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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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My first visit to Kobushi, an autumn ascent under perfect skies, is one of the highlights of my Hyakumeizan quest. Usually the rule of thumb when reclimbing the Meizan is to never re-attempt a peak you had perfect weather on the first time around. However, my return to Kobushi is for another purpose – Saitama’s highest peak.

Had I been attempting the prefectural high points during my Hyakumeizan days then I would not have needed to return. You see, Saitama’s highest mountain, Mt. Sanpō, is just 10 meters higher and a short 30-minute climb from the summit of Kobushi. Instead of the popular trail on the Yamanashi side, I start from the Nagano village of Kawakami and the idyllic surrounds of Mōkidaira trailhead.

Naresh, Alekh, and I navigate the narrow farm roads through Kawakami shortly past midnight on a calm Friday evening. The torrential rains of the previous day have given away to fair skies and a bright full moon. We park in a corner of the large parking lot and settle into a fitful sleep: Naresh pitches his tent while Alekh and I cram into the trunk of the automobile. Cars continue to trickle into the parking lot throughout the night, robbing us of a chance of uninterrupted sleep. At 5am we spring to life, fueled by the fresh cups of chai and a light breakfast of bread.

The path starts out as a gravel extension of the forest road, through a flat section of track smothered in thick moss, an homage to the wet weather that typically blankets the Oku-Chichibu highlands. Thick clouds move swiftly through the strong gusts pushing through the troposphere, the last remnants of the typhoon now battering the east coast of Hokkaido. The muted morning light brings out the verdant greenery of the primeval forests – we point our lenses in all directions in order to capture the sheer beauty of the place.

We soon reach a junction for a trail that heads to Jūmonji-tōge, an alternative finish point should we choose to do the full 18km loop hike. We continue straight, sticking to the right bank of the swift-flowing waters of the Chikuma river, mesmerized by the crystal clear water and hypnotic hissing as the river pushes past large boulders and twigs. This is easily one of Japan’s most pristine sections of river, with absolutely no sign of concrete nor any dam intrusions to its natural flow. A pair of fishers wade in the river, casting their bait in search of succulent sweetfish.

The track is clearly marked and easy to follow as the three of us push on in unison, slowly upward toward the source of the river. Parts of the route remind me of virgin swaths of the Minami Alps, dotted as they are in a twisted network of larch, spruce and hemlock, all rising upward towards the bright sunlight now beginning to pierce the clouds above. Most hikers approach Kobushi from Nishizawa gorge, along a long, steep spur dominated by views of Fuji and the South Alps. Having done both, I can comfortably say I prefer this hidden entrance to Kobushi’s lofty perch.

After a couple of hours we reach the source of the Chikuma river, the start of a long journey to the northeast to the Sea of Japan, 367km to be exact. Upon entering Niigata Prefecture, the river name changes to the Shinano, which many will recognize as Japan’s longest and widest river. Here, at an elevation of 2200 meters, the water trickles out of an underground stream, with a plastic cup in place so that visitors can sample the cool, refreshing water. We fill up our water bottles and settle down on a toppled tree log for a snack and a quick perusal of the map. An 8-point buck (east coast counting system for ruminant aficionados) grazes in the forest just above, oblivious to our gazing stares. Seeing such stags in the wild is a surprisingly rare sight, as most deer just stick to the twilight and dusk hours for their meals.

From here the path steepens, but after a twenty minute push we top out on the ridge, the start of familiar territory as I had traversed this exact route during my first walk along the spine of Chichibu. Turning left, we glimpse a view of the top of Fuji before reaching the edge of a landslide where the views really start to open up. Just above it, the summit of Kobushi baths in the late morning sun, hikers resting behind their wide-brim hats and ultraviolet arm sleeves. It takes just 10 minutes to reach the summit, just as the cloud begins its daily rise to blot out the views. We gaze at Fuji briefly before a few summit snapshots and an additional snack. Mt. Sanpō sits on a steep spur to the north, its bulbous form sitting backstage as a stand-in to the main star Kobushi.

The track north immediately loses altitude through a pristine primeval forest of towering conifers, the broad track lined by a carpet of healthy ferns. After bottoming out the path starts the long, somewhat steep, climb to the top of  Saitama. Between gasps for breath I use the GPS to gauge progress as we top out shortly before noon. In a celebratory mood, Naresh boils water for chai as we eat a filling lunch while admiring the abundant 6-legged creatures in flight. Despite the altitude, a swarm of dragonflies enjoy the wind gusts above the peak while a particularly persistent horsefly tests our patience.

Feeling energized by the caffeine, we continue walking along the ridge, committing ourselves to the full loop. It seems like a breeze on the map, but the immediate loss of 200 vertical meters to the aptly-penned shiri-iwa, or big ass rock as we have nicknamed it, has us rethinking our decision. The next hour or so on the sabre-toothed ridge is certainly kicking our ass – perhaps the real origin of the shiri-iwa nomenclature.

We take turns overtaking a trio of gung-ho hikers who share our astonishment of the undulating nature of the route. At the junction just below Bushin Shiraiwa, a craggy peak now off limits to hikers, we pause to catch our breath and wipe the sweat from our brows. Naresh is starting to feel the contours in his knees, so as he straps on the knee braces we look over the remaining stretch of trek – just one peak separates ourselves from Jūmonji-tōge, a peak by the name of Oyama.

Oyama, as it turns out, lives up to its ‘big mountain’ moniker. While the climb is short but steep, the descent along the northern face is adorned with more chains than Flavor Flav, a tricky ordeal on weary legs. We lower ourselves gently down the near-vertical cliffs and finally reach the mountain pass and hut just before my bowels explode in a fit of rage. I had been holding back the inevitable ever since summiting Sanpō, and the 200-yen tip charge for the western-style toilet is perhaps my wisest investment of the day.

Worn out but by no means exhausted, the three of us once again garner up the energy for the final descent of the day. Compelled by a desire to reach the car, the pace is swift yet unhurried, and upon reaching the shores of the Chikuma river can we once again smile at the marathon effort required to scale Saitama’s highest peak. Most hikers break this loop up into two days by overnighting on the mountain, a wise choice considering our battered state.

With peak #45 safely off the list, I can now turn my attention to the mighty mountains of Hokuriku for the final duo of peaks on the highest prefectural 47 list.

 

 

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This is part of an ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing a hiking guidebook. 

Now that all of the major issues are now taken care of, the book is passed off to the designers for layout. This is the first (and only chance) we have to see the final book copy before it is sent off to print. While it is truly exciting to finally see how the book will actually look, it is quite stressful to be send a 400-page pdf file with a tight deadline to check each and every page for errors.

We are given just 10 days to read through the entire book and check for typos and other design issues. It is a sleepless week of fine-tooth combing. The next time we will see the book is after the book comes off the printing press. In an ideal world, we would be given two “drafts” or final checks, with about a week in between so the designers can pick up our changes. As it stands, we can only cross our fingers that our final notes and suggestions are picked up before the book goes to print.

 

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This is part of an ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

After the copy-editing is finished with Georgia, the book goes back to Cicerone and on to the galley proof stage. This is the first chance we have to see how the book will look with the photos and maps added. It’s basically set up as an A4-sized document, and again we are asked to mark up the pdf document using Acrobat Reader DC. The 300-page document takes a while for Tom and I to carefully examine, and we take turns marking it up since we need to submit just one document, so we use a shared folder in Dropbox to accomplish our tasks.

Editing is done through Acrobat Reader markups

It’s about a month between the two stages, so we have a chance to take a break and forget about the book while looking at the galley proofs with ‘fresh eyes’.  All in all there are about 100 issues that need to be dealt with before the book can go to layout, but the attention to detail is worth it in order to make a better finished product.

 

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This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

One the appraisal and the overall issues of the guidebook were complete, our manuscript was sent to the copy-editor for a thorough check. A copy editor’s job is to prepare a manuscript for layout, but the task involves much more than just arranging a few words on a page, for the copy editor can ensure that the book flows from start-to-finish, and offers a “fresh set of eyes” to point out things that may need further elucidation.

Cicerone usually subcontracts this important task out to freelance copy editors, and our book ended up in the hands of Georgia at Laval Editing, who had previously worked on a number of other Cicerone guides. We were in good hands.

The process involved Georgia going through our manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, compiling all of her inquiries into a word file that Tom and I needed to work through, one issue at a time. It involved a lot of back-and-forth over a period of 6 weeks or so, where we turned a strong manuscript into a tight, concise fortress of a guidebook. It’s something that self-published authors don’t have at their disposal, so if you’re considering publishing your own book, hiring a copy-editor and proofreader will be an invaluable asset.

Most of our work involved highlighting and commenting on issues that Georgia brought up about each hike, a simple task made easier by utilizing the ‘track changes’ function. Some of the issues were quite simple to address, while others involved a slight rewriting of sections to make them easier to comprehend. By living here in Japan, I often times fail to elaborate upon things that first-time visitors may have trouble understanding, so providing a bit of “cultural context” hopefully ensured that our readers would avoid some common pitfalls. For instance, when we recommend that people avoid hiking during Obon, then Japan residents automatically know that it refers to the holiday in mid-August, while those coming to Japan for the first time will likely have never heard of this mid-summer ritual.

It was a pleasure working with Laval Editing, and if anyone out there is looking for someone to look over their manuscript and get some valuable feedback, I can think of no better place to seek such wisdom.

 

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A Bigger Audience

I’ve been making an effort to post more on this blog, but sometimes paid writing assignments take precedence, especially when it comes to promoting the guidebook.

Please enjoy my latest article on Kita-dake for Cicerone, a bit of a hybrid between the prose of Tozan Tales and the practicality of Hiking in Japan.

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