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Posts Tagged ‘Makino’

The JR Kosei line shuttles Kyoto residents to and from Tsuruga city, providing a much-needed link between the Kansai and Hokuriku regions. The rail line hugs the western shores of Lake Biwa and service is often delayed in the winter due to high winds and horizontal snow conditions as the Siberian weather patterns push down from the north. A high-pressure weather pattern finally settles in, bringing stable conditions and an opportunity for a winter rematch with the Makino mountains of northwestern Kansai. Minami and I board at Kyoto station and sit on the left side in order to inspect snow conditions for our imminent climb. You can literally follow the snow line north as our carriage slithers past a bare Hieizan and under the snow-tinged ridge of the Hira mountains. Once past Omi-Takashima station, snow starts appearing on the flatlands, and once we alight at Makino station the surrounding ridges are cloaked in cape of thick white. Excitement builds with a tinge of trepidation – is there a path up that crystal fortress?

We strap on our snow gear and crunch through the frozen snowpack at the base of the mountain, following the footprints left by climbers flocking here during yesterday’s holiday. We have purposely chosen a weekday in order to avoid a bottleneck as well as to limit our chances of being buried by loosened snow of parties climbing above us. The slopes of the abandoned ski field we follow sit idle and neglected, a reminder of the fallout of the collapse of the skiing boom of the 1980s. We settle into our own pace, as I make steady progress in my snowshoes while Minami struggles with her spartan choice of 6-point crampons, which make the going tough as the snow starts to melt.

An early morning veil of cloud begins to break up, revealing patches of blue that the weather forecast had predicted. The route goes straight up the ski slopes before branching south to reach a broad spur and the start of a narrow traverse to reach the far end of the mountain slope. We take our time here, doing our best to avoid the leg-breaking drops to our left while literally hugging the snow on the uphill side. Conditions will certainly be worse in the afternoon, so I make mental notes of the terrain and store them inside my brain for safe keeping. We reach the junction on the far side and take a break so Minami can strap on her wakan. I strip down to just a short-sleeved shirt and the temperatures begin to rise well above freezing. Conditions feel decidedly late March despite this early February morning.

3.5 kilometers separate us from the summit ridge line, and it becomes immediately apparent that this will be anything but a gentle stroll in the mountains. The path meanders on a series of switchbacks, littered with the trace of yesterday’s climbers who have forgone the switchbacks on their hasty descents back to civilization. We stick mostly to the established switchbacks, except for the impromptu detours around snapped branches and toppled trees littering the track. We reach the crest of the first spur, an unnamed peak at an elevation of 562 meters flanked by an immense beech tree. A clearing on the southeastern edge of the plateau affords a view down towards Makino town and the famed avenue of metasequoia trees. We fashion a viewing bench by clearing away tufts of snow and settle down to a break of chocolate and take in the mesmerizing views.

The respite gives us an extra pep in our snowy steps as we reach a saddle and are faced with a long, demoralizing climb as we realize just how far we have to go – the ridge above still looks tiny and inaccessible from our vantage point. We push on through an immense forest of native beech trees creating a spidery network of shadows as the sun finally breaks through the clouds. With the rise in temperatures, the snow turns wet and heavy, weighing our feet down as we push through the soggy mess. A skier carefully works his way down from the slope directly ahead, cursing the conditions as he slides slowly though the weighty snowpack. There’s nothing to do except to lower our heads and push on.

An hour further on, and the tree cover finally begins to spread, revealing a spectacular glimpse of Hakusan and her majestic figure smothered in wintry white. This helps lifts the spirits, as well as our pace, as the first nippy breezes pushing in from the Sea of Japan strike our sweaty figures. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and push on through the improving snow conditions that the higher altitude brings. Soon we are faced with a steep climb on a bald knuckle of land that flattens out completely on the crest of the hill – the summit is reached!

Kanpū (寒風), which translates as ‘winter wind’, lives up to its name as we dig a bunker to protect us from the frigid gales duriung our well-deserved lunch break. The wind is at our backs as we gaze out over Hakusan and the rest of the peak scattered throughout the Hokuriku region. Far to the left or Hakusan, barely visible on the horizon, lies a wall of white peaks that can be no other than the Ushiro-Tateyama section of the Northern Alps. Who thought that such spectacles await those who put in the effort in the clear air of winter to reach such hidden heights of Kansai, which feel absolutely alpine despite their modest height of 853 meters.

After my winter accident, I never thought I could once again feel comfortable in the snow-capped mountains, but sitting here in my bald perch, I can once again see the appeal and attraction of the winter season. The key is with both the choice of the mountain and the timing. Oh – and a little navigational help goes a long way. Still, I feel completely content with just one snowy ascent a year, and what a gem of a hike await those who venture into the Makino mountains to feel the untamed beauty of northern Kansai. It is these thoughts that fill my head as Minami and I once again retreat back to the stillness of the beech forests, leaving behind the expansive vistas of Lake Biwa spreading out before us.

Snow conditions are even sloppier on the descent, but our footfalls are careful and calculated, as they should be on any mountain pursuit really. The climb down through the smooth snow takes just a fraction of the time, spurred on as we are by the promise of a hot bath at the trailhead. During this pandemic, I always try to avoid crowded places, and on this particular Friday afternoon we are rewarded for our effort by having the hot spring pretty much to ourselves. I head straight to the outdoor bath, letting the soothing waters penetrate my throbbing calf muscles while studying the ridge line we had just left an hour earlier. I will definitely be back, hopefully before the summer rains, when I can hopefully get another glimpse of Hakusan in her brilliant kimono of white.

 

 

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Late July seemed like a really great time to start section hiking the Takashima Trail. The long-distance path follows the Japan Divide through some of Kansai’s most rugged and varied scenery.  The path starts at Kunizakai kogen snow park, climbs up the ridge and undulates until reaching Mt. Norikura, the first of 12 peaks along the 80-km trail. From there it’s a series of abrupt climbs and steep ascents along the saddleback ridge until reaching Mt. Akasaka, where I could descend to Makino kogen for a hot bath and ice cream.

A quick scan of the weather brought a favorable high-pressure system, so after a fitful sleep with a wriggling toddler, I loaded up the pack and caught the 7:45am train from Osaka to Makino station on the northern reaches of Lake Biwa. Somewhere between Osaka and Kyoto it occurred to me that I might have forgotten my memory card for my camera. I shuffled through my pack and confirmed my fears. At Makino station I alighted and walked down to the beach to the nearest Family Mart, but unfortunately they did not carry any memory cards. Perhaps the manager was a bit old-fashioned, as packs of Fuji 400 speed film lined the shelves where the usual store would stock their digital camera supplies. I retreated back to the station and searched in vain for a coin locker to deposit my camera, but there wasn’t much at the station aside from an attendant with too much time on his hands. Rather than leave it with him, I opted to just carry it as dead weight, as I could use the extra kilograms to work out the thigh muscles.

The bus dropped me off at the gated entrance to Kunizakai, whose massive parking lot lay empty and the rest house and restaurants boarded up for the summer. The place was utterly deserted, as if everyone had gone on vacation. The ski lifts fan out in a finger-like way, and with no signposts in sight, I opted to head in the pinkie direction, if the ski resort was left-handed. I made it about 100 meters into the bunny slope, just before the black diamond run merges with the main course on my right. I was standing just below the toilet block, on the green slopes of the following map, when I first caught sight of it.

norikura2

A black bear made its way down the black diamond run gracefully, with a steady yet smooth rhythm, crossing the path directly in front of me, no more than 50 meters in front, to be exact. It paid me no heed, as it was too preoccupied with crossing the field to get to the cool, comforting waters of the mountain stream, which flowed with a trickle on my left. The beast looked lean, as if it had been a while since its last good meal. Not wanted to tempt it with fresh flesh, I retreated back to the boarded up rest house and sat in the shade. My heart was racing, not because of the encounter with the bear, but with the regret of not bringing my memory card. I’d been waiting to see a bear up close for years now, but with no proof, there’d be nothing but doubt from my friends. A police sketch of the culprit has been issued in lieu of photographic evidence.

norikura1

On the train ride earlier, upon finding my forgetful error, I joked to myself that I would probably see a bear on my hike today, not realizing that it would actually happen, and so close to the trailhead no less. I pulled out the map and discovered that the trail to Norikura actually begins towards the index finger of the snow park. Perhaps the bear just came out to remind me that I was indeed going on the wrong direction.

The next bus wasn’t for 3 hours, and the chances of encountering that exact same bear were pretty low (unless I were to take a dip in that mountain stream). Without a camera to document the proceedings, I made quick work of the ski runs, reaching the top of the highest lift in a heap of sweat and exhaustion. I pushed on, bushwhacking through the dense, overgrown forest until popping out on the real trail just a few minutes later. The trail ascended through a healthy beech forest with a smattering of claw marks on the larger trees. I set a turnaround time of noon in order to catch the 1:22pm bus back to Makino. Traversing all the way over to Mt. Akasaka without a camera seemed like an exercise in futility, so I compromised by deciding on an up-and-back of Norikura as a recce for a future section hike in a cooler time of year.

The path was easy to follow, and once on the ridge the vistas opened up towards the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, hidden in a haze of smog and cloud. Hakusan would definitely be visible from here on a clear day, and the views down to Lake Biwa are some of the best from any mountain in Shiga. Occasionally a breeze would blow in from the north, helping to evaporate the sweat accumulating on my back. I was starting to overheat, but decided to push on without a break until reaching the summit. The top was marked by a concrete bunker that looked more like a storage tank than any welcoming accommodation. The door was bolted shut, so there was no chance of peeking inside. My clock read 12:15pm, a little later than planned but I knew the descent would be much faster than the climb up. I broke out the frozen Aquarius sports drink I had bought earlier, and used the thawed bottle to help cool down my neck, face, and forehead. I forced down a salted rice ball in order to restore the saline balance and started back down the path after pausing for only a few minutes.

The return journey took just 30 minutes to reach the top of the lifts, where I kept a vigilant eye out for that bear. It did not return and I made it down to the bus stop with 10 minutes to spare before the bus.

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