morning, after a fitful sleep, the first of the guests began arriving, Paul from Nagoya rolled into camp and set up shop next to me, showing off the wind-bent poles after his long summer trip in Iceland. We took over a sunny area near the river, leisurely making breakfast and coffee under the brilliant sun, before heading off to Myojin for an early afternoon stroll. Brant and Dean headed back with the kids, while Miguel, Paul and I explored the tranquil shores of the lake before looping back around towards Kappabashi. Just before reaching there, we ran into Kayo, an old student of mine who was visiting Kamikochi with a couple of her European friends. After catching up, the boys headed back towards camp, snacking on ice cream and ohagi before rolling into camp in mid-afternoon. By then, most of the members has started to file in as we all started introducing each other.

I recognized Naresh immediately, while Kevin and I caught up briefly. Viviana, Aidan, David, Tomasu, Michael, Maya, Miguel, Michal, Kaoru, Paul and a host of others stared the preparations for dinner. In all the chaos I can’t remember exactly who was doing what, but I do remember it involved avocados, taco fillings, salad, tortilla chips, refried beans, and fresh tortillas toasted over the campfire. The great mexican mountain feast ensued, leaving a happily satisfied  group of mountaineers. Tomomi showed up shortly before dark, having just come down off the Hotaka mountains.  Ben and Romaric asked us all about our hiking plans the following day. In all our haste in preparing dinner we hadn’t really discussed our plans. Several ideas were tossed about before being finalized in the darkness surrounding the outskirts of the fire: looks like we had two different groups heading up to three different peaks. One was headed to Oku-hotaka, another to Yake and a third up to Tokugo pass. Aidan also planned a solo outing up to Oku-hotaka via the tough Dakesawa route, while Michal had his eye on the northern ridge of Mae-hotaka. In the midst of the reverie, Yamaboy made a surprise appearance, catching everyone off guard before retreating to the depths of the woods in search of Grace Yamaholic.

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As the night drew on, our members gradually retreated to their tents. Most would be on the trail before dawn. Those of us heading up to Tokugo, on the other hand, had hoped for a more leisurely start. With the full moon flooding our camp with a strong white light, I suggested an evening hike to the pond at the bottom of Dakesawa, so Miguel, Naresh, Michael, Tomomi, Baku, and David (and maybe Tomasu?) strolled off into the dark. There may have been one or two other people lurking in the depths of the forest.

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The next morning, while most of the overachievers were on their way to the peaks, the late starters indulged in breakfast and a hot bath before hitting the trail around noon. We strolled through the forest, each at their own pace, before making our way up to Tokugo pass. It was an enjoyable afternoon break from the chaos of Kamikochi below. On the way back, I stopped by the restaurant at Konashi-daira to have a late lunch and ran into Kaoru and her boyfriend there. They had been up Yake-dake and showed me some photos. After filling my belly, it was time to start preparing for our Sunday evening meal. This time everyone was on their own for dinner, but we managed to have enough food and people involved to throw together yet another group dinner, which was most welcome. When planning a large gathering, it’s tough to find active participants that will pull their own weight, but everyone came together when it counted. We ate and chatted long into the evening. Paul told some rousing campfire stories while we all listened in with envy. Rie, Justin, and Andy also joined us for the Sunday evening festivities, after coming off Mt. Yari earlier in the day.

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Monday morning came and went, and none of us were too enthusiastic about packing up and heading back to reality. The weekend really flew by, and it was great to finally put some faces together with names. The foreign hiking community in Japan is strong and informative, with none of the competitive snobbishness you tend to find among adrenaline junkies in some of the other outdoor playgrounds worldwide. With two successful outdoor gatherings in Kamikochi, it will soon be time to start planning the third gathering for next summer, which will hopefully build upon the success of the other two.

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