On the outskirts of Kyoto city sits the tiny, forgotten hamlet of Kumo-ga-hata. The village punctuates a secluded valley at the base of Mt. Sajiki, the source of the Kamo river that flows through the center of the city on the meandering journey to Osaka bay far to the south. It was here that the bus dropped of several dozen elderly hikers on a brisk January morning. Among the flood of pensioners elbowing each other off the bus, Kanako and I slipped out and sorted through our gear. The streets were bone dry, an indication that the snow depth on the ridge may be a lot thinner than initially expected. We stashed our snowshoes behind an abandoned storage building and worked our way up the steep forest road towards the trailhead. We were anxious to get a quick start ahead of these unusually large groups before they turned the hiking path into rush hour gridlock.
The route to the start of the path would take us right past Shimyoin temple, a place that Ted insists is one of the ‘must-sees’ of Kyoto. As Kanako and I headed up the concrete, we noticed a small signpost pointing towards Mt. Sajiki on our right, well before the mountain pass. We took this spur, thinking that it must be the correct way up the mountain. The path disappeared under a blanket of snow, but the route was easy to pick up as a rut in an otherwise nondescript cedar forest. Upon reaching the ridge line further up, we realized to our horror that this was a shortcut trail built by lazy hikers trying to shave off a few precious minutes from the long hike. We were further north along the ridge, over a kilometer from the temple both of us were longing to visit. We could simply visit on the return journey, we surmised, continuing our climb into the ever-deepening snow drifts.
We were following a well-trodden path that led through a mixed deciduous forest of trees weighed down by a swath of freshly accumulated snowfall. Progress was swift until we reached the rear of a thirty-strong pack of elderly hikers, the same ones who had alighted the bus. They must have pushed ahead of us while we were dallying around on our ‘shortcut’ path to the ridge. Upon seeing us, they stepped aside and motioned for us to move ahead. The traffic jam was thus avoided, but it led to another unexpected problem.
Being at the front of the pack meant that we would be breaking trail through knee-deep snow. Whose idea was it to leave those snowshoes back at the bus stop?
Progress ground to a halt as Kanako and I took turns burrowing a path for the pensioners. Perhaps they should have paid us for our unheralded sherpa services. Tape on the trees helped with pathfinding until reaching an exceptionally broad lane flanked on both sides by forests of cedar. There must certainly be a concrete forest road buried somewhere under all of this powder, I surmised, studying the map for further confirmation.
A bit further along the track sat an abandoned Daihatsu 4-door hatchback, the license plates long stripped away and left to rot like the fruit of a persimmon tree. Here a group of hikers met us from the west, via an approach that few others use even in the green season. We breathed a sigh of relief as they offered to do the trail-blazing from here to the summit. We reached the crest of a long incline that felt very much like a high point. The problem was, everything was buried under a meter of packed snow. I continued along the ridge for a bit until I heard shouts behind me. Retracing my steps, I had discovered that the other group had dug down with their hands until finding a concrete triangulation point.
Mt. Sajiki, peak #49, was knocked off with relative ease, thanks in part to the other hikers who seemed to know the mountain better than most. I would shutter to think how Kanako and I would have fared completely on our own. Ted and I would find out the answer to that question exactly one year later, fighting for our lives on a peak just a few kilometers due east of here.
We never did make it to Shimyoin temple, having to bypass the sacred grounds in order to make the last bus back to Kyoto. Perhaps Saijiki is worthy of another visit, if anything to confirm that we actually made it to the summit after all.