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The mid-section of the Diamond Trail is the toughest section, involving a long climb up to Yamato-Katsuragi, a steep drop to a mountain pass, followed by an even longer ascent of Mt. Kongo. An early start is in order.

Up at 4:30am, out the door an hour later and aboard a train into northern Nara Prefecture. Joining me for this excursion is William, host of his newly refurbished Willie Walks website. William has just started his own mission to climb the 300 famous mountains and gladly signed up when finding out both Katsuragi and Kongo are on his list. Never mind the fact that he has just been up Kongo on a separate mission not too long ago. I do suppose that I’ll have to return the favor by accompanying him up a mountain I’ve already been up to help even things out.

Both of us have been up Katsuragi before, but never from the Osaka Prefecture side. The problem is, the bus only runs on weekends and we are stuck without a ride on this brisk Friday morning. We hail a taxi to take us through the tunnel on the Nara side and over to the start of the Tengu valley trail. Rucksacks are shouldered shortly before 8am as we stroll on a concrete forest road through a sleepy village. The tarmac soon gives way to proper dirt and gravel as we traverse through a narrow gorge smothered with toppled trees snapped by the typhoon last autumn. Despite the damage, the track is clearly waymarked with pink tape and after an hour we leave the banks of the trickling stream and start gaining altitude through a monocultural forest of cedar and cypress trees that do their best to repeal the warm rays of the sun.

Further up the spur, the cedar is replaced by hardwoods lined by swaths of bamboo grass, and just before popping out on the ridge we reach a dirt forest road and a series of wooden dams – it seems that Osaka has been just as generous with its public works money on this side of the mountain. The ridge brings a campground and shuttered noodle shop, along with the fields of pampas grass lining the summit plateau. We trudge up to the summit, snap a few photos, and settle onto a wooden viewing platform, legs dangling over the drop while taking in the views across the valley towards Mt. Kongo, whose towering figure looks deceptively out of reach – is it even possible to reach it today?

Below our feet is a sprawling field of azalea shrubs, the area’s main attraction. Come May you wouldn’t even be able to find a place to place your feet on this viewing platform, never mind your rucksack and bottom, but on this chilly January morning we have the place to ourselves. I really would love to come back here for the main attraction but shudder to think about the large crowds that flock here via the ropeway on the Nara side. William offers me a Hojicha Kit Kit that tastes remarkably like roasted green tea and it’s just what I need to psyche myself up for the long road ahead.

We drop to a small saddle where a half a dozen gardeners are pruning the azalea bushes, perhaps to make the flowers bigger for their early summer performance. We scoot past and reach a broad clearing on our left with mouth-watering views down to the Nara plain. A windsock and solar-powered anemometer have been placed at the top, probably by a local paragliding club to check for opportune times to fly their crafts. Perhaps they make use of the ropeway to haul their parachutes up to this prime location for take-offs.  William and I continue south down a series of log steps bolted into the steep hillside. A duo of elderly women marches up these steps toward us – I don’t envy them at all and prefer the descent for a bit until the knees remind me otherwise. We lose a few hundred meters of altitude in a little less than an hour but a celebration is not in order, for we have to regain these precious meters on the climb ahead, plus a couple of hundred extra to put us over the 1100-meter mark on Kongo’s lofty summit.

The pass is soon reached and the Diamond Trail turns into jewel of cement along a broad forest road that continues for quite some time. We have a 6km ascent ahead of us but the forest road cuts out a few of those kilometers. At a water source just before the route re-enters the forest we stop for nourishment as the lunchtime bells ring in the valleys below. We are ahead of schedule and are making faster progress than initially thought but know that the climb is just beginning.

Our smiles soon turn to curses as the route shoots straight up a cedar-smothered flank of steep log steps, relentless in its pursuit to gain the ridge. Whoever built this trail did not bother with switchbacks, figuring that anyone dumb enough to follow in their footsteps should be rightfully punished. At the ridge we plop ourselves onto a wooden bench and take in the views through a gap in the trees. William throws me another Hojicha Kit Kat and I inhale it whole without taking a bite. If there was a vending machine here I’d gladly purchase an entire liter of coffee to help wake me up.

As the gentle winds start to cool our bones, the two of us push onward and upward, focusing on the sounds of our footsteps and our heavy breaths. Just a few days ago, William was sitting on a sunny beach on the Gold Coast – I’m sure he’s wishing he was sipping on a cool beverage rather than sucking on this thin Siberian air. We soon rise about 900 vertical meters and patches of ice start to flank the path. A descending party above us is making full use of their climbing irons and making me glad I made the decision to bring my 4-pointers. We hold off on the crampons for the time being, as there is still plenty of purchase on the untracked bits of snow on the shoulder of the track. After another hour we reach the shrine gate marking the main summit trail.

An abrupt decision is made to leave the Diamond Trail for the 20-minute detour to the summit of Mt. Kongo. After cresting a small slope the trail drops quickly down an iced-up bobsled-run of a track. William wises up and straps on his crampons, while I half-walk, half-slide down the slippery slope towards the temple. After a quick summit photo together, a row of picnic tables beckon to us, as do the vending machines lining the entrance to the shuttered restaurant. Coffee is served along with the remainder of the Kit Kats. I expect an endorsement check from Nestle any day now.

I finally put on my crampons, which makes the return climb back to the Diamond Trail much less treacherous. We plod along and take a quick detour to the highest point in Osaka Prefecture, marked by a signpost on an unmarked trail to our right. If William ever decides to climb the highest mountain in every prefecture, he now only has 46 to go.  A few minutes down the path we reach the observation deck. Built in the 1970s, the rusting metal structure affords fantastic panoramic views. A sea of mountains hosting the Kumano Kodo foreshortens off into the distance, while the Ōmine mountains lay buried in a blanket of snow cloud.

With Mt. Kongo successfully climbed, I convince William to trek a few kilometers south along the Diamond Trail to Kuruno-tōge, just below the summit of Naka-katsuragi. We reach this pass in a heap of sweat and exhaustion, and even the temptation to climb two different Katsuragi mountains in one day is not enough to entice William to ascend the wall of steps separating ourselves from the summit. We turn away knowing that I’ll need to come back to this point at a later time to continue my section hike of the Diamond Trail. We drop steeply off the ridge and make it to a bus stop exactly 10 seconds after the infrequent bus departs. With 45 minutes to kill before next bus, we add a few more kilometers to the already long day and walk down to Chihaya-Akasaka village, where a vending machine awaits.

With over half of the Diamond Trail now complete, I can now turn my attention to the remaining sections, which should be knocked out in 3 trips, or two if I’m feeling particularly punishing. Regardless, I hope to complete the trail before the end of the Heisei era. The clock is ticking.

 

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365 Mountain Project

With the start of a new year comes a new social media undertaking: The 365 mountain project. In going through my collection of thousands of photos, I came to the stark realization that I have indeed climbed more mountains in Japan than there are days in a year.  What better way to reveal the beauty of Japan’s mountains than by posting a peak for every day of the year on my Twitter feed. Feel free to bookmark and follow along.

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The Suzuka mountains straddle the border of Shiga and Mie Prefectures, effectively creating a natural barrier between the chilly shores of Lake Biwa and the azure waters of Ise Bay. Mt. Ryōzen sits on the western edge of the massif, affording outstanding panoramic views on the rare cloud-free occasion in this surprisingly wet corner of Kansai.

There are approaches from nearly every direction to the broad grasslands flanking the summit plateau. My first trip there involved an exciting scramble up a steep gully, while a recent trip utilized the main route from the ghost village of Kurehata. Even though I have already been up this mountain twice, the outstanding panoramic views and distinctly Scottish terrain of the highlands have me yearning for a mid-winter visit to explore the hills on snowshoes.

Calendar girl Rika works for Finetrack, a Kobe upstart launched by an ex-Montbell employee wanting to place more emphasis on creating a functional layering system for outdoor activities. The product line continues to expand with each new product release and it’s only a matter of time before the market will expand overseas. One of the challenges with a new outdoor brand is to convince customers to abandon their loyalty to more established brands.

The photo on the calendar was actually taken in November 2016, but it seemed like the perfect photo to round out the year, to dream of those crisp winter days with clear visibility and deep blue skies. Those days on Ryozen are truly hard to come by as the Siberian winds flow over the massif like a raging torrent, dropping a meter of snow each season with regular consistency.

Those wanting to climb Ryozen may find it faster to take the Shinkansen as far as Maibara station before transferring to the local train to Samegai station. I must confess that whenever I head to this part of Shiga I usually opt for the extra expense of the bullet train, as it saves nearly an hour of train time, meaning you can get an extra hour of shut eye before heading out to the hills.

And speaking of shut eye, with this final blog post of 2018, it’s time to put this monthly calendar column to bed. Unfortunately there won’t be a 2019 Hiking in Japan calendar, but those looking for something to adorn their walls may want to choose from among the lovely options available over at Yama to Keikoku.

 

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Mt. Minetoko is Kyoto Prefecture’s 2nd highest mountain but only just barely loses out to neighboring Mt. Minago by about 140 centimeters or so.

There are several approaches to the summit but the most interesting one is via a narrow gully to the southwest from a hamlet called Nakamura. It was up this gully that poster girl Eri and I trekked in mid-November while the autumn foliage was already in wane.

The initial approach is along an ubiquitous forest road smothered with dense cedar and cypress trees, but once you get onto the path proper the native foliage takes over. During the wet summer months, leeches hide in the undergrowth, seeking fresh blood from those brave summer hikers, but in the cooler months we walk freely without worry of blood loss.

Minetoko’s bald summit affords spectacular views of the surrounding Kitayama mountains but it isn’t the view that most people come for. Nestled just below the summit is a broad plateau of wetlands, Kansai’s answer to Oze if you will. The area is called Hacchō-daira and has been designated one of Kyoto’s 200 most beautiful places of nature. The fact that Kyoto even has 200 places worth putting on the list in impressive in itself, but why this did not make the top 100 is truly mind-boggling.

To get to the plateau, you first need to climb up to the adjacent ridgline. It was here that Eri and I stopped for lunch under the wild mistletoe growing in the hardwoods above. Readers will find it comforting (if not disappointing) that we did not partake in any western traditions that involve embracing under these bulbous parasites. Those looking for an authentic touch to the holiday season could come here to take away the real deal instead of settling for the mundane plastic version at their local 100 yen shop.

From the ridge, a broad track drops abruptly to the plateau. The clear autumn air and verdant sky transform the wetlands into a true work of art.

The ferns and underbrush grow brown as the fastly encroaching winter settles in. Hacchō-daira is named after the Hacchō dragonfly that frequents these parts, but none of the unique insects could be found on this crisp autumn day.

Such was the beauty of the marshlands that Eri and I could hardly put our cameras down. This is truly one of those magical gems that is seldom documented even among the Japanese mountain press. Yama-to-keikoku chose Minago in favor of Minetoko when creating the list of Kansai Hyakumeizan, but the mountain is included as part of the Kinki Hyakumeizan. I guess when choosing between two peaks so close to one another, many people opt for height. Perhaps by failing to put Minetoko in the spotlight, the guidebook writers were purposely wanting to savor this mountain for themselves.

Hacchō-daira is definitely worth a visit in autumn, but I just can’t help wondering what the area would look like in winter. With a pair of shoeshoes and a newly-purchased pair of snow boots, I am ready to find out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mt. Kiku – The Messenger

“And this is where Kiku cut off her hair before continuing on to Osaka Castle to relay an important message to Toyotomi Hideyoshi”, explains Nishina-san, a local expert on the 17th century legend regarding the origin of the peculiar pine tree gracing the summit of Mt. Kiku in southern Osaka Prefecture. “Is this the original tree?”, I inquire, knowing full well that this pine lacks the girth common among its centuries-old ancestors. Nishina, in his matter-of-fact tone common for this part of the prefecture, snaps back: “Oh no, that one dried out long ago.”

My excurison starts a few hours earlier on the JR Hanwa line bound for Wakayama Prefecture. I alight just one stop south of Izumisano station, within eye and earshot of Kansai airport. It is these foothills that the new arrivals glimpse as the plane makes its final approach to the island runway. The Kiku mountains, rising to just under 400 vertical metres, are hardly giants, but one should not judge a mountain by its height but more by what lies on its slopes.

And what wondrous slopes lay before me. The rural byway skirts past a light industrial area before meandering through newly-planted rice fields to reach the grounds of Ogami shrine, a small Shinto sanctuary built in the Kasuga style of the Muromachi period. Despite the favorable weekend weather, the buildings lay dormant, the locals too reluctant to venture out in the 30-degree heat. I push on, crossing under the Hanwa Expressway until reaching the shores of Shintakino Reservoir. The crystal blue waters entice me for a closer look, and the shaded benches overlooking the elongated fingers of the pond pull me in. Sweat pours from my head, swabbed not by the soft folds of a towel but with the bottle of frozen Aquarius sports drink I managed to grab at the station.

The rolling contours of the ridge flank the eastern sides of the pond, so I continue following the forest road until it turns to mountain track. The shaded trail initially follows a stream but soon breaks out of the foliage through a grassy meadow. I pause, my ears drawn to the distinctive drone of insects. There’s something oddly familiar, somehow friendly about their tones. Rather than the menacing helicopter buzz of the giant hornets, these are warmer, more subtle hues reminiscent of a Cluster & Eno tune. The source of the drone soon presents itself in the form of a very active honeybee farm, bees flying hither and tither but paying their sudden intruder no interest as they forage the surrounding fields for nectar.

Fern-blanketed swaths of cedar dominate the next section of track, but are soon replaced by a healthy forest of hardwoods and red pine as the incline steepens to the summit ridge. The heat and humidity have sent my pores into overdrive, dollops of sweat trickling down my forehead provide bait for the insects darting in for a sip of salty saline. Despite being so close to the airport, the only other visitors are the local residents suspended across the path, waiting to catch those six-legged helicopters that I have helped to stir up. My swift movement wreaks havoc on their intricate webs, sweat now mixed with sticky silt and perhaps a spider or two whose reaction time is a bit too slow to avoid my intrusion. My trekking poles double as a web swatter as I navigate the undulating slopes of the narrow ridge deeper into Kiku’s folds.

Long strands of clear string cling to trees on eastern edge of the path, cordoning off large sections of forest like the yellow tape of a crime scene. A crime indeed, if trespassers are caught making off with prized matsutake mushrooms, a local delicacy whose tasty morsels can fetch hundreds of dollars in local markets. Fortunately picking season isn’t until the autumn, so I have no worry of being mistaken for a poacher.

A pair of steep climbs lead to false summits, tricking me each time into thinking that I had arrived at the top. The crest of the third hill does reach the summit signpost and lone pine tree. Mr. Nishina sits on a bench, resting under the shade of a small oak tree. He has come to check on the status of the famed sasayuri flowers blanketing the summit slopes. “You’ve come at a good time”, he remarks, pointing to the bamboo lilies in full bloom. I ask about chrysanthemum, an obvious ode to the Mt. Kiku name, but Nishina corrects my suppositions by explaining the legend of princess Kiku and her magic mane.

Nishina wears a pair of binoculars in his left hand and curiosity once again gets the better of me. “Follow me”, orders my guide as he takes off through an opening in the dense undergrowth. The path is marked irregularly by bits of red tape affixed to the deciduous trees as we leave the summit plateau and head north of a narrow flank of ridge. After 10 minutes we reach a clearing overlooking a towering electricity pylon several stories high. “Here, have a look”, Nishina explains.

At the top of the tower sits a broad nest with a large raptor attending to two young chicks. “This is the Ōtaka”, explains Nishina, “an endangered bird in Osaka Prefecture”. Apparently numbers of this ‘big hawk’ have decreased drastically since Osaka was firebombed during the war. It is only in these undisturbed highlands of the Izumi range that these birds of prey still remain. Since it is my first Ōtaka sighting, I ask for a translation – “Umm, it’s a Japanese Osprey”, comes the reply, between fits of laughter between both of us, as we know the only osprey in Japan are the ones making crash landings in the waters off the coast of Okinawa.

It turns out this species of bird is the Northern goshawk, graceful in flight with a penchant for snagging whatever it can grasp in its sharp claws. After watching the raptor for nearly half an hour, we retreat back to the summit and hike down together. It turns out that Nishina is a caretaker of the mountain, sharing his duties with a dozen other local residents who take turns grooming the hiking paths and checking on the flora and fauna.

The mountain path merges onto a gravel forest road which leads to a network of ubiquitous paved roads sloping towards Osaka Bay. We walk together, talking of life in Sennan city, a place that seems to operate according to its own rules. One such place is the dwelling of Mr. Morita, a retired truck driver who has set up a makeshift abode of connected trailers surrounding an outdoor living/kitchen area. He offers me a cup of instant coffee and beckons me over to a row of sun-bleached sofas. “You can stay here tonight if you want”, offers my new host, pointing to a trailer in the rear that doubles as a guest bedroom. In back of the living space, an overgrown yard is home to a family of goats, who bloated bellies attest to no lack of nutrients on the fertile soil of these highlands. Morita spends the summers cruising Hokkaido in his camper van, while Nishina looks after his goats. You’ll find pockets of these alternative folk scattered throughout Japan, hiding out in plain sight while secretly giving a finger to the LDP and the bureaucratic types running the country into the ground. I’m just glad that I was given a glimpse into a side of Japan that most never have a chance to experience.

 

 

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July’s Calendar Photo is from Shokanbetsu, so instead of the monthly ‘calendar footage’ post, I bring you this love-overdue report from the archives:

 

The sleepy coastal town of Mashike sits snugly against the towering peaks of the Shokanbetsu range, a magnet for frigid precipitation during the winter months, and heavy fog during the green season. Along the main street a row of buildings dating from the early Meiji era stand out among the newer, rust-stained concrete of the post-war structures. An old kimono shop sits idle, the old shell transformed into a local history museum. I wander through the empty rooms, admiring the striations in the glasswork of the windows. A few doors down, the volunteers at the local sake factory distribute free samples to a busload of tourists pausing briefly before heading to the flowery hills of Furano. Near the end of the street, just before the deserted train station and bus stop, an aging, weather-tained facade with arched windows and a recessed oak entrance serves as my accommodation for the evening. The proprietor, a young family of transplants from Osaka, take me in as one of their own, offering not only a warm meal and drinks, but practical hiking advice for my ascent of Shokanbetsu planned for the following morning.

“There are three routes up the mountain”, explain my guide, “none of which are particularly easy”. With rain spitting down outside, this is not the news I want to hear. Still, I bite my lip and absorb the knowledge, deciding in the end to go with the shortest route up to the summit: a backbreaking 10km one-way ticket to the summit of what the locals have penned ‘Mashike Fuji’.

Bright and early, Grace meets me outside of the single-roomed structure that doubles as train station and tourist information center. After exchanging pleasantries, we file up the paved switchbacks to the 500 vertical-meter Hashibetsu trailhead. Thick cloud hangs heavy in the air as we unload the gear. The foliage is still dripping wet from the late night squalls that pushed in from the sea. We have one very long, sticky and sloppy hike staring us right in the face, so procrastination would do no good. Better to dive into it and get on with it.

The path is well trodden and easy to follow, but getting lost is the least of our worries. The humidity forces the sweat from our pores, which attracts the mosquitos and horseflies. Swatting is an exercise in futility, and the only way to avoid the persistent buggers is to keep moving. The trail is framed on both sides by head-tall bamboo grass, concealing the forest floor and the creatures that lie in the murk. After several minutes of tramping, we come across our first bear prints that couldn’t have been more than several hours old. Unfortunately it appears that we are tramping along an ursine highway, and Grace’s bear spray does little to calm the nerves. If we are lucky we can catch up with the creature and surprise it from behind, but there would be nowhere to go if we met the mighty brown bear head on.

The mountain, like most other volcanoes in this land, is neatly divided into 10 stagepoints which does little to brighten our spirits. In anticipation of the long approach and summer humidity, I had brought along 4 liters of water, but the clouds cool things off enough to have me rethinking my decision. At stage point number 3 (san go-me), I stow away the extra two liters behind the signpost, and notice a much softer prance in my footfalls. My frowns from the previous hours fade away as I sink into a gradual rhythm and enter my tozan zone. The first 4 kilometers of the hike are almost completely flat, and it isn’t until the 5th stage point that we start to rise out of the flatlands along a deep gully eroded away by the torrential rains that frequent this dormant volcanic massif.

Grace and I break into conversation now and again as she updates me on her hiking schedule. You see, she is embarking on a rather unprecedented mission to knock off every single one of the 200 and 300 famous mountains left in Hokkaido, a hectic schedule that consists of nearly twenty peaks dominated by long, exposed climbs. Her mountain adventures have earned her the moniker The Yamaholic, a fitting name for the forty something dekasegi who grinds out a living in a factory in rural Toyama Prefecture. If her dream becomes realized, she will be the first foreigner to complete the entire Sanbyakumeizan, so getting these remaining peaks checked off the northern island will go a long way towards meeting her goal. I really admire that kind of spirit and determination, as I had abandoned my own quest long ago when the first stages of asthma set in. Still, I do have an intention of knocking off several of the peaks from that list of mighty 300. From the pictures in my guidebook, I’ve always had a longing to climb Shokanbetsu, and being able to do it in the company of the Yamaholic is an added bonus.

After another hour of ascending, we finally rise above the thousand meter mark and towards the edge of the tree line. The clouds are playing a game of hide and seek with the surrounding peaks, but in those brief intervals we can just make out the edge of the wetlands of Uryu to the south. Uryu marsh is one of Hokkaido’s hidden spots of ethereal beauty. In fact, a lot of visitors actually prefer climbing Shokanbetsu from this southernly approach, as the marshlands teem with wildflowers from June to October. There’s only one problem with the Uryu route: it is 23km round-trip to the summit and back, something that even us seasoned veterans can not muster up the stamina for.

At the 7th stage point (nana go-me), the bamboo grass yields to vast gardens of wildflowers of every imaginable shape, color, and size. The Yamaholic breaks into a huge grin, the first of the day after setting out earlier that muggy morning. The terrain morphs to alpine tundra as the views to the south open up. Clouds are moving in swiftly from the sea to the north, however, so our vistas are soon erased by the mist.

10 minutes past the garden we stumble across fresh scat the size of a rugby ball. Luckily the cloud hides the bear from our sights but if there’s one good sign to seeing gargantuan bear excrement it’s that the creature is very well-fed, meaning it is less likely to seek us out for lunch.

Soon we hit a junction where the two routes from the southern approach turn into one for the final push to the high point. The Shokan route is also a popular route and follows a parallel ridge up the spine to the summit plateau. The weather had kept the other hikers at bay though, and shortly after noon the Yamaholic and I stand next to the small shrine and summit marker affixed to the top. We give each other a high five and dig into our rice balls while waiting for the clouds to clear. Dreadfully, the mist refuses to budge, so we stare at the photos in our guidebook and use our imagination to trace the outline of the sea directly below. Drops of rain begin to fall just as we finish repacking the gear, and soon we find ourselves in the midst of one of those notorious Hokkaido squalls that put your rain gear to the test. We fly out of there like mice fleeing a cat kennel and drop back down into the sheltered coves of the treeline just as the rain peters out.

I pick up the two-liter I had stashed earlier that morning and we continue the descent through a fresh layer of ankle-deep mud. Once back in the flatlands the sun makes a late yet welcomed appearance as we brace ourselves for another blood feast. The mosquitos go to town but the spirits remain high after knocking off one of Hokkaido’s toughest day hikes.

The Yamaholic drops me off in Asahikawa as she continues her journey to the next mountain. I, on the other hand, take a well-deserved weekend off by crashing at a friend’s place while preparing for the ferry back to Honshu.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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