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Archive for April, 2016

Climbing the highest peak in every prefecture wouldn’t be easy, but with a little help from my friends it could be a little less intimidating. The previous day, in less than desire downpours, I had knocked off the highest mountain in Okinawa along a trail slippery with runoff and heavy with erosion. While hardly a monstrosity, the mountain did throw up some surprising challenges that took the form of habu snakes lurking in the shadows of the dense jungle floor. As I recovered in the common room of a guesthouse in Kabira bay on Ishigaki island, a young, brightly attired guest entered through the vestibule, dropping her sky blue Millet pack next to the other luggage tucked away in the far corner of the cozy space. She took a seat around the low, rectangular dining table and settled into our lively conversation. She appeared quite different from the other half a dozen beach-bumming guests of the penny-penching accommodation, her dark wavy locks tucked neatly under a red and beige Outdoor Research sun hat.

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She introduced herself as Megumi from Kumamoto city, and the conversation quickly shifted to the mountains, a subject that both of us shared with equal passion. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening engrossed in conversation about past hiking trips and future endeavors. After explaining my dream of climbing Japan’s prefectural summits, she invited me along to climb with a few of her other outdoor enthusiasts to Mt. Kunimi, the highest mountain in her prefecture and included on the list of Japan’s 300 Famous mountains. A chance to knock off another peak in Kyushu was too much to pass up, so a few months after our fateful encounter I cruised through the rice fields on the newly-christened Kyushu Shinkansen en route to the old, hilly castle town. I had been to Kumamoto once before for a brief stopover between the mountains of Unzen and Aso, but here way my first chance to see the historical town through the eyes of a local.

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After checking into a cheap guesthouse that doubled as a gourmet coffee shop, Megumi dropped by to shuttle me to a local restaurant to get acquainted with our climbing team. We squeezed into a cozy table in the corner of the bustling establishment while my host fired off food orders to the sure-footed staff. Megumi settled in beside a dark-haired guy with thick eyebrows and a million dollar smile that would surely make even the thickest girl swoon. He introduced himself as Tsubasa, a pharmaceutical researcher turned part-time mountaineer and photographer. He knowledge of alpine routes was stunning for someone dwelling so far from the loftier heights of Honshu. It turns out he was born and raised in Shiga Prefecture near the shores of Lake Biwa, a fellow Kansai partner with a thirst for adventure as satiated as my own. On my right sat a cute, bubbly girl by the name of Keiko, whose small face, dark complexion, and straight brown hair seemed more southeast Asian than the ghostly complexion of typical citizens of the rising sun. Due to the warm climate and ample sunshine, the women of Kyushu take on an exotic air and vibe that are enough to drive a grown man crazy. Despite the pheromones permeating from our companions, Tsubasa and I stayed on our best behavior, lest we draw the ire of our significant others.

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I had a difficult time sleeping that evening, a combination of the hormones released in our lively dinner and the remnants of the strong cappuccino still flowing through my throbbing blood vessels. Tossing and turning on the firm mattress in the deserted guesthouse, I focused on the impending climb of the 1739-meter mountain, a peak I knew next-to-nothing about. At least it appeared in Tsubasa’s Kyushu hiking guidebook. Thoughts of weather conditions dominated, as most of my summer ascents on Japan’s southerly island have been anything but cooperative. Eventually I drifted off into a deep, drooling, comatose state but was jerked out of my slumber by 6am morning call.

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Tsubasa’s red hatchback rolled up around 7am and I settled into the backseat alongside Keiko. Megumi helped Tsubasa navigate through the rural hamlets of the Kumamoto countryside. The rural route followed the narrow valleys of the southern part of Mashiki village, an area dominated by ancient tile-roofed structures still clinging to their feudal past. The road nudged just past the vestibules of these rustic buildings, the road built directly atop the old horse trails that once linked these secluded hamlets to their pre-Meiji daimyo lords. Occasionally we’d grind to a halt as a hunchbacked octogenarian crossed the road with the speed and agility of a box turtle.

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Out of the valleys we rose, along windy mountain roads barely wide enough to accommodate one-way traffic. Whenever a vehicle approached from the opposite direction we’d put the car in reverse, searching for the slightest shoulder that would give us a few extra inches of leeway. Luckily the traffic was few and far between and once over the mountain pass the byway widened to a more respectable span. Speaking of spans, a bit further up the valley we reached an immense suspension bridge crossing a nauseating drop down to a river covered in thick, green foliage. We vowed to cross this pedestrian walkway after our hike, as we needed to head back this way upon our return to Kumamoto city.

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Just past the bridge we left the comforts of the prefectural highway and inched up a gravel forest road in a sorry state of disrepair until reaching a large gate permanently bolted shut. A gnarled metal signpost pointed the way to the trailhead of Mt. Kunimi, so we shouldered the packs and I led the way, using my GPS for guidance. We soon passed the old trailhead with a hand-painted sign indicating hikers to use the newer path a further ten minutes up the shuttered road. It was after 11am when we our first footfall hit the soil of the overgrown trail. but we pushed on with determined drive through a forgotten thicket of planted cedar that rose straight up the spur without a single switchback. Using both our hands and feet for purchase, we literally crawled up the mountain like lions on the hunt for antelopes.

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Fortunately we soon reached a junction where the old trail met up with the main trail up the mountain, and the angle eased somewhat, the evergreen army yielding to a healthier and more diverse forest of aged hardwoods and beech. We picked our way over, under, and sometimes around a collection of felled trees blocking the path at regular intervals. No one had come along to do trail maintenance in quite some time, but despite the physical hindrances we made remarkably good time up the spur towards the ridge.

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The forest thinned out once we breached the 1500 vertical-meter mark, replaced by patches of wild grass punctuated by shards of granite rock anchored in place by towering columns of beech and hemlock. We climbed in a unison of smiles and delight, spellbound with the stark beauty of an island otherwise dominated by active volcanoes. Indeed, this mountain range seemed out of place, as if transplanted here from Shikoku by Izanagi in a fit of jealous rage.

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The spur eventually converged with the north-south ridge trail, marked by a sign indicating that the summit was only a five minute stroll away. So much for a leisurely walk along the ridge. A full traverse of the range is a preferred alternative to our rapid up-and-down assault on the mountain. The vistas towards neighboring Mt. Eboshi were blotted out by a bank of cloud, but through gaps in the mist to the north we could catch sight of the peaks of Miyazaki Prefecture. In fact, we were sitting directly on the border of the two prefectures, though Mt. Sobo, just twenty meters higher, lays claim to the highest point in Miyazaki.

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Under a cool, refreshing breeze we enjoyed our boxed lunch and shared our love of Japan’s mountains. My companions were all surprised to hear that I had finished scaling all of the Hyakumeizan and that I was attempting to touch down on the highest point of every prefecture. Their faces beamed with delight upon the news that the highest mountains of Saga and Fukuoka were still on my to-do list. “Let’s do them for sure,” claimed Tsubasa. It was here that I realized with the proper support and encouragement, these 47 mountains could indeed become a reality.

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Keiko spotted something out of the corner of her eye, injecting a single word into our jubilant conversation that had us craning our necks for a view. “Mogura“, she shouted, pointing in the direction of a nearby rock formation. We turned around just in time to see the elusive Japanese shrew-mole poke its head out of its hiding place before ducking back down for cover. It was my first and only time to see the primarily noctural animal up close and personal.

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Only when the clouds moved in and completely blotted out the views did we reluctantly retreat back to the warmth of the forest canopy. Instead of heading directly back down the way we came, we opted for the left fork along the old trail that was marked as “dangerous”. True to form, the path petered out at the top of a rocky precipice with no clear way down. Backtracking a bit, we dropped off the ridge and opted for the cedar plantation. We carefully picked our way through the maze of toppled trees, trying to halt the pull of gravity against our fatigued bodies and minds. It was sweaty, exhausting work, but eventually we did pick up the remnants of the path at the bottom of the cliffs and dropped back down to the forest road. Future hikers would be best served by heeding the warnings and sticking to the safety of the newer path.

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As promised, on the drive back we stopped off at the suspension bridge to stretch the muscles and to test our acrophobia. The bridge swayed under our weight as we bounced uneasily along the concrete footbridge. It was all in good fun, but we definitely knew that it would not be a good place to loiter in an earthquake. Fortunately, such seismic events were still a few years away from becoming a horrifying reality. As news of the powerful temblors reached the masses, the first people I contacted were my trusty trio of Kumamoto companions to make sure they are ok. With such devastating destruction, I fear that it may be quite some time before another hiker is allowed the privilege of setting foot on the roof of Kumamoto, and for that I feel both lucky by our timing and heartbroken by this new reality.

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Nestled snugly in the mountains of northern Kyoto Prefecture lies a peak by the name of Hyakuri, whose kanji represent 100 Li, or a hundred Chinese miles. The Li is an ancient unit of measurement equivalent to about half a kilometer in length, so this mountain refers to the unobstructed panoramic vistas of 50 kilometers in all directions. A clear weather mountain this would have to be, so once again I teamed up with Will, Mai, and Sota for a stable high pressure window in mid-May.

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We started our automobile journey from Demachiyanagi station, heading up the paved switchbacks past Ohara village and deeper into the Kitayama mountains. Just past Bomura village, we veered left and followed a narrow lane past dwellings in shambles and grossly overgrown cedar plantations. We reached the trailhead a couple of hours after setting off from the ancient capital, and aside from a few fallow fields and a handful of houses dotted along the narrow valley, there wasn’t much in the way of amenities. Remarkably, a minibus runs up to this secluded hamlet twice a day to shuttle the residents to the more populated areas of Shiga Prefecture to the east. As Will and company sorted through their kit, I shuffled off to one of the overgrown vegetable fields in order to provide some organic fertilizer. Relieved, I retreated back to the car and shouldered the gear.

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The trail followed a gravel forest road for a short distance before commencing the climb through a lush and healthy deciduous forest alive with the vibrant greenery of a new season. In Japanese, this annual phenomenon is referred to as shinryoku, and it attracts scores of hikers wanting to witness the power of the changing of the seasons before the caterpillars wreak havoc on the freshly sprouted foliage. On the beleaguered slops of Hyakkuri, however, there was hardly a sign of human intrusion, and the path, littered with fallen branches, looked as if no other hikers had been up here in quite some time. I prefer these untamed folds of mountains to the more frequented spires further east. Even on weekends, a lot of Japanese mountaineers tend to be lazy and stick to the slopes with the easiest access.

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The temperatures rose in conjunction with the altitude gain, forcing sweat out of our aching pores along the long, undulating ridge towards the broad summit of our target peak. It had been just a couple of weeks since knocking off Mt. Oike in the Suzuka range, and now that the antibiotics were now finished, I had an usual jolt of energy despite the balmy temperatures. Will, on the other hand, had been swamped with a new school year at his school and was embarking on his first hike of the green season, and the angle of the gradient appeared to be winning. He looked as if had just come out of the shower, while Sota, just shy of his 9th birthday, stuck little breaks in at every available opportunity. Still, these more leisurely ascents were a much-welcomed change from my usual breakneck pace, and with the glorious foliage and mouth-watering vistas, it was hard to wipe the smile off our faces.

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Just before reaching the junction to the Takashima trail, near the top of a long, relentless climb, we took our first real break of the day and fueled up on snacks for the final assault on the 931-meter peak. While it may not seem like much, you should never judge a mountain based on elevation alone, as Ted and I learned so painfully on Jyatani, a mountain scantly 30 meters lower than our current outing.

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We all felt a bit better once the perspiration evaporated and the carbs were converted into glucose. We shouldered the packs and turned right at the junction for the short but steep ascent to the high point. A few fixed ropes assisted in the more abrupt pitches of the beech-lined slopes, and shortly before the lunchtime chimes we basked in the sunshine on my 79th peak.

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The panoramic vistas were inspiring enough, but the lack of shade caused a bit of discomfort. Despite my negligible cravings for a hot drink, I brewed up a cup of steaming coffee to not only give me a bit of a caffeine kickstart, but also to help lower the weight of my pack by using up the reserves of my hot water thermos. I never carry a stove on day hikes, preferring the ease and timeliness of a portable jug of hot water I can pour over tea bags, coffee filters, or perhaps into the lid of an instant ramen container.

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Instead of retracing our steps back on the serpentine ridge, we spied an alternative loop down the old saba kaidō, a disused trade route linking the Sea of Japan to the ancient capital. This required a traverse further south along the Takashima trail that looked like a breeze on the map. Someone forgot to tell those Yama-to-keikoku cartographers about the incline, however, as the contour lines were spaced much too far apart to accurately represent the real lay of the land. We spent the better part of an hour in a tussle with gravity. Will, Mai, and Sota were running low on hydrogen-oxygen reserves, and with no water source in sight, we had to ration the remaining liquids to avoid being caught out dry. At the top of an unmarked peak, the four of us collapsed in a heap of sweat and exhaustion. Completing all 80 kilometers of the Takashima trail must require superhuman effort, or at least the assistance of a few porters who can carry your heavy loads. With no way of getting fresh water along the ridge itself, trekkers are forced to descend the rugged valleys in search of mountain streams.

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The path dropped abruptly to a junction on the remnants of an old forest road, a place called Negorizaka pass by the generations of travellers throughout the centuries. An aging, rotting shelter provided a relatively dry roof for a duo of jizo statues placed here long before hiking was a recreational sport. Adjacent to the structure, a stone sculpted to resemble an index finger stood at head height, the kanji characters carved into the lichen-smothered face too faded to clearly decipher. We had at last arrived on the saba kaidō, or the old ‘Mackerel Road’ as the westerners tend to call it.

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We veered off the Takashima trail here, turning left and following the eroded trail until it spit us out a short time later on a broad, paved lane that is popular with cyclists looking for some additional exercise. It’s a shame that so many of Japan’s old roads have been paved over in such careless manor, but I guess it kind of makes sense if you think about it. If I wanted to built a literal road to nowhere, what better place to start than a path that has already been forged through a rugged tract of mountain land.

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It took about an hour or so to reach the rustic village where we had parked the car. Fitting enough, it was Sota who had a call of nature upon our return, depositing his load in the woods in much the same way that I had christened the trail upon our ascent. With good ole 79 under my belt, I pored over the maps to scope out the next mountain victim before the onset of the rainy season.

 

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