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Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

I have done most of the peaks in the Suzuka range, but needed one more visit to cross the massif off my Kinki 100 list. I turned once again to fellow Kinkan conspirator William, and with Mai and Sota in tow we guided the Mini along the expressway towards the northern edge of the mountains. Mt. Eboshi is the very first mountain in the range, and in clear weather the peak affords mouth-watering panoramic views of the rest of Suzuka’s craggy spires, and even out to Hakusan and the Kita Alps. Clear weather and the Suzuka mountains, however,  are rarely used together in the same sentence and we anxiously awaited to see what mother nature held in store for us.

The first rain squall hit right outside of Kusatsu city, and the further north we drove, the more unstable the weather. Luckily this storm system was held in check by the strong highlands of Mt. Ryozen, and sunny weather awaited us on the northern side of Ryozen’s sprawling form. Just before reaching the trailhead of our target peak Mt. Eboshi, a bright rainbow stretched across a golden rice field just in front of the car. Perhaps these clouds have started to infiltrate our secluded valley.

Several peaks in Japan have been crowned (so to speak) with the venerated name Eboshi. The most famous of which is the Eboshi in the Kita Alps, whose pointy features really do resemble the priest’s hat for which it is named. The origins of the Suzuka Eboshi, however, are steeped in mystery, for the mountain is more akin to a beanie hat than the headgear of a sumo referee. In fact, in the old days it was known as Mino-fuji, the Mt. Fuji of Mino province. However, when viewed from the east, the resemblance to the pointy hat really becomes clear. Dreadfully, there is no path from the east, which forces us to trudge along the main trail shooting directly up the northern face.

We hit the trail in relatively good stride, pushing past a cedar forest before breaching a small ridge that led to the crux of the steep climb to the summit plateau. From there, the deciduous forests reigned supreme, just beginning their early autumn tinge of color in the brisk air of early November. The sun filtered in and out of the clouds while the gales continued to lap at the mountain like the wake of a passing motorboat. A series of viewpoints offered glimpses into a broad valley flanked by the Yoro mountains beyond. Sota used these vistas as an excuse to squeeze a few extra minutes of rest out of us, which didn’t bother us too much since we were still a bit sluggish from the long drive and lack of sleep.

The trail split higher up, and we veered left onto the aptly-named rock course, which wound its way through a forest floor of damp leaf matter and chestnut spines. The woods glowed from the golden maples nestled against the darkening sky. The first drops of rain swept through the quivering foliage, forced through by the strong gales from the west. We pushed straight through the torrent, popping out on the summit after being swallowed by the cloud.

Sota began shivering, so after a very brief photo session we dropped straight down the tree tunnel of the northeastern ridge and back out of the cloud, coming face-to-face with a rainbow stretched out directly in front of us, almost within grasping distance. In order to stave off the wintry chill, I pushed the pace until arriving at the top of a vertical precipice, affording a soothing view towards the Ryozen massif, still cloaked in a menacing cyclone of evil cloud. I admired the views while waiting for William and company to catch up, and as soon as we were all reunited, we dropped down to a northerly slope sheltered from the wind and were finally able to stretch the legs comfortably.

The sunshine had once again returned, which brightened the spirits as we once again descended into the warm comforts of the cedar forests. Back on pavement, we chatted with a local pensioner praying at the shrine who informed us about the large number of leeches that live at the base of the mountain during the summer. The worst part is apparently in these safe-haven cedars. It seems that the leech population has exploded in recent years, mostly due to the increasing deer population which provides plenty of fresh blood for the aspiring vampires.

As soon as we arrived back at the car, the sky opened up, pelting the vehicle with large drops of rain as we scarfed down the lunch and turned on the heat. The drive back to Kyoto was non-eventful, especially due to the sunshine in abundance everywhere except these cursed highlands of Suzuka.

With the Suzuka mountains now behind me, I could now focus my attention on the remaining peaks dotted throughout the rest of the region. Little did I know that my time with Suzuka was far from finished.

 

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I woke up with a mouth drier than the sands of the Sahara. The previous day spent unprotected on the slopes of Mitsutōge sent the immune response into overdrive, resulting in a fitful night of rest. I stumbled out of my room and to the barista counter and order a double shot of espresso that helped to clear the sinuses. It would be a difficult task to muster up enough will to climb a mountain, but with my mountaineering reputation at stake, I borrow a one-speed bicycle and hit the tarmac across the arched slopes of Ohashi bridge. Once across, I navigated the handle bars left for the long counter-clockwise traverse of the western shores of Kawaguchiko.

Constant streams of arctic air washed over me from the north, hindering progress and forcing me into a crouching position. The espresso was doing its trick for now, but I needed to supplement that kick with a little sustenance, which I found a little further away in the baskets of Lake Bake bakery. The teriyaki and melted cheese wrap crawled down the back of my raw mouth with a bit of help from the half-frozen water bottle attached to the side of my tattered backpack. Across the shores of the lake, Mt. Fuji had already closed her curtains to visitors, so I stared at the billowing clouds and hoped for a positive change in the weather.

My motivation to climb a peak had now hit rock bottom – how was I suppose to hike to the top of a mountain noted for its spectacular Fuji vistas if the million-dollar views had already been withdrawn? At the Nagahama junction I veered west for the steep climb to a mountain pass towards Lake Saiko. About a quarter of the way up, my legs turned to jelly and I dismounted, half pushing, half cursing my way up the restricted switchbacks of the paved road. Just before the tunnel at the pass, I rested at the trailhead for Mt. Kenashi and Junigatake, half considering this longer approach along a jagged ridge but my internal calling got the better of me and I once again mounted the bicycle and coasted to the western lake.

By now it was already high noon, and with nothing in my backpack apart from a few snacks, I pushed my luck until finding a family-run lake view shokudō open for lunch. I tucked into a ginger pork lunch set, forcing the food down my throat even though I was hardly hungry. The fatigue hit me like a ton of bricks and I sat there looking at the lake and wondering if I had it in me to hit the trails or not. I knew I just needed a moment for the caloric equilibrium to return to my withered body.

My lunch was served with green tea, and after a few extra cups, I felt about as normal as I can get this dreadful season. For anyone who is lucky enough not to suffer from cedar allergies, allow me a minute to put it into perspective. Imagine placing a clothes pin on the bridge of your nose after someone has just put a few eyedrops of sand into your pupils. On top of that, a cruel demon has inserted a needle with a small hole into an opening just above the clothes pin and is pumping sea water straight into your sinus cavity, creating a crystalline waterfall that rolls down your nostrils and onto your upper lip. The constant battle between invading pollen and the strong defences of your immune system leaves your body wiped before you’ve even begun your daily activity.

I once again mounted my bicycle and cruised down to the trailhead of Mt. Junigatake, my target for the day. As I stood at the start of the strenuous hike and looked up at the wall of mountain towering over me, a wave of unease swept through my body. There was only one solution.

A decade earlier I would have fought off the fatigue and marched up the steep contours towards the ridge, but I needed another source of motivation, in the form of a hot spring bath. Now I know that the majority of people opt for the soak post-hike, but sometimes a break in tradition is the only solution. Besides, who in their right mind would build a hot spring directly opposite the trailhead, where it would be so much easier to hop in a bath than scale a giant peak?

I forked over the staggering 900 yen fee and made a bee line for the outdoor bath. Despite or perhaps because of this early afternoon hour, I found myself completely alone and soothed with my aching body. Now, everyone knows that taking a long bath will completely zap your energy, but you’ll be pleased to note my completely unfounded study about the energizing benefits of a short bath of roughly 7 minutes. Now, I know what you’re thinking: 900 yen for 7 minutes and no happy ending, but rest assured that this expenditure was necessary, because I hit the road with a new spring in my step.

By giving up on Mt. Juni, I turned my attention to a smaller ridge flanking the northern shores of Lake Saiko. The Tokai Nature Trail follows this row of mountains on its way towards western Japan, and it seemed like a good way to preserve my hiking reputation without doing myself in. I parked the bike at the trailhead and followed the switchbacks through a labyrinth of exposed tree roots and rotting snow fields. In places exposed to the direct sunlight, angle-deep mud did its best to impede my forward progress.

I settled into a good rhythm, and wondered if giving up my assault on Mt. Juni was justified after all. It only took about 40 minutes to breach the ridge and reach a viewpoint at Sankodai, which reads ‘the viewpoint of 3 lakes’. The 3 lakes in question here are Saiko, Shojiko, and Motosuko, but for some reason Shoji could not be discerned amongst the backlit forests of Aokigahara.

Mt. Fuji was still enveloped in heavy cloud, so I sat facing north, taking in the pleasant vistas across Saiko to Mt. Juni, whose jagged outline looked rather intimidating from this angle. Perhaps giving this one a miss wasn’t such a bad decision on second thought. A low rumble from the west grew louder as the source of the disturbance revealed itself: a trio of war planes swooped over the pass just below me, following each other in perfect succession. Perhaps they are gearing up for a showdown between Japan’s ballsy neighbor to the north.

The descent back down to the bicycle was slippery to say the least, but the trekking poles helped prevent a couple of potentially nasty spills. Back on the road, I completed the loop of Saiko and dropped back down the pass to Kawaguchiko and continued circumnavigating the golden shores. By now the chafing on my inner thighs from the hard saddle on my mode of transport had become uncomfortable, so I settled into Cisco Coffee for another caffeine boost and to give my legs a rest. Apparently all of their coffee beans are roasted in San Francisco, which makes you wonder about the quality of the java, being 8500 km away and all. Such things are best overlooked when you’ve reached your limit of physical endurance and are looking for a naturally-occuring drug for an extra boost in reserves.

Dark clouds rolled in, an omen of a change in the weather. The final kilometer of the ride back to the guesthouse was up a dreadfully long incline, and it was all I could do to keep from falling off my bicycle. I pulled into the entrance just as the first flurries of the approaching snowstorm blew off the slopes of Mt. Fuji.  I settled into a sofa in the lounge and let my body completely relax, every last ounce of energy zapped from my limp body. Despite the fatigue and discomfort, it sure beat lazing about all day wasting time on-line. Sometimes holidays are the best reminder that we’ve got to make the most of our lives, pollen be damned.

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Amazing mountains deserve subsequent visits, and Mt. Ryozen is no exception. I became mesmerized by the Scottish feel of the summit plateau during my first climb on a frigid March morning, and dreamed of heading back in the autumn to take in the golden hues of the meandering grasslands. Noteworthy peaks are like a good bottle of bubbly – they are best shared and showed off to close counterparts, so I turned to my companions from the latest Gathering and settled upon a date in late November that just happened to coincide with a stable high pressure system.

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Miguel, Eri, Rika and I alighted at Samegai station in eastern Shiga Prefecture, where Paul D. was waiting with a warm smile and an eager look on his face. With such perfect weather at our disposal, such looks were well understood, as we were all itching to make full use of the brilliant daylight. The bus was set to depart in 15 minutes, leaving Eri just enough time to dash to the nearest convenience store to stock up on provisions for the long hike. From the bus stop to the summit, we faced a 7-1/2 km one-way hike, the first 4 kilometers of which were on a paved forest road will little to no vehicular traffic. We each hit the tarmac at our own pace, settling in on a rhythm while catching up the latest news. It was our first time to hike with Rika, a feisty Fukuoka native who had recently relocated to Kobe to work for Finetrack. Her sense of humor helped break up the monotony of walking on a road we easily could have driven in luxury.

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The waterfall route I had taken on my first visit was washed out in a typhoon some years ago, which necessitated our current, longer approach via the forgotten remains of Kuregahata village. The farming hamlet was home to 50 households during the Meiji era, but life was rough for the 245 inhabitants, as the winter snows brought accumulation of several meters, cutting off access to the larger towns of Maibara and Hikone. Residents slowly relocated to lower, drier ground over the ensuing years, until the strict food rations during World War II forced the remaining habitants to migrate towards the more populated enclaves. The final death blow was dealt soon after, as the local elementary school shuttered its doors and essentially hindered anyone to returning to settle. Nowadays the building foundations and vegetable fields provide campsites near the public-run mountain hut, which gives off an eerie, Blair Witch feel. We moved through the area swiftly, anxious to reach the warmth of the sun’s rays up on the ridge.

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The path switchbacks abruptly out of Kuregahata, reaching a mountain pass whose Kanji characters read “sweat wiping”. The name was most appropriate, for not only were we dabbing the sweat away from our brows, but we were also shedding excess layers under the pleasantly balm November temperatures. The trail hugs the ridge, with abrupt drops off the southern face towards the hissing sound of flowing water concealed by the burning foliage in full autumnal display. Our progress was brought to a halt more than once as nature put on a slideshow worthy of pause.

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I was beginning to worry about our snail’s pace up towards the summit plateau, for we still had quite a long way to go just to reach the ridge before an even longer traverse to the high point. There were just too many distractions along the way – a rusty shovel hidden among the freshly fallen leaves provided minutes of spontaneous role play opportunities that could just not be passed up. With such an amicable cast of characters to our unfolding drama, we took it all in stride as the vistas began to reveal their magical selves. Humble villages hugged the jigsaw shoreline of Japan’s largest freshwater lake, as a ring of rugged massifs encircled the cove, mimicking the masts of warships ready to set sail at the slightest sign of trouble. It was in these broad flatlands that Japan’s most intense struggle for unification took hold that ultimately ushered in the reign of the Tokugawa clan and the seclusionist policies of the Edo era.

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We paused at one such overlook, admiring the views when a party of three elderly hikers greeted us on their descent from the rocky plateau above. Upon ushering our greeting, the trio responded with an air of recognition, as if they were being reunited with a long-lost friend. “Didn’t we meet you on Mt. Amagoi?”, inquired the tallest of the three. During our ascent of a peak just across the valley, Paul and I did run into these good-natured folks, who informed us about the Suzuka 12, a supplementary list to the original Suzuka 7 mountains that included 5 extra peaks on the Shiga side of the range. This time around we posed for a commemorative photo before continuing on our push against the force of gravity.

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Soon the rolling hills of the true ridge came into view, and after a few switchbacks we left the trees behind and arrived on the summit of the first peak, marked by a signpost indicating that we were 70% of the way there. This proved an ample resting place for lunch, with a gentle breeze, unhindered views, and plenty of fresh peanut butter to go around. It would have been easy to give into temptation and laze around for a few hours, but summit fever soon took hold, as we pushed on towards the top.

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Looks can be quite deceiving, as the lack of tree cover revealed the surprisingly long ground we still had left to cover. I had come from the completely opposite direction on my first visit, so this was still virgin territory. After passing by an idyllic pond marked by a small shrine, the trail veered towards the right, rising steadily towards a parallel ridge line with ever-expanding views. At the crest of the knoll, the iconic hump of Mt. Ibuki came into full view, flanked on the right across a broad valley by the smoldering cap of Ontake. Closer at hand, the emergency hut stood guard, looking as if it were plucked from Grindelwald and plopped down on the soaring plateau. Mt. Ena held silent vigil across the subdued lowlands of Aichi, waiting patiently for the first flakes of snow to fall on the gentle curves of her sacred flank.

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Rika and I pushed out slightly ahead of the others, as we were soon approaching our 2pm turnaround time. The path dropped to a long saddle before the final steep push to the high point, offering panoramic views of the remainder of Suzuka’s foreshortened layer of contorted ridges. The summit boulders offered ample space for stretching out and taking in the splendid autumn views. From our eagle’s perch we tracked the progress of our fellow companions, tracing their outlines as they all successfully arrived on the top. We spent a few minutes taking in the wonderful scenery before reluctantly turning away for the long return to the bus stop. The final bus was at 5pm, which left us about 2-1/2 hours to cover the 7.5km descent. Just before pushing off a trip of French climbers arrived at the summit. They had heard about this hike from my very own Hiking in Japan website and were more than pleased with my recommendation.

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On the ascent, I spied a shortcut at the col that would shave about a half an hour off our descent and led our group on a narrow deer trail through the golden grasses. Our downward progress was steady but never felt rushed, and soon we regained the fiery foliage of the deciduous forest and slowed our pace to savor those fading tints of the waning season. Once back on the forest road we kept a constant eye on the clock, and with our perseverance we arrived back at the bus stop with just minutes to spare before the final bus of the day. At the station, the French trio we met on the summit came strolling in well after sundown. Perhaps I need to upgrade my difficulty rating on my website less one of my readers meet with ill luck.

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At the northern tip of Kyoto Prefecture, an oblong peninsula juts out into the Sea of Japan like a thumb looking to hitch a ride. This is the Tango Peninsula, a relatively untouched area dotted with secluded beaches, idyllic hot springs, and jovial locals who’ve settled into the slower pace and laid back atmosphere generally reserved for those living along the South China Sea. I’d been here once before during my quest to climb the Kansai 100, and here again I found myself on a mission to conquer Mt. Taiko, the highest summit in the entire peninsula.

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As is usually the case, getting there would pose the biggest challenge. I had long since written off the mountain as impossible to visit without a car, but subsequent net surfing revealed a bus stop at the mouth of Saigawa river that was within walking distance of the summit, if you considered a 10-km walk along a winding forest road to be walking distance that is. I had the schedule nailed down and had even virtually walked the first part of the route using the streetview function of Google maps. A high pressure system settled over the Hokuriku region, which promised favorable walking conditions in an area that is a magnet for wet precipitation most of the year.

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The train pulled out of Osaka station at 6:10am, chugging along the foggy tracks towards Fukuchiyama, where the Tango Tetsudo chauffeured the dozen passengers to Miyazu station, the terminus of the bus for Saigawa. Trouble was, the train was running behind schedule, meaning I would miss my connecting bus and have no way of making it to the trailhead without dropping yen on a budget-breaking taxi. The train was only 3 minutes behind schedule, so instead of alighting at Miyazu, I continued along to Amanohashidate station, where the bus was next scheduled to stop. Fortunately, the train was faster than the bus, and I had a few extra minutes to spare before boarding bus #9 and settling into a seat near the back. The ride took nearly 45 minutes, during which time I fueled up on energy bars and studied the paper maps courtesy of old man Google. It was nearly 10:30 in the morning by the time I put rubber sole to asphalt, and I had a really long way to go.

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Road walks can really be a drag. Just read any of the posts on Notes from the ‘Nog to get an indication on how pedestrian-unfriendly Japan’s byways can truly be. Once you’re off the main roads and onto the village lanes and forest tracks, however, the going becomes a lot more pleasant on both the metatarsals and the eyes. I made good time up route 625 past Tenchoji temple and its rustic village slumbered down for the winter. At a fork in the road sat a shelter housing a fresh water spring. I paused briefly to rest the haunches and check my bearings. This was as far as the Google truck had driven, so from here on out I needed to rely on the GPS. Forest roads branched out towards the mountains above, and after a few twists and turns I breached the ridge of the mountains and officially commenced the ascent towards Tango’s lofty heights. While 683 meters may not seem like a tall peak, it all depends on perspective. Mt. Taiko is taller than any mountain in both Okinawa and Chiba Prefectures, and it’s only 300 meters lower than the tallest mountain in all of Kyoto.

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After reaching the ridge, the vistas opened up towards the north, as a fortress of mountains lined the horizon , like a battalion of soldiers standing guard to keep unwanted visitors away. I would have to go up and over these peaks just to get within striking distance of Mt. Taiko. My heart sank as I suddenly realized the formidable task that lie ahead of me. Could I even make it to the top before dark? How on earth would I be able to return to Osaka in time for work the following morning? I continued on in silence, hoping that I could somehow muster up the courage and energy to continue.

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Just as things started to look bleak, the unmistakable rumble of an automobile echoed from the valley below. The sound crescendoed until the utility van was on my heels. I leaped to the shoulder of the narrow road, stretching my thumb out on pure instinct. The vehicle halted its forward momentum as I opened the passenger’s side door. “Where are you going”, asked the white-haired man, dressed in a blue forestry uniform. “Mt. Taiko,” came my reply, in as soft and nonthreatening voice as I could muster up. “Hop in”, said the man.

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After the initial shock of finding someone crazy enough to walk up an abandoned forest road, my saviour explained about the area and the lack of employment opportunities. “I came up here to check on the work of my employees”, gestured the logging company president, as we drove past one patch of cedar forest that he had come to check on. The timber had been felled, cut, and stacked into clean piles just as was ordered by the boss. “Timber is so cheap nowadays that people no longer enter the logging industry.”  Seizing the opportunity, I inquired about the future of this clear-cut area, wondering if he’d be replanting it with cedar trees per the government protocol. “No, I’ll just let the natural forest reclaim it.”

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In spite of the paved road to the top, there was a surprisingly large amount of native broadleaf remaining on the slopes of the mountain. I suppose that most of the prefectural coffers were invested in the prominent Kitayama cedar trees that still fetch a high price on the market. Any trip immediately north of Kyoto city will reveal the extent of the destruction of the native flora, as enormous mountains of cedar cut off the sunlight and blanket the city with giant plumes of suffocating pollen in the late winter. Luckily, the further north you get from the city, the lighter the destruction.

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As we rose up towards the Tango highlands, large swaths of fresh snow covered the shaded parts of the road, prompting a bit of careful navigation from my driver, and a bit of excitement in seeing my first fresh snowfall of the winter. By the time we reached Swiss Mura ski village the entire slopes were blanketed in 10 centimeters of soft white crystal. I thanked my driver profusely and shouldered the pack for the short climb to the high point, which sat at the terminus of the highest ski lift. Rather than trudging through the banal contours of the open slopes, I stuck to the forested sections of the southeastern face of the mountain, carving a trail through the untracked powder until reaching a set of footprints from another visitor earlier that day. I followed those tracks until they ended in a thicket of undergrowth that was choking the hillside and had me second-guessing my decision to avoid the easy way up. Pushing my way through the virtual maze, I eventually skirted the southern edge of the ski lift and popped out in the grasslands just below the summit. When I reached the top I glanced at my watch to discover that it was exactly high noon.

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Sitting in a dry patch of yellow grass under the lift, I soaked in the warm midday rays and filled my belly with provisions. I was planning on walking all the way back down to the sea and I needed some heavy calories for the descent. Resting for only 15 minutes, I once again geared up for the long walk back to civilization, as I knew my chances of encountering another car were slim to none. Sliding my way back to the forest road, I took off on a brisk walking pace, following the prints of deer, boar, stoat, and fox as they led me further down the slopes. I soon reached the edge of the snow line and could now catch sight of the sea which still seemed an absurdly long way away. I couldn’t believe that I thought it a good idea to go from sea to summit and back again in only one day. If not for the extra help it surely would not have been possible.

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When I reached the clear cut area that we passed earlier I checked my watch to find that it read 1pm. In 45 minutes I had covered roughly a third of the distance, so I set a new goal for myself – the 2:15 bus.

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I stepped it into high gear, keeping a 6km-an-hour pace until slowing down a bit once I felt some blisters starting to form. The recent hiking shoes I had bought in the early autumn were just a bit too small for my feet, and my hopes of fully breaking them in were a failure. With such a tight schedule to keep, there was no time to rest just yet. Familiar landmarks I had passed on the climb now came into sight, as I had now reached the area that I had covered before being given the ride. I pushed on in agony, as each footfall triggered my sensory system to render messages to my brain to slow the pace. Finally, the water source at the junction of route 625 came into view. I trotted the last 50 meters before collapsing on a rock bench just in front of the spring. I immediately took off my shoes and socks to let my feet air out as I shuffled through the pack for the moleskins and band aids. I polished off the sports drink as well as a couple of energy bars and a block of chocolate. By the time I finished mending my feet it was approaching 1:45pm. Could I really make this bus?

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I remember that it had taken me about 45 minutes to climb up to the junction, so there was still a chance of accomplishing my goal, but I’d need to push a 7km per hour pace to do it. Nevermind the wincing pain at every advancing step. I bit my lower lip and set off in a half trot, half skip down the paved road. I soon passed by a small temple I had seen on the way. As I looked over at the stone steps rising up to the main sanctuary, a patch of red caught my eye. A troupe of macaques were sunning themselves on the stairs, as if taunting me to take photos of them. There are rare occasions where I will turn down a photo op but this was one of them. I was going to make this bus, posing monkeys or not.

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The final 10 minutes of the walk were a blur, but I somehow mustered up the energy to kick it into a full-on jog, as the sea grew closer and closer. Alas, I reached the bus stop with just minutes to spare, dropping my pack and tearing off my shoes in search of pain relief. I sat slumped in the comforting cushions of the bus seat, finally being able to take in the enormity of my quest. What surely should have been the easiest of the Kinki Hyakumeizan became one of the physically hardest and mentally toughest mountain to date. I’m not sure how many more of these lightning ascents I can take. Luckily for me, there are only 5 more mountains on the list.

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Sandwiched between the Omine mountains and Odai-ga-hara, a pyramidal massif juts up towards the sky as if constructed by the ancient Egyptians. Known in English as the peak of the white beard, I had a hard time finding any information about Mt. Shirahige apart from a brief listing in an out-of-print guidebook. A quick perusal through the Japanese blogosphere revealed a path from the west in relatively good condition with a caveat about a sawtooth ridge with plenty of exposure. With old man winter rearing its ugly head, I seized one final chance to knock off another mountain before the deep snowfalls sealed off access.

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Nao and Tomoko picked me up at Yamato-kamiichi station in rural Nara Prefecture on a brisk Saturday morning in mid-December. The station sits on a small incline affording views of Mt. Yoshino across the valley. The rest of the Omine range lay thick in a murky cloud as I reached into the pack for an extra layer to stave off the chilly breeze. The couple were fresh off their summer ascent of Kilimanjaro and Nao was keen to knock off another mountain on the Kinki 100 list. If successful, it would be my 94th and his 82nd peak respectively.

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At a bend in the narrow forest road, a sign pointed the way towards our target peak. We parked the car on a narrow shoulder and shouldered our packs shortly after. The howling wind left little time for loitering or contemplating. The first part of the route followed a forest road that has fallen into disuse. You’ll find hundreds of such roads carving their way through 90% of Japan’s mountainous terrain. This particular one had been constructed over half a century earlier for the construction of a small water station to pump clean mountain water to the residents of Kawakami village at the foot of the mountain.

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We made slow but steady progress as the road gave way to mountain path, which followed the waters upstream to the base of a 30-meter high waterfall that was little more than a trickle. The route veered south, cutting up and around this fall via a long and somewhat exposed traverse. Ropes in places reminded us to keep our footing firm, as any slip here would prove fatal. Despite the lack of foot traffic the trail was easy to find, perhaps due in large part to the dead undergrowth that likely swallows the path in the warmer months. Moving steadily through the neatly manicured strands of planted cedar and cypress, we soon rose above the valley floor, with the Omine range looking on from across the valley directly behind us. The massif was slumbered inside a baleful tempest of wintry cloud, the bottom edge of the icy trees peeking out from under the fog like a child’s foot sticking out from underneath the covers.

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I pushed ahead towards the junction on the ridge while Nao stayed behind with Tomoko, who was struggling a bit with knee pain. At the crest of the ridge I faced the full force of the wind pushing in from the east and ducked behind a cedar tree for cover. I stuffed a few morsels of chocolate into my dry mouth, washing it down with a cupful of hot water from the thermos, the one piece of gear I never leave at home during these brisk days. Once the warmth returned to my extremities, I munched  on a pair of Calorie Mate bars, the preferred snack of choice here for hikers. Each bar holds exactly 100 calories, and has the consistency of Scottish shortbread. If you shows signs of being under-hydrated, the dry morsels will stick to your palate, forcing you to wash them down with a big gulp of water. I really should consider buying stock in Otsuka, or at least seeing if they’ll sponsor me. The pharmaceutical giant also manufacturers Pocari Sweat sports drink, which has left more than a few visitors wondering about the identity of Mr. Pocari and his magic perspiration.

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Once Nao and Tomoko caught up, I pushed ahead towards the first peak of Ko-Shirahige. The path immediately scaled a near-vertical root-infested precipice, sending me gasping for breath in the sub-arctic temperatures. Thinking that the summit lie at the top of the next rise, I pushed even harder, only to realize that it was indeed just one of half a dozen false peaks along the sabertooth ridge. The cedar trees yielded to a healthy forest of beech and other hardwoods coated with a thin layer of hoarfrost from the fog that lapped at the eastern side of the ridge. Just below the summit of Little White Beard, I encountered an elderly man dressed in orange who was making his way down from the top. He assured me that despite the state of the tree branches, the trail was free from ice and snow, which put me at ease. This would be no place to be caught without a pair of crampons. I told the man to relay a message to Nao and Tomoko who were somewhere below me. I was making a summit push, knowing that they would probably abandon their attempt due to their slower pace.

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Instead of taking a break at the top of Ko-Shirahige, I pushed on, dropping down the northern face of the mountain. Through the gap in the trees I caught a glimpse of the summit plateau of Shirahige drifting in and out of the swift-moving cloud. The elderly gentleman earlier said he’d been robbed of a view earlier, but my barometer showed a steady rise in atmospheric pressure that would hopefully mean a lift in the clouds. The path dropped to a saddle no wider than a size 10 boot. Ropes draped across both sides of the knife-edge ridge as I leaped across and onto a wider section of path. The trail rose abruptly up the other side before dropping once again towards another peak along the ridge that looked more like the recent stock market fluctuations than a mountain ridge.

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After another couple of false peaks, the summit pyramid came into sight. It was now free of cloud and looked like a long-lost sibling of Mt. Takazuma and Mt. Ishizuchi, two of Japan’s more prominent peaks.

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I couldn’t help thinking that if Kyūya Fukada had climbed this mountain, he surely would have chosen this mountain over its close neighbor Odai-ga-hara for inclusion in the Hyakumeizan. Indeed, the Hokuriku native did not have a lot of first-hand knowledge of the mountains of Kansai. I’m sure he would have been delighted to catch sight of White Beard Mountain truly living up to its name.

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Reaching the summit in an exhausted heap, I perched down on the lee side of the summit, with vistas to the north all the way to Osaka city. Ice had formed in my water bottle as a quick check of my thermometer revealed temperatures well below freezing, which would explain the rime ice. I pulled my phone out of a side pocket and tried calling Nao to let him know that I had safely reached the summit. He didn’t pick up though, which meant his photo was probably stowed away deep in his pack.

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I dug into my bento lunch, sipping hot water in between bites of cold food. Even though I hardly had an appetite, I forced the food down, knowing that it would help keep me warm and it would supply vital energy on the return leg. Occasionally the wind would pick up and send an arctic gust through all three layers of clothing. After the third such gust, I shouldered the gear and started to set off back down towards Ko-Shirahige, when a flash of red caught my eye. Nao had popped out of the ridge below and reached the summit. He hugged each other and he suggested I start down ahead of him. Instead, I re-joined him on the top and used the opportunity to force more nutrients into my stomach. We took a summit shot together and then admired the vistas towards both the Omine range and Oda-ga-hara, both of which were still concealed in cloud.

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After just a few minutes of rest, Nao was ready to head back down. Tomoko had retreated just below the summit of Ko-Shirahige, and we were both keen to head back as quickly as we could. The trek back to Little White Mountain had taken just as long as the ascent, as we marveled at how far we had come earlier. The vistas towards the Daiko range had now opened up, as the cloud lifted from Mt. Azami and Mt. Myojin, two peaks I’d scaled during warmer, greener times.

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We reached the car at 3pm, just 5-1/2 hours after setting out. Most hikers take at least 6 hours for the climb, but the freezing weather ensured our brisk pace. The mountain truly lived up to its name and reputation, and  a repeat visit is in order, but the next time around it’ll be during the warmer months when I can appreciate the mountain on my own terms instead of letting Mother Nature dictate.

 

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Maybe it was the report from NHK about the Ootō mountains that concerned me. With an annual rainfall average of 4000 mm, the mountain range tucked away in central Wakayama Prefecture is only slightly drier than Odaigahara, one of Kansai’s wettest places. The frequent rains and high humidity provide the perfect habitat for the yamahiru, or Japanese mountain leech. Trip reports from other bloggers recommended that hikers best avoid the Ootō mountains during the warm summer months. Perhaps Ayako and I were tempting fate with our plan for an early June ascent, but with only 4 mountains left on the list, it was now or never.

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Ayako picked me up at Gobo station just before 10am as the last of the morning mists were starting to burn off for the day. The asphalt still lay heavy from the overnight rains as she pointed the car east, away from the coastal sea spray and deep into the heart of Wakayama Prefecture. Most guidebooks recommend an ascent from the east through a narrow gorge that follows the headwaters of the Koza river, but this access route required an additional two hours of driving, time that we simply could not afford to lose. My map showed an alternative approach up the northern face of the massif, a straight shot along a winding forest road just off of route 371. It was this same junction that we passed back in March on our maiden ascent of Hansamine. It took nearly two hours of navigating an incredibly twisted and thin slice of concrete to reach an unmarked gate that led to the start of the hike.

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We stepped out into the refreshingly brisk air, sorting through kit between bites of rice balls and energy bars. We’d need those calories for the 700-meter vertical elevation gain spread out over just a couple of kilometers. The clouds still hung tightly to the ridge somewhere high above us, but a rise in the pressure on my barometer indicated a favorable window for the afternoon climb. The first part of the approach was along an abandoned forest road following a swift-moving mountain stream. The path terminated at a pair of cryptomeria trees estimated to be over half a century in age. Between the gap in the trees a small shrine has been erected, along with a signpost indicating that the towering cedar has been selected as one of the ‘100 Forest Giants of Japan‘.

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The path started just opposite this old growth relic. I took the lead, tramping through the soft cedar needles still damp from the incessant rains of late. With my trekking pole gripped tightly in my left hand, I reached the first switchback, no more than 15 meters away from the forest road. In that short space of time, barely 30 seconds by my watch, a mountain leech had jumared up my trekking pole and latched onto my left index finger. It was tiny, less than the length of a toothpick, but the grip it had on my cuticle required the force of both the thumb and index finger of my right hand to remove the blood-sucking creature. Fortunately it had only latched on to the nail and had not started extracting blood.

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Ayako jumped back in surprise as I flicked the leech back to the forest floor. It was early in the season, and the segmented worms has just awoken from their winter slumber, eager for a taste of fresh blood. “If we run into any more then we’ll turn around”, I proclaimed, setting her mind at ease ever so slightly. Constant vigilance is required to spot the mountain leeches. They can not only climb up your trekking poles and trousers but they can also abseil from the foliage above, landing on your neck for a vampire-esque attack. Such sustained scanning is exhausting, but I was determined not to let out unwanted guests get the upper hand.

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Tightening the dials on my boa laces, I tucked my hiking pants snug against my boots, creating a makeshift gaiter that would hopefully keep the leeches from getting inside my shoes. The system seemed to work, for a few hundred meters higher up the valley, I caught another leech in mid-ascent of my thigh and easily plucked it off my beige hiking pants. I decided not to disclose my discovery to Ayako, hoping that we’d be out of the leech zone once we breached the ridge. It was a steady climb of about an hour before we did reach the ridge. Just before topping out a leech had dropped from a branch above and landed on my arm, I made quick work of it before it could gain purchase.

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We took our first break when the contours flattened out, near an unnamed peak that the map simply calls ‘849’ in reference to its altitude. The crux of the climb was over, or so we thought. Even though we only had 300 meters of vertical elevation, the first thing the trail did was to drop 100 vertical meters to a saddle, where we greeted the northern face of the mountain head on. It was an improvised scramble up a root-infested spur for the better part of an hour. The only saving grace in the slog were the vistas opening up directly in back – the low-lying cloud had finally risen.

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In spite of the pitch, the route was clearly marked with red tape affixed to the trees, and it was simply a matter of using the exposed roots as a natural staircase to inch our way towards the summit plateau. At the top of the rise we reached an unmarked junction, where our alternative path merged with the main path on the true ridge of the Ootō range. After dropping to a saddle, we faced one final, steep climb through a network of net and wire fences erected to keep the deer at bay.

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Such fencework seems overkill, but the western and southern faces of the summit plateau have been destroyed by the deer, who have killed the trees by stripping them of bark. In addition, they’ve eaten all the seedlings, which prevents any new trees from growing in these grassy areas. Unheeded, these open areas allow more sunlight, wind, and heat to penetrate the summit plateau, which is causing stress on the beech, fir, and hemlock trees that still keep a watchful eye on the forest floor. Such post-war cedar plantations failed to penetrate the upper reaches of the massif, thanks in no small part to the Taisho-era government, who back in 1924 designated the Ootō mountains as a protected forest.

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The destruction of the trees on the summit did have one positive effect, however, as visitors can now get a bird’s eye view of the entire Ootō range. Peering over the fence, I could follow the contours of the ridge all the way over to Mt. Hōshi, just one of three remaining mountains on the Kansai 100 list. If I had more time I could simply work my way over there, but with the leech season in full swing, it seemed better to wait.

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On the return descent back to the car, the afternoon heat had dried the trail, sending the leeches back into the burrows on the bottom of the forest floor, so the blood-suckers were nowhere in sight. Peak #97 of the 100 was now in the books, and with just a trio of peaks standing in my way, I now had a clear shot of finishing before the end of the year.

 

 

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My first trip to Hakusan was a total washout, and ever since that dreadful ascent back in 2004 I was looking for a chance to appreciate the mountain without having to bag a peak on the list. That’s the beauty of a re-climb, as there’s no pressure to summit the mountain at all. With that in mind I once again teamed up with Fumito, who was still recovering from a rock climbing trip to nearby Gozaisho. He picked me up at Nagoya station shortly before noon and then pointed the car north, through Gifu Prefecture and then onto route 158, where we passed by the trailhead to Mt. Arashima. It was very tempting to pull the car off to the derelict ski resort for an afternoon ascent, but we had our eyes set on the big hike tomorrow.

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We arrived at Ichinose just after 4pm and set up camp near the river in the tranquil campground. Due to the immense popularity of Hakusan, private cars are no longer allowed to Bettodai during the weekend and Obon peak, so we simply had to wait for the first shuttle bus at 5am the following morning. We killed time in the rustic hot spring bath across from the bus stop, soaking up the minerals that we hoped would provide some extra energy for the impending climb.

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The alarm rang at 4am and we quickly sprang to work, cooking up a bowl of pasta and fresh coffee while breaking down camp in the dark. By the time we reached the bus stop at 4:45am, the queue snaked around the corner and we were denied entry to the 5am bus. Luckily there was another bus that left just 10 minutes later and we piled in for the 20-minute journey to the trailhead. Bettodeai was just as I had remembered it, though with tenfold the crowds. There’s something very unfortunate about hiking during the summer holiday peak, and that is having to share the trail with several hundred other climbers. The parking lot at Ichinose can accommodate 750 vehicles, so an attendance of over 1000 people is not unheard of in this season.

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As we prepared our gear, I noticed that every single hiker seemed to be crossing the suspension bridge which leads to the  Saboshindo route. This trail was closed during my first visit to the mountain, so I was very tempted to explore this route. However, it seemed best to avoid the throngs of people and use this route on the descent, so instead of crossing the bridge, we turned left and entered the Kankoshindo trail. This is the same trail that I took during my first ascent, but it honestly did not look familiar at all. The first part of the path climbed through a healthy broadleaf forest that sat still in the early morning glow. Fumito set off on a snail’s pace from the start, and I was really starting to wonder if we would even make it above the treeline before dark, but he soon found his rhythm and we walked in unison towards the ridge line. We spent most of the first hour in complete solitude, once being passed by a trail-running duo who seemed more intent on getting exercise than on enjoying the scenery.

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The map said to allow 1 hour and 40 minutes to reach the ridge, but we did it in just under 60 minutes. So much for Fumito’s slow pace. Even with our snail’s advance we were still passing groups along the way. The ridge marks the point where the Kanko route merges with the Zenjodo route, the traditional path up the mountain. In ancient times, these so-called “paths of meditation” converged from provinces surrounding the sacred peak. As we turned right and followed the worn stone steps along the undulating ridge, I thought of the 8th century Buddhist monk Taicho, who declared the volcano a holy site. Obviously he was drawn to the unparalleled beauty of the place – the wildflowers covering the slopes like a warm, soft blanket, the lingering snowfields which loiter around in the hot summer months, waiting for mother nature to reapply their coats of frozen paint. His devotion to the mountains spawned an entire religious sect, and this route we were now following led devotees from Echizen province to the sacred highlands above both the trees and clouds.

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We settled into a steady rhythm, pausing at a large overhanging boulder that stretched all the way across the trail. We ducked under the protruding slab and sat, absorbing the fresh rays of sunlight that by now had made their way over the summit plateau directly in front of us. The warmth of the sun also brought the cloud, which threatened to swallow us and transform the mountain into that all-too-familiar world of fuzzy mist. We picked up the pace, reaching the emergency hut at Tonogaike just as my bowels released their pent-up rage. If not for the clean toilet at the recently reconstructed hut I would have surely made quite a mess on the trail.

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The hut was in shambles during my last visit, but the sparkling new shelter would make for a fantastic place to overnight if not for the lack of fresh water. We were now above 2000 meters in height, and had a rather daunting ascent of 700 more vertical meters until reaching the summit. We were truly in a race against the clouds, and one in which we would likely not win.

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Continuing unabated, we soon reached the junction of the Sabo shindo route, where the crowds increased a hundredfold. All of those hikers crossing the bridge at the start of the hike had now caught up to us, and we followed the freight train of sleep-deprived zombies up above the tree line. The path flattened out in a broad plateau, with wooden planks constructed to help control the massive crowds. These wooden walkways certainly were not here during my first trip, but they did make the going much smoother until they petered out at a headwall of a steep, boulder-strewn stretch of mountain. Step by step we advanced, the steep rise spitting us out right at the doorstep of Murodo village. By village I truly mean it. In addition to the sprawling visitor’s center, there was now a fully functioning post office, souvenir shop, and cafeteria that could accommodate hundreds of hungry hikers. The complex officially sleeps 750 people, but I imagine that on this particular day, they were prepared to accept double that number.

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We perched ourselves on a bench on the far side of the A-frame structure, just in front of the main shrine that was currently being renovated and completely reconstructed. The pockets of the Hakusan sect truly run deep. The summit of Mt. Gozen floated in and out of the cloud like a seal bobbing in a turbulent sea. With a bit of luck we’d catch her during the ebb and not the flow.

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I forced four Calorie Mate bars into my parched mouth, the dry biscuits sticking to my palate as an indicator to increase the fluid intake. With 400 calories now beginning their conversion into energy, I took the lead, marching slowly but steadily up the array of stone steps that lead to the high point. I pushed all the way to the high point without a break, as the clouds had once again pushed off the plateau. At the top of Mt. Gozen, I finally caught sight of what makes Hakusan so special, for Mt. Gozen is just one of a trio of volcanic cones, dotted with pristine volcanic lakes and patches of lingering snow.

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Dropping my pack among the exposed rocks, I chatted with a Vietnamese team of climbers who had come from Kanazawa for a taste of Japan’s alpine offerings. Most of the other hikers were either from the Hokuriku or Kansai regions, so I felt right at home exchanging pleasantries and mountain information in the warm sunshine. It’s not very often that you can sit at the summit of a sea-facing 2700-meter volcano in calm winds and a t-shirt and live to tell about it.

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Fumito eventually reached the top, and the two of us drifted into various states of reverie. I reflected upon the stark difference of scenery that fog-free weather can make, while Fumito sucked on his cigarette like it was his last. He’s tried to give up the addiction several times, but the urge to puff had always been stronger. Regardless, he is probably the most mindful smoker in this entire country, always retreating to an unoccupied corner to satisfy his urges.

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The cloud had once again swept over the plateau, so instead of dropping down to the lakes, we retreated back to Murodo in time for lunch. We feasted on udon noodles in their clear Kansai broth, a taste I have grown fond of over the years. I can’t stand the dark soups of the Kanto region. It’s as if Tokugawa Ieyasu forgot to bring along chefs from Kyoto when he moved the capital to Edo and had to improvise his broth by adding soy sauce, the worst possible ingredient available at the time. The same can be said of monjayaki, which looks just like a failed attempt at okonomiyaki, made by someone who had never eaten a real version of Osaka’s staple dish.

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The noodles fueled us for the long climb back to Bettodeai. Back at the junction we veered left and onto the Sabo shindo, which switchbacked through the thick fog and down to an emergency hut that had also been recently rebuilt. Along the way, we passed several hundred other climbers, all of whom were planning on overnighting at Murodo. Among the throngs were a healthy smattering of children under the age of 10. I will only put my daughter through such hardships if the request for punishment is voluntary.

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Again, we were the only people descending this route, which seems preposterous as it is a much easier drop than the Kango path that we took on the ascent. I would much rather climb an impossibly steep trail than suffer through a knee-knocking descent. Besides, isn’t a clockwise circumambulation a sign of respect to the deities?

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The route, to our utter astonishment, skirts a concrete forest road in immaculate condition. The concrete follows a mountain stream until terminating at a corrugated-metal structure housing a pulley system for transporting supplies to the mountain huts. With the system resembling that of a ski gondola, it’s no wonder they just don’t open a proper ropeway for lazy tourists. Perhaps that is something in the works in time for the 2020 Olympics, in which one of the events will probably be ‘Sacred Peak Bagging’.

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Adjacent to the gondola structure is what can only be described as a public works project gone awry, a virtual lego-block, multi-tiered network of concrete dams that rises the entire length of the valley to source of the stream itself. One strong volcanic tremor would likely send the entire structure cascading down to the trailhead far below. Despite Hakusan’s designation as both a national park and one of Japan’s 3 most sacred peaks, the environmental destruction continues unchecked.

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Back in the treeline, the trail meandered through a pristine forest of towering hardwoods. In these healthy forests, I always scan the tops of the larger trees in order to catch sight of any black bears lounging in the natural hammocks above the chaos below. Pausing beneath once such tree, I raised the lens, only to find later upon closer inspection that there may have been an ursine beast lazing in the afternoon sun. You be the judge.

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Fumito and I were both in pain by the time we reached the shuttle bus stop at the trailhead. My shoes have overstayed their welcome, creating hotspots on my battered feet from the worn-out treads and weakened cushioning system. Or maybe I’m just getting too old for these 1500-meter vertical ascent/descent day hikes.

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Mt. Azami gnawed away at my conscience like a caterpillar on a sakura leaf, but opportunities for a rematch did not present themselves until Paul and Josh came to inquire about another trip. Seizing the chance to revisit the area, we marked off a weekend in mid-May and hoped for more favorable conditions from both the weather gods and the intestinal deities.

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Paul missed his connecting train, so after a bit of a hiccup we once again met at Haibara station and headed to the same supermarket as the previous year to stock up on supplies. This time we added instant noodles for reinforcements in case the curry packs didn’t work their caloric magic and just around 11am we reached the trailhead parking lot, which was even more packed than our first trip.

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Trails tend to be much easier the second time around, as we knew what to expect. The water crossings did not pose any problems, but Paul’s slight head cold did slow our progress a bit. He looked a little worse for wear, but we encouraged him as best we could under the stellar sunshine and pleasant breezes seeping down from the ridge high above up. It took only an hour to reach the water source just below the grassy plateau. Josh pushed on to scope out possible camping options – we’d do anything to avoid the mayhem of the large hiking groups. I sat with Paul as he gathered his remaining reserves of energy for the final rise to our sheltered lunch spot.

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We sat under the open-air shelter, the same one we had used the previous year to prepare our meals. Josh informed us that there were plenty of shaded camping spots in the beech forests on the northern slopes just off the abandoned ski runs. Lunch was devoured in near-record time as Paul collapsed on a grassy slope for a bit of a rest. We were really starting to worry about him and encouraged him to have a proper nap once we had set up camp.

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In the forested reaches of the plateau, camping parties were dotted at pleasant intervals – not too close for comfort this time around. There was plenty of space to go around but completely flat spaces were few and far between. Luckily this time I opted for a simple canopy in lieu of a proper tent, so I found the perfect grassy niche and dropped my kit there as a reminder of other parties not to get too close. Josh and Paul set up nearby while I gathered stones for our fire pit.

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Once set up was complete, Paul collapsed in his tent and could hardly move. He was done for the day, and we could only hope his condition would improve after a bit of shut-eye. Josh and I strapped on the day packs and hit the trail in high spirits. We only made it about 20 meters out of camp before running into another hiking party with one familiar member. “Wes?”, came the voice. I turned around and stood face-to-face with Yukako, a woman who had joined our last gathering back in the autumn. She introduced me to her hiking companions before we parted ways. Dreadfully, they were headed down that same day after a morning ascent of Hinokizuka. It would have been nice to share our campfire with a group of cheery bright-eyed Osakans, but it was not to be.

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From the plateau, the path skirts the edge of the abandoned ski fields until reaching the summit of Maeyama. From there, it was a pleasant walk along the undulating ridge glistening with fresh greenery and vibrant moss. The cooler temperatures this spring had kept the snakes at bay as well, so things were definitely going our way. It took about an hour to top out on Azami’s rocky perch, whose exposed summit afforded spellbinding vistas of Odai-ga-hara and the Omine mountains. The afternoon haze reduced visibility somewhat, but it sure beat the drenching rains and thick fog that would’ve blotted out the views had we attempted this mountain the previous year.

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It took nearly the same amount of time to retrace our steps back into camp, where luckily no one else had encroached our space. Paul was just beginning to emerge from his afternoon comatose, looking and feeling much better. They got started on the campfire while I set up my shelter. I had recently bought this shelter from Locus Gear and was keen to give it a test run. Not expecting any morning dew or fog, I opted to go without a sleeping bag cover and just use the bug net for protection against the mosquitos.

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Settled around the fire we soon became, munching down on chickpea curry and chunks of french bread. Josh cracked the beers like a high school kid on his first outing, his drunken monologue leaving us in stitches until he passed out after retreating to his tent to fetch something. With the full moon now risen, Paul and I headed out to the plateau to shoot the night scenery.

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Morning came calm and clear, with more glorious sunshine and nary a cloud in sight. We cooked up breakfast and coffee, which set my bowels in motion again. I retreated further uphill, digging a hole next to a downed tree and deposited my load, only to find that I had misplaced my toilet paper. I was pretty sure that I had brought it with me when I came up there. I frantically searched all around before limping into camp to borrow some tissues from Josh. By the time I had made it back to the toilet there were literally hundreds of black flies devouring my excrement.

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Since Paul felt a bit better, we embarked on a morning excursion to the summit of nearby Mt. Kunimi which, at 1420 meters above sea level, sits higher than Mt. Azami. The steep climb took about 30 minutes to reach, so we continued along the ridge for another hour or so until reaching the shores of an idyllic, cordiform pond that would surely be packed with star-crossed lovers if the forest roads had made it this far north.

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It was hard not to be happy with such remarkable scenery and cooperative weather patterns. We continually had to remind ourselves that we were still in the Kansai region and not strolling along a swooping ridgeline in Nagano.

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Once back at camp, we cooked up noodles for lunch and broke down the shelters before dropping back down to the parking lot. Could Myojin-daira possibly be Kansai’s best back-country campground? Both visits have been impressive to say the least, but such bold conclusions could not be made with some sort of comparative analysis. Perhaps next year the three of us will head to the Omine mountains to see how it measures up to Myojin’s laid-back vibe.

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Late July seemed like a really great time to start section hiking the Takashima Trail. The long-distance path follows the Japan Divide through some of Kansai’s most rugged and varied scenery.  The path starts at Kunizakai kogen snow park, climbs up the ridge and undulates until reaching Mt. Norikura, the first of 12 peaks along the 80-km trail. From there it’s a series of abrupt climbs and steep ascents along the saddleback ridge until reaching Mt. Akasaka, where I could descend to Makino kogen for a hot bath and ice cream.

A quick scan of the weather brought a favorable high-pressure system, so after a fitful sleep with a wriggling toddler, I loaded up the pack and caught the 7:45am train from Osaka to Makino station on the northern reaches of Lake Biwa. Somewhere between Osaka and Kyoto it occurred to me that I might have forgotten my memory card for my camera. I shuffled through my pack and confirmed my fears. At Makino station I alighted and walked down to the beach to the nearest Family Mart, but unfortunately they did not carry any memory cards. Perhaps the manager was a bit old-fashioned, as packs of Fuji 400 speed film lined the shelves where the usual store would stock their digital camera supplies. I retreated back to the station and searched in vain for a coin locker to deposit my camera, but there wasn’t much at the station aside from an attendant with too much time on his hands. Rather than leave it with him, I opted to just carry it as dead weight, as I could use the extra kilograms to work out the thigh muscles.

The bus dropped me off at the gated entrance to Kunizakai, whose massive parking lot lay empty and the rest house and restaurants boarded up for the summer. The place was utterly deserted, as if everyone had gone on vacation. The ski lifts fan out in a finger-like way, and with no signposts in sight, I opted to head in the pinkie direction, if the ski resort was left-handed. I made it about 100 meters into the bunny slope, just before the black diamond run merges with the main course on my right. I was standing just below the toilet block, on the green slopes of the following map, when I first caught sight of it.

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A black bear made its way down the black diamond run gracefully, with a steady yet smooth rhythm, crossing the path directly in front of me, no more than 50 meters in front, to be exact. It paid me no heed, as it was too preoccupied with crossing the field to get to the cool, comforting waters of the mountain stream, which flowed with a trickle on my left. The beast looked lean, as if it had been a while since its last good meal. Not wanted to tempt it with fresh flesh, I retreated back to the boarded up rest house and sat in the shade. My heart was racing, not because of the encounter with the bear, but with the regret of not bringing my memory card. I’d been waiting to see a bear up close for years now, but with no proof, there’d be nothing but doubt from my friends. A police sketch of the culprit has been issued in lieu of photographic evidence.

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On the train ride earlier, upon finding my forgetful error, I joked to myself that I would probably see a bear on my hike today, not realizing that it would actually happen, and so close to the trailhead no less. I pulled out the map and discovered that the trail to Norikura actually begins towards the index finger of the snow park. Perhaps the bear just came out to remind me that I was indeed going on the wrong direction.

The next bus wasn’t for 3 hours, and the chances of encountering that exact same bear were pretty low (unless I were to take a dip in that mountain stream). Without a camera to document the proceedings, I made quick work of the ski runs, reaching the top of the highest lift in a heap of sweat and exhaustion. I pushed on, bushwhacking through the dense, overgrown forest until popping out on the real trail just a few minutes later. The trail ascended through a healthy beech forest with a smattering of claw marks on the larger trees. I set a turnaround time of noon in order to catch the 1:22pm bus back to Makino. Traversing all the way over to Mt. Akasaka without a camera seemed like an exercise in futility, so I compromised by deciding on an up-and-back of Norikura as a recce for a future section hike in a cooler time of year.

The path was easy to follow, and once on the ridge the vistas opened up towards the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, hidden in a haze of smog and cloud. Hakusan would definitely be visible from here on a clear day, and the views down to Lake Biwa are some of the best from any mountain in Shiga. Occasionally a breeze would blow in from the north, helping to evaporate the sweat accumulating on my back. I was starting to overheat, but decided to push on without a break until reaching the summit. The top was marked by a concrete bunker that looked more like a storage tank than any welcoming accommodation. The door was bolted shut, so there was no chance of peeking inside. My clock read 12:15pm, a little later than planned but I knew the descent would be much faster than the climb up. I broke out the frozen Aquarius sports drink I had bought earlier, and used the thawed bottle to help cool down my neck, face, and forehead. I forced down a salted rice ball in order to restore the saline balance and started back down the path after pausing for only a few minutes.

The return journey took just 30 minutes to reach the top of the lifts, where I kept a vigilant eye out for that bear. It did not return and I made it down to the bus stop with 10 minutes to spare before the bus.

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On my last visit, I vowed to never return, but something kept drawing me back. Like a page in a diary you’re not supposed to read, I just had to find some kind of redeeming quality to a plateau scarred by the scalpel of development. Would Fukada himself be spinning in his grave to see what has become of his beloved mountain? Perhaps not, as his ‘famous’ book refers to the “toll road” that “had been built into the heart of the mountain.” Could this be the Odaigahara Skyline, which now runs to within spitting distance of the high point?

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On the long, winding drive up the skyline, the bus vanished into a thick wall of cloud that frequently lingers around the plateau. Clear days are hard to come by, and even the beautiful sunshine and crystal clear skies of Osaka could not penetrate the fog fortress. I disembarked into this blanket of mist and immediately retreated into the souvenir shop/restaurant to use the facilities. I also inquired about the closing time of the noodle shop, as I’d planned to grab a bowl before boarding the final bus at 3:30. I had roughly five hours to spend in my search for that spark.

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The long-familiar trail to the high point starts in front of the visitor’s center and is in incredibly good shape despite the heavy foot traffic. On this cool, misty July morning, I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of crowds, as my other two experiences came later in the season, when flocks of camera wielding tourists line the paths in search of that perfect autumn leaf. I passed just one trio hikers before reaching the main junction below the peak of Hide-ga-take. A lookout platform had recently been built here, as a way of keeping the actual summit from getting overloaded with hikers. Signposts teased visitors about the splendid views of Mt. Fuji from this vantage point, but in the dense fog I could do little else than use my imagination.

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The summit was teeming with hikers, including a rowdy group from Mie Prefecture who were well into an altered state of inebriety, with the leader chain-smoking away like he was at his neighborhood izakaya. In the short interval between drags I moved in to have a friendly chat, and was rewarded with homemade inari sushi as well as the famed Yoshino delicacy of sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. As we chatted, the sky lightened up and the cloud dropped, revealing a sea of cumulus stretching out to eternity. I climbed to the second story of the concrete resthouse to take in the views. Unfortunately, the Omine mountains were still hiding in their own bank of menacing cloud, but it was a much better alternative than fighting off the strong winds and horizontal rains. A quartet of deer sat just off the lee slope of the narrow summit, grazing with an air of accepted indifference.

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I retraced my steps back to the junction and continued traversing south towards Daijyakura cliffs on the far end of the plateau. The cloud stayed low, affording vistas back towards Mt. Hide’s knuckle perch. A series of wooden steps have been built across much of the plateau, and the unexpected sunshine had begun to dry things out a bit. These wooden walkways are slicker than ice rinks when covered with a layer of water, but on the dry promenade I could focus on the scenery more than my footfalls.

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And what scenery it was. An endless carpet of bamboo grass stretching out beneath the boardwalks, with needle-like stalks of dead trees poking out at irregular intervals. Apparently this used to be a healthy forest until a very strong typhoon swept through and knocked all of the trees off their foundations. The toppled trees allowed more sunlight to penetrate the forest floor, which dried out the moss and allowed the bamboo grass to thrive. The grass, in turn, attracted the deer, who ate the bark off the trees and helped to destroy the remaining forest.

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I pushed on, ignoring the junction loop trail back to the parking lot and continued towards the cliffs. Dropping out of the sunlight and back into the fog belt triggered a sudden change inside of me. For here the true magic of the place presented itself, in a stunning reminder of the necessity of condensation on the delicate ecosystem. The beech trees looked happier and full of life, as this section of moss-laden woods lay sheltered from the strong winds that often push through the massif.

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The wildlife seemed to welcome the change as well, as a badger crossed the trail just in front of me and foraged through the grass in search of an early afternoon meal.

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Soon I reached another flatland, with a giant statue of emperor Jimmu standing guard. Fukada mentions this statue in his book, but how in the world did they get that thing up here? It must’ve been erected around the same time that the skyline was complete, which leads me to believe that Fukada did actually visit when the road did run all the way up the plateau, though in his time I sure it was a simple dirt track and not the meandering asphalt serpent of today.

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I reached the junction for the cliff lookout point and dropped down for a look, or at least a glimpse of what the area looked like. The cloud still had a tight grip around the towering beech trees lining the narrow path. It took about 10 minutes to reach the observation point, lined by a chain railing to keep the tourists from tumbling down into the void. Apparently it’s a vertigo-inducing spectacle in clear weather, but with nothing to see I felt safe walking all the way to the edge to peer down into the white void.

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I sat for a while and waited for the clouds to lift, but the wait was in vain. Rather than feeling dejected, I silently relished in hidden delight, for this gave me an excuse to come back in the future.

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Back at the junction, the route passed through a tunnel of rhododendron bushes before losing close to 200 meters of vertical altitude until reaching a clear brook. A suspension bridge offers safe passage for visitors, and once across the stream the long climb back to the parking lot commences. Signs on my left warned that the trails of Nishi Odai-ga-hara are off-limits to those without special permission to enter. It seems as if the higher ups are finally starting to care about conservation.

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I reached the parking lot around 3pm and had a quick bowl of noodles before boarding the bus. Maybe it was the humidity, or just the weather, but the crowds were much more manageable and dare I say pleasant on this third trip to the plateau. Perhaps the green season is indeed the best time to experience the magic of Odai-ga-hara. It may be too early to tell, but I’m really starting to warm up to the place. I think a future trip to Nishi Odai-ga-hara may just seal the deal.

Reference

One Hundred Mountains of Japan by Kyūya Fukada, translated by Martin Hood, University of Hawaii Press, 2015. More information about Fukada’s mountains can be found here, and the translation can be purchased here.

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