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Posts Tagged ‘Hyogo’

As I chip away at the remaining peaks on the Kansai 100 list, the logistics are becoming more and more complicated. My final peak in Hyogo Prefecture lie far to the west, on the border of Okayama Prefecture in an area that is more characteristic of the Chugoku region than the Kansai. What were the folks at Yama to Keikoku thinking when they made this list?

The express train departed Osaka station at preciously 9:15 on a cloudy but cool morning in late August. Full of joy after securing a seat, I drifted off into a peaceful slumber, waking up nearly 45 minutes later to an all but deserted train. Examining the LED-panel displaying the train information left me shellshocked, as somewhere along the way the carriage converted itself into a local train. In my haste to catch the train, I had inadvertently jumped on the express train (kaisoku) rather than the speedier super express (shinkaisoku). Again, the powers that be that made these train names need to be drawn and quartered, as an express train really isn’t express after all. They should have named the trains in a more realistic fashion. Instead of kaisoku, they could simply call it the bochi bochi hayai. My blunder meant that I would miss the 10:25am bus leaving from Himeji station, leaving little choice but to choose another mountain in the area. I thought about getting off at Sone station and reclimbing the sandstone rock formations of the Harima Alps, but something inside urged me on, so I changed to the shinkaisoku at Kakogawa station and arrived shortly before 11am.

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I rushed out of the ticket gates and found to my utter relief that another bus was departing for Yamasaki in only a few minutes. Readjusting the schedule scribbled on a piece of scrap paper from the previous night, it appeared that I would be just in time to make the 12:10 connecting bus to Chigusa village. If I missed that connection, there would be no way of making it to Mt. Hinakura, my target peak for the afternoon. The first bus to Yamasaki weaved through a nondescript part of town which offered glimpses of the newly renovated castle that makes Himeji so proud. Perhaps the craftsman took this pride a little too seriously, however, as the ancient structure is now completely white from roof to foundation. Apparently, they argued, this is what the original castle looked like before centuries of grit and car exhaust stained the roof a dark gray. It’s all a bit shocking for the system, as the castle looks more like a wedding cake than a bastion of feudal architectural fortitude.

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The rest of Himeji is dotted with shops of peculiar nomenclature. Perhaps the denizens of this sleepy city paid attention in their junior high language classes, offering free entertainment for visitors cruising through the quiet streets. The bus first passes by a bicycle shop named Tomato before whizzing by a hair garden named Affection. Directly across the street from this conservatory of scalpel beauticians sat a hair topic studio named Back-up. Yamasaki city to the north was no different, as along the main street the patisserie Vanilla vies for attention alongside a dog salon aptly named Alf. The names became a bit more eastern as the bus navigated the smaller villages to the north, with restaurants named Tengu and corner stores fashioned after Japanese flowers such as Sumire and Himawari. The bus pulled into Chigusa shortly before 1pm, nearly 4-1/2 hours after locking my front door that morning.

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With all that pent-up energy and frustration, I nearly doubled my usual pace on the concrete forest road that led to the start of the hike. According to the maps, this road would lead me most of the way to the mountain pass, where it was a short but relatively gently stroll along the ridge to the high point. The first landmark on the route was Hinakura shrine which was unfortunately closed for renovation. I said a quick prayer in passing before weaving through fields of rice and asparagus and into a large cedar forest guarded by a massive chain link fence. A sign on the barrier warned that it was hunting season, and for visitors to exercise caution when setting foot on the mountain. To the left of this notice sat a Beware of Bears sign indicating that this area was crawling with creatures in varying stages of anorexia.

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Thanks to the recent rains, the forest was beaming with greenery on every imaginable surface. Toadstools sprouted out of the soft soil like makeshift refugee camps as the creeks roared with runoff. Further up the constricted valley, a white flatbed pickup truck sat by the side of the road, its occupant scurrying through the woods in search of something to shoot. Perhaps this was one peak where I should stay exactly on course instead of bushwhacking my own shortcuts through the backcountry. The road eventually petered out into a trail, which spent most of the time in the creek waters until even those waters trickled to a halt once the headwaters were breached. Freshwater crabs scurried through the thick undergrowth in search of nourishment while frogs and grasshoppers jumped about, curious by the visitor trespassing through their hidden habitat. I took my first break at the mountain pass, where another white vehicle with yellow license plates sat idle. Despite the cool temperatures, the narrow valley held in the humidity, leaving my torso dripping wet with perspiration.

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From here, the path turned north, initially following a forest road on the Okayama side before ducking into a deciduous forest saddling the prefectural border. Drops of rain filtered through the thick canopy before Mother Nature had second thoughts and dumped her heavy load elsewhere. Higher up on the summit plateau, the flora changed again, favoring sultry pine and susuki grass on the undulating hills of a trio of peaks breaching the 1000-meter mark.

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Each top is placated by a stone marker with the three summits named ichi no maru, ni no maru, and san no maru . Maru is Japanese for ’round’, and bulbous these peaks were indeed, losing elevation between each successive mound in a comical attempt to imitate a roller coaster. Compacted mud fields made the going downright treacherous, and eventually the high point was reached around 2:30 in the afternoon. Mt. Ushiro, Okayama’s highest peak, stood prominently to the north, a thick veil of cloud concealing its jagged crown. To the west, the mountains of Okayama drifted in and out of cloud while sheets of rain squalls watered the summit of Mt. Seppiko directly behind me. I was above the cloud line for now, taking in the sights accompanied only by an army of ants, flies, and other insects buzzing through the grass covered slopes.

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I returned preciously the same way in which I had climbed, the only highlight being actually bumping into one of the hunters on his way down for the day. Empty-handed he was, but he did ask me if I had seen any bear or deer higher up. I didn’t have the heart to explain to him that most animals can’t survive in a monocultural forest of cedar, and that he would have much better luck to the north, where Okayama’s highest mountain was much too steep for the post-war cedar planters. Mt. Ushiro is on my list of Prefectural high points, but it would have to wait until the autumn. Back at the bus stop, I had an hour to kill but fortunately the hot spring and restaurant ensured that all time would not go to waste. Once back at Yamasaki bus terminal, one of the bus drivers explained that a highway bus would shuttle me to Sannomiya station, eliminating the need to venture back through Himeji. We chatted for a bit about the mountains and the recent leech infestation affecting the surrounding peaks. Fortunately they haven’t ventured to Mt. Hinakura as of yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they continue their slow march north.

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And with that, the final peak in Hyogo Prefecture is now in the history books. Over the last several years, I’d become a big fan of the mountains of the Banshu region, so there were mixed feelings of both relief and regret with the realization that I no longer had an excuse to visit the unspoiled scenery of this hidden area of Kansai. Of course, it only takes the action of one publishing company to change that.

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“Do you have your bear bell?”, quipped my driver, a slightly greying gent barking in a deep Tajima drawl. “Of course,” I replied, knowing good and well that talking any sense into this stone-headed authoritarian would do me no good. From the persistence of his warnings, you would think that the mountain is overflowing with tribes of ursine monsters, but I had enough experience to know better. He dropped me off at the start of the trail, a beat-up, potholed forest road hugging a swiftly flowing stream. I shouldered the day pack and marched through air so thick you could cut it with a butter knife.

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The road terminated at the base of a gargantuan Katsura tree estimated to be nearly as old as Christ. I stared in awe at the work of nature, half wondering if Totoro himself would make a nest in the upper canopy, if those Miyazaki creatures existed in reality. The signpost on the far side of the tree indicated just 1.7km to the summit of Mt. Higashitokonoo, my playmate for the afternoon. If all went according to plan then I’d be on the summit in less than an hour, giving enough time to traverse the ridge and continue down into the valley in time for the last (and only) bus of the day.

Two steps into my trek and I very nearly ended it all, awakening a meter-long mamushi from its afternoon siesta. The deadly snake jumped from fright, sending me tumbling off the right side of the trail and down to the edge of a creek bank. By the time I shuffled off the mud and crawled back to the trail the poisonous reptile had retreated to its hiding place. Fortunately I always hike with a stick and was lucky enough that the first contact with the serpent was the end of my trekking pole and not the sole of my shoe.

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With that drama behind me, I settled into a steady rhythm through a forest of mixed broadleaf and planted cedar. The humidity brought droplets of sweat trickling down my forehead and into my eyes, turning clear vision into a stinging, blurry mess. Now I remember why I hated hiking in the summer months, but the punishment was necessary if I was going to reach the magic 90 before the end of the year. The path followed the stream to the upper terminus and cut east through terrain so steep and remote that even the tree planters couldn’t reach. After half an hour I breached the ridge and sought refuge on a downed tree in a futile attempt at hydration. I took off my ‘quick dry’ shirt, wringing out ponds of perspiration into soil already dampened from the seasonal rains. Water and an isotonic drink took turns funneling down my parched esophagus, as the lightly salted potato chips brought saline equilibrium back to my quivering frame.

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Turning further east, the gentle contours of the ridge spit me out on a broad clear-cut plateau with exposed views in all directions. Clouds hung heavy to the south, but a vast expanse of ridges layered the horizon to the north. To the west, the summit of Hyonosen sat snugly alongside the loftier peaks of Hyogo Prefecture, the shapes obscured by the haze trickling in from the Gobi. I reached the high point shortly before 1pm and settled down for another leisurely break. My initial plan was to traverse along the ridge to Nishitokonoo mountain and drop into the valley a little closer towards the village and bus stop, but I wasn’t feeling it today. Perhaps it was the thought of the ghosts haunting the deep folds of the mountain. Back in the summer of 2009, the mountain was the scene of a deadly helicopter crash involving two pilots out on a fam flight in foggy weather. Or perhaps it was my promise to Kanako to come back safely on a rare solo outing. What if I did run into that elusive bear on the ridge? There were no other hikers or anyone within shouting distance, and with no cell phone reception in this sequestered part of Hyogo, it would be a long time before anyone stumbled upon my skeleton. A more logical explanation for my lethargy, however, was the heat.

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I ignored the turnoff for Nishitokonoo and dropped back into the same valley as before. Once back at the Katsura tree I kicked off the boots and took in the view. I tried to imagine what life must have been like when this tree first sprouted that seedling back a couple of millennia ago. At that time this was likely to have been a deeply forested area, so how did this tree survive the modernization of this land? Eventually my thoughts drifted towards other things, and more importantly, the bus timetable. I scampered down the forest road towards the village, when I found a trail on my right that branched off towards the summit of Mt. Nishitokonoo. My guidebook had warned that this route was extremely slippery in wet weather, so a quick recce was in order. The trail followed a moss-covered stream before reaching a cavernous area that bear likely used for giving birth. A side spur led to a hidden waterfall that seemed completely inaccessible. The walls closed in on all sides as I scuttled towards the base of the falls, but there was no safe ascent to the top. From here, the path left the stream and shot straight up to the summit, but alas, time would no allow me this luxury. I glanced at the watch and realized I’d now be lucky to make that 4:15pm bus.

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My leisurely stroll turned into a full-on sprint. I reached the village at 4:10pm but had no idea about the location of the bus stop. The first farmer I ran into pointed straight ahead, so I picked up the pace until I saw the hood of the bus peeking out from behind the bus shelter. I’ve really got to stop cutting these hikes so close, but curiosity always seems to get the better of me. With peak #81 checked off the list, I’m officially an octogenarian until the end of the year. I just hope I start making more intelligent decisions before they come back to haunt me.

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