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Behind the Scenes Prologue

With the new guidebook slated for release next month,  I’m starting a new series to give readers a behind-the-scenes peak into what it takes to put together a hiking guidebook. Stay tuned over the coming months and feel free to pre-order the book directly from the publisher!

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The Gathering VII

It’s hard to believe that 7 years has already passed since our first meeting of the mountaineering minds in the grassy fields of Tokusawa. Each year, ‘the planning committee’ springs into action, doing the behind-the-scenes work to ensure that everyone is well-fed and warm enough to survive a night out among the elements. Last year’s gathering coincided with the Banff Mountain Film Festival, so it only seemed natural to once again pair these two auspicious events into one thrilling weekend in late October.

Since relocating to Minami Otari village earlier in the year, Paul D. is instrumental in persuading us to hold this year’s gathering at Amakazari Kōgen campground at the trailhead to Mt. Amakazari, a peak I have fond memories of summiting during my own Hyakumeizan quest.

Access to Minami Otari is by no means easy, so I head up a day early to explore what this lesser-known village has to offer. It also affords a chance to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen for the very first time, a train line that has had the unexpected consequence of transforming Kanazawa from a ‘Little Kyoto’ to a ‘Little Tokyo’. The skies are a brilliant blue on the smooth ride through the Hokuriku plains. Tsurugidake, Tateyama, and Yakushidake follow my progress through a white-capped gaze, my first time to ever view this spectacle from one of Japan’s most notorious regions for wet weather. Paul picks me up from the station and we head for sustenance at an idyllic soba shop housed in a traditional dwelling lit by hanging gas lanterns. In this part of Nagano, cold buckwheat noodles are dipped into a miso broth with an accent of ground sesame and walnuts, the toppings pulverized by mortar and pestle. Paul and I grind the spices into a fine powder before adding them to the succulent broth and feasting on the handmade strands of soba. Once the noodles are successfully consumed, the server brings a warm cauldron of soba yū to pour over the remaining broth for a hearty finale to a satisfying meal. Paul and I are both boosting with energy and head to forests in search of a hidden village.

The village is worthy of a separate blog post, so interested parties will just have to wait a little while longer for the details. We make it back to Hakuba village in time for a quick stop at the North Face store and dinner at a local bar. Heavy rain moves in overnight and continues steadily through the morning. Yuta has just arrived by overnight train and bus, so Paul and I swoop down to meet him. Looking for a place to escape the rain, we all head to Sounds Like Cafe, a trendy hangout for the local powder hipsters in the winter season. The cafe is nearly empty at this early hour, and the smoked salmon and mashed avocado breakfast plate really hits the spot, washed down by a cup of fresh coffee. We all gaze our attention to a stunning photograph of a small alpine pond with brilliant mirror reflections. We gander a quick guess before giving up on our search for the name of the elusive location. A few minutes later, Yuta scrolls through photos of his recent trip to Shimonoroka and low and behold, on a hidden plateau on a seldom-used path sits the very exact pond adorning the walls of the cafe – Yuta had been there just one week ago but had no idea he had visited the place!

After breakfast we stop by the local supermarket for supplies and run into drone-master Edward. After shopping we agree to reconvene at Paul’s apartment to wait out the weather. At the first hints of sunshine we head further up the valley by car to Amakazari campground, reaching the damp grasslands just as the sun starts to illuminate the hillsides ablaze in autumn color.

One by one our trusty companions arrive: Naresh, Bjorn and family from Tokyo, John from neighboring Matsumoto, Rie, Hisao and David from Nagoya, and last but not least Michal (RIP), who is always with us in spirit. We pitch our tents along a thin sliver of green grass and start preparing a late lunch/early dinner of kimchi hotpot. With everyone carefully engaged in dinner preparations, Naresh, Paul, Bjorn and I head to the wetlands to take in the autumn scenery. Paul forages for ripe sarunashi, the underrated kiwiberry fruit that grows wild in this region. After taking enough photos to fill several memory cards, we stroll back to camp and feast on warm soup and hot dogs!

Shortly before sunset we head by car to Iwatake ski field for the film festival. Due to the wet weather the location has been moved indoors, but we all appreciate the added heat that comes with assembling in the large multipurpose space. Just before showtime, we convince Kaoru and Alastair to join us, and Paul slips out on a marathon driving session through the backstreets of Hakuba to pick them up. He returns just in time for the start of the film festival.

The films this year are a mixed bag. Last year it was a thrilling ride from start to finish, with every film competing to outdo the last. We all left there with a feeling of awe and an invigorating drive to head to the hills. This year, however, there were a few duds mixed in among the more brilliant footage. Sky Migrations was one such letdown. While it is a somewhat fascinating look at migratory birds, it is best appreciated on a comfy sofa cuddled up to a loved one, and not really suitable for a crowd of extreme sports addicts.

After a quick group photo, we all head back to the campsite to start the campfire, but the damp air produces a very smoky outcome, with most of us suffering smoke inhalation well before the fire produced enough heat to keep us warm. Some of us turn our attention to star photography while others drift off into a shivered reverie.

I awake at dawn to the hum of a drone. Peering outside, I find Edward taking his craft for a spin. I join him for a ‘virtual’ tour of the sky above. Mt. Amakazari sits free of cloud but the Kita Alps are cloaked and the sunrise just fails to impress. Luckily no one had made the suggestion for a midnight climb of Amakazari to view the sunrise. The autumn foliage glows warmly in the first hues of the new day. One by one the camp denizens awaken from their slumber and start their day. Paul makes the suggestion to head to Kama Ike to check out the colors and most of us head there on the double. The calm air produces perfect mirror reflections on the surface of the clear mountain pond. The beech trees wear their yellow coats proudly and look down on the spectacle with an air of content. Whatever disappointment we suffered at the film festival is now lost in reflection.

Back to camp we eventually retreat for a leisurely breakfast and quick throw of the frisbee. For some reason this is always my favorite part of the gathering due to the peaceful and calm vibe at camp just before the resignation that it must come to an end. While most of camp heads to the open-air baths of Amakazari Onsen, John and I reluctantly retreat back to Matsumoto, where I eventually catch a train back to Osaka, but not before an impromptu takeaway pizza lunch in the aptly-named Alps Park, with its impressive view of Mt Jonen to help keep us company.

With the 7th annual event now behind us, it’s already time to start looking ahead to 2019 and the next gathering. Judging by our track record, it is sure to be a memorable event. Let’s hope that Grace the Yamaholic will make a much-welcome reappearance!

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.

 

365 Mountain Project

With the start of a new year comes a new social media undertaking: The 365 mountain project. In going through my collection of thousands of photos, I came to the stark realization that I have indeed climbed more mountains in Japan than there are days in a year.  What better way to reveal the beauty of Japan’s mountains than by posting a peak for every day of the year on my Twitter feed. Feel free to bookmark and follow along.

The Suzuka mountains straddle the border of Shiga and Mie Prefectures, effectively creating a natural barrier between the chilly shores of Lake Biwa and the azure waters of Ise Bay. Mt. Ryōzen sits on the western edge of the massif, affording outstanding panoramic views on the rare cloud-free occasion in this surprisingly wet corner of Kansai.

There are approaches from nearly every direction to the broad grasslands flanking the summit plateau. My first trip there involved an exciting scramble up a steep gully, while a recent trip utilized the main route from the ghost village of Kurehata. Even though I have already been up this mountain twice, the outstanding panoramic views and distinctly Scottish terrain of the highlands have me yearning for a mid-winter visit to explore the hills on snowshoes.

Calendar girl Rika works for Finetrack, a Kobe upstart launched by an ex-Montbell employee wanting to place more emphasis on creating a functional layering system for outdoor activities. The product line continues to expand with each new product release and it’s only a matter of time before the market will expand overseas. One of the challenges with a new outdoor brand is to convince customers to abandon their loyalty to more established brands.

The photo on the calendar was actually taken in November 2016, but it seemed like the perfect photo to round out the year, to dream of those crisp winter days with clear visibility and deep blue skies. Those days on Ryozen are truly hard to come by as the Siberian winds flow over the massif like a raging torrent, dropping a meter of snow each season with regular consistency.

Those wanting to climb Ryozen may find it faster to take the Shinkansen as far as Maibara station before transferring to the local train to Samegai station. I must confess that whenever I head to this part of Shiga I usually opt for the extra expense of the bullet train, as it saves nearly an hour of train time, meaning you can get an extra hour of shut eye before heading out to the hills.

And speaking of shut eye, with this final blog post of 2018, it’s time to put this monthly calendar column to bed. Unfortunately there won’t be a 2019 Hiking in Japan calendar, but those looking for something to adorn their walls may want to choose from among the lovely options available over at Yama to Keikoku.

 

Mt. Minetoko is Kyoto Prefecture’s 2nd highest mountain but only just barely loses out to neighboring Mt. Minago by about 140 centimeters or so.

There are several approaches to the summit but the most interesting one is via a narrow gully to the southwest from a hamlet called Nakamura. It was up this gully that poster girl Eri and I trekked in mid-November while the autumn foliage was already in wane.

The initial approach is along an ubiquitous forest road smothered with dense cedar and cypress trees, but once you get onto the path proper the native foliage takes over. During the wet summer months, leeches hide in the undergrowth, seeking fresh blood from those brave summer hikers, but in the cooler months we walk freely without worry of blood loss.

Minetoko’s bald summit affords spectacular views of the surrounding Kitayama mountains but it isn’t the view that most people come for. Nestled just below the summit is a broad plateau of wetlands, Kansai’s answer to Oze if you will. The area is called Hacchō-daira and has been designated one of Kyoto’s 200 most beautiful places of nature. The fact that Kyoto even has 200 places worth putting on the list in impressive in itself, but why this did not make the top 100 is truly mind-boggling.

To get to the plateau, you first need to climb up to the adjacent ridgline. It was here that Eri and I stopped for lunch under the wild mistletoe growing in the hardwoods above. Readers will find it comforting (if not disappointing) that we did not partake in any western traditions that involve embracing under these bulbous parasites. Those looking for an authentic touch to the holiday season could come here to take away the real deal instead of settling for the mundane plastic version at their local 100 yen shop.

From the ridge, a broad track drops abruptly to the plateau. The clear autumn air and verdant sky transform the wetlands into a true work of art.

The ferns and underbrush grow brown as the fastly encroaching winter settles in. Hacchō-daira is named after the Hacchō dragonfly that frequents these parts, but none of the unique insects could be found on this crisp autumn day.

Such was the beauty of the marshlands that Eri and I could hardly put our cameras down. This is truly one of those magical gems that is seldom documented even among the Japanese mountain press. Yama-to-keikoku chose Minago in favor of Minetoko when creating the list of Kansai Hyakumeizan, but the mountain is included as part of the Kinki Hyakumeizan. I guess when choosing between two peaks so close to one another, many people opt for height. Perhaps by failing to put Minetoko in the spotlight, the guidebook writers were purposely wanting to savor this mountain for themselves.

Hacchō-daira is definitely worth a visit in autumn, but I just can’t help wondering what the area would look like in winter. With a pair of shoeshoes and a newly-purchased pair of snow boots, I am ready to find out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Suzuka mountains straddle the border of Shiga and Mie Prefectures in the eastern part of the Kii Peninsula. A hiking path runs along the entire ridge, stretching nearly 90km across some surprisingly rugged terrain. Mt. Nyūdō sits just off the main ridge roughly halfway along the serrated Suzuka spine.

On clear days, Mt. Fuji is clearly visible across the eastern horizon, but unfortunately the factories lining the Suzuka basin often spew billowing clouds of smog, blanketing the region in a thick cake of haze.

Mt. Nyūdō is included as part of the Suzuka 7, a collection of seven mountains that attract scores of enthusiasts from neighboring Nagoya city looking to climb all of the peaks for good luck. Because of this, Nyūdō proves popular with hikers throughout the year, especially in the early spring when the Japanese andromeda, or asebi, flowers are in bloom. The white swatch of asebi flowers is so impressive that they were designated a living natural monument by the Japanese government back in 1962.

A sprawling field of bamboo grass lines the summit plateau, guiding hikers to the shrine torii gate directly on the summit. This gate is considered the entrance to the upper precinct of Tsubaki Ōkami Yashiro shrine, a sacred Shintō space located at the foot of the mountain. Every spring and autumn, a festival is held on the grounds, with scores of worshipers scaling the northern face of the peak to a cave just below the summit that houses the deity.

Avoiding the crowds, we opt for a late autumn ascent on the western flank under clear skies and brisk winds. The summit affords outstanding panoramic views and plenty of impressive backdrops for photos. The calendar girl is no other than alpine superstar Dewi, who is well on her way to becoming the first Indonesian female to climb the Kansai Hyakumeizan.

 

There has already been a lot said about Mt. Chokai, the symmetrical volcano floating high above the sprawling rice fields of Sakata city in northern Yamagata Prefecture. Half of the peak itself sits in neighboring Akita Prefecture, with several routes from each side of the mountain.

The most popular route is from the west, along a well-marked path that doubles as a sacred route for devout Dewa pilgrims, who climb to the summit shrine to give offerings and catch the first rays of the rising sun.

 

My second visit to one of Tohoku’s highest peaks was also from the main route. Miguel and I planned on overnighting at the emergency hut at the trailhead but the hut was closed for renovations, despite the fact that it was peak hiking season.

This time around we opted to skip the summit in favor of a walk on the lower slopes to an idyllic volcanic lake. The photo featured in the calendar was on the descent from that short climb. The weather turned before we could reach the summit plateau so we retreated back to the trailhead and onward to Mt. Haguro.

Bus service is extremely limited and it’s only a matter of time before it will be abolished entirely. Such is the trend in this car-addicted country, a place where Toyota hold considerable power over the populace.

A third trip is certainly in the works, and this time I hope to approach from a lesser-known route to the east. That’s the beauty of a mountain of Chokai’s stature, with multiple approaches all providing their own hidden treasures.

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.

 

 

Shaken up finale – The Walk

12:15pm

The asphalt sizzles slightly as I follow route 22 northeast past the campus and along the edge of a deserted suburban collection of overpriced dwellings. Rows of planted keyaki trees provide  protection from the blazing midday sun shimmering off the pavement. Cars whizz by, oblivious to the lonely foot soldier on his march to freedom.

12:45pm

I make good work on the elevated protection of the sidewalk, following along steadily through the rolling hills to a busy intersection flanked by chain restaurants and a sprawling Kuroneko distribution center. Here I head west onto National Highway 302, a busy thoroughfare cutting straight through the northern tip of the Ikoma mountain range. A narrow sidewalk offers safe passage briefly before giving way to a narrow shoulder barely the width of a sneaker. These roads were not designed for foot traffic.

1:00pm

Trucks whizz by just inches from my scrunched-up shoulders as I climb higher into the hills. On normal days, vehicles use this road to gain access to the expressway, but due to the quake the highways are all closed: the car navigation systems have somehow rerouted all of the transport trucks along this typically quiet section of Kyoto Prefecture. At the top of a crest I reach Kawachi-tōge, flanked on the east by the glistening chimney of a garbage incineration plant. Here I cross over into Osaka Prefecture and return to the comforts of a wide sidewalk.

1:05pm

After 50 meters I reach a fully stocked 7-11 and enter the air-conditioned space. First on my list is sunscreen, followed by a cold sports drink and a few snacks. The interior seems to have come through the quake with very little noticeable damage, though I suspect that the diligent staff had already finished cleaning up the mess before I arrive.

1:45pm

The route climbs gently before leveling off at the mountain ridge for a short while. Here I pass by two in suits walking in the opposite direction: they too have taken to foot due to the utter meltdown of the train system. Thick forests give way to broad rice fields and vistas across the Hirakata plain and directly towards the quake epicenter. I make note of the lack of smoke on the horizon, a reminder that things could have been a lot worse.

2:00pm

Route 302 ducks under the Dai-ni Keihan Expressway and back into familiar territory. After reaching the JR train tracks I turn south and follow quieter streets towards Tsuda station. I notice my first signs of damage: kawara roof tiles lay in shattered fragments among crumbly leaf litter and cigarette butts. Street smarts start to kick in, though it not muggers that I am afraid of encountering. Instead, I study my surroundings carefully, planning out a possible path of escape should a strong aftershock send the electrical lines directly overhead into a free fall.

2:20pm

I arrive at Tsuda station, only to find the entrance cordoned off. There will be no shortcuts back to my house by train – I am committed to my own foot power. I continue south until spotting a torii gate snapped in two. My curiosity gets the better of me and I enter the shrine grounds. Beyond the gate lay the toppled remains of a giant tōrō lantern, a seismic ode to Stonehenge if you will. I step around the obstacle and exit out the rear of the grounds through another off-balance torii gate teetering on collapse.

3:00pm 

Continuing south, I now enter the familiar grounds of the Jingūji vineyards. To my great surprise, an elderly woman sits patiently at her stall, peddling stacks of freshly harvested grapes. I stop in for a chat and end up buying a couple of kilograms of Delaware grapes to bring back to Kanako and to my neighbors. I know they have probably been through a rough day so it seems like the best remedy to calm frail nerves.

3:45pm 

I finally reach my neighborhood and navigate around fallen debris and into Kanako and Ibuki’s waiting arms. All of my neighbors are outside, conversing about the rough start to the work week. We all have our own stories, especially those stuck in Osaka city who, like me, had to improvise their way home. As we chat, with smiles of relief for everyone safely accounted for, the pavement beneath our feet rises up-and-down as if we are all standing on a trampoline. A magnitude 4 aftershock sends vertical seismic waves through our bodies. Little do we know that the coming weeks are about to become a whole lot shakier.