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Posts Tagged ‘Kinki Hyakumeizan’

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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