After retracing our steps back to Tamaki shrine, I bade Andrew and Rick a farewell before ducking into the forest towards Hongu. We had agreed to reconvene around 3pm at Sanzai pass, a distance of roughly 12 kilometers to the south. The path skirted the edge of a rock formation directly below the summit of Mt. Tamaki while climbing gently towards a mountain pass. Upon checking the GPS, I realized to my chagrin that I was indeed heading in the completely opposite direction. Perhaps the staff at the shrine could invest a little more energy into making those signposts a little less confusing.
At the far end of the shrine, a signpost did indeed point the way towards Hongu, so I quickened the pace to make up for lost time. The path dropped hard, reaching a paved forest road in about half an hour. Two wooden benches sat on the shoulder, glistening in the warm sun like a pair of poolside armchairs. I plopped down on one of them, digging into my gear for some nourishment that would sustain me for the long climb ahead. The trail marker indicated that Mt. Oomori, the next summit on the route, was still over 4km away. A further study of the map revealed that the summit was indeed higher than Tamaki, so I had my work cut out for me.
The route paralleled a gravel forest road through a monotonous grove of farmed cedar and cypress. Across the valley, between gaps in the evergreen needles, Mt. Tamaki dominated the skyline but still looked uncomfortably close. Just off the trail, a gray squirrel jumped from tree to tree, obviously startled by the sight of a thru hiker so late in the season. After leaving the forest road, the path made a beeline for the ridge, as if the generations of pilgrims had completely ignored the topography. Sweat rolled down my brow as I shed off layer upon layer of thermal protection. The soft-shell and down jacket were complete overkill and did nothing but add a burden to the bulging pack. Upon hitting the ridge, I collapsed in a heap of exhaustion, once again reaching into the stash of edibles to fuel the engines. The summit of Oomori came a few minutes later, followed by a monster of a drop that had my left patella screaming in agony.
Once bottomed out, I mentally prepared myself for the long haul up to Mt. Godaison, a mountain apparently named after the Five Wisdom Kings of Esoteric Buddhism. The path followed a narrow cliff edge blanketed with exposed tree roots, an angle so pronounced that those same roots doubled as handholds. At the top of the first pinnacle, the path dropped just as dramatically on the other side, sending shockwaves through my already taxed knees. The process repeated itself several times over, until reaching the top of a nondescript crag watched over by the menacing gaze of Fudō-myōō. I had officially reached the high point, but the fun was far from over. The path dropped yet again and climb another spire or two before a signpost had indicated that I was indeed standing atop the southern summit of Godaison. Perhaps this peak was not only named after the Wisdom Kings, but also after the quintet of rocky escarpments laid across the back of the massif. This mountain must have quite the profile when viewed from the valley floor.
Running on empty, I could do little other than let gravity takes its course. If I stopped now I was afraid I wouldn’t have the strength to get back up. Feeling lightheaded was an indication that I was in dire need of a break however, so at the next junction I collapsed and stuffed a fistful of trail mix into my mouth. I had lost quite a bit of salt on the walk and needed to replenish. I usually carry some salt candy during the hot summer months for this very purpose but had no idea such countermeasures would be required in January. I felt a little better after a 10-minute break, but was beginning to worry a bit as I was down to my last 500 ml of water.
I had one more peak to climb between my current position and the parking lot where my support team would pick me up, so I took a deep breath and slow, deliberate steps towards the top of the forested hillside above. The phone soon rang, and it was Andrew letting me know that he would be arriving at the pass in a few minutes. I pushed on, driven by the desire to see this long journey come to an end. Once past the last peak the route dropped quickly, skirting past a couple of electrical towers that would surely have Kukai spinning in his grave.
The GPS showed the paved road in sight, and that was enough to keep me on my feet, as was the small clearing that afforded picturesque views into the the riverbed.
Eventually I popped out on the road, where Andrew and Rick offered their support. Hot tea and leftovers from lunch were placed on the hood of the car and I was quickly nursed back to health. I mean, it wasn’t like I was on my deathbed or anything, but I was feeling a bit too gassed for the final three kilometers to Hongu, which we ended up covering in the car.
The shrine itself is a bit of a letdown considering that it was moved from its original location to a place just off the main road that tourists can more easily access. It kind of ignores the topography and landscape, but the original temple foundations can still be visited in the riverbed below at a place called Oyunohara. In fact, this is where all three routes of the Kumano Kodo converge. The Okugake michi, had I continued to follow it, would have spit me out just across the river in an area without a safe place to cross. In ancient times there were a series of wooden footbridges but they have since been washed away. Perhaps a wade through the river is an appropriate cleanse after capping off a 120-kilometer journey through Kansai’s most rugged terrain.
With mountains number 88 AND 89 conquered in one fell swoop, it was time to line up the cards and attempt an epic ascent on another of Kumano Kodo’s challenging peaks.