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Posts Tagged ‘Kansai’

The good thing about these Ōhara 10 peaks is that many lie in close proximity, meaning you can string together multiple mountains that are situated on the same ridge line without having to come back time and time again. Jesse, Junjun and I board an early morning Ōhara-bound bus packed to the rafters with foreign tourists and weekend daytrippers. We stand for the 50-minute journey as the bus works its way up the meandering curves of route 367 to the newly refurbished bus terminal. Pausing briefly to rest the haunches and relieve the bowels, we follow the signposts in the direction of Jakkō-in temple for just a couple of minutes until reaching an overgrown track affixed with a wooden sign for Yakesugi.

The dense undergrowth gives way to – you guessed it – a dense forest of cedar. If I had a tank of gasoline and a match I could really make this mountain live up to its name. A smattering of red pine trees break up the monotony as the ridge line is soon breached. A quick dip to a saddle followed by a stead climb leads up to the summit of 717m Yakesugi. Through a small clearing on the southern face we take in a bird’s eye view down to Ōhara and fuel ourselves with steamed chicken, guacamole, and hummus prepared by the skillful hands of Junjun.

Dropping down the western face of the mountain through the green canopy of early June, the three of us make good time and arrive at the main junction that leads to the Konpira ridge line. The true splendor of the Ōhara mountains shines forth as the sun lathes the spur in muted shadows accompanied by that warm gentle breeze that precedes the start of the rainy season. This is by far one of my favorite times of the year to hike – still pleasant enough without the stifling heat and humidity soon to follow.

The next peak on the ridge is nothing more than a tree-lined hump in an otherwise nondescript location. Despite the relative lack of effort, we do settle in for a leisurely break while talk shifts to psychedelics and altered states of reality. Talk mind you, for such indulgences are not looked on kindly by the stringent drug laws of this land. Mt Suitai does feature in the Tales of Heike, so despite its modest 577m stature, it might appeal to history buffs looking to walk in the paths of fallen samurai.

We push up higher up the ridge, for perhaps my 3rd or 4th ascent of Konpira. A junction sits just below the summit plateau, where paths fan out in a few directions. Without a bit of GPS intuition it would be easy to miss the triangulation point. The main trail to the high point ascends  to a shrine and along a craggy ridge of eroded rock and typhoon-pummeled trees. A rock formation affords pleasant vistas through the hazy summer skies toward Kyoto city, but we push on, dropping to a saddle before the final climb to the tree-covered top, my fifth peak of the Ōhara 10 and halfway to my goal.

Retreating back to the junction, Junjun takes the lead on the broad ridge past the unmarked junction that leads to the top of rock face popular with local climbers. The contours constrict as the path drops abruptly to the mossy precincts of Kotohira shrine before switchbacking down to a lovely stream that leads us out to the main road to Shizuhara. Just before reaching the road we pass an elderly hiker who inquires about the leech conditions on the trail we had just descended. Apparently the blood thirsty invertebrates wreak havoc on summer hikers, so we quietly congratulate ourselves on our timing.

The stretch from Shizuhara to Kurama follows both the Kyoto trail and Tokai Shizen Hodo  and makes for a more pleasant setting than fighting off the tourist crowds of neighboring Ōhara. A row of vending machines provide much-needed liquid refreshment before the long climb up Yakko-zaka. The lack of shade forces up to our feet but not for long, as the towering cryptomeria trees of Shizuhara Shrine beckon us, as does the adjacent restroom facility that satisfies our call for nature.

It is a long steep climb, mostly on a concrete-lathered excuse for a mountain trail and past a monstrous construction zone marked by a fortress of clear-cut hillside: either this is typhoon-damage removal or, more likely, the construction industry’s attempt to tame Mother Nature the Lioness. We push on, reaching the pass under a heap of sweat in the fading daylight. By the time we reach Kurama station we are in need of a shower and some serious refreshment.

With the halfway point in my Ōhara 10 quest, I turn my attention to the eastern ridge of Hieizan and the mighty Mt Daibi.

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Osaka’s Mt Takao

Everyone has heard of Takaosan in Tokyo, but few know about Osaka’s majestic counterpart. Nestled in the southwestern part of the Ikoma mountains, Osaka’s Takaosan may be just a fraction of the height of its Tokyo neighbor, but it boasts an impressive grove of daffodils, providing a refreshing splash of color to the gray days of winter.

It is with these flowers in mind that I team up with my trusty hiking companion Minami, who is preparing for an upcoming winter ascent of Mt Karamatsu in the North Alps. She’s keen to stretch her legs and partake of the floral facade decorating the western face of the mountain. We meet at JR Namba station on a brisk Monday morning for the 45-minute journey to Kashiwara station on the edge of the Ikoma hills.

Our peak rises gently above our peering heads as we navigate the quiet narrow roads of the sleepy town. Shops lay shuttered, yet to awaken from their weekend slumber as shoppers have not begun to make their rounds. The Kashiwara city office is a gaudy display of Showa glory, reinforced concrete walls stained with the extravagance of a forgotten generation of pensioners. We turn left and then right, crossing under the dangling shimenawa of a polished stone torii gate marking the entrance to Nudehike Nudehime shrine, a peculiar name assigned to a sacred precinct with apparent Tendai origins. We reach the shrine grounds and make an offering to the deity before ascending the concrete road to the right of the worship space.

Fortunately we are soon greeted with a proper track tucking into the forest on our left, and soon reach a junction signposted as the entrance to the daffodil grove. A few daffodils lie amongst a swath of lush bamboo grass, enticing us with their presence. We take the left fork, darting into a dark forest of hardwoods on a muddy horizontal traverse through the foothills. Considering the proximity to the city, the cedar groves have been held at bay, the coffers at city hall likely filled with subsidies for residents instead of the forestry workers. This is in line with other observations about urban mountains, because even in Kobe city the Rokkō mountains are spared the cedar blight for the most part.

Minami and I soon reach a large clearing of bamboo grass on our left, with an array of daffodils in full bloom. Access is far from straightfoward, involving an improvised ascent of a stone wall and some careful footfalls between flower stalks. We take a few minutes to capture the scenery with our lenses but soon retreat back to the main trail to continue our upward progress. About a hundred meters further on, we find the mother lode: an absolutely massive daffodil grove, complete with a network of narrow trails so that visitors can get up and close with their petals of choice.

The lack of crowds here is surprising. If this grove were situated on the slopes of Tokyo’s Takao, there would be food stalls and a sizable queue just to enter the garden. Oh, and an entry fee wouldn’t be out of the question. Minami and I explore the vast network of paths completely alone, lost in the interplay of sun and shadow as the clouds whisk through the wintry sky. As I turn the corner on one such idyllic path, I stumble upon a cave entrance marked with an intriguing signpost. Here sits a kofun, or ancient stone tomb, likely dating from the 6th century. Little information is given about the person who was once buried inside, but an engraved map indicates that this is tomb #4 of 11 such graves scattered throughout the Hirano/Ōgata region. An academic survey of the sites is available here in Japanese for those with who are interested.

Rumbles in our tummies remind us that we had better get moving if we want to partake of lunch on the summit. Just above the grove we reach a junction and turn left towards the upper part of the shrine. A lone kannon statue stands gracefully on the top of an unmarked stone carving, a reminder that this peak was once the stomping ground of the esoterics. Adjacent to the altar. a faint path leads straight up a large rock face. I take the lead through the maze of boulders, reaching a clearing at the top of a cliff face flanked with a shinto shrine, the innermost sanctuary of the Nudehike Nudehime shrine we encountered at the trailhead.

We considered having our lunch break here, but the gales pushing in front the north were threatening to send up tumbling off into the abyss, so we push on through another collection of near-vertical scrambles until popping out onto a narrow summit stuffed with a regime of elderly pensioners twenty strong. There is absolutely no room for us to stand among the throng of an oversized tour group, so we wait patiently as they commence their descent. An elderly lady places a few Valentine’s chocolates in my left palm, grateful as I am for her choice of whiskey bonbons. Once the army departs Minami and I are once again left to ourselves, absorbing the warm rays of the sun as we stave off the chill from the strong wind gusts. The chocolate complements the coffee quite nicely as we gaze out over the flatlands of eastern Osaka.

Sitting here on our 277-meter-high perch, I think back to my ascent of Tokyo’s Takao many autumns ago, and still remember the overdeveloped chaos of the concrete-smothered summit. While it may not feature in the Michelin guide, we will gladly take Osaka’s Takaosan any day of the week. Minami and I already make plans for our 2021 winter ascent to once again partake of the flowers and views that can only be found in this forgotten corner of Osaka.

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I cannot count the number of times I have stared at the bulbous hills rising up above the throngs of crowds flowing through the narrow streets of Arashiyama in eastern Kyoto. Could there actually be an Arashiyama situated upon those unassuming peaks? A study of the Yama-to-Kogen map does indeed reveal a dotted line to Mt Arashiyama connecting Hozukyo to Mt Matsuo at the eastern terminus of the Kyoto Trail. William is once again on board for this mission into uncharted waters.

We meet up on platform 31 of Kyoto station’s massive network of rail lines for the 30-minute journey through eastern Kyoto under the leaden skies of an early February morning. Flurries swirl through the air as tourists gaze out of the steamy windows of the carriage in search of plum blossoms. William and I alight among a steady stream of snow settling on the narrow platform of JR Hozukyo station. The temperature hovers around freezing as I slide on an extra pair of gloves. 

Towering directly over the station is Mt Sanjō-ga-mine, an impressively steep edifice looking dauntingly formidable from our current position. The map indicates that safe passage is given via a track starting directly behind the Torokko tracks of Hozukyo. William and I walk north along the narrow forest road, dodging traffic and snow flurries while catching up on recent mountain banter. After crossing a suspension bridge spanning the river, we arrive at the forlorn station, deserted except for a family of tanuki statues keeping watch over the snow-tinged rail lines.

“The track starts here”, I proclaim, slipping under a chain-link fence erected to keep landslide debris from engulfing the station. William continues his search from the safety and sanity of the train tracks. Through the dense undergrowth, I do spot what appear to be footprints, faint as they are in this maze of weeds. The map does indicate a clear trail leading hikers to the ridge, but without any signposts or otherwise obvious signs of welcome, the two of us do what any other mountain men would do in our situation: forge our own path!

After about 50 meters of improvised climbing, we do stumble upon a well-maintained track adorned with a generous helping of tape marks affixed to the trees. Looking left toward the station, we see what looks to be the track terminating at a train tunnel under the tracks! Future climbers are well advised not to go looking for the trailhead within the station compound itself. Simply turn left in front of the station and follow the river to the tunnel, where there is probably a very clear signpost. Or perhaps not. This is Kyoto after all.

The trail wastes no time in lofting us skyward, switchbacking through a gravity-defying spur towards a snow-capped ridge hidden from view. A network of fixed ropes aids in our upward ascent, and we thank ourselves for starting our hike here instead of doing the route in reverse, for such slopes would not be kind to weary knees. William is visually documenting our hike for his youtube channel, so I naturally assist as back-seat cinematographer. I really admire his tenacity, as I have neither the skills nor patience to put together my own videos. One thing viewers may not be aware of is the necessity to set up the camera, film, and then backtrack to pick up the camera, a process that adds not only time but also meters onto our hike.

The cedar choked forests eventually give way to a swath of native deciduous trees covered in fresh rime frost, bringing about a decidedly wintry feel to our outing. The Kansai region has been suffering from an unprecedented lack of snowfall, so seeing the fresh powder smothering the landscape lifts our spirits. At the top of the spur we meet a dirt forest road and ramshackle hut in need of some long-overdue affection. We consider pausing here but the lofty perch of Sanjō rises directly above, almost within spitting distance. The break is best saved for the summit.

It’s funny how such decisions will come back to bite you, for after reaching an unmarked junction just below the final summit push, we leave the main track, following a very unclear patchwork of tape-marked trees that we lose track of more times than not. The dense undergrowth makes matters worse, for every tight squeeze between tree branches shakes loose the snow sitting precariously above. Such bombardments make their way into the space between our craniums and outer layers, sending cold wet snow sinking down our backs. By the time we reach the summit we both look like a pair of battered yeti, but we rejoice upon reaching the top of the 482-meter peak. We pause briefly for a snack after I inadvertently entangle myself among the mesh of a deer-proof fence.

Gingerly we retreat back to the junction and follow a narrow traverse around Sanjō onto an undulating ridge in unexpected sunshine. Despite being dotted on the map, the route is easy to follow and quite enjoyable as we occasionally catch a glimpse of the valley below through gaps in the trees. After crisscrossing several unmarked junctions, we find a peculiar signpost affixed to a tree. Resembling the spectacles of a three-eyed monster, the illustration is indeed a map indicating that each of the three remaining mountains have been adorned with a loop trail.

Turning right to enter the loop anti-clockwise, William and I climb a narrow spur with vistas back to Sanjō directly behing us. At the top of this ascent the path cuts left and reaches the top of Mt Karasu, the crow’s peak. Luckily the blackbirds are nowhere in sight as I dig into my stash of snacks to stave off the hunger. We drop down the far side of the ridge and straight into another snow squall, our third of the day if you count the flurries at the start of our hike. Despite the low battery indicator on his camera, William sets up a brilliant shot to capture our stroll through the snowy scenery. Perhaps this filmmaking hobby is something I should really have a crack at.

The snowstorm intensifies and accompanies us up the final few footfalls to the summit of Arashiyama, the adequately penned ‘Storm Mountain’. I settle on a log bench and finish off my sandwich while the two of us wait for a break in the weather. We both know that the views from here off the eastern face must be pretty spectacular, and judging by the timing of the past two storms, we know that it’s only a matter of minutes until showtime.

Right on queue, the clouds lift, revealing a truly breathtaking sight:

Rejoicing at our immaculate timing, we speed off the ridge in pursuit of our final peak. At a shoulder below the summit we encounter a lone female hiker, looking unsure as to whether to continue towards the summit of Arashiyama. After bidding farewell, we commence the short climb to Mt Matsuo, reaching the junction for the Kyoto trail just a short distance from the highpoint, which is mysteriously devoid of a summit signpost. Instead, a string of Tibetan prayer flags have been strung between a pair of trees, bringing an international flare to the pine-heavy forest.

A short distance from the summit lies a viewpoint, where we can gaze directly down upon the monkey park, a place that William has yet to visit. I do my best to sell him on the merits of frolicking with the monkeys, especially since a bit further down the slopes we find the secret entrance to the park, an access point that bypasses the fee-collection booth. A sign in English indicates that this is not the entrance to the park – if the owner is really intent on keeping freeloaders out then they should erect a barbed-wire fence.

We resist the temptation for a date with macaques and continue through a section of typhoon-ravaged forest before reaching a bamboo forest. If not for the sheet metal affixed to the sides of the gully you could be mistaken for having entered the famed Arashiyama bamboo forest. At least the crowds are nowhere to be found in this hidden grove.

As we pass through the final section of track the skies once again open up, depositing snow flurries on our gear as we navigate the back streets to the station. The both of us collapse on the lush seats of the Hankyu train and reflect upon our epic journey into the secluded hinterlands of western Kyoto.

Willam’s video:

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The rural hamlet of Ōhara in the northeastern corner of Kyoto city has been a well-known getaway destination for centuries, and on weekend mornings the 45-minute bus journey from Demachiyanagi station is usually filled to the brim with the tourist crowds. However, it’s more than just the temple hoppers that invade the town, as the village is completely surrounded by mountains, the most prominent of which is the sacred Tendai peak of Hieizan, whose lofty perch is usually visible from the main road on clear weather mornings. It will take about 6 hours to reach the summit from here, but that doesn’t stop the kaihogyo practitioners from their nightly runs along the ridge line towering directly above the bus stop.

Intrigued, I search for more information about this array of lesser-know peaks in Hieizan’s shadow and come across a list of 10 prominent peaks, known in Japanese as the 大原の里10名山. It turns out that two of the mountains (Minago and Minetoko) feature on the list of Kansai/Kinki Hyakumeizan, meaning that I only need to climb 8 additional peaks for this new goal.  So sets the stage for my goal to knock off the Ōhara 10.

Here are the Ohara 10:

Mt Minago (皆子山) – 972m

Mt Minetoko (峰床山) – 970m

Mt Naccho (ナッチョ aka 天ヶ森) – 813m

Mt Mizui (水井山) – 791m

Mt Ama (天ヶ岳) – 788m

Mt Yakesugi (焼杉山) – 718m

Mt Daibi (大尾山) – 681m

Mt Suitai (翠黛山) – 577m

Mt Konpira (金毘羅山) – 573m

Mt Hyōtankuzure (瓢箪崩山) – 532m

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mt. Kiku – The Messenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Shaken up – part 2

8:00am

As my heart rate returns to an under-par golf score I take a few unsteady steps to the convenience store and step inside. Merchandise is strewn about the floors, punctured cans of toppled coffee forming a small lake in the far aisle in which a few pre-packaged loaves of bread stay afloat. I step over the mess, grab a 2-liter bottle of water, and head to the register. A shell-shocked employee rings me up, her upper lip quivering as an unsteady voice announces my total. I hand over the coins and step aside, sheepishly slipping away instead of offering to assist in the cleanup.

8:05am

I arrive at school and immediately plug in the laptop to get a read of the situation. National broadcaster NHK has set up a live stream on their site, so I clicke the feed to find the epicenter relatively close to my current position – hence the violent jolt and disheveled state of things. I abandon my fruitless pursuit to ring my wife and opt for a text message, which seems to go through. A prompt reply ensures that everything is fine on her end. A few other teachers have somehow made it to school as we ponder about class cancellations. The office won’t open for another half an hour, so there is nothing to do but watch the news and wait. The first reports of fatalities come in as helicopters send down images of damage and destruction. A busted water mane in Tatatsuki city sends up a geyser of water 10 meters in height. Rescuers frantically try to lift a concrete block wall that has crushed a 9-year-old girl on her way to school. Reminders that any one of us could go at any time without warning.

(To be continued)

 

 

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Shaken up – part 1

7:56am

I push the button next to the door of the Kizu-bound JR train – those self-service buttons on rural trains that only allow those in the know to exit the train. The doors open and I glide onto the platform, swimming through throngs of high school students funneling through the ticket gates. My ticket is swallowed by the wicket machinery, and allows passage via a narrow flight of stairs to the north-south corridor of route 22. Descending down to street level, I turn left along the narrow shoulder to my usual stance at the broad intersection. From here I can hop through the pedestrian crossing and directly into the convenience store, avoiding the rush of students following pursuit. It’s a perfect plan, and part of my usual Monday morning routine to kick off yet another busy week.

7:58am

I stand at the front of the pack, like a marathon runner taking position at the starting gates. Suddenly, I am pushed from behind and instinctively lurch forward into the middle of the road. The asphalt thrusts upward, throwing me off my stance. I scurry over across the street, against the light, along with around 50 other students who are escaping from the terrifying sound of screeching metal and the unmistakable ping of electric wires. Screams of panic fill the air – I turn around and glance up at the pedestrian overpass swaying with panic-striken kids holding onto the railing for dear life. Directly behind me, the wall of students patiently waiting for the red light is replaced by an undulating wall of scaffolding, teetering on the edge of collapse. Is this what pushed me from behind?

7:59am

Hands on my knees, I pant for air and wait for my redlining heart beat to subside. I watch as the power lines continue to sway, always among the last things to stop moving during a seismic event. Reality starts to set in – this was a quake, and quite a strong one at that.

(To be continued)

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Hyonosen Chapter 2 – Decade

My first trip to Hyonosen was intended as a post-op test of my cardiac recovery and ended up being a fierce battle with rotting snow. I had certainly taken on more than I could handle and was lucky to walk away without incident. I had always wanted to revisit the mountain in the green season but had been preoccupied with other mountains. However, the timing just seemed right for a second look, especially since it has been exactly 10 years since I had my leaky aortic valve replaced. And what better place to test out the ticker than on my first post-op mountain.

The weather reports had certainly looked iffy all week, but late Friday evening Paul M. and I cemented our plans. I hopped on the 6:30am train to Kobe and we were on the road by 8am after having stopped by a local bakery for some trail delicacies and a hot cup of coffee as a kickstarter. The clouds hung heavy over the mountains of northern Hyogo but the rain held off on the 2-hour drive to the start of the hike. Due to the thin blanket of high-altitude altostratus cloud, visibility was surprisingly good as the cooler temperatures kept the lower clouds away. Our original plan was to park at Shinsui-koen but the forest road was blockaded, forcing us into an extra 1km walk on foot. We loaded up the gear, our eyes fixated on the autumn colors plastered to the ridgeline like the canvas of an Impressionist master.

It’s amazing how differently the scenery can look when not buried under a meter of snow. Instead of climbing a near-vertical bluff on my left, the summer trail dropped to a stream and followed alongside to a 65-meter high waterfall, which must have surely been swollen with snowmelt during my first trip. The path entered a forest and switchbacked a staggering 38 times if you can trust the person who named this section of path ‘the hill of 38 turns’. Instead of counting, Paul and I kept our brows raised to both the towering summit ridge and the verdant canopy of beech sheltering us from the brisk winds of autumn.

The trail soon left the spur and dropped to a small section of planted cedar to the west. A corrugated-metal shack housed a trio of ageing jizō statues that were probably expecting a better abode. The shelter would make for a miserable place to wait out a rain storm, but with the weather gods on our side, we slid past the entrance and through the stagnant strands of cedar until dropping to a mountain stream. This was the trickiest section of my spring traverse, as the snow drifts created a crevice fit for one of Denali’s slopes. I managed to ford this fearsome sliver of sawa with a brave leap over the abyss, but this time around the route has been desecrated by a set of steel ladders. The erosion here is quite impressive, and no doubt the metal links have helped limit the damage to the increasing numbers of visitors to Hyogo’s highest summit.

After crossing the stream, the trail once again climbed up towards the ridge above our craned necks. Forest of beech reigned supreme in these untouched swaths of virgin forest as the colors were just beginning their shift to golden hues. We had just breached the 1000 meter mark but continued to push on all the way to the ridge before settling down for a break. It was an exact repeat of my first foray except back in 2007 I was incredibly pushed for time. This time Paul M. and I were pushing on just to reach the peak of the autumn colors sitting snugly on the ridge.

And on the ridge we did reach, settling down onto a bench in front of the emergency hut. The winds from the flatlands of Tottori Prefecture pushed up and over the northern face of the massif, sending us both rummaging through our kit in search of additional layers. I broke out the lightly salted crisps and a package of cashews and we rehydrated for the final stroll along the ridge. A decade before, progress ground to a crawl as every advancing step with met with the unmistakable thunk of postholing up to my thighs. Now, the only obstacle was tripping over the exposed tree roots of the massive beech trees holding down fort.

Beech leaves turn a golden yellow in the autumn, but against the diffuse grey skies they took on an amber tint that harkened the commencement of winter. Paul M. and I pushed on under the glistening fortress of wind-battered trees, fenced in on the Hyogo side of the ridge by head-high tufts of bamboo grass that concealed the splendid vistas across the narrow valley to the ski slopes of Hachibuse. Every now and again,  the bald ski runs poked out beneath gaps in the undergrowth, flanked on both sides by foreshortened ridges of pale blue floating high above an ethereal carpet of thin autumn cloud. The trail rose to the summit of a short rise before sinking to a col at the face of Koshiki Slab, a bulbous mass of igneous rock sticking out on the ridge like a giant vat for which it is named. In the cool April air, I followed the snow drifts halfway up the monster before resorting to the chains affixed to the near-vertical face. Here in the dry season a faint trail led up to a narrow ledge overlooking a patchwork of foliage spread out below.

A lunge here would see me at the top of the crag, but streams of water clung stubbornly to the face, and a slip here would involve a bone-breaking tumble back to the saddle. Having just finished reading the latest Accident Report from the American Alpine Journal, I halted my vertical ascent in favor of the easy summer detour to the east of the rocks. I dropped back to the col and traversed around, following an array of wooden steps as I sped to catch up with Paul M., who was not interested in playing any Spiderman games.

We reached the summit as a tour group was just setting off on their descent. Hot noodles were soon boiled as we scanned the horizon for familiar names: Mt. Rokko and Mt. Daisen were both clearly visible in the crisp autumn air as an array of other Kinki and Kansai 100 peaks sought out our attention. The head-high bamboo grass made identification a bit tricky, but a quick ascent of the vertical ladder affixed to the emergency hut did wonders for the views but not much for the vertigo.

Refreshed and refueled, the cool southerly winds pushing off the coast forced us down the scenic lee slopes of the eastern ridge, where a standing army of ancient cedars looked down on our awkward footfalls through the muddy minefield of loose stones that spit us out at the Kobe University mountain hut. The porch made for the perfect rest stop for a fresh brew of steaming coffee and calorie-rich brownies.

The trail left the protection of the bamboo grass and skirted a narrow ridge of hardwoods carpeted in leaf litter. Sunshine poked through gaps in the cloud cover as we dropped below the foliage line and into greener fields again. Dense pockets of planted cedar dropped sharply to our left, terminating at the slopes of the ski resort hidden behind the wall of evergreen needles. We reached another mountain hut further along the ridge and paused briefly before marching through the walls of cedar to the forest road. Here it was a simple walk along the asphalt back to the car. Sections of the route afforded views back up to the ridge line, which were now smothered in late afternoon cloud. The rain front would certainly be here before nightfall, so better to head to the sheltered comforts of the hot springs.

A decade on, the heart still ticks on as strong as ever. Aside from a few skipped beats and the extremely rare palpitation or two, you would be hard pressed to ever know that I’ve been under the knife. Of course, one would only need to put their ear near my chest to hear the tick-tock rhythms of the titanium ticker at work. Here’s two another decade of successful ascents and heart-throbbing tales.

 

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