Another month passed, and with the door on 2015 quickly closing, I seized a final chance to finish the last section of the first third of the Diamond Trail before the start of the new year. Gear packed, bus schedule confirmed, and clear weather forecast. What could go wrong?
I arrived at Tondabayashi station a little past 9am and searched for the bus stop that would take me to Hiraishi. According to my on-line research, the bus left at 9:15am for the 20-minute uphill journey to the village that I had seen just 6 weeks prior. There were plenty of buses milling about, none of which would shuttle me where I needed to go. At 9:13am, panic started to set in, and I inquired with a bus attendant loitering about.
“Oh, there’s no bus at 9:15am,” replied the uniformed official, clutching strongly to a laminated copy of the bus schedule in his white-gloved hands. “That bus left at 8:50am.” I gave a look of bewildered disbelief, my heart sinking even further into my tightened abdomen upon receiving the following additional detail: “The next bus for Hiraishi leaves at 3:20pm.”
Before I could even mutter a forced thank you from my mouth, I was already rushing over to the taxi stand, flagging down a ride with a stern driver who seemed more interested in bringing on lung cancer through his unfiltered cigarette than saving a hiker from an agonizing 7km walk. Still, he put out his butt and ushered me over for the silent ride to where I had left off on Halloween. Once at the bus stop, I switched on the GPS, pulled out the trekking pole, and gazed up at the bus schedule affixed to a half-corroded metal pole: “9:15am departure for Tondabayashi station”. Of course! In my haste to find the bus schedule, I had found the bus schedule from Hiraishi to Tondabayashi instead of the other way around. The Kongō bus company really needs to hire a proper web designer who can create a user-friendly web navigation system.
With my wallet quite a bit emptier, I marched back up the road and followed the previous GPS track still recorded in my device. Patches of green weeds tinged with the first frosts of the season lined both sides of the cracked concrete road as the sun filtered through a thick grove of cedar. Ahead of me, the whooshing sound of a spinning mechanism broke the still air of the morning, and suddenly the burly form of a mountain biker swished right past my frightened figure. He let out a quick “sumimasen” without even slowing his breakneck pace.
I reached the unmarked junction and left the forest road, carving my way up the ruts in the overused path. After another mountain biker swooshed past, I found the cause of so much erosion. It looks like hikers aren’t the only ones to forge a path through this cedar labrinyth.
Steady was the pace up the easy-to-follow route – the memory from October was still freshly burned in my prefrontal cortex, and I could simply use the electrical pylons as visual signs of progress. Just below the final push to the ridge line, the sound of bear bells descended swiftly towards me. I stepped aside as two more cyclists zoomed past. At least these guys had the courtesy to warn me beforehand. If not for those bells I surely would have been turned into a pancake.
It took about an hour to reach the ridge line again, where I took a brief rest on that exact same bench where I had thrown in the towel back in the autumn. I felt completely different this time around, with still plenty of energy reserves left in my rejuvenated body. At taking a few deep breaths, I took the first few steps upwards, along that virtual stairway to heaven that had sent me retreating to Hiraishi. There were easily over 100 steps rising incessantly towards the summit of Mt. Iwahashi. It was there that I penned a new name for this godforsaken trail. It would be known as the Diamond Trail no longer. “Forget diamonds”, I muttered under my labored breathing, “this is the Kaidan trail”.
At the top of the final rise, the incline gave way to a gently rolling summit plateau dotted with leaf-bearing tree cover. At the high point, two sweaty hikers occupied a bench on the far side of the broad opening. They had started at Nijō earlier in the day, and gave me invaluable advice about what lie ahead of me. I thanked them, marching down some more wooden log stairs along the shaded northern face of the mountain singing Lucy in the Sky with Kaidan.
The next section along the route was an undulating wave of gentle descents followed by slight rises in the gradient. Occasionally the path would pop out into a clearing affording views down to Osaka city, but for the most part the route moved through suffocating cedar plantations. I made good time as I pushed onwards towards Mt. Nijō.
Just before reaching Takenouchi pass, the route merged with a concrete forest road, following it for about half a kilometer before dumping me out on route 166. A hand-drawn sign on the guardrail ushered me towards the left, where apparently the Kaidan trail continued onwards to Nijō. I managed to walk along route 166 for preciously 50 meters before being kidnapped and held hostage for well over an hour. Well, that’s not exactly what happened, as the hostage taking was entirely voluntary. You see, I fell victim to what I can only describe at the work of a purely evil genius, the kind that would create something so tempting and so inviting that only those with the strongest willpower can resist: a non-smoking organic cafe. I opened the door of the Irodori Mint Cafe and was shown to a seat near the window by the courteous server. Being Christmas season, they had a special lunch that included roast pork, quiche, and hearty minestrone, which set me back 1300 yen but did include a drink and dessert. I peeled off my warmer layers, basking in the heated comforts of the dining room while resting the muscles. The food really hit the spot, and the hot coffee put the kick back into my step.
Once back out on the pavement, I continued cruising downhill, reaching a broad parking lot and signpost for the Diamond Trail. I turned right here, following the stone path as it led straight up towards the ridge line that I had left at the top of the pass. Things started to look vaguely familiar, and at the top of the hill I was once again back in familiar territory. I had once again reached Iwaya grotto, a place I had visited on Day 1 of my section hike. There was still work to be done, however, because I realized that the actual trail continued along the ridge towards Katsuragi instead of dropping towards Iwaya. By turning left at Route 166, I had accidentally skipped a small section of the real trail. Buzzing on caffeine and playing the role of purist, I turned away from Nijō and marched along the route towards Katsuragi. It took about 20 minutes to reconnect with route 166, where I realized my mistake. On the one hand, I did have the best mountain lunch in existence by erroneously making that left-hand turn. Future Diamond Trailers (if that is indeed what we can call hikers doing the Diamond Trail) should make note of this and consider stopping by the cafe for a bit to eat en route to their destination.
From route 166, I retraced my steps up the steep trail back to Iwaya, where I once again summited the female peak of Mt. Nijō. By now the temperature had risen to nearly 15 degrees, which was way too warm for my fleece-lined thermal pants. I stripped down to my boxer shorts, laying my trousers inside-out in the sun in order to allow the sweat to evaporate. There is a giant sundial directly on the summit, and in the clear weather and strong sunshine, the time keeper was precise. It was 2:10pm when I arrived on the top, and this time around, the vistas did not disappoint.
Laid out before me were the Omine mountains, shining brightly in the crystalline air with nary a glint from the light coating of snow clinging tightly to the upper reaches of Kansai’s highest mountain range. To the left of the lofty peaks, the smaller but just as impressive chain of the Daiko mountains stretched out across the azure horizon. These mountains too lay eerily free of the wintry white that usually sits thick in the wet December air. It was an unusually mild winter by Japanese standards, likely attributed to the strong El Nino dominating the waters of the Equatorial Pacific region.
My gaze at the mesmerizing vistas was broken by a rowdy group of a dozen climbers who had just arrived on the summit. Remembering that I was still half-naked, I scrambled to conceal myself and had just finished zipping up my fly when they invaded the high point, lying just one meter behind my granite bench. They took turns snapping summit proofs of each other, until they started setting up a timer for a group shot. I offered to take their photo instead, which they gladly accepted. As everyone gathered, one of the senior members of the group pulled out a small banner that had a rather intricate and stylized logo embroidered onto the fabric. It looked like an insignia that King Arthur might wear, were he alive today.
“What is that?” I inquired, clearly puzzled and intrigued by such an intricate logo for such a small group of climbers. “JAC”, came the reply, “Japan Alpine Club”. My jaw dropped, for here were members of Japan’s legendary Sangaku Kai, a mountaineering organization that has connections to Walter Weston himself. We talked for several minutes, with more than a few members impressed with my mountaineering resume. It’s not everyday that Japanese hikers can chat with a foreigner who has not only climbed the Nihon Hyakumeizan, but also the Kansai Hyakumeizan as well. “You should join our club”, remarked the leader. I brushed off the praise, not sure if the invitation was genuine or just a show of respect from someone who probably had a more impressive resume than yours truly. After all, this particular group was section hiking all of the prefectural borders from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean. They had stared in Fukui Prefecture and had followed the Fukui/Shiga border before turning southward and eventually linking up with the Osaka/Nara border which they will follow all the way down to Wakayama.
After bidding farewell to the JAC, I dropped off the summit to the north and turned left. My original plan was to descend into Nara, but a phone conversation with Ted during lunch had convinced me that the Rokutanji ruins on the Osaka side were well worth checking out. I had never descended down this side of Nijō before, and now seemed as good a time as any. The path dropped abruptly though a series of boulder fields before arriving at the temple ruins, which were dominated by a large stone pagoda dating from the 8th century. A grotto once housing Buddhist relics sat nearby, a metal gate firmly affixed to keep vandals from carving their initials into the sacred cave. From here, the path continued descending to the parking lot I had seen earlier in the day, so after a brief detour to a lookout point, I dropped back down to route 166, which I considered following all the way back to the station.
However, my map indicated a more interesting trail that continued a little further along the ridge, so back into the forest I ducked, climbing a series of switchbacks before once again traversing the spine of the mountain. After a series of ups and downs, the trail once again lost altitude and ended at a paved road that ran directly under an expressway. I followed this road until it tossed me out on a larger paved road that apparently lead to the Takenouchi Kaido museum. Of course I ended up taking a wrong turn, not realizing my mistake until I was a further 3km down the road, which passed right by a racetrack for remote-controlled cars. Somehow, I managed to reach Kaminotaishi station just before dusk. All in all I had probably traversed well over 15km, but the first section of the Diamond Trail was in the books. The next section between Katsuragi and Kongō was now on the radar screen. Now, if I could only seize a chance to escape from nappy changing duties……