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July’s Calendar Photo is from Shokanbetsu, so instead of the monthly ‘calendar footage’ post, I bring you this love-overdue report from the archives:

 

The sleepy coastal town of Mashike sits snugly against the towering peaks of the Shokanbetsu range, a magnet for frigid precipitation during the winter months, and heavy fog during the green season. Along the main street a row of buildings dating from the early Meiji era stand out among the newer, rust-stained concrete of the post-war structures. An old kimono shop sits idle, the old shell transformed into a local history museum. I wander through the empty rooms, admiring the striations in the glasswork of the windows. A few doors down, the volunteers at the local sake factory distribute free samples to a busload of tourists pausing briefly before heading to the flowery hills of Furano. Near the end of the street, just before the deserted train station and bus stop, an aging, weather-tained facade with arched windows and a recessed oak entrance serves as my accommodation for the evening. The proprietor, a young family of transplants from Osaka, take me in as one of their own, offering not only a warm meal and drinks, but practical hiking advice for my ascent of Shokanbetsu planned for the following morning.

“There are three routes up the mountain”, explain my guide, “none of which are particularly easy”. With rain spitting down outside, this is not the news I want to hear. Still, I bite my lip and absorb the knowledge, deciding in the end to go with the shortest route up to the summit: a backbreaking 10km one-way ticket to the summit of what the locals have penned ‘Mashike Fuji’.

Bright and early, Grace meets me outside of the single-roomed structure that doubles as train station and tourist information center. After exchanging pleasantries, we file up the paved switchbacks to the 500 vertical-meter Hashibetsu trailhead. Thick cloud hangs heavy in the air as we unload the gear. The foliage is still dripping wet from the late night squalls that pushed in from the sea. We have one very long, sticky and sloppy hike staring us right in the face, so procrastination would do no good. Better to dive into it and get on with it.

The path is well trodden and easy to follow, but getting lost is the least of our worries. The humidity forces the sweat from our pores, which attracts the mosquitos and horseflies. Swatting is an exercise in futility, and the only way to avoid the persistent buggers is to keep moving. The trail is framed on both sides by head-tall bamboo grass, concealing the forest floor and the creatures that lie in the murk. After several minutes of tramping, we come across our first bear prints that couldn’t have been more than several hours old. Unfortunately it appears that we are tramping along an ursine highway, and Grace’s bear spray does little to calm the nerves. If we are lucky we can catch up with the creature and surprise it from behind, but there would be nowhere to go if we met the mighty brown bear head on.

The mountain, like most other volcanoes in this land, is neatly divided into 10 stagepoints which does little to brighten our spirits. In anticipation of the long approach and summer humidity, I had brought along 4 liters of water, but the clouds cool things off enough to have me rethinking my decision. At stage point number 3 (san go-me), I stow away the extra two liters behind the signpost, and notice a much softer prance in my footfalls. My frowns from the previous hours fade away as I sink into a gradual rhythm and enter my tozan zone. The first 4 kilometers of the hike are almost completely flat, and it isn’t until the 5th stage point that we start to rise out of the flatlands along a deep gully eroded away by the torrential rains that frequent this dormant volcanic massif.

Grace and I break into conversation now and again as she updates me on her hiking schedule. You see, she is embarking on a rather unprecedented mission to knock off every single one of the 200 and 300 famous mountains left in Hokkaido, a hectic schedule that consists of nearly twenty peaks dominated by long, exposed climbs. Her mountain adventures have earned her the moniker The Yamaholic, a fitting name for the forty something dekasegi who grinds out a living in a factory in rural Toyama Prefecture. If her dream becomes realized, she will be the first foreigner to complete the entire Sanbyakumeizan, so getting these remaining peaks checked off the northern island will go a long way towards meeting her goal. I really admire that kind of spirit and determination, as I had abandoned my own quest long ago when the first stages of asthma set in. Still, I do have an intention of knocking off several of the peaks from that list of mighty 300. From the pictures in my guidebook, I’ve always had a longing to climb Shokanbetsu, and being able to do it in the company of the Yamaholic is an added bonus.

After another hour of ascending, we finally rise above the thousand meter mark and towards the edge of the tree line. The clouds are playing a game of hide and seek with the surrounding peaks, but in those brief intervals we can just make out the edge of the wetlands of Uryu to the south. Uryu marsh is one of Hokkaido’s hidden spots of ethereal beauty. In fact, a lot of visitors actually prefer climbing Shokanbetsu from this southernly approach, as the marshlands teem with wildflowers from June to October. There’s only one problem with the Uryu route: it is 23km round-trip to the summit and back, something that even us seasoned veterans can not muster up the stamina for.

At the 7th stage point (nana go-me), the bamboo grass yields to vast gardens of wildflowers of every imaginable shape, color, and size. The Yamaholic breaks into a huge grin, the first of the day after setting out earlier that muggy morning. The terrain morphs to alpine tundra as the views to the south open up. Clouds are moving in swiftly from the sea to the north, however, so our vistas are soon erased by the mist.

10 minutes past the garden we stumble across fresh scat the size of a rugby ball. Luckily the cloud hides the bear from our sights but if there’s one good sign to seeing gargantuan bear excrement it’s that the creature is very well-fed, meaning it is less likely to seek us out for lunch.

Soon we hit a junction where the two routes from the southern approach turn into one for the final push to the high point. The Shokan route is also a popular route and follows a parallel ridge up the spine to the summit plateau. The weather had kept the other hikers at bay though, and shortly after noon the Yamaholic and I stand next to the small shrine and summit marker affixed to the top. We give each other a high five and dig into our rice balls while waiting for the clouds to clear. Dreadfully, the mist refuses to budge, so we stare at the photos in our guidebook and use our imagination to trace the outline of the sea directly below. Drops of rain begin to fall just as we finish repacking the gear, and soon we find ourselves in the midst of one of those notorious Hokkaido squalls that put your rain gear to the test. We fly out of there like mice fleeing a cat kennel and drop back down into the sheltered coves of the treeline just as the rain peters out.

I pick up the two-liter I had stashed earlier that morning and we continue the descent through a fresh layer of ankle-deep mud. Once back in the flatlands the sun makes a late yet welcomed appearance as we brace ourselves for another blood feast. The mosquitos go to town but the spirits remain high after knocking off one of Hokkaido’s toughest day hikes.

The Yamaholic drops me off in Asahikawa as she continues her journey to the next mountain. I, on the other hand, take a well-deserved weekend off by crashing at a friend’s place while preparing for the ferry back to Honshu.

 

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Shaken up – part 1

7:56am

I push the button next to the door of the Kizu-bound JR train – those self-service buttons on rural trains that only allow those in the know to exit the train. The doors open and I glide onto the platform, swimming through throngs of high school students funneling through the ticket gates. My ticket is swallowed by the wicket machinery, and allows passage via a narrow flight of stairs to the north-south corridor of route 22. Descending down to street level, I turn left along the narrow shoulder to my usual stance at the broad intersection. From here I can hop through the pedestrian crossing and directly into the convenience store, avoiding the rush of students following pursuit. It’s a perfect plan, and part of my usual Monday morning routine to kick off yet another busy week.

7:58am

I stand at the front of the pack, like a marathon runner taking position at the starting gates. Suddenly, I am pushed from behind and instinctively lurch forward into the middle of the road. The asphalt thrusts upward, throwing me off my stance. I scurry over across the street, against the light, along with around 50 other students who are escaping from the terrifying sound of screeching metal and the unmistakable ping of electric wires. Screams of panic fill the air – I turn around and glance up at the pedestrian overpass swaying with panic-striken kids holding onto the railing for dear life. Directly behind me, the wall of students patiently waiting for the red light is replaced by an undulating wall of scaffolding, teetering on the edge of collapse. Is this what pushed me from behind?

7:59am

Hands on my knees, I pant for air and wait for my redlining heart beat to subside. I watch as the power lines continue to sway, always among the last things to stop moving during a seismic event. Reality starts to set in – this was a quake, and quite a strong one at that.

(To be continued)

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Mt. Arafune is a mountain that I have had my eye on for a while. In addition to being included on the list of 200 Famous Mountains, the massive rock formation flanking the summit plateau resembles the hull of a giant battleship for which the mountain receives its name.

Alastair and I depart from Suwa station on a bright and sunny morning at the start of the Golden Week holiday. We head east into neighboring Gunma Prefecture and reach the trailhead after a couple of hours of easy driving. It is my first hike with the fair-skinned Englishman, a self-determined mountaineer that can be found on neighboring alpine summits in the Kita, Chuo, and Minami Alps most weekends. Mt. Arafune dominates the skyline for miles around and can even be viewed from most of the Kita Alps if you know where to look.

A rope is draped across the trail, indicating some kind of closure. Having faced such obstacles before, I know that if the trail were really in such poor condition that they would built an impenetrable barrier. Alastair and I slip under the rope and along a very well-used path that hugs a narrow ridge. After a few modest rises and drops in altitude, we reach a saddle just before the final climb to the summit plateau. We soon arrive on top of Tomo rock and gaze out at Mt. Asama sitting snugly across a steep valley directly in front of us. We could almost reach out and touch it if not for the 200-meter high vertical cliff dropping just below our feet.

Speaking of cliffs, in 2009 this very cliff claimed the life of Kureyon Shinchan creator Yoshito Usui, whose death occurred under suspicious circumstances. Since there were no witnesses, there is debate as to whether the manga author ventured too close to the edge and lost his footing or whether it was a conscious decision to intentionally jump off and end it all. The drop causes severe vertigo problems for Alastair, but I crawl over on my belly to look down upon what would certainly be a rather nasty way to end your life.

As we admire the views, a trail runner jogs up and nonchalantly stands on the edge of the cliff peering over. The gusts of wind come strongly and irregularly and we both close our eyes before our fearless friend steps back from the void. He introduces himself as Mt. Haga and quickly blurts out a half-dozen peaks in the area that he recommends checking out. We pore over the maps and locate a few for future reference.

The true summit of Arafune is on the other side of this vast plateau lined with native hardwoods and a gentle mountain stream. It takes nearly an hour to cross over and reach the top, which affords views to our south of the Yatsugatake range. We retrace our steps all the way back to the car and head over to Uchiyama campground.

We check in and enjoy a late lunch of Genghis Khan lamb and ice cream before parking the car at the campsite. The winds are absolutely howling, so we put off erecting the tent and instead explore the mountains surrounding the plateau. Halfway along our traverse of a trio of forgettable peaks, we come across a well-fed rotund creature wobbling across a meadow. I take a quick picture before the mysterious animal scuttles for cover in the thick underbrush. It is no other than a anaguma or Japanese badger, my very first sighting of the elusive mammal.

The setting sun gives way to a brilliant display of stars. We somehow get the tent to stay upright while I give up on erecting my lightweight tarp. After our campfire is reduced to glowing coals, we retreat to bed. I settle in for a noisy night inside the tent while Alastair enjoys the warmth and serenity of the car.

The following morning dawns clear but the yellow haze pushing in from the Gobi Desert has reduced visibility to mum. We halfway consider climbing up a peak or two before throwing in the towel and taking an excursion to Shirakaba at the base of Mt. Tateshina for a pleasant lakeside stroll.

Mt. Arafune is well worth a visit, but the remote location really warrants having your own set of wheels. There is irregular bus/train service from Shimonita in the east but it involves a very long approach along a seldom-used trail. The vistas of Mt. Myogi more than make up for the ease of access though.

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Mt. Watamuki in Shiga Prefecture is well-known as a mecca for rime ice viewers. My only visit to the 1100-meter high mountain was perfectly timed for the first ice crystals of the season.

So impressed was I with the majesty of the mountain I quickly added it to my other site, where fellow hikers can find practical information for accessing the mountain. There have only been about 1100 views of that posting, which is about 1 view per meter so to speak.

If you do visit in the winter and time it right, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Mt. Amagoi, the most remote of the Suzuka Peaks, sits due north of Watamuki, just begging for a full-winter traverse, when the thick undergrowth is buried in the snow. In fact, you could climb from here all the way to Mt. Gozaisho if armed with proper navigation devices.

Although mountain leeches tend to congregate in the valleys surrounding the Suzuka range, they have yet to penetrate these folds of the Suzuka. That may change in the future, however. The intense summer heat would likely make summer ascents uncomfortable, even without the blood-sucking worms.

In terms of the name, Watamuki is thought to have come from the Japanese word Watanuki, the old word for April. The word literally means to ‘remove cotton’, in terms of changing from the thick cotton kimono of winter to the cooler silk version of summer. In some ways this is true for the mountain itself – in April the snows melt to reveal the slick silky green foliage of summer.

An emergency hut is located about halfway up the mountain, making for a great place to overnight to catch the sunrise from the summit. You’d need to bring plenty of water, however, as there are no reliable water sources on the hike.

 

 

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Spring hiking in the Chūgoku region of Japan is always a gamble. Despite the relative lack of elevation, the snow squalls blanket the upper reaches of the mountains, providing meters of powdery fun in the frozen milliseconds of winter. Spring thaw means spring slush, and a good excuse to drag my friend (and slush novice) Hyemi up an obscure range in northern Okayama by the name of Nagisan.

I boarded an early morning train to Wake station for our meeting point. I had first met Hyemi at Kitazawa-tōge the previous summer and it was great to finally find someone in Okayama to accompany me on mountain pursuits. She pointed the car north and before too long we were tightening our shoe laces and placing our first footfalls on the well-worn path. After receiving a bit of advice from the locals, we chose the C course due to the unstable snow in the gullies of the popular B trail.

The well-used track soon left the forest road and traversed through a grove of Hinoki cypress trees recently stripped of bark. The brilliant ruby tints of the exposed trunks glinted peacefully in the cloud-filtered light. Apparently this bark was recently harvested for the re-roofing of a local shrine. It’s unclear whether the bark will simply grow back or if the trees have just been left to die a slow death from malnourishment. A future visit will likely help answer that question.

Switchbacks coaxed us up the ever-steepening slopes of this dormant volcano, whose muddy tracks soon disappeared under the first folds of rotting snow. Sinking up to our ankles, we followed the freeze-thaw grooves of previous hiking parties up a steep gully with nary an end in sight. Stray too far from this delicate maze of footprints and end up knee-deep in the sludgy quicksand.

I kicked steps as elegantly as I could as Hyemi followed in eager pursuit. We hit the ridge at Ōkami-iwa (大神岩), a brilliant rock formation affording refreshing views down to the valley far below. Named after the Japanese wolf, the rock formation derives its name from the creatures who used to frighten the locals from howling down from these exposed heights many centuries ago.

The trail flattened out on a broad ridge covered with meter-deep slush. We marched along in succession, the silence pierced by the Michael Jackson screams echoing from Hyemi’s larynx each and every time she sank up to her hips, which seemed to occur at every 4th footfall. I simply let out a grunt at such inconveniences as we contemplated potential retreat options.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, the mid-week ascent was dotted with other like-minded fools, including one unfortunate trail runner who was obviously less prepared in his hiking short and trail runners. At the summit plateau, a small open shelter provided a dry place to stretch out and refuel. This shelter later became a victim of a strong typhoon and there is currently no plan to reconstruct the rest house, as there is a stronger emergency hut a short walk away.

Speaking of emergency shelters, we dropped north to the saddle housing the concrete structure before the final scramble to the summit, where the haze cut off views of Mt. Daisen and Hiruzen to the northwest. Retreating back to the shelter, we ducked inside to escape the strong winds and to engorge in a proper lunch and celebratory coffee, a necessity in my post-Hyakumeizan pursuits. I used to think that summiting was the most important part of the hike, but once I reached the age of 40 I can definitely tell you that a good strong cup of top-quality joe trumps all else.

The ‘piston’ hike back to the car was non-eventful, leaving us enough time to hit a local hot spring and to a feast of pizza and gratin at the aptly named Pizza King near Wake station. Hyemi promised to guide me up the Wake Alps, a hike that will finally come to fruition this very month in fact. I’m looking forward to the pizza as much as the trail itself.

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Well, I have to admit that I never thought I’d find myself back on the plateau, but after the birth of our daughter Ibuki two solar revolutions ago, it was time to take her to her first Hyakumeizan. What better place to start than our old friend Odai-ga-hara?

Kanako, Ibuki, and I boarded an early morning train to Yamato-kamiichi for the 2-hour bus journey to the trailhead. It being Golden Week, we expected the bus would be a lot more crowded than the dozen or so other passengers, but then again with the automobile-addicted nation at work perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the bus navigated the long switchbacks towards the 1500-meter-high parking lot, we got our first views of the cliffs of Mt. Daifugen, still dabbed with slivers of rotting snowmelt. It was the first time in my 4 visits to the plateau that I’ve ever had an unobstructed view from the skyline road – if there was any reason to doubt the stature of the Omine mountains one would simply need to point their vehicle in this direction.

We arrived just before noon under brilliant blue skies with a smattering of white cloud floating lazily around the upper reaches of the plateau. We dropped off our extra gear at Kokoro-tōjikan hut before heading up the well-worn path through the forest still very much in hibernation mode. The trees had only just begun releasing their spring buds, and the gullies still held onto their winter coats tightly like a stingy old maiden guards her pursestrings. I brought my baby carrier for the journey in case Ibuki did not feel up to the task, but she insisted on climbing the trail under her own power, albeit with a little extra boost from mom and dad’s outstretched hands on the steeper bits. She looked just as comfortable as her parents and has definitely received an unfair portion of Hyakumeizan DNA from her father.

The junction sitting  under the high point of Hide-ga-take was reached just as the first grey clouds marched in from the west. We settled onto the wooden steps overlooking the Pacific Ocean town of Owase and tucked into our home-made lunch boxes. Ibuki had worked up quite the appetite on her slow march towards the summit, and the food provided just the extra boost she needed for the final push up the series of wooden staircases to the summit.

We reached the high point just before 1pm and took a few summit photos before ducking behind the wall of the observation deck that helped shelter us from the strong gales blowing directly across the valley from the Omine range. The sky turned black and we braced ourselves for the first drops of rain. Imagine our surprise when the sky deposited huge wet flakes of snow instead. It was a repeat of our spring trip to Zao except that we had the additional challenge of keeping a 2-year-old from getting hypothermia.

The snow brought the adrenaline, and after tucking Ibuki safely into my baby carrier, we dropped back down to the saddle, where the snow let up completely. Instead of quickly returning to the trail we had come, we headed up an adjacent peak and down through the maze of wooden boardwalks, which brought a smile to Kanako. Her last trip here involved a cold, snowy slog to the high point in subarctic temperatures, where we abandoned any attempt at a traverse and high-tailed it back to the warm confines of the cafe.

The path rose to a summit before dropping through a maze of wooden boardwalks sitting snugly on a broad carpet of bamboo grass and dead trees poking their needle-like heads out of the tuft. The breeze send us scurrying down the wooden steps as the second wave of snow hit us from the west. Ibuki by now had fallen asleep on my back as I used my umbrella to shield her from the wrath of the horizontal snow.

At the first junction we turned right and entered the shelter of the forest, where the snow turned to rain before yielding to weak rays of sunlight that barely penetrated our thick forest canopy. The sun, rain, and snow spent the next 45 minutes battling for control as we reached the parking lot and ducked into the restaurant for lunch.

By the time we checked into the lodge the sun had won the battle and the winds became calm yet cold. The thermometer in our room read minus 1 degrees and we quickly switched on the heat and kept our down jackets zipped tightly. We shuffled off to the bath to thaw out before heading to the dining hall for dinner. This was followed by a short stroll out to the parking lot to check out the stars. The lot was filled to capacity with Golden Week visitors snoring snugly in the warmth of their cars. Parking is free up here and it’s mind-boggling that the prefecture doesn’t charge people for overnight parking.

The next day dawned bright and clear, with a warm spring feel to the air. After breakfast and coffee we hit the trails and headed out to the cliffs of Daijakura but the crowds were immense. It seemed as if every hiker had read the weather forecast and had invaded the mountain like a mass of shoppers searching for bargains. We continued in a counter-clockwise direction past the statue of emperor Jimmu and back to the boardwalks of the previous day. Ibuki had enough walking and quickly fell asleep when put in the baby carrier. The blue skies were a much welcome site and all too rare on this plateau of mist and rain.

We looped back to the hotel and ate lunch before strolling over to the bus stop and the overflowing queue of hikers 100-strong. They had all trekked up from Osugidani gorge in Mie Prefecture and they all wanted to catch the bus that we were planning to take! I’m not sure why the bus company couldn’t simply offer priority boarding to those who stayed in the mountain hut, but it was a free-for-all as any rules of etiquette were quickly abandoned. The bus company asked for volunteers to take the later bus but of course everyone wanted to get back to the city as soon as they possibly could, for most of them had not showered for a few days. By sheer luck we ended up on the bus and got a seat towards the front, where Ibuki took a nap on her mom’s lap.

Odai-ga-hara may be a Hyakumeizan, but it is definitely the kind of place that could use a bit more management and coordination to avoid public transport bottlenecks. Will I return for a 5th visit? It remains to be seen, but there always the chance of a much longer traverse along the spine of the Daiko mountains, which either begins or ends here depending on your directional preference.

 

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Hyonosen Chapter 2 – Decade

My first trip to Hyonosen was intended as a post-op test of my cardiac recovery and ended up being a fierce battle with rotting snow. I had certainly taken on more than I could handle and was lucky to walk away without incident. I had always wanted to revisit the mountain in the green season but had been preoccupied with other mountains. However, the timing just seemed right for a second look, especially since it has been exactly 10 years since I had my leaky aortic valve replaced. And what better place to test out the ticker than on my first post-op mountain.

The weather reports had certainly looked iffy all week, but late Friday evening Paul M. and I cemented our plans. I hopped on the 6:30am train to Kobe and we were on the road by 8am after having stopped by a local bakery for some trail delicacies and a hot cup of coffee as a kickstarter. The clouds hung heavy over the mountains of northern Hyogo but the rain held off on the 2-hour drive to the start of the hike. Due to the thin blanket of high-altitude altostratus cloud, visibility was surprisingly good as the cooler temperatures kept the lower clouds away. Our original plan was to park at Shinsui-koen but the forest road was blockaded, forcing us into an extra 1km walk on foot. We loaded up the gear, our eyes fixated on the autumn colors plastered to the ridgeline like the canvas of an Impressionist master.

It’s amazing how differently the scenery can look when not buried under a meter of snow. Instead of climbing a near-vertical bluff on my left, the summer trail dropped to a stream and followed alongside to a 65-meter high waterfall, which must have surely been swollen with snowmelt during my first trip. The path entered a forest and switchbacked a staggering 38 times if you can trust the person who named this section of path ‘the hill of 38 turns’. Instead of counting, Paul and I kept our brows raised to both the towering summit ridge and the verdant canopy of beech sheltering us from the brisk winds of autumn.

The trail soon left the spur and dropped to a small section of planted cedar to the west. A corrugated-metal shack housed a trio of ageing jizō statues that were probably expecting a better abode. The shelter would make for a miserable place to wait out a rain storm, but with the weather gods on our side, we slid past the entrance and through the stagnant strands of cedar until dropping to a mountain stream. This was the trickiest section of my spring traverse, as the snow drifts created a crevice fit for one of Denali’s slopes. I managed to ford this fearsome sliver of sawa with a brave leap over the abyss, but this time around the route has been desecrated by a set of steel ladders. The erosion here is quite impressive, and no doubt the metal links have helped limit the damage to the increasing numbers of visitors to Hyogo’s highest summit.

After crossing the stream, the trail once again climbed up towards the ridge above our craned necks. Forest of beech reigned supreme in these untouched swaths of virgin forest as the colors were just beginning their shift to golden hues. We had just breached the 1000 meter mark but continued to push on all the way to the ridge before settling down for a break. It was an exact repeat of my first foray except back in 2007 I was incredibly pushed for time. This time Paul M. and I were pushing on just to reach the peak of the autumn colors sitting snugly on the ridge.

And on the ridge we did reach, settling down onto a bench in front of the emergency hut. The winds from the flatlands of Tottori Prefecture pushed up and over the northern face of the massif, sending us both rummaging through our kit in search of additional layers. I broke out the lightly salted crisps and a package of cashews and we rehydrated for the final stroll along the ridge. A decade before, progress ground to a crawl as every advancing step with met with the unmistakable thunk of postholing up to my thighs. Now, the only obstacle was tripping over the exposed tree roots of the massive beech trees holding down fort.

Beech leaves turn a golden yellow in the autumn, but against the diffuse grey skies they took on an amber tint that harkened the commencement of winter. Paul M. and I pushed on under the glistening fortress of wind-battered trees, fenced in on the Hyogo side of the ridge by head-high tufts of bamboo grass that concealed the splendid vistas across the narrow valley to the ski slopes of Hachibuse. Every now and again,  the bald ski runs poked out beneath gaps in the undergrowth, flanked on both sides by foreshortened ridges of pale blue floating high above an ethereal carpet of thin autumn cloud. The trail rose to the summit of a short rise before sinking to a col at the face of Koshiki Slab, a bulbous mass of igneous rock sticking out on the ridge like a giant vat for which it is named. In the cool April air, I followed the snow drifts halfway up the monster before resorting to the chains affixed to the near-vertical face. Here in the dry season a faint trail led up to a narrow ledge overlooking a patchwork of foliage spread out below.

A lunge here would see me at the top of the crag, but streams of water clung stubbornly to the face, and a slip here would involve a bone-breaking tumble back to the saddle. Having just finished reading the latest Accident Report from the American Alpine Journal, I halted my vertical ascent in favor of the easy summer detour to the east of the rocks. I dropped back to the col and traversed around, following an array of wooden steps as I sped to catch up with Paul M., who was not interested in playing any Spiderman games.

We reached the summit as a tour group was just setting off on their descent. Hot noodles were soon boiled as we scanned the horizon for familiar names: Mt. Rokko and Mt. Daisen were both clearly visible in the crisp autumn air as an array of other Kinki and Kansai 100 peaks sought out our attention. The head-high bamboo grass made identification a bit tricky, but a quick ascent of the vertical ladder affixed to the emergency hut did wonders for the views but not much for the vertigo.

Refreshed and refueled, the cool southerly winds pushing off the coast forced us down the scenic lee slopes of the eastern ridge, where a standing army of ancient cedars looked down on our awkward footfalls through the muddy minefield of loose stones that spit us out at the Kobe University mountain hut. The porch made for the perfect rest stop for a fresh brew of steaming coffee and calorie-rich brownies.

The trail left the protection of the bamboo grass and skirted a narrow ridge of hardwoods carpeted in leaf litter. Sunshine poked through gaps in the cloud cover as we dropped below the foliage line and into greener fields again. Dense pockets of planted cedar dropped sharply to our left, terminating at the slopes of the ski resort hidden behind the wall of evergreen needles. We reached another mountain hut further along the ridge and paused briefly before marching through the walls of cedar to the forest road. Here it was a simple walk along the asphalt back to the car. Sections of the route afforded views back up to the ridge line, which were now smothered in late afternoon cloud. The rain front would certainly be here before nightfall, so better to head to the sheltered comforts of the hot springs.

A decade on, the heart still ticks on as strong as ever. Aside from a few skipped beats and the extremely rare palpitation or two, you would be hard pressed to ever know that I’ve been under the knife. Of course, one would only need to put their ear near my chest to hear the tick-tock rhythms of the titanium ticker at work. Here’s two another decade of successful ascents and heart-throbbing tales.

 

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I place part of the blame on William Banff. My fellow Meizanologist introduced me to the Kin-Kan 134 through his excellent blog On Higher Ground. Before his insightful writing, I had never known there were two different Hyakumeizan lists for the Kansai Region. I picked up a copy of Yama-to-Keikoku’s Kansai Hyakumeizan Guidebook when it was released back in 2010 and spent the next 5 years knocking them off one by one. On the summit of Mt. Hiyamizu in October of 2015, I thought I could put those peakbagging days behind me and start to focus on raising a family. Then I found out that there was an older list of Kinki Hyakumeizan compiled by Kinki Mountaineering leader Ichiro Masa and published by Shin-hiking Publishing back in 1993. I guess that Meizan lists are not copyrighted, however, because Yama-to-keikou simply took this list, and swapped out 32 of the harder mountains in favor of ones with easier access, which means there are now two parallel lists with a combined number of 132 separate peaks.

When hiking on Mt. Saiho with William a few years ago I honestly had no intention of attempting those extra 32 peaks. I filed them away as too difficult and too remote and wanted to simply go on hikes that looked great from the handful of other guidebooks in my collection. However, the wonderful weather and spectacular views on Mt. Saiho infected me with the Kinki-Hyaku bug and I set off in search of those elusive mountains. I felt like a kid who, when taking a bite from a potato chip, decided that just one more bite would do until the entire bag of chips was gone.

There are no guidebooks about the Kinki Hyakumeizan, so I had to scour the blogosphere for trail information. It took nearly 3 years to reach my 99th (erm, 31st) peak, when one last formidable foe remained – good ole’ Nakahachinin, a grueling 8-hour hike no matter which approach you take. Definitely worth saving until the end.

The best approach seemed to be from the Omine mountains, as the Hachinin range sits on a perpendicular ridge within apparent striking distance. Nao navigated the tight curves of route 169 as I studied the map with an eager eye and kept the other eye out for familiar landmarks. The sky was relatively clear for the first section south from Yoshino and out the left-hand window I could clearly see the lofty tops of Mt. Shirahige, a mountain that had given us so much grief just 10 months ago. The sky darkened, however, the closer we got to Ikehara Reservoir and drops of rain dotted the windshield as we sought cover in the restaurant at Shimokitayama Onsen. Just last night the weather reporters were raving about the fantastic akibare weather settled over the main island. Apparently these NHK folks have never visited the innards of Nara Prefecture.

From Ikehara it was a lonely drive on a winding forest road that would actually take us to the Omine ridgeline if not for the metal gate strewn across the asphalt. We parked and shouldered our gear under the soft sounds of the falling rain. The road had definitely seen better days as we spent the majority of the time dodging rockfall and counting up the kilometers to the ridge. It was a brisk climb of 5km, which took a little over an hour to reach the Okugakemichi and the evening’s accommodation at Jikyo-no-shuku. The unmanned mountain hut was recently renovated in 2015 and provided the perfect base camp for the impending climb. We were basically alone, apart from a huntsman spider and a mountain leech that had somehow caught a ride with us along the mountain road. I’m not sure how neither of us managed to avoid a bite but by the sluggishness of the leech the cooler weather of autumn had zapped all of its strength. We tossed it out the window and settled in for a long night.

I spend most of the night in and out of consciousness, consumed by the uneasiness of the long hike ahead. The trail on the map was dotted, meaning that is not well maintained, and the ‘bush’ comments alongside sections of the route were concerning. I did not want a repeat of our debacle on the ridge of Mt. Mikuni . Breakfast was prepared under the brightening sky that held the promise of a good day. The overnight rain brought in the cloud, so we awoke to a blanket of thick condensation that had just started to burn off as we hit the trail. Excess gear was stowed away safely in the hut as we shouldered rations and water for the long slog in front of us. The path wasted no time in gaining 150 meters of vertical to the summit of Asukaridake, where the trail immediately lost those gains in height off the northern face. After dropping to a col and scaling a rock face embedded with chain, the two of us popped out on the summit of Shōjōmurodake at a marked junction for Hachininyama.

We left the main trail and headed west along a broad ridge without the slightest hint of human encroachment. It was like taking a step back in time, and the thick fog gave off an air of enchantment that are missing from the mountains of Kansai. It took about 40 minutes to reach the summit of Peak 1340 – you know you’re in a remote part of Japan when even the summits are lacking names. A little further along ,the ridge split, so we consulted with our maps, the compass, and the GPS to check our bearings. In clear weather we’d be able to see our target peak but the sun had not yet breached the walls of our fortress of fog.

Our route dropped steeply, startling a giant toad out of its slumber as we broke down below the cloud and finally got a visual bearing to confirm what the compass had told us. We surmised that the peak towering just out of reach in front of us was Mt. Oku-hachinin, a place that the map had indicated would take over 90 minutes to reach. We went straight to work and dropped down to a broad saddle punctuated at irregular intervals by tape marks affixed to the trees. There was really only one ridge to follow and we knew that as long as the weather cooperated we’d be heading in the right direction. The vistas to the northwest opened up but the peaks of Mt. Shaka and Kasasute still lay trapped in dark cloud.

The summit of Oku-hachinin was eventually reached as we paused to catch our breath and consult with the map. It was now 8:30 in the morning and we had been on the go since 6am. So far our pace had been faster than the map times and I attribute this to Nao, who had warned of approaching rain cloud in the early afternoon. I think part of my rush was also the fact that this was the magic #100, so I was full of adrenaline. From our perch on Oku-hachinin we could see the summit of Nakahachinin rising gracefully above us with a deep saddle that cut off easy access.

We dropped to the saddle and braced for the long, steep, and dare I say relentless climb. The contours lines were bunched together as we fought gravity’s resistance by following game trails in conjunction with our own improvised switchbacks. The blue sky sat on the horizon so I quickened the pace only to arrive at a false summit on the edge of a deep precipice. I skirted the edge of the sickening drop and picked my way along the serrated edge of the ridge before pushing up the final 50 meters of altitude.

Nao and I reached the summit of Nakahachnin at around 9:15am on the 10th of September, 2017. I could now close the chapter on the Kinki Hyakumeizan and move onto other projects. Well, not quite – we still had to get off this bloody mountain.

We rested on the tree-covered summit and ate our rations. To the west sat the summit of Nishi-hachinin, an army of freshly-planted cedar trees lined the col as I cursed the forestry service for desecrating yet another tract of virgin forest in the name of public works. Future hikers are advised to bring a chainsaw to help clear the seedlings before they grow too tall. To the south, the top of Minami-hachinin peeked out between a gap in the trees. Sitting just 5 meters higher, it’s a 20-minute round-trip that some purists say is the true target since it is the highest of Hachinin’s five summits. Nao and I thought about the long return trip ahead of us and came up with the following logic: if the Kinki Hyakumeizan architects had intended Minami-hachnin to the be target peak they would have stated so instead of putting Naka-hachinin on their list. The beauty of the place does warrant a future visit though. After all, someone needs to come back to clear all the cedar away.

We left the summit for the long march back to Jikyo-no-shuku hut. I would have preferred a leisurely stroll and our progress ground to a crawl on the long ascent back to Peak 1340 – we were running on fumes and dripping with well-earned sweat. By the time we reached the hut it was already after noon. We collapsed on the carpet interior and set about preparing lunch. Fortunately I had brought along some pasta and cooked up a feast while Nao prepared the fresh coffee. The clouds had once again rolled in but luckily the rain held off until we had safely arrived back at the car.

So the million yen question now arises: what do I do next? I still need to finish climbing the highest mountain in every prefecture, and with just 4 mountains left, it’s a pretty attainable target. In the bookstore yesterday I stumbled across a guidebook for the Hyakuteizan (百低山), the 100 Low Mountains of Japan. Now that does sound tempting indeed. These tozan tales are far from over my friends……

 

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I’ve always avoided climbing Mitsutōge. Sure it’s steeped in history and tradition, but I just couldn’t overlook the TV antenna flanking two of the mountain’s three sacred peaks. During my last trip to Kawaguchiko, I opted for neighboring Kurodake, a higher flank and one of the 300 famous mountains. The vistas across the lake to the northern face of Japan’s highest mountain were tranquil if not inspiring, as few hikers visit its tree-lined heights. Mitsutōge, on the other hand, is crawling with visitors no matter the time of year nor the weather. A quick on-line search revealed a plethora of English-language blog posts and trail notes, coming in second to Mt. Fuji itself. Yes, the peak would remain off my Hiking in Japan site, but perhaps, I reasoned, it was still worthy of a quick exploration.

I arrived at Kawaguchiko station by bus from Matsumoto, and immediately swam through the sea of crowds to the coin lockers tucked away on the western side of the station. It took quite some time to sort through the kit and repack, and after a short trip to the restroom to deposit a load of a different kind, I scooted over to the bus information counter to inquire about the next bus to the trailhead. “The final bus just left”, came the response from the weather-beaten brows of the bored attendant, obviously worn down from the constant inquiries of visitors looking for the tourist information counter. I was counting on the 10:35am bus to the trailhead, but I was informed that this bus only ran on weekends. Dejected but still determined, I popped into the 7-11 to stock up on lunch. The clerk was particularly inquisitive yet relieved when I told her that Mt. Fuji was not my intended destination.

Back at the station, I easily hailed a taxi for the 5000 yen ride to the start of the hike. After passing by a troupe of foraging monkeys, the driver eased the vehicle along the exposed shoulder that followed the narrow mountain stream, depositing me at a large pile of snow piled up at the unmarked bus stop. I bade my chauffeur farewell and stared up at the ice-covered forest road directly in front of me. I took a sip from the water bottle before strapping on the 4-point crampons, whose spikes easily bit into the hard ice. This deserted road led me higher towards the western flank of the mountain, terminating at a small car park sparkling with a clean restroom.

From here, the trail lay buried under 50 centimeters of fresh snowfall. The crampons did little other than to serve as a depository for dense, wet snowfall, and after every third step I had to kick my feet together to dislodge the burdensome clumps of white clay. Still, it was better than having to sit down on the moist snow to unbuckle the crampons, so I held out until a bit higher on the slopes, where the snow conditions improved under the cool winds. I soon passed by a party of four sporting blue jeans and sneakers. I kicked steps past them as they looked on with an air of envy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of spring hikes in Japan, it’s to expect the unexpected and always carry the 4-pointers.

The wide path, which I am pretty sure doubles as a gravel highway in the summer, switchbacked through the sleeping forest towards the summit plateau. The going was easy as I simply followed the other footprints from like-minded mid-week summiters. An unmarked jeep sat on the shoulder of this path, buried up to its neck in wind-blown drifts. Perhaps the hut owner uses this mode of transport in the green season? Another jeep lay parked a bit further up the path, where a signpost led the way to Mitsutōge-Sansō, which I reached just a few minutes later. It was high noon and time for a snack. I settled into a bench that had luckily been swept free of snow and peered across the steep valley towards the puffs of cumulus that held Mt. Fuji in its grasp. Oh well, so much for the views of Fuji that draw thousands of climbers throughout the year.

After a quick bite, I dropped down to a saddle and up to Mt. Kinashi (木無山), the first of the trio of peaks. It was little other than a knob on the ridge, but after a bit of scrambling, I accessed the bluffs on the eastern side of the peak and took in this splendid vista:

Crowds were beginning to converge from all directions as I retraced the route back to the hut and along the ridge to a second hut and junction down to Mitsutoge station. The second, and highest of Mitsutoge’s triumvirate is a knobby knuckle by the name of Kaiun, reachable on a series of half-buried wooden steps. The summit signposts indicated that this was indeed Mitsutoge mountain. a huge disservice to a peak that literally means ‘good fortune’. Despite being usurped of a name, the weather did bring me the good fortune of viewing the entire chain of the Minami Alps clothed in a wintry white which was a pleasant consolation prize for not being able to see Fuji.

Sharing a mountaintop with twenty of my closest strangers does not rank high on my fulfilment list, so I dropped down the northern side of the summit, past a towering antenna, and down through the forest to an unmarked junction. My feet led me further to the north to the final summit Takanosu, literally ‘the hawk’s nest’. The mountain was impossible to miss, thanks to the virtual city of TV antenna that would make for a great place to bring up some hawk offspring if not for the electromagnetic waves. The summit was not only deserted of people, but severely lacking in summit signposts as well. Perhaps they were buried under the foot of snow blanketing the top.

Satisfied, yet hardly done, I looped back around to the junction below Kaiun and dropped steeply down a flight of slippery wooden stairs. The path dropped to a saddle and then, by complete surprise, turned left and traversed directly under the cliffs of Byobu-iwa that make Kaiun such a mecca for Kanto-based rock climbers. Though no spidermen were visible on this outing, the line of pitons fastened to the rock face suggest that the belay times on weekends must rival those of the queue at Space Mountain, but this is not a hypothesis I would even want to prove. The only rock climbing you’ll see me do is when I’m forced to do so, on the near-vertical routes in the Japan Alps, where fixed chains and ladders make the going easier.

As the path dropped lower, I took off the crampons and coasted past a series of Buddhist statues to a mountain pass adorned with stone Jizō. From here, it was a snow-free tramp through the darkened forest until popping back out on the pavement, where it was a dreadful walk of about an hour on the asphalt jungle. As soon as I arrived at the station, the skies opened up in one of those familiar spring downpours. This rain continued overnight and changed to snow, so when I woke up the following morning in Kawaguchiko, it was a winter wonderland. I wandered the sleeping streets before dawn in search of a nice place to capture the morning light on the cone.

Although I doubt I will visit again, it was good to have marked the mountain off the list. The peaks surrounding lake Saiko look worthy of further investigating, a chance that I hope to seize in the more comfortable green season.

 

 

 

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The drive to Owase, a small fishing village nestled on the Pacific coast of southern Mie Prefecture, took several hours and we coasted into our business hotel just as dusk settled on the sleepy town. After check-in, we walked the quiet, narrow streets and ducked into a seafood restaurant with some interesting choices on the menu. In this part of the Kii Peninsula, they eat everything that can be caught in the sea, including the vulnerable ocean sunfish. We each ordered a dinner set featuring a sea creature neither of us had heard of. The set came with a entire fish simmered in a dark broth accompanied by miso soup, rice, and a couple of other side dishes. The hotel was a bare bones affair, located atop a convenience store, but it did have the added bonus of a western style breakfast included in the price. The next morning, we took full advantage in the top floor restaurant affording views of Mt. Takamine, our goal for the morning. Owase sits directly in the middle of the Ise-Hongu section of the Kumano Kodo, and would make for a worthwhile stopover for trekkers making the walk connecting two of Japan’s holiest sights.

Mt. Takamine has two main approaches, both of which entail a large amount of walking on concrete. Nao and I opted for the forest road from the north along route 425, which we reached after some careful navigating on the narrow road. We parked at the terminus of a long tunnel and followed the sign as it led us along the abandoned pavement towards the trailhead. The route was fortified with cedar trees bursting with fresh pollen emissions, which set off the histamine alarms and put the nasal cavities into full production. We both suffer horrendously from the seasonal pollen, thanks in large part to our prolific mountain quests that have put us over the threshold of sensitivity. There was nothing to do but to move swiftly up the road and hope for favorable winds blowing in from the Pacific.

It was a 5-km walk along the road, which wound past a waterfall and areas of rockfall before terminating just below the ridgeline. We entered the cedar forest and, after passing by a bear trap, arrived at a junction where the southern trail merged into one main route for the summit. It was here that we left the evergreen mess behind and rose into a stupendous forest of old grown hardwoods that had shed their summer coat for the season. The path climbed along the exposed ridge, the gradient rising with each advancing step. Soon enough, we reached the summit plateau, which afforded some of the best views that Kansai has to offer.

The broad summit rocks overlook the eastern aspects of both the Omine and Daiko mountain ranges. In fact, this is one of the few places in Kansai where you can view two Hyakumeizan lined up side-by-side. On our right, Odaigahara rises majestically to its knightly plateau, all but free of snowfall despite its 1500 meter height. To the left, the Omine mountains, weighing in just under 2000 meters in height, lay painted with a thin layer of wintry white which brought the mountains of Nagano to mind.

The views did not stop there, however. After climbing a boulder just behind the high point, we could peer back down to the coast towards Owase village. It was one of the best Kinki mountains so far, and with such splendid weather and lack of visitors, it was hard to tear ourselves away.

Eventually we did slither back to the forest road and retraced our steps to the awaiting car. On the ride back to Osaka, we discussed the remaining mountains on the list. While I had thought that Takamine was mountain #98, I learned to my regret that I had failed to count one other peak, so there were still a trio of mountains left. Still, three mountains could easily be conquered before the end of the year, an attainable goal if I set my sights on it.

 

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