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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.