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Posts Tagged ‘Osaka’

3.5 km. Enough sitting around hoping those final few kilometers will climb themselves. Wait too long and the summer heat and humidity will be formidable foes. Climb now and risk a sudden change in the weather. I opt for a coin toss – heads and I go this weekend; tails and I put it off another week. Heads.

I set the alarm for 6am but wake up naturally at 5:30 as daylight filters through the curtains and the cacophony of birdsong force me from my slumber. The rucksack sits tiny in the corner of my office while I double-check the battery in my camera – I am not making that mistake again. The 7:05am train whisks me into downtown Osaka, where the subway deposits me directly in the center of Namba for the long train journey to Kawachi-Nagano. With a bit of time to kill before the first bus to Takihata dam I explore the backstreets and discover the remnants of an ancient inn along the Koya-Kaido, or old road to Koyasan. A gargantuan Kusunoki (Japanese camphor) tree occupies the better part of the hidden garden at the back of the inn. Awestruck I stand, gazing at the massive branches soaring toward the stratosphere. The honk of an annoyed motorist jars me back to reality – I guess the locals aren’t accustomed to tourists blocking the road to gaze up a slice of the forgotten past.

The bus ride involves mountain talk with a trio of young hikers who are planning an ascent of Iwawaki. I warn them about the mamushi who tried to take me out back in April as Murakami-san sends some important intel my way about Mt Makio, my destination for the day. “It’s easy to get lost up there as there are a multitude of tracks”, offers my newfound companion. We exchange contact information upon alighting and I head across the rickety steel suspension bridge for my last hurrah with the Diamond trail.

The signposts guide me to the end of a cul-de-sac and around a farmer’s garden to a narrow track still flowing with fresh rainwater from the previous day’s torrential rain. Greenery immediately engulfs me as I head through a lush canopy of rich foliage. With the rainy season having commenced early this year, the forests are thriving with undergrowth and buzzing with six-legged life. An initial steep climb through a well-worn channel of eroded spur soon gives way to a flat traverse along the steep contours. The stillness of the air sends the sweat glands into full production as a hornet does a quick fly-by before deciding that my stinky body is not worthy of investment.

The track skirts the edge of a washed out escarpment affording views across the valley over to Mt Iwawaki, which looks formidably far from reach. I silently praise myself for having the foresight to cut my hike of Section 5 short at Takihata instead of trying to push it to the end. The soothing aromas of the wet ferns and moss provide an olfactory buzz, as well as a reminder that the mountain slopes are tightly gripped in the claws of the wet season. I edge my way along the narrow path, across the narrow wooden planks spanning older, washed out sections of trail.

Monocultural columns of cedar yield to a verdant labyrinth of hardwoods which guide me to Bote-tōge at roughly the halfway point in the climb. I pause here on a wooden bench to catch my breath and shed a layer. A duo of elderly hikers sit perched nearby, offering informative replies to my anxious inquiries. “You shouldn’t miss the carvings in the main sanctuary”, replies the bespectacled hiker sitting on an adjacent bench. Armed with this extra intel I drop down the opposite valley through yet more fascinating remnants of old growth past. The rich greens of the Mongolian oak canopy glisten in the late morning light seeping through the cloud cover overhead. The bulbous form of Mt Makio rises majestically on the horizon as the track drops toward another secluded valley. Stone jizō statues adorned with Sanskrit adorn the route as a nod to Makio’s Buddhist roots.

Hugging the edge of a gully, the trail descends to a small waterfall in an unnamed watershed and rises up the opposite slop to Banya-tōge. Judging by the name, there must have been some kind of watch tower erected here during the feudal times, perhaps to keep tabs on the movement of pilgrims along this well-traveled route. A head-high barbed wire fence blocks entry down the northeastern slopes, such overdone barriers a common site for paranoid landowners who want to keep unwanted mountain riff raft from encroaching on their hidden caches. Oddly enough, this fence looks recently erected, so perhaps a rogue Diamond Trail rambler recently caused a riotous ruckus, but it could just be the debilitating humidity that conjure up such thoughts.

Another drop down to the northwest brings me to Oiwake junction. Here, the trail crosses a forest road that leads to Takihata dam, an alternative approach for those hikers who adore walking on rugged concrete roads. A signpost indicates that I have just 1000 horizontal meters separating me from the end of the Diamond trail, so I cross over a narrow wooden bridge spanning a gentle brook and climb past the first of many stone building foundations. Sefukuji temple, built in the 6th century, was once a vast temple complex hosting around a thousand monks in training, including Kukai himself. Though is there really any part of Japan that Kōbō Daishi has not marked with his magic touch?

I weave up and around these stone foundation ruins and reach a junction on my left for the summit of Mt Makio. Ignoring this track, I veer left past a collection creeping saxifrage clinging tightly to the top of a low rock wall. My path steepens past a pair of dilapidated structures until reaching the entrance to the main sanctuary of Sefukuji. A nondescript stone marker sits on the ground at the trail junction, identical to the one I had encountered at Donzurubō. The kanji characters for 起点 or kiten flank the righthand side of the marker, informing me that I have indeed reached the end of the Diamond Trail. I breathe a sigh of relief for accomplishing my goal but come to the realization that I am literally in the middle of nowhere. What kind of trail ends on a mountaintop?

A handful of other visitors mill about the modest grounds of the temple. Most are dressed in cotton shirts and sneakers and have taken the easy way up by starting from the parking lot a 20-minute walk downhill on a concrete road. Before paying my respects to the deities, I make an offering to the lords of the privy. Just opposite the restroom sits a small lookout point that affords a vista back across the valley to Mt Iwawaki and further east towards Mt Kongō. I consider pausing here for a rest but decide to pay my respects first. “That’ll be 500 yen” barks the rambunctious temple caretaker, a lady in her mid-60s that exudes that Kansai freewheeling spirit. “Take all the photos you like”, she beams, pointing to the placard indicating that the 500 yen entitles visitors to all the snapshots they wish to take, in perhaps the only temple in Japan that openly embraces technology. “Instagram, Twitter, share anything and everything”, explains my guide. She clearly went to the Osaka school of propriety.

I step up into the sanctuary, turn left, and immediately drop to my knees, gobsmacked by the sheer beauty of central figure of Miroku Bosatsu towering over me. I offer a prayer before raising my lens for the social media masses.

The temple was razed by Nobunaga in the 16th century and burned down a second time near the end of the Edo era, but the statues on display in this main hall were salvaged from the fire and sit here undisturbed. I sit in complete silence, frozen by my inner voice which simply says, “stay”. I enter a trance and let my thoughts wander before exploring the rest of the main hall. I continue clockwise and find the Kannon statue that qualifies for Sefukuji’s inclusion on the venerable list of the 33 temples of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.

In back of the main statue sits a wooden carving of Kōbō Daishi flanked on all sides by a plethora of centuries-old wood carvings of Buddhist dieties. Many of these ancient sculpture still retain hints of color. Opposite Kukai’s statue, a reclining Buddha reposes peacefully. Forget the temples of Kyoto. If you really want to awe visitors, bring them to Sefukuji.

Hunger pangs remind me that sustenance is in order, so I begrudgingly retreat from the sanctuary, thank the caretaker, and descend back to the junction for the summit of Mt Makio. The track traverses below the summit before arriving at a narrow ridge. I turn right and follow the contours to the nondescript summit of Mt Makio. An echo of voices below pull me in – a rock formation below the high point purportedly affords mesmerizing views but my maps tell me that the rock formation is off limits to hikers. Still, I push on and find a fellow group of elderly rule breakers and join them on the intrusion. I settle down on the massive boulder and tuck into my lunch.

A couple approaches from the opposite end of the boulder as I quiz them on trail conditions. You see, this trail is also off limits to hikers but they inform me that the path is well-traveled and easy to follow. I check the map and decide to descend directly down to the shuttle bus stop. It is now 12:30, and the next bus is scheduled to depart at one o’clock. I tuck the camera away and settle into a frantic pace that has earned me the nickname of Max Descent from more than one hiker.

I arrive at the bus stop at 12:59 and collapse into an empty seat. Mt Makio not only doubles as the start/finish of the Diamond trail, but it is also the northernmost peak in the Izumi mountains, a full traverse of which has been on my mind for a while. I have already done the southern half of the range, so just 33 kilometers separate myself from a luxurious finish at Inunakiyama hot spring. I vow to return, under the cooler veil of winter when I can enjoy these peaks in better comfort.

All in all, the Diamond Trail is a roundabout way to transfer from the Kintestu-Minami Osaka line to the Nankai Main line, though certainly not the fastest way to change between the two divergent train networks. Now that I have complete the 45-km “long trail”, the million dollar question is: would I recommend it? I think you can find the answer to that inquiry in part 5 of the saga.

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There’s a secret firefly viewing spot in the foothills of the Hoshida mountains. Known only to a few locals who venture out at dusk on humid June evenings, the hidden stream is one of the last untouched areas of Osaka Prefecture and a holdover to the bygone days when lightning bugs were once a common occurrence around the many streams that trickle down from Japan’s mountains. My second venture into the Hoshida range involves crossing this stream and following a dilapidated concrete road to a secluded reservoir ablaze in autumn color. I stare at the terrain and eventually spy what I am looking for: a narrow gap in the chain link fence leading to an even narrower path flanking the eastern edge of the pond.

This pond deserves further attention, for not only does it double as a reservoir for the residents living downstream, but it also serves as evidence that more than just modern mountaineers have been lured by the attractive appeal of the Hoshida region. Construction on the pond began in the early Taisho era, and during excavation work, fragments of pottery were discovered which date from the middle Jomon era roughly 4000 years ago. This caused a halt in construction work and further excavations that revealed dugout foundations suggesting that the early pioneers settled in these very hills. Today all that remains is a concrete marker commemorating the discovery, with the fragments relegated to the Osaka history museum and all else lost in the murk of the pond.

After absorbing the weight of this historical discovery, I duck under the fence and skirt the edge of an impressive escarpment before a gentle descent to reach the foot of nasubi-ishi no tani, or valley of the eggplant stone. The constricted gorge lies littered with toppled trees but a clear path is marked in tape and spends the first few minutes crisscrossing the stream until finally settling on the left river bank along the remnants of a proper path that has fallen into heavy disuse. In summer this must truly be a rat’s nest of overgrowth, but the cooler late autumn temperatures have transformed most of the weeds into a more manageable maze.

Bits of broken concrete appear beneath the moss, the remnants of a walkway that once chauffeured visitors up to the base of the falls. At a recently cleared section of bamboo grass, a stone grave sits precariously on the river bank. The kanji characters engraved in the face are too faded to make out clearly, but the engraving on the back side dates from 1946, so perhaps it was erected to commemorate a fallen war victim. Just behind the monument a fern-smothered stone wall shores up the hillside, possibly doubling as the foundation of a structure lost to time and the elements.

The path soon splits, with an impossibly steep trail forging straight ahead up a 50-degree slope towards the ridge, but it’s the trail branching off to the right that piques my interest. I turn here, grasping the fixed ropes on a dodgy traverse teetering on the edge of a dizzying drop to the stream below until reaching the base of eggplant rock waterfall. The water trickles over the top of the house-sized boulder, which, according to a map from the Edo era, resembles an eggplant due to the black fissures in the stone. These cracks are now lathered in moss and a verdant grove of ferns, feeling like they belong in the jungles of Iriomote rather than the hills of Hoshida. In a wet grotto near the base sits a weathered and somewhat abstract representation of Amida Nyorai, donning a red bib with the inscription Namu Amida Mutsu. The falls were once the mainstay of Shugendō practitioners, perhaps of the Tendai sect which might help to explain the Pure Land undertones. To further complicate matters, the waterfall also go by the name of Hijiri Taki, or Saint Falls, as evidenced by the white prayer tablet placed there by a member of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Rather than renegotiating that narrow traverse back to the main track, I spy an easier crossing that connects to the narrow north-south spur. At the spur junction, an easier path skirts the eastern face but I head straight up the spine, hoisting myself up to the summit of  ⑩ Mt Kōbōkyū (広望丘), which affords my first vistas of the day. I look down upon the valley I have just climbed, tracing the route through a gap in the trees back to the reservoir dam. A steel plate in the shape of a rugby ball has been affixed adjacent to the signpost, with a wooden mallet dangling below. I grasp the gavel and let it fly, sending a reverberating ring deep into the valley below.

As quickly as the trail reaches the summit, it descend to a saddle to the north and a junction to the uppermost reaches of the eggplant gorge. I forgo this route in favor of the ridge, which wastes no time in gaining altitude with a most-welcome addition of fixed ropes. Once again I hoist myself skyward like a sailor stepping the mast, taking care on the slippery sandstone scree where certain death awaits anyone who loses purchase on the tricky terrain. At the top of the spine the angle eases, coaxing me gently to the broad summit of ⑪ Mt Jigokudani (地獄谷山) or hell valley, which is certainly where you would end up if you stumbled off the eastern face. A grove of Mizuhara oak add a cheerful tinge of orange to the otherwise nondescript plateau.

I settle down for a bit of a snack, when the sound of a bear bell approaches. An elderly man in a brown ball cap lets out a jovial greeting, my first such encounter of a fellow hiker in the Hoshida range. After exchanging pleasantries, the white-haired hiker continues down the ridge I had just come up: I offer a cautionary word but he shrugs it off, obviously comfortable in this type of terrain. It never fails to amaze me the tenacity and vigor of Japan’s elderly. Most adults in other parts of the globe would be most content with a book and some knitting or a gentle game of bridge.

The track soon joins the main ridge of the Hoshida mountains: if I head left I can reconnect with the peaks from Chapter 1 of my saga, but instead I veer westward, down a series of rubber-coated wooden steps that double as a path for maintenance workers for the electrical pylons strung through the range. This leads me once again to the stream flowing towards the eggplant falls, where a metal bridge over the water teeters precariously on the brink of collapse, mostly likely caused by the 2018 Osaka earthquake. I somehow make it across the canted structure and head along the edge of a golf course and up to the opposite ridge along a path completely missing from my map. This 60-mountain challenge will certainly involve figuring out pieces of this geographical jigsaw puzzle.

A faint trail leads along a narrow spur for a short shuffle to ⑫ Mt Waribayashi (割林山) which translates as broken woods. This certainly lives up to its name as I keep to the ridge and over a series of toppled trees to reach a dead-end precipice. Scanning the forest for signs of safe passage, I can just make out a bit of blue among the ocherous foliage as I scuttle down to a saddle and scramble up to a parallel spur where the track continues to ⑬ Mt Nasubi-ishi (茄子石山) which sits directly above the waterfall of the same name, the very one I stood admiring just one hour prior. All seems quiet and forgotten up in these hills, like a left-behind item in the corner of an under-frequented boutique.

I turn around and follow the incredibly narrow spur back towards the mountains until confronted with a near-vertical headwall. If I ever meet the guardian angel who installed the fixed rope I will gladly buy them lunch, for without such climbing aids it would have been an exercise in futility. The footing here on the sandstone scree is once again of dubious quality and at several points in the ascent my life lays in the hands of the quality of the rope. I really don’t like putting all of my weight on these things, but with nothing else to grab I leave it up to fate.

The sigh of relief expelled from my battered body could surely be felt by anyone within a several kilometer radius had anyone bothered to be up here at such a late hour in the afternoon. Just fifty horizontal meters from this most unfitting of trail junctions lies one of the only mountains in the Hoshida range that affords a 270-degree view. With this in mind I propel myself to the top of ⑭ Mt Ichigaikaburi-no-se (一蓋被ノ嶺) and take in the stellar views out towards Kyoto. This peak is a favorite for locals wanting to experience the night view, but with no easy way of accessing the peak it would truly take some dedication to make it up here after dark.

With the bulk of today’s climb now behind me, I retrace my steps back to the depilated bridge near the start of eggplant valley and follow a path downstream to the incredibly shy Godan FallsI can hear the water splashing down from a rock formation but the view is smothered by toppled trees, leaf litter and other debris. Perhaps I should bring my hacksaw next time and do a bit of DIY trail maintenance. Robbed of a view of the waterfall, I keep to the right bank of the stream and soon rejoin the spur at the start of the fixed ropes below Mt Jigokudani. This time I skip the steep re-climb of Kōbōkyū in favor of the side traverse. These paths, called makimichi in Japanese, can be found on most ridge walks in Japan, for they offer an easier and lazier option for those who do not want to follow the undulating contours of the true ridge.

This shortcut trail soon terminates on the true ridge and I am forced to do the hard work on the surprisingly jagged spur. The path leads me up and over Densenoka (電閃丘). Despite being a proper peak, this summit does not feature in the Hoshida 60, probably because the pioneer who named this lookout point succumbed to a lightning strike if the literal meaning of the name is to be taken. The route takes me up and over an additional two unnamed peaks, each offering pleasant enough views before depositing me on the top of ⑮ Mt Asahi (旭山) and the unobstructed vistas to the east for the rising sun. It seems like a tempting place to view the first sunrise of 2021 if not for the lack of space. As I stand on the summit, a lone hiker climbs from below, continuing on the spur to lord knows where. With less than an hour of daylight left I hope he is at least carrying some form of illumination and is not relying on an electrical storm. 

The path from Asahi shoots down the western face to soon reconnect with the road just below the reservoir, hearby completing the loop and rounding out another 6 mountains off the once formidable list.

 

 

 

 

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The intense heat of an Osaka summer tends to turn even the hardiest outdoorsman into an air-con addicted recluse. Something had to change. Perhaps an evening climb of Osaka’s easterly neighbor could help relieve the cabin fever.

I set off from Namba station a little before 5pm, arriving at Ishikiri about 20 minutes later. Although I’d climbed Mt. Ikoma several times before, it was my first attempt along the old stone-lined pilgrimage route. The initial 10 minutes involved weaving through a twisted maze of expensive homes on hilly, narrow back streets. I knew I had to go up, but where exactly? Shooting through a narrow passage, I crossed a rickety, rusting corrugated-metal bridge that spit me out at the foot of a temple. Jizo statues lined the scuffed concrete road: a sign I’d finally found the correct approach.

The concrete snaked through the dense forest, passing over tranquil streams. There were no shortages of hidden shrines and long forgotten temples along the deserted route, a testament to Ikoma’s mighty past. Mosquitos inched their way towards my exposed skin, forcing me to push on despite the rapidly flowing sweat dripping from my brow. Arriving at the shut gates of Oku-houji temple, I poured water from the hand-washing basin all over my steaming head and face. Water flowed down my back and into my hiking pants, but the relief from the heat was well worth the drenching my clothes received. The relief was short-lived, however, as the mosquitos and sweat returned with each advancing step.

I soon reached a paved forest road, where the massive metal TV towers came into view. The path crisscrossed this deserted road several times before reaching a rather tranquil lookout, where I saw my first unobstructed views of the mammoth basin of Osaka city glowing in the late afternoon light.

The stone-lined path flattened out a bit before climbing one final set of wooden steps to a clearing. At this clearing, my jaw dropped upon seeing a parking lot full of cars and a queue of day-trippers lining up to ride the chairlift to the top of the mountain. I knew of the monstrosity that awaited me but had not been mentally prepared to actually witness it. Inhaling deeply, I crossed the road and marched up the concrete steps to the summit, keeping a steady eye on the shimmering horizon to my left.

Skyland Ikoma was built on the summit of Mt. Ikoma in 1929, the same year a cable car was carved on the eastern face of the mountain. One of Japan’s oldest amusement parks, Skyland is home to the oldest continuously operational ride (the airplane tower, from 1929) and one of the best panoramic views of any amusement facility in the world. Despite this distinction, the area has definitely seen better days, and if not for the financial assistance of owner Kintetsu railway, it would’ve already met the same haikyo fate as Nara Dreamland in the valley below. On this steamy summer evening, however, the place bustled with energetic kids, sleep-deprived parents, and a rather large collection of household pets, all searching for a brief break from the boiling temperatures of the city.

I settled onto a neighboring bench, ignoring the chaos around me, eyes fixated on the stellar views of my home city six hundred meters beneath my feet. The sun inched its way down to the horizon while the cool breeze slowly dried my sweat-drenched body.  I lazily searched for nourishment buried in the bottom on my daypack: a melted chocolate bar and a handful of cashew nuts would have to do.

While most of the crowd dissipated after sundown, I stayed glued to the bench, observing the soft hues of the evening take over. Cloud cover is often much more colorful long after the last rays touch the horizon.

The finicky headlamp finally came on after a 20-minute struggle bringing it back to life. None too confident it would last on the descent, I sprang to my feet and hoped for the best, using my nocturnal instincts to guide me when the lamp wouldn’t. Eventually I made it back down to the temple, where a series of fluorescent lights eased my navigation back into the city. For some strange reason, the temperature and humidity actually rose after sundown and I arrived at the station in more of a sweaty mess than my earlier climb. Perhaps it was an omen for the slowly approaching typhoon….

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