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Archive for August, 2014

As I chip away at the remaining peaks on the Kansai 100 list, the logistics are becoming more and more complicated. My final peak in Hyogo Prefecture lie far to the west, on the border of Okayama Prefecture in an area that is more characteristic of the Chugoku region than the Kansai. What were the folks at Yama to Keikoku thinking when they made this list?

The express train departed Osaka station at preciously 9:15 on a cloudy but cool morning in late August. Full of joy after securing a seat, I drifted off into a peaceful slumber, waking up nearly 45 minutes later to an all but deserted train. Examining the LED-panel displaying the train information left me shellshocked, as somewhere along the way the carriage converted itself into a local train. In my haste to catch the train, I had inadvertently jumped on the express train (kaisoku) rather than the speedier super express (shinkaisoku). Again, the powers that be that made these train names need to be drawn and quartered, as an express train really isn’t express after all. They should have named the trains in a more realistic fashion. Instead of kaisoku, they could simply call it the bochi bochi hayai. My blunder meant that I would miss the 10:25am bus leaving from Himeji station, leaving little choice but to choose another mountain in the area. I thought about getting off at Sone station and reclimbing the sandstone rock formations of the Harima Alps, but something inside urged me on, so I changed to the shinkaisoku at Kakogawa station and arrived shortly before 11am.

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I rushed out of the ticket gates and found to my utter relief that another bus was departing for Yamasaki in only a few minutes. Readjusting the schedule scribbled on a piece of scrap paper from the previous night, it appeared that I would be just in time to make the 12:10 connecting bus to Chigusa village. If I missed that connection, there would be no way of making it to Mt. Hinakura, my target peak for the afternoon. The first bus to Yamasaki weaved through a nondescript part of town which offered glimpses of the newly renovated castle that makes Himeji so proud. Perhaps the craftsman took this pride a little too seriously, however, as the ancient structure is now completely white from roof to foundation. Apparently, they argued, this is what the original castle looked like before centuries of grit and car exhaust stained the roof a dark gray. It’s all a bit shocking for the system, as the castle looks more like a wedding cake than a bastion of feudal architectural fortitude.

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The rest of Himeji is dotted with shops of peculiar nomenclature. Perhaps the denizens of this sleepy city paid attention in their junior high language classes, offering free entertainment for visitors cruising through the quiet streets. The bus first passes by a bicycle shop named Tomato before whizzing by a hair garden named Affection. Directly across the street from this conservatory of scalpel beauticians sat a hair topic studio named Back-up. Yamasaki city to the north was no different, as along the main street the patisserie Vanilla vies for attention alongside a dog salon aptly named Alf. The names became a bit more eastern as the bus navigated the smaller villages to the north, with restaurants named Tengu and corner stores fashioned after Japanese flowers such as Sumire and Himawari. The bus pulled into Chigusa shortly before 1pm, nearly 4-1/2 hours after locking my front door that morning.

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With all that pent-up energy and frustration, I nearly doubled my usual pace on the concrete forest road that led to the start of the hike. According to the maps, this road would lead me most of the way to the mountain pass, where it was a short but relatively gently stroll along the ridge to the high point. The first landmark on the route was Hinakura shrine which was unfortunately closed for renovation. I said a quick prayer in passing before weaving through fields of rice and asparagus and into a large cedar forest guarded by a massive chain link fence. A sign on the barrier warned that it was hunting season, and for visitors to exercise caution when setting foot on the mountain. To the left of this notice sat a Beware of Bears sign indicating that this area was crawling with creatures in varying stages of anorexia.

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Thanks to the recent rains, the forest was beaming with greenery on every imaginable surface. Toadstools sprouted out of the soft soil like makeshift refugee camps as the creeks roared with runoff. Further up the constricted valley, a white flatbed pickup truck sat by the side of the road, its occupant scurrying through the woods in search of something to shoot. Perhaps this was one peak where I should stay exactly on course instead of bushwhacking my own shortcuts through the backcountry. The road eventually petered out into a trail, which spent most of the time in the creek waters until even those waters trickled to a halt once the headwaters were breached. Freshwater crabs scurried through the thick undergrowth in search of nourishment while frogs and grasshoppers jumped about, curious by the visitor trespassing through their hidden habitat. I took my first break at the mountain pass, where another white vehicle with yellow license plates sat idle. Despite the cool temperatures, the narrow valley held in the humidity, leaving my torso dripping wet with perspiration.

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From here, the path turned north, initially following a forest road on the Okayama side before ducking into a deciduous forest saddling the prefectural border. Drops of rain filtered through the thick canopy before Mother Nature had second thoughts and dumped her heavy load elsewhere. Higher up on the summit plateau, the flora changed again, favoring sultry pine and susuki grass on the undulating hills of a trio of peaks breaching the 1000-meter mark.

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Each top is placated by a stone marker with the three summits named ichi no maru, ni no maru, and san no maru . Maru is Japanese for ’round’, and bulbous these peaks were indeed, losing elevation between each successive mound in a comical attempt to imitate a roller coaster. Compacted mud fields made the going downright treacherous, and eventually the high point was reached around 2:30 in the afternoon. Mt. Ushiro, Okayama’s highest peak, stood prominently to the north, a thick veil of cloud concealing its jagged crown. To the west, the mountains of Okayama drifted in and out of cloud while sheets of rain squalls watered the summit of Mt. Seppiko directly behind me. I was above the cloud line for now, taking in the sights accompanied only by an army of ants, flies, and other insects buzzing through the grass covered slopes.

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I returned preciously the same way in which I had climbed, the only highlight being actually bumping into one of the hunters on his way down for the day. Empty-handed he was, but he did ask me if I had seen any bear or deer higher up. I didn’t have the heart to explain to him that most animals can’t survive in a monocultural forest of cedar, and that he would have much better luck to the north, where Okayama’s highest mountain was much too steep for the post-war cedar planters. Mt. Ushiro is on my list of Prefectural high points, but it would have to wait until the autumn. Back at the bus stop, I had an hour to kill but fortunately the hot spring and restaurant ensured that all time would not go to waste. Once back at Yamasaki bus terminal, one of the bus drivers explained that a highway bus would shuttle me to Sannomiya station, eliminating the need to venture back through Himeji. We chatted for a bit about the mountains and the recent leech infestation affecting the surrounding peaks. Fortunately they haven’t ventured to Mt. Hinakura as of yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they continue their slow march north.

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And with that, the final peak in Hyogo Prefecture is now in the history books. Over the last several years, I’d become a big fan of the mountains of the Banshu region, so there were mixed feelings of both relief and regret with the realization that I no longer had an excuse to visit the unspoiled scenery of this hidden area of Kansai. Of course, it only takes the action of one publishing company to change that.

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When I received word of my mother’s cancer diagnosis earlier this morning, I should have just cut my losses and rolled back over to sleep.

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Instead, after a quick breakfast of leftovers and a last minute confirmation of the weather radar, I boarded a train bound for the outskirts of Kyoto city for another peak on the Kansai 100. Knock this one out and I only had to focus my attention on the unscaled summits in the remaining prefectures of Hyogo, Nara, and Wakayama.  Overcast skies stretched out over the stagnant rice fields of Kameoka city. Scores of tourists lined up on an adjacent platform to board the Sagano Torokko that meanders around the banks of the Hozu river en route to Arashiyama. On the near bank of said river, groups of students sporting life vests queued for space in the rubber rafts that offer an endorphin-laced alternative to the clickity-clack of the rails. My train continued north, hugging the bank of a smaller tributary before reaching the sleepy village of Wachi, one of the entry points for the thatched hamlet of Miyama-cho that lies a dozen kilometers due east. I disembarked, passing through the lone ticket gate in search of nourishment. It didn’t take long, as the local Fureai center housed in the train station building offered simple meals and a place to kill time before the 12:15pm bus. I took a table in the center of the multi-purpose facility, among rows of secondhand clothing and a makeshift display of local produce and convenience store snacks of dubious quality. Along the back wall a collection of nondescript photographs depicting rural agricultural life brought a sense of importance to an otherwise forgettable place. Outside, colorful banners hung gallantly in the stifling air. “Did you come here for the festival?”, quipped an bright-eyed customer from the counter, obviously eager to share his excitement for what was probably the highlight of the year for the denizens of Wachi. “Actually, I came to climb a mountain,” I replied, curling my lower lip ever so slightly in an attempt to show my disappointment for skipping their festive hootenanny.

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As I tucked into my tepid, rubbery udon noodles, the weather outside took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse. Sheets of rain pelted the pavement outside as a rumbling rose from an unknown source in the distance. “Oh, they must be setting up for the festival”, I silently muttered to myself, hoping that optimism would prevail. In the minutes leading up to the bus departure time the lightning drew alarmingly close, hitting the peak just opposite the station and sending a loud crackle that sent the feral cats scrambling for shelter. 12:15 came and went with no sign of the bus. Perhaps it wasn’t running because of the festival? I checked the train times and found to my great relief that a coach was departing for Kyoto at 12:30. Perhaps I’d have better luck further south.

The train rolled through the torrent, stopping to pick up drenched passengers en route to the cultural center of Japan. My first thought was to alight at Hozukyo station and head up Mt. Atago, but I quickly abandoned that option upon viewing the small lake that had settled upon the train platform. Maybe this was a good time to cut my losses and head back to Osaka to catch up on lost sleep? At Kyoto station, I changed platforms only to find that my train was running 85 minutes behind schedule. Fortunately there are two other train lines that could take me home, so I bade farewell to JR and tried my luck on the subway. Now that I was officially in Kyoto, it would have been a waste to head straight back without visiting a few of my regular haunts, so at Marutamachi station, I headed above ground, cutting a bee line through the Imperial Palace grounds before strolling along an unusually quiet Imadegawa street. At Demachiyanagi, I could have easily boarded an Osaka-bound train, but as timing would have it, I still had 10 minutes to spare if I wanted to partake of Falafel Garden’s scrumptious lunch menu. I took a table upstairs, between a trio of gossiping housewives and a baker’s dozen of young, single, and very attractive women assembled together for what appeared to be some kind of reunion. The estrogen wafting through the air was palpable, as I did everything I could to subdue my sinister thoughts. The falafel really hit the spot and the arabic coffee send a near-lethal injection of caffeine through my boiling veins. I needed some fresh air.

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Once on the street, it became apparent that the rain was letting up and the weather was improving. Gazing down Imadegawa street towards the east, the bald scar of Mt. Daimonji stood tall among the mist-lathered hills. In the dreary haze, the Chinese character for Dai that sits in the open field had somehow transformed itself into a gigantic maneki-neko, beckoning me to draw closer. This arabic coffee was strong indeed.

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Past rows of snug cafes and quiet boutiques I strolled, skirting the outer edge of the mildew-staining concrete fortress of Kyoto University before chasing the tail end of the Tetsugaku no Michi which escorted me to the gates of Ginkakuji. I turned left, tracing the outline of the Silver Pavilion’s barbed-wire gate as it gave way to a dilapidated forest road that rose to the upper terminus of the foothills. From there, a path the width of a 4-lane highway guided me through a deciduous forest shimmering in the late afternoon dew. As I drew closer to the summit, the skies reprised their role as plot foiler as the track quickly filled with runoff. By the time I reached the giant beckoning cat I was wetter than a dish rag, but quickly found solace under a covered pavilion housing the local Buddhist deity. Clouds rolled below me like tumbleweed in a dry desert and I tried to make out the landmarks of Kyoto city directly below. Sweat flowed from all pores in the immense humidity that makes a summer stroll in the ancient capital so notorious. I looked out over the city, lost in a sort of deep, focused reverie that can only be brought on by the heavy news of life’s mortality.

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After gathering my courage and strength, I followed the darkened ash of the concrete pylons to the tree line and climbed through thick mist to the high point of Mt. Daimonji. The only indication that I was on the true summit was a small hand-painted signboard: in fair weather the unobstructed views of Yamashina are the tell-tale indication. The rain continued in droves as I retreated back into the foothills, popping back out into the shuttered streets sometime after 6pm. The rain had not only driven the tourists away, but had given the shopkeepers a timely excuse to end their workday early. I, too, was in search of an end to my workday, and found refuge in the dungeons of Demachiyanagi station, finally boarding that Osaka-bound train that I really should have taken several hours earlier.

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The day wasn’t a total loss, however. Hiking in the rain really is soothing and a bit like being baptized: you reaffirm your faith in humanity while paying homage to the power of mother nature. Even though Mt. Chōrō has eluded capture, it provides an opportunity for more careful planning and perhaps a word with the bus company so that future visits are not wasted.

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The North Island

As another summer of heat and humidity descends upon the main island, I once again seek refuge in the upper corners of the country.

In addition to knocking off a few peaks, I promised to schedule in a couple of immobile days in an effort to get some writing and editing projects off the back burner and into the oven. The stationary front hovering over the Tohoku area is offering more than enough excuses to substitute the trekking pole for the quill and paper.

In the meantime, I offer a taste of what attracts me to Ezo year after year:

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