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The old temple ruins of Komatsuji sit directly opposite the summit of Mt Ibarao, separated by a steep descent to a long saddle now occupied by the fairway of the 4th hole of the golf course. I would need to drop down to the links, cross the fairway, and continue up the wooded hillside to reach the summit of what is now known as Dōato-mine (堂跡嶺). The time has come to finally search for these long-lost relics of Shingon past.

I leave the house in late afternoon under a half moon and calm skies, trudging up past Eitokuji (see Chapter 4and up a deserted track to the saddle between Mt Shiramine and Mt Koban-no-mine (see Chapter 1). I pause here for a drink and to give a little time for the sun to fully drop behind the western horizon. All is calm and quiet up here, and the lack of other visitors gives a remoteness that you don’t usually find so close to civilization. My route this evening will involve following the course of Chapter 1 in reverse order, a fitting way to finish off this saga.

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I drop under the rope and along the now-familiar ridge to Mt Ōtani, now my third trip to the summit. From a clearing in the trees just below the summit I can see the 4th fairway and my target peak sitting off just to the south, looking so easily accessible if not for the forest of undergrowth and steep slopes lying in between. I drop off the peak and down to the narrow valley, crossing the stream on the duo of steel ladders bolted to the river bank. Here I turn left and into a layer of thick bamboo grass which forces me to crawl on my belly in order to navigate past the dense thickets of retina slashing leaves. I somehow make it to the teeing ground and clamber over an awkwardly constructed wire mesh animal fence. I dart across the fairway and enter the forest beyond, and up the incredibly steep slopes towards the summit ridge.

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Going is slow and tough, mostly by the fact that there is absolutely no trace or trail to speak of. I grab onto whatever I can find including a thorn bush which leaves its fang marks on my left palm. This is already off to a bad start.

In the fading light of day I do reach a flattened plateau about a third of the way up the knob. There definitely used to be some kind of structure here, but the thick undergrowth makes it impossible to make out any kind of foundation ruins. Ditto for a second and then final steppe above. I check the GPS and realize I have reached the summit plateau. If there is a summit signpost up here I will never find it – thick bamboo thwarts my progress and it is impossible to go much further without a machete. I raise my camera to snap a photo but the shutter fails to focus. I reach around to touch the filter ring and feel a void where the ring and the entire front element used to be – they have fallen off my camera and will definitely never be located without some major excavations.

I suppose this is an apt outcome considering I am not really supposed to be wandering around overgrown, trackless knobs at night. Just a week prior, I had dropped my camera and thought all was well, but perhaps the damage had yet to show itself until I needed it most. I still snap a shot just in case, which results in a blurry unrecognizable image that would probably fetch some money if shot by a famous abstract artist.

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The final light of the day is now completely gone, so I turn on the headlamp and retrace my steps back to the fairway and navigate the open space by the illumination of the half moon now directly overhead. Instead of heading back to the overgrown swamplands by the stream, I see a building directly in front of me, which in this dim light looks exactly like a temple gate. Could this be the location of the original entrance gate to the complex? As I get closer I realize that it’s just a concrete rest house for fatigued golfers, though if you can’t get through 4 holes of golf without needing a break perhaps you shouldn’t out there at all.

Instinct draws me near, and sure enough at the back of the structure I find a much easier place to hop the fence and manage to find a very clear and relatively easy spur that connects to the ridge line above. This must surely have been the access point to the temple all of those years ago. I regain the ridge just below Mt Benzaiten and breathe a sigh of relief for having made it through the backcountry without encountering any boar or ghosts of monks past. The final undulations along the ridge are pleasant under the light of my headlamp and the warm spring winds at my back.

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It’s hard to believe that I am now descending that initial ridge trail that I took way back in November during my very first outing in the Hoshida hills. Regaining Mt Ishibashi, peak #1 feels like the completion of a mandala, a fitting way to finish off what I initially estimated would take a year to complete.

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The following morning, I head out once again to put the final pieces of the puzzle together. When Komatsuji temple fell into ruin, the principal image, an eleven-faced Kannon statue, was moved to Hoshida shrine in 1703. There it sat for nearly 200 hundred years until the post-feudal government of the Meiji era dictated the separation of Buddhism from Shintoism (shinbutsu bunri). Instead of the statue being destroyed, a Shingon temple was constructed directly next to Hoshida shrine, and now the two live together as awkward neighbors. The Shinto grounds of Hoshida (星田) retained the Japanese reading, while the temple took on the older Chinese reading and became Shōdenji (星田寺).

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I pass through the temple gate and enter the modest temple grounds, finding a square structure on my right that houses the Kannon statue. The figure is difficult to see through the reflections in the glass, so I put my face against the glass and block out the extra light in order to view the important cultural property. I imagine myself sitting on top of Dōato-mine, praying to this image in the middle of a beautiful forest surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Hoshida mountains. I mutter a quick word of thanks to the goddess and wonder around the compact temple grounds. A quartet of stone stupa from the Muromachi era are displayed on a raised stone bed, salvaged from the grounds of the old temple during the construction of the golf course. This is all that is remains of Komatsuji nowadays, apart from a larger collection of stupa and Jizo statues in a grotto flanking the western foothills of Mt Myoken.

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I head over to the grotto, whose access point is adorned with a simple sauwastika across the top of an unadorned entrance gate. I walk to the end of a short walkway and find dozens of ancient Jizo statues lined up in formation. They have been salvaged from the surrounding hills, relocated here in hopes of protection from the elements. Just next to these images, on a wall running at a right angle, sit the remnants of Komatsuji’s cemetery, moved from the golf course to here instead of being bulldozed entirely.

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So what started off as a simple mountain mission for a bit of fitness has turned into quite the learning experience, as I have discovered the historical importance of my forgotten corner of Osaka Prefecture.

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I’m back at the dam after a filling lunch of curry. So far I’ve trudged up eggplant valley, taken the steep spur to Ichigaikaburi-no-se, and followed the gentler ridge to Mt Hidaka. There’s still one final route to explore, the much-feared Botte valley, a narrow gorge connecting the reservoir and a saddle between Mt Hidaka and Mt Hoshida, my first target of the day. I take the track around the western edge of the lake, the same one I followed towards Hayakari in Chapter 3, but instead of leaving the gorge east for Ichigaikaburi, I follow the river upstream along a poorly marked and heavily overgrown route that very few hikers attempt.

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The first obstacle in my way is a series of toppled trees clogging the valley. I scurry over these timbers and tramp through a thick grove of ferns past an abandoned dwelling that must have taken a monumental effort to construct in such a secluded location. Continuing upstream, I cross landslide debris along a dodgy trail with no handholds as the route rises above the stream towards a waterfall. I need to climb up and over the falls on the right side of the riverbank, but the footing is incredibly poor and I reach a point where I will need to commit my full attention on one single footstep that could mark the division between a successful ascent and a nasty tumble resulting in broken bones or worse. The ground is damp and slippery, and I freeze in place, pondering the potential outcome of a bad decision. My shoes are worn nearly to the tread and have served me well up until now, but with a 5-year-old daughter at home and the responsibilities that fatherhood brings, I just can’t seem to take that next step, so I do what any sensible human would do in such circumstances – I retreat.

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Giving up on Botte valley does not mean mission over, however, as a more standard route to Mt Hoshida now awaits along the gentle ridge to Hidaka. Rather than retrace my steps back to the reservoir, I return to the abandoned house and trust my instincts: if someone built a house here, there’s got to be an access point from above. So I climb and climb, grabbing onto anything in my path along an incredibly steep and narrow spur. The contour lines on my GPS do suggest a way through, so I trust them and fully commit to the climb ahead of me. I eventually regain the ridge at an unnamed peak blanketed with an unkept mane of bamboo grass. Swashbuckling my way through the dense undergrowth, I eventually pop out into familiar territory at a saddle below the start of the climb to Mt Hosokuri (see Chapter 5).

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On the far side of the knob, I once again arrive at the junction below Mt Nakao. Instead of sticking to the ridge along the ‘easy course’ to the summit, I veer left on the makimichi below the ridge and reach a junction just below the ‘steep route’ to the top. Since I have already been up Nakao, I veer away and instead head left for a rather abrupt and surprising descent down to Botte valley. I reach the edge of the narrow stream – this is where I would have ended up had I stayed my original course. The valley floor, due to the moisture trapped by the sides of the steep walls, is a lush green, carpeted by a healthy grove of ferns and plenty of bamboo grass. The vines dangling from the evergreen trees overhead bring to mind the jungles of Okinawa.

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I cross the stream and am led via a DIY signpost, a creative display scrawled on yellow tape wrapped around a disused PET bottle and subsequently impaled on a lime-green gardening stake. Thank goodness the feudal era is over, or the bottle would likely have been replaced by the head of the warrior of a rival clan. My route leaves the valley floor as quickly as it enters, up the angled confines of Mt Hoshida’s root-infested western face. Pockmarked by toppled trees in places, the trail leads me around the tangled mess and along a series of chest-high boulders which offer vistas across the valley towards Takatsuki city.

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How fitting it is to arrive on the summit of the namesake 51 Mt Hoshida (星田山) that helps define the entire mountain range. Interesting enough, on ancient maps of the region this mountaintop also goes by the name of Uma-ga-mine, which also happens to be the name of my 50th summit. I can see why modern mountaineers prefer the newer Hoshida moniker in order to avoid confusion. I forgo a break for the time being as the adjacent 52 Mt Seikai (星海山) beckons – it being just a short climb across a narrow saddle to the northwest. The up-and-back takes less than 5 minutes and I soon return to Mt Hoshida for a late afternoon snack. As I dig into my stash of snacks, who do I see approach but good ole Seino-san. “Again”, he shouts, offering a friendly smile and words of encouragement as I show him the dwindling list of mountains left to climb. “You’re almost there”, the vest-donning elderly hiker quips, before disappearing down the steep descent towards Botte valley. I watch as Mr Seino fades out of sight, wondering if I will get another chance to encounter his 76-year-old presence before he either gets too old to climb or I get too bored of these sandy knobs.

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The encounter of a familiar face gives me a second wind as I head due south for the final quartet of peaks in the Hoshida massif. The sun-baked ridge runs parallel to the fairway of the 5th hole of the golf course. The leafless canopy allows me to catch glimpses of the tree-cloaked Dōato-mine on the other side of the fairway. It is fairly tempting to drop off the ridge, scale the fence, and race up the slopes in search of the lost past if not for the lawnmower currently grooming the grassy meadows of the fairway. I get the feeling that the golf course employees would not take too kindly to tresspassers so any attempts at an ascent would have to be discreet at the very least.

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This final section of ridge is absolutely stunning as the sun creates long, golden shadows on the gentle traverse to the summit of 53 Mt Saratani (皿谷山). A fork in the spur here leads southwest on an unmarked track to Mt Higashi-Botte but I keep to the main ridge southeast in hopes of looping back via another unmarked route on my map. I hop over a toppled tree and duck under another, following the natural contours of the spur and barely notice the signpost hand-painted on a cherry tree on 54 Mt Ike-no-uchi (池之内山), the second highest knob in the Hoshida range. 

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A narrow sliver of trail between thick strands of bamboo is all that separates me from 55 Mt Minami Ike-no-uchi (南池之内山). On the summit I notice a fork in the route. A hand-crafted sign warns hikers that a left here leads to a dead-end at the golf course and instead instructs hikers to keep to the ridge, which I do through a healthy forest of hardwoods glimmering in the afternoon light. The end of the spur is reached and with nowhere to go but down, my route spits me out in a narrow valley blanketed in bamboo. I break through a section of undergrowth to reach a very old and dilapidated forest road that probably last saw vehicular traffic during the Reagan administration. I turn right on what is left of the road, stepping through toppled bamboo that cracks loudly under my feet and reach a abandoned green bus slowly being reclaimed by the elements. I am reminded of the Chris McCandless story and half-expect to find the corpse of a hermit inside the ramshackle vehicle but I am too afraid to peer inside.

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The overgrown road leads past two small ponds until reaching a clearing just below the summit plateau of 56 Mt Higashi-Botte (東拂底山). As luck would have it, someone has affixed rubber tubing to the tree roots lining a short but steep climb to the final summit ridge, so I hoist myself up and reach the top for my best views of the afternoon. Rather than retrace my steps back to Mt Hoshida, I drop down the southwestern face along a faint track of pebbly scree and reach a broad ridge of thick golden grasses blowing gently in the cool late-winter breeze. I somehow forge a way through and arrive at the place where I turned back after summiting Mt Botte (see Chapter 5). I race up to the summit of Mt Botte and continue on over Kunimi-mine and Mt Nishitani and follow a well-used track all the way out of the hills and into an affluent collection of homes in the Hoshida Nishi neighborhood.

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I follow the road downhill for a bit but keep an eye on the GPS for an unmarked turnoff. At first I miss the track and have to retrace my steps until finally spying a narrow track on the far side of a small grassy plaza. The route immediately dives into a thick bamboo grove ablaze in that golden hour glow which spits me out into the grounds of Uchiage shrine, but it is not the fox god that I seek. An additional track branches off in front of the shrine and climbs through a gorgeous oak grove and I find what I am looking for: Ishihōden burial mound.

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Built in the late Kofun era, the stone tomb is the only one of its kind in the northern part of what was known as the Kawachi province. Excavations near the tomb revealed pottery fragments dating from the mid-7th century, but little else is known about the burial mound, including who was once buried inside. It is generally agreed that someone of great importance and stature was interred here due to the painstaking efforts of design and construction of the tomb, whose entrance faces west toward Osaka city.

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After a quick look around, I retreat back to the grassy plaza and continue walking down the paved road until reaching a bridge spanning a deep gully. On the far side of the bridge is a modern apartment complex built snug against a curvy hillock smothered in bamboo. A signpost adjacent to the apartment building indicates that it is private property and that entrance is prohibited to those not residing in the structure, so I wait for a gap in the traffic and take off in a sprint past the sign and adjacent building and scale a set of log stairs built into the hillside. Once inside the bamboo grove, I follow a green barbed-wire chain-link fence to find the signpost for the 110m-high 57 Mt Onna (女山) or female peak. Why someone would barricade their overgrown forest of bamboo is beyond me, but some landowners have a propensity to be incredibly possessive. In order to avoid being discovered, I drop down the northern side of the peak and slip out into a quiet neighborhood of homes whose residents are likely engaged in their evening meal rituals. 

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The sun has now hit the horizon, but my next peak lies on this same road just to the north, so I walk back to the main road and past the Fresco supermarket towards another grove of bamboo. My next peak is also on private land and my initial planned approach is from a vacant lot from the east, but wouldn’t you know it – a man it out there with his digger excavating the land for no apparent reason. Maybe he heard I was coming and just decided to thwart my progress instead. This forces me to walk around to the western face to reach an access point through a farmer’s field. Again I wait for a break in the traffic and then sprint up through the network of fallow land and duck into the bamboo grove and climb to the top of a steep hill to find a signpost for 58 Mt Katano (交野山), which is just 83 meters above sea level. Despite the absurdly low altitude, there is actually a triangulation point here and a signpost indicating that the knob is also known as Ōtani.

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I run back through the fields under the guise of dusk, escaping the wrath of the locals and continue onwards to the next peak, once again to the north. The main route is from the south, but since I am on the opposite side, I try my luck approaching via the cemetery invading its lower slopes. As I walk up the approach road, I see the caretaker placing cones across the road, together with a signpost indicating that the graveyard is open from 8am to 5pm daily. I gaze at my watch: 5:10pm. Turning around once again, I pull out the GPS in order to navigate through the maze of houses and reservoirs separating myself from the southern face of 59 Mt Takaoka (高岡山). Numerous wrong turns lead to more lost minutes, and by the time I do reach the trailhead I need the assistance of my headlamp. I race up the steep hill, past a small shrine and into a clearing above the cemetery and take in the last of the sunset oranges on the horizon.

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I drop back down to the Hoshida neighborhood and negotiate the various turns that will lead me to my final destination, which is marked by a long, steep, stone stairway through a park. I ascend to the top to reach a road and playground, and just to my left I discover a shrine gate sitting in front of a large stone stupa flanked on either end by two rusty metal lanterns. Affixed by wire to a tree next to the gate, I find the signpost for 69m-high 60 Mt Shingu (新宮山), the lowest of the Hoshida 60 and my official end of the road. In the Muromachi period, there were two sanctuaries built upon this hilltop: a Buddhist temple called Aizenritsuin and a Shintō space by the name of Shinguyama Hachimangu. Both fell victim to the separation of Buddhism and Shintō at the beginning of the Meiji era and now all that is left is this stupa which gives visitors a tiny taste of what used to be. 

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With the Hoshida 60 (map here) now complete, I return home but still can’t shake the ghosts of Komatsuji temple from my mind. A proper investigation is necessary in order to provide proper closure to the saga. Stay tuned.

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One week after my scurrying among the peaks of Hoshida Enchi in Chapter 4, I once again return to the eggplant valley reservoir for my third exploration of the hidden lakeside trails. It is easy to return to such locations, being just a 30-minute walk from home along a rural bylane frequented by farmers. I head west, across the top of the dam as in Chapter 3 but instead of following the reservoir I turn south and climb the hillside to reach the start of a long north-south ridge paralleling the waters of the pond below. The easy-to-follow route passes just above a secluded subdivision of affluent homes affording views across a sea of dwellings to the mountains of Takatsuki city to the north.

The ridge is gentle, almost unexpectedly gentle considering what the Hoshida mountains have thrown my way so far. Could this be the much sought after weakness in the fortress walls of the serrated edges of the surrounding spurs? The first minor bump in the route turns out to be the summit of ㉙ Mt Takamatsu (高松山), barely worthy of the short side trip a few meters from the main track. As I reach the high point and retreat back to the main route, I hear a voice approaching from behind. A bespectacled female hiker who appears to be around my age approaches, studying her GPS with an uneasy eye. “Is that the track to Takamatsu?”, she intrepidly inquires and relaxes a bit when I reply in the affirmative. “How far are you going today?” I ask, hoping that she has a realistic plan in place as it is already approaching mid-afternoon.

“Not sure”, she replies, perhaps hoping for an indirect invite to join me in a game of peak hunting. I pull out my paper map, pointing to a trio of unclimbed peaks on this spur above the lake we are now following. She gladly accepts my offer to chauffeur her along these hidden tracks. For once, it will be glad to share the trail with more than just my internal dialogue. “My name’s Naoko”, she reveals, pointing to her ancestral home in the neighboring enclave of Hoshida Yamate. Our conversation naturally turns to the subject of mountains, and my new friend is the first to admit that she is far from an expert, but I promise to keep the pace gentle and our conversation flows as naturally as the contours of this pleasant ridge.

After a trio of ups and downs, we reach the top of  Mt Sakato (坂登山) for which the kanji characters literally read ‘hill climb’, an interesting choice for a peak that seems nothing more than a steady incline on the ridge. Little do Naoko and I know that we will soon find out the true origin of this peculiar mountain name.

The gains in altitude are barely noticeable on the subtle inclines, and thirty minutes further up the spur we find a pet bottle impaled on a stake with a hand-drawn map indicating the trail on our right sticks to the main ridge, while the path straight on is a makimichi traverse below. We turn right and reach a massive chestnut tree sitting directly on the summit of the aptly named ㉛ Mt Hosokuri (細栗山), my halfway point of the Hoshida 60. Instead of celebrating, however, we push further along the spur in hopes of finding a view on these tree-smothered knobs.

The track drops to a junction with yet another hand-crafted signpost. This one involves a styrofoam food tray nailed to a cedar tree on which a black marker map has been etched onto the surface once again demonstrating the DIY ethos of the Hoshida locals. The figure 8 lattice of paths mean we can simply pick and choose our preferred route to link up with the main ridge line. We opt for what is scribbled on the map as the raku no nobori or ‘easy climb’. Easy would be the last thing I would use to categorize the hillside laying directly in front of us, as the two of us spend quite a bit of time on all fours trying to negotiate the steep slope separating us from our next knob.

Plenty of tree trunks provide just enough leverage to hoisten us up to ㉜ Mt Nakao (中尾山) that sits in a field of head high bamboo teetering on the edge of an electrical pylon climbing firmly to the top of the eastern face. This is the convergence of the so-called ‘steep trail’ that we could have taken instead of our ‘easy’ way to the top. At a saddle at the bottom of the southern face another track comes in from our left, but we ignore this and keep to the main spur along a gentle incline of evergreen oaks, hemlock and camphor which bring a welcome green to the otherwise monochromatic scenery of winter.

At the top of the next rise we finally find our sought-after views between gaps in recently felled trees on the summit of 260m high ㉝ Mt Hidaka (日高山), our high point of the day. A temperature gauge affixed to a cherry tree indicates a temperature of three degrees above zero. Naoko and I take a well-deserved break of chocolate and water while we weigh our options. Hidaka is the first of the trio of mountains known as the Hoshida Sanzan, and I suggest a loop track of the remaining two peaks of the triumvirate. She enthusiastically agrees to my proposal, even though our route is dotted on the map and our remaining daylight hours are limited.

A couple of minutes beyond Hidaka a path leads through a grove of bamboo to the south, marked by a discarded CD affixed to a dangling bamboo leaf. We follow this route through the grove and into a clearing of golden susuki grass and a thicket of dead weeds. A faint trail heads straight through this mess, the difficulty compounded by a the sprawling fingers of a thorn bush that has us in its grasp. I pull out the pocket knife and free myself from the mess and then set about liberating Naoko from its claws.

Once through the obstruction, it becomes an exercise in route finding as the bush yields back to the untouched swaths of forest. I eye the GPS while following the ever-steepening contours skywards along a narrow spur. Pulling ourselves utilizing the stability of the branches of maple and oak, the summit plateau of ㉞ Mt Botte (拂底山) is breached as Naoko and I pause to catch our breath. The peak borders a broad valley dotted with vegetable fields, the southernmost extent of the Hoshida range. Looking due west, the television antenna of Mt Iimori rise up among a trio of peaks situated just below the main ridge of the Ikoma mountains. A route from here seems plausible, but will require a bit of advanced planning to avoid that rat’s nest of undergrowth bordering the valley of vegetables.

The eastern face reveals a slight weakness as Naoko and I forge switchbacks down the rough scree, darting from tree to tree in an effort to help stop a fall if one of us should take a tumble. At the saddle, our progress is thwarted by a thick wall of weeds, with no visible way though. The map indicates a dotted trail through a meadow towards Mt Higashi-Botte, but with diminishing daylight and hydration, we make the only logical choice – backtrack up and over Botte to the more-established main route. We would have to give up on the Hoshida Sanzan for now, but the map provides us an alternative to polish off a few knows further west.

Fortunately I somehow manage to locate a track off of Botte that avoids the tangly mess of the briars and we retrace our steps back to the CD junction and turn west on the western border of the range. The path soon splits, marked by a clipboard signpost hand-scrawled in black marker and wired to a Mizunara oak trunk. We take the fork and arrive on ㉟ Kunimi-mine (拂底山) and are gifted with a glimpse of the Osaka city skyline and the fading light of day reflecting off the waters of Osaka bay. Time is running short, so we pick up the pace along the undulating ridge line to the northwest.

㊱ Mt Nishitani (拂底山) is little more than a subtle bump on the ridge, signposted adjacent to yet another gargantuan electrical pylon exercising its dominance over the range. We have two options here – either descend a short distance to the suburban enclave of Hoshida Nishi or take a side spur toward a duo of knobs due north of here. It would be a long way to come back just for these two mountains, so Naoko and I leave the main route at an unmarked junction and follow a broad spur through a glorious hardwood forest sprinkled with leaf litter. Yet another handmade signpost awaits us a saddle, so we stick to the spur and follow it to a lonesome bench affixed to the high point of ㊲ Mt Minami-Ometoishi (南夫婦石山). The name suggests a ‘married couple’ rock formation, but no boulders can be seen among the thick bamboo grass aligning the plateau. 

The spur continues and so do we, continuing our frenetic stumble through unexplored tracks of land. A series of false summits separate us and ㊳ Mt Ometoishi (夫婦石山) and yet again, the rock formation remains elusive. Decision time is here, for as much as we would like to simply backtrack and take the easy way to Hoshida Nishi, the map and GPS do suggest there is a route between here and Mt Sakato on the main spur at the start of the day. This would save quite a bit of time walking on asphalt back home. We weigh over the options before deciding on this shortcut. Remarkably, we locate a series of yellow tape marks affixed to the trees which guide us off the eastern face of Ometoishi and into a narrow gully and headlong into a 5-meter high dam cutting off access to the north. It also seems to have thwarted whomever was affixing the yellow tape, for on the far side of the gully there is no clear way forward.

Careful study of not only of the surrounding landscape but also the contours of the GPS is required here. Using my years of experience in the mountains of Kansai and my weeks of experience in the Hoshida mountains, I settle on a rain-water drainage gully clogged with toppled trees and slowly-rotting branches. I tell Naoko to keep a 10-meter following distance in case I should slip, and fortunately for us both the angle soon eases as we locate a spur just to our left that allows us to haul ourselves up to the top of the ridge. Remarkably, we pop on directly on the summit of Mt Sakato and can now safely brag that we have indeed climbed the face that gives the ‘hill climb’ its most fitting name. We high-five each other in a celebratory manner, capturing our glee on a selfie as Naoko audibly exhales a sigh of relief.

With the final light of the dying day, it is simply a matter of heading back down the well-trodden spur to the reservoir and familiar territory again. Naoko’s parents live just a short distance from the dam, and she graciously offers me a ride back to my side of town, saving that agonizing 30-minute walk on weary legs. We exchange contact information and promise to do another walk again the future, perhaps teaming up with other fellow walkers in the neighborhood who are also drawn in by the beauty and mystery of the Hoshida mountains.

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After a two week hiatus for the holidays, I once again find myself on a blustery weekday afternoon following the slope towards Hoshida Myoken Gu, past my daughter’s kindergarten and around the eastern face of Mt Myoken to the affluent enclave of Myokenhigashi. A series of concrete stairs sandwiched between the forests of the botanical gardens and the million-dollar abodes lead me to a crisscross network of quiet streets affording spectacular views towards Kyoto city on the horizon, the kind of hilly vistas that would not feel out of place in San Francisco. I hug the far eastern section of the neighborhood, following a row of sakura trees overlooking the secluded houses of Kisaichi snuggled firmly against the slopes of the Katano mountains.

The muted light of the overcast afternoon brings a calmness to the air, the lack of wind offering a respite from the wintry gales that have marked the change of seasons. I walk slowly, looking for an entrance to my first peak of the day, a mountain that appears on my maps to have no clear path to the top. A gap in a chain link fence draws me in, so I leave the main road like a sheepish trespasser and duck behind the protective cover of the fencing. Progress is soon halted by a maze of thick Kuzu vines. I drop to my knees and pull the pocket knife out of the rucksack and set about clearing a path through the tangled mess. Just meters on, a clearing in the brush reveals an easier access point from the adjacent road, as I am once again punished for my impatience. I skirt the edge of an eroded wash and make my way, step by careful step, up the untracked eastern face of the knob.

The first twenty peaks have provided a good training ground for my improvised climbs: I can always find a way up to the top, guided mostly by my instinct and careful study of the impossibly steep slopes in search of a weakness. Instead of heading straight up the face, I traverse in a roughly diagonal line, grasping onto pine trunks towards the shoulder on the horizon. I soon pop out and take the final few steps to the top of ㉒ Mt Konosu (鴻ノ巣山), only to find a signpost and a green erosion net draping down the more well-traveled western face. After a quick drink of water, I grasp onto this safely net and lower myself through the sandy scree to a saddle sitting just above a row of houses separated by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Someone is really doing their best to keep the hikers out.

Despite the awkward access, the leaf-littered path is easy to follow and pleasant on both the eyes and the feet, though it is likely a viper death trap in the summer season. With the abundance of both hornets and snakes, I am grateful for my decision to climb during the colder months of the year, determined as I am to complete the remaining two-thirds of the peaks before the return of the beasts. I continue through the elongated saddle, which spits me out onto an angled face accompanied by the gold tints of patches of eulalia grass lining both sides of the narrow track. It is just a five-minute scramble to reach the summit of the 192m ㉓ Mt Nandan (南谷山) and the bird’s-eye peek into the patchwork of affluent homes of Myokenhigashi. 

A proper track my route now becomes, along a heavily eroded spur paralleling a network of rusty, half-buried water pipes with manholes covering the maintenance access points. This piques my interest, as I run through scenarios in my head as to why there would be a need for water up here. My question is soon answered at the crest of the next rise, with a circular signage in red for fire hydrant affixed to a maple tree above a rectangular valve box cover sitting on the forest floor. Forest fire scenarios now run through my head as I continue plodding along, reaching a monster of a concrete water tank constructed smack dab in the middle of the spur.

The GPS indicates an unmarked junction here, so I turn east down a series of fake log steps and over a fixed rope and ‘No Trespassing’ sign to arrive inside of the Hoshida Enchi park. The public green space sports a spider’s web of well-maintained paths fanning out from an immense suspension bridge spanning a narrow valley between the mountain ridges. The bridge itself is your typical bubble-era concrete monolith, attracting throngs of tourists in the autumn season who seek a selfie to satisfy their Instagram addictions. By a simple act of luck, I am here on a Tuesday, when the bridge is shuttered and my only companions are a pair of tits (the bird, mind you – get your head out of the gutter) that flitter among the trees. I take a quick gander at the bridge and retreat back to the forbidden path, which continues on the opposite side of the spur along an additional roped-off trail.

I slip under the rope and scale the stairs to reach a second water tank, looking much like a twin of the water receptacle sitting on the opposing ridge. These must surely be a lifesaver in the event of a forest fire, if the pipework is still in working order that is. The undulating spur is a pleasant walk, along an avenue of hardwoods and pine trees flanking both sides of the narrow path. Leaf litter and browned pine needles cushion the feet, and the tree-covered  ㉔Takeru-ga-mine (哮ヶ峰) soon comes into view. Translating as ‘howl or roar’, the name is an intriguing choice, for there are definitely no tigers in the vicinity, but perhaps in ancient times a wolf or two scrambled up this hidden knob to relay a message to the hungry pack waiting below.

Unfortunately the track dead ends here, so I am forced to head back the way I had come and retrace my steps to the first water tower and turn left along a spur heading southwest towards the main Hoshida ridge line. Through gaps in the trees I can just about make out the buildings of southern Kyoto through the overcast haze as I flow effortlessly over the crests and troughs. My mind enters what I call the tozan trance, where you reach a climbing rhythm and can totally space out on obscure thoughts, or, on this particular afternoon, on thoughts of Cookie Monster and his quest for chocolate cookies.

And of course when that furry muppet comes into your head, you just can’t shake the thought and will even start speaking in cookie tongues. Me reach the top of the cookie summit of ㉕ Mt Hinami (日南山) and I snap out of my sugary trance, only to be possessed by the spirits of Grover, Miss Piggy and Fozzie as I engage in an internal three-way dialogue, which haunts me until the top of the adjacent spur and my third water tank of the day. I now running through the logistics in my head, of how these water storage facilities could have been constructed in such an inaccessible place. 

Route-finding now takes center stage at the spur soon becomes overgrown, with a great deal of toppled trees blocking forward momentum. I slither in and out of the unkept mess and reach a split in the spur. I check the maps and realize a bit of a detour is necessary, so I continue due west over a series of false summit until finally topping out on  ㉖ Mt Anamushi (穴虫山), the peak of the insect hole. I wonder if this name refers to the most notorious insect living in holes, the Asian giant hornet. Thankfully they hibernate in the winter. I backtrack and take the southern fork and immediately start losing altitude in a sort of freefall down to another kiretto, the sort of sketchy scrambling that is now becoming a trademark of the Hoshida mountains.

At the bottom of the gap I stare up at a wall of broken ridge directly in front of me, but my eyes spy a way through by scrambling up a slope of sandy scree on the western face. I retake the spur further on, treading carefully to avoid the dizzying drops eastward until I finally breach 200 meters of altitude for the first time today. The angle continues to crescendo until I can go no higher and I stand on the brow of the tongue-twisting ㉗ Mt Shōbugataki (菖蒲が滝山). I strain my ears and can dimly make out the sound of the falls in the valley directly below. 

A metal signpost appears a bit further on, delineating this route as the Ōtani Hiking Course, which from my research actually predates the construction of the Hoshida Enchi park. What it must have been like to walk these hills in the days before a touristy suspension bridge and the placement of electrical pylons. At least we can still cherish what remains – a pristine forest devoid of cedar plantations. The path here seems better traveled, possibly due to whoever created the Ōtani trail. The undulating bumps are a pleasure to traverse and I quicken the pace knowing that just one more knob remains on the itinerary. And here it comes, the glorious ㉘ Shiramine (白峯) and the wonderful addition of a hand-crafted seat bolted to the remnants of a wilted tree stump.

It is just a few steps further along to drop out of the ‘forbidden’ zone and back under the ropes to reach the junction below Koban-no-mine in Chapter 1 of the tale. I rest here in familiar territory and descend down the track back to the Myoken neighborhood. Before I reach civilization, I make one last side trip through the ramshackle temple complex of Eitokuji buttressed between two steep valley walls. The path through the labyrinth follows a small stream, past a series of Buddhist scriptures etched into tablets until dead-ending at a cliff face and the modest Shōbugataki falls. A changing room adjacent to the chute is a testament to the esoteric rituals taking place under the waterfalls. Intel about this sanctuary is scarce, and with no one in the vicinity to fill in the holes, the origins and affiliations of this temple will remain a mystery.

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The JR Kosei line shuttles Kyoto residents to and from Tsuruga city, providing a much-needed link between the Kansai and Hokuriku regions. The rail line hugs the western shores of Lake Biwa and service is often delayed in the winter due to high winds and horizontal snow conditions as the Siberian weather patterns push down from the north. A high-pressure weather pattern finally settles in, bringing stable conditions and an opportunity for a winter rematch with the Makino mountains of northwestern Kansai. Minami and I board at Kyoto station and sit on the left side in order to inspect snow conditions for our imminent climb. You can literally follow the snow line north as our carriage slithers past a bare Hieizan and under the snow-tinged ridge of the Hira mountains. Once past Omi-Takashima station, snow starts appearing on the flatlands, and once we alight at Makino station the surrounding ridges are cloaked in cape of thick white. Excitement builds with a tinge of trepidation – is there a path up that crystal fortress?

We strap on our snow gear and crunch through the frozen snowpack at the base of the mountain, following the footprints left by climbers flocking here during yesterday’s holiday. We have purposely chosen a weekday in order to avoid a bottleneck as well as to limit our chances of being buried by loosened snow of parties climbing above us. The slopes of the abandoned ski field we follow sit idle and neglected, a reminder of the fallout of the collapse of the skiing boom of the 1980s. We settle into our own pace, as I make steady progress in my snowshoes while Minami struggles with her spartan choice of 6-point crampons, which make the going tough as the snow starts to melt.

An early morning veil of cloud begins to break up, revealing patches of blue that the weather forecast had predicted. The route goes straight up the ski slopes before branching south to reach a broad spur and the start of a narrow traverse to reach the far end of the mountain slope. We take our time here, doing our best to avoid the leg-breaking drops to our left while literally hugging the snow on the uphill side. Conditions will certainly be worse in the afternoon, so I make mental notes of the terrain and store them inside my brain for safe keeping. We reach the junction on the far side and take a break so Minami can strap on her wakan. I strip down to just a short-sleeved shirt and the temperatures begin to rise well above freezing. Conditions feel decidedly late March despite this early February morning.

3.5 kilometers separate us from the summit ridge line, and it becomes immediately apparent that this will be anything but a gentle stroll in the mountains. The path meanders on a series of switchbacks, littered with the trace of yesterday’s climbers who have forgone the switchbacks on their hasty descents back to civilization. We stick mostly to the established switchbacks, except for the impromptu detours around snapped branches and toppled trees littering the track. We reach the crest of the first spur, an unnamed peak at an elevation of 562 meters flanked by an immense beech tree. A clearing on the southeastern edge of the plateau affords a view down towards Makino town and the famed avenue of metasequoia trees. We fashion a viewing bench by clearing away tufts of snow and settle down to a break of chocolate and take in the mesmerizing views.

The respite gives us an extra pep in our snowy steps as we reach a saddle and are faced with a long, demoralizing climb as we realize just how far we have to go – the ridge above still looks tiny and inaccessible from our vantage point. We push on through an immense forest of native beech trees creating a spidery network of shadows as the sun finally breaks through the clouds. With the rise in temperatures, the snow turns wet and heavy, weighing our feet down as we push through the soggy mess. A skier carefully works his way down from the slope directly ahead, cursing the conditions as he slides slowly though the weighty snowpack. There’s nothing to do except to lower our heads and push on.

An hour further on, and the tree cover finally begins to spread, revealing a spectacular glimpse of Hakusan and her majestic figure smothered in wintry white. This helps lifts the spirits, as well as our pace, as the first nippy breezes pushing in from the Sea of Japan strike our sweaty figures. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and push on through the improving snow conditions that the higher altitude brings. Soon we are faced with a steep climb on a bald knuckle of land that flattens out completely on the crest of the hill – the summit is reached!

Kanpū (寒風), which translates as ‘winter wind’, lives up to its name as we dig a bunker to protect us from the frigid gales duriung our well-deserved lunch break. The wind is at our backs as we gaze out over Hakusan and the rest of the peak scattered throughout the Hokuriku region. Far to the left or Hakusan, barely visible on the horizon, lies a wall of white peaks that can be no other than the Ushiro-Tateyama section of the Northern Alps. Who thought that such spectacles await those who put in the effort in the clear air of winter to reach such hidden heights of Kansai, which feel absolutely alpine despite their modest height of 853 meters.

After my winter accident, I never thought I could once again feel comfortable in the snow-capped mountains, but sitting here in my bald perch, I can once again see the appeal and attraction of the winter season. The key is with both the choice of the mountain and the timing. Oh – and a little navigational help goes a long way. Still, I feel completely content with just one snowy ascent a year, and what a gem of a hike await those who venture into the Makino mountains to feel the untamed beauty of northern Kansai. It is these thoughts that fill my head as Minami and I once again retreat back to the stillness of the beech forests, leaving behind the expansive vistas of Lake Biwa spreading out before us.

Snow conditions are even sloppier on the descent, but our footfalls are careful and calculated, as they should be on any mountain pursuit really. The climb down through the smooth snow takes just a fraction of the time, spurred on as we are by the promise of a hot bath at the trailhead. During this pandemic, I always try to avoid crowded places, and on this particular Friday afternoon we are rewarded for our effort by having the hot spring pretty much to ourselves. I head straight to the outdoor bath, letting the soothing waters penetrate my throbbing calf muscles while studying the ridge line we had just left an hour earlier. I will definitely be back, hopefully before the summer rains, when I can hopefully get another glimpse of Hakusan in her brilliant kimono of white.

 

 

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Precisely a week after my last exploration of the Hoshida hills, I find myself back at the pond at the foot of eggplant valley. The early morning rain clouds have now begun to break up and a rise in the barometer brings hopes of pleasant weather conditions as the late afternoon sun finally begins to show its face. This time, I head toward the opposite shore to my right, following the contours of the pond counter-clockwise in the direction of a rotund peak dominating the horizon just opposite my position.

The last of the autumn leaves cling tightly to the oak trees surrounding the lake, unwilling to accept the change of seasons while strong gales push in from the north in those all-too-familiar midwinter weather patterns. The dampness of the valley provides the perfect growing environment for wild mushrooms adorning the maze of fallen trees flanking both shoulders of the narrow track. A washed out section of hillside reveals a faint trail dropping steeply towards the lake shore to the east. After double-checking with the GPS, I scuttle down this rainwater channel and reach the delta of a small stream feeding into the reservoir. The track ends here abruptly, with no indications of where to go except for a small gap in the eroded riverbed just opposite. I grasp onto tree roots and propel myself up into a flattened thicket of tangled kuzu vines and briars, which dig into my undergarments and bring my progress to a halt. I drop to my knees, slide off the rucksack and pull out the pocket knife in order to clear a path.

I rely mostly on my instincts, having been in this situation one too many times in my quests to climb mountains that time has forgotten. Putting yourself into the shoes of a wild animal is often the best strategy, so I follow a game trail up the western face of the peak, using the base of trees as footholds and the trunks themselves as propelling mechanisms to force my way up the spur just in front of me. I skirt left under the edge of a rock formation and spy a clear line of sight to my target, and after a few improvised dance moves, slither up on top of the narrow sliver of land that doubles as the spur. Right on cue, a pink tape mark is wrapped around the trunk of a young tree as I finally exhale a sigh of relief for having stumbled upon the proper track.

It takes just minutes to reach the narrow summit of ⑯ Mt Hayakari (早刈山). I pause here to catch my breath and rehydrate, and half consider continuing on the spur that leads north away from the summit. Instead, I follow the path back to the lakeshore, and I am too intrigued by where I went wrong at the start of the ascent. The trail spits me out on the shoreline, where I literally have to creep along with four points of contact and hope that none of the stones give way and send me sliding into the chilly waters below.

Fortunately, luck is on my side and I retrace my steps back to the main trail without any major incidents and continue climbing away from the reservoir waters. The track meets back up with the river further upstream, in a broad wash bordered by a thick grove of bamboo flanking the right bank of the river. Here a junction with a hand-painted sign indicates the start of a spur leading up to the ridge, a no-nonsense excuse for a path that wastes no time in defying both gravity and logic. These trailblazers sure do have a wicked sense of humor, as the route seems to ignore the contours like a cruel inside joke. The footing is poor on the gritty sandstone, so I find myself blazing my own trail just off the ridge where the tree roots make for better purchase. A half-hour’s climbing investment pays off, depositing me directly on the summit of Mt Ichigaikaburi-no-se (一蓋被ノ嶺) from Chapter 2 of the saga. The air is much clearer than last week, revealing linger snow squalls pushing their way eastward from the mountains of western Kyoto.

Now I am back in familiar territory as I drop down to the depilated bridge spanning eggplant valley and follow the steep track past the turnoff for Mt Jigokudani, but this time I ignore this junction and continue on the undulating ridge towards an electrical pylon affixed to the eastern face of a prominent knob. I race upwards in the golden light of late afternoon and reach the summit of ⑰ Mt Kitasanshi (北山師岳), one of the Hoshida Sanzan, or three peaks of Hoshida. Snack time is certainly in order, so I sprawl out in the sun and enjoy a pack of Calorie Mate and the remainder of my sports drink. 

The familiar sound of a bear bell soon comes within ear shot, and who do I see but the same gentlemen from the previous weekend. “It’s you again,” he exclaims, showing his pleasure at having encountered another crazy hiker for the second consecutive Saturday. We chat as if old friends as he reveals a bit more about himself. “I’m Seino-san”, explains my kindred spirit, “76 years old.” After picking my chin off the ground, I coax intel from him about the spur leading south off the peak. “The route off of Naka-no-yama is hard to find – stay west”, quips Mr. Seino, with an air of confidence that can only come from knowing these mountains like the back of his hand.

I head south, literally climbing over a mess of construction material left by Kansai Electric, who are engaged in some major upgrades to the adjacent electrical pylon. The scaffolding straddles the entire ridge, leaving me no choice other than to clamber on top of it to reach the other side, where the trail tucks back into a thick deciduous forest receiving the softened light of the dying day.  I pass by a marked junction but stick to the undulating contours of the narrow spur, taking my time in committing carefully-positioned footfalls along the slick scree of the sunlit face. After two false summits, I arrive on top of ⑱ Mt Kita-Ibarao (北茨尾山), spellbound by the golden hues illuminating the tree-smothered high point.

Leaf litter from the freshly shed foliage covers the ridge, providing an extra buffer against the scree and making the going a bit easier. An unmarked path shoots off down a hidden gully at the next saddle, marked in red tape by a keen explorer forging a new route up these hidden hills. I stick to the camel-hump ridge over a series of knobs until spotting the signpost adorning the summit of ⑲ Mt Yoshimoto (吉本山). I wish I could know the backstory to these signposts, as they are surely the work of dedicated hikers who surely take pride in their work.

The track drops abruptly off the southern face of Yoshimoto, forcing me to squat and delicately lower myself to an eroded gap in the spur. These gaps are known as kiretto in Japanese, and I have yet to meet a gap that has been easy to traverse. They usually involved an improvised nosedive to the bottom of the gap, followed by a sloppy scramble to retake the ridge and this one is no exception. I take a sip of water at the low point and push on, arriving at a rock formation that appears to have been sliced in thirds by an enormous butcher knife.

Just beyond, the track flattens and skirts by two different summit signposts for ⑳ Mt Naka-no-yama (中ノ山), placed on two adjacent knobs separated by a labyrinth of toppled trees. Just as Seino-san had explained, the track seems to end completely, and the eastern slope tempts me to enter until I recall his warning of staying west. I turn left, where the narrow spur continues for a short while before disappearing down a slippery slope of sandy scree. Evidence of foot traffic abound, but whether they were forged by inebriated trekkers or suicidal deer I will never know. I hold on for dear life to whatever I can grasp, thorny or otherwise and eventually drop down to a river bank caked in head-high bamboo grass.

Despite the late hour, I slip on the sunglasses in order to protect my delicate cornea – yes, I have had my fair share of bushwhacking – and soon reach the water’s edge, where I hop across, climb a slope, and scale a guardrail on the side of the road in a residential neighborhood. I am just upstream from the acclaimed firefly viewing platform and am now back in familiar territory, but my work is far from done, as I have one more foolish plan in mind.

Just up the street, one freestanding knob sits just opposite the entrance to the Ishibashi track I explored in Chapter 1. I pick up the pace and reach the western face of the peak, only to find it lathered in a near-vertical wall of concrete. It immediately becomes clear that I will most certainly not be climbing it from this angle, so I follow the road around to the eastern side, where a house is currently under construction. The carpenters are packing up for the day as I skirt past their construction site, squeezing out a sumimasen as I disappear into the dark cover of bamboo. When this house is complete and the new owners move in, access to this mountain may be all but forbidden, unless you bring rope and tempt fate on the western face of concrete.

A somewhat distinct track leads me upwards to a Do Not Enter sign positioned just below the high point of ㉑ Mt Enzan (奄山) , which I soon reach. I look down directly onto that concrete wall on the western face and witness the last rays of the setting sun sink down behind the Rokkō mountains far off on the horizon. Instead of retracing my steps, I attempt to drop down the northern face to no-mans land when I spy a piece of pink tape urging me to stick to the ridge away from the summit. I follow in pursuit and soon reach the summit of a twin-peak adorned with the topless stupa marking a neglected gravesite. I kneel down and lead forward, offering three drops of sweat, as it’s all I’ve got left to offer.

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There’s a secret firefly viewing spot in the foothills of the Hoshida mountains. Known only to a few locals who venture out at dusk on humid June evenings, the hidden stream is one of the last untouched areas of Osaka Prefecture and a holdover to the bygone days when lightning bugs were once a common occurrence around the many streams that trickle down from Japan’s mountains. My second venture into the Hoshida range involves crossing this stream and following a dilapidated concrete road to a secluded reservoir ablaze in autumn color. I stare at the terrain and eventually spy what I am looking for: a narrow gap in the chain link fence leading to an even narrower path flanking the eastern edge of the pond.

This pond deserves further attention, for not only does it double as a reservoir for the residents living downstream, but it also serves as evidence that more than just modern mountaineers have been lured by the attractive appeal of the Hoshida region. Construction on the pond began in the early Taisho era, and during excavation work, fragments of pottery were discovered which date from the middle Jomon era roughly 4000 years ago. This caused a halt in construction work and further excavations that revealed dugout foundations suggesting that the early pioneers settled in these very hills. Today all that remains is a concrete marker commemorating the discovery, with the fragments relegated to the Osaka history museum and all else lost in the murk of the pond.

After absorbing the weight of this historical discovery, I duck under the fence and skirt the edge of an impressive escarpment before a gentle descent to reach the foot of nasubi-ishi no tani, or valley of the eggplant stone. The constricted gorge lies littered with toppled trees but a clear path is marked in tape and spends the first few minutes crisscrossing the stream until finally settling on the left river bank along the remnants of a proper path that has fallen into heavy disuse. In summer this must truly be a rat’s nest of overgrowth, but the cooler late autumn temperatures have transformed most of the weeds into a more manageable maze.

Bits of broken concrete appear beneath the moss, the remnants of a walkway that once chauffeured visitors up to the base of the falls. At a recently cleared section of bamboo grass, a stone grave sits precariously on the river bank. The kanji characters engraved in the face are too faded to make out clearly, but the engraving on the back side dates from 1946, so perhaps it was erected to commemorate a fallen war victim. Just behind the monument a fern-smothered stone wall shores up the hillside, possibly doubling as the foundation of a structure lost to time and the elements.

The path soon splits, with an impossibly steep trail forging straight ahead up a 50-degree slope towards the ridge, but it’s the trail branching off to the right that piques my interest. I turn here, grasping the fixed ropes on a dodgy traverse teetering on the edge of a dizzying drop to the stream below until reaching the base of eggplant rock waterfall. The water trickles over the top of the house-sized boulder, which, according to a map from the Edo era, resembles an eggplant due to the black fissures in the stone. These cracks are now lathered in moss and a verdant grove of ferns, feeling like they belong in the jungles of Iriomote rather than the hills of Hoshida. In a wet grotto near the base sits a weathered and somewhat abstract representation of Amida Nyorai, donning a red bib with the inscription Namu Amida Mutsu. The falls were once the mainstay of Shugendō practitioners, perhaps of the Tendai sect which might help to explain the Pure Land undertones. To further complicate matters, the waterfall also go by the name of Hijiri Taki, or Saint Falls, as evidenced by the white prayer tablet placed there by a member of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Rather than renegotiating that narrow traverse back to the main track, I spy an easier crossing that connects to the narrow north-south spur. At the spur junction, an easier path skirts the eastern face but I head straight up the spine, hoisting myself up to the summit of  ⑩ Mt Kōbōkyū (広望丘), which affords my first vistas of the day. I look down upon the valley I have just climbed, tracing the route through a gap in the trees back to the reservoir dam. A steel plate in the shape of a rugby ball has been affixed adjacent to the signpost, with a wooden mallet dangling below. I grasp the gavel and let it fly, sending a reverberating ring deep into the valley below.

As quickly as the trail reaches the summit, it descend to a saddle to the north and a junction to the uppermost reaches of the eggplant gorge. I forgo this route in favor of the ridge, which wastes no time in gaining altitude with a most-welcome addition of fixed ropes. Once again I hoist myself skyward like a sailor stepping the mast, taking care on the slippery sandstone scree where certain death awaits anyone who loses purchase on the tricky terrain. At the top of the spine the angle eases, coaxing me gently to the broad summit of ⑪ Mt Jigokudani (地獄谷山) or hell valley, which is certainly where you would end up if you stumbled off the eastern face. A grove of Mizuhara oak add a cheerful tinge of orange to the otherwise nondescript plateau.

I settle down for a bit of a snack, when the sound of a bear bell approaches. An elderly man in a brown ball cap lets out a jovial greeting, my first such encounter of a fellow hiker in the Hoshida range. After exchanging pleasantries, the white-haired hiker continues down the ridge I had just come up: I offer a cautionary word but he shrugs it off, obviously comfortable in this type of terrain. It never fails to amaze me the tenacity and vigor of Japan’s elderly. Most adults in other parts of the globe would be most content with a book and some knitting or a gentle game of bridge.

The track soon joins the main ridge of the Hoshida mountains: if I head left I can reconnect with the peaks from Chapter 1 of my saga, but instead I veer westward, down a series of rubber-coated wooden steps that double as a path for maintenance workers for the electrical pylons strung through the range. This leads me once again to the stream flowing towards the eggplant falls, where a metal bridge over the water teeters precariously on the brink of collapse, mostly likely caused by the 2018 Osaka earthquake. I somehow make it across the canted structure and head along the edge of a golf course and up to the opposite ridge along a path completely missing from my map. This 60-mountain challenge will certainly involve figuring out pieces of this geographical jigsaw puzzle.

A faint trail leads along a narrow spur for a short shuffle to ⑫ Mt Waribayashi (割林山) which translates as broken woods. This certainly lives up to its name as I keep to the ridge and over a series of toppled trees to reach a dead-end precipice. Scanning the forest for signs of safe passage, I can just make out a bit of blue among the ocherous foliage as I scuttle down to a saddle and scramble up to a parallel spur where the track continues to ⑬ Mt Nasubi-ishi (茄子石山) which sits directly above the waterfall of the same name, the very one I stood admiring just one hour prior. All seems quiet and forgotten up in these hills, like a left-behind item in the corner of an under-frequented boutique.

I turn around and follow the incredibly narrow spur back towards the mountains until confronted with a near-vertical headwall. If I ever meet the guardian angel who installed the fixed rope I will gladly buy them lunch, for without such climbing aids it would have been an exercise in futility. The footing here on the sandstone scree is once again of dubious quality and at several points in the ascent my life lays in the hands of the quality of the rope. I really don’t like putting all of my weight on these things, but with nothing else to grab I leave it up to fate.

The sigh of relief expelled from my battered body could surely be felt by anyone within a several kilometer radius had anyone bothered to be up here at such a late hour in the afternoon. Just fifty horizontal meters from this most unfitting of trail junctions lies one of the only mountains in the Hoshida range that affords a 270-degree view. With this in mind I propel myself to the top of ⑭ Mt Ichigaikaburi-no-se (一蓋被ノ嶺) and take in the stellar views out towards Kyoto. This peak is a favorite for locals wanting to experience the night view, but with no easy way of accessing the peak it would truly take some dedication to make it up here after dark.

With the bulk of today’s climb now behind me, I retrace my steps back to the depilated bridge near the start of eggplant valley and follow a path downstream to the incredibly shy Godan FallsI can hear the water splashing down from a rock formation but the view is smothered by toppled trees, leaf litter and other debris. Perhaps I should bring my hacksaw next time and do a bit of DIY trail maintenance. Robbed of a view of the waterfall, I keep to the right bank of the stream and soon rejoin the spur at the start of the fixed ropes below Mt Jigokudani. This time I skip the steep re-climb of Kōbōkyū in favor of the side traverse. These paths, called makimichi in Japanese, can be found on most ridge walks in Japan, for they offer an easier and lazier option for those who do not want to follow the undulating contours of the true ridge.

This shortcut trail soon terminates on the true ridge and I am forced to do the hard work on the surprisingly jagged spur. The path leads me up and over Densenoka (電閃丘). Despite being a proper peak, this summit does not feature in the Hoshida 60, probably because the pioneer who named this lookout point succumbed to a lightning strike if the literal meaning of the name is to be taken. The route takes me up and over an additional two unnamed peaks, each offering pleasant enough views before depositing me on the top of ⑮ Mt Asahi (旭山) and the unobstructed vistas to the east for the rising sun. It seems like a tempting place to view the first sunrise of 2021 if not for the lack of space. As I stand on the summit, a lone hiker climbs from below, continuing on the spur to lord knows where. With less than an hour of daylight left I hope he is at least carrying some form of illumination and is not relying on an electrical storm. 

The path from Asahi shoots down the western face to soon reconnect with the road just below the reservoir, hearby completing the loop and rounding out another 6 mountains off the once formidable list.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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The Hoshida 60 – Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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