Posts Tagged ‘Kansai Hyakumeizan’

Maybe it was the report from NHK about the Ootō mountains that concerned me. With an annual rainfall average of 4000 mm, the mountain range tucked away in central Wakayama Prefecture is only slightly drier than Odaigahara, one of Kansai’s wettest places. The frequent rains and high humidity provide the perfect habitat for the yamahiru, or Japanese mountain leech. Trip reports from other bloggers recommended that hikers best avoid the Ootō mountains during the warm summer months. Perhaps Ayako and I were tempting fate with our plan for an early June ascent, but with only 4 mountains left on the list, it was now or never.


Ayako picked me up at Gobo station just before 10am as the last of the morning mists were starting to burn off for the day. The asphalt still lay heavy from the overnight rains as she pointed the car east, away from the coastal sea spray and deep into the heart of Wakayama Prefecture. Most guidebooks recommend an ascent from the east through a narrow gorge that follows the headwaters of the Koza river, but this access route required an additional two hours of driving, time that we simply could not afford to lose. My map showed an alternative approach up the northern face of the massif, a straight shot along a winding forest road just off of route 371. It was this same junction that we passed back in March on our maiden ascent of Hansamine. It took nearly two hours of navigating an incredibly twisted and thin slice of concrete to reach an unmarked gate that led to the start of the hike.


We stepped out into the refreshingly brisk air, sorting through kit between bites of rice balls and energy bars. We’d need those calories for the 700-meter vertical elevation gain spread out over just a couple of kilometers. The clouds still hung tightly to the ridge somewhere high above us, but a rise in the pressure on my barometer indicated a favorable window for the afternoon climb. The first part of the approach was along an abandoned forest road following a swift-moving mountain stream. The path terminated at a pair of cryptomeria trees estimated to be over half a century in age. Between the gap in the trees a small shrine has been erected, along with a signpost indicating that the towering cedar has been selected as one of the ‘100 Forest Giants of Japan‘.


The path started just opposite this old growth relic. I took the lead, tramping through the soft cedar needles still damp from the incessant rains of late. With my trekking pole gripped tightly in my left hand, I reached the first switchback, no more than 15 meters away from the forest road. In that short space of time, barely 30 seconds by my watch, a mountain leech had jumared up my trekking pole and latched onto my left index finger. It was tiny, less than the length of a toothpick, but the grip it had on my cuticle required the force of both the thumb and index finger of my right hand to remove the blood-sucking creature. Fortunately it had only latched on to the nail and had not started extracting blood.


Ayako jumped back in surprise as I flicked the leech back to the forest floor. It was early in the season, and the segmented worms has just awoken from their winter slumber, eager for a taste of fresh blood. “If we run into any more then we’ll turn around”, I proclaimed, setting her mind at ease ever so slightly. Constant vigilance is required to spot the mountain leeches. They can not only climb up your trekking poles and trousers but they can also abseil from the foliage above, landing on your neck for a vampire-esque attack. Such sustained scanning is exhausting, but I was determined not to let out unwanted guests get the upper hand.


Tightening the dials on my boa laces, I tucked my hiking pants snug against my boots, creating a makeshift gaiter that would hopefully keep the leeches from getting inside my shoes. The system seemed to work, for a few hundred meters higher up the valley, I caught another leech in mid-ascent of my thigh and easily plucked it off my beige hiking pants. I decided not to disclose my discovery to Ayako, hoping that we’d be out of the leech zone once we breached the ridge. It was a steady climb of about an hour before we did reach the ridge. Just before topping out a leech had dropped from a branch above and landed on my arm, I made quick work of it before it could gain purchase.


We took our first break when the contours flattened out, near an unnamed peak that the map simply calls ‘849’ in reference to its altitude. The crux of the climb was over, or so we thought. Even though we only had 300 meters of vertical elevation, the first thing the trail did was to drop 100 vertical meters to a saddle, where we greeted the northern face of the mountain head on. It was an improvised scramble up a root-infested spur for the better part of an hour. The only saving grace in the slog were the vistas opening up directly in back – the low-lying cloud had finally risen.


In spite of the pitch, the route was clearly marked with red tape affixed to the trees, and it was simply a matter of using the exposed roots as a natural staircase to inch our way towards the summit plateau. At the top of the rise we reached an unmarked junction, where our alternative path merged with the main path on the true ridge of the Ootō range. After dropping to a saddle, we faced one final, steep climb through a network of net and wire fences erected to keep the deer at bay.


Such fencework seems overkill, but the western and southern faces of the summit plateau have been destroyed by the deer, who have killed the trees by stripping them of bark. In addition, they’ve eaten all the seedlings, which prevents any new trees from growing in these grassy areas. Unheeded, these open areas allow more sunlight, wind, and heat to penetrate the summit plateau, which is causing stress on the beech, fir, and hemlock trees that still keep a watchful eye on the forest floor. Such post-war cedar plantations failed to penetrate the upper reaches of the massif, thanks in no small part to the Taisho-era government, who back in 1924 designated the Ootō mountains as a protected forest.


The destruction of the trees on the summit did have one positive effect, however, as visitors can now get a bird’s eye view of the entire Ootō range. Peering over the fence, I could follow the contours of the ridge all the way over to Mt. Hōshi, just one of three remaining mountains on the Kansai 100 list. If I had more time I could simply work my way over there, but with the leech season in full swing, it seemed better to wait.


On the return descent back to the car, the afternoon heat had dried the trail, sending the leeches back into the burrows on the bottom of the forest floor, so the blood-suckers were nowhere in sight. Peak #97 of the 100 was now in the books, and with just a trio of peaks standing in my way, I now had a clear shot of finishing before the end of the year.



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The shoulder season in Japan is always a gamble of sorts, and April is no exception. Paul M., Mayumi, and I all boarded the JR train from Osaka in t-shirts and thin nylon pants, but once arriving at Omi-imazu station we were all reaching for extra layers to protect us from the biting winds.


From the station, a bus shuttled us along route 303 and the Saba kaido to Kaminaka station in Fukui prefecture. This was the closest station to our target peak of Sanjūsangen (the mountain of 33 gates), but it was hardly within walking distance. Instead, we hired a taxi to chauffeur us the remainder of the way. For some reason there were no taxis in sight at the station, so we called the number in my guidebook and one came to our rescue a short time later.


The twenty-minute journey through the broad valley lined with carp streamers was enchanting, and soon we were dropped off in Kurami village, our wallets a bit lighter than when we had set out that morning. The path was fortunately well-marked and easy to follow, and after 90 minutes of steady climbing through an impressive beech forest, we reached the ridge of the elongated peak.


Just below the crest of the ridge, we found a small Buddhist statue dedicated to the god of wind, whose prayers were surely being answered on this unusually gusty morning. We turned left on the spine, through an area of broad grasslands and tall susuki grass. The wind was pushing south from the Sea of Japan directly in front of us, making forward progress a struggle. On our leeward side, a broad mountain range still dotted with blotches of snow caught our attention. According to my map, it was the summit of Mt. Sanjo (三重嶽), one of the Kinki Hyakumeizan and a part of the 80-km long Takashima trail. The mountain looked absolutely salacious in the mid-day light. I vowed to return some day for a more in-depth look.


After a half-hour of accelerated climbing, we reached the high point and paused briefly for a bite to eat. Ill-equipped as we were, we put on every layer that we had in a futile attempt to stay warm. The thermometer on my backpack read 5 degrees, a stark contrast to the 20 degree temperatures wafting through Osaka city. We’d been caught off guard once again, forcing ourselves to dance around between bites from our bento lunches.


Once we could tolerate the cold no longer, we dropped back down off the ridge and into the sheltered confines of the hardwood forest. The leaves had yet to sprout as we were constantly reminded that winter had yet to release these exposed highlands from its tight grasp.


Back at the trailhead, we once again called the taxi for the short ride back to the station and awaiting bus. Sanjūsangen was an impressive mountain and would have been much more enjoyable had we been better prepared to face the shoulder season with a bit more padding.


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Once upon a time there stood an isolated shrine buried deep in the forest.


Ancient stone steps carved a path through said forest to the doorstep of the sanctuary.


A weary hiker dripping with sweat arrived one late June morning and sat transposed, admiring the scenery and contemplating the meaning of life. Nearby, a secluded grotto offered an even better place for reflection.

Higher up in the hills, the hydrangea serrata offered fresh patches of brilliant blue among a crowd of verdant green.


Still higher the traveler pushed, out of the cultivated cedar farms and onto a ridge untouched by the claws of development.


The path curved a spiral through the bush and onto a narrow summit plateau punctuated by a large shrine. The trespasser paused, offering a rice ball to the kami sama churning inside his empty stomach before documenting the proof on a 12.1 megapixel rectangular digitized contraption.


Further along the undisturbed ridge, beech trees presented themselves among the thick village of hardwoods.


Claw marks provided a reminder that the solo traveler was never truly alone in these pristine highlands.


A few turns down a seldom used path spit our hero onto a forest road bereft of traffic, which eventually funneled into a sleepy hamlet of traditional homes.


Children splashed around in the trickling flow of the creek bed as the road grew in size. Manicured flowerbeds gave the eyes a visual break from the mountain of concrete engulfing the constricted valley.


The narrow lane expanded into a dual-laned monstrosity, cars zipping by on the centimeter wide shoulder. Refuge was sought and delivered a few kilometers along the death trap, and eventually our star arrived at the doorstep of the JR Maizuru line, just in time to find the next available train a mere 90 minutes away.


Reinforcements were called in, arriving disguised as a Nihon Kotsu taxi cab. Speeding through the back roads to Ayabe station, the explorer found yet another obstacle delivered as a one-hour layover until the next Kyoto bound train.


Dejected yet undetermined, a visit to the local Family Mart revealed a hot spring bath located adjacent to the train tracks. Relief was gratefully delivered, as the squeaky-clean mountaineer finally boarded that train back to Osaka beaming with confidence that only one unscaled peak remained in Kyoto Prefecture. Unfortunately that peak would also require a monumental access headache on the same train line that gave our victor so much trouble this time around.


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“What am I doing here?” The question echoed through my mind as I kick-stepped up the 50 degree slope. I can’t really say I’d lost the trail since I never found it in the first place. I knew there was really only way to go, though: up.

Nine-hundred eighty, nine hundred ninety, one thousand.  The altimeter put my fears at rest. I’d surely reach the summit plateau but had no idea which direction to turn once I did. As I swam through the grassy meadows I turned full force into the wind, past the snow cornices on the deserted ridge, topping out on mountain #50 of my Kansai Hyakumeizan quest. No trace of anyone, and surely the first one up this season. I abandoned all hope of traversing the ridge for fear of getting hopelessly lost. Better to head back the way I came, even if it weren’t on a trail.

After scaring a pheasant out of its wintering hole, I chased two white-tailed deer through the rugged forest back into town. Luckily, a hot spring awaited my return like a docile pet awaiting the return of its master. As I sat in the bath, I reflected over the last couple of years of peak chasing the hills of Kansai, patted myself on the back, and threw in the towel.

I’ve now climbed just about every peak within a 100km radius of Osaka city. The remaining 50 are so far away that I’d spend more time getting there than I would on the mountains themselves. Is it really worth it? I’m pretty content with reaching the halfway point, and without my own transport I wouldn’t reach the magical 100 until I became too frail to move. I’ve got some books to write, sleep to catch up on, and friends to spend time with. I will, however, continue climbing interesting peaks throughout the Kansai area, but this time on my terms.


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