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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.