Posts Tagged ‘Diamond Trail’

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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Another month passed, and with the door on 2015 quickly closing, I seized a final chance to finish the last section of the first third of the Diamond Trail before the start of the new year. Gear packed, bus schedule confirmed, and clear weather forecast. What could go wrong?


I arrived at Tondabayashi station a little past 9am and searched for the bus stop that would take me to Hiraishi. According to my on-line research, the bus left at 9:15am for the 20-minute uphill journey to the village that I had seen just 6 weeks prior. There were plenty of buses milling about, none of which would shuttle me where I needed to go. At 9:13am, panic started to set in, and I inquired with a bus attendant loitering about.


“Oh, there’s no bus at 9:15am,” replied the uniformed official, clutching strongly to a laminated copy of the bus schedule in his white-gloved hands. “That bus left at 8:50am.” I gave a look of bewildered disbelief, my heart sinking even further into my tightened abdomen upon receiving the following additional detail: “The next bus for Hiraishi leaves at 3:20pm.”


Before I could even mutter a forced thank you from my mouth, I was already rushing over to the taxi stand, flagging down a ride with a stern driver who seemed more interested in bringing on lung cancer through his unfiltered cigarette than saving a hiker from an agonizing 7km walk. Still, he put out his butt and ushered me over for the silent ride to where I had left off on Halloween. Once at the bus stop, I switched on the GPS, pulled out the trekking pole, and gazed up at the bus schedule affixed to a half-corroded metal pole: “9:15am departure for Tondabayashi station”. Of course! In my haste to find the bus schedule, I had found the bus schedule from Hiraishi to Tondabayashi instead of the other way around. The Kongō bus company really needs to hire a proper web designer who can create a user-friendly web navigation system.


With my wallet quite a bit emptier, I marched back up the road and followed the previous GPS track still recorded in my device. Patches of green weeds tinged with the first frosts of the season lined both sides of the cracked concrete road as the sun filtered through a thick grove of cedar. Ahead of me, the whooshing sound of a spinning mechanism broke the still air of the morning, and suddenly the burly form of a mountain biker swished right past my frightened figure. He let out a quick “sumimasen” without even slowing his breakneck pace.


I reached the unmarked junction and left the forest road, carving my way up the ruts in the overused path. After another mountain biker swooshed past, I found the cause of so much erosion. It looks like hikers aren’t the only ones to forge a path through this cedar labrinyth.



Steady was the pace up the easy-to-follow route – the memory from October was still freshly burned in my prefrontal cortex, and I could simply use the electrical pylons as visual signs of progress. Just below the final push to the ridge line, the sound of bear bells descended swiftly towards me. I stepped aside as two more cyclists zoomed past. At least these guys had the courtesy to warn me beforehand. If not for those bells I surely would have been turned into a pancake.


It took about an hour to reach the ridge line again, where I took a brief rest on that exact same bench where I had thrown in the towel back in the autumn. I felt completely different this time around, with still plenty of energy reserves left in my rejuvenated body. At taking a few deep breaths, I took the first few steps upwards, along that virtual stairway to heaven that had sent me retreating to Hiraishi. There were easily over 100 steps rising incessantly towards the summit of Mt. Iwahashi. It was there that I penned a new name for this godforsaken trail. It would be known as the Diamond Trail no longer. “Forget diamonds”, I muttered under my labored breathing, “this is the Kaidan trail”.


At the top of the final rise, the incline gave way to a gently rolling summit plateau dotted with leaf-bearing tree cover. At the high point, two sweaty hikers occupied a bench on the far side of the broad opening. They had started at Nijō earlier in the day, and gave me invaluable advice about what lie ahead of me. I thanked them, marching down some more wooden log stairs along the shaded northern face of the mountain singing Lucy in the Sky with Kaidan.


The next section along the route was an undulating wave of gentle descents followed by slight rises in the gradient. Occasionally the path would pop out into a clearing affording views down to Osaka city, but for the most part the route moved through suffocating cedar plantations.  I made good time as I pushed onwards towards Mt. Nijō.


Just before reaching Takenouchi pass, the route merged with a concrete forest road, following it for about half a kilometer before dumping me out on route 166. A hand-drawn sign on the guardrail ushered me towards the left, where apparently the Kaidan trail continued onwards to Nijō. I managed to walk along route 166 for preciously 50 meters before being kidnapped and held hostage for well over an hour. Well, that’s not exactly what happened, as the hostage taking was entirely voluntary. You see, I fell victim to what I can only describe at the work of a purely evil genius, the kind that would create something so tempting and so inviting that only those with the strongest willpower can resist: a non-smoking organic cafe. I opened the door of the Irodori Mint Cafe and was shown to a seat near the window by the courteous server. Being Christmas season, they had a special lunch that included roast pork, quiche, and hearty minestrone, which set me back 1300 yen but did include a drink and dessert. I peeled off my warmer layers, basking in the heated comforts of the dining room while resting the muscles. The food really hit the spot, and the hot coffee put the kick back into my step.


Once back out on the pavement, I continued cruising downhill, reaching a broad parking lot and signpost for the Diamond Trail. I turned right here, following the stone path as it led straight up towards the ridge line that I had left at the top of the pass. Things started to look vaguely familiar, and at the top of the hill I was once again back in familiar territory. I had once again reached Iwaya grotto, a place I had visited on Day 1 of my section hike. There was still work to be done, however, because I realized that the actual trail continued along the ridge towards Katsuragi instead of dropping towards Iwaya. By turning left at Route 166, I had accidentally skipped a small section of the real trail. Buzzing on caffeine and playing the role of purist, I turned away from Nijō and marched along the route towards Katsuragi. It took about 20 minutes to reconnect with route 166, where I realized my mistake. On the one hand, I did have the best mountain lunch in existence by erroneously making that left-hand turn. Future Diamond Trailers (if that is indeed what we can call hikers doing the Diamond Trail) should make note of this and consider stopping by the cafe for a bit to eat en route to their destination.


From route 166, I retraced my steps up the steep trail back to Iwaya, where I once again summited the female peak of Mt. Nijō. By now the temperature had risen to nearly 15 degrees, which was way too warm for my fleece-lined thermal pants. I stripped down to my boxer shorts, laying my trousers inside-out in the sun in order to allow the sweat to evaporate. There is a giant sundial directly on the summit, and in the clear weather and strong sunshine, the time keeper was precise. It was 2:10pm when I arrived on the top, and this time around, the vistas did not disappoint.


Laid out before me were the Omine mountains, shining brightly in the crystalline air with nary a glint from the light coating of snow clinging tightly to the upper reaches of Kansai’s highest mountain range. To the left of the lofty peaks, the smaller but just as impressive chain of the Daiko mountains stretched out across the azure horizon. These mountains too lay eerily free of the wintry white that usually sits thick in the wet December air. It was an unusually mild winter by Japanese standards, likely attributed to the strong El Nino dominating the waters of the Equatorial Pacific region.


My gaze at the mesmerizing vistas was broken by a rowdy group of a dozen climbers who had just arrived on the summit. Remembering that I was still half-naked, I scrambled to conceal myself and had just finished zipping up my fly when they invaded the high point, lying just one meter behind my granite bench. They took turns snapping summit proofs of each other, until they started setting up a timer for a group shot. I offered to take their photo instead, which they gladly accepted. As everyone gathered, one of the senior members of the group pulled out a small banner that had a rather intricate and stylized logo embroidered onto the fabric. It looked like an insignia that King Arthur might wear, were he alive today.


“What is that?” I inquired, clearly puzzled and intrigued by such an intricate logo for such a small group of climbers. “JAC”, came the reply, “Japan Alpine Club”. My jaw dropped, for here were members of Japan’s legendary Sangaku Kai, a mountaineering organization that has connections to Walter Weston himself. We talked for several minutes, with more than a few members impressed with my mountaineering resume. It’s not everyday that Japanese hikers can chat with a foreigner who has not only climbed the Nihon Hyakumeizan, but also the Kansai Hyakumeizan as well. “You should join our club”, remarked the leader. I brushed off the praise, not sure if the invitation was genuine or just a show of respect from someone who probably had a more impressive resume than yours truly. After all, this particular group was section hiking all of the prefectural borders from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean. They had stared in Fukui Prefecture and had followed the Fukui/Shiga border before turning southward and eventually linking up with the Osaka/Nara border which they will follow all the way down to Wakayama.


After bidding farewell to the JAC, I dropped off the summit to the north and turned left. My original plan was to descend into Nara, but a phone conversation with Ted during lunch had convinced me that the Rokutanji ruins on the Osaka side were well worth checking out. I had never descended down this side of Nijō before, and now seemed as good a time as any. The path dropped abruptly though a series of boulder fields before arriving at the temple ruins, which were dominated by a large stone pagoda dating from the 8th century. A grotto once housing Buddhist relics sat nearby, a metal gate firmly affixed to keep vandals from carving their initials into the sacred cave. From here, the path continued descending to the parking lot I had seen earlier in the day, so after a brief detour to a lookout point, I dropped back down to route 166, which I considered following all the way back to the station.


However, my map indicated a more interesting trail that continued a little further along the ridge, so back into the forest I ducked, climbing a series of switchbacks before once again traversing the spine of the mountain. After a series of ups and downs, the trail once again lost altitude and ended at a paved road that ran directly under an expressway. I followed this road until it tossed me out on a larger paved road that apparently lead to the Takenouchi Kaido museum. Of course I ended up taking a wrong turn, not realizing my mistake until I was a further 3km down the road, which passed right by a racetrack for remote-controlled cars. Somehow, I managed to reach Kaminotaishi station just before dusk. All in all I had probably traversed well over 15km, but the first section of the Diamond Trail was in the books. The next section between Katsuragi and Kongō was now on the radar screen. Now, if I could only seize a chance to escape from nappy changing duties……

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The second section of the Diamond trail follows the undulating ridge between the peaks of Nijō and Katsuragi for a total distance of around 10km. From afar, the spine of the mountain looks like nothing more than a gentle rise, but I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. After putting off this section for all of the summer, I opened a small gap in my incredibly hectic schedule, forgoing the Halloween festivities in favor of knocking out this herculean chunk of ridge.


Since I had already summited Katsuragi several times before, I opted for the comfort and luxury of the ropeway on the Nara side of the mountain. Getting there requires a change of trains at Shakudo, followed by a bus from Gose station. By the time I boarded the gondola it was already approaching 1pm. So much for the early start.


From the top of the lift, I bolted up the wide path like a steed out of the starting gate. The autumn foliage was at its peak, and what little deciduous cover remained on the blighted peak glowed brilliantly in the mid-autumn sunshine. I reached the summit of Mt. Katsuragi around 1:30 in the afternoon and took in the views while polishing off my lunch box. The susuki grass lining the broad open summit plateau flowed gracefully in the cool westerly breezes blowing in from Osaka bay. The northern reaches of the mountain were covered in forest, which prevented me from getting a glimpse of Mt. Nijō, which was probably a good thing as I knew it was a very long way off.


Dropping back down to the tree cover, I passed by a restaurant hawking hot noodles, vowing to return there for lunch during the next leg of the trail over to Kongō. For now, I slipped past the entrance and alongside the narrow campground that was just beginning to come to life. The next section of trail was a contorted serpent of rippling log stairs affixed to the rolling contours of the land. The knees took a beating while I secretly envied the groups of late starters working their way up the broad stair lanes, for it would have surely been easier on the patellas.


After passing by the junction for the northern ridge approach to Katsuragi, the trail entered a thick canopy of cedar trees lined in perfect rows. The density of the forest blocked out most of the light, giving an air of early evening to the surroundings. If I didn’t make a move on it I would surely be caught in these spooky woods after dark.


An hour passed and I managed to eat through only 40% of the 10km required to finish the section. I knew that I would not make it, but decided to go as far as my comfort level would allow. The fatigue of the previous week of work was starting to catch up to me, and I felt drained of energy. As I stumbled along the ridge in a weary daze, a movement in the bamboo grass to my immediate left roused me out of my reverie. No more than two meters away, a large animal shuffled through the undergrowth, popping out on the ridge directly in front of me. I caught a glimpse of the massive beast, expecting to see the antlers poking up through the leaves as it hopped its way to safety, but the center of gravity hinted at a different kind of animal. Lowering my watchful eye, I managed  to glimpse two long protruding tusks coming from the elongated snout. Alas, the elusive wild boar – these things have been known to charge hikers but this one seemed more intent on seeking shelter than stealing a free bite of scrawny flesh.


The wildlife encounter boosted the morale and sent a shot of adrenaline through my depleted body. This was enough to carry me a few more kilometers to Iwahashi pass, where I collapsed on a wooden bench. Directly in front of me, an extensive network of stairs rose steeply to the skyline and above. I knew I was only a short distance from the summit of Mt. Iwahashi, but the signpost pointing to Hiraishi village beckoned me on, like a maneki-neko pulling a consumer into its shop. I was 5.1km from the summit of Katsuragi, which seemed like the perfect stopping point for the traverse. Daylight had nearly run out and I hadn’t the energy reserves to carry on much further. I gulped down a handful of chocolate-covered almonds, shouldered the pack, and retreated down the western side of the mountain away from the ridge.


The path was easy to follow and well-maintained, skirting past the edge of several electrical pylons before it deposited me on an unmarked dirt forest road. I turned left here, but a glance at my GPS indicated that it would take me further into the hills and not down to civilization, so I quickly backtracked. After 20 minutes, I popped out into a small secluded village and headed further down towards town. A trio of hikers resting on a bench caught my attention, and as I arrived at their location a bus pulled up bound for Tondabayashi station. It was the final bus of the day, and I had made it with only minutes to spare. Someone was truly watching out for me.


What karma I had gained on the bus ride, however, was soon lost on the train ride back to Osaka. Our train ground to a halt at Fujidera station after someone decided to jump in front of the train in front of ours. Such ‘accidents’ are common this time of year, as the pressures from society become too much for some people to handle. I collapsed into my seat and closed my eyes, using the two-hour delay as a chance to recharge the physical batteries.


With half of the ridge now traversed, I knew that it would be much easier to return to finish off the remaining section. All I needed was another break in the schedule.

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The Diamond Trail is a 45km-long path running along the mountain range separating Nara, Osaka and Wakayama Prefectures. The hiking path was established in 1969 as a joint effort between the prefectures in order to protect the forested areas of the popular peaks of Katsuragi, Kongo and Iwawaki. Unfortunately, this protective agreement came decades too late, as over 90% of the range has been clear-cut and replaced with monocultural cedar forests. Despite this devastating setback, I had my eye on this so-called long trail for quite a while now, and with the Kansai 100 now safely behind me, it was time to undertake the challenge.


Due to the short distance, the entire trail can be done in two very long days, or if you’re superhuman like Michal, in one fell marathon swoop. I, on the other hand, was looking to section hike the entire route, breaking it up into easier-to-swallow niblets that could be done as half-day excursions from my Osaka base. I set forth on a relatively balmy day in early February for the first section between Kamitaishi and Nijo.


Alighting at Kaminotaishi station, I followed route 703 as it ran parallel to the tracks of the Kintetsu Minami-Osaka line. It took the better part of 45 minutes along the clogged rural route before I reached the starting point of the Diamond Trail, at a geological anomaly otherwise known as Donzurubō. Formed by an ancient eruption of Mt. Nijō several millennia ago, the soft sandstone of the rocky outcrops is being eroded away by time, leaving an impressive collection of crafted natural sculptures that afford hours of rock hopping pleasure. I could have spent the entire day here, but knew the task at hand could not be put off any longer.


I retraced my steps back down route 703 until finding a junction for the roughly 3km tramp to Mt. Nijō, the first of the Diamond Trail’s five major peaks. The path rose gently at first until reaching the ridge line, where a series of wooden steps flowed up and down along the contours like a rowboat bobbing in a turbulent sea. At the top of the first rise, I gasped for air in the unexpected workout. With each subsequent rise and fall of the path, I grew more weary with fatigue. The stress from the impending birth of my first child had worn down my stamina and strength. I paused on a wooden bench under an electrical tower to catch my breath and refuel with some chocolate-covered almonds.


Eventually the maze of stairs subsided somewhat as I inched closer to my target. I reached a junction just below the saddle between Nijō’s twin-breasted peaks, and was alarmed to find that the Diamond Trail did not actually hit the summit of either peak. Instead, it skirted the southern edge of the female peak (like other twins in Japan, the peaks are delineated as male and female by their kanji characters) until arriving at Iwaya, a secluded grotto once lined with buddhist statues carved out of stone. All that remains now are a weather-beaten stupa and the niches that once held the sculptures that are probably collecting dust in the back room of the Nara National Museum.


From here, the trail continued onwards towards Mt. Katsuragi, but I was running out of both motivation and daylight. I turned my back on the trail, opting to climb both of Nijō’s identical peaks before descending to Nijō shrine and its accompanying train station. The female summit affords mesmerizing views into the Nara plains, but the late winter haze obscured the vistas and turned the air into a muted wall of yellow.


With the first section of the Diamond Trail now complete, I hoped to carve out the next section of the route between Nijō and Katsuragi before the onset of summer.

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