Shortly after finishing the Hyakumeizan, I had a photo exhibition at a local cafe to display a few photos from my long conquest. During one quiet night of the one-month show, a young man in a baseball cap sat at the bar in quiet repose, staring at a half-finished beer as if in deep contemplation about an unfinished task at hand. He introduced himself as Willie, in a friendly, accommodation pattern of speech that could only come from Down Under. “I’m on number 99 myself,” pronounced my new companion, now drawn away from the tepid beer and deep into tales about the hundred mountains. He was about to become the first Australian to complete the Hyakumeizan, and fitting that I should meet his acquaintance with only one remaining mountain, as that is preciously the same situation in which I met the original Hyakumeizan conqueror Craig Mclachlan. During the course of our conversation, we both agreed on meeting up again somewhere in the hills of Kansai for a proper hike. Well, life became busy with menial tasks, and opportunities to meet up slipped away like a piece of raw squid through the chopsticks of life, but finally things were beginning to come together for a long overdue hike. And there would be no better place for such a rendezvous than the venerated peak of Wakasa-Fuji.
Willie, who more commonly goes by the nickname of Will nowadays, picked me up at Yamashina station in Kyoto on a brisk yet bright Sunday morning in late March. His splendid wife Mai sat in the driver’s seat, slowly pointing the vehicle up the roads that would lead us deep past the heart of Kyoto Prefecture into the tip of the province. I shared the backseat with a young, reserved boy who looked more keen on a morning nap than a walk among the flowers. His name was Sota, and, like most kids his age, would eventually warm up to this new visitor encroaching on his backseat territory.
The drive north took several hours, long enough for Will and I to discuss the topic that both of us know so much about. It’s not everyday that you can peak-drop and get a response, as the average citizen has never even heard of Uonuma-komagatake much less climbed it, but we were right at home sharing our stories like two reunited sailors who had spend their lives at sea. It was late morning by the time we parked the car at Matsunoodera, the start of the steep hike up Fuji’s precipitous flank. Plum flowers glowed in the strong light of the sun, bringing a touch of color to an otherwise monochromatic forest. A gentle breeze brought a wintry chill to the air that had us reaching for some insulating layers. Perhaps it would be a few more weeks before mother winter released her grip on northern Kinki.
The trail started directly behind the double-pitched main hall of Matsunoo temple, an ancient worshipping ground of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. The towering cliffs of Mt. Aoba were, in ancient times, rife with monks in search of spiritual enlightenment, but nowadays you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone other than a mountaineer or mushroom hunter on the steeper pitches of the massif. We entered the forest and immediately started a short climb to the base of the mountain, marked by a stone torii that was apparently toppled by an intense wind storm. The pitch soon increased in intensity, which left us with little choice other than to grab every tree root, twig, and fixed rope that was placed to aid in the ascent. Beech trees rose in unison with a thinning cedar forest. Claw marks on some of the trees were a reminder that the black bear sometimes traverse even this far north in search of nourishment.
After roughly an hour of steady climbing the first of Aoba’s twin summits was reached, marked by no small surprise with a shrine. A gargantuan boulder sat perched behind the worship hall, accessible by means of a rickety ladder and an even ricketier set of chains. Will and I scaled up the rock with ease, but little Sota had to be coaxed up the slab with promises of a post-hike ice cream. The vistas down to hidden coves in the sea directly below were mesmerizing to say the least.
From here, the ridge undulated through a series of igneous rock uplifted by tectonic forces centuries earlier, a reminder that Mt. Aoba wasn’t always the calm, dormant figure it pretends to be. Patches of snow lay hidden on shaded bits of bamboo grass as the path traversed around a gnarly cliff edge before popping out on the eastern, and higher, peak. It was here that we took a lunch break. Will, Sota, and Mai feasted on homemade bentos while I subsisted on a sandwich or two.
After admiring the scenery, we dropped off the eastern flank of the volcano, through an area of rich deciduous forest and onto yet another cliff of congealed pumice. Sota clang closely to his mother as Will zeroed in on a photo of the duo crouched next to the edge of a long drop. Hopefully Sota will eventually learn to overcome his fear of heights before finishing primary school.
On the descent, I had a chance to ask Will a little about some of the entertaining anecdotes on his blog that often leave me in cackles. I’ve had my fair share of good-humored encounters but can never quite pen them in such a creative way as our author does on his blog. His encounters in Hokkaido are particularly laden with witty, flowery descriptions. Hopefully the full tales of his Hyakumeizan adventures will eventually see themselves in printed form and if they do, I’ll be one of the first in line.
The path eventually dissipated in a vegetable garden at the back of a decrepit house teetering on the brink of collapse. We had hit a paved road and weren’t exactly sure which way to go other than west. After meandering the back streets though a maze of traditional houses, we eventually found a forest road that would bring us back to the car. Nature was calling for Will, so he sped ahead in search of a clean depository while Mai, Sota and I trudged slowly behind. Fatigue was setting in for the little one, so we took turns kicking a rock down the deserted road in a effort to distract him from his woes. Once back at the car, we headed to the shores of Tsuruga bay to capture the most picturesque and most Fuji-esque of Aoba’s beautiful faces.
With peak #57 now safely summited, I had only three more mountains to knock off this spring before the onset of the rainy season. Perhaps it was time to turn my attention to some other areas of Kansai that I had yet to explore.