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Archive for the ‘Kansai hikes’ Category

Back in 2013, Ted and I traversed along the ridge between Hieizan and Ōhara on a hot and sticky summer day. Instead of traversing directly on the ridge, the Tokai Shizen Hōdō cuts through the lower valley to Yokawa before rejoining the main ridge at a junction with the Kyoto Isshu trail. I double-check the route that Ted and I took and cross reference it with the list of the Ōhara 10 and yes, it looks like another trip is necessary in order to walk along the true ridge connecting Mizui and Daibi, two more of the elusive 10. So in early December I once again find myself aboard that Demachiyanagi-to-Ōhara bus that snakes along route 367, but just outside of the village I alight at the aptly named Tozanguchi bus stop for the long climb up to the ridge.

This tozanguchi, of course, refers to one of the side trails leading to Hieizan, the land of the Tendai faithful. Before the ropeway was built on the Kyoto side of the mountain, this was one of the main tracks up the peak, but here in the overcast sky of early winter I find myself with no one other than a gentle breeze pushing in from the west. The route is named the Ganzan Daishi (no) Michi, a route connecting Oogi village in Shiga Prefecture to Yase in Kyōto via the Ganzan Daishi Hall in Yokawa. Gazan Daishi, otherwise known as Ryōgen, is the 9th century monk best known for overseeing an army of purported armed mercenaries vowed to protect Hieizan from rival Buddhist factions. Perhaps this very route was staffed by hidden assassins during the more turbulent times in the history of the Tendai sect. If such ghosts haunt these hidden reaches of this sacred peak, I will soon find out.

The path climbs steeply above route 367 with vistas back across the valley toward Hyotankuzure lathered in late autumn hues. At a weather-beaten jizō statue the path splits: the right fork leads up the kurodani to Seiryūji temple while to my left the trail continues straight to a mountain pass just below Mt Yokotaka. The Lions club have done hikers a great service (or some would say disservice) by marking the route with shiny metal signposts affixed at roughly every 200 feet along the ever steepening route. I pick up the pace, confident that, like most trails in Japan, the #10 signpost will place me comfortably on the ridge.

With a soft coating of wet foliage under my feet and the comfortable sound of solitude guiding my thoughts I fall into that tozan trance, pausing briefly to snap photos of the surprisingly pristine forest. Oak, chestnut, hemlock and fir trees tower over the constricted valleys of Yase, awing me in their sheer beauty. This is in great contrast to the cedar smothered western face of Hieizan. I guess this steep terrain is too much for the forestry service to farm.

After a steady climb of close to an hour I finally reach signpost #10 but am nowhere near the top of the ridge, so I shrug my shoulders and push on through the last of the autumn leaves clinging tightly to the bowed branches above. The gradient finally relents after signpost #13, as the snaking switchbacks give way to a narrow traverse on the side of a valley marred by the toppled trees of a recent typhoon just below the true summit ridge. A few more minutes of gentle climbing and I reach the mountain pass, where the Kyoto isshu trails and Tokai Shizen Hōdō paths diverge. The Kyoto trail continues along the ridge to Yokokawa while the Tokai drops down to Yokawa.  A trio of ancient statuary greet me at this junction, along with a Eureka moment of realization that this is exactly where Ted and I rested back in 2013. If only we had continued along the Kyoto trail at this very junction would my ascent of Mt Mizui have been complete.

The summit of Yokotaka is now within arms reach, so rather than rest at the junction I push on through a maze of exposed tree roots to find a toppled log on the summit awaiting me, a perfect place to rest the haunches and endulge in a late morning snack. Yokotaka feels like an Ōhara 10 summit, but somehow has been left off the list. Perhaps there is some geographical designation to these lists of peaks, meaning they have to reside withing a certain radius of Ōhara village. Or better yet, perhaps the list makers did not ascent my path of choice and have left Yokotaka to her own vices and free from the Ōhara baggers.

Northward I turn, dropping off the southern face of the peak toward Oogi-tōge, basically running parallel to the path that Ted and I took in 2013. While we opted for the lower road to Yokawa, I enjoy the tranquility and the beauty of the deciduous forest laid bare by the frosty gales of winter. To my leftI can glimpse views of the Kyoto skyline, while on my right I spy the snowcapped Suzuka mountains floating off on the horizon through a wall of muted gray cloud. It is just a short drop and steep climb to the tree-covered summit of 794m Mt Mizui, my 6th of the Ōhara 10 and the highest elevation of the day. A row of benches on the broad summit beckon me over, so I eat the remainder of my lunch while glimpsing the tip of a very white Mt Horai off to the north.

Into the cedar forests I reluctantly descend, for the proximity of the Hiei Driveway gives the loggers easy access to a motherlode of monocultural delights. My progress is halted by the sounds of a diesel engine and the crunch of a cedar tree being sucked of life by a giant excavator. Such environmental destruction would normally set me off, but every toppled cedar is one less source of pollen to poison my lungs. I just hope the tree thinning experiment by this bored construction worker (it is a weekend after all) will not result in more cedar saplings to replace the trees taken by the Komatsu regime.

Yellow tape marks wrapped around cedar trees soon catch my eye, printed with the English letters Biwako Hira Hiei Trail. I take a photo for post-hike investigation and do find that a new so-called ‘Long Trail’ is being constructed to connect Kutsuki village in Shiga to Kyoto along the Hira and Hiei mountain ranges. The 60km route takes in 15 peaks above 1000 meters in elevation, including Buna-ga-take, and the rest of the afternoon I will be following this route over to Mt Daibi. It sure seems like a worthy traverse in good weather, as Hakusan, Ontake, and part of the Japan Alps can be glimpsed on days with good visibility.

Oogi-tōge sits on a saddle below the summit of Mt Ono and marks the place where both the Kyoto trail and Tokai Shizen drop off the ridge down to Ōhara, but I stick to the ridge into unexplored territory. The map time allocates 90 minutes to reach Mt Daibi, so I slow down the pace and take in the views through a massive clear cut section of trail. Mt Ibuki and Mt Ryōzen both float above low-lying clouds, gleaming white in the muted colors of the afternoon. If not for the blue hue of the horizon you could easily mistake the scene for a black-and-white movie, as even the surface of Lake Biwa lies still and gray in this eerie hour of the afternoon.

I soon reenter thick forests of cedar as the sun finally breaks through the clouds briefly before ducking back down for cover. The summit of Mt Ono sits in a small pocket of deciduous growth spared from the greedy hands of the forestry service as I once again pause to refuel for the final climb of the day. The Lions club once again ensures that no one will get lost on this section of path, which soon drops and follows a concrete forest road along the ridge for most of the way anyway. Once off the pavement, the ridge turns wild and narrow, the most exciting section of track of the day. I soon pop out on the summit of Daibi and reward myself with a fresh brew of coffee and chocolate.

An unmarked trail leads off the summit plateau due west, so I carry the GPS in my hand while traversing on a narrow spur before commencing a knee-knocking descent down towards Ōhara village. It is a short descent to the top of a narrow gorge lined with a series of waterfalls. I soon reach San-no-taki and carefully descend via a series of metal chains and ladders. I soon enter a very narrow and constricted valley choked with toppled trees and typhoon debris. All signs of a working trail are gone, so I climb atop one of the trees to peer further down the gorge and see tape marks at the end of a maze of fallen cedars. I work my way over, under, and sometimes through an absolute mess of a disaster zone. Perhaps the forestry people could stop cutting down perfectly healthy trees and forage for wood among the thousands of trees destroyed during last several years of ravaging typhoons.

Once out of the mess, I descend down an exposed trail past two more waterfalls before reaching a paved road that leads down to Sanzen-in. I never knew such thrilling scenery sat on Ōhara’s doorstep and the adrenaline rush from a sketchy end to the hike begins to wear off as I reach the entrance to Sanzen-in, Ōhara’s crown jewel. I fork over the entrance free and reach the main garden, splurging on a bowl of fresh maccha while sitting on the engawa taking in the moss-covered scenery. With so few people around this time of year, I really relish in the quiet surroundings and lack of tourists. Little do I know that just 4 months later this very temple will be shuttered to protect itself from a global pandemic changing the modern world as we know it.

 

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The good thing about these Ōhara 10 peaks is that many lie in close proximity, meaning you can string together multiple mountains that are situated on the same ridge line without having to come back time and time again. Jesse, Junjun and I board an early morning Ōhara-bound bus packed to the rafters with foreign tourists and weekend daytrippers. We stand for the 50-minute journey as the bus works its way up the meandering curves of route 367 to the newly refurbished bus terminal. Pausing briefly to rest the haunches and relieve the bowels, we follow the signposts in the direction of Jakkō-in temple for just a couple of minutes until reaching an overgrown track affixed with a wooden sign for Yakesugi.

The dense undergrowth gives way to – you guessed it – a dense forest of cedar. If I had a tank of gasoline and a match I could really make this mountain live up to its name. A smattering of red pine trees break up the monotony as the ridge line is soon breached. A quick dip to a saddle followed by a stead climb leads up to the summit of 717m Yakesugi. Through a small clearing on the southern face we take in a bird’s eye view down to Ōhara and fuel ourselves with steamed chicken, guacamole, and hummus prepared by the skillful hands of Junjun.

Dropping down the western face of the mountain through the green canopy of early June, the three of us make good time and arrive at the main junction that leads to the Konpira ridge line. The true splendor of the Ōhara mountains shines forth as the sun lathes the spur in muted shadows accompanied by that warm gentle breeze that precedes the start of the rainy season. This is by far one of my favorite times of the year to hike – still pleasant enough without the stifling heat and humidity soon to follow.

The next peak on the ridge is nothing more than a tree-lined hump in an otherwise nondescript location. Despite the relative lack of effort, we do settle in for a leisurely break while talk shifts to psychedelics and altered states of reality. Talk mind you, for such indulgences are not looked on kindly by the stringent drug laws of this land. Mt Suitai does feature in the Tales of Heike, so despite its modest 577m stature, it might appeal to history buffs looking to walk in the paths of fallen samurai.

We push up higher up the ridge, for perhaps my 3rd or 4th ascent of Konpira. A junction sits just below the summit plateau, where paths fan out in a few directions. Without a bit of GPS intuition it would be easy to miss the triangulation point. The main trail to the high point ascends  to a shrine and along a craggy ridge of eroded rock and typhoon-pummeled trees. A rock formation affords pleasant vistas through the hazy summer skies toward Kyoto city, but we push on, dropping to a saddle before the final climb to the tree-covered top, my fifth peak of the Ōhara 10 and halfway to my goal.

Retreating back to the junction, Junjun takes the lead on the broad ridge past the unmarked junction that leads to the top of rock face popular with local climbers. The contours constrict as the path drops abruptly to the mossy precincts of Kotohira shrine before switchbacking down to a lovely stream that leads us out to the main road to Shizuhara. Just before reaching the road we pass an elderly hiker who inquires about the leech conditions on the trail we had just descended. Apparently the blood thirsty invertebrates wreak havoc on summer hikers, so we quietly congratulate ourselves on our timing.

The stretch from Shizuhara to Kurama follows both the Kyoto trail and Tokai Shizen Hodo  and makes for a more pleasant setting than fighting off the tourist crowds of neighboring Ōhara. A row of vending machines provide much-needed liquid refreshment before the long climb up Yakko-zaka. The lack of shade forces up to our feet but not for long, as the towering cryptomeria trees of Shizuhara Shrine beckon us, as does the adjacent restroom facility that satisfies our call for nature.

It is a long steep climb, mostly on a concrete-lathered excuse for a mountain trail and past a monstrous construction zone marked by a fortress of clear-cut hillside: either this is typhoon-damage removal or, more likely, the construction industry’s attempt to tame Mother Nature the Lioness. We push on, reaching the pass under a heap of sweat in the fading daylight. By the time we reach Kurama station we are in need of a shower and some serious refreshment.

With the halfway point in my Ōhara 10 quest, I turn my attention to the eastern ridge of Hieizan and the mighty Mt Daibi.

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Mt Ama sits snugly on a elongated ridge between the secluded hamlets of Kurama and Ōhara, a fitting place to start my exploration of the 10 peaks. I alight from the Eizan train under clear April skies and trot through the deserted streets of Kurama to the turnoff for the Tokai Shizen Hodō that provides passage to Shizuhara and beyond to Ōhara.

Yakko-zaka pass is reached in good time, a chance to wipe the sweat from my brow before taking a faint path on my right in the entirely opposite direction of my target peak. An unexplored trail on my map beckons, as in my recent hiking excursions I purposely seek out these smaller, lesser known trails literally off the beaten path. Red tape marks affixed to the trees help guide me through a thick, neglected hardwood forest. Free from any sort of regular maintenance, it soon becomes a fruitful exercise of climbing up, over and sometimes through toppled timbers and head on into a labyrinth of sticky spider webs, quickly reminding me of why I am less-than-enthusiastic about hiking in the early summer.  After a false summit, the path flattens and reaches a stone stupa adorning the summit crest of Mt. Ryūō . Here, through a gap in the trees, I find what I have long sought – a clear view across the valley directly down on Kurama temple. 

Exultation reached, I slither back to the pass for a quick rest before heading on the main path along a broad ridge teeming with new greenery. Mountain azaleas add a touch of pink and purple to the proceedings as I scoot along a deserted trail on unfamiliar terrain. These hidden stretches of northern Kyoto city are truly magical, as even on weekends you’ll be hard pressed to run into other hikers. I continue at a steady pace, slashing spider webs with my trekking poles as Mt Kibune keeps watch across a parallel ridge, with the slender village of Kurama sandwiched between. I only gaze upon this spectacle in small snippets, as the spring foliage has once again begun to fill the gaps between the canopy overhead. A winter ascent of this ridge must truly provide some breathtaking scenery. 

It takes nearly two hours along a very pleasant undeveloped section of forest to reach a small clearing as a lone Japanese hiker sits on a log just opposite Amagatake’s summit signpost. We immediately commence in tozan banter, that familiar mix of peak namedropping and quizzing of climbing experience that encompasses nearly every conversation you encounter over mountaintop lunches. It soon becomes clear that my companion is a very experienced mountaineer, so I hit him up for some local knowledge. “The rhododendrons are in full bloom at the moment, so I recommend taking this route down” explains my guide, pointing to a dotted trail on my map named, appropriately enough, shakunage one. How can one resist the temptation to hike rhododendron spur in the height of the flower season?

Armed with this bit of insider knowledge, I drop off the northern face of Mt Ama and immediately hit a dirt forest road carved into the steep hillside, literally within spitting distance of the top. It’s a bit of a buzzkill to climb a mountain from a long undeveloped ridge only to find such desecration on a more developed face. I stay on the left shoulder of the deserted road, reaching a spur trail to my left that leads to a clearing pierced with an electrical pylon. At least the lack of trees do provide a soothing vistas toward Kyoto to the south.

I retrace my steps back to the road and engage in a bit of hide-and-seek with the trail. I follow a faint path to the east that isn’t marked on either the paper maps nor on my GPS. That inner hunch takes over, and I soon retrace my steps just before the trail begins dropping down the eastern face. If this were a ‘proper’ trail you would expect to see a signpost or at least a tape mark or two. Back at the junction I peer over the crest of the ridge and spot the real trail traversing just below the northern crest. Pausing, I gather fallen tree limbs and erect a barrier over the false trail on the ridge in hopes of preventing future climbing parties from falling victim to the same mistake.

The route follows the contours of the spur before switchbacking through pleasant swaths of mountain azaleas in brilliant shades of pink. I make good progress through the tunnel of vibrant foliage and reach the turnoff for the rhododendron spur, denoted by a signpost affixed to a rhododendron bush in full bloom. My map says the traverse should take about an hour so I slow down the pace and take in the scenery on a section of track completely void of people. In Kansai it’s surprisingly easy to find deserted hiking trails, even on the weekends.

The up down undulations of the spur give the legs an extra workout, but my fatigue is mitigated by the subtle scent of the colorful flowers keeping watch over the track. This year the rhododendron have bloomed early, for I rarely find myself in the hills during the peak season of early June, turned away as I am by the humidity and stifling temperatures. I soon reach another electrical pylon affording panoramic views of nothing but wilderness in all directions. Who knew that such untamed beauty existed in these hills surrounding Ōhara village?

Descent comes abruptly via a no-nonsense, knee-knocking descent back down to a secluded valley. I reach a forest road and turn left and then right, passing directly past the trailhead of Naccho, another one of the Ōhara 10 peaks. I resist the urge to climb for now but know that I must come back here someday to complete my quest. The paved road I follow soon bisects route 367. A bus stop here reveals an infrequent bus schedule I have neither the time nor patience for, so I continue tramping down a quiet lane for close to 90 minutes until reaching Ōhara village, passing by a temple gate just outside the main town in quintessential Kyoto fashion.

With the first of 10 peaks now successfully summited, I pore over the maps to plot a course of action for the remaining 9 mountains of Ōhara. 

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Osaka’s Mt Takao

Everyone has heard of Takaosan in Tokyo, but few know about Osaka’s majestic counterpart. Nestled in the southwestern part of the Ikoma mountains, Osaka’s Takaosan may be just a fraction of the height of its Tokyo neighbor, but it boasts an impressive grove of daffodils, providing a refreshing splash of color to the gray days of winter.

It is with these flowers in mind that I team up with my trusty hiking companion Minami, who is preparing for an upcoming winter ascent of Mt Karamatsu in the North Alps. She’s keen to stretch her legs and partake of the floral facade decorating the western face of the mountain. We meet at JR Namba station on a brisk Monday morning for the 45-minute journey to Kashiwara station on the edge of the Ikoma hills.

Our peak rises gently above our peering heads as we navigate the quiet narrow roads of the sleepy town. Shops lay shuttered, yet to awaken from their weekend slumber as shoppers have not begun to make their rounds. The Kashiwara city office is a gaudy display of Showa glory, reinforced concrete walls stained with the extravagance of a forgotten generation of pensioners. We turn left and then right, crossing under the dangling shimenawa of a polished stone torii gate marking the entrance to Nudehike Nudehime shrine, a peculiar name assigned to a sacred precinct with apparent Tendai origins. We reach the shrine grounds and make an offering to the deity before ascending the concrete road to the right of the worship space.

Fortunately we are soon greeted with a proper track tucking into the forest on our left, and soon reach a junction signposted as the entrance to the daffodil grove. A few daffodils lie amongst a swath of lush bamboo grass, enticing us with their presence. We take the left fork, darting into a dark forest of hardwoods on a muddy horizontal traverse through the foothills. Considering the proximity to the city, the cedar groves have been held at bay, the coffers at city hall likely filled with subsidies for residents instead of the forestry workers. This is in line with other observations about urban mountains, because even in Kobe city the Rokkō mountains are spared the cedar blight for the most part.

Minami and I soon reach a large clearing of bamboo grass on our left, with an array of daffodils in full bloom. Access is far from straightfoward, involving an improvised ascent of a stone wall and some careful footfalls between flower stalks. We take a few minutes to capture the scenery with our lenses but soon retreat back to the main trail to continue our upward progress. About a hundred meters further on, we find the mother lode: an absolutely massive daffodil grove, complete with a network of narrow trails so that visitors can get up and close with their petals of choice.

The lack of crowds here is surprising. If this grove were situated on the slopes of Tokyo’s Takao, there would be food stalls and a sizable queue just to enter the garden. Oh, and an entry fee wouldn’t be out of the question. Minami and I explore the vast network of paths completely alone, lost in the interplay of sun and shadow as the clouds whisk through the wintry sky. As I turn the corner on one such idyllic path, I stumble upon a cave entrance marked with an intriguing signpost. Here sits a kofun, or ancient stone tomb, likely dating from the 6th century. Little information is given about the person who was once buried inside, but an engraved map indicates that this is tomb #4 of 11 such graves scattered throughout the Hirano/Ōgata region. An academic survey of the sites is available here in Japanese for those with who are interested.

Rumbles in our tummies remind us that we had better get moving if we want to partake of lunch on the summit. Just above the grove we reach a junction and turn left towards the upper part of the shrine. A lone kannon statue stands gracefully on the top of an unmarked stone carving, a reminder that this peak was once the stomping ground of the esoterics. Adjacent to the altar. a faint path leads straight up a large rock face. I take the lead through the maze of boulders, reaching a clearing at the top of a cliff face flanked with a shinto shrine, the innermost sanctuary of the Nudehike Nudehime shrine we encountered at the trailhead.

We considered having our lunch break here, but the gales pushing in front the north were threatening to send up tumbling off into the abyss, so we push on through another collection of near-vertical scrambles until popping out onto a narrow summit stuffed with a regime of elderly pensioners twenty strong. There is absolutely no room for us to stand among the throng of an oversized tour group, so we wait patiently as they commence their descent. An elderly lady places a few Valentine’s chocolates in my left palm, grateful as I am for her choice of whiskey bonbons. Once the army departs Minami and I are once again left to ourselves, absorbing the warm rays of the sun as we stave off the chill from the strong wind gusts. The chocolate complements the coffee quite nicely as we gaze out over the flatlands of eastern Osaka.

Sitting here on our 277-meter-high perch, I think back to my ascent of Tokyo’s Takao many autumns ago, and still remember the overdeveloped chaos of the concrete-smothered summit. While it may not feature in the Michelin guide, we will gladly take Osaka’s Takaosan any day of the week. Minami and I already make plans for our 2021 winter ascent to once again partake of the flowers and views that can only be found in this forgotten corner of Osaka.

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I cannot count the number of times I have stared at the bulbous hills rising up above the throngs of crowds flowing through the narrow streets of Arashiyama in eastern Kyoto. Could there actually be an Arashiyama situated upon those unassuming peaks? A study of the Yama-to-Kogen map does indeed reveal a dotted line to Mt Arashiyama connecting Hozukyo to Mt Matsuo at the eastern terminus of the Kyoto Trail. William is once again on board for this mission into uncharted waters.

We meet up on platform 31 of Kyoto station’s massive network of rail lines for the 30-minute journey through eastern Kyoto under the leaden skies of an early February morning. Flurries swirl through the air as tourists gaze out of the steamy windows of the carriage in search of plum blossoms. William and I alight among a steady stream of snow settling on the narrow platform of JR Hozukyo station. The temperature hovers around freezing as I slide on an extra pair of gloves. 

Towering directly over the station is Mt Sanjō-ga-mine, an impressively steep edifice looking dauntingly formidable from our current position. The map indicates that safe passage is given via a track starting directly behind the Torokko tracks of Hozukyo. William and I walk north along the narrow forest road, dodging traffic and snow flurries while catching up on recent mountain banter. After crossing a suspension bridge spanning the river, we arrive at the forlorn station, deserted except for a family of tanuki statues keeping watch over the snow-tinged rail lines.

“The track starts here”, I proclaim, slipping under a chain-link fence erected to keep landslide debris from engulfing the station. William continues his search from the safety and sanity of the train tracks. Through the dense undergrowth, I do spot what appear to be footprints, faint as they are in this maze of weeds. The map does indicate a clear trail leading hikers to the ridge, but without any signposts or otherwise obvious signs of welcome, the two of us do what any other mountain men would do in our situation: forge our own path!

After about 50 meters of improvised climbing, we do stumble upon a well-maintained track adorned with a generous helping of tape marks affixed to the trees. Looking left toward the station, we see what looks to be the track terminating at a train tunnel under the tracks! Future climbers are well advised not to go looking for the trailhead within the station compound itself. Simply turn left in front of the station and follow the river to the tunnel, where there is probably a very clear signpost. Or perhaps not. This is Kyoto after all.

The trail wastes no time in lofting us skyward, switchbacking through a gravity-defying spur towards a snow-capped ridge hidden from view. A network of fixed ropes aids in our upward ascent, and we thank ourselves for starting our hike here instead of doing the route in reverse, for such slopes would not be kind to weary knees. William is visually documenting our hike for his youtube channel, so I naturally assist as back-seat cinematographer. I really admire his tenacity, as I have neither the skills nor patience to put together my own videos. One thing viewers may not be aware of is the necessity to set up the camera, film, and then backtrack to pick up the camera, a process that adds not only time but also meters onto our hike.

The cedar choked forests eventually give way to a swath of native deciduous trees covered in fresh rime frost, bringing about a decidedly wintry feel to our outing. The Kansai region has been suffering from an unprecedented lack of snowfall, so seeing the fresh powder smothering the landscape lifts our spirits. At the top of the spur we meet a dirt forest road and ramshackle hut in need of some long-overdue affection. We consider pausing here but the lofty perch of Sanjō rises directly above, almost within spitting distance. The break is best saved for the summit.

It’s funny how such decisions will come back to bite you, for after reaching an unmarked junction just below the final summit push, we leave the main track, following a very unclear patchwork of tape-marked trees that we lose track of more times than not. The dense undergrowth makes matters worse, for every tight squeeze between tree branches shakes loose the snow sitting precariously above. Such bombardments make their way into the space between our craniums and outer layers, sending cold wet snow sinking down our backs. By the time we reach the summit we both look like a pair of battered yeti, but we rejoice upon reaching the top of the 482-meter peak. We pause briefly for a snack after I inadvertently entangle myself among the mesh of a deer-proof fence.

Gingerly we retreat back to the junction and follow a narrow traverse around Sanjō onto an undulating ridge in unexpected sunshine. Despite being dotted on the map, the route is easy to follow and quite enjoyable as we occasionally catch a glimpse of the valley below through gaps in the trees. After crisscrossing several unmarked junctions, we find a peculiar signpost affixed to a tree. Resembling the spectacles of a three-eyed monster, the illustration is indeed a map indicating that each of the three remaining mountains have been adorned with a loop trail.

Turning right to enter the loop anti-clockwise, William and I climb a narrow spur with vistas back to Sanjō directly behing us. At the top of this ascent the path cuts left and reaches the top of Mt Karasu, the crow’s peak. Luckily the blackbirds are nowhere in sight as I dig into my stash of snacks to stave off the hunger. We drop down the far side of the ridge and straight into another snow squall, our third of the day if you count the flurries at the start of our hike. Despite the low battery indicator on his camera, William sets up a brilliant shot to capture our stroll through the snowy scenery. Perhaps this filmmaking hobby is something I should really have a crack at.

The snowstorm intensifies and accompanies us up the final few footfalls to the summit of Arashiyama, the adequately penned ‘Storm Mountain’. I settle on a log bench and finish off my sandwich while the two of us wait for a break in the weather. We both know that the views from here off the eastern face must be pretty spectacular, and judging by the timing of the past two storms, we know that it’s only a matter of minutes until showtime.

Right on queue, the clouds lift, revealing a truly breathtaking sight:

Rejoicing at our immaculate timing, we speed off the ridge in pursuit of our final peak. At a shoulder below the summit we encounter a lone female hiker, looking unsure as to whether to continue towards the summit of Arashiyama. After bidding farewell, we commence the short climb to Mt Matsuo, reaching the junction for the Kyoto trail just a short distance from the highpoint, which is mysteriously devoid of a summit signpost. Instead, a string of Tibetan prayer flags have been strung between a pair of trees, bringing an international flare to the pine-heavy forest.

A short distance from the summit lies a viewpoint, where we can gaze directly down upon the monkey park, a place that William has yet to visit. I do my best to sell him on the merits of frolicking with the monkeys, especially since a bit further down the slopes we find the secret entrance to the park, an access point that bypasses the fee-collection booth. A sign in English indicates that this is not the entrance to the park – if the owner is really intent on keeping freeloaders out then they should erect a barbed-wire fence.

We resist the temptation for a date with macaques and continue through a section of typhoon-ravaged forest before reaching a bamboo forest. If not for the sheet metal affixed to the sides of the gully you could be mistaken for having entered the famed Arashiyama bamboo forest. At least the crowds are nowhere to be found in this hidden grove.

As we pass through the final section of track the skies once again open up, depositing snow flurries on our gear as we navigate the back streets to the station. The both of us collapse on the lush seats of the Hankyu train and reflect upon our epic journey into the secluded hinterlands of western Kyoto.

Willam’s video:

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In a secluded valley, not far from the coastal city of Matsuzaka, stands Ibutaji temple, a sacred space purportedly founded by the legendary 8th century mountain mystic En no Gyōja. The temple is included as part of the Mie 88 Temple circuit, a collection of worship halls modeled after the Shikoku 88, though I suspect that the Mie counterpart attracts just a fraction of the ‘temple baggers’ that circumnavigate Shikoku’s ohenrō path. The main deity here is Yakushi, the buddha of healing, and I balance his heavy weight on my shoulders as Hisao, Haru and I take our first steps up Mt Kokuhō towards the start what can only be described as the ‘loop of enlightenment’.

Access to the gyōja course is only granted after forking over 500 yen to the old lady guarding the temple coffers. She explains each precipice in great detail, giving crucial advice with the help of laminated photographs. I stare at each obstacle with a gaping mouth, trying to hang on to every detail flying out of her mouth as my heart immediately begins to race. Exposure has never been my forte, but I do relax a bit upon hearing that each ‘obstacle’ has a built-in detour route for those less than comfortable with cheating death.

The path switchbacks past several buddhist statues and altars, with Aizen Myō’ō making a timely appearance before the path dead ends at a cliff face guarded by a beautiful carving of En no Gyōja. This is the start of the Aburakoboshi (lit: oil spilling), a near-vertical climb straight up the cliff face. A safer, less exposed route has been affixed to our left, but the three of us confront our fears by heading up the direttissima. Haru takes the lead, clambering up the rock face without using the chains at all – clearly he is comfortable with exposure. I take a more measured approach, opting to grasp the chain with one hand while finding a firm handhold and sturdy places for my feet as I inch my way up to the top. The last 10 meters are truly terrifying, as the footholds disappear and you literally have to pull yourself up over the lip to the top. How Haru was able to do this unassisted still baffles me, but in the early morning backlight his secret remains just that.

At the top of the headwall we turn right along a narrow path affixed with a chain-link guardrail to reach Iwaya Hondō, the main sanctuary of the temple. Fortunately this is Hisao’s second visit to the area, and he provides a detailed explanation of what is involved: “just scramble up the bouldering wall to the right of the temple, and then hoist yourself up the chain to the top of the rock face”. Haru once again starts up without hesitation, and when he is out of earshot Hisao turns to me and confesses that we don’t actually have to ascend that way, as a much better alternative is to retrace our steps and climb the rock face from a less exposed side. We race up there just in time to witness Haru scaling the smooth surface of the cliff in his best imitation of Spiderman.

The temple caretaker warned us that one slip here would mean the end, so I am glad for my decision to skip this test of faith. The route continues along a broad ridge that is more akin to the hikes that I usually take. We follow the contours as they snake over to a parallel ridge to the summit of Otensho, not to be confused with its more famous neighbor in the Kita Alps.

After a few more undulating bumps in the ridge, the path traverses up and over a series of small boulders revealing splendid views towards undeveloped folds of mountains to the west. We soon reach the base of Kurakake-iwa or hanging saddle rock. Buttressed on our right by the uprooted base of a toppled tree, a series of scuff marks leads up to the top of the saddle, as if you’re trying to climb onto a giant sandstone horse. With no chains to aid in our ascent, we propel ourselves against the force of gravity, using our hands when necessary to help where our shoe treads fail to thwart our downward momentum. The views really start to open up here, with the snowcapped peaks of the Suzuka range just beginning their awakening from their morning fog-induced slumber.

We skittle off the back of the rock, having to leap off in one point over a meter drop to the lower portion of the rock formation, but the footholds are good. A few meters of traversing through a pine grove brings us to Koshiri-kaeshi rock, better known as the ‘place for people with small bottoms to turn around’. Or perhaps it’s only passable for people with small behinds. I guess I will find out soon enough.

The initial scramble up to the high point of the boulder is easy enough, but the far end is punctuated by a 10-meter chain section dangling off a cliff of smooth, weather beaten stone. Hisao takes the lead, gingerly lowering himself off the abyss with the skill of a trained ninja assassin. Up steps Haru, dropping down half the distance without even turning around or using his arms for support. His balance is uncanny, with the grace and skill of a nimble feline on display. Finally it is my turn, as I turn around and awkwardly lower myself to the first hand and foot holds. My camera is dangling off my arm, threatening to impale itself on the rock face in front of me, while my rucksack only serves to pull me uncomfortably downward. I hesitate, deciding that something must be done about the cumbersome camera. I climb back up to the start and stuff my camera in my bag, but it only serves to burden me even more with its weight. I really should have left the sack in the car and just come up with a water bottle attached by carabiner. 

Hisao shouts up words of encouragement as I lower myself, and retreat, a second time, confidence fully shattered. Maybe I’m just getting old, but the thought of one false step here meaning Ibuki would be without a father and Kanako having to eek out an living as a single mother is too much to erase from my mind. “You can retreat if you like,” shouts Hisao, “your ass is small enough.” 

I retrace my steps back to the start of the rock and traverse a narrow path along the base of the climb, where I rejoin Hisao and Haru. Give me a chain to climb any day of the week and I’ll gladly take you up on your offer, but ask me to descend a vertigo-inducing void by way of a series of metal links and you’ll likely receive the one-fingered salute.

We continue on, reaching the aptly-penned Tobi-iwa or flying rock. Again, after a short steep scramble to the top, we are faced with yet another unnerving chain section. This one looks more manageable with a lot better footholds, but I’m just not feeling it. I gladly opt for the safer traverse below the rock.

With the worse of the exposure behind us, I begin to relax as we trample over a series of smaller boulders with jaw-dropping views directly across the valley to the Iwaya Hondō. The boulder looks absolutely formidable from here, as a trio of visitors stand in front of the sanctuary debating on whether to test their faith.  

From here, the path drops abruptly through a steep, muddy gully with poor traction that gives Hisao an uneasy look. He takes off first, slipping and sliding down the root-infested spur, barely maintaining his posture and composure. For some reason, however, this is the terrain in which I am most comfortable, and I leap from root to root like a antelope in search of prey. The grade is quite similar to the boulder formations that spooked me out earlier, but perhaps it’s just a psychological crutch I have yet to overcome. I do certainly have the experience with boulder descending via chains, but perhaps I have put up some sort of psychological barrier since becoming a father.

The flat ground once again greets us, but one final test stands in our way. Carved into the steep contours of the hillside is a stone staircase, completely free of handrails or other helpful aids. To make matters worse, each stair has been constructed with a size 5 shoe in mind. Hisao chooses a winter mountaineering technique of side-stepping down the 350 or so stairs to the bottom. Thinking on my feet, I scrounge through the undergrowth next to the start and fetch out a pair of toppled tree limbs that I mold into improvised trekking poles. At least if I did slip I could perhaps stop myself from suffering a most unfortunate slinky tumble to my demise.

Back at the temple, we revisit the caretaker who checks our name off the safe list of visitors. Apparently there are several devotees that do not return from their self-guided shugendō training. She asks us if we are planning on doing the smaller secondary gyōja loop on the other side of the road. It’s a shorter course with just two tests of faith, but I have had enough rolls of the dice for one day. I suggest that we head to Mt Hossaka instead for a proper hike instead. Hisao and Haru instantly agree to a safer change of plan.  

 

 

 

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There are some mountains that seem to be cursed, with an unseen force placing obstacles in your way as if subtly suggesting you stay away.  Mt. Kuruhi is one such peak. It all started around 15 years ago during a winter visit to the rustic hot spring town of Kinosaki in northern Hyōgo Prefecture. Kanako and I drop our things at a minshuku on the edge of town and walk along route 3 and under the tracks of the JR San’in line to the trailhead. We are greeted with a rotting snow base of 70 centimeters, so on go the crampons as we head up an incredibly steep and unstable spur. The further we climb, the more rotten the snow. We manage a modest 100 meters of vertical elevation gain before making the wise choice to retreat back to the hot spring baths. Mt. Kuruhi would have to wait for another time, preferably during the green season.

Fast forward to January 2020 as I search for a hike to usher in the new decade. A brief pocket of high pressure moves in over the Sea of Japan, bringing a rare day of sunshine sandwiched between days of continuous rain and cloud. Due to the unusually warm winter, the first snowfalls have yet embraced the Kansai region, so I bite the bullet and board the 7:32am train for Kinosaki. The train departs under leaden skies and enters a thick blanket of fog soon after navigating the tunnels to Kamioka. The mist is thick and accompanies me for most of the 2-1/2 hour train journey. It is only after reaching Toyooka city to the far north does the sun start to vaporize the mist. A brilliant shade of blue shines in its place.

I alight among the weekend crowds and make my way over to the ticket counter to purchase the return leg of my journey, and settle on the 3:30pm train. That will give me 5-1/2 hours to hit the peak and an onsen, which should be more than enough time, right?  I exit the station amidst a strong winter gale blowing in from the north, forcing me to reach for the hat and gloves. Route 3 is just as I remember it, a flat thoroughfare squeezed between the train tracks and the banks of the Maruyama river. There’s hardly room for a shoulder on this thin stretch of highway, so I pick up the pace and duck behind tufts of overgrown weeds to avoid those careless truck drivers who never budge an inch. I always wonder if it’s some kind of sadistic game for these lunatics, whizzing as close to pedestrians as they possibly can as their way of showing us who’s boss.

It takes about 20 minutes to reach the turnoff to the trailhead, but I am blocked by a wall of construction cranes barring my way. The good old end-of-year construction is in full force, as the river bank “needs” an extra layer of concrete to help keep those flood waters at bay. Through the fenced off forest road I can literally see the trailhead 50 meters ahead, but the gatekeeping flagmen point to a road sign indicating the need for a long detour to start my hike. Although there is no construction in progress on the trailhead side of the road, I am denied entry and have no other choice but to comply with their demands. I continue walking past the construction zone and turn into a small hamlet, completing a large and unnecessary doubling back to reach the start of the hike. This will add an extra 30 minutes to an already tight schedule.

The detour takes me past weathered houses and down a narrow lane running between rice fields on my right and vegetable gardens tucked up against the steep slopes of the mountain to my left. Barking sounds soon emanate from a patch of napa cabbage as a 20-strong troupe of macaques flee my abrupt invasion. They know they’re not supposed to be raiding the farmers fields but they’re also far from amused to be caught in the act. While most retreat to the trees, the alpha stands ground, hissing as me as I avoid eye contact and make myself appear as big as possible until reaching a wider section of road where I can give him proper berth.

Once past the primate menace I duck through a fence erected across the road and reach the trailhead under completely different conditions from my last winter climb there. The lack of snow is clear, but unfortunately the mountain is still in the process of drying out from a series of rain spells. I strip down to my base layer and shoulder my pack up the steep switchbacks toward the top of the spur. The exposure here is real and I question my decision to have even attempted this peak in the snow. A pair of buddhist statues have been erected every several hundred meters or so, serving not only as trail markers but also to pay homage to Mt Kuruhi’s Shugendō roots.

The views really open up as the track navigates through a narrow tussock of head-high boulders, revealing salivating river views directly below. The noise of the construction cranes breaks the silence here, so I continue up through a nice section of oak and maple to the top of the ridge. I reach the top of the spur, simply known as the 304m peak, with a sign indicating that the summit is just a 55-minute stroll away. In the back of my mind, I ponder having a quick break to rehydrate but suppress those urges as the summit looks so close from here, with just a quick drop to a saddle and what must be an easy climb along switchbacks to the top.

I drop to the bottom of the col and past a series of mossy boulders for the start of the climb which, to my utter disbelief, goes straight up the northern face of the peak. Devoid of ropes, trees, and anything else to aid with progress, it soon becomes a battle with gravity and the weathered soil. Due to the steep angle, the trail acts to funnel rainwater down the mountain slopes like a giant slip-and-slide. Leaf litter, twigs and rocks have all been swept clean in a recent downpour, leaving a clear track of very wet mud to plod through. Progress grinds to a halt as a struggle ensues to inch up the near-50-degree slopes. At one point, I slip upward, kissing the ground with my face as I slide a few meters downward on my belly. Surely the ghosts of the fallen mountain ascetics are shaking their heads at me now.

After brushing the mud off my face, I change tack and climb off trail by grabbing onto tree limbs and pulling myself up to finally reach the upper parts of the peak, where the angle gives a bit. A grove of beech trees make an unscheduled appearance, and at only 400 meters in vertical elevation, must surely be some of the lowest beech trees in Japan, as most grow above 800 meters in elevation in most of central and southern Honshū.  The summit plateau finally starts to appear above and after a few hundred horizontal meters of non-eventful walking, I reach a toppled tree blocking the path. There is no away around it except to squeeze under it, so back into the mud I go, squirming through like a skillful salamander.

The path soon splits, and my map tells me to head left to Hachijō-iwa. I reach the rock formation and am greeted by a statue of Fudo Myo-o carved into a rock. The stone offers excellent views and would make for a great place for a Shugendō priest to chant, which was surely done in the earlier times. The vantage point also affords vistas of the entire Tajima Province, so no doubt a feudal lord or two made their way up here to keep an eye on their kingdom. I consider pausing here for lunch but am content on feasting when I reach the summit. I continue on, only to find a giant NHK antenna and paved road greeting me upon my arrival. This place truly is cursed.

“Have a seat” beckons a speckled gray-haired gentleman, offering a sweet roll from his lunchtime stash. “I drove up here for birdwatching” explains my host, pointing to his white utility vehicle parked just a few meters away. Our talk naturally turns to mountains, and despite my initial disgust for the summit desecration, I warm up to my host and am shocked to find out that he has climbed 90 of the Hyogō 100, a venerable list of a hundred mountains all situated within the prefectural boundaries of Hyōgo. He points to the folding rows of peaks on the horizon and namedrops: Higashi-Tokonoo, Awaga, Ōe, Hyōnosen, Aoba. These are all part of the Kansai and Kinki Hyakumeizan, but his knowledge of the area is far greater than mine, as he points to smaller, lesser known summits that he has explored. You could literally climb a different mountain every day your entire adult life and still not climb every mountain in Japan.

He offers me a coffee and we continue chatting about mountains and birds, the lack of snow this winter, and a rustic mountain hut below the slopes of Daru-ga-mine that is host to an annual music festival. I could literally sit all day here in the sun, taking in the views and pleasant conversation, but a glace at my watch reveals that it is nearing 1 o’clock, and I’ll need to pick up the pace. Forgoing the urge to ask him for a ride, I shoulder the pack and trot off down the paved forest road, cutting switchbacks through steep trackless swaths of forest.

The signposts inform me that I am on a section of the Kinki Shizen Hodō, a 3200km loop trail circumnavigating the entire Kinki region. I’ve been on sections of this long-distance route throughout my various conquests, but the lack of consistent signposts has put me off attempting the entire track. Instead, I pick up sections here and there on the mountain ridges. The initial part of the trail follows the paved forest road but abruptly turns northeast at a hairpin turn. In my swtichback-cutting haste I miss the turnoff but turn back after confirming with the GPS that I am very far off route. Why does this mountain have it in for me?

Mistakes corrected, I blaze a competitive speedwalker pace towards the top of the ropeway at Mt Daishi. To ease the burden on my feet, I stick to the soft blankets of moss and mud on the shoulder of the road, gliding along skillfully as the ridge has done a complete 180-degree turn and I am now staring directly across a steep valley right back at Mt Kuruhi. The cacophony of giggling girls draws closer, and around a bend in the road I reach the bustling top of the Michelin-starred gondola. Frolicking holiday couples compete for selfie space among the narrow railings lining the observation deck. I gaze down at Kinosaki and shake my head at the monstrosity that was built to shuttle lazy visitors 50 vertical meters above the town below.

With good riddance I duck back into the forest towards Onsen-ji temple. The rocky path meanders under the ropeway for just a short distance of 500 meters to the temple. I accelerate the pace, bounding off the stones like a mogul skier on a world record run, full of confidence and dreaming of the soothing bath waters just minutes away. Those that let their guard down always pay the price, however,  and sure enough, as if on cue, my feet slip out from under me and I go airborne, mimicking the moves of a pro wrestler as I land flat on my back, body slamming my camera between the ground and my rucksack. I break the fall with my wrists, sending sharp pains up both biceps as I let our a curdling stream of obscenities. I stand up slowly with my camera rolling down the path as I realize that it is not longer attached to me. The force of the impact has completely destroyed my camera strap. The lens and body seem to be working fine, however, so I stuff the camera into my pack and continue at a much more cautious pace.

The two-story pagoda soon comes into view, and after passing through the impressive temple gate I am back in town. The conveniently-situated Kōnoyu hot spring bath is just across the street so I limp over for a quick soak in the waters. It has taken me just 45-minutes for that last 5km stretch from the summit to here, giving me just enough time for a bath before a quick exploration of town before my train. The bath soothes my wounds but leaves me zapped of energy. My pace grinds to a crawl as I purchase a steamed crab bun and stroll down the streets in search of a coffee. Kinosaki has enjoyed quite the resurgence due to the tourist boom. Most of the shabbier buildings have either been torn down or renovated, giving a “little Kyoto” feel to this once-neglected hot spring town.

I reach the train station at 3:25pm and sink into my seat for the train ride home. Shortly after leaving the station, the skies open up in a fury, with lightning striking the surrounding peaks and the rain coming down in buckets. Anyone who says Kuruhi isn’t cursed need only spend a day in her unforgiving company.

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The rural hamlet of Ōhara in the northeastern corner of Kyoto city has been a well-known getaway destination for centuries, and on weekend mornings the 45-minute bus journey from Demachiyanagi station is usually filled to the brim with the tourist crowds. However, it’s more than just the temple hoppers that invade the town, as the village is completely surrounded by mountains, the most prominent of which is the sacred Tendai peak of Hieizan, whose lofty perch is usually visible from the main road on clear weather mornings. It will take about 6 hours to reach the summit from here, but that doesn’t stop the kaihogyo practitioners from their nightly runs along the ridge line towering directly above the bus stop.

Intrigued, I search for more information about this array of lesser-know peaks in Hieizan’s shadow and come across a list of 10 prominent peaks, known in Japanese as the 大原の里10名山. It turns out that two of the mountains (Minago and Minetoko) feature on the list of Kansai/Kinki Hyakumeizan, meaning that I only need to climb 8 additional peaks for this new goal.  So sets the stage for my goal to knock off the Ōhara 10.

Here are the Ohara 10:

Mt Minago (皆子山) – 972m

Mt Minetoko (峰床山) – 970m

Mt Naccho (ナッチョ aka 天ヶ森) – 813m

Mt Mizui (水井山) – 791m

Mt Ama (天ヶ岳) – 788m

Mt Yakesugi (焼杉山) – 718m

Mt Daibi (大尾山) – 681m

Mt Suitai (翠黛山) – 577m

Mt Konpira (金毘羅山) – 573m

Mt Hyōtankuzure (瓢箪崩山) – 532m

 

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The mid-section of the Diamond Trail is the toughest section, involving a long climb up to Yamato-Katsuragi, a steep drop to a mountain pass, followed by an even longer ascent of Mt. Kongo. An early start is in order.

Up at 4:30am, out the door an hour later and aboard a train into northern Nara Prefecture. Joining me for this excursion is William, host of his newly refurbished Willie Walks website. William has just started his own mission to climb the 300 famous mountains and gladly signed up when finding out both Katsuragi and Kongo are on his list. Never mind the fact that he has just been up Kongo on a separate mission not too long ago. I do suppose that I’ll have to return the favor by accompanying him up a mountain I’ve already been up to help even things out.

Both of us have been up Katsuragi before, but never from the Osaka Prefecture side. The problem is, the bus only runs on weekends and we are stuck without a ride on this brisk Friday morning. We hail a taxi to take us through the tunnel on the Nara side and over to the start of the Tengu valley trail. Rucksacks are shouldered shortly before 8am as we stroll on a concrete forest road through a sleepy village. The tarmac soon gives way to proper dirt and gravel as we traverse through a narrow gorge smothered with toppled trees snapped by the typhoon last autumn. Despite the damage, the track is clearly waymarked with pink tape and after an hour we leave the banks of the trickling stream and start gaining altitude through a monocultural forest of cedar and cypress trees that do their best to repeal the warm rays of the sun.

Further up the spur, the cedar is replaced by hardwoods lined by swaths of bamboo grass, and just before popping out on the ridge we reach a dirt forest road and a series of wooden dams – it seems that Osaka has been just as generous with its public works money on this side of the mountain. The ridge brings a campground and shuttered noodle shop, along with the fields of pampas grass lining the summit plateau. We trudge up to the summit, snap a few photos, and settle onto a wooden viewing platform, legs dangling over the drop while taking in the views across the valley towards Mt. Kongo, whose towering figure looks deceptively out of reach – is it even possible to reach it today?

Below our feet is a sprawling field of azalea shrubs, the area’s main attraction. Come May you wouldn’t even be able to find a place to place your feet on this viewing platform, never mind your rucksack and bottom, but on this chilly January morning we have the place to ourselves. I really would love to come back here for the main attraction but shudder to think about the large crowds that flock here via the ropeway on the Nara side. William offers me a Hojicha Kit Kit that tastes remarkably like roasted green tea and it’s just what I need to psyche myself up for the long road ahead.

We drop to a small saddle where a half a dozen gardeners are pruning the azalea bushes, perhaps to make the flowers bigger for their early summer performance. We scoot past and reach a broad clearing on our left with mouth-watering views down to the Nara plain. A windsock and solar-powered anemometer have been placed at the top, probably by a local paragliding club to check for opportune times to fly their crafts. Perhaps they make use of the ropeway to haul their parachutes up to this prime location for take-offs.  William and I continue south down a series of log steps bolted into the steep hillside. A duo of elderly women marches up these steps toward us – I don’t envy them at all and prefer the descent for a bit until the knees remind me otherwise. We lose a few hundred meters of altitude in a little less than an hour but a celebration is not in order, for we have to regain these precious meters on the climb ahead, plus a couple of hundred extra to put us over the 1100-meter mark on Kongo’s lofty summit.

The pass is soon reached and the Diamond Trail turns into jewel of cement along a broad forest road that continues for quite some time. We have a 6km ascent ahead of us but the forest road cuts out a few of those kilometers. At a water source just before the route re-enters the forest we stop for nourishment as the lunchtime bells ring in the valleys below. We are ahead of schedule and are making faster progress than initially thought but know that the climb is just beginning.

Our smiles soon turn to curses as the route shoots straight up a cedar-smothered flank of steep log steps, relentless in its pursuit to gain the ridge. Whoever built this trail did not bother with switchbacks, figuring that anyone dumb enough to follow in their footsteps should be rightfully punished. At the ridge we plop ourselves onto a wooden bench and take in the views through a gap in the trees. William throws me another Hojicha Kit Kat and I inhale it whole without taking a bite. If there was a vending machine here I’d gladly purchase an entire liter of coffee to help wake me up.

As the gentle winds start to cool our bones, the two of us push onward and upward, focusing on the sounds of our footsteps and our heavy breaths. Just a few days ago, William was sitting on a sunny beach on the Gold Coast – I’m sure he’s wishing he was sipping on a cool beverage rather than sucking on this thin Siberian air. We soon rise about 900 vertical meters and patches of ice start to flank the path. A descending party above us is making full use of their climbing irons and making me glad I made the decision to bring my 4-pointers. We hold off on the crampons for the time being, as there is still plenty of purchase on the untracked bits of snow on the shoulder of the track. After another hour we reach the shrine gate marking the main summit trail.

An abrupt decision is made to leave the Diamond Trail for the 20-minute detour to the summit of Mt. Kongo. After cresting a small slope the trail drops quickly down an iced-up bobsled-run of a track. William wises up and straps on his crampons, while I half-walk, half-slide down the slippery slope towards the temple. After a quick summit photo together, a row of picnic tables beckon to us, as do the vending machines lining the entrance to the shuttered restaurant. Coffee is served along with the remainder of the Kit Kats. I expect an endorsement check from Nestle any day now.

I finally put on my crampons, which makes the return climb back to the Diamond Trail much less treacherous. We plod along and take a quick detour to the highest point in Osaka Prefecture, marked by a signpost on an unmarked trail to our right. If William ever decides to climb the highest mountain in every prefecture, he now only has 46 to go.  A few minutes down the path we reach the observation deck. Built in the 1970s, the rusting metal structure affords fantastic panoramic views. A sea of mountains hosting the Kumano Kodo foreshortens off into the distance, while the Ōmine mountains lay buried in a blanket of snow cloud.

With Mt. Kongo successfully climbed, I convince William to trek a few kilometers south along the Diamond Trail to Kuruno-tōge, just below the summit of Naka-katsuragi. We reach this pass in a heap of sweat and exhaustion, and even the temptation to climb two different Katsuragi mountains in one day is not enough to entice William to ascend the wall of steps separating ourselves from the summit. We turn away knowing that I’ll need to come back to this point at a later time to continue my section hike of the Diamond Trail. We drop steeply off the ridge and make it to a bus stop exactly 10 seconds after the infrequent bus departs. With 45 minutes to kill before next bus, we add a few more kilometers to the already long day and walk down to Chihaya-Akasaka village, where a vending machine awaits.

With over half of the Diamond Trail now complete, I can now turn my attention to the remaining sections, which should be knocked out in 3 trips, or two if I’m feeling particularly punishing. Regardless, I hope to complete the trail before the end of the Heisei era. The clock is ticking.

 

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Mt. Kiku – The Messenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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