Posts Tagged ‘Kyoto’

After reading Ted’s harrowing account of a recent ascent of Kyoto’s highest peak, I thought it prudent to give a recap of my groundbreaking ascent up Mt. Minago. Let us enter the vaults and take ourselves back to May 2011. While northern Japan begins to pick up the pieces after the March disaster, I team up with trusty companion John for an excursion into uncharted waters. The Kutsuki-bound bus deposits us in a tiny hamlet awash in late plum blossoms. After crossing route 367, the dilapidated forest road leads to the trailhead at Ashibidani bridge. The kanji, translating as “foot and tail” valley, is soon to live up to its name.

A series of log bridges, over waist-deep waters, ferry us safely up the first set of rapids to a well-defined track on the right bank of the river. Without these fastened crosswalks, it would surely be a foot and tail exercise hopping up, over and most likely through a set of oblong boulders. Some time between 2011 and our current CoVID times, a series of typhoons and floods have swept through the valley, toppling trees with the whipping tail of the wind and kicking away these bridges with their swollen feet. Had I known the current condition of the track, I surely would have given Ted advanced warning.

The footbridges give way to fixed ropes strung across the river at strategic crossing points. That, coupled with generous decorations of pink tape on the trees, mean navigation is merely an afterthought. The wild, untouched valley we climb is truly stunning in its cedar-deprived beauty: these narrow gorge walls are no match for the tree plantation owners, who leave this sliver of untrodden Kyoto be.

Voices in the distance entice John and I to pick up the pace, and sure enough, we soon run into a quartet of young Japanese hikers out on an excursion. We naturally join forces, with John and I taking the lead as we follow the river to its source and then navigate a headwall of towering beech trees still yet to sprout their summer-green cload. It takes nearly an hour of zig-zagging up the final section of track, past swaths of fringed galax in full bloom, to reach the summit of Kyoto’s highest point.

The unmistakable hump of Mt. Buna-ga-take sits directly opposite our vantage point, with the last stubborn patches of snow clinging firmly to the exposed northern slopes. Our sextet clan perch ourselves on a flat patch of summit, chatting away about mountains while sharing chocolate and hot bowls of soup prepared by Aki, the leader of our recently-merged group. We pore over the maps and eye three possible descent routes, neither of which are clearly marked.

Just south of the high point, a signpost marked teradani (temple valley) is affixed to the tree, so we head just right of this and into and down a narrow trail affixed with tape skirting the edge of the scented flowers of an andromeda bush. We switchback down through a section of planted cedar smothered in colored plastic tape. This tape is either to tell the harvesters which trees to fell or which trees to keep. I must confess that I have never seen these genocidal workers in action so I can never be sure what function the tape has other than the break up the monotony of the terrain.

The cedars once again give way to deciduous hardwoods, and after losing a couple of hundred meters of elevation, we reach the log bridges ferrying us back to civilization. From here’s is a simple walk along a gravel forest road lined with yaezakura trees to finally arrive at Taira bus stop.

We exchange contact information with the other hiking group and check the bus schedule. With over an hour to kill before the next ride back to Kyoto, John and I use our thumbs to flag down a ride all the way back to Demachiyanagi. It’s a shame that such a lofty mountain has fallen into disuse and neglect. You would think that someone in the region would care enough to nurse Kyoto’s highest mountain back to health, but perhaps we’ll all have to wait until the entire human population rids itself of its other health problem first.

So there you have it – a brief recap of a hike nearly a decade ago. At that time I was focused on the Kansai Hyakumeizan, and Minago happened to be peak #38 (and technically speaking, my first of the Ōhara 10). Anyone attempting to climb Minago in 2020 and beyond had best heed the advice of Ted and stay far away from the valley of foot and tail, and you will surely lose your footing and end up on your tail (or worse, to a place that rhymes with tail).




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Iwakura station is but an insignificant little blip on the Eizan Railway connecting Demachiyanagi to the sleepy hamlet of Kurama in northern Kyoto city, but for William and I, it marks the start of a journey into uncharted hills. Hills which once provided a hidden passage between Kyoto and Ōhara before the advent of the automobile. The two of us set off in mid-December for the summit of Hyōtankuzure, a peculiar peak rising to the modest height of 532 meters and included on the list of Ōhara 10. We leave Iwakura under sunny but chilly skies as we navigate the back streets in search of the mountain trail, marked by a faded wooden signpost affixed to a concrete electrical pole by someone with a penchant for wirework.

Hyōtankuzure, or literally ‘toppled gourd’, is one of the more unusual mountain names in Japan, and its origins are unclear, but a local legend reveals that the shape of the peak resembles a gourd split in half and laid on its side, such is the elongated profile of the peak when viewed from neighboring Hieizan. We will be walking along the entire length of the calabash, hoping for some tiny morsels of sweet succulent scenery in this unexplored corner of Kyoto.

Cedar trees as dense as they come soon yield to a deciduous forest recently laid bare by the strong gusts of late autumn – the fallen foliage softens our footsteps along a well-laid path following the contours of the sloping hillside. Through gaps in the bare branches we stand transfixed by vistas looking straight down on Iwakura and further afield to the ridges on the western edge of the city.

A junction is soon reached on the main ridge, where a blanket of fallen pine needles cushions each footstep through patches of quickly melting snow. We turn left, following the tape marks to the crest of the ridge and the summit of our target peak. A small clearing provides a snow-capped glimpse Mt Horai overlooking the valley, while due east the towering face of Hieizan looks tantalizingly close at hand. William and I pause briefly for a mid-morning snack while bathing in the soothing rays of sunlight under the watchful eye of a miniature snowman.

We retrace our steps back to the junction and continue south along a rarely used trail with unmarked junctions fanning out on either side of the ridge. Our map is affixed with the kanji character 迷, indicating that it is easy to get lost, so we use our GPS devices to double-check our gut feelings as to the proper route. We know that the trail meanders in a southernly direction and after passing through a lovely section of lingering autumn foliage the ridge broadens and turns wild, the kind of untouched wilderness you rarely find so close to the city.

Mesmerized we are by the tranquility and isolated feel to the ridge, so we continue climbing a slope directly ahead where the path seems to peter out into a clearing with splendid vistas of the entire city. This is easily one of Kyoto’s best mountain trails, yet so few visitors seem eager to explore anything that hasn’t been written up in the tourist literature. That suits us just fine, as such hidden spots should remain out of reach except to only the motivated few.

On the far side of the clearing we somehow pick up the trail again, ducking back into a hardwood forest with clear signs of recent ursine activity. Some trees get off easy with just a few claw marks, while others are torn apart by a feisty bear with a probable termite infatuation. We are just a kilometer from civilization, but I guess animals don’t care about these things when their stomachs are empty.

Further along the meandering ridge we reach a junction and drop down toward a secluded shrine nestled against the forest. It only takes about 10 minutes to reach the upper sanctuary of Sudō-jinja, built to commemorate the 8th century prince Sawara Shinno. A gravel promenade leads to route 367 and the short walk to Miyakehachiman station. Future hiking parties may find it more rewarding to start from Ōhara and climb along the lesser-explored northern face of the gourd before continuing along the ridge to our finishing point. Just don’t forget to bring the GPS.


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Mt Ama sits snugly on a elongated ridge between the secluded hamlets of Kurama and Ōhara, a fitting place to start my exploration of the 10 peaks. I alight from the Eizan train under clear April skies and trot through the deserted streets of Kurama to the turnoff for the Tokai Shizen Hodō that provides passage to Shizuhara and beyond to Ōhara.

Yakko-zaka pass is reached in good time, a chance to wipe the sweat from my brow before taking a faint path on my right in the entirely opposite direction of my target peak. An unexplored trail on my map beckons, as in my recent hiking excursions I purposely seek out these smaller, lesser known trails literally off the beaten path. Red tape marks affixed to the trees help guide me through a thick, neglected hardwood forest. Free from any sort of regular maintenance, it soon becomes a fruitful exercise of climbing up, over and sometimes through toppled timbers and head on into a labyrinth of sticky spider webs, quickly reminding me of why I am less-than-enthusiastic about hiking in the early summer.  After a false summit, the path flattens and reaches a stone stupa adorning the summit crest of Mt. Ryūō . Here, through a gap in the trees, I find what I have long sought – a clear view across the valley directly down on Kurama temple. 

Exultation reached, I slither back to the pass for a quick rest before heading on the main path along a broad ridge teeming with new greenery. Mountain azaleas add a touch of pink and purple to the proceedings as I scoot along a deserted trail on unfamiliar terrain. These hidden stretches of northern Kyoto city are truly magical, as even on weekends you’ll be hard pressed to run into other hikers. I continue at a steady pace, slashing spider webs with my trekking poles as Mt Kibune keeps watch across a parallel ridge, with the slender village of Kurama sandwiched between. I only gaze upon this spectacle in small snippets, as the spring foliage has once again begun to fill the gaps between the canopy overhead. A winter ascent of this ridge must truly provide some breathtaking scenery. 

It takes nearly two hours along a very pleasant undeveloped section of forest to reach a small clearing as a lone Japanese hiker sits on a log just opposite Amagatake’s summit signpost. We immediately commence in tozan banter, that familiar mix of peak namedropping and quizzing of climbing experience that encompasses nearly every conversation you encounter over mountaintop lunches. It soon becomes clear that my companion is a very experienced mountaineer, so I hit him up for some local knowledge. “The rhododendrons are in full bloom at the moment, so I recommend taking this route down” explains my guide, pointing to a dotted trail on my map named, appropriately enough, shakunage one. How can one resist the temptation to hike rhododendron spur in the height of the flower season?

Armed with this bit of insider knowledge, I drop off the northern face of Mt Ama and immediately hit a dirt forest road carved into the steep hillside, literally within spitting distance of the top. It’s a bit of a buzzkill to climb a mountain from a long undeveloped ridge only to find such desecration on a more developed face. I stay on the left shoulder of the deserted road, reaching a spur trail to my left that leads to a clearing pierced with an electrical pylon. At least the lack of trees do provide a soothing vistas toward Kyoto to the south.

I retrace my steps back to the road and engage in a bit of hide-and-seek with the trail. I follow a faint path to the east that isn’t marked on either the paper maps nor on my GPS. That inner hunch takes over, and I soon retrace my steps just before the trail begins dropping down the eastern face. If this were a ‘proper’ trail you would expect to see a signpost or at least a tape mark or two. Back at the junction I peer over the crest of the ridge and spot the real trail traversing just below the northern crest. Pausing, I gather fallen tree limbs and erect a barrier over the false trail on the ridge in hopes of preventing future climbing parties from falling victim to the same mistake.

The route follows the contours of the spur before switchbacking through pleasant swaths of mountain azaleas in brilliant shades of pink. I make good progress through the tunnel of vibrant foliage and reach the turnoff for the rhododendron spur, denoted by a signpost affixed to a rhododendron bush in full bloom. My map says the traverse should take about an hour so I slow down the pace and take in the scenery on a section of track completely void of people. In Kansai it’s surprisingly easy to find deserted hiking trails, even on the weekends.

The up down undulations of the spur give the legs an extra workout, but my fatigue is mitigated by the subtle scent of the colorful flowers keeping watch over the track. This year the rhododendron have bloomed early, for I rarely find myself in the hills during the peak season of early June, turned away as I am by the humidity and stifling temperatures. I soon reach another electrical pylon affording panoramic views of nothing but wilderness in all directions. Who knew that such untamed beauty existed in these hills surrounding Ōhara village?

Descent comes abruptly via a no-nonsense, knee-knocking descent back down to a secluded valley. I reach a forest road and turn left and then right, passing directly past the trailhead of Naccho, another one of the Ōhara 10 peaks. I resist the urge to climb for now but know that I must come back here someday to complete my quest. The paved road I follow soon bisects route 367. A bus stop here reveals an infrequent bus schedule I have neither the time nor patience for, so I continue tramping down a quiet lane for close to 90 minutes until reaching Ōhara village, passing by a temple gate just outside the main town in quintessential Kyoto fashion.

With the first of 10 peaks now successfully summited, I pore over the maps to plot a course of action for the remaining 9 mountains of Ōhara. 

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Nestled snugly in the mountains of northern Kyoto Prefecture lies a peak by the name of Hyakuri, whose kanji represent 100 Li, or a hundred Chinese miles. The Li is an ancient unit of measurement equivalent to about half a kilometer in length, so this mountain refers to the unobstructed panoramic vistas of 50 kilometers in all directions. A clear weather mountain this would have to be, so once again I teamed up with Will, Mai, and Sota for a stable high pressure window in mid-May.


We started our automobile journey from Demachiyanagi station, heading up the paved switchbacks past Ohara village and deeper into the Kitayama mountains. Just past Bomura village, we veered left and followed a narrow lane past dwellings in shambles and grossly overgrown cedar plantations. We reached the trailhead a couple of hours after setting off from the ancient capital, and aside from a few fallow fields and a handful of houses dotted along the narrow valley, there wasn’t much in the way of amenities. Remarkably, a minibus runs up to this secluded hamlet twice a day to shuttle the residents to the more populated areas of Shiga Prefecture to the east. As Will and company sorted through their kit, I shuffled off to one of the overgrown vegetable fields in order to provide some organic fertilizer. Relieved, I retreated back to the car and shouldered the gear.


The trail followed a gravel forest road for a short distance before commencing the climb through a lush and healthy deciduous forest alive with the vibrant greenery of a new season. In Japanese, this annual phenomenon is referred to as shinryoku, and it attracts scores of hikers wanting to witness the power of the changing of the seasons before the caterpillars wreak havoc on the freshly sprouted foliage. On the beleaguered slops of Hyakkuri, however, there was hardly a sign of human intrusion, and the path, littered with fallen branches, looked as if no other hikers had been up here in quite some time. I prefer these untamed folds of mountains to the more frequented spires further east. Even on weekends, a lot of Japanese mountaineers tend to be lazy and stick to the slopes with the easiest access.


The temperatures rose in conjunction with the altitude gain, forcing sweat out of our aching pores along the long, undulating ridge towards the broad summit of our target peak. It had been just a couple of weeks since knocking off Mt. Oike in the Suzuka range, and now that the antibiotics were now finished, I had an usual jolt of energy despite the balmy temperatures. Will, on the other hand, had been swamped with a new school year at his school and was embarking on his first hike of the green season, and the angle of the gradient appeared to be winning. He looked as if had just come out of the shower, while Sota, just shy of his 9th birthday, stuck little breaks in at every available opportunity. Still, these more leisurely ascents were a much-welcomed change from my usual breakneck pace, and with the glorious foliage and mouth-watering vistas, it was hard to wipe the smile off our faces.


Just before reaching the junction to the Takashima trail, near the top of a long, relentless climb, we took our first real break of the day and fueled up on snacks for the final assault on the 931-meter peak. While it may not seem like much, you should never judge a mountain based on elevation alone, as Ted and I learned so painfully on Jyatani, a mountain scantly 30 meters lower than our current outing.


We all felt a bit better once the perspiration evaporated and the carbs were converted into glucose. We shouldered the packs and turned right at the junction for the short but steep ascent to the high point. A few fixed ropes assisted in the more abrupt pitches of the beech-lined slopes, and shortly before the lunchtime chimes we basked in the sunshine on my 79th peak.


The panoramic vistas were inspiring enough, but the lack of shade caused a bit of discomfort. Despite my negligible cravings for a hot drink, I brewed up a cup of steaming coffee to not only give me a bit of a caffeine kickstart, but also to help lower the weight of my pack by using up the reserves of my hot water thermos. I never carry a stove on day hikes, preferring the ease and timeliness of a portable jug of hot water I can pour over tea bags, coffee filters, or perhaps into the lid of an instant ramen container.


Instead of retracing our steps back on the serpentine ridge, we spied an alternative loop down the old saba kaidō, a disused trade route linking the Sea of Japan to the ancient capital. This required a traverse further south along the Takashima trail that looked like a breeze on the map. Someone forgot to tell those Yama-to-keikoku cartographers about the incline, however, as the contour lines were spaced much too far apart to accurately represent the real lay of the land. We spent the better part of an hour in a tussle with gravity. Will, Mai, and Sota were running low on hydrogen-oxygen reserves, and with no water source in sight, we had to ration the remaining liquids to avoid being caught out dry. At the top of an unmarked peak, the four of us collapsed in a heap of sweat and exhaustion. Completing all 80 kilometers of the Takashima trail must require superhuman effort, or at least the assistance of a few porters who can carry your heavy loads. With no way of getting fresh water along the ridge itself, trekkers are forced to descend the rugged valleys in search of mountain streams.


The path dropped abruptly to a junction on the remnants of an old forest road, a place called Negorizaka pass by the generations of travellers throughout the centuries. An aging, rotting shelter provided a relatively dry roof for a duo of jizo statues placed here long before hiking was a recreational sport. Adjacent to the structure, a stone sculpted to resemble an index finger stood at head height, the kanji characters carved into the lichen-smothered face too faded to clearly decipher. We had at last arrived on the saba kaidō, or the old ‘Mackerel Road’ as the westerners tend to call it.


We veered off the Takashima trail here, turning left and following the eroded trail until it spit us out a short time later on a broad, paved lane that is popular with cyclists looking for some additional exercise. It’s a shame that so many of Japan’s old roads have been paved over in such careless manor, but I guess it kind of makes sense if you think about it. If I wanted to built a literal road to nowhere, what better place to start than a path that has already been forged through a rugged tract of mountain land.


It took about an hour or so to reach the rustic village where we had parked the car. Fitting enough, it was Sota who had a call of nature upon our return, depositing his load in the woods in much the same way that I had christened the trail upon our ascent. With good ole 79 under my belt, I pored over the maps to scope out the next mountain victim before the onset of the rainy season.


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Frostnip can be a real blow to the psyche. Although the scrapes and bruises from my winter accident have fully healed, the tips of all 10 fingers are still on the mend, making even menial tasks a bit taxing. I needed an emotional boost, and the only remedy was to get back up on that horse and start climbing mountains again. A journey to the far north was in order.


The Yura river starts off deep in the mountains of northern Kyoto, in the ancient groves of the Ashyu forest managed by Kyoto University. Over the next hundred and fifty kilometers or so, it passes by villages stuck in an Edo-era time warp while meandering north, eventually dumping its emerald cache of pristine waters into Kunda Bay in the Sea of Japan. Near the mouth of this river sits the twin-peaked beauty of Mt. Yura, my target for this balmy March morning.


In an effort to save a bit of money, I opted for the highway bus to Maizuru city which was just a few train stations east of Tango-yura, the starting point for the long climb up the northern face of the mountain. The bus soon became a victim of the morning rush hour traffic in the city of Takarazuka, arriving in the port city of Maizuru far to the north nearly 45 minutes behind schedule. Fortunately, there was a train leaving in just a few minutes, so I ran up the escalator and onto the platform just before the doors closed. Trains are few and far between on the Tango railway: locals usually keep copies of the train timetable in their pockets in order to avoid the lengthy wait times between trains. The train pulled into Tango-yura station shortly after 11am under crystal clear skies and a relatively low pollen count that usually keeps me sidelined during the spring.  Mt. Yura dominated the skyline to the south and rightfully so: though only 640 meters in height, it rises straight from the sea just a few meters from the train platform. Looks like I had my work cut out for me.


The first fifteen minutes were along a narrow paved roadway that terminated at Yura-sō, a beautiful lodge affording wonderful sea vistas and mouth-watering crab during the colder winter months. Tempting as it was to stay the night, the day mission meant that loitering was kept to a minimum, and directly behind the lodge a small wooden kiosk marked the entrance to the mountain path. In this information booth there was a notebook filled with messages from other visitors, as well as a wonderfully composed hiking certificate on A5 cardstock that was free for the taking. I put one in my guidebook as a keepsake, knowing I’d likely be pressed for time on the descent in order to make the next available train.

The path immediately entered a severely eroded gully with chest-high ruts that made for an unexpected workout. The steep contours meant that the woods were free from the grasp of the forestry authorities who have a penchant for destroying the ecosystem by planting cedar trees. The first couple of stage points were checked off in no time at all, but, like most other dormant volcanoes, the mountain angle grows in direct proportion with elevation gained. It was in these thirty degrees slopes about halfway up the mountain that the cedar trees made an appearance, blotting out the light and transforming the forest into a standing army of long-legged evergreen soldiers ready for battle. Their main weapon came in the form of a thin yellow powder that would be released from the needles at the slightest touch of a breeze. This powder causes a severe allergic reaction to those unlucky hikers whose immune systems have been sensitized to the usually benign substance. I reached into my pack, pulling out my pollen mask as a shield against the aerial assault.


Fortunately the cedar army was a small one, and further up the peak the deciduous paradise returned, revealing swaths of unmelted snow that hung firmly to the harsh contours just below the summit ridge. Crampons were not necessary in the mild March sun, but kick-stepping added an additional level of security as the saddle between the peaks was finally breached. The western peak (西峰) was the higher of the two, so I turned right and followed the gentle curves of the bamboo grass-lined ridge through a grove of beech and oak still naked of leaf after the long, harsh winter. The vistas opened up towards the north of the summit, revealing the long sandspit of Amanohashidate that attracts hoards of tourists throughout the year. I was getting my own bird’s eye view, but without the chaos of the crowds.


I retreated back to the junction and onto the east peak (東峰), where the panoramic views really opened up. I crafted a seat out of a bundle of dried bamboo grass and soaked up the scenery. To my left, the sea extended uninterrupted out to the horizon. Turning clockwise, the mouth of the Yura river cut a line in the earth directly below, as a twin-peaked cone jutted out of Wakasa Bay like a miniature version of Mt. Fuji herself. In fact, the local nickname for this mountain is Wakasa-fuji, but most people know her by the name of Mt. Aoba, a peak that was still remaining on the list. Behind Aoba, you could just barely make out the snow-capped peaks of the Japan Alps spread across the hazy horizon like a chain of paper snowflakes hung in a kitchen window. Weather this fine is a rarity along the Sea of Japan coast, and if not for that afternoon train I could have easily lazed here until the dawn glow of the following morning.


As it was, I had planned to catch the 4:29pm train, so time was of the essence. Retracing my steps was simple enough, as I covered the knee-knocking slopes in a fraction of the time it took to ascend. Back on the train, the full effect of my exposure to the pollen let itself be known, with waterfalls of clear snot dripping freely from my poker-red nose. I popped an antihistamine and drifted off in a dazed sleep for the train journey back to Osaka.


Summiting Mt. Yura, mountain #55, was the confidence boost that I needed. The fingers held up surprisingly well and if I keep my hands covered with soft, thin gloves they don’t cause too much trouble. Pollen, on the other hand, was my real nemesis, but with the momentum on my side, a couple of more mountains in the mighty north had my name on them.


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Mt. Sajiki – Sinking In

On the outskirts of Kyoto city sits the tiny, forgotten hamlet of Kumo-ga-hata. The village punctuates a secluded valley at the base of Mt. Sajiki, the source of the Kamo river that flows through the center of the city on the meandering journey to Osaka bay far to the south. It was here that the bus dropped of several dozen elderly hikers on a brisk January morning. Among the flood of pensioners elbowing each other off the bus, Kanako and I slipped out and sorted through our gear. The streets were bone dry, an indication that the snow depth on the ridge may be a lot thinner than initially expected. We stashed our snowshoes behind an abandoned storage building and worked our way up the steep forest road towards the trailhead. We were anxious to get a quick start ahead of these unusually large groups before they turned the hiking path into rush hour gridlock.


The route to the start of the path would take us right past Shimyoin temple, a place that Ted insists is one of the ‘must-sees’ of Kyoto. As Kanako and I headed up the concrete, we noticed a small signpost pointing towards Mt. Sajiki on our right, well before the mountain pass. We took this spur, thinking that it must be the correct way up the mountain. The path disappeared under a blanket of snow, but the route was easy to pick up as a rut in an otherwise nondescript cedar forest. Upon reaching the ridge line further up, we realized to our horror that this was a shortcut trail built by lazy hikers trying to shave off a few precious minutes from the long hike. We were further north along the ridge, over a kilometer from the temple both of us were longing to visit. We could simply visit on the return journey, we surmised, continuing our climb into the ever-deepening snow drifts.


We were following a well-trodden path that led through a mixed deciduous forest of trees weighed down by a swath of freshly accumulated snowfall. Progress was swift until we reached the rear of a thirty-strong pack of elderly hikers, the same ones who had alighted the bus. They must have pushed ahead of us while we were dallying around on our ‘shortcut’ path to the ridge. Upon seeing us, they stepped aside and motioned for us to move ahead. The traffic jam was thus avoided, but it led to another unexpected problem.


Being at the front of the pack meant that we would be breaking trail through knee-deep snow. Whose idea was it to leave those snowshoes back at the bus stop?


Progress ground to a halt as Kanako and I took turns burrowing a path for the pensioners. Perhaps they should have paid us for our unheralded sherpa services. Tape on the trees helped with pathfinding until reaching an exceptionally broad lane flanked on both sides by forests of cedar. There must certainly be a concrete forest road buried somewhere under all of this powder, I surmised, studying the map for further confirmation.


A bit further along the track sat an abandoned Daihatsu 4-door hatchback, the license plates long stripped away and left to rot like the fruit of a persimmon tree. Here a group of hikers met us from the west, via an approach that few others use even in the green season. We breathed a sigh of relief as they offered to do the trail-blazing from here to the summit. We reached the crest of a long incline that felt very much like a high point. The problem was, everything was buried under a meter of packed snow. I continued along the ridge for a bit until I heard shouts behind me. Retracing my steps, I had discovered that the other group had dug down with their hands until finding a concrete triangulation point.

Mt. Sajiki, peak #49, was knocked off with relative ease, thanks in part to the other hikers who seemed to know the mountain better than most. I would shutter to think how Kanako and I would have fared completely on our own. Ted and I would find out the answer to that question exactly one year later, fighting for our lives on a peak just a few kilometers due east of here.


We never did make it to Shimyoin temple, having to bypass the sacred grounds in order to make the last bus back to Kyoto. Perhaps Saijiki is worthy of another visit, if anything to confirm that we actually made it to the summit after all.

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Climbing the Kansai 100 is a game of numbers. At first you start counting up from zero, checking the peaks off the list in a simple task of arithmetic, but once you pass the halfway point you eventually start counting down to zero. This usually occurs once you hit the magic #70, when the end is in sight and you can start calculating in terms of dozens instead of quarters. In addition to keeping tally, one look at the list will reveal a completely different game of numerals involving the names of the peaks themselves. Out of the list of 100, there are 14 peaks whose names feature some sort of Chinese character representing a numeral. Perhaps the most well-known on the list include Mt. Rokko (六甲山) in Kobe and Mt. Nijo (二上山) in Nara. In the northern part of the region, we have the peak of 7 heads (七々頭ヶ岳), the mountain of 33 intervals (三十三間山), and the crag of 100 hamlets (百里ヶ岳). On the menu for today was the mountain of 8, known in Japanese as Hachigamine (八ヶ峰).


Tomomi and I headed north out of Kobe in the rental car, flying on the expressway that cut through Sasayama and into the mountainous region east of Fukuchiyama. The highway lay deserted, sans a convoy of military jeeps shuttling personnel to the bases in Maizuru. Our target peak lay in the central part of Kyoto Prefecture, just west of the Ashu forests managed by Kyoto University. Although there were trails to the mountain from the south, we chose to access the peak from the north and alighted the tollroad at Takahama interchange in Fukui Prefecture.


It was mid-April, and here in the sheltered highlands, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, with petals floating through the soft breeze of the pleasant trade winds signaling a start to early summer. The drive took several hours, and one particularly stunning stretch of trees spanning several kilometers caught our eye. We parked the car at the entrance to a sleepy village and spread a blanket amongst the row of trees, partaking in the traditional Japanese custom of ohanami, or cherry-blossom viewing.

The area lay completely quiet, the denizens either tucking quietly into their lunch boxes in the comforts of their sheltered homes or working away steadily in the fallow fields, preparing the soil for the upcoming rice planting. We sat alone, taking in the scenery while enjoying our lunch in peace. In rural areas, the villagers rarely take time off from their busy agricultural schedules to take in the flowers, instead choosing to admire them from afar. This is in stark contrast to the urban areas, where socialites flock to the parks for an indulgent picnic of junk food and booze. Cherry-blossom viewing parties are considered an integral part of Japanese culture and indeed they are, if not confined exclusively to Japan’s cities, where the majority of the population reside.


After lunch, we hit the road again, passing by a group of three children of elementary school age who, after spotting me in the passenger seat, shouted in unison with the familiar jargon “gaikokujin da” (look, it’s a foreigner), which set Tomomi off in bursts of uncontrollable laughter. Apparently the locals were not accustomed to seeing visitors from other countries in these parts, as they did a double-take each time our vehicle strolled past. It was a throwback to the days after the war when the country really opened up to outside influence.


The car navigation was set to Gonami pass, where we would have a gentle 90-minute stroll on an undulating ridge until reaching the summit. There was only one problem: three-quarters of the way up the winding road we hit a wall of snow and could not continue. We parked the car and pulled out the gear, following the snow-covered asphalt the rest of the way until reaching the ridge at the mountain pass. It was already 2:30pm by the time we entered the forest, so we had to increase the pace if we wanted to make it back before dusk.


The contours on the map were misleading, as the route immediately climbed to the summit of a peak directly ahead. This was far too early to be the summit of Mt. Hachi, so we pushed on to the pinnacle before losing even more elevation on the other side. We soon left the cedar plantations behind and entered a forest forgotten by time. Beech trees rose gallantly along the untouched ridge and the sound of birdsong sprung to life among the bare limbs of the hardwoods. The unmistakable knocking of a woodpecker caught our ears, punctuated by the rustling of leaves to our left, the sound of a fawn seeking shelter from our unlikely intrusion. Off to the shaded northern slopes of the peak, tufts of snow grasped tightly to the contours like a cat clinging to a velvet drapery.


We took a short break at a trail joining the main path from the north. The final push to the high point lay just in front of us, but the snowfield hinted at the caloric workout, so we fueled up in preparation. The rotting snow made for slippery footholds but we managed by taking turns kicking steps into the wet slush. The summit was breached shortly before 4pm and afforded unobstructed panoramic views. My guidebook hinted at the origin of the mountain’s name. It’s not that there are eight peaks on the mountain range, but rather the odd spectacle that eight different provinces can be viewed from the top of the peak.


Back before the prefectural system of the Meiji era, Japan was divided into hundreds of provinces whose nomenclature still survives in mountain names and regional delicacies. According to this map from the Edo period, the 8 provinces likely seen from the summit were Tamba, Tango, Wakasa, Tajima, Harima, Yamashiro, Kyoto, and either Settsu or Omi. In the present day, these areas have been merged into the prefectures of Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukui, and Shiga, and on this particular day in April, the views were tinged in hues of yellow due to the  Aeolian haze drifting over from the Gobi. On an exceptionally clear day, hundreds of mountains in every direction can be clearly identified on the horizon, but we settled for a neighboring view of Mt. Aoba before ducking back into the forest toward the waiting car.


We arrived before nightfall, having checked peak # 76 off the list. That pushed me over the three-quarters point. For the iconic #77 another mountain with a number in its name seemed worthy of attention. Perhaps a rendezvous with the mountain of 33 intervals was in order before the onset of the rainy season.

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The last remaining peak in Kyoto, and northern Kansai for that matter, refused to surrender peacefully. Back in late August, the thunder and torrential rain sent me scrambling for shelter, forfeiting any chance of knocking off the peak. A mid-October stable high pressure system brought a rare opportunity for revenge, so this time my trusty Kyoto confrère William joined me alongside newcomer Ed. William needs no introduction to readers of this blog, but those unfamiliar with the Hyakumeizan stalwart can get some background about the Kid and the Missus here.


The five of us set off from Demachiyanagi station after stocking up on supplies at the celebrated onigiri shop just a short hop from the ticket gates. After a couple of wrong turns through the twisty, narrow backroads of the ancient capital, we finally hit route 162, a byway that weaved along hills bursting with thick rows of Kitayama cedar trees rising abruptly from the narrow valley hugging both sides of a tributary of the Yura river. Further up the river basin the valley widened, passing villages of thatched farmhouses unswayed by the winds of change that have overtaken most of rural Japan. It was here that our journey turned west, skirting past a dammed section of river before curving around the southern flank of Mt. Chōrō in favor of a more leisurely ascent of the northern face. Or so we thought.


We pulled into the trailhead shortly after 11am, following a gravel forest road that hugged a stream glistening with emerald green water. While the walk was quite pleasant, a quick study of the GPS revealed that we were indeed walking up the completely wrong valley, so after retreating back to the car, the mistake was quickly solved by navigating the wheels one forest road to the right. We parked the car near a chain-link gate bolted securely across the paved forest road. You run into these roads all over Japan, whose asphalt is off limits except for those who work for the logging companies or those lucky enough to have access to the keys to the padlocks that are always tightly fastened to the gates like locked fortresses. We hit the road with our legs, with Ed and I pushing ahead while William and company took a more leisurely approach. Our haste was not without flaw, however, as we missed out on seeing a poisonous snake slithering along a ditch used for channeling rainwater down the slopes.


My map told me that we would have to follow this forest road all the way to the summit, but the charts also hinted at an old dotted route that cut through the paved switchbacks in a more direct approach to the top. Though the dotted trail did not register on the GPS, the five of us abandoned the road for a more scenic route. The trail immediately dissipated into a narrow creek framed on all sides by steep slopes. We headed right, skirting past an impossibly large beech tree balanced precariously on the 50-degree angle of the mountainside. The adults had no trouble with the inclinations, but for the Kid it was a monstrous effort. At one point the angle became too great, so we headed back towards the creek bed in search of a better route. If we had stuck with the road we would surely be on the summit by now, but Chōrō wasn’t about to give in so easily it seemed. Once we reached the safe havens of the waters, a choice was made to climb a spine on the opposite bank of the stream, as the angle was much more manageable. I once again took the helm of leader, punching through shrubs of rhododendron and towers of red pine in route to the mountain ridge.

Trees made for trusty handholds while the tree roots eased the burden on the foot work. About 10 minutes into the workout, as I pulled myself up with the right arm, my momentum suddenly halted when a tubular form glistened in the sunlight directly below my left foot. I jumped back, startling the snake stiff, as it tried to disguise itself by remaining perfectly still. It lay coiled there, like a piece of unkept rope waiting to to be tidied up. I signaled to the others to quicken their pace in order not to miss the free wildlife performance. The snake refused to budge, no matter how close we encroached, too frightened by the sudden encounter to make it a move. It was only when we gave the reptile ample breathing room did it slowly slither away to safety.


Fueled by the adrenaline of the close encounter, we pushed on, eventually reaching the ridge line marked by intriguing rock formations and stands of ancient hardwoods toughened by the decades of exposure to the Siberian winds and deep snowfall that blanketed these north facing ranges. Between gaps in the foliage, the twin summits of Mt. Aoba came into view, framed on the left by the waters of the Sea of Japan flowing through the bloated-fingered inlets of Miyazu Bay. Directly behind us, the summit of our target peak came into view. Though we were supposed to end up directly below the summit plateau, our shortcut had pushed us up a parallel ridge, but the correction of our impairment was easily amended on the pleasant stroll along the rolling ridge. Our hard work had once again paid off, as we sat on the edge of the old-growth forests of Ashu, a pristine area owned and protected by Kyoto University.


After a few minutes on the ridge, hunger pangs began to take hold and for good reason: it was already past 1pm and neither of us had stopped to refuel. At the crest of a long climb we stopped for lunch, Ed and I replenishing our energy reserves with a strong cup of mountain coffee. Once the caffeine took effect we once again tramped through the untouched slopes, eventually popping out onto a well-used path that doubled as the Kinki Shizen Hodo long-distance trail. This is a trail I’d been following the last few months, as this path connects just about every peak on the Kansai 100 list in northern Kyoto. If given the time and opportunity, a full traverse of the trail would be a worthy investment, as the section hikes I’d encountered over the last several months had been some of the best mountain routes in the entire region.


The trail dropped to a saddle, finally meeting up with the forest road we had left earlier in the day. From here, we were all surprised to find the angle rising once again, on a long, extended climb towards the high point. Sweat oozed from the pores on the unseasonably warm day, while the sun kept pace by reminding us that evening would soon be making her daily rounds. We hit the summit marker around 3pm with absolutely no one in site. For me, it was match point, and the final service was an ace. A victor prevailed in our wild game of tozan tennis, but it was too early for a victory lap. We still had to get off this mountain before dusk.


Ed and I opted for the loop trail that continued following the ridge before cutting down to the car, while William and family chose the easier option of just retreating down the forest road that we had followed on the ascent. The loop trail was brilliant in places and spectacular in others, but the final push to the car was a bit more than the knees could handle. Once again I had the bright idea to cut the switchbacks by making a bee line through a cedar forest, slicing open my hand while slipping on the moss-covered slopes. I reached for a handhold, grasping onto a thorn bush that slashed my left hand like a cat sharpening its claws on a shag carpet. When we reached the car I washed the wound in the creek and bandaged it up before we hit the highway back to Kyoto.


With peak #87 safely checked off the list, I could now focus solely on the remaining 13 mountains, all of which lay to the south of Osaka and few of which are accessible as a day trip. To add salt to the wounds, none of the peaks are accessible by public transport. It’s going to be a bit of a struggle to reach the magic #90 before the end of the year, but I am hatching up a plan to accomplish this with a little help from my friends.


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When I received word of my mother’s cancer diagnosis earlier this morning, I should have just cut my losses and rolled back over to sleep.


Instead, after a quick breakfast of leftovers and a last minute confirmation of the weather radar, I boarded a train bound for the outskirts of Kyoto city for another peak on the Kansai 100. Knock this one out and I only had to focus my attention on the unscaled summits in the remaining prefectures of Hyogo, Nara, and Wakayama.  Overcast skies stretched out over the stagnant rice fields of Kameoka city. Scores of tourists lined up on an adjacent platform to board the Sagano Torokko that meanders around the banks of the Hozu river en route to Arashiyama. On the near bank of said river, groups of students sporting life vests queued for space in the rubber rafts that offer an endorphin-laced alternative to the clickity-clack of the rails. My train continued north, hugging the bank of a smaller tributary before reaching the sleepy village of Wachi, one of the entry points for the thatched hamlet of Miyama-cho that lies a dozen kilometers due east. I disembarked, passing through the lone ticket gate in search of nourishment. It didn’t take long, as the local Fureai center housed in the train station building offered simple meals and a place to kill time before the 12:15pm bus. I took a table in the center of the multi-purpose facility, among rows of secondhand clothing and a makeshift display of local produce and convenience store snacks of dubious quality. Along the back wall a collection of nondescript photographs depicting rural agricultural life brought a sense of importance to an otherwise forgettable place. Outside, colorful banners hung gallantly in the stifling air. “Did you come here for the festival?”, quipped an bright-eyed customer from the counter, obviously eager to share his excitement for what was probably the highlight of the year for the denizens of Wachi. “Actually, I came to climb a mountain,” I replied, curling my lower lip ever so slightly in an attempt to show my disappointment for skipping their festive hootenanny.


As I tucked into my tepid, rubbery udon noodles, the weather outside took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse. Sheets of rain pelted the pavement outside as a rumbling rose from an unknown source in the distance. “Oh, they must be setting up for the festival”, I silently muttered to myself, hoping that optimism would prevail. In the minutes leading up to the bus departure time the lightning drew alarmingly close, hitting the peak just opposite the station and sending a loud crackle that sent the feral cats scrambling for shelter. 12:15 came and went with no sign of the bus. Perhaps it wasn’t running because of the festival? I checked the train times and found to my great relief that a coach was departing for Kyoto at 12:30. Perhaps I’d have better luck further south.

The train rolled through the torrent, stopping to pick up drenched passengers en route to the cultural center of Japan. My first thought was to alight at Hozukyo station and head up Mt. Atago, but I quickly abandoned that option upon viewing the small lake that had settled upon the train platform. Maybe this was a good time to cut my losses and head back to Osaka to catch up on lost sleep? At Kyoto station, I changed platforms only to find that my train was running 85 minutes behind schedule. Fortunately there are two other train lines that could take me home, so I bade farewell to JR and tried my luck on the subway. Now that I was officially in Kyoto, it would have been a waste to head straight back without visiting a few of my regular haunts, so at Marutamachi station, I headed above ground, cutting a bee line through the Imperial Palace grounds before strolling along an unusually quiet Imadegawa street. At Demachiyanagi, I could have easily boarded an Osaka-bound train, but as timing would have it, I still had 10 minutes to spare if I wanted to partake of Falafel Garden’s scrumptious lunch menu. I took a table upstairs, between a trio of gossiping housewives and a baker’s dozen of young, single, and very attractive women assembled together for what appeared to be some kind of reunion. The estrogen wafting through the air was palpable, as I did everything I could to subdue my sinister thoughts. The falafel really hit the spot and the arabic coffee send a near-lethal injection of caffeine through my boiling veins. I needed some fresh air.


Once on the street, it became apparent that the rain was letting up and the weather was improving. Gazing down Imadegawa street towards the east, the bald scar of Mt. Daimonji stood tall among the mist-lathered hills. In the dreary haze, the Chinese character for Dai that sits in the open field had somehow transformed itself into a gigantic maneki-neko, beckoning me to draw closer. This arabic coffee was strong indeed.


Past rows of snug cafes and quiet boutiques I strolled, skirting the outer edge of the mildew-staining concrete fortress of Kyoto University before chasing the tail end of the Tetsugaku no Michi which escorted me to the gates of Ginkakuji. I turned left, tracing the outline of the Silver Pavilion’s barbed-wire gate as it gave way to a dilapidated forest road that rose to the upper terminus of the foothills. From there, a path the width of a 4-lane highway guided me through a deciduous forest shimmering in the late afternoon dew. As I drew closer to the summit, the skies reprised their role as plot foiler as the track quickly filled with runoff. By the time I reached the giant beckoning cat I was wetter than a dish rag, but quickly found solace under a covered pavilion housing the local Buddhist deity. Clouds rolled below me like tumbleweed in a dry desert and I tried to make out the landmarks of Kyoto city directly below. Sweat flowed from all pores in the immense humidity that makes a summer stroll in the ancient capital so notorious. I looked out over the city, lost in a sort of deep, focused reverie that can only be brought on by the heavy news of life’s mortality.


After gathering my courage and strength, I followed the darkened ash of the concrete pylons to the tree line and climbed through thick mist to the high point of Mt. Daimonji. The only indication that I was on the true summit was a small hand-painted signboard: in fair weather the unobstructed views of Yamashina are the tell-tale indication. The rain continued in droves as I retreated back into the foothills, popping back out into the shuttered streets sometime after 6pm. The rain had not only driven the tourists away, but had given the shopkeepers a timely excuse to end their workday early. I, too, was in search of an end to my workday, and found refuge in the dungeons of Demachiyanagi station, finally boarding that Osaka-bound train that I really should have taken several hours earlier.


The day wasn’t a total loss, however. Hiking in the rain really is soothing and a bit like being baptized: you reaffirm your faith in humanity while paying homage to the power of mother nature. Even though Mt. Chōrō has eluded capture, it provides an opportunity for more careful planning and perhaps a word with the bus company so that future visits are not wasted.

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Two winters ago, I reached the halfway point in my fearless quest to conquer Kansai’s Hyakumeizan, a venerable list of 100 peaks conjured up by the evil folks at Yama-to-Keikoku publishing. Evil in that these peaks occupy your every waking thought and haunt you once those thoughts give way to noctural reverie. Although I had officially thrown in the towel after peak #50, I continued to climb mountinas throughout the Kansai region, and some of them just happened to be a few of the ‘tough ones’ on the list. They weren’t difficult in terms of technical ability, but their access without a car proved to be a bigger challenge than I had been up to facing. Low and behold, a few fellow hikers chimed in with automobile assistance and I suddenly realized that yes, in fact, I probably could knock off the remaining 50 peaks. A new challenge was on: to reach the 75% percent mark before the onset of the rainy season.


I hatched up a plan to scale some of the easier snow peaks before setting my sights on mountain #75 which I planned to summit in late May, but here I was well ahead of schedule and set my match with the auspicious peak in late March instead. I boarded the 5:55am local train for Fukuchiyama station which chugged along through the heart of rural Hyogo Prefecture still struggling to awaken from a long, cold winter. I drifted in and out of consciousness, my body still unaccustomed to the early start. Once the castle town was reached, I changed platforms and boarded a train on the Kitakinki Tango Railway, which crawled further past Amanohashidate and onto the southern edge of the peninsula that gives the railway its name. I alighted at Mineyama station, the site of a catastrophic earthquake on the cusp of the Showa era. Aside from a small plaque at the station, there’s little evidence to suggest that Mineyama was once one of the most beautiful villages in Japan.

From here, I simply changed to a bus that stopped at Shimizu. I knew it left at 9:59am, but was surprised to find a bus pull up ten minutes early. Worried that I had confused the time, I asked the driver, who informed me that the next bus would be the one to take. When the next one pulled up, I once again asked the driver, who answered with a big ‘No’. By the time the third bus rolled up I was the talk of the town. Just as I was about the ask the driver, I heard a voice over the walkie talkie warning the driver not to pick up the foreigner wanting to go to Shimizu because it was the next bus that he wanted. When my bus finally did pull up, the driver simply gave me the thumbs-up sign, signaling me to board. You simply can’t beat service in rural Japan, especially considering the price of the fare was only two hundred yen.


It was 10:30, preciously 5 hours after leaving my apartment, when I unhinged the trekking pole and hit the pavement for the 6km walk to the trailhead. Mother nature apparently forgot to watch the morning weather forecast, so instead of rain she presented crystal blue skies and calm winds as her way of rolling out the red carpet for me. The farmers were out in full force, preparing their fields for the spring planting. The smell of one farmer spreading fertilizer was strong enough to clear the sinuses, while further up another field was engulfed in flame, the wheat stubble reduced to a blackened cinder in an effort to sent some potash back to earth. Flowers in various states of bloom stood alongside maple trees still naked from the bitter winds that exited the valley mere days before. I was feeling limber, strolling through the empty streets on the winding incline towards the mountain pass, anxious to get this peak under my belt before the barometer started dropping.


Around 11:15 in the morning, I came upon the modest grass parking lot on the left side of the road, barren from human encroachment save one two-door sedan. I glanced above me, spotting the lone hiker navigating the switchbacks through the thawed tundra. I knew I would probably eventually overtake him, but I advanced at my normal pace up the first few turns of the mountain road. Cresting the last turn, the broad lane petered out at the foot of a thatched shelter derived from techniques laid out during the prehistoric Jomon era. I later found out that this hut was built by a local villager with a penchant for traditional craftsmanship. It was a welcome change from the usual sheet metal structures that greet hikers at most entrances to Japan’s peaks.

From here, the real climb began, as the path narrowed through a pleasant market of virgin oak, maple, and pine above, and pockets of wildflowers awakening from their winter hibernation. The slopes of Mt. Ichigao attract flora hounds throughout the green season, eager to feast their eyes on unique petals and intriguing stigma. It was the views, however, that I sought, as the peak sits directly in the center of the peninsula, affording 270-degree ocean views from the summit perch on clear days.


The path steepened with each advancing step, forcing me to strip down to a single short-sleeved layer for the first time in many long months. Sweat seeped from the pores like dew settling on a rhododendron grove as the pollen sent the immune system into overdrive. My nose constantly ran, as I reached for whatever foliage I could find to mop up the flow. I soon stumbled across a stone shrine torii toppled most likely by strong gales and decades of neglect. A bit further, I topped out on the summit ridge and turned right for the short climb to the high point. It was here that I finally caught up with the other lone hiker of the day, an elderly man from the village below who had either already finished his field duties or had simply put them off for later.


I sprawled my gear around the blanket of grass flanking the foundations of an ancient temple and took in the brilliant spectacle laid out before me: countless enclaves sandwiched between rolling hills and the flat expanse of the sea, whose azure hues blended seamlessly into the atmospheric colors above, completely erasing the horizon. I drifted off into a closed-eye trance, anxious to give my burning eyes a rest from invisible flower dust flowing through the air. When I awoke, the blue sky had been overtaken by an advancing army of altocumulus, a surefire indicator of foul weather to come. I packed up the gear and advanced rapidly back down to the start of the path, and continued along the long road back to the bus stop, arriving with only minutes to spare.


On the train ride back to Osaka, I finally had a chance to reflect up my adventure. It had taken two years to climb 25 peaks, so could I really expect to finish the remaining quarter before the end of 2014? Probably not, but it won’t hurt to try.

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