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Posts Tagged ‘Kumano Kodo’

It’d been nearly a decade since I last set foot on the Kumano Kodo, but here I find myself on my second outing in less than a week. It was time to visit Mt. Obako, one of the 200 Famous Mountains and the highest peak along the Kohechi pilgrimage route connecting the shrines at Hongu with the temples of Koyasan. The Kohechi is the shortest route to Hongu, but what it lacks in distance it more than makes up for in height, with three mountain passes over 1000 meters in elevation. Obako pass surpasses the 1300-meter mark, making it one of the highest points in all of Wakayama Prefecture.

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This time around I was joined by my old friend Nao, a fellow Kansai 100 seeker and Hyakumeizan alumnus. In the passenger seat sat Nao’s enthusiastic wife Tomoko, an old friend Aki, and Indonesian hiker extraordinaire Dewi. It was a quintet with a thirst for adventure, and a most welcome convoy for my quest on mountain #90. Nao’s 4-wheel drive hatchback rolled up to my doorstep shortly past 6:30am on a bitterly cold Sunday morning. The temperature in Osaka city sat at zero degrees, a rarity for this relatively mild marine metropolis. We set the navigation for Nosegawa village nestled in a secluded valley on the southern flank of Koyasan’s idyllic mountaintop monastery.

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Though less than 100 kilometers from the city center, access to Koyasan is anything but swift, as the only road to the top is laden with narrow shoulders and serpentine switchbacks. The pre-dawn black gave way to ash gray cloud as we inched closer to the summit. Snow swirled from the heavens and began settling on the frosty asphalt, transforming the landscape into a scene out of Fargo. Once we hit the Koya-Ryujin Skyline road the thoroughfare had turned into a giant bobsled run. The snow tires were effective enough, but progress ground to a halt on the far side of Koya, as the route dropped to the river bed running alongside the sleepy village of Omata, our starting point for the climb. While only twenty kilometers from the temples of Koyasan, it is a full-day journey on foot if using the Kohechi. A hotel further up the valley promises a warm bed and soothing hot spring to all pilgrims, the only plausible accommodation in a tiny hamlet lost in time.

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Five centimeters of dry crystalline powder greeted us at the trailhead. It was hardly enough to justify carrying the snowshoes, but the crampons went into the kit as a precaution. I led the way as the meandering route immediately began the fight with gravity through a dense cedar forest. Footprints of a variety of mammalians crisscrossed the route intermittently: those of the deer, boar, stoat, and rabbit were most easily recognizable. The first forty-five minutes were a sweaty, relentless climb that got the blood flowing, and soon a small rest shelter presented itself at the top of a small rise.

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The hut was unlocked and provided a welcome escape from the howling winds and subzero temperatures holding Mt. Obako in its grasp. The GPS read just a hair under 1000 meters – halfway there as far as the climb went, but a fraction of the distance horizontally speaking, as there were still over 4000 meters to cover before the summit.

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Aki and I waited for the others to catch up. This climb was in stark contrast to last weekend of being exhausted from the heat. The Siberian temperatures had me moving remarkably fast, as the clean air cleansed the lungs. Once Nao, Tomoko, and Dewi joined us at the hut we were itching to get back on our feet. The next part of the ascent towards Hinoki Pass skirted the edge of a series of unnamed peaks that overlooked a valley of hardwoods. The path itself resembled a forest road that can be found on virtually every mountain in these parts, and the planted cedar gave a hint that I was probably not too far off. The question arises then: was the logging road built directly on top of the ancient pilgrimage route, or was the route relocated here after the road was built?

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The angle eased a bit as we inched closer to the ridge line. At one point the trail was roped off, sighting typhoon damage from several years ago. A detour lead up a sharp incline to our left. I led the way but the going was tough without crampons. The others put on their climbing irons as I signaled to climb up the closed trail, as the angle was easier on the feet. Both routes met up at the ridge anyway. While waiting for the others to catch up, a small break in the clouds offered a chance to polish off the lens.

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We followed the ridge for a short distance through a section of old growth forest glistening with rime frost. It’s a shame that more of the natural beauty of the deciduous groves was not spared in Japan’s post-war frenzy for cheap wood. Arriving at Hinoki pass, I broke out the candy bar stuffed near my underarm to keep it from freezing. It was already approaching noon, and the ridge was no place for a lunch break, as it bore the full strength of the howling gales. To our left, the pyramidal shape of Mt. Obako’s noteworthy summit came into view, though it was still a good two kilometers away from our current position. Instead of sticking with the ridge line, the Kumano Kodo follows yet another logging road built on the far side of the valley. Perhaps they should consider renaming this route the Kumano Rindo.

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I blazed a trail through the shin-deep powder, sinking into a steady rhythm that left the others far behind. I much prefer this type of hiking anyway, as the silence and serenity allows a chance to ponder my thoughts and to fully appreciate the beauty of the mountains. Even though this was just another forest road, the snow transformed what would normally be just another boring road walk into a thing of magic.

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The route lost around a hundred vertical meters of elevation over the next kilometer or so until finally bottoming out at the base of the long climb to the summit. Again I waited for the others to catch up while refilling my water bottles and finishing off the chocolate. At last we had reached the main junction just below the final climb. Turn left here and you can continue on the Kumano Kodo to Obako pass, where you’ll find a free emergency hut and toilet facilities.

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To the right lay a long 14-km path to Mt. Gomadanzan, the nearest civilization from this remote location. Straight ahead, through a mystic forest of towering beech and oak, a scenic path lay buried in a thicket of snow sculpted by the winds. It was like hiking through a frozen ocean of breaking waves: once through the knee-deep crests you’d scuttle along a thin layer of ice before hitting the next wave of powder. I took the lead again, leaving the others in the dust as I finally got into the zone. It was only 600 horizontal meters to the summit and I wasn’t about to stop for any reason. I needed to generate as much heat as I could as the summit sat on a patch of bald grass completely naked to the elements.

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I didn’t bother with the crampons, as they’d offer no traction in this grainy powder. I used my trekking poles in much the same way a nordic skier uses them to facilitate movement, and shortly before 1pm I topped out on the summit of Mt. Obako, my 90th Kansai Hyakumeizan. I immediately sought shelter behind a bush that helped diffuse the wind gusts and I once again waited for the others to arrive. Lunch consisted of a thermos of piping-hot vegetable soup Kanako had prepared the previous evening. It was exactly what I needed to keep me going on the return journey. Once the others arrived, summit proofs were taken and praises offered: for not only was it my 90th peak, it was Nao’s magic #70.

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After lunch, we retreated back into the woods. Our original plan to check out the hut at Obako pass was abandoned in favor of saving time, so we simply retraced our steps back to the junction. Forward progress was catalyzed with the assistance of gravity, and once back at the junction I waited yet again for the others to catch up. From here I set off in front but kept the pace gradual so I could still be in earshot of Dewi and Aki. I wanted to pick Dewi’s brain about Mt. Nenotomari, a peak that was still on my list and one that she had happened to climb back in December. It turns out, like the remaining 10 mountains on the list, that the climb itself is simple enough, but access throws up the biggest challenge. She offered the name of an acquaintance that lives in Shingu who may be able to offer a ride to the trailhead.

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Once back at Hinoki pass, my pace accelerated as I decided to just wait back at the rest hut for the others to catch up. It was a wise decision, as the weather had turned and light snow began to fall. The hut was the perfect chance to finish off the rest of the culinary reserves while giving the knees a much-needed rest. Back at the summit, I had lent my winter mountaineering gloves to Devi as she had lost all feeling in her fingers. My hands were doing just fine as I now carry three layers of thermal protection for my sensitive fingers. There would be no more frost nip if I could help it. She returned the gloves back at the hut and I offered her some tips to keep the phalanges intact in winter pursuits. Frostbite and hypothermia are the two biggest challenges for winter mountaineers, especially on days such as today. We all returned safely back at the car just past three in the afternoon after spending nearly six hours in Kansai’s version of Siberia.

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The end of summer is marked in Japan by a seasonal rain front that hovers over the main island each year. Similar in vein to the ‘rainy season’ of June and July, the stationary weather system brings heavy precipitation and unstable barometric pressure, making outdoor pursuits a risky gamble. Regardless, if one wants to knock off a hundred of Kansai’s most secluded peaks, then such dice rolling becomes necessary. With this in mind, Paul and I played the slots and booked a car for a mid-week escape back into the Omine mountain range, and the target this time around was none other than the venerated peak of Mt. Shaka.

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Clocking in just under 1800 meters above sea level, the peak is accessible via a long, windy, beat-up forest road buried deep in southern Nara Prefecture. Despite the use of toll roads to escape from Osaka, we still found ourselves crawling along route 168 well past the lunch time bells in search of nourishment. We programmed the car navigation for the michi no eki closest to the mountain turnoff, but were denied a meal because the restaurant decided that Tuesdays were a good day for a holiday. We backtracked, finding a modest noodle shop sandwiched between two narrow road tunnels for a quick meal of udon before continuing the wearisome drive. After finally finding the forest road, Paul carefully navigated the switchbacks while I keep my eyes peeled for falling rocks and oncoming trucks. It was already after 2:30pm when we reached the trailhead, but the clouds remained clear for the time being.

We spent some time sorting through gear, wondering if the tent should be left behind. The map showed an emergency hut nestled in a col between the peaks of Shaka and Dainichi, but the tent would offer more flexibility in case darkness set in before reaching the shelter. Erring on the side of caution, I stuffed the rain fly on the outside while Paul stuffed the poles and inner tent into his 45-liter rucksack. I brought along a liter of water, knowing that we could fill it up at the col just before the final summit push.

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The trail immediately climbed a short spur, with aluminum ladders in place over twisted networks of exposed tree roots. The forest was breathtakingly pristine, with beech, oak, spruce, and other hardwoods growing freely as they had done for centuries. The ridge was breached after an hour of steady climbing, and here the route flattened out, meandering through a maze of bamboo grass and uprooted trees overtaken by gusts delivered by typhoons that frequently lash out at Nara’s highlands. Here and there a hiker or two would appear, questioning our late start and apparent lack of preparation. We don’t really fit the mold of most hikers, ditching the gore-tex and knee high gaiters in favor of short-sleeves and breathable trousers.

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We soon met an elderly gentleman pounding a large post into the ground. Even though there was a signpost a few meters away, this self-proclaimed caretaker took it upon himself to erect a new sign on a trail that was virtually impossible to lose. We used this to our advantage, picking his brain about trail conditions and water source locations. He drew us a map in the softened dirt, warning us that the water source at the emergency hut was nothing more than a trickle at times.

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A bit further up, a pair of modern day shugenja marched towards us, pompoms bouncing gently against the white tufts of their clothing. The leader was a tall man, no older than 40 if the eyes are to be trusted, carrying a dark staff with the traditional black token affixed to his shiny bald forehead. His companion, surprisingly, was a young woman fully decorated in pilgrimage garb, green pompons dangling from a pale gold sash. The different colors are used to denote rank, and upon first glance the couple appeared to be quite seasoned in the ways of esoteric Buddhism, so I was quite taken aback when the leader pulled out his horagai shell and treated us to an impromptu performance. The instrument is generally used as a bugle call to announce entry to a sacred place and not used as a showpiece, but perhaps these worshippers are a bit more relaxed when not undergoing their solitary shugyō rituals.

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We pushed on, rolling across the hilly ridge like two soldiers marching off to war. It was a race against both the time and weather, and the closer we came to the summit plateau, the thicker the clouds became until visibility dropped to only a few meters. Darkness was creeping in, transforming the forests into a scene from a John Carpenter classic. Just after 4:30pm the track widened to a narrow plateau with a few campsites tucked off the southern edge of the ridge. The water source was just above this, so we spread out, keeping the ears open for the sound of flowing water in the reduced visibility of the thick vapor. Paul found it first, and we rushed over to hydrate. The timing was prefect, as I was down to my last 100 ml of liquid.

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From here the incline stiffened, with a dozen or so tracks diverging towards the ridge line. It was impossible to tell which one was the correct trail, but the direction was obvious as we only needed to keep heading up. After a twenty-minute shirt-drenching slog, the ridge line was breached, marked by those familiar stone signposts that were erected after the route became a World Heritage site.

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Gear was stowed at the junction while we picked our way up the final spine to the high point, marked by a 5-meter high statue of Shaka Nyorai, one of the 13 deities of Shingon Buddhism. I’d forgotten to write down the mantra, only remembering that it began with naamaku, but hoped the deity would at least admire my effort.

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Drops of rain forced us prematurely from the exposed summit, as we retrieved our gear and picked our way slowly across the  boulder-strewn ridge. Overgrown bamboo grass concealed the footholds below, making each step a test of balance. It took nearly an hour of steady dropping until the path spit us out at a large clearing at the base of a massive cliff. A small, wooden temple was barely discernible in the thick mist and fading light, but just past the worship hall a corrugated metal shack painted bright blue caught our attention. The door was ajar, and a camping tent sat erected on one of the arms of the u-shaped platform. We belted out a quick greeting, but there was no reply. A quick look inside revealed that this structure was erected to store blue tarps and a handful of construction tools, which ate up nearly half of the usable sleeping space. Fortunately there was no one else around, and we made due with the remainder of the elevated platform.

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Shortly before dusk the clouds broke a bit, revealing the porphyry cliffs in all of their hidden glory. It looked like something straight out of a Huang Gongwang painting. While dinner was cooking I picked my way through the fog, searching for the hidden water source marked on the map. Using my headlamp for assistance, I relied on my Bear Grylls instincts, correctly surmising that the water must be originating directly from the cliffs themselves. A faint trail lead past a large stone carving and up a slippery slope of coated mud and rock. Thanks to the recent rains, the water was much more than the trickle that the caretaker had warned us about.

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With nothing more to do, we crawled into our sleeping bags at 8pm, hoping that the fatigue from the long drive and steep hike would set in. Both Paul and I are incredibly light sleepers, so when the winds picked up drastically sometime before midnight, we both lay there, chatting about the weather forecast. Around 2pm, my bladder let me know it was time for a release, so I stumbled outside and let out a yelp that jostled Paul from his light slumber. The strong gales had pushed the low clouds away, revealing a dense trail of constellations spanning the skies. We both got the cameras out in an attempt to capture the nocturnal backdrop.

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The temperature was in the teens, bringing a stinging numbness to the phalanges. Paul headed back inside first but I tried in vain to get some decent long exposures without the aid of a tripod. We did finally succumb to drowsiness a short time later, awaking sometime after the first light. I opened the door, realizing to our horror that the cloud had returned with a vengeance. We both drifted back to sleep, finally getting up around 7am with empty stomachs. Oatmeal and coffee were served as we slowly began repacking the gear. Suddenly, the sound of a horagai shell penetrated the early morning stillness. A true gyōja was approaching, but from which direction we could not tell. I kept my eyes peeled and gradually the figure presented himself in front of the temple, breaking into a long mantric chant. Unlike the two shugenja from the previous day, this one was engaged in shugyō.

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After packing up, we stowed the gear in the hut for the short but steep jaunt up Mt. Dainichi, a pointy pinnacle dangling with ropes and chains. There were two different routes up the impossibly steep rocks: the gyoja course for pilgrims, or the easier side spur for regular hikers. We made it a quarter of the way up the pilgrimage course before turning back. It was impossible to see the trail and the wet rock made the conditions downright intimidating. Instead, we cut the ascent short and hit the alternative trail which was still just as treacherous and a bit death-defying. The constricted summit only has room for about three people comfortably, thanks in large part to the bulbous statue of Dainichi Nyorai that must have been a great challenge to hoisten up to this lofty perch.

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On the return descent we reached one of the steeper points in the trail and saw a figure moving through the rock formations above. It was the monk from earlier, seated on the edge of a cliff completely exposed to the wind and engaged in deep meditative thought. Our twenty-first century mountain gear was no match for the 18th century footgear of the shugenja.

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Returning to the hut, we grabbed our packs and followed a steep narrow path that looped back to the original campground by traversing the side of Shaka’s voluminous form. It was tough going in the mist and winds, but eventually we returned to the ridge from which we had traversed the previous afternoon. From here it was simply a matter of retracing our footsteps back to the car, compounded by the poor visibility and tear-enducing gales. Resting was not an option until dropping further back into the sheltered forests to the north, which we reached sometime around noon. Once back at the car, we stripped off the wet gear and set the navigation for home.

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All in all it was an exhilarating trip, and another of Omine’s grand summits could be checked off the list. This leaves the entire southern half of the Omine range left to climb, which follows a spiny ridge all the way to Hongu shrine.

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