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Archive for the ‘Kansai hikes’ Category

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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Well, I have to admit that I never thought I’d find myself back on the plateau, but after the birth of our daughter Ibuki two solar revolutions ago, it was time to take her to her first Hyakumeizan. What better place to start than our old friend Odai-ga-hara?

Kanako, Ibuki, and I boarded an early morning train to Yamato-kamiichi for the 2-hour bus journey to the trailhead. It being Golden Week, we expected the bus would be a lot more crowded than the dozen or so other passengers, but then again with the automobile-addicted nation at work perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the bus navigated the long switchbacks towards the 1500-meter-high parking lot, we got our first views of the cliffs of Mt. Daifugen, still dabbed with slivers of rotting snowmelt. It was the first time in my 4 visits to the plateau that I’ve ever had an unobstructed view from the skyline road – if there was any reason to doubt the stature of the Omine mountains one would simply need to point their vehicle in this direction.

We arrived just before noon under brilliant blue skies with a smattering of white cloud floating lazily around the upper reaches of the plateau. We dropped off our extra gear at Kokoro-tōjikan hut before heading up the well-worn path through the forest still very much in hibernation mode. The trees had only just begun releasing their spring buds, and the gullies still held onto their winter coats tightly like a stingy old maiden guards her pursestrings. I brought my baby carrier for the journey in case Ibuki did not feel up to the task, but she insisted on climbing the trail under her own power, albeit with a little extra boost from mom and dad’s outstretched hands on the steeper bits. She looked just as comfortable as her parents and has definitely received an unfair portion of Hyakumeizan DNA from her father.

The junction sitting  under the high point of Hide-ga-take was reached just as the first grey clouds marched in from the west. We settled onto the wooden steps overlooking the Pacific Ocean town of Owase and tucked into our home-made lunch boxes. Ibuki had worked up quite the appetite on her slow march towards the summit, and the food provided just the extra boost she needed for the final push up the series of wooden staircases to the summit.

We reached the high point just before 1pm and took a few summit photos before ducking behind the wall of the observation deck that helped shelter us from the strong gales blowing directly across the valley from the Omine range. The sky turned black and we braced ourselves for the first drops of rain. Imagine our surprise when the sky deposited huge wet flakes of snow instead. It was a repeat of our spring trip to Zao except that we had the additional challenge of keeping a 2-year-old from getting hypothermia.

The snow brought the adrenaline, and after tucking Ibuki safely into my baby carrier, we dropped back down to the saddle, where the snow let up completely. Instead of quickly returning to the trail we had come, we headed up an adjacent peak and down through the maze of wooden boardwalks, which brought a smile to Kanako. Her last trip here involved a cold, snowy slog to the high point in subarctic temperatures, where we abandoned any attempt at a traverse and high-tailed it back to the warm confines of the cafe.

The path rose to a summit before dropping through a maze of wooden boardwalks sitting snugly on a broad carpet of bamboo grass and dead trees poking their needle-like heads out of the tuft. The breeze send us scurrying down the wooden steps as the second wave of snow hit us from the west. Ibuki by now had fallen asleep on my back as I used my umbrella to shield her from the wrath of the horizontal snow.

At the first junction we turned right and entered the shelter of the forest, where the snow turned to rain before yielding to weak rays of sunlight that barely penetrated our thick forest canopy. The sun, rain, and snow spent the next 45 minutes battling for control as we reached the parking lot and ducked into the restaurant for lunch.

By the time we checked into the lodge the sun had won the battle and the winds became calm yet cold. The thermometer in our room read minus 1 degrees and we quickly switched on the heat and kept our down jackets zipped tightly. We shuffled off to the bath to thaw out before heading to the dining hall for dinner. This was followed by a short stroll out to the parking lot to check out the stars. The lot was filled to capacity with Golden Week visitors snoring snugly in the warmth of their cars. Parking is free up here and it’s mind-boggling that the prefecture doesn’t charge people for overnight parking.

The next day dawned bright and clear, with a warm spring feel to the air. After breakfast and coffee we hit the trails and headed out to the cliffs of Daijakura but the crowds were immense. It seemed as if every hiker had read the weather forecast and had invaded the mountain like a mass of shoppers searching for bargains. We continued in a counter-clockwise direction past the statue of emperor Jimmu and back to the boardwalks of the previous day. Ibuki had enough walking and quickly fell asleep when put in the baby carrier. The blue skies were a much welcome site and all too rare on this plateau of mist and rain.

We looped back to the hotel and ate lunch before strolling over to the bus stop and the overflowing queue of hikers 100-strong. They had all trekked up from Osugidani gorge in Mie Prefecture and they all wanted to catch the bus that we were planning to take! I’m not sure why the bus company couldn’t simply offer priority boarding to those who stayed in the mountain hut, but it was a free-for-all as any rules of etiquette were quickly abandoned. The bus company asked for volunteers to take the later bus but of course everyone wanted to get back to the city as soon as they possibly could, for most of them had not showered for a few days. By sheer luck we ended up on the bus and got a seat towards the front, where Ibuki took a nap on her mom’s lap.

Odai-ga-hara may be a Hyakumeizan, but it is definitely the kind of place that could use a bit more management and coordination to avoid public transport bottlenecks. Will I return for a 5th visit? It remains to be seen, but there always the chance of a much longer traverse along the spine of the Daiko mountains, which either begins or ends here depending on your directional preference.

 

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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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