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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.