Archive for September, 2014

The end of summer is marked in Japan by a seasonal rain front that hovers over the main island each year. Similar in vein to the ‘rainy season’ of June and July, the stationary weather system brings heavy precipitation and unstable barometric pressure, making outdoor pursuits a risky gamble. Regardless, if one wants to knock off a hundred of Kansai’s most secluded peaks, then such dice rolling becomes necessary. With this in mind, Paul and I played the slots and booked a car for a mid-week escape back into the Omine mountain range, and the target this time around was none other than the venerated peak of Mt. Shaka.


Clocking in just under 1800 meters above sea level, the peak is accessible via a long, windy, beat-up forest road buried deep in southern Nara Prefecture. Despite the use of toll roads to escape from Osaka, we still found ourselves crawling along route 168 well past the lunch time bells in search of nourishment. We programmed the car navigation for the michi no eki closest to the mountain turnoff, but were denied a meal because the restaurant decided that Tuesdays were a good day for a holiday. We backtracked, finding a modest noodle shop sandwiched between two narrow road tunnels for a quick meal of udon before continuing the wearisome drive. After finally finding the forest road, Paul carefully navigated the switchbacks while I keep my eyes peeled for falling rocks and oncoming trucks. It was already after 2:30pm when we reached the trailhead, but the clouds remained clear for the time being.

We spent some time sorting through gear, wondering if the tent should be left behind. The map showed an emergency hut nestled in a col between the peaks of Shaka and Dainichi, but the tent would offer more flexibility in case darkness set in before reaching the shelter. Erring on the side of caution, I stuffed the rain fly on the outside while Paul stuffed the poles and inner tent into his 45-liter rucksack. I brought along a liter of water, knowing that we could fill it up at the col just before the final summit push.


The trail immediately climbed a short spur, with aluminum ladders in place over twisted networks of exposed tree roots. The forest was breathtakingly pristine, with beech, oak, spruce, and other hardwoods growing freely as they had done for centuries. The ridge was breached after an hour of steady climbing, and here the route flattened out, meandering through a maze of bamboo grass and uprooted trees overtaken by gusts delivered by typhoons that frequently lash out at Nara’s highlands. Here and there a hiker or two would appear, questioning our late start and apparent lack of preparation. We don’t really fit the mold of most hikers, ditching the gore-tex and knee high gaiters in favor of short-sleeves and breathable trousers.


We soon met an elderly gentleman pounding a large post into the ground. Even though there was a signpost a few meters away, this self-proclaimed caretaker took it upon himself to erect a new sign on a trail that was virtually impossible to lose. We used this to our advantage, picking his brain about trail conditions and water source locations. He drew us a map in the softened dirt, warning us that the water source at the emergency hut was nothing more than a trickle at times.


A bit further up, a pair of modern day shugenja marched towards us, pompoms bouncing gently against the white tufts of their clothing. The leader was a tall man, no older than 40 if the eyes are to be trusted, carrying a dark staff with the traditional black token affixed to his shiny bald forehead. His companion, surprisingly, was a young woman fully decorated in pilgrimage garb, green pompons dangling from a pale gold sash. The different colors are used to denote rank, and upon first glance the couple appeared to be quite seasoned in the ways of esoteric Buddhism, so I was quite taken aback when the leader pulled out his horagai shell and treated us to an impromptu performance. The instrument is generally used as a bugle call to announce entry to a sacred place and not used as a showpiece, but perhaps these worshippers are a bit more relaxed when not undergoing their solitary shugyō rituals.


We pushed on, rolling across the hilly ridge like two soldiers marching off to war. It was a race against both the time and weather, and the closer we came to the summit plateau, the thicker the clouds became until visibility dropped to only a few meters. Darkness was creeping in, transforming the forests into a scene from a John Carpenter classic. Just after 4:30pm the track widened to a narrow plateau with a few campsites tucked off the southern edge of the ridge. The water source was just above this, so we spread out, keeping the ears open for the sound of flowing water in the reduced visibility of the thick vapor. Paul found it first, and we rushed over to hydrate. The timing was prefect, as I was down to my last 100 ml of liquid.


From here the incline stiffened, with a dozen or so tracks diverging towards the ridge line. It was impossible to tell which one was the correct trail, but the direction was obvious as we only needed to keep heading up. After a twenty-minute shirt-drenching slog, the ridge line was breached, marked by those familiar stone signposts that were erected after the route became a World Heritage site.


Gear was stowed at the junction while we picked our way up the final spine to the high point, marked by a 5-meter high statue of Shaka Nyorai, one of the 13 deities of Shingon Buddhism. I’d forgotten to write down the mantra, only remembering that it began with naamaku, but hoped the deity would at least admire my effort.


Drops of rain forced us prematurely from the exposed summit, as we retrieved our gear and picked our way slowly across the  boulder-strewn ridge. Overgrown bamboo grass concealed the footholds below, making each step a test of balance. It took nearly an hour of steady dropping until the path spit us out at a large clearing at the base of a massive cliff. A small, wooden temple was barely discernible in the thick mist and fading light, but just past the worship hall a corrugated metal shack painted bright blue caught our attention. The door was ajar, and a camping tent sat erected on one of the arms of the u-shaped platform. We belted out a quick greeting, but there was no reply. A quick look inside revealed that this structure was erected to store blue tarps and a handful of construction tools, which ate up nearly half of the usable sleeping space. Fortunately there was no one else around, and we made due with the remainder of the elevated platform.


Shortly before dusk the clouds broke a bit, revealing the porphyry cliffs in all of their hidden glory. It looked like something straight out of a Huang Gongwang painting. While dinner was cooking I picked my way through the fog, searching for the hidden water source marked on the map. Using my headlamp for assistance, I relied on my Bear Grylls instincts, correctly surmising that the water must be originating directly from the cliffs themselves. A faint trail lead past a large stone carving and up a slippery slope of coated mud and rock. Thanks to the recent rains, the water was much more than the trickle that the caretaker had warned us about.


With nothing more to do, we crawled into our sleeping bags at 8pm, hoping that the fatigue from the long drive and steep hike would set in. Both Paul and I are incredibly light sleepers, so when the winds picked up drastically sometime before midnight, we both lay there, chatting about the weather forecast. Around 2pm, my bladder let me know it was time for a release, so I stumbled outside and let out a yelp that jostled Paul from his light slumber. The strong gales had pushed the low clouds away, revealing a dense trail of constellations spanning the skies. We both got the cameras out in an attempt to capture the nocturnal backdrop.


The temperature was in the teens, bringing a stinging numbness to the phalanges. Paul headed back inside first but I tried in vain to get some decent long exposures without the aid of a tripod. We did finally succumb to drowsiness a short time later, awaking sometime after the first light. I opened the door, realizing to our horror that the cloud had returned with a vengeance. We both drifted back to sleep, finally getting up around 7am with empty stomachs. Oatmeal and coffee were served as we slowly began repacking the gear. Suddenly, the sound of a horagai shell penetrated the early morning stillness. A true gyōja was approaching, but from which direction we could not tell. I kept my eyes peeled and gradually the figure presented himself in front of the temple, breaking into a long mantric chant. Unlike the two shugenja from the previous day, this one was engaged in shugyō.


After packing up, we stowed the gear in the hut for the short but steep jaunt up Mt. Dainichi, a pointy pinnacle dangling with ropes and chains. There were two different routes up the impossibly steep rocks: the gyoja course for pilgrims, or the easier side spur for regular hikers. We made it a quarter of the way up the pilgrimage course before turning back. It was impossible to see the trail and the wet rock made the conditions downright intimidating. Instead, we cut the ascent short and hit the alternative trail which was still just as treacherous and a bit death-defying. The constricted summit only has room for about three people comfortably, thanks in large part to the bulbous statue of Dainichi Nyorai that must have been a great challenge to hoisten up to this lofty perch.


On the return descent we reached one of the steeper points in the trail and saw a figure moving through the rock formations above. It was the monk from earlier, seated on the edge of a cliff completely exposed to the wind and engaged in deep meditative thought. Our twenty-first century mountain gear was no match for the 18th century footgear of the shugenja.


Returning to the hut, we grabbed our packs and followed a steep narrow path that looped back to the original campground by traversing the side of Shaka’s voluminous form. It was tough going in the mist and winds, but eventually we returned to the ridge from which we had traversed the previous afternoon. From here it was simply a matter of retracing our footsteps back to the car, compounded by the poor visibility and tear-enducing gales. Resting was not an option until dropping further back into the sheltered forests to the north, which we reached sometime around noon. Once back at the car, we stripped off the wet gear and set the navigation for home.


All in all it was an exhilarating trip, and another of Omine’s grand summits could be checked off the list. This leaves the entire southern half of the Omine range left to climb, which follows a spiny ridge all the way to Hongu shrine.


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At the far eastern tip of the Kameda Peninsula near Hakodate sits an active stratovolcano named Esan. Rising directly from sea level to a modest height of 618 meters, the double volcano is the southernmost active volcano on Hokkaido island, and my destination for an overcast morning in late August. I boarded a bus from Hakodate station for the hour-long journey to the start of the route, which sits directly on the shoreline.


The initial part of the climb is on a paved public road that skirts past an abandoned elementary school before passing a temple with an immense gold-tinted Kannon statue. A bit further on, a hot spring hotel sits alongside a pair of vacant holiday homes: a surefire sign that the economic bubble had long burst.


I followed the quiet road through a series of sharp switchbacks toward a vast green plateau pockmarked by pumice boulders from previous volcanic hiccups. Due south, across the Tsugaru Strait, the mountains of Aomori Prefecture spread along the horizon, the tops capped with a beret of gray cloud. The road terminated at an empty parking lot and shut visitor’s center. I turned east, faced with an immense mass of igneous rock hissing with venomous gas. For the time being, the fog was held at bay but the pressure on my barometer was heading south quickly.


I picked up the pace, darting through the debris field like a soldier navigating a mine field. Once on the path it became a matter of following the paint marks on the rocks to the skyline. The winds picked up from above, smothering me with noxious fumes. I covered my nose and mouth with a dry towel and trotted through the thick stench while gasping for oxygen. This was not the smartest of plans, but turning back now would be accepting defeat, something that was not on my lunch plate.


Shortly before the high point, the fog enveloped me, but I pushed on and reached the summit marker a few minutes later. Somewhere beyond this white void a rumble crescendoed past. Did that burp originate from the heavens or the depths below? No time to loiter.

I hit the ground running,  just as the clouds emptied their bladders. Forget switchbacks: I scurried straight down the behemoth as the rumbling drew closer. Once back out of the cloud line the rain turned horizontal as a lightning bolt ricocheted off of Mt. Kaikou, barely 2 kilometers away. I screamed, turning my horse trot into an olympic sprint.


I made it back to a rest shelter next to the visitor’s center and stripped off my drenched gear. Fortunately I had brought an extra layer that remained dry and tucked into lunch as nature continued the electrical show. Eventually the storm passed and I retreated back down the main road and to the bus stop. Esan put up one heck of a battle, but victory was mine. I’d still like to have another crack (no pun intended) at the mountain in more favorable conditions.

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“Excuse me, are you with UNESCO?”, inquired the middle-aged hiker, the third such person to pose such a question on my climb through the unspoiled forests alive with vibrant greenery. Apparently there were some UN officials in the area, but for reasons I had yet to discern.


The train chugged south from Tomakomai city, passing abandoned train stations and fields of corn, soy, buckwheat, and other grains of unidentifiable origin. I rode the Hidaka line to the terminus of Samani station, where a shuttle bus whisked me to Apoi Lodge, my accommodation for the evening. After dropping off my excess gear, I peered out over the valley and towards the summit of Mt. Apoi, capped by a dense wall of cloud. With the weather forecast to worsen, this was perhaps my only chance to investigate one of Japan’s more peculiar geological anomalies.


Bear warning signs marked the entrance to the otherwise nondescript trail, but I seriously doubted the validity of those warning signs. The peak juts right up against the coast, and with the rest of the Hidaka mountains providing ample stomping ground for Japan’s grizzly cousins, I cruised through the forest with relative ease. At one point in the trail, a large bell sat off the right edge of the well-worn path. Its use was apparent, so I rang the metallic device, which sent an ear-splitting drone deep into every corner of the forest. I’ve heard temple bells with less firepower than this monstrosity. While I’m sure it would send every bear scurrying for cover, it has the added drawback of sending every animal into hiding. That’s the main reason why I never use bear bells: you’ll end up scaring the deer, boar, martens, foxes, and other relatively harmless creatures away.


As the trail meandered through a series of switchbacks, I ran into the first crowds of the day, and the first inquiries into my affiliations. Once reaching the 5th stage point (and psychological halfway point), I took my first break, resting on a small rock formation sitting directly adjacent the small emergency hut. All of a sudden, the clouds covering the summit plateau began to break up, as if on cue from Masaaki Suzuki himself. The early bird hikers had summited too early, but my mid-afternoon timing seemed impeccable. I quickened the pace lest the fog return for an encore.


At the 7th stage point the trail broke past the tree line and onto a plateau bursting with wildflowers of every imaginable color. Apoi is home to quite a few species of rare endemic flora, but in my botanical incapacity I could not identify them without a guidebook. My altimeter read 500 vertical meters, such a low altitude to be above the forest canopy, I pondered. The views opened up towards the cold waters of Pacific as the path navigated through the creeping pine and along a rocky, knife-edge ridge for the final push to the top.


Just before the high point the trail shot back into a grove of Erman’s birch trees, concealing the panoramic views you would expect to find normally associated with alpine vegetation. How can this be? This geological enigma continues to baffle scientists. Normally Erman’s birch (known in Japanese as dakekanba), sit on the edge of the tree line, with creeping pine (haimatsu) above, but here on Apoi the dakekanba appears above the haimatsu zone, as illustrated in the following diagram:


Eager for a vista, I dropped halfway down towards the saddle below the summit of Mt. Yoshida, which offered a glimpse of the remainder of the Hidaka mountains stretching out to the north. Forget Daisetsuzan. If you want to experience Japan’s only true remaining wilderness area, then the Hidaka’s are the way to go.


After retracing my steps to the summit, I continued south through patches of wildflowers before looping back on a shortcut spur back to the 7th stage point, where the clouds once again moved in. Retreating to the sheltered canopy of the tree line at the emergency hut, I ran into a trail maintenance volunteer. “Are you with UNESCO?”, he asks, my fourth such inquiry in as many hours. He explains: “Mt. Apoi is up for consideration by UNESCO to become a World Geopark site. Committee members are due for a surprise site visit at any moment.” Ah, now that explains the wide-eyed looks and inquisitory behavior.


Now that I had found someone familiar with the peak, I rattled off a series of questions in a machine gun manner. Affirmative was my initial suspicions about the lack of bears, as even the trail worker was not carrying a bell. The two of us descended together, he interested as much in my mountain pursuits as much as I was in his floral knowledge. At the trailhead I stopped by the visitor’s center to check out the informative displays before returning to the lodge for dinner. The next morning the mountain was hit with torrential rain and violent thunder, leaving me thanking my lucky stars that I had chosen to summit the previous day. If the weather is good, then you should seize the opportunity to climb, even if it’s not on your agenda for the day, as delaying an attempt may just cost you.


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“I was taking my dog for a walk one day when I tripped and came down hard directly on my head”, explains my kind host Manabu Doi, lifting his collar to show me the foot-long scar running the length of his upper spine. The blow had left him partially paralyzed, without the full use of his limbs.


My journey had started earlier in the day, zipping through the rice fields and mandarin orange groves of eastern Wakayama on a train full of Chinese tourists, beach bums, and other sightseers venturing to the tranquil regions along the Kumano Kodo. I alighted at Gobo station, loitering on a rusty metal bench between the bus carousel and taxi stand before hopping on a bus bound for Hidakagawa village, a tiny enclave of locals with thick accents and mild manners. The bus journey was pleasant to say the least, as the route passed right by a grove of eucalyptus competing for space among the pine and camphor trees basking in the late morning sun. Having lived in northern California before coming to Japan, I instantly recognized the stringy bark and shaggy leaves, but wasn’t completely convinced until I opened the bus window and took in their aromatic plumes. I didn’t even know eucalyptus existed in Japan until a later net search revealed that the Oceanic giants were planted in parts of Wakayama Prefecture during the 1950s.


At Hidakagawa village, I changed to a gray minivan which doubled as the community bus for a twenty minute ride further into the foothills. As I made myself comfortable, a voice came from the seat behind inquiring into my purpose for visiting this out-of-the-way destination. After explaining my intention to summit Mt. Yahazu, the graying gentleman relaxed, offering practical advice for the mountain. “This route is closed,” explained my guide, pointing preciously to the route I had intended on using. Someone seems intent on keeping my latest mountain excursions full of adventure and unpredictability. I exchanged contact information with the man, who introduced himself as Manabu. He got off a few stops before the trailhead and soon enough the driver dropped me off at the start of the forest road that led to the mountain entrance.


Just as Manabu had explained, the forest road to the trailhead was closed for construction, and the signs were adamant that no one, not even hikers, were allowed to enter. Fishing for red-spotted trout? No problem. Keen for a walk in the hills? Forget about it.


I took out my map, color printed on the back of a half-finished crossword puzzle and spied an alternative way up the mountain that would avoid the construction crews. The only problem was that I actually needed to walk about 10 minutes along the closed road, so I crossed my fingers that the nature destroyers would have taken the weekend off. When I reached the ‘Do Not Enter’ signs I quickened my pace in case I should come face-to-face with a dump truck speeding down a road that was supposed to be deserted. After passing by a small waterfall, I spotted a small clearing on the left shoulder of the road, just before the first of a series of large concrete dams. My map showed a dotted trail following an impossibly steep gorge, but there were no signposts or tape to indicate the way. However, a narrow path did follow the contours of a hidden spine directly to my right. Just as I was about to make a decision, I heard a rumbling from further up the concrete forest road. Just as I feared, a truck full of cedar logs was barreling toward me, so I literally dove into the creek bed of the gorge, hiding my head in the process. The truck passed me by without incident, apparently too focused on depositing the logs and returning for a second helping.


With no time to spare, I took the spur trail by instinct alone, just as the darkened skies opened up. I climbed on all fours, grabbing trees and rocks in a decisive struggle with gravity. The path, if you could call it that, instantly turned to mud, and a fall here would be life changing. Crampons would have been a much welcome companion, but I made due with the faded vibram soles on my worn-out boots, reaching the crest of the cliff face after 10 minutes of improvised switchbacks. From here, the angle abated somewhat, and trailblazing became easier thanks to the red survey stakes positioned every hundred meters along the route. I wasn’t exactly sure where this spur lead, but my hunch was that it would connect with the main summit ridge further up the mountain. My paper map was useless once the rain soaked my pockets, so I relied on my GPS device and a bit of intuition. Occasionally, animal tracks would lead off in either direction down hidden valleys, but I stayed the course through an area smothered in cedar trees and knee-high ferns. Further up the secluded valley, the sounds of construction crews broke through the pitter patter of the rain slipping through the forest canopy as I settled into a sweaty, trancelike rhythm, broken regularly by the inevitable collisions with spider webs strewn in every imaginable opening. It was gritty, drenching work, but it sure beat getting defeated by the road-building crews who surely would have called the cops for interfering with their unchecked destruction of the mountain.


After an hour of relentless ascending, I hit a flat area strewn with boulders between deep thickets of rhododendron glistening in the thickened moisture of the steamy afternoon. This plateau stretched out to the top of the horizon line hidden by rows of cedar trees dripping with atmospheric sweat. At the crest of the ridge, I passed under the ropes and onto the crumbly foundations of Tajiri castle, Japan’s second tallest mountain castle. Leaning against an aging oak tree, I took my first real break, munching on a soggy rice ball while confirming my position. A signpost pointed the way to the summit of Yahazu, and from here the work became much less complicated on a easy-to-follow route that snaked through broadleaf forests dotted with outcroppings of moss-covered granite. After a couple of false summits, I finally popped out of the high point, just as the rain abated and the clouds lifted, revealing mystic vistas resembling the works of John Constable.


I took in the scenery until the flies became too cumbersome, and I dropped off the peak back into the mist-filled castle walls, where the path continued rolling along the ridge. Occasionally the sun would break through the fog, lighting the cedar plantations in an ethereal array of muted streaks.


Further down the rolling ridge I broke out of the mist, warmed by patches of sunlight forcing its way though a billowing bank of menacing cloud that could only signal an approaching storm. The path spit me out on a forest road that meandered downwards towards the valley floor. I picked up the pace on the heavily eroded byway, passing by washed out sections of concrete that surely had the construction companies salivating with envy. It’d only be a matter of time before this road to nowhere was tidied up and ready for vehicular traffic again. Perhaps it was best that I was checking this peak off the list now.


Once back in the village I turned left and followed the banks of an emerald green river around a collection of houses half-swept away by flood waters. The inhabitants simply gathered their valuables and left the rest for nature to take care of. It turns out that a major typhoon descended upon the area in September of 2011, leaving a wide swath of destruction. I reached the bus stop around 4:45pm, settling onto the curb while the skies opened up again for an encore. I took off my wet boots and let my wrinkly skin air out while finishing off the remainder of my provisions. Shortly before 5pm a car pulled up, an excited man in the passenger seat waving his hand in a beckoning motion. It was Manabu, checking up on my progress: “Can you take the 6pm bus instead?” inquired my friend, anxious to hear word of the trail conditions. I jumped in the back seat, as his wife doubling as chauffeur drove us to their 120-year old abode.


Manabu provided me with a change of dry clothes and also lent me a pair of shoes as we caught up over a cup of hot coffee on the tatami floors of the guest room. The fusuma depicted a flock of pheasants foraging for food through a strand of reeds, complementing the male and female duo of taxidermic birds fastened to the opposite wall. In the old days, these vertebrates roamed the mountains freely, providing ample game for the local villagers, but their numbers are falling as their habitats are replaced by tree plantations and concrete forest roads. “I shot these two myself in my youth,” explains my informative host, jovially answering my inquiries in his relaxed demeanor and open posture. Over the course of the hour, the topics ranged from horticulture to permaculture, never waning or drifting into forced silence. It was rare for Japanese people to open up so quickly, even rarer for a disabled man who had spent most of his formative years isolated in this tiny hamlet.


As the 6’oclock hour drew near, I once again sat in the back seat of the vehicle, swerving through impossibly narrow back lanes until hitting the main road that burrowed through a tunnel as straight as an arrow. Instead of letting me off at the nearest stop, I was shuttled directly to Hidakagawa, eliminating the need to board that secondary shuttle bus. I could simply board one bus and be back at Gobo station within the hour. Manabu waited with me as we observed the visitors beginning to converge upon the settlement for that evening’s fireworks festival. The rain clouds had given way to early evening sunshine, and my host explained the yellow security badge affixed to his left arm. He was one of a handful of people assisting in crowd control for what is probably the hamlet’s biggest celebration of the year. As much as I wanted to join, I unfortunately had to head back to Osaka to take care of a few things. We promised to meet again in the near future, as I had some clothing and footwear to return to my generous caretaker.

It was a long day full of surprise and improvisation, but that’s what makes climbing these forgotten mountains of Kansai so rewarding. Only sixteen more adventures await until I can once again put a list of 100 mountains to rest.

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