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Posts Tagged ‘Diamond Trail’

3.5 km. Enough sitting around hoping those final few kilometers will climb themselves. Wait too long and the summer heat and humidity will be formidable foes. Climb now and risk a sudden change in the weather. I opt for a coin toss – heads and I go this weekend; tails and I put it off another week. Heads.

I set the alarm for 6am but wake up naturally at 5:30 as daylight filters through the curtains and the cacophony of birdsong force me from my slumber. The rucksack sits tiny in the corner of my office while I double-check the battery in my camera – I am not making that mistake again. The 7:05am train whisks me into downtown Osaka, where the subway deposits me directly in the center of Namba for the long train journey to Kawachi-Nagano. With a bit of time to kill before the first bus to Takihata dam I explore the backstreets and discover the remnants of an ancient inn along the Koya-Kaido, or old road to Koyasan. A gargantuan Kusunoki (Japanese camphor) tree occupies the better part of the hidden garden at the back of the inn. Awestruck I stand, gazing at the massive branches soaring toward the stratosphere. The honk of an annoyed motorist jars me back to reality – I guess the locals aren’t accustomed to tourists blocking the road to gaze up a slice of the forgotten past.

The bus ride involves mountain talk with a trio of young hikers who are planning an ascent of Iwawaki. I warn them about the mamushi who tried to take me out back in April as Murakami-san sends some important intel my way about Mt Makio, my destination for the day. “It’s easy to get lost up there as there are a multitude of tracks”, offers my newfound companion. We exchange contact information upon alighting and I head across the rickety steel suspension bridge for my last hurrah with the Diamond trail.

The signposts guide me to the end of a cul-de-sac and around a farmer’s garden to a narrow track still flowing with fresh rainwater from the previous day’s torrential rain. Greenery immediately engulfs me as I head through a lush canopy of rich foliage. With the rainy season having commenced early this year, the forests are thriving with undergrowth and buzzing with six-legged life. An initial steep climb through a well-worn channel of eroded spur soon gives way to a flat traverse along the steep contours. The stillness of the air sends the sweat glands into full production as a hornet does a quick fly-by before deciding that my stinky body is not worthy of investment.

The track skirts the edge of a washed out escarpment affording views across the valley over to Mt Iwawaki, which looks formidably far from reach. I silently praise myself for having the foresight to cut my hike of Section 5 short at Takihata instead of trying to push it to the end. The soothing aromas of the wet ferns and moss provide an olfactory buzz, as well as a reminder that the mountain slopes are tightly gripped in the claws of the wet season. I edge my way along the narrow path, across the narrow wooden planks spanning older, washed out sections of trail.

Monocultural columns of cedar yield to a verdant labyrinth of hardwoods which guide me to Bote-tōge at roughly the halfway point in the climb. I pause here on a wooden bench to catch my breath and shed a layer. A duo of elderly hikers sit perched nearby, offering informative replies to my anxious inquiries. “You shouldn’t miss the carvings in the main sanctuary”, replies the bespectacled hiker sitting on an adjacent bench. Armed with this extra intel I drop down the opposite valley through yet more fascinating remnants of old growth past. The rich greens of the Mongolian oak canopy glisten in the late morning light seeping through the cloud cover overhead. The bulbous form of Mt Makio rises majestically on the horizon as the track drops toward another secluded valley. Stone jizō statues adorned with Sanskrit adorn the route as a nod to Makio’s Buddhist roots.

Hugging the edge of a gully, the trail descends to a small waterfall in an unnamed watershed and rises up the opposite slop to Banya-tōge. Judging by the name, there must have been some kind of watch tower erected here during the feudal times, perhaps to keep tabs on the movement of pilgrims along this well-traveled route. A head-high barbed wire fence blocks entry down the northeastern slopes, such overdone barriers a common site for paranoid landowners who want to keep unwanted mountain riff raft from encroaching on their hidden caches. Oddly enough, this fence looks recently erected, so perhaps a rogue Diamond Trail rambler recently caused a riotous ruckus, but it could just be the debilitating humidity that conjure up such thoughts.

Another drop down to the northwest brings me to Oiwake junction. Here, the trail crosses a forest road that leads to Takihata dam, an alternative approach for those hikers who adore walking on rugged concrete roads. A signpost indicates that I have just 1000 horizontal meters separating me from the end of the Diamond trail, so I cross over a narrow wooden bridge spanning a gentle brook and climb past the first of many stone building foundations. Sefukuji temple, built in the 6th century, was once a vast temple complex hosting around a thousand monks in training, including Kukai himself. Though is there really any part of Japan that Kōbō Daishi has not marked with his magic touch?

I weave up and around these stone foundation ruins and reach a junction on my left for the summit of Mt Makio. Ignoring this track, I veer left past a collection creeping saxifrage clinging tightly to the top of a low rock wall. My path steepens past a pair of dilapidated structures until reaching the entrance to the main sanctuary of Sefukuji. A nondescript stone marker sits on the ground at the trail junction, identical to the one I had encountered at Donzurubō. The kanji characters for 起点 or kiten flank the righthand side of the marker, informing me that I have indeed reached the end of the Diamond Trail. I breathe a sigh of relief for accomplishing my goal but come to the realization that I am literally in the middle of nowhere. What kind of trail ends on a mountaintop?

A handful of other visitors mill about the modest grounds of the temple. Most are dressed in cotton shirts and sneakers and have taken the easy way up by starting from the parking lot a 20-minute walk downhill on a concrete road. Before paying my respects to the deities, I make an offering to the lords of the privy. Just opposite the restroom sits a small lookout point that affords a vista back across the valley to Mt Iwawaki and further east towards Mt Kongō. I consider pausing here for a rest but decide to pay my respects first. “That’ll be 500 yen” barks the rambunctious temple caretaker, a lady in her mid-60s that exudes that Kansai freewheeling spirit. “Take all the photos you like”, she beams, pointing to the placard indicating that the 500 yen entitles visitors to all the snapshots they wish to take, in perhaps the only temple in Japan that openly embraces technology. “Instagram, Twitter, share anything and everything”, explains my guide. She clearly went to the Osaka school of propriety.

I step up into the sanctuary, turn left, and immediately drop to my knees, gobsmacked by the sheer beauty of central figure of Miroku Bosatsu towering over me. I offer a prayer before raising my lens for the social media masses.

The temple was razed by Nobunaga in the 16th century and burned down a second time near the end of the Edo era, but the statues on display in this main hall were salvaged from the fire and sit here undisturbed. I sit in complete silence, frozen by my inner voice which simply says, “stay”. I enter a trance and let my thoughts wander before exploring the rest of the main hall. I continue clockwise and find the Kannon statue that qualifies for Sefukuji’s inclusion on the venerable list of the 33 temples of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.

In back of the main statue sits a wooden carving of Kōbō Daishi flanked on all sides by a plethora of centuries-old wood carvings of Buddhist dieties. Many of these ancient sculpture still retain hints of color. Opposite Kukai’s statue, a reclining Buddha reposes peacefully. Forget the temples of Kyoto. If you really want to awe visitors, bring them to Sefukuji.

Hunger pangs remind me that sustenance is in order, so I begrudgingly retreat from the sanctuary, thank the caretaker, and descend back to the junction for the summit of Mt Makio. The track traverses below the summit before arriving at a narrow ridge. I turn right and follow the contours to the nondescript summit of Mt Makio. An echo of voices below pull me in – a rock formation below the high point purportedly affords mesmerizing views but my maps tell me that the rock formation is off limits to hikers. Still, I push on and find a fellow group of elderly rule breakers and join them on the intrusion. I settle down on the massive boulder and tuck into my lunch.

A couple approaches from the opposite end of the boulder as I quiz them on trail conditions. You see, this trail is also off limits to hikers but they inform me that the path is well-traveled and easy to follow. I check the map and decide to descend directly down to the shuttle bus stop. It is now 12:30, and the next bus is scheduled to depart at one o’clock. I tuck the camera away and settle into a frantic pace that has earned me the nickname of Max Descent from more than one hiker.

I arrive at the bus stop at 12:59 and collapse into an empty seat. Mt Makio not only doubles as the start/finish of the Diamond trail, but it is also the northernmost peak in the Izumi mountains, a full traverse of which has been on my mind for a while. I have already done the southern half of the range, so just 33 kilometers separate myself from a luxurious finish at Inunakiyama hot spring. I vow to return, under the cooler veil of winter when I can enjoy these peaks in better comfort.

All in all, the Diamond Trail is a roundabout way to transfer from the Kintestu-Minami Osaka line to the Nankai Main line, though certainly not the fastest way to change between the two divergent train networks. Now that I have complete the 45-km “long trail”, the million dollar question is: would I recommend it? I think you can find the answer to that inquiry in part 5 of the saga.

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The pandemic has forced me to look inward, to forgo travel plans and stick to places closer to home. With Japan’s 3rd State of Emergency about to begin, I focus on unfinished hiking ambitions and once again turn my attention to Osaka’s premier ‘long’ trail. My last outing here saw me cross over the halfway point of the 45km route so I once again leave home before the rush hour onslaught and hop aboard a bus bound for the Chihaya Ropeway at the base of Mt Kongō. The ropeway has recently fallen into ruin and with no budget to repair the rusting structure, the area takes on a neglected, forlorn aura. I march up the road past the turnoff to the old ropeway entrance and pause in front of a teahouse teetering on the brink of collapse. I place the viewfinder to my eye, and snap the shutter to capture an image but silence is all that I receive. I take off my camera and turn it over upside down to find the battery slot as vacant as the ramshackle building at my feet. In my haste to pack in the morning I had grabbed the camera but had left the battery sitting in its charger. With a look of dejection I slip the rucksack off my shoulders and stuff my camera inside, resigned to the fate of yet another burdensome paperweight adding unnecessary weight to the start of a long day.

During my last venture in these mountains, William and I descended down this very forest road and I succinctly remember it being a steep and joyless walk after a long day in the mountains. On fresh legs, however, the steep gradient is manageable as I settle into a brisk pace without the distraction of photography to occupy my time. Any images would simply need to be taken with the subpar smartphone camera. The map suggests allocating 50 minutes to reach the junction of the Diamond Trail at Kuruno-tōge, the place where we last said goodbye to the long-distance route, but I surprise myself by arriving just 20 minutes after alighting the bus. It’s amazing how quickly you can cover ground when you’re on a mission.

From the pass, it’s a series of wooden steps barricaded into the hillside with the grace and dexterity of a seasoned logger: you would think the keepers of the cedar forests would want a gentler approach path but these no nonsense tracks defy both gravity and gradient and seem to have been built as a way to punish hikers for their intrusion into their sacred monocultural hell. I make good work of the stairs and shortly before the clearing on the summit of Naka-Katsuragi I spy a thin spur trail carved through waist-high bamboo which I surmise will take me to the triangulation point. The path weaves hither and tither but on the far side of the plateau I pop out of the maze and into a patch of deciduous forest alive in late spring greenery and reach the true summit of 937m Naka-katsuragi. Instead of pausing, I retrace my steps back to the Diamond Trail and skirt the northern edge of the peak to a head high signpost sitting just off the main track. A clearing here invites me in as I sit down to shed a layer and finish the remnants of my apple pie.

The trail sits firmly on the border of Osaka and Nara Prefectures, the dense cedar forests of the Osaka side contrasting greatly with the hardwood splendor of the southern aspect of the ridge. Through gaps in the immense meadow of bamboo grass I have clear views straight across Gojō city to the mountains of Koyasan and further left, as I crane my neck, the majestic form of Hakkyō, the tallest mountain in the Kansai region, towers above them all. In the clear April air the mountain looks as if you could simply reach out and grasp it with your outstretched hand. I curse myself for having forgotten the battery as cloudless vistas of the Ōmine mountains are a rarity indeed. As I pause to admire the scenery laid out before me, the sound of heavy breathing severs the stillness – an elderly hiker approaches from the west, out of breath from the steep climb on the route that I will soon be taking. I utter a quick salutation before slipping down into the depths of the cedar and out of sight.

Sunlight filters through the long rows of planted cedar and creates tiger-stripe shadows on the broad path at my feet. The heavily trodden route resembles more of a road than a proper hiking path due to the throngs of hikers that make their way up towards Kongō from this longer approach. The bamboo grass sways gently in the breeze pushing in from the east as I follow the contours up and over Mt Takatani sitting just three meters lower than Naka-katsuragi. The dense forest blocks the views but fails to stunt all the growth as a patch of violet wildflowers bloom from beneath the fallen cedar needles.

I decide to take each landmark in as it comes, and after a few undulating bumps in the ridge the track starts to lose altitude abruptly until bottoming out at Chihaya-tōge. This mountain pass is considered to be the shortest route connecting Gojō city in Nara to Minami Kawachi in Osaka, and this route is thought to have been the main route that the pro shogunate troops took to squash the sonnō jōi loyalists in the Tenchūgumi Incident at the end of the Edo era. Nowadays hikers can simply walk up the forest road from Chihaya Akasaka village to this pass and it is on this dirt road that the Diamond Trail now follows briefly before ducking back up to the ridge along a series of ubiquitous log steps.

Step by step I gradually gain altitude until reaching a junction with two possible options. A flat path directly in front of me skirts below the edge of the ridge on what is known as a makimichi but instead of the easy way out I spot a steep trail to my left that sticks to the true ridge and seems to draw me in by its sheer steepness. I have the feeling that the summit of a peak lies at the top of this prominence and my instincts prove correct as I arrive on the broad summit of Mt Jinpuku, a sacred place for practitioners of Katsuragi Shugendō as it is the location of one of the 28 sacred sutra purportedly buried here by En no Gyōja, the founder of Shugendō. I rest here for a snack and to take in the tranquility of the place, thanking myself for having put in the extra effort to make it up to the 792m summit.

Feeling refreshed, I continue along the ridge a short distance before meeting back up with the Diamond Trail a little further south at a junction indicating that Kimitōge is still 6.8km away. Distance is one thing that I would rather not be reminded of when out on long hikes, so I try to purge that reminder from my short-term memory by simply focusing on each footfall, literally taking it one step at a time. Just ten minutes down the track I reach a broad clearing glistening with Yae-sakura flowers in full bloom. These late-blooming cherry blossoms do not receive as much limelight as their Somei-yoshino cousins but I find their pink double-petal design to be quite pleasing on the eye. The clearing affords views of the Ōmine mountains, a perfect place for Shugendō practitioners to blow their conch shells towards the Yoshino motherland. The pass is known as Gyoja-sugi for a very good reason: two monstrous cryptomeria trees stand side by side, with a small sanctuary built in the gap between the two trees. This ancient esoteric practice space just happens to sit directly on the border of Nara, Osaka, and Wakayama Prefectures, and as I take my first footsteps west I bid farewell to Nara and replace it with Wakayama as my trusty left-hand companion.

Thick groves of cedar once again take center stage as I fall into a hypnotic rhythm and barely take notice of the junction at Sugio-tōge. I am slowly closing the distance gap between myself and Kimi-tōge so I keep to my brisk pace as the shadows of the cedars keep me cool in the late morning heat. Eventually the cedar gives way to the new lime-green foliage of a large oak grove as I bask in the sunshine and up onto the summit of Mt Tanbo. The true triangulation point lies on a side path to the north so true to form I once again leave the Diamond Trail behind for the short detour before returning to continue in my westerly march.

A forest road runs tantalizingly close to the ridge on the Osaka side, a popular side route over to Juji-tōge and Amami station, but such escape routes do not appeal to me at the moment – I am in for the long run. Another junction is soon reached at Nishi-no-gyoja, a flat section on the contours that used to be the location of a temple for Shugendō rituals. A pair of wooden benches call to me and I answer: it feels good to sit and stretch the legs while fueling up for the long descent. I am still at over 700 meters of altitude but know that I need to drop to Kimi-tōge at an elevation of 400 meters, so I hold off on lunch at a way to reward myself once I reach the pass.

The path stays flat for the first few minutes until passing by a pair of junctions on my right, but then on cue the first of those godforsaken log steps appears. If they were built like regular stairs they would be quite pleasant to descend, but each step is placed at arbitrary intervals – sometimes they are built too close together while other times it almost takes a leap to reach the next plank. These inconsistencies prevent anyone from establishing a rhythm, so I dance to the beat of my own drum by cursing them at regular intervals. To make matters worse, several hundred stairs into my descent the path suddenly converges upon a concrete forest road. I look around for an indication of where to go before it dawns on me that I must walk down this monstrosity. It’s a good thing that no other hikers are in the vicinity for they would surely conclude that this hiker has a bad case of Tourette’s with the burst of swear words spilling forth from my fractured soul.

I follow the road for just five minutes until I see a signpost ushering me back into the forest, where someone with a sick sense of humor has taken it upon themselves to line the hiking path with concrete as well. This ‘shortcut’ once again spits me out back on the forest road at place called Yama-no-kami, but I fear this particular Kamisama must have been murdered by the construction industry, or perhaps I have found the deity of concrete. Signposts for the Diamond Trail point in the westerly direction of the concrete road, so instead of enjoying a nice mountain track I am relegated to chasing asphalt. Desperate times call for desperate measures as I unload a fury of middle fingers while cursing up a fury.

The concrete spits me out onto more concrete as I reach the immaculate asphalt of route 371. I turn left on the two-lane road and past a construction crew laying yet more concrete on the side of the road. As I head to the top of the pass I finally see the Diamond Trail ducking back into the forest on my right and what should I find but a signpost informing me that Mt Iwawaki is 7km away. I have already covered 10km in my walk, but the last 20 minutes on that concrete has truly set me off, and I want nothing more than to be done with this Diamond Fool’s Gold Trail once and for all. First though, time for lunch. I continue on for another 10 minutes or so, hoping to chip away at the formidable distance until I come across the idyllic environs of Bo-tani-no-ike pond at an elevation of 423 meters. I settle into a wooden bench and proceed to stuff myself with nutrients and polish off the last of the sports drink and green tea.

This is my third time up Iwawaki so I know exactly what to expect. I tell myself there will be no breaks until I reach the summit itself, so I settle into a steady pace up past the electrical pylon and up the wall of wooden steps. I know that once I reach the 3rd stage point (三合目) that the hard part of the climb is over, which seems a bit counter-intuitive as it’s only a third of the way up the mountain, but Iwawaki is a long, gentle beast. Sweat is oozing from every pore as I rise up past the 3rd stage and meet up with the forest road above. That’s right, the next several kilometers involve a relatively flat and almost painfully boring stroll through a thick forest lacking any kind of views.

Unlike my first two ascents, I take every opportunity to explore the side tracks, the first of which soon comes as the forest road cuts around and under Neko-mine (根古峰), but I spot a piece of tape affixed to the tree and leave the road behind to climb up to the summit of the 750 meter peak, which sits in a clearing of golden grasses. I return to the forest road and spy a shortcut through a swath of natural deciduous trees that are pleasing on both the eyes and the feet. This track meets back up with the road at a junction for Mt Minami-katsuragi. I forgo this junction as well as an unmarked side track to Mt Amida and keep to the forest road running to the north. A white utility truck is parked on the shoulder and an elderly gentlemen who must be pushing 80 is out filling in pot holes and cleaning the road of fallen twigs. It seems such a strange location to do road maintenance as the only vehicles to use this road are the ones that hold possession of the key for the locked gate at the start of the road.

The track eventually leaves the road behind and skirts below the ridge on a narrow track past a water source. Filling up is tempting but I am hardly low on liquids so I continue on to skirt past a small section of landslide on my right that drops steeply to the valley below. I keep my eyes glued to the path in order to avoid stepping on any loose rocks that might send me plummeting down the debris field. I place my left foot firmly and stretch out my right foot to take the next step but catch sight of a peculiar brown and beige diamond pattern directly below me. I immediately jump back and let out a yelp, sending my heart racing and my blood pressure skyrocketing to the stratosphere. Sitting directly in the middle of the trail is a mamushi, the venomous Japanese pit viper. At first I think that the snake must be dead as it is literally completely outstretched and lying perfectly still, but as I inch my trekking pole closer, the beast starts shaking its tail in much the same way as its distant cousin the rattlesnake. I pick up a small rock and roll it towards its head and it immediately curls up into strike position. “Now you’ve done it”, I mutter to myself, as the last thing I want to do is to piss off a poisonous snake who is literally sitting right in the middle of the trail.

I give it a large berth as I scuttle down into the landslide debris and safely up the other side. I pray that no other hikers will soon follow me or they will be in for a rather unpleasant encounter. I continue on, fueled by the adrenaline pulsing through my body and trudge past Itsutsutsuji (五つ辻), a tongue-twister of a name that also happens to double as the 7th stage point. My pace starts to wane as fatigue finally starts to set in. Perhaps all of this hiking without a break wasn’t such a good idea. To make matters worse, my asthma starts to act up, with an occasional shortness of breath that forces me to slow up the pace. Luckily I have almost reached the summit and after one final set of log steps I reach the eastern peak of the mountain and can see the bald plateau of the western peak directly in front of me.

Iwawaki is famed for its large meadows of pampas grass but last autumn the entire field was harvested in order to provide thatch for the traditional roofs of the old minka homes in the valley. After harvesting, the entire area was set ablaze in order to prevent trees from taking over, so the peak currently resembles a bombed out war zone. A pair of mountain vegetable pickers scour through the blackened fields in search of spring edibles while I search out my own edibles from beneath my rucksack. I arrive on the summit and settle into a bench, taking in the vistas of the sand apocalypse, for a thick torrent of air pollution and aeolian dust has enveloped Osaka city. Strong winds push in from the city, bringing that nasty elixir to my lungs – the true cause of my asthma attack. I munch on chocolate and polish off the remainder of my morning coffee and look over the map. I am heading toward Takihata village, where a bus will whisk me to Kawachi-Nagano station. By sheer luck, I had managed to remember to check the bus times during my pre-trip planning and find out the next bus is at 4:19pm. Time check: 2:45. Game on.

On goes the facemark to help block out the pollution as I glide down the western face of the peak and back into the forest. I remember the descent as being long but not incredibly steep from my last trip here a few years ago and despite my fatigue, I manage to make good time down to the village. The map says to allow for 90 minutes to reach the village but it takes just over an hour. Instead of heading straight to the bus stop I decide to continue along the Diamond Trail so I can locate the area in the village where the path starts its ascent towards Mt Makio. Meandering past the traditional structures is soothing on the eyes and keeps my mind off of my throbbing feet. I turn at a junction and see a hiker making his was down from Mt Makio. I ask him about the trail conditions as I reach a signpost that indicates Mt Makio, the terminus of the Diamond Trail, is just 3.5km away. Those final three and a half kilometers will have to wait for another day.

 

Diamond Trail – Finale

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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.

Diamond Trail – Section Hike part 5

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Another month passes, and with the door on 2015 quickly closing, I seize 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?

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I arrive at Tondabayashi station a little past 9am and search for the bus stop that will take me to Hiraishi. According to my on-line research, the bus leaves at 9:15am for the 20-minute uphill journey to the village that I had visited just 6 weeks prior. There are plenty of buses milling about, none of which will shuttle me where I need to go. At 9:13am, panic starts to set in, and I inquire with a bus attendant loitering about.

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“Oh, there’s no bus at 9:15am,” replies 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 give 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.”

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Before I can even mutter a forced thank you from my mouth, I am already rushing over to the taxi stand, flagging down a ride with a stern driver who seems more interested in bringing on lung cancer through his unfiltered cigarette than saving a hiker from an agonizing 7km walk. Still, he puts out his butt and ushers me over for the silent ride to where I had left off on Halloween. Once at the bus stop, I switch on the GPS, pull out the trekking pole, and gaze 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.

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With my wallet quite a bit emptier, I march back up the road and follow the previous GPS track still recorded in my device. Patches of green weeds tinged with the first frosts of the season line 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 breaks the still air of the morning, and suddenly the burly form of a mountain biker swishes right past my frightened figure. He lets out a quick “sumimasen” without even slowing his breakneck pace.

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

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

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

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

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The next section along the route is 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 moves through suffocating cedar plantations.  I make good time as I push onwards towards Mt. Nijō.

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Just before reaching Takenouchi pass, the route merges 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 ushers me towards the left, where apparently the Kaidan trail continues onwards to Nijō. I manage 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 is entirely voluntary. You see, I fall 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 open the door of the Irodori Mint Cafe and am shown to a seat near the window by the courteous server. Being Christmas season, they have a special lunch that includes roast pork, quiche, and hearty minestrone, which sets me back 1300 yen but does include a drink and dessert. I peel off my warmer layers, basking in the heated comforts of the dining room while resting the muscles. The food really hits the spot, and the hot coffee puts the kick back into my step.

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Once back out on the pavement, I continue cruising downhill, reaching a broad parking lot and signpost for the Diamond Trail. I turn right here, following the stone path as it leads straight up towards the ridge line that I had left at the top of the pass. Things start to look vaguely familiar, and at the top of the hill I am once again back in familiar territory. I have once again reached Iwaya grotto, a place I had visited on Day 1 of my section hike. There is still work to be done, however, because I realize that the actual trail continues along the ridge towards Katsuragi instead of dropping towards Iwaya. By turning left at Route 166, I have accidentally skipped a small section of the real trail. Buzzing on caffeine and playing the role of purist, I turn away from Nijō and marcd along the route towards Katsuragi. It takes about 20 minutes to reconnect with route 166, where I realize 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.

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From route 166, I retrace my steps up the steep trail back to Iwaya, where I once again summit the female peak of Mt. Nijō. By now the temperature has risen to nearly 15 degrees, which is way too warm for my fleece-lined thermal pants. I strip 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 is precise. It is 2:10pm when I arrive on the top, and this time around, the vistas do not disappoint.

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Laid out before me are the Ōmine 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 stretch 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 is an unusually mild winter by Japanese standards, likely attributed to the strong El Nino dominating the waters of the Equatorial Pacific region.

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

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“What is that?” I inquired, clearly puzzled and intrigued by such an intricate logo for such a small group of climbers. “JAC”, comes the reply, “Japan Alpine Club”. My jaw drops, for here are members of Japan’s legendary Sangaku Kai, a mountaineering organization that has connections to Walter Weston himself. We talk 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”, remarks the leader. I brush off the praise, not sure if the invitation is genuine or just a show of respect from someone who probably has a more impressive resume than yours truly. After all, this particular group is section hiking all of the prefectural borders from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean. They have statred in Fukui Prefecture and have 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.

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

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However, my map indicates a more interesting trail that continues a little further along the ridge, so back into the forest I duck, 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 loses altitude and ends at a paved road that runs directly under an expressway. I follow this road until it tosses me out on a larger paved road that apparently leads to the Takenouchi Kaido museum. Of course I end up taking a wrong turn, not realizing my mistake until I am a further 3km down the road, which passedsright by a racetrack for remote-controlled cars. Somehow, I manage to reach Kaminotaishi station just before dusk. All in all I have probably traversed well over 15km, but the first section of the Diamond Trail is in the books. The next section between Katsuragi and Kongō is now on the radar screen. Now, if I can only seize a chance to escape from nappy changing duties……

Diamond Trail – Section Hike part 4

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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 know I have my work cut out for me. After putting off this section for all of the summer, I open a small gap in my incredibly hectic schedule, forgoing the Halloween festivities in favor of knocking out this herculean chunk of ridge.

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Since I had already summited Katsuragi several times before, I opt 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 board the gondola it is already approaching 1pm. So much for the early start.

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

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Dropping back down to the tree cover, I pass 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 slip past the entrance and alongside the narrow campground that is just beginning to come to life. The next section of trail is a contorted serpent of rippling log stairs affixed to the rolling contours of the land. The knees take a beating while I secretly envy the groups of late starters working their way up the broad stair lanes, for it would surely be easier on the patellas.

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

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An hour passes and I manage to eat through only 40% of the 10km required to finish the section. I know that I will not make it, but decide to go as far as my comfort level allows. The fatigue of the previous week of work is starting to catch up to me, and I feel drained of energy. As I stumble along the ridge in a weary daze, a movement in the bamboo grass to my immediate left rouses me out of my reverie. No more than two meters away, a large animal shuffles through the undergrowth, popping out on the ridge directly in front of me. I catch a glimpse of the massive beast, expecting to see the antlers poking up through the leaves as it hops its way to safety, but the center of gravity hints at a different kind of animal. Lowering my watchful eye, I manage  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 seems more intent on seeking shelter than stealing a free bite of scrawny flesh.

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The wildlife encounter boosts the morale and sends  a shot of adrenaline through my depleted body. This is enough to carry me a few more kilometers to Iwahashi pass, where I collapse on a wooden bench. Directly in front of me, an extensive network of stairs rises steeply to the skyline and above. I know I am only a short distance from the summit of Mt. Iwahashi, but the signpost pointing to Hiraishi village beckons me on, like a maneki-neko pulling a consumer into its shop. I am 5.1km from the summit of Katsuragi, which seems like the perfect stopping point for the traverse. Daylight hadsnearly run out and I haven’t the energy reserves to carry on much further. I gulp down a handful of chocolate-covered almonds, shoulder the pack, and retreat down the western side of the mountain away from the ridge.

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The path is easy to follow and well-maintained, skirting past the edge of several electrical pylons before it deposits me on an unmarked dirt forest road. I turn left here, but a glance at my GPS indicates that it will take me further into the hills and not down to civilization, so I quickly backtrack. After 20 minutes, I pop out into a small secluded village and head further down towards town. A trio of hikers resting on a bench catch my attention, and as I arrive at their location a bus pulls up bound for Tondabayashi station. It is the final bus of the day, and I have made it with only minutes to spare. Someone is truly watching out for me.

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What karma I have gained on the bus ride, however, is soon lost on the train ride back to Osaka. Our train grounds to a halt at Fujidera station after someone decides 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 collapsedinto my seat and close my eyes, using the two-hour delay as a chance to recharge the physical batteries.

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

Diamond Trail – Section Hike part 3

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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 have had my eye on this so-called long trail for quite a while now, and with the Kansai Hyakumeizan now safely behind me, it is time to undertake the challenge.

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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, amlooking to section hike the entire route, breaking it up into easier-to-swallow niblets that can 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.

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Alighting at Kaminotaishi station, I follow route 703 as it runs parallel to the tracks of the Kintetsu Minami-Osaka line. It takes the better part of 45 minutes along the clogged rural route before I reach 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 easily spend the entire day here, but knew the task at hand can not be put off any longer.

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I retrace 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 rises gently at first until reaching the ridge line, where a series of wooden steps flow up and down along the contours like a rowboat bobbing in a turbulent sea. At the top of the first rise, I gasp for air in the unexpected workout. With each subsequent rise and fall of the path, I grow more weary with fatigue. The stress from the impending birth of my first child has worn down my stamina and strength. I pause on a wooden bench under an electrical tower to catch my breath and refuel with some chocolate-covered almonds.

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Eventually the maze of stairs subsides somewhat as I inch closer to my target. I reach a junction just below the saddle between Nijō’s twin-breasted peaks, and am alarmed to find that the Diamond Trail does not actually hit the summit of either peak. Instead, it skirts 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 is 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.

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From here, the trail continues onwards towards Mt. Katsuragi, but I am running out of both motivation and daylight. I turn 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 obscures the vistas and turns the air into a muted wall of yellow.

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

Diamond Trail – Section Hike part 2

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