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Archive for September, 2018

Mt. Kiku – The Messenger

“And this is where Kiku cut off her hair before continuing on to Osaka Castle to relay an important message to Toyotomi Hideyoshi”, explains Nishina-san, a local expert on the 17th century legend regarding the origin of the peculiar pine tree gracing the summit of Mt. Kiku in southern Osaka Prefecture. “Is this the original tree?”, I inquire, knowing full well that this pine lacks the girth common among its centuries-old ancestors. Nishina, in his matter-of-fact tone common for this part of the prefecture, snaps back: “Oh no, that one dried out long ago.”

My excurison starts a few hours earlier on the JR Hanwa line bound for Wakayama Prefecture. I alight just one stop south of Izumisano station, within eye and earshot of Kansai airport. It is these foothills that the new arrivals glimpse as the plane makes its final approach to the island runway. The Kiku mountains, rising to just under 400 vertical metres, are hardly giants, but one should not judge a mountain by its height but more by what lies on its slopes.

And what wondrous slopes lay before me. The rural byway skirts past a light industrial area before meandering through newly-planted rice fields to reach the grounds of Ogami shrine, a small Shinto sanctuary built in the Kasuga style of the Muromachi period. Despite the favorable weekend weather, the buildings lay dormant, the locals too reluctant to venture out in the 30-degree heat. I push on, crossing under the Hanwa Expressway until reaching the shores of Shintakino Reservoir. The crystal blue waters entice me for a closer look, and the shaded benches overlooking the elongated fingers of the pond pull me in. Sweat pours from my head, swabbed not by the soft folds of a towel but with the bottle of frozen Aquarius sports drink I managed to grab at the station.

The rolling contours of the ridge flank the eastern sides of the pond, so I continue following the forest road until it turns to mountain track. The shaded trail initially follows a stream but soon breaks out of the foliage through a grassy meadow. I pause, my ears drawn to the distinctive drone of insects. There’s something oddly familiar, somehow friendly about their tones. Rather than the menacing helicopter buzz of the giant hornets, these are warmer, more subtle hues reminiscent of a Cluster & Eno tune. The source of the drone soon presents itself in the form of a very active honeybee farm, bees flying hither and tither but paying their sudden intruder no interest as they forage the surrounding fields for nectar.

Fern-blanketed swaths of cedar dominate the next section of track, but are soon replaced by a healthy forest of hardwoods and red pine as the incline steepens to the summit ridge. The heat and humidity have sent my pores into overdrive, dollops of sweat trickling down my forehead provide bait for the insects darting in for a sip of salty saline. Despite being so close to the airport, the only other visitors are the local residents suspended across the path, waiting to catch those six-legged helicopters that I have helped to stir up. My swift movement wreaks havoc on their intricate webs, sweat now mixed with sticky silt and perhaps a spider or two whose reaction time is a bit too slow to avoid my intrusion. My trekking poles double as a web swatter as I navigate the undulating slopes of the narrow ridge deeper into Kiku’s folds.

Long strands of clear string cling to trees on eastern edge of the path, cordoning off large sections of forest like the yellow tape of a crime scene. A crime indeed, if trespassers are caught making off with prized matsutake mushrooms, a local delicacy whose tasty morsels can fetch hundreds of dollars in local markets. Fortunately picking season isn’t until the autumn, so I have no worry of being mistaken for a poacher.

A pair of steep climbs lead to false summits, tricking me each time into thinking that I had arrived at the top. The crest of the third hill does reach the summit signpost and lone pine tree. Mr. Nishina sits on a bench, resting under the shade of a small oak tree. He has come to check on the status of the famed sasayuri flowers blanketing the summit slopes. “You’ve come at a good time”, he remarks, pointing to the bamboo lilies in full bloom. I ask about chrysanthemum, an obvious ode to the Mt. Kiku name, but Nishina corrects my suppositions by explaining the legend of princess Kiku and her magic mane.

Nishina wears a pair of binoculars in his left hand and curiosity once again gets the better of me. “Follow me”, orders my guide as he takes off through an opening in the dense undergrowth. The path is marked irregularly by bits of red tape affixed to the deciduous trees as we leave the summit plateau and head north of a narrow flank of ridge. After 10 minutes we reach a clearing overlooking a towering electricity pylon several stories high. “Here, have a look”, Nishina explains.

At the top of the tower sits a broad nest with a large raptor attending to two young chicks. “This is the Ōtaka”, explains Nishina, “an endangered bird in Osaka Prefecture”. Apparently numbers of this ‘big hawk’ have decreased drastically since Osaka was firebombed during the war. It is only in these undisturbed highlands of the Izumi range that these birds of prey still remain. Since it is my first Ōtaka sighting, I ask for a translation – “Umm, it’s a Japanese Osprey”, comes the reply, between fits of laughter between both of us, as we know the only osprey in Japan are the ones making crash landings in the waters off the coast of Okinawa.

It turns out this species of bird is the Northern goshawk, graceful in flight with a penchant for snagging whatever it can grasp in its sharp claws. After watching the raptor for nearly half an hour, we retreat back to the summit and hike down together. It turns out that Nishina is a caretaker of the mountain, sharing his duties with a dozen other local residents who take turns grooming the hiking paths and checking on the flora and fauna.

The mountain path merges onto a gravel forest road which leads to a network of ubiquitous paved roads sloping towards Osaka Bay. We walk together, talking of life in Sennan city, a place that seems to operate according to its own rules. One such place is the dwelling of Mr. Morita, a retired truck driver who has set up a makeshift abode of connected trailers surrounding an outdoor living/kitchen area. He offers me a cup of instant coffee and beckons me over to a row of sun-bleached sofas. “You can stay here tonight if you want”, offers my new host, pointing to a trailer in the rear that doubles as a guest bedroom. In back of the living space, an overgrown yard is home to a family of goats, who bloated bellies attest to no lack of nutrients on the fertile soil of these highlands. Morita spends the summers cruising Hokkaido in his camper van, while Nishina looks after his goats. You’ll find pockets of these alternative folk scattered throughout Japan, hiding out in plain sight while secretly giving a finger to the LDP and the bureaucratic types running the country into the ground. I’m just glad that I was given a glimpse into a side of Japan that most never have a chance to experience.

 

 

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12:15pm

The asphalt sizzles slightly as I follow route 22 northeast past the campus and along the edge of a deserted suburban collection of overpriced dwellings. Rows of planted keyaki trees provide  protection from the blazing midday sun shimmering off the pavement. Cars whizz by, oblivious to the lonely foot soldier on his march to freedom.

12:45pm

I make good work on the elevated protection of the sidewalk, following along steadily through the rolling hills to a busy intersection flanked by chain restaurants and a sprawling Kuroneko distribution center. Here I head west onto National Highway 302, a busy thoroughfare cutting straight through the northern tip of the Ikoma mountain range. A narrow sidewalk offers safe passage briefly before giving way to a narrow shoulder barely the width of a sneaker. These roads were not designed for foot traffic.

1:00pm

Trucks whizz by just inches from my scrunched-up shoulders as I climb higher into the hills. On normal days, vehicles use this road to gain access to the expressway, but due to the quake the highways are all closed: the car navigation systems have somehow rerouted all of the transport trucks along this typically quiet section of Kyoto Prefecture. At the top of a crest I reach Kawachi-tōge, flanked on the east by the glistening chimney of a garbage incineration plant. Here I cross over into Osaka Prefecture and return to the comforts of a wide sidewalk.

1:05pm

After 50 meters I reach a fully stocked 7-11 and enter the air-conditioned space. First on my list is sunscreen, followed by a cold sports drink and a few snacks. The interior seems to have come through the quake with very little noticeable damage, though I suspect that the diligent staff had already finished cleaning up the mess before I arrive.

1:45pm

The route climbs gently before leveling off at the mountain ridge for a short while. Here I pass by two in suits walking in the opposite direction: they too have taken to foot due to the utter meltdown of the train system. Thick forests give way to broad rice fields and vistas across the Hirakata plain and directly towards the quake epicenter. I make note of the lack of smoke on the horizon, a reminder that things could have been a lot worse.

2:00pm

Route 302 ducks under the Dai-ni Keihan Expressway and back into familiar territory. After reaching the JR train tracks I turn south and follow quieter streets towards Tsuda station. I notice my first signs of damage: kawara roof tiles lay in shattered fragments among crumbly leaf litter and cigarette butts. Street smarts start to kick in, though it not muggers that I am afraid of encountering. Instead, I study my surroundings carefully, planning out a possible path of escape should a strong aftershock send the electrical lines directly overhead into a free fall.

2:20pm

I arrive at Tsuda station, only to find the entrance cordoned off. There will be no shortcuts back to my house by train – I am committed to my own foot power. I continue south until spotting a torii gate snapped in two. My curiosity gets the better of me and I enter the shrine grounds. Beyond the gate lay the toppled remains of a giant tōrō lantern, a seismic ode to Stonehenge if you will. I step around the obstacle and exit out the rear of the grounds through another off-balance torii gate teetering on collapse.

3:00pm 

Continuing south, I now enter the familiar grounds of the Jingūji vineyards. To my great surprise, an elderly woman sits patiently at her stall, peddling stacks of freshly harvested grapes. I stop in for a chat and end up buying a couple of kilograms of Delaware grapes to bring back to Kanako and to my neighbors. I know they have probably been through a rough day so it seems like the best remedy to calm frail nerves.

3:45pm 

I finally reach my neighborhood and navigate around fallen debris and into Kanako and Ibuki’s waiting arms. All of my neighbors are outside, conversing about the rough start to the work week. We all have our own stories, especially those stuck in Osaka city who, like me, had to improvise their way home. As we chat, with smiles of relief for everyone safely accounted for, the pavement beneath our feet rises up-and-down as if we are all standing on a trampoline. A magnitude 4 aftershock sends vertical seismic waves through our bodies. Little do we know that the coming weeks are about to become a whole lot shakier.

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