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Archive for March, 2016

With spring in full swing, I seized the opportunity for one last foray into the Suzuka mountains to knock off the final, and highest, peak in the range. It was time to once again call upon Paul D. in Nagoya for some welcome companionship. Kanako, Tomomi, Baku, and I settled in the rented minivan in the early morning hours for the long drive out to Mie Prefecture and our rendezvous point at Nishifujiwara station. After getting stuck in traffic in the Kusatsu bottleneck, we arrived approximately 90 minutes behind schedule. Paul and his co-worker Shuhei squeezed into the backseat of the vehicle as Tomomi approached the switchbacks along route 306 that would take us to the trailhead at Kurakake pass, the shortest and easiest route up the peak.

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We hit an unfortunate snag very early in the journey, as the entire route was closed off with a head-high steel fence. The road was under construction, and there’d be no way to get to the trailhead unless we drove all the way around to the Shiga side of the mountain, which wouldn’t leave us enough time to complete the hike. I broke out the map, frantically studying alternative options from the Mie side of the mountain and there was one very long but possible route at a small village by the name of Yamaguchi. Tomomi did a u-turn as we drove around looking for the proper forest road, which was located a short time later. Unsure as to whether there’d be parking further up the narrow lane, we parked at the bottom and covered the 20-minute hoof to the start on foot.

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It was already late morning when we did finally hit the trail. Though it was dotted on our hiking map, the route was easy enough to pick up and relatively well-travelled. After a steep slog through a dense forest of planted cedar, the upper contours closer to the ridge remained out of human’s harm, with a healthy and bountiful hardwood forest beginning to sprout a new leafy outfit for the approaching summer.

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Our first landmark on the route was regrettably a monstrous electrical pylon. Even a range as humbling as the Suzuka cannot escape the claws of civilization. At least the bare foundations did afford some nice vistas of Nakazato reservoir that otherwise would not have been possible through the thick timber of the forest.

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The route meandered along a serpent-like spur towards Shirase pass. After a short drop past a washed out gully, the trail veered northwards through a fertile plain teeming with fresh plant life. The Suzuka mountains are well-known for their wildflowers, though we were a bit early to experience the brilliance of the False Helleborine in full bloom.

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We reached the mountain pass just past two in the afternoon and settled down for a late lunch. At our leisurely pace we would not be able to summit before nightfall. Not wanting to give up so easily, we hatched up a plan. Kanako, Baku, and Tomomi would head back down to the car from here, while Paul, Shuhei and I attempted to knock off the peak at lightning speed. The map said it’d be a 3-hour round-trip jaunt from the pass, but we aimed to complete it in less than two.

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Powered by the challenge, we trotted along a splendid ridge dotted with limestone and granite, giving an alpine feel to this section of the range. The trees still lay bare of foliage on this wind-swept spine, providing glimpses of our target peak sitting directly opposite our current position across a vast valley. Mt. Oike is actually on a parallel ridge from the main ridge running through the Suzuka mountains, so it takes a bit longer to reach than the more accessible sections of what is known as the Suzuka 7 area of the range.

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We reached the 40-minute hike to the junction for the Kogerumi route of Oike in only 14 minutes. The adrenaline quickly wore off when the signpost indicated that we had only reached the 6th stage point of the mountain. I checked the altimeter: even though we had started at Shirase pass at close to 1000-vertical meters, we were now at less than 800. The summit sits at nearly 1250 meters above seal level and time was of the essence.

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The route followed an ancient gully lined with moss-covered rocks and newly-sprouted plant life. Luckily the mountain leeches had not yet awakened from their winter slumber. With so many blood-sucking worms in the range, the climbing season is short. The pitch steepened as we reached the 8th stage point, and our fatigue was beginning to show. My calves ached as the trail turned towards the southeast, up yet another constricted gully still lined with a stubborn snowfield. Paul’s lungs were bothering him, a sign that a cold was perhaps on the way. He pushed on despite the discomfort and shortly after 3pm we topped out on the narrow summit and sunned ourselves on the small boulders flanking the high point.

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I downed my last energy bar as we slowly gathered up the courage to begin the downward descent. The drop to the 7th stage point was swift, but the climb back to Shirase pass was agonizingly slow. We seemed to be held back by not only the forces of gravity, but by our own physiological limits. We had already clocked over 10 kilometers and still had a long way to go before reaching the car.

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Back at the pass, we all settled into our own pace. I led the way, not wanting to rest until reaching the forest road again. Once entering the cedar forest, the trail seemed a lot steeper than earlier in the day, and I slowly eased my throbbing knees down the log steps built into the crumbling hillside. I felt completely spent – the last 6 months of antibiotics were finally catching up to me. I could hear my liver whimpering even through the wind. I vaguely remember my doctor cautioning me against doing any form of heavy exercise. Perhaps a 1000m+ vertical elevation change was too much for a body still trying to fully recover from a major illness.

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We somehow reached the trailhead just past 4:30pm. Our minivan was not in its original parking place, so we had a bit of a longer walk back down to Yamaguchi bus stop, where the gang were waiting. Kanako had settled into a relaxing nap in the back seat while the three of us collapsed into the soft seat cushions. Paul looked worse for wear and seemed happy to had the intense slog behind him. I for one was glad that we did not have to turn back, for I knew it’d be tough to find another leech-free climbing window.

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We dropped Shuhei and Paul back off at the station and headed to a nearby campground to see out the rest of the evening. Breaking up the trip into two days allowed us Kansai folk a chance to relax before the long drive back into town. The Suzuka mountains are definitely one of the best mountain ranges in the Kansai/Chubu area, and I had this Kansai Hyakumeizan list to thank for allowing me the motivation to explore it more deeply.

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Late February and sub-arctic temperatures have me ducking under the comforters of the warm bed. Still, after being cooped up in hospital for nearly 2 months, I needed to take advantage of these clear-weather days while I could. So goes the story for Mt. Kasagata, a pointy edifice lying north of Himeji city in Hyogo Prefecture. This is familiar territory, with the surrounding peaks all knocked off the list sans this inaccessible prominence soaring to just under 1000 vertical meters. A closer look at the map, however, revealed an approach from the north accessible by public transport.

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Michael and I departed Osaka in the early morning hours on a  JR train to Himeji, where the Bantan line chauffeured us further north to Teramae station. From here, a connecting bus crawled along narrow rural roads to the foothills of the mountains before dropping us off in front of a hot spring hotel that had seen better days. We shouldered our gear under the sunny but bitterly cold conditions, forcing our way up the steep switchbacks of the paved forest road as it lead us higher to the starting point of the hike.

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At the trailhead, a side trail to Henmyō waterfall caught our attention, and off the main path we verged for a closer look. After crossing a narrow steel bridge the trail marched up a series of log steps caked thick with layers of hard, slick ice that send us scurrying for purchase. Slowly and carefully we eased our way over the frozen slopes and nudged closer to the 65-meter falls. The quiet air was eerie at first until catching sight of the mass of water completely frozen by the bitterly cold temperatures of the past few weeks. Although too thin to safely ice climb, the column of frozen ice held our gaze until the cold seeped through our outer layers and onto our chilled skin. “You want the 4-pointers or sixers”, I called back to Michael, who was embarking on his very first snow hike. Opting for the extra purchase, I strapped on the 4-point crampons while handing over the larger climbing irons to my trusty partner as we commenced our climb towards the ridge.

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After scaling a steel ladder, we met back up with the main trail and climbed along a narrow path skirting the edge of a false ridge blanketed with several inches of fresh snowfall. The route followed the stream above Henmyō falls until it trickled out in the upper reaches of the highlands. Cedar forests eventually gave way to deciduous cover as we continued our steady, determined pace.

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Once the ridge was breached, we met a large junction and turned left for the final push to the summit. The gradient increased significantly, the crampons barely sufficient to stop the feet from losing their forward progress. Tree branches came in handy when the footing was poor, and shortly before the lunchtime bells we reached the high point of my 73rd peak. A wooden bench cleared of snow by other hikers provided the perfect place for a nourishing meal of hot soup and half-frozen rice balls. The vistas towards the dry valleys opened up to the north and east, but the views out towards Sen-ga-mine were obscured by menacing cloud.

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We retraced our steps back towards the bus stop, passing by a few hikers who had gotten a much later start. One such group consisted of a pair of young men sporting two of the biggest smiles I had ever seen in the mountains. They were both dressed in colorful garb, and the taller of the two grasped a rolled-up piece of cloth in his right hand. “What’s that”, I inquired, generally intrigued at what gear they happened to be carrying with them. He unrolled the material, revealing an simple hand-drawn  banner.

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“I’m Akihiro”, introduced our new acquaintance, a backward baseball cap topping off his clean-shaven face. “And I’m Atsushi”, replied his companion. “We are A and A”, came the follow-up in perfect unison, as if they’ve been practicing for years for their special moment to show off their work of creative genius. It’s unexpected encounters such as these that makes living in Japan so enjoyable.

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The exchange jolted us with energy, as we skated through the cedar forests as if part of a chase scene in a James Bond flick. We reached the foothills just as the darkened cloud moved on, revealing the open tufts of grass that line the summit fields of Daru-ga-mine, a mountain I had been on just before my hospitalization.

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We reached the bus stop with just enough time to spare to grab a quick drink from the vending machine. Although I was still heavily medicated with antibiotics for the TB, they didn’t do all that much to slow me down as I inched my way towards the two-thirds mark in my Kansai 100 quest.

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