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Posts Tagged ‘Kansai’

Mt. Mikuni – Bushed

The odds were certainly against us – a rarely used track along an undulating ridge of formidable density, the likes of which would turn the heads of even the most seasoned mountaineer. And a seasoned partner is exactly who I needed, so it is with no surprise that I once again teamed up with fellow Kinki 100 conspirator Nao. Rounding out our invincible quartet were Nao’s incredibly resilient wife Tomoko and Akihiro, a fearless explorer in his own right. It was Tomoko’s first foray since summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro the previous summer. We were in good hands.

Nao picked me up at Tsukaguchi station just before 7am on a calm and bright morning. I settled into the backseat along with Akihiro and spent the next few hours catching up. The last time the 4 of us went out together was back in the winter of 2015 before the birth of my daughter Ibuki. At that time, we were joined by Indonesian wonderwoman Dewi, who has since returned to her native Indonesia and has spent the last couple of years climbing the Malay equivalent of the Hyakumeizan. We all lamented that she was unable to jump across the east China sea to join us, as she would have been up for the challenge no matter what.

At Kinomoto village, we veered off onto a narrow winding road that followed the old Hokkoku kaido into Fukui Prefecture. I’m pretty sure Ted has traversed these very same tracks of pavement, albeit without the luxury of motorized assistance. Down the far side of the valley, our vehicle wormed its way past Hirono dam and deep into the bowels of the Etsumi mountain range. The parking lot at the trailhead was  filled to the brim, so we squeezed onto the narrow shoulder of the forest road and sorted through the gear. The trailhead is host to a well-kept outhouse sitting adjacent to a 400-year-old Katsura tree.

The forest road had only just opened the previous day, which helped explained the unusually large number of visitors this particular weekend in early June. We knew that 99% of them were bound for Yasha-ga-ike, a mysterious pond woven into a intriguing legend involving a protective dragon and sacrificial maiden. The story provided the inspiration for a modern opera of the same name, and locals embark on the 2-hour hike to the pond in hopes of glimpsing the endangered diving beetle of Yasha.

We hit the trail in good stride, climbing the wooden logs built into the steep hillside until reaching the start of a long traverse with a raging river torrent echoing up from below. Here and there, patches of remaining snow clung tightly to the shaded gullies as the first greenery of spring sprouted through trickling streams of snowmelt. The path followed the snaking folds of the mountains past an impressive waterfall, where path and stream converged into one parallel route. A series of wooden bridges brought us to a lush field of bountiful flora fit for the king of the hills. At any moment we expected his highness, the great Asiatic black bear, to make a customary appearance but we were left with just traces of his existence in the form of freshly nibbled tree buds and bits of scat lining our riverside promenade.

The path soon left the river, gliding past a towering horse-chestnut tree included on the venerable list of Japan’s 100 Forest Giants. It’s remarkable that such untouched forests still exist in these vastly deforested parts of Honshu. In an odd twist of fate, it seems that all of the nuclear power plants in Fukui have actually helped save the forests, as government subsidies for hosting the plants mean that less money is earmarked for public works projects. Of course this is just a supposition – perhaps the harsh weather of the region convinces the locals that their money is better earned through indoor pursuits.

Above the chestnut trees, the beech forests laid supreme, spreading out untamed along the steepening contours of the spur ridge that led to Yasha pond. Clearly marked signposts help us gauge horizontal progress, while the altimeter tallied the gains in vertical altitude. It was simply a matter of placing one boot print in front of the other and resisting the urge to give in for a break. I tend to hold off on rests until reaching discernible landmarks. At the top of the spur, the rocks gave way to wooden boardwalks as we reached the shores of the tranquil lake. We collapsed on the wooden boardwalk while watching the sun drift in an out of the swiftly moving cloud.

We enjoyed a light lunch while staring at the salamanders slithering through the emerald green waters of the pond. Perhaps these are descendants of the original dragon that once graced these shores. Tomoko decided to call it a day and opted for a leisurely afternoon of relaxing by the lake, followed by a dawdle back to the car. “See you in a couple of hours,” came our response, as Nao, Akihiro and I shouldered the packs and ventured into the unknown.

The first part of the trail climbed past the northern edge of the waters before reaching the ridge line nestled snugly on the Fukui-Gifu Prefectural border. Peering down into Gifu, we could make out the well-worn path from the south that would not open to hikers for another week. Our route climbed a rocky outcrop past verdant fields of flowering gentian and majestic nikko kisuge lilies. The terrain appeared surprisingly alpine for such a low altitude of only 1100 meters – a testament to the harshness of the conditions found throughout the year.

At the crest of the ridge, a small clearing afforded views down to the pond and across to Sanshū-ga-take, while Nōgō-hakusan looked on through the gaps of a distant mountain pass. It was here that the trail maintenance officially ended. I took the lead as the bamboo grass quickly encroached all sides. I could make out a light trail with my feet below, and pink tape marks at irregular intervals provided confirmation that we were on the right path. It was really a matter of following the contours of the land – at least to the summit of an unnamed peak, where all hell broke loose.

Any trace of a path had now completely vanished, as we literally swam our way though head-high bamboo grass, frequently colliding with toppled hardwoods at shin level, turning our legs into swollen welts. To make matters worse, we’d frequently become entangled in vines that would wrap around our legs and literally untie our shoes for us. It was uncomfortable to say the least. Somehow, amidst the chaos of the overgrown jungle, we would come across colored tape marks affixed to trees that once again showed us that, yes, we were on some sort of collision course with the summit.

Every so often, I would climb a tree in order to gain a vista to judge our progress. The summit lay straight ahread, via a gently undulating ridge not more than a kilometer away in distance. We’d need to drop to a saddle before the final climb to the summit plateau. If not for the bamboo grass we could be on the summit in about 15 minutes. 90 grueling minutes later, after reaching the limits of our endurance and our threshold for punishment, we did in fact top out on a circular tract of immaculately cultivated bamboo grass. A colorful signpost read 三国岳 and we could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

The sorry condition of the route was worrying. The fact that we spent most of the time following fresh scat and bear tracks was even worse than the discomfort of being battered by the brush. If we met our ursine foe in these virgin swaths of undergrowth we would be goners for sure.

We rested for only 10 minutes before once again turning back the way we had come. For some reason the return route was a little easier. Perhaps it was the fact that we knew which way we needed to go and we somehow did a better job of staying “on track” than on the ascent, where we spent most of the time staring at our GPS devices. By the time we returned to the shores of Yasha pond it was already after 5pm. Despite the blood, sweat, and stifled tears, we were in pretty good shape except for the fact that we were about 3 hours behind schedule.

It was nearly 6pm when we reached the car. “I was just about to call the police”, quipped Tomoko. With no cell phone reception along the entire route, we had no way of communicating with her to tell her about our delay. She was far more relieved than angry though, as the three of us collapsed on the asphalt to take stock. My shins were swollen on both legs, and scrapes lining both sides of my arms made it appear as if I had been in a cat fight. I brewed up a quick cup of coffee – I needed something to help calm the nerves after being on the go for nearly 8 hours.

Mt. Mikuni was one fierce opponent, and I can do nothing more than curse Ichiro Masa for choosing this mountain as one of the Kinki 100. He’s probably laughing in his grave at all of the idiots who are trying to scale all of the mountains on his foolhardy list. Still, with #99 in the bad, the end to this madness is finally in sight. I’d better wait until this unbearable humidity subsides first.

 

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Amazing mountains deserve subsequent visits, and Mt. Ryozen is no exception. I became mesmerized by the Scottish feel of the summit plateau during my first climb on a frigid March morning, and dreamed of heading back in the autumn to take in the golden hues of the meandering grasslands. Noteworthy peaks are like a good bottle of bubbly – they are best shared and showed off to close counterparts, so I turned to my companions from the latest Gathering and settled upon a date in late November that just happened to coincide with a stable high pressure system.

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Miguel, Eri, Rika and I alighted at Samegai station in eastern Shiga Prefecture, where Paul D. was waiting with a warm smile and an eager look on his face. With such perfect weather at our disposal, such looks were well understood, as we were all itching to make full use of the brilliant daylight. The bus was set to depart in 15 minutes, leaving Eri just enough time to dash to the nearest convenience store to stock up on provisions for the long hike. From the bus stop to the summit, we faced a 7-1/2 km one-way hike, the first 4 kilometers of which were on a paved forest road will little to no vehicular traffic. We each hit the tarmac at our own pace, settling in on a rhythm while catching up the latest news. It was our first time to hike with Rika, a feisty Fukuoka native who had recently relocated to Kobe to work for Finetrack. Her sense of humor helped break up the monotony of walking on a road we easily could have driven in luxury.

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The waterfall route I had taken on my first visit was washed out in a typhoon some years ago, which necessitated our current, longer approach via the forgotten remains of Kuregahata village. The farming hamlet was home to 50 households during the Meiji era, but life was rough for the 245 inhabitants, as the winter snows brought accumulation of several meters, cutting off access to the larger towns of Maibara and Hikone. Residents slowly relocated to lower, drier ground over the ensuing years, until the strict food rations during World War II forced the remaining habitants to migrate towards the more populated enclaves. The final death blow was dealt soon after, as the local elementary school shuttered its doors and essentially hindered anyone to returning to settle. Nowadays the building foundations and vegetable fields provide campsites near the public-run mountain hut, which gives off an eerie, Blair Witch feel. We moved through the area swiftly, anxious to reach the warmth of the sun’s rays up on the ridge.

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The path switchbacks abruptly out of Kuregahata, reaching a mountain pass whose Kanji characters read “sweat wiping”. The name was most appropriate, for not only were we dabbing the sweat away from our brows, but we were also shedding excess layers under the pleasantly balm November temperatures. The trail hugs the ridge, with abrupt drops off the southern face towards the hissing sound of flowing water concealed by the burning foliage in full autumnal display. Our progress was brought to a halt more than once as nature put on a slideshow worthy of pause.

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I was beginning to worry about our snail’s pace up towards the summit plateau, for we still had quite a long way to go just to reach the ridge before an even longer traverse to the high point. There were just too many distractions along the way – a rusty shovel hidden among the freshly fallen leaves provided minutes of spontaneous role play opportunities that could just not be passed up. With such an amicable cast of characters to our unfolding drama, we took it all in stride as the vistas began to reveal their magical selves. Humble villages hugged the jigsaw shoreline of Japan’s largest freshwater lake, as a ring of rugged massifs encircled the cove, mimicking the masts of warships ready to set sail at the slightest sign of trouble. It was in these broad flatlands that Japan’s most intense struggle for unification took hold that ultimately ushered in the reign of the Tokugawa clan and the seclusionist policies of the Edo era.

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We paused at one such overlook, admiring the views when a party of three elderly hikers greeted us on their descent from the rocky plateau above. Upon ushering our greeting, the trio responded with an air of recognition, as if they were being reunited with a long-lost friend. “Didn’t we meet you on Mt. Amagoi?”, inquired the tallest of the three. During our ascent of a peak just across the valley, Paul and I did run into these good-natured folks, who informed us about the Suzuka 12, a supplementary list to the original Suzuka 7 mountains that included 5 extra peaks on the Shiga side of the range. This time around we posed for a commemorative photo before continuing on our push against the force of gravity.

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Soon the rolling hills of the true ridge came into view, and after a few switchbacks we left the trees behind and arrived on the summit of the first peak, marked by a signpost indicating that we were 70% of the way there. This proved an ample resting place for lunch, with a gentle breeze, unhindered views, and plenty of fresh peanut butter to go around. It would have been easy to give into temptation and laze around for a few hours, but summit fever soon took hold, as we pushed on towards the top.

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Looks can be quite deceiving, as the lack of tree cover revealed the surprisingly long ground we still had left to cover. I had come from the completely opposite direction on my first visit, so this was still virgin territory. After passing by an idyllic pond marked by a small shrine, the trail veered towards the right, rising steadily towards a parallel ridge line with ever-expanding views. At the crest of the knoll, the iconic hump of Mt. Ibuki came into full view, flanked on the right across a broad valley by the smoldering cap of Ontake. Closer at hand, the emergency hut stood guard, looking as if it were plucked from Grindelwald and plopped down on the soaring plateau. Mt. Ena held silent vigil across the subdued lowlands of Aichi, waiting patiently for the first flakes of snow to fall on the gentle curves of her sacred flank.

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Rika and I pushed out slightly ahead of the others, as we were soon approaching our 2pm turnaround time. The path dropped to a long saddle before the final steep push to the high point, offering panoramic views of the remainder of Suzuka’s foreshortened layer of contorted ridges. The summit boulders offered ample space for stretching out and taking in the splendid autumn views. From our eagle’s perch we tracked the progress of our fellow companions, tracing their outlines as they all successfully arrived on the top. We spent a few minutes taking in the wonderful scenery before reluctantly turning away for the long return to the bus stop. The final bus was at 5pm, which left us about 2-1/2 hours to cover the 7.5km descent. Just before pushing off a trip of French climbers arrived at the summit. They had heard about this hike from my very own Hiking in Japan website and were more than pleased with my recommendation.

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On the ascent, I spied a shortcut at the col that would shave about a half an hour off our descent and led our group on a narrow deer trail through the golden grasses. Our downward progress was steady but never felt rushed, and soon we regained the fiery foliage of the deciduous forest and slowed our pace to savor those fading tints of the waning season. Once back on the forest road we kept a constant eye on the clock, and with our perseverance we arrived back at the bus stop with just minutes to spare before the final bus of the day. At the station, the French trio we met on the summit came strolling in well after sundown. Perhaps I need to upgrade my difficulty rating on my website less one of my readers meet with ill luck.

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Folk tales in Japan are contentious affairs, with small villages in various provinces each laying claim to the origins of the stories. The legend of Hagoromo is no exception. Did the tale of the feathered maidens originate in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the Noh play of the same name suggests, or does the hamlet of Ami in Ibaraki Prefecture provide the source of the myth? None of the above, if the opinions of the denizens of Kyoto Prefecture can be trusted, for here in the rural lowlands of ancient Tango Province lies the oldest known Hagoromo tale. According to the legend, eight celestial maidens swooped down to Manai spring on the slopes of Mt. Hiji for a bath. An elderly couple happened upon the women and managed to grab one of the dressing robes. The other seven flew away in fright, but the lone maiden concealed herself behind a tree, for she could not fly away without her winged robe, or hagoromo. The couple explained that they were unable to have a child, and suggested that the maiden come live with them. She accepted on the condition that her robe be returned to her. The maiden soon became skilled at making sake which had magical curative powers, and the family became rich. After 10 years the couple asked the maiden to return to heaven, but she did not want to leave. The story continues and has a rather sad ending for which I will leave it up to your imagination, as the focus of my attention on this particular February morning is on the mountain for which the tale takes place.

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While it no longer goes by its former name of Mt. Hiji, Mt. Isanago is a fitting place for the birth of a legend. Indeed, the panoramic vistas from its bald summer perch overlook the massif of Mt. Oe, itself steeped in the tales of Shuten-doji and the Japanese Oni. Isanago happened to be on my list of Kinki Hyakumeizan, which I hoped to finished before the end of this year. It would be mountain #96, but with the recent snows blanketing the northern part of the Kinki region, it would take particular planning and caution. I scoured the weather reports and was finally gifted a glorious high pressure system. I boarded that 6:09am local train, the same one that I had use for my assault on Mt. Taiko at the end of 2016. I once again changed at Fukuchiyama station to the Tango railway. Fukuchiyama was still draped in a cool, thick mist, bus as the carriage pushed past the slopes of Mt. Oe, the cloak magically lifted, revealing the weather forecast was true to its word. Instead of alighting at Amanohashidate, I pushed ahead to Mineyama station and jumped in a cab for the 20-minute ride to the trailhead.

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“There should be no problem getting to the trailhead”, quipped my enthusiastic driver, who was convinced that the road would be plowed and free of ice. The rising sun also brought a rise in the mercury, as the residents were once again able to hang out their laundry and bedding after the last couple of weeks of inclement weather. As I paid the fare, I noticed an elderly hiker exit from his car with snowshoes in hand. He paused at the entrance to the forest road to affix his bindings, as I inquired about his intended destination. It turns out he was also heading for Isanago and knew the trail very well. Perhaps this Hagoromo tale has a hint of truth after all.

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“Go on ahead”, I explained, “I’ll catch up to you.” It look me some time to sort through my kit and to strap on the snowshoes, but I soon took my first few steps on the half-crunchy, half-soggy crust of rotting snow. Each step resulted in a drop in altitude of several centimeters, as I pushed on as best I could under the less-than-ideal snow conditions. Still, the decision to bring the snowshoes was a wise one, for it prevented me from post-holing at every step. I soon caught up to my companion and pushed out in front in order to share trail-breaking duties. In the shadier parts of the road the snow surface was more conducive to movement, but at every bend in the forest road, the lane became exposed to the sun’s rays, turning the road into a wet, sloppy slush that hindered forward progress.

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Soon I reached a sign indicating the trailhead lay 1000 horizontal meters ahead. It had taken a herculean effort just to cover the first 750 meters, and the exertion forced lines of sweat from the pores of my forehead. I bit my lower lip and pushed on until reaching a small open-walled shelter and toilet block. I sank on a wooden bench and started peeling layers, downing my bottle of Aquarius while cross-referencing my progress against the GPS data. As I raised the viewfinder to my eye for a quick snap of my surroundings, I noticed the exposure seemed brighter than usual. I reached around to the polarizer to give it a turn and realized that it was not there. I double checked my pack to make sure it didn’t fall off when I was sorting through gear at the trailhead, but my search came up empty. I’d just have to resign myself to a filterless day and search for my missing equipment on the return route.

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My break was leisurely, and my companion soon took over the trailblazing duties while I ate an energy bar. We had only 300 meters to go until reaching the official start of the trail, so I quickly caught up and let him stay in the lead for now. He explained that in the summer, hikers can drive all the way to the terminus of this paved escarpment, which I found hard to fathom at the moment, considering a meter of snow separated us from the asphalt below. As a polite gesture, I was ushered back into the drivers seat and broke trail up the steepened contours of the spur. A signpost explained that 1000 steps stood between us and the summit, but they were completely buried under the deep drifts. Despite this, the path was easy to pick out, as there was a steep drop on my left and a steeper rise on my right – ripe conditions for a snowslide, so I moved with speed, staying within earshot of my partner in case the entire hillside gave way.

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The exposed traverse was shortlived and we soon reached a junction on the ridge. To our right, a marker pointed the way to the women’s pond, the remnants of the famed Manai spring from the Hagoromo tale. I knew the pond would be frozen over and the shifting contours of the opposing hillside looked anything but inviting, so I turned left instead, where the wind-swept south-facing aspects revealed fragments of the summer log stairs laying exposed to the warm sunlight. I could see about a dozen stairs before a series of snowdrifts took over, so the snowshoes stayed on for the tiptoed traverse over the snowless sections of the path. My partner kept a safe distance behind, wary of my weight potentially sending down large unstable sections of spring mush.

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I reached a break in the tree cover at the top of the next rise, where a wooden bench completely free of accumulated snowfall beckoned me over. I settled onto the rectangular block, taking in the vistas across the valley to a splendid 180-degree angle. On my left, the perfect conical form of Mt. Aoba rose up, lending it the appropriate nickname of Wakasa Fuji. Just to the right, the twin bulges of Mt. Yura stood tall over the Sea of Japan that was just out of view. Closer at hand, the entire rolling massif of the Oe mountains held fort, cutting off access to the eastern part of Kyoto Prefecture beyond. It was a place worthy of a brief respite, but soon the offer of a 360-degree view proved too difficult to refuse, so I rose to my feet for the final push.

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The slope angle inclined, and the increased exposure also meant increased snow depth. Occasionally even the snowshoe could not prevent me from sinking up to my thigh, as I had penetrated one of the gaps on the edge of the stair column and plunged into the void. Pulling myself out proved easy enough and I wasn’t about to give in so close to my target. Further up the pitch eased, and a stone marker with ancient Kanji characters informed me that the summit was indeed near. A gentle traverse to the left, followed by a few kicks up the final mound and victory was ours.

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We sat down for lunch on a rock formation that just happened to have melted out of its winter hold, as if a maître d’ had been sent up earlier to clear a table of two. Or perhaps it was that feathered maiden looking after us. “The name’s Sakamoto”, explained my host “and I live over there”, pointing to the village at the foot of Mt. Yura. He was as impressed with my knowledge of Kyoto’s peaks as he was with my climbing resume. If he was in charge of hiring I would have gotten the job for sure. Sakamoto belongs to a local mountaineering club, but admits that he enjoys a nice balance between the larger group excursions and the solo endeavors.

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Lunch was soon finished, and Sakamoto and I were left with the tricky descent back to the junction, for the warm temperatures were making the snow even mushier. I cut switchbacks in the steep slope, and once we reached the first bare patch of dirt we took the snowshoes off completely, as the postholing actually improved our purchase and prevented a long, potentially dangerous slide. Once back at the junction the snowshoes went back on and we retraced our steps to the trailhead. The road back to his car was also a lot smoother on the descent, and just before reaching the pavement again, I found my camera filter lying in a patch of snow. Sakamoto gave me a ride back to Mineyama station, where I settled in for an afternoon nap before arriving back in Osaka in time for dinner. Peak #96 was now in the bag, but the final 4 peaks are perhaps the most challenging of all, especially with the particularly white winter. Perhaps I will wait until the spring.

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At the northern tip of Kyoto Prefecture, an oblong peninsula juts out into the Sea of Japan like a thumb looking to hitch a ride. This is the Tango Peninsula, a relatively untouched area dotted with secluded beaches, idyllic hot springs, and jovial locals who’ve settled into the slower pace and laid back atmosphere generally reserved for those living along the South China Sea. I’d been here once before during my quest to climb the Kansai 100, and here again I found myself on a mission to conquer Mt. Taiko, the highest summit in the entire peninsula.

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As is usually the case, getting there would pose the biggest challenge. I had long since written off the mountain as impossible to visit without a car, but subsequent net surfing revealed a bus stop at the mouth of Saigawa river that was within walking distance of the summit, if you considered a 10-km walk along a winding forest road to be walking distance that is. I had the schedule nailed down and had even virtually walked the first part of the route using the streetview function of Google maps. A high pressure system settled over the Hokuriku region, which promised favorable walking conditions in an area that is a magnet for wet precipitation most of the year.

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The train pulled out of Osaka station at 6:10am, chugging along the foggy tracks towards Fukuchiyama, where the Tango Tetsudo chauffeured the dozen passengers to Miyazu station, the terminus of the bus for Saigawa. Trouble was, the train was running behind schedule, meaning I would miss my connecting bus and have no way of making it to the trailhead without dropping yen on a budget-breaking taxi. The train was only 3 minutes behind schedule, so instead of alighting at Miyazu, I continued along to Amanohashidate station, where the bus was next scheduled to stop. Fortunately, the train was faster than the bus, and I had a few extra minutes to spare before boarding bus #9 and settling into a seat near the back. The ride took nearly 45 minutes, during which time I fueled up on energy bars and studied the paper maps courtesy of old man Google. It was nearly 10:30 in the morning by the time I put rubber sole to asphalt, and I had a really long way to go.

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Road walks can really be a drag. Just read any of the posts on Notes from the ‘Nog to get an indication on how pedestrian-unfriendly Japan’s byways can truly be. Once you’re off the main roads and onto the village lanes and forest tracks, however, the going becomes a lot more pleasant on both the metatarsals and the eyes. I made good time up route 625 past Tenchoji temple and its rustic village slumbered down for the winter. At a fork in the road sat a shelter housing a fresh water spring. I paused briefly to rest the haunches and check my bearings. This was as far as the Google truck had driven, so from here on out I needed to rely on the GPS. Forest roads branched out towards the mountains above, and after a few twists and turns I breached the ridge of the mountains and officially commenced the ascent towards Tango’s lofty heights. While 683 meters may not seem like a tall peak, it all depends on perspective. Mt. Taiko is taller than any mountain in both Okinawa and Chiba Prefectures, and it’s only 300 meters lower than the tallest mountain in all of Kyoto.

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After reaching the ridge, the vistas opened up towards the north, as a fortress of mountains lined the horizon , like a battalion of soldiers standing guard to keep unwanted visitors away. I would have to go up and over these peaks just to get within striking distance of Mt. Taiko. My heart sank as I suddenly realized the formidable task that lie ahead of me. Could I even make it to the top before dark? How on earth would I be able to return to Osaka in time for work the following morning? I continued on in silence, hoping that I could somehow muster up the courage and energy to continue.

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Just as things started to look bleak, the unmistakable rumble of an automobile echoed from the valley below. The sound crescendoed until the utility van was on my heels. I leaped to the shoulder of the narrow road, stretching my thumb out on pure instinct. The vehicle halted its forward momentum as I opened the passenger’s side door. “Where are you going”, asked the white-haired man, dressed in a blue forestry uniform. “Mt. Taiko,” came my reply, in as soft and nonthreatening voice as I could muster up. “Hop in”, said the man.

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After the initial shock of finding someone crazy enough to walk up an abandoned forest road, my saviour explained about the area and the lack of employment opportunities. “I came up here to check on the work of my employees”, gestured the logging company president, as we drove past one patch of cedar forest that he had come to check on. The timber had been felled, cut, and stacked into clean piles just as was ordered by the boss. “Timber is so cheap nowadays that people no longer enter the logging industry.”  Seizing the opportunity, I inquired about the future of this clear-cut area, wondering if he’d be replanting it with cedar trees per the government protocol. “No, I’ll just let the natural forest reclaim it.”

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In spite of the paved road to the top, there was a surprisingly large amount of native broadleaf remaining on the slopes of the mountain. I suppose that most of the prefectural coffers were invested in the prominent Kitayama cedar trees that still fetch a high price on the market. Any trip immediately north of Kyoto city will reveal the extent of the destruction of the native flora, as enormous mountains of cedar cut off the sunlight and blanket the city with giant plumes of suffocating pollen in the late winter. Luckily, the further north you get from the city, the lighter the destruction.

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As we rose up towards the Tango highlands, large swaths of fresh snow covered the shaded parts of the road, prompting a bit of careful navigation from my driver, and a bit of excitement in seeing my first fresh snowfall of the winter. By the time we reached Swiss Mura ski village the entire slopes were blanketed in 10 centimeters of soft white crystal. I thanked my driver profusely and shouldered the pack for the short climb to the high point, which sat at the terminus of the highest ski lift. Rather than trudging through the banal contours of the open slopes, I stuck to the forested sections of the southeastern face of the mountain, carving a trail through the untracked powder until reaching a set of footprints from another visitor earlier that day. I followed those tracks until they ended in a thicket of undergrowth that was choking the hillside and had me second-guessing my decision to avoid the easy way up. Pushing my way through the virtual maze, I eventually skirted the southern edge of the ski lift and popped out in the grasslands just below the summit. When I reached the top I glanced at my watch to discover that it was exactly high noon.

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Sitting in a dry patch of yellow grass under the lift, I soaked in the warm midday rays and filled my belly with provisions. I was planning on walking all the way back down to the sea and I needed some heavy calories for the descent. Resting for only 15 minutes, I once again geared up for the long walk back to civilization, as I knew my chances of encountering another car were slim to none. Sliding my way back to the forest road, I took off on a brisk walking pace, following the prints of deer, boar, stoat, and fox as they led me further down the slopes. I soon reached the edge of the snow line and could now catch sight of the sea which still seemed an absurdly long way away. I couldn’t believe that I thought it a good idea to go from sea to summit and back again in only one day. If not for the extra help it surely would not have been possible.

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When I reached the clear cut area that we passed earlier I checked my watch to find that it read 1pm. In 45 minutes I had covered roughly a third of the distance, so I set a new goal for myself – the 2:15 bus.

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I stepped it into high gear, keeping a 6km-an-hour pace until slowing down a bit once I felt some blisters starting to form. The recent hiking shoes I had bought in the early autumn were just a bit too small for my feet, and my hopes of fully breaking them in were a failure. With such a tight schedule to keep, there was no time to rest just yet. Familiar landmarks I had passed on the climb now came into sight, as I had now reached the area that I had covered before being given the ride. I pushed on in agony, as each footfall triggered my sensory system to render messages to my brain to slow the pace. Finally, the water source at the junction of route 625 came into view. I trotted the last 50 meters before collapsing on a rock bench just in front of the spring. I immediately took off my shoes and socks to let my feet air out as I shuffled through the pack for the moleskins and band aids. I polished off the sports drink as well as a couple of energy bars and a block of chocolate. By the time I finished mending my feet it was approaching 1:45pm. Could I really make this bus?

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I remember that it had taken me about 45 minutes to climb up to the junction, so there was still a chance of accomplishing my goal, but I’d need to push a 7km per hour pace to do it. Nevermind the wincing pain at every advancing step. I bit my lower lip and set off in a half trot, half skip down the paved road. I soon passed by a small temple I had seen on the way. As I looked over at the stone steps rising up to the main sanctuary, a patch of red caught my eye. A troupe of macaques were sunning themselves on the stairs, as if taunting me to take photos of them. There are rare occasions where I will turn down a photo op but this was one of them. I was going to make this bus, posing monkeys or not.

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The final 10 minutes of the walk were a blur, but I somehow mustered up the energy to kick it into a full-on jog, as the sea grew closer and closer. Alas, I reached the bus stop with just minutes to spare, dropping my pack and tearing off my shoes in search of pain relief. I sat slumped in the comforting cushions of the bus seat, finally being able to take in the enormity of my quest. What surely should have been the easiest of the Kinki Hyakumeizan became one of the physically hardest and mentally toughest mountain to date. I’m not sure how many more of these lightning ascents I can take. Luckily for me, there are only 5 more mountains on the list.

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Mt. Azami gnawed away at my conscience like a caterpillar on a sakura leaf, but opportunities for a rematch did not present themselves until Paul and Josh came to inquire about another trip. Seizing the chance to revisit the area, we marked off a weekend in mid-May and hoped for more favorable conditions from both the weather gods and the intestinal deities.

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Paul missed his connecting train, so after a bit of a hiccup we once again met at Haibara station and headed to the same supermarket as the previous year to stock up on supplies. This time we added instant noodles for reinforcements in case the curry packs didn’t work their caloric magic and just around 11am we reached the trailhead parking lot, which was even more packed than our first trip.

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Trails tend to be much easier the second time around, as we knew what to expect. The water crossings did not pose any problems, but Paul’s slight head cold did slow our progress a bit. He looked a little worse for wear, but we encouraged him as best we could under the stellar sunshine and pleasant breezes seeping down from the ridge high above up. It took only an hour to reach the water source just below the grassy plateau. Josh pushed on to scope out possible camping options – we’d do anything to avoid the mayhem of the large hiking groups. I sat with Paul as he gathered his remaining reserves of energy for the final rise to our sheltered lunch spot.

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We sat under the open-air shelter, the same one we had used the previous year to prepare our meals. Josh informed us that there were plenty of shaded camping spots in the beech forests on the northern slopes just off the abandoned ski runs. Lunch was devoured in near-record time as Paul collapsed on a grassy slope for a bit of a rest. We were really starting to worry about him and encouraged him to have a proper nap once we had set up camp.

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In the forested reaches of the plateau, camping parties were dotted at pleasant intervals – not too close for comfort this time around. There was plenty of space to go around but completely flat spaces were few and far between. Luckily this time I opted for a simple canopy in lieu of a proper tent, so I found the perfect grassy niche and dropped my kit there as a reminder of other parties not to get too close. Josh and Paul set up nearby while I gathered stones for our fire pit.

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Once set up was complete, Paul collapsed in his tent and could hardly move. He was done for the day, and we could only hope his condition would improve after a bit of shut-eye. Josh and I strapped on the day packs and hit the trail in high spirits. We only made it about 20 meters out of camp before running into another hiking party with one familiar member. “Wes?”, came the voice. I turned around and stood face-to-face with Yukako, a woman who had joined our last gathering back in the autumn. She introduced me to her hiking companions before we parted ways. Dreadfully, they were headed down that same day after a morning ascent of Hinokizuka. It would have been nice to share our campfire with a group of cheery bright-eyed Osakans, but it was not to be.

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From the plateau, the path skirts the edge of the abandoned ski fields until reaching the summit of Maeyama. From there, it was a pleasant walk along the undulating ridge glistening with fresh greenery and vibrant moss. The cooler temperatures this spring had kept the snakes at bay as well, so things were definitely going our way. It took about an hour to top out on Azami’s rocky perch, whose exposed summit afforded spellbinding vistas of Odai-ga-hara and the Omine mountains. The afternoon haze reduced visibility somewhat, but it sure beat the drenching rains and thick fog that would’ve blotted out the views had we attempted this mountain the previous year.

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It took nearly the same amount of time to retrace our steps back into camp, where luckily no one else had encroached our space. Paul was just beginning to emerge from his afternoon comatose, looking and feeling much better. They got started on the campfire while I set up my shelter. I had recently bought this shelter from Locus Gear and was keen to give it a test run. Not expecting any morning dew or fog, I opted to go without a sleeping bag cover and just use the bug net for protection against the mosquitos.

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Settled around the fire we soon became, munching down on chickpea curry and chunks of french bread. Josh cracked the beers like a high school kid on his first outing, his drunken monologue leaving us in stitches until he passed out after retreating to his tent to fetch something. With the full moon now risen, Paul and I headed out to the plateau to shoot the night scenery.

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Morning came calm and clear, with more glorious sunshine and nary a cloud in sight. We cooked up breakfast and coffee, which set my bowels in motion again. I retreated further uphill, digging a hole next to a downed tree and deposited my load, only to find that I had misplaced my toilet paper. I was pretty sure that I had brought it with me when I came up there. I frantically searched all around before limping into camp to borrow some tissues from Josh. By the time I had made it back to the toilet there were literally hundreds of black flies devouring my excrement.

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Since Paul felt a bit better, we embarked on a morning excursion to the summit of nearby Mt. Kunimi which, at 1420 meters above sea level, sits higher than Mt. Azami. The steep climb took about 30 minutes to reach, so we continued along the ridge for another hour or so until reaching the shores of an idyllic, cordiform pond that would surely be packed with star-crossed lovers if the forest roads had made it this far north.

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It was hard not to be happy with such remarkable scenery and cooperative weather patterns. We continually had to remind ourselves that we were still in the Kansai region and not strolling along a swooping ridgeline in Nagano.

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Once back at camp, we cooked up noodles for lunch and broke down the shelters before dropping back down to the parking lot. Could Myojin-daira possibly be Kansai’s best back-country campground? Both visits have been impressive to say the least, but such bold conclusions could not be made with some sort of comparative analysis. Perhaps next year the three of us will head to the Omine mountains to see how it measures up to Myojin’s laid-back vibe.

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On the western cusp of the Suzuka mountains, not far from the shores of Lake Biwa, stands a broad peak that towers over the historical village of Hino. Named Watamuki, or ‘towards the cotton’ as the Chinese characters suggest, the 1110-meter mountain has long history with Shugendo buddhism, but in recent history you’ll find no esoteric monks or places of worship. Instead, it is the rime ice covering what is left of the virgin beech forest that attracts crowds of mountaineering spectators to its upper reaches. The origins of the mountain name are obscure, as you will find no cotton fields in this part of Japan. One likely explanation is the accumulation of cumulus clouds (known in Japanese as ‘cotton clouds’) that hover over the mountain virtually nonstop during the muggy summer months. Anyway, with 2015 quickly drawing to a close, I invited my friend Tsubasa along on a exploratory mission to close out the year of the sheep.

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It has been quite a mild winter so far, so surprised we were when getting our first glimpse of our target peak as the bus rolled through the lowlands of Hino village. The upper third of Mt. Watamuki lie cloaked in a veil of wintry white, surely the first snowfall of the season. Tsubasa had told me during our planning stages that he wanted to climb a snow-capped peak, and though the mountain is famous for winter precipitation, we thought it would escape our grasp. From the bus stop at Kita-batake, we marched up a paved rural road for several kilometers, inching our way closer to the steep folds of the mountain that were just beginning to break out of a thin cloud drapery. This spectacle provided an extra spark in our step: even though I had woken up with a sore throat and runny nose, I marched up the road as if I was in perfect condition.

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At the trailhead, our hearts dropped a bit when finding the parking lot full of cars. We had hoped by choosing December 30th that most of the other hikers would be too busy preparing for New Years to hit the trails. We were not the only ones to seize the day and race up for a glimpse of the freshly fallen powder.

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The first 10 minutes of the hike followed the river along the remnants of a paved forest road that had fallen into disuse. At the terminus, a proper mountain trail meandered its way through a rather unimpressive forest of planted cedar trees, a sight I had become all too familiar with over the years. Here, the trail switchbacked its way up the surprisingly steep contours of the southern face. After twenty minutes of huffing and puffing, we reached the first stage point (1合目) of the hike. If it took this long just to knock off a tenth of the ascent, it was going to be a very long day.

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The next two stage points took nearly an hour to reach, and at stage point #3, the trail crossed a gravel forest road before continuing its upward progress towards the ridge. It was here we found our first dusting of snow lying along the shaded portions of the forest canopy. The sun drifted in and out of the clouds on the otherwise remarkably calm day.

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At stagepoint #5, a small wooden emergency hut with a vibrant red roof sat along the edge of a clear cut portion of trees, affording wonderful vistas back into the valley below and out to the shores of Japan’s largest freshwater lake. Beyond, the white-capped towers of the Hira mountains floated above a thick wall of cloud sweeping in from the north.

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From here, the snow grew more consistent and deeper, as our first hikers of the day now passed us by on their descent. Most of them were over-prepared for the conditions, sporting both 12-point crampons  and ice axes firmly grasped in their thick gloves. The temperature was above freezing and the snow was already beginning to soften, making neither equipment necessary. I did have a pair of 4-pointers in my pack as a precaution, but didn’t see the need for them on the way up.

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We pushed up through the cedar forest and into the deciduous wonderland of hardwoods glistening with several inches of crystalline flakes on their bare branches. Every time the sun popped out of the clouds, more rime ice would tumble from the trees, occasionally finding its way onto our heads and packs.

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At the 8th stage point stood a small Buddhist altar flanked on either side by statues of En no Gyojā and Fudō Myō-ō, two symbols of Shugendo. We took a quick break here, as we were entering the final push to the summit. During the green season, it’s an easy stroll up through the switchbacks to the top, but we found the route to be barricaded and instead we followed the tape marks up the winter route.

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The no-nonsense trail followed the 40-degree slopes of the undulating ridge through a mystical kingdom of rime ice above and ten centimeters of accumulated power beneath our feet. Purchase on the well-worn chute straight up the ridge was tricky as our feet kept slipping out from under us, so we stuck to the untravelled sections of the forest where the footing was much better. Despite being only 200 vertical meters from the top, it still took the better part of 30 minutes to breach the summit plateau, where we were certainly rewarded for our efforts.

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We took a seat on a wooden bench that was mostly free from snow and took in our surroundings. All of Mie and Nara Prefectures stretched out before us. Fold upon fold of blue ridges stretched out to the horizon. Apparently you can see Odai-ga-hara from here, but I had trouble distinguishing it from the dozens of other mountains dominating the horizon. To the north, a menacing wall of dark cloud obstructed our views of Mt. Ibuki and Ryozen, as well as the vistas of Hakusan, Oku-hotaka, and Ontake.

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Closer to home, the Suzuka mountains stretched out directly to the east, with Mt. Amagoi appearing so close as if we could simply stretch out and touch it. The map indicates that it is possible to traverse from here to the summit along a little-used dotted trail, but it still takes over 3 hours of tough tramping along a twisty ridge. Mt. Gozaisho is hidden directly behind this mountain, but you can just make out the latter half of the sawtooth ridge as it serrates towards the summit of Mt. Kama, which sticks out like the thumb of a hitchhiker looking for a lift. Just to the left of Kama, a glimpse of Ise bay can be seen, with Aichi Prefecture fading out into the curvature of the earth beyond.

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The views were just too good to ignore, and between bites of the rice balls and hot soup we set work with our lenses, trying to burn the images into our digital retinas. We finished off the midday meal with a cup of hot coffee that I wisely remembered to pack at the last minute. Both of us had flasks of hot water for this special occasion.

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The vistas and grub energized us, but the cool winds pushing in from the north were eventually too much for us to bear, and we started our downward descent back to the bus. The first part down the winter route proved tricky, but again we tramped through the fresh snow where traction was better, bouncing off trees to help slow the momentum. The 4-point crampons inside my pack surely would have helped, but I just couldn’t be bothered interrupting our downward loss of altitude. We kept the pace brisk and steady, forgoing any breaks until reaching the parking lot at the start of the trail. By now my cold was starting to catch up to me, and I was feeling completely drained physically but in high cotton mentally. What a way to finish off the year of the sheep. Just before reaching the end of the trail, a monkey crossed the path in front of us and made its was down to the river for a drink. Fitting, as we were just two days away from the start of the next animal on the Chinese zodiac.

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Back on the bus to Omi-hachiman, I drifted off to sleep under the vibrations of the bus and the shaking of my arms. I had the chills and very likely a fever. Now that I was safely off the mountain and on the way home, my body gave up the fight and let my immune system take hold. By the time I reached my apartment in Osaka my fever was over 39 degrees. I ate a quick bowl of soup before collapsing in bed and staying there for the next two days while my sickness subsided.

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There has been plenty written about the other Sanjo in the Omine mountains of Nara Prefecture, but information about another peak by the same name remains spotty at best. It was time for my own in-depth investigation.

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Mt. Sanjo sits buried among a deep fold of mountains in northwestern Shiga Prefecture. It is best known as the highest point of the Takashima trail, a 80-km traverse along Japan’s Central Divide. Water down the western slopes of the mountains flows out to the Sea of Japan, while the watersheds on the eastern flanks empty out into Lake Biwa, which continues south to Osaka Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

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Willie and I had been planning on exploring the area in May, but just days before our departure a solo hiker was attacked by a black bear along our very route. The attack occurred at 4:30 in the afternoon along a stretch of trail that does not see many other hikers, even on the weekends. The prefectural authorities were likely to close the trail until the ursine culprit could be apprehended, so we concentrated our efforts on other mountains in the meantime.

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With the winter weather slowly closing in, we found another window in early December for another attempt at the monster. Will and Mai picked me up from Yamashina station at a quarter past 8 in the morning, and we headed north along the western edge of Lake Biwa and past the shuttered ski resort of Mt. Hakodate. A meandering forest road worked its way up the steep slopes, past a troupe of monkeys who seemed more interested in collecting chestnuts than checking out the vehicular intruder. At the top of the ski resort, the road eased down into a narrow valley following the Ishida river, where the trailhead for our target peak sat between two forks in the clear-running stream. We parked the car and geared up for the 4.2km slog to the summit.

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A flyer posted at the trailhead (and dated May 2015) warning of bear encounters suggested that hikers bring both a bear bell and spray, and avoid hiking alone. Two out of three wasn’t bad, we thought, as Mai affixed the improvised wind chime to a sidestrap on her pack. The trail wasted no time in gaining altitude, cutting through a cedar forest with little regard to the lay of the land. It was as if the original trailblazer was under a spell by the Pied Piper being led up that steep hill by a magic lute and a trail of deer droppings. Sweat oozed from the pores during the unexpected workout, making me regret my choice of insulated fleece-lined hiking pants.

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Luckily, there was only a 200-meter elevation change before the path flattened out at the ridge, and soon enough we were sitting on the spine of the mountain, admiring the vistas across the valley to Mt. Buna (not to be confused with the Mt. Buna in the Hira mountains). The cedar trees ceded their power to the mighty beech towers, whose bare limbs had long since shed their cloak of flaxen foliage.

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Instead of the undulating up-and-down of most ridge lines, the route was one long, gentle incline, like a wheelchair ramp for a disabled giant. Hints of animal activity lay all around: claw marks notched in the trees from the feet of a climbing bear, tree trunks stripped of bark by hungry, foraging deer, and the scat of an unknown variety laying gently among the dampened leaf litter. On this overcast day, however, the mountains were eerily quiet – not even the usual calls of songbirds could be heard in the cool, silent air. Or perhaps the drone of Mai’s bear bell and our audible cackles of laughter sent the local fauna scurrying back to their hiding places.

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We took our first break of the morning at the base of a towering beech whose branches fanned out above us  as if to provide a natural parasol. Indeed, this sprawling canopy must offer refreshing shade in the sunnier, greener months. I reached into my pack for an energy bar and a refill of water. As soon as I sat down, I could feel the cool air seeping into my base layer that was already damp with sweat. I put back on the fleece for the time being in an effort to prevent all of my precious body heat from escaping.

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A bit further up the elongated ridge, we got our first glimpse of the summit plateau rising gently in front of us. It still looked a long way off, but my GPS indicated a modest 200 meters of vertical elevation left in the climb, meaning that the worst was behind us. The trail moved through the hardwood forests dotted with grasslands stained gold from the early frosts of winter. Snow had blanketed these highlands during a recent cold spell the previous week, reminding us that the hiking window would soon be closed in these forgotten tufts.

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We attained the summit plateau shortly past noon, reaching a junction for a shorter trail that dropped off the eastern spur of the forested massif. It was an alternative way off the peak, as was an unmarked trail on a ridge running parallel to our approach. We opted for the latter, knowing we could always retrace our steps if the junction was not easily discernible. Lunch was devoured on the broad, open summit. I indulged in a thermos of piping-hot vegetable soup I had prepared earlier that morning, while Will and Mai dined on lunch boxes warmed by kairo heating packs affixed to the bottom of their lunch containers. I made a mental note to remember that innovative solution to a hot lunch on the cool mountains.

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The frigid gusts of wind blowing from Wakasa bay to the north had us reaching for extra layers. My winter down jacket was more than sufficient in the subzero temperatures. Mai jumped around eagerly to keep the blood pumping, and after a quick summit proof using a tree as an improvised tripod, we meandered along a section of the Takashima trail that whet our appetite for further exploration. The entire 80-km route looks like a fine multi-day outing – the route is anything but technical, but still offers formidable challenges due to the lack of reliable water sources along the route.

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After a 15-minute jaunt through the pristine grasslands, we reached a junction marked for Hachioji valley. Despite not being marked on our maps, Will possessed a printed copy of a GPS log uploaded to yamareco that showing a possible loop track back to the car. The signpost was hand-written and indicated that the trail was for ‘experts only’. I’m not sure what constitutes an ‘expert’, but, as Hyakumeizan alumni, we considered ourselves aptly qualified for the challenge.

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The path dropped steeply off the summit plateau before leveling off through yet another immense and incredibly beautiful virgin forest. The route narrowed in places, tramping through a thicket of rhododendron who were obviously confused by the relatively balmy temperatures for this time of year. One plant in particular had skipped winter altogether and decided to blossom five months early.

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After reaching an area signposted as ‘peak 686’, we stopped for a bit of a rest and rightfully so – my map indicated a significant drop in altitude to the forest road in the valley far below. Will and I split a package of fudge brownies for an extra bit of kick. The trail dropped back to the edge of a cedar forest, where it petered out all together. With the printed GPS track in hand, we veered left towards the deciduous cover, following a faint trail likely carved out by foraging deer. The pitch of the terrain was inversely proportional to our confidence level, climaxing as we reached the start of an impossibly steep gully flanked on either end by a rocky precipice. The only way down was through this gulch carpeted with leaf litter and fallen timber.

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Will and Mai looked at me as if I was leading them on a death march and rightfully so – one slip here and you’d tumble head-over-heel into the river churning a hundred vertical meters beneath our feet. I took the lead, lowering myself to the start of the trench one cautious step after another. At the far end of the channel, about 50 meters directly under our flailing feet, sat a natural dam of broken tree limbs and rockfall. It was hard to see what lie beyond that natural barricade, but my gut instinct was that the angle would ease a bit. Once I reached this ledge, I stepped to the side out of the path of potential rockfall and verbally guided Mai down the treacherous coulee. She made it down without too many problems, but Will looked spooked by the angle and footing.

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“Here, catch my pack,” he shouted, sending his 30-liter knapsack tumbling down the culvert until it somehow halted its forward progress at the base of Mai’s feet. Vertiginous though it was, it was no harder than some of the Hyakumeizan that we had scaled in the past. (though for the record, the steep trails of the more famous peaks of Japan are graciously lined with fixed rope to aid in the descents).

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Just as predicted, the angle did ease on the far side of the dam, with plenty of trees to help slow the momentum. Once we reached the water’s edge, a path became more apparent, though it was likely not a trail that was made by humans, as evidenced by the pellets of deer scat lining the route. At last, we spotted the forest road where we had parked our vehicle a mere 5 hours before. All that remained was to cross to the other side of the mountain stream, which Mai and I did with relative ease. Will, on the other hand, still sporting a case of the ‘laughing knees’, stepped straight off the first foothold and landed feet first into the chilly waters. Though silent he was, the expression on his face was all that needed to be said. I suspect that he’d likely have a word or two for the author of that GPS log.

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Once back at the road, we had a thirty minute stroll back to the car, where we changed our clothes and pointed the engine back towards Kyoto. Mt. Sanjo was a deceptively tricky mountain, but the beauty of the forest and lack of visitors (both human and ursine), made it one of the best peaks in Kansai to date. The rest of the Takashima trail will have to wait for another day.

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At the beginning of May every year, a cluster of holidays provide workers a brief respite known as  Golden Week. As such, scores of hikers head to the mountains to enjoy the usually pleasant weather every year. Avoiding such crowds can be tricky, unless you’re armed with a list of peaks so obscure that even seasoned mountaineers scratch their head upon hearing their names. Hence, the aptly-named Sengamine, a 1000-meter peak nestled deeply in the mountains of central Hyogo Prefecture.

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Tomomi and I set off early along the JR Tokai line to Kakogawa station, where another train whisked us north through the Bantan plains northward to the Shisō region dominated by a string of 4-digit peaks stretching uninterrupted to Hyonosen, Hyogo’s highest point. At Nishiwaki station, we boarded a bus an hour further northward, alighting on a rural road at the base of the towering ridge. From there, it was another hour walk along a forest road to the trailhead. Luckily, the first car that passed gave us a ride to the start of the track, shaving off a couple of hundred vertical meters of ascent.

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Soon after entering the forest, the path skirted the edge of multi-tiered Mitani waterfall, whose whitewater shoots flowed gracefully down the contours of the angled flank of the mountain. Huge swaths of planted cedar marred the beauty somewhat, a reminder to the great lengths the government has gone to ensure there’ll be no shortage of unwanted timber. The plantations extended high into the upper reaches of the sawa before finally yielding to a colony of deciduous trees basking in the May sunshine.

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The angled eased at the ridge, where a trail led off to the left to Zenkōji temple at the southern foot of the mountain. From here, it was a stroll on the undulating spine of the range before a final scramble just below the summit plateau. Tomomi and I topped out shortly before noon and grabbed a bench on the wind-swept summit. A couple of small hiking groups occupied the far corner of the broad, open top as we studied the map for an alternative way off the mountain. A bit further along the ridge to the north there is a trail that descends a valley parallel to the one we ascended, so after fueling up we once again made forward progress.

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After half an hour, the route lost altitude quickly, running headlong into a paved forest road with a couple of parked cars holding fort. From here the trail continued through a cedar forest, but was hard to pick up amongst the toppled trees and thick underbrush. The path eventually connected with the forest road again, where our stroll turned into a trot upon the sudden realization that we may not make the final bus back to the station. What the map indicated would take 40 minutes we covered in just 10, arriving with mere seconds to spare before collapsing in a heap of sweat and labored breaths.

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Another peak in Hyogo could be safely checked off the list, and with the week just beginning, I was hoping to strike gold by knocking off a couple of other tough ones.

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Shortly after finishing the Hyakumeizan, I had a photo exhibition at a local cafe to display a few photos from my long conquest. During one quiet night of the one-month show, a young man in a baseball cap sat at the bar in quiet repose, staring at a half-finished beer as if in deep contemplation about an unfinished task at hand. He introduced himself as Willie, in a friendly, accommodation pattern of speech that could only come from Down Under. “I’m on number 99 myself,” pronounced my new companion, now drawn away from the tepid beer and deep into tales about the hundred mountains. He was about to become the first Australian to complete the Hyakumeizan, and fitting that I should meet his acquaintance with only one remaining mountain, as that is preciously the same situation in which I met the original Hyakumeizan conqueror Craig Mclachlan. During the course of our conversation, we both agreed on meeting up again somewhere in the hills of Kansai for a proper hike. Well, life became busy with menial tasks, and opportunities to meet up slipped away like a piece of raw squid through the chopsticks of life, but finally things were beginning to come together for a long overdue hike. And there would be no better place for such a rendezvous than the venerated peak of Wakasa-Fuji.

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Willie, who more commonly goes by the nickname of Will nowadays, picked me up at Yamashina station in Kyoto on a brisk yet bright Sunday morning in late March. His splendid wife Mai sat in the driver’s seat, slowly pointing the vehicle up the roads that would lead us deep past the heart of Kyoto Prefecture into the tip of the province. I shared the backseat with a young, reserved boy who looked more keen on a morning nap than a walk among the flowers. His name was Sota, and, like most kids his age, would eventually warm up to this new visitor encroaching on his backseat territory.

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The drive north took several hours, long enough for Will and I to discuss the topic that both of us know so much about. It’s not everyday that you can peak-drop and get a response, as the average citizen has never even heard of Uonuma-komagatake much less climbed it, but we were right at home sharing our stories like two reunited sailors who had spend their lives at sea. It was late morning by the time we parked the car at Matsunoodera, the start of the steep hike up Fuji’s precipitous flank. Plum flowers glowed in the strong light of the sun, bringing a touch of color to an otherwise monochromatic forest. A gentle breeze brought a wintry chill to the air that had us reaching for some insulating layers. Perhaps it would be a few more weeks before mother winter released her grip on northern Kinki.

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The trail started directly behind the double-pitched main hall of Matsunoo temple, an ancient worshipping ground of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. The towering cliffs of Mt. Aoba were, in ancient times, rife with monks in search of spiritual enlightenment, but nowadays you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone other than a mountaineer or mushroom hunter on the steeper pitches of the massif. We entered the forest and immediately started a short climb to the base of the mountain, marked by a stone torii that was apparently toppled by an intense wind storm. The pitch soon increased in intensity, which left us with little choice other than to grab every tree root, twig, and fixed rope that was placed to aid in the ascent. Beech trees rose in unison with a thinning cedar forest. Claw marks on some of the trees were a reminder that the black bear sometimes traverse even this far north in search of nourishment.

After roughly an hour of steady climbing the first of Aoba’s twin summits was reached, marked by no small surprise with a shrine. A gargantuan boulder sat perched behind the worship hall, accessible by means of a rickety ladder and an even ricketier set of chains. Will and I scaled up the rock with ease, but little Sota had to be coaxed up the slab with promises of a post-hike ice cream. The vistas down to hidden coves in the sea directly below were mesmerizing to say the least.

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From here, the ridge undulated through a series of igneous rock uplifted by tectonic forces centuries earlier, a reminder that Mt. Aoba wasn’t always the calm, dormant figure it pretends to be. Patches of snow lay hidden on shaded bits of bamboo grass as the path traversed around a gnarly cliff edge before popping out on the eastern, and higher, peak. It was here that we took a lunch break. Will, Sota, and Mai feasted on homemade bentos while I subsisted on a sandwich or two.

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After admiring the scenery, we dropped off the eastern flank of the volcano, through an area of rich deciduous forest and onto yet another cliff of congealed pumice. Sota clang closely to his mother as Will zeroed in on a photo of the duo crouched next to the edge of a long drop. Hopefully Sota will eventually learn to overcome his fear of heights before finishing primary school.

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On the descent, I had a chance to ask Will a little about some of the entertaining anecdotes on his blog that often leave me in cackles. I’ve had my fair share of good-humored encounters but can never quite pen them in such a creative way as our author does on his blog. His encounters in Hokkaido are particularly laden with witty, flowery descriptions. Hopefully the full tales of his Hyakumeizan adventures will eventually see themselves in printed form and if they do, I’ll be one of the first in line.

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The path eventually dissipated in a vegetable garden at the back of a decrepit house teetering on the brink of collapse. We had hit a paved road and weren’t exactly sure which way to go other than west. After meandering the back streets though a maze of traditional houses, we eventually found a forest road that would bring us back to the car. Nature was calling for Will, so he sped ahead in search of a clean depository while Mai, Sota and I trudged slowly behind. Fatigue was setting in for the little one, so we took turns kicking a rock down the deserted road in a effort to distract him from his woes. Once back at the car, we headed to the shores of Tsuruga bay to capture the most picturesque and most Fuji-esque of Aoba’s beautiful faces.

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With peak #57 now safely summited, I had only three more mountains to knock off this spring before the onset of the rainy season. Perhaps it was time to turn my attention to some other areas of Kansai that I had yet to explore.

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Some people shy away from the mountains when the weather is anything less than immaculate. This is hardly an option, however, when you’re peak hunting in the secluded mountains of Kansai. Cloud marks dominated the weather forecast all day, but droplets had formed on the windows of the express train before it had even reached Wakayama city. I was en route to Kii-tanabe station for a long-awaited rendezvous with an obscure peak on the western edge of the Ootō mountains.

Ayako and Dewi were waiting upon my arrival, and we soon pointed the car to the north, following the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo for part of the way before ducking deeper into the mountains via route 371. Plum blossoms in full bloom provided dashes of color among the gray cloud as the rain held the cedar pollen at bay. After passing the maiden’s hot spring, the route followed a moss-laden stream through bear valley until leaving the watershed and climbing by way of steep switchbacks high up the valley towards Hansa pass. The forest road passed by a water source signposted at the maiden’s tears, the second such reference to the otome (乙女) in this region. There must be some kind of legend associated with our target peak, but with no villagers around to ask, we’d have to leave it up to the imagination for the time being.

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Rain continued to fall in steady sheets upon reaching the trailhead. We all sorted through our kit in search of rain gear and other thermal wear that would keep up both dry and warm in the chilly March air. The forest canopy blocked most of the falling moisture as the trail meandered through the north facing slopes dotted with gigantic boulders caked in a verdant coating of mushy moss.

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The cedar plantations gave way to natural vegetation upon reaching the ridge of the long Ootō range. Turn left here and there were two more unclimbed peaks on the dwindling Kansai 100 list, a mere 16 hours away on foot. The task at hand was fortunately much closer as we turned right towards the summit of Hansamine, my 92nd peak. The locals prefer the Chinese reading of the last character and call this summit Hansarei. Despite the naming discrepancies, the jagged ridge of the massif earned our respect. It was easy to see why this mountain made the final cut on the Kansai 100 list.

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The route scaled up, in, and around some very impressive cliff formations that afford spectacular vistas in fair-weather conditions. The fog kept us focused at the task at hand, which mainly consisted of keeping our balance as the rain and gravity threatened to throw us off these lofty pinnacles. It took close to an hour to reach the high point, where a couple of brief summit photos were snapped before the three of us retreated back to the sheltered protection of the forest. This was one peak where taking a break was not an option.

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The return trip wasn’t as exciting as the climb. For one, the rain had picked up pace, leaving our gear thoroughly drenched. Drenched clothing brought on the chill: we had to keep moving to stay warm, but the spirits weren’t dampened. The mind stayed focused on some of the hairier bits of the traverse, with ropes in place to slow the downward momentum. Eventually the ridge flattened out once again and the conversation could be a bit more relaxed, once again focusing on the remaining peaks at hand. Dewi was on her 43rd peak, and fortunately we still had a couple of mutual peaks between us that remained unclimbed.

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Back at the car, we stripped off the wet gear and blasted the heat, chewing on our rations as Ayako drove towards Hyakken gorge. The road leading into the gorge was closed due to landslide damage from the notorious typhoon of 2011 that ravaged this entire area. Despite the massive amount of money Wakayama Prefecture spends on public works projects, this repair work falls by the wayside as government funding for new projects takes precedent over repair or upgrade to existing infrastructure. There was another way into the gorge, but it involved a 30-minute detour to the southeast. That route would actually take up directly past the trailhead to Mt. Houshi, a peak that was still left on the list. Since it was already past 2pm and the rain continued to fall, the hot spring baths of Shirahama won out over another soggy ascent.

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It was only upon my return to Osaka that I found out about the origin of the maiden reference. To the north of Hansarei, along a section of route 371 that we had driven through earlier, lies a vantage point of the mountain. From here, the entire ridge looks like the profile of a sleeping maiden: the contours of Hansarei itself form the facial profile, while the rest of the ridge stretching out to Mt. Mitsumori represent the torso. Apparently this profile can also be seen along parts of the Kumano Kodo, leaving the mountain with the peculiar nickname of the sleeping maiden.

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