Posts Tagged ‘Mt. Shaka’

“I’ve got Mt. Shaka still on my list”, replies my fellow Kinki conspirator Nao, as he cruises north along the Kisei expressway. Since he had just finished reaching peak #90 on the list, I was inquiring about the remaining mountains to help give him some advice. “Wait, are you sure Mt. Shaka is on the list”, I reply, the puzzled look in my eye sending a signal of surprise to my trusty companion. Hmm, is it possible that I have overlooked something? The ride back to Osaka is full of easiness, and as soon as I arrive back I pull out the list and scan down to find Mt. Shaka’s name clearly marked, with a green highlight already strung through the mountain. Well, wouldn’t you know it – there are exactly 3 different mountains in the Kinki district by the name of Shaka, and it turns out that I have only climbed two of them, which now meant I had to add another mountain to the list. I thought I was on #98 of the Kinki Hyakumeizan, but now I needed to admit that I was only at #97. With this in mind, I immediately put a plan into action to knock off Mt. Shaka before word got out among the masses. Luckily Paul D. went along with my plan, and we set aside a Monday in late March for the assault on the 1000-meter high peak.

Rain fell in dreadful pellets throughout the night, but the weather forecast indicated a high pressure system returning to the archipelago in the morning, with skies clearing throughout the day. I boarded the 7am limited express train bound for Nagoya and settled into my comfortable seat when the phone rang. “Have you seen the weather forecast and live camera,” asked Paul D, still sitting in his apartment awaiting the green light to proceed. I did, in fact, open the link to Gozaisho’s live camera feed when I woke up, but quickly closed it when I found the image caked with hoarfrost and ice. I knew that the previous evening’s rain did fall as snow up in the higher elevations, so before setting out I threw in the gaiters and light crampons.

The mountain weather forecast for Mt. Shaka gave a grade of “C”, which basically means conditions are ‘not suitable for hiking’. Since I was already on board the train, I recommended we proceed with our original plan and meet each other at Yokkaichi station, with a back-up plan B of a hot spring bath if the foul weather decided to rear its ugly head.

The train journey took roughly 90 minutes, with blue skies prevailing throughout, except for a stubborn wall of cloud hovering over the Suzuka mountains. The white-capped outer edge of the range had begun to reveal itself, but Mt. Gozaisho was still cloaked in mist as we boarded the train to Yunoyama onsen. The gale that hit us upon exiting at the final destination had us running for cover, as the station sat completely empty, including the taxi stand that is usually lined with drivers eager to collect an easy wage from impatient climbers. It turned out that the road to the ropeway at Gozaisho was closed for construction, so the taxi drivers were told to focus their attention elsewhere, as no one would likely want to use their services. This forced us to call a taxi ourselves, as Paul’s girlfriend Riho came to the rescue and requested a driver be sent immediately. It was my first time to meet the aspiring dental assistant, who was on the third hike of her entire life. The first two hikes were in the Suzuka mountains as well, and she was ready for an adventure, winds be damned.

Luckily, the road to Asake gorge was open to traffic, so the driver happily dropped us off in the warm sunshine at the deserted trailhead. There are several routes up to the summit of Mt. Shaka, but we opted for the Matsuo ridge, which looked like the easiest and most straightforward route up the mountain. Looks can be deceiving as we all know, especially when studying a 1:50,000 scale map with poorly rendered contour lines. The path climbed steeply to the top of the spur, following a narrow root-infested ridge through a wind-battered deciduous forest as it meandered higher towards the main summit plateau. Anyone who has hiked in the Suzuka mountains know that the spur routes are anything but flat, coming closer in profile to the jawline of a rapid canine than say a toothless vagabond without dental insurance.

It took about an hour of steady climbing to reach the first peak on the route, where we faced the headlong gales sweeping in from the northwest. This sent us scrambling behind a collection of large boulders which spared us the brunt of mother nature’s exhale but not of her vengeful tears. A wall of dark cloud had rolled in as if on cue, dropping its payload of stinging sleet pebbles on everything in sight. We ducked for cover, swallowing small morsels of food in between swift tugs at the zippers of our outer shells as the sleet literally turned our hair white. If this tempest did not let up we would surely be forced to turn back.

By pure force of will, the sleet storm moved on just as quickly as it had arrived, but the chilly gales sent us moving upward for warmth. The fingertips burned from the cold, so I improvised some creative hand gestures in order to restore circulation, gripping the trekking poles tightly in between the carpal oscillations. The sun moved through the clouds as though we were watching a time-lapse video as Paul and I ducked behind lee-side hedges to escape the gusts as they threatened to send up tumbling to the darkened valleys below. Between blows we aimed our lenses westward,  towards the rest of the Suzuka mountains glistening with fresh snowfall.

The path rose and dropped like a poorly-built wooden roller coaster and we carefully picked our way through the contorted mess of wind-swept shrubs and shivering tufts of bamboo grass. In the final col below the crest we lost the path completely, relying on the GPS and our upward momentum to gain the spine of the twisty dragon-back ridge. Once on the true north-south axis we faced the wintry gales head on, leading with our weight into the wind in order to keep from getting blown down the stubborn snow slopes on the eastern side of Shaka’s towering form. Gaps in the frozen trees provided a brief chance to train our lenses on the frosty spectacle spread out before us.

A gap in the ridge, known in Japanese as a kiretto, sliced through the mountain as if a giant dragon had chomped down for an afternoon snack. I took the lead, sliding down the exposed sandstone until reaching the low point at the saddle, fully exposed to the howling winds. I crouched to my knees while waiting for an ebb in the torrent before breaking out in a full-on sprint towards the rocky spires on the other side. Due to the brunt force of the gale, my stride looked more like a drunken sailor than pioneering mountaineer, but once on the other side I took refuge behind a boulder and waited for Riho and Paul to cross the fractured gap.

Blessed by the shelter, we pushed on up the soaring sections of rock, carefully picking through sections of rotting, unstable snow before once again rising up to meet the wind. We soon popped out on the high point of the ridge – it wasn’t the summit proper, so we continued along the meandering ridge through soft tufts of powder snow that glistened in the afternoon sun. Hugging the trees to our left in order to avoid the frightful snow cornices to the east, we strolled through a hardwood forest caked in hoarfrost and backed by a brilliant hue of azure.

At one point, Paul cried out in agony as his knee abruptly popped out of its socket before magically moving back into place. If not for the knee brace we surely would’ve been calling for chopper assistance. Hobbling, stumbling, and sometimes gliding along, the summit of Mt. Shaka was reached just after one in the afternoon. Despite the hardships, there were plenty of smiles to go around.

The temperature hovered just around freezing, which didn’t allow us much time to loiter. We retraced our steps, taking care once again in the kiretto and along the undulating contours of the ridge. The winds had dropped from a gale to a strong, uncomfortable breeze, but it was much easier to have those streams of air coaxing our behinds rather than fighting them head-on. Once we returned to our sleety rock outcrop of the morning, Riho called the taxi company to book our return transport, as we reached the paved road with just minutes to spare.

Mt. Shaka did not surrender easily, but at the end of the day I could finally rest assured that I was indeed 98% of the way through my mountains. Would the final two mountains yield their weapons peacefully?




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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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