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Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

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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Mid-March. We can put off this endeavor no longer. The drive northward takes an hour, with an obligatory stopover at the Family Mart in Ōhara for nourishment and lavatory relief. Ted parks the car under a weeping plum tree in the convenience store parking lot and we make good use of the facilities before continuing up route 367 past the Buna-ga-take trailhead and further west on route 781 into the bowels of Kutsuki village. We park on the shoulder of the road, hop over a barrier, and stroll up a gravel forest road while studying the maps on our digital navigation devices. I signal to Ted to turn left on an incredibly steep forest road, which he reluctantly agreesthough his map indicates that following the stream is the most direct approach. We ascend to nearly the top of the spur until I zoom out on my map and realize, to my utter disbelief, that we are actually on the entirely wrong route. In our enthusiasm to hit the trail we had parked the car too early and were following a rather obscure and seldomly used track to Migo-goe (ミゴ越) on the far side of Kyo-ga-take (経ヶ岳). After some consultation, and a reflection upon our arduous track record, we both agree that a wise retreat back to the car is our best bet.

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Once back at the vehicle, we indeed find the proper trailhead further along the paved road and park the car next to a farmer’s field near Kuwarabashi bridge. As we walk toward the bridge, a signpost indicates that today’s route sits along the so-called Fairy Trail, a trail-running race that will likely turn you into a fairy should you choose to brave the leeches and summer rains to participate. With the trail-running boom come more and more of these long-distance races that seem to be set up as a way to cash in on the trend. Joining these races will usually set you back at least one Fukuzawa note. If I were into trail running I would just save some money and run the race courses off season for free but I guess the idea of joining a race is to share your misery with fellow-minded sadists. Just beyond the bridge we find a large signpost for the Takashima trail and follow the first few meters of the track up into a damp forest of moss and cedar.

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As we work out war up the switchbacks towards the ridge line, the conversation soon turns to self-publishing and the challenges of working with editors and the publishing industry. Since both of us are seasoned authors, with my guidebook and his walking anthology, the enthralling conversation gets our mind off the long climb, taking us up and out of the cedar plantations and onto a wild spur punctuated with the contorted limbs of the Ashiu-sugi trees dotted along the rarely trodden route.

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Shrubs of rhododendron and andromeda add a green accent to the hazel tones of the forest floor as the spur gently guides us towards the towering ridge above. To our left, the slopes crescendo abruptly down a ravine choked with years of rock and tree fall, while to our right the contours fall away into Tamba valley and the sounds of a hidden stream flowing through the untouched valley. As the sun licks the trail all around us, we peel off the layers in an effort to speed the evaporation of sweat from our overheated bodies.

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The route is liberally plastered with yellow tape reading Takashima Trail, affixed to the tree branches at such regular intervals that would give the Tanabata Festival in Sendai a run for its money. Don’t get me wrong way marks are an integral part of any long-distance trail, but perhaps stringing them every five meters is a bit overkill.  Just below the true ridge, our track converges with the upper reaches of Tamba valley, whose trough is dotted with patches of lingering snow. Fortunately, an unusually warm winter means that we are spared the agony of potholing through the usual thigh-deep drifts.

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We reach the junction at Tanbagoe (31), the first of the 31 official Takashima trail posts lining the route. Ted and I pause here and try to imagine what life must have been like in the begone days as travelers used this route to enter Tanba province from neighboring domain of Wakasa. A tea house was erected here in centuries past to provide rest and most likely served as a checkpoint during the more turbulent times in Japan’s feudal history. A famous song, penned by the renowned Enka lyricist Ryūtarō Kinoshita, uses the Tanbagoe as the setting for a lover’s lament:

The Takashima trail heads northwest towards the first peak of Sangoku-dake, but Ted and I instead head south along the main ridge on the Shiga-Kyoto Prefectural border. The path ascends abruptly through a thicket of sprawling rhododendron to an unnamed summit, where route finding becomes a bit tricky. After a bit of a search through the overgrown brush, a careful study of the GPS coaxes us further southeast to the correct route which soon spits us out on a dirt forest road. Even the plantation overlords have made their presence known in these hidden upper depths of Kyoto. Fortunately the route soon leaves this blight and sends us up an impossibly steep slope to the summit of Kyō-ga-dake (経ヶ岳), where we pause for refreshments. A recently erected signpost proclaims that this is post #32 of the Takashima Trail. So much for the Takashima Trail terminating at Kuwahara perhaps this is a new extension?

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Instead of continuing past Kyō-ga-dake and into the unknown, we retreat back to Tambagoe junction and return to official Takashima Trail territory, where a dense network of hardwood and conifers envelop the broad ridge of wild golden grasses and withered weeds. To say these hidden heights of Kyoto are untracked would be a disservice: we are completely alone, following the contours of the land as if we are the first ones to ever set foot in this magical paradise. A clearing between lofty trees would make for the perfect filming location if not for the difficult access and lack of amenities.

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Armies of great buna, or beech trees, stand guard all around us, whose bare canopies stretch out in open arms towards the cobalt sky. It is these virgin buna groves that accompany us, as passive escorts, on our 80km march to Takashima. Ted and I gaze skyward as these hardwood centenarians demand our attention and respect. Forward progress is slowed as we aim to capture with our memories what cannot be captured through film.

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We follow the undulating ebbs and flows of the ridge, through swaths of iwakagami plants, an endemic species of the diapensia family that can be usually be found in abundance in the Suzuka mountains and the highlands of Gifu Prefecture. The pink flowers usually open in late spring, but for now the raisin-colored leaves wait patiently for the spring thaw and the promise of a continued perennial existence.

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A junction is soon reached, signposted for the summit of Sangoku, on a side track just off the main Takashima trail to the southwest. We turn here, edging along the top of a slope of verdant fescue grass poking through gaps in the receding snowpack. It has been an unusually warm winter, and the meter-deep snowfields are nowhere to be found, giving Ted and I a sense of relief considering our previous close call.

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Shortly after the lunchtime chimes, we arrive at the bear-scarred signpost on the summit of Mt Sangoku (三国岳)(29) and take a well-deserved break in the soothing sunshine. Many hikers mistake the reading of the kanji for Mikuni but the name is apt as it sits on the border of the old provinces of Tamba, Yamashiro, and Ōmi. Now it doubles as the border between Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures and a quick look at our map indicates that our outstretched feet are actually in the northernmost terminus of Sakyō-ku in Kyoto city though we are literally hours away from what would traditionally encompass the border of the city. Over the last century, many smaller villages have been absorbed by the larger metropolitan areas, and even the summit of Mt Norikura in the Japan Alps is under the jurisdiction of Takayama city, though mostly in name only.

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We backtrack to the main trail and turn left, following the folds of the ridge until they become enveloped in a blanket of snow. A track to the northeast loops back to the car, so we search around for a signpost or bit of tape for the Takashima, and finally spot one as the route takes a hard left and follows an adjacent spur smothered in twisty Ashiu-sugi. A signpost dangling from its axis informs us that Iwatani-tōge, our intended target, is apparently located in hell.

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Pushing forward on the spur, we come across some green netting sitting by the side of the route, apparently ready to be spread over some endangered flora. The area looks neatly manicured, as if someone has been doing a bit of upkeep. Ted and I pause to consult with the GPS as we come to the realization that we have inadvertently stumbled into Ashiu primeval forest, a protected area under the jurisdiction of Kyoto University. Special permission is required to enter the area, so rather than risk an international incident, we retreat back to the dilapidated signpost, double check the map, and make a hard right here on a narrow spur that runs perpendicular to our current position. The spur is hidden by a thick grove of rhododendron and once we push through the first few meters the route becomes clear—we must lose altitude.

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And drop we do, along a precarious root-infested track with steep drops on our right. We pick our way through the contorted mess of imposing beech, cryptomeria and oak as it leads us, at last, to Iwatani-tōge (28). We pause for chocolate and study the maps. We’ve got 3.8km to go until the next pass, where a long forest road will lead us back to the car. The alternative is to leave the Takashima and drop to Hōtani and a more reasonable walk back that would save a couple of hours of walking. The choice is obvious as we bade farewell to the Takashima.

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A jumbled mess of thick rhododendron groves is our reward for choosing this route. Ted and I both turn to each other about a third of the way down and agree that coming back up this route would not be fun, for it involves a fair amount of route-finding and more time glued to our GPS than to the sights of the actual trail. The sound of moving water gradually comes within earshot as we snake past a gargantuan horse chestnut clinging tightly to the steep slopes. Improvised switchbacks through a carpet of thick cedar needles lead us to the shores of an idyllic mountain stream glistening in the late afternoon sun. Who knew such pristine tracks of land existed so close to civilization?

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We turn downstream and eventually meet up with the remnants of an old forest road that takes us back to route 781 and a twenty-minute stroll back to the car. After such an enthralling hike in breathtaking scenery, Ted turns to me with an enticing offer: “Shall we come back next week?”

Part 2 

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The Takashima trail is a long-distance hiking trail in northern Kansai that serves as the watershed divide between the Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean. The 80km trail starts in Takashima city, running along the Shiga/Fukui border for most of the way until Mikuni-tōge (三国峠), where it then follows the Shiga/Kyoto border for the final 7.2 kilometers to Sangoku-dake (三国岳) further south in Takashima city in the former village of Kuwabara in the Kutsuki district. The majority of hikers start at Kunizakai ski resort and work their way southwest to Kutsuki, a route that generally takes 5 days to complete. Water sources are few and far between, making logistics a nightmare. With this in mind, Ted and I conjure up a plan to section hike the entire trail in reverse, starting in Kutsuki and working our way northeast to Kunizakai.

Can we make it before the start of the winter snows? Stay tuned.

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The hardest part about planning a trip to the Kita Alps is finding a clear weather window in Japan’s notoriously fickle summer weather. The second hardest part of trip planning is figuring out a schedule that works for a trio of participants, all of whom are in various stages of the COVID vaccination process. With the Olympics in full swing and COVID-19 infections on an upward trajectory, we set our eyes on July 30th as our target date for an ascent of Niigata’s highest peak, my final summit of what I have dubbed the ‘Japan 47’ – the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures.

Paul picks me up at Shinano-Omachi station shortly before noon on Wednesday the 28th. The train journey northward takes most of the morning, involving transfers at both Nagoya and Matsumoto stations. Due to the pandemic, the trains are running at a fraction of capacity, with many business commuters curtailing their business trips in favor of online meetings and their own private transport. The mask stays on for the duration of the ride – I’ve grown so accustomed to wearing the protective fabric that even naps are a pleasant affair. In the past, I had always avoided wearing masks as it made me feel as if I was suffocating, but now I hardly notice the minor inconvenience.

After hitting a supermarket for lunchtime snacks, Paul guides his vehicle along the narrow curves of route 325 behind Kashimayari ski resort. At a broad clearing near the top of the lifts, a juvenile kamoshika serow crosses the lane in front of the car, nonplussed by our intrusion as the creature climbs the adjacent forested slopes in search of nourishment. We reach the end of the road and a wave of nostalgia hits, as this is where Fumito and I camped back in June of 2007 during our ascent of Mt Kashimayari. In fact, it is up this same Akaiwa spur route that I now show to Paul. Conditions are exactly as I remember them, with a concrete tunnel built under the dam at the start of the long route. The afternoon heat slows our progress as we ascend the incredibly steep spur towards Takachihodai. Due to our late start, it will be impossible to ascend Kashimayari this time around, but we make good work of the track and give up around after reaching an altitude of around 1700 meters, still 1000 meters shy of Niigata’s highest peak but it is the highest altitude I have climbed in 2021 so far, so every little bit helps.

The following morning dawns clear, so I walk out in front of Paul’s house to a clearing where I stare up at Mt Hakuba-norikura shining bright in the morning sun. These clear morning views are usually short-lived in the summer, with the usual fog and rain clouds moving in for the remainder of the day. After breakfast, Paul and I head up to Kurobishi-daira near the top of Happo ski resort for a quick ascent to Happo Ike before heading down to Hakuba to pick up our friend Naresh. Thick fog and light rain await us as we reach the parking lot, and after a quick assessment, the two of us decide to continue with our plan, knowing we can turn around should the rain showers worsen. Forgoing the ski lifts, Paul leads me up a gravel road through the ski fields until reaching what he has christened “the concrete slope of death”, as the road suddenly turns to paved concrete and ascends directly up the steepest part of the ski slope. We make good time by cutting our own switchbacks through the no-nonsense approach. Halfway up we cross paths with a solo hiker making an unsteady descent down the path which forces me to grimace, knowing our same fate awaits us just a couple of hours later.

At the top of the slope we enter a verdant marshland lined with nikkōkisuge lillies and other colorful wildflowers standing out through the monochromatic backdrop of thick fog. The rain has stopped, giving us hope that what remains above may be a little more promising. At the top of the final ski lift the proper hiking track begins and we run into our first sneakered day trippers of the morning. Most of them are working their way down through the mist. With several paths to choose from, we opt for the lower track, which skirts just below the main ridge past a lingering snowfield on broad wooden boardwalks helping to aid in the ascent. All of a sudden, the fog lifts, revealing a mouthwatering vista of Mt Goryu that sends our hearts racing with excitement. We push on, with the cloud eventually catching up to us as we reach the shores of the pond. Lingering for a few minutes in heightened anticipation, the views gradually open up, revealing brilliant skies of azure hovering above Hakuba-yari. While the remainder of the Hakuba sanzan lay enveloped in cloud, Paul and I are content with just getting a glimpse of the fantastic scenery awarded to those that choose to ascent the ridge leading to Mt Karamatsu. We push on a little higher, reaching an altitude of around 2100 meters – a great acclimatization exercise for the following day’s planned ascent of Mt Korenge.

After picking up Naresh at the station, we head off for lunch and to plan the logistics of our impending climb. With several options to choose from, we decide that sleeping at a park near Hiraiwa onsen affords our best chance of making it to Renge Onsen in time to ascend Korenge for the sunrise. This entails an early start, so after packing and resting at Paul’s house, we eat a quick dinner and head to the hot spring for a quick bath before laying our sleeping bags in the sheltered comforts of the public toilet complex at the end of a quiet road. All is calm as we close our eyes around 8pm, and with the alarm set for 12:45am, we attempt to catch some shut eye. Around 40 minutes later, a rumble in the distance grows louder as it appears that a very large lorry is headed directly for our campsite. A large spotlight shines towards us as the noise crescendos and skirts past our front door. In our rush to catch some sleep we have failed to realize that our meager accommodation sits just meters from the train tracks of the JR Oito line, and our intruder is non other than the infrequent train carriage shuttling passengers to Minami-Otari. Two more trains pass by during the evening, robbing us of a good night’s sleep but still – the show must go on.

We are on the road at 1am as Paul guides his vehicle up the deserted road under the cover of darkness. Our first signs of wildlife suddenly appear, as a wild boar ducks for cover on the grassy slopes while further along, we come face to face with a massive buck who simply stares at us from frightened eyes on the shoulder of the narrow road. Shortly before 2am we park, unload the gear, and set off on our journey towards the alpine. I take the lead, setting a gradual but steady pace past some strong sulfuric fumes wafting from somewhere above. The famed outdoor baths of Renge Onsen sit off in a clearing on our left, and while the appeal of a soothing bath is hard to pass up, we all silently agree that these things are best enjoyed after a hard day on the slopes, so we push on with anticipation.

Our route is lined with a multitude of switchbacks through a healthy forest of hardwoods, and as we reach a clearing we turn off the headlamps and enjoy the moonlit views of Mt Asahi and Mt Yukikura sitting elegantly under calm and starlit skies. Winds are calm, almost unnaturally so, teasing us into thinking that this high-pressure system is sticking around for the long haul. Sweat trickles down my brow as I focus on the rhythm of my footsteps – with such a large vertical elevation change, it’s all you can do to keep your mind off of how much further you have to go. Signposts are affixed at around every 200 vertical meters of elevation gain, and by the time we reach the Tengu’s garden just above 2000 meters in elevation, the eastern horizon hints that dawn will soon be upon us. We still have roughly 3km to go before reaching the tree line, and along the uneven boulders of the rough track, progress is slow but steady. In a race against the rising sun, the luxury of taking breaks has been shelved in favor of maintaining our steady progress. The clink of metal against the rock diverts my attention, and as I turn around I witness Naresh snap his trekking pole in two in an attempt to dislodge it between two stubborn boulders.

We with realization that our race with the sunrise is in jeopardy, I give permission for Paul to push ahead while Naresh and I hold up the rear. Paul wants to gaze at the first light of the new day from as high on the ridge as he can, while the two of us will be happy with ushering in the dawn by the shores of Hakuba-Oike pond. The track skirts the edge of a Erman’s birch forest before giving away to creeping pine and vast swaths of wildflowers carpeting both sides of the trail like a floral arrangement at a bridal fair. The red roof of Shirane-oike hut comes into view, together with the calm waters of the oval tarn. The sun remains hidden behind a thin layer of cloud on the horizon, giving us the upper hand. Naresh takes one look at me and pushes on ahead and for good reason: the higher we climb above the lake the better the vantage point of the rising sun.

It’s amazing how your body can adapt to the lack of sleep and relentless gains in altitude. We’ve been on our feet for nearly three hours and have not paused more than a few seconds to catch our breath, but I feel no fatigue nor drowsiness: it is as if sheer beauty of nature serves as my energy source. At the top of the rise, around an elevation of 2500 vertical meters, Naresh and I find what we are looking for: a small clearing of fist-sized stones which make for the perfect perch for our first break of the day. We have just minutes to spare before the first rays of light reach our face. What better way to celebrate than to break out my stash of chocolate covered coffee beans.

The temperature hovers around 15 degrees in stark contrast to the 30-degree temperatures a couple of thousand vertical meters below us. As the sun makes an appearance, we turn westward, mesmerized at the alpenglow hitting Mt Yukikura and Mt Asahi. Southwest of us, further above the undulating ridge, Mt Korenge sits in a thick swath of morning cloud. Is Paul sitting up in that cloud robbed of a view?

The path meanders past a series of large cairns and up into the true alpine zone, with a plethora of wildflowers, rock ptarmigan, and ever-expanding views to keep the mind off the sleep deprivation. Naresh takes up the rear, soaking in the scenery as I gaze skywards towards the cloud bank still clinging tightly to the summit. At the top of the rise, we reach the summit of Funakoshi-no-kashira and are awarded with our first clear vista of the Daisekkei along with the rest of the Ura-Tateyama mountain range lined up in succession. Stubborn cloud hovers around Mt Kashimayari and Mt Goryu, robbing us of a clear summit profile but our current vantage point demands our undivided attention. Naresh and I pause, taking it all in.

Descending to a saddle, with dizzying drops on our left down to the Ukijima wetlands, we follow the undulating contours of the ridge as it chauffeurs us up and over a series of false summits. I call out Paul’s name just before the crest of each rise before realizing in a dejected sigh that there is still quite some distance to go. Pushed on by an unseen force, the drive to summit Niigata’s highest peak, I continue, footfall by steady footfall, until I glimpse the fog-tinged silhouette of a dozen hikers standing on the true summit as the realization of my impending accomplishment starts to weigh on my emotions. Twenty years has this long journey taken me, not only up the Nihon Hyakumeizan but beyond, to the corner of every prefecture in this geographically diverse archipelago as I attempt to accomplish what no other foreigner, alive or dead, has ever done. My eyes moisten at the thought, but I fight back the tears and take my final steps with a smile instead.

Upon reaching the summit, a round of applause emanates from the other hikers as Paul offers his congratulations. As we set up for celebratory photos, the clouds suddenly part for the first time that fateful morning, leading to an improvised chorus of oohs and ahhs from our mountain spectators. I break out the banner my father-in-law made for me and snap a few photos in the unexpected sunlight. My watch reveals that it is just past 6:30 in the morning, the climb having taken us around four-and-a-half hours. We rest of the summit and enjoy a snack while Paul tries to coax me to continue my hike by summiting Mt Shirouma. Naresh has never climbed that peak but I am not interested in climbing it as the summit is still covered in fog. Plus, I have done what I set out to do, and there’s no reason to risk altitude sickness or a turned ankle by overstaying my welcome. Paul passes me the car keys while I sit on the summit, watching my hiking companions as they disappear toward the enveloping cloud.

With the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures now successfully climbed, I can now announce my retirement from peak bagging. While chasing mountain summits has been a lot of fun, I will no longer let my hiking destinations be determined by a list of arbitrary mountains. From now on, I will make my decisions based on my own criteria, which will mainly involve climbing peaks that look interesting, that lie further off the beaten path, and have not been included on anyone’s subjective list of ‘famous’ mountains. Stay tuned as I continue my travels deeper into the unexplored innards of this amazing country.

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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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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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The JR Kosei line shuttles Kyoto residents to and from Tsuruga city, providing a much-needed link between the Kansai and Hokuriku regions. The rail line hugs the western shores of Lake Biwa and service is often delayed in the winter due to high winds and horizontal snow conditions as the Siberian weather patterns push down from the north. A high-pressure weather pattern finally settles in, bringing stable conditions and an opportunity for a winter rematch with the Makino mountains of northwestern Kansai. Minami and I board at Kyoto station and sit on the left side in order to inspect snow conditions for our imminent climb. You can literally follow the snow line north as our carriage slithers past a bare Hieizan and under the snow-tinged ridge of the Hira mountains. Once past Omi-Takashima station, snow starts appearing on the flatlands, and once we alight at Makino station the surrounding ridges are cloaked in cape of thick white. Excitement builds with a tinge of trepidation – is there a path up that crystal fortress?

We strap on our snow gear and crunch through the frozen snowpack at the base of the mountain, following the footprints left by climbers flocking here during yesterday’s holiday. We have purposely chosen a weekday in order to avoid a bottleneck as well as to limit our chances of being buried by loosened snow of parties climbing above us. The slopes of the abandoned ski field we follow sit idle and neglected, a reminder of the fallout of the collapse of the skiing boom of the 1980s. We settle into our own pace, as I make steady progress in my snowshoes while Minami struggles with her spartan choice of 6-point crampons, which make the going tough as the snow starts to melt.

An early morning veil of cloud begins to break up, revealing patches of blue that the weather forecast had predicted. The route goes straight up the ski slopes before branching south to reach a broad spur and the start of a narrow traverse to reach the far end of the mountain slope. We take our time here, doing our best to avoid the leg-breaking drops to our left while literally hugging the snow on the uphill side. Conditions will certainly be worse in the afternoon, so I make mental notes of the terrain and store them inside my brain for safe keeping. We reach the junction on the far side and take a break so Minami can strap on her wakan. I strip down to just a short-sleeved shirt and the temperatures begin to rise well above freezing. Conditions feel decidedly late March despite this early February morning.

3.5 kilometers separate us from the summit ridge line, and it becomes immediately apparent that this will be anything but a gentle stroll in the mountains. The path meanders on a series of switchbacks, littered with the trace of yesterday’s climbers who have forgone the switchbacks on their hasty descents back to civilization. We stick mostly to the established switchbacks, except for the impromptu detours around snapped branches and toppled trees littering the track. We reach the crest of the first spur, an unnamed peak at an elevation of 562 meters flanked by an immense beech tree. A clearing on the southeastern edge of the plateau affords a view down towards Makino town and the famed avenue of metasequoia trees. We fashion a viewing bench by clearing away tufts of snow and settle down to a break of chocolate and take in the mesmerizing views.

The respite gives us an extra pep in our snowy steps as we reach a saddle and are faced with a long, demoralizing climb as we realize just how far we have to go – the ridge above still looks tiny and inaccessible from our vantage point. We push on through an immense forest of native beech trees creating a spidery network of shadows as the sun finally breaks through the clouds. With the rise in temperatures, the snow turns wet and heavy, weighing our feet down as we push through the soggy mess. A skier carefully works his way down from the slope directly ahead, cursing the conditions as he slides slowly though the weighty snowpack. There’s nothing to do except to lower our heads and push on.

An hour further on, and the tree cover finally begins to spread, revealing a spectacular glimpse of Hakusan and her majestic figure smothered in wintry white. This helps lifts the spirits, as well as our pace, as the first nippy breezes pushing in from the Sea of Japan strike our sweaty figures. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and push on through the improving snow conditions that the higher altitude brings. Soon we are faced with a steep climb on a bald knuckle of land that flattens out completely on the crest of the hill – the summit is reached!

Kanpū (寒風), which translates as ‘winter wind’, lives up to its name as we dig a bunker to protect us from the frigid gales duriung our well-deserved lunch break. The wind is at our backs as we gaze out over Hakusan and the rest of the peak scattered throughout the Hokuriku region. Far to the left or Hakusan, barely visible on the horizon, lies a wall of white peaks that can be no other than the Ushiro-Tateyama section of the Northern Alps. Who thought that such spectacles await those who put in the effort in the clear air of winter to reach such hidden heights of Kansai, which feel absolutely alpine despite their modest height of 853 meters.

After my winter accident, I never thought I could once again feel comfortable in the snow-capped mountains, but sitting here in my bald perch, I can once again see the appeal and attraction of the winter season. The key is with both the choice of the mountain and the timing. Oh – and a little navigational help goes a long way. Still, I feel completely content with just one snowy ascent a year, and what a gem of a hike await those who venture into the Makino mountains to feel the untamed beauty of northern Kansai. It is these thoughts that fill my head as Minami and I once again retreat back to the stillness of the beech forests, leaving behind the expansive vistas of Lake Biwa spreading out before us.

Snow conditions are even sloppier on the descent, but our footfalls are careful and calculated, as they should be on any mountain pursuit really. The climb down through the smooth snow takes just a fraction of the time, spurred on as we are by the promise of a hot bath at the trailhead. During this pandemic, I always try to avoid crowded places, and on this particular Friday afternoon we are rewarded for our effort by having the hot spring pretty much to ourselves. I head straight to the outdoor bath, letting the soothing waters penetrate my throbbing calf muscles while studying the ridge line we had just left an hour earlier. I will definitely be back, hopefully before the summer rains, when I can hopefully get another glimpse of Hakusan in her brilliant kimono of white.

 

 

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Precisely a week after my last exploration of the Hoshida hills, I find myself back at the pond at the foot of eggplant valley. The early morning rain clouds have now begun to break up and a rise in the barometer brings hopes of pleasant weather conditions as the late afternoon sun finally begins to show its face. This time, I head toward the opposite shore to my right, following the contours of the pond counter-clockwise in the direction of a rotund peak dominating the horizon just opposite my position.

The last of the autumn leaves cling tightly to the oak trees surrounding the lake, unwilling to accept the change of seasons while strong gales push in from the north in those all-too-familiar midwinter weather patterns. The dampness of the valley provides the perfect growing environment for wild mushrooms adorning the maze of fallen trees flanking both shoulders of the narrow track. A washed out section of hillside reveals a faint trail dropping steeply towards the lake shore to the east. After double-checking with the GPS, I scuttle down this rainwater channel and reach the delta of a small stream feeding into the reservoir. The track ends here abruptly, with no indications of where to go except for a small gap in the eroded riverbed just opposite. I grasp onto tree roots and propel myself up into a flattened thicket of tangled kuzu vines and briars, which dig into my undergarments and bring my progress to a halt. I drop to my knees, slide off the rucksack and pull out the pocket knife in order to clear a path.

I rely mostly on my instincts, having been in this situation one too many times in my quests to climb mountains that time has forgotten. Putting yourself into the shoes of a wild animal is often the best strategy, so I follow a game trail up the western face of the peak, using the base of trees as footholds and the trunks themselves as propelling mechanisms to force my way up the spur just in front of me. I skirt left under the edge of a rock formation and spy a clear line of sight to my target, and after a few improvised dance moves, slither up on top of the narrow sliver of land that doubles as the spur. Right on cue, a pink tape mark is wrapped around the trunk of a young tree as I finally exhale a sigh of relief for having stumbled upon the proper track.

It takes just minutes to reach the narrow summit of ⑯ Mt Hayakari (早刈山). I pause here to catch my breath and rehydrate, and half consider continuing on the spur that leads north away from the summit. Instead, I follow the path back to the lakeshore, and I am too intrigued by where I went wrong at the start of the ascent. The trail spits me out on the shoreline, where I literally have to creep along with four points of contact and hope that none of the stones give way and send me sliding into the chilly waters below.

Fortunately, luck is on my side and I retrace my steps back to the main trail without any major incidents and continue climbing away from the reservoir waters. The track meets back up with the river further upstream, in a broad wash bordered by a thick grove of bamboo flanking the right bank of the river. Here a junction with a hand-painted sign indicates the start of a spur leading up to the ridge, a no-nonsense excuse for a path that wastes no time in defying both gravity and logic. These trailblazers sure do have a wicked sense of humor, as the route seems to ignore the contours like a cruel inside joke. The footing is poor on the gritty sandstone, so I find myself blazing my own trail just off the ridge where the tree roots make for better purchase. A half-hour’s climbing investment pays off, depositing me directly on the summit of Mt Ichigaikaburi-no-se (一蓋被ノ嶺) from Chapter 2 of the saga. The air is much clearer than last week, revealing linger snow squalls pushing their way eastward from the mountains of western Kyoto.

Now I am back in familiar territory as I drop down to the depilated bridge spanning eggplant valley and follow the steep track past the turnoff for Mt Jigokudani, but this time I ignore this junction and continue on the undulating ridge towards an electrical pylon affixed to the eastern face of a prominent knob. I race upwards in the golden light of late afternoon and reach the summit of ⑰ Mt Kitasanshi (北山師岳), one of the Hoshida Sanzan, or three peaks of Hoshida. Snack time is certainly in order, so I sprawl out in the sun and enjoy a pack of Calorie Mate and the remainder of my sports drink. 

The familiar sound of a bear bell soon comes within ear shot, and who do I see but the same gentlemen from the previous weekend. “It’s you again,” he exclaims, showing his pleasure at having encountered another crazy hiker for the second consecutive Saturday. We chat as if old friends as he reveals a bit more about himself. “I’m Seino-san”, explains my kindred spirit, “76 years old.” After picking my chin off the ground, I coax intel from him about the spur leading south off the peak. “The route off of Naka-no-yama is hard to find – stay west”, quips Mr. Seino, with an air of confidence that can only come from knowing these mountains like the back of his hand.

I head south, literally climbing over a mess of construction material left by Kansai Electric, who are engaged in some major upgrades to the adjacent electrical pylon. The scaffolding straddles the entire ridge, leaving me no choice other than to clamber on top of it to reach the other side, where the trail tucks back into a thick deciduous forest receiving the softened light of the dying day.  I pass by a marked junction but stick to the undulating contours of the narrow spur, taking my time in committing carefully-positioned footfalls along the slick scree of the sunlit face. After two false summits, I arrive on top of ⑱ Mt Kita-Ibarao (北茨尾山), spellbound by the golden hues illuminating the tree-smothered high point.

Leaf litter from the freshly shed foliage covers the ridge, providing an extra buffer against the scree and making the going a bit easier. An unmarked path shoots off down a hidden gully at the next saddle, marked in red tape by a keen explorer forging a new route up these hidden hills. I stick to the camel-hump ridge over a series of knobs until spotting the signpost adorning the summit of ⑲ Mt Yoshimoto (吉本山). I wish I could know the backstory to these signposts, as they are surely the work of dedicated hikers who surely take pride in their work.

The track drops abruptly off the southern face of Yoshimoto, forcing me to squat and delicately lower myself to an eroded gap in the spur. These gaps are known as kiretto in Japanese, and I have yet to meet a gap that has been easy to traverse. They usually involved an improvised nosedive to the bottom of the gap, followed by a sloppy scramble to retake the ridge and this one is no exception. I take a sip of water at the low point and push on, arriving at a rock formation that appears to have been sliced in thirds by an enormous butcher knife.

Just beyond, the track flattens and skirts by two different summit signposts for ⑳ Mt Naka-no-yama (中ノ山), placed on two adjacent knobs separated by a labyrinth of toppled trees. Just as Seino-san had explained, the track seems to end completely, and the eastern slope tempts me to enter until I recall his warning of staying west. I turn left, where the narrow spur continues for a short while before disappearing down a slippery slope of sandy scree. Evidence of foot traffic abound, but whether they were forged by inebriated trekkers or suicidal deer I will never know. I hold on for dear life to whatever I can grasp, thorny or otherwise and eventually drop down to a river bank caked in head-high bamboo grass.

Despite the late hour, I slip on the sunglasses in order to protect my delicate cornea – yes, I have had my fair share of bushwhacking – and soon reach the water’s edge, where I hop across, climb a slope, and scale a guardrail on the side of the road in a residential neighborhood. I am just upstream from the acclaimed firefly viewing platform and am now back in familiar territory, but my work is far from done, as I have one more foolish plan in mind.

Just up the street, one freestanding knob sits just opposite the entrance to the Ishibashi track I explored in Chapter 1. I pick up the pace and reach the western face of the peak, only to find it lathered in a near-vertical wall of concrete. It immediately becomes clear that I will most certainly not be climbing it from this angle, so I follow the road around to the eastern side, where a house is currently under construction. The carpenters are packing up for the day as I skirt past their construction site, squeezing out a sumimasen as I disappear into the dark cover of bamboo. When this house is complete and the new owners move in, access to this mountain may be all but forbidden, unless you bring rope and tempt fate on the western face of concrete.

A somewhat distinct track leads me upwards to a Do Not Enter sign positioned just below the high point of ㉑ Mt Enzan (奄山) , which I soon reach. I look down directly onto that concrete wall on the western face and witness the last rays of the setting sun sink down behind the Rokkō mountains far off on the horizon. Instead of retracing my steps, I attempt to drop down the northern face to no-mans land when I spy a piece of pink tape urging me to stick to the ridge away from the summit. I follow in pursuit and soon reach the summit of a twin-peak adorned with the topless stupa marking a neglected gravesite. I kneel down and lead forward, offering three drops of sweat, as it’s all I’ve got left to offer.

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There’s a secret firefly viewing spot in the foothills of the Hoshida mountains. Known only to a few locals who venture out at dusk on humid June evenings, the hidden stream is one of the last untouched areas of Osaka Prefecture and a holdover to the bygone days when lightning bugs were once a common occurrence around the many streams that trickle down from Japan’s mountains. My second venture into the Hoshida range involves crossing this stream and following a dilapidated concrete road to a secluded reservoir ablaze in autumn color. I stare at the terrain and eventually spy what I am looking for: a narrow gap in the chain link fence leading to an even narrower path flanking the eastern edge of the pond.

This pond deserves further attention, for not only does it double as a reservoir for the residents living downstream, but it also serves as evidence that more than just modern mountaineers have been lured by the attractive appeal of the Hoshida region. Construction on the pond began in the early Taisho era, and during excavation work, fragments of pottery were discovered which date from the middle Jomon era roughly 4000 years ago. This caused a halt in construction work and further excavations that revealed dugout foundations suggesting that the early pioneers settled in these very hills. Today all that remains is a concrete marker commemorating the discovery, with the fragments relegated to the Osaka history museum and all else lost in the murk of the pond.

After absorbing the weight of this historical discovery, I duck under the fence and skirt the edge of an impressive escarpment before a gentle descent to reach the foot of nasubi-ishi no tani, or valley of the eggplant stone. The constricted gorge lies littered with toppled trees but a clear path is marked in tape and spends the first few minutes crisscrossing the stream until finally settling on the left river bank along the remnants of a proper path that has fallen into heavy disuse. In summer this must truly be a rat’s nest of overgrowth, but the cooler late autumn temperatures have transformed most of the weeds into a more manageable maze.

Bits of broken concrete appear beneath the moss, the remnants of a walkway that once chauffeured visitors up to the base of the falls. At a recently cleared section of bamboo grass, a stone grave sits precariously on the river bank. The kanji characters engraved in the face are too faded to make out clearly, but the engraving on the back side dates from 1946, so perhaps it was erected to commemorate a fallen war victim. Just behind the monument a fern-smothered stone wall shores up the hillside, possibly doubling as the foundation of a structure lost to time and the elements.

The path soon splits, with an impossibly steep trail forging straight ahead up a 50-degree slope towards the ridge, but it’s the trail branching off to the right that piques my interest. I turn here, grasping the fixed ropes on a dodgy traverse teetering on the edge of a dizzying drop to the stream below until reaching the base of eggplant rock waterfall. The water trickles over the top of the house-sized boulder, which, according to a map from the Edo era, resembles an eggplant due to the black fissures in the stone. These cracks are now lathered in moss and a verdant grove of ferns, feeling like they belong in the jungles of Iriomote rather than the hills of Hoshida. In a wet grotto near the base sits a weathered and somewhat abstract representation of Amida Nyorai, donning a red bib with the inscription Namu Amida Mutsu. The falls were once the mainstay of Shugendō practitioners, perhaps of the Tendai sect which might help to explain the Pure Land undertones. To further complicate matters, the waterfall also go by the name of Hijiri Taki, or Saint Falls, as evidenced by the white prayer tablet placed there by a member of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Rather than renegotiating that narrow traverse back to the main track, I spy an easier crossing that connects to the narrow north-south spur. At the spur junction, an easier path skirts the eastern face but I head straight up the spine, hoisting myself up to the summit of  ⑩ Mt Kōbōkyū (広望丘), which affords my first vistas of the day. I look down upon the valley I have just climbed, tracing the route through a gap in the trees back to the reservoir dam. A steel plate in the shape of a rugby ball has been affixed adjacent to the signpost, with a wooden mallet dangling below. I grasp the gavel and let it fly, sending a reverberating ring deep into the valley below.

As quickly as the trail reaches the summit, it descend to a saddle to the north and a junction to the uppermost reaches of the eggplant gorge. I forgo this route in favor of the ridge, which wastes no time in gaining altitude with a most-welcome addition of fixed ropes. Once again I hoist myself skyward like a sailor stepping the mast, taking care on the slippery sandstone scree where certain death awaits anyone who loses purchase on the tricky terrain. At the top of the spine the angle eases, coaxing me gently to the broad summit of ⑪ Mt Jigokudani (地獄谷山) or hell valley, which is certainly where you would end up if you stumbled off the eastern face. A grove of Mizuhara oak add a cheerful tinge of orange to the otherwise nondescript plateau.

I settle down for a bit of a snack, when the sound of a bear bell approaches. An elderly man in a brown ball cap lets out a jovial greeting, my first such encounter of a fellow hiker in the Hoshida range. After exchanging pleasantries, the white-haired hiker continues down the ridge I had just come up: I offer a cautionary word but he shrugs it off, obviously comfortable in this type of terrain. It never fails to amaze me the tenacity and vigor of Japan’s elderly. Most adults in other parts of the globe would be most content with a book and some knitting or a gentle game of bridge.

The track soon joins the main ridge of the Hoshida mountains: if I head left I can reconnect with the peaks from Chapter 1 of my saga, but instead I veer westward, down a series of rubber-coated wooden steps that double as a path for maintenance workers for the electrical pylons strung through the range. This leads me once again to the stream flowing towards the eggplant falls, where a metal bridge over the water teeters precariously on the brink of collapse, mostly likely caused by the 2018 Osaka earthquake. I somehow make it across the canted structure and head along the edge of a golf course and up to the opposite ridge along a path completely missing from my map. This 60-mountain challenge will certainly involve figuring out pieces of this geographical jigsaw puzzle.

A faint trail leads along a narrow spur for a short shuffle to ⑫ Mt Waribayashi (割林山) which translates as broken woods. This certainly lives up to its name as I keep to the ridge and over a series of toppled trees to reach a dead-end precipice. Scanning the forest for signs of safe passage, I can just make out a bit of blue among the ocherous foliage as I scuttle down to a saddle and scramble up to a parallel spur where the track continues to ⑬ Mt Nasubi-ishi (茄子石山) which sits directly above the waterfall of the same name, the very one I stood admiring just one hour prior. All seems quiet and forgotten up in these hills, like a left-behind item in the corner of an under-frequented boutique.

I turn around and follow the incredibly narrow spur back towards the mountains until confronted with a near-vertical headwall. If I ever meet the guardian angel who installed the fixed rope I will gladly buy them lunch, for without such climbing aids it would have been an exercise in futility. The footing here on the sandstone scree is once again of dubious quality and at several points in the ascent my life lays in the hands of the quality of the rope. I really don’t like putting all of my weight on these things, but with nothing else to grab I leave it up to fate.

The sigh of relief expelled from my battered body could surely be felt by anyone within a several kilometer radius had anyone bothered to be up here at such a late hour in the afternoon. Just fifty horizontal meters from this most unfitting of trail junctions lies one of the only mountains in the Hoshida range that affords a 270-degree view. With this in mind I propel myself to the top of ⑭ Mt Ichigaikaburi-no-se (一蓋被ノ嶺) and take in the stellar views out towards Kyoto. This peak is a favorite for locals wanting to experience the night view, but with no easy way of accessing the peak it would truly take some dedication to make it up here after dark.

With the bulk of today’s climb now behind me, I retrace my steps back to the depilated bridge near the start of eggplant valley and follow a path downstream to the incredibly shy Godan FallsI can hear the water splashing down from a rock formation but the view is smothered by toppled trees, leaf litter and other debris. Perhaps I should bring my hacksaw next time and do a bit of DIY trail maintenance. Robbed of a view of the waterfall, I keep to the right bank of the stream and soon rejoin the spur at the start of the fixed ropes below Mt Jigokudani. This time I skip the steep re-climb of Kōbōkyū in favor of the side traverse. These paths, called makimichi in Japanese, can be found on most ridge walks in Japan, for they offer an easier and lazier option for those who do not want to follow the undulating contours of the true ridge.

This shortcut trail soon terminates on the true ridge and I am forced to do the hard work on the surprisingly jagged spur. The path leads me up and over Densenoka (電閃丘). Despite being a proper peak, this summit does not feature in the Hoshida 60, probably because the pioneer who named this lookout point succumbed to a lightning strike if the literal meaning of the name is to be taken. The route takes me up and over an additional two unnamed peaks, each offering pleasant enough views before depositing me on the top of ⑮ Mt Asahi (旭山) and the unobstructed vistas to the east for the rising sun. It seems like a tempting place to view the first sunrise of 2021 if not for the lack of space. As I stand on the summit, a lone hiker climbs from below, continuing on the spur to lord knows where. With less than an hour of daylight left I hope he is at least carrying some form of illumination and is not relying on an electrical storm. 

The path from Asahi shoots down the western face to soon reconnect with the road just below the reservoir, hearby completing the loop and rounding out another 6 mountains off the once formidable list.

 

 

 

 

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