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Posts Tagged ‘Kansai hikes’

Nestled deep in eastern Shiga Prefecture in the foothills of the Suzuka mountains sits the untouched beauty of the headwaters of the Kanzaki river, a valley so steep and constricted that it has escaped the wrath of the dam builders. The route was first outlined in Lonely Planet’s original Hiking in Japan guide back in 2001, but due to a massive blunder with the name of the bus stop, very few users of that guide were able to negotiate the access point in the days before digital mapping and smartphone technology. Fast forward ahead two decades and I find myself with a rare opportunity to explore the gorge with my Japanese friends Haru and Hisao. Hisao picks me up at Nagoya station shortly before 7am on a brisk weekend morning in late March. After swinging by Haru’s house we hit the road for the trailhead on the Mie side of the Suzuka range, finding it easier to follow the Lonely Planet route in reverse by climbing up to Nakatōge from Asake campground. The parking lot is absolutely heaving as we squeeze in for one of the last available spaces. Everyone and their grandma seems intent on climbing Mt Shaka on this chilly morning but we have other plans.

We start by following the paved road uphill toward the headwaters of the Asake river. Unfortunately the dam builders have ensured that the upper reaches of the gorge are anything but spectacular, but we veer off the road a short time later and cross the river along a series of wobbly granite boulders to traverse the contours of the hillside due west to reach a narrow 10-meter waterfall tumbling through a thin channel of crumbly rock. The path appears to disappear here until Haru spots a series of ropes strung alongside a massive rockfall chute that looks set to dislodge itself at any moment. I let Haru take the lead and climb high enough and stay out of the fall zone so that any dislodged rocks tumble harmlessly down the chute to my right. I grasp onto a fixed rope and hoist myself toward the skyline.

Hisao follows next as Haru and I pause at the top of the chute and veer north above the waterfall and onto more stable ground in the upper reaches of the gorge. The scenery soon turns into that classic Suzuka spectacle of old growth deciduous forest wrapped around mossy granite rocks strewn about the forest floor. The trees are still in the midst of their winter hibernation, the branches bare and desolate as the sun struggles to break through the morning veil of cloud. The route traverses east past a watershed and along the edge of an enormous gap in the hillside caused by an immense landslide extending all the way from the ridge to the base of the mountain. A lone evergreen clings tightly to a cliff face in the middle of this contorted mess in an apparent imitation of the Lone Cypress of Pebble Beach.

We reach the carpeted moss of Naka-tōge, a broad saddle straddling the border of Mie and Shiga Prefectures. Here the Lonely Planet guide advises hikers to follow the ridge to the southwest over Mt Suishō and onward to Kunimidake and Yunoyama Onsen. The three of us linger briefly in order to study the maps and moisten our dry mouths with liquids. A clear signpost points east for lower crystal valley (下水晶谷), so we drop off the ridge and follow this trail down into Shiga Prefecture and the gorge below. The track is hard to pick up in places, and if not for the tape marks affixed to the trees it would be easy to veer off route. However, we mostly stick to the natural features of the land and let the dry creek bed of the narrow valley channel us down toward the lower portions of the ever steepening slopes.

Ten minutes into our ascent we find a reassuring site in a pristine blue-and-white signpost that looks recently erected by the tourism bureau of Komonocho of Mie Prefecture. If someone has spend the time and money to create such a well-designed way mark then you can bet that they have also ensured that the route is regularly maintained. Our dry route soon connects with an underground spring trickling down to meet the gorge, so we follow the right bank of the watershed until it deposits us at a junction indicating that the suspension bridge spanning Kanzaki gorge is unsafe to cross. We ignore the warning and head left to investigate the current state of the metal suspension bridge.

The Lonely Planet guide advises hikers to cross over the bridge and continue up the route we had just descended in order to reach Nakatōge, but anyone attempting to traverse over the twisted and tangled ruins of the bridge would truly be a fool. As Hisao and I stare in disbelief, Haru sheepish admits that he actually crossed the span during his last trip here a few years ago. The structure looks as if it could collapse and fall into the emerald green waters of the gorge at the slightest touch.

Fortunately sanity prevails and we retreat down to the river’s edge in search of a place to cross the broad river. Haru takes the lead and manages to cross one particularly hairy section of submerged rocks without slipping off and falling to the frigid waters. I follow next, looking for any sort of boulder that would provide a secure location to bear my weight but I retreat in defeat. Since we have only just begun our hike, I would rather not spend the remainder of the day with wet socks if it can be helped. Instead, I head downstream 50 meters and reach an area of whitewater lined with large, steady boulders and what I have dubbed the Suzuka ‘leap of fate’. You see, there’s a gap of about a meter and a half that needs to negotiated and the most logical way through is to simply leap across. The problem is that the start of the leap is from a wet boulder which you could easily slip out from underneath at the very start of your jump. I take off my backpack and toss it across the gap safely before placing my camera around my trekking pole and carefully stretch it across the water to Haru’s waiting arms. Finally I throw both of my trekking poles across and am only left with one task: JUMP!

My technique is the standing long jump, and I nail the landing with the precision of an Olympic athlete. I gather up my gear and turn around in time to watch Hisao take the leap with a mighty scream that surely helps propel his forward momentum. All three of us remain dry and safely cross the first real obstacle in our traverse.

The second challenge comes soon after, as we follow the tape marks up an impossibly steep gully lined with wet, mossy rocks. Haru scales the gully first, somehow managing to top out without sending any debris our way. I follow next and gain my confidence after an initial uneasiness in my steps. Hisao also makes quick work of the mess and we find the trail proper through a short bushwhack and head downstream. Ten meters further down we reach a trail junction indicating the real river crossing which we somehow completely missed.

A broad river bank awaits our footsteps, through an idyllic forest of hardwoods and rhododendron. The stone foundations of huts built for the production of charcoal emerge periodically beneath the undergrowth. The forest provides the perfect environment for the Edo-era craftsmen: plenty of oak trees and a constant supply of water to douse the red hot embers burning away in the earthen kilns. Haru pauses for a quick thought about the long-lost art.

We follow the contours of the land, traversing up and around natural features in the gorge and past countless streams depositing their payload of water into the main river as it shuttles their gifts toward Lake Biwa. At one particular stream crossing we lose sight of the tape marks and head down to the river bed itself for a bit of boulder hopping until the gorge once again becomes too constricted and we climb the precipitous river bank until finding the track again higher above. After an hour of this cat and mouse game of route finding, we reach Hirosawa, which true to its name is a broad fork in the river that is marked as a campsite in the Lonely Planet guide. Haru drops to our right in order to find a place to cross the fork while Hisao and I head straight to meet the whitewater head on. We find a beach area that would definitely make a great place to camp along the edge of the green water, if not for the plethora of leeches in the summer that is.

Haru shouts from the opposite side of the bank. Not only has he found a way to cross but he has also stumbled upon the trail and ushers us across. I can clearly see him on the top of a spur, so I make my way over to an area with an abundance of dry boulders and hop my way across, scaling the steep river bank while grasping onto tree roots to propel me up to Haru’s location. Hisao follows my footsteps in unison and our reunited trio marches along downstream through the heart of the gorge.

Narrow is an understatement in certain sections of this hidden gem of a waterway, and the route spends a fair amount of the time climbing up to traverse along a spur high above the waters themselves. Mossy boulders present themselves at the apex of the spur, tempting us to place our feet on them but we refuse to give in to their silky temptation. Haru speeds along and we can just catch sight of him during our descent towards the gorge. Rumblings in my stomach remind me that not only am I hungry but that we’ve been speeding along with nary a break.

We cross a stream and reach a junction with a handprinted sign pointing towards Tengu falls. I glance at the sign a take note of the Chinese characters for ‘danger’ written alongside in parentheses. I can hear the roar of the cascade as Haru escorts us along a narrow rocky track and through a series of fixed ropes fastened to the rocks. The last of the ropework is completely vertical, dangling over the edge of a cliff so steep that no footholds can be seen. Haru slides down the line and pops out on a massive boulder sitting on the edge of the water and just opposite Tengu’s spout. Descending vertical ropes has never been my forte but I carefully lower myself to safety and wipe the sweat from my brow while taking a seat near Haru. Hisao lets out a gasp before he too descends to our lunch spot. I pull out the sports drink and down it in nearly one gulp while fishing through the rucksack in search of calories.

Haru pulls out a hot thermos to make a quick brew of coffee and proceeds to snack on a vial of seed that looks like it belongs in a feeder. Birdseed and coffee, lunch of champions I suppose. We are sitting in the bowels of the gorge, a section of river untouched for centuries. The waters have carved these cliffs for millennia and have probably hosted a dinosaur or two during their tenure. It is refreshing that such places exist and I can see why the guidebook recommended this place. As I scan through the description, though, I see that they have failed to mention this side trip down to Tengu falls, easily the best part of the day so far.

After lunch we retrace our steps back up the cliff and continue heading downstream. We once again climb high above the waters to traverse along a narrow spur before dropping down to the river’s edge at a junction. This is the other campsite marked in the guidebook: from here you can simply cross the river and continue downstream to Yuzurio (somehow mislabeled as Nakahata in the Lonely Planet) and take a bus to Eigenji Shako but for us we leave the guidebook behind and instead head up Shirataki-dani, the valley of white falls. Even Haru admits that it is his first time on this route, so we start our ascent with an extra spring in our step until falling into that regular rhythm that typically accompanies a slog.

The route is pleasant enough and spends most of the time on a long incline through forests of cedar sprinkled with beech and oak from time to time. We stick mostly to the right bank of the river until ascending up past Shirataki, which resembles more of a whitewater channel than an actual waterfall. After passing by the ruins of a forestry hut (once used by the cedar plantation farmers mind you), the route turns old growth deciduous once again in the uppermost reaches of the gorge. Here the Suzuka mountains once again remind you of their spellbinding beauty.

Signs posted to the trees alongside the crystal-clear waters of the stream warn visitors that fishing without permission is strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, we come across a trio of men with their rods cast out, perhaps hoping to catch the endangered white-spotted char. I flash them the evil eye while they tuck their heads into their jacket hoods as the track climbs above the last of the waters and onto a root-smothered path that safely chauffeurs us back up to the ridge line and the Mie Prefectural border. We turn right, joining throngs of other day trippers on a narrow track lined with white Andromeda flowers. We ignore a junction and climb to a rocky prominence known as Hatomine. Upon reaching the summit, the howling winds blowing in from across the valley send us retreating for cover. Thick cloud has blown in from Ise Bay, threatening to gift us an afternoon shower. Peering down into a mountain pass just below the summit, the white sandstone makes the perfect setting for some mountain graffiti, as someone with a sense of humor has crafted a giant heart out of loose rocks and penned the word ‘Happy’ below. Japanese people love word play, and even though the peak is named after the dove (hato), it resembles the loan word for heart (haato) and has thus captured everyone’s affection.

The three of us drop down to the artwork and turn left at the pass, down the switchbacks of the eastern face of the peak and past a rock dam that was built in the Meiji era by Dutch engineer Johannis de Rijke, who is best known as the architect of the Lake Biwa Canal in Kyoto. It is a shame that concrete has taken center stage over these traditional breakwater dams. Nowadays the dams are built without any regard to the landscape or aesthetics, but in de Rijke’s time they were a work of art and exquisitely constructed, having stood intact for over a century.

Just past this dam is the start of the forest road that takes us back to the car which we follow with uplifted spirits for having explored one of Kansai’s truly gorgeous places.

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This incredible spell of immaculate weather is likely to end soon, so I need to take advantage of it somehow. The problem is, temperatures hover in the mid to upper 30s, and with the humidity higher than most of my students grades, the only option is to head to higher ground. The previous day, a Friday, dawned clear and warm, but peculiar rainmarks dotted the forecast. Deciding to take the ‘wait and see’ approach, the clouds rolled in on cue around 11am, and Osaka was presented a bewildering thunderstorm just before the lunchtime crowds hit the neighboring cafes. Today, however, the same clear skies showed themselves at dawn, and the umbrella marks were thankfully left off the menu. My original plan of hitting Odai-ga-hara fell by the wayside when I missed the 7:15am train. As I flipped through the guidebook, I noticed a peak on my 300 mountains list nestled deep in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. The train departed at 9am, so I grabbed my gear and embarked on another journey into Kii Peninsula’s rugged terrain.

After taking the Nankai Koya line, and being herded into the sardine can otherwise known as the Koyasan Cable Car, I ran in front of the crowds in order to be seated at the front of the bus bound for Okunoin. “You must really know the system”, commented the elderly woman sitting next to me. We were the first to disembark the train and had prime seating for the cable car journey. This also put us as some of the first passengers on the now overflowing bus. I’ve learned over the years to always make an effort to be the first one off the train, especially when hitting crowded trails or transferring to buses for popular destinations. Once disembarked, I trotted off to the intersection where the Koya-Ryujin Skyline began. According to the signposts, I had a 30-km hitch to reach my destination. This time around, I had the hindsight to make a signboard in advance. Would it help my cause?

The most important thing when hitching a ride is patience. Remember that it only takes one ride to get to your destination. Giving up or looking desperate will not help your cause. It was 11 o-clock sharp, the skies were as blue as as Diana Ross’s album of the same name, and I still had plenty of daylight left. The second car that passed by stopped, nearly wiping out a cyclist as it pulled over to the wayside. His name was Takumi, and he was giving his elderly parents a lift from the hospital to his hometown of Ryujin-mura. My driver dropped me off at the michi-no-eki, which houses a small souvenir shop, a restaurant, and a tourist trap of a tower called the Gomadanzan Sky Tower. I immediately went to the second floor restaurant and ordered an overpriced lunch set. I’d need sustenance on this journey, and this was my only option. After lunch, I bypassed a tempting visit to the tower in lieu of hitting the hills.

I’m sure Mt. Gomadanzan must have been one spectacular mountain in ancient times. The proximity to Koyasan made it an ideal location for the practice of Esoteric Buddhism, but that all changed when the road was built to connect Koya with Ryujin onsen, one of the most famous hot springs for beautifying the skin. Nowadays the passage is filled with tour buses navigating the treacherous switchbacks, as well as adventurous bikers who often underestimate the hairpin turns and end up plummeting into a deep abyss. The views on the byway are eye-bulging, as the asphalt thoroughfare literally hugs the ridge for most of the journey. This is what put me off about the mountain. From the parking lot it’s only a 10-minute walk to the summit!

Despite the proximity, I knew that heading to Wakayama’s highest peak should provide me a bit of a respite from the scorching summer heat and I was not let down. The path immediately ducked under the cover of a deciduous forest canopy, the likes of which I had not seen in some time. How this area was spared the wrath of the cedar planters is beyond me. This is what the path looks like a mere 50 meters from the crowded parking lot.

I’ve been told that the peak becomes crammed with onlookers during the autumn season, but on this warm August afternoon I had the entire place to myself. I reached the top of my target destination after a gentle 500 meter stroll. The views opened up a bit to the west, marked by a signboard proclaiming this as one of Wakayama’s 100 best places to watch the sunset. Who comes up with these lists anyway? Bored prefectural employees that spend most of their time driving along these forest roads in hardhats? Once on the summit, a side spur continued on the ridge to Mt. Ryujin, the true high point of Wakayama Prefecture. The path was immaculate, as the views started to open up towards the northeast, across the endless fold of mountains of the Kumano Kodo. Somewhere at the end of my sight line lay Hongu shrine and the pristine shoreline of outermost section of the peninsula.

NHK! Leave it to Japan’s government-run broadcaster to ruin a great mountain. As I rounded the final bend to the top, not one but 2 behemoth towers awaited me. I had not scene such scarring since my conquering of Okinawa’s highest mountain back in February. I tried to stay positive. At least I wasn’t sharing the mountain with half of Kansai.

After retreating back to Gomadanzan, I turned left and headed back down towards the Skyline, crossing it at one point before escaping into the forest once again on a bit of a post-summit nature walk. I used this opportunity to better familiarize myself with tree names. The forests surrounding the peak are apparently home to over 2000 species of tree and plant-life, conveniently marked for ease of recognition. I can know confidently identify some of the tree names that Japanese guidebooks frequently make reference to. In all of my previous mountain excursions, I had been complacent with only being able to safely pick out 3 trees: the mighty sugi (cedar), the stately matsu (pine), and the majestic buna (beech). My imaginary conversation with myself sounded something like this:  “So that’s what a mizunara looks like. Ok, but the tsuga looks like it’s in the pine family. Oh, according to my dictionary it’s a hemlock! And that crazy orange-looking tree? It’s a himeshara!

The easy trail followed alongside a paved forest road that split off from the Skyline. Most of the road was completely hidden except for the last 500 meters, which required walking alongside the deserted and slowly degrading road. At the terminus there was a rest house which served basic refreshments and housed a large picnic area for school groups. From here the path ducks back into the forest, meandering along a 3-km traverse to connect back up to the main road. I rested here for the first time since starting my hike, sitting on the lush grass and enjoying the cool breeze. Long breaks tend to make me sleepy, so I rested only long enough to down a handful of mixed nuts and a half a liter of water. The route passes through a rhododendron park and past a couple of bird-watching platforms before crossed a handful of steep mountain streams. The final 400 meters to the trail’s end was through a cedar forest, my first of the entire day! It was no surprise, as most of the forest roads are built for the sole purpose of logging and plantation planting. At least the deeper, more secluded areas of the peak retained their unspoilt beauty.

With the hike behind me, I stood at the edge of the Skyline, turning my signboard over so it read “Koyasan“. When I made the sign earlier that morning I knew I would have to hitch back to civilization. The biggest problem, though, was that all of the traffic was heading towards Ryujin hot spring, the opposite direction from Osaka!

As I waited for a car to approach, I weighed the options. “Perhaps I should just start walking along the road until someone stops”, I muttered. I knew from my past experience that this almost never works, because you often run into cars who would likely stop but are in the middle of a curve so they can’t safely stop to pick you up. “I’ll give it 3o minutes”, I added, knowing that all it takes is one ride to get me where I needed to go. The first couple of cars that passed by kept on going. They were definitely driven by elderly local who had weary eyes for dirty, blond-haired foreigners. The next car slowed for an instance but continued on their journey. “Perhaps, they’ll turn around after discussing the situation”, I dreamed. Many times this happens, as most Japanese are not able to make snap decisions without discussing them with either their other passengers, or after some deep internal dialog. Time check: 25 minutes. My feet were tired from all of the walking but I stood my ground. The fourth car, a white minivan pulled up and immediately stopped. “Get in”, exclaimed the father from the driver’s seat. They didn’t even have the courtesy to pull over out of the road in case a biker came flying around the corner. I always make a habit of hitching in places that have a broad shoulder or turnout so cars can physically get out of traffic to pick me up. It doesn’t always work.

“We’re not going to Koyasan“, explained the driver, “but we can drop you off somewhere in Nara.” All I really needed was a ride to a train station.  Any train station would do, but the party of 3 insisted on driving me as far as they were going, which turned out to be Saidaiji, three hours to the north. A father and son returning from a fishing outing, accompanied by the son’s best friend, who was gung-ho about testing out his English. The son, a member of Japan’s Self Defense Force, knew a few phrases from joint drills with America’s finest. Some of the phrases that came out of his mouth were not fit for a child’s ears. We spend the next couple of hours chatting about life in Japan, as I taught some useful vocabulary, which mostly involved words related to the scenery at hand.

My adventure was an astounding success. Not only did I knock one more peak off of Japan’s Highest Prefectural Peaks list, but I also got to explore some amazing virgin forest without overheating in the August sun. This rekindled my spirit for more mountain adventures. Would I have a third round with Odai-ga-hara, or are the mountains of northern Kyoto and Shiga calling me?

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8 long years I’ve waited, searching for the perfect opportunity to get revenge on this soggy plateau. My last visit consisted of rubbing elbows with hundreds of other tourists in a torrential downpour before escaping into the serenity of Osugi gorge. On this unseasonably blustery Culture Day in early November, I decided to roll the dice.

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Between bouts of sleep, Kanako and I had wondered about the crowds during the 90-minute train ride to Yamato-Kamiichi station. Would the cold keep away the ill-equipped or would it only encourage the masses to go for a Tuesday drive to the plateau? I’d conspicuously kept my fingers crossed during most of the journey: what if the rain of the previous night happened to fall as frozen flakes on the summit? Nah, not at 1800m so early in the season in Western Japan.

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“Odai?”, asked the bus staff as soon as we alighted at the station. “Please register over there”, said the jovial man in a freshly pressed suit, pointing to the waiting room filled with half a dozen other bus passengers. “Hmmm,”, I pondered, why the sudden need to keep track of visitors on one of the easiest hikes in Japan?

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The bus ride started out non-eventful, following the upper reaches of the Yoshino river through an area of public works devastation. Dams, concrete river embankments, suspension bridges to nowhere. The Nara Prefectural government has done their finest to ensure our taxpayer money is put to full use. The 90-minute journey became a lot more interesting, however, as we reached the turn-off for the long, windy road to summit. A police blockade was set up, turning back all vehicles without chains. Apparently the higher beings had heard my silent pleas and rewarded me with the first snowfall of the year.

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Anyone who’s been to Odai-ga-hara can tell you that the access road carved into the ridge is enough to turn even the strongest stomach: hairpin turns, blind corners, and gnarly drops hundreds of meters into a vast canyon below. Yet, the police roadblock kept only but the most adventurous at bay. Arriving at the rest stop around 10km short of the terminus, the driver let us out while he put on the chains. Ever seen the autumn leaves coated with a dusting of fresh, crystalline powder?

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We all boarded the bus again with a sense of excitement not witnessed for quite some time. Cameras glued to the windows, as every turn brought a view more spectacular than the last. Elderly couples in an unrehearsed chant of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ . Up into the clouds where the bus fell silent. Did we really know what we were getting ourselves into?

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The parking lot was 90% empty as we bolted for the small rest shelter adjacent to the toilets. I lent my rain pants to Kanako who’d come a little unprepared, while I opted for the double fleece approach. It was well below freezing and the humidity in the air didn’t make things much better. Still, we only had a 100 vertical meter climb to the high point, generously spread out over 2km. I prayed my asthma would be kept at bay.

“I have a confession to make,” boasted the bright-eyed Kanako, “this is my first time to see fresh powder!” Of course. I’d nearly forgotten that my lovely wife had spent most of her life in Osaka Prefecture, away from the brutal winters of the land to the north. We’d been on a handful of snow hikes together, but nothing compared to the soft, fluffy snow lying all around us.

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The route began its gentle incline towards the top of Mt. Hinode, as I slowed my pace. My breathing was somewhat normal but I felt weak due to lack of nutrients. I let a kind couple from the bus ahead of me as I confirmed the location of my inhaler, just in case. Reaching a trail junction, we turned left for the final push to the summit. The cloud hung tightly to the ridge line, robbing us of a view, but the mist only seemed to make the plateau that much more magical. Even the wooden staircases took on a much more scenic form.

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Reaching the summit, I gasped at the horror that lie before me. Directly adjacent to the summit marker lie a monstrous 2-story wooden viewing platform. This certainly was not here during my initial visit nearly a decade before, so when, and more importantly, why was this hillside further desecrated? The parking lot and access road are both free of charge, so where could the money have come from? Perhaps Odai-ga-hara got the idea from Hachimantai, which also has an eyesore of a platform directly on the summit. It certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth.

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After a short break on the summit, we retraced out steps back to the junction. Not wanting to risk bringing on an asthma attack, we abandoned the loop hike in favor of a short stroll back to the parking lot. Considering the conditions, lack of cell phone coverage, and scarcity of other hikers, we probably made the wise choice. The visitor’s center was warm and inviting, and I had some research to do for my hiking site anyway.

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“No, the trail through Osugidani will certainly not be re-opened either this year or next year”, explained the kind receptionist. Apparently the swing bridges were washed out in the typhoon of 2004 and the Mie Prefectural government doesn’t seem to have it high on their priority list. “It’s a shame that the gorge is not in Nara,” I dejected, for there’d surely not only be new bridges by now, but perhaps an entire valley encased in concrete.

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A warm noodle lunch was served at a neighboring restaurant, as the clouds began to break up. If only we had extra time to stay overnight, then perhaps we’d be rewarded with a view. Alas it was not to be. On the bus ride back down we dropped out of the clouds again and got the vistas we’d so greatly been hoping for. The bus driver was not kind to us, however, as we had to settle for photos from the windows again. If only we’d had our own means of transport, then we could stop whenever or wherever we wanted. Still, it takes a steady hand and lucky timing to capture photos such as this…..

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or this…..

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or even this, from the window of a moving bus.

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On the train ride back to Osaka, I promised Kanako that I’d bring her back to Odai-ga-hara again in better weather. “Why would I ever want to come back?” she exclaimed. “I want to cherish this memory in my heart forever, and if I come back here I’d only be disappointed.” This is perhaps the most insightful thing I’d heard in a long time, and oh so true. Farewell Odai-ga-hara, for I too, want the images of our splendid adventure to remain unspoilt for the remainder of my life. Even if we revisited hundreds of times, we’d never be able to duplicate what we’d been so fortunate to witness.

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Now that the 100 mountains are behind me, I can turn my attention to lesser-known peaks a little closer to home before the summer climbing season kicks in. I’d heard of Ryouzen from a few Kansai hikers, and had stared at it twice during my 2 ascents of neighboring Mt. Ibuki, so I took advantage of the low pollen counts on a Sunday in late March to investigate.

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As the train rolled into Samegai station, I noticed the white tinge on the horizon. “Looks like winter has returned,” wondering if I would need my crampons that I’d conveniently left at home. I strolled up the paved road towards the trout farm, turning at all of the signposts before entering a cedar forest. I quickly slipped on the protective eye wear and face mask, lest any pollen fall from the trees overhead. You see, I’m severely allergic to cedar pollen and wanted to concentrate on the hike ahead instead of emptying the contents of my sinus cavity.

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The trail ran straight through a dry, rocky riverbed for the first half an hour or so, before meeting up with a true mountain stream. I’d printed a map off the internet, which wasn’t very detailed, but I used my good sense of direction and kanji skills to guide me. I’ve done enough hiking in Japan to realize that most trails will run parallel to mountain streams until finding a gully gentle enough to ascend.

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Up through the tranquil valley I rose, without meeting another single soul. I reached Urushi waterfall, climbing up the the base to take in the scenery. Breathtaking.

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The snow got deeper on the sheltered north ridge, but the warm temperatures soon turned the path into a sloppy, muddy mess. Someone had tied ropes into the hillside, saving me from sliding down the steep valley below. The dale became rockier and steeper, but the higher elevation meant less mud and more ice. I soon stumbled across a frozen deer carcass, who must’ve fallen from the ridge high above me. The power of the elements.

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A little after 11am, I popped out on the ridgeline, where the virgin foliage quickly gave way to bamboo grass. The views opened up, revealing Mt. Ibuki’s edifice rising grandly across the valley. Ondake and Norikura looked on from a safe distance. Although 300m lower than it’s more famous neighbor to the north, Ryouzen has been spared the shocking level of development that has plagued Mt. Ibuki. Everything has been pretty much untouched, sans a small emergency hut tucked away just out of sight. The wide, muddy path suggests that it has become a mecca for Kansai hikers disillusioned with the defacing of Mt. Ibuki. Indeed, once on the ridgeline, I converged with groups of climbers who’d approached from all directions. Dozens upon dozens of spectators, most of whom complained about the frigid winds. I can only imagine how the crowds must grow 10 fold when the alpine flowers are actually in bloom!

I promised myself to return during the harsh winter months, where I’d most likely have the place to myself. After all, that’s the true purpose of a reconnaissance mission in my book – scope out a peak worthy of a visit out of season. See you next January mighty Ryouzen.

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Oscar Wilde once wrote that “no object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.” Could the opposite actually hold true for Mt. Ibuki, one of the ugliest, most overdeveloped peaks in Japan? cjw and I set out to test this hypothesis.

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The rain fell in hard sheets on the short train ride to the trailhead, where we were suddenly faced with the prospect of an abandoned attempt before even taking our first steps. As luck would have it, the train flew through the storm like a feline dowsed with a hose, revealing our target peak caked in a fresh layer of white. “Game on”, we both rejoiced.

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30 minutes into our long slog, we were faced with the harsh realities of a warming planet and a receding snowline. Snowshoes were stashed behind the public toilets, as the flakes fell gently all around us. Alone we marched, followed by a group of 8 elderly hikers a fair distance behind. As we traversed towards the plateau at the top of the abandoned gondola, the first patches of blue sky presented themselves, offering a good omen for the journey ahead. The desolate souvenir shops, boarded up for the long winter season, strangely brought images of Nepal to mind. “Should of brought the prayer flags”, I proudly suggested.

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Switchback after endless switchback, we rose high above the valley below. During a normal winter season, this would be an avalanche death trap, but here we were trekking through barely 30cm of fresh snow, with a respectable amount of day-trippers on their way down from the frozen summit. At the 8th stage, we chatted with a lone Japanese hiker wielding 10-point crampons and an ice axe. He’d spent the last 2 weeks or so knocking off the Hyakumeizan in Western Japan and Kyushu. Having completed the circuit last October, I gave some quick advice about the peaks in Hokkaido, which were left on his list.

On the fog-laden summit a short time later, we searched for our accommodation – a snow drift large (and stable) enough to house a snow cave. Mother nature left us with only two options. The first was to carve our way thorough a thick slab of nasty freeze-thaw crust 1 meter tall by several meters wide. 10 minutes of sweat-inducing digging and the thought of not being finished before nightfall made us go for option #2: sandwiched between a boarded up mountain hut and a snow drift lie a small area (less than one tatami mat in size) that formed a semi-natural cave. Our only task was to carve out an entrance and block off one of the exposed sides and we had our home for the night.

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Once set up in our new dwelling, the task of melting ice began. The sun kept poking its head out intermittently, but never seemed to overcome its shyness until much lower on the horizon. Then suddenly, like the raising of a curtain, the performance began. “Dinner can wait,” we exclaimed, as the gods of Ibuki put on one heck of a light show, continuing well past our bed time. You see, the setting sun was slowly replaced by the twinkling lights of Hikone far, far below. The light trails continued to the southeast, ending in a massive network of circuitry otherwise known as Nagoya city. Overhead, the constellations Orion and the Big Dipper smiled down on us, as Venus kept a bright signal for celestial navigation.

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Unfortunately, we awoke to a thick blanket of cloud and a noticeable change of wind direction – the low pressure system moving up from Kyushu! To the east, however, patches of blue were making themselves known. Off we trekked, in search of a sunrise. Short teases every now and again gave a glimpse of the possibilities. Yet, the wind was continuously blowing the fog from Lake Biwa to the west and never stayed clear for long. However, at precisely 8:15am, the curtain was once again lifted, revealing what had to be the bluest sky that the Kansai region has ever been blessed with. Hakusan belted out a quick ‘Konnichiwa’ in the distance, as the Kita Alps let out a faint ‘Irrashaimase’. Ondake opted to sleep in on this gorgeous Sunday morning, but Yatsu-ga-take and the Chuo Alps were playing a quick game of catch before heading off to church.

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The show finished much too quickly for our liking, but we were more than content. For we had successfully proven our theory about overdeveloped mountains. So I leave you with our newly revised maxim: “no mountain is so ugly that, under certain conditions, it will not look beautiful.” I’ll drink to that Oscar.

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Early April and with spring in full bloom, the feet start to itch. 6 months post-op and time to give the new ticker its first true test. Destination? Hyonosen, the tallest mountain in Hyogo Prefecture and one of the 200 famous mountains of Japan.

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Lunch, check. Map, roger. Crampons? Hmm…just in case. The two-hour train journey went by in a flash, and with the bus connection conveniently timed, the first glimpses of my goal came into view. “Oh boy,” I marveled, “this one’s going to be a doozy”, for the monstrosity that lie ahead showed but the faintest sign of freeing itself from the tight grip of winter. Across the valley, skiers and boarders could be seen carving the last few runs of another evaporating ski season. After a bit of a struggle trying to find the actual trailhead, I arrived at the signpost shortly before noon. A 3-1/2 slog in the dry season, but add another hour or two in the current conditions and you can see my predicament.

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With my crampons firmly attached, I set out into the unknown. A lone set of footprints to follow on the otherwise indistinguishable path, I climbed at a steady pace, paying special care not to let my heart rate rise too quickly. Whomever laid the tracks before me either had a GPS device or knew the trail from memory, for there wasn’t the slightest smidgen of geographical landmark in sight. Thank you, whoever you are!

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The trail flattened out after an hour or so, passing by a decrepit-looking shack that doubled as a mountain shrine. The forest sprang to life here, rising up abruptly from the deep tree wells growing larger with each passing day. Soon the snow will start to break up, making traversal quite treacherous, but for now, conditions were stable. After the brief saddle, I crossed what appeared to be a stream (have to come back in summer to verify that) and climbed steeply up a spur towards the ridgeline. The summit finally came into view, but boy did it look distant. Daylight stay with me!

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I reached the first emergency hut at approximately 2:45pm. A cozy hut nestled snugly on the ridge. The snow depth was considerably larger on the exposed spine of the peak. With each advancing step I sunk down to my knees. “Why didn’t I bring the snowshoes?”, I cursed to myself, obviously not expecting these conditions in April!

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Dropping to a saddle, I mentally prepared myself for the tough slog to the summit. Directly in front of me lie a large rock formation, and the only way past was up and over. As soon as I kicked my first step into the icy rock, a faint rumbling sound came into ear shot. The higher I climbed, the louder it got. Reaching the top of the crag, I found the source of the mysterious noise. Hovering directly overhead, not more than 10 meters above me, was a rescue helicopter! Apparently, one of the locals was concerned with my late start and sent in the troops. I smiled at the crew, giving them a thumbs-up sign to let them know I was ok, and off they went back to base. “Thanks, but no thanks”, I shouted, realizing I was less than 100 meters from the top!

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I rested in front of the hut on the summit for less than 10 minutes, stuffing my face with leftover pasta and other carbo-laced delicacies. 4:30pm and with no time to spare, I literally ran down the steep, steep spur on the other side of the peak. Taking a left at the next emergency hut, I jumped and skated my way down to the ski fields, descending in a record-breaking 15 minutes. The time that you lose on a snow ascent you can easily make up on the downward glissade.

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Back at the bus stop at half 5, I reflected on my herculean effort. “Not bad for cardio-rehab”, I gloated, knowing that things were looking good for the forthcoming attack on Mt. Hiuchi.

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