Archive for December, 2014

Climbing the Kansai 100 is a game of numbers. At first you start counting up from zero, checking the peaks off the list in a simple task of arithmetic, but once you pass the halfway point you eventually start counting down to zero. This usually occurs once you hit the magic #70, when the end is in sight and you can start calculating in terms of dozens instead of quarters. In addition to keeping tally, one look at the list will reveal a completely different game of numerals involving the names of the peaks themselves. Out of the list of 100, there are 14 peaks whose names feature some sort of Chinese character representing a numeral. Perhaps the most well-known on the list include Mt. Rokko (六甲山) in Kobe and Mt. Nijo (二上山) in Nara. In the northern part of the region, we have the peak of 7 heads (七々頭ヶ岳), the mountain of 33 intervals (三十三間山), and the crag of 100 hamlets (百里ヶ岳). On the menu for today was the mountain of 8, known in Japanese as Hachigamine (八ヶ峰).


Tomomi and I headed north out of Kobe in the rental car, flying on the expressway that cut through Sasayama and into the mountainous region east of Fukuchiyama. The highway lay deserted, sans a convoy of military jeeps shuttling personnel to the bases in Maizuru. Our target peak lay in the central part of Kyoto Prefecture, just west of the Ashu forests managed by Kyoto University. Although there were trails to the mountain from the south, we chose to access the peak from the north and alighted the tollroad at Takahama interchange in Fukui Prefecture.


It was mid-April, and here in the sheltered highlands, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, with petals floating through the soft breeze of the pleasant trade winds signaling a start to early summer. The drive took several hours, and one particularly stunning stretch of trees spanning several kilometers caught our eye. We parked the car at the entrance to a sleepy village and spread a blanket amongst the row of trees, partaking in the traditional Japanese custom of ohanami, or cherry-blossom viewing.

The area lay completely quiet, the denizens either tucking quietly into their lunch boxes in the comforts of their sheltered homes or working away steadily in the fallow fields, preparing the soil for the upcoming rice planting. We sat alone, taking in the scenery while enjoying our lunch in peace. In rural areas, the villagers rarely take time off from their busy agricultural schedules to take in the flowers, instead choosing to admire them from afar. This is in stark contrast to the urban areas, where socialites flock to the parks for an indulgent picnic of junk food and booze. Cherry-blossom viewing parties are considered an integral part of Japanese culture and indeed they are, if not confined exclusively to Japan’s cities, where the majority of the population reside.


After lunch, we hit the road again, passing by a group of three children of elementary school age who, after spotting me in the passenger seat, shouted in unison with the familiar jargon “gaikokujin da” (look, it’s a foreigner), which set Tomomi off in bursts of uncontrollable laughter. Apparently the locals were not accustomed to seeing visitors from other countries in these parts, as they did a double-take each time our vehicle strolled past. It was a throwback to the days after the war when the country really opened up to outside influence.


The car navigation was set to Gonami pass, where we would have a gentle 90-minute stroll on an undulating ridge until reaching the summit. There was only one problem: three-quarters of the way up the winding road we hit a wall of snow and could not continue. We parked the car and pulled out the gear, following the snow-covered asphalt the rest of the way until reaching the ridge at the mountain pass. It was already 2:30pm by the time we entered the forest, so we had to increase the pace if we wanted to make it back before dusk.


The contours on the map were misleading, as the route immediately climbed to the summit of a peak directly ahead. This was far too early to be the summit of Mt. Hachi, so we pushed on to the pinnacle before losing even more elevation on the other side. We soon left the cedar plantations behind and entered a forest forgotten by time. Beech trees rose gallantly along the untouched ridge and the sound of birdsong sprung to life among the bare limbs of the hardwoods. The unmistakable knocking of a woodpecker caught our ears, punctuated by the rustling of leaves to our left, the sound of a fawn seeking shelter from our unlikely intrusion. Off to the shaded northern slopes of the peak, tufts of snow grasped tightly to the contours like a cat clinging to a velvet drapery.


We took a short break at a trail joining the main path from the north. The final push to the high point lay just in front of us, but the snowfield hinted at the caloric workout, so we fueled up in preparation. The rotting snow made for slippery footholds but we managed by taking turns kicking steps into the wet slush. The summit was breached shortly before 4pm and afforded unobstructed panoramic views. My guidebook hinted at the origin of the mountain’s name. It’s not that there are eight peaks on the mountain range, but rather the odd spectacle that eight different provinces can be viewed from the top of the peak.


Back before the prefectural system of the Meiji era, Japan was divided into hundreds of provinces whose nomenclature still survives in mountain names and regional delicacies. According to this map from the Edo period, the 8 provinces likely seen from the summit were Tamba, Tango, Wakasa, Tajima, Harima, Yamashiro, Kyoto, and either Settsu or Omi. In the present day, these areas have been merged into the prefectures of Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukui, and Shiga, and on this particular day in April, the views were tinged in hues of yellow due to the  Aeolian haze drifting over from the Gobi. On an exceptionally clear day, hundreds of mountains in every direction can be clearly identified on the horizon, but we settled for a neighboring view of Mt. Aoba before ducking back into the forest toward the waiting car.


We arrived before nightfall, having checked peak # 76 off the list. That pushed me over the three-quarters point. For the iconic #77 another mountain with a number in its name seemed worthy of attention. Perhaps a rendezvous with the mountain of 33 intervals was in order before the onset of the rainy season.

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Deep in the Daiko mountain range of eastern Nara you’ll find an isolated peak with a peculiar appellation. Literally translating as ‘lost’, the word mayoi refers not only to getting physically lost as in losing one’s way, but also can be used in a spiritual sense as in an inability to receive enlightenment. The origins of the name of Mt. Mayoi are unknown except to the residents of the small cluster of houses situated around the trailhead on the southern foothills of the peak. Our approach, however, was from the east, along a narrow, winding gravel road that is slowly being consumed by nature.


My companion this time was fellow Hyakumeizan alumnus Nao Muto, who you might remember from an early morning ascent of Mt. Mitake a few winters ago. Nao had brought along an Indonesian friend named Dewi, a strong-willed graduate student with a thirst for adventure and a deep interest in the hidden ridges of Kansai. The duo picked me up at 7am for the long drive through the backwoods of Nara Prefecture. Mt. Mayoi sits on the eastern edge of the Daiko mountain range, a steep, spiny backbone of peaks connecting the highlands of Odai-ga-hara with the pyramidal flank of Mt. Takami some 60 kilometers to the north. A full traverse is possible, but requires a bit of advanced planning and a special skill for finding watersheds hidden off either side of the contorted ridge.


After a bit of a struggle finding the correct forest road to the start of the trail, we reached a fork in the gravel road with a weathered signpost pointing to our target peak. Even though access was easier from the east, we chose an alternative route from the southwest which left a modest 300 meter elevation gain to the ridge line. The eastern approach was a long slog, with nearly 1100 meters of vertical climbing and several hours of hard work. Despite the early departure, it was after 11am when we finally strapped on the packs and marched up the forest road in the brisk winds pushing in from the north. A typhoon was on the way, so our climbing window was short. Barometric pressure held steady, but the force of the gales gave ample warning that this was about to change.


The trail tucked into the forest on our right, leaving behind the cedar plantations and entering a serene world of hardwoods and conifers laying undisturbed for centuries. The scenery continued to improve with each rising step, crescendoing in a jaw-dropping collection of virgin beech trees grasping firmly to the spine of the mountain range.


Trees grew in bowed shapes on either side of the ridge, carved by the strong winds and deep snow drifts. The path was indiscernible among the thicket of fallen leaves and rhododendron bush, but the contours of the ridge would guide us safely to the summit as long as we didn’t take one of the tributaries leading off to ridges paralleling the main spine. The GPS was a big assistance in that matter, and with little else to follow other than the faint migratory patterns of passing fauna, it felt as if we were following the footsteps of Kojima Usui himself, albeit with more modern kit.


After several undulations of the contours, a signpost indicated the summit of Mt. Kuchi-Mayoi, the peak of the lost mouth. There must be some legend associated with this nomenclature. I like to think that perhaps an old Shugendo monk was silenced forever at the sight of the beauty of the forest. Or perhaps a pilgrim lost his voice completely by chanting in the shadows of a nearby rock outcrop.


From here to ridge dropped to a saddle and permeated through the dense forest of beech and other hardwoods swaying steadily in the fierce winds pushing in from the south. A lone doe pranced off toward the sheltered depths of the northern canopy, startled into action by our approaching footfalls. Bears that would usually forage the trees for nuts had also moved to lower ground in anticipation of the encroaching barometric inferno, though fortunately none of us were witness to such migrations.

The forest floor lay blanketed with a fine coating of fallen foliage that was slowly being turned into top soil by the weather patterns that frequent these secluded folds of the Daiko range.


Our progress was steady, thanks in large part to the hand-painted signs that poked up at irregular intervals. If you closed your eyes and someone spun you around a half a dozen times, you would literally be unable to distinguish the direction from which you had come and the way to safety. Indeed, Mt. Mayoi was starting to live up to its name. The GPS greatly assisted in pathfinding when the scenery offered few clues, and shortly after the farmers in the villages took rest from their harvesting for a midday snack we reached the high point, which sat at a 3-way junction at 1300 meters above the sea. The forest did little to buffer the wind, which whipped straight through our windbreakers and forced us into a hasty lunch. Few of us had expected the temperatures to drop so dramatically so early in October.


On the descent back to the car, I had a chance to speak with Dewi at length about her experiences in Japan’s mountains. She had just returned from a full east-to-west traverse of the Azuma mountain range in Tohoku. It’s not everyday that you see an Indonesian woman in headgear tramping up Japan’s summits. Overall her encounters with other hikers seemed to be positive, most likely due to her beaming enthusiasm and impeccable Japanese ability. We talked about her daily prayer rituals in addition to her future goal of being the first Indonesian person (and perhaps first Muslim?) to scale Japan’s 100 famous mountains.


In the late afternoon we reached the car and headed to the valley for a well-deserved hot spring bath. Our initial plan was to camp in the forest for an early morning ascent of Mt. Ikegoya, another of the Kansai 100 that remained on the dwindling list, but the threat of the typhoon forced a retreat. Back to Osaka we drove, fueled by the adrenaline of a successful ascent of one of Kansai’s most breathtaking areas. Three unscaled peaks remain in this range of pristine mountains, so perhaps they are an apt place to close the chapter in the Kansai 100 book. I could knock all 3 off in a weekend if I planned it right, and I know just who to turn to for partners.


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Early February and here I am still chipping away at the Kansai peaks. The heavy snow drifts to the north cut off access to the mountains of Shiga and Kyoto, but further east in Mie Prefecture the Suzuka mountains offer a challenging yet relatively safe foray into the powder dusted backcountry. Along for the ride were Tomomi and Baku, a cheery couple from Kobe whose thirst for adventure surpassed the average brand-bag toting, smartphone addicted youngsters huddled together in the heated comforts of the shopping malls.


We set of from Osaka at the crack of dawn, with Tomomi behind the wheel and myself providing backseat navigation. The stretch of highway that connected the shores of Lake Biwa to the sheltered hamlet of Kaneyama ground to a halt from the heavy rain bouncing off the pavement. Further up towards the mountain pass, the precipitation fell as snow, turning the cedar forests into something fit for a Bob Ross canvas. Ah, the fickle weather of a Kansai winter, where a 10% chance of snow may very well mean a blizzard.


The highway hugged the eastern edge of the Suzuka mountains as we trudged along steadily to the north. These towering peaks act as a cloud catchment of sorts, protecting the coastal cities of Nagoya and Yokkaichi from the brunt of the winter storms. Mt. Fujiwara, our destination for the day, lay on the northern cusp of this winter weather hold, and as we parked the car at a gravel parking lot at the base of the peak, golden streaks of sunlight pierced the ceiling of cloud. The storm was beginning to break up, as if on cue from a symphony conductor.


We took some time at the car sorting through gear: even a small lapse in judgement could have dire consequences once we hit the snow line, so we all tucked crampons and extra gloves in our packs in preparation for the elements. The parking lot at the trailhead was overflowing with automobiles. It seemed as if half of Nagoya itself had read the weather forecast and gambled for this weather break. In fact, Mt. Fujiwara is one of the most popular peaks in the entire Suzuka range, due to the ease of access. In less than 90 minutes you can go from sipping your latte in Nagoya to sniffing the fresh mountain air in the forests of Fujiwara.


The path was heavily eroded and incredibly easy to follow and, just like Mt. Fuji, divided into 10 stage points for ease of pacing. The first 3 stages were knocked out in no time at all, but once we hit the snow line things ground to a halt. The footsteps of the early birds had turned the mountain trail into one giant bobsled run. Baku and Tomomi had the luxury of 12-point crampons and full mountaineering boots, but I made due with my 4-pointers strapped onto my thermal rubber snow boots. I spent most of the time off trail in order to find better traction, while my companions honed their toe stepping skills.


We hit the 8th stagepoint in high spirits despite the growling of our empty stomachs. There was a large flat area that would make a great place for a break if not for the knee-deep snow. With no dry place to sit, we pushed on, convincing ourselves we could do the last fifth of the climb in no time at all. The angle steepened, and once out of the forest the howling gales forced spindrift down our throats. I closed my eyes, picking my way around the rock formations in search of a safe way to navigate. Fortunately the cloud had lifted, but any warmth that the sun would normally imbue was sucked away by the subzero temperatures. I was not having much fun at all, opting to accelerate my pace in an effort to stave off the cold.

I left Tomomi and Baku behind, summoning up my last energy reserves for the final push. I passed by one couple, admiring the views with an expensive pair of snowshoes strapped to their pack. It seemed like those things should be strapped to the bottom of their feet instead, but perhaps this duo was part of a growing trend among Japanese hikers who are simply sporting gear for the sake of fashion. How many times have you seen hikers with trekking poles strapped to their packs? I’m more of the ‘use it if you’ve brought it’ school of thought, and you can bet that I would be using snowshoes if I had bothered to bring them along.


The last hundred meters of the ascent were painfully snow, as I was running on empty and in desperate need of a break. At the top of the next rise the mountain hut came into view, and the spirits lifted once again. I pushed open the door of the day-use shelter and couldn’t believe my eyes: every available inch of seating space had been occupied by scores of elderly hikers chatting away as if on a leisure walk. Camp stoves hissed in unison from half a dozen different hiking groups, but in the far corner of the hut I spied a space in one of the tables for maybe two people max.


I unstrapped the crampons and squeezed through the thicket of bodies until I had reached the small clearing. I sipped on hot water from my thermos while waiting for Tomomi and Baku to arrive. Tomomi had made sandwiches for us, but the snickers I pulled from the inside of my fleece provided a nourishing appetizer. Twenty minutes passed before my companions stumbled in, and fortunately by that time there was adequate space at the table for us all. Tomomi looked as if she had just stepped off a transpacific flight, with dark, heavy bags under her eyes and a hunched posterior from the weight of her pack. It took us less than two minutes to devour everything she had prepared. I brewed coffee by draining my thermos while we mentally prepared ourselves to continue our ascent. Even though the mountain hut was the 10th stagepoint, the summit was still a twenty minute climb away.


I once again led the way as the path vanished into a mass of white. The cloud had once again moved in, bringing with it heavy flurries that sprinkled our gear with pellets of frozen crystals. My GPS indicated that we needed to climb to the top of a massive hill just to our right. Footsteps disappeared into the growing snow drifts as I used both trekking poles to help the fight against gravity. Eventually we did reach the high point of the mountain, with a heavily corroded signpost and not much else. We could just make out of the edge of another valley on the other side of the peak that acted as the funnel for these wind gusts. Loitering around in these Siberian temperatures was not an option, so after a quick snap of the shutter we ran down the peak and back to the hut, opting to forfeit another break at the hut for fear of losing the daylight.


On the descent, I cut the switchbacks as much as possible by making a direct beeline to the 8th stage point. I would take a few steps and invariably fall due to the lack of traction and just let my momentum carry me. During the third such slide I managed to connect directly with a large boulder concealed by five centimeters of fresh powder. My coccyx took the full brunt of the impact, sending sharp pains running up my spine and leaving me nearly in tears. Anyone who has ever bruised their tailbone can attest to the discomfort.


The pain eased thanks in large part to stuffing a fistful of ice down my pants and onto my throbbing buttcrack. We shuffled off out of the snow line again and reached the parking lot just after 4pm. The thermal baths of the nearby hot spring brought feeling back into my extremities, and the tailbone would eventually heal (though it did take several months). With Mt. Fujiwara off the list, only one more mountain remained in the Suzuka mountains, and it happened to be the tallest one of them all.

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