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Posts Tagged ‘Arashiyama’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willam’s video:

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