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Posts Tagged ‘Hiking in Japan’

For the third week running, on the first of April no less, Ted and I find ourselves parked under the plum tree at the Family Mart in Ōhara, stocking up on provisions to not only sustain us on today’s hike, but also for the long drive up to the Oisugi settlement in the upper reaches of Kutsuki village. The previous week, we had driven the car along the forest road to the headwaters of the Adogawa, but this time we park the car across from Omiya shrine at a junction of two crossroads. Our plan is simple: take the left fork and retrace our steps to Nabekubo-tōge and continue our northern hike along the Takashima to Onyū-tōge and follow the old Saba-kaidō back to our car.

We make good time on the drive and arrive at the shrine shortly after 8am, greeted by a plum tree in full bloom. The bare ridge soars above the collection of depilated dwellings in the hamlet, some of which are in desperate need of re-thatching. Upkeep on these traditional thatched farmhouses is extremely costly, so it’s no surprise that most homeowners of limited means simply cover the thatch with a more durable corrugated metal. An informative signboard sits in front of a recently constructed restroom facility, providing yet another relief of the bowels before commencing on the long slog back to Takashima’s hidden ridge.

The hamlet remains quiet and still in the light of the early morning, with nary a soul in sight — though to the trained eye you can just about make out the eyes peering from behind drawn curtains gazing suspiciously at the two masked foreigners marching through their front yard. We reach the trailhead in about 15 minutes, drop the facemasks, and follow the brook upstream toward where we had last left the Takashima. Despite it being a week between our last visit, the trail is hard to pick up in places, but thanks to our digital aid we soon find the correct tributary and reach Nabekubo-tōge (25) about an hour after leaving the car. We turn right, initially accompanied by a dense cedar plantation on our right before the completely natural forest takes over at the top of a steep rise.

Through a gap in the trees, the adjacent folds of mountain ridges appear to be sprinkled with dandruff flakes, but upon closer inspection Ted and I let out a yelp of joy to discover that the hills are ablaze in the brilliant white petals of the mighty kobushi or Magnolia kobus. These stalwart deciduous trees feature a six-fingered glove of bright white flowers covering their upper branches. They are a sight to behold and really do give the cherry blossoms a run for their money for those lucky enough to come across them.

These signs of spring bring a welcome vitality to our walk, and at the crest of our first unmarked peak a green waymark shows a horizontal distance of just 4.8km to Onyū-tōge, our planned departure point. “We could be back at the car by noon at this rate”, exclaims Ted. The Takashima thinks otherwise.

Never judge a route by the horizontal distance to be covered — a vertical elevation profile is a much better way to access a walk. Without such vital information our hike turns into a roller coaster of a ridge walk, as it rises up and over a series of smaller peaks before dropping to a long saddle and turning into what Amber Heard’s lawyer can only describe as a ‘mega’ slog. I turn around and give Ted that all-too-familiar look indicating the start of a big climb. It won’t be the first time that expression is painted on my face on this fateful day.

Our conversation peters out to a series of grunts and profanities, mostly from my motormouth as I dig deep within my depleted energy reserves. It is best just to lower your head and work through the discomfort of the straining calf muscles as the feet struggle to continue their upward fight against gravity. The one upside to our muscular torment is that the scenery is second-to-none. Never in my wildest dream would I think that such an untouched and sprawling beech forest snuggles the Shiga-Fukui prefectural border along the central divide. Such spectacular beauty gives us the impetus to continue our forward progress. Giving up would be out of the question.

Even though our pace resembles that of an injured turtle, we somehow reach the summit of peak 803 in less time than indicated on the map. This gain in time, however, is quickly lost as we settle in for a well-deserved mid-morning snack and leisurely break. Once again, Lara comes to the rescue as Ted and I continue to expose each other to new trail nibbles. These all-natural fruit bars satiate our appetite and the caffeinated sports Yōkan helps us ward off the drowsiness caused by the 3am alarm clock. Restored vigor leads to a timely photo opp in the gap between two beech trees joined at the hips.

Our route diverges northwest briefly and drops to a tiny pond marked on the map as Okusuge, though there is nothing in the way of a signpost to indicate an official name for the nearly-dried marsh. Perhaps this area is a bit wetter in the summer season. We skirt around this depression and follow the tape marks as we change directions to the east and head upwards toward yet another unnamed peak. About two-thirds of the way up this slope we pass by an enormous horse-chestnut tree that appears to be home to a bear’s feeding platform. We don’t loiter around long to enough to check for inhabitants.

At the crest of the rise we once again teeter on the sea-saw ridge, taking in the views between gaps in the trees while the talk turns to vaccinations. Japan is about 6 months behind the rest of the world rolling out the inevitable inoculation as we place bets on which will come first, our completion of the Takashima, or our turn at the needle.

Those dark olive leaves of the diapensia plants that have been accompanying us on our journey finally show us their reproductive parts, as a series of majestic pink petals of the iwakagami flower finally begin to open. We can sense that summer is just around the corner as the rising heat of the late morning coaxes us to roll up our sleeves and make quick work of the ridge. Soon enough we spot a sign of encouragement: 700 meters to Onyū-tōge. I quicken my pace in anticipation of our arrival, only to be thwarted by the abrupt change in grade. It feels as if Ted and I are climbing up the transition of the quarter pipe of the Megaramp. Our only solace is that the vistas have really opened up behind us, revealing the Hira mountains in all of their beauty.

We enter a dry area of crumbly dirt scree sandwiched between groves of giant beech and cedar. Sweat flows freely from our temples as I once again gaze back at Ted in disbelief. If not for the proximity of the mountain pass I would surely like nothing more than to slouch down for a long break. At long last, we reach the top of yet another unnamed peak and find a sign informing us that our break point is just 100 meters to our right. We coast down to the paved road awaiting us at Onyū-tōge (24), the first asphalt crossing of the Takashima (or final crossing if you’re doing this hike in reverse). This would be an ideal place for your support team to greet you with cold drinks and a well-prepared meal but on this particular Wednesday, there is nary a soul in sight.

Instead of breaking here and heading off the trail, we discover that another pass is just a further 700 meters along the ridge, so after walking on asphalt for a few minutes we duck back into tree cover and reach Negorizaka-tōge at 11:35am, well ahead of schedule. This is the junction of the Saba-kaidō or old mackerel road, a route that fishmongers once used to deliver fresh fish to landlocked Kyoto city. We sit next to an old jizō statue and pore over the maps while chowing down on rice balls and other carb-laced delicacies. I remember this pass during my first climb of Hyakuri back in 2014 but never thought I would be sitting here 7 years later contemplating a second round with the mighty beast, but here we are.

Since it is still before noon, I propose to Ted that we should not only ascend Hyakuri this afternoon, but we should also continue along the ridge another 2-1/2km to Kijiyama-tōge, which will put us in good shape for our next stage of the trail. The only challenge with this is that we will have to retrace our steps back to Negorizaka-tōge so we can descend back to the car. Future Takashima trekkers should take note that section hiking this trail with only one automobile certainly is not the most efficient way to do the hike.

I guide Ted along this next section of path, pointing out landmarks that I remember from 7 years ago and giving plenty of warning to the steepness of the climb. With such pleasant weather we can see Hyakuri towering directly above us, which is both a blessing and a curse — for we can see what needs to be done before we can breach the fortress walls. Fixed ropes are a welcome addition as we push on through the lunch hour. We simply lower our heads as the switchbacks continue to steepen and dig deep within our inner strength as we inch toward the panoramic views of majestic summit. We surprise ourselves by popping out on top of Mt Hyakuri-ga-take (22) shortly before 12:30pm.

An elderly gentleman is settled in for a lunch break as we usher a quick greeting. He has climbed from the Fukui side of the mountain and is just as surprised to see us as we are to see him. Despite being three days into our trek, he is the first hiker we have come across, a testament to the remoteness of the Takashima trail and the difficulty of access. Instead of breaking here, Ted and I continue due north and immediately start losing altitude: the beech gives way to cedar and cypress before flattening out on an elongated ridge. We push past peak 711, vowing to have our own convenience store-inspired break on the return. The map indicates a 70 minute journey to Kijiyama-tōge (21) but we reach it in just 45 minutes and pause just long enough to snap a photo before turning around for our re-ascent of Hyakuri.

Peak 711 can not come soon enough as Ted and I settle among the rock formations on our pre-determined break point. I bust out the chocolate while Ted polishes off the afternoon tea bottle and we once again stare at the maps, wondering if we will be able to complete our hike before dark. The one advantage we have is that I know the route we need to take as it is the same descent trail I took back in 2014. After our invigorating snack, we force ourselves to our feet for the excruciating return to the summit. Three hundred vertical meters later, with burning calfs and tingly thighs, Ted and I give each other a high-five back on the top of Hyakuri and really take time to cherish the views. Time check: 2:04pm. We do in 90 minutes what most hikers would usually accomplish in well over 2 hours.

The drop off of Hyakuri is agonizing, but the fixed ropes aid in cushioning our descent. The most demoralizing part of the route is that, once you pass a junction for the Hyakuri Shindō route, you have to climb up Mt Hakuishi before dropping back to Negorizaka-tōge, but three-quarters of the way up, we discover a faint path to our right that avoids the summit and meets up with the track shortly before the pass. We would like to thank the kind animal that forged that path for us, even if it was made by the shapeshifting kitsune.

With no time to waste we immediately turn left at Negorizaka-tōge and bade farewell to the Takashima in favor of the Saba-kaidō. The route parallels a paved road and meets it briefly once, but for the most part we stay in the forest and navigate through a cluster of truly stunning Magnolia kobus trees in full bloom. The late afternoon light illuminates the petals like a spotlight on a stage actor and with no more ascents between us and the car the smiles once again return to our exhausted faces. At the bottom of the valley Ted admits that in his walk of the Saba-kaidō he somehow completely missed this section. Instead, he seems to have spent most of his time bushwhacking up a parallel valley if his memory serves him correctly. The last 20 minutes back to the car is a breeze, and with the fading light of the day we are already strategizing about stage 4 of our hike. For one, we will no longer be required to access the trail from this valley. We can now turn our attention to Aso village at the base of Kijiyama. Can we knock off the next section before Golden Week?

Part 4

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It’s been exactly a week since our start on the Takashima, and here we are once again up in the bowels of northern Kutsuki. We need to ascend back to the ridge line to Iwatani-tōge, but instead of the steep spur from the previous week, Ted and I spy a forest road that will take us most of the way up towards Jizo-tōge, a further 3.8km along the ridge. Our plan? Walk up to Jizo and do a quick up-and-back along the ridge to Iwatani before continuing our northern trek to Makino.

Fortunately for us, the forest road is in decent condition, with just a few small potholes to maneuver around. We park next to the headwaters of the Adogawa river, marked by a small signpost and home to a toilet block in working order. With a water source nearby, it would be make a good place to camp for thru hikers as long as the mountain leeches are behaving themselves.

A deep cobalt sky accompanies us on the meandering walk along the dirt road towards the ridge. The bare canopy of the forest seeks the warmth of the sun as the shaded slopes cling tightly to their dusted coating of fresh snow. At Jizō-tōge (27) a gate across the road serves as the only indicator that we are standing at one of the entrances to the Ashiu forest, a protected woodlands under the jurisdiction of Kyoto University. It was in these woods that we inadvertently wandered during Day 1 of our section hike and Jizō pass serves as our entrance point for the start of today’s walk.

Our first mission is to backtrack to the east for 3.8km to Iwatani-tōge where we finished our first day. Leaving the road on our left, we climb a steep embankment that leads to a broad slope smothered with giant beech trees. To our right, one such tree plays host to an impressive collection of parasitic mistletoe clinging tightly to the silvery branches. Those looking for that festive holiday decoration just need to bring their own shotgun so they can shoot it out of the sky.

Remnants of last night’s snowfall provides a soft flooring under our shuffling feet as we enter a thick grove of rhododendron to reach an unnamed summit hosting an ancient Mongolian oak of an immense size. A depilated signpost points to the east, so we turn left here and hug the broad ridge as it guides us through an idyllic paradise of untracked hardwoods. So few are the visitors to this ridge that nary a trace remains, so we frequently consult with our digital navigation devices in hopes for a safe passage through the untamed wilderness.

The track undulates, sometimes dropping to a short saddle before gaining a few meters over a series of false summits. We have our work cut out for us on the return journey, but for now we can do nothing other than to set our sights on reaching the pass. After skirting past a partial clearing with bewitching vistas to the north, we pass over an 800m peak that the map refers to as Kabeyoshi (カベヨシ), which serves as our halfway point distance wise. An ancient Ashiu cedar tree stands guard as if to warn us that we still have quite a ways to go.

Stalwart strands of giant beech serve as loyal sentries to guide us through the wild labyrinth of virgin forest that sits on the edge of the protected lands of Ashiu. As we navigate through this forgotten terra firma, it dawns on us that we are experiencing a step back in time, to the true Japan of our ancestors, a place that many seek but seldom find. Centuries ago, most of Japan’s forests bore a striking resemblance to our current scenery, before modern industrialization led to the bureaucratic infatuation with trying to tame nature with monocultural seedling practices and the plastering of the hillsides in cement. We can do little more than walk in awe, humbled by the immense wilderness spread out before us.

Alas, one final drop brings us to Iwatani-tōge, where we perch ourselves on the exact same tree trunk as the previous week and dig into our provisions. It has taken us most of the morning to walk just 3.8km but we know the return journey would feel shorter as long as we keep moving. Thanks to the help of Ted’s traveling companion Lara we retrace our steps with renewed vigor.

Once back at Jizō-tōge, we continue north by first walking a short distance on the road back toward the car before veering left up an incredibly steep track marked with a series of tape marks affixed to the trees. The hillside looks like it would give way any minute, forcing us to work quickly up the switchbacks until gaining the ridge a short distance above our heads, where the terrain becomes a bit more forgiving. With stunning vistas to our left down to the Ashiu forests and plenty of virgin terrain spread out before us, our spirits are high as we keep our eyes on the lookout for signs of wildlife, ursine or otherwise.

The trekking poles help propel us along the ebbs and flows of the broad ridge, through yet more incredibly healthy swaths of pristine beech forest. At one broad saddle we notice a series of wildlife cameras installed to likely keep tabs on the bear population. We do a quick shuffle as we pass, knowing that some researcher will likely get a kick out of our improvised boogie brought on by the good forest vibes, spectacular weather, and sleep deprivation.

We push higher, following the contours as they lead past a track to the east that would take us directly down to the car if needed, but in these conditions it would be foolish to end our hike now. Instead, our route ushers us to an expansive depression hosting an elongated pond that is nearly dry with the lack of recent rainfall. We skirt the edge of this basin before an abrupt ascent to our left leads to the summit of Mikuni-tōge (26), where we settle in for a late lunch. My watch reads just before 2pm and we’ve made good progress considering the rugged ground we had covered. The kanji characters cause problems for many hikers, as both Sangoku and Mikuni are two different readings of the same kanji (三国).

A signboard on the summit indicates that the ridge leading west of here is off limits to those without special permission to enter, as it is within the boundaries of Ashiu forest; though I have heard stories of other hikers using this ridge as a way of linking up Hachigamine further west. It’s an enticing route, and I’m sure the researchers would be perfectly fine with you sticking to the ridge as long as you aren’t poaching wild flora or fauna.

Ted and I study the maps and spy a side track further along our route that will lead us back to the car. This should set up a more manageable Day 3 of our journey. With that in mind, we drop back down to the pond, bidding farewell to Kyoto Prefecture and continue to the northeast on a long descent to Nabekubo-tōge (25). A third of the way down the slope, a clearing on our left affords us with our first view of the twin-peaked Mt Aoba floating off the horizon to the northwest. It’s hard to believe that we are so close to the Sea of Japan, but then again, we are walking on the divide, so I suppose it does make sense.

At Nabekubo, we take leave of the Takashima for today and head down a rugged valley to the southeast. It’s a short 40-minute descent back to the paved forest road, where we turn right for the walk back to the car. With the Kyoto section of the trail now behind us, we spend the return drive back to the city in full-on planning mode, deciding that we should be able to reach Mt Hyakkuri in the next installment of our section hike.

Part 3

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Alastair and I navigate the fog-smothered switchbacks of the Odaigahara Driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, a stillness in the rent-a-car as my thoughts drift, along with my drowsiness, to the impending climb up to Kansai’s highest mountain. My last trip here back in 2004 was under clear autumn skies and precisely 14 years later we find ourselves blessed with similar conditions as Alastair pulls the vehicle into one of the last remaining spaces at the western entrance to Gyojagaeri tunnel. Despite the 6am arrival time, it appears that most of the day trippers have opted for an even earlier start as we shoulder our packs in the frosty breeze.

The path ascends gently past a concrete dam, following a gurgling brook upstream to a wooden footbridge spanning the frigid waters. Crossing over, the gradient immediately steepens as the route follows a root-infested spur under an ochre canopy just beginning to catch the first few rays of the rising sun. We make good work of the ridge, spurred on by the promise of a clear day and brilliant foliage. Our rucksacks are stuffed with just enough nourishment and fluids to see us through the 1000 meters of elevation gain to the summit, and the first gusts of wind from above bring a distinctively late-autumn vibe to the air.

Alastair leads a steady pace to the ridge junction, where we merge with the main track of the Okugake-michi, the ancient pilgrimage route connecting Hongu in the south with Yoshino in the north. I am back in familiar ground but the 14 year lapse between visits does little to jog my memory, for the leaves have already left the comfort of their canopies to rest of the forest floor for the remainder of the year. Temperatures must be below average this year if the mountains are already bracing for the winter snows.

A gentle incline through a mess of toppled trees leads us to the summit of Benten-no-mori, named after the Japanese goddess of music. As if on cue, the unmistakable sound of a horagai conch shell pierces the silence as we gaze our heads upwards to the formidable wall of Mt Misen rising directly in front of us. Though we cannot see the gyōja aesthetic, we certainly feel his presence as he announces his arrival at a prayer site. A veil of swift-moving cloud holds the ridge in its grasp, threatening to rob us of a view as we descend to the saddle and hut foundation remnants at Shōbō-no-shuku. A life-size statue of Shugendo founder En No Gyōja is perched on a rock formation, lathered with wooden votive sticks below the geta sandals attached to his feet. Most hikers rest here, preparing themselves for the steep 400-vertical-meter climb to the summit of Misen, so as I motion to Alastair for a break I notice to my sheer surprise that he has already taken off at breakneck speed toward the summit.

Alas, the spellbinding power of the Hyakumeizan. So many people get caught up in the peak hunting lifestyle that they rarely pause to take in the scenery. Here I am, a decade removed from my own climbing of the 100 venerable mountains, and I find the pursuit both inspiring and partly disgusting. Over 90% of the hikers are here with the same purpose: to climb one man’s subjective mountain list that was created over 50 years ago. Now don’t get me wrong – the Ōmine mountains are an incredibly beautiful and haunting place, and Fukada’s inclusion of the range is well-warranted. However, I feel that these mountains are much better appreciated slowly, like a well-crafted French course at a Michelin-starred restaurant. In fact, I come to the realization that this is my very first, and could very well be my last, day trip in these mountains, and the other 4 Chapters of this saga were done as overnight pursuits.

Rather than chasing after the peak hunter, I keep him within eyesight, content with letting him navigate the switchbacks in front while chatting with a solo male hiker who is also bagging this peak. I explain that I have already finished the Hyakumeizan and am nearly helping my friend achieve the same self-serving goal. Luckily I am not the only one to feel the fatigue and Alastair’s pace slows to a crawl in direct proportion to the rise in the gradient. We reach the first of the hundreds of wooden steps built into the hillside as I put aside my hunger, lethargy, and fatigue and simply lower my head and count steps. I let my footfalls slow in accordance with my breathing and enter that hiking trance that has sustained me through so many hikes in Japan’s deceptively tricky mountains.

At the top of the summit ridge we turn right, ignoring a rock outcropping on our left that is now covered in fog and several steps ahead we can make out the roofline of Misen hut. A few dozen hikers loiter about the hut, most of them standing and waiting for the drifting cloud to part. Finally, Alastair agrees to a short break as I collapse onto a bench and stuff as much caffeine into my body as will allow. I explain that we’ll have a steep drop to a saddle, followed by an even steeper climb to the top of Hakkyō. After the caffeine kicks in, I lead my hiking companion up to Misen shrine, which offers a birds-eye view across the saddle to the summit piercing the sky like an A-frame building.

The path to the summit starts next to the hut, marked by a stone pillar reading Hakken (八剣山), which confuses more than a few hikers looking for the path to Hakkyō. The former name pays homage to a series of eight craggy spires along the Okugake-michi, with Hakkyō being the highest and most prominent of those peaks. The heavily-eroded track leads us to a narrow saddle with steep drops on our right, followed by an abrupt ascent through a series of gates erected to keep deer from eating the endangered Ōyamarenge (Siebold’s magnolia) shrubs. Patches of melting snow line the shaded face of the peak, a reminder winter does indeed commence in early November in this highland range. We regain the summit ridge just below the high point, with dizzying crags to the east offering a quick end to those whose footing is less than secure. A quick rock scramble is all that separates us from the top, so I take a deep breath and make that final push.

Two dozen peak hunters litter the summit, all jostling their way to the summit signpost for a proof photo. It amazes me how many people need to show proof to others that they have summited. Too many people nowadays are climbing the Hyakumeizan in order to increase their social media presence, which seems like the entirely wrong way to go about it. Peak hunting is an entirely selfish and self-serving purpose, and I have to admit back in my younger days, climbing these mountains took precedence over more important people in my life. Alastair and I retreat to a quieter rock outcropping and wait for a break in the clouds and crowds.

Ten minutes later, we have the entire summit to ourselves, reveling in the sunshine and relatively splendid views between breaks in the fog. Perhaps there is a reason to Alastair’s madness after all – push on at a breakneck pace so you can really relish the summit experience. Between bites of refreshments we snap photos and talk meizanHakkyō is Alastair’s 74th mountain, so I quiz him on the remaining peaks and offer a few tips. Those who attempt the 100 peaks usually find themselves inadvertently saving the toughest mountains for last. Indulged as we are in the deep mountain talk, we hardly notice a solo hiker emerge onto the summit through the rising cloud. “Haru”, I ask, unsure if we have indeed summited before her. “Yes”, she replies with her beaming Tohoku smile. Alastair and I congratulate her on reaching peak #83 in her question to climb the 100. “Shall we descend together?”, I inquire, hoping to add a little flavor to our descent back to the car. “Lead the way”, she quips.

Haru, Alastair and I spend the next two hours retracing our steps off the steep slopes of Misen and back to the parking lot at Gyojagaeri tunnel. It is in these relaxed post-summit walks that you can truly appreciate the beauty of the mountains that you give second thoughts to on the approach. Usually in climbs we are too busy inching our way up the slopes with our heads down, gasping for breath and summoning up those extra energy reserves from deep within. As we navigate the undulating folds of the broad ridge, I gaze to the southeast and notice the midday light reflecting off the golden waters of the Pacific in Mie Prefecture, while to my left the skyscrapers of Osaka city peek out from behind the slopes of Yamato-Katsuragi in northern Nara Prefecture. Only in these dizzying heights of the Kii Peninsula can you truly take in the scale of the place. Perhaps Hakkyō is worthy of a more thorough overnight inspection, and I know who to turn to for such an endeavor: a non-peak hunter.

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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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Nestled deep in eastern Shiga Prefecture in the foothills of the Suzuka mountains sits the untouched beauty of the headwaters of the Kanzaki river, a valley so steep and constricted that it has escaped the wrath of the dam builders. The route was first outlined in Lonely Planet’s original Hiking in Japan guide back in 2001, but due to a massive blunder with the name of the bus stop, very few users of that guide were able to negotiate the access point in the days before digital mapping and smartphone technology. Fast forward ahead two decades and I find myself with a rare opportunity to explore the gorge with my Japanese friends Haru and Hisao. Hisao picks me up at Nagoya station shortly before 7am on a brisk weekend morning in late March. After swinging by Haru’s house we hit the road for the trailhead on the Mie side of the Suzuka range, finding it easier to follow the Lonely Planet route in reverse by climbing up to Nakatōge from Asake campground. The parking lot is absolutely heaving as we squeeze in for one of the last available spaces. Everyone and their grandma seems intent on climbing Mt Shaka on this chilly morning but we have other plans.

We start by following the paved road uphill toward the headwaters of the Asake river. Unfortunately the dam builders have ensured that the upper reaches of the gorge are anything but spectacular, but we veer off the road a short time later and cross the river along a series of wobbly granite boulders to traverse the contours of the hillside due west to reach a narrow 10-meter waterfall tumbling through a thin channel of crumbly rock. The path appears to disappear here until Haru spots a series of ropes strung alongside a massive rockfall chute that looks set to dislodge itself at any moment. I let Haru take the lead and climb high enough and stay out of the fall zone so that any dislodged rocks tumble harmlessly down the chute to my right. I grasp onto a fixed rope and hoist myself toward the skyline.

Hisao follows next as Haru and I pause at the top of the chute and veer north above the waterfall and onto more stable ground in the upper reaches of the gorge. The scenery soon turns into that classic Suzuka spectacle of old growth deciduous forest wrapped around mossy granite rocks strewn about the forest floor. The trees are still in the midst of their winter hibernation, the branches bare and desolate as the sun struggles to break through the morning veil of cloud. The route traverses east past a watershed and along the edge of an enormous gap in the hillside caused by an immense landslide extending all the way from the ridge to the base of the mountain. A lone evergreen clings tightly to a cliff face in the middle of this contorted mess in an apparent imitation of the Lone Cypress of Pebble Beach.

We reach the carpeted moss of Naka-tōge, a broad saddle straddling the border of Mie and Shiga Prefectures. Here the Lonely Planet guide advises hikers to follow the ridge to the southwest over Mt Suishō and onward to Kunimidake and Yunoyama Onsen. The three of us linger briefly in order to study the maps and moisten our dry mouths with liquids. A clear signpost points east for lower crystal valley (下水晶谷), so we drop off the ridge and follow this trail down into Shiga Prefecture and the gorge below. The track is hard to pick up in places, and if not for the tape marks affixed to the trees it would be easy to veer off route. However, we mostly stick to the natural features of the land and let the dry creek bed of the narrow valley channel us down toward the lower portions of the ever steepening slopes.

Ten minutes into our ascent we find a reassuring site in a pristine blue-and-white signpost that looks recently erected by the tourism bureau of Komonocho of Mie Prefecture. If someone has spend the time and money to create such a well-designed way mark then you can bet that they have also ensured that the route is regularly maintained. Our dry route soon connects with an underground spring trickling down to meet the gorge, so we follow the right bank of the watershed until it deposits us at a junction indicating that the suspension bridge spanning Kanzaki gorge is unsafe to cross. We ignore the warning and head left to investigate the current state of the metal suspension bridge.

The Lonely Planet guide advises hikers to cross over the bridge and continue up the route we had just descended in order to reach Nakatōge, but anyone attempting to traverse over the twisted and tangled ruins of the bridge would truly be a fool. As Hisao and I stare in disbelief, Haru sheepish admits that he actually crossed the span during his last trip here a few years ago. The structure looks as if it could collapse and fall into the emerald green waters of the gorge at the slightest touch.

Fortunately sanity prevails and we retreat down to the river’s edge in search of a place to cross the broad river. Haru takes the lead and manages to cross one particularly hairy section of submerged rocks without slipping off and falling to the frigid waters. I follow next, looking for any sort of boulder that would provide a secure location to bear my weight but I retreat in defeat. Since we have only just begun our hike, I would rather not spend the remainder of the day with wet socks if it can be helped. Instead, I head downstream 50 meters and reach an area of whitewater lined with large, steady boulders and what I have dubbed the Suzuka ‘leap of fate’. You see, there’s a gap of about a meter and a half that needs to negotiated and the most logical way through is to simply leap across. The problem is that the start of the leap is from a wet boulder which you could easily slip out from underneath at the very start of your jump. I take off my backpack and toss it across the gap safely before placing my camera around my trekking pole and carefully stretch it across the water to Haru’s waiting arms. Finally I throw both of my trekking poles across and am only left with one task: JUMP!

My technique is the standing long jump, and I nail the landing with the precision of an Olympic athlete. I gather up my gear and turn around in time to watch Hisao take the leap with a mighty scream that surely helps propel his forward momentum. All three of us remain dry and safely cross the first real obstacle in our traverse.

The second challenge comes soon after, as we follow the tape marks up an impossibly steep gully lined with wet, mossy rocks. Haru scales the gully first, somehow managing to top out without sending any debris our way. I follow next and gain my confidence after an initial uneasiness in my steps. Hisao also makes quick work of the mess and we find the trail proper through a short bushwhack and head downstream. Ten meters further down we reach a trail junction indicating the real river crossing which we somehow completely missed.

A broad river bank awaits our footsteps, through an idyllic forest of hardwoods and rhododendron. The stone foundations of huts built for the production of charcoal emerge periodically beneath the undergrowth. The forest provides the perfect environment for the Edo-era craftsmen: plenty of oak trees and a constant supply of water to douse the red hot embers burning away in the earthen kilns. Haru pauses for a quick thought about the long-lost art.

We follow the contours of the land, traversing up and around natural features in the gorge and past countless streams depositing their payload of water into the main river as it shuttles their gifts toward Lake Biwa. At one particular stream crossing we lose sight of the tape marks and head down to the river bed itself for a bit of boulder hopping until the gorge once again becomes too constricted and we climb the precipitous river bank until finding the track again higher above. After an hour of this cat and mouse game of route finding, we reach Hirosawa, which true to its name is a broad fork in the river that is marked as a campsite in the Lonely Planet guide. Haru drops to our right in order to find a place to cross the fork while Hisao and I head straight to meet the whitewater head on. We find a beach area that would definitely make a great place to camp along the edge of the green water, if not for the plethora of leeches in the summer that is.

Haru shouts from the opposite side of the bank. Not only has he found a way to cross but he has also stumbled upon the trail and ushers us across. I can clearly see him on the top of a spur, so I make my way over to an area with an abundance of dry boulders and hop my way across, scaling the steep river bank while grasping onto tree roots to propel me up to Haru’s location. Hisao follows my footsteps in unison and our reunited trio marches along downstream through the heart of the gorge.

Narrow is an understatement in certain sections of this hidden gem of a waterway, and the route spends a fair amount of the time climbing up to traverse along a spur high above the waters themselves. Mossy boulders present themselves at the apex of the spur, tempting us to place our feet on them but we refuse to give in to their silky temptation. Haru speeds along and we can just catch sight of him during our descent towards the gorge. Rumblings in my stomach remind me that not only am I hungry but that we’ve been speeding along with nary a break.

We cross a stream and reach a junction with a handprinted sign pointing towards Tengu falls. I glance at the sign a take note of the Chinese characters for ‘danger’ written alongside in parentheses. I can hear the roar of the cascade as Haru escorts us along a narrow rocky track and through a series of fixed ropes fastened to the rocks. The last of the ropework is completely vertical, dangling over the edge of a cliff so steep that no footholds can be seen. Haru slides down the line and pops out on a massive boulder sitting on the edge of the water and just opposite Tengu’s spout. Descending vertical ropes has never been my forte but I carefully lower myself to safety and wipe the sweat from my brow while taking a seat near Haru. Hisao lets out a gasp before he too descends to our lunch spot. I pull out the sports drink and down it in nearly one gulp while fishing through the rucksack in search of calories.

Haru pulls out a hot thermos to make a quick brew of coffee and proceeds to snack on a vial of seed that looks like it belongs in a feeder. Birdseed and coffee, lunch of champions I suppose. We are sitting in the bowels of the gorge, a section of river untouched for centuries. The waters have carved these cliffs for millennia and have probably hosted a dinosaur or two during their tenure. It is refreshing that such places exist and I can see why the guidebook recommended this place. As I scan through the description, though, I see that they have failed to mention this side trip down to Tengu falls, easily the best part of the day so far.

After lunch we retrace our steps back up the cliff and continue heading downstream. We once again climb high above the waters to traverse along a narrow spur before dropping down to the river’s edge at a junction. This is the other campsite marked in the guidebook: from here you can simply cross the river and continue downstream to Yuzurio (somehow mislabeled as Nakahata in the Lonely Planet) and take a bus to Eigenji Shako but for us we leave the guidebook behind and instead head up Shirataki-dani, the valley of white falls. Even Haru admits that it is his first time on this route, so we start our ascent with an extra spring in our step until falling into that regular rhythm that typically accompanies a slog.

The route is pleasant enough and spends most of the time on a long incline through forests of cedar sprinkled with beech and oak from time to time. We stick mostly to the right bank of the river until ascending up past Shirataki, which resembles more of a whitewater channel than an actual waterfall. After passing by the ruins of a forestry hut (once used by the cedar plantation farmers mind you), the route turns old growth deciduous once again in the uppermost reaches of the gorge. Here the Suzuka mountains once again remind you of their spellbinding beauty.

Signs posted to the trees alongside the crystal-clear waters of the stream warn visitors that fishing without permission is strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, we come across a trio of men with their rods cast out, perhaps hoping to catch the endangered white-spotted char. I flash them the evil eye while they tuck their heads into their jacket hoods as the track climbs above the last of the waters and onto a root-smothered path that safely chauffeurs us back up to the ridge line and the Mie Prefectural border. We turn right, joining throngs of other day trippers on a narrow track lined with white Andromeda flowers. We ignore a junction and climb to a rocky prominence known as Hatomine. Upon reaching the summit, the howling winds blowing in from across the valley send us retreating for cover. Thick cloud has blown in from Ise Bay, threatening to gift us an afternoon shower. Peering down into a mountain pass just below the summit, the white sandstone makes the perfect setting for some mountain graffiti, as someone with a sense of humor has crafted a giant heart out of loose rocks and penned the word ‘Happy’ below. Japanese people love word play, and even though the peak is named after the dove (hato), it resembles the loan word for heart (haato) and has thus captured everyone’s affection.

The three of us drop down to the artwork and turn left at the pass, down the switchbacks of the eastern face of the peak and past a rock dam that was built in the Meiji era by Dutch engineer Johannis de Rijke, who is best known as the architect of the Lake Biwa Canal in Kyoto. It is a shame that concrete has taken center stage over these traditional breakwater dams. Nowadays the dams are built without any regard to the landscape or aesthetics, but in de Rijke’s time they were a work of art and exquisitely constructed, having stood intact for over a century.

Just past this dam is the start of the forest road that takes us back to the car which we follow with uplifted spirits for having explored one of Kansai’s truly gorgeous places.

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The old temple ruins of Komatsuji sit directly opposite the summit of Mt Ibarao, separated by a steep descent to a long saddle now occupied by the fairway of the 4th hole of the golf course. I would need to drop down to the links, cross the fairway, and continue up the wooded hillside to reach the summit of what is now known as Dōato-mine (堂跡嶺). The time has come to finally search for these long-lost relics of Shingon past.

I leave the house in late afternoon under a half moon and calm skies, trudging up past Eitokuji (see Chapter 4and up a deserted track to the saddle between Mt Shiramine and Mt Koban-no-mine (see Chapter 1). I pause here for a drink and to give a little time for the sun to fully drop behind the western horizon. All is calm and quiet up here, and the lack of other visitors gives a remoteness that you don’t usually find so close to civilization. My route this evening will involve following the course of Chapter 1 in reverse order, a fitting way to finish off this saga.

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I drop under the rope and along the now-familiar ridge to Mt Ōtani, now my third trip to the summit. From a clearing in the trees just below the summit I can see the 4th fairway and my target peak sitting off just to the south, looking so easily accessible if not for the forest of undergrowth and steep slopes lying in between. I drop off the peak and down to the narrow valley, crossing the stream on the duo of steel ladders bolted to the river bank. Here I turn left and into a layer of thick bamboo grass which forces me to crawl on my belly in order to navigate past the dense thickets of retina slashing leaves. I somehow make it to the teeing ground and clamber over an awkwardly constructed wire mesh animal fence. I dart across the fairway and enter the forest beyond, and up the incredibly steep slopes towards the summit ridge.

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Going is slow and tough, mostly by the fact that there is absolutely no trace or trail to speak of. I grab onto whatever I can find including a thorn bush which leaves its fang marks on my left palm. This is already off to a bad start.

In the fading light of day I do reach a flattened plateau about a third of the way up the knob. There definitely used to be some kind of structure here, but the thick undergrowth makes it impossible to make out any kind of foundation ruins. Ditto for a second and then final steppe above. I check the GPS and realize I have reached the summit plateau. If there is a summit signpost up here I will never find it – thick bamboo thwarts my progress and it is impossible to go much further without a machete. I raise my camera to snap a photo but the shutter fails to focus. I reach around to touch the filter ring and feel a void where the ring and the entire front element used to be – they have fallen off my camera and will definitely never be located without some major excavations.

I suppose this is an apt outcome considering I am not really supposed to be wandering around overgrown, trackless knobs at night. Just a week prior, I had dropped my camera and thought all was well, but perhaps the damage had yet to show itself until I needed it most. I still snap a shot just in case, which results in a blurry unrecognizable image that would probably fetch some money if shot by a famous abstract artist.

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The final light of the day is now completely gone, so I turn on the headlamp and retrace my steps back to the fairway and navigate the open space by the illumination of the half moon now directly overhead. Instead of heading back to the overgrown swamplands by the stream, I see a building directly in front of me, which in this dim light looks exactly like a temple gate. Could this be the location of the original entrance gate to the complex? As I get closer I realize that it’s just a concrete rest house for fatigued golfers, though if you can’t get through 4 holes of golf without needing a break perhaps you shouldn’t out there at all.

Instinct draws me near, and sure enough at the back of the structure I find a much easier place to hop the fence and manage to find a very clear and relatively easy spur that connects to the ridge line above. This must surely have been the access point to the temple all of those years ago. I regain the ridge just below Mt Benzaiten and breathe a sigh of relief for having made it through the backcountry without encountering any boar or ghosts of monks past. The final undulations along the ridge are pleasant under the light of my headlamp and the warm spring winds at my back.

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It’s hard to believe that I am now descending that initial ridge trail that I took way back in November during my very first outing in the Hoshida hills. Regaining Mt Ishibashi, peak #1 feels like the completion of a mandala, a fitting way to finish off what I initially estimated would take a year to complete.

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The following morning, I head out once again to put the final pieces of the puzzle together. When Komatsuji temple fell into ruin, the principal image, an eleven-faced Kannon statue, was moved to Hoshida shrine in 1703. There it sat for nearly 200 hundred years until the post-feudal government of the Meiji era dictated the separation of Buddhism from Shintoism (shinbutsu bunri). Instead of the statue being destroyed, a Shingon temple was constructed directly next to Hoshida shrine, and now the two live together as awkward neighbors. The Shinto grounds of Hoshida (星田) retained the Japanese reading, while the temple took on the older Chinese reading and became Shōdenji (星田寺).

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I pass through the temple gate and enter the modest temple grounds, finding a square structure on my right that houses the Kannon statue. The figure is difficult to see through the reflections in the glass, so I put my face against the glass and block out the extra light in order to view the important cultural property. I imagine myself sitting on top of Dōato-mine, praying to this image in the middle of a beautiful forest surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Hoshida mountains. I mutter a quick word of thanks to the goddess and wonder around the compact temple grounds. A quartet of stone stupa from the Muromachi era are displayed on a raised stone bed, salvaged from the grounds of the old temple during the construction of the golf course. This is all that is remains of Komatsuji nowadays, apart from a larger collection of stupa and Jizo statues in a grotto flanking the western foothills of Mt Myoken.

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I head over to the grotto, whose access point is adorned with a simple sauwastika across the top of an unadorned entrance gate. I walk to the end of a short walkway and find dozens of ancient Jizo statues lined up in formation. They have been salvaged from the surrounding hills, relocated here in hopes of protection from the elements. Just next to these images, on a wall running at a right angle, sit the remnants of Komatsuji’s cemetery, moved from the golf course to here instead of being bulldozed entirely.

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So what started off as a simple mountain mission for a bit of fitness has turned into quite the learning experience, as I have discovered the historical importance of my forgotten corner of Osaka Prefecture.

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I’m back at the dam after a filling lunch of curry. So far I’ve trudged up eggplant valley, taken the steep spur to Ichigaikaburi-no-se, and followed the gentler ridge to Mt Hidaka. There’s still one final route to explore, the much-feared Botte valley, a narrow gorge connecting the reservoir and a saddle between Mt Hidaka and Mt Hoshida, my first target of the day. I take the track around the western edge of the lake, the same one I followed towards Hayakari in Chapter 3, but instead of leaving the gorge east for Ichigaikaburi, I follow the river upstream along a poorly marked and heavily overgrown route that very few hikers attempt.

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The first obstacle in my way is a series of toppled trees clogging the valley. I scurry over these timbers and tramp through a thick grove of ferns past an abandoned dwelling that must have taken a monumental effort to construct in such a secluded location. Continuing upstream, I cross landslide debris along a dodgy trail with no handholds as the route rises above the stream towards a waterfall. I need to climb up and over the falls on the right side of the riverbank, but the footing is incredibly poor and I reach a point where I will need to commit my full attention on one single footstep that could mark the division between a successful ascent and a nasty tumble resulting in broken bones or worse. The ground is damp and slippery, and I freeze in place, pondering the potential outcome of a bad decision. My shoes are worn nearly to the tread and have served me well up until now, but with a 5-year-old daughter at home and the responsibilities that fatherhood brings, I just can’t seem to take that next step, so I do what any sensible human would do in such circumstances – I retreat.

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Giving up on Botte valley does not mean mission over, however, as a more standard route to Mt Hoshida now awaits along the gentle ridge to Hidaka. Rather than retrace my steps back to the reservoir, I return to the abandoned house and trust my instincts: if someone built a house here, there’s got to be an access point from above. So I climb and climb, grabbing onto anything in my path along an incredibly steep and narrow spur. The contour lines on my GPS do suggest a way through, so I trust them and fully commit to the climb ahead of me. I eventually regain the ridge at an unnamed peak blanketed with an unkept mane of bamboo grass. Swashbuckling my way through the dense undergrowth, I eventually pop out into familiar territory at a saddle below the start of the climb to Mt Hosokuri (see Chapter 5).

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On the far side of the knob, I once again arrive at the junction below Mt Nakao. Instead of sticking to the ridge along the ‘easy course’ to the summit, I veer left on the makimichi below the ridge and reach a junction just below the ‘steep route’ to the top. Since I have already been up Nakao, I veer away and instead head left for a rather abrupt and surprising descent down to Botte valley. I reach the edge of the narrow stream – this is where I would have ended up had I stayed my original course. The valley floor, due to the moisture trapped by the sides of the steep walls, is a lush green, carpeted by a healthy grove of ferns and plenty of bamboo grass. The vines dangling from the evergreen trees overhead bring to mind the jungles of Okinawa.

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I cross the stream and am led via a DIY signpost, a creative display scrawled on yellow tape wrapped around a disused PET bottle and subsequently impaled on a lime-green gardening stake. Thank goodness the feudal era is over, or the bottle would likely have been replaced by the head of the warrior of a rival clan. My route leaves the valley floor as quickly as it enters, up the angled confines of Mt Hoshida’s root-infested western face. Pockmarked by toppled trees in places, the trail leads me around the tangled mess and along a series of chest-high boulders which offer vistas across the valley towards Takatsuki city.

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How fitting it is to arrive on the summit of the namesake 51 Mt Hoshida (星田山) that helps define the entire mountain range. Interesting enough, on ancient maps of the region this mountaintop also goes by the name of Uma-ga-mine, which also happens to be the name of my 50th summit. I can see why modern mountaineers prefer the newer Hoshida moniker in order to avoid confusion. I forgo a break for the time being as the adjacent 52 Mt Seikai (星海山) beckons – it being just a short climb across a narrow saddle to the northwest. The up-and-back takes less than 5 minutes and I soon return to Mt Hoshida for a late afternoon snack. As I dig into my stash of snacks, who do I see approach but good ole Seino-san. “Again”, he shouts, offering a friendly smile and words of encouragement as I show him the dwindling list of mountains left to climb. “You’re almost there”, the vest-donning elderly hiker quips, before disappearing down the steep descent towards Botte valley. I watch as Mr Seino fades out of sight, wondering if I will get another chance to encounter his 76-year-old presence before he either gets too old to climb or I get too bored of these sandy knobs.

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The encounter of a familiar face gives me a second wind as I head due south for the final quartet of peaks in the Hoshida massif. The sun-baked ridge runs parallel to the fairway of the 5th hole of the golf course. The leafless canopy allows me to catch glimpses of the tree-cloaked Dōato-mine on the other side of the fairway. It is fairly tempting to drop off the ridge, scale the fence, and race up the slopes in search of the lost past if not for the lawnmower currently grooming the grassy meadows of the fairway. I get the feeling that the golf course employees would not take too kindly to tresspassers so any attempts at an ascent would have to be discreet at the very least.

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This final section of ridge is absolutely stunning as the sun creates long, golden shadows on the gentle traverse to the summit of 53 Mt Saratani (皿谷山). A fork in the spur here leads southwest on an unmarked track to Mt Higashi-Botte but I keep to the main ridge southeast in hopes of looping back via another unmarked route on my map. I hop over a toppled tree and duck under another, following the natural contours of the spur and barely notice the signpost hand-painted on a cherry tree on 54 Mt Ike-no-uchi (池之内山), the second highest knob in the Hoshida range. 

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A narrow sliver of trail between thick strands of bamboo is all that separates me from 55 Mt Minami Ike-no-uchi (南池之内山). On the summit I notice a fork in the route. A hand-crafted sign warns hikers that a left here leads to a dead-end at the golf course and instead instructs hikers to keep to the ridge, which I do through a healthy forest of hardwoods glimmering in the afternoon light. The end of the spur is reached and with nowhere to go but down, my route spits me out in a narrow valley blanketed in bamboo. I break through a section of undergrowth to reach a very old and dilapidated forest road that probably last saw vehicular traffic during the Reagan administration. I turn right on what is left of the road, stepping through toppled bamboo that cracks loudly under my feet and reach a abandoned green bus slowly being reclaimed by the elements. I am reminded of the Chris McCandless story and half-expect to find the corpse of a hermit inside the ramshackle vehicle but I am too afraid to peer inside.

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The overgrown road leads past two small ponds until reaching a clearing just below the summit plateau of 56 Mt Higashi-Botte (東拂底山). As luck would have it, someone has affixed rubber tubing to the tree roots lining a short but steep climb to the final summit ridge, so I hoist myself up and reach the top for my best views of the afternoon. Rather than retrace my steps back to Mt Hoshida, I drop down the southwestern face along a faint track of pebbly scree and reach a broad ridge of thick golden grasses blowing gently in the cool late-winter breeze. I somehow forge a way through and arrive at the place where I turned back after summiting Mt Botte (see Chapter 5). I race up to the summit of Mt Botte and continue on over Kunimi-mine and Mt Nishitani and follow a well-used track all the way out of the hills and into an affluent collection of homes in the Hoshida Nishi neighborhood.

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I follow the road downhill for a bit but keep an eye on the GPS for an unmarked turnoff. At first I miss the track and have to retrace my steps until finally spying a narrow track on the far side of a small grassy plaza. The route immediately dives into a thick bamboo grove ablaze in that golden hour glow which spits me out into the grounds of Uchiage shrine, but it is not the fox god that I seek. An additional track branches off in front of the shrine and climbs through a gorgeous oak grove and I find what I am looking for: Ishihōden burial mound.

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Built in the late Kofun era, the stone tomb is the only one of its kind in the northern part of what was known as the Kawachi province. Excavations near the tomb revealed pottery fragments dating from the mid-7th century, but little else is known about the burial mound, including who was once buried inside. It is generally agreed that someone of great importance and stature was interred here due to the painstaking efforts of design and construction of the tomb, whose entrance faces west toward Osaka city.

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After a quick look around, I retreat back to the grassy plaza and continue walking down the paved road until reaching a bridge spanning a deep gully. On the far side of the bridge is a modern apartment complex built snug against a curvy hillock smothered in bamboo. A signpost adjacent to the apartment building indicates that it is private property and that entrance is prohibited to those not residing in the structure, so I wait for a gap in the traffic and take off in a sprint past the sign and adjacent building and scale a set of log stairs built into the hillside. Once inside the bamboo grove, I follow a green barbed-wire chain-link fence to find the signpost for the 110m-high 57 Mt Onna (女山) or female peak. Why someone would barricade their overgrown forest of bamboo is beyond me, but some landowners have a propensity to be incredibly possessive. In order to avoid being discovered, I drop down the northern side of the peak and slip out into a quiet neighborhood of homes whose residents are likely engaged in their evening meal rituals. 

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The sun has now hit the horizon, but my next peak lies on this same road just to the north, so I walk back to the main road and past the Fresco supermarket towards another grove of bamboo. My next peak is also on private land and my initial planned approach is from a vacant lot from the east, but wouldn’t you know it – a man it out there with his digger excavating the land for no apparent reason. Maybe he heard I was coming and just decided to thwart my progress instead. This forces me to walk around to the western face to reach an access point through a farmer’s field. Again I wait for a break in the traffic and then sprint up through the network of fallow land and duck into the bamboo grove and climb to the top of a steep hill to find a signpost for 58 Mt Katano (交野山), which is just 83 meters above sea level. Despite the absurdly low altitude, there is actually a triangulation point here and a signpost indicating that the knob is also known as Ōtani.

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I run back through the fields under the guise of dusk, escaping the wrath of the locals and continue onwards to the next peak, once again to the north. The main route is from the south, but since I am on the opposite side, I try my luck approaching via the cemetery invading its lower slopes. As I walk up the approach road, I see the caretaker placing cones across the road, together with a signpost indicating that the graveyard is open from 8am to 5pm daily. I gaze at my watch: 5:10pm. Turning around once again, I pull out the GPS in order to navigate through the maze of houses and reservoirs separating myself from the southern face of 59 Mt Takaoka (高岡山). Numerous wrong turns lead to more lost minutes, and by the time I do reach the trailhead I need the assistance of my headlamp. I race up the steep hill, past a small shrine and into a clearing above the cemetery and take in the last of the sunset oranges on the horizon.

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I drop back down to the Hoshida neighborhood and negotiate the various turns that will lead me to my final destination, which is marked by a long, steep, stone stairway through a park. I ascend to the top to reach a road and playground, and just to my left I discover a shrine gate sitting in front of a large stone stupa flanked on either end by two rusty metal lanterns. Affixed by wire to a tree next to the gate, I find the signpost for 69m-high 60 Mt Shingu (新宮山), the lowest of the Hoshida 60 and my official end of the road. In the Muromachi period, there were two sanctuaries built upon this hilltop: a Buddhist temple called Aizenritsuin and a Shintō space by the name of Shinguyama Hachimangu. Both fell victim to the separation of Buddhism and Shintō at the beginning of the Meiji era and now all that is left is this stupa which gives visitors a tiny taste of what used to be. 

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With the Hoshida 60 (map here) now complete, I return home but still can’t shake the ghosts of Komatsuji temple from my mind. A proper investigation is necessary in order to provide proper closure to the saga. Stay tuned.

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The climbing order of the first half of the Hoshida 60 was completely random, based solely on my desire to explore a new access point with each trip, but now comes the tougher task of filling in the holes and repeating some of the same approach paths. This time, I return to the scene of the crime, walking up Myokenzaka and following once again the undulating ridge over Ishibashi, Nukutani, Sōen and Minami-Sōen (see Chapter 1) to the junction just below Mt Umaki-mine. The ridge is just as I remember it except for the improved visibility due to the loss of autumn foliage. Through gaps in the bare canopy I look out over a sleepy Kyoto city off on the horizon, a quiet stillness to the mid-morning air as the sun forces it way through the winter cumulus clouds gathered above to observe my movement through the mountains.

A gentle rise ushers me up to ㊴ Mt Benzaiten (弁財天山), a tree-smothered hump nestled up against the intimidating spires of an electrical pylon. Ah, Benten, the goddess of water, music, love, knowledge and just about everything else that pulsates through the sandy scree beneath my feet. Apart from a hand-crafted signpost, there is little evidence as to why this knob bestows the honor of receiving her blessing. In sculpted form, Benzaiten is often seen strumming a lute, offering sonic words of wisdom to those within her presence and in my walks through Japan the sight of that musical instrument usually inspires me to hum a tune or two. As I turn my eyes skyward, the buzz of the high-voltage power lines stringing overhead brings that early-80s Eddy Grant tune to mind, and now I can’t get that silly song out of my head. Oh no indeed.

Fortunately that walk down electric avenue is short-lived, as a rock formation further along the ridge snaps me back to reality, intrigued by the placement of the boulders as they cling comfortably to the contours of the land. Were these rocks simply a natural feature of the land, or were they placed here to serve as the foundation of a long-lost structure? A signpost affixed to an oak tree soon answers my internal inquiry, for I am now standing on the ruins of the Kita-no-shomon (北の小門) or small northern entrance gate to Komatsu Temple.

At the top of the next rise, an illustrated signboard atop ㊵ Mt Ibarao (茨尾山) provides that eureka moment. These very hills are the setting for Komatsuji, a large Shingon temple founded in the year 846, just a decade after Kukai’s eternal sleep. Kukai himself was appointed head priest of Toji in southern Kyoto in 823. At that time, Koyasan has just been founded, but perhaps Kukai was eyeing another mountaintop retreat a lot closer to the ancient capital. As Kukai died before the completion of Komatsuji, the work was probably undertaken by one of his disciples at Toji. The geographical location makes sense – you can clearly see the Hoshida mountains from Toji Temple, and it’s only a day’s walk from the ancient capital. The temple itself thrived during the coming centuries before finally falling into ruin in 1703.

The revelation literally gives me pause. I rest on the summit of Mt Ibarao and pull out my paper map of the region together with a list of the mountains. Everything starts to make sense: the Amida Nyorai statue of eggplant valley, the peak name of Bentaizan, the incredibly steep mountain tracks – they are all the hors d’oeuvre to the main course. All of these mountain trails are just sandō (参道) or approach paths for Komatsuji. The surrounding knobs form a lotus pattern around the main temple complex, which is now hidden among the 20th century scars of an adjacent golf course. In fact, the location of the original main hall (hondō) sits atop Mt Komatsu, directly in the middle of the links. From the summit of Mt Ibarao, a stone path led to the main temple gate at a saddle where the fairway of hole #4 now sits. The contours continue on the other side of the fairway to the summit of Komatsu, which has now been renamed Dōato-mine (堂跡嶺), one of the Hoshida 60. This complicates matters, for it now appears that I need to cross over the fairway in order to explore the temple ruins.

I continue following the ridge, within earshot of the golfers in the fairway hidden to my left, and the next bump on the route is the western peak ㊶ Mt Nishi-Ibarao (西茨尾山) of the Ibarao chain of knobs. This is the last of the unclimbed peaks on the range, but rather than turn back just yet, I climb to the top of the next hill to take in the views and an early lunch at Mt Kitasanshi (北山師岳), one of the peaks I summited back in Chapter 3. With my linking up of trails now complete, I return up and over Ibarao and drop down to the stream below the junction of Umaki-mine and back up to the summit of Mt Ōtani. In my first visit to Ōtani I headed east towards the suspension bridge but now my attention is devoted to the ridge running south along the border of the golf course. The track loses altitude abruptly, arriving at a kiretto and a heavily eroded hillside on the far side of the gap. I find some tape marks just off the ridge on the western face of the slope and scramble on up to ㊷ Mt Minami-Ōtani (南大谷山) through a section of untamed bamboo grass threatening to conceal the route.

This is one of the more pleasant ridge lines in the Hoshida mountains, without the strenuous up-and-down scrambling prevalent in the rest of the range. It simply becomes a matter of strolling along the ridge, summiting peak after peak in clockwork fashion like Christmas lights strung together on the eaves of a house. They come in quick succession, starting with ㊸ Mt Higashi-Komatsu (東小松山) or eastern peak of the namesake temple situated directly opposite my position, the golf fairways blocking direct access. Just a few minutes further on, clocking in at 284.2 meters in elevation, is ㊹ Mt Habushi (羽伏山) which happens to be the tallest peak in the entire Hoshida range, but registers as nothing more than an indiscreet bump on this undulating ridge. 

At points along the route, the track hovers just a few meters above the golf course, affording views of the green of Hole No. 1 and the clubhouse further down the slope. A waist-high wire fence has been erected around the entire perimeter of the golf course: it not only serves to keep the wild boar off the fairways but also prevents irate golfers from attacking rouge hikers as they deliver harsh critiques of their poor swinging posture. Golf is far from my mind, however, as my lunch has now fully digested itself and it looking to make some space among my crowded intestines. That can only mean one thing: I need to move. I can barely remember much about the next peak except for the tongue twister of the name as I scurry past ㊺ Mt Fumiwari-ishi (踏割石山). The name seems to suggest a split boulder nearby but my bowels are threatening to split my trousers in two, so I assume a rather awkward gait with a clinched sphincter. Part of me just wants to jump the fence and use the facilities at the club house but rather than create an international incident, I want to keep my anonymity a bit longer.

㊻ Kineyama (木根山) and ㊼ Mt Jizō-ga-ya (地蔵ヶ谷山) are both bewildering, for I can see neither tree roots nor Jizō statues in my mad race to find a loo. The final peak on this southern spur, ㊽ Mt Iimori-ko (飯盛小山) actually has a triangulation point that I nearly trip over in my haste. A few steps beyond the eastern face I do indeed find my sought-after Jizō statue standing among the leaf litter on the forest floor. The figure overlooks a sprawling cemetery quickly encroaching the foothills of the range. The trail starts to drop toward a saddle but I can no longer wait – I drop my drawers as a deep well of a toppled tree provides a natural pit to deposit my fertilizer. I clean myself with dried leaves as best I can and slow down the pace to a much more sustainable level. 

At the saddle, I slip under the ‘Do Not Enter’ ropes and into Hoshida Enchi park. I am sitting on the southernmost border on the park, at a place that Ted and I crossed on our Ikoma section hike. Had we known that a mountain route connects Shijonawate and Hoshida, we would have taken this route instead of dropping off into Nara and tramping through the cemetery I glimpsed up on Mt Iimori-ko. On the opposite side of the saddle, I cross the broad track and slip under the ropes forbidding access to the ridge. The track is well trodden despite the illegal access, through ground mixed with pine needles and leaf litter. A pair of head-high boulders greet me on the top of ㊾ Mt Matsu-no-hama (松ノ浜山) or ‘pine beach’ peak. The loose scree beneath my feet does indeed resemble a beach if you forgive the lack of sea water in the vicinity. This peak is listed as #61 of the Hoshida 60, a substitution for the off-limits Komatsu Temple ruins.

The trail on the spur continues northward, crossing an electrical pylon before dropping suddenly and quickly down an access path built for electrical maintenance workers. Back in the valley floor, I slip under the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign and into a broad rest area sitting adjacent to a gravel road. I am now back in familiar territory, having walked up this road numerous times to access the Hoshida suspension bridge. My final peak lies directly ahead, so rather than follow the well-used road around, I turn my gaze upwards to a concrete water tower on the ridge directly in front of me. Despite the lack of a proper path, I commence my ascent by grabbing onto tree limbs and forging my own well-placed switchbacks to reach the water tower and continue to the top of the ridge to an unnamed peak. Here I spy a line down the northern face, skirting around rock formations on an improvised descent to a narrow gully. I can hear the sound of a waterfall downstream, so I turn left and head upstream to find a smaller watershed coming down from the north. I follow this upwards and forge a new route up a 50-degree slope. A tumble here would not end well, so in order to better protect myself, I bounce from tree well to tree well, avoiding the cliff edge on my right and continuing in a diagonal trajectory while double checking my progress against the GPS. Sweat flows down my brow as the heart starts to race, but somehow I regain the ridge at a pass and am welcomed by a well-marked path.

This path drops down the northern face of this second mountain pass, lined with wooden log steps that assist in my sudden loss of altitude. At the next gully a broad track leads to a third and final pass and an unmarked trail on my right. I take this a short distance to  ㊿ Mt Uma-ga-mine (馬が嶺) or horse’s peak that is just 104 meters high. I retreat back to the pass and then drop a short distance to the massive climbing wall in Hoshida Enchi park. I am craving a hot coffee, so I head to the climbers hut only to find that it is shut on Tuesdays. The vending machines glow from the other side of the locked glass door, taunting me like a nasty bully. To make matters worse, the men’s room is currently closed for renovation, but in my desperate attempt to properly cleanse myself, I slip into the women’s room to make liberal use of the toilet paper.

The end of the Hoshida 60 is now within reach, and with my current pace of 10 peaks per hike I can probably knock off the remainder of the mountains (minus the golf course peak) in just one final trip.

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One week after my scurrying among the peaks of Hoshida Enchi in Chapter 4, I once again return to the eggplant valley reservoir for my third exploration of the hidden lakeside trails. It is easy to return to such locations, being just a 30-minute walk from home along a rural bylane frequented by farmers. I head west, across the top of the dam as in Chapter 3 but instead of following the reservoir I turn south and climb the hillside to reach the start of a long north-south ridge paralleling the waters of the pond below. The easy-to-follow route passes just above a secluded subdivision of affluent homes affording views across a sea of dwellings to the mountains of Takatsuki city to the north.

The ridge is gentle, almost unexpectedly gentle considering what the Hoshida mountains have thrown my way so far. Could this be the much sought after weakness in the fortress walls of the serrated edges of the surrounding spurs? The first minor bump in the route turns out to be the summit of ㉙ Mt Takamatsu (高松山), barely worthy of the short side trip a few meters from the main track. As I reach the high point and retreat back to the main route, I hear a voice approaching from behind. A bespectacled female hiker who appears to be around my age approaches, studying her GPS with an uneasy eye. “Is that the track to Takamatsu?”, she intrepidly inquires and relaxes a bit when I reply in the affirmative. “How far are you going today?” I ask, hoping that she has a realistic plan in place as it is already approaching mid-afternoon.

“Not sure”, she replies, perhaps hoping for an indirect invite to join me in a game of peak hunting. I pull out my paper map, pointing to a trio of unclimbed peaks on this spur above the lake we are now following. She gladly accepts my offer to chauffeur her along these hidden tracks. For once, it will be glad to share the trail with more than just my internal dialogue. “My name’s Naoko”, she reveals, pointing to her ancestral home in the neighboring enclave of Hoshida Yamate. Our conversation naturally turns to the subject of mountains, and my new friend is the first to admit that she is far from an expert, but I promise to keep the pace gentle and our conversation flows as naturally as the contours of this pleasant ridge.

After a trio of ups and downs, we reach the top of  Mt Sakato (坂登山) for which the kanji characters literally read ‘hill climb’, an interesting choice for a peak that seems nothing more than a steady incline on the ridge. Little do Naoko and I know that we will soon find out the true origin of this peculiar mountain name.

The gains in altitude are barely noticeable on the subtle inclines, and thirty minutes further up the spur we find a pet bottle impaled on a stake with a hand-drawn map indicating the trail on our right sticks to the main ridge, while the path straight on is a makimichi traverse below. We turn right and reach a massive chestnut tree sitting directly on the summit of the aptly named ㉛ Mt Hosokuri (細栗山), my halfway point of the Hoshida 60. Instead of celebrating, however, we push further along the spur in hopes of finding a view on these tree-smothered knobs.

The track drops to a junction with yet another hand-crafted signpost. This one involves a styrofoam food tray nailed to a cedar tree on which a black marker map has been etched onto the surface once again demonstrating the DIY ethos of the Hoshida locals. The figure 8 lattice of paths mean we can simply pick and choose our preferred route to link up with the main ridge line. We opt for what is scribbled on the map as the raku no nobori or ‘easy climb’. Easy would be the last thing I would use to categorize the hillside laying directly in front of us, as the two of us spend quite a bit of time on all fours trying to negotiate the steep slope separating us from our next knob.

Plenty of tree trunks provide just enough leverage to hoisten us up to ㉜ Mt Nakao (中尾山) that sits in a field of head high bamboo teetering on the edge of an electrical pylon climbing firmly to the top of the eastern face. This is the convergence of the so-called ‘steep trail’ that we could have taken instead of our ‘easy’ way to the top. At a saddle at the bottom of the southern face another track comes in from our left, but we ignore this and keep to the main spur along a gentle incline of evergreen oaks, hemlock and camphor which bring a welcome green to the otherwise monochromatic scenery of winter.

At the top of the next rise we finally find our sought-after views between gaps in recently felled trees on the summit of 260m high ㉝ Mt Hidaka (日高山), our high point of the day. A temperature gauge affixed to a cherry tree indicates a temperature of three degrees above zero. Naoko and I take a well-deserved break of chocolate and water while we weigh our options. Hidaka is the first of the trio of mountains known as the Hoshida Sanzan, and I suggest a loop track of the remaining two peaks of the triumvirate. She enthusiastically agrees to my proposal, even though our route is dotted on the map and our remaining daylight hours are limited.

A couple of minutes beyond Hidaka a path leads through a grove of bamboo to the south, marked by a discarded CD affixed to a dangling bamboo leaf. We follow this route through the grove and into a clearing of golden susuki grass and a thicket of dead weeds. A faint trail heads straight through this mess, the difficulty compounded by a the sprawling fingers of a thorn bush that has us in its grasp. I pull out the pocket knife and free myself from the mess and then set about liberating Naoko from its claws.

Once through the obstruction, it becomes an exercise in route finding as the bush yields back to the untouched swaths of forest. I eye the GPS while following the ever-steepening contours skywards along a narrow spur. Pulling ourselves utilizing the stability of the branches of maple and oak, the summit plateau of ㉞ Mt Botte (拂底山) is breached as Naoko and I pause to catch our breath. The peak borders a broad valley dotted with vegetable fields, the southernmost extent of the Hoshida range. Looking due west, the television antenna of Mt Iimori rise up among a trio of peaks situated just below the main ridge of the Ikoma mountains. A route from here seems plausible, but will require a bit of advanced planning to avoid that rat’s nest of undergrowth bordering the valley of vegetables.

The eastern face reveals a slight weakness as Naoko and I forge switchbacks down the rough scree, darting from tree to tree in an effort to help stop a fall if one of us should take a tumble. At the saddle, our progress is thwarted by a thick wall of weeds, with no visible way though. The map indicates a dotted trail through a meadow towards Mt Higashi-Botte, but with diminishing daylight and hydration, we make the only logical choice – backtrack up and over Botte to the more-established main route. We would have to give up on the Hoshida Sanzan for now, but the map provides us an alternative to polish off a few knows further west.

Fortunately I somehow manage to locate a track off of Botte that avoids the tangly mess of the briars and we retrace our steps back to the CD junction and turn west on the western border of the range. The path soon splits, marked by a clipboard signpost hand-scrawled in black marker and wired to a Mizunara oak trunk. We take the fork and arrive on ㉟ Kunimi-mine (拂底山) and are gifted with a glimpse of the Osaka city skyline and the fading light of day reflecting off the waters of Osaka bay. Time is running short, so we pick up the pace along the undulating ridge line to the northwest.

㊱ Mt Nishitani (拂底山) is little more than a subtle bump on the ridge, signposted adjacent to yet another gargantuan electrical pylon exercising its dominance over the range. We have two options here – either descend a short distance to the suburban enclave of Hoshida Nishi or take a side spur toward a duo of knobs due north of here. It would be a long way to come back just for these two mountains, so Naoko and I leave the main route at an unmarked junction and follow a broad spur through a glorious hardwood forest sprinkled with leaf litter. Yet another handmade signpost awaits us a saddle, so we stick to the spur and follow it to a lonesome bench affixed to the high point of ㊲ Mt Minami-Ometoishi (南夫婦石山). The name suggests a ‘married couple’ rock formation, but no boulders can be seen among the thick bamboo grass aligning the plateau. 

The spur continues and so do we, continuing our frenetic stumble through unexplored tracks of land. A series of false summits separate us and ㊳ Mt Ometoishi (夫婦石山) and yet again, the rock formation remains elusive. Decision time is here, for as much as we would like to simply backtrack and take the easy way to Hoshida Nishi, the map and GPS do suggest there is a route between here and Mt Sakato on the main spur at the start of the day. This would save quite a bit of time walking on asphalt back home. We weigh over the options before deciding on this shortcut. Remarkably, we locate a series of yellow tape marks affixed to the trees which guide us off the eastern face of Ometoishi and into a narrow gully and headlong into a 5-meter high dam cutting off access to the north. It also seems to have thwarted whomever was affixing the yellow tape, for on the far side of the gully there is no clear way forward.

Careful study of not only of the surrounding landscape but also the contours of the GPS is required here. Using my years of experience in the mountains of Kansai and my weeks of experience in the Hoshida mountains, I settle on a rain-water drainage gully clogged with toppled trees and slowly-rotting branches. I tell Naoko to keep a 10-meter following distance in case I should slip, and fortunately for us both the angle soon eases as we locate a spur just to our left that allows us to haul ourselves up to the top of the ridge. Remarkably, we pop on directly on the summit of Mt Sakato and can now safely brag that we have indeed climbed the face that gives the ‘hill climb’ its most fitting name. We high-five each other in a celebratory manner, capturing our glee on a selfie as Naoko audibly exhales a sigh of relief.

With the final light of the dying day, it is simply a matter of heading back down the well-trodden spur to the reservoir and familiar territory again. Naoko’s parents live just a short distance from the dam, and she graciously offers me a ride back to my side of town, saving that agonizing 30-minute walk on weary legs. We exchange contact information and promise to do another walk again the future, perhaps teaming up with other fellow walkers in the neighborhood who are also drawn in by the beauty and mystery of the Hoshida mountains.

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