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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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The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) provides an online contour map of the entire country, allowing anyone to virtually explore the land with just the click of a mouse. The Hoshida 60 aren’t well-annotated on this electronic resource, appearing as just a contoured amoeba splattered on a low mountain range between a golf course and a series of housing projects. I take a screen shot and print out a blank map, together with a list of the mountains and my trusty GPS for the first excursions into the hither lands of Hoshida.

The footpath behind my house follows the Amanogawa river towards the northernmost section of the Ikoma mountain range. The river, named after the Milky Way, is loosely tied to the origins of Tanabata, a tradition brought to the Kansai region from China in the 8th century during the Nara period. Indeed, every July a festival commences on the banks of the very river I now pursue, though in the ‘new normal’ of COVID these celebrations are now currently on hold.

After heading upstream towards the mountains, I veer southwest, up and around the alleged hiding place of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the post-Nobunaga turmoil of the late 16th century. A small monument within the grounds of Myokenzaka Elementary school marks the bamboo forest in which Tokugawa and his army of followers sought refuge. The bamboo sways gently in the mid-autumn breeze as the path navigates through the sakura groves of Myokenzaka and into the deciduous forests of the Hoshida mountains.

I turn right at an unmarked trail that immediately shoots skyward. Grabbing tufts of exposed tree roots and overhanging branches, I pull myself up to the start of the undulating ridge of sandstone scree that make the Hoshida mountains so treacherous to traverse. The narrow ridge trail follows the contours of the land, and after 10 minutes I reach the summit of ① Mt Ishibashi (石橋山), the first of the Hoshida 60. I pause briefly on the summit of the 180m-high knob, catching glimpses of brilliant autumn foliage through a gap in the trees.

 

The path drops abruptly down the eastern face, climbing gently to ② Mt Nukutani-mine (抜谷嶺), a nondescript bump just a few minutes from Ishibashi. With two peaks already off the list, I continue on with an additional pep in my step, until coming head long into an impossibly steep scramble known as the Sōen korori. The scree here is relentless and some might say that a sheet of ice would have better purchase then this gritty mess of a mountain face, but I somehow manage to avoid tumbling into the depths and reach the summit of ③ Mt Sōen (宗円山). I pause here for my first rest of the day, wiping the sweat from my brow and poring over the map to figure out the remainder of today’s course. With so many options to choose from, I spy a loop hike back to Myokenzaka via a spur track a bit further down the ridge.

A short traverse on the undulating ridge leads to ④ Mt Minami-Sōen (南宗円山), where the track drops to a saddle and a flattened drainage area littered with freshly fallen leaves. The shoulder of the broad trail is marred by the foraging tusks of wild boar, resembling a roughly plowed vegetable field as the nocturnal creatures dig for sustenance without a care in the world. This section of forest is truly peaceful and hard to believe that it’s part of my neighborhood. I prefer these unknown swaths of forest any day over some of the terribly overrun trails of the Hyakumeizan. My only fear is that some budding author will publish a guidebook to the Hoshida 60 and that every pensioner will swarm in looking for that magic pot of mountaineering gold.

I soon reach a junction for a spur track leading to Umaki. I turn left, leaving the main ridge behind and immediately commence a steep climb on a narrow, untrodden spur toward the skyline. Without the aid of fixed ropes, I am forced to rely on what nature has provided: scrambling over toppled logs and grasping onto unsteady roots as if my very life depended on it. It is truly amazing that such treacherous mountaineering can be found at just an elevation of 200 vertical meters.

At the top of the abrupt scent sits the narrow summit of ⑤ Mt Umaki-mine (馬木嶺), dominated on the southern face by a massive oak tree toppled by the forces of typhoon Jebi back in 2018. Many of the mountain trails in Kansai still bear the scars of damage from this massive storm. Sometimes I feel that I should just take matters into my own hands and carry a hacksaw on my hikes and clear the paths one rotting log at a time. The scar created by the downed tree creates a gap in the tree cover, affording my first views of Mt Atago, which is unfortunately engulfed in a smoggy haze.

The trail splits here, and I initially take the wrong spur on a heavily eroded section of ridge that forces me down on all fours. I soon halt my progress, check the GPS, and retrace my steps back to Umaki, finding the correct track in a narrow gap under the toppled tree. I scuttle down an intense field of gritty scree, soon reaching a gap in the ridge at an eroded saddle. Too broad to leap across, I instead turn around and lower myself feet first to the bottom and bound up the other side for yet another abrupt scramble to the top of ⑥ Mt Jizōtani (地蔵谷山), where I once again pause to catch my breath, for these mountains are providing a surprising workout.

The trail continues from here down off the mountains, but it is too early to call it quits, so I retrace my steps up and over Mt. Umaki and back to the main ridge, where an unmarked path drops to a secluded valley. A stream crossing is made easier with a set of metal staircases, likely installed by Kansai Electric in order for maintenance workers to reach the electrical pylons lining the Hoshida range as if to remind visitors of Japan’s conquering of nature. As expected, the ascent up the opposite slope is sharp and unforgiving, and the sound of voices in the distance gives me pause. I turn around and stare down directly into the fairway of the Shijōnawate golf course. Only in Japan would you find a golf course built in such unforgivable terrain, relegated to land unfit for housing or agriculture.

 

I push on, above the chatty linksmen and into the dizzying heights of 266 meter-high ⑦ Mt Ōtani (大谷山), my high point for the day. The ridge here has seen much more foot traffic, as it sits on the edge of the Hoshida Enchi, a public park dominated by a massive concrete suspension bridge that somehow attracts the Instagram crowds. Here I am faced with two options: either head south along the ridge for the ascent of 7 more of the Hoshida 60 or loop back toward my home with just one more peak in between. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I opt for the latter and start salivating at the thought of a warm lunch inside the comforts of home.

 

Turning north on the narrow ridge, I soon pass by an electrical pylon and stick to the heights, reaching  ⑧ Mt Koban-no-mine (小判ノ嶺) a short time later. The track here is overgrown, as not many hikers opt for the strenuous up-down of the mountain tops. Pushing through bamboo grass, I continue over a series of unnamed knobs and drop off the ridge to my right on an unmarked track that leads to Hoshida Enchi. I cross over a rope and ‘Do Not Enter’ sign draped across the narrow track I had just descended. Apparently the upper reaches of the mountains are outside of the park jurisdiction, as the city does not want clueless tourists to wander on these treacherous ridge lines and rightfully so – despite my status as Hyakumeizan alumnus, I would rate the Hoshida 60 for experts only due to the their exposure, the loose footing on the gritty sandstone, and the necessity to possess advanced route-finding skills.

 

Having visited this park numerous times since relocating to Katano city, I find myself in familiar terrain and simply turn left on the well-maintained trail down to complete the loop. After a brisk 30-minute descent, I reach the fork I took earlier in the morning for Mt Ishibashi and cruise back to home in time for lunch – or so I thought. Spurred on by the temptation of one more peak, I veer off the main road and enter the precincts of Hoshida Myoken Gu, an 8th century sanctuary that was purportedly built by Kukai to commemorate a meteorite that landed on the summit of the mountain. I march up the steps to the back entrance of the shrine and climb an unmarked trail behind a sub-shrine for the short scramble to the summit of ⑨ Mt Myōken (妙見山) to complete the ennead.

 

 

 

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The Hoshida 60 – Prologue

2020 has been quite a year, one that everyone hopes will never repeat itself. A worldwide pandemic, multiple advisories to avoid unnecessary travel, and an abrupt shift to working from home for the majority of the year have become all but routine these days. Mountains would have to wait, or would they? Sure, the meizan and loftier alpine peaks were out of reach, but the ‘new normal’ has forced me to look inward, to explore mountains in my own backyard that I had once put off as being too small and unworthy of exploration.

Flanked on either end by a series of electrical pylons, with the town built right up to the foothills on the front, and an intrusion of a golf course sculpted between the fine contours at the back, the Hoshida range does not appear in any magazines or mountaineering programs on TV. In fact, a mention of the Hoshida 60 would be greeted with a blank stare from anyone other than the most diehard of locals. Still, I can see them from my house every day, and can walk to them easily without risking infection by boarding a crowded train. Yes, they would have to do.

So, in order to retain a bit of fitness, and as a way of getting to know my neighborhood better, I accept the challenge and partake on a new adventure to climb 60 mountains: sit back and join me from a comfy armchair in isolation, as we ride out the pandemic together, one knob at a time through the hidden forests of Hoshida. 

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Reasons for revisiting a mountain vary. Some appreciate the scenery and climb a mountain a second, third or hundredth time, while others look for revenge on a peak scaled during bad weather. But I do not fall into either category. My first ascent in 2003 was under favorable early-autumn skies, and I do not recall the summit scenery being anything other than disappointing due to the concrete and erosion. My intent this time around is much simpler – to acquire a bit of altitude before heading above the treeline next weekend, for I have spent way too long at sea level waiting out the COVID storm.

Breakfast at our accommodation is served at 7am and we are on the road by 7:30am for the short drive to the chair lift parking lot, which fortunately has a few empty spaces. It appears that the day trippers are still making their way up the switchbacks to Minokoshi at the head of Iya Valley. Instead of the lazy way up the mountain, Paul and I walk downhill to the Torii gate marking the entrance to Tsurugi jinja, a sanctuary sitting at the top of a long row of concrete steps. About 10 stairs into our ascent, we spy a grassy clearing on our left ringed by Buddhist statues facing an immense full-color sculpture of Fudō Myōō grasping his sword and standing guard – a rarity for a deity who is usually displayed in a seated position. En no Gyōja sits in front, ringed by stone lanterns and guarded by a pair of komainu lion dogs. So sits Shugendō Buddhism, relegated to a side stage during the Meiji era and left forgotten by all but a few of the fellow visitors who must go out of their way to pay their respects.

Back on the main concrete trail, Tsurugi shrine sits at the crest of the hill, overlooking the lost denizens of Iya Valley like a faithful caretaker. After muttering a quick request for safe passage, we pass under the shimenawa draped between two cryptomeria and start our ascent on a proper trail through a lush hardwood forest glistening in the early morning light. Soon the path crosses the chairlift whisking lazy hikers up the first 200 meters of vertical elevation. Safe passage is provided via a corrugated metal tunnel running directly underneath man’s scar on the otherwise pristine landscape. I always wonder how Fukada would feel about such modern intrusions, as in his day, climbers had to access the mountain via a series of long, multi-day trails starting far down in the valley below.

Part hiking route, part nature trail, the path is lined with katakana signposts on the trees, a good way to brush up on those familiar tree names: the usual beech and Mongolian oak take center stage, but surprised as we are by a spindle tree and several rowan trees thrown into the mix. Our route switchbacks alongside the chair lift, the early morning silence broken by the cacophony of loudspeaker announcements. Perhaps it’s time for Japan to introduce that bluetooth technology and just stream these superfluous explanations to passenger’s smartphones instead. The last thing I want to know when riding a chair lift is the when and where of the contraption – the bigger question is why?

A cliff band soon comes into view, flanked on the lower end by a corrugated metal sanctuary presumably housing a buddhist statue or shinto entity. The answer to such a mystery remains out of reach, as the building sits off a side trail that we just can’t be bothered to explore, rushed as we are to beat the clouds in our race to the summit. Flattened terraces on our right have been crafted into well-placed camping platforms, affording favorable views across the ridge to Jirōgyū, our secondary target after ascending Tsurugi.

Just beyond the modest campground, a pair of depilated buildings mark the entrance to the top of the chair lift as fresh-legged hikers alight as if they’re emerging from the subway turnstile. Here a series of paths diverge in three directions. We opt for the trail adorned with the Torii gate and begin a long, gentle traverse under the summit plateau watched over by a field of purple monkshood in full bloom. Vistas open up to the west, dominated by the pointy hat of Miune sitting on the edge of a steep drop towards Iya Valley. Beyond, the rest of the peaks of the Tsurugi range fold onto one another, foreshortened as they are by this direct angle.

Otsurugi shrine is the next landmark to present itself, the distinctive eaves of its red roof still cloaked in shade from the shadow of the summit plateau looming above. The shrine abuts the craggy spindles of Tsurugi Iwa, which from this vantage point distinctly resemble swords for which Tsurugi derives its name. Fukada refutes this source, instead indicating that the name Tsurugi was given due to the legend of a buried sword related to the 12th century Emperor Antoku. Antoku died at the untimely age of 6, so whether this tale is simply a matter of fact or fiction remains to be seen. My gut feeling is that this rock formation itself is the true origin of the name, as you can’t prove that a sword was actually buried on the summit, but you can definitely prove the existence of a spear-like crag. Plus, if you close your eyes and press your hands against Tsurugi Iwa, you can definitely feel the presence of the Shugendō monks of yesteryear, who certainly chanted a mantra or two during their search for enlightenment.

With the clouds rising in direct proportion to the summer humidity, we press on, through a grove of Erman’s birch to reach a trio of structures sitting directly on the edge of the summit plateau. Affording pleasant views across the valleys of Tokushima and further afield to Daisen (on exceptionally clear and cloudless days), a narrow path perforates the space between the two structures, offering access to the summit itself. The nearer of the trio of structures, flanked by an impressive steel Torii gate, houses the main shrine of Tsurugisan Hongu, a Shintō sanctum hawking lucky charms at mountain summit prices. A large rock formation rises abruptly behind the space, home to the mountain deity and another piece of real estate likely usurped from the hands of the Shugendō monks.

The other less austere structure is home to Tsurugi Chōjō Hyutte, a rustic two-story mountain hut built in 1955 by 新居 熊太 (no idea about the proper reading, after searching endlessly). He built the hut when he was already 65 years old and spent the next twenty years running and making improvements to the wooden structure. He must have crossed paths with Fukada Kyūya himself, but more research will be required to determine the extent of those interactions. One thing is for sure – the summit looks entirely different from when those first support beams were hauled up from the valley below those 65 years ago.

Beyond the hut, the route enters a vast plateau of lush bamboo grass, with elevated wooden walkways encircling the circumference of the rotund summit. Gone are the concrete buildings and heavy erosion of two decades ago. A well-designed eco-toilet building with a sloping roof complements the lush landscape. Even the antenna adorning the top look smaller than before: perhaps a direct result of my fading memory over the last 20 years. Paul and I head off away from the summit on a side walkway for a rest away from the crowds. A middle-aged man sits on a wooden viewing deck, taking in the sight above the sea of encroaching cloud. “The sunrise was amazing from here”, he claims, having ascended in the pre-dawn hours as an excursion from a business trip to Kobe. “I’m actually from Yokohama”, he confesses, bracing himself for admonishment for having traveled out of the prefecture during the pandemic. But I only offer words of encouragement, as I’m sure he’s had more than his fair share of guilt-by-association for living in a COVID hotspot.

After a quick snack, the two of us opt for the right fork at the toilets and walk counterclockwise to the summit, where the chair-lift crowds have now reached the top. The triangulation point sits between a split in the walkways, wrapped in a shimenawa rope in an apparent effort to keep hikers from trampling it to oblivion. A nondescript signpost cants heavily towards the encroaching bamboo grass. We pause for a few seconds before continuing along the ridge towards an attractive mountain named Jirōgyū – Shikoku’s third highest mountain. I share the descent with a trail runner as we talk about the mountains of Japan’s 4th island. Paul pushes on ahead to escape from our vibrant chatter. The route bottoms out at a saddle before the steep, sweat-inducing climb to the top, an ascent that is accompanied by the rising cloud of the day.

We sit in the cloud and devour our lunch, taking in brief breaks in the fog to relish in the vibrant greenery of summer. It is a comfortable 23 degrees, as least 15 degrees cooler than the valleys nearly 2000 meters below us. I had always thought that Osaka residents needed to head to the Japan Alps to escape the summer heat, but all we need to do is to head a few hours west instead, an enticing proposition as we continue to ride out the ebbs and flows of the pandemic.

 

 

 

 

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Nestled snugly along the prefectural border of Okayama and Hyogo lies a formidable ridge of mountain peaks towering high over the secluded village of Chikusa. Known to Shugendō practitioners as the Nishi Ōmine, or Mt Ōmine of the west, the southern face of Mt Ushiro is home to the 13th century temple known as Dōsenji, whose inner sanctuary is still off-limits to women. Since there are two females in our quartet of hikers, we opt to skip this misogynistic nightmare and instead opt for the straightforward ascent of the southern face of Mt Funaki, followed by a half-hour stroll along the ridge to Mt Ushiro.

Paul pulls the car up to the small parking lot just opposite the idle campground. The trailhead is smothered with signposts in various states of decay, but from what we gather from the remaining bits of faded text, it is a 2km climb straight up the spur to the summit plateau, followed by a short descent to an unnamed saddle and a final climb up the western face. Paul, Mayumi, Maggie and I set off in single file, marching towards that summit ridge along a rocky promenade ablaze with autumn delights. 

The path initially follows a small ravine along a narrow path marked consistently in red tape marks and signposts in much better condition than found below. One such way mark indicates we are trespassing along the Chūgoku Shuzen Hodō, a well-established network of paths penetrating the 5 prefectures of the Chūgoku region. All in all it covers a mind boggling distance of nearly 2300km and would be an immense undertaking for even seasoned walkers, though content as we are with this slither of a 2000 meter stretch of track.

Our route soon leaves the comforts of the valley floor and climbs abruptly through a glorious collection of hardwoods that have already started shedding their summer coats. By the time we reach the halfway point of the climb the trees are completely bare: a start contrast to the brilliant display of autumn hues just a few hundred vertical meters below.

After passing through a small grove of towering hardwoods, an upkept section of planted Hinoki cypress escorts us up the furthest reaches of the slopes to the start of the spur proper. This cypress follows us along the ridge that doubles as a property line. The forests to our right are owned by Dōsenji temple and retain their centuries-old charm, while to our left a thick wall of planted trees squeezes the life out of the forest. Many ridge lines in Japan retain this unique feature, and no greater a contrast can be found during the fall and winter season in this unsanctioned struggle between deciduous decrepitude and evergreen encroachment.

Our pleasant ascent in solitude is broken by the symphonic squalls of bear bells from the upper slopes ahead, as a battalion of elderly hikers descend toward us. Such groups two dozen strong are hardly a rare sighting in the mountains of Japan, as most visitors seem to visit the mountains to socialize rather than to seek spiritual solitude. We utter a quick greeting while letting them pass.

The spur soon intersects the summit ridge on the top of Mt Funaki sitting just 10 meters lower than Mt Ushiro at an altitude of 1334 meters. Funaki happens to feature on the list of Shisō 50 Meizan, or 50 peaks of the Shisō region of Hyōgo Prefecture. Fukada Kyūya’s greatest shortsight is in not trademarking the meizan name, for his estate would be quite wealthy with the plethora of ‘famous mountain’ lists permeating every region of Japan.

After a short break to catch our breath, we drop along a brilliant ridge of bamboo grass for the pleasant half an hour stroll to the summit of Okayama’s highest mountain. To be honest, it’s hard to call this peak part of the Chūgoku region as it lies in closer proximity to Kobe than Okayama. In fact, Mt Hinakura sitting directly opposite the valley is featured on the list of Kansai Hyakumeizan. But as I’ve told countless individuals before: “I didn’t choose the mountains – the mountains chose me”.

Paul brews up fresh coffee for everyone as we take in the warm autumn sunshine and stellar panoramic views. It’s hard to believe this is my final ‘Highest Prefectural Peak’ west of Fukui. There are still half a dozen more mountains to go, but I have faith that I can finish them off before I grow old and grey. As I look back over the preceding years, I consider myself lucky to have come this far, climbing mountains with faithful companions and escaping close calls with leaky valves and bleeding lungs. 

We retrace our steps with the fading afternoon light as our accompaniment – it is these descents that I truly cherish in my mountain quests. With strong knees and, carried by the momentum of a successful ascent, I tend to shift into autopilot, but with the wilting light I walk spellbound, transfixed by the absolute beauty of the deciduous groves in their seasonal metamorphosis. 

 

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The heat of the August sun continues to berate western Japan, sending temperatures into feverish heights and turning every step into a delirious mess of sweat and confusion. If you can’t stand the heat, you clearly need to get out of the kitchen and head to higher ground. A long-overdue revisit to the ‘4th island’ is just what the doctor ordered.

I take an early pre-rush hour train to Kobe to meet Paul, whose 4-wheeled Sedan will shuttle us across the Akashi strait and into the gentle flatlands of the old Awa province. We make good time, rolling into the town of Mima shortly before noon, where a roadside stop of toriten (chicken tempura) alleviates the hunger. We pore over a map of the region, deciding to take the ‘faster’ route 438 to the Tsurugi trailhead, which will allow us for an early check-in and quick afternoon hike before dinner.

Fueled by a cool can of Barista Black, Paul navigates the narrow road away from the valley and along the Sadamitsu river through a narrow gorge dotted with traditional houses clinging halfway up the steep mountain slopes. They appear constructed not by creatures of the human race, for they seem to have been placed there by an alien spaceship rather than carefully constructed by the tools of man. The dwellings are situated on slopes exposed to the sunlight for adequate crop production and, considering the effort it takes just for a trip into town, they must be pretty self-sufficient folk who occupy these isolated refuges.

A signpost for Narutaki falls gives us pause, as we park on the narrow shoulder for a quick gaze at the two-tiered waterfall dropping from an immense height. The falls look tiny from here, and the tourist map indicates a forest road leads to the base of the falls, but in what condition awaits to be seen. At a further turnoff, the tourist literature leads us to Dogama basin, a swift-flowing waterfall that weaves between a narrow band of granite cliffs. The crystal clear waters beg further inspection, and with the full strength of the afternoon sun and temperatures in the mid-30s we head upstream a bit for a natural soak in the buff.

Body heat dissipates immediately, provide much-needed relief and an extra boost of energy for the side trip to Naru falls. The forest road looks to be in immaculate condition, but instead of retrieving the car, we opt for the 700 meter walk along the deserted asphalt. The lower basin of the falls looks inviting, but the buzz of mosquitoes keep us from stripping down. A weather-beaten statue of Fudō Myōō overlooks the towering water, and a side trail takes us up steep switchbacks to the upper basin, whose trickling waters must surely be thundering during the rainy season. Today they appear harmless, except for slick moss-covered rocks that would thwart any attempt to scale to the top of the falls.

Back at the car, the real climb begins, as the road narrows through a series of hairpin turns past an abandoned ski resort and onto the turnoff for our accommodation. After checking in and dropping off our things, we each grab a bottle of water and a camera and hit the trail for the 1700m summit of Mt Marusasa. The map time suggests an hour ascent, but with just 200 vertical meters spread out over 1.7km of track, we make good time through a lush forest of conifers that would not look out of place in the Yatsugatake mountain range. Such unspoiled sections of woods are hard to come by, and with the lingering late afternoon fog, we walk spellbound by their beauty.

The fog continues to escort us above the trees and into a vast meadow of bamboo grass. A trio of sika deer flee for cover, barking cries of discontent to warn other members of their pack about the encroaching intruders. Paul and I reach the summit just before 5pm under the veil of mist. Sweat clings to my shirt as I take a drink of water to replenish the lost fluids. Despite the slight humidity, temperatures are comfortable, hovering around the mid-20s at this altitude.

With a 6pm dinner call, we retreat back towards the forest, only to be halted by a break in the clouds as the stubborn fog finally begins to lift. A bird’s-eye view directly down into Iya Valley, beaming with angelic light in the fading rays of the day. Tsurugi sits just opposite, entangled in its own battle with the cloud.

It is for these moments that truly make an excursion to the mountains worthwhile.

For all the times I’ve been caught in the cloud’s thick grasp, I occasionally get lucky and get the timing right. As the light begins to fade, so too do we begin our retreat back to civilization. A hearty meal of pork shabu-shabu hot pot goes down well, topped off with a generous helping of zosui rice that leaves the belly full. After dinner Paul and I retreat outdoors to take in the stars and relish in the comfortable temperatures. It really is possible to escape the summer heat by heading to the highlands of Shikoku.

 

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