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Posts Tagged ‘Kansai’

For the third week running, on the first of April no less, Ted and I find ourselves parked under the plum tree at the Family Mart in Ōhara, stocking up on provisions to not only sustain us on today’s hike, but also for the long drive up to the Oisugi settlement in the upper reaches of Kutsuki village. The previous week, we had driven the car along the forest road to the headwaters of the Adogawa, but this time we park the car across from Omiya shrine at a junction of two crossroads. Our plan is simple: take the left fork and retrace our steps to Nabekubo-tōge and continue our northern hike along the Takashima to Onyū-tōge and follow the old Saba-kaidō back to our car.

We make good time on the drive and arrive at the shrine shortly after 8am, greeted by a plum tree in full bloom. The bare ridge soars above the collection of depilated dwellings in the hamlet, some of which are in desperate need of re-thatching. Upkeep on these traditional thatched farmhouses is extremely costly, so it’s no surprise that most homeowners of limited means simply cover the thatch with a more durable corrugated metal. An informative signboard sits in front of a recently constructed restroom facility, providing yet another relief of the bowels before commencing on the long slog back to Takashima’s hidden ridge.

The hamlet remains quiet and still in the light of the early morning, with nary a soul in sight — though to the trained eye you can just about make out the eyes peering from behind drawn curtains gazing suspiciously at the two masked foreigners marching through their front yard. We reach the trailhead in about 15 minutes, drop the facemasks, and follow the brook upstream toward where we had last left the Takashima. Despite it being a week between our last visit, the trail is hard to pick up in places, but thanks to our digital aid we soon find the correct tributary and reach Nabekubo-tōge (25) about an hour after leaving the car. We turn right, initially accompanied by a dense cedar plantation on our right before the completely natural forest takes over at the top of a steep rise.

Through a gap in the trees, the adjacent folds of mountain ridges appear to be sprinkled with dandruff flakes, but upon closer inspection Ted and I let out a yelp of joy to discover that the hills are ablaze in the brilliant white petals of the mighty kobushi or Magnolia kobus. These stalwart deciduous trees feature a six-fingered glove of bright white flowers covering their upper branches. They are a sight to behold and really do give the cherry blossoms a run for their money for those lucky enough to come across them.

These signs of spring bring a welcome vitality to our walk, and at the crest of our first unmarked peak a green waymark shows a horizontal distance of just 4.8km to Onyū-tōge, our planned departure point. “We could be back at the car by noon at this rate”, exclaims Ted. The Takashima thinks otherwise.

Never judge a route by the horizontal distance to be covered — a vertical elevation profile is a much better way to access a walk. Without such vital information our hike turns into a roller coaster of a ridge walk, as it rises up and over a series of smaller peaks before dropping to a long saddle and turning into what Amber Heard’s lawyer can only describe as a ‘mega’ slog. I turn around and give Ted that all-too-familiar look indicating the start of a big climb. It won’t be the first time that expression is painted on my face on this fateful day.

Our conversation peters out to a series of grunts and profanities, mostly from my motormouth as I dig deep within my depleted energy reserves. It is best just to lower your head and work through the discomfort of the straining calf muscles as the feet struggle to continue their upward fight against gravity. The one upside to our muscular torment is that the scenery is second-to-none. Never in my wildest dream would I think that such an untouched and sprawling beech forest snuggles the Shiga-Fukui prefectural border along the central divide. Such spectacular beauty gives us the impetus to continue our forward progress. Giving up would be out of the question.

Even though our pace resembles that of an injured turtle, we somehow reach the summit of peak 803 in less time than indicated on the map. This gain in time, however, is quickly lost as we settle in for a well-deserved mid-morning snack and leisurely break. Once again, Lara comes to the rescue as Ted and I continue to expose each other to new trail nibbles. These all-natural fruit bars satiate our appetite and the caffeinated sports Yōkan helps us ward off the drowsiness caused by the 3am alarm clock. Restored vigor leads to a timely photo opp in the gap between two beech trees joined at the hips.

Our route diverges northwest briefly and drops to a tiny pond marked on the map as Okusuge, though there is nothing in the way of a signpost to indicate an official name for the nearly-dried marsh. Perhaps this area is a bit wetter in the summer season. We skirt around this depression and follow the tape marks as we change directions to the east and head upwards toward yet another unnamed peak. About two-thirds of the way up this slope we pass by an enormous horse-chestnut tree that appears to be home to a bear’s feeding platform. We don’t loiter around long to enough to check for inhabitants.

At the crest of the rise we once again teeter on the sea-saw ridge, taking in the views between gaps in the trees while the talk turns to vaccinations. Japan is about 6 months behind the rest of the world rolling out the inevitable inoculation as we place bets on which will come first, our completion of the Takashima, or our turn at the needle.

Those dark olive leaves of the diapensia plants that have been accompanying us on our journey finally show us their reproductive parts, as a series of majestic pink petals of the iwakagami flower finally begin to open. We can sense that summer is just around the corner as the rising heat of the late morning coaxes us to roll up our sleeves and make quick work of the ridge. Soon enough we spot a sign of encouragement: 700 meters to Onyū-tōge. I quicken my pace in anticipation of our arrival, only to be thwarted by the abrupt change in grade. It feels as if Ted and I are climbing up the transition of the quarter pipe of the Megaramp. Our only solace is that the vistas have really opened up behind us, revealing the Hira mountains in all of their beauty.

We enter a dry area of crumbly dirt scree sandwiched between groves of giant beech and cedar. Sweat flows freely from our temples as I once again gaze back at Ted in disbelief. If not for the proximity of the mountain pass I would surely like nothing more than to slouch down for a long break. At long last, we reach the top of yet another unnamed peak and find a sign informing us that our break point is just 100 meters to our right. We coast down to the paved road awaiting us at Onyū-tōge (24), the first asphalt crossing of the Takashima (or final crossing if you’re doing this hike in reverse). This would be an ideal place for your support team to greet you with cold drinks and a well-prepared meal but on this particular Wednesday, there is nary a soul in sight.

Instead of breaking here and heading off the trail, we discover that another pass is just a further 700 meters along the ridge, so after walking on asphalt for a few minutes we duck back into tree cover and reach Negorizaka-tōge at 11:35am, well ahead of schedule. This is the junction of the Saba-kaidō or old mackerel road, a route that fishmongers once used to deliver fresh fish to landlocked Kyoto city. We sit next to an old jizō statue and pore over the maps while chowing down on rice balls and other carb-laced delicacies. I remember this pass during my first climb of Hyakuri back in 2014 but never thought I would be sitting here 7 years later contemplating a second round with the mighty beast, but here we are.

Since it is still before noon, I propose to Ted that we should not only ascend Hyakuri this afternoon, but we should also continue along the ridge another 2-1/2km to Kijiyama-tōge, which will put us in good shape for our next stage of the trail. The only challenge with this is that we will have to retrace our steps back to Negorizaka-tōge so we can descend back to the car. Future Takashima trekkers should take note that section hiking this trail with only one automobile certainly is not the most efficient way to do the hike.

I guide Ted along this next section of path, pointing out landmarks that I remember from 7 years ago and giving plenty of warning to the steepness of the climb. With such pleasant weather we can see Hyakuri towering directly above us, which is both a blessing and a curse — for we can see what needs to be done before we can breach the fortress walls. Fixed ropes are a welcome addition as we push on through the lunch hour. We simply lower our heads as the switchbacks continue to steepen and dig deep within our inner strength as we inch toward the panoramic views of majestic summit. We surprise ourselves by popping out on top of Mt Hyakuri-ga-take (22) shortly before 12:30pm.

An elderly gentleman is settled in for a lunch break as we usher a quick greeting. He has climbed from the Fukui side of the mountain and is just as surprised to see us as we are to see him. Despite being three days into our trek, he is the first hiker we have come across, a testament to the remoteness of the Takashima trail and the difficulty of access. Instead of breaking here, Ted and I continue due north and immediately start losing altitude: the beech gives way to cedar and cypress before flattening out on an elongated ridge. We push past peak 711, vowing to have our own convenience store-inspired break on the return. The map indicates a 70 minute journey to Kijiyama-tōge (21) but we reach it in just 45 minutes and pause just long enough to snap a photo before turning around for our re-ascent of Hyakuri.

Peak 711 can not come soon enough as Ted and I settle among the rock formations on our pre-determined break point. I bust out the chocolate while Ted polishes off the afternoon tea bottle and we once again stare at the maps, wondering if we will be able to complete our hike before dark. The one advantage we have is that I know the route we need to take as it is the same descent trail I took back in 2014. After our invigorating snack, we force ourselves to our feet for the excruciating return to the summit. Three hundred vertical meters later, with burning calfs and tingly thighs, Ted and I give each other a high-five back on the top of Hyakuri and really take time to cherish the views. Time check: 2:04pm. We do in 90 minutes what most hikers would usually accomplish in well over 2 hours.

The drop off of Hyakuri is agonizing, but the fixed ropes aid in cushioning our descent. The most demoralizing part of the route is that, once you pass a junction for the Hyakuri Shindō route, you have to climb up Mt Hakuishi before dropping back to Negorizaka-tōge, but three-quarters of the way up, we discover a faint path to our right that avoids the summit and meets up with the track shortly before the pass. We would like to thank the kind animal that forged that path for us, even if it was made by the shapeshifting kitsune.

With no time to waste we immediately turn left at Negorizaka-tōge and bade farewell to the Takashima in favor of the Saba-kaidō. The route parallels a paved road and meets it briefly once, but for the most part we stay in the forest and navigate through a cluster of truly stunning Magnolia kobus trees in full bloom. The late afternoon light illuminates the petals like a spotlight on a stage actor and with no more ascents between us and the car the smiles once again return to our exhausted faces. At the bottom of the valley Ted admits that in his walk of the Saba-kaidō he somehow completely missed this section. Instead, he seems to have spent most of his time bushwhacking up a parallel valley if his memory serves him correctly. The last 20 minutes back to the car is a breeze, and with the fading light of the day we are already strategizing about stage 4 of our hike. For one, we will no longer be required to access the trail from this valley. We can now turn our attention to Aso village at the base of Kijiyama. Can we knock off the next section before Golden Week?

Part 4

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It’s been exactly a week since our start on the Takashima, and here we are once again up in the bowels of northern Kutsuki. We need to ascend back to the ridge line to Iwatani-tōge, but instead of the steep spur from the previous week, Ted and I spy a forest road that will take us most of the way up towards Jizo-tōge, a further 3.8km along the ridge. Our plan? Walk up to Jizo and do a quick up-and-back along the ridge to Iwatani before continuing our northern trek to Makino.

Fortunately for us, the forest road is in decent condition, with just a few small potholes to maneuver around. We park next to the headwaters of the Adogawa river, marked by a small signpost and home to a toilet block in working order. With a water source nearby, it would be make a good place to camp for thru hikers as long as the mountain leeches are behaving themselves.

A deep cobalt sky accompanies us on the meandering walk along the dirt road towards the ridge. The bare canopy of the forest seeks the warmth of the sun as the shaded slopes cling tightly to their dusted coating of fresh snow. At Jizō-tōge (27) a gate across the road serves as the only indicator that we are standing at one of the entrances to the Ashiu forest, a protected woodlands under the jurisdiction of Kyoto University. It was in these woods that we inadvertently wandered during Day 1 of our section hike and Jizō pass serves as our entrance point for the start of today’s walk.

Our first mission is to backtrack to the east for 3.8km to Iwatani-tōge where we finished our first day. Leaving the road on our left, we climb a steep embankment that leads to a broad slope smothered with giant beech trees. To our right, one such tree plays host to an impressive collection of parasitic mistletoe clinging tightly to the silvery branches. Those looking for that festive holiday decoration just need to bring their own shotgun so they can shoot it out of the sky.

Remnants of last night’s snowfall provides a soft flooring under our shuffling feet as we enter a thick grove of rhododendron to reach an unnamed summit hosting an ancient Mongolian oak of an immense size. A depilated signpost points to the east, so we turn left here and hug the broad ridge as it guides us through an idyllic paradise of untracked hardwoods. So few are the visitors to this ridge that nary a trace remains, so we frequently consult with our digital navigation devices in hopes for a safe passage through the untamed wilderness.

The track undulates, sometimes dropping to a short saddle before gaining a few meters over a series of false summits. We have our work cut out for us on the return journey, but for now we can do nothing other than to set our sights on reaching the pass. After skirting past a partial clearing with bewitching vistas to the north, we pass over an 800m peak that the map refers to as Kabeyoshi (カベヨシ), which serves as our halfway point distance wise. An ancient Ashiu cedar tree stands guard as if to warn us that we still have quite a ways to go.

Stalwart strands of giant beech serve as loyal sentries to guide us through the wild labyrinth of virgin forest that sits on the edge of the protected lands of Ashiu. As we navigate through this forgotten terra firma, it dawns on us that we are experiencing a step back in time, to the true Japan of our ancestors, a place that many seek but seldom find. Centuries ago, most of Japan’s forests bore a striking resemblance to our current scenery, before modern industrialization led to the bureaucratic infatuation with trying to tame nature with monocultural seedling practices and the plastering of the hillsides in cement. We can do little more than walk in awe, humbled by the immense wilderness spread out before us.

Alas, one final drop brings us to Iwatani-tōge, where we perch ourselves on the exact same tree trunk as the previous week and dig into our provisions. It has taken us most of the morning to walk just 3.8km but we know the return journey would feel shorter as long as we keep moving. Thanks to the help of Ted’s traveling companion Lara we retrace our steps with renewed vigor.

Once back at Jizō-tōge, we continue north by first walking a short distance on the road back toward the car before veering left up an incredibly steep track marked with a series of tape marks affixed to the trees. The hillside looks like it would give way any minute, forcing us to work quickly up the switchbacks until gaining the ridge a short distance above our heads, where the terrain becomes a bit more forgiving. With stunning vistas to our left down to the Ashiu forests and plenty of virgin terrain spread out before us, our spirits are high as we keep our eyes on the lookout for signs of wildlife, ursine or otherwise.

The trekking poles help propel us along the ebbs and flows of the broad ridge, through yet more incredibly healthy swaths of pristine beech forest. At one broad saddle we notice a series of wildlife cameras installed to likely keep tabs on the bear population. We do a quick shuffle as we pass, knowing that some researcher will likely get a kick out of our improvised boogie brought on by the good forest vibes, spectacular weather, and sleep deprivation.

We push higher, following the contours as they lead past a track to the east that would take us directly down to the car if needed, but in these conditions it would be foolish to end our hike now. Instead, our route ushers us to an expansive depression hosting an elongated pond that is nearly dry with the lack of recent rainfall. We skirt the edge of this basin before an abrupt ascent to our left leads to the summit of Mikuni-tōge (26), where we settle in for a late lunch. My watch reads just before 2pm and we’ve made good progress considering the rugged ground we had covered. The kanji characters cause problems for many hikers, as both Sangoku and Mikuni are two different readings of the same kanji (三国).

A signboard on the summit indicates that the ridge leading west of here is off limits to those without special permission to enter, as it is within the boundaries of Ashiu forest; though I have heard stories of other hikers using this ridge as a way of linking up Hachigamine further west. It’s an enticing route, and I’m sure the researchers would be perfectly fine with you sticking to the ridge as long as you aren’t poaching wild flora or fauna.

Ted and I study the maps and spy a side track further along our route that will lead us back to the car. This should set up a more manageable Day 3 of our journey. With that in mind, we drop back down to the pond, bidding farewell to Kyoto Prefecture and continue to the northeast on a long descent to Nabekubo-tōge (25). A third of the way down the slope, a clearing on our left affords us with our first view of the twin-peaked Mt Aoba floating off the horizon to the northwest. It’s hard to believe that we are so close to the Sea of Japan, but then again, we are walking on the divide, so I suppose it does make sense.

At Nabekubo, we take leave of the Takashima for today and head down a rugged valley to the southeast. It’s a short 40-minute descent back to the paved forest road, where we turn right for the walk back to the car. With the Kyoto section of the trail now behind us, we spend the return drive back to the city in full-on planning mode, deciding that we should be able to reach Mt Hyakkuri in the next installment of our section hike.

Part 3

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Mid-March. We can put off this endeavor no longer. The drive northward takes an hour, with an obligatory stopover at the Family Mart in Ōhara for nourishment and lavatory relief. Ted parks the car under a weeping plum tree in the convenience store parking lot and we make good use of the facilities before continuing up route 367 past the Buna-ga-take trailhead and further west on route 781 into the bowels of Kutsuki village. We park on the shoulder of the road, hop over a barrier, and stroll up a gravel forest road while studying the maps on our digital navigation devices. I signal to Ted to turn left on an incredibly steep forest road, which he reluctantly agreesthough his map indicates that following the stream is the most direct approach. We ascend to nearly the top of the spur until I zoom out on my map and realize, to my utter disbelief, that we are actually on the entirely wrong route. In our enthusiasm to hit the trail we had parked the car too early and were following a rather obscure and seldomly used track to Migo-goe (ミゴ越) on the far side of Kyo-ga-take (経ヶ岳). After some consultation, and a reflection upon our arduous track record, we both agree that a wise retreat back to the car is our best bet.

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Once back at the vehicle, we indeed find the proper trailhead further along the paved road and park the car next to a farmer’s field near Kuwarabashi bridge. As we walk toward the bridge, a signpost indicates that today’s route sits along the so-called Fairy Trail, a trail-running race that will likely turn you into a fairy should you choose to brave the leeches and summer rains to participate. With the trail-running boom come more and more of these long-distance races that seem to be set up as a way to cash in on the trend. Joining these races will usually set you back at least one Fukuzawa note. If I were into trail running I would just save some money and run the race courses off season for free but I guess the idea of joining a race is to share your misery with fellow-minded sadists. Just beyond the bridge we find a large signpost for the Takashima trail and follow the first few meters of the track up into a damp forest of moss and cedar.

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As we work out war up the switchbacks towards the ridge line, the conversation soon turns to self-publishing and the challenges of working with editors and the publishing industry. Since both of us are seasoned authors, with my guidebook and his walking anthology, the enthralling conversation gets our mind off the long climb, taking us up and out of the cedar plantations and onto a wild spur punctuated with the contorted limbs of the Ashiu-sugi trees dotted along the rarely trodden route.

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Shrubs of rhododendron and andromeda add a green accent to the hazel tones of the forest floor as the spur gently guides us towards the towering ridge above. To our left, the slopes crescendo abruptly down a ravine choked with years of rock and tree fall, while to our right the contours fall away into Tamba valley and the sounds of a hidden stream flowing through the untouched valley. As the sun licks the trail all around us, we peel off the layers in an effort to speed the evaporation of sweat from our overheated bodies.

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The route is liberally plastered with yellow tape reading Takashima Trail, affixed to the tree branches at such regular intervals that would give the Tanabata Festival in Sendai a run for its money. Don’t get me wrong way marks are an integral part of any long-distance trail, but perhaps stringing them every five meters is a bit overkill.  Just below the true ridge, our track converges with the upper reaches of Tamba valley, whose trough is dotted with patches of lingering snow. Fortunately, an unusually warm winter means that we are spared the agony of potholing through the usual thigh-deep drifts.

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We reach the junction at Tanbagoe (31), the first of the 31 official Takashima trail posts lining the route. Ted and I pause here and try to imagine what life must have been like in the begone days as travelers used this route to enter Tanba province from neighboring domain of Wakasa. A tea house was erected here in centuries past to provide rest and most likely served as a checkpoint during the more turbulent times in Japan’s feudal history. A famous song, penned by the renowned Enka lyricist Ryūtarō Kinoshita, uses the Tanbagoe as the setting for a lover’s lament:

The Takashima trail heads northwest towards the first peak of Sangoku-dake, but Ted and I instead head south along the main ridge on the Shiga-Kyoto Prefectural border. The path ascends abruptly through a thicket of sprawling rhododendron to an unnamed summit, where route finding becomes a bit tricky. After a bit of a search through the overgrown brush, a careful study of the GPS coaxes us further southeast to the correct route which soon spits us out on a dirt forest road. Even the plantation overlords have made their presence known in these hidden upper depths of Kyoto. Fortunately the route soon leaves this blight and sends us up an impossibly steep slope to the summit of Kyō-ga-dake (経ヶ岳), where we pause for refreshments. A recently erected signpost proclaims that this is post #32 of the Takashima Trail. So much for the Takashima Trail terminating at Kuwahara perhaps this is a new extension?

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Instead of continuing past Kyō-ga-dake and into the unknown, we retreat back to Tambagoe junction and return to official Takashima Trail territory, where a dense network of hardwood and conifers envelop the broad ridge of wild golden grasses and withered weeds. To say these hidden heights of Kyoto are untracked would be a disservice: we are completely alone, following the contours of the land as if we are the first ones to ever set foot in this magical paradise. A clearing between lofty trees would make for the perfect filming location if not for the difficult access and lack of amenities.

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Armies of great buna, or beech trees, stand guard all around us, whose bare canopies stretch out in open arms towards the cobalt sky. It is these virgin buna groves that accompany us, as passive escorts, on our 80km march to Takashima. Ted and I gaze skyward as these hardwood centenarians demand our attention and respect. Forward progress is slowed as we aim to capture with our memories what cannot be captured through film.

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We follow the undulating ebbs and flows of the ridge, through swaths of iwakagami plants, an endemic species of the diapensia family that can be usually be found in abundance in the Suzuka mountains and the highlands of Gifu Prefecture. The pink flowers usually open in late spring, but for now the raisin-colored leaves wait patiently for the spring thaw and the promise of a continued perennial existence.

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A junction is soon reached, signposted for the summit of Sangoku, on a side track just off the main Takashima trail to the southwest. We turn here, edging along the top of a slope of verdant fescue grass poking through gaps in the receding snowpack. It has been an unusually warm winter, and the meter-deep snowfields are nowhere to be found, giving Ted and I a sense of relief considering our previous close call.

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Shortly after the lunchtime chimes, we arrive at the bear-scarred signpost on the summit of Mt Sangoku (三国岳)(29) and take a well-deserved break in the soothing sunshine. Many hikers mistake the reading of the kanji for Mikuni but the name is apt as it sits on the border of the old provinces of Tamba, Yamashiro, and Ōmi. Now it doubles as the border between Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures and a quick look at our map indicates that our outstretched feet are actually in the northernmost terminus of Sakyō-ku in Kyoto city though we are literally hours away from what would traditionally encompass the border of the city. Over the last century, many smaller villages have been absorbed by the larger metropolitan areas, and even the summit of Mt Norikura in the Japan Alps is under the jurisdiction of Takayama city, though mostly in name only.

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We backtrack to the main trail and turn left, following the folds of the ridge until they become enveloped in a blanket of snow. A track to the northeast loops back to the car, so we search around for a signpost or bit of tape for the Takashima, and finally spot one as the route takes a hard left and follows an adjacent spur smothered in twisty Ashiu-sugi. A signpost dangling from its axis informs us that Iwatani-tōge, our intended target, is apparently located in hell.

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Pushing forward on the spur, we come across some green netting sitting by the side of the route, apparently ready to be spread over some endangered flora. The area looks neatly manicured, as if someone has been doing a bit of upkeep. Ted and I pause to consult with the GPS as we come to the realization that we have inadvertently stumbled into Ashiu primeval forest, a protected area under the jurisdiction of Kyoto University. Special permission is required to enter the area, so rather than risk an international incident, we retreat back to the dilapidated signpost, double check the map, and make a hard right here on a narrow spur that runs perpendicular to our current position. The spur is hidden by a thick grove of rhododendron and once we push through the first few meters the route becomes clear—we must lose altitude.

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And drop we do, along a precarious root-infested track with steep drops on our right. We pick our way through the contorted mess of imposing beech, cryptomeria and oak as it leads us, at last, to Iwatani-tōge (28). We pause for chocolate and study the maps. We’ve got 3.8km to go until the next pass, where a long forest road will lead us back to the car. The alternative is to leave the Takashima and drop to Hōtani and a more reasonable walk back that would save a couple of hours of walking. The choice is obvious as we bade farewell to the Takashima.

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A jumbled mess of thick rhododendron groves is our reward for choosing this route. Ted and I both turn to each other about a third of the way down and agree that coming back up this route would not be fun, for it involves a fair amount of route-finding and more time glued to our GPS than to the sights of the actual trail. The sound of moving water gradually comes within earshot as we snake past a gargantuan horse chestnut clinging tightly to the steep slopes. Improvised switchbacks through a carpet of thick cedar needles lead us to the shores of an idyllic mountain stream glistening in the late afternoon sun. Who knew such pristine tracks of land existed so close to civilization?

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We turn downstream and eventually meet up with the remnants of an old forest road that takes us back to route 781 and a twenty-minute stroll back to the car. After such an enthralling hike in breathtaking scenery, Ted turns to me with an enticing offer: “Shall we come back next week?”

Part 2 

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The Takashima trail is a long-distance hiking trail in northern Kansai that serves as the watershed divide between the Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean. The 80km trail starts in Takashima city, running along the Shiga/Fukui border for most of the way until Mikuni-tōge (三国峠), where it then follows the Shiga/Kyoto border for the final 7.2 kilometers to Sangoku-dake (三国岳) further south in Takashima city in the former village of Kuwabara in the Kutsuki district. The majority of hikers start at Kunizakai ski resort and work their way southwest to Kutsuki, a route that generally takes 5 days to complete. Water sources are few and far between, making logistics a nightmare. With this in mind, Ted and I conjure up a plan to section hike the entire trail in reverse, starting in Kutsuki and working our way northeast to Kunizakai.

Can we make it before the start of the winter snows? Stay tuned.

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Alastair and I navigate the fog-smothered switchbacks of the Odaigahara Driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, a stillness in the rent-a-car as my thoughts drift, along with my drowsiness, to the impending climb up to Kansai’s highest mountain. My last trip here back in 2004 was under clear autumn skies and precisely 14 years later we find ourselves blessed with similar conditions as Alastair pulls the vehicle into one of the last remaining spaces at the western entrance to Gyojagaeri tunnel. Despite the 6am arrival time, it appears that most of the day trippers have opted for an even earlier start as we shoulder our packs in the frosty breeze.

The path ascends gently past a concrete dam, following a gurgling brook upstream to a wooden footbridge spanning the frigid waters. Crossing over, the gradient immediately steepens as the route follows a root-infested spur under an ochre canopy just beginning to catch the first few rays of the rising sun. We make good work of the ridge, spurred on by the promise of a clear day and brilliant foliage. Our rucksacks are stuffed with just enough nourishment and fluids to see us through the 1000 meters of elevation gain to the summit, and the first gusts of wind from above bring a distinctively late-autumn vibe to the air.

Alastair leads a steady pace to the ridge junction, where we merge with the main track of the Okugake-michi, the ancient pilgrimage route connecting Hongu in the south with Yoshino in the north. I am back in familiar ground but the 14 year lapse between visits does little to jog my memory, for the leaves have already left the comfort of their canopies to rest of the forest floor for the remainder of the year. Temperatures must be below average this year if the mountains are already bracing for the winter snows.

A gentle incline through a mess of toppled trees leads us to the summit of Benten-no-mori, named after the Japanese goddess of music. As if on cue, the unmistakable sound of a horagai conch shell pierces the silence as we gaze our heads upwards to the formidable wall of Mt Misen rising directly in front of us. Though we cannot see the gyōja aesthetic, we certainly feel his presence as he announces his arrival at a prayer site. A veil of swift-moving cloud holds the ridge in its grasp, threatening to rob us of a view as we descend to the saddle and hut foundation remnants at Shōbō-no-shuku. A life-size statue of Shugendo founder En No Gyōja is perched on a rock formation, lathered with wooden votive sticks below the geta sandals attached to his feet. Most hikers rest here, preparing themselves for the steep 400-vertical-meter climb to the summit of Misen, so as I motion to Alastair for a break I notice to my sheer surprise that he has already taken off at breakneck speed toward the summit.

Alas, the spellbinding power of the Hyakumeizan. So many people get caught up in the peak hunting lifestyle that they rarely pause to take in the scenery. Here I am, a decade removed from my own climbing of the 100 venerable mountains, and I find the pursuit both inspiring and partly disgusting. Over 90% of the hikers are here with the same purpose: to climb one man’s subjective mountain list that was created over 50 years ago. Now don’t get me wrong – the Ōmine mountains are an incredibly beautiful and haunting place, and Fukada’s inclusion of the range is well-warranted. However, I feel that these mountains are much better appreciated slowly, like a well-crafted French course at a Michelin-starred restaurant. In fact, I come to the realization that this is my very first, and could very well be my last, day trip in these mountains, and the other 4 Chapters of this saga were done as overnight pursuits.

Rather than chasing after the peak hunter, I keep him within eyesight, content with letting him navigate the switchbacks in front while chatting with a solo male hiker who is also bagging this peak. I explain that I have already finished the Hyakumeizan and am nearly helping my friend achieve the same self-serving goal. Luckily I am not the only one to feel the fatigue and Alastair’s pace slows to a crawl in direct proportion to the rise in the gradient. We reach the first of the hundreds of wooden steps built into the hillside as I put aside my hunger, lethargy, and fatigue and simply lower my head and count steps. I let my footfalls slow in accordance with my breathing and enter that hiking trance that has sustained me through so many hikes in Japan’s deceptively tricky mountains.

At the top of the summit ridge we turn right, ignoring a rock outcropping on our left that is now covered in fog and several steps ahead we can make out the roofline of Misen hut. A few dozen hikers loiter about the hut, most of them standing and waiting for the drifting cloud to part. Finally, Alastair agrees to a short break as I collapse onto a bench and stuff as much caffeine into my body as will allow. I explain that we’ll have a steep drop to a saddle, followed by an even steeper climb to the top of Hakkyō. After the caffeine kicks in, I lead my hiking companion up to Misen shrine, which offers a birds-eye view across the saddle to the summit piercing the sky like an A-frame building.

The path to the summit starts next to the hut, marked by a stone pillar reading Hakken (八剣山), which confuses more than a few hikers looking for the path to Hakkyō. The former name pays homage to a series of eight craggy spires along the Okugake-michi, with Hakkyō being the highest and most prominent of those peaks. The heavily-eroded track leads us to a narrow saddle with steep drops on our right, followed by an abrupt ascent through a series of gates erected to keep deer from eating the endangered Ōyamarenge (Siebold’s magnolia) shrubs. Patches of melting snow line the shaded face of the peak, a reminder winter does indeed commence in early November in this highland range. We regain the summit ridge just below the high point, with dizzying crags to the east offering a quick end to those whose footing is less than secure. A quick rock scramble is all that separates us from the top, so I take a deep breath and make that final push.

Two dozen peak hunters litter the summit, all jostling their way to the summit signpost for a proof photo. It amazes me how many people need to show proof to others that they have summited. Too many people nowadays are climbing the Hyakumeizan in order to increase their social media presence, which seems like the entirely wrong way to go about it. Peak hunting is an entirely selfish and self-serving purpose, and I have to admit back in my younger days, climbing these mountains took precedence over more important people in my life. Alastair and I retreat to a quieter rock outcropping and wait for a break in the clouds and crowds.

Ten minutes later, we have the entire summit to ourselves, reveling in the sunshine and relatively splendid views between breaks in the fog. Perhaps there is a reason to Alastair’s madness after all – push on at a breakneck pace so you can really relish the summit experience. Between bites of refreshments we snap photos and talk meizanHakkyō is Alastair’s 74th mountain, so I quiz him on the remaining peaks and offer a few tips. Those who attempt the 100 peaks usually find themselves inadvertently saving the toughest mountains for last. Indulged as we are in the deep mountain talk, we hardly notice a solo hiker emerge onto the summit through the rising cloud. “Haru”, I ask, unsure if we have indeed summited before her. “Yes”, she replies with her beaming Tohoku smile. Alastair and I congratulate her on reaching peak #83 in her question to climb the 100. “Shall we descend together?”, I inquire, hoping to add a little flavor to our descent back to the car. “Lead the way”, she quips.

Haru, Alastair and I spend the next two hours retracing our steps off the steep slopes of Misen and back to the parking lot at Gyojagaeri tunnel. It is in these relaxed post-summit walks that you can truly appreciate the beauty of the mountains that you give second thoughts to on the approach. Usually in climbs we are too busy inching our way up the slopes with our heads down, gasping for breath and summoning up those extra energy reserves from deep within. As we navigate the undulating folds of the broad ridge, I gaze to the southeast and notice the midday light reflecting off the golden waters of the Pacific in Mie Prefecture, while to my left the skyscrapers of Osaka city peek out from behind the slopes of Yamato-Katsuragi in northern Nara Prefecture. Only in these dizzying heights of the Kii Peninsula can you truly take in the scale of the place. Perhaps Hakkyō is worthy of a more thorough overnight inspection, and I know who to turn to for such an endeavor: a non-peak hunter.

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The pandemic has forced me to look inward, to forgo travel plans and stick to places closer to home. With Japan’s 3rd State of Emergency about to begin, I focus on unfinished hiking ambitions and once again turn my attention to Osaka’s premier ‘long’ trail. My last outing here saw me cross over the halfway point of the 45km route so I once again leave home before the rush hour onslaught and hop aboard a bus bound for the Chihaya Ropeway at the base of Mt Kongō. The ropeway has recently fallen into ruin and with no budget to repair the rusting structure, the area takes on a neglected, forlorn aura. I march up the road past the turnoff to the old ropeway entrance and pause in front of a teahouse teetering on the brink of collapse. I place the viewfinder to my eye, and snap the shutter to capture an image but silence is all that I receive. I take off my camera and turn it over upside down to find the battery slot as vacant as the ramshackle building at my feet. In my haste to pack in the morning I had grabbed the camera but had left the battery sitting in its charger. With a look of dejection I slip the rucksack off my shoulders and stuff my camera inside, resigned to the fate of yet another burdensome paperweight adding unnecessary weight to the start of a long day.

During my last venture in these mountains, William and I descended down this very forest road and I succinctly remember it being a steep and joyless walk after a long day in the mountains. On fresh legs, however, the steep gradient is manageable as I settle into a brisk pace without the distraction of photography to occupy my time. Any images would simply need to be taken with the subpar smartphone camera. The map suggests allocating 50 minutes to reach the junction of the Diamond Trail at Kuruno-tōge, the place where we last said goodbye to the long-distance route, but I surprise myself by arriving just 20 minutes after alighting the bus. It’s amazing how quickly you can cover ground when you’re on a mission.

From the pass, it’s a series of wooden steps barricaded into the hillside with the grace and dexterity of a seasoned logger: you would think the keepers of the cedar forests would want a gentler approach path but these no nonsense tracks defy both gravity and gradient and seem to have been built as a way to punish hikers for their intrusion into their sacred monocultural hell. I make good work of the stairs and shortly before the clearing on the summit of Naka-Katsuragi I spy a thin spur trail carved through waist-high bamboo which I surmise will take me to the triangulation point. The path weaves hither and tither but on the far side of the plateau I pop out of the maze and into a patch of deciduous forest alive in late spring greenery and reach the true summit of 937m Naka-katsuragi. Instead of pausing, I retrace my steps back to the Diamond Trail and skirt the northern edge of the peak to a head high signpost sitting just off the main track. A clearing here invites me in as I sit down to shed a layer and finish the remnants of my apple pie.

The trail sits firmly on the border of Osaka and Nara Prefectures, the dense cedar forests of the Osaka side contrasting greatly with the hardwood splendor of the southern aspect of the ridge. Through gaps in the immense meadow of bamboo grass I have clear views straight across Gojō city to the mountains of Koyasan and further left, as I crane my neck, the majestic form of Hakkyō, the tallest mountain in the Kansai region, towers above them all. In the clear April air the mountain looks as if you could simply reach out and grasp it with your outstretched hand. I curse myself for having forgotten the battery as cloudless vistas of the Ōmine mountains are a rarity indeed. As I pause to admire the scenery laid out before me, the sound of heavy breathing severs the stillness – an elderly hiker approaches from the west, out of breath from the steep climb on the route that I will soon be taking. I utter a quick salutation before slipping down into the depths of the cedar and out of sight.

Sunlight filters through the long rows of planted cedar and creates tiger-stripe shadows on the broad path at my feet. The heavily trodden route resembles more of a road than a proper hiking path due to the throngs of hikers that make their way up towards Kongō from this longer approach. The bamboo grass sways gently in the breeze pushing in from the east as I follow the contours up and over Mt Takatani sitting just three meters lower than Naka-katsuragi. The dense forest blocks the views but fails to stunt all the growth as a patch of violet wildflowers bloom from beneath the fallen cedar needles.

I decide to take each landmark in as it comes, and after a few undulating bumps in the ridge the track starts to lose altitude abruptly until bottoming out at Chihaya-tōge. This mountain pass is considered to be the shortest route connecting Gojō city in Nara to Minami Kawachi in Osaka, and this route is thought to have been the main route that the pro shogunate troops took to squash the sonnō jōi loyalists in the Tenchūgumi Incident at the end of the Edo era. Nowadays hikers can simply walk up the forest road from Chihaya Akasaka village to this pass and it is on this dirt road that the Diamond Trail now follows briefly before ducking back up to the ridge along a series of ubiquitous log steps.

Step by step I gradually gain altitude until reaching a junction with two possible options. A flat path directly in front of me skirts below the edge of the ridge on what is known as a makimichi but instead of the easy way out I spot a steep trail to my left that sticks to the true ridge and seems to draw me in by its sheer steepness. I have the feeling that the summit of a peak lies at the top of this prominence and my instincts prove correct as I arrive on the broad summit of Mt Jinpuku, a sacred place for practitioners of Katsuragi Shugendō as it is the location of one of the 28 sacred sutra purportedly buried here by En no Gyōja, the founder of Shugendō. I rest here for a snack and to take in the tranquility of the place, thanking myself for having put in the extra effort to make it up to the 792m summit.

Feeling refreshed, I continue along the ridge a short distance before meeting back up with the Diamond Trail a little further south at a junction indicating that Kimitōge is still 6.8km away. Distance is one thing that I would rather not be reminded of when out on long hikes, so I try to purge that reminder from my short-term memory by simply focusing on each footfall, literally taking it one step at a time. Just ten minutes down the track I reach a broad clearing glistening with Yae-sakura flowers in full bloom. These late-blooming cherry blossoms do not receive as much limelight as their Somei-yoshino cousins but I find their pink double-petal design to be quite pleasing on the eye. The clearing affords views of the Ōmine mountains, a perfect place for Shugendō practitioners to blow their conch shells towards the Yoshino motherland. The pass is known as Gyoja-sugi for a very good reason: two monstrous cryptomeria trees stand side by side, with a small sanctuary built in the gap between the two trees. This ancient esoteric practice space just happens to sit directly on the border of Nara, Osaka, and Wakayama Prefectures, and as I take my first footsteps west I bid farewell to Nara and replace it with Wakayama as my trusty left-hand companion.

Thick groves of cedar once again take center stage as I fall into a hypnotic rhythm and barely take notice of the junction at Sugio-tōge. I am slowly closing the distance gap between myself and Kimi-tōge so I keep to my brisk pace as the shadows of the cedars keep me cool in the late morning heat. Eventually the cedar gives way to the new lime-green foliage of a large oak grove as I bask in the sunshine and up onto the summit of Mt Tanbo. The true triangulation point lies on a side path to the north so true to form I once again leave the Diamond Trail behind for the short detour before returning to continue in my westerly march.

A forest road runs tantalizingly close to the ridge on the Osaka side, a popular side route over to Juji-tōge and Amami station, but such escape routes do not appeal to me at the moment – I am in for the long run. Another junction is soon reached at Nishi-no-gyoja, a flat section on the contours that used to be the location of a temple for Shugendō rituals. A pair of wooden benches call to me and I answer: it feels good to sit and stretch the legs while fueling up for the long descent. I am still at over 700 meters of altitude but know that I need to drop to Kimi-tōge at an elevation of 400 meters, so I hold off on lunch at a way to reward myself once I reach the pass.

The path stays flat for the first few minutes until passing by a pair of junctions on my right, but then on cue the first of those godforsaken log steps appears. If they were built like regular stairs they would be quite pleasant to descend, but each step is placed at arbitrary intervals – sometimes they are built too close together while other times it almost takes a leap to reach the next plank. These inconsistencies prevent anyone from establishing a rhythm, so I dance to the beat of my own drum by cursing them at regular intervals. To make matters worse, several hundred stairs into my descent the path suddenly converges upon a concrete forest road. I look around for an indication of where to go before it dawns on me that I must walk down this monstrosity. It’s a good thing that no other hikers are in the vicinity for they would surely conclude that this hiker has a bad case of Tourette’s with the burst of swear words spilling forth from my fractured soul.

I follow the road for just five minutes until I see a signpost ushering me back into the forest, where someone with a sick sense of humor has taken it upon themselves to line the hiking path with concrete as well. This ‘shortcut’ once again spits me out back on the forest road at place called Yama-no-kami, but I fear this particular Kamisama must have been murdered by the construction industry, or perhaps I have found the deity of concrete. Signposts for the Diamond Trail point in the westerly direction of the concrete road, so instead of enjoying a nice mountain track I am relegated to chasing asphalt. Desperate times call for desperate measures as I unload a fury of middle fingers while cursing up a fury.

The concrete spits me out onto more concrete as I reach the immaculate asphalt of route 371. I turn left on the two-lane road and past a construction crew laying yet more concrete on the side of the road. As I head to the top of the pass I finally see the Diamond Trail ducking back into the forest on my right and what should I find but a signpost informing me that Mt Iwawaki is 7km away. I have already covered 10km in my walk, but the last 20 minutes on that concrete has truly set me off, and I want nothing more than to be done with this Diamond Fool’s Gold Trail once and for all. First though, time for lunch. I continue on for another 10 minutes or so, hoping to chip away at the formidable distance until I come across the idyllic environs of Bo-tani-no-ike pond at an elevation of 423 meters. I settle into a wooden bench and proceed to stuff myself with nutrients and polish off the last of the sports drink and green tea.

This is my third time up Iwawaki so I know exactly what to expect. I tell myself there will be no breaks until I reach the summit itself, so I settle into a steady pace up past the electrical pylon and up the wall of wooden steps. I know that once I reach the 3rd stage point (三合目) that the hard part of the climb is over, which seems a bit counter-intuitive as it’s only a third of the way up the mountain, but Iwawaki is a long, gentle beast. Sweat is oozing from every pore as I rise up past the 3rd stage and meet up with the forest road above. That’s right, the next several kilometers involve a relatively flat and almost painfully boring stroll through a thick forest lacking any kind of views.

Unlike my first two ascents, I take every opportunity to explore the side tracks, the first of which soon comes as the forest road cuts around and under Neko-mine (根古峰), but I spot a piece of tape affixed to the tree and leave the road behind to climb up to the summit of the 750 meter peak, which sits in a clearing of golden grasses. I return to the forest road and spy a shortcut through a swath of natural deciduous trees that are pleasing on both the eyes and the feet. This track meets back up with the road at a junction for Mt Minami-katsuragi. I forgo this junction as well as an unmarked side track to Mt Amida and keep to the forest road running to the north. A white utility truck is parked on the shoulder and an elderly gentlemen who must be pushing 80 is out filling in pot holes and cleaning the road of fallen twigs. It seems such a strange location to do road maintenance as the only vehicles to use this road are the ones that hold possession of the key for the locked gate at the start of the road.

The track eventually leaves the road behind and skirts below the ridge on a narrow track past a water source. Filling up is tempting but I am hardly low on liquids so I continue on to skirt past a small section of landslide on my right that drops steeply to the valley below. I keep my eyes glued to the path in order to avoid stepping on any loose rocks that might send me plummeting down the debris field. I place my left foot firmly and stretch out my right foot to take the next step but catch sight of a peculiar brown and beige diamond pattern directly below me. I immediately jump back and let out a yelp, sending my heart racing and my blood pressure skyrocketing to the stratosphere. Sitting directly in the middle of the trail is a mamushi, the venomous Japanese pit viper. At first I think that the snake must be dead as it is literally completely outstretched and lying perfectly still, but as I inch my trekking pole closer, the beast starts shaking its tail in much the same way as its distant cousin the rattlesnake. I pick up a small rock and roll it towards its head and it immediately curls up into strike position. “Now you’ve done it”, I mutter to myself, as the last thing I want to do is to piss off a poisonous snake who is literally sitting right in the middle of the trail.

I give it a large berth as I scuttle down into the landslide debris and safely up the other side. I pray that no other hikers will soon follow me or they will be in for a rather unpleasant encounter. I continue on, fueled by the adrenaline pulsing through my body and trudge past Itsutsutsuji (五つ辻), a tongue-twister of a name that also happens to double as the 7th stage point. My pace starts to wane as fatigue finally starts to set in. Perhaps all of this hiking without a break wasn’t such a good idea. To make matters worse, my asthma starts to act up, with an occasional shortness of breath that forces me to slow up the pace. Luckily I have almost reached the summit and after one final set of log steps I reach the eastern peak of the mountain and can see the bald plateau of the western peak directly in front of me.

Iwawaki is famed for its large meadows of pampas grass but last autumn the entire field was harvested in order to provide thatch for the traditional roofs of the old minka homes in the valley. After harvesting, the entire area was set ablaze in order to prevent trees from taking over, so the peak currently resembles a bombed out war zone. A pair of mountain vegetable pickers scour through the blackened fields in search of spring edibles while I search out my own edibles from beneath my rucksack. I arrive on the summit and settle into a bench, taking in the vistas of the sand apocalypse, for a thick torrent of air pollution and aeolian dust has enveloped Osaka city. Strong winds push in from the city, bringing that nasty elixir to my lungs – the true cause of my asthma attack. I munch on chocolate and polish off the remainder of my morning coffee and look over the map. I am heading toward Takihata village, where a bus will whisk me to Kawachi-Nagano station. By sheer luck, I had managed to remember to check the bus times during my pre-trip planning and find out the next bus is at 4:19pm. Time check: 2:45. Game on.

On goes the facemark to help block out the pollution as I glide down the western face of the peak and back into the forest. I remember the descent as being long but not incredibly steep from my last trip here a few years ago and despite my fatigue, I manage to make good time down to the village. The map says to allow for 90 minutes to reach the village but it takes just over an hour. Instead of heading straight to the bus stop I decide to continue along the Diamond Trail so I can locate the area in the village where the path starts its ascent towards Mt Makio. Meandering past the traditional structures is soothing on the eyes and keeps my mind off of my throbbing feet. I turn at a junction and see a hiker making his was down from Mt Makio. I ask him about the trail conditions as I reach a signpost that indicates Mt Makio, the terminus of the Diamond Trail, is just 3.5km away. Those final three and a half kilometers will have to wait for another day.

 

Diamond Trail – Finale

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I’m back at the dam after a filling lunch of curry. So far I’ve trudged up eggplant valley, taken the steep spur to Ichigaikaburi-no-se, and followed the gentler ridge to Mt Hidaka. There’s still one final route to explore, the much-feared Botte valley, a narrow gorge connecting the reservoir and a saddle between Mt Hidaka and Mt Hoshida, my first target of the day. I take the track around the western edge of the lake, the same one I followed towards Hayakari in Chapter 3, but instead of leaving the gorge east for Ichigaikaburi, I follow the river upstream along a poorly marked and heavily overgrown route that very few hikers attempt.

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The first obstacle in my way is a series of toppled trees clogging the valley. I scurry over these timbers and tramp through a thick grove of ferns past an abandoned dwelling that must have taken a monumental effort to construct in such a secluded location. Continuing upstream, I cross landslide debris along a dodgy trail with no handholds as the route rises above the stream towards a waterfall. I need to climb up and over the falls on the right side of the riverbank, but the footing is incredibly poor and I reach a point where I will need to commit my full attention on one single footstep that could mark the division between a successful ascent and a nasty tumble resulting in broken bones or worse. The ground is damp and slippery, and I freeze in place, pondering the potential outcome of a bad decision. My shoes are worn nearly to the tread and have served me well up until now, but with a 5-year-old daughter at home and the responsibilities that fatherhood brings, I just can’t seem to take that next step, so I do what any sensible human would do in such circumstances – I retreat.

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Giving up on Botte valley does not mean mission over, however, as a more standard route to Mt Hoshida now awaits along the gentle ridge to Hidaka. Rather than retrace my steps back to the reservoir, I return to the abandoned house and trust my instincts: if someone built a house here, there’s got to be an access point from above. So I climb and climb, grabbing onto anything in my path along an incredibly steep and narrow spur. The contour lines on my GPS do suggest a way through, so I trust them and fully commit to the climb ahead of me. I eventually regain the ridge at an unnamed peak blanketed with an unkept mane of bamboo grass. Swashbuckling my way through the dense undergrowth, I eventually pop out into familiar territory at a saddle below the start of the climb to Mt Hosokuri (see Chapter 5).

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On the far side of the knob, I once again arrive at the junction below Mt Nakao. Instead of sticking to the ridge along the ‘easy course’ to the summit, I veer left on the makimichi below the ridge and reach a junction just below the ‘steep route’ to the top. Since I have already been up Nakao, I veer away and instead head left for a rather abrupt and surprising descent down to Botte valley. I reach the edge of the narrow stream – this is where I would have ended up had I stayed my original course. The valley floor, due to the moisture trapped by the sides of the steep walls, is a lush green, carpeted by a healthy grove of ferns and plenty of bamboo grass. The vines dangling from the evergreen trees overhead bring to mind the jungles of Okinawa.

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I cross the stream and am led via a DIY signpost, a creative display scrawled on yellow tape wrapped around a disused PET bottle and subsequently impaled on a lime-green gardening stake. Thank goodness the feudal era is over, or the bottle would likely have been replaced by the head of the warrior of a rival clan. My route leaves the valley floor as quickly as it enters, up the angled confines of Mt Hoshida’s root-infested western face. Pockmarked by toppled trees in places, the trail leads me around the tangled mess and along a series of chest-high boulders which offer vistas across the valley towards Takatsuki city.

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How fitting it is to arrive on the summit of the namesake 51 Mt Hoshida (星田山) that helps define the entire mountain range. Interesting enough, on ancient maps of the region this mountaintop also goes by the name of Uma-ga-mine, which also happens to be the name of my 50th summit. I can see why modern mountaineers prefer the newer Hoshida moniker in order to avoid confusion. I forgo a break for the time being as the adjacent 52 Mt Seikai (星海山) beckons – it being just a short climb across a narrow saddle to the northwest. The up-and-back takes less than 5 minutes and I soon return to Mt Hoshida for a late afternoon snack. As I dig into my stash of snacks, who do I see approach but good ole Seino-san. “Again”, he shouts, offering a friendly smile and words of encouragement as I show him the dwindling list of mountains left to climb. “You’re almost there”, the vest-donning elderly hiker quips, before disappearing down the steep descent towards Botte valley. I watch as Mr Seino fades out of sight, wondering if I will get another chance to encounter his 76-year-old presence before he either gets too old to climb or I get too bored of these sandy knobs.

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The encounter of a familiar face gives me a second wind as I head due south for the final quartet of peaks in the Hoshida massif. The sun-baked ridge runs parallel to the fairway of the 5th hole of the golf course. The leafless canopy allows me to catch glimpses of the tree-cloaked Dōato-mine on the other side of the fairway. It is fairly tempting to drop off the ridge, scale the fence, and race up the slopes in search of the lost past if not for the lawnmower currently grooming the grassy meadows of the fairway. I get the feeling that the golf course employees would not take too kindly to tresspassers so any attempts at an ascent would have to be discreet at the very least.

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This final section of ridge is absolutely stunning as the sun creates long, golden shadows on the gentle traverse to the summit of 53 Mt Saratani (皿谷山). A fork in the spur here leads southwest on an unmarked track to Mt Higashi-Botte but I keep to the main ridge southeast in hopes of looping back via another unmarked route on my map. I hop over a toppled tree and duck under another, following the natural contours of the spur and barely notice the signpost hand-painted on a cherry tree on 54 Mt Ike-no-uchi (池之内山), the second highest knob in the Hoshida range. 

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A narrow sliver of trail between thick strands of bamboo is all that separates me from 55 Mt Minami Ike-no-uchi (南池之内山). On the summit I notice a fork in the route. A hand-crafted sign warns hikers that a left here leads to a dead-end at the golf course and instead instructs hikers to keep to the ridge, which I do through a healthy forest of hardwoods glimmering in the afternoon light. The end of the spur is reached and with nowhere to go but down, my route spits me out in a narrow valley blanketed in bamboo. I break through a section of undergrowth to reach a very old and dilapidated forest road that probably last saw vehicular traffic during the Reagan administration. I turn right on what is left of the road, stepping through toppled bamboo that cracks loudly under my feet and reach a abandoned green bus slowly being reclaimed by the elements. I am reminded of the Chris McCandless story and half-expect to find the corpse of a hermit inside the ramshackle vehicle but I am too afraid to peer inside.

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The overgrown road leads past two small ponds until reaching a clearing just below the summit plateau of 56 Mt Higashi-Botte (東拂底山). As luck would have it, someone has affixed rubber tubing to the tree roots lining a short but steep climb to the final summit ridge, so I hoist myself up and reach the top for my best views of the afternoon. Rather than retrace my steps back to Mt Hoshida, I drop down the southwestern face along a faint track of pebbly scree and reach a broad ridge of thick golden grasses blowing gently in the cool late-winter breeze. I somehow forge a way through and arrive at the place where I turned back after summiting Mt Botte (see Chapter 5). I race up to the summit of Mt Botte and continue on over Kunimi-mine and Mt Nishitani and follow a well-used track all the way out of the hills and into an affluent collection of homes in the Hoshida Nishi neighborhood.

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I follow the road downhill for a bit but keep an eye on the GPS for an unmarked turnoff. At first I miss the track and have to retrace my steps until finally spying a narrow track on the far side of a small grassy plaza. The route immediately dives into a thick bamboo grove ablaze in that golden hour glow which spits me out into the grounds of Uchiage shrine, but it is not the fox god that I seek. An additional track branches off in front of the shrine and climbs through a gorgeous oak grove and I find what I am looking for: Ishihōden burial mound.

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Built in the late Kofun era, the stone tomb is the only one of its kind in the northern part of what was known as the Kawachi province. Excavations near the tomb revealed pottery fragments dating from the mid-7th century, but little else is known about the burial mound, including who was once buried inside. It is generally agreed that someone of great importance and stature was interred here due to the painstaking efforts of design and construction of the tomb, whose entrance faces west toward Osaka city.

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After a quick look around, I retreat back to the grassy plaza and continue walking down the paved road until reaching a bridge spanning a deep gully. On the far side of the bridge is a modern apartment complex built snug against a curvy hillock smothered in bamboo. A signpost adjacent to the apartment building indicates that it is private property and that entrance is prohibited to those not residing in the structure, so I wait for a gap in the traffic and take off in a sprint past the sign and adjacent building and scale a set of log stairs built into the hillside. Once inside the bamboo grove, I follow a green barbed-wire chain-link fence to find the signpost for the 110m-high 57 Mt Onna (女山) or female peak. Why someone would barricade their overgrown forest of bamboo is beyond me, but some landowners have a propensity to be incredibly possessive. In order to avoid being discovered, I drop down the northern side of the peak and slip out into a quiet neighborhood of homes whose residents are likely engaged in their evening meal rituals. 

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The sun has now hit the horizon, but my next peak lies on this same road just to the north, so I walk back to the main road and past the Fresco supermarket towards another grove of bamboo. My next peak is also on private land and my initial planned approach is from a vacant lot from the east, but wouldn’t you know it – a man it out there with his digger excavating the land for no apparent reason. Maybe he heard I was coming and just decided to thwart my progress instead. This forces me to walk around to the western face to reach an access point through a farmer’s field. Again I wait for a break in the traffic and then sprint up through the network of fallow land and duck into the bamboo grove and climb to the top of a steep hill to find a signpost for 58 Mt Katano (交野山), which is just 83 meters above sea level. Despite the absurdly low altitude, there is actually a triangulation point here and a signpost indicating that the knob is also known as Ōtani.

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I run back through the fields under the guise of dusk, escaping the wrath of the locals and continue onwards to the next peak, once again to the north. The main route is from the south, but since I am on the opposite side, I try my luck approaching via the cemetery invading its lower slopes. As I walk up the approach road, I see the caretaker placing cones across the road, together with a signpost indicating that the graveyard is open from 8am to 5pm daily. I gaze at my watch: 5:10pm. Turning around once again, I pull out the GPS in order to navigate through the maze of houses and reservoirs separating myself from the southern face of 59 Mt Takaoka (高岡山). Numerous wrong turns lead to more lost minutes, and by the time I do reach the trailhead I need the assistance of my headlamp. I race up the steep hill, past a small shrine and into a clearing above the cemetery and take in the last of the sunset oranges on the horizon.

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I drop back down to the Hoshida neighborhood and negotiate the various turns that will lead me to my final destination, which is marked by a long, steep, stone stairway through a park. I ascend to the top to reach a road and playground, and just to my left I discover a shrine gate sitting in front of a large stone stupa flanked on either end by two rusty metal lanterns. Affixed by wire to a tree next to the gate, I find the signpost for 69m-high 60 Mt Shingu (新宮山), the lowest of the Hoshida 60 and my official end of the road. In the Muromachi period, there were two sanctuaries built upon this hilltop: a Buddhist temple called Aizenritsuin and a Shintō space by the name of Shinguyama Hachimangu. Both fell victim to the separation of Buddhism and Shintō at the beginning of the Meiji era and now all that is left is this stupa which gives visitors a tiny taste of what used to be. 

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With the Hoshida 60 (map here) now complete, I return home but still can’t shake the ghosts of Komatsuji temple from my mind. A proper investigation is necessary in order to provide proper closure to the saga. Stay tuned.

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The climbing order of the first half of the Hoshida 60 was completely random, based solely on my desire to explore a new access point with each trip, but now comes the tougher task of filling in the holes and repeating some of the same approach paths. This time, I return to the scene of the crime, walking up Myokenzaka and following once again the undulating ridge over Ishibashi, Nukutani, Sōen and Minami-Sōen (see Chapter 1) to the junction just below Mt Umaki-mine. The ridge is just as I remember it except for the improved visibility due to the loss of autumn foliage. Through gaps in the bare canopy I look out over a sleepy Kyoto city off on the horizon, a quiet stillness to the mid-morning air as the sun forces it way through the winter cumulus clouds gathered above to observe my movement through the mountains.

A gentle rise ushers me up to ㊴ Mt Benzaiten (弁財天山), a tree-smothered hump nestled up against the intimidating spires of an electrical pylon. Ah, Benten, the goddess of water, music, love, knowledge and just about everything else that pulsates through the sandy scree beneath my feet. Apart from a hand-crafted signpost, there is little evidence as to why this knob bestows the honor of receiving her blessing. In sculpted form, Benzaiten is often seen strumming a lute, offering sonic words of wisdom to those within her presence and in my walks through Japan the sight of that musical instrument usually inspires me to hum a tune or two. As I turn my eyes skyward, the buzz of the high-voltage power lines stringing overhead brings that early-80s Eddy Grant tune to mind, and now I can’t get that silly song out of my head. Oh no indeed.

Fortunately that walk down electric avenue is short-lived, as a rock formation further along the ridge snaps me back to reality, intrigued by the placement of the boulders as they cling comfortably to the contours of the land. Were these rocks simply a natural feature of the land, or were they placed here to serve as the foundation of a long-lost structure? A signpost affixed to an oak tree soon answers my internal inquiry, for I am now standing on the ruins of the Kita-no-shomon (北の小門) or small northern entrance gate to Komatsu Temple.

At the top of the next rise, an illustrated signboard atop ㊵ Mt Ibarao (茨尾山) provides that eureka moment. These very hills are the setting for Komatsuji, a large Shingon temple founded in the year 846, just a decade after Kukai’s eternal sleep. Kukai himself was appointed head priest of Toji in southern Kyoto in 823. At that time, Koyasan has just been founded, but perhaps Kukai was eyeing another mountaintop retreat a lot closer to the ancient capital. As Kukai died before the completion of Komatsuji, the work was probably undertaken by one of his disciples at Toji. The geographical location makes sense – you can clearly see the Hoshida mountains from Toji Temple, and it’s only a day’s walk from the ancient capital. The temple itself thrived during the coming centuries before finally falling into ruin in 1703.

The revelation literally gives me pause. I rest on the summit of Mt Ibarao and pull out my paper map of the region together with a list of the mountains. Everything starts to make sense: the Amida Nyorai statue of eggplant valley, the peak name of Bentaizan, the incredibly steep mountain tracks – they are all the hors d’oeuvre to the main course. All of these mountain trails are just sandō (参道) or approach paths for Komatsuji. The surrounding knobs form a lotus pattern around the main temple complex, which is now hidden among the 20th century scars of an adjacent golf course. In fact, the location of the original main hall (hondō) sits atop Mt Komatsu, directly in the middle of the links. From the summit of Mt Ibarao, a stone path led to the main temple gate at a saddle where the fairway of hole #4 now sits. The contours continue on the other side of the fairway to the summit of Komatsu, which has now been renamed Dōato-mine (堂跡嶺), one of the Hoshida 60. This complicates matters, for it now appears that I need to cross over the fairway in order to explore the temple ruins.

I continue following the ridge, within earshot of the golfers in the fairway hidden to my left, and the next bump on the route is the western peak ㊶ Mt Nishi-Ibarao (西茨尾山) of the Ibarao chain of knobs. This is the last of the unclimbed peaks on the range, but rather than turn back just yet, I climb to the top of the next hill to take in the views and an early lunch at Mt Kitasanshi (北山師岳), one of the peaks I summited back in Chapter 3. With my linking up of trails now complete, I return up and over Ibarao and drop down to the stream below the junction of Umaki-mine and back up to the summit of Mt Ōtani. In my first visit to Ōtani I headed east towards the suspension bridge but now my attention is devoted to the ridge running south along the border of the golf course. The track loses altitude abruptly, arriving at a kiretto and a heavily eroded hillside on the far side of the gap. I find some tape marks just off the ridge on the western face of the slope and scramble on up to ㊷ Mt Minami-Ōtani (南大谷山) through a section of untamed bamboo grass threatening to conceal the route.

This is one of the more pleasant ridge lines in the Hoshida mountains, without the strenuous up-and-down scrambling prevalent in the rest of the range. It simply becomes a matter of strolling along the ridge, summiting peak after peak in clockwork fashion like Christmas lights strung together on the eaves of a house. They come in quick succession, starting with ㊸ Mt Higashi-Komatsu (東小松山) or eastern peak of the namesake temple situated directly opposite my position, the golf fairways blocking direct access. Just a few minutes further on, clocking in at 284.2 meters in elevation, is ㊹ Mt Habushi (羽伏山) which happens to be the tallest peak in the entire Hoshida range, but registers as nothing more than an indiscreet bump on this undulating ridge. 

At points along the route, the track hovers just a few meters above the golf course, affording views of the green of Hole No. 1 and the clubhouse further down the slope. A waist-high wire fence has been erected around the entire perimeter of the golf course: it not only serves to keep the wild boar off the fairways but also prevents irate golfers from attacking rouge hikers as they deliver harsh critiques of their poor swinging posture. Golf is far from my mind, however, as my lunch has now fully digested itself and it looking to make some space among my crowded intestines. That can only mean one thing: I need to move. I can barely remember much about the next peak except for the tongue twister of the name as I scurry past ㊺ Mt Fumiwari-ishi (踏割石山). The name seems to suggest a split boulder nearby but my bowels are threatening to split my trousers in two, so I assume a rather awkward gait with a clinched sphincter. Part of me just wants to jump the fence and use the facilities at the club house but rather than create an international incident, I want to keep my anonymity a bit longer.

㊻ Kineyama (木根山) and ㊼ Mt Jizō-ga-ya (地蔵ヶ谷山) are both bewildering, for I can see neither tree roots nor Jizō statues in my mad race to find a loo. The final peak on this southern spur, ㊽ Mt Iimori-ko (飯盛小山) actually has a triangulation point that I nearly trip over in my haste. A few steps beyond the eastern face I do indeed find my sought-after Jizō statue standing among the leaf litter on the forest floor. The figure overlooks a sprawling cemetery quickly encroaching the foothills of the range. The trail starts to drop toward a saddle but I can no longer wait – I drop my drawers as a deep well of a toppled tree provides a natural pit to deposit my fertilizer. I clean myself with dried leaves as best I can and slow down the pace to a much more sustainable level. 

At the saddle, I slip under the ‘Do Not Enter’ ropes and into Hoshida Enchi park. I am sitting on the southernmost border on the park, at a place that Ted and I crossed on our Ikoma section hike. Had we known that a mountain route connects Shijonawate and Hoshida, we would have taken this route instead of dropping off into Nara and tramping through the cemetery I glimpsed up on Mt Iimori-ko. On the opposite side of the saddle, I cross the broad track and slip under the ropes forbidding access to the ridge. The track is well trodden despite the illegal access, through ground mixed with pine needles and leaf litter. A pair of head-high boulders greet me on the top of ㊾ Mt Matsu-no-hama (松ノ浜山) or ‘pine beach’ peak. The loose scree beneath my feet does indeed resemble a beach if you forgive the lack of sea water in the vicinity. This peak is listed as #61 of the Hoshida 60, a substitution for the off-limits Komatsu Temple ruins.

The trail on the spur continues northward, crossing an electrical pylon before dropping suddenly and quickly down an access path built for electrical maintenance workers. Back in the valley floor, I slip under the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign and into a broad rest area sitting adjacent to a gravel road. I am now back in familiar territory, having walked up this road numerous times to access the Hoshida suspension bridge. My final peak lies directly ahead, so rather than follow the well-used road around, I turn my gaze upwards to a concrete water tower on the ridge directly in front of me. Despite the lack of a proper path, I commence my ascent by grabbing onto tree limbs and forging my own well-placed switchbacks to reach the water tower and continue to the top of the ridge to an unnamed peak. Here I spy a line down the northern face, skirting around rock formations on an improvised descent to a narrow gully. I can hear the sound of a waterfall downstream, so I turn left and head upstream to find a smaller watershed coming down from the north. I follow this upwards and forge a new route up a 50-degree slope. A tumble here would not end well, so in order to better protect myself, I bounce from tree well to tree well, avoiding the cliff edge on my right and continuing in a diagonal trajectory while double checking my progress against the GPS. Sweat flows down my brow as the heart starts to race, but somehow I regain the ridge at a pass and am welcomed by a well-marked path.

This path drops down the northern face of this second mountain pass, lined with wooden log steps that assist in my sudden loss of altitude. At the next gully a broad track leads to a third and final pass and an unmarked trail on my right. I take this a short distance to  ㊿ Mt Uma-ga-mine (馬が嶺) or horse’s peak that is just 104 meters high. I retreat back to the pass and then drop a short distance to the massive climbing wall in Hoshida Enchi park. I am craving a hot coffee, so I head to the climbers hut only to find that it is shut on Tuesdays. The vending machines glow from the other side of the locked glass door, taunting me like a nasty bully. To make matters worse, the men’s room is currently closed for renovation, but in my desperate attempt to properly cleanse myself, I slip into the women’s room to make liberal use of the toilet paper.

The end of the Hoshida 60 is now within reach, and with my current pace of 10 peaks per hike I can probably knock off the remainder of the mountains (minus the golf course peak) in just one final trip.

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One week after my scurrying among the peaks of Hoshida Enchi in Chapter 4, I once again return to the eggplant valley reservoir for my third exploration of the hidden lakeside trails. It is easy to return to such locations, being just a 30-minute walk from home along a rural bylane frequented by farmers. I head west, across the top of the dam as in Chapter 3 but instead of following the reservoir I turn south and climb the hillside to reach the start of a long north-south ridge paralleling the waters of the pond below. The easy-to-follow route passes just above a secluded subdivision of affluent homes affording views across a sea of dwellings to the mountains of Takatsuki city to the north.

The ridge is gentle, almost unexpectedly gentle considering what the Hoshida mountains have thrown my way so far. Could this be the much sought after weakness in the fortress walls of the serrated edges of the surrounding spurs? The first minor bump in the route turns out to be the summit of ㉙ Mt Takamatsu (高松山), barely worthy of the short side trip a few meters from the main track. As I reach the high point and retreat back to the main route, I hear a voice approaching from behind. A bespectacled female hiker who appears to be around my age approaches, studying her GPS with an uneasy eye. “Is that the track to Takamatsu?”, she intrepidly inquires and relaxes a bit when I reply in the affirmative. “How far are you going today?” I ask, hoping that she has a realistic plan in place as it is already approaching mid-afternoon.

“Not sure”, she replies, perhaps hoping for an indirect invite to join me in a game of peak hunting. I pull out my paper map, pointing to a trio of unclimbed peaks on this spur above the lake we are now following. She gladly accepts my offer to chauffeur her along these hidden tracks. For once, it will be glad to share the trail with more than just my internal dialogue. “My name’s Naoko”, she reveals, pointing to her ancestral home in the neighboring enclave of Hoshida Yamate. Our conversation naturally turns to the subject of mountains, and my new friend is the first to admit that she is far from an expert, but I promise to keep the pace gentle and our conversation flows as naturally as the contours of this pleasant ridge.

After a trio of ups and downs, we reach the top of  Mt Sakato (坂登山) for which the kanji characters literally read ‘hill climb’, an interesting choice for a peak that seems nothing more than a steady incline on the ridge. Little do Naoko and I know that we will soon find out the true origin of this peculiar mountain name.

The gains in altitude are barely noticeable on the subtle inclines, and thirty minutes further up the spur we find a pet bottle impaled on a stake with a hand-drawn map indicating the trail on our right sticks to the main ridge, while the path straight on is a makimichi traverse below. We turn right and reach a massive chestnut tree sitting directly on the summit of the aptly named ㉛ Mt Hosokuri (細栗山), my halfway point of the Hoshida 60. Instead of celebrating, however, we push further along the spur in hopes of finding a view on these tree-smothered knobs.

The track drops to a junction with yet another hand-crafted signpost. This one involves a styrofoam food tray nailed to a cedar tree on which a black marker map has been etched onto the surface once again demonstrating the DIY ethos of the Hoshida locals. The figure 8 lattice of paths mean we can simply pick and choose our preferred route to link up with the main ridge line. We opt for what is scribbled on the map as the raku no nobori or ‘easy climb’. Easy would be the last thing I would use to categorize the hillside laying directly in front of us, as the two of us spend quite a bit of time on all fours trying to negotiate the steep slope separating us from our next knob.

Plenty of tree trunks provide just enough leverage to hoisten us up to ㉜ Mt Nakao (中尾山) that sits in a field of head high bamboo teetering on the edge of an electrical pylon climbing firmly to the top of the eastern face. This is the convergence of the so-called ‘steep trail’ that we could have taken instead of our ‘easy’ way to the top. At a saddle at the bottom of the southern face another track comes in from our left, but we ignore this and keep to the main spur along a gentle incline of evergreen oaks, hemlock and camphor which bring a welcome green to the otherwise monochromatic scenery of winter.

At the top of the next rise we finally find our sought-after views between gaps in recently felled trees on the summit of 260m high ㉝ Mt Hidaka (日高山), our high point of the day. A temperature gauge affixed to a cherry tree indicates a temperature of three degrees above zero. Naoko and I take a well-deserved break of chocolate and water while we weigh our options. Hidaka is the first of the trio of mountains known as the Hoshida Sanzan, and I suggest a loop track of the remaining two peaks of the triumvirate. She enthusiastically agrees to my proposal, even though our route is dotted on the map and our remaining daylight hours are limited.

A couple of minutes beyond Hidaka a path leads through a grove of bamboo to the south, marked by a discarded CD affixed to a dangling bamboo leaf. We follow this route through the grove and into a clearing of golden susuki grass and a thicket of dead weeds. A faint trail heads straight through this mess, the difficulty compounded by a the sprawling fingers of a thorn bush that has us in its grasp. I pull out the pocket knife and free myself from the mess and then set about liberating Naoko from its claws.

Once through the obstruction, it becomes an exercise in route finding as the bush yields back to the untouched swaths of forest. I eye the GPS while following the ever-steepening contours skywards along a narrow spur. Pulling ourselves utilizing the stability of the branches of maple and oak, the summit plateau of ㉞ Mt Botte (拂底山) is breached as Naoko and I pause to catch our breath. The peak borders a broad valley dotted with vegetable fields, the southernmost extent of the Hoshida range. Looking due west, the television antenna of Mt Iimori rise up among a trio of peaks situated just below the main ridge of the Ikoma mountains. A route from here seems plausible, but will require a bit of advanced planning to avoid that rat’s nest of undergrowth bordering the valley of vegetables.

The eastern face reveals a slight weakness as Naoko and I forge switchbacks down the rough scree, darting from tree to tree in an effort to help stop a fall if one of us should take a tumble. At the saddle, our progress is thwarted by a thick wall of weeds, with no visible way though. The map indicates a dotted trail through a meadow towards Mt Higashi-Botte, but with diminishing daylight and hydration, we make the only logical choice – backtrack up and over Botte to the more-established main route. We would have to give up on the Hoshida Sanzan for now, but the map provides us an alternative to polish off a few knows further west.

Fortunately I somehow manage to locate a track off of Botte that avoids the tangly mess of the briars and we retrace our steps back to the CD junction and turn west on the western border of the range. The path soon splits, marked by a clipboard signpost hand-scrawled in black marker and wired to a Mizunara oak trunk. We take the fork and arrive on ㉟ Kunimi-mine (拂底山) and are gifted with a glimpse of the Osaka city skyline and the fading light of day reflecting off the waters of Osaka bay. Time is running short, so we pick up the pace along the undulating ridge line to the northwest.

㊱ Mt Nishitani (拂底山) is little more than a subtle bump on the ridge, signposted adjacent to yet another gargantuan electrical pylon exercising its dominance over the range. We have two options here – either descend a short distance to the suburban enclave of Hoshida Nishi or take a side spur toward a duo of knobs due north of here. It would be a long way to come back just for these two mountains, so Naoko and I leave the main route at an unmarked junction and follow a broad spur through a glorious hardwood forest sprinkled with leaf litter. Yet another handmade signpost awaits us a saddle, so we stick to the spur and follow it to a lonesome bench affixed to the high point of ㊲ Mt Minami-Ometoishi (南夫婦石山). The name suggests a ‘married couple’ rock formation, but no boulders can be seen among the thick bamboo grass aligning the plateau. 

The spur continues and so do we, continuing our frenetic stumble through unexplored tracks of land. A series of false summits separate us and ㊳ Mt Ometoishi (夫婦石山) and yet again, the rock formation remains elusive. Decision time is here, for as much as we would like to simply backtrack and take the easy way to Hoshida Nishi, the map and GPS do suggest there is a route between here and Mt Sakato on the main spur at the start of the day. This would save quite a bit of time walking on asphalt back home. We weigh over the options before deciding on this shortcut. Remarkably, we locate a series of yellow tape marks affixed to the trees which guide us off the eastern face of Ometoishi and into a narrow gully and headlong into a 5-meter high dam cutting off access to the north. It also seems to have thwarted whomever was affixing the yellow tape, for on the far side of the gully there is no clear way forward.

Careful study of not only of the surrounding landscape but also the contours of the GPS is required here. Using my years of experience in the mountains of Kansai and my weeks of experience in the Hoshida mountains, I settle on a rain-water drainage gully clogged with toppled trees and slowly-rotting branches. I tell Naoko to keep a 10-meter following distance in case I should slip, and fortunately for us both the angle soon eases as we locate a spur just to our left that allows us to haul ourselves up to the top of the ridge. Remarkably, we pop on directly on the summit of Mt Sakato and can now safely brag that we have indeed climbed the face that gives the ‘hill climb’ its most fitting name. We high-five each other in a celebratory manner, capturing our glee on a selfie as Naoko audibly exhales a sigh of relief.

With the final light of the dying day, it is simply a matter of heading back down the well-trodden spur to the reservoir and familiar territory again. Naoko’s parents live just a short distance from the dam, and she graciously offers me a ride back to my side of town, saving that agonizing 30-minute walk on weary legs. We exchange contact information and promise to do another walk again the future, perhaps teaming up with other fellow walkers in the neighborhood who are also drawn in by the beauty and mystery of the Hoshida mountains.

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After a two week hiatus for the holidays, I once again find myself on a blustery weekday afternoon following the slope towards Hoshida Myoken Gu, past my daughter’s kindergarten and around the eastern face of Mt Myoken to the affluent enclave of Myokenhigashi. A series of concrete stairs sandwiched between the forests of the botanical gardens and the million-dollar abodes lead me to a crisscross network of quiet streets affording spectacular views towards Kyoto city on the horizon, the kind of hilly vistas that would not feel out of place in San Francisco. I hug the far eastern section of the neighborhood, following a row of sakura trees overlooking the secluded houses of Kisaichi snuggled firmly against the slopes of the Katano mountains.

The muted light of the overcast afternoon brings a calmness to the air, the lack of wind offering a respite from the wintry gales that have marked the change of seasons. I walk slowly, looking for an entrance to my first peak of the day, a mountain that appears on my maps to have no clear path to the top. A gap in a chain link fence draws me in, so I leave the main road like a sheepish trespasser and duck behind the protective cover of the fencing. Progress is soon halted by a maze of thick Kuzu vines. I drop to my knees and pull the pocket knife out of the rucksack and set about clearing a path through the tangled mess. Just meters on, a clearing in the brush reveals an easier access point from the adjacent road, as I am once again punished for my impatience. I skirt the edge of an eroded wash and make my way, step by careful step, up the untracked eastern face of the knob.

The first twenty peaks have provided a good training ground for my improvised climbs: I can always find a way up to the top, guided mostly by my instinct and careful study of the impossibly steep slopes in search of a weakness. Instead of heading straight up the face, I traverse in a roughly diagonal line, grasping onto pine trunks towards the shoulder on the horizon. I soon pop out and take the final few steps to the top of ㉒ Mt Konosu (鴻ノ巣山), only to find a signpost and a green erosion net draping down the more well-traveled western face. After a quick drink of water, I grasp onto this safely net and lower myself through the sandy scree to a saddle sitting just above a row of houses separated by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Someone is really doing their best to keep the hikers out.

Despite the awkward access, the leaf-littered path is easy to follow and pleasant on both the eyes and the feet, though it is likely a viper death trap in the summer season. With the abundance of both hornets and snakes, I am grateful for my decision to climb during the colder months of the year, determined as I am to complete the remaining two-thirds of the peaks before the return of the beasts. I continue through the elongated saddle, which spits me out onto an angled face accompanied by the gold tints of patches of eulalia grass lining both sides of the narrow track. It is just a five-minute scramble to reach the summit of the 192m ㉓ Mt Nandan (南谷山) and the bird’s-eye peek into the patchwork of affluent homes of Myokenhigashi. 

A proper track my route now becomes, along a heavily eroded spur paralleling a network of rusty, half-buried water pipes with manholes covering the maintenance access points. This piques my interest, as I run through scenarios in my head as to why there would be a need for water up here. My question is soon answered at the crest of the next rise, with a circular signage in red for fire hydrant affixed to a maple tree above a rectangular valve box cover sitting on the forest floor. Forest fire scenarios now run through my head as I continue plodding along, reaching a monster of a concrete water tank constructed smack dab in the middle of the spur.

The GPS indicates an unmarked junction here, so I turn east down a series of fake log steps and over a fixed rope and ‘No Trespassing’ sign to arrive inside of the Hoshida Enchi park. The public green space sports a spider’s web of well-maintained paths fanning out from an immense suspension bridge spanning a narrow valley between the mountain ridges. The bridge itself is your typical bubble-era concrete monolith, attracting throngs of tourists in the autumn season who seek a selfie to satisfy their Instagram addictions. By a simple act of luck, I am here on a Tuesday, when the bridge is shuttered and my only companions are a pair of tits (the bird, mind you – get your head out of the gutter) that flitter among the trees. I take a quick gander at the bridge and retreat back to the forbidden path, which continues on the opposite side of the spur along an additional roped-off trail.

I slip under the rope and scale the stairs to reach a second water tank, looking much like a twin of the water receptacle sitting on the opposing ridge. These must surely be a lifesaver in the event of a forest fire, if the pipework is still in working order that is. The undulating spur is a pleasant walk, along an avenue of hardwoods and pine trees flanking both sides of the narrow path. Leaf litter and browned pine needles cushion the feet, and the tree-covered  ㉔Takeru-ga-mine (哮ヶ峰) soon comes into view. Translating as ‘howl or roar’, the name is an intriguing choice, for there are definitely no tigers in the vicinity, but perhaps in ancient times a wolf or two scrambled up this hidden knob to relay a message to the hungry pack waiting below.

Unfortunately the track dead ends here, so I am forced to head back the way I had come and retrace my steps to the first water tower and turn left along a spur heading southwest towards the main Hoshida ridge line. Through gaps in the trees I can just about make out the buildings of southern Kyoto through the overcast haze as I flow effortlessly over the crests and troughs. My mind enters what I call the tozan trance, where you reach a climbing rhythm and can totally space out on obscure thoughts, or, on this particular afternoon, on thoughts of Cookie Monster and his quest for chocolate cookies.

And of course when that furry muppet comes into your head, you just can’t shake the thought and will even start speaking in cookie tongues. Me reach the top of the cookie summit of ㉕ Mt Hinami (日南山) and I snap out of my sugary trance, only to be possessed by the spirits of Grover, Miss Piggy and Fozzie as I engage in an internal three-way dialogue, which haunts me until the top of the adjacent spur and my third water tank of the day. I now running through the logistics in my head, of how these water storage facilities could have been constructed in such an inaccessible place. 

Route-finding now takes center stage at the spur soon becomes overgrown, with a great deal of toppled trees blocking forward momentum. I slither in and out of the unkept mess and reach a split in the spur. I check the maps and realize a bit of a detour is necessary, so I continue due west over a series of false summit until finally topping out on  ㉖ Mt Anamushi (穴虫山), the peak of the insect hole. I wonder if this name refers to the most notorious insect living in holes, the Asian giant hornet. Thankfully they hibernate in the winter. I backtrack and take the southern fork and immediately start losing altitude in a sort of freefall down to another kiretto, the sort of sketchy scrambling that is now becoming a trademark of the Hoshida mountains.

At the bottom of the gap I stare up at a wall of broken ridge directly in front of me, but my eyes spy a way through by scrambling up a slope of sandy scree on the western face. I retake the spur further on, treading carefully to avoid the dizzying drops eastward until I finally breach 200 meters of altitude for the first time today. The angle continues to crescendo until I can go no higher and I stand on the brow of the tongue-twisting ㉗ Mt Shōbugataki (菖蒲が滝山). I strain my ears and can dimly make out the sound of the falls in the valley directly below. 

A metal signpost appears a bit further on, delineating this route as the Ōtani Hiking Course, which from my research actually predates the construction of the Hoshida Enchi park. What it must have been like to walk these hills in the days before a touristy suspension bridge and the placement of electrical pylons. At least we can still cherish what remains – a pristine forest devoid of cedar plantations. The path here seems better traveled, possibly due to whoever created the Ōtani trail. The undulating bumps are a pleasure to traverse and I quicken the pace knowing that just one more knob remains on the itinerary. And here it comes, the glorious ㉘ Shiramine (白峯) and the wonderful addition of a hand-crafted seat bolted to the remnants of a wilted tree stump.

It is just a few steps further along to drop out of the ‘forbidden’ zone and back under the ropes to reach the junction below Koban-no-mine in Chapter 1 of the tale. I rest here in familiar territory and descend down the track back to the Myoken neighborhood. Before I reach civilization, I make one last side trip through the ramshackle temple complex of Eitokuji buttressed between two steep valley walls. The path through the labyrinth follows a small stream, past a series of Buddhist scriptures etched into tablets until dead-ending at a cliff face and the modest Shōbugataki falls. A changing room adjacent to the chute is a testament to the esoteric rituals taking place under the waterfalls. Intel about this sanctuary is scarce, and with no one in the vicinity to fill in the holes, the origins and affiliations of this temple will remain a mystery.

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