Posts Tagged ‘Odaigahara’

Seattle indie-folk stalwarts The Fleet Foxes are releasing a new album in June, and the first track off the forthcoming LP was leaked to the public today. The title is immediately eye-catching, especially to the Meizanologists among us.

The nearly 9-minute single, if you can call it that, pays homage to a mountain that literally sits in my backyard. Lyrically speaking, the piece does not offer much in the way of reference, apart from the opening lines:

“And I was hiding by the stair, half here, half there, past the lashing rain

And as the sky would petal white, old innocent lies came to mind”

Anyone who has been on the peak in either the summer or autumn can definitely attest the “lashing rain”. In fact, the plateau is one of the rainiest places in Japan, with almost 5000 mm of annual precipitation. Despite this well-known fact, is principal songwriter Robin Pecknold actually referring to the lashing rain of the plateau, or of the lashing that frequently whips his hometown?

How about the “stair”? The final climb to Hinodeyama, the highest point of the plateau, is lined by a long flight of wooden stairs that could make for a passable bivouac in a sudden squall. Then again, it would be more prudent to continue on to the summit and rest under the comforts of the concrete day shelter.

The soggy forests of Ōdaigahara do make for a fine place to reflect upon past decisions and “old innocent lies”. The remainder of the lyrical content suggest a failed romance, perhaps something that fizzled out between Pecknold and a Japanese love interest. The best homage to our beloved mountain then, comes at the 6:45 mark, with a haunting sonic drone to close out the composition.

Regardless of the lyrical inspiration, one more important question is of principal interest here: Did the Fleet Foxes actually visit Ōdaigahara? They did play in Osaka on January 17th, 2012 at the start of their short tour of Japan. Since this was their kick-off concert, they could have conceivably arrived a few days ahead of their tour and might have squeezed in a visit the 1700-meter highlands in Nara Prefecture. After all, they did have a three-day break between their performance in Auckland and the Osaka gig, and have been on a 5-year hiatus of sorts, with the lead singer moving to New York to pursue academic studies. Perhaps he had subsequent visits to the Kansai region over the last couple of years.

The song has the additional title of the ‘Third of May”, which could pay homage to influential photographer Hiroshi Hamaya. The band has been a fan of his photography for some time, and have chosen one of his images to adorn the cover of their forthcoming release. Hamaya was a prolific photographer, and his images of the violent May protests of 1960 brought the U.S.-Japan relations to the limelight. Additionally, May 3rd is Constitution Memorial Day, a public holiday commemorating the founding of post-war Japan with the signing of the U.S. drafted constitution.

Despite being released just a few hours ago, the video has already amassed a half a million views, which bodes a more serious concern. Will Fleet Fox aficionados be flocking to Japan to visit this obscure mountain referenced in their new song? I, for one, have noticed a sudden spike in page views for Ōdaigahara on both this blog and my other site Hiking in Japan. Will I have a future calling as a mountain guide for stoned hipsters on the mountain?


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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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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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Flashback to 2001. After 7 months of living in Osaka, my first opportunity for an overnight hiking trip arises, as my co-worker Eric and I head to the highlands of Nara Prefecture for a 2-day hike through one of the most secluded gorges in Japan: the mighty Osugidani. After a bleary-eyed early morning train ride, we boarded the jam-packed tourist bus bound for Odai-ga-hara, which arrived at the plateau after a 90-minute slog on rural roads that have surely seen better days. The parking lot was filled to capacity by pensioners eager to catch the autumn colors at their peak. Only in Japan would the masses carry forward with their plans regardless of the weather. Once out of the bus we immediately sought shelter at the bus stop to escape the pelting rain and frigid winds.

New to Japan and low on gear, I threw on my trashbag-cum-poncho and snowboarding pants since I had no other gear to keep the rain away. I knew things would be fine as long as we kept moving. We marched up the crowded trail, along wooden walkways built to keep erosion at bay. Deer grazed casually on the surrounding greenery as the orange and red foliage fell steadily from the exposed timbers of one of Kansai’s most popular outdoor destinations. After a half-hour hustle, Eric and I reached the high point of Mt. Hinode, my 2nd Hyakumeizan. We took a 30-second break before heading off the peak towards the gorge, where we left 95% of the crowds behind.

The path must have surely been built by a knee surgeon, as the near 80 degree slope dropped incessantly into the valley floor. We would surely require the services of said doctor once we made it out of here, as the weight of our packs put constant pressure on the joints. We had a tent, sleeping gear, and food for two days, yet had no idea where we would actually make camp. Our first priority was getting off the mountain and into the gorge.

Eventually we reached a forest road that marked the entrance to Osugidani. Luckily the rain had let up, but the wet rocks proved treacherous. If not for the chains bolted in the rock we surely would have fallen into the river far below. The narrow path has little room for 2-way traffic, but our late start ensured we would encounter no other hikers the rest of the way. After an hour or so we reached the start of a number of impressive waterfalls that dropped with great thundering sounds into the emerald green waters of the gorge. Eric and I pushed on as steadily as we could in the quickly-fading light, reaching an open-walled shelter just in front of Nanatsugama waterfall. “This will do,” I exclaimed, as we started sorting through gear. The wooden platforms meant we wouldn’t even need to pitch the tent. We simply unrolled the sleeping bags, broke out the cooking gear, and got to work.

The next morning we awoke to find the shelter completely filled with elderly hikers. Arriving from nearby Momonoki hut, the crowd took over all available foot space, oblivious to our vain efforts to cook breakfast. Why they needed to stand in our bedroom to view the waterfall I’ll never know, but after 10 minutes of nonstop shutters, they finally got the hint after Eric and I chanted a chorus of sumimasens (excuse me, but do you mind?). We finished off the oatmeal and packed up in a flash, just before the 2nd wave of tourists took over. We continued traversing down the gorge, past the nonstop roar of crashing waterfalls, across high-flying suspension bridges, and out of the narrow mouth of the constricted river. After lunch we arrived at a large lake, just at the ferry took off. The next one wasn’t for several hours, so we faced a dilemma. Hike the 10+ kilometers up to the dam and bus stop, or let our thumbs do the talking. Our first attempt to get a ride in Japan was a success, as the driver ended up driving to the bus stop, where the bus had already departed. Instead of leaving us there, he sped down the road, caught up with the bus, and after a few incessant honks, the bus pulled over. We jumped on board, ending up at a rural train station that took us to Matsusaka and finally back to Osaka. All in all in was a successful mission, even if the first day was a complete washout.

One day I hope to do the traverse again, but the typhoon of 2004 has put an end to all efforts to revisit. To this very day, the trail between Momonoki hut and the forest road just before the steep climb to Odai-ga-hara has been closed, and there is no indication of when it might reopen. A bypass route has been built on a forest road so that hikers can still stay at Momonoki, but it doesn’t go through the gorge itself. Apparently most of the chains nailed into the granite walls are no longer there, and huge rockfalls still block the path. I’ll need to go have a look for myself to further investigate. Trails usually get rebuilt quickly in Japan, so there must be a compelling reason why access has not returned to one of the country’s most beautiful gorges.

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