With the cold winter now a distant memory, the spring gales of early April brought a stable climbing window for my final mountain of the Kumano region. Steeped in tradition and tales of long-lost samurai, the peak of the sleeping rat called forth like a maneki neko cat. With Ayako set to move out of Shingu in just a few weeks, it was my last chance to knock off the mountain that lies the greatest horizontal distance from Osaka. Most trekkers opt for an overnight stay, but with a bit of preplanning, I had a window of a couple of hours in which to summit the peak. Time would be of the essence.
It took nearly 4 hours by the fastest train to reach the terminus at Shingu station, but Ayako greeted me with a cheerful smile as I disembarked and stretched out my sore bottom. The lunchtime bells had already rung as she eased the vehicle up the switchbacks to the start of the modest hike. In order to save time, I devoured calories in the passengers seat while studying the maps: it looks like we could just make it up and back before the final train back to Osaka, which left Shingu just before 6pm.
The trail was marked by a metal ladder scaling a concrete retaining wall on the northern edge of the narrow forest road. A broad shoulder on the access road afforded space for a couple of cars, but on this quiet Saturday afternoon there was not another hiker in sight. Perhaps the bulk of visitors opt for the cooler temperatures of the autumn, when the lush foliage transforms into brilliant hues of crimson and pumpkin. Our hike started out with a bang, for less than 10 meters into our ascent, a meter-long rat snake presented itself as if it were offering a guided tour up the slopes. If it weren’t for my trekking pole leading the way, I surely would have trampled directly on its back, but luckily it slithered away into the safe confines of a moss-covered boulder. Perhaps this was the origin of the name Nenotomari – a dragon could have haunted these steep slopes in the ancient times, gobbling up rodents offered by the frightened villagers who tracked up to appease the fierce giant. Or perhaps not.
The path switchbacked through the a damp cedar forest lathed with moss and toppled trees, but as soon as the ridge was breached the deforestation waned and gave way to a healthy mixed-leaf forest teeming with songbird and dotted with freshly-fallen camellia flowers. It was a pleasant stroll along the undulating ridge, through a tunnel of trees just beginning to sprout their annual coat of green. Claw marks on one of the bigger hemlock trees served as a reminder that it is still very much a black bear habitat, but exact numbers of the dwindling creatures remain to be seen. Sightings are few and far between, and hikers who don their bear bells serve no other purpose than to squander any chances of seeing Japan’s unique fauna up close.
Soon we reached a junction for the old route from Asama shrine. This route was victim to a landslide a few years ago and has fallen out of use. The track passes right over a towering cliff edge that has taken the lives of a few hikers throughout the years who have had the misfortune of losing their footing. Not wanting to tempt fate, we ignored this side trail to the cliffs and continued straight on towards our target peak. The ridge was simply stunning in the muted light of early afternoon. Exposed tree roots crisscrossed the ridge like a network of blood vessels of an emaciated child, while mossy rocks the size of suitcases lay strewn about in an chaotic fashion, as if placed intentionally by deranged minefield engineers.
Chaos was interrupted in regular intervals by stacks of neatly-placed boulders, each placated by a namecard with the suffix tsuka, the character for grave. One such marker caught my eye: the grave of 75 people, but what could it mean? Was there some kind of plane crash or slaughter on these slopes?
A bit of digging on-line revealed that during the 12th century Genpei War, scores of samurai lost their lives in these hills, and villagers trekked up to these slopes to build these monuments to commemorate their legacies. It is difficult to tell whether there are skeletal remains buried under the rocks, but one thing is for sure: it would be an eerie place to loiter around after dark, so we kept moving in order to keep that hypothesis untested.
As the path rose towards the summit plateau, our heart sank in shock when the trail met up with a dirt logging road, where the woods turned back into that banal network of cedar and cypress. I was just about to elevate Nenotomari into my top 10 list of Kansai mountains, but such careless destruction meant the peak would be downgraded from business to economy class. We followed this road for a short time, opting to stay just off the road on the deciduous side of the ridge. If we looked strictly to our right side we could almost ignore the destruction on our left for the final push to the high point. The summit plateau afforded vistas like no other in this part of Wakayama. Directly behind us, due south, the aquamarine waters of the Pacific Ocean sat calmly along the edge of the rocky shores, while the southern section of the Omine mountains followed the flows of the Kumano river before terminating abruptly at Hongu shrine. A vast panorama spread out to the northwest as well, towards the Ooto mountain range that contained a pair of peaks remaining on the list.
In a wooden box resembling a bird house, there sat a binder containing a mountain register. As we flipped through the pages, a set of roman characters stood out from the crowd of Japanese characters lining the parchment. Apparently on January 21st 2015, a one Robert De niro, from the United Stats America (sic), visited this prominent peak. I suppose that some Japanese hikers do have a sense of humor, or could it be that Travis Bickle himself felt obliged to pay his respects to the lost rats of the world?
Every 12 years, this mountain is flooded with visitors paying their respects during the Year of the Rat. With the next rat year forecast for 2020, future climbers have just 3 more years of solitude before the zodiac hunters once again come calling. In fact, if you look at every sign of the Chinese Zodiac, you can be pretty sure as to which mountains will be crowded with each coming year. Take the current year of the monkey for instance. I, for one, would not climb Mt. Sanage in Aichi Prefecture anytime during 2016.
After taking in the wonderful views, we retreated back to the car without incident. The rat snake had once again gone into hiding, and there were no paranormal activities around the mass graves lining the track. Back in Shingu, we had time for a quick coffee before I caught the final train of the evening back to Osaka. With all of the Kumano mountains now finished off,I would really need to find another excuse to come back to the area. I’m sure it won’t take long for another mountain to come and present itself.