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Posts Tagged ‘Daiko mountains’

Mt. Ikegoya is one monster of a mountain, and the make-or-break peak in my Kansai 100 quest. Check this one off the list and it’s a relatively easy cruise to the finish line. The 1000-meter vertical elevation change is contained within one 2-1/2km stretch of trail that is not for the faint-of-heart. Throw in a vertigo-inducing traverse above a raging waterfall, and sprinkle in a small army of blood-sucking leeches and you’ve got the makings of a true adventure.

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Nao and I set off at dawn on a calm and clear day in mid-May for the trailhead nestled deep in the Daiko mountains on the Nara-Mie prefectural border. The only access is via the north along a narrow poorly-maintained gravel road past Hasu dam and the phalanges of the accompanying lake sitting at the confluence of dozens of lush mountain streams. Our plan was to follow on such tributary by the name of Miya-no-tani all the way up to its headwaters, where the true climb commenced, but our first challenge involved getting there.

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The road to Hasu dam was a double-laned asphalt bylane that looked as if it could accommodate a battalion of army tanks, but beyond that we inched along a meandering. potholed lane littered with rockfall and landslide debris. Every year sections of the route get washed out in the summer rains and maintenance crews struggle with the upkeep, but luckily the road had recently been touched up and we forced our way to the small parking lot marking the entrance to the trail.

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Initially the path traversed high above the river bed along a series of metal walkways before dropping down to the waters edge, where a combination of faded paint marks on rocks and strips of tattered pink tape offered guidance in our upstream pursuit of the source of the river. Nao had explored this section of track once before several years ago before being chased out by hundreds of river leeches that climbed his trousers and abseiled from the trees. Our timing, however, was perfect, as the segmented worms were still lying dormant in the soil beneath our feet, patiently awaiting the summer rains.

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Whenever the walls of the gorge closed in, the trail switchbacked up to more gentler slopes, crossing yet more metal bridges and walkways as we pushed higher and higher up the valley. Despite the undulating path, we had not even covered a hundred vertical meters in that first hour of scrambling. We hit a fork in the river, marked by a signpost indicating waterfalls in either direction. While the 40-minute detour to the 80-meter Kazeore falls, one of Japan’s 100 falls, seemed tempting, we knew that such diversions could cost us precious daylight hours that we could certainly use on the descent.

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We turned right here, following the steel ladders and fixed ropes further to the base of Taka-taki, or the ‘tall one’. This 60-meter high beauty drops straight off a cliff face and into an emerald pool that would make quite the summer watering hole if not for the leeches. After crossing the stream, a signpost warned hikers of the next section of the trail – a harrowing traverse above the falls.

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Pausing a bit for a refilling of liquids and a chocolate bar, Nao and I climbed the jagged switchbacks up the 60-degree slopes to the base of a band of cliffs draped with fixed ropes. A slip here would be fatal, and judging by the size of the metal signpost in the river bed, such falls are all too common for those unfortunate souls with two left feet. We hung tightly to the striated rock, making sure we had four points of contact with the earth at all times. It would be an even trickier route to descend, but fortunately for us we had our eye on an alternative trail that dropped down an adjacent valley.

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Once above the falls we lost the trail completely by mistakenly climbing a spur to our right instead of continuing upstream. Only by cross referencing our GPS waypoints with the paper map did we realize our mistake, but all was corrected by backtracking back to the river bed and continuing on towards the proper junction, which we reached at midday.

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The paper map had this next section of trail marked as a 1-hour, 45-minute ascent so we dropped our gear and nibbled on rice balls and almonds. We had a 700-meter climb staring us straight in the face and really nowhere to go except up. It was a short section of switchbacks to reach the beginning of the spur, which quickly became an all-out war with exposed tree roots. Forcing our way on all fours up the improvised staircase, we made steady progress up towards the ridgeline, which lay out of sight somewhere high above us. We thought it wiser to simply put away our GPS devices, as frequent glances at the contours would only serve as reminders of how much further we had to go.

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Voices above us crescendoed as we overtook our first climbing party of the day, a trio of sweaty, middle-aged men who stepped aside to let us pass. Once above the 1000-vertical meter mark the angle abated, revealing large swaths of virgin beech trees sitting on a soft carpet of wild grasses and dried foliage. It was easily one of the most breathtaking stretches of unspoiled forest in the Kansai area, and a reminder of the power of the Daiko mountains.

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After all, it was these same slopes that provided the last hideout of the Japanese wolf, which was last seen back in the Meiji era in a small village on the leeward side of Ikegoya’s rugged slopes.

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We topped out just one hour leaving the river bed behind. Though the tree-lined summit afforded no vistas of the surrounding mountains, it was still a pleasant place to relax and take in what nature had to offer. It was my 94th mountain, and one of the best to date. I brewed up a cup of coffee in preparation for the long, knee-knocking drop back to civilization.

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Our return route required a 30-minute stroll along the ridge line past the small pond that gives Ikegoya its namesake before reaching a junction at the summit of Mt. Kirifuri, where the vistas finally started to open up. Unfortunately, the vistas were not the only thing to reveal themselves, as my caffeinated drink on the summit kickstarted my bowels. I dropped off the trail to dig a hole for my deposit of fertilizer as Nao waited patiently.

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We veered right at the junction and followed a pleasant strolling ridge that ran parallel to the steep spur we had climbed earlier. To our left, we could make out the flat highlands of Mt. Myojin and Hinokizuka, two of the remaining six mountains on the list and the last two in this part of Kansai. If I had an extra day I could have easily knocked them off from here, but as luck would have it, they would have to wait for another time. Our trail followed the contours of the ridge for well over an hour until reaching the remains of an old cable car system used by loggers. From here, the virgin forest yielded to the dreadful plantations of cedar and cypress that make my heart sink every time I see them.

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The path terminated at an immense clear-cut area lined by fabric fences to keep the deer from destroying the bark of the newly planted trees. A signpost indicated us to unfasten the ropes of the fence, where we entered this area that looked like something out of a warzone. To make matters of worse, the trail followed the tracks of a logging monorail that ran straight down the mountain without a single switchback. The knees took a beating as we searched for any way to prevent ourselves from tumbling uncontrollably down the barren slopes. It was a drop of nearly 400 vertical meters directly down to the valley floor, where we met up with the forest road once again and limped back to the car.

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We had eluded the leeches and knocked off the mountain in one massive assault. With only 6 more mountains to go, I finally had the momentum to get these Kansai 100 peaks off my chest so I could move onto other things.

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Deep in the Daiko mountain range of eastern Nara you’ll find an isolated peak with a peculiar appellation. Literally translating as ‘lost’, the word mayoi refers not only to getting physically lost as in losing one’s way, but also can be used in a spiritual sense as in an inability to receive enlightenment. The origins of the name of Mt. Mayoi are unknown except to the residents of the small cluster of houses situated around the trailhead on the southern foothills of the peak. Our approach, however, was from the east, along a narrow, winding gravel road that is slowly being consumed by nature.

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My companion this time was fellow Hyakumeizan alumnus Nao Muto, who you might remember from an early morning ascent of Mt. Mitake a few winters ago. Nao had brought along an Indonesian friend named Dewi, a strong-willed graduate student with a thirst for adventure and a deep interest in the hidden ridges of Kansai. The duo picked me up at 7am for the long drive through the backwoods of Nara Prefecture. Mt. Mayoi sits on the eastern edge of the Daiko mountain range, a steep, spiny backbone of peaks connecting the highlands of Odai-ga-hara with the pyramidal flank of Mt. Takami some 60 kilometers to the north. A full traverse is possible, but requires a bit of advanced planning and a special skill for finding watersheds hidden off either side of the contorted ridge.

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After a bit of a struggle finding the correct forest road to the start of the trail, we reached a fork in the gravel road with a weathered signpost pointing to our target peak. Even though access was easier from the east, we chose an alternative route from the southwest which left a modest 300 meter elevation gain to the ridge line. The eastern approach was a long slog, with nearly 1100 meters of vertical climbing and several hours of hard work. Despite the early departure, it was after 11am when we finally strapped on the packs and marched up the forest road in the brisk winds pushing in from the north. A typhoon was on the way, so our climbing window was short. Barometric pressure held steady, but the force of the gales gave ample warning that this was about to change.

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The trail tucked into the forest on our right, leaving behind the cedar plantations and entering a serene world of hardwoods and conifers laying undisturbed for centuries. The scenery continued to improve with each rising step, crescendoing in a jaw-dropping collection of virgin beech trees grasping firmly to the spine of the mountain range.

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Trees grew in bowed shapes on either side of the ridge, carved by the strong winds and deep snow drifts. The path was indiscernible among the thicket of fallen leaves and rhododendron bush, but the contours of the ridge would guide us safely to the summit as long as we didn’t take one of the tributaries leading off to ridges paralleling the main spine. The GPS was a big assistance in that matter, and with little else to follow other than the faint migratory patterns of passing fauna, it felt as if we were following the footsteps of Kojima Usui himself, albeit with more modern kit.

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After several undulations of the contours, a signpost indicated the summit of Mt. Kuchi-Mayoi, the peak of the lost mouth. There must be some legend associated with this nomenclature. I like to think that perhaps an old Shugendo monk was silenced forever at the sight of the beauty of the forest. Or perhaps a pilgrim lost his voice completely by chanting in the shadows of a nearby rock outcrop.

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From here to ridge dropped to a saddle and permeated through the dense forest of beech and other hardwoods swaying steadily in the fierce winds pushing in from the south. A lone doe pranced off toward the sheltered depths of the northern canopy, startled into action by our approaching footfalls. Bears that would usually forage the trees for nuts had also moved to lower ground in anticipation of the encroaching barometric inferno, though fortunately none of us were witness to such migrations.

The forest floor lay blanketed with a fine coating of fallen foliage that was slowly being turned into top soil by the weather patterns that frequent these secluded folds of the Daiko range.

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Our progress was steady, thanks in large part to the hand-painted signs that poked up at irregular intervals. If you closed your eyes and someone spun you around a half a dozen times, you would literally be unable to distinguish the direction from which you had come and the way to safety. Indeed, Mt. Mayoi was starting to live up to its name. The GPS greatly assisted in pathfinding when the scenery offered few clues, and shortly after the farmers in the villages took rest from their harvesting for a midday snack we reached the high point, which sat at a 3-way junction at 1300 meters above the sea. The forest did little to buffer the wind, which whipped straight through our windbreakers and forced us into a hasty lunch. Few of us had expected the temperatures to drop so dramatically so early in October.

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On the descent back to the car, I had a chance to speak with Dewi at length about her experiences in Japan’s mountains. She had just returned from a full east-to-west traverse of the Azuma mountain range in Tohoku. It’s not everyday that you see an Indonesian woman in headgear tramping up Japan’s summits. Overall her encounters with other hikers seemed to be positive, most likely due to her beaming enthusiasm and impeccable Japanese ability. We talked about her daily prayer rituals in addition to her future goal of being the first Indonesian person (and perhaps first Muslim?) to scale Japan’s 100 famous mountains.

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In the late afternoon we reached the car and headed to the valley for a well-deserved hot spring bath. Our initial plan was to camp in the forest for an early morning ascent of Mt. Ikegoya, another of the Kansai 100 that remained on the dwindling list, but the threat of the typhoon forced a retreat. Back to Osaka we drove, fueled by the adrenaline of a successful ascent of one of Kansai’s most breathtaking areas. Three unscaled peaks remain in this range of pristine mountains, so perhaps they are an apt place to close the chapter in the Kansai 100 book. I could knock all 3 off in a weekend if I planned it right, and I know just who to turn to for partners.

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