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Posts Tagged ‘Omine’

Just One More

Despite the thick cloud and misty rain, mountain #99 was knocked off in a sloppy, sweaty affair. If anyone else is attempting the Kansai Hyakumeizan, I don’t recommend saving the 15 toughest hikes until the end. This one looked easy on the map but it nearly did me in. Luckily there are no more mountains in the Ōmine mountains left to climb.

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Apparently the last one is a piece of cake, if the forest road to the trailhead is open, that is. If not, then it could turn out to be the toughest of them all.

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After retracing our steps back to Tamaki shrine, I bade Andrew and Rick a farewell before ducking into the forest towards Hongu. We had agreed to reconvene around 3pm at Sanzai pass, a distance of roughly 12 kilometers to the south. The path skirted the edge of a rock formation directly below the summit of Mt. Tamaki while climbing gently towards a mountain pass. Upon checking the GPS, I realized to my chagrin that I was indeed heading in the completely opposite direction. Perhaps the staff at the shrine could invest a little more energy into making those signposts a little less confusing.

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At the far end of the shrine, a signpost did indeed point the way towards Hongu, so I quickened the pace to make up for lost time. The path dropped hard, reaching a paved forest road in about half an hour. Two wooden benches sat on the shoulder, glistening in the warm sun like a pair of poolside armchairs. I plopped down on one of them, digging into my gear for some nourishment that would sustain me for the long climb ahead. The trail marker indicated that Mt. Oomori, the next summit on the route, was still over 4km away. A further study of the map revealed that the summit was indeed higher than Tamaki, so I had my work cut out for me.

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The route paralleled a gravel forest road through a monotonous grove of farmed cedar and cypress. Across the valley, between gaps in the evergreen needles, Mt. Tamaki dominated the skyline but still looked uncomfortably close. Just off the trail, a gray squirrel jumped from tree to tree, obviously startled by the sight of a thru hiker so late in the season. After leaving the forest road, the path made a beeline for the ridge, as if the generations of pilgrims had completely ignored the topography. Sweat rolled down my brow as I shed off layer upon layer of thermal protection. The soft-shell and down jacket were complete overkill and did nothing but add a burden to the bulging pack. Upon hitting the ridge, I collapsed in a heap of exhaustion, once again reaching into the stash of edibles to fuel the engines. The summit of Oomori came a few minutes later, followed by a monster of a drop that had my left patella screaming in agony.

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Once bottomed out, I mentally prepared myself for the long haul up to Mt. Godaison, a mountain apparently named after the Five Wisdom Kings of Esoteric Buddhism. The path followed a narrow cliff edge blanketed with exposed tree roots, an angle so pronounced that those same roots doubled as handholds. At the top of the first pinnacle, the path dropped just as dramatically on the other side, sending shockwaves through my already taxed knees. The process repeated itself several times over, until reaching the top of a nondescript crag watched over by the menacing gaze of Fudō-myōō. I had officially reached the high point, but the fun was far from over. The path dropped yet again and climb another spire or two before a signpost had indicated that I was indeed standing atop the southern summit of Godaison. Perhaps this peak was not only named after the Wisdom Kings, but also after the quintet of rocky escarpments laid across the back of the massif. This mountain must have quite the profile when viewed from the valley floor.

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Running on empty, I could do little other than let gravity takes its course. If I stopped now I was afraid I wouldn’t have the strength to get back up. Feeling lightheaded was an indication that I was in dire need of a break however, so at the next junction I collapsed and stuffed a fistful of trail mix into my mouth. I had lost quite a bit of salt on the walk and needed to replenish. I usually carry some salt candy during the hot summer months for this very purpose but had no idea such countermeasures would be required in January. I felt a little better after a 10-minute break, but was beginning to worry a bit as I was down to my last 500 ml of water.

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I had one more peak to climb between my current position and the parking lot where my support team would pick me up, so I took a deep breath and slow, deliberate steps towards the top of the forested hillside above. The phone soon rang, and it was Andrew letting me know that he would be arriving at the pass in a few minutes. I pushed on, driven by the desire to see this long journey come to an end. Once past the last peak the route dropped quickly, skirting past a couple of electrical towers that would surely have Kukai spinning in his grave.

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The GPS showed the paved road in sight, and that was enough to keep me on my feet, as was the small clearing that afforded picturesque views into the the riverbed.

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Eventually I popped out on the road, where Andrew and Rick offered their support. Hot tea and leftovers from lunch were placed on the hood of the car and I was quickly nursed back to health. I mean, it wasn’t like I was on my deathbed or anything, but I was feeling a bit too gassed for the final three kilometers to Hongu, which we ended up covering in the car.

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The shrine itself is a bit of a letdown considering that it was moved from its original location to a place just off the main road that tourists can more easily access. It kind of ignores the topography and landscape, but the original temple foundations can still be visited in the riverbed below at a place called Oyunohara. In fact, this is where all three routes of the Kumano Kodo converge. The Okugake michi, had I continued to follow it, would have spit me out just across the river in an area without a safe place to cross. In ancient times there were a series of wooden footbridges but they have since been washed away. Perhaps a wade through the river is an appropriate cleanse after capping off a 120-kilometer journey through Kansai’s most rugged terrain.

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With mountains number 88 AND 89 conquered in one fell swoop, it was time to line up the cards and attempt an epic ascent on another of Kumano Kodo’s challenging peaks.

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The Omine mountains stretch over 80km through the heart of the Kii Peninsula, and they’ve been a center for esoteric Buddhism for centuries. While most attention is given to the rugged section between Mt. Sanjo and Mt. Shaka, an excursion into the southern part of the pilgrimage route was long overdue. It is said in the days of old, pilgrims started their journey from Hongu and made their way north, stopping along the way at Tamaki shrine which serves as the innermost sanctuary (oku-no-in) of the three great shrines of Hongu. It’s a considerable 1100 meters of cumulative elevation gain spread out over roughly 15 kilometers of precipitous terrain. Considering the distance from Osaka, it only seemed logical to do the route in reverse, starting out high at Tamaki and finishing in the coastal flatlands surrounding Hongu, but I would need a special support team for this mission. Enter Nara-based designer Andrew Thomas and his companion Rick. They agreed to drop me off on Tamaki and pick me up later in the day near the terminus of the Omine range.

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I awoke in the pre-dawn blackness just before 5 in the morning. After a quick breakfast and double-checking of gear, I boarded the 6am train bound for Hashimoto, where a JR train shuttled me along to Gojo station, our rendezvous point for the important mission. I settled into the back seat while Andrew cruised steadily along route 168, a road known for its tight curves and narrow shoulders. It also garners the distinction of hosting the longest local bus route in Japan, a back-breaking, 167km ride through the backbone of Nara Prefecture. The full ride from Yagi to Shingu takes a staggering 6-and-a-half hours, a quest for only the most diehard bus nerds.

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Route 168 itself is undergoing a major facelift, as the deep pockets from the prime minister’s controversial Abenomics policy sink money into massive public works projects. Tunnels are being bore into the neighboring hillsides in a effort to turn the tiny rural route into a major two-laned thoroughfare, perhaps in an effort to attract more bus coaches filled with affluent elderly pensioners.

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After several hours on the serpent-like tarmac, we reached the turnoff for Tamaki shrine and began the long, curvy ascent on the narrow forest road to the entrance of the sacred grounds. Usually the upper reaches of the flank are sculpted in tufts of wintry white, but the unseasonably mild temperatures had completely obliterated the snow sans a few patches piled up on the sheltered northern shoulders of the one-lane road. We reached the gravel parking lot under blue skies tinged brown with a smoggy haze wafting over from the Yamato plain. The shrine itself was an easy 10-minute stroll along a level gravel road through a quiet forest dotted here and there with towering cryptomeria that have stood undisturbed for centuries.

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Upon reaching the shrine, we had a quick look around before the abrupt climb to the high point of the mountain. The path grew steeper with each advancing step before leveling out on a broad ridge scarred by a duo of communication antenna. Perhaps this spectacle was kept out of sight from the UNESCO inspectors back in 2006 when the area was up for consideration as World Heritage status. But then again, criteria for Cultural heritage sites do not take into account disregard for environmental preservation.

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The bald patch of the high point was marked by a concrete survey marker and battered signpost. Nearby stood one of the newer rectilinear markers set up all along the Kumano Kodo after being inscribed as a World Heritage site. These posts are apparently designed to withstand a nuclear holocaust and offer a good pacesetter for those trekkers committed for the long haul. From Mt. Shaka, you can set your next goal

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while looking back and checking your progress.

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With mountain number 88 checked off the list, it was time to retreat back to the shrine and continue along the ridge towards Mt. Godaison, peak #89 and my second target for the day.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Mt. Inamura clawed at my thoughts like a feral cat seeking attention. She needed to be summited soon, so these pangs of regret would dissipate. Late September, and a window of fair early autumn weather presented itself. The commute would be long. The hike even longer. With a wall of typhoons lined up in the Pacific ready to batter the Kii Peninsula, I took the bait and once again boarded that early morning bus from Shimoichi-guchi. This has become such a routine that I was beginning to wonder if the bus drivers would start to recognize me.

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From the bus stop at Dorogawa, I marched through town alone, past the shops just beginning to awake from their quiet slumber. Old ladies milled about, sweeping the first remnants of autumn from the facades facing the shoulder-less street. After 10 minutes of steady marching, I found the trail to Inamura on my right, marked by that familiar rectangular box for hikers to fill out their climbing intentions. Ever since my near-death experience in January my faith in the authorities had fallen to record-low levels. Not that I ever filled out those forms before. I came armed with new back-up: my mountaineering insurance card, courtesy of the fine folks at jRO.

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The route led through the unimpressive cedar forests and past an impressive cave before meandering along the edge of a collection of smaller peaks to the junction below Kannon-mine. From here, the trail continued blazing just below the ridge line across a series of wooden bridges built over the many streams flowing down from the heights above. The higher I climbed the less dense the cedars became, until they petered out completely into a field of ancient oak trees and thick bamboo grass. This is Omine as a last remembered, untouched by deforestation and only affected by the hands of time. Shortly before noon I reached the modest mountain hut set up on a saddle just below the final push to Inamura. Day hikers spread out on the picnic table, soaking in the rays while replenishing their lost abdominal reserves. A quick snickers bar did the trick for me, and I forged ahead into a fog bank licking the upper reaches of my target peak. By the time I arrived I was in a world of white, but breaks in the clouds revealed a glimpse of Mt. Sanjo across the steep valley. The serene silence was broken occasionally by the syncopated wailing of a conch shell: mountain priests hidden somewhere in the mystic murk engaged in a esoteric religious exercise. I sat back, soaking in the crisp air and dogmatic rhythms.

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In the midst of my reverie, I leaned too far forward, knock my trekking pole off the edge of the summit viewing platform and down the side of a cliff. Coming to my senses, I gently climbed down the steps, slid under the platform and scooted to the edge of the abyss. My stick was caught in a tree that I somehow managed to kick free. Once safely retrieved, my next target peak was the impossibly steep rocky perch of Mt. Dainichi. The summit sat adjacent to Inamura, a treacherous cliff separating the two rocky spires as if split by a giant knife. I eased into the approach, crossing a metal bridge built over the gaping hole while trying my best not to look down. A few ladders and chains later, I sat on top of Dainichi’s exposed flank in a rare break in the cloud. The sun rained down on the bald summit as I dug into a rice ball. Two other men soon joined me on the summit. We shared stories about Omine before retreating in unison back to the hut.

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From there, the two men headed towards Sanjo while I shot down the trail which I had blazed earlier in the day. At the Kannon junction, I rested on some exposed tree roots while chatting up an elderly duo resting nearby. I had an easy walk back to Dorogawa, but was interested in the longer route via Kannon-mine, and my new information source assured me that the route wasn’t too difficult. I needed a few minutes to psyche myself up for yet another big climb. I had already traversed nearly 15km and extra reserves of energy were needed. This was a two snickers kind of day.

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The path climbed up an impossibly steep slope towards a series of false summits which grew longer in succession. What was I thinking? Well, at least the trail was deserted and the views back towards Inamura were pleasant enough. Kannon’s tree-smothered top eventually came into view, and down the far side I slid, nearly giving myself a heart attack by chancing upon two deer grazing in the woods next to the trail. Alarmed, they sprinted deeper inside, rustling leaves and toppling branches in their quest for protection. A few minutes later, the trees swiftly gave way to susuki grass, with a stone monument marking a scenic overlook. A group of several dozen hikers wearing orange t-shirts lay seize to the place. Two of the younger members slid over, made room for my slumped and beaten figure. They appeared to be participants of some strange religious group, but my inquiry as to their nature went unanswered.

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The final descent awaited, and with aching knees I ducked back into the green canopy, arriving at the bus stop with only minutes to spare until the next bus. The grand peaks of Dorogawa were now off the list. It was time to turn my attention to further south along the Omine ridge, on the more remote peaks closer to Hongu shrine.

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Early November. An opportunity presents itself to explore the highest peaks of the Kansai area and time is precious. After delaying our departure by one day due to inclement weather, John and I head up the paved forest road to the gate marking the entrance to the sacred mountains of Omine, a place which to this very day is still officially off-limits to women.

The path weaved through dense forests ablaze with color and the two lone explorers pushed on towards the ridge. While the sun shone brightly in the valley below, the clouds hung tightly to the first target peak of Mt. Sanjo. Omine temple was absolutely deserted and the thick cloud made navigation a bit tricky, as we raced back and forth trying to find the turnoff towards Kosaka emergency hut. Future climbers take note that the sign reading kashiwagi (柏木) is the correct path to take. Not sure why they couldn’t have just wrote 大峰縦走ルート on the signpost….

We arrived at Kosaka just before dusk, opting for the warmth of the free hut. No use pitching a tent when you don’t need to. The next day we continued on the ridge, up and over the craggy cliffs of Daifugen, and down to the water source at Gyoja-kaeri.  Just past this clearing we ran into our first hiker of the trip, a day-and-a-half from Dorogawa! Hiking on the weekdays out of season clearly has its advantages.

The ridge shone brightly in the crisp autumn air, the last of the autumn foliage hanging tightly to the deciduous canopy above. Statues lined the path at regular intervals, a reminder of the deep history of these mountains, and the thousands of Shugendo practitioners that came before us. Just after the turnoff to Gyoja-kaeri tunnel, the path gradient changed abruptly, as we were met with a never-ending array of wooden steps. I pushed ahead while John took the slow and easy approach. Arriving at Misen-hut ahead of schedule, I pitched the tent, paid the camp fee, and boiled up some water, waiting for John’s leisurely arrival. I wanted to get everything set up before dusk enveloped the ridge, and the swift pace kept us on schedule. Shortly before dusk, a rather inquisitive tanuki visited our makeshift kitchen, begging for free handouts. Apparently accustomed to receiving such refreshments from predecessors, the raccoon dog wandered uncomfortably close to our rapidly cooking meal. I thought for sure that the elusive creature would run off with our rations, so I threw some water on the helpless animal as a warning to keep a safe distance.

With hunger successfully relieved, we drifted off to sleep, awaking in the early dawn to witness another breathtaking sunrise. “Should we do the entire traverse?”, John asked, while checking supplies and map times. As much as I wanted to oblige, our delayed start meant that I needed to be at work the following evening, which didn’t allow enough time to get up and over Mt. Shaka and back to Osaka. Leaving our gear at Misen, the two of us climbed up to the high point of Mt. Hakkyo (the target point for Hyakumeizan climbers), snapped a few summit proofs, retreated back to Misen, and started the impossibly long climb down to Tenkawa-kawaai.

By impossibly long, I really meant it. Map times said to allow 4-1/2 hours for the 15km descent and it easily took that long, with our over-sized packs and the steep terrain. We half expected to run into a bear in the stunningly beautiful hardwood forest, but luckily the nocturnal mammals never surfaced. After a quick hot-spring bath in Tenkawa, we thumbed a ride all the way to Yagi station in eastern Nara, saving us a 4-hour bus ride. I headed back to Osaka while John started the long train ride back to Tokyo. The full traverse eluded up this time around, but I couldn’t help yearning for another stint with the sacred mountains of Kii Peninsula, which have since been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The only question would be, do I aim for a rematch with mighty Sanjo, or head to the uncharted waters of  Shaka and the southern half of Omine?

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