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Archive for January, 2021

There’s a secret firefly viewing spot in the foothills of the Hoshida mountains. Known only to a few locals who venture out at dusk on humid June evenings, the hidden stream is one of the last untouched areas of Osaka Prefecture and a holdover to the bygone days when lightning bugs were once a common occurrence around the many streams that trickle down from Japan’s mountains. My second venture into the Hoshida range involves crossing this stream and following a dilapidated concrete road to a secluded reservoir ablaze in autumn color. I stare at the terrain and eventually spy what I am looking for: a narrow gap in the chain link fence leading to an even narrower path flanking the eastern edge of the pond.

This pond deserves further attention, for not only does it double as a reservoir for the residents living downstream, but it also serves as evidence that more than just modern mountaineers have been lured by the attractive appeal of the Hoshida region. Construction on the pond began in the early Taisho era, and during excavation work, fragments of pottery were discovered which date from the middle Jomon era roughly 4000 years ago. This caused a halt in construction work and further excavations that revealed dugout foundations suggesting that the early pioneers settled in these very hills. Today all that remains is a concrete marker commemorating the discovery, with the fragments relegated to the Osaka history museum and all else lost in the murk of the pond.

After absorbing the weight of this historical discovery, I duck under the fence and skirt the edge of an impressive escarpment before a gentle descent to reach the foot of nasubi-ishi no tani, or valley of the eggplant stone. The constricted gorge lies littered with toppled trees but a clear path is marked in tape and spends the first few minutes crisscrossing the stream until finally settling on the left river bank along the remnants of a proper path that has fallen into heavy disuse. In summer this must truly be a rat’s nest of overgrowth, but the cooler late autumn temperatures have transformed most of the weeds into a more manageable maze.

Bits of broken concrete appear beneath the moss, the remnants of a walkway that once chauffeured visitors up to the base of the falls. At a recently cleared section of bamboo grass, a stone grave sits precariously on the river bank. The kanji characters engraved in the face are too faded to make out clearly, but the engraving on the back side dates from 1946, so perhaps it was erected to commemorate a fallen war victim. Just behind the monument a fern-smothered stone wall shores up the hillside, possibly doubling as the foundation of a structure lost to time and the elements.

The path soon splits, with an impossibly steep trail forging straight ahead up a 50-degree slope towards the ridge, but it’s the trail branching off to the right that piques my interest. I turn here, grasping the fixed ropes on a dodgy traverse teetering on the edge of a dizzying drop to the stream below until reaching the base of eggplant rock waterfall. The water trickles over the top of the house-sized boulder, which, according to a map from the Edo era, resembles an eggplant due to the black fissures in the stone. These cracks are now lathered in moss and a verdant grove of ferns, feeling like they belong in the jungles of Iriomote rather than the hills of Hoshida. In a wet grotto near the base sits a weathered and somewhat abstract representation of Amida Nyorai, donning a red bib with the inscription Namu Amida Mutsu. The falls were once the mainstay of Shugendō practitioners, perhaps of the Tendai sect which might help to explain the Pure Land undertones. To further complicate matters, the waterfall also go by the name of Hijiri Taki, or Saint Falls, as evidenced by the white prayer tablet placed there by a member of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Rather than renegotiating that narrow traverse back to the main track, I spy an easier crossing that connects to the narrow north-south spur. At the spur junction, an easier path skirts the eastern face but I head straight up the spine, hoisting myself up to the summit of  ⑩ Mt Kōbōkyū (広望丘), which affords my first vistas of the day. I look down upon the valley I have just climbed, tracing the route through a gap in the trees back to the reservoir dam. A steel plate in the shape of a rugby ball has been affixed adjacent to the signpost, with a wooden mallet dangling below. I grasp the gavel and let it fly, sending a reverberating ring deep into the valley below.

As quickly as the trail reaches the summit, it descend to a saddle to the north and a junction to the uppermost reaches of the eggplant gorge. I forgo this route in favor of the ridge, which wastes no time in gaining altitude with a most-welcome addition of fixed ropes. Once again I hoist myself skyward like a sailor stepping the mast, taking care on the slippery sandstone scree where certain death awaits anyone who loses purchase on the tricky terrain. At the top of the spine the angle eases, coaxing me gently to the broad summit of ⑪ Mt Jigokudani (地獄谷山) or hell valley, which is certainly where you would end up if you stumbled off the eastern face. A grove of Mizuhara oak add a cheerful tinge of orange to the otherwise nondescript plateau.

I settle down for a bit of a snack, when the sound of a bear bell approaches. An elderly man in a brown ball cap lets out a jovial greeting, my first such encounter of a fellow hiker in the Hoshida range. After exchanging pleasantries, the white-haired hiker continues down the ridge I had just come up: I offer a cautionary word but he shrugs it off, obviously comfortable in this type of terrain. It never fails to amaze me the tenacity and vigor of Japan’s elderly. Most adults in other parts of the globe would be most content with a book and some knitting or a gentle game of bridge.

The track soon joins the main ridge of the Hoshida mountains: if I head left I can reconnect with the peaks from Chapter 1 of my saga, but instead I veer westward, down a series of rubber-coated wooden steps that double as a path for maintenance workers for the electrical pylons strung through the range. This leads me once again to the stream flowing towards the eggplant falls, where a metal bridge over the water teeters precariously on the brink of collapse, mostly likely caused by the 2018 Osaka earthquake. I somehow make it across the canted structure and head along the edge of a golf course and up to the opposite ridge along a path completely missing from my map. This 60-mountain challenge will certainly involve figuring out pieces of this geographical jigsaw puzzle.

A faint trail leads along a narrow spur for a short shuffle to ⑫ Mt Waribayashi (割林山) which translates as broken woods. This certainly lives up to its name as I keep to the ridge and over a series of toppled trees to reach a dead-end precipice. Scanning the forest for signs of safe passage, I can just make out a bit of blue among the ocherous foliage as I scuttle down to a saddle and scramble up to a parallel spur where the track continues to ⑬ Mt Nasubi-ishi (茄子石山) which sits directly above the waterfall of the same name, the very one I stood admiring just one hour prior. All seems quiet and forgotten up in these hills, like a left-behind item in the corner of an under-frequented boutique.

I turn around and follow the incredibly narrow spur back towards the mountains until confronted with a near-vertical headwall. If I ever meet the guardian angel who installed the fixed rope I will gladly buy them lunch, for without such climbing aids it would have been an exercise in futility. The footing here on the sandstone scree is once again of dubious quality and at several points in the ascent my life lays in the hands of the quality of the rope. I really don’t like putting all of my weight on these things, but with nothing else to grab I leave it up to fate.

The sigh of relief expelled from my battered body could surely be felt by anyone within a several kilometer radius had anyone bothered to be up here at such a late hour in the afternoon. Just fifty horizontal meters from this most unfitting of trail junctions lies one of the only mountains in the Hoshida range that affords a 270-degree view. With this in mind I propel myself to the top of ⑭ Mt Ichigaikaburi-no-se (一蓋被ノ嶺) and take in the stellar views out towards Kyoto. This peak is a favorite for locals wanting to experience the night view, but with no easy way of accessing the peak it would truly take some dedication to make it up here after dark.

With the bulk of today’s climb now behind me, I retrace my steps back to the depilated bridge near the start of eggplant valley and follow a path downstream to the incredibly shy Godan FallsI can hear the water splashing down from a rock formation but the view is smothered by toppled trees, leaf litter and other debris. Perhaps I should bring my hacksaw next time and do a bit of DIY trail maintenance. Robbed of a view of the waterfall, I keep to the right bank of the stream and soon rejoin the spur at the start of the fixed ropes below Mt Jigokudani. This time I skip the steep re-climb of Kōbōkyū in favor of the side traverse. These paths, called makimichi in Japanese, can be found on most ridge walks in Japan, for they offer an easier and lazier option for those who do not want to follow the undulating contours of the true ridge.

This shortcut trail soon terminates on the true ridge and I am forced to do the hard work on the surprisingly jagged spur. The path leads me up and over Densenoka (電閃丘). Despite being a proper peak, this summit does not feature in the Hoshida 60, probably because the pioneer who named this lookout point succumbed to a lightning strike if the literal meaning of the name is to be taken. The route takes me up and over an additional two unnamed peaks, each offering pleasant enough views before depositing me on the top of ⑮ Mt Asahi (旭山) and the unobstructed vistas to the east for the rising sun. It seems like a tempting place to view the first sunrise of 2021 if not for the lack of space. As I stand on the summit, a lone hiker climbs from below, continuing on the spur to lord knows where. With less than an hour of daylight left I hope he is at least carrying some form of illumination and is not relying on an electrical storm. 

The path from Asahi shoots down the western face to soon reconnect with the road just below the reservoir, hearby completing the loop and rounding out another 6 mountains off the once formidable list.

 

 

 

 

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The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) provides an online contour map of the entire country, allowing anyone to virtually explore the land with just the click of a mouse. The Hoshida 60 aren’t well-annotated on this electronic resource, appearing as just a contoured amoeba splattered on a low mountain range between a golf course and a series of housing projects. I take a screen shot and print out a blank map, together with a list of the mountains and my trusty GPS for the first excursions into the hither lands of Hoshida.

The footpath behind my house follows the Amanogawa river towards the northernmost section of the Ikoma mountain range. The river, named after the Milky Way, is loosely tied to the origins of Tanabata, a tradition brought to the Kansai region from China in the 8th century during the Nara period. Indeed, every July a festival commences on the banks of the very river I now pursue, though in the ‘new normal’ of COVID these celebrations are now currently on hold.

After heading upstream towards the mountains, I veer southwest, up and around the alleged hiding place of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the post-Nobunaga turmoil of the late 16th century. A small monument within the grounds of Myokenzaka Elementary school marks the bamboo forest in which Tokugawa and his army of followers sought refuge. The bamboo sways gently in the mid-autumn breeze as the path navigates through the sakura groves of Myokenzaka and into the deciduous forests of the Hoshida mountains.

I turn right at an unmarked trail that immediately shoots skyward. Grabbing tufts of exposed tree roots and overhanging branches, I pull myself up to the start of the undulating ridge of sandstone scree that make the Hoshida mountains so treacherous to traverse. The narrow ridge trail follows the contours of the land, and after 10 minutes I reach the summit of ① Mt Ishibashi (石橋山), the first of the Hoshida 60. I pause briefly on the summit of the 180m-high knob, catching glimpses of brilliant autumn foliage through a gap in the trees.

 

The path drops abruptly down the eastern face, climbing gently to ② Mt Nukutani-mine (抜谷嶺), a nondescript bump just a few minutes from Ishibashi. With two peaks already off the list, I continue on with an additional pep in my step, until coming head long into an impossibly steep scramble known as the Sōen korori. The scree here is relentless and some might say that a sheet of ice would have better purchase then this gritty mess of a mountain face, but I somehow manage to avoid tumbling into the depths and reach the summit of ③ Mt Sōen (宗円山). I pause here for my first rest of the day, wiping the sweat from my brow and poring over the map to figure out the remainder of today’s course. With so many options to choose from, I spy a loop hike back to Myokenzaka via a spur track a bit further down the ridge.

A short traverse on the undulating ridge leads to ④ Mt Minami-Sōen (南宗円山), where the track drops to a saddle and a flattened drainage area littered with freshly fallen leaves. The shoulder of the broad trail is marred by the foraging tusks of wild boar, resembling a roughly plowed vegetable field as the nocturnal creatures dig for sustenance without a care in the world. This section of forest is truly peaceful and hard to believe that it’s part of my neighborhood. I prefer these unknown swaths of forest any day over some of the terribly overrun trails of the Hyakumeizan. My only fear is that some budding author will publish a guidebook to the Hoshida 60 and that every pensioner will swarm in looking for that magic pot of mountaineering gold.

I soon reach a junction for a spur track leading to Umaki. I turn left, leaving the main ridge behind and immediately commence a steep climb on a narrow, untrodden spur toward the skyline. Without the aid of fixed ropes, I am forced to rely on what nature has provided: scrambling over toppled logs and grasping onto unsteady roots as if my very life depended on it. It is truly amazing that such treacherous mountaineering can be found at just an elevation of 200 vertical meters.

At the top of the abrupt scent sits the narrow summit of ⑤ Mt Umaki-mine (馬木嶺), dominated on the southern face by a massive oak tree toppled by the forces of typhoon Jebi back in 2018. Many of the mountain trails in Kansai still bear the scars of damage from this massive storm. Sometimes I feel that I should just take matters into my own hands and carry a hacksaw on my hikes and clear the paths one rotting log at a time. The scar created by the downed tree creates a gap in the tree cover, affording my first views of Mt Atago, which is unfortunately engulfed in a smoggy haze.

The trail splits here, and I initially take the wrong spur on a heavily eroded section of ridge that forces me down on all fours. I soon halt my progress, check the GPS, and retrace my steps back to Umaki, finding the correct track in a narrow gap under the toppled tree. I scuttle down an intense field of gritty scree, soon reaching a gap in the ridge at an eroded saddle. Too broad to leap across, I instead turn around and lower myself feet first to the bottom and bound up the other side for yet another abrupt scramble to the top of ⑥ Mt Jizōtani (地蔵谷山), where I once again pause to catch my breath, for these mountains are providing a surprising workout.

The trail continues from here down off the mountains, but it is too early to call it quits, so I retrace my steps up and over Mt. Umaki and back to the main ridge, where an unmarked path drops to a secluded valley. A stream crossing is made easier with a set of metal staircases, likely installed by Kansai Electric in order for maintenance workers to reach the electrical pylons lining the Hoshida range as if to remind visitors of Japan’s conquering of nature. As expected, the ascent up the opposite slope is sharp and unforgiving, and the sound of voices in the distance gives me pause. I turn around and stare down directly into the fairway of the Shijōnawate golf course. Only in Japan would you find a golf course built in such unforgivable terrain, relegated to land unfit for housing or agriculture.

 

I push on, above the chatty linksmen and into the dizzying heights of 266 meter-high ⑦ Mt Ōtani (大谷山), my high point for the day. The ridge here has seen much more foot traffic, as it sits on the edge of the Hoshida Enchi, a public park dominated by a massive concrete suspension bridge that somehow attracts the Instagram crowds. Here I am faced with two options: either head south along the ridge for the ascent of 7 more of the Hoshida 60 or loop back toward my home with just one more peak in between. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I opt for the latter and start salivating at the thought of a warm lunch inside the comforts of home.

 

Turning north on the narrow ridge, I soon pass by an electrical pylon and stick to the heights, reaching  ⑧ Mt Koban-no-mine (小判ノ嶺) a short time later. The track here is overgrown, as not many hikers opt for the strenuous up-down of the mountain tops. Pushing through bamboo grass, I continue over a series of unnamed knobs and drop off the ridge to my right on an unmarked track that leads to Hoshida Enchi. I cross over a rope and ‘Do Not Enter’ sign draped across the narrow track I had just descended. Apparently the upper reaches of the mountains are outside of the park jurisdiction, as the city does not want clueless tourists to wander on these treacherous ridge lines and rightfully so – despite my status as Hyakumeizan alumnus, I would rate the Hoshida 60 for experts only due to the their exposure, the loose footing on the gritty sandstone, and the necessity to possess advanced route-finding skills.

 

Having visited this park numerous times since relocating to Katano city, I find myself in familiar terrain and simply turn left on the well-maintained trail down to complete the loop. After a brisk 30-minute descent, I reach the fork I took earlier in the morning for Mt Ishibashi and cruise back to home in time for lunch – or so I thought. Spurred on by the temptation of one more peak, I veer off the main road and enter the precincts of Hoshida Myoken Gu, an 8th century sanctuary that was purportedly built by Kukai to commemorate a meteorite that landed on the summit of the mountain. I march up the steps to the back entrance of the shrine and climb an unmarked trail behind a sub-shrine for the short scramble to the summit of ⑨ Mt Myōken (妙見山) to complete the ennead.

 

 

 

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