The second section of the Diamond trail follows the undulating ridge between the peaks of Nijō and Katsuragi for a total distance of around 10km. From afar, the spine of the mountain looks like nothing more than a gentle rise, but I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. After putting off this section for all of the summer, I opened a small gap in my incredibly hectic schedule, forgoing the Halloween festivities in favor of knocking out this herculean chunk of ridge.
Since I had already summited Katsuragi several times before, I opted for the comfort and luxury of the ropeway on the Nara side of the mountain. Getting there requires a change of trains at Shakudo, followed by a bus from Gose station. By the time I boarded the gondola it was already approaching 1pm. So much for the early start.
From the top of the lift, I bolted up the wide path like a steed out of the starting gate. The autumn foliage was at its peak, and what little deciduous cover remained on the blighted peak glowed brilliantly in the mid-autumn sunshine. I reached the summit of Mt. Katsuragi around 1:30 in the afternoon and took in the views while polishing off my lunch box. The susuki grass lining the broad open summit plateau flowed gracefully in the cool westerly breezes blowing in from Osaka bay. The northern reaches of the mountain were covered in forest, which prevented me from getting a glimpse of Mt. Nijō, which was probably a good thing as I knew it was a very long way off.
Dropping back down to the tree cover, I passed by a restaurant hawking hot noodles, vowing to return there for lunch during the next leg of the trail over to Kongō. For now, I slipped past the entrance and alongside the narrow campground that was just beginning to come to life. The next section of trail was a contorted serpent of rippling log stairs affixed to the rolling contours of the land. The knees took a beating while I secretly envied the groups of late starters working their way up the broad stair lanes, for it would have surely been easier on the patellas.
After passing by the junction for the northern ridge approach to Katsuragi, the trail entered a thick canopy of cedar trees lined in perfect rows. The density of the forest blocked out most of the light, giving an air of early evening to the surroundings. If I didn’t make a move on it I would surely be caught in these spooky woods after dark.
An hour passed and I managed to eat through only 40% of the 10km required to finish the section. I knew that I would not make it, but decided to go as far as my comfort level would allow. The fatigue of the previous week of work was starting to catch up to me, and I felt drained of energy. As I stumbled along the ridge in a weary daze, a movement in the bamboo grass to my immediate left roused me out of my reverie. No more than two meters away, a large animal shuffled through the undergrowth, popping out on the ridge directly in front of me. I caught a glimpse of the massive beast, expecting to see the antlers poking up through the leaves as it hopped its way to safety, but the center of gravity hinted at a different kind of animal. Lowering my watchful eye, I managed to glimpse two long protruding tusks coming from the elongated snout. Alas, the elusive wild boar – these things have been known to charge hikers but this one seemed more intent on seeking shelter than stealing a free bite of scrawny flesh.
The wildlife encounter boosted the morale and sent a shot of adrenaline through my depleted body. This was enough to carry me a few more kilometers to Iwahashi pass, where I collapsed on a wooden bench. Directly in front of me, an extensive network of stairs rose steeply to the skyline and above. I knew I was only a short distance from the summit of Mt. Iwahashi, but the signpost pointing to Hiraishi village beckoned me on, like a maneki-neko pulling a consumer into its shop. I was 5.1km from the summit of Katsuragi, which seemed like the perfect stopping point for the traverse. Daylight had nearly run out and I hadn’t the energy reserves to carry on much further. I gulped down a handful of chocolate-covered almonds, shouldered the pack, and retreated down the western side of the mountain away from the ridge.
The path was easy to follow and well-maintained, skirting past the edge of several electrical pylons before it deposited me on an unmarked dirt forest road. I turned left here, but a glance at my GPS indicated that it would take me further into the hills and not down to civilization, so I quickly backtracked. After 20 minutes, I popped out into a small secluded village and headed further down towards town. A trio of hikers resting on a bench caught my attention, and as I arrived at their location a bus pulled up bound for Tondabayashi station. It was the final bus of the day, and I had made it with only minutes to spare. Someone was truly watching out for me.
What karma I had gained on the bus ride, however, was soon lost on the train ride back to Osaka. Our train ground to a halt at Fujidera station after someone decided to jump in front of the train in front of ours. Such ‘accidents’ are common this time of year, as the pressures from society become too much for some people to handle. I collapsed into my seat and closed my eyes, using the two-hour delay as a chance to recharge the physical batteries.
With half of the ridge now traversed, I knew that it would be much easier to return to finish off the remaining section. All I needed was another break in the schedule.