Frostnip can be a real blow to the psyche. Although the scrapes and bruises from my winter accident have fully healed, the tips of all 10 fingers are still on the mend, making even menial tasks a bit taxing. I needed an emotional boost, and the only remedy was to get back up on that horse and start climbing mountains again. A journey to the far north was in order.
The Yura river starts off deep in the mountains of northern Kyoto, in the ancient groves of the Ashyu forest managed by Kyoto University. Over the next hundred and fifty kilometers or so, it passes by villages stuck in an Edo-era time warp while meandering north, eventually dumping its emerald cache of pristine waters into Kunda Bay in the Sea of Japan. Near the mouth of this river sits the twin-peaked beauty of Mt. Yura, my target for this balmy March morning.
In an effort to save a bit of money, I opted for the highway bus to Maizuru city which was just a few train stations east of Tango-yura, the starting point for the long climb up the northern face of the mountain. The bus soon became a victim of the morning rush hour traffic in the city of Takarazuka, arriving in the port city of Maizuru far to the north nearly 45 minutes behind schedule. Fortunately, there was a train leaving in just a few minutes, so I ran up the escalator and onto the platform just before the doors closed. Trains are few and far between on the Tango railway: locals usually keep copies of the train timetable in their pockets in order to avoid the lengthy wait times between trains. The train pulled into Tango-yura station shortly after 11am under crystal clear skies and a relatively low pollen count that usually keeps me sidelined during the spring. Mt. Yura dominated the skyline to the south and rightfully so: though only 640 meters in height, it rises straight from the sea just a few meters from the train platform. Looks like I had my work cut out for me.
The first fifteen minutes were along a narrow paved roadway that terminated at Yura-sō, a beautiful lodge affording wonderful sea vistas and mouth-watering crab during the colder winter months. Tempting as it was to stay the night, the day mission meant that loitering was kept to a minimum, and directly behind the lodge a small wooden kiosk marked the entrance to the mountain path. In this information booth there was a notebook filled with messages from other visitors, as well as a wonderfully composed hiking certificate on A5 cardstock that was free for the taking. I put one in my guidebook as a keepsake, knowing I’d likely be pressed for time on the descent in order to make the next available train.
The path immediately entered a severely eroded gully with chest-high ruts that made for an unexpected workout. The steep contours meant that the woods were free from the grasp of the forestry authorities who have a penchant for destroying the ecosystem by planting cedar trees. The first couple of stage points were checked off in no time at all, but, like most other dormant volcanoes, the mountain angle grows in direct proportion with elevation gained. It was in these thirty degrees slopes about halfway up the mountain that the cedar trees made an appearance, blotting out the light and transforming the forest into a standing army of long-legged evergreen soldiers ready for battle. Their main weapon came in the form of a thin yellow powder that would be released from the needles at the slightest touch of a breeze. This powder causes a severe allergic reaction to those unlucky hikers whose immune systems have been sensitized to the usually benign substance. I reached into my pack, pulling out my pollen mask as a shield against the aerial assault.
Fortunately the cedar army was a small one, and further up the peak the deciduous paradise returned, revealing swaths of unmelted snow that hung firmly to the harsh contours just below the summit ridge. Crampons were not necessary in the mild March sun, but kick-stepping added an additional level of security as the saddle between the peaks was finally breached. The western peak (西峰) was the higher of the two, so I turned right and followed the gentle curves of the bamboo grass-lined ridge through a grove of beech and oak still naked of leaf after the long, harsh winter. The vistas opened up towards the north of the summit, revealing the long sandspit of Amanohashidate that attracts hoards of tourists throughout the year. I was getting my own bird’s eye view, but without the chaos of the crowds.
I retreated back to the junction and onto the east peak (東峰), where the panoramic views really opened up. I crafted a seat out of a bundle of dried bamboo grass and soaked up the scenery. To my left, the sea extended uninterrupted out to the horizon. Turning clockwise, the mouth of the Yura river cut a line in the earth directly below, as a twin-peaked cone jutted out of Wakasa Bay like a miniature version of Mt. Fuji herself. In fact, the local nickname for this mountain is Wakasa-fuji, but most people know her by the name of Mt. Aoba, a peak that was still remaining on the list. Behind Aoba, you could just barely make out the snow-capped peaks of the Japan Alps spread across the hazy horizon like a chain of paper snowflakes hung in a kitchen window. Weather this fine is a rarity along the Sea of Japan coast, and if not for that afternoon train I could have easily lazed here until the dawn glow of the following morning.
As it was, I had planned to catch the 4:29pm train, so time was of the essence. Retracing my steps was simple enough, as I covered the knee-knocking slopes in a fraction of the time it took to ascend. Back on the train, the full effect of my exposure to the pollen let itself be known, with waterfalls of clear snot dripping freely from my poker-red nose. I popped an antihistamine and drifted off in a dazed sleep for the train journey back to Osaka.
Summiting Mt. Yura, mountain #55, was the confidence boost that I needed. The fingers held up surprisingly well and if I keep my hands covered with soft, thin gloves they don’t cause too much trouble. Pollen, on the other hand, was my real nemesis, but with the momentum on my side, a couple of more mountains in the mighty north had my name on them.