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Archive for the ‘Chuugoku hikes’ Category

I’ve been following Ojisanjake’s enthralling blog about the hidden gems of unfamiliar Japan for since its inception back in 2007.

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During that time, there were only a handful of on-line sites focusing on the beauty of rural Japan, and the timeless images and attentive descriptions struck a chord with my prolific excursions deep into Japan’s mountains. Our correspondence has continued to this day, and Kanako and I have even visited his tiny hamlet sitting snugly against the rugged mountains of Shimane Prefecture. However, we had yet to do a walk together until I mentioned a desire for an autumn climb of Mt. Sanbe, an ancient volcano sitting literally in Jake’s backyard. The freewheelin’, mask-making wanderer used this trip as an opportunity to visit a few temples on the Iwami 33 Kannon Pilgrimage route before making a late afternoon ascent on Sanbe’s conical slopes.

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I spent most of the chilly autumn day just getting to the trailhead. The cheetah dashes of a Shinkansen train whisked me along to Okayama station, where a turtle’s crawl through the interior of the prefecture spit me out nearly 4 hours later in Oda city. I retreated to the nicotine-stained walls of a local coffee shop for a late lunch of curry and rice before boarding the bus to the starting point of the hike: the particular bus I boarded stopped at all four approaches to the volcanic massif, but I chose to assault the peak from the southwest, unaware that my companion was trudging up the switchbacks on the opposite side of the mountain.

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The bus stop was home to a modest visitor’s center and restaurant, as well as a parking lot full of cars. In the fields of susuki grass just across the road, dozens of junior high school students meandered through the maze in a dress rehearsal for the following day’s sports festival. Since there were no water sources on the mountain, I set off in search of that nourishing mixture of two parts hyrogen, one part oxygen that would sustain me for the next couple of days. The faucets of the restroom warned visitors not to partake of the tap water in these parts, so I shuffled through the gear, feeding 1000 bills into the vending machines until I had small arsenal of 500 ml bottles that I clumsily strapped to my 40-liter rucksack. Time check: 4pm and counting.

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I ducked in and out of the overgrown grass like a soldier on a combat mission, pausing to let the students pass by on their training runs. The fields petered out into a radiant canopy of deciduous trees ablaze in color. The late afternoon sun filtered through the leaves, creating soft patches of gold on the green quilt of the forest floor.

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I worked my way through the switchbacks that climbed to meet the setting sun. Each turn in the trail affording sneak peeks of the endless folds of mountains fading away to the horizon as the winds pushed in from the north. As the forests gave way to grasslands I sat perched on an bald patch of rock, emptying one water bottle while forcing an almond-and-chocolate concoction down my esophagus in an attempt to kick start the engines. I was pooped from the nearly relentless climb and hoped to beat the setting sun to the summit.

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The angle abated, spitting me out into a vast volcanic plateau of golden grass and rolling plains. I spotted a lone figure strolling on the summit directly in front of me. “Jake”, I shouted, jarring the figure out of his transfixed pose as I quickened the pace to greet my long-awaited companion. It turns out he had beat me to the summit by mere minutes as we took in the spectacle of light spreading out to the west. On the exposed tips of the 1100-meter high perch, dark cloud and fiery gusts flowed unimpeded from the Sea of Japan coast, a warning that foul weather was about to overtake our position. Our plans for an open bivy were abandoned in favor of the pristine and deserted emergency hut a few minutes stroll from the high point. We sought refuge, arriving just seconds before the heavens opened up. Praising our impeccable timing, we rolled out the sleeping gear while boiling water for dinner.

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The rain quickly turned to sleet, bouncing off the tin roof like gravel ricocheting through the spokes of a bicycle. We checked the progress of the stubborn tempest every few hours, as the ice started settling on the veranda of the hut. Occasionally the racket would subside as the sleet turned to snow, only to return a few minutes later with even greater vengeance. What Sanbe had done to piss off mother nature we never knew, but we thanked our lucky stars for the kind saint that built the summit hut in what was turning out to be a potential emergency.

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Sometime during the night the storm passed, leaving a stillness that sat heavy in the early morning hours. At daybreak we were a bit anxious to open the door to see what present the storm had left for us. Our anxiety turned to relief when finding only a few centimeters of accumulation in the pre-dawn fog that enveloped the mountain. Patches of blue sky faded in and out of the white mess. I boiled water for hot drinks and prepared to meet the coming day.

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Leaving the kit behind, we strolled up to the high point to be met by the awakening rays of first light shimmering off a sea of white cloud floating above the gilded valleys below. We spent the next hour or so racing from peak to peak, looking for the perfect vantage point to capture the dazzling light show laid out before us.

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Though pictures can capture the scenery, there are  no words to describe the feelings of peace and joy flowing through our veins in the stillness of the soft November air.

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Once the best of the early light had passed, we ate a few nibbles of nourishment before shouldering the packs and dropping off the northern face to a mountain pass just below the dormant cinder cone of Mt. Ko-Sanbe. Jake let out curses cloaked in a thick Welsh draw during the hour-long knee knocking descent as I forged a trail through the crimson forest down the path of least resistance.

Both of us were relieved to find the trail a bit more manageable at the junction, where we slipped down to the open fields that I had tramped through the previous afternoon. We caught an early morning bus back to Oda and the slow train over to Gotsu, where I caught a few hours rest before attending an all-night Kagura festival deep in the mountains near Miyoshi in Hiroshima.

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All in all it was an invigorating outing in the volcanic highlands of rural Japan and a wonderful glimpse into the unfamilar Japan that Ojisanjake continues to introduce to avid readers of his influential blog.

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Kanako and I woke up at 6am, shuffling around the room trying to figure out what gear we needed for our early morning climb. The sky looked a bit hazy, with soft light filtering through a thin blanket of high atmospheric cloud. After a modest breakfast, we dropped our extra gear in the lobby of the shukubo and strolled off towards the start of the mighty volcano. The monk told us a bath would be waiting upon our return, so we had good reason to stay within schedule before the afternoon bus.

The initial climb past Amida temple was a breeze, thanks in part to the large stone steps that soon gave way to wooden steps. These climbing aids soon vanished into the deep snowpack, however, and the kick-step march to the ridge line commenced. The path was hardly deserted, as the clear weather and start of Golden Week brought out the first significant crowds of the year. Safety in numbers I suppose, as long as someone above doesn’t trigger a snowslide!

The cold, wet slush permeated through my well-worn footwear, soaking my merino wool socks well before the 5th stagepoint. Now wasn’t the time to ponder a new pair of shoes, but I wondered if that Montbell shop in the valley below could perhaps deliver gear to the mountain? Now that would be service worth payting for! Kanako and I continued our death march will increased rigor once we were above the trees. Reaching the concrete bunker of a hut at the 6th stagepoint, we caught our first glimpse of the intricately rocky edifice of Daisen’s serpentine figure. Impressive.

Daisen is no stranger when it comes to signposts, as every 100 meters of elevation gain is clearly marked as if to taunt you to a time-trial. I can’t help thinking if these landmarks were put there to help with mountain rescues, or perhaps for groups to scribble in their meticulous notebooks: “reached 1400m at 7:42am. Rested for 3 minutes and 27 seconds. 3 komakusa flowers spotted.”. It kind of takes the fun out of climbing, don’t you think?

It was right around this 1500m mark that I’d made a stark realization. I could barely see down to the village where we started, which was only about 2 kilometers away. The Sea of Japan and Yonago city? Competely enveloped in this yellowish haze. “Wait a minute,” I thought “this is kousa!” For those who don’t live in Japan, every spring the country in inundated with sand blowing from the deserts of China. It picks up pollutants on its way through the mainland and deposits them in Korea and Japan. Usually this aeolian dust occurs in early to mid March, not in early May! I erroneously thought that the strong winds from the previous storm would blow all the pollutants further east, not bring more with it. Although I’d timed the weather perfectly, I’d forgotten to factor in the yellow sand.

Oh well, we might as well enjoy the snow at least. The fearless couple pushed on, reaching the wooden planks just below the summit of Misen. Soon the hut came into view, still half-buried under the winter snows. Several dozen people rested on the platforms of Daisen’s bald summit. We picked a place as far away from the smokers as possible before digging into our lunch boxes. Even though it was much better than my first time around, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of disappointment for not getting good visibility. We didn’t even bother with the knife edge ridge to Ken-ga-mine, as there wasn’t enough snow and the cloud was threatening to come in. Still, being here was much better than sitting in the middle of the city.

The time to descend was once again upon us, so we decided to put on our crampons. We’d done fine enough without them on the climb, but wanted a little extra grip for the downward journey. Scrambling back to the emergency bunker at the 6th stagepoint, I peered over the edge towards the steep, desolate gully. I motioned over to Kanako, who quickly joined me as I started kick-stepping a zig-zag path down the 50 degree slope. I ignored the shouts from the others on the ridge line, who obviously underestimated my abilities. I’d already checked out this path during my recon mission the previous day, and the scuff marks proved my initial thoughts, that others had used this gully as a climbing route. Sticking to the beech trees in case of avalanche, I carved a navigable path, hopping from tree to tree while my trusty partner quickly followed suit.

Once the slope eased a bit, I headed out to the main chute and kick-stepped a route straight down. Kanako, obviously bored with my delicate hoof prints, came swooshing past in full glissade mode, trekking pole raised above her head and a gigantic grin on her face. “Two can play at this game”, I shouted, lowering myself into her chute path and quickly overtaking the fearless leader. I was gaining speed quickly through the melted mush, but kept in control long enough to snap a few photos.

At the bottom of the avalanche chute, I looked back at the ground we’d covered: 200 vertical meters in less than 10 minutes. Through the trees we spotted the emergency hut I’d discovered yesterday, where we stopped for lunch. My backside was completely soaked, including the entire contents of my wallet, but the slidding was well worth the drawbacks.

Soon enough, we arrived back at the shukubo, where I hung my clothes out to dry in the sun. We even had time for a quick cup of coffee and the cafe we’d visited the previous day, before boarding the bus back to Yonago. Our onward journey took us to Tottori and its sand dunes, but the thoughts of Daisen’s unforsaken rocks remained. A winter ascent is awfully tempting….

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“So, where do you want to go for Golden Week?”, I nonchalantly whispered to my ever-patient wife. I already knew what the answer would be before the words left her mouth: “The mountains, of course”. How could I top last Golden Week, when we frolicked on the snow-covered slopes of Zao’s mighty figure? Perhaps an impressive volcano a little closer to home, I creatively thought. Then it hit me: why not take a second stab at Daisen, a peak where I had absolutely no time to appreciate. I bought the bus tickets, booked the shukubo for 2 nights, and studied photos of the snow-filled gullies. The stage was set for the rematch with Tottori’s highest peak.

We boarded exactly the same bus I’d taken nearly a decade earlier, arriving around 2:30 in the afternoon. Thunder boomed overhead as the winds picked up and the clouds looked as if they’d release their water-soaked pores at any moment. We ducked into the visitor’s center to pick up free maps and inquire about climbing conditions. Wandering out of the shelter of the warm building, we both marveled at the slopes of the mighty volcano, still free of cloud cover despite the encroaching storm. Intimidating from this angle indeed, as most mountains usually are when wrapped in a blanket of white. We pushed on up the main street, passing by shuttered storefronts that had clearly seen better days. Just before the gate of Daisenji, we found our accommodation snuggling next to a giant Cryptomeria tree. In spite of the place being deserted, the monk in charge cheerily greeted us and showed us to a large room tucked away on the 2nd floor of the aging compound. We had a birds-eye view of Daisen from our window, the perfect place to assess conditions for our impending climb.

Once unpacked, we slipped out and through the main gate of Daisenji, climbing the steep set of stone stairs to the main building. The rain started as if to say hello, but quickly retracted its greeting as soon as I raised the umbrella. Drenching worshipers certainly wasn’t on Mother Nature’s mind at the moment. We rang the ancient temple bell and continued climbing on the stone path towards Okamiyama Shrine. The snow lay in deep pockets all around, elegantly stroking the curves of the ancient pilgrimage route. We reached the shrine, praying to the mountain gods for a safe ascent. The clouds, while looking ever-menacing, failed to deposit their payload of rain. Kanako and I retreated down the valley, spying a well-hidden spur that led to an incredible lookout of the valley below Daisen’s unworldly slopes. We chatted with a semi-professional photographer from Hiroshima before returning to the confines of the shukubo and its hot spring waters.

After feasting on traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine, we settled in for a bizarre night of observing nature’s wrath. The winds had picked up 10-fold, shaking the entire building with each powerful gale. Each fit of sleep would be abruptly severed by the vibrations of the window panes clattering in their worn frames. We somehow survived until the obscenely early breakfast sitting at 6:30am. The approaching low-pressure system had not only brought the winds, but also the cloud. Daisen was fully socked-in, and we abandoned all hope of attempting the summit before we even started. Kanako and I did the only logical thing: we climbed back into our futon!

Shortly before noon, the hunger pangs rustled me out of my slumber and I soon found myself shaking Kanako back to reality. I’d studied the free maps we’d received the previous day and was keen on checking out a hidden trail before lunch time. The path skirted the edge of Daisenji temple before dropping to the river. Swollen by the spring thaw, I managed to find a safe crossing a few meters upstream, while Kanako meticulously examined my technique. Once across, she quickly followed suit, using her Taichi skills to help keep her balance on the precarious rocks. The path quickly vanished into the snow, but I eventually figured out where the path should go if there weren’t any snow around. We’d left the crampons back in our room, but we took turns kick-stepping before finally arriving at Amida temple. Just before the main building, we crossed the trail we’d be taking the following morning if the weather decided to give us a chance. Two defeated hikers slowly descended from the slopes above. They’d made it just above the 5th stagepoint before abandoning their summit attempt. We knew we’d make the right decision.

Back in town, we feasted on noodles before checking out the massive new Montbell shop that opened within the last few years. Built to capitalize on the yama girl boom, the shop was filled with young ladies trying on down skirts, windbreakers, and other fashionable outdoor goods. They even had their own limited-edition Daisen shirts that were only being sold at this particular Montbell branch. It’ impressive how quickly some companies can adapt to a changing customer base.

The next stop was a rustic temple that had been converted into a wonderful cafe with outstanding coffee and delicious sweets. The cloud outside continued to get thicker, as visibility dropped down to only 1 meter. The kind owner told us about the changing face of Daisen: “30 years ago, there were nearly a dozen different shukubo accommodating the Buddhist pilgrims, but now there’s only one. Most visitors come here in the morning, climb Daisen, and drive away in the late afternoon.” Looks like Daisen is becoming another victim to a country slowly being enveloped by the automobile craze.

The caffeine really got my batteries charged, so while Kanako headed back to the room for a nap, I sprinted up the valley in the surprising afternoon sun. The clouds had lifted completely, revealing the best weather of our entire trip. Up past the shrine, I did a quick recon mission to check out snow conditions for our climb the following morning. I reached the massive network of dams in no time, crossing the still-frozen river and up into the long snow-gully. I spied an emergency hut nestled at the edge of the trees. I don’t remember this hut the first time around. It could have been because I couldn’t really see anything during my initial trip.

I continued a hundred meters or so up the valley, failing to see where the ridge trail spilled out into the gully. We’d be descending this route anyway, so it wasn’t imperative to find the junction. The golden light on Daisen’s rocky face was magical, and I regretted not making the decision to camp here. Of course, if the clouds never broke I’d surely never have pondered that thought.

I raced back to the temple in time for dinner, and traced out the route in my head that night before drifting off to sleep. The weather was looking stable for the climb and the winds had died down completely. Everything was set, but there’s one other thing we’d forgotten to factor in. Stay tuned….

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“Sure you can leave your pack here”, replied the cheery worker manning the info. desk at the Visitor’s Center. “Just remember that we close at 5pm.” Sometimes a strict deadline really gets you up and going. Here it was 2:30pm and the powers that be had given me just 2-1/2 hours to complete a hike most do in 6. Time to put the cardio to test.

The first half of the climb up Tottori’s highest peak involves an endless array of wooden steps, with row after row of daytrippers slowly making their way off the volcano. I must’ve been the only one on the way up, as I passed no one despite my lightning speed. I reached the emergency hut at the 6th stage point in just over 30 minutes and continued into the thick cloud and sticky weather unabated. Reaching the official safe highpoint of Misen, I abandoned all hope of making it over to Ken-ga-mine. For one, I had absolutely no idea where it was. Plus, I had a pack full of camp gear waiting 1000 vertical meters below. After a compulsory photo, I raced down the rocky volcanic slopes, opting for the shortcut circuit through the Mototani flats. After passing by an obscene collection of concrete dams, I hit my stride on the final stretch to Daisenji temple.

Time was really tight, so I bypassed the historical artifacts of the rustic temple and arrived back at the Visitor’s Center with 10 minutes to spare. “Woah, we definitely thought we were going to have to stay open late for you”, exclaimed the staff, still shell-shocked at my early return.

In reward for my spartan effort, the staff gave me a ride to Kawadoko, where I pitched my tent by a small stream. Fireflies lit up the valley shortly after dusk, and I prepared for a long traverse the following morning. The humidity hung in the air like a wet towel on a drying rack as I started the steep climb towards Oyasumi-toge. 3.5 liters of water literally weighed me down as I stopped for a quick sweat-drenched break with some fellow daytrippers. Most were on their way up the gnarly ridge towards Utopia hut, but I was headed further north towards Yahazu-ga-sen, a knife-edge climb taking the better part of an hour to inch though.

The rest of the traverse quickly became a blur in the afternoon cloud and sweat, though I do remember a nice waterfall near the shrine at Senjo-san. Declaring it too hot to overnight on the bald fields that flowed over Mt. Senjo, I quickly descended to the road, for I heard the sound of an engine approaching. I arrived just in time to flag down the driver, who gave me a ride to Yonago station. From there, I walked out to the local beach and spent my remaining night in the wilderness trying to sleep through the chaotic cacophony of teenagers setting off bottle rockets all around me.

Daisen deserved a much longer visit the second time around, and I knew I needed to find an opportunity come back.

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