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Posts Tagged ‘Kansai 100’

Late May and a break in my busy schedule had me scrambling for a quick excursion to the final two mountains in the Daiko range. By setting up base camp at Myojin-daira, I hoped to knock off both Myojin and Hinokizuka  in one fell swoop. I needed some wingmen, however, so I turned to Paul M. and Josh, my two companions from Mt. Tsubone, which sits just across the valley from my target peaks.

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Our meeting point was Haibara station, where we loaded the gear into the back of Josh’s kei car and picked up provisions at the local supermarket. The drive out to Higashi Yoshino village was slow yet pleasant, following the meandering Hōno river until it converged with the Takami river and up a secluded valley towards the rustic hamlet. Higashi Yoshino is best known for the last officially recorded sighting of the Japanese wolf, which wandered into the village back in 1905 for a one-way ticket to the taxidermist. There have been several reported sightings in the decades since, but with the massive post-war clear cutting of the broadleaf forests, it is unlikely that the Canis lupis could have survived such habitat destruction into modern times.

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Just before the village office, the route abandoned the river and forked left, past a quiet hot spring and campground and towards the trailhead of Omata, which lies at the terminus of a concrete logging road. We squeezed in among the dozens of other vehicles lining the shoulder at the locked gate over the road and shuffled through gear. Josh and Paul sifted through their sleeping gear while I stuffed excess provisions into gaps in my already overloaded pack. In order to shed weight, I opted to just bring the rain fly of my tent and supplement it with a bug net to keep the mosquitos at bay. Shortly after 11am, we shouldered the packs under the azure sky and marched onwards.

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The initial part of the track follows the potholed forest road all the way up the river valley as it terminates at one of those ubiquitous concrete dams lining just about every single mountain stream in this hydro-rich country. A rat snake sunned itself on the warm pavement as a series of narrower dirt tracks fanned out from the main road. A healthy army of cedar trees lined both sides of the river bank, making us wonder as to what the highlands had in store for us.

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We crossed a metal bridge spanning the river and left the forest road behind. The track hugged the eastern bank of the river as vistas opened up intermittently behind us to the south. The upper reaches of adjacent ridges glistened with fresh deciduous greenery – perhaps there are still areas of pristine beauty trapped up there.

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A series of four river crossings pushed us higher up the constricted gorge and spit us out at the base of the 50-meter high Myojin falls. We pushed up a series of switchbacks until reaching a turn in the trail that provided a vista of the multi-tiered waterfall. We rested here, admiring the power of nature while filling our bellies with calories for the impending climb. A few switchbacks later, past the top of the falls, the planted cedars suddenly gave way to a brilliant and hearty beech forest swaying gently in the early summer breezes. My spirits rose, providing an extra boost in my gait as I tried to imagine the scene of just 150 years ago, when the wolves still called this place home.

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The water source was reached after a solid twenty minute push. The map indicated a water source much closer to our intended campsite, so we pushed on without weighing down our packs further. In less than 10 minutes, we popped out of the forest and into a vast, green flatlands bursting with plantlife. We dropped off the kit and ventured over to an open-air shelter to have a proper lunch and to consider our options for pitching the tent. Just above our lunch shelter, a rustic log cabin hut sat peacefully on the hillside, looking like it was dropped here from a ski hamlet in Colorado.

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Below us, on the flattest part of the plain, an older, well-seasoned tin-roofed shack stood guard as a reminder of Myojin Daira’s not-too-distant past. During the ski boom of the 60s, ski lifts were constructed here, and the building is the remnants of the old ski lodge that once catered to the budding ski enthusiasts. Nearby, parts of the original ski lifts still stand tall, covered by a thick layer of rust and overgrown weeds. An on-line search about the history of the ski fields came up empty, so perhaps it was not a very popular place. I am sure the locals in Omata village would have more first-hand knowledge about the area, but judging by the amount of garbage strewn about the forest behind the lifts, it must have been a popular place in its heyday.

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Josh and I went off in search of the water source, but came back empty-handed, as the stream was barely more than a trickle. We managed to get enough water to hold us off on our afternoon hike, but knew we’d need to backtrack down to that first water source later in order to see ourselves through the evening. We set up camp in a flat area closest to the path back down to the water and stashed our gear inside. Despite the plethora of vehicles in the parking lot, there were no other overnight guests to be seen, as the low-pressure system due to move in that evening had kept other campers at bay.

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Clouds drifted high above the surrounding peaks as we pushed on to the top of the old ski run until reaching the ridge, where the contours led us to the summit of Mt. Myojin, my 95th peak. There were no views to speak of on the narrow, tree-smothered knob along the ridge. If we kept going for another couple of hours, we would reach the summit of Mt. Ikegoya, a mountain I had reached just two weeks prior.

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We veered west, dropping off the ridge and into a vast deciduous forest that would lead us to the summit of Hinokizuka, my second peak of the day. It would be a two-hour round-trip journey, but with plenty of daylight left and our home for the evening already in place, we cruised along the pristine ridge joyfully, catching up on recent news and pondering the future. At one point along the trail, we all heard the strange clicking sound coming from what we presumed was some kind of insect. I continued on, hearing a yelp from behind me as Paul jumped back in horror. His right foot was just inches from tramping directly on the body of a pit viper, who was curled up in the attack position. Apparently my footfall had angered the beast, who shook its tail in disgust. Though they do not have rattles to speak of, the poisonous snakes can still shake their tails when agitated, as seen in this remarkable video.

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The snake sat frozen, head cocked in striking position, while the three of us looked on in disbelief. Had Paul’s reflexes been just a few seconds slower, then we would be dealing with an airlift to the nearest hospital. The close call had kicked the adrenal glands into overdrive, giving us a jolt of energy. We cruised past a group of four ultralight campers passing around a bottle of wine and shared our enthralling encounter with them. At the summit of Hinokizuka oku-mine, we took in the vistas and thanked our lucky stars for avoiding a catastrophe. I broke out the smoked pistachios, which went well with the granola and chocolate bars I had stuffed in my day pack. It was mountain #96, and there was no other place I would rather be.

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Our vantage point revealed dark clouds billowing up on the horizon. The breeze had intensified into a light gale, and my barometer reading indicated that we would likely be on the receiving end of the bad weather before dawn. We raced over to the summit of Hinokizuka, the twin sister of the mountain before retracing our (careful) steps back to camp.

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What greeted us upon arrival astonished us, for a group of a dozen university students had set up their sprawling camp directly beside us. The meadow easily has room for at least 50 tents, so why on earth would someone pitch their tent so close? This is definitely a ‘safety in numbers’ mentality that a lot of Japanese people just can’t seem to shake, for the majority of hikers in this country go to the mountains in order to be with people rather than escape from them.

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Paul got the fire started while Josh and I dropped back down to the first water source to fill up on supplies. On our way we crossed paths with a trail runner who had also dropped by for a drink. Back at the open-air shelter next to our campsite, I chatted with the runner, wondering where he was headed at such a late hour. “I’ve just come from Odai-ga-hara”, explained the madman, “I started at 4am and have run all the way here, over 50 kilometers. From here, I’ll keep running to Mt. Takami, where I will pick up my bicycle and ride all the way back to Odai-ga-hara to pick up my car.” I sat there with my jaw hung low, wondering what possesses such people to push the boundaries of endurance. “Oh, I’m training for a 100km race”, came the reply. And here I am, thinking that climbing 100 mountains in Kansai was something special.

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The rain held off until we had finished our campfire stories, and shortly before midnight we drifted off to sleep, only to be woken just two hours later by the university group literally camping on our doorstep . They spend the next four hours, in heavy rain no doubt, breaking down camp and preparing their morning meal in the loudest voices possible. Some things I will never ever comprehend, no matter how long I live in this land of no whispers.

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Once they left at 6am, we drifted back to sleep for an hour before the limitations of our shelters became appallingly apparent. My sleeping pad was sitting in the middle of a small lake that had leeched under my rain tarp sometime during the night. Josh and Paul, in the meantime, were being hypnotized by the Chinese water torture dripping down from their tent roof. Everything was a soggy mess, but we could do nothing other than let out a collective sigh.

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I unzipped my shelter, squinting through some of the thickest fog I had ever laid my eyes on just to catch a glimpse of my companion’s tent. Squirming out like a caterpillar emerging from a sticky cocoon, I grabbed the cooking gear and stumbled up to the shelter to start boiling water for coffee and oatmeal. Josh and Paul soon joined me in bleary-eyed disbelief, as we continually cursed our unwelcome guests from the previous evening. The caffeine and fibre set my bowels in motion, as I ducked into the forest to scout out a place to make my deposit. I dug a hole with my trekking pole and relieved myself, cleansing as best I could in order to keep the remaining toilet paper from getting submerged in the damp murk. I returned to the shelter, packing up the cooking gear as we started the painstaking task of breaking down camp. I felt a gaseous build-up and bent over to relieve the pressure by flatulating, with some unwelcome results.

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“Shit”, I screamed, as the fecal matter exploded, soiling my undergarments and hiking pants. I dropped everything, rushing back over to where I had previous unloaded and dug yet another hole and tried to cleanse everything with damp leaf litter, but it was utterly hopeless. I sulked back into camp with my tail between my legs. By sheer luck, I had packed some rain pants in case of inclement weather and changed into them. Nylon isn’t the best hiking material, but I suppose it’s better than riding bareback through the forest.

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Josh and Paul nearly wet themselves when hearing of my predicament, but nothing compared to how an elderly solo hiker reacted. He had just climbed up from the trailhead below, the first hiker of the new day, as he listened intently to my story. I guess my delivery in Japanese was spot on, thanks to my training on the streets of Osaka, for the gray-haired man burst out into uncontrollable laughter, a literal ROFL, if you will. In all my years I had never seen any Japanese person laugh so hard and with such unrestrained panache.

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Our original plan was to set off on a morning ascent of Mt. Azami, a two-hour return hike of one of the 100 mountains of Kinki, but considering the weather and my unpredictable bowels, we voted in favor of just returning back down to the car. We took our time, admiring the serenity and ethereal beauty of the thick forests smothered in thicker fog.

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Despite the success of the two-for-one mission, it was overall a pretty shitty trip, pun intended. We knew, however, that a rematch with Mt. Azami the following summer would leave us with a better taste in our mouths.

 

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Mt. Ikegoya is one monster of a mountain, and the make-or-break peak in my Kansai 100 quest. Check this one off the list and it’s a relatively easy cruise to the finish line. The 1000-meter vertical elevation change is contained within one 2-1/2km stretch of trail that is not for the faint-of-heart. Throw in a vertigo-inducing traverse above a raging waterfall, and sprinkle in a small army of blood-sucking leeches and you’ve got the makings of a true adventure.

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Nao and I set off at dawn on a calm and clear day in mid-May for the trailhead nestled deep in the Daiko mountains on the Nara-Mie prefectural border. The only access is via the north along a narrow poorly-maintained gravel road past Hasu dam and the phalanges of the accompanying lake sitting at the confluence of dozens of lush mountain streams. Our plan was to follow on such tributary by the name of Miya-no-tani all the way up to its headwaters, where the true climb commenced, but our first challenge involved getting there.

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The road to Hasu dam was a double-laned asphalt bylane that looked as if it could accommodate a battalion of army tanks, but beyond that we inched along a meandering. potholed lane littered with rockfall and landslide debris. Every year sections of the route get washed out in the summer rains and maintenance crews struggle with the upkeep, but luckily the road had recently been touched up and we forced our way to the small parking lot marking the entrance to the trail.

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Initially the path traversed high above the river bed along a series of metal walkways before dropping down to the waters edge, where a combination of faded paint marks on rocks and strips of tattered pink tape offered guidance in our upstream pursuit of the source of the river. Nao had explored this section of track once before several years ago before being chased out by hundreds of river leeches that climbed his trousers and abseiled from the trees. Our timing, however, was perfect, as the segmented worms were still lying dormant in the soil beneath our feet, patiently awaiting the summer rains.

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Whenever the walls of the gorge closed in, the trail switchbacked up to more gentler slopes, crossing yet more metal bridges and walkways as we pushed higher and higher up the valley. Despite the undulating path, we had not even covered a hundred vertical meters in that first hour of scrambling. We hit a fork in the river, marked by a signpost indicating waterfalls in either direction. While the 40-minute detour to the 80-meter Kazeore falls, one of Japan’s 100 falls, seemed tempting, we knew that such diversions could cost us precious daylight hours that we could certainly use on the descent.

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We turned right here, following the steel ladders and fixed ropes further to the base of Taka-taki, or the ‘tall one’. This 60-meter high beauty drops straight off a cliff face and into an emerald pool that would make quite the summer watering hole if not for the leeches. After crossing the stream, a signpost warned hikers of the next section of the trail – a harrowing traverse above the falls.

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Pausing a bit for a refilling of liquids and a chocolate bar, Nao and I climbed the jagged switchbacks up the 60-degree slopes to the base of a band of cliffs draped with fixed ropes. A slip here would be fatal, and judging by the size of the metal signpost in the river bed, such falls are all too common for those unfortunate souls with two left feet. We hung tightly to the striated rock, making sure we had four points of contact with the earth at all times. It would be an even trickier route to descend, but fortunately for us we had our eye on an alternative trail that dropped down an adjacent valley.

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Once above the falls we lost the trail completely by mistakenly climbing a spur to our right instead of continuing upstream. Only by cross referencing our GPS waypoints with the paper map did we realize our mistake, but all was corrected by backtracking back to the river bed and continuing on towards the proper junction, which we reached at midday.

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The paper map had this next section of trail marked as a 1-hour, 45-minute ascent so we dropped our gear and nibbled on rice balls and almonds. We had a 700-meter climb staring us straight in the face and really nowhere to go except up. It was a short section of switchbacks to reach the beginning of the spur, which quickly became an all-out war with exposed tree roots. Forcing our way on all fours up the improvised staircase, we made steady progress up towards the ridgeline, which lay out of sight somewhere high above us. We thought it wiser to simply put away our GPS devices, as frequent glances at the contours would only serve as reminders of how much further we had to go.

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Voices above us crescendoed as we overtook our first climbing party of the day, a trio of sweaty, middle-aged men who stepped aside to let us pass. Once above the 1000-vertical meter mark the angle abated, revealing large swaths of virgin beech trees sitting on a soft carpet of wild grasses and dried foliage. It was easily one of the most breathtaking stretches of unspoiled forest in the Kansai area, and a reminder of the power of the Daiko mountains.

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After all, it was these same slopes that provided the last hideout of the Japanese wolf, which was last seen back in the Meiji era in a small village on the leeward side of Ikegoya’s rugged slopes.

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We topped out just one hour leaving the river bed behind. Though the tree-lined summit afforded no vistas of the surrounding mountains, it was still a pleasant place to relax and take in what nature had to offer. It was my 94th mountain, and one of the best to date. I brewed up a cup of coffee in preparation for the long, knee-knocking drop back to civilization.

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Our return route required a 30-minute stroll along the ridge line past the small pond that gives Ikegoya its namesake before reaching a junction at the summit of Mt. Kirifuri, where the vistas finally started to open up. Unfortunately, the vistas were not the only thing to reveal themselves, as my caffeinated drink on the summit kickstarted my bowels. I dropped off the trail to dig a hole for my deposit of fertilizer as Nao waited patiently.

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We veered right at the junction and followed a pleasant strolling ridge that ran parallel to the steep spur we had climbed earlier. To our left, we could make out the flat highlands of Mt. Myojin and Hinokizuka, two of the remaining six mountains on the list and the last two in this part of Kansai. If I had an extra day I could have easily knocked them off from here, but as luck would have it, they would have to wait for another time. Our trail followed the contours of the ridge for well over an hour until reaching the remains of an old cable car system used by loggers. From here, the virgin forest yielded to the dreadful plantations of cedar and cypress that make my heart sink every time I see them.

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The path terminated at an immense clear-cut area lined by fabric fences to keep the deer from destroying the bark of the newly planted trees. A signpost indicated us to unfasten the ropes of the fence, where we entered this area that looked like something out of a warzone. To make matters of worse, the trail followed the tracks of a logging monorail that ran straight down the mountain without a single switchback. The knees took a beating as we searched for any way to prevent ourselves from tumbling uncontrollably down the barren slopes. It was a drop of nearly 400 vertical meters directly down to the valley floor, where we met up with the forest road once again and limped back to the car.

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We had eluded the leeches and knocked off the mountain in one massive assault. With only 6 more mountains to go, I finally had the momentum to get these Kansai 100 peaks off my chest so I could move onto other things.

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Nestled snugly in the mountains of northern Kyoto Prefecture lies a peak by the name of Hyakuri, whose kanji represent 100 Li, or a hundred Chinese miles. The Li is an ancient unit of measurement equivalent to about half a kilometer in length, so this mountain refers to the unobstructed panoramic vistas of 50 kilometers in all directions. A clear weather mountain this would have to be, so once again I teamed up with Will, Mai, and Sota for a stable high pressure window in mid-May.

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We started our automobile journey from Demachiyanagi station, heading up the paved switchbacks past Ohara village and deeper into the Kitayama mountains. Just past Bomura village, we veered left and followed a narrow lane past dwellings in shambles and grossly overgrown cedar plantations. We reached the trailhead a couple of hours after setting off from the ancient capital, and aside from a few fallow fields and a handful of houses dotted along the narrow valley, there wasn’t much in the way of amenities. Remarkably, a minibus runs up to this secluded hamlet twice a day to shuttle the residents to the more populated areas of Shiga Prefecture to the east. As Will and company sorted through their kit, I shuffled off to one of the overgrown vegetable fields in order to provide some organic fertilizer. Relieved, I retreated back to the car and shouldered the gear.

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The trail followed a gravel forest road for a short distance before commencing the climb through a lush and healthy deciduous forest alive with the vibrant greenery of a new season. In Japanese, this annual phenomenon is referred to as shinryoku, and it attracts scores of hikers wanting to witness the power of the changing of the seasons before the caterpillars wreak havoc on the freshly sprouted foliage. On the beleaguered slops of Hyakkuri, however, there was hardly a sign of human intrusion, and the path, littered with fallen branches, looked as if no other hikers had been up here in quite some time. I prefer these untamed folds of mountains to the more frequented spires further east. Even on weekends, a lot of Japanese mountaineers tend to be lazy and stick to the slopes with the easiest access.

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The temperatures rose in conjunction with the altitude gain, forcing sweat out of our aching pores along the long, undulating ridge towards the broad summit of our target peak. It had been just a couple of weeks since knocking off Mt. Oike in the Suzuka range, and now that the antibiotics were now finished, I had an usual jolt of energy despite the balmy temperatures. Will, on the other hand, had been swamped with a new school year at his school and was embarking on his first hike of the green season, and the angle of the gradient appeared to be winning. He looked as if had just come out of the shower, while Sota, just shy of his 9th birthday, stuck little breaks in at every available opportunity. Still, these more leisurely ascents were a much-welcomed change from my usual breakneck pace, and with the glorious foliage and mouth-watering vistas, it was hard to wipe the smile off our faces.

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Just before reaching the junction to the Takashima trail, near the top of a long, relentless climb, we took our first real break of the day and fueled up on snacks for the final assault on the 931-meter peak. While it may not seem like much, you should never judge a mountain based on elevation alone, as Ted and I learned so painfully on Jyatani, a mountain scantly 30 meters lower than our current outing.

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We all felt a bit better once the perspiration evaporated and the carbs were converted into glucose. We shouldered the packs and turned right at the junction for the short but steep ascent to the high point. A few fixed ropes assisted in the more abrupt pitches of the beech-lined slopes, and shortly before the lunchtime chimes we basked in the sunshine on my 79th peak.

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The panoramic vistas were inspiring enough, but the lack of shade caused a bit of discomfort. Despite my negligible cravings for a hot drink, I brewed up a cup of steaming coffee to not only give me a bit of a caffeine kickstart, but also to help lower the weight of my pack by using up the reserves of my hot water thermos. I never carry a stove on day hikes, preferring the ease and timeliness of a portable jug of hot water I can pour over tea bags, coffee filters, or perhaps into the lid of an instant ramen container.

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Instead of retracing our steps back on the serpentine ridge, we spied an alternative loop down the old saba kaidō, a disused trade route linking the Sea of Japan to the ancient capital. This required a traverse further south along the Takashima trail that looked like a breeze on the map. Someone forgot to tell those Yama-to-keikoku cartographers about the incline, however, as the contour lines were spaced much too far apart to accurately represent the real lay of the land. We spent the better part of an hour in a tussle with gravity. Will, Mai, and Sota were running low on hydrogen-oxygen reserves, and with no water source in sight, we had to ration the remaining liquids to avoid being caught out dry. At the top of an unmarked peak, the four of us collapsed in a heap of sweat and exhaustion. Completing all 80 kilometers of the Takashima trail must require superhuman effort, or at least the assistance of a few porters who can carry your heavy loads. With no way of getting fresh water along the ridge itself, trekkers are forced to descend the rugged valleys in search of mountain streams.

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The path dropped abruptly to a junction on the remnants of an old forest road, a place called Negorizaka pass by the generations of travellers throughout the centuries. An aging, rotting shelter provided a relatively dry roof for a duo of jizo statues placed here long before hiking was a recreational sport. Adjacent to the structure, a stone sculpted to resemble an index finger stood at head height, the kanji characters carved into the lichen-smothered face too faded to clearly decipher. We had at last arrived on the saba kaidō, or the old ‘Mackerel Road’ as the westerners tend to call it.

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We veered off the Takashima trail here, turning left and following the eroded trail until it spit us out a short time later on a broad, paved lane that is popular with cyclists looking for some additional exercise. It’s a shame that so many of Japan’s old roads have been paved over in such careless manor, but I guess it kind of makes sense if you think about it. If I wanted to built a literal road to nowhere, what better place to start than a path that has already been forged through a rugged tract of mountain land.

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It took about an hour or so to reach the rustic village where we had parked the car. Fitting enough, it was Sota who had a call of nature upon our return, depositing his load in the woods in much the same way that I had christened the trail upon our ascent. With good ole 79 under my belt, I pored over the maps to scope out the next mountain victim before the onset of the rainy season.

 

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With spring in full swing, I seized the opportunity for one last foray into the Suzuka mountains to knock off the final, and highest, peak in the range. It was time to once again call upon Paul D. in Nagoya for some welcome companionship. Kanako, Tomomi, Baku, and I settled in the rented minivan in the early morning hours for the long drive out to Mie Prefecture and our rendezvous point at Nishifujiwara station. After getting stuck in traffic in the Kusatsu bottleneck, we arrived approximately 90 minutes behind schedule. Paul and his co-worker Shuhei squeezed into the backseat of the vehicle as Tomomi approached the switchbacks along route 306 that would take us to the trailhead at Kurakake pass, the shortest and easiest route up the peak.

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We hit an unfortunate snag very early in the journey, as the entire route was closed off with a head-high steel fence. The road was under construction, and there’d be no way to get to the trailhead unless we drove all the way around to the Shiga side of the mountain, which wouldn’t leave us enough time to complete the hike. I broke out the map, frantically studying alternative options from the Mie side of the mountain and there was one very long but possible route at a small village by the name of Yamaguchi. Tomomi did a u-turn as we drove around looking for the proper forest road, which was located a short time later. Unsure as to whether there’d be parking further up the narrow lane, we parked at the bottom and covered the 20-minute hoof to the start on foot.

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It was already late morning when we did finally hit the trail. Though it was dotted on our hiking map, the route was easy enough to pick up and relatively well-travelled. After a steep slog through a dense forest of planted cedar, the upper contours closer to the ridge remained out of human’s harm, with a healthy and bountiful hardwood forest beginning to sprout a new leafy outfit for the approaching summer.

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Our first landmark on the route was regrettably a monstrous electrical pylon. Even a range as humbling as the Suzuka cannot escape the claws of civilization. At least the bare foundations did afford some nice vistas of Nakazato reservoir that otherwise would not have been possible through the thick timber of the forest.

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The route meandered along a serpent-like spur towards Shirase pass. After a short drop past a washed out gully, the trail veered northwards through a fertile plain teeming with fresh plant life. The Suzuka mountains are well-known for their wildflowers, though we were a bit early to experience the brilliance of the False Helleborine in full bloom.

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We reached the mountain pass just past two in the afternoon and settled down for a late lunch. At our leisurely pace we would not be able to summit before nightfall. Not wanting to give up so easily, we hatched up a plan. Kanako, Baku, and Tomomi would head back down to the car from here, while Paul, Shuhei and I attempted to knock off the peak at lightning speed. The map said it’d be a 3-hour round-trip jaunt from the pass, but we aimed to complete it in less than two.

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Powered by the challenge, we trotted along a splendid ridge dotted with limestone and granite, giving an alpine feel to this section of the range. The trees still lay bare of foliage on this wind-swept spine, providing glimpses of our target peak sitting directly opposite our current position across a vast valley. Mt. Oike is actually on a parallel ridge from the main ridge running through the Suzuka mountains, so it takes a bit longer to reach than the more accessible sections of what is known as the Suzuka 7 area of the range.

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We reached the 40-minute hike to the junction for the Kogerumi route of Oike in only 14 minutes. The adrenaline quickly wore off when the signpost indicated that we had only reached the 6th stage point of the mountain. I checked the altimeter: even though we had started at Shirase pass at close to 1000-vertical meters, we were now at less than 800. The summit sits at nearly 1250 meters above seal level and time was of the essence.

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The route followed an ancient gully lined with moss-covered rocks and newly-sprouted plant life. Luckily the mountain leeches had not yet awakened from their winter slumber. With so many blood-sucking worms in the range, the climbing season is short. The pitch steepened as we reached the 8th stage point, and our fatigue was beginning to show. My calves ached as the trail turned towards the southeast, up yet another constricted gully still lined with a stubborn snowfield. Paul’s lungs were bothering him, a sign that a cold was perhaps on the way. He pushed on despite the discomfort and shortly after 3pm we topped out on the narrow summit and sunned ourselves on the small boulders flanking the high point.

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I downed my last energy bar as we slowly gathered up the courage to begin the downward descent. The drop to the 7th stage point was swift, but the climb back to Shirase pass was agonizingly slow. We seemed to be held back by not only the forces of gravity, but by our own physiological limits. We had already clocked over 10 kilometers and still had a long way to go before reaching the car.

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Back at the pass, we all settled into our own pace. I led the way, not wanting to rest until reaching the forest road again. Once entering the cedar forest, the trail seemed a lot steeper than earlier in the day, and I slowly eased my throbbing knees down the log steps built into the crumbling hillside. I felt completely spent – the last 6 months of antibiotics were finally catching up to me. I could hear my liver whimpering even through the wind. I vaguely remember my doctor cautioning me against doing any form of heavy exercise. Perhaps a 1000m+ vertical elevation change was too much for a body still trying to fully recover from a major illness.

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We somehow reached the trailhead just past 4:30pm. Our minivan was not in its original parking place, so we had a bit of a longer walk back down to Yamaguchi bus stop, where the gang were waiting. Kanako had settled into a relaxing nap in the back seat while the three of us collapsed into the soft seat cushions. Paul looked worse for wear and seemed happy to had the intense slog behind him. I for one was glad that we did not have to turn back, for I knew it’d be tough to find another leech-free climbing window.

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We dropped Shuhei and Paul back off at the station and headed to a nearby campground to see out the rest of the evening. Breaking up the trip into two days allowed us Kansai folk a chance to relax before the long drive back into town. The Suzuka mountains are definitely one of the best mountain ranges in the Kansai/Chubu area, and I had this Kansai Hyakumeizan list to thank for allowing me the motivation to explore it more deeply.

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Late February and sub-arctic temperatures have me ducking under the comforters of the warm bed. Still, after being cooped up in hospital for nearly 2 months, I needed to take advantage of these clear-weather days while I could. So goes the story for Mt. Kasagata, a pointy edifice lying north of Himeji city in Hyogo Prefecture. This is familiar territory, with the surrounding peaks all knocked off the list sans this inaccessible prominence soaring to just under 1000 vertical meters. A closer look at the map, however, revealed an approach from the north accessible by public transport.

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Michael and I departed Osaka in the early morning hours on a  JR train to Himeji, where the Bantan line chauffeured us further north to Teramae station. From here, a connecting bus crawled along narrow rural roads to the foothills of the mountains before dropping us off in front of a hot spring hotel that had seen better days. We shouldered our gear under the sunny but bitterly cold conditions, forcing our way up the steep switchbacks of the paved forest road as it lead us higher to the starting point of the hike.

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At the trailhead, a side trail to Henmyō waterfall caught our attention, and off the main path we verged for a closer look. After crossing a narrow steel bridge the trail marched up a series of log steps caked thick with layers of hard, slick ice that send us scurrying for purchase. Slowly and carefully we eased our way over the frozen slopes and nudged closer to the 65-meter falls. The quiet air was eerie at first until catching sight of the mass of water completely frozen by the bitterly cold temperatures of the past few weeks. Although too thin to safely ice climb, the column of frozen ice held our gaze until the cold seeped through our outer layers and onto our chilled skin. “You want the 4-pointers or sixers”, I called back to Michael, who was embarking on his very first snow hike. Opting for the extra purchase, I strapped on the 4-point crampons while handing over the larger climbing irons to my trusty partner as we commenced our climb towards the ridge.

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After scaling a steel ladder, we met back up with the main trail and climbed along a narrow path skirting the edge of a false ridge blanketed with several inches of fresh snowfall. The route followed the stream above Henmyō falls until it trickled out in the upper reaches of the highlands. Cedar forests eventually gave way to deciduous cover as we continued our steady, determined pace.

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Once the ridge was breached, we met a large junction and turned left for the final push to the summit. The gradient increased significantly, the crampons barely sufficient to stop the feet from losing their forward progress. Tree branches came in handy when the footing was poor, and shortly before the lunchtime bells we reached the high point of my 73rd peak. A wooden bench cleared of snow by other hikers provided the perfect place for a nourishing meal of hot soup and half-frozen rice balls. The vistas towards the dry valleys opened up to the north and east, but the views out towards Sen-ga-mine were obscured by menacing cloud.

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We retraced our steps back towards the bus stop, passing by a few hikers who had gotten a much later start. One such group consisted of a pair of young men sporting two of the biggest smiles I had ever seen in the mountains. They were both dressed in colorful garb, and the taller of the two grasped a rolled-up piece of cloth in his right hand. “What’s that”, I inquired, generally intrigued at what gear they happened to be carrying with them. He unrolled the material, revealing an simple hand-drawn  banner.

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“I’m Akihiro”, introduced our new acquaintance, a backward baseball cap topping off his clean-shaven face. “And I’m Atsushi”, replied his companion. “We are A and A”, came the follow-up in perfect unison, as if they’ve been practicing for years for their special moment to show off their work of creative genius. It’s unexpected encounters such as these that makes living in Japan so enjoyable.

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The exchange jolted us with energy, as we skated through the cedar forests as if part of a chase scene in a James Bond flick. We reached the foothills just as the darkened cloud moved on, revealing the open tufts of grass that line the summit fields of Daru-ga-mine, a mountain I had been on just before my hospitalization.

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We reached the bus stop with just enough time to spare to grab a quick drink from the vending machine. Although I was still heavily medicated with antibiotics for the TB, they didn’t do all that much to slow me down as I inched my way towards the two-thirds mark in my Kansai 100 quest.

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For some reason, Mt. Tsubone is referred to as the Yari-ga-take of Kansai, but it seems like a bit of a stretch, unless you find the right angle. On a frigid winter day, on the summit of mountain #50 to be exact, a spear-like mountain did catch my eye, causing me to consult my map and wonder if it, too, were on the list of venerable 100.

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The answer was in the affirmative, and so I set my sights for a clear weather climbing window in late summer. Time time around Paul M. and I were joined by Josh, a 40-something Californian snowboard and surfing hound turned part-time hiker. He picked us up at Yagi station in eastern Nara Prefecture and we scooted along route 166 under sunny skies and balmy temperatures. The rural route gained altitude via curving switchbacks to the base of Mt. Takami, where a long tunnel through the heart of the mountain spit us out into Mie Prefecture and into unexpected rains. It turns out that the Daiko mountains, for which Mt. Takami forms the northernmost edge, are a bit of microclimate, trapping in moisture throughout the year. We parked at the trailhead to our target peak, sorting through gear for things to help keep us dry.

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The mountain hung heavy in the sticky air, the clouds gripping tightly to the summit like a toddler clinging to its mothers’ warm bosom. After a bit of a false start up a paved forest road, we spotted the unmarked trailhead thanks to a pre-set GPS bearing and trudged up through a thicket of planted cedar and cypress. After only five minutes I stripped off the rain jacket and opted for just a short-sleeved t-shirt. Temperatures were in the low 30s and the rain was anything but refreshing.

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After half an hour up the trail we left the cedars behind and entered a deciduous oasis or moss-covered boulders and trickling streams that brought thoughts of the Omine mountains to mind. In our steady pace I had somehow attracted the attention of a pesky hornet, who continually pounced upon my backpack like it was some long-sworn enemy. After the fifth or sixth round I dropped my gear and stripped away my black rain cover, exposing the vibrant reddish-orange hues of the original pack fabric. The hornet shuffled off to play with something a bit more interesting while I continued on in a more relaxed pace. Apparently the bees are strongly attracted to the color black – lesson learned.

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The rain abated as we hit the summit ridge, but the fog did not loosen its tight grip, lending an ethereal air to the already surreal landscape. Josh was utterly fascinated by a spectacle I’ve long grow accustomed to over the years. I will admit though, that a pristine forest draped in cloud is a thousand times more pleasant that a slog through a carpet of waist-high creeping pine and weather-beaten rocks.

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Shortly after lunch the three of us popped out on the high point and immediately parked our wet, sweaty bodies on a wooden bench. Paul M. broke out the coffee cups while I chugged away at the sports drink. The top was marred by a microwave antenna jutting out on the northern face of the peak. As we sipped on our mountain mochas the clouds broke up, yielding brief glimpses of the Daiko mountains rising gallantly to the south. Josh moved closer to the microwave antenna for a better view but was immediately driven back by a swarm of bees who had nested themselves on the narrow summit plateau. Perhaps we should have saved this mountain for the cooler months when the insects are less sprightly.

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We retreated the way we had come, veering right at the first trail junction at the start of the ridge for a variation loop on the descent. This route yielded scenery no different from our climbing route, but it did offer us a chance to stretch our muscles by meandering through some long switchbacks carved into the cedar plantation. By the time we had reached the forest road the mountain was bathed in unexpected sunshine. Despite our untimely visit we still had an enjoyable time on Kansai’s very own Mt. Yari. It wasn’t as steep or daunting as its more prominent cousin in the Kita Alps, but it was still a worthy investment of our time. And with mountain #65 out of the way I could finally start counting down the remaining peaks instead of counting up, as I had reached the edge of the tipping point in my quest for the Kansai 100.

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Faced with a long 10km approach from the nearest bus stop, I knew that timing was of the essence if I wanted to make it off the mountain before dusk. So began another arduous journey into Wakayama prefecture to climb Mt. Oishi (生石) – the mountain of raw stone.

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I took the fast train down to Kainan city on an overcast morning in early October. At the station, the micro-sized Orange bus awaited to shuttle passengers to a bus stop appropriately named tozanguchi. My map indicated that I only need to walk along the main road for about 5 kilometers until reaching the start of the hike, but the taxi office located adjacent to the bus terminal was too much to pass up. I hopped in an available cab and was happily ferried up to the fork in the road that marked the start of the traditional route up the once-sacred mountain. The road, in fact, continues on all the way to the top, but I was more interested in what the slopes had to offer than what lay on the desecrated summit.

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Once out of the taxi, a metal signpost indicated that it was only a 6.5km stroll along the hiking trail to the top. Still, it beat the 11km walk in from the bus terminus. The path initially shared frontage with the paved road before climbing through a thicket of trees towards Daikanji temple. The temple itself was once along the Koya-nishi kaido, an ancient pilgrimage route to Koyasan that Shingon worshipers once tramped on their way to pay homage to Kobo Daishi. The sacred space now sits on the edge of a paved forest road overlooking fields dotted with cosmos, red spider lilies, and freshly harvested rice stalks hung on wooden racks to dry in the sun.

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The route once again ran parallel with the pavement before yet again ducking into the forest and alongside a couple of jizo statues that led to an enormous evergreen oak tree (シラカシ) that is estimated to be over 350 years old. I gazed up at the towering hulk of wood, wondering if the seed was transplanted here naturally or if a zealous monk left it there as a memento to future generations.

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After passing by a small mountain stream, the forest turned into monocultural cedar as I pushed my way towards the summit plateau. After an hour or so the angle did start to ease, and the first signs of civilization soon came into view. The route once again joined with the asphalt, skirting the edge of a mountain hut that probably last saw use during the Nixon administration. You’ll come across these abandoned structures all across Japan, the landowners too stingy to bother with the demolition costs and instead let nature run its course.

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Just beyond this forlorn symbol of economic prosperity gone amiss, the trail terminated at the edge of an immense field of susuki grass stretching across the entire horizon. I had reached the entrance to Oishi plateau, and luckily this weekday morning it was relatively quiet. I shuttered to think about the zoo that this area must become during any weekend in autumn, when day trippers in their luxury automobiles invade the peak for a glimpse of the golden grasses.

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The first thing to catch my eye was a rustic rest hut with the name Mountain Home (山の家). I stowed my pack on a bench and sifted through my coin purse for change to insert into the vending machine. Just moments later, a bowl of hot noodles and freshly made coffee made their way to my wooden table. They were just what I needed after the chill of the autumn air lowered my core temperature by a few degrees. Once thermal equilibrium was restored, it was time to see what these highlands had to offer.

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I stepped outside, immediately drawn to a bulky granite outcrop sitting at the top of a gentle rise. Marked by a small shrine, the rock formation was easy to scale, affording unobstructed panoramic mountain views of the peaks of Koyasan and other unknown mountains nestled deep in Wakayama prefecture. After taking in the vistas, I meandered through the susuki grass like a pupil on a school outing – there was literally dozens of different paths to choose from as they made their way up to the high point, which was reached in about half an hour.

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I sprawled out in the large clearing, enjoying the soft feel of the grass against my bare arms while taking in the stellar views. There was no signpost on the summit, and the only indication that it was indeed the high point was the rectangular block of concrete protruding from a tuft of grass – the triangulation point.

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After a quick bite from a rice ball, I ducked into the forest once again for a variation that would loop back to the bus stop. I had intended on giving Oishi shrine a visit, but a wrong turn meant that I’d have both a lot of backtracking and vertical elevation gain if I wanted to double back for a look, so I left it to the imagination.

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Most of the descent was, regrettably, through a vast forest of planted cedar and cypress, but the path did alternate between forest and village, giving a welcome insight into the lives of these rural denizens. The highlight was passing through an orchard of sanshō pepper trees whose leaves had turned a golden hue. Once back at the fork in the road, I spied a forest road to my left that looked as if it would lead me back to the bus stop. On a hunch, I followed the path, marked at regular intervals by jizo statues and tattered stone engravings. I surmised that this must have been part of the original Koya-nishi kaido before falling into misuse. My deductions were confirmed a bit further up the route when passing by a small temple situated at the base of a large waterfall dropping over a contorted rock formation. Here, a statue of Fudo Myo-o kept watch over the sacred prayer space. The forest road did connect up with the bus stop, which took me back to Kainan station with plenty of daylight left to catch the slow train back to Osaka.

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It was a monumental effort, but the long haul was worth it, on one of Kansai’s more noteworthy peaks.

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Nestled snugly between Shikoku and Honshu lies the finger-like sliver of Awaji island. All but cut off from the rest of the mainland for most of its existence, the island developed its own industry (namely onions) and its own peculiar dialect (closer to a Shikoku tongue than an Osakan twang). Life was all hunky dory for the happy-go-lucky villagers until 1998, when the Akashi bridge was opened to vehicular traffic. All of a sudden, day tripping Kobe denizens flocked to the isle in search of idyllic beaches and hidden hot springs.

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I, too, had become part of the tourism statistics, boarding a highway bus after disembarking a JR train at Maiko station just under Akashi bridge. After a series of long escalators and stairs, I popped out on the actual bridge itself and queued up for the bus to Minami Awaji. Being a weekday, the bus was only partially full as it cruised across the bridge and into the bowels of the island itself. It was a beautifully sunny yet unusually hazy day, with smog cutting visibility to just a few horizontal kilometers. Hardly peak climbing conditions for what the hiking literature refers to as ‘beautiful panoramic views’ from the summit perch of Mt. Yuzuruha, Awaji island’s tallest mountain.

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The bus dropped me off at Mihara bus stop directly on the elevated expressway. A concrete stairway led me to a simple toilet complex and bus waiting area on the side of a rural lane completely devoid of vehicular traffic. Hitching was simply out of the question, but fortunately the rest area was home to one of those rectangular green devices that people used to use back in the 20th century to communicate. I dropped a coin into the machine and hired a taxi to shuttle me to the trailhead. While waiting for my ride to arrive I ducked behind the shelter and sat in the shade, which offered only minimal respite from the searing heat. Even though it was mid-September, someone forgot to tell mother nature that summer was supposed to be over.

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My driver let me off at Yuzuruha dam, handing over his business card upon my exit in case his assistance was required for the return journey. The path immediately started climbing through a a lovely hardwood forest lined with jizo statues at regular intervals along the way. It took about 15 minutes to breach the ridge – although Yuzuruha is the highest point on the island, it is hardly a monster, topping out at a little over 600 vertical meters. Horizontally speaking, I was less that 2km from the summit and carried on at a steady pace towards the high point. Temperatures were soaring towards the mid-30s, turning my hike into a sweat fest better suited to an afternoon at the sauna. The heat had also brought out the bees, mosquitoes, and other insects that hovered around my drenched torso.

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Upon reaching the summit, I stripped off my shirt and hung it in the sun to dry. I plopped down in the shade of the gazebo and proceeded to rehydrate. Lightly salted potato chips helped to restore the sodium imbalance, and the shade gave me a chance to pore over the maps and make a decision. If I continued heading northward, the trail would drop to a temple and continue losing altitude all the way to sea level, where a rural coastal road circumnavigated the island. I’d then have to rely on my thumb to get me back to civilization. If I retraced my steps, I could simply walk another 4km or so along a paved road from the dam to the nearest community, which promised a bus ride back to Minami-Awaji. The choice was a no brainer really, but I headed off to the north for a few minutes of descending down to the temple, where I hoped I would find a vending machine or some other sort of shop.

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Dreadfully, the temple offered no amenities, and I retraced my steps back to the summit and retreated to the south towards the dam. Along the way, I passed by an elderly solo hiker climbing towards me, armed with a rather large can of insecticide. Either this guy was a complete entomophobe or he just simply hated hornets. Either way, he was armed for battle with whatever he encountered along the way. Luckily he did not mistake me for a giant insect and held his fire as I tiptoed past.

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Once back at the dam, I found a ‘cycling terminal’ that offered both an air-conditioned lobby and a row of fully-stocked vending machines. I bought a liter of Aquarius and ducked into the cool comforts of the lobby. I collapsed onto a lounge chair and polished off the entire liter while trying to psyche myself up for the rest of the way. The cool drink brought the spring back into my step, and soon I was back out counting my footfalls along the sticky pavement. By some fate of timing, I arrived at the bus stop with just 10 minutes to spare before the next bus, which dropped me off at Minami-Awaji city. Here, there was a highway bus terminal offering hourly buses back to Kobe. I stopped by a local restaurant serving lunch sets and tucked into a later afternoon meal before boarding that bus with a sense of gratitude. I had long wrote off Yuzuruha as an impossibility for a day trip, but realized with a bit of planning that there were very few of these Kansai 100 peaks that I couldn’t do as a return trip if I just put my mind to it.

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Updated Tally

I’ve finally gotten around to updating the Kansai 100 tally to reflect all 100 mountains. It was nearly impossible to determine the exact dates for the first 30 mountains or so, since I did not have a digital camera and was relying solely on memory and subtle clues in the printed film photos. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2011 that I started attempting the Kansai Hyakumeizan in earnest, and many of the pre-2011 mountains I have climbed multiple times.

The Kansai Hyakumeizan aren’t too hard to finish if you have a car. If not, then prepare yourself for some pretty long approaches and several multi-day traverses, as well as some careful planning with JR’s fickle train schedules.

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And that’s a wrap

Exactly 7 years after completing the Hyakumeizan, and precisely 8 years after my open-heart surgery, I stand on top of my final peak in the Kansai 100. It never would have been possible with the support of readers of the blog, and for that I am eternally grateful.

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