“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.