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Posts Tagged ‘Odai-ga-hara’

Well, I have to admit that I never thought I’d find myself back on the plateau, but after the birth of our daughter Ibuki two solar revolutions ago, it was time to take her to her first Hyakumeizan. What better place to start than our old friend Odai-ga-hara?

Kanako, Ibuki, and I boarded an early morning train to Yamato-kamiichi for the 2-hour bus journey to the trailhead. It being Golden Week, we expected the bus would be a lot more crowded than the dozen or so other passengers, but then again with the automobile-addicted nation at work perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the bus navigated the long switchbacks towards the 1500-meter-high parking lot, we got our first views of the cliffs of Mt. Daifugen, still dabbed with slivers of rotting snowmelt. It was the first time in my 4 visits to the plateau that I’ve ever had an unobstructed view from the skyline road – if there was any reason to doubt the stature of the Omine mountains one would simply need to point their vehicle in this direction.

We arrived just before noon under brilliant blue skies with a smattering of white cloud floating lazily around the upper reaches of the plateau. We dropped off our extra gear at Kokoro-tōjikan hut before heading up the well-worn path through the forest still very much in hibernation mode. The trees had only just begun releasing their spring buds, and the gullies still held onto their winter coats tightly like a stingy old maiden guards her pursestrings. I brought my baby carrier for the journey in case Ibuki did not feel up to the task, but she insisted on climbing the trail under her own power, albeit with a little extra boost from mom and dad’s outstretched hands on the steeper bits. She looked just as comfortable as her parents and has definitely received an unfair portion of Hyakumeizan DNA from her father.

The junction sitting  under the high point of Hide-ga-take was reached just as the first grey clouds marched in from the west. We settled onto the wooden steps overlooking the Pacific Ocean town of Owase and tucked into our home-made lunch boxes. Ibuki had worked up quite the appetite on her slow march towards the summit, and the food provided just the extra boost she needed for the final push up the series of wooden staircases to the summit.

We reached the high point just before 1pm and took a few summit photos before ducking behind the wall of the observation deck that helped shelter us from the strong gales blowing directly across the valley from the Omine range. The sky turned black and we braced ourselves for the first drops of rain. Imagine our surprise when the sky deposited huge wet flakes of snow instead. It was a repeat of our spring trip to Zao except that we had the additional challenge of keeping a 2-year-old from getting hypothermia.

The snow brought the adrenaline, and after tucking Ibuki safely into my baby carrier, we dropped back down to the saddle, where the snow let up completely. Instead of quickly returning to the trail we had come, we headed up an adjacent peak and down through the maze of wooden boardwalks, which brought a smile to Kanako. Her last trip here involved a cold, snowy slog to the high point in subarctic temperatures, where we abandoned any attempt at a traverse and high-tailed it back to the warm confines of the cafe.

The path rose to a summit before dropping through a maze of wooden boardwalks sitting snugly on a broad carpet of bamboo grass and dead trees poking their needle-like heads out of the tuft. The breeze send us scurrying down the wooden steps as the second wave of snow hit us from the west. Ibuki by now had fallen asleep on my back as I used my umbrella to shield her from the wrath of the horizontal snow.

At the first junction we turned right and entered the shelter of the forest, where the snow turned to rain before yielding to weak rays of sunlight that barely penetrated our thick forest canopy. The sun, rain, and snow spent the next 45 minutes battling for control as we reached the parking lot and ducked into the restaurant for lunch.

By the time we checked into the lodge the sun had won the battle and the winds became calm yet cold. The thermometer in our room read minus 1 degrees and we quickly switched on the heat and kept our down jackets zipped tightly. We shuffled off to the bath to thaw out before heading to the dining hall for dinner. This was followed by a short stroll out to the parking lot to check out the stars. The lot was filled to capacity with Golden Week visitors snoring snugly in the warmth of their cars. Parking is free up here and it’s mind-boggling that the prefecture doesn’t charge people for overnight parking.

The next day dawned bright and clear, with a warm spring feel to the air. After breakfast and coffee we hit the trails and headed out to the cliffs of Daijakura but the crowds were immense. It seemed as if every hiker had read the weather forecast and had invaded the mountain like a mass of shoppers searching for bargains. We continued in a counter-clockwise direction past the statue of emperor Jimmu and back to the boardwalks of the previous day. Ibuki had enough walking and quickly fell asleep when put in the baby carrier. The blue skies were a much welcome site and all too rare on this plateau of mist and rain.

We looped back to the hotel and ate lunch before strolling over to the bus stop and the overflowing queue of hikers 100-strong. They had all trekked up from Osugidani gorge in Mie Prefecture and they all wanted to catch the bus that we were planning to take! I’m not sure why the bus company couldn’t simply offer priority boarding to those who stayed in the mountain hut, but it was a free-for-all as any rules of etiquette were quickly abandoned. The bus company asked for volunteers to take the later bus but of course everyone wanted to get back to the city as soon as they possibly could, for most of them had not showered for a few days. By sheer luck we ended up on the bus and got a seat towards the front, where Ibuki took a nap on her mom’s lap.

Odai-ga-hara may be a Hyakumeizan, but it is definitely the kind of place that could use a bit more management and coordination to avoid public transport bottlenecks. Will I return for a 5th visit? It remains to be seen, but there always the chance of a much longer traverse along the spine of the Daiko mountains, which either begins or ends here depending on your directional preference.

 

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8 long years I’ve waited, searching for the perfect opportunity to get revenge on this soggy plateau. My last visit consisted of rubbing elbows with hundreds of other tourists in a torrential downpour before escaping into the serenity of Osugi gorge. On this unseasonably blustery Culture Day in early November, I decided to roll the dice.

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Between bouts of sleep, Kanako and I had wondered about the crowds during the 90-minute train ride to Yamato-Kamiichi station. Would the cold keep away the ill-equipped or would it only encourage the masses to go for a Tuesday drive to the plateau? I’d conspicuously kept my fingers crossed during most of the journey: what if the rain of the previous night happened to fall as frozen flakes on the summit? Nah, not at 1800m so early in the season in Western Japan.

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“Odai?”, asked the bus staff as soon as we alighted at the station. “Please register over there”, said the jovial man in a freshly pressed suit, pointing to the waiting room filled with half a dozen other bus passengers. “Hmmm,”, I pondered, why the sudden need to keep track of visitors on one of the easiest hikes in Japan?

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The bus ride started out non-eventful, following the upper reaches of the Yoshino river through an area of public works devastation. Dams, concrete river embankments, suspension bridges to nowhere. The Nara Prefectural government has done their finest to ensure our taxpayer money is put to full use. The 90-minute journey became a lot more interesting, however, as we reached the turn-off for the long, windy road to summit. A police blockade was set up, turning back all vehicles without chains. Apparently the higher beings had heard my silent pleas and rewarded me with the first snowfall of the year.

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Anyone who’s been to Odai-ga-hara can tell you that the access road carved into the ridge is enough to turn even the strongest stomach: hairpin turns, blind corners, and gnarly drops hundreds of meters into a vast canyon below. Yet, the police roadblock kept only but the most adventurous at bay. Arriving at the rest stop around 10km short of the terminus, the driver let us out while he put on the chains. Ever seen the autumn leaves coated with a dusting of fresh, crystalline powder?

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We all boarded the bus again with a sense of excitement not witnessed for quite some time. Cameras glued to the windows, as every turn brought a view more spectacular than the last. Elderly couples in an unrehearsed chant of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ . Up into the clouds where the bus fell silent. Did we really know what we were getting ourselves into?

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The parking lot was 90% empty as we bolted for the small rest shelter adjacent to the toilets. I lent my rain pants to Kanako who’d come a little unprepared, while I opted for the double fleece approach. It was well below freezing and the humidity in the air didn’t make things much better. Still, we only had a 100 vertical meter climb to the high point, generously spread out over 2km. I prayed my asthma would be kept at bay.

“I have a confession to make,” boasted the bright-eyed Kanako, “this is my first time to see fresh powder!” Of course. I’d nearly forgotten that my lovely wife had spent most of her life in Osaka Prefecture, away from the brutal winters of the land to the north. We’d been on a handful of snow hikes together, but nothing compared to the soft, fluffy snow lying all around us.

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The route began its gentle incline towards the top of Mt. Hinode, as I slowed my pace. My breathing was somewhat normal but I felt weak due to lack of nutrients. I let a kind couple from the bus ahead of me as I confirmed the location of my inhaler, just in case. Reaching a trail junction, we turned left for the final push to the summit. The cloud hung tightly to the ridge line, robbing us of a view, but the mist only seemed to make the plateau that much more magical. Even the wooden staircases took on a much more scenic form.

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Reaching the summit, I gasped at the horror that lie before me. Directly adjacent to the summit marker lie a monstrous 2-story wooden viewing platform. This certainly was not here during my initial visit nearly a decade before, so when, and more importantly, why was this hillside further desecrated? The parking lot and access road are both free of charge, so where could the money have come from? Perhaps Odai-ga-hara got the idea from Hachimantai, which also has an eyesore of a platform directly on the summit. It certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth.

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After a short break on the summit, we retraced out steps back to the junction. Not wanting to risk bringing on an asthma attack, we abandoned the loop hike in favor of a short stroll back to the parking lot. Considering the conditions, lack of cell phone coverage, and scarcity of other hikers, we probably made the wise choice. The visitor’s center was warm and inviting, and I had some research to do for my hiking site anyway.

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“No, the trail through Osugidani will certainly not be re-opened either this year or next year”, explained the kind receptionist. Apparently the swing bridges were washed out in the typhoon of 2004 and the Mie Prefectural government doesn’t seem to have it high on their priority list. “It’s a shame that the gorge is not in Nara,” I dejected, for there’d surely not only be new bridges by now, but perhaps an entire valley encased in concrete.

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A warm noodle lunch was served at a neighboring restaurant, as the clouds began to break up. If only we had extra time to stay overnight, then perhaps we’d be rewarded with a view. Alas it was not to be. On the bus ride back down we dropped out of the clouds again and got the vistas we’d so greatly been hoping for. The bus driver was not kind to us, however, as we had to settle for photos from the windows again. If only we’d had our own means of transport, then we could stop whenever or wherever we wanted. Still, it takes a steady hand and lucky timing to capture photos such as this…..

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or this…..

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or even this, from the window of a moving bus.

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On the train ride back to Osaka, I promised Kanako that I’d bring her back to Odai-ga-hara again in better weather. “Why would I ever want to come back?” she exclaimed. “I want to cherish this memory in my heart forever, and if I come back here I’d only be disappointed.” This is perhaps the most insightful thing I’d heard in a long time, and oh so true. Farewell Odai-ga-hara, for I too, want the images of our splendid adventure to remain unspoilt for the remainder of my life. Even if we revisited hundreds of times, we’d never be able to duplicate what we’d been so fortunate to witness.

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