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Archive for the ‘Kansai hikes’ Category

Hyonosen Chapter 2 – Decade

My first trip to Hyonosen was intended as a post-op test of my cardiac recovery and ended up being a fierce battle with rotting snow. I had certainly taken on more than I could handle and was lucky to walk away without incident. I had always wanted to revisit the mountain in the green season but had been preoccupied with other mountains. However, the timing just seemed right for a second look, especially since it has been exactly 10 years since I had my leaky aortic valve replaced. And what better place to test out the ticker than on my first post-op mountain.

The weather reports had certainly looked iffy all week, but late Friday evening Paul M. and I cemented our plans. I hopped on the 6:30am train to Kobe and we were on the road by 8am after having stopped by a local bakery for some trail delicacies and a hot cup of coffee as a kickstarter. The clouds hung heavy over the mountains of northern Hyogo but the rain held off on the 2-hour drive to the start of the hike. Due to the thin blanket of high-altitude altostratus cloud, visibility was surprisingly good as the cooler temperatures kept the lower clouds away. Our original plan was to park at Shinsui-koen but the forest road was blockaded, forcing us into an extra 1km walk on foot. We loaded up the gear, our eyes fixated on the autumn colors plastered to the ridgeline like the canvas of an Impressionist master.

It’s amazing how differently the scenery can look when not buried under a meter of snow. Instead of climbing a near-vertical bluff on my left, the summer trail dropped to a stream and followed alongside to a 65-meter high waterfall, which must have surely been swollen with snowmelt during my first trip. The path entered a forest and switchbacked a staggering 38 times if you can trust the person who named this section of path ‘the hill of 38 turns’. Instead of counting, Paul and I kept our brows raised to both the towering summit ridge and the verdant canopy of beech sheltering us from the brisk winds of autumn.

The trail soon left the spur and dropped to a small section of planted cedar to the west. A corrugated-metal shack housed a trio of ageing jizō statues that were probably expecting a better abode. The shelter would make for a miserable place to wait out a rain storm, but with the weather gods on our side, we slid past the entrance and through the stagnant strands of cedar until dropping to a mountain stream. This was the trickiest section of my spring traverse, as the snow drifts created a crevice fit for one of Denali’s slopes. I managed to ford this fearsome sliver of sawa with a brave leap over the abyss, but this time around the route has been desecrated by a set of steel ladders. The erosion here is quite impressive, and no doubt the metal links have helped limit the damage to the increasing numbers of visitors to Hyogo’s highest summit.

After crossing the stream, the trail once again climbed up towards the ridge above our craned necks. Forest of beech reigned supreme in these untouched swaths of virgin forest as the colors were just beginning their shift to golden hues. We had just breached the 1000 meter mark but continued to push on all the way to the ridge before settling down for a break. It was an exact repeat of my first foray except back in 2007 I was incredibly pushed for time. This time Paul M. and I were pushing on just to reach the peak of the autumn colors sitting snugly on the ridge.

And on the ridge we did reach, settling down onto a bench in front of the emergency hut. The winds from the flatlands of Tottori Prefecture pushed up and over the northern face of the massif, sending us both rummaging through our kit in search of additional layers. I broke out the lightly salted crisps and a package of cashews and we rehydrated for the final stroll along the ridge. A decade before, progress ground to a crawl as every advancing step with met with the unmistakable thunk of postholing up to my thighs. Now, the only obstacle was tripping over the exposed tree roots of the massive beech trees holding down fort.

Beech leaves turn a golden yellow in the autumn, but against the diffuse grey skies they took on an amber tint that harkened the commencement of winter. Paul M. and I pushed on under the glistening fortress of wind-battered trees, fenced in on the Hyogo side of the ridge by head-high tufts of bamboo grass that concealed the splendid vistas across the narrow valley to the ski slopes of Hachibuse. Every now and again,  the bald ski runs poked out beneath gaps in the undergrowth, flanked on both sides by foreshortened ridges of pale blue floating high above an ethereal carpet of thin autumn cloud. The trail rose to the summit of a short rise before sinking to a col at the face of Koshiki Slab, a bulbous mass of igneous rock sticking out on the ridge like a giant vat for which it is named. In the cool April air, I followed the snow drifts halfway up the monster before resorting to the chains affixed to the near-vertical face. Here in the dry season a faint trail led up to a narrow ledge overlooking a patchwork of foliage spread out below.

A lunge here would see me at the top of the crag, but streams of water clung stubbornly to the face, and a slip here would involve a bone-breaking tumble back to the saddle. Having just finished reading the latest Accident Report from the American Alpine Journal, I halted my vertical ascent in favor of the easy summer detour to the east of the rocks. I dropped back to the col and traversed around, following an array of wooden steps as I sped to catch up with Paul M., who was not interested in playing any Spiderman games.

We reached the summit as a tour group was just setting off on their descent. Hot noodles were soon boiled as we scanned the horizon for familiar names: Mt. Rokko and Mt. Daisen were both clearly visible in the crisp autumn air as an array of other Kinki and Kansai 100 peaks sought out our attention. The head-high bamboo grass made identification a bit tricky, but a quick ascent of the vertical ladder affixed to the emergency hut did wonders for the views but not much for the vertigo.

Refreshed and refueled, the cool southerly winds pushing off the coast forced us down the scenic lee slopes of the eastern ridge, where a standing army of ancient cedars looked down on our awkward footfalls through the muddy minefield of loose stones that spit us out at the Kobe University mountain hut. The porch made for the perfect rest stop for a fresh brew of steaming coffee and calorie-rich brownies.

The trail left the protection of the bamboo grass and skirted a narrow ridge of hardwoods carpeted in leaf litter. Sunshine poked through gaps in the cloud cover as we dropped below the foliage line and into greener fields again. Dense pockets of planted cedar dropped sharply to our left, terminating at the slopes of the ski resort hidden behind the wall of evergreen needles. We reached another mountain hut further along the ridge and paused briefly before marching through the walls of cedar to the forest road. Here it was a simple walk along the asphalt back to the car. Sections of the route afforded views back up to the ridge line, which were now smothered in late afternoon cloud. The rain front would certainly be here before nightfall, so better to head to the sheltered comforts of the hot springs.

A decade on, the heart still ticks on as strong as ever. Aside from a few skipped beats and the extremely rare palpitation or two, you would be hard pressed to ever know that I’ve been under the knife. Of course, one would only need to put their ear near my chest to hear the tick-tock rhythms of the titanium ticker at work. Here’s two another decade of successful ascents and heart-throbbing tales.

 

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I place part of the blame on William Banff. My fellow Meizanologist introduced me to the Kin-Kan 134 through his excellent blog On Higher Ground. Before his insightful writing, I had never known there were two different Hyakumeizan lists for the Kansai Region. I picked up a copy of Yama-to-Keikoku’s Kansai Hyakumeizan Guidebook when it was released back in 2010 and spent the next 5 years knocking them off one by one. On the summit of Mt. Hiyamizu in October of 2015, I thought I could put those peakbagging days behind me and start to focus on raising a family. Then I found out that there was an older list of Kinki Hyakumeizan compiled by Kinki Mountaineering leader Ichiro Masa and published by Shin-hiking Publishing back in 1993. I guess that Meizan lists are not copyrighted, however, because Yama-to-keikou simply took this list, and swapped out 32 of the harder mountains in favor of ones with easier access, which means there are now two parallel lists with a combined number of 132 separate peaks.

When hiking on Mt. Saiho with William a few years ago I honestly had no intention of attempting those extra 32 peaks. I filed them away as too difficult and too remote and wanted to simply go on hikes that looked great from the handful of other guidebooks in my collection. However, the wonderful weather and spectacular views on Mt. Saiho infected me with the Kinki-Hyaku bug and I set off in search of those elusive mountains. I felt like a kid who, when taking a bite from a potato chip, decided that just one more bite would do until the entire bag of chips was gone.

There are no guidebooks about the Kinki Hyakumeizan, so I had to scour the blogosphere for trail information. It took nearly 3 years to reach my 99th (erm, 31st) peak, when one last formidable foe remained – good ole’ Nakahachinin, a grueling 8-hour hike no matter which approach you take. Definitely worth saving until the end.

The best approach seemed to be from the Omine mountains, as the Hachinin range sits on a perpendicular ridge within apparent striking distance. Nao navigated the tight curves of route 169 as I studied the map with an eager eye and kept the other eye out for familiar landmarks. The sky was relatively clear for the first section south from Yoshino and out the left-hand window I could clearly see the lofty tops of Mt. Shirahige, a mountain that had given us so much grief just 10 months ago. The sky darkened, however, the closer we got to Ikehara Reservoir and drops of rain dotted the windshield as we sought cover in the restaurant at Shimokitayama Onsen. Just last night the weather reporters were raving about the fantastic akibare weather settled over the main island. Apparently these NHK folks have never visited the innards of Nara Prefecture.

From Ikehara it was a lonely drive on a winding forest road that would actually take us to the Omine ridgeline if not for the metal gate strewn across the asphalt. We parked and shouldered our gear under the soft sounds of the falling rain. The road had definitely seen better days as we spent the majority of the time dodging rockfall and counting up the kilometers to the ridge. It was a brisk climb of 5km, which took a little over an hour to reach the Okugakemichi and the evening’s accommodation at Jikyo-no-shuku. The unmanned mountain hut was recently renovated in 2015 and provided the perfect base camp for the impending climb. We were basically alone, apart from a huntsman spider and a mountain leech that had somehow caught a ride with us along the mountain road. I’m not sure how neither of us managed to avoid a bite but by the sluggishness of the leech the cooler weather of autumn had zapped all of its strength. We tossed it out the window and settled in for a long night.

I spend most of the night in and out of consciousness, consumed by the uneasiness of the long hike ahead. The trail on the map was dotted, meaning that is not well maintained, and the ‘bush’ comments alongside sections of the route were concerning. I did not want a repeat of our debacle on the ridge of Mt. Mikuni . Breakfast was prepared under the brightening sky that held the promise of a good day. The overnight rain brought in the cloud, so we awoke to a blanket of thick condensation that had just started to burn off as we hit the trail. Excess gear was stowed away safely in the hut as we shouldered rations and water for the long slog in front of us. The path wasted no time in gaining 150 meters of vertical to the summit of Asukaridake, where the trail immediately lost those gains in height off the northern face. After dropping to a col and scaling a rock face embedded with chain, the two of us popped out on the summit of Shōjōmurodake at a marked junction for Hachininyama.

We left the main trail and headed west along a broad ridge without the slightest hint of human encroachment. It was like taking a step back in time, and the thick fog gave off an air of enchantment that are missing from the mountains of Kansai. It took about 40 minutes to reach the summit of Peak 1340 – you know you’re in a remote part of Japan when even the summits are lacking names. A little further along ,the ridge split, so we consulted with our maps, the compass, and the GPS to check our bearings. In clear weather we’d be able to see our target peak but the sun had not yet breached the walls of our fortress of fog.

Our route dropped steeply, startling a giant toad out of its slumber as we broke down below the cloud and finally got a visual bearing to confirm what the compass had told us. We surmised that the peak towering just out of reach in front of us was Mt. Oku-hachinin, a place that the map had indicated would take over 90 minutes to reach. We went straight to work and dropped down to a broad saddle punctuated at irregular intervals by tape marks affixed to the trees. There was really only one ridge to follow and we knew that as long as the weather cooperated we’d be heading in the right direction. The vistas to the northwest opened up but the peaks of Mt. Shaka and Kasasute still lay trapped in dark cloud.

The summit of Oku-hachinin was eventually reached as we paused to catch our breath and consult with the map. It was now 8:30 in the morning and we had been on the go since 6am. So far our pace had been faster than the map times and I attribute this to Nao, who had warned of approaching rain cloud in the early afternoon. I think part of my rush was also the fact that this was the magic #100, so I was full of adrenaline. From our perch on Oku-hachinin we could see the summit of Nakahachinin rising gracefully above us with a deep saddle that cut off easy access.

We dropped to the saddle and braced for the long, steep, and dare I say relentless climb. The contours lines were bunched together as we fought gravity’s resistance by following game trails in conjunction with our own improvised switchbacks. The blue sky sat on the horizon so I quickened the pace only to arrive at a false summit on the edge of a deep precipice. I skirted the edge of the sickening drop and picked my way along the serrated edge of the ridge before pushing up the final 50 meters of altitude.

Nao and I reached the summit of Nakahachnin at around 9:15am on the 10th of September, 2017. I could now close the chapter on the Kinki Hyakumeizan and move onto other projects. Well, not quite – we still had to get off this bloody mountain.

We rested on the tree-covered summit and ate our rations. To the west sat the summit of Nishi-hachinin, an army of freshly-planted cedar trees lined the col as I cursed the forestry service for desecrating yet another tract of virgin forest in the name of public works. Future hikers are advised to bring a chainsaw to help clear the seedlings before they grow too tall. To the south, the top of Minami-hachinin peeked out between a gap in the trees. Sitting just 5 meters higher, it’s a 20-minute round-trip that some purists say is the true target since it is the highest of Hachinin’s five summits. Nao and I thought about the long return trip ahead of us and came up with the following logic: if the Kinki Hyakumeizan architects had intended Minami-hachnin to the be target peak they would have stated so instead of putting Naka-hachinin on their list. The beauty of the place does warrant a future visit though. After all, someone needs to come back to clear all the cedar away.

We left the summit for the long march back to Jikyo-no-shuku hut. I would have preferred a leisurely stroll and our progress ground to a crawl on the long ascent back to Peak 1340 – we were running on fumes and dripping with well-earned sweat. By the time we reached the hut it was already after noon. We collapsed on the carpet interior and set about preparing lunch. Fortunately I had brought along some pasta and cooked up a feast while Nao prepared the fresh coffee. The clouds had once again rolled in but luckily the rain held off until we had safely arrived back at the car.

So the million yen question now arises: what do I do next? I still need to finish climbing the highest mountain in every prefecture, and with just 4 mountains left, it’s a pretty attainable target. In the bookstore yesterday I stumbled across a guidebook for the Hyakuteizan (百低山), the 100 Low Mountains of Japan. Now that does sound tempting indeed. These tozan tales are far from over my friends……

 

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The drive to Owase, a small fishing village nestled on the Pacific coast of southern Mie Prefecture, took several hours and we coasted into our business hotel just as dusk settled on the sleepy town. After check-in, we walked the quiet, narrow streets and ducked into a seafood restaurant with some interesting choices on the menu. In this part of the Kii Peninsula, they eat everything that can be caught in the sea, including the vulnerable ocean sunfish. We each ordered a dinner set featuring a sea creature neither of us had heard of. The set came with a entire fish simmered in a dark broth accompanied by miso soup, rice, and a couple of other side dishes. The hotel was a bare bones affair, located atop a convenience store, but it did have the added bonus of a western style breakfast included in the price. The next morning, we took full advantage in the top floor restaurant affording views of Mt. Takamine, our goal for the morning. Owase sits directly in the middle of the Ise-Hongu section of the Kumano Kodo, and would make for a worthwhile stopover for trekkers making the walk connecting two of Japan’s holiest sights.

Mt. Takamine has two main approaches, both of which entail a large amount of walking on concrete. Nao and I opted for the forest road from the north along route 425, which we reached after some careful navigating on the narrow road. We parked at the terminus of a long tunnel and followed the sign as it led us along the abandoned pavement towards the trailhead. The route was fortified with cedar trees bursting with fresh pollen emissions, which set off the histamine alarms and put the nasal cavities into full production. We both suffer horrendously from the seasonal pollen, thanks in large part to our prolific mountain quests that have put us over the threshold of sensitivity. There was nothing to do but to move swiftly up the road and hope for favorable winds blowing in from the Pacific.

It was a 5-km walk along the road, which wound past a waterfall and areas of rockfall before terminating just below the ridgeline. We entered the cedar forest and, after passing by a bear trap, arrived at a junction where the southern trail merged into one main route for the summit. It was here that we left the evergreen mess behind and rose into a stupendous forest of old grown hardwoods that had shed their summer coat for the season. The path climbed along the exposed ridge, the gradient rising with each advancing step. Soon enough, we reached the summit plateau, which afforded some of the best views that Kansai has to offer.

The broad summit rocks overlook the eastern aspects of both the Omine and Daiko mountain ranges. In fact, this is one of the few places in Kansai where you can view two Hyakumeizan lined up side-by-side. On our right, Odaigahara rises majestically to its knightly plateau, all but free of snowfall despite its 1500 meter height. To the left, the Omine mountains, weighing in just under 2000 meters in height, lay painted with a thin layer of wintry white which brought the mountains of Nagano to mind.

The views did not stop there, however. After climbing a boulder just behind the high point, we could peer back down to the coast towards Owase village. It was one of the best Kinki mountains so far, and with such splendid weather and lack of visitors, it was hard to tear ourselves away.

Eventually we did slither back to the forest road and retraced our steps to the awaiting car. On the ride back to Osaka, we discussed the remaining mountains on the list. While I had thought that Takamine was mountain #98, I learned to my regret that I had failed to count one other peak, so there were still a trio of mountains left. Still, three mountains could easily be conquered before the end of the year, an attainable goal if I set my sights on it.

 

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With just a handful of mountains left on the Kinki 100 list, Nao and I head deep into the mountains of Mie Prefecture for a rare 2-for-1 weekend. If all goes according to plan, then we could have two of the mountains with the worst access under our belts. An early start was in order.

Nao picked me up at 6:30am on an overcast Saturday in mid-March and programmed the GPS to the entrance to Osugi gorge deep in Nara Prefecture. We reached the start of the forest road, partially blockaded by a plastic A-frame contraption with a metal bar laid on top. These portable structures are used in lieu of a proper gate system on roads with ongoing construction work. I hopped out and moved the barrier so Nao could drive through. This maneuver, while questionable in its legality, would save us a half hour of walking to reach the trailhead. The likelihood of any construction vehicles passing through this outlet was small anyway, as the bulk of the repair work lie a further 10-kilometers up the narrow, twisting road.

We parked the car at a broad turnout affording views across the Miyagawa Reservoir to the towering buffs of the Daiko mountain range. Snow flurries floated down from the off-gray clouds hovering above as we geared up for the hike. Both of us had our GPS devices connected to two different hiking maps, as the net research done beforehand suggested a seldom used track in a constricted valley of cedars. The bridge marked by previous hikers was reached in about 20 minutes, as we left the comfort of the sealed road and breached a mountain stream that fanned out in three directions, looking in vain for something that resembled a track. On our right, a massive landslip towered above up, directly over the red marks on our maps that indicated the mountain path. Dejected, we retreated back to the forest road in search of plan B.

Instead of retreating, we continued about 50 meters beyond the bridge and spotted a small signpost indicating the entrance to the trail. We followed a meandering dirt road that looks like it was just constructed a few days ago. There is no reason for this new path other than to burn construction budgets before the end of the fiscal year. At the terminus of the road, a faint trail led into the forest above, and after following it for 10 minutes, a plastic signpost confirmed our suspicions that we were indeed on the correct path to the summit.

Despite the lack of visitors, the route was easy to pick up thanks in large part to the lack of undergrowth in the brisk winter air. In the summer it would be easy to lose this path completely under a thick blanket of ferns, weeds, and other plants fondling each other for sunlight. It was a gentle, steady climb through the nondescript forest of about 90 minutes until reaching the ridge, marked by a ‘Missing Person’ poster planted firmly on the junction point. Four years ago, a 67-year old solo male hiker had failed to return home after a planned outing on Mt. Senchiyo. He had apparently taken our exact path up the mountain, but if I were part of the search-and-rescue party, I think my time would be better spend scouring the landslip at the foot of the mountain where we initially thought the path lie. My guess is that he climbed up one of those fingers and met an unfortunate fate when the route became too much to handle.

We turned right at the junction and followed the edge of a sprawling section of clear cut forest affording views of the remainder of the Daiko mountains floating off to the north. Mayoi-dake? Check. Kogamaru? You bet. Myojin-dake? Sprinkled in white. The lack of snowfall in this section of Nara Prefecture is perplexing, but is partially due to the relatively mild winds of the nearby Pacific Ocean. The breezes ensure that wintry precipitation falls as wet rain in these 1000-meter high mountains.

Once past the deforested sections, the trail climbs to a rocky crest before easing out on the meandering contours of the summit plateau. We reached the high point after 20 minutes of gently rolling hills and sat down to enjoy the trees, for that is all we could take in on the overgrown summit. On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d give Senchiyo a 2 or 3 – it’s not a mountain I’d rank high on places to revisit, especially if further visits meant stumbling across a decomposed body.

After a brief rest, we retreated back to the junction at the saddle and continued walking north along the ridge to the secondary summit of Senjō, which sits among a pristine forest of mature hardwoods. Evidently this section of mountain was too steep and too remote for the cedar planters to reach. Future hikers should take note to visit both of the peaks in order to fully appreciate the contrast. On the descent back to the saddle, I lost a rubber trekking pole tip cover and had to revert to using just one pole on the drop back to our parked vehicle. Also, somewhere along the climb down I broke the adjusting dial on my wire shoelace system and had no way of fully tightening my right shoe. With another mountain planned for the following day, I could do little else than to just make due.

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Mt. Mikuni – Bushed

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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