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Archive for November, 2015

Faced with a long 10km approach from the nearest bus stop, I knew that timing was of the essence if I wanted to make it off the mountain before dusk. So began another arduous journey into Wakayama prefecture to climb Mt. Oishi (生石) – the mountain of raw stone.

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I took the fast train down to Kainan city on an overcast morning in early October. At the station, the micro-sized Orange bus awaited to shuttle passengers to a bus stop appropriately named tozanguchi. My map indicated that I only need to walk along the main road for about 5 kilometers until reaching the start of the hike, but the taxi office located adjacent to the bus terminal was too much to pass up. I hopped in an available cab and was happily ferried up to the fork in the road that marked the start of the traditional route up the once-sacred mountain. The road, in fact, continues on all the way to the top, but I was more interested in what the slopes had to offer than what lay on the desecrated summit.

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Once out of the taxi, a metal signpost indicated that it was only a 6.5km stroll along the hiking trail to the top. Still, it beat the 11km walk in from the bus terminus. The path initially shared frontage with the paved road before climbing through a thicket of trees towards Daikanji temple. The temple itself was once along the Koya-nishi kaido, an ancient pilgrimage route to Koyasan that Shingon worshipers once tramped on their way to pay homage to Kobo Daishi. The sacred space now sits on the edge of a paved forest road overlooking fields dotted with cosmos, red spider lilies, and freshly harvested rice stalks hung on wooden racks to dry in the sun.

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The route once again ran parallel with the pavement before yet again ducking into the forest and alongside a couple of jizo statues that led to an enormous evergreen oak tree (シラカシ) that is estimated to be over 350 years old. I gazed up at the towering hulk of wood, wondering if the seed was transplanted here naturally or if a zealous monk left it there as a memento to future generations.

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After passing by a small mountain stream, the forest turned into monocultural cedar as I pushed my way towards the summit plateau. After an hour or so the angle did start to ease, and the first signs of civilization soon came into view. The route once again joined with the asphalt, skirting the edge of a mountain hut that probably last saw use during the Nixon administration. You’ll come across these abandoned structures all across Japan, the landowners too stingy to bother with the demolition costs and instead let nature run its course.

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Just beyond this forlorn symbol of economic prosperity gone amiss, the trail terminated at the edge of an immense field of susuki grass stretching across the entire horizon. I had reached the entrance to Oishi plateau, and luckily this weekday morning it was relatively quiet. I shuttered to think about the zoo that this area must become during any weekend in autumn, when day trippers in their luxury automobiles invade the peak for a glimpse of the golden grasses.

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The first thing to catch my eye was a rustic rest hut with the name Mountain Home (山の家). I stowed my pack on a bench and sifted through my coin purse for change to insert into the vending machine. Just moments later, a bowl of hot noodles and freshly made coffee made their way to my wooden table. They were just what I needed after the chill of the autumn air lowered my core temperature by a few degrees. Once thermal equilibrium was restored, it was time to see what these highlands had to offer.

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I stepped outside, immediately drawn to a bulky granite outcrop sitting at the top of a gentle rise. Marked by a small shrine, the rock formation was easy to scale, affording unobstructed panoramic mountain views of the peaks of Koyasan and other unknown mountains nestled deep in Wakayama prefecture. After taking in the vistas, I meandered through the susuki grass like a pupil on a school outing – there was literally dozens of different paths to choose from as they made their way up to the high point, which was reached in about half an hour.

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I sprawled out in the large clearing, enjoying the soft feel of the grass against my bare arms while taking in the stellar views. There was no signpost on the summit, and the only indication that it was indeed the high point was the rectangular block of concrete protruding from a tuft of grass – the triangulation point.

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After a quick bite from a rice ball, I ducked into the forest once again for a variation that would loop back to the bus stop. I had intended on giving Oishi shrine a visit, but a wrong turn meant that I’d have both a lot of backtracking and vertical elevation gain if I wanted to double back for a look, so I left it to the imagination.

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Most of the descent was, regrettably, through a vast forest of planted cedar and cypress, but the path did alternate between forest and village, giving a welcome insight into the lives of these rural denizens. The highlight was passing through an orchard of sanshō pepper trees whose leaves had turned a golden hue. Once back at the fork in the road, I spied a forest road to my left that looked as if it would lead me back to the bus stop. On a hunch, I followed the path, marked at regular intervals by jizo statues and tattered stone engravings. I surmised that this must have been part of the original Koya-nishi kaido before falling into misuse. My deductions were confirmed a bit further up the route when passing by a small temple situated at the base of a large waterfall dropping over a contorted rock formation. Here, a statue of Fudo Myo-o kept watch over the sacred prayer space. The forest road did connect up with the bus stop, which took me back to Kainan station with plenty of daylight left to catch the slow train back to Osaka.

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It was a monumental effort, but the long haul was worth it, on one of Kansai’s more noteworthy peaks.

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Nestled snugly between Shikoku and Honshu lies the finger-like sliver of Awaji island. All but cut off from the rest of the mainland for most of its existence, the island developed its own industry (namely onions) and its own peculiar dialect (closer to a Shikoku tongue than an Osakan twang). Life was all hunky dory for the happy-go-lucky villagers until 1998, when the Akashi bridge was opened to vehicular traffic. All of a sudden, day tripping Kobe denizens flocked to the isle in search of idyllic beaches and hidden hot springs.

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I, too, had become part of the tourism statistics, boarding a highway bus after disembarking a JR train at Maiko station just under Akashi bridge. After a series of long escalators and stairs, I popped out on the actual bridge itself and queued up for the bus to Minami Awaji. Being a weekday, the bus was only partially full as it cruised across the bridge and into the bowels of the island itself. It was a beautifully sunny yet unusually hazy day, with smog cutting visibility to just a few horizontal kilometers. Hardly peak climbing conditions for what the hiking literature refers to as ‘beautiful panoramic views’ from the summit perch of Mt. Yuzuruha, Awaji island’s tallest mountain.

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The bus dropped me off at Mihara bus stop directly on the elevated expressway. A concrete stairway led me to a simple toilet complex and bus waiting area on the side of a rural lane completely devoid of vehicular traffic. Hitching was simply out of the question, but fortunately the rest area was home to one of those rectangular green devices that people used to use back in the 20th century to communicate. I dropped a coin into the machine and hired a taxi to shuttle me to the trailhead. While waiting for my ride to arrive I ducked behind the shelter and sat in the shade, which offered only minimal respite from the searing heat. Even though it was mid-September, someone forgot to tell mother nature that summer was supposed to be over.

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My driver let me off at Yuzuruha dam, handing over his business card upon my exit in case his assistance was required for the return journey. The path immediately started climbing through a a lovely hardwood forest lined with jizo statues at regular intervals along the way. It took about 15 minutes to breach the ridge – although Yuzuruha is the highest point on the island, it is hardly a monster, topping out at a little over 600 vertical meters. Horizontally speaking, I was less that 2km from the summit and carried on at a steady pace towards the high point. Temperatures were soaring towards the mid-30s, turning my hike into a sweat fest better suited to an afternoon at the sauna. The heat had also brought out the bees, mosquitoes, and other insects that hovered around my drenched torso.

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Upon reaching the summit, I stripped off my shirt and hung it in the sun to dry. I plopped down in the shade of the gazebo and proceeded to rehydrate. Lightly salted potato chips helped to restore the sodium imbalance, and the shade gave me a chance to pore over the maps and make a decision. If I continued heading northward, the trail would drop to a temple and continue losing altitude all the way to sea level, where a rural coastal road circumnavigated the island. I’d then have to rely on my thumb to get me back to civilization. If I retraced my steps, I could simply walk another 4km or so along a paved road from the dam to the nearest community, which promised a bus ride back to Minami-Awaji. The choice was a no brainer really, but I headed off to the north for a few minutes of descending down to the temple, where I hoped I would find a vending machine or some other sort of shop.

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Dreadfully, the temple offered no amenities, and I retraced my steps back to the summit and retreated to the south towards the dam. Along the way, I passed by an elderly solo hiker climbing towards me, armed with a rather large can of insecticide. Either this guy was a complete entomophobe or he just simply hated hornets. Either way, he was armed for battle with whatever he encountered along the way. Luckily he did not mistake me for a giant insect and held his fire as I tiptoed past.

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Once back at the dam, I found a ‘cycling terminal’ that offered both an air-conditioned lobby and a row of fully-stocked vending machines. I bought a liter of Aquarius and ducked into the cool comforts of the lobby. I collapsed onto a lounge chair and polished off the entire liter while trying to psyche myself up for the rest of the way. The cool drink brought the spring back into my step, and soon I was back out counting my footfalls along the sticky pavement. By some fate of timing, I arrived at the bus stop with just 10 minutes to spare before the next bus, which dropped me off at Minami-Awaji city. Here, there was a highway bus terminal offering hourly buses back to Kobe. I stopped by a local restaurant serving lunch sets and tucked into a later afternoon meal before boarding that bus with a sense of gratitude. I had long wrote off Yuzuruha as an impossibility for a day trip, but realized with a bit of planning that there were very few of these Kansai 100 peaks that I couldn’t do as a return trip if I just put my mind to it.

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