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Posts Tagged ‘hikinginjapan’

Back in 2013, Ted and I traversed along the ridge between Hieizan and Ōhara on a hot and sticky summer day. Instead of traversing directly on the ridge, the Tokai Shizen Hōdō cuts through the lower valley to Yokawa before rejoining the main ridge at a junction with the Kyoto Isshu trail. I double-check the route that Ted and I took and cross reference it with the list of the Ōhara 10 and yes, it looks like another trip is necessary in order to walk along the true ridge connecting Mizui and Daibi, two more of the elusive 10. So in early December I once again find myself aboard that Demachiyanagi-to-Ōhara bus that snakes along route 367, but just outside of the village I alight at the aptly named Tozanguchi bus stop for the long climb up to the ridge.

This tozanguchi, of course, refers to one of the side trails leading to Hieizan, the land of the Tendai faithful. Before the ropeway was built on the Kyoto side of the mountain, this was one of the main tracks up the peak, but here in the overcast sky of early winter I find myself with no one other than a gentle breeze pushing in from the west. The route is named the Ganzan Daishi (no) Michi, a route connecting Oogi village in Shiga Prefecture to Yase in Kyōto via the Ganzan Daishi Hall in Yokawa. Gazan Daishi, otherwise known as Ryōgen, is the 9th century monk best known for overseeing an army of purported armed mercenaries vowed to protect Hieizan from rival Buddhist factions. Perhaps this very route was staffed by hidden assassins during the more turbulent times in the history of the Tendai sect. If such ghosts haunt these hidden reaches of this sacred peak, I will soon find out.

The path climbs steeply above route 367 with vistas back across the valley toward Hyotankuzure lathered in late autumn hues. At a weather-beaten jizō statue the path splits: the right fork leads up the kurodani to Seiryūji temple while to my left the trail continues straight to a mountain pass just below Mt Yokotaka. The Lions club have done hikers a great service (or some would say disservice) by marking the route with shiny metal signposts affixed at roughly every 200 feet along the ever steepening route. I pick up the pace, confident that, like most trails in Japan, the #10 signpost will place me comfortably on the ridge.

With a soft coating of wet foliage under my feet and the comfortable sound of solitude guiding my thoughts I fall into that tozan trance, pausing briefly to snap photos of the surprisingly pristine forest. Oak, chestnut, hemlock and fir trees tower over the constricted valleys of Yase, awing me in their sheer beauty. This is in great contrast to the cedar smothered western face of Hieizan. I guess this steep terrain is too much for the forestry service to farm.

After a steady climb of close to an hour I finally reach signpost #10 but am nowhere near the top of the ridge, so I shrug my shoulders and push on through the last of the autumn leaves clinging tightly to the bowed branches above. The gradient finally relents after signpost #13, as the snaking switchbacks give way to a narrow traverse on the side of a valley marred by the toppled trees of a recent typhoon just below the true summit ridge. A few more minutes of gentle climbing and I reach the mountain pass, where the Kyoto isshu trails and Tokai Shizen Hōdō paths diverge. The Kyoto trail continues along the ridge to Yokokawa while the Tokai drops down to Yokawa.  A trio of ancient statuary greet me at this junction, along with a Eureka moment of realization that this is exactly where Ted and I rested back in 2013. If only we had continued along the Kyoto trail at this very junction would my ascent of Mt Mizui have been complete.

The summit of Yokotaka is now within arms reach, so rather than rest at the junction I push on through a maze of exposed tree roots to find a toppled log on the summit awaiting me, a perfect place to rest the haunches and endulge in a late morning snack. Yokotaka feels like an Ōhara 10 summit, but somehow has been left off the list. Perhaps there is some geographical designation to these lists of peaks, meaning they have to reside withing a certain radius of Ōhara village. Or better yet, perhaps the list makers did not ascent my path of choice and have left Yokotaka to her own vices and free from the Ōhara baggers.

Northward I turn, dropping off the southern face of the peak toward Oogi-tōge, basically running parallel to the path that Ted and I took in 2013. While we opted for the lower road to Yokawa, I enjoy the tranquility and the beauty of the deciduous forest laid bare by the frosty gales of winter. To my leftI can glimpse views of the Kyoto skyline, while on my right I spy the snowcapped Suzuka mountains floating off on the horizon through a wall of muted gray cloud. It is just a short drop and steep climb to the tree-covered summit of 794m Mt Mizui, my 6th of the Ōhara 10 and the highest elevation of the day. A row of benches on the broad summit beckon me over, so I eat the remainder of my lunch while glimpsing the tip of a very white Mt Horai off to the north.

Into the cedar forests I reluctantly descend, for the proximity of the Hiei Driveway gives the loggers easy access to a motherlode of monocultural delights. My progress is halted by the sounds of a diesel engine and the crunch of a cedar tree being sucked of life by a giant excavator. Such environmental destruction would normally set me off, but every toppled cedar is one less source of pollen to poison my lungs. I just hope the tree thinning experiment by this bored construction worker (it is a weekend after all) will not result in more cedar saplings to replace the trees taken by the Komatsu regime.

Yellow tape marks wrapped around cedar trees soon catch my eye, printed with the English letters Biwako Hira Hiei Trail. I take a photo for post-hike investigation and do find that a new so-called ‘Long Trail’ is being constructed to connect Kutsuki village in Shiga to Kyoto along the Hira and Hiei mountain ranges. The 60km route takes in 15 peaks above 1000 meters in elevation, including Buna-ga-take, and the rest of the afternoon I will be following this route over to Mt Daibi. It sure seems like a worthy traverse in good weather, as Hakusan, Ontake, and part of the Japan Alps can be glimpsed on days with good visibility.

Oogi-tōge sits on a saddle below the summit of Mt Ono and marks the place where both the Kyoto trail and Tokai Shizen drop off the ridge down to Ōhara, but I stick to the ridge into unexplored territory. The map time allocates 90 minutes to reach Mt Daibi, so I slow down the pace and take in the views through a massive clear cut section of trail. Mt Ibuki and Mt Ryōzen both float above low-lying clouds, gleaming white in the muted colors of the afternoon. If not for the blue hue of the horizon you could easily mistake the scene for a black-and-white movie, as even the surface of Lake Biwa lies still and gray in this eerie hour of the afternoon.

I soon reenter thick forests of cedar as the sun finally breaks through the clouds briefly before ducking back down for cover. The summit of Mt Ono sits in a small pocket of deciduous growth spared from the greedy hands of the forestry service as I once again pause to refuel for the final climb of the day. The Lions club once again ensures that no one will get lost on this section of path, which soon drops and follows a concrete forest road along the ridge for most of the way anyway. Once off the pavement, the ridge turns wild and narrow, the most exciting section of track of the day. I soon pop out on the summit of Daibi and reward myself with a fresh brew of coffee and chocolate.

An unmarked trail leads off the summit plateau due west, so I carry the GPS in my hand while traversing on a narrow spur before commencing a knee-knocking descent down towards Ōhara village. It is a short descent to the top of a narrow gorge lined with a series of waterfalls. I soon reach San-no-taki and carefully descend via a series of metal chains and ladders. I soon enter a very narrow and constricted valley choked with toppled trees and typhoon debris. All signs of a working trail are gone, so I climb atop one of the trees to peer further down the gorge and see tape marks at the end of a maze of fallen cedars. I work my way over, under, and sometimes through an absolute mess of a disaster zone. Perhaps the forestry people could stop cutting down perfectly healthy trees and forage for wood among the thousands of trees destroyed during last several years of ravaging typhoons.

Once out of the mess, I descend down an exposed trail past two more waterfalls before reaching a paved road that leads down to Sanzen-in. I never knew such thrilling scenery sat on Ōhara’s doorstep and the adrenaline rush from a sketchy end to the hike begins to wear off as I reach the entrance to Sanzen-in, Ōhara’s crown jewel. I fork over the entrance free and reach the main garden, splurging on a bowl of fresh maccha while sitting on the engawa taking in the moss-covered scenery. With so few people around this time of year, I really relish in the quiet surroundings and lack of tourists. Little do I know that just 4 months later this very temple will be shuttered to protect itself from a global pandemic changing the modern world as we know it.

 

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Iwakura station is but an insignificant little blip on the Eizan Railway connecting Demachiyanagi to the sleepy hamlet of Kurama in northern Kyoto city, but for William and I, it marks the start of a journey into uncharted hills. Hills which once provided a hidden passage between Kyoto and Ōhara before the advent of the automobile. The two of us set off in mid-December for the summit of Hyōtankuzure, a peculiar peak rising to the modest height of 532 meters and included on the list of Ōhara 10. We leave Iwakura under sunny but chilly skies as we navigate the back streets in search of the mountain trail, marked by a faded wooden signpost affixed to a concrete electrical pole by someone with a penchant for wirework.

Hyōtankuzure, or literally ‘toppled gourd’, is one of the more unusual mountain names in Japan, and its origins are unclear, but a local legend reveals that the shape of the peak resembles a gourd split in half and laid on its side, such is the elongated profile of the peak when viewed from neighboring Hieizan. We will be walking along the entire length of the calabash, hoping for some tiny morsels of sweet succulent scenery in this unexplored corner of Kyoto.

Cedar trees as dense as they come soon yield to a deciduous forest recently laid bare by the strong gusts of late autumn – the fallen foliage softens our footsteps along a well-laid path following the contours of the sloping hillside. Through gaps in the bare branches we stand transfixed by vistas looking straight down on Iwakura and further afield to the ridges on the western edge of the city.

A junction is soon reached on the main ridge, where a blanket of fallen pine needles cushions each footstep through patches of quickly melting snow. We turn left, following the tape marks to the crest of the ridge and the summit of our target peak. A small clearing provides a snow-capped glimpse Mt Horai overlooking the valley, while due east the towering face of Hieizan looks tantalizingly close at hand. William and I pause briefly for a mid-morning snack while bathing in the soothing rays of sunlight under the watchful eye of a miniature snowman.

We retrace our steps back to the junction and continue south along a rarely used trail with unmarked junctions fanning out on either side of the ridge. Our map is affixed with the kanji character 迷, indicating that it is easy to get lost, so we use our GPS devices to double-check our gut feelings as to the proper route. We know that the trail meanders in a southernly direction and after passing through a lovely section of lingering autumn foliage the ridge broadens and turns wild, the kind of untouched wilderness you rarely find so close to the city.

Mesmerized we are by the tranquility and isolated feel to the ridge, so we continue climbing a slope directly ahead where the path seems to peter out into a clearing with splendid vistas of the entire city. This is easily one of Kyoto’s best mountain trails, yet so few visitors seem eager to explore anything that hasn’t been written up in the tourist literature. That suits us just fine, as such hidden spots should remain out of reach except to only the motivated few.

On the far side of the clearing we somehow pick up the trail again, ducking back into a hardwood forest with clear signs of recent ursine activity. Some trees get off easy with just a few claw marks, while others are torn apart by a feisty bear with a probable termite infatuation. We are just a kilometer from civilization, but I guess animals don’t care about these things when their stomachs are empty.

Further along the meandering ridge we reach a junction and drop down toward a secluded shrine nestled against the forest. It only takes about 10 minutes to reach the upper sanctuary of Sudō-jinja, built to commemorate the 8th century prince Sawara Shinno. A gravel promenade leads to route 367 and the short walk to Miyakehachiman station. Future hiking parties may find it more rewarding to start from Ōhara and climb along the lesser-explored northern face of the gourd before continuing along the ridge to our finishing point. Just don’t forget to bring the GPS.

 

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I thought my snowshoe hiking was done for the season. With temperatures already exceeding 20 degrees and the snow in the Kansai region but just a distant memory, I resign myself to a few easy hikes while waiting for the pollen to subside. In comes a text from my friends Hisao and Haru in Nagoya with an invite to climb Mt. Nōgohakusan in southern Gifu Prefecture, but the approach becomes daunting due to construction work on the forest road leading to the trailhead. To make matters worse, Haru drops out due to family commitments, so Hisao and I brainstorm ideas for a new target. I casually mention that I have never climbed Mt Dainichi-ga-take in northern Gifu and he enthusiastically jumps into action.

Right on cue, a cold pressure system moves in over the Sea of Japan, depositing fresh powder on our peak in the days leading up to our scheduled ascent. I board a nearly deserted Shinkansen train to Nagoya, ground zero for the coronavirus infection slowly gaining ground here in Japan. Donning a mask and cautious of what I touch, I make it to Hisao’s local station and we head off to a discount shop to purchase food for the hike. We hit the hay early, as the alarm is set for 4:45am. We are on the road by 5am under clear skies tinted yellow by the pollen and aeolian dust wafting through the air. Dense fog takes over after that, guiding us over a mountain pass and down into a broad valley in northern Gujō city where we break out of the clouds and are greeted with a sight to behold –  the towering white face of Dainichi staring us straight in the eye.

Hisao guides his Honda to the trailhead shortly before 7am under a cloudless sky. Half a dozen other cars sit in the narrow snow-covered parking lot as we sort through gear in eager anticipation of our climb. We’ve chosen the summer route, a path that Hisao has climbed once before. When heading to the mountains in winter, it is best to go to a place that at least one member of your party is familiar with. He assures me that it’s a straightforward route, but as we stare up at the summit plateau, the distance looks formidable. Can we really make it up there in just 3 hours?

The snow is patchy at the start, but I tempt fate by strapping on my snowshoes in the parking lot, surmising that it will be easier here where the snow is just centimeters deep. A narrow gully awaits us as we place our first footfalls into the soft snow. Hisao has opted to keep his wakan strapped to his pack, a wise decision as we soon reach a steep climb dominated by tree roots sticking out from under a thin covering of snow. It is tricky work in snowshoes, but I maintain a careful placement of footsteps until the snow becomes deeper with each successive gain in elevation. A few steep sections later and we pop out on the main ridge glistening with fresh powder snow – not something we expect to find on the second day of spring.

There is a clear trace to follow, but such footsteps were not designed with snowshoes in mind, so I spend most of the time forging my own path directly adjacent to the footprints. I sink down a foot or so with each step, as the wet snow buries my boots, making each advancing step feel as if I’m carrying a barbell strapped to both feet. Hisao is amused by my struggles, for he makes good progress by following precisely the footprints made by the climbing parties ahead of us, but I keep the snowshoes strapped to my feet, for carrying them on my rucksack would just add extra weight to my upper body.

Luckily the snow condition improves as we reach Ippuku-daira, a level plateau located at around 1300 meters of elevation which marks the halfway point in our ascent. We pause briefly, shedding layers as I refill my water bottle and stuff morsels of food into my dry mouth. Hisao is completely covered in sweat, and our idyllic break spot would be perfect if not for the cacophony of blaring loudspeaker J-Pop piercing through the air from Takasu Snow Park across the valley. We’ve purposely chosen this route to avoid the ski resort, but we can’t escape its grasp entirely.

Into the lead my trusty guide Hisao walks, flowing seamlessly through the deep snow while I continue to struggle. My hard work is paying off, however, as the impressive figure of Hakusan floats high above to my right, completely caked in wintry white. It’s hard to keep my eyes off of her, entralled as I am by her sheer beauty. Hisao maintains his breakneck pace, keeping about a quarter of a kilometer ahead of me on the rambling ridge line. The snow condition finally improve at 1500 meters in elevation, turning into dry crystalline powder, the trail being sandwiched between a large cornice on my left and a windswept ice crust to my right. I make amazing progress on the icy crust as my snowshoes glide smoothly over the surface while Hisao postholes with each advancing step. The howling wind has covered up the trace of the hikers in front of us and I soon overtake my partner for the final climb to the summit. I look behind me and watch Hisao struggle up the last few meters of deep powder while I push on with ease.

As we crest the summit plateau, the full force of the winds pushing in from the nearby sea hit us head on, nearly knocking us off our feet. A handful of backcountry skiers brace themselves against the gale, which fortunately soon subsides. The skiers have come from the neighboring ski resort in search of untracked powder, but I am glad we chose the long way up. It feels much more rewarding to climb a mountain from its base than the cheat by taking the gondola most of the way up.

Hisao and I take in the views and sunshine while eating our well-deserved snack of ichigo daifuku, a savory strawberry smothered with bean paste and wrapped in a soft blanket of rice cake. Hisao swears that wagashi make the best hiking treats, and over the years I’ve seen him eating not only mochi and dango, but bars of calorie-packed yōkan as well. Perhaps there is something to his fueling approach after all. I usually just go for a Calorie Mate and a rice ball and some chocolate, but I’m willing to take a more traditional approach for my next mountain meal.

With the winds picking up and temperatures starting to drop, we run off the summit plateau, kicking balls of snow far ahead of us while blazing our own path down the main ridge that we had climbed earlier. Hisao, now donning his wakan, keeps pace in the steeper sections, but as the path flattens out he needs to stick to the main trail as he sinks too deeply in the deep powder. I make my own path through untracked sections of snow and we return to Ippuku-daira in just half the time it took us to ascend. We shed layers and rehydrate before continuing on our march back to the car. We play an entertaining game of who can last the longest before taking off their climbing equipment, and once we drop off the ridge down the spur the snow cover becomes sparse and the mud takes over. We call it a draw and sit on a toppled tree trunk to take off the snowshoes, which by now have accumulated quite a thick layer of wet snow. I strap them on the outside of my rucksack as we walk the remaining snow-free distance back to the car, arriving shortly after noon.

Such epic climbs can only be topped by a soak in a local hot spring, so Hisao finds a beauty of a place on his car navigation system while we settle in for a refreshing bath and filling tonkatsu lunch. The dining room overlooks a narrow valley and we both wonder if this place will survive the impending viral and economic storm about to be unleashed in Japan.

 

 

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Mt Ama sits snugly on a elongated ridge between the secluded hamlets of Kurama and Ōhara, a fitting place to start my exploration of the 10 peaks. I alight from the Eizan train under clear April skies and trot through the deserted streets of Kurama to the turnoff for the Tokai Shizen Hodō that provides passage to Shizuhara and beyond to Ōhara.

Yakko-zaka pass is reached in good time, a chance to wipe the sweat from my brow before taking a faint path on my right in the entirely opposite direction of my target peak. An unexplored trail on my map beckons, as in my recent hiking excursions I purposely seek out these smaller, lesser known trails literally off the beaten path. Red tape marks affixed to the trees help guide me through a thick, neglected hardwood forest. Free from any sort of regular maintenance, it soon becomes a fruitful exercise of climbing up, over and sometimes through toppled timbers and head on into a labyrinth of sticky spider webs, quickly reminding me of why I am less-than-enthusiastic about hiking in the early summer.  After a false summit, the path flattens and reaches a stone stupa adorning the summit crest of Mt. Ryūō . Here, through a gap in the trees, I find what I have long sought – a clear view across the valley directly down on Kurama temple. 

Exultation reached, I slither back to the pass for a quick rest before heading on the main path along a broad ridge teeming with new greenery. Mountain azaleas add a touch of pink and purple to the proceedings as I scoot along a deserted trail on unfamiliar terrain. These hidden stretches of northern Kyoto city are truly magical, as even on weekends you’ll be hard pressed to run into other hikers. I continue at a steady pace, slashing spider webs with my trekking poles as Mt Kibune keeps watch across a parallel ridge, with the slender village of Kurama sandwiched between. I only gaze upon this spectacle in small snippets, as the spring foliage has once again begun to fill the gaps between the canopy overhead. A winter ascent of this ridge must truly provide some breathtaking scenery. 

It takes nearly two hours along a very pleasant undeveloped section of forest to reach a small clearing as a lone Japanese hiker sits on a log just opposite Amagatake’s summit signpost. We immediately commence in tozan banter, that familiar mix of peak namedropping and quizzing of climbing experience that encompasses nearly every conversation you encounter over mountaintop lunches. It soon becomes clear that my companion is a very experienced mountaineer, so I hit him up for some local knowledge. “The rhododendrons are in full bloom at the moment, so I recommend taking this route down” explains my guide, pointing to a dotted trail on my map named, appropriately enough, shakunage one. How can one resist the temptation to hike rhododendron spur in the height of the flower season?

Armed with this bit of insider knowledge, I drop off the northern face of Mt Ama and immediately hit a dirt forest road carved into the steep hillside, literally within spitting distance of the top. It’s a bit of a buzzkill to climb a mountain from a long undeveloped ridge only to find such desecration on a more developed face. I stay on the left shoulder of the deserted road, reaching a spur trail to my left that leads to a clearing pierced with an electrical pylon. At least the lack of trees do provide a soothing vistas toward Kyoto to the south.

I retrace my steps back to the road and engage in a bit of hide-and-seek with the trail. I follow a faint path to the east that isn’t marked on either the paper maps nor on my GPS. That inner hunch takes over, and I soon retrace my steps just before the trail begins dropping down the eastern face. If this were a ‘proper’ trail you would expect to see a signpost or at least a tape mark or two. Back at the junction I peer over the crest of the ridge and spot the real trail traversing just below the northern crest. Pausing, I gather fallen tree limbs and erect a barrier over the false trail on the ridge in hopes of preventing future climbing parties from falling victim to the same mistake.

The route follows the contours of the spur before switchbacking through pleasant swaths of mountain azaleas in brilliant shades of pink. I make good progress through the tunnel of vibrant foliage and reach the turnoff for the rhododendron spur, denoted by a signpost affixed to a rhododendron bush in full bloom. My map says the traverse should take about an hour so I slow down the pace and take in the scenery on a section of track completely void of people. In Kansai it’s surprisingly easy to find deserted hiking trails, even on the weekends.

The up down undulations of the spur give the legs an extra workout, but my fatigue is mitigated by the subtle scent of the colorful flowers keeping watch over the track. This year the rhododendron have bloomed early, for I rarely find myself in the hills during the peak season of early June, turned away as I am by the humidity and stifling temperatures. I soon reach another electrical pylon affording panoramic views of nothing but wilderness in all directions. Who knew that such untamed beauty existed in these hills surrounding Ōhara village?

Descent comes abruptly via a no-nonsense, knee-knocking descent back down to a secluded valley. I reach a forest road and turn left and then right, passing directly past the trailhead of Naccho, another one of the Ōhara 10 peaks. I resist the urge to climb for now but know that I must come back here someday to complete my quest. The paved road I follow soon bisects route 367. A bus stop here reveals an infrequent bus schedule I have neither the time nor patience for, so I continue tramping down a quiet lane for close to 90 minutes until reaching Ōhara village, passing by a temple gate just outside the main town in quintessential Kyoto fashion.

With the first of 10 peaks now successfully summited, I pore over the maps to plot a course of action for the remaining 9 mountains of Ōhara. 

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In a secluded valley, not far from the coastal city of Matsuzaka, stands Ibutaji temple, a sacred space purportedly founded by the legendary 8th century mountain mystic En no Gyōja. The temple is included as part of the Mie 88 Temple circuit, a collection of worship halls modeled after the Shikoku 88, though I suspect that the Mie counterpart attracts just a fraction of the ‘temple baggers’ that circumnavigate Shikoku’s ohenrō path. The main deity here is Yakushi, the buddha of healing, and I balance his heavy weight on my shoulders as Hisao, Haru and I take our first steps up Mt Kokuhō towards the start what can only be described as the ‘loop of enlightenment’.

Access to the gyōja course is only granted after forking over 500 yen to the old lady guarding the temple coffers. She explains each precipice in great detail, giving crucial advice with the help of laminated photographs. I stare at each obstacle with a gaping mouth, trying to hang on to every detail flying out of her mouth as my heart immediately begins to race. Exposure has never been my forte, but I do relax a bit upon hearing that each ‘obstacle’ has a built-in detour route for those less than comfortable with cheating death.

The path switchbacks past several buddhist statues and altars, with Aizen Myō’ō making a timely appearance before the path dead ends at a cliff face guarded by a beautiful carving of En no Gyōja. This is the start of the Aburakoboshi (lit: oil spilling), a near-vertical climb straight up the cliff face. A safer, less exposed route has been affixed to our left, but the three of us confront our fears by heading up the direttissima. Haru takes the lead, clambering up the rock face without using the chains at all – clearly he is comfortable with exposure. I take a more measured approach, opting to grasp the chain with one hand while finding a firm handhold and sturdy places for my feet as I inch my way up to the top. The last 10 meters are truly terrifying, as the footholds disappear and you literally have to pull yourself up over the lip to the top. How Haru was able to do this unassisted still baffles me, but in the early morning backlight his secret remains just that.

At the top of the headwall we turn right along a narrow path affixed with a chain-link guardrail to reach Iwaya Hondō, the main sanctuary of the temple. Fortunately this is Hisao’s second visit to the area, and he provides a detailed explanation of what is involved: “just scramble up the bouldering wall to the right of the temple, and then hoist yourself up the chain to the top of the rock face”. Haru once again starts up without hesitation, and when he is out of earshot Hisao turns to me and confesses that we don’t actually have to ascend that way, as a much better alternative is to retrace our steps and climb the rock face from a less exposed side. We race up there just in time to witness Haru scaling the smooth surface of the cliff in his best imitation of Spiderman.

The temple caretaker warned us that one slip here would mean the end, so I am glad for my decision to skip this test of faith. The route continues along a broad ridge that is more akin to the hikes that I usually take. We follow the contours as they snake over to a parallel ridge to the summit of Otensho, not to be confused with its more famous neighbor in the Kita Alps.

After a few more undulating bumps in the ridge, the path traverses up and over a series of small boulders revealing splendid views towards undeveloped folds of mountains to the west. We soon reach the base of Kurakake-iwa or hanging saddle rock. Buttressed on our right by the uprooted base of a toppled tree, a series of scuff marks leads up to the top of the saddle, as if you’re trying to climb onto a giant sandstone horse. With no chains to aid in our ascent, we propel ourselves against the force of gravity, using our hands when necessary to help where our shoe treads fail to thwart our downward momentum. The views really start to open up here, with the snowcapped peaks of the Suzuka range just beginning their awakening from their morning fog-induced slumber.

We skittle off the back of the rock, having to leap off in one point over a meter drop to the lower portion of the rock formation, but the footholds are good. A few meters of traversing through a pine grove brings us to Koshiri-kaeshi rock, better known as the ‘place for people with small bottoms to turn around’. Or perhaps it’s only passable for people with small behinds. I guess I will find out soon enough.

The initial scramble up to the high point of the boulder is easy enough, but the far end is punctuated by a 10-meter chain section dangling off a cliff of smooth, weather beaten stone. Hisao takes the lead, gingerly lowering himself off the abyss with the skill of a trained ninja assassin. Up steps Haru, dropping down half the distance without even turning around or using his arms for support. His balance is uncanny, with the grace and skill of a nimble feline on display. Finally it is my turn, as I turn around and awkwardly lower myself to the first hand and foot holds. My camera is dangling off my arm, threatening to impale itself on the rock face in front of me, while my rucksack only serves to pull me uncomfortably downward. I hesitate, deciding that something must be done about the cumbersome camera. I climb back up to the start and stuff my camera in my bag, but it only serves to burden me even more with its weight. I really should have left the sack in the car and just come up with a water bottle attached by carabiner. 

Hisao shouts up words of encouragement as I lower myself, and retreat, a second time, confidence fully shattered. Maybe I’m just getting old, but the thought of one false step here meaning Ibuki would be without a father and Kanako having to eek out an living as a single mother is too much to erase from my mind. “You can retreat if you like,” shouts Hisao, “your ass is small enough.” 

I retrace my steps back to the start of the rock and traverse a narrow path along the base of the climb, where I rejoin Hisao and Haru. Give me a chain to climb any day of the week and I’ll gladly take you up on your offer, but ask me to descend a vertigo-inducing void by way of a series of metal links and you’ll likely receive the one-fingered salute.

We continue on, reaching the aptly-penned Tobi-iwa or flying rock. Again, after a short steep scramble to the top, we are faced with yet another unnerving chain section. This one looks more manageable with a lot better footholds, but I’m just not feeling it. I gladly opt for the safer traverse below the rock.

With the worse of the exposure behind us, I begin to relax as we trample over a series of smaller boulders with jaw-dropping views directly across the valley to the Iwaya Hondō. The boulder looks absolutely formidable from here, as a trio of visitors stand in front of the sanctuary debating on whether to test their faith.  

From here, the path drops abruptly through a steep, muddy gully with poor traction that gives Hisao an uneasy look. He takes off first, slipping and sliding down the root-infested spur, barely maintaining his posture and composure. For some reason, however, this is the terrain in which I am most comfortable, and I leap from root to root like a antelope in search of prey. The grade is quite similar to the boulder formations that spooked me out earlier, but perhaps it’s just a psychological crutch I have yet to overcome. I do certainly have the experience with boulder descending via chains, but perhaps I have put up some sort of psychological barrier since becoming a father.

The flat ground once again greets us, but one final test stands in our way. Carved into the steep contours of the hillside is a stone staircase, completely free of handrails or other helpful aids. To make matters worse, each stair has been constructed with a size 5 shoe in mind. Hisao chooses a winter mountaineering technique of side-stepping down the 350 or so stairs to the bottom. Thinking on my feet, I scrounge through the undergrowth next to the start and fetch out a pair of toppled tree limbs that I mold into improvised trekking poles. At least if I did slip I could perhaps stop myself from suffering a most unfortunate slinky tumble to my demise.

Back at the temple, we revisit the caretaker who checks our name off the safe list of visitors. Apparently there are several devotees that do not return from their self-guided shugendō training. She asks us if we are planning on doing the smaller secondary gyōja loop on the other side of the road. It’s a shorter course with just two tests of faith, but I have had enough rolls of the dice for one day. I suggest that we head to Mt Hossaka instead for a proper hike instead. Hisao and Haru instantly agree to a safer change of plan.  

 

 

 

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Snow country. The land that gets up to 20 meters of snow in a single season. So why is the ground bare, looking closer to late April than the height of winter? Could this be the new norm? The ski resort owners sure hope not. Visitors to Hakuba are a fraction of what they normally are, and the locals cannot recall a time when there was such a scarcity of snow in late January.  What am I going to do with these snowshoes?

So are the questions I am left with upon my latest inquest into Minami Otari village in northern Nagano. My last trip here was during the brilliance of the autumn foliage, but now everything is a tepid hue of brown, fallow fields just calling out in desperation for a warm coating of fresh snow. Paul D. lives high up in an isolated tract of land just steps away from the mountain wilderness. Bears are a frequent sight, especially in the unusually warm autumn, when the persimmon tree directly in front of his house played host to a bear feasting on the mother lode. The woven net of the ursine feeding platform is all that remain in the upper branches, while a series of claw marks down the main trunk of the tree give further proof that this is prime black bear habitat.

An evening of festive revelry ensues over the steam of the spicy hotpot, with fellow mountaineers engaged in a fierce match of name-that-tune that spans decades of sonic wisdom. We all retreat to our sleeping quarters shortly after midnight, grasping extra wool blankets to stave off the chill. Morning comes much too quickly in these parts, and after a quick breakfast of hot sandwiches we pile into Naresh’s car for a short hike into the backcountry. Paul informs us that it is a steady hike of 2 hours to reach the ridge line, where panoramic views await all that put in the effort.

A modest base of 50 centimeters covers the shoulder of the road as we strap on the snowshoes, following a set of backcountry ski tracks as they wind their way up a lonely forest road. The Kita Alps are draped in early morning cloud in an otherwise brilliant dome of crystal blue skies. With hardly a breeze to be felt, we strip down to our base layers as the sweat begins to trickle down our temples. We each settle into our own pace, some chatting while others fixated on the soft light filtering through the bare canopy above. Often times I tune out everything all together, reaching what I call a ‘tozan trance’ and focus only on the synchronization of my footfalls and trekking poles working in unison. I can cover a lot of ground if left to my own devices, but with 5 others in tow I snap out of my zone and soon allow the others to catch up.

We eventually catch up to the group of skiers, who are indulging in a leisurely break about halfway up the peak. A local group led by the village soba shop owner, we chat briefly before pushing on further up the ever-steepening spur towards the ridgeline. Hisao informs us in the morning that he would like to be on the road by 2pm, but it is lunchtime by the time we do breach the ridge, where panoramic views from the summit plateau of Mt Ōnagi send us screaming for joy. Hisao abandos his plan for an early start on the highway in favor of taking in the incredible scenery set out before us.

Mt Amakazari rises abruptly from a valley just below us, looking absolutely breathtaking when cloaked in wintry white. To her right, Mt Tenguhara’s broad flank dominates the ridge, blocking out the rotund forms of Yakeyama and Hiuchi beyond. Continuing clockwise, the unmistakable bulbous knuckle of Mt Myōko pokes it head out to say hello, while further along the unobstructed view both Takazuma and Togakushi dominate the eastern horizon directly opposite our vantage point. And these are just the meizan in the immediate vicinity, for to the west lie the mighty peaks of the North Alps, with Yari looking truly in-spire-ing from our unobstructed perch. Although Kashimayari and Goryū are playing hard-to-get, Shirouma, Yukikura, and Asahi stand proudly, flexing their snow-capped muscles in the bluebird mid-winter skies. Up here, away from the mild temperatures of the valleys below, we walk on a 2-meter base of snow, mesmerized by the shimming waters of the Sea of Japan coastline due north.

The summit is home to a modest emergency hut with an observation deck on the roof. We take turns jumping off the roof into the deep powder, feeding off the adrenaline rush of free falling briefly before sinking into our soft cushion of snow. The structure takes on a much different feel from the summer season, appearing at just a fraction of the height due to the snow accumulation. We easily loiter on the summit for an hour, basking in the sun and truly appreciating such weather that only comes a few times a winter. The walk back down to the car is most exciting, for the snowshoes allow us to create our own paths through the deep snow while crisscrossing the various ski and snowboard tracks down the softened southern face. We reach the car shortly after 3pm and are still on a high from the enthralling scenery above.

Mt Ōnagi may not appear on any list of venerable mountains, but it has won a place in our hearts. It just goes to show you that you need not be bound by compilations of famous mountains and ‘must climb’ peaks dictated by others. Simply look at a map, find a knowledgable local, and hit the trails in search of Japan’s hidden beauty.

 

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