There has been plenty written about the other Sanjo in the Omine mountains of Nara Prefecture, but information about another peak by the same name remains spotty at best. It was time for my own in-depth investigation.
Mt. Sanjo sits buried among a deep fold of mountains in northwestern Shiga Prefecture. It is best known as the highest point of the Takashima trail, a 80-km traverse along Japan’s Central Divide. Water down the western slopes of the mountains flows out to the Sea of Japan, while the watersheds on the eastern flanks empty out into Lake Biwa, which continues south to Osaka Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Willie and I had been planning on exploring the area in May, but just days before our departure a solo hiker was attacked by a black bear along our very route. The attack occurred at 4:30 in the afternoon along a stretch of trail that does not see many other hikers, even on the weekends. The prefectural authorities were likely to close the trail until the ursine culprit could be apprehended, so we concentrated our efforts on other mountains in the meantime.
With the winter weather slowly closing in, we found another window in early December for another attempt at the monster. Will and Mai picked me up from Yamashina station at a quarter past 8 in the morning, and we headed north along the western edge of Lake Biwa and past the shuttered ski resort of Mt. Hakodate. A meandering forest road worked its way up the steep slopes, past a troupe of monkeys who seemed more interested in collecting chestnuts than checking out the vehicular intruder. At the top of the ski resort, the road eased down into a narrow valley following the Ishida river, where the trailhead for our target peak sat between two forks in the clear-running stream. We parked the car and geared up for the 4.2km slog to the summit.
A flyer posted at the trailhead (and dated May 2015) warning of bear encounters suggested that hikers bring both a bear bell and spray, and avoid hiking alone. Two out of three wasn’t bad, we thought, as Mai affixed the improvised wind chime to a sidestrap on her pack. The trail wasted no time in gaining altitude, cutting through a cedar forest with little regard to the lay of the land. It was as if the original trailblazer was under a spell by the Pied Piper being led up that steep hill by a magic lute and a trail of deer droppings. Sweat oozed from the pores during the unexpected workout, making me regret my choice of insulated fleece-lined hiking pants.
Luckily, there was only a 200-meter elevation change before the path flattened out at the ridge, and soon enough we were sitting on the spine of the mountain, admiring the vistas across the valley to Mt. Buna (not to be confused with the Mt. Buna in the Hira mountains). The cedar trees ceded their power to the mighty beech towers, whose bare limbs had long since shed their cloak of flaxen foliage.
Instead of the undulating up-and-down of most ridge lines, the route was one long, gentle incline, like a wheelchair ramp for a disabled giant. Hints of animal activity lay all around: claw marks notched in the trees from the feet of a climbing bear, tree trunks stripped of bark by hungry, foraging deer, and the scat of an unknown variety laying gently among the dampened leaf litter. On this overcast day, however, the mountains were eerily quiet – not even the usual calls of songbirds could be heard in the cool, silent air. Or perhaps the drone of Mai’s bear bell and our audible cackles of laughter sent the local fauna scurrying back to their hiding places.
We took our first break of the morning at the base of a towering beech whose branches fanned out above us as if to provide a natural parasol. Indeed, this sprawling canopy must offer refreshing shade in the sunnier, greener months. I reached into my pack for an energy bar and a refill of water. As soon as I sat down, I could feel the cool air seeping into my base layer that was already damp with sweat. I put back on the fleece for the time being in an effort to prevent all of my precious body heat from escaping.
A bit further up the elongated ridge, we got our first glimpse of the summit plateau rising gently in front of us. It still looked a long way off, but my GPS indicated a modest 200 meters of vertical elevation left in the climb, meaning that the worst was behind us. The trail moved through the hardwood forests dotted with grasslands stained gold from the early frosts of winter. Snow had blanketed these highlands during a recent cold spell the previous week, reminding us that the hiking window would soon be closed in these forgotten tufts.
We attained the summit plateau shortly past noon, reaching a junction for a shorter trail that dropped off the eastern spur of the forested massif. It was an alternative way off the peak, as was an unmarked trail on a ridge running parallel to our approach. We opted for the latter, knowing we could always retrace our steps if the junction was not easily discernible. Lunch was devoured on the broad, open summit. I indulged in a thermos of piping-hot vegetable soup I had prepared earlier that morning, while Will and Mai dined on lunch boxes warmed by kairo heating packs affixed to the bottom of their lunch containers. I made a mental note to remember that innovative solution to a hot lunch on the cool mountains.
The frigid gusts of wind blowing from Wakasa bay to the north had us reaching for extra layers. My winter down jacket was more than sufficient in the subzero temperatures. Mai jumped around eagerly to keep the blood pumping, and after a quick summit proof using a tree as an improvised tripod, we meandered along a section of the Takashima trail that whet our appetite for further exploration. The entire 80-km route looks like a fine multi-day outing – the route is anything but technical, but still offers formidable challenges due to the lack of reliable water sources along the route.
After a 15-minute jaunt through the pristine grasslands, we reached a junction marked for Hachioji valley. Despite not being marked on our maps, Will possessed a printed copy of a GPS log uploaded to yamareco that showing a possible loop track back to the car. The signpost was hand-written and indicated that the trail was for ‘experts only’. I’m not sure what constitutes an ‘expert’, but, as Hyakumeizan alumni, we considered ourselves aptly qualified for the challenge.
The path dropped steeply off the summit plateau before leveling off through yet another immense and incredibly beautiful virgin forest. The route narrowed in places, tramping through a thicket of rhododendron who were obviously confused by the relatively balmy temperatures for this time of year. One plant in particular had skipped winter altogether and decided to blossom five months early.
After reaching an area signposted as ‘peak 686’, we stopped for a bit of a rest and rightfully so – my map indicated a significant drop in altitude to the forest road in the valley far below. Will and I split a package of fudge brownies for an extra bit of kick. The trail dropped back to the edge of a cedar forest, where it petered out all together. With the printed GPS track in hand, we veered left towards the deciduous cover, following a faint trail likely carved out by foraging deer. The pitch of the terrain was inversely proportional to our confidence level, climaxing as we reached the start of an impossibly steep gully flanked on either end by a rocky precipice. The only way down was through this gulch carpeted with leaf litter and fallen timber.
Will and Mai looked at me as if I was leading them on a death march and rightfully so – one slip here and you’d tumble head-over-heel into the river churning a hundred vertical meters beneath our feet. I took the lead, lowering myself to the start of the trench one cautious step after another. At the far end of the channel, about 50 meters directly under our flailing feet, sat a natural dam of broken tree limbs and rockfall. It was hard to see what lie beyond that natural barricade, but my gut instinct was that the angle would ease a bit. Once I reached this ledge, I stepped to the side out of the path of potential rockfall and verbally guided Mai down the treacherous coulee. She made it down without too many problems, but Will looked spooked by the angle and footing.
“Here, catch my pack,” he shouted, sending his 30-liter knapsack tumbling down the culvert until it somehow halted its forward progress at the base of Mai’s feet. Vertiginous though it was, it was no harder than some of the Hyakumeizan that we had scaled in the past. (though for the record, the steep trails of the more famous peaks of Japan are graciously lined with fixed rope to aid in the descents).
Just as predicted, the angle did ease on the far side of the dam, with plenty of trees to help slow the momentum. Once we reached the water’s edge, a path became more apparent, though it was likely not a trail that was made by humans, as evidenced by the pellets of deer scat lining the route. At last, we spotted the forest road where we had parked our vehicle a mere 5 hours before. All that remained was to cross to the other side of the mountain stream, which Mai and I did with relative ease. Will, on the other hand, still sporting a case of the ‘laughing knees’, stepped straight off the first foothold and landed feet first into the chilly waters. Though silent he was, the expression on his face was all that needed to be said. I suspect that he’d likely have a word or two for the author of that GPS log.
Once back at the road, we had a thirty minute stroll back to the car, where we changed our clothes and pointed the engine back towards Kyoto. Mt. Sanjo was a deceptively tricky mountain, but the beauty of the forest and lack of visitors (both human and ursine), made it one of the best peaks in Kansai to date. The rest of the Takashima trail will have to wait for another day.