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Posts Tagged ‘Mt. Choro’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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