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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.