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Posts Tagged ‘Fukui’

The first step in climbing the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures involves an online search for a list of the peaks. To the uninformed, one may surmise that there must surely be 47 mountains on the list, but due to the fact that a handful of highest mountains straddle prefectural borders, the target list is reduced to 43 unique summits. 24 of those peaks also double as Hyakumeizan, so those who have finished the 100 just need to climb an additional 22 mountains to complete the list. Unfortunately, some of these mountains defy the limits of what is considered an ‘accessible’ mountain.

San-no-mine is one of those mountains. Situated on the border of Fukui and Ishikawa Prefectures, the peak is part of the Ryōhaku mountain range and doubles as the southernmost 2000-meter mountain in Japan. It also lies along the Hakusan ridge line, just an additional two hours further south of Bessan. This is the exact same ridge I traversed during my first trip to the sacred summit and indeed, during that fateful traverse I overnighted at San-no-mine emergency hut. Little did I know at that time, but Fukui’s highest peak is situated directly behind the hut on a knob of hill named Echizen-Sannomine. But our story becomes a bit more complicated, as this tuft of bamboo grass is actually not considered to be a peak but just a chiten (地点) or highest point in the prefecture. The highest mountain honor goes to neighboring Ni-no-mine, a further hour from the emergency hut and my target for a long-overdue return to the Kamiuchinami district of Ono city deep in the heart of Fukui.

Joining me on the weekend festivities in mid-September is no other than my trusty companion Paul M.. Neck-deep in writing and editing his PHD dissertation, Paul graciously agrees to not only accompany me on the long journey, but to also drive the entire way, eliminating the need for a expensive taxi or unreliable journey by thumb. He picks me up in Kobe city as we head north along the newly-completed Maizuru-Wakasa expressway for the 4-hour journey to the trailhead. Long drives on Japan’s frantic road system are truly taxing affairs, and we break up the drive by stopping off to visit Eiheiji Temple just outside of Fukui city. Home to the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, the sprawling temple complex is truly one of Japan’s most interesting places. But you wouldn’t know that if you just walked along the towering cryptomeria trees flanking the long promenade to the main entrance.

The grounds themselves are pleasant enough but the real treasure is what lies beyond the walled entrance of the compound. To be honest, we are none-too-thrilled about forking over 500 yen for yet another temple in Japan. So many times you pay the fee and enter a temple that is nearly off-limits to visitors sans a random garden or common tatami worship space. And most of the more famous temples of Japan that are worth seeing are so overrun with tourists that they take on a Disneyland atmosphere. Not so at Eiheiji. Paul and I enter the reinforced concrete building and step into a lecture room led by a Soto monk clad in black. He stands in front of an enormous wall painting of the temple complex, pointing out each area of the grounds along with a set of stringent rules about acceptable behavior. I scan the room and realize that there aren’t any other foreign tourists among the 30 or so Japanese visitors to the temple grounds. Indeed, during the 3 hours that we spend exploring the temple and surroundings, it becomes clear that this temple has yet to be discovered by the rowdy Asian tourists that have completely overtaken most of the other popular sightseeing spots in Japan. It reminds me of a time before the Chinese and Korean tourism boom, when you could actually enjoy a place surrounded by well-mannered Japanese tourists who respect the local customs.

Eiheiji is truly one of those ‘must see for yourself’ kind of places, and I will definitely return for a visit if the opportunity presents itself. On the way back to the car, we stop off for an iced coffee float before the drive to our inn at Kadohara. The sleepy village brings back memories of my ascent of Mt Arashima, and the idyllic train station near the trailhead. After checking in, we head down to the station, where I find that the run-down toilet has been completely torn down and replaced with a much larger restroom in a park on the other side of the train tracks. Resisting the temptation for a revisit to Arashima, we retreat back to our room for an early night and an even earlier start. Breakfast is served at 6am as we fuel up for the impending climb.

Paul M. manuvers his vehicle up the hairpin turns to the trailhead under a brilliant sky of crystal blue. San-no-mine towers over the road like a Spinosaurus that once roamed these very forests of Fukui. We brush off the temptation to visit the Dinosaur Museum – instead we gaze our eyes upwards to the gold-tinted alpine scenery. Stowing unnecessary gear in the car, we enter a trail that immediately loses altitude to reach a forest road that leads up towards Karikomi Ike, one of Fukui’s most renowned places for autumn foliage. The September greenery has kept the crowds at bay for now, so we march in unison up the deserted road before reaching the trailhead through a lush forest of beech and oak.

The path immediately gains altitude towards a steep spur. It takes a few minutes to settle into a rhythm and to shake off the morning fatigue, but once our body adjusts to the incline we make good time, reaching the crest of the spur in about 90 minutes. We rest briefly on the gnarled roots of a cypress tree while replenishing minerals lost to sweat. A cool northerly breeze kisses the spur, sending us into action to stave off the chill.

The wind lifts the fog upwards from the secluded valley, lapping the trail in a mimic of an excited canine that blots out the view. As an upside to the reduced visibility is the lack of a visual gauge to our progress – there’s nothing more disheartening to be staring a huge climb straight in the face and being able to see, inch by inch, how far you truly have to go. We lower our heads and advance, footfall by heavy footfall, into the unknown.

Well, not entirely into the unknown, as I had actually been down this trail once before during my first traverse of Hakusan, but it was so long ago and in such decrepit conditions that the scenery feels completely new. It’s amazing how your mind can play tricks on you, a spur that seemed so easy just a decade ago can prove so formidable through the passage of time. That’s what age will do to you.

A fortress of rock emerges from the mist, the path hugging the northern edge of the precipice along a maze of slippery boulders. Using hands to help propel us forward, we reach the top of the aptly-penned Ken-ga-iwa to glance a patch of blue sky at the top of a crest directly above. Paul and I look at each other in amazement, wondering if we could, perhaps pierce through this cloud veil and rise above its misty sea. The fog and sun are embraced in a fierce battle for supremacy, the northernly winds continue to throw sheets of mist towards the bright rays of sun. Glimpses of jaw-dropping views are erased faster than the shaking of an Etch A Sketch as the two intrepid trekkers continue to soar above it all.

Just below breaching the 2000 meter mark, the warming rays of the sun are too much for old-man cloud to handle, and smiles stream across our faces at the incredible early-autumn scenery spread out before us. We pause briefly upon reaching the emergency hut, the very same one I used as shelter many moons ago. Knowing these views could be taken away at any moment, we pick up the pace and reach the summit of San-no-mine just in time to take in the million-yen views. Our work is far from done, however, as we still have two more mountains to cover.

We retrace our steps back to the hut and settle into a quick lunch before the unmarked climb to Echizen-Sannomine. A faint trail leads into head-high bamboo grass behind the hut. I take the lead, pushed on by an unseen force to the top of the hill. We meet two other hikers who have just begun their descent. They inform us that the summit is at the top of the next crest, which we reach a short time later. Here we find a small summit signpost. It’s a good thing that I did my research before heading out, because without prior knowledge there would be no way to know that Fukui’s highest point is along this completely unmarked swath of land.

With the highest point now off the list, we return to the hut and start our descent towards Ni-no-mine, the official highest peak of the prefecture. The trail loses about a hundred meters of vertical elevation before reaching a saddle and short climb to the summit. A signpost just off the trail reads Ni-no-mine but my GPS informs me that the actual top of the mountain lies beyond in an incredibly dense maze of two-meter-tall bamboo grass. Paul decides that this is best tackled as a solo mission and enjoys a well-earned break as I dive straight into the labyrinth. This brings back memories of Mt Mikuni, a monster of a bushy ridge that lies in, you guessed it, Fukui Prefecture.

Climbing hand over fist, slashed by razor-sharp leaves, and stumbling over toppled trees hidden beneath the mess, I reach what I surmise to be the summit. Or at least it’s what I’m calling the summit. There is no higher place to go, and while I am unable to find a triangulation point or summit signpost, I claim victory on my right to claim Fukui’s highest mountain successfully climbed. My guess is that the majority of 47 Pref-baggers consider Echizen-Sannomine suffice for their criteria. I find no fault in that.

By the time we retrace our steps back to the emergency hut, I am a battered mess. I engulf an caffeine-infused evergy gel as we start our descent back to the valley. The fog has now returned, thicker than ever and depositing a fine mist all over the route. I settle in on a steady pace, not wanting to stop for fear of bottoming out on my energy reserves. The tricky drop before Ken-ga-mine puts to rest those fears, as my feet slip out from under me and I land straight on my bottom on a wet rock. That episode sends a shot of adrenaline back into my system that sustains me for the rest of the hike.

The parking lot is once again reached just before 3pm while we psyche ourselves up for the long drive back to Kobe. Paul declares that a hot spring is in order, and nearby Hato-ga-yu  does the trick, easing the pain from our overworked muscles. We made good time back to Kobe, as we manage to avoid most of the traffic jams by heading back through Maizuru through pockets of rain cloud. With Fukui’s highest mountain now off the list, just one mountain stands between me and my quest to climb the highest peak in every prefecture. With the winter snows soon to envelope the higher peaks, the race is on to claim victory on Niigata before my climbing window closes.

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With my eyes set on reaching mountain #40 before the winter snows close in, I board an early morning train for Fukui, where a majestic peak lying in Kyuya Fukada’s hometown awaits. The Etsumihoku line is still under repair from the massive flooding that hit the prefecture in 2004, just as I was making my way off Hakusan. The train ran part of the way towards Echizen-Ono city before we were whisked off the train and onto a shuttle bus past the sections that still lay at the bottom of the river. Once past the washed-out area, it was back onto a different train that stopped at Kadohara station, my starting point for Mt. Arashima, which translates as “tempest island”. Hopefully the peak would not live up to its name.

Once outside of the unmanned station, nature soon called, so I found the small station toilet, which, like most rural station restrooms in Japan, was devoid of that tubular, soft white tissue used to clean up after making a deposit. I searched in haste, scooping up some fallen leaves from the side of the road before the pressure in my bowels was forcefully released. I cleaned up as best I could and staggered uncomfortably up the road to the small ski resort, which thankfully had a much better-supplied restroom. Disaster averted, I followed the trail straight up and around the lift pylons of the overgrown ski resort before ducking into the virgin beech forest.

Even though it was mid-October, I was unfortunately too early for the autumn foliage. The tips of the leaves were just beginning to change, but a few weeks from now the entire area would be ablaze with brilliant oranges and vibrant yellows. I tried not to focus on what I would be missing, instead keeping my thoughts on the ridge that rose just out of reach. Eventually I did reach the top of the rise, which was little more than a tease, since the peak actually sat on an adjacent fold of mountain. From here I’d need to drop to a saddle and face a brutal, incredibly steep climb up the spine of the beast. Wisely, I took a breather and re-fueled.

I can only imagine how treacherous and tricky this peak must be in the winter. Even in early December, the summit throws up formidable challenges. The initial climb from the saddle is a grab-what-you-can pull-up exercise through bamboo grass, exposed tree roots, and slippery mud. Beyond that, it becomes a series of false summits, which each one deceptively further than the next. Sensing the summit just over the next rise, you push yourself a little extra, knowing that a long break on top lie several meters out of reach. Deceived, you repeat the process ad nauseam, until finally collapsing in a heap of sweat beneath the modest shrine sitting squarely on the true summit. On this gorgeous autumn day, the peaks of northern Kansai rolled south on eternal folds, all the way to Lake Biwa. The Northern Alps sat behind a thick bed of cloud, just as Hakusan was revealing her shy figure to the early afternoon sun.

During my lazy break, an elderly gentleman who oozed experience from his sweaty pores came over for a chat. Placing his business card between my outreached hands, he explained that he was the unofficial caretaker of the mountain, and climbs several times a month to assess trail conditions and to remove any fallen timbers from the path. These kinds of locals can be found throughout Japan, whose unselfish endeavors ensure that Japan’s trails are some of the best-kept in the entire world. Many other countries have trail-maintenance volunteers, but none with the unyielding vigor and consistency of these unsung heroes.

Eventually I worked up the courage to bid farewell to the warm sunshine and majestic views and sunk back into the treeline, wondering if I’d make the 4pm train back to Fukui. On the descent I passed by several slower groups of climbers, and once I reached the ski resort parking lot I was able to easily negotiate a ride back to Fukui station, where I settled into a seat on an Osaka-bound train. Arashima was well-behaved on this excursion and let me off relatively easy. I was now done with every peak in western Japan and Shikoku, but still had 60 peaks to the north that eagerly awaited my arrival.

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