“Do you have your bear bell?”, quipped my driver, a slightly greying gent barking in a deep Tajima drawl. “Of course,” I replied, knowing good and well that talking any sense into this stone-headed authoritarian would do me no good. From the persistence of his warnings, you would think that the mountain is overflowing with tribes of ursine monsters, but I had enough experience to know better. He dropped me off at the start of the trail, a beat-up, potholed forest road hugging a swiftly flowing stream. I shouldered the day pack and marched through air so thick you could cut it with a butter knife.
The road terminated at the base of a gargantuan Katsura tree estimated to be nearly as old as Christ. I stared in awe at the work of nature, half wondering if Totoro himself would make a nest in the upper canopy, if those Miyazaki creatures existed in reality. The signpost on the far side of the tree indicated just 1.7km to the summit of Mt. Higashitokonoo, my playmate for the afternoon. If all went according to plan then I’d be on the summit in less than an hour, giving enough time to traverse the ridge and continue down into the valley in time for the last (and only) bus of the day.
Two steps into my trek and I very nearly ended it all, awakening a meter-long mamushi from its afternoon siesta. The deadly snake jumped from fright, sending me tumbling off the right side of the trail and down to the edge of a creek bank. By the time I shuffled off the mud and crawled back to the trail the poisonous reptile had retreated to its hiding place. Fortunately I always hike with a stick and was lucky enough that the first contact with the serpent was the end of my trekking pole and not the sole of my shoe.
With that drama behind me, I settled into a steady rhythm through a forest of mixed broadleaf and planted cedar. The humidity brought droplets of sweat trickling down my forehead and into my eyes, turning clear vision into a stinging, blurry mess. Now I remember why I hated hiking in the summer months, but the punishment was necessary if I was going to reach the magic 90 before the end of the year. The path followed the stream to the upper terminus and cut east through terrain so steep and remote that even the tree planters couldn’t reach. After half an hour I breached the ridge and sought refuge on a downed tree in a futile attempt at hydration. I took off my ‘quick dry’ shirt, wringing out ponds of perspiration into soil already dampened from the seasonal rains. Water and an isotonic drink took turns funneling down my parched esophagus, as the lightly salted potato chips brought saline equilibrium back to my quivering frame.
Turning further east, the gentle contours of the ridge spit me out on a broad clear-cut plateau with exposed views in all directions. Clouds hung heavy to the south, but a vast expanse of ridges layered the horizon to the north. To the west, the summit of Hyonosen sat snugly alongside the loftier peaks of Hyogo Prefecture, the shapes obscured by the haze trickling in from the Gobi. I reached the high point shortly before 1pm and settled down for another leisurely break. My initial plan was to traverse along the ridge to Nishitokonoo mountain and drop into the valley a little closer towards the village and bus stop, but I wasn’t feeling it today. Perhaps it was the thought of the ghosts haunting the deep folds of the mountain. Back in the summer of 2009, the mountain was the scene of a deadly helicopter crash involving two pilots out on a fam flight in foggy weather. Or perhaps it was my promise to Kanako to come back safely on a rare solo outing. What if I did run into that elusive bear on the ridge? There were no other hikers or anyone within shouting distance, and with no cell phone reception in this sequestered part of Hyogo, it would be a long time before anyone stumbled upon my skeleton. A more logical explanation for my lethargy, however, was the heat.
I ignored the turnoff for Nishitokonoo and dropped back into the same valley as before. Once back at the Katsura tree I kicked off the boots and took in the view. I tried to imagine what life must have been like when this tree first sprouted that seedling back a couple of millennia ago. At that time this was likely to have been a deeply forested area, so how did this tree survive the modernization of this land? Eventually my thoughts drifted towards other things, and more importantly, the bus timetable. I scampered down the forest road towards the village, when I found a trail on my right that branched off towards the summit of Mt. Nishitokonoo. My guidebook had warned that this route was extremely slippery in wet weather, so a quick recce was in order. The trail followed a moss-covered stream before reaching a cavernous area that bear likely used for giving birth. A side spur led to a hidden waterfall that seemed completely inaccessible. The walls closed in on all sides as I scuttled towards the base of the falls, but there was no safe ascent to the top. From here, the path left the stream and shot straight up to the summit, but alas, time would no allow me this luxury. I glanced at the watch and realized I’d now be lucky to make that 4:15pm bus.
My leisurely stroll turned into a full-on sprint. I reached the village at 4:10pm but had no idea about the location of the bus stop. The first farmer I ran into pointed straight ahead, so I picked up the pace until I saw the hood of the bus peeking out from behind the bus shelter. I’ve really got to stop cutting these hikes so close, but curiosity always seems to get the better of me. With peak #81 checked off the list, I’m officially an octogenarian until the end of the year. I just hope I start making more intelligent decisions before they come back to haunt me.