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Posts Tagged ‘Nara’

Alastair and I navigate the fog-smothered switchbacks of the Odaigahara Driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, a stillness in the rent-a-car as my thoughts drift, along with my drowsiness, to the impending climb up to Kansai’s highest mountain. My last trip here back in 2004 was under clear autumn skies and precisely 14 years later we find ourselves blessed with similar conditions as Alastair pulls the vehicle into one of the last remaining spaces at the western entrance to Gyojagaeri tunnel. Despite the 6am arrival time, it appears that most of the day trippers have opted for an even earlier start as we shoulder our packs in the frosty breeze.

The path ascends gently past a concrete dam, following a gurgling brook upstream to a wooden footbridge spanning the frigid waters. Crossing over, the gradient immediately steepens as the route follows a root-infested spur under an ochre canopy just beginning to catch the first few rays of the rising sun. We make good work of the ridge, spurred on by the promise of a clear day and brilliant foliage. Our rucksacks are stuffed with just enough nourishment and fluids to see us through the 1000 meters of elevation gain to the summit, and the first gusts of wind from above bring a distinctively late-autumn vibe to the air.

Alastair leads a steady pace to the ridge junction, where we merge with the main track of the Okugake-michi, the ancient pilgrimage route connecting Hongu in the south with Yoshino in the north. I am back in familiar ground but the 14 year lapse between visits does little to jog my memory, for the leaves have already left the comfort of their canopies to rest of the forest floor for the remainder of the year. Temperatures must be below average this year if the mountains are already bracing for the winter snows.

A gentle incline through a mess of toppled trees leads us to the summit of Benten-no-mori, named after the Japanese goddess of music. As if on cue, the unmistakable sound of a horagai conch shell pierces the silence as we gaze our heads upwards to the formidable wall of Mt Misen rising directly in front of us. Though we cannot see the gyōja aesthetic, we certainly feel his presence as he announces his arrival at a prayer site. A veil of swift-moving cloud holds the ridge in its grasp, threatening to rob us of a view as we descend to the saddle and hut foundation remnants at Shōbō-no-shuku. A life-size statue of Shugendo founder En No Gyōja is perched on a rock formation, lathered with wooden votive sticks below the geta sandals attached to his feet. Most hikers rest here, preparing themselves for the steep 400-vertical-meter climb to the summit of Misen, so as I motion to Alastair for a break I notice to my sheer surprise that he has already taken off at breakneck speed toward the summit.

Alas, the spellbinding power of the Hyakumeizan. So many people get caught up in the peak hunting lifestyle that they rarely pause to take in the scenery. Here I am, a decade removed from my own climbing of the 100 venerable mountains, and I find the pursuit both inspiring and partly disgusting. Over 90% of the hikers are here with the same purpose: to climb one man’s subjective mountain list that was created over 50 years ago. Now don’t get me wrong – the Ōmine mountains are an incredibly beautiful and haunting place, and Fukada’s inclusion of the range is well-warranted. However, I feel that these mountains are much better appreciated slowly, like a well-crafted French course at a Michelin-starred restaurant. In fact, I come to the realization that this is my very first, and could very well be my last, day trip in these mountains, and the other 4 Chapters of this saga were done as overnight pursuits.

Rather than chasing after the peak hunter, I keep him within eyesight, content with letting him navigate the switchbacks in front while chatting with a solo male hiker who is also bagging this peak. I explain that I have already finished the Hyakumeizan and am nearly helping my friend achieve the same self-serving goal. Luckily I am not the only one to feel the fatigue and Alastair’s pace slows to a crawl in direct proportion to the rise in the gradient. We reach the first of the hundreds of wooden steps built into the hillside as I put aside my hunger, lethargy, and fatigue and simply lower my head and count steps. I let my footfalls slow in accordance with my breathing and enter that hiking trance that has sustained me through so many hikes in Japan’s deceptively tricky mountains.

At the top of the summit ridge we turn right, ignoring a rock outcropping on our left that is now covered in fog and several steps ahead we can make out the roofline of Misen hut. A few dozen hikers loiter about the hut, most of them standing and waiting for the drifting cloud to part. Finally, Alastair agrees to a short break as I collapse onto a bench and stuff as much caffeine into my body as will allow. I explain that we’ll have a steep drop to a saddle, followed by an even steeper climb to the top of Hakkyō. After the caffeine kicks in, I lead my hiking companion up to Misen shrine, which offers a birds-eye view across the saddle to the summit piercing the sky like an A-frame building.

The path to the summit starts next to the hut, marked by a stone pillar reading Hakken (八剣山), which confuses more than a few hikers looking for the path to Hakkyō. The former name pays homage to a series of eight craggy spires along the Okugake-michi, with Hakkyō being the highest and most prominent of those peaks. The heavily-eroded track leads us to a narrow saddle with steep drops on our right, followed by an abrupt ascent through a series of gates erected to keep deer from eating the endangered Ōyamarenge (Siebold’s magnolia) shrubs. Patches of melting snow line the shaded face of the peak, a reminder winter does indeed commence in early November in this highland range. We regain the summit ridge just below the high point, with dizzying crags to the east offering a quick end to those whose footing is less than secure. A quick rock scramble is all that separates us from the top, so I take a deep breath and make that final push.

Two dozen peak hunters litter the summit, all jostling their way to the summit signpost for a proof photo. It amazes me how many people need to show proof to others that they have summited. Too many people nowadays are climbing the Hyakumeizan in order to increase their social media presence, which seems like the entirely wrong way to go about it. Peak hunting is an entirely selfish and self-serving purpose, and I have to admit back in my younger days, climbing these mountains took precedence over more important people in my life. Alastair and I retreat to a quieter rock outcropping and wait for a break in the clouds and crowds.

Ten minutes later, we have the entire summit to ourselves, reveling in the sunshine and relatively splendid views between breaks in the fog. Perhaps there is a reason to Alastair’s madness after all – push on at a breakneck pace so you can really relish the summit experience. Between bites of refreshments we snap photos and talk meizanHakkyō is Alastair’s 74th mountain, so I quiz him on the remaining peaks and offer a few tips. Those who attempt the 100 peaks usually find themselves inadvertently saving the toughest mountains for last. Indulged as we are in the deep mountain talk, we hardly notice a solo hiker emerge onto the summit through the rising cloud. “Haru”, I ask, unsure if we have indeed summited before her. “Yes”, she replies with her beaming Tohoku smile. Alastair and I congratulate her on reaching peak #83 in her question to climb the 100. “Shall we descend together?”, I inquire, hoping to add a little flavor to our descent back to the car. “Lead the way”, she quips.

Haru, Alastair and I spend the next two hours retracing our steps off the steep slopes of Misen and back to the parking lot at Gyojagaeri tunnel. It is in these relaxed post-summit walks that you can truly appreciate the beauty of the mountains that you give second thoughts to on the approach. Usually in climbs we are too busy inching our way up the slopes with our heads down, gasping for breath and summoning up those extra energy reserves from deep within. As we navigate the undulating folds of the broad ridge, I gaze to the southeast and notice the midday light reflecting off the golden waters of the Pacific in Mie Prefecture, while to my left the skyscrapers of Osaka city peek out from behind the slopes of Yamato-Katsuragi in northern Nara Prefecture. Only in these dizzying heights of the Kii Peninsula can you truly take in the scale of the place. Perhaps Hakkyō is worthy of a more thorough overnight inspection, and I know who to turn to for such an endeavor: a non-peak hunter.

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On my last visit, I vowed to never return, but something kept drawing me back. Like a page in a diary you’re not supposed to read, I just had to find some kind of redeeming quality to a plateau scarred by the scalpel of development. Would Fukada himself be spinning in his grave to see what has become of his beloved mountain? Perhaps not, as his ‘famous’ book refers to the “toll road” that “had been built into the heart of the mountain.” Could this be the Odaigahara Skyline, which now runs to within spitting distance of the high point?

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On the long, winding drive up the skyline, the bus vanished into a thick wall of cloud that frequently lingers around the plateau. Clear days are hard to come by, and even the beautiful sunshine and crystal clear skies of Osaka could not penetrate the fog fortress. I disembarked into this blanket of mist and immediately retreated into the souvenir shop/restaurant to use the facilities. I also inquired about the closing time of the noodle shop, as I’d planned to grab a bowl before boarding the final bus at 3:30. I had roughly five hours to spend in my search for that spark.

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The long-familiar trail to the high point starts in front of the visitor’s center and is in incredibly good shape despite the heavy foot traffic. On this cool, misty July morning, I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of crowds, as my other two experiences came later in the season, when flocks of camera wielding tourists line the paths in search of that perfect autumn leaf. I passed just one trio hikers before reaching the main junction below the peak of Hide-ga-take. A lookout platform had recently been built here, as a way of keeping the actual summit from getting overloaded with hikers. Signposts teased visitors about the splendid views of Mt. Fuji from this vantage point, but in the dense fog I could do little else than use my imagination.

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The summit was teeming with hikers, including a rowdy group from Mie Prefecture who were well into an altered state of inebriety, with the leader chain-smoking away like he was at his neighborhood izakaya. In the short interval between drags I moved in to have a friendly chat, and was rewarded with homemade inari sushi as well as the famed Yoshino delicacy of sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. As we chatted, the sky lightened up and the cloud dropped, revealing a sea of cumulus stretching out to eternity. I climbed to the second story of the concrete resthouse to take in the views. Unfortunately, the Omine mountains were still hiding in their own bank of menacing cloud, but it was a much better alternative than fighting off the strong winds and horizontal rains. A quartet of deer sat just off the lee slope of the narrow summit, grazing with an air of accepted indifference.

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I retraced my steps back to the junction and continued traversing south towards Daijyakura cliffs on the far end of the plateau. The cloud stayed low, affording vistas back towards Mt. Hide’s knuckle perch. A series of wooden steps have been built across much of the plateau, and the unexpected sunshine had begun to dry things out a bit. These wooden walkways are slicker than ice rinks when covered with a layer of water, but on the dry promenade I could focus on the scenery more than my footfalls.

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And what scenery it was. An endless carpet of bamboo grass stretching out beneath the boardwalks, with needle-like stalks of dead trees poking out at irregular intervals. Apparently this used to be a healthy forest until a very strong typhoon swept through and knocked all of the trees off their foundations. The toppled trees allowed more sunlight to penetrate the forest floor, which dried out the moss and allowed the bamboo grass to thrive. The grass, in turn, attracted the deer, who ate the bark off the trees and helped to destroy the remaining forest.

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I pushed on, ignoring the junction loop trail back to the parking lot and continued towards the cliffs. Dropping out of the sunlight and back into the fog belt triggered a sudden change inside of me. For here the true magic of the place presented itself, in a stunning reminder of the necessity of condensation on the delicate ecosystem. The beech trees looked happier and full of life, as this section of moss-laden woods lay sheltered from the strong winds that often push through the massif.

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The wildlife seemed to welcome the change as well, as a badger crossed the trail just in front of me and foraged through the grass in search of an early afternoon meal.

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Soon I reached another flatland, with a giant statue of emperor Jimmu standing guard. Fukada mentions this statue in his book, but how in the world did they get that thing up here? It must’ve been erected around the same time that the skyline was complete, which leads me to believe that Fukada did actually visit when the road did run all the way up the plateau, though in his time I sure it was a simple dirt track and not the meandering asphalt serpent of today.

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I reached the junction for the cliff lookout point and dropped down for a look, or at least a glimpse of what the area looked like. The cloud still had a tight grip around the towering beech trees lining the narrow path. It took about 10 minutes to reach the observation point, lined by a chain railing to keep the tourists from tumbling down into the void. Apparently it’s a vertigo-inducing spectacle in clear weather, but with nothing to see I felt safe walking all the way to the edge to peer down into the white void.

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I sat for a while and waited for the clouds to lift, but the wait was in vain. Rather than feeling dejected, I silently relished in hidden delight, for this gave me an excuse to come back in the future.

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Back at the junction, the route passed through a tunnel of rhododendron bushes before losing close to 200 meters of vertical altitude until reaching a clear brook. A suspension bridge offers safe passage for visitors, and once across the stream the long climb back to the parking lot commences. Signs on my left warned that the trails of Nishi Odai-ga-hara are off-limits to those without special permission to enter. It seems as if the higher ups are finally starting to care about conservation.

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I reached the parking lot around 3pm and had a quick bowl of noodles before boarding the bus. Maybe it was the humidity, or just the weather, but the crowds were much more manageable and dare I say pleasant on this third trip to the plateau. Perhaps the green season is indeed the best time to experience the magic of Odai-ga-hara. It may be too early to tell, but I’m really starting to warm up to the place. I think a future trip to Nishi Odai-ga-hara may just seal the deal.

Reference

One Hundred Mountains of Japan by Kyūya Fukada, translated by Martin Hood, University of Hawaii Press, 2015. More information about Fukada’s mountains can be found here, and the translation can be purchased here.

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Deep in the Daiko mountain range of eastern Nara you’ll find an isolated peak with a peculiar appellation. Literally translating as ‘lost’, the word mayoi refers not only to getting physically lost as in losing one’s way, but also can be used in a spiritual sense as in an inability to receive enlightenment. The origins of the name of Mt. Mayoi are unknown except to the residents of the small cluster of houses situated around the trailhead on the southern foothills of the peak. Our approach, however, was from the east, along a narrow, winding gravel road that is slowly being consumed by nature.

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My companion this time was fellow Hyakumeizan alumnus Nao Muto, who you might remember from an early morning ascent of Mt. Mitake a few winters ago. Nao had brought along an Indonesian friend named Dewi, a strong-willed graduate student with a thirst for adventure and a deep interest in the hidden ridges of Kansai. The duo picked me up at 7am for the long drive through the backwoods of Nara Prefecture. Mt. Mayoi sits on the eastern edge of the Daiko mountain range, a steep, spiny backbone of peaks connecting the highlands of Odai-ga-hara with the pyramidal flank of Mt. Takami some 60 kilometers to the north. A full traverse is possible, but requires a bit of advanced planning and a special skill for finding watersheds hidden off either side of the contorted ridge.

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After a bit of a struggle finding the correct forest road to the start of the trail, we reached a fork in the gravel road with a weathered signpost pointing to our target peak. Even though access was easier from the east, we chose an alternative route from the southwest which left a modest 300 meter elevation gain to the ridge line. The eastern approach was a long slog, with nearly 1100 meters of vertical climbing and several hours of hard work. Despite the early departure, it was after 11am when we finally strapped on the packs and marched up the forest road in the brisk winds pushing in from the north. A typhoon was on the way, so our climbing window was short. Barometric pressure held steady, but the force of the gales gave ample warning that this was about to change.

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The trail tucked into the forest on our right, leaving behind the cedar plantations and entering a serene world of hardwoods and conifers laying undisturbed for centuries. The scenery continued to improve with each rising step, crescendoing in a jaw-dropping collection of virgin beech trees grasping firmly to the spine of the mountain range.

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Trees grew in bowed shapes on either side of the ridge, carved by the strong winds and deep snow drifts. The path was indiscernible among the thicket of fallen leaves and rhododendron bush, but the contours of the ridge would guide us safely to the summit as long as we didn’t take one of the tributaries leading off to ridges paralleling the main spine. The GPS was a big assistance in that matter, and with little else to follow other than the faint migratory patterns of passing fauna, it felt as if we were following the footsteps of Kojima Usui himself, albeit with more modern kit.

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After several undulations of the contours, a signpost indicated the summit of Mt. Kuchi-Mayoi, the peak of the lost mouth. There must be some legend associated with this nomenclature. I like to think that perhaps an old Shugendo monk was silenced forever at the sight of the beauty of the forest. Or perhaps a pilgrim lost his voice completely by chanting in the shadows of a nearby rock outcrop.

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From here to ridge dropped to a saddle and permeated through the dense forest of beech and other hardwoods swaying steadily in the fierce winds pushing in from the south. A lone doe pranced off toward the sheltered depths of the northern canopy, startled into action by our approaching footfalls. Bears that would usually forage the trees for nuts had also moved to lower ground in anticipation of the encroaching barometric inferno, though fortunately none of us were witness to such migrations.

The forest floor lay blanketed with a fine coating of fallen foliage that was slowly being turned into top soil by the weather patterns that frequent these secluded folds of the Daiko range.

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Our progress was steady, thanks in large part to the hand-painted signs that poked up at irregular intervals. If you closed your eyes and someone spun you around a half a dozen times, you would literally be unable to distinguish the direction from which you had come and the way to safety. Indeed, Mt. Mayoi was starting to live up to its name. The GPS greatly assisted in pathfinding when the scenery offered few clues, and shortly after the farmers in the villages took rest from their harvesting for a midday snack we reached the high point, which sat at a 3-way junction at 1300 meters above the sea. The forest did little to buffer the wind, which whipped straight through our windbreakers and forced us into a hasty lunch. Few of us had expected the temperatures to drop so dramatically so early in October.

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On the descent back to the car, I had a chance to speak with Dewi at length about her experiences in Japan’s mountains. She had just returned from a full east-to-west traverse of the Azuma mountain range in Tohoku. It’s not everyday that you see an Indonesian woman in headgear tramping up Japan’s summits. Overall her encounters with other hikers seemed to be positive, most likely due to her beaming enthusiasm and impeccable Japanese ability. We talked about her daily prayer rituals in addition to her future goal of being the first Indonesian person (and perhaps first Muslim?) to scale Japan’s 100 famous mountains.

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In the late afternoon we reached the car and headed to the valley for a well-deserved hot spring bath. Our initial plan was to camp in the forest for an early morning ascent of Mt. Ikegoya, another of the Kansai 100 that remained on the dwindling list, but the threat of the typhoon forced a retreat. Back to Osaka we drove, fueled by the adrenaline of a successful ascent of one of Kansai’s most breathtaking areas. Three unscaled peaks remain in this range of pristine mountains, so perhaps they are an apt place to close the chapter in the Kansai 100 book. I could knock all 3 off in a weekend if I planned it right, and I know just who to turn to for partners.

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I’ve been eyeing Mt. Kogo’s pointy crags for a number of years, both on paper and in person, so what better way than to usher in the year of the horse than to knock off my final peak in the Soni area of Nara? I hoped to fare better off than my first hike of last year.

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Paul and I arrived at Nabari station shortly before 10 on a cloudy Saturday morning. A few people milled about the station, returning from their early shrine visits and seeking the balmy comforts of their kotatsu tables still lined with half-full bottles of New Year’s sake. The bus to Soni was completely deserted, so we spread our gear and bodies on the entire back row as our driver negotiated the switchbacks up and over Shorenji dam, along the still waters of river of the same name, and onto the sleepy backroads of Soni village itself. Once off the bus, we switched on the GPS to get our bearings and followed the forest road for close to an hour to O-toge. We spent the majority of the one-hour stroll racking our brains for the name of the 2-wheeled self-balancing machine invented by entrepreneur Dean Kamen. Was it a Zenith? A Vespa? Frustrating it can be when the answer lies stubbornly on the tip of your tongue. Since neither of us own a smart phone, I finally broke the stalemate by calling a friend: the Segway!

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At the mountain pass, the trail to the summit ridge towered directly above us, with no way to go but up. Whoever made the trail decidedly took the lazy approach – a series of long ropes draped down from trees on the ridge itself. We could do nothing other than hoist ourselves up through the fields of plume grass clinging wearily against the 70-degree slopes of dusty sandstone cliffs. The views opened up behind, revealing the snowy spires of the Daiko mountains sitting under a veil of dark, ferocious cloud. A weather front was on the march, looking to trample us in its path if we didn’t get a move on.

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Unfortunately, traversing along the cliffs was anything but a brisk stroll. Any gains in altitude were lost just as quickly as we traversed over several humps of tree-covered rock. We hit snow on the summit of Minami-dake, the tallest point along the entire route. Our panoramic views were soon pillaged by cloud vapor, blowing horizontal snow and sleet across the ridge like a old man stoking a dying fire. We dropped off the ridge, carefully picking our way among the maze of ice and rock, using tree trunks on either side to slow the inevitable slide. We had discussed putting the crampons to use before the tempest hastened our decision to keep moving. At the top of the next rise I rummaged through my gear, handing Paul one of my 4-pointers. At least we’d both have one solid purchase for the roller coaster ride.

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Two peaks later and we topped out on summit #5, otherwise known as Mt. Kogo. The trees provided a bit of shelter from the swirling squall as Paul pulled out his sparkling new Montbell 6-point snow spikes. After fiddling around with them for close to 15 minutes, we both gave up hope of getting them securely to his feet. It wasn’t that we didn’t know how to affix them, but that the straps were frozen and hard to maneuver in the frigid temperatures. Besides, the strap system is way too complicated than it needs to be. I can slip my crusty old Kajitax 6-pointers on in less than 30 seconds, but pehaps that’s because I know the loop system from memory.

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By now Paul’s hands had gone numb, so I lent him my alpine winter mitts disguised as a pair of boxing gloves. The circulation came back within minutes as we descended out of the snow line and down to a soggy mountain pass. Here we cooked lunch and warm coffee, thanking our lucky stars for safely navigating that knee-knocking traverse. We skipped the ascent of an adjacent peak in favor of the hot spring baths that were literally calling our names from the valley. Between gusts of wind you could just make out the proprietor saying “Wes-san, Paul-san, oide yo.” Or at least I think that’s what I imagined her saying.

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After a brief detour through the golden grasslands of Soni Kogen, we hit the forest road just in time for Paul to turn his ankle on a pine cone. Fortunately the damage was minor but we still had to slow our pace somewhat to limit the pain. The bath, though filled with lazy day-trippers out for the first bath of the new year, was incredibly soothing. I don’t know why bathing establishments even both with an indoor bath. Every time I head to a hot spring I make a bee line outside to commune with nature. Once the abolutions ceased, I lent Paul my ankle brace while we strolled through the darkening forest to the bus stop. Again we were the only two passengers for the one hour journey back to Nabari, and to add insult to injury, the return train was packed with worshipers making their way from Ise Shrine. I know passengers are supposed to give up their seats to elderly and pregnant people, but shouldn’t this custom also apply to achy-boned mountaineers?

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“What am I doing here?” The question echoed through my mind as I kick-stepped up the 50 degree slope. I can’t really say I’d lost the trail since I never found it in the first place. I knew there was really only way to go, though: up.

Nine-hundred eighty, nine hundred ninety, one thousand.  The altimeter put my fears at rest. I’d surely reach the summit plateau but had no idea which direction to turn once I did. As I swam through the grassy meadows I turned full force into the wind, past the snow cornices on the deserted ridge, topping out on mountain #50 of my Kansai Hyakumeizan quest. No trace of anyone, and surely the first one up this season. I abandoned all hope of traversing the ridge for fear of getting hopelessly lost. Better to head back the way I came, even if it weren’t on a trail.

After scaring a pheasant out of its wintering hole, I chased two white-tailed deer through the rugged forest back into town. Luckily, a hot spring awaited my return like a docile pet awaiting the return of its master. As I sat in the bath, I reflected over the last couple of years of peak chasing the hills of Kansai, patted myself on the back, and threw in the towel.

I’ve now climbed just about every peak within a 100km radius of Osaka city. The remaining 50 are so far away that I’d spend more time getting there than I would on the mountains themselves. Is it really worth it? I’m pretty content with reaching the halfway point, and without my own transport I wouldn’t reach the magical 100 until I became too frail to move. I’ve got some books to write, sleep to catch up on, and friends to spend time with. I will, however, continue climbing interesting peaks throughout the Kansai area, but this time on my terms.

 

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