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Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hyonosen Chapter 2 – Decade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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With just a handful of mountains left on the Kinki 100 list, Nao and I head deep into the mountains of Mie Prefecture for a rare 2-for-1 weekend. If all goes according to plan, then we could have two of the mountains with the worst access under our belts. An early start was in order.

Nao picked me up at 6:30am on an overcast Saturday in mid-March and programmed the GPS to the entrance to Osugi gorge deep in Nara Prefecture. We reached the start of the forest road, partially blockaded by a plastic A-frame contraption with a metal bar laid on top. These portable structures are used in lieu of a proper gate system on roads with ongoing construction work. I hopped out and moved the barrier so Nao could drive through. This maneuver, while questionable in its legality, would save us a half hour of walking to reach the trailhead. The likelihood of any construction vehicles passing through this outlet was small anyway, as the bulk of the repair work lie a further 10-kilometers up the narrow, twisting road.

We parked the car at a broad turnout affording views across the Miyagawa Reservoir to the towering buffs of the Daiko mountain range. Snow flurries floated down from the off-gray clouds hovering above as we geared up for the hike. Both of us had our GPS devices connected to two different hiking maps, as the net research done beforehand suggested a seldom used track in a constricted valley of cedars. The bridge marked by previous hikers was reached in about 20 minutes, as we left the comfort of the sealed road and breached a mountain stream that fanned out in three directions, looking in vain for something that resembled a track. On our right, a massive landslip towered above up, directly over the red marks on our maps that indicated the mountain path. Dejected, we retreated back to the forest road in search of plan B.

Instead of retreating, we continued about 50 meters beyond the bridge and spotted a small signpost indicating the entrance to the trail. We followed a meandering dirt road that looks like it was just constructed a few days ago. There is no reason for this new path other than to burn construction budgets before the end of the fiscal year. At the terminus of the road, a faint trail led into the forest above, and after following it for 10 minutes, a plastic signpost confirmed our suspicions that we were indeed on the correct path to the summit.

Despite the lack of visitors, the route was easy to pick up thanks in large part to the lack of undergrowth in the brisk winter air. In the summer it would be easy to lose this path completely under a thick blanket of ferns, weeds, and other plants fondling each other for sunlight. It was a gentle, steady climb through the nondescript forest of about 90 minutes until reaching the ridge, marked by a ‘Missing Person’ poster planted firmly on the junction point. Four years ago, a 67-year old solo male hiker had failed to return home after a planned outing on Mt. Senchiyo. He had apparently taken our exact path up the mountain, but if I were part of the search-and-rescue party, I think my time would be better spend scouring the landslip at the foot of the mountain where we initially thought the path lie. My guess is that he climbed up one of those fingers and met an unfortunate fate when the route became too much to handle.

We turned right at the junction and followed the edge of a sprawling section of clear cut forest affording views of the remainder of the Daiko mountains floating off to the north. Mayoi-dake? Check. Kogamaru? You bet. Myojin-dake? Sprinkled in white. The lack of snowfall in this section of Nara Prefecture is perplexing, but is partially due to the relatively mild winds of the nearby Pacific Ocean. The breezes ensure that wintry precipitation falls as wet rain in these 1000-meter high mountains.

Once past the deforested sections, the trail climbs to a rocky crest before easing out on the meandering contours of the summit plateau. We reached the high point after 20 minutes of gently rolling hills and sat down to enjoy the trees, for that is all we could take in on the overgrown summit. On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d give Senchiyo a 2 or 3 – it’s not a mountain I’d rank high on places to revisit, especially if further visits meant stumbling across a decomposed body.

After a brief rest, we retreated back to the junction at the saddle and continued walking north along the ridge to the secondary summit of Senjō, which sits among a pristine forest of mature hardwoods. Evidently this section of mountain was too steep and too remote for the cedar planters to reach. Future hikers should take note to visit both of the peaks in order to fully appreciate the contrast. On the descent back to the saddle, I lost a rubber trekking pole tip cover and had to revert to using just one pole on the drop back to our parked vehicle. Also, somewhere along the climb down I broke the adjusting dial on my wire shoelace system and had no way of fully tightening my right shoe. With another mountain planned for the following day, I could do little else than to just make due.

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Mt. Mikuni – Bushed

The odds were certainly against us – a rarely used track along an undulating ridge of formidable density, the likes of which would turn the heads of even the most seasoned mountaineer. And a seasoned partner is exactly who I needed, so it is with no surprise that I once again teamed up with fellow Kinki 100 conspirator Nao. Rounding out our invincible quartet were Nao’s incredibly resilient wife Tomoko and Akihiro, a fearless explorer in his own right. It was Tomoko’s first foray since summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro the previous summer. We were in good hands.

Nao picked me up at Tsukaguchi station just before 7am on a calm and bright morning. I settled into the backseat along with Akihiro and spent the next few hours catching up. The last time the 4 of us went out together was back in the winter of 2015 before the birth of my daughter Ibuki. At that time, we were joined by Indonesian wonderwoman Dewi, who has since returned to her native Indonesia and has spent the last couple of years climbing the Malay equivalent of the Hyakumeizan. We all lamented that she was unable to jump across the east China sea to join us, as she would have been up for the challenge no matter what.

At Kinomoto village, we veered off onto a narrow winding road that followed the old Hokkoku kaido into Fukui Prefecture. I’m pretty sure Ted has traversed these very same tracks of pavement, albeit without the luxury of motorized assistance. Down the far side of the valley, our vehicle wormed its way past Hirono dam and deep into the bowels of the Etsumi mountain range. The parking lot at the trailhead was  filled to the brim, so we squeezed onto the narrow shoulder of the forest road and sorted through the gear. The trailhead is host to a well-kept outhouse sitting adjacent to a 400-year-old Katsura tree.

The forest road had only just opened the previous day, which helped explained the unusually large number of visitors this particular weekend in early June. We knew that 99% of them were bound for Yasha-ga-ike, a mysterious pond woven into a intriguing legend involving a protective dragon and sacrificial maiden. The story provided the inspiration for a modern opera of the same name, and locals embark on the 2-hour hike to the pond in hopes of glimpsing the endangered diving beetle of Yasha.

We hit the trail in good stride, climbing the wooden logs built into the steep hillside until reaching the start of a long traverse with a raging river torrent echoing up from below. Here and there, patches of remaining snow clung tightly to the shaded gullies as the first greenery of spring sprouted through trickling streams of snowmelt. The path followed the snaking folds of the mountains past an impressive waterfall, where path and stream converged into one parallel route. A series of wooden bridges brought us to a lush field of bountiful flora fit for the king of the hills. At any moment we expected his highness, the great Asiatic black bear, to make a customary appearance but we were left with just traces of his existence in the form of freshly nibbled tree buds and bits of scat lining our riverside promenade.

The path soon left the river, gliding past a towering horse-chestnut tree included on the venerable list of Japan’s 100 Forest Giants. It’s remarkable that such untouched forests still exist in these vastly deforested parts of Honshu. In an odd twist of fate, it seems that all of the nuclear power plants in Fukui have actually helped save the forests, as government subsidies for hosting the plants mean that less money is earmarked for public works projects. Of course this is just a supposition – perhaps the harsh weather of the region convinces the locals that their money is better earned through indoor pursuits.

Above the chestnut trees, the beech forests laid supreme, spreading out untamed along the steepening contours of the spur ridge that led to Yasha pond. Clearly marked signposts help us gauge horizontal progress, while the altimeter tallied the gains in vertical altitude. It was simply a matter of placing one boot print in front of the other and resisting the urge to give in for a break. I tend to hold off on rests until reaching discernible landmarks. At the top of the spur, the rocks gave way to wooden boardwalks as we reached the shores of the tranquil lake. We collapsed on the wooden boardwalk while watching the sun drift in an out of the swiftly moving cloud.

We enjoyed a light lunch while staring at the salamanders slithering through the emerald green waters of the pond. Perhaps these are descendants of the original dragon that once graced these shores. Tomoko decided to call it a day and opted for a leisurely afternoon of relaxing by the lake, followed by a dawdle back to the car. “See you in a couple of hours,” came our response, as Nao, Akihiro and I shouldered the packs and ventured into the unknown.

The first part of the trail climbed past the northern edge of the waters before reaching the ridge line nestled snugly on the Fukui-Gifu Prefectural border. Peering down into Gifu, we could make out the well-worn path from the south that would not open to hikers for another week. Our route climbed a rocky outcrop past verdant fields of flowering gentian and majestic nikko kisuge lilies. The terrain appeared surprisingly alpine for such a low altitude of only 1100 meters – a testament to the harshness of the conditions found throughout the year.

At the crest of the ridge, a small clearing afforded views down to the pond and across to Sanshū-ga-take, while Nōgō-hakusan looked on through the gaps of a distant mountain pass. It was here that the trail maintenance officially ended. I took the lead as the bamboo grass quickly encroached all sides. I could make out a light trail with my feet below, and pink tape marks at irregular intervals provided confirmation that we were on the right path. It was really a matter of following the contours of the land – at least to the summit of an unnamed peak, where all hell broke loose.

Any trace of a path had now completely vanished, as we literally swam our way though head-high bamboo grass, frequently colliding with toppled hardwoods at shin level, turning our legs into swollen welts. To make matters worse, we’d frequently become entangled in vines that would wrap around our legs and literally untie our shoes for us. It was uncomfortable to say the least. Somehow, amidst the chaos of the overgrown jungle, we would come across colored tape marks affixed to trees that once again showed us that, yes, we were on some sort of collision course with the summit.

Every so often, I would climb a tree in order to gain a vista to judge our progress. The summit lay straight ahread, via a gently undulating ridge not more than a kilometer away in distance. We’d need to drop to a saddle before the final climb to the summit plateau. If not for the bamboo grass we could be on the summit in about 15 minutes. 90 grueling minutes later, after reaching the limits of our endurance and our threshold for punishment, we did in fact top out on a circular tract of immaculately cultivated bamboo grass. A colorful signpost read 三国岳 and we could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

The sorry condition of the route was worrying. The fact that we spent most of the time following fresh scat and bear tracks was even worse than the discomfort of being battered by the brush. If we met our ursine foe in these virgin swaths of undergrowth we would be goners for sure.

We rested for only 10 minutes before once again turning back the way we had come. For some reason the return route was a little easier. Perhaps it was the fact that we knew which way we needed to go and we somehow did a better job of staying “on track” than on the ascent, where we spent most of the time staring at our GPS devices. By the time we returned to the shores of Yasha pond it was already after 5pm. Despite the blood, sweat, and stifled tears, we were in pretty good shape except for the fact that we were about 3 hours behind schedule.

It was nearly 6pm when we reached the car. “I was just about to call the police”, quipped Tomoko. With no cell phone reception along the entire route, we had no way of communicating with her to tell her about our delay. She was far more relieved than angry though, as the three of us collapsed on the asphalt to take stock. My shins were swollen on both legs, and scrapes lining both sides of my arms made it appear as if I had been in a cat fight. I brewed up a quick cup of coffee – I needed something to help calm the nerves after being on the go for nearly 8 hours.

Mt. Mikuni was one fierce opponent, and I can do nothing more than curse Ichiro Masa for choosing this mountain as one of the Kinki 100. He’s probably laughing in his grave at all of the idiots who are trying to scale all of the mountains on his foolhardy list. Still, with #99 in the bad, the end to this madness is finally in sight. I’d better wait until this unbearable humidity subsides first.

 

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