It’d been nearly a decade since I last set foot on the Kumano Kodo, but here I find myself on my second outing in less than a week. It was time to visit Mt. Obako, one of the 200 Famous Mountains and the highest peak along the Kohechi pilgrimage route connecting the shrines at Hongu with the temples of Koyasan. The Kohechi is the shortest route to Hongu, but what it lacks in distance it more than makes up for in height, with three mountain passes over 1000 meters in elevation. Obako pass surpasses the 1300-meter mark, making it one of the highest points in all of Wakayama Prefecture.
This time around I was joined by my old friend Nao, a fellow Kansai 100 seeker and Hyakumeizan alumnus. In the passenger seat sat Nao’s enthusiastic wife Tomoko, an old friend Aki, and Indonesian hiker extraordinaire Dewi. It was a quintet with a thirst for adventure, and a most welcome convoy for my quest on mountain #90. Nao’s 4-wheel drive hatchback rolled up to my doorstep shortly past 6:30am on a bitterly cold Sunday morning. The temperature in Osaka city sat at zero degrees, a rarity for this relatively mild marine metropolis. We set the navigation for Nosegawa village nestled in a secluded valley on the southern flank of Koyasan’s idyllic mountaintop monastery.
Though less than 100 kilometers from the city center, access to Koyasan is anything but swift, as the only road to the top is laden with narrow shoulders and serpentine switchbacks. The pre-dawn black gave way to ash gray cloud as we inched closer to the summit. Snow swirled from the heavens and began settling on the frosty asphalt, transforming the landscape into a scene out of Fargo. Once we hit the Koya-Ryujin Skyline road the thoroughfare had turned into a giant bobsled run. The snow tires were effective enough, but progress ground to a halt on the far side of Koya, as the route dropped to the river bed running alongside the sleepy village of Omata, our starting point for the climb. While only twenty kilometers from the temples of Koyasan, it is a full-day journey on foot if using the Kohechi. A hotel further up the valley promises a warm bed and soothing hot spring to all pilgrims, the only plausible accommodation in a tiny hamlet lost in time.
Five centimeters of dry crystalline powder greeted us at the trailhead. It was hardly enough to justify carrying the snowshoes, but the crampons went into the kit as a precaution. I led the way as the meandering route immediately began the fight with gravity through a dense cedar forest. Footprints of a variety of mammalians crisscrossed the route intermittently: those of the deer, boar, stoat, and rabbit were most easily recognizable. The first forty-five minutes were a sweaty, relentless climb that got the blood flowing, and soon a small rest shelter presented itself at the top of a small rise.
The hut was unlocked and provided a welcome escape from the howling winds and subzero temperatures holding Mt. Obako in its grasp. The GPS read just a hair under 1000 meters – halfway there as far as the climb went, but a fraction of the distance horizontally speaking, as there were still over 4000 meters to cover before the summit.
Aki and I waited for the others to catch up. This climb was in stark contrast to last weekend of being exhausted from the heat. The Siberian temperatures had me moving remarkably fast, as the clean air cleansed the lungs. Once Nao, Tomoko, and Dewi joined us at the hut we were itching to get back on our feet. The next part of the ascent towards Hinoki Pass skirted the edge of a series of unnamed peaks that overlooked a valley of hardwoods. The path itself resembled a forest road that can be found on virtually every mountain in these parts, and the planted cedar gave a hint that I was probably not too far off. The question arises then: was the logging road built directly on top of the ancient pilgrimage route, or was the route relocated here after the road was built?
The angle eased a bit as we inched closer to the ridge line. At one point the trail was roped off, sighting typhoon damage from several years ago. A detour lead up a sharp incline to our left. I led the way but the going was tough without crampons. The others put on their climbing irons as I signaled to climb up the closed trail, as the angle was easier on the feet. Both routes met up at the ridge anyway. While waiting for the others to catch up, a small break in the clouds offered a chance to polish off the lens.
We followed the ridge for a short distance through a section of old growth forest glistening with rime frost. It’s a shame that more of the natural beauty of the deciduous groves was not spared in Japan’s post-war frenzy for cheap wood. Arriving at Hinoki pass, I broke out the candy bar stuffed near my underarm to keep it from freezing. It was already approaching noon, and the ridge was no place for a lunch break, as it bore the full strength of the howling gales. To our left, the pyramidal shape of Mt. Obako’s noteworthy summit came into view, though it was still a good two kilometers away from our current position. Instead of sticking with the ridge line, the Kumano Kodo follows yet another logging road built on the far side of the valley. Perhaps they should consider renaming this route the Kumano Rindo.
I blazed a trail through the shin-deep powder, sinking into a steady rhythm that left the others far behind. I much prefer this type of hiking anyway, as the silence and serenity allows a chance to ponder my thoughts and to fully appreciate the beauty of the mountains. Even though this was just another forest road, the snow transformed what would normally be just another boring road walk into a thing of magic.
The route lost around a hundred vertical meters of elevation over the next kilometer or so until finally bottoming out at the base of the long climb to the summit. Again I waited for the others to catch up while refilling my water bottles and finishing off the chocolate. At last we had reached the main junction just below the final climb. Turn left here and you can continue on the Kumano Kodo to Obako pass, where you’ll find a free emergency hut and toilet facilities.
To the right lay a long 14-km path to Mt. Gomadanzan, the nearest civilization from this remote location. Straight ahead, through a mystic forest of towering beech and oak, a scenic path lay buried in a thicket of snow sculpted by the winds. It was like hiking through a frozen ocean of breaking waves: once through the knee-deep crests you’d scuttle along a thin layer of ice before hitting the next wave of powder. I took the lead again, leaving the others in the dust as I finally got into the zone. It was only 600 horizontal meters to the summit and I wasn’t about to stop for any reason. I needed to generate as much heat as I could as the summit sat on a patch of bald grass completely naked to the elements.
I didn’t bother with the crampons, as they’d offer no traction in this grainy powder. I used my trekking poles in much the same way a nordic skier uses them to facilitate movement, and shortly before 1pm I topped out on the summit of Mt. Obako, my 90th Kansai Hyakumeizan. I immediately sought shelter behind a bush that helped diffuse the wind gusts and I once again waited for the others to arrive. Lunch consisted of a thermos of piping-hot vegetable soup Kanako had prepared the previous evening. It was exactly what I needed to keep me going on the return journey. Once the others arrived, summit proofs were taken and praises offered: for not only was it my 90th peak, it was Nao’s magic #70.
After lunch, we retreated back into the woods. Our original plan to check out the hut at Obako pass was abandoned in favor of saving time, so we simply retraced our steps back to the junction. Forward progress was catalyzed with the assistance of gravity, and once back at the junction I waited yet again for the others to catch up. From here I set off in front but kept the pace gradual so I could still be in earshot of Dewi and Aki. I wanted to pick Dewi’s brain about Mt. Nenotomari, a peak that was still on my list and one that she had happened to climb back in December. It turns out, like the remaining 10 mountains on the list, that the climb itself is simple enough, but access throws up the biggest challenge. She offered the name of an acquaintance that lives in Shingu who may be able to offer a ride to the trailhead.
Once back at Hinoki pass, my pace accelerated as I decided to just wait back at the rest hut for the others to catch up. It was a wise decision, as the weather had turned and light snow began to fall. The hut was the perfect chance to finish off the rest of the culinary reserves while giving the knees a much-needed rest. Back at the summit, I had lent my winter mountaineering gloves to Devi as she had lost all feeling in her fingers. My hands were doing just fine as I now carry three layers of thermal protection for my sensitive fingers. There would be no more frost nip if I could help it. She returned the gloves back at the hut and I offered her some tips to keep the phalanges intact in winter pursuits. Frostbite and hypothermia are the two biggest challenges for winter mountaineers, especially on days such as today. We all returned safely back at the car just past three in the afternoon after spending nearly six hours in Kansai’s version of Siberia.