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Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Osaka’s Mt Takao

Everyone has heard of Takaosan in Tokyo, but few know about Osaka’s majestic counterpart. Nestled in the southwestern part of the Ikoma mountains, Osaka’s Takaosan may be just a fraction of the height of its Tokyo neighbor, but it boasts an impressive grove of daffodils, providing a refreshing splash of color to the gray days of winter.

It is with these flowers in mind that I team up with my trusty hiking companion Minami, who is preparing for an upcoming winter ascent of Mt Karamatsu in the North Alps. She’s keen to stretch her legs and partake of the floral facade decorating the western face of the mountain. We meet at JR Namba station on a brisk Monday morning for the 45-minute journey to Kashiwara station on the edge of the Ikoma hills.

Our peak rises gently above our peering heads as we navigate the quiet narrow roads of the sleepy town. Shops lay shuttered, yet to awaken from their weekend slumber as shoppers have not begun to make their rounds. The Kashiwara city office is a gaudy display of Showa glory, reinforced concrete walls stained with the extravagance of a forgotten generation of pensioners. We turn left and then right, crossing under the dangling shimenawa of a polished stone torii gate marking the entrance to Nudehike Nudehime shrine, a peculiar name assigned to a sacred precinct with apparent Tendai origins. We reach the shrine grounds and make an offering to the deity before ascending the concrete road to the right of the worship space.

Fortunately we are soon greeted with a proper track tucking into the forest on our left, and soon reach a junction signposted as the entrance to the daffodil grove. A few daffodils lie amongst a swath of lush bamboo grass, enticing us with their presence. We take the left fork, darting into a dark forest of hardwoods on a muddy horizontal traverse through the foothills. Considering the proximity to the city, the cedar groves have been held at bay, the coffers at city hall likely filled with subsidies for residents instead of the forestry workers. This is in line with other observations about urban mountains, because even in Kobe city the Rokkō mountains are spared the cedar blight for the most part.

Minami and I soon reach a large clearing of bamboo grass on our left, with an array of daffodils in full bloom. Access is far from straightfoward, involving an improvised ascent of a stone wall and some careful footfalls between flower stalks. We take a few minutes to capture the scenery with our lenses but soon retreat back to the main trail to continue our upward progress. About a hundred meters further on, we find the mother lode: an absolutely massive daffodil grove, complete with a network of narrow trails so that visitors can get up and close with their petals of choice.

The lack of crowds here is surprising. If this grove were situated on the slopes of Tokyo’s Takao, there would be food stalls and a sizable queue just to enter the garden. Oh, and an entry fee wouldn’t be out of the question. Minami and I explore the vast network of paths completely alone, lost in the interplay of sun and shadow as the clouds whisk through the wintry sky. As I turn the corner on one such idyllic path, I stumble upon a cave entrance marked with an intriguing signpost. Here sits a kofun, or ancient stone tomb, likely dating from the 6th century. Little information is given about the person who was once buried inside, but an engraved map indicates that this is tomb #4 of 11 such graves scattered throughout the Hirano/Ōgata region. An academic survey of the sites is available here in Japanese for those with who are interested.

Rumbles in our tummies remind us that we had better get moving if we want to partake of lunch on the summit. Just above the grove we reach a junction and turn left towards the upper part of the shrine. A lone kannon statue stands gracefully on the top of an unmarked stone carving, a reminder that this peak was once the stomping ground of the esoterics. Adjacent to the altar. a faint path leads straight up a large rock face. I take the lead through the maze of boulders, reaching a clearing at the top of a cliff face flanked with a shinto shrine, the innermost sanctuary of the Nudehike Nudehime shrine we encountered at the trailhead.

We considered having our lunch break here, but the gales pushing in front the north were threatening to send up tumbling off into the abyss, so we push on through another collection of near-vertical scrambles until popping out onto a narrow summit stuffed with a regime of elderly pensioners twenty strong. There is absolutely no room for us to stand among the throng of an oversized tour group, so we wait patiently as they commence their descent. An elderly lady places a few Valentine’s chocolates in my left palm, grateful as I am for her choice of whiskey bonbons. Once the army departs Minami and I are once again left to ourselves, absorbing the warm rays of the sun as we stave off the chill from the strong wind gusts. The chocolate complements the coffee quite nicely as we gaze out over the flatlands of eastern Osaka.

Sitting here on our 277-meter-high perch, I think back to my ascent of Tokyo’s Takao many autumns ago, and still remember the overdeveloped chaos of the concrete-smothered summit. While it may not feature in the Michelin guide, we will gladly take Osaka’s Takaosan any day of the week. Minami and I already make plans for our 2021 winter ascent to once again partake of the flowers and views that can only be found in this forgotten corner of Osaka.

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I cannot count the number of times I have stared at the bulbous hills rising up above the throngs of crowds flowing through the narrow streets of Arashiyama in eastern Kyoto. Could there actually be an Arashiyama situated upon those unassuming peaks? A study of the Yama-to-Kogen map does indeed reveal a dotted line to Mt Arashiyama connecting Hozukyo to Mt Matsuo at the eastern terminus of the Kyoto Trail. William is once again on board for this mission into uncharted waters.

We meet up on platform 31 of Kyoto station’s massive network of rail lines for the 30-minute journey through eastern Kyoto under the leaden skies of an early February morning. Flurries swirl through the air as tourists gaze out of the steamy windows of the carriage in search of plum blossoms. William and I alight among a steady stream of snow settling on the narrow platform of JR Hozukyo station. The temperature hovers around freezing as I slide on an extra pair of gloves. 

Towering directly over the station is Mt Sanjō-ga-mine, an impressively steep edifice looking dauntingly formidable from our current position. The map indicates that safe passage is given via a track starting directly behind the Torokko tracks of Hozukyo. William and I walk north along the narrow forest road, dodging traffic and snow flurries while catching up on recent mountain banter. After crossing a suspension bridge spanning the river, we arrive at the forlorn station, deserted except for a family of tanuki statues keeping watch over the snow-tinged rail lines.

“The track starts here”, I proclaim, slipping under a chain-link fence erected to keep landslide debris from engulfing the station. William continues his search from the safety and sanity of the train tracks. Through the dense undergrowth, I do spot what appear to be footprints, faint as they are in this maze of weeds. The map does indicate a clear trail leading hikers to the ridge, but without any signposts or otherwise obvious signs of welcome, the two of us do what any other mountain men would do in our situation: forge our own path!

After about 50 meters of improvised climbing, we do stumble upon a well-maintained track adorned with a generous helping of tape marks affixed to the trees. Looking left toward the station, we see what looks to be the track terminating at a train tunnel under the tracks! Future climbers are well advised not to go looking for the trailhead within the station compound itself. Simply turn left in front of the station and follow the river to the tunnel, where there is probably a very clear signpost. Or perhaps not. This is Kyoto after all.

The trail wastes no time in lofting us skyward, switchbacking through a gravity-defying spur towards a snow-capped ridge hidden from view. A network of fixed ropes aids in our upward ascent, and we thank ourselves for starting our hike here instead of doing the route in reverse, for such slopes would not be kind to weary knees. William is visually documenting our hike for his youtube channel, so I naturally assist as back-seat cinematographer. I really admire his tenacity, as I have neither the skills nor patience to put together my own videos. One thing viewers may not be aware of is the necessity to set up the camera, film, and then backtrack to pick up the camera, a process that adds not only time but also meters onto our hike.

The cedar choked forests eventually give way to a swath of native deciduous trees covered in fresh rime frost, bringing about a decidedly wintry feel to our outing. The Kansai region has been suffering from an unprecedented lack of snowfall, so seeing the fresh powder smothering the landscape lifts our spirits. At the top of the spur we meet a dirt forest road and ramshackle hut in need of some long-overdue affection. We consider pausing here but the lofty perch of Sanjō rises directly above, almost within spitting distance. The break is best saved for the summit.

It’s funny how such decisions will come back to bite you, for after reaching an unmarked junction just below the final summit push, we leave the main track, following a very unclear patchwork of tape-marked trees that we lose track of more times than not. The dense undergrowth makes matters worse, for every tight squeeze between tree branches shakes loose the snow sitting precariously above. Such bombardments make their way into the space between our craniums and outer layers, sending cold wet snow sinking down our backs. By the time we reach the summit we both look like a pair of battered yeti, but we rejoice upon reaching the top of the 482-meter peak. We pause briefly for a snack after I inadvertently entangle myself among the mesh of a deer-proof fence.

Gingerly we retreat back to the junction and follow a narrow traverse around Sanjō onto an undulating ridge in unexpected sunshine. Despite being dotted on the map, the route is easy to follow and quite enjoyable as we occasionally catch a glimpse of the valley below through gaps in the trees. After crisscrossing several unmarked junctions, we find a peculiar signpost affixed to a tree. Resembling the spectacles of a three-eyed monster, the illustration is indeed a map indicating that each of the three remaining mountains have been adorned with a loop trail.

Turning right to enter the loop anti-clockwise, William and I climb a narrow spur with vistas back to Sanjō directly behing us. At the top of this ascent the path cuts left and reaches the top of Mt Karasu, the crow’s peak. Luckily the blackbirds are nowhere in sight as I dig into my stash of snacks to stave off the hunger. We drop down the far side of the ridge and straight into another snow squall, our third of the day if you count the flurries at the start of our hike. Despite the low battery indicator on his camera, William sets up a brilliant shot to capture our stroll through the snowy scenery. Perhaps this filmmaking hobby is something I should really have a crack at.

The snowstorm intensifies and accompanies us up the final few footfalls to the summit of Arashiyama, the adequately penned ‘Storm Mountain’. I settle on a log bench and finish off my sandwich while the two of us wait for a break in the weather. We both know that the views from here off the eastern face must be pretty spectacular, and judging by the timing of the past two storms, we know that it’s only a matter of minutes until showtime.

Right on queue, the clouds lift, revealing a truly breathtaking sight:

Rejoicing at our immaculate timing, we speed off the ridge in pursuit of our final peak. At a shoulder below the summit we encounter a lone female hiker, looking unsure as to whether to continue towards the summit of Arashiyama. After bidding farewell, we commence the short climb to Mt Matsuo, reaching the junction for the Kyoto trail just a short distance from the highpoint, which is mysteriously devoid of a summit signpost. Instead, a string of Tibetan prayer flags have been strung between a pair of trees, bringing an international flare to the pine-heavy forest.

A short distance from the summit lies a viewpoint, where we can gaze directly down upon the monkey park, a place that William has yet to visit. I do my best to sell him on the merits of frolicking with the monkeys, especially since a bit further down the slopes we find the secret entrance to the park, an access point that bypasses the fee-collection booth. A sign in English indicates that this is not the entrance to the park – if the owner is really intent on keeping freeloaders out then they should erect a barbed-wire fence.

We resist the temptation for a date with macaques and continue through a section of typhoon-ravaged forest before reaching a bamboo forest. If not for the sheet metal affixed to the sides of the gully you could be mistaken for having entered the famed Arashiyama bamboo forest. At least the crowds are nowhere to be found in this hidden grove.

As we pass through the final section of track the skies once again open up, depositing snow flurries on our gear as we navigate the back streets to the station. The both of us collapse on the lush seats of the Hankyu train and reflect upon our epic journey into the secluded hinterlands of western Kyoto.

Willam’s video:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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There are some mountains that seem to be cursed, with an unseen force placing obstacles in your way as if subtly suggesting you stay away.  Mt. Kuruhi is one such peak. It all started around 15 years ago during a winter visit to the rustic hot spring town of Kinosaki in northern Hyōgo Prefecture. Kanako and I drop our things at a minshuku on the edge of town and walk along route 3 and under the tracks of the JR San’in line to the trailhead. We are greeted with a rotting snow base of 70 centimeters, so on go the crampons as we head up an incredibly steep and unstable spur. The further we climb, the more rotten the snow. We manage a modest 100 meters of vertical elevation gain before making the wise choice to retreat back to the hot spring baths. Mt. Kuruhi would have to wait for another time, preferably during the green season.

Fast forward to January 2020 as I search for a hike to usher in the new decade. A brief pocket of high pressure moves in over the Sea of Japan, bringing a rare day of sunshine sandwiched between days of continuous rain and cloud. Due to the unusually warm winter, the first snowfalls have yet embraced the Kansai region, so I bite the bullet and board the 7:32am train for Kinosaki. The train departs under leaden skies and enters a thick blanket of fog soon after navigating the tunnels to Kamioka. The mist is thick and accompanies me for most of the 2-1/2 hour train journey. It is only after reaching Toyooka city to the far north does the sun start to vaporize the mist. A brilliant shade of blue shines in its place.

I alight among the weekend crowds and make my way over to the ticket counter to purchase the return leg of my journey, and settle on the 3:30pm train. That will give me 5-1/2 hours to hit the peak and an onsen, which should be more than enough time, right?  I exit the station amidst a strong winter gale blowing in from the north, forcing me to reach for the hat and gloves. Route 3 is just as I remember it, a flat thoroughfare squeezed between the train tracks and the banks of the Maruyama river. There’s hardly room for a shoulder on this thin stretch of highway, so I pick up the pace and duck behind tufts of overgrown weeds to avoid those careless truck drivers who never budge an inch. I always wonder if it’s some kind of sadistic game for these lunatics, whizzing as close to pedestrians as they possibly can as their way of showing us who’s boss.

It takes about 20 minutes to reach the turnoff to the trailhead, but I am blocked by a wall of construction cranes barring my way. The good old end-of-year construction is in full force, as the river bank “needs” an extra layer of concrete to help keep those flood waters at bay. Through the fenced off forest road I can literally see the trailhead 50 meters ahead, but the gatekeeping flagmen point to a road sign indicating the need for a long detour to start my hike. Although there is no construction in progress on the trailhead side of the road, I am denied entry and have no other choice but to comply with their demands. I continue walking past the construction zone and turn into a small hamlet, completing a large and unnecessary doubling back to reach the start of the hike. This will add an extra 30 minutes to an already tight schedule.

The detour takes me past weathered houses and down a narrow lane running between rice fields on my right and vegetable gardens tucked up against the steep slopes of the mountain to my left. Barking sounds soon emanate from a patch of napa cabbage as a 20-strong troupe of macaques flee my abrupt invasion. They know they’re not supposed to be raiding the farmers fields but they’re also far from amused to be caught in the act. While most retreat to the trees, the alpha stands ground, hissing as me as I avoid eye contact and make myself appear as big as possible until reaching a wider section of road where I can give him proper berth.

Once past the primate menace I duck through a fence erected across the road and reach the trailhead under completely different conditions from my last winter climb there. The lack of snow is clear, but unfortunately the mountain is still in the process of drying out from a series of rain spells. I strip down to my base layer and shoulder my pack up the steep switchbacks toward the top of the spur. The exposure here is real and I question my decision to have even attempted this peak in the snow. A pair of buddhist statues have been erected every several hundred meters or so, serving not only as trail markers but also to pay homage to Mt Kuruhi’s Shugendō roots.

The views really open up as the track navigates through a narrow tussock of head-high boulders, revealing salivating river views directly below. The noise of the construction cranes breaks the silence here, so I continue up through a nice section of oak and maple to the top of the ridge. I reach the top of the spur, simply known as the 304m peak, with a sign indicating that the summit is just a 55-minute stroll away. In the back of my mind, I ponder having a quick break to rehydrate but suppress those urges as the summit looks so close from here, with just a quick drop to a saddle and what must be an easy climb along switchbacks to the top.

I drop to the bottom of the col and past a series of mossy boulders for the start of the climb which, to my utter disbelief, goes straight up the northern face of the peak. Devoid of ropes, trees, and anything else to aid with progress, it soon becomes a battle with gravity and the weathered soil. Due to the steep angle, the trail acts to funnel rainwater down the mountain slopes like a giant slip-and-slide. Leaf litter, twigs and rocks have all been swept clean in a recent downpour, leaving a clear track of very wet mud to plod through. Progress grinds to a halt as a struggle ensues to inch up the near-50-degree slopes. At one point, I slip upward, kissing the ground with my face as I slide a few meters downward on my belly. Surely the ghosts of the fallen mountain ascetics are shaking their heads at me now.

After brushing the mud off my face, I change tack and climb off trail by grabbing onto tree limbs and pulling myself up to finally reach the upper parts of the peak, where the angle gives a bit. A grove of beech trees make an unscheduled appearance, and at only 400 meters in vertical elevation, must surely be some of the lowest beech trees in Japan, as most grow above 800 meters in elevation in most of central and southern Honshū.  The summit plateau finally starts to appear above and after a few hundred horizontal meters of non-eventful walking, I reach a toppled tree blocking the path. There is no away around it except to squeeze under it, so back into the mud I go, squirming through like a skillful salamander.

The path soon splits, and my map tells me to head left to Hachijō-iwa. I reach the rock formation and am greeted by a statue of Fudo Myo-o carved into a rock. The stone offers excellent views and would make for a great place for a Shugendō priest to chant, which was surely done in the earlier times. The vantage point also affords vistas of the entire Tajima Province, so no doubt a feudal lord or two made their way up here to keep an eye on their kingdom. I consider pausing here for lunch but am content on feasting when I reach the summit. I continue on, only to find a giant NHK antenna and paved road greeting me upon my arrival. This place truly is cursed.

“Have a seat” beckons a speckled gray-haired gentleman, offering a sweet roll from his lunchtime stash. “I drove up here for birdwatching” explains my host, pointing to his white utility vehicle parked just a few meters away. Our talk naturally turns to mountains, and despite my initial disgust for the summit desecration, I warm up to my host and am shocked to find out that he has climbed 90 of the Hyogō 100, a venerable list of a hundred mountains all situated within the prefectural boundaries of Hyōgo. He points to the folding rows of peaks on the horizon and namedrops: Higashi-Tokonoo, Awaga, Ōe, Hyōnosen, Aoba. These are all part of the Kansai and Kinki Hyakumeizan, but his knowledge of the area is far greater than mine, as he points to smaller, lesser known summits that he has explored. You could literally climb a different mountain every day your entire adult life and still not climb every mountain in Japan.

He offers me a coffee and we continue chatting about mountains and birds, the lack of snow this winter, and a rustic mountain hut below the slopes of Daru-ga-mine that is host to an annual music festival. I could literally sit all day here in the sun, taking in the views and pleasant conversation, but a glace at my watch reveals that it is nearing 1 o’clock, and I’ll need to pick up the pace. Forgoing the urge to ask him for a ride, I shoulder the pack and trot off down the paved forest road, cutting switchbacks through steep trackless swaths of forest.

The signposts inform me that I am on a section of the Kinki Shizen Hodō, a 3200km loop trail circumnavigating the entire Kinki region. I’ve been on sections of this long-distance route throughout my various conquests, but the lack of consistent signposts has put me off attempting the entire track. Instead, I pick up sections here and there on the mountain ridges. The initial part of the trail follows the paved forest road but abruptly turns northeast at a hairpin turn. In my swtichback-cutting haste I miss the turnoff but turn back after confirming with the GPS that I am very far off route. Why does this mountain have it in for me?

Mistakes corrected, I blaze a competitive speedwalker pace towards the top of the ropeway at Mt Daishi. To ease the burden on my feet, I stick to the soft blankets of moss and mud on the shoulder of the road, gliding along skillfully as the ridge has done a complete 180-degree turn and I am now staring directly across a steep valley right back at Mt Kuruhi. The cacophony of giggling girls draws closer, and around a bend in the road I reach the bustling top of the Michelin-starred gondola. Frolicking holiday couples compete for selfie space among the narrow railings lining the observation deck. I gaze down at Kinosaki and shake my head at the monstrosity that was built to shuttle lazy visitors 50 vertical meters above the town below.

With good riddance I duck back into the forest towards Onsen-ji temple. The rocky path meanders under the ropeway for just a short distance of 500 meters to the temple. I accelerate the pace, bounding off the stones like a mogul skier on a world record run, full of confidence and dreaming of the soothing bath waters just minutes away. Those that let their guard down always pay the price, however,  and sure enough, as if on cue, my feet slip out from under me and I go airborne, mimicking the moves of a pro wrestler as I land flat on my back, body slamming my camera between the ground and my rucksack. I break the fall with my wrists, sending sharp pains up both biceps as I let our a curdling stream of obscenities. I stand up slowly with my camera rolling down the path as I realize that it is not longer attached to me. The force of the impact has completely destroyed my camera strap. The lens and body seem to be working fine, however, so I stuff the camera into my pack and continue at a much more cautious pace.

The two-story pagoda soon comes into view, and after passing through the impressive temple gate I am back in town. The conveniently-situated Kōnoyu hot spring bath is just across the street so I limp over for a quick soak in the waters. It has taken me just 45-minutes for that last 5km stretch from the summit to here, giving me just enough time for a bath before a quick exploration of town before my train. The bath soothes my wounds but leaves me zapped of energy. My pace grinds to a crawl as I purchase a steamed crab bun and stroll down the streets in search of a coffee. Kinosaki has enjoyed quite the resurgence due to the tourist boom. Most of the shabbier buildings have either been torn down or renovated, giving a “little Kyoto” feel to this once-neglected hot spring town.

I reach the train station at 3:25pm and sink into my seat for the train ride home. Shortly after leaving the station, the skies open up in a fury, with lightning striking the surrounding peaks and the rain coming down in buckets. Anyone who says Kuruhi isn’t cursed need only spend a day in her unforgiving company.

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The first step in climbing the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures involves an online search for a list of the peaks. To the uninformed, one may surmise that there must surely be 47 mountains on the list, but due to the fact that a handful of highest mountains straddle prefectural borders, the target list is reduced to 43 unique summits. 24 of those peaks also double as Hyakumeizan, so those who have finished the 100 just need to climb an additional 22 mountains to complete the list. Unfortunately, some of these mountains defy the limits of what is considered an ‘accessible’ mountain.

San-no-mine is one of those mountains. Situated on the border of Fukui and Ishikawa Prefectures, the peak is part of the Ryōhaku mountain range and doubles as the southernmost 2000-meter mountain in Japan. It also lies along the Hakusan ridge line, just an additional two hours further south of Bessan. This is the exact same ridge I traversed during my first trip to the sacred summit and indeed, during that fateful traverse I overnighted at San-no-mine emergency hut. Little did I know at that time, but Fukui’s highest peak is situated directly behind the hut on a knob of hill named Echizen-Sannomine. But our story becomes a bit more complicated, as this tuft of bamboo grass is actually not considered to be a peak but just a chiten (地点) or highest point in the prefecture. The highest mountain honor goes to neighboring Ni-no-mine, a further hour from the emergency hut and my target for a long-overdue return to the Kamiuchinami district of Ono city deep in the heart of Fukui.

Joining me on the weekend festivities in mid-September is no other than my trusty companion Paul M.. Neck-deep in writing and editing his PHD dissertation, Paul graciously agrees to not only accompany me on the long journey, but to also drive the entire way, eliminating the need for a expensive taxi or unreliable journey by thumb. He picks me up in Kobe city as we head north along the newly-completed Maizuru-Wakasa expressway for the 4-hour journey to the trailhead. Long drives on Japan’s frantic road system are truly taxing affairs, and we break up the drive by stopping off to visit Eiheiji Temple just outside of Fukui city. Home to the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, the sprawling temple complex is truly one of Japan’s most interesting places. But you wouldn’t know that if you just walked along the towering cryptomeria trees flanking the long promenade to the main entrance.

The grounds themselves are pleasant enough but the real treasure is what lies beyond the walled entrance of the compound. To be honest, we are none-too-thrilled about forking over 500 yen for yet another temple in Japan. So many times you pay the fee and enter a temple that is nearly off-limits to visitors sans a random garden or common tatami worship space. And most of the more famous temples of Japan that are worth seeing are so overrun with tourists that they take on a Disneyland atmosphere. Not so at Eiheiji. Paul and I enter the reinforced concrete building and step into a lecture room led by a Soto monk clad in black. He stands in front of an enormous wall painting of the temple complex, pointing out each area of the grounds along with a set of stringent rules about acceptable behavior. I scan the room and realize that there aren’t any other foreign tourists among the 30 or so Japanese visitors to the temple grounds. Indeed, during the 3 hours that we spend exploring the temple and surroundings, it becomes clear that this temple has yet to be discovered by the rowdy Asian tourists that have completely overtaken most of the other popular sightseeing spots in Japan. It reminds me of a time before the Chinese and Korean tourism boom, when you could actually enjoy a place surrounded by well-mannered Japanese tourists who respect the local customs.

Eiheiji is truly one of those ‘must see for yourself’ kind of places, and I will definitely return for a visit if the opportunity presents itself. On the way back to the car, we stop off for an iced coffee float before the drive to our inn at Kadohara. The sleepy village brings back memories of my ascent of Mt Arashima, and the idyllic train station near the trailhead. After checking in, we head down to the station, where I find that the run-down toilet has been completely torn down and replaced with a much larger restroom in a park on the other side of the train tracks. Resisting the temptation for a revisit to Arashima, we retreat back to our room for an early night and an even earlier start. Breakfast is served at 6am as we fuel up for the impending climb.

Paul M. manuvers his vehicle up the hairpin turns to the trailhead under a brilliant sky of crystal blue. San-no-mine towers over the road like a Spinosaurus that once roamed these very forests of Fukui. We brush off the temptation to visit the Dinosaur Museum – instead we gaze our eyes upwards to the gold-tinted alpine scenery. Stowing unnecessary gear in the car, we enter a trail that immediately loses altitude to reach a forest road that leads up towards Karikomi Ike, one of Fukui’s most renowned places for autumn foliage. The September greenery has kept the crowds at bay for now, so we march in unison up the deserted road before reaching the trailhead through a lush forest of beech and oak.

The path immediately gains altitude towards a steep spur. It takes a few minutes to settle into a rhythm and to shake off the morning fatigue, but once our body adjusts to the incline we make good time, reaching the crest of the spur in about 90 minutes. We rest briefly on the gnarled roots of a cypress tree while replenishing minerals lost to sweat. A cool northerly breeze kisses the spur, sending us into action to stave off the chill.

The wind lifts the fog upwards from the secluded valley, lapping the trail in a mimic of an excited canine that blots out the view. As an upside to the reduced visibility is the lack of a visual gauge to our progress – there’s nothing more disheartening to be staring a huge climb straight in the face and being able to see, inch by inch, how far you truly have to go. We lower our heads and advance, footfall by heavy footfall, into the unknown.

Well, not entirely into the unknown, as I had actually been down this trail once before during my first traverse of Hakusan, but it was so long ago and in such decrepit conditions that the scenery feels completely new. It’s amazing how your mind can play tricks on you, a spur that seemed so easy just a decade ago can prove so formidable through the passage of time. That’s what age will do to you.

A fortress of rock emerges from the mist, the path hugging the northern edge of the precipice along a maze of slippery boulders. Using hands to help propel us forward, we reach the top of the aptly-penned Ken-ga-iwa to glance a patch of blue sky at the top of a crest directly above. Paul and I look at each other in amazement, wondering if we could, perhaps pierce through this cloud veil and rise above its misty sea. The fog and sun are embraced in a fierce battle for supremacy, the northernly winds continue to throw sheets of mist towards the bright rays of sun. Glimpses of jaw-dropping views are erased faster than the shaking of an Etch A Sketch as the two intrepid trekkers continue to soar above it all.

Just below breaching the 2000 meter mark, the warming rays of the sun are too much for old-man cloud to handle, and smiles stream across our faces at the incredible early-autumn scenery spread out before us. We pause briefly upon reaching the emergency hut, the very same one I used as shelter many moons ago. Knowing these views could be taken away at any moment, we pick up the pace and reach the summit of San-no-mine just in time to take in the million-yen views. Our work is far from done, however, as we still have two more mountains to cover.

We retrace our steps back to the hut and settle into a quick lunch before the unmarked climb to Echizen-Sannomine. A faint trail leads into head-high bamboo grass behind the hut. I take the lead, pushed on by an unseen force to the top of the hill. We meet two other hikers who have just begun their descent. They inform us that the summit is at the top of the next crest, which we reach a short time later. Here we find a small summit signpost. It’s a good thing that I did my research before heading out, because without prior knowledge there would be no way to know that Fukui’s highest point is along this completely unmarked swath of land.

With the highest point now off the list, we return to the hut and start our descent towards Ni-no-mine, the official highest peak of the prefecture. The trail loses about a hundred meters of vertical elevation before reaching a saddle and short climb to the summit. A signpost just off the trail reads Ni-no-mine but my GPS informs me that the actual top of the mountain lies beyond in an incredibly dense maze of two-meter-tall bamboo grass. Paul decides that this is best tackled as a solo mission and enjoys a well-earned break as I dive straight into the labyrinth. This brings back memories of Mt Mikuni, a monster of a bushy ridge that lies in, you guessed it, Fukui Prefecture.

Climbing hand over fist, slashed by razor-sharp leaves, and stumbling over toppled trees hidden beneath the mess, I reach what I surmise to be the summit. Or at least it’s what I’m calling the summit. There is no higher place to go, and while I am unable to find a triangulation point or summit signpost, I claim victory on my right to claim Fukui’s highest mountain successfully climbed. My guess is that the majority of 47 Pref-baggers consider Echizen-Sannomine suffice for their criteria. I find no fault in that.

By the time we retrace our steps back to the emergency hut, I am a battered mess. I engulf an caffeine-infused evergy gel as we start our descent back to the valley. The fog has now returned, thicker than ever and depositing a fine mist all over the route. I settle in on a steady pace, not wanting to stop for fear of bottoming out on my energy reserves. The tricky drop before Ken-ga-mine puts to rest those fears, as my feet slip out from under me and I land straight on my bottom on a wet rock. That episode sends a shot of adrenaline back into my system that sustains me for the rest of the hike.

The parking lot is once again reached just before 3pm while we psyche ourselves up for the long drive back to Kobe. Paul declares that a hot spring is in order, and nearby Hato-ga-yu  does the trick, easing the pain from our overworked muscles. We made good time back to Kobe, as we manage to avoid most of the traffic jams by heading back through Maizuru through pockets of rain cloud. With Fukui’s highest mountain now off the list, just one mountain stands between me and my quest to climb the highest peak in every prefecture. With the winter snows soon to envelope the higher peaks, the race is on to claim victory on Niigata before my climbing window closes.

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The Gathering VIII

Planning an event during Japan’s fickle autumn weather is no easy task, and with a typhoon threatening to derail this year’s gathering, we all keep our eyes glued to the capricious predictions of the meteorologists. As the storm edges toward the archipelago, it becomes apparent that Nagano will be spared the heavy rain and winds predicted to batter the Boso Peninsula, so we move forth with preparations for the 8th annual Hiking in Japan gathering.

This time around, we head back to Togakushi, the location of the 3rd gathering and a splendid volcanic plateau jutting up from the river banks of Nagano city. I head up by train after work on Friday evening, arriving at Nagano station shortly before 10pm for a quick catch-up with my friend Trane before checking into my hotel for a short bout of sleep. The next morning, Miguel, who has just completed an exhausting overnight bus journey from Kobe, stumbles into the hotel lobby. I stumble down the elevator myself, grasping an unsteady cup of matcha, forcing some caffeine into my body in an effort to shake off the drowsiness. Paul from Hike and Bike Japan soon pulls up in his car and the three of us make our way along wet roads to the campground.

Rie and James have already started their climb up to Takazuma, so Miguel, Paul and I pick out a quiet area of the grassy campground and set up our tents. Miguel’s shelter is one-part tent, two-parts coffin but it does provide necessary cover from the elements. Paul’s is a more conventional set up, and since I’ve opted for just a lightweight tarp I stow away my excess gear in his tent before the two of us head to the Iizuna trailhead. Miguel stays behind to watch over camp, settling in for a nap accompanied by the soothing sounds of birdsong.

Iizuna’s track cuts directly through the Togakushi Eastern Campground, following a forest road before darting up into a thick forest of planted Japanese larch. Paul and I catch up since our late-July meeting in Osaka. Relating stories of a previous trail running race along our very same ascent path, we rise up away from the valley to a small marshland on the edge of the ski resort. Late summer flowers bloom along the side of the trail, which the grasslands take on their customary golden hues of autumn. A short climb later, we top out on Mt Menō, the first peak on Iizuna’s summit ridge of rotund volcanic cones. By now the clouds have closed in, depositing misty moisture on our eyebrows as we turn our eyes towards the summit buried somewhere in the murk.

The two of us make good work on the ridge, reaching the broad summit plateau in unexpected sunshine. We settle onto an improvised set of oblong boulders and share snacks and stories with a jovial group of local hikers. An elementary school soccer team lurks nearby, eavesdropping on our conversation in hopes of grabbing a snippet or two of free English vocabulary. After a quick summit photo, we drop off the northern face of the peak to a small saddle ablaze with autumn foliage before ascending a short distance to Iizuna shrine. From here, it’s a steep drop back to the forest, with Paul demonstrating his mountain sprinting skills down some truly tricky terrain. We slow down the pace once back in the treeline and continue sharing stories on the remainder of our loop hike back into camp.

Camp has turned into a small village, with HIJ members engaged in a variety of leisurely activities, few of which involve loitering at camp. Paul and I round up Naresh, Miguel, and Michael and head to Café Fleurir for warm pizza, tasty curry gratin, and several cups of coffee as one by one the other members of our party join us around the table. Bjorn and family have come straight from the stables after an adventurous afternoon of horse riding. John arrives after the long drive from Mt Nantai and shares stories about the infamous toll booth at the trailhead. Edward and friends also stop by briefly to say hello before ducking back into camp. I have a word with the owner about providing a candle in Naresh’s special cake – a surprise for him having recently finished climbing the Yamanashi Hyakumeizan. Follow Naresh’s blog here as he begins to tell his mountain adventures.

Bellies full, we all head back into camp to start the cooking duties. Paul starts in on the fire while Rie and James start cutting the vegetables for nabe. Bjorn and family settle into a corner of the covered kitchen to churn out another amazing bowl of guacamole. Alekh, Anna, Edward, Michael and Miguel lend a helping hand as well, shuttling ingredients between workstation and delivering prepared food to the common serving table. Naresh splits his time between the fire and kitchen, making sure everything is going according to plan and on schedule. Just as in previous gatherings, it becomes apparent that we once again have way too much food but we make a valiant effort to consume whatever is served.  Grace arrives at camp carrying her signature homemade cake – awing everyone with her baking prowess and making us full before the main dish even begins to boil.

As the first bowls of nabe come off the stove, Naresh and John have already begun roasting marshmellows for S’mores. Miguel places our framed photo of Michal closer to the fire, telling everyone about the contributions he made to the group before his untimely departure on his eternal celestial journey. Stories are told, laughs are shared, and even heated political discussions ensue but the conversation is eventually brought back to a topic we can all agree on: the beauty of Japan’s mountains.

One by one the campers drift off to sleep, some too comfy around the fire to retreat to their shelters until the embers of the campfire begin to grow dim. Mother Nature times her arrival perfectly as well, holding off on the rain until all of us have bedded down for the evening. The rain continues most of the night and slows to a drizzle as we all emerge from our cocoons.

In the filtered light of morning, the camp denizens converge on the covered kitchen area to indulge in copious cups of hot chai and an assortment of leftovers and calorie-rich muffins. Paul and James head off for a morning jog while others reluctantly discuss plans for heading back to civilization. Each year, we cram a full weekend’s worth of activities into, well, a weekend. I float the idea of perhaps trying to have next year’s gathering scheduled over a 3-day weekend, with an exciting group hike sandwiched between two nights underneath the stars. Who’s with us in 2020?

 

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