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Archive for the ‘Kansai hikes’ Category

The odds were certainly against us – a rarely used track along an undulating ridge of formidable density, the likes of which would turn the heads of even the most seasoned mountaineer. And a seasoned partner is exactly who I needed, so it is with no surprise that I once again teamed up with fellow Kinki 100 conspirator Nao. Rounding out our invincible quartet were Nao’s incredibly resilient wife Tomoko and Akihiro, a fearless explorer in his own right. It was Tomoko’s first foray since summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro the previous summer. We were in good hands.

Nao picked me up at Tsukaguchi station just before 7am on a calm and bright morning. I settled into the backseat along with Akihiro and spent the next few hours catching up. The last time the 4 of us went out together was back in the winter of 2015 before the birth of my daughter Ibuki. At that time, we were joined by Indonesian wonderwoman Dewi, who has since returned to her native Indonesia and has spent the last couple of years climbing the Malay equivalent of the Hyakumeizan. We all lamented that she was unable to jump across the east China sea to join us, as she would have been up for the challenge no matter what.

At Kinomoto village, we veered off onto a narrow winding road that followed the old Hokkoku kaido into Fukui Prefecture. I’m pretty sure Ted has traversed these very same tracks of pavement, albeit without the luxury of motorized assistance. Down the far side of the valley, our vehicle wormed its way past Hirono dam and deep into the bowels of the Etsumi mountain range. The parking lot at the trailhead was  filled to the brim, so we squeezed onto the narrow shoulder of the forest road and sorted through the gear. The trailhead is host to a well-kept outhouse sitting adjacent to a 400-year-old Katsura tree.

The forest road had only just opened the previous day, which helped explained the unusually large number of visitors this particular weekend in early June. We knew that 99% of them were bound for Yasha-ga-ike, a mysterious pond woven into a intriguing legend involving a protective dragon and sacrificial maiden. The story provided the inspiration for a modern opera of the same name, and locals embark on the 2-hour hike to the pond in hopes of glimpsing the endangered diving beetle of Yasha.

We hit the trail in good stride, climbing the wooden logs built into the steep hillside until reaching the start of a long traverse with a raging river torrent echoing up from below. Here and there, patches of remaining snow clung tightly to the shaded gullies as the first greenery of spring sprouted through trickling streams of snowmelt. The path followed the snaking folds of the mountains past an impressive waterfall, where path and stream converged into one parallel route. A series of wooden bridges brought us to a lush field of bountiful flora fit for the king of the hills. At any moment we expected his highness, the great Asiatic black bear, to make a customary appearance but we were left with just traces of his existence in the form of freshly nibbled tree buds and bits of scat lining our riverside promenade.

The path soon left the river, gliding past a towering horse-chestnut tree included on the venerable list of Japan’s 100 Forest Giants. It’s remarkable that such untouched forests still exist in these vastly deforested parts of Honshu. In an odd twist of fate, it seems that all of the nuclear power plants in Fukui have actually helped save the forests, as government subsidies for hosting the plants mean that less money is earmarked for public works projects. Of course this is just a supposition – perhaps the harsh weather of the region convinces the locals that their money is better earned through indoor pursuits.

Above the chestnut trees, the beech forests laid supreme, spreading out untamed along the steepening contours of the spur ridge that led to Yasha pond. Clearly marked signposts help us gauge horizontal progress, while the altimeter tallied the gains in vertical altitude. It was simply a matter of placing one boot print in front of the other and resisting the urge to give in for a break. I tend to hold off on rests until reaching discernible landmarks. At the top of the spur, the rocks gave way to wooden boardwalks as we reached the shores of the tranquil lake. We collapsed on the wooden boardwalk while watching the sun drift in an out of the swiftly moving cloud.

We enjoyed a light lunch while staring at the salamanders slithering through the emerald green waters of the pond. Perhaps these are descendants of the original dragon that once graced these shores. Tomoko decided to call it a day and opted for a leisurely afternoon of relaxing by the lake, followed by a dawdle back to the car. “See you in a couple of hours,” came our response, as Nao, Akihiro and I shouldered the packs and ventured into the unknown.

The first part of the trail climbed past the northern edge of the waters before reaching the ridge line nestled snugly on the Fukui-Gifu Prefectural border. Peering down into Gifu, we could make out the well-worn path from the south that would not open to hikers for another week. Our route climbed a rocky outcrop past verdant fields of flowering gentian and majestic nikko kisuge lilies. The terrain appeared surprisingly alpine for such a low altitude of only 1100 meters – a testament to the harshness of the conditions found throughout the year.

At the crest of the ridge, a small clearing afforded views down to the pond and across to Sanshū-ga-take, while Nōgō-hakusan looked on through the gaps of a distant mountain pass. It was here that the trail maintenance officially ended. I took the lead as the bamboo grass quickly encroached all sides. I could make out a light trail with my feet below, and pink tape marks at irregular intervals provided confirmation that we were on the right path. It was really a matter of following the contours of the land – at least to the summit of an unnamed peak, where all hell broke loose.

Any trace of a path had now completely vanished, as we literally swam our way though head-high bamboo grass, frequently colliding with toppled hardwoods at shin level, turning our legs into swollen welts. To make matters worse, we’d frequently become entangled in vines that would wrap around our legs and literally untie our shoes for us. It was uncomfortable to say the least. Somehow, amidst the chaos of the overgrown jungle, we would come across colored tape marks affixed to trees that once again showed us that, yes, we were on some sort of collision course with the summit.

Every so often, I would climb a tree in order to gain a vista to judge our progress. The summit lay straight ahread, via a gently undulating ridge not more than a kilometer away in distance. We’d need to drop to a saddle before the final climb to the summit plateau. If not for the bamboo grass we could be on the summit in about 15 minutes. 90 grueling minutes later, after reaching the limits of our endurance and our threshold for punishment, we did in fact top out on a circular tract of immaculately cultivated bamboo grass. A colorful signpost read 三国岳 and we could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

The sorry condition of the route was worrying. The fact that we spent most of the time following fresh scat and bear tracks was even worse than the discomfort of being battered by the brush. If we met our ursine foe in these virgin swaths of undergrowth we would be goners for sure.

We rested for only 10 minutes before once again turning back the way we had come. For some reason the return route was a little easier. Perhaps it was the fact that we knew which way we needed to go and we somehow did a better job of staying “on track” than on the ascent, where we spent most of the time staring at our GPS devices. By the time we returned to the shores of Yasha pond it was already after 5pm. Despite the blood, sweat, and stifled tears, we were in pretty good shape except for the fact that we were about 3 hours behind schedule.

It was nearly 6pm when we reached the car. “I was just about to call the police”, quipped Tomoko. With no cell phone reception along the entire route, we had no way of communicating with her to tell her about our delay. She was far more relieved than angry though, as the three of us collapsed on the asphalt to take stock. My shins were swollen on both legs, and scrapes lining both sides of my arms made it appear as if I had been in a cat fight. I brewed up a quick cup of coffee – I needed something to help calm the nerves after being on the go for nearly 8 hours.

Mt. Mikuni was one fierce opponent, and I can do nothing more than curse Ichiro Masa for choosing this mountain as one of the Kinki 100. He’s probably laughing in his grave at all of the idiots who are trying to scale all of the mountains on his foolhardy list. Still, with #99 in the bad, the end to this madness is finally in sight. I’d better wait until this unbearable humidity subsides first.

 

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“I’ve got Mt. Shaka still on my list”, replies my fellow Kinki conspirator Nao, as he cruises north along the Kisei expressway. Since he had just finished reaching peak #90 on the list, I was inquiring about the remaining mountains to help give him some advice. “Wait, are you sure Mt. Shaka is on the list”, I reply, the puzzled look in my eye sending a signal of surprise to my trusty companion. Hmm, is it possible that I have overlooked something? The ride back to Osaka is full of easiness, and as soon as I arrive back I pull out the list and scan down to find Mt. Shaka’s name clearly marked, with a green highlight already strung through the mountain. Well, wouldn’t you know it – there are exactly 3 different mountains in the Kinki district by the name of Shaka, and it turns out that I have only climbed two of them, which now meant I had to add another mountain to the list. I thought I was on #98 of the Kinki Hyakumeizan, but now I needed to admit that I was only at #97. With this in mind, I immediately put a plan into action to knock off Mt. Shaka before word got out among the masses. Luckily Paul D. went along with my plan, and we set aside a Monday in late March for the assault on the 1000-meter high peak.

Rain fell in dreadful pellets throughout the night, but the weather forecast indicated a high pressure system returning to the archipelago in the morning, with skies clearing throughout the day. I boarded the 7am limited express train bound for Nagoya and settled into my comfortable seat when the phone rang. “Have you seen the weather forecast and live camera,” asked Paul D, still sitting in his apartment awaiting the green light to proceed. I did, in fact, open the link to Gozaisho’s live camera feed when I woke up, but quickly closed it when I found the image caked with hoarfrost and ice. I knew that the previous evening’s rain did fall as snow up in the higher elevations, so before setting out I threw in the gaiters and light crampons.

The mountain weather forecast for Mt. Shaka gave a grade of “C”, which basically means conditions are ‘not suitable for hiking’. Since I was already on board the train, I recommended we proceed with our original plan and meet each other at Yokkaichi station, with a back-up plan B of a hot spring bath if the foul weather decided to rear its ugly head.

The train journey took roughly 90 minutes, with blue skies prevailing throughout, except for a stubborn wall of cloud hovering over the Suzuka mountains. The white-capped outer edge of the range had begun to reveal itself, but Mt. Gozaisho was still cloaked in mist as we boarded the train to Yunoyama onsen. The gale that hit us upon exiting at the final destination had us running for cover, as the station sat completely empty, including the taxi stand that is usually lined with drivers eager to collect an easy wage from impatient climbers. It turned out that the road to the ropeway at Gozaisho was closed for construction, so the taxi drivers were told to focus their attention elsewhere, as no one would likely want to use their services. This forced us to call a taxi ourselves, as Paul’s girlfriend Riho came to the rescue and requested a driver be sent immediately. It was my first time to meet the aspiring dental assistant, who was on the third hike of her entire life. The first two hikes were in the Suzuka mountains as well, and she was ready for an adventure, winds be damned.

Luckily, the road to Asake gorge was open to traffic, so the driver happily dropped us off in the warm sunshine at the deserted trailhead. There are several routes up to the summit of Mt. Shaka, but we opted for the Matsuo ridge, which looked like the easiest and most straightforward route up the mountain. Looks can be deceiving as we all know, especially when studying a 1:50,000 scale map with poorly rendered contour lines. The path climbed steeply to the top of the spur, following a narrow root-infested ridge through a wind-battered deciduous forest as it meandered higher towards the main summit plateau. Anyone who has hiked in the Suzuka mountains know that the spur routes are anything but flat, coming closer in profile to the jawline of a rapid canine than say a toothless vagabond without dental insurance.

It took about an hour of steady climbing to reach the first peak on the route, where we faced the headlong gales sweeping in from the northwest. This sent us scrambling behind a collection of large boulders which spared us the brunt of mother nature’s exhale but not of her vengeful tears. A wall of dark cloud had rolled in as if on cue, dropping its payload of stinging sleet pebbles on everything in sight. We ducked for cover, swallowing small morsels of food in between swift tugs at the zippers of our outer shells as the sleet literally turned our hair white. If this tempest did not let up we would surely be forced to turn back.

By pure force of will, the sleet storm moved on just as quickly as it had arrived, but the chilly gales sent us moving upward for warmth. The fingertips burned from the cold, so I improvised some creative hand gestures in order to restore circulation, gripping the trekking poles tightly in between the carpal oscillations. The sun moved through the clouds as though we were watching a time-lapse video as Paul and I ducked behind lee-side hedges to escape the gusts as they threatened to send up tumbling to the darkened valleys below. Between blows we aimed our lenses westward,  towards the rest of the Suzuka mountains glistening with fresh snowfall.

The path rose and dropped like a poorly-built wooden roller coaster and we carefully picked our way through the contorted mess of wind-swept shrubs and shivering tufts of bamboo grass. In the final col below the crest we lost the path completely, relying on the GPS and our upward momentum to gain the spine of the twisty dragon-back ridge. Once on the true north-south axis we faced the wintry gales head on, leading with our weight into the wind in order to keep from getting blown down the stubborn snow slopes on the eastern side of Shaka’s towering form. Gaps in the frozen trees provided a brief chance to train our lenses on the frosty spectacle spread out before us.

A gap in the ridge, known in Japanese as a kiretto, sliced through the mountain as if a giant dragon had chomped down for an afternoon snack. I took the lead, sliding down the exposed sandstone until reaching the low point at the saddle, fully exposed to the howling winds. I crouched to my knees while waiting for an ebb in the torrent before breaking out in a full-on sprint towards the rocky spires on the other side. Due to the brunt force of the gale, my stride looked more like a drunken sailor than pioneering mountaineer, but once on the other side I took refuge behind a boulder and waited for Riho and Paul to cross the fractured gap.

Blessed by the shelter, we pushed on up the soaring sections of rock, carefully picking through sections of rotting, unstable snow before once again rising up to meet the wind. We soon popped out on the high point of the ridge – it wasn’t the summit proper, so we continued along the meandering ridge through soft tufts of powder snow that glistened in the afternoon sun. Hugging the trees to our left in order to avoid the frightful snow cornices to the east, we strolled through a hardwood forest caked in hoarfrost and backed by a brilliant hue of azure.

At one point, Paul cried out in agony as his knee abruptly popped out of its socket before magically moving back into place. If not for the knee brace we surely would’ve been calling for chopper assistance. Hobbling, stumbling, and sometimes gliding along, the summit of Mt. Shaka was reached just after one in the afternoon. Despite the hardships, there were plenty of smiles to go around.

The temperature hovered just around freezing, which didn’t allow us much time to loiter. We retraced our steps, taking care once again in the kiretto and along the undulating contours of the ridge. The winds had dropped from a gale to a strong, uncomfortable breeze, but it was much easier to have those streams of air coaxing our behinds rather than fighting them head-on. Once we returned to our sleety rock outcrop of the morning, Riho called the taxi company to book our return transport, as we reached the paved road with just minutes to spare.

Mt. Shaka did not surrender easily, but at the end of the day I could finally rest assured that I was indeed 98% of the way through my mountains. Would the final two mountains yield their weapons peacefully?

 

 

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I have done most of the peaks in the Suzuka range, but needed one more visit to cross the massif off my Kinki 100 list. I turned once again to fellow Kinkan conspirator William, and with Mai and Sota in tow we guided the Mini along the expressway towards the northern edge of the mountains. Mt. Eboshi is the very first mountain in the range, and in clear weather the peak affords mouth-watering panoramic views of the rest of Suzuka’s craggy spires, and even out to Hakusan and the Kita Alps. Clear weather and the Suzuka mountains, however,  are rarely used together in the same sentence and we anxiously awaited to see what mother nature held in store for us.

The first rain squall hit right outside of Kusatsu city, and the further north we drove, the more unstable the weather. Luckily this storm system was held in check by the strong highlands of Mt. Ryozen, and sunny weather awaited us on the northern side of Ryozen’s sprawling form. Just before reaching the trailhead of our target peak Mt. Eboshi, a bright rainbow stretched across a golden rice field just in front of the car. Perhaps these clouds have started to infiltrate our secluded valley.

Several peaks in Japan have been crowned (so to speak) with the venerated name Eboshi. The most famous of which is the Eboshi in the Kita Alps, whose pointy features really do resemble the priest’s hat for which it is named. The origins of the Suzuka Eboshi, however, are steeped in mystery, for the mountain is more akin to a beanie hat than the headgear of a sumo referee. In fact, in the old days it was known as Mino-fuji, the Mt. Fuji of Mino province. However, when viewed from the east, the resemblance to the pointy hat really becomes clear. Dreadfully, there is no path from the east, which forces us to trudge along the main trail shooting directly up the northern face.

We hit the trail in relatively good stride, pushing past a cedar forest before breaching a small ridge that led to the crux of the steep climb to the summit plateau. From there, the deciduous forests reigned supreme, just beginning their early autumn tinge of color in the brisk air of early November. The sun filtered in and out of the clouds while the gales continued to lap at the mountain like the wake of a passing motorboat. A series of viewpoints offered glimpses into a broad valley flanked by the Yoro mountains beyond. Sota used these vistas as an excuse to squeeze a few extra minutes of rest out of us, which didn’t bother us too much since we were still a bit sluggish from the long drive and lack of sleep.

The trail split higher up, and we veered left onto the aptly-named rock course, which wound its way through a forest floor of damp leaf matter and chestnut spines. The woods glowed from the golden maples nestled against the darkening sky. The first drops of rain swept through the quivering foliage, forced through by the strong gales from the west. We pushed straight through the torrent, popping out on the summit after being swallowed by the cloud.

Sota began shivering, so after a very brief photo session we dropped straight down the tree tunnel of the northeastern ridge and back out of the cloud, coming face-to-face with a rainbow stretched out directly in front of us, almost within grasping distance. In order to stave off the wintry chill, I pushed the pace until arriving at the top of a vertical precipice, affording a soothing view towards the Ryozen massif, still cloaked in a menacing cyclone of evil cloud. I admired the views while waiting for William and company to catch up, and as soon as we were all reunited, we dropped down to a northerly slope sheltered from the wind and were finally able to stretch the legs comfortably.

The sunshine had once again returned, which brightened the spirits as we once again descended into the warm comforts of the cedar forests. Back on pavement, we chatted with a local pensioner praying at the shrine who informed us about the large number of leeches that live at the base of the mountain during the summer. The worst part is apparently in these safe-haven cedars. It seems that the leech population has exploded in recent years, mostly due to the increasing deer population which provides plenty of fresh blood for the aspiring vampires.

As soon as we arrived back at the car, the sky opened up, pelting the vehicle with large drops of rain as we scarfed down the lunch and turned on the heat. The drive back to Kyoto was non-eventful, especially due to the sunshine in abundance everywhere except these cursed highlands of Suzuka.

With the Suzuka mountains now behind me, I could now focus my attention on the remaining peaks dotted throughout the rest of the region. Little did I know that my time with Suzuka was far from finished.

 

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Seattle indie-folk stalwarts The Fleet Foxes are releasing a new album in June, and the first track off the forthcoming LP was leaked to the public today. The title is immediately eye-catching, especially to the Meizanologists among us.

The nearly 9-minute single, if you can call it that, pays homage to a mountain that literally sits in my backyard. Lyrically speaking, the piece does not offer much in the way of reference, apart from the opening lines:

“And I was hiding by the stair, half here, half there, past the lashing rain

And as the sky would petal white, old innocent lies came to mind”

Anyone who has been on the peak in either the summer or autumn can definitely attest the “lashing rain”. In fact, the plateau is one of the rainiest places in Japan, with almost 5000 mm of annual precipitation. Despite this well-known fact, is principal songwriter Robin Pecknold actually referring to the lashing rain of the plateau, or of the lashing that frequently whips his hometown?

How about the “stair”? The final climb to Hinodeyama, the highest point of the plateau, is lined by a long flight of wooden stairs that could make for a passable bivouac in a sudden squall. Then again, it would be more prudent to continue on to the summit and rest under the comforts of the concrete day shelter.

The soggy forests of Ōdaigahara do make for a fine place to reflect upon past decisions and “old innocent lies”. The remainder of the lyrical content suggest a failed romance, perhaps something that fizzled out between Pecknold and a Japanese love interest. The best homage to our beloved mountain then, comes at the 6:45 mark, with a haunting sonic drone to close out the composition.

Regardless of the lyrical inspiration, one more important question is of principal interest here: Did the Fleet Foxes actually visit Ōdaigahara? They did play in Osaka on January 17th, 2012 at the start of their short tour of Japan. Since this was their kick-off concert, they could have conceivably arrived a few days ahead of their tour and might have squeezed in a visit the 1700-meter highlands in Nara Prefecture. After all, they did have a three-day break between their performance in Auckland and the Osaka gig, and have been on a 5-year hiatus of sorts, with the lead singer moving to New York to pursue academic studies. Perhaps he had subsequent visits to the Kansai region over the last couple of years.

The song has the additional title of the ‘Third of May”, which could pay homage to influential photographer Hiroshi Hamaya. The band has been a fan of his photography for some time, and have chosen one of his images to adorn the cover of their forthcoming release. Hamaya was a prolific photographer, and his images of the violent May protests of 1960 brought the U.S.-Japan relations to the limelight. Additionally, May 3rd is Constitution Memorial Day, a public holiday commemorating the founding of post-war Japan with the signing of the U.S. drafted constitution.

Despite being released just a few hours ago, the video has already amassed a half a million views, which bodes a more serious concern. Will Fleet Fox aficionados be flocking to Japan to visit this obscure mountain referenced in their new song? I, for one, have noticed a sudden spike in page views for Ōdaigahara on both this blog and my other site Hiking in Japan. Will I have a future calling as a mountain guide for stoned hipsters on the mountain?

 

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Amazing mountains deserve subsequent visits, and Mt. Ryozen is no exception. I became mesmerized by the Scottish feel of the summit plateau during my first climb on a frigid March morning, and dreamed of heading back in the autumn to take in the golden hues of the meandering grasslands. Noteworthy peaks are like a good bottle of bubbly – they are best shared and showed off to close counterparts, so I turned to my companions from the latest Gathering and settled upon a date in late November that just happened to coincide with a stable high pressure system.

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Miguel, Eri, Rika and I alighted at Samegai station in eastern Shiga Prefecture, where Paul D. was waiting with a warm smile and an eager look on his face. With such perfect weather at our disposal, such looks were well understood, as we were all itching to make full use of the brilliant daylight. The bus was set to depart in 15 minutes, leaving Eri just enough time to dash to the nearest convenience store to stock up on provisions for the long hike. From the bus stop to the summit, we faced a 7-1/2 km one-way hike, the first 4 kilometers of which were on a paved forest road will little to no vehicular traffic. We each hit the tarmac at our own pace, settling in on a rhythm while catching up the latest news. It was our first time to hike with Rika, a feisty Fukuoka native who had recently relocated to Kobe to work for Finetrack. Her sense of humor helped break up the monotony of walking on a road we easily could have driven in luxury.

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The waterfall route I had taken on my first visit was washed out in a typhoon some years ago, which necessitated our current, longer approach via the forgotten remains of Kuregahata village. The farming hamlet was home to 50 households during the Meiji era, but life was rough for the 245 inhabitants, as the winter snows brought accumulation of several meters, cutting off access to the larger towns of Maibara and Hikone. Residents slowly relocated to lower, drier ground over the ensuing years, until the strict food rations during World War II forced the remaining habitants to migrate towards the more populated enclaves. The final death blow was dealt soon after, as the local elementary school shuttered its doors and essentially hindered anyone to returning to settle. Nowadays the building foundations and vegetable fields provide campsites near the public-run mountain hut, which gives off an eerie, Blair Witch feel. We moved through the area swiftly, anxious to reach the warmth of the sun’s rays up on the ridge.

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The path switchbacks abruptly out of Kuregahata, reaching a mountain pass whose Kanji characters read “sweat wiping”. The name was most appropriate, for not only were we dabbing the sweat away from our brows, but we were also shedding excess layers under the pleasantly balm November temperatures. The trail hugs the ridge, with abrupt drops off the southern face towards the hissing sound of flowing water concealed by the burning foliage in full autumnal display. Our progress was brought to a halt more than once as nature put on a slideshow worthy of pause.

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I was beginning to worry about our snail’s pace up towards the summit plateau, for we still had quite a long way to go just to reach the ridge before an even longer traverse to the high point. There were just too many distractions along the way – a rusty shovel hidden among the freshly fallen leaves provided minutes of spontaneous role play opportunities that could just not be passed up. With such an amicable cast of characters to our unfolding drama, we took it all in stride as the vistas began to reveal their magical selves. Humble villages hugged the jigsaw shoreline of Japan’s largest freshwater lake, as a ring of rugged massifs encircled the cove, mimicking the masts of warships ready to set sail at the slightest sign of trouble. It was in these broad flatlands that Japan’s most intense struggle for unification took hold that ultimately ushered in the reign of the Tokugawa clan and the seclusionist policies of the Edo era.

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We paused at one such overlook, admiring the views when a party of three elderly hikers greeted us on their descent from the rocky plateau above. Upon ushering our greeting, the trio responded with an air of recognition, as if they were being reunited with a long-lost friend. “Didn’t we meet you on Mt. Amagoi?”, inquired the tallest of the three. During our ascent of a peak just across the valley, Paul and I did run into these good-natured folks, who informed us about the Suzuka 12, a supplementary list to the original Suzuka 7 mountains that included 5 extra peaks on the Shiga side of the range. This time around we posed for a commemorative photo before continuing on our push against the force of gravity.

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Soon the rolling hills of the true ridge came into view, and after a few switchbacks we left the trees behind and arrived on the summit of the first peak, marked by a signpost indicating that we were 70% of the way there. This proved an ample resting place for lunch, with a gentle breeze, unhindered views, and plenty of fresh peanut butter to go around. It would have been easy to give into temptation and laze around for a few hours, but summit fever soon took hold, as we pushed on towards the top.

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Looks can be quite deceiving, as the lack of tree cover revealed the surprisingly long ground we still had left to cover. I had come from the completely opposite direction on my first visit, so this was still virgin territory. After passing by an idyllic pond marked by a small shrine, the trail veered towards the right, rising steadily towards a parallel ridge line with ever-expanding views. At the crest of the knoll, the iconic hump of Mt. Ibuki came into full view, flanked on the right across a broad valley by the smoldering cap of Ontake. Closer at hand, the emergency hut stood guard, looking as if it were plucked from Grindelwald and plopped down on the soaring plateau. Mt. Ena held silent vigil across the subdued lowlands of Aichi, waiting patiently for the first flakes of snow to fall on the gentle curves of her sacred flank.

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Rika and I pushed out slightly ahead of the others, as we were soon approaching our 2pm turnaround time. The path dropped to a long saddle before the final steep push to the high point, offering panoramic views of the remainder of Suzuka’s foreshortened layer of contorted ridges. The summit boulders offered ample space for stretching out and taking in the splendid autumn views. From our eagle’s perch we tracked the progress of our fellow companions, tracing their outlines as they all successfully arrived on the top. We spent a few minutes taking in the wonderful scenery before reluctantly turning away for the long return to the bus stop. The final bus was at 5pm, which left us about 2-1/2 hours to cover the 7.5km descent. Just before pushing off a trip of French climbers arrived at the summit. They had heard about this hike from my very own Hiking in Japan website and were more than pleased with my recommendation.

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On the ascent, I spied a shortcut at the col that would shave about a half an hour off our descent and led our group on a narrow deer trail through the golden grasses. Our downward progress was steady but never felt rushed, and soon we regained the fiery foliage of the deciduous forest and slowed our pace to savor those fading tints of the waning season. Once back on the forest road we kept a constant eye on the clock, and with our perseverance we arrived back at the bus stop with just minutes to spare before the final bus of the day. At the station, the French trio we met on the summit came strolling in well after sundown. Perhaps I need to upgrade my difficulty rating on my website less one of my readers meet with ill luck.

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Folk tales in Japan are contentious affairs, with small villages in various provinces each laying claim to the origins of the stories. The legend of Hagoromo is no exception. Did the tale of the feathered maidens originate in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the Noh play of the same name suggests, or does the hamlet of Ami in Ibaraki Prefecture provide the source of the myth? None of the above, if the opinions of the denizens of Kyoto Prefecture can be trusted, for here in the rural lowlands of ancient Tango Province lies the oldest known Hagoromo tale. According to the legend, eight celestial maidens swooped down to Manai spring on the slopes of Mt. Hiji for a bath. An elderly couple happened upon the women and managed to grab one of the dressing robes. The other seven flew away in fright, but the lone maiden concealed herself behind a tree, for she could not fly away without her winged robe, or hagoromo. The couple explained that they were unable to have a child, and suggested that the maiden come live with them. She accepted on the condition that her robe be returned to her. The maiden soon became skilled at making sake which had magical curative powers, and the family became rich. After 10 years the couple asked the maiden to return to heaven, but she did not want to leave. The story continues and has a rather sad ending for which I will leave it up to your imagination, as the focus of my attention on this particular February morning is on the mountain for which the tale takes place.

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While it no longer goes by its former name of Mt. Hiji, Mt. Isanago is a fitting place for the birth of a legend. Indeed, the panoramic vistas from its bald summer perch overlook the massif of Mt. Oe, itself steeped in the tales of Shuten-doji and the Japanese Oni. Isanago happened to be on my list of Kinki Hyakumeizan, which I hoped to finished before the end of this year. It would be mountain #96, but with the recent snows blanketing the northern part of the Kinki region, it would take particular planning and caution. I scoured the weather reports and was finally gifted a glorious high pressure system. I boarded that 6:09am local train, the same one that I had use for my assault on Mt. Taiko at the end of 2016. I once again changed at Fukuchiyama station to the Tango railway. Fukuchiyama was still draped in a cool, thick mist, bus as the carriage pushed past the slopes of Mt. Oe, the cloak magically lifted, revealing the weather forecast was true to its word. Instead of alighting at Amanohashidate, I pushed ahead to Mineyama station and jumped in a cab for the 20-minute ride to the trailhead.

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“There should be no problem getting to the trailhead”, quipped my enthusiastic driver, who was convinced that the road would be plowed and free of ice. The rising sun also brought a rise in the mercury, as the residents were once again able to hang out their laundry and bedding after the last couple of weeks of inclement weather. As I paid the fare, I noticed an elderly hiker exit from his car with snowshoes in hand. He paused at the entrance to the forest road to affix his bindings, as I inquired about his intended destination. It turns out he was also heading for Isanago and knew the trail very well. Perhaps this Hagoromo tale has a hint of truth after all.

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“Go on ahead”, I explained, “I’ll catch up to you.” It look me some time to sort through my kit and to strap on the snowshoes, but I soon took my first few steps on the half-crunchy, half-soggy crust of rotting snow. Each step resulted in a drop in altitude of several centimeters, as I pushed on as best I could under the less-than-ideal snow conditions. Still, the decision to bring the snowshoes was a wise one, for it prevented me from post-holing at every step. I soon caught up to my companion and pushed out in front in order to share trail-breaking duties. In the shadier parts of the road the snow surface was more conducive to movement, but at every bend in the forest road, the lane became exposed to the sun’s rays, turning the road into a wet, sloppy slush that hindered forward progress.

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Soon I reached a sign indicating the trailhead lay 1000 horizontal meters ahead. It had taken a herculean effort just to cover the first 750 meters, and the exertion forced lines of sweat from the pores of my forehead. I bit my lower lip and pushed on until reaching a small open-walled shelter and toilet block. I sank on a wooden bench and started peeling layers, downing my bottle of Aquarius while cross-referencing my progress against the GPS data. As I raised the viewfinder to my eye for a quick snap of my surroundings, I noticed the exposure seemed brighter than usual. I reached around to the polarizer to give it a turn and realized that it was not there. I double checked my pack to make sure it didn’t fall off when I was sorting through gear at the trailhead, but my search came up empty. I’d just have to resign myself to a filterless day and search for my missing equipment on the return route.

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My break was leisurely, and my companion soon took over the trailblazing duties while I ate an energy bar. We had only 300 meters to go until reaching the official start of the trail, so I quickly caught up and let him stay in the lead for now. He explained that in the summer, hikers can drive all the way to the terminus of this paved escarpment, which I found hard to fathom at the moment, considering a meter of snow separated us from the asphalt below. As a polite gesture, I was ushered back into the drivers seat and broke trail up the steepened contours of the spur. A signpost explained that 1000 steps stood between us and the summit, but they were completely buried under the deep drifts. Despite this, the path was easy to pick out, as there was a steep drop on my left and a steeper rise on my right – ripe conditions for a snowslide, so I moved with speed, staying within earshot of my partner in case the entire hillside gave way.

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The exposed traverse was shortlived and we soon reached a junction on the ridge. To our right, a marker pointed the way to the women’s pond, the remnants of the famed Manai spring from the Hagoromo tale. I knew the pond would be frozen over and the shifting contours of the opposing hillside looked anything but inviting, so I turned left instead, where the wind-swept south-facing aspects revealed fragments of the summer log stairs laying exposed to the warm sunlight. I could see about a dozen stairs before a series of snowdrifts took over, so the snowshoes stayed on for the tiptoed traverse over the snowless sections of the path. My partner kept a safe distance behind, wary of my weight potentially sending down large unstable sections of spring mush.

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I reached a break in the tree cover at the top of the next rise, where a wooden bench completely free of accumulated snowfall beckoned me over. I settled onto the rectangular block, taking in the vistas across the valley to a splendid 180-degree angle. On my left, the perfect conical form of Mt. Aoba rose up, lending it the appropriate nickname of Wakasa Fuji. Just to the right, the twin bulges of Mt. Yura stood tall over the Sea of Japan that was just out of view. Closer at hand, the entire rolling massif of the Oe mountains held fort, cutting off access to the eastern part of Kyoto Prefecture beyond. It was a place worthy of a brief respite, but soon the offer of a 360-degree view proved too difficult to refuse, so I rose to my feet for the final push.

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The slope angle inclined, and the increased exposure also meant increased snow depth. Occasionally even the snowshoe could not prevent me from sinking up to my thigh, as I had penetrated one of the gaps on the edge of the stair column and plunged into the void. Pulling myself out proved easy enough and I wasn’t about to give in so close to my target. Further up the pitch eased, and a stone marker with ancient Kanji characters informed me that the summit was indeed near. A gentle traverse to the left, followed by a few kicks up the final mound and victory was ours.

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We sat down for lunch on a rock formation that just happened to have melted out of its winter hold, as if a maître d’ had been sent up earlier to clear a table of two. Or perhaps it was that feathered maiden looking after us. “The name’s Sakamoto”, explained my host “and I live over there”, pointing to the village at the foot of Mt. Yura. He was as impressed with my knowledge of Kyoto’s peaks as he was with my climbing resume. If he was in charge of hiring I would have gotten the job for sure. Sakamoto belongs to a local mountaineering club, but admits that he enjoys a nice balance between the larger group excursions and the solo endeavors.

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Lunch was soon finished, and Sakamoto and I were left with the tricky descent back to the junction, for the warm temperatures were making the snow even mushier. I cut switchbacks in the steep slope, and once we reached the first bare patch of dirt we took the snowshoes off completely, as the postholing actually improved our purchase and prevented a long, potentially dangerous slide. Once back at the junction the snowshoes went back on and we retraced our steps to the trailhead. The road back to his car was also a lot smoother on the descent, and just before reaching the pavement again, I found my camera filter lying in a patch of snow. Sakamoto gave me a ride back to Mineyama station, where I settled in for an afternoon nap before arriving back in Osaka in time for dinner. Peak #96 was now in the bag, but the final 4 peaks are perhaps the most challenging of all, especially with the particularly white winter. Perhaps I will wait until the spring.

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At the northern tip of Kyoto Prefecture, an oblong peninsula juts out into the Sea of Japan like a thumb looking to hitch a ride. This is the Tango Peninsula, a relatively untouched area dotted with secluded beaches, idyllic hot springs, and jovial locals who’ve settled into the slower pace and laid back atmosphere generally reserved for those living along the South China Sea. I’d been here once before during my quest to climb the Kansai 100, and here again I found myself on a mission to conquer Mt. Taiko, the highest summit in the entire peninsula.

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As is usually the case, getting there would pose the biggest challenge. I had long since written off the mountain as impossible to visit without a car, but subsequent net surfing revealed a bus stop at the mouth of Saigawa river that was within walking distance of the summit, if you considered a 10-km walk along a winding forest road to be walking distance that is. I had the schedule nailed down and had even virtually walked the first part of the route using the streetview function of Google maps. A high pressure system settled over the Hokuriku region, which promised favorable walking conditions in an area that is a magnet for wet precipitation most of the year.

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The train pulled out of Osaka station at 6:10am, chugging along the foggy tracks towards Fukuchiyama, where the Tango Tetsudo chauffeured the dozen passengers to Miyazu station, the terminus of the bus for Saigawa. Trouble was, the train was running behind schedule, meaning I would miss my connecting bus and have no way of making it to the trailhead without dropping yen on a budget-breaking taxi. The train was only 3 minutes behind schedule, so instead of alighting at Miyazu, I continued along to Amanohashidate station, where the bus was next scheduled to stop. Fortunately, the train was faster than the bus, and I had a few extra minutes to spare before boarding bus #9 and settling into a seat near the back. The ride took nearly 45 minutes, during which time I fueled up on energy bars and studied the paper maps courtesy of old man Google. It was nearly 10:30 in the morning by the time I put rubber sole to asphalt, and I had a really long way to go.

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Road walks can really be a drag. Just read any of the posts on Notes from the ‘Nog to get an indication on how pedestrian-unfriendly Japan’s byways can truly be. Once you’re off the main roads and onto the village lanes and forest tracks, however, the going becomes a lot more pleasant on both the metatarsals and the eyes. I made good time up route 625 past Tenchoji temple and its rustic village slumbered down for the winter. At a fork in the road sat a shelter housing a fresh water spring. I paused briefly to rest the haunches and check my bearings. This was as far as the Google truck had driven, so from here on out I needed to rely on the GPS. Forest roads branched out towards the mountains above, and after a few twists and turns I breached the ridge of the mountains and officially commenced the ascent towards Tango’s lofty heights. While 683 meters may not seem like a tall peak, it all depends on perspective. Mt. Taiko is taller than any mountain in both Okinawa and Chiba Prefectures, and it’s only 300 meters lower than the tallest mountain in all of Kyoto.

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After reaching the ridge, the vistas opened up towards the north, as a fortress of mountains lined the horizon , like a battalion of soldiers standing guard to keep unwanted visitors away. I would have to go up and over these peaks just to get within striking distance of Mt. Taiko. My heart sank as I suddenly realized the formidable task that lie ahead of me. Could I even make it to the top before dark? How on earth would I be able to return to Osaka in time for work the following morning? I continued on in silence, hoping that I could somehow muster up the courage and energy to continue.

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Just as things started to look bleak, the unmistakable rumble of an automobile echoed from the valley below. The sound crescendoed until the utility van was on my heels. I leaped to the shoulder of the narrow road, stretching my thumb out on pure instinct. The vehicle halted its forward momentum as I opened the passenger’s side door. “Where are you going”, asked the white-haired man, dressed in a blue forestry uniform. “Mt. Taiko,” came my reply, in as soft and nonthreatening voice as I could muster up. “Hop in”, said the man.

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After the initial shock of finding someone crazy enough to walk up an abandoned forest road, my saviour explained about the area and the lack of employment opportunities. “I came up here to check on the work of my employees”, gestured the logging company president, as we drove past one patch of cedar forest that he had come to check on. The timber had been felled, cut, and stacked into clean piles just as was ordered by the boss. “Timber is so cheap nowadays that people no longer enter the logging industry.”  Seizing the opportunity, I inquired about the future of this clear-cut area, wondering if he’d be replanting it with cedar trees per the government protocol. “No, I’ll just let the natural forest reclaim it.”

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In spite of the paved road to the top, there was a surprisingly large amount of native broadleaf remaining on the slopes of the mountain. I suppose that most of the prefectural coffers were invested in the prominent Kitayama cedar trees that still fetch a high price on the market. Any trip immediately north of Kyoto city will reveal the extent of the destruction of the native flora, as enormous mountains of cedar cut off the sunlight and blanket the city with giant plumes of suffocating pollen in the late winter. Luckily, the further north you get from the city, the lighter the destruction.

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As we rose up towards the Tango highlands, large swaths of fresh snow covered the shaded parts of the road, prompting a bit of careful navigation from my driver, and a bit of excitement in seeing my first fresh snowfall of the winter. By the time we reached Swiss Mura ski village the entire slopes were blanketed in 10 centimeters of soft white crystal. I thanked my driver profusely and shouldered the pack for the short climb to the high point, which sat at the terminus of the highest ski lift. Rather than trudging through the banal contours of the open slopes, I stuck to the forested sections of the southeastern face of the mountain, carving a trail through the untracked powder until reaching a set of footprints from another visitor earlier that day. I followed those tracks until they ended in a thicket of undergrowth that was choking the hillside and had me second-guessing my decision to avoid the easy way up. Pushing my way through the virtual maze, I eventually skirted the southern edge of the ski lift and popped out in the grasslands just below the summit. When I reached the top I glanced at my watch to discover that it was exactly high noon.

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Sitting in a dry patch of yellow grass under the lift, I soaked in the warm midday rays and filled my belly with provisions. I was planning on walking all the way back down to the sea and I needed some heavy calories for the descent. Resting for only 15 minutes, I once again geared up for the long walk back to civilization, as I knew my chances of encountering another car were slim to none. Sliding my way back to the forest road, I took off on a brisk walking pace, following the prints of deer, boar, stoat, and fox as they led me further down the slopes. I soon reached the edge of the snow line and could now catch sight of the sea which still seemed an absurdly long way away. I couldn’t believe that I thought it a good idea to go from sea to summit and back again in only one day. If not for the extra help it surely would not have been possible.

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When I reached the clear cut area that we passed earlier I checked my watch to find that it read 1pm. In 45 minutes I had covered roughly a third of the distance, so I set a new goal for myself – the 2:15 bus.

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I stepped it into high gear, keeping a 6km-an-hour pace until slowing down a bit once I felt some blisters starting to form. The recent hiking shoes I had bought in the early autumn were just a bit too small for my feet, and my hopes of fully breaking them in were a failure. With such a tight schedule to keep, there was no time to rest just yet. Familiar landmarks I had passed on the climb now came into sight, as I had now reached the area that I had covered before being given the ride. I pushed on in agony, as each footfall triggered my sensory system to render messages to my brain to slow the pace. Finally, the water source at the junction of route 625 came into view. I trotted the last 50 meters before collapsing on a rock bench just in front of the spring. I immediately took off my shoes and socks to let my feet air out as I shuffled through the pack for the moleskins and band aids. I polished off the sports drink as well as a couple of energy bars and a block of chocolate. By the time I finished mending my feet it was approaching 1:45pm. Could I really make this bus?

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I remember that it had taken me about 45 minutes to climb up to the junction, so there was still a chance of accomplishing my goal, but I’d need to push a 7km per hour pace to do it. Nevermind the wincing pain at every advancing step. I bit my lower lip and set off in a half trot, half skip down the paved road. I soon passed by a small temple I had seen on the way. As I looked over at the stone steps rising up to the main sanctuary, a patch of red caught my eye. A troupe of macaques were sunning themselves on the stairs, as if taunting me to take photos of them. There are rare occasions where I will turn down a photo op but this was one of them. I was going to make this bus, posing monkeys or not.

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The final 10 minutes of the walk were a blur, but I somehow mustered up the energy to kick it into a full-on jog, as the sea grew closer and closer. Alas, I reached the bus stop with just minutes to spare, dropping my pack and tearing off my shoes in search of pain relief. I sat slumped in the comforting cushions of the bus seat, finally being able to take in the enormity of my quest. What surely should have been the easiest of the Kinki Hyakumeizan became one of the physically hardest and mentally toughest mountain to date. I’m not sure how many more of these lightning ascents I can take. Luckily for me, there are only 5 more mountains on the list.

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Sandwiched between the Omine mountains and Odai-ga-hara, a pyramidal massif juts up towards the sky as if constructed by the ancient Egyptians. Known in English as the peak of the white beard, I had a hard time finding any information about Mt. Shirahige apart from a brief listing in an out-of-print guidebook. A quick perusal through the Japanese blogosphere revealed a path from the west in relatively good condition with a caveat about a sawtooth ridge with plenty of exposure. With old man winter rearing its ugly head, I seized one final chance to knock off another mountain before the deep snowfalls sealed off access.

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Nao and Tomoko picked me up at Yamato-kamiichi station in rural Nara Prefecture on a brisk Saturday morning in mid-December. The station sits on a small incline affording views of Mt. Yoshino across the valley. The rest of the Omine range lay thick in a murky cloud as I reached into the pack for an extra layer to stave off the chilly breeze. The couple were fresh off their summer ascent of Kilimanjaro and Nao was keen to knock off another mountain on the Kinki 100 list. If successful, it would be my 94th and his 82nd peak respectively.

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At a bend in the narrow forest road, a sign pointed the way towards our target peak. We parked the car on a narrow shoulder and shouldered our packs shortly after. The howling wind left little time for loitering or contemplating. The first part of the route followed a forest road that has fallen into disuse. You’ll find hundreds of such roads carving their way through 90% of Japan’s mountainous terrain. This particular one had been constructed over half a century earlier for the construction of a small water station to pump clean mountain water to the residents of Kawakami village at the foot of the mountain.

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We made slow but steady progress as the road gave way to mountain path, which followed the waters upstream to the base of a 30-meter high waterfall that was little more than a trickle. The route veered south, cutting up and around this fall via a long and somewhat exposed traverse. Ropes in places reminded us to keep our footing firm, as any slip here would prove fatal. Despite the lack of foot traffic the trail was easy to find, perhaps due in large part to the dead undergrowth that likely swallows the path in the warmer months. Moving steadily through the neatly manicured strands of planted cedar and cypress, we soon rose above the valley floor, with the Omine range looking on from across the valley directly behind us. The massif was slumbered inside a baleful tempest of wintry cloud, the bottom edge of the icy trees peeking out from under the fog like a child’s foot sticking out from underneath the covers.

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I pushed ahead towards the junction on the ridge while Nao stayed behind with Tomoko, who was struggling a bit with knee pain. At the crest of the ridge I faced the full force of the wind pushing in from the east and ducked behind a cedar tree for cover. I stuffed a few morsels of chocolate into my dry mouth, washing it down with a cupful of hot water from the thermos, the one piece of gear I never leave at home during these brisk days. Once the warmth returned to my extremities, I munched  on a pair of Calorie Mate bars, the preferred snack of choice here for hikers. Each bar holds exactly 100 calories, and has the consistency of Scottish shortbread. If you shows signs of being under-hydrated, the dry morsels will stick to your palate, forcing you to wash them down with a big gulp of water. I really should consider buying stock in Otsuka, or at least seeing if they’ll sponsor me. The pharmaceutical giant also manufacturers Pocari Sweat sports drink, which has left more than a few visitors wondering about the identity of Mr. Pocari and his magic perspiration.

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Once Nao and Tomoko caught up, I pushed ahead towards the first peak of Ko-Shirahige. The path immediately scaled a near-vertical root-infested precipice, sending me gasping for breath in the sub-arctic temperatures. Thinking that the summit lie at the top of the next rise, I pushed even harder, only to realize that it was indeed just one of half a dozen false peaks along the sabertooth ridge. The cedar trees yielded to a healthy forest of beech and other hardwoods coated with a thin layer of hoarfrost from the fog that lapped at the eastern side of the ridge. Just below the summit of Little White Beard, I encountered an elderly man dressed in orange who was making his way down from the top. He assured me that despite the state of the tree branches, the trail was free from ice and snow, which put me at ease. This would be no place to be caught without a pair of crampons. I told the man to relay a message to Nao and Tomoko who were somewhere below me. I was making a summit push, knowing that they would probably abandon their attempt due to their slower pace.

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Instead of taking a break at the top of Ko-Shirahige, I pushed on, dropping down the northern face of the mountain. Through the gap in the trees I caught a glimpse of the summit plateau of Shirahige drifting in and out of the swift-moving cloud. The elderly gentleman earlier said he’d been robbed of a view earlier, but my barometer showed a steady rise in atmospheric pressure that would hopefully mean a lift in the clouds. The path dropped to a saddle no wider than a size 10 boot. Ropes draped across both sides of the knife-edge ridge as I leaped across and onto a wider section of path. The trail rose abruptly up the other side before dropping once again towards another peak along the ridge that looked more like the recent stock market fluctuations than a mountain ridge.

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After another couple of false peaks, the summit pyramid came into sight. It was now free of cloud and looked like a long-lost sibling of Mt. Takazuma and Mt. Ishizuchi, two of Japan’s more prominent peaks.

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I couldn’t help thinking that if Kyūya Fukada had climbed this mountain, he surely would have chosen this mountain over its close neighbor Odai-ga-hara for inclusion in the Hyakumeizan. Indeed, the Hokuriku native did not have a lot of first-hand knowledge of the mountains of Kansai. I’m sure he would have been delighted to catch sight of White Beard Mountain truly living up to its name.

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Reaching the summit in an exhausted heap, I perched down on the lee side of the summit, with vistas to the north all the way to Osaka city. Ice had formed in my water bottle as a quick check of my thermometer revealed temperatures well below freezing, which would explain the rime ice. I pulled my phone out of a side pocket and tried calling Nao to let him know that I had safely reached the summit. He didn’t pick up though, which meant his photo was probably stowed away deep in his pack.

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I dug into my bento lunch, sipping hot water in between bites of cold food. Even though I hardly had an appetite, I forced the food down, knowing that it would help keep me warm and it would supply vital energy on the return leg. Occasionally the wind would pick up and send an arctic gust through all three layers of clothing. After the third such gust, I shouldered the gear and started to set off back down towards Ko-Shirahige, when a flash of red caught my eye. Nao had popped out of the ridge below and reached the summit. He hugged each other and he suggested I start down ahead of him. Instead, I re-joined him on the top and used the opportunity to force more nutrients into my stomach. We took a summit shot together and then admired the vistas towards both the Omine range and Oda-ga-hara, both of which were still concealed in cloud.

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After just a few minutes of rest, Nao was ready to head back down. Tomoko had retreated just below the summit of Ko-Shirahige, and we were both keen to head back as quickly as we could. The trek back to Little White Mountain had taken just as long as the ascent, as we marveled at how far we had come earlier. The vistas towards the Daiko range had now opened up, as the cloud lifted from Mt. Azami and Mt. Myojin, two peaks I’d scaled during warmer, greener times.

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We reached the car at 3pm, just 5-1/2 hours after setting out. Most hikers take at least 6 hours for the climb, but the freezing weather ensured our brisk pace. The mountain truly lived up to its name and reputation, and  a repeat visit is in order, but the next time around it’ll be during the warmer months when I can appreciate the mountain on my own terms instead of letting Mother Nature dictate.

 

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Maybe it was the report from NHK about the Ootō mountains that concerned me. With an annual rainfall average of 4000 mm, the mountain range tucked away in central Wakayama Prefecture is only slightly drier than Odaigahara, one of Kansai’s wettest places. The frequent rains and high humidity provide the perfect habitat for the yamahiru, or Japanese mountain leech. Trip reports from other bloggers recommended that hikers best avoid the Ootō mountains during the warm summer months. Perhaps Ayako and I were tempting fate with our plan for an early June ascent, but with only 4 mountains left on the list, it was now or never.

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Ayako picked me up at Gobo station just before 10am as the last of the morning mists were starting to burn off for the day. The asphalt still lay heavy from the overnight rains as she pointed the car east, away from the coastal sea spray and deep into the heart of Wakayama Prefecture. Most guidebooks recommend an ascent from the east through a narrow gorge that follows the headwaters of the Koza river, but this access route required an additional two hours of driving, time that we simply could not afford to lose. My map showed an alternative approach up the northern face of the massif, a straight shot along a winding forest road just off of route 371. It was this same junction that we passed back in March on our maiden ascent of Hansamine. It took nearly two hours of navigating an incredibly twisted and thin slice of concrete to reach an unmarked gate that led to the start of the hike.

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We stepped out into the refreshingly brisk air, sorting through kit between bites of rice balls and energy bars. We’d need those calories for the 700-meter vertical elevation gain spread out over just a couple of kilometers. The clouds still hung tightly to the ridge somewhere high above us, but a rise in the pressure on my barometer indicated a favorable window for the afternoon climb. The first part of the approach was along an abandoned forest road following a swift-moving mountain stream. The path terminated at a pair of cryptomeria trees estimated to be over half a century in age. Between the gap in the trees a small shrine has been erected, along with a signpost indicating that the towering cedar has been selected as one of the ‘100 Forest Giants of Japan‘.

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The path started just opposite this old growth relic. I took the lead, tramping through the soft cedar needles still damp from the incessant rains of late. With my trekking pole gripped tightly in my left hand, I reached the first switchback, no more than 15 meters away from the forest road. In that short space of time, barely 30 seconds by my watch, a mountain leech had jumared up my trekking pole and latched onto my left index finger. It was tiny, less than the length of a toothpick, but the grip it had on my cuticle required the force of both the thumb and index finger of my right hand to remove the blood-sucking creature. Fortunately it had only latched on to the nail and had not started extracting blood.

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Ayako jumped back in surprise as I flicked the leech back to the forest floor. It was early in the season, and the segmented worms has just awoken from their winter slumber, eager for a taste of fresh blood. “If we run into any more then we’ll turn around”, I proclaimed, setting her mind at ease ever so slightly. Constant vigilance is required to spot the mountain leeches. They can not only climb up your trekking poles and trousers but they can also abseil from the foliage above, landing on your neck for a vampire-esque attack. Such sustained scanning is exhausting, but I was determined not to let out unwanted guests get the upper hand.

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Tightening the dials on my boa laces, I tucked my hiking pants snug against my boots, creating a makeshift gaiter that would hopefully keep the leeches from getting inside my shoes. The system seemed to work, for a few hundred meters higher up the valley, I caught another leech in mid-ascent of my thigh and easily plucked it off my beige hiking pants. I decided not to disclose my discovery to Ayako, hoping that we’d be out of the leech zone once we breached the ridge. It was a steady climb of about an hour before we did reach the ridge. Just before topping out a leech had dropped from a branch above and landed on my arm, I made quick work of it before it could gain purchase.

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We took our first break when the contours flattened out, near an unnamed peak that the map simply calls ‘849’ in reference to its altitude. The crux of the climb was over, or so we thought. Even though we only had 300 meters of vertical elevation, the first thing the trail did was to drop 100 vertical meters to a saddle, where we greeted the northern face of the mountain head on. It was an improvised scramble up a root-infested spur for the better part of an hour. The only saving grace in the slog were the vistas opening up directly in back – the low-lying cloud had finally risen.

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In spite of the pitch, the route was clearly marked with red tape affixed to the trees, and it was simply a matter of using the exposed roots as a natural staircase to inch our way towards the summit plateau. At the top of the rise we reached an unmarked junction, where our alternative path merged with the main path on the true ridge of the Ootō range. After dropping to a saddle, we faced one final, steep climb through a network of net and wire fences erected to keep the deer at bay.

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Such fencework seems overkill, but the western and southern faces of the summit plateau have been destroyed by the deer, who have killed the trees by stripping them of bark. In addition, they’ve eaten all the seedlings, which prevents any new trees from growing in these grassy areas. Unheeded, these open areas allow more sunlight, wind, and heat to penetrate the summit plateau, which is causing stress on the beech, fir, and hemlock trees that still keep a watchful eye on the forest floor. Such post-war cedar plantations failed to penetrate the upper reaches of the massif, thanks in no small part to the Taisho-era government, who back in 1924 designated the Ootō mountains as a protected forest.

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The destruction of the trees on the summit did have one positive effect, however, as visitors can now get a bird’s eye view of the entire Ootō range. Peering over the fence, I could follow the contours of the ridge all the way over to Mt. Hōshi, just one of three remaining mountains on the Kansai 100 list. If I had more time I could simply work my way over there, but with the leech season in full swing, it seemed better to wait.

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On the return descent back to the car, the afternoon heat had dried the trail, sending the leeches back into the burrows on the bottom of the forest floor, so the blood-suckers were nowhere in sight. Peak #97 of the 100 was now in the books, and with just a trio of peaks standing in my way, I now had a clear shot of finishing before the end of the year.

 

 

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Mt. Azami gnawed away at my conscience like a caterpillar on a sakura leaf, but opportunities for a rematch did not present themselves until Paul and Josh came to inquire about another trip. Seizing the chance to revisit the area, we marked off a weekend in mid-May and hoped for more favorable conditions from both the weather gods and the intestinal deities.

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Paul missed his connecting train, so after a bit of a hiccup we once again met at Haibara station and headed to the same supermarket as the previous year to stock up on supplies. This time we added instant noodles for reinforcements in case the curry packs didn’t work their caloric magic and just around 11am we reached the trailhead parking lot, which was even more packed than our first trip.

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Trails tend to be much easier the second time around, as we knew what to expect. The water crossings did not pose any problems, but Paul’s slight head cold did slow our progress a bit. He looked a little worse for wear, but we encouraged him as best we could under the stellar sunshine and pleasant breezes seeping down from the ridge high above up. It took only an hour to reach the water source just below the grassy plateau. Josh pushed on to scope out possible camping options – we’d do anything to avoid the mayhem of the large hiking groups. I sat with Paul as he gathered his remaining reserves of energy for the final rise to our sheltered lunch spot.

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We sat under the open-air shelter, the same one we had used the previous year to prepare our meals. Josh informed us that there were plenty of shaded camping spots in the beech forests on the northern slopes just off the abandoned ski runs. Lunch was devoured in near-record time as Paul collapsed on a grassy slope for a bit of a rest. We were really starting to worry about him and encouraged him to have a proper nap once we had set up camp.

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In the forested reaches of the plateau, camping parties were dotted at pleasant intervals – not too close for comfort this time around. There was plenty of space to go around but completely flat spaces were few and far between. Luckily this time I opted for a simple canopy in lieu of a proper tent, so I found the perfect grassy niche and dropped my kit there as a reminder of other parties not to get too close. Josh and Paul set up nearby while I gathered stones for our fire pit.

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Once set up was complete, Paul collapsed in his tent and could hardly move. He was done for the day, and we could only hope his condition would improve after a bit of shut-eye. Josh and I strapped on the day packs and hit the trail in high spirits. We only made it about 20 meters out of camp before running into another hiking party with one familiar member. “Wes?”, came the voice. I turned around and stood face-to-face with Yukako, a woman who had joined our last gathering back in the autumn. She introduced me to her hiking companions before we parted ways. Dreadfully, they were headed down that same day after a morning ascent of Hinokizuka. It would have been nice to share our campfire with a group of cheery bright-eyed Osakans, but it was not to be.

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From the plateau, the path skirts the edge of the abandoned ski fields until reaching the summit of Maeyama. From there, it was a pleasant walk along the undulating ridge glistening with fresh greenery and vibrant moss. The cooler temperatures this spring had kept the snakes at bay as well, so things were definitely going our way. It took about an hour to top out on Azami’s rocky perch, whose exposed summit afforded spellbinding vistas of Odai-ga-hara and the Omine mountains. The afternoon haze reduced visibility somewhat, but it sure beat the drenching rains and thick fog that would’ve blotted out the views had we attempted this mountain the previous year.

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It took nearly the same amount of time to retrace our steps back into camp, where luckily no one else had encroached our space. Paul was just beginning to emerge from his afternoon comatose, looking and feeling much better. They got started on the campfire while I set up my shelter. I had recently bought this shelter from Locus Gear and was keen to give it a test run. Not expecting any morning dew or fog, I opted to go without a sleeping bag cover and just use the bug net for protection against the mosquitos.

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Settled around the fire we soon became, munching down on chickpea curry and chunks of french bread. Josh cracked the beers like a high school kid on his first outing, his drunken monologue leaving us in stitches until he passed out after retreating to his tent to fetch something. With the full moon now risen, Paul and I headed out to the plateau to shoot the night scenery.

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Morning came calm and clear, with more glorious sunshine and nary a cloud in sight. We cooked up breakfast and coffee, which set my bowels in motion again. I retreated further uphill, digging a hole next to a downed tree and deposited my load, only to find that I had misplaced my toilet paper. I was pretty sure that I had brought it with me when I came up there. I frantically searched all around before limping into camp to borrow some tissues from Josh. By the time I had made it back to the toilet there were literally hundreds of black flies devouring my excrement.

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Since Paul felt a bit better, we embarked on a morning excursion to the summit of nearby Mt. Kunimi which, at 1420 meters above sea level, sits higher than Mt. Azami. The steep climb took about 30 minutes to reach, so we continued along the ridge for another hour or so until reaching the shores of an idyllic, cordiform pond that would surely be packed with star-crossed lovers if the forest roads had made it this far north.

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It was hard not to be happy with such remarkable scenery and cooperative weather patterns. We continually had to remind ourselves that we were still in the Kansai region and not strolling along a swooping ridgeline in Nagano.

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Once back at camp, we cooked up noodles for lunch and broke down the shelters before dropping back down to the parking lot. Could Myojin-daira possibly be Kansai’s best back-country campground? Both visits have been impressive to say the least, but such bold conclusions could not be made with some sort of comparative analysis. Perhaps next year the three of us will head to the Omine mountains to see how it measures up to Myojin’s laid-back vibe.

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