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Archive for April, 2014

Two winters ago, I reached the halfway point in my fearless quest to conquer Kansai’s Hyakumeizan, a venerable list of 100 peaks conjured up by the evil folks at Yama-to-Keikoku publishing. Evil in that these peaks occupy your every waking thought and haunt you once those thoughts give way to noctural reverie. Although I had officially thrown in the towel after peak #50, I continued to climb mountinas throughout the Kansai region, and some of them just happened to be a few of the ‘tough ones’ on the list. They weren’t difficult in terms of technical ability, but their access without a car proved to be a bigger challenge than I had been up to facing. Low and behold, a few fellow hikers chimed in with automobile assistance and I suddenly realized that yes, in fact, I probably could knock off the remaining 50 peaks. A new challenge was on: to reach the 75% percent mark before the onset of the rainy season.

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I hatched up a plan to scale some of the easier snow peaks before setting my sights on mountain #75 which I planned to summit in late May, but here I was well ahead of schedule and set my match with the auspicious peak in late March instead. I boarded the 5:55am local train for Fukuchiyama station which chugged along through the heart of rural Hyogo Prefecture still struggling to awaken from a long, cold winter. I drifted in and out of consciousness, my body still unaccustomed to the early start. Once the castle town was reached, I changed platforms and boarded a train on the Kitakinki Tango Railway, which crawled further past Amanohashidate and onto the southern edge of the peninsula that gives the railway its name. I alighted at Mineyama station, the site of a catastrophic earthquake on the cusp of the Showa era. Aside from a small plaque at the station, there’s little evidence to suggest that Mineyama was once one of the most beautiful villages in Japan.

From here, I simply changed to a bus that stopped at Shimizu. I knew it left at 9:59am, but was surprised to find a bus pull up ten minutes early. Worried that I had confused the time, I asked the driver, who informed me that the next bus would be the one to take. When the next one pulled up, I once again asked the driver, who answered with a big ‘No’. By the time the third bus rolled up I was the talk of the town. Just as I was about the ask the driver, I heard a voice over the walkie talkie warning the driver not to pick up the foreigner wanting to go to Shimizu because it was the next bus that he wanted. When my bus finally did pull up, the driver simply gave me the thumbs-up sign, signaling me to board. You simply can’t beat service in rural Japan, especially considering the price of the fare was only two hundred yen.

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It was 10:30, preciously 5 hours after leaving my apartment, when I unhinged the trekking pole and hit the pavement for the 6km walk to the trailhead. Mother nature apparently forgot to watch the morning weather forecast, so instead of rain she presented crystal blue skies and calm winds as her way of rolling out the red carpet for me. The farmers were out in full force, preparing their fields for the spring planting. The smell of one farmer spreading fertilizer was strong enough to clear the sinuses, while further up another field was engulfed in flame, the wheat stubble reduced to a blackened cinder in an effort to sent some potash back to earth. Flowers in various states of bloom stood alongside maple trees still naked from the bitter winds that exited the valley mere days before. I was feeling limber, strolling through the empty streets on the winding incline towards the mountain pass, anxious to get this peak under my belt before the barometer started dropping.

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Around 11:15 in the morning, I came upon the modest grass parking lot on the left side of the road, barren from human encroachment save one two-door sedan. I glanced above me, spotting the lone hiker navigating the switchbacks through the thawed tundra. I knew I would probably eventually overtake him, but I advanced at my normal pace up the first few turns of the mountain road. Cresting the last turn, the broad lane petered out at the foot of a thatched shelter derived from techniques laid out during the prehistoric Jomon era. I later found out that this hut was built by a local villager with a penchant for traditional craftsmanship. It was a welcome change from the usual sheet metal structures that greet hikers at most entrances to Japan’s peaks.

From here, the real climb began, as the path narrowed through a pleasant market of virgin oak, maple, and pine above, and pockets of wildflowers awakening from their winter hibernation. The slopes of Mt. Ichigao attract flora hounds throughout the green season, eager to feast their eyes on unique petals and intriguing stigma. It was the views, however, that I sought, as the peak sits directly in the center of the peninsula, affording 270-degree ocean views from the summit perch on clear days.

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The path steepened with each advancing step, forcing me to strip down to a single short-sleeved layer for the first time in many long months. Sweat seeped from the pores like dew settling on a rhododendron grove as the pollen sent the immune system into overdrive. My nose constantly ran, as I reached for whatever foliage I could find to mop up the flow. I soon stumbled across a stone shrine torii toppled most likely by strong gales and decades of neglect. A bit further, I topped out on the summit ridge and turned right for the short climb to the high point. It was here that I finally caught up with the other lone hiker of the day, an elderly man from the village below who had either already finished his field duties or had simply put them off for later.

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I sprawled my gear around the blanket of grass flanking the foundations of an ancient temple and took in the brilliant spectacle laid out before me: countless enclaves sandwiched between rolling hills and the flat expanse of the sea, whose azure hues blended seamlessly into the atmospheric colors above, completely erasing the horizon. I drifted off into a closed-eye trance, anxious to give my burning eyes a rest from invisible flower dust flowing through the air. When I awoke, the blue sky had been overtaken by an advancing army of altocumulus, a surefire indicator of foul weather to come. I packed up the gear and advanced rapidly back down to the start of the path, and continued along the long road back to the bus stop, arriving with only minutes to spare.

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On the train ride back to Osaka, I finally had a chance to reflect up my adventure. It had taken two years to climb 25 peaks, so could I really expect to finish the remaining quarter before the end of 2014? Probably not, but it won’t hurt to try.

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