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Posts Tagged ‘Suzuka mountains’

Nestled deep in eastern Shiga Prefecture in the foothills of the Suzuka mountains sits the untouched beauty of the headwaters of the Kanzaki river, a valley so steep and constricted that it has escaped the wrath of the dam builders. The route was first outlined in Lonely Planet’s original Hiking in Japan guide back in 2001, but due to a massive blunder with the name of the bus stop, very few users of that guide were able to negotiate the access point in the days before digital mapping and smartphone technology. Fast forward ahead two decades and I find myself with a rare opportunity to explore the gorge with my Japanese friends Haru and Hisao. Hisao picks me up at Nagoya station shortly before 7am on a brisk weekend morning in late March. After swinging by Haru’s house we hit the road for the trailhead on the Mie side of the Suzuka range, finding it easier to follow the Lonely Planet route in reverse by climbing up to Nakatōge from Asake campground. The parking lot is absolutely heaving as we squeeze in for one of the last available spaces. Everyone and their grandma seems intent on climbing Mt Shaka on this chilly morning but we have other plans.

We start by following the paved road uphill toward the headwaters of the Asake river. Unfortunately the dam builders have ensured that the upper reaches of the gorge are anything but spectacular, but we veer off the road a short time later and cross the river along a series of wobbly granite boulders to traverse the contours of the hillside due west to reach a narrow 10-meter waterfall tumbling through a thin channel of crumbly rock. The path appears to disappear here until Haru spots a series of ropes strung alongside a massive rockfall chute that looks set to dislodge itself at any moment. I let Haru take the lead and climb high enough and stay out of the fall zone so that any dislodged rocks tumble harmlessly down the chute to my right. I grasp onto a fixed rope and hoist myself toward the skyline.

Hisao follows next as Haru and I pause at the top of the chute and veer north above the waterfall and onto more stable ground in the upper reaches of the gorge. The scenery soon turns into that classic Suzuka spectacle of old growth deciduous forest wrapped around mossy granite rocks strewn about the forest floor. The trees are still in the midst of their winter hibernation, the branches bare and desolate as the sun struggles to break through the morning veil of cloud. The route traverses east past a watershed and along the edge of an enormous gap in the hillside caused by an immense landslide extending all the way from the ridge to the base of the mountain. A lone evergreen clings tightly to a cliff face in the middle of this contorted mess in an apparent imitation of the Lone Cypress of Pebble Beach.

We reach the carpeted moss of Naka-tōge, a broad saddle straddling the border of Mie and Shiga Prefectures. Here the Lonely Planet guide advises hikers to follow the ridge to the southwest over Mt Suishō and onward to Kunimidake and Yunoyama Onsen. The three of us linger briefly in order to study the maps and moisten our dry mouths with liquids. A clear signpost points east for lower crystal valley (下水晶谷), so we drop off the ridge and follow this trail down into Shiga Prefecture and the gorge below. The track is hard to pick up in places, and if not for the tape marks affixed to the trees it would be easy to veer off route. However, we mostly stick to the natural features of the land and let the dry creek bed of the narrow valley channel us down toward the lower portions of the ever steepening slopes.

Ten minutes into our ascent we find a reassuring site in a pristine blue-and-white signpost that looks recently erected by the tourism bureau of Komonocho of Mie Prefecture. If someone has spend the time and money to create such a well-designed way mark then you can bet that they have also ensured that the route is regularly maintained. Our dry route soon connects with an underground spring trickling down to meet the gorge, so we follow the right bank of the watershed until it deposits us at a junction indicating that the suspension bridge spanning Kanzaki gorge is unsafe to cross. We ignore the warning and head left to investigate the current state of the metal suspension bridge.

The Lonely Planet guide advises hikers to cross over the bridge and continue up the route we had just descended in order to reach Nakatōge, but anyone attempting to traverse over the twisted and tangled ruins of the bridge would truly be a fool. As Hisao and I stare in disbelief, Haru sheepish admits that he actually crossed the span during his last trip here a few years ago. The structure looks as if it could collapse and fall into the emerald green waters of the gorge at the slightest touch.

Fortunately sanity prevails and we retreat down to the river’s edge in search of a place to cross the broad river. Haru takes the lead and manages to cross one particularly hairy section of submerged rocks without slipping off and falling to the frigid waters. I follow next, looking for any sort of boulder that would provide a secure location to bear my weight but I retreat in defeat. Since we have only just begun our hike, I would rather not spend the remainder of the day with wet socks if it can be helped. Instead, I head downstream 50 meters and reach an area of whitewater lined with large, steady boulders and what I have dubbed the Suzuka ‘leap of fate’. You see, there’s a gap of about a meter and a half that needs to negotiated and the most logical way through is to simply leap across. The problem is that the start of the leap is from a wet boulder which you could easily slip out from underneath at the very start of your jump. I take off my backpack and toss it across the gap safely before placing my camera around my trekking pole and carefully stretch it across the water to Haru’s waiting arms. Finally I throw both of my trekking poles across and am only left with one task: JUMP!

My technique is the standing long jump, and I nail the landing with the precision of an Olympic athlete. I gather up my gear and turn around in time to watch Hisao take the leap with a mighty scream that surely helps propel his forward momentum. All three of us remain dry and safely cross the first real obstacle in our traverse.

The second challenge comes soon after, as we follow the tape marks up an impossibly steep gully lined with wet, mossy rocks. Haru scales the gully first, somehow managing to top out without sending any debris our way. I follow next and gain my confidence after an initial uneasiness in my steps. Hisao also makes quick work of the mess and we find the trail proper through a short bushwhack and head downstream. Ten meters further down we reach a trail junction indicating the real river crossing which we somehow completely missed.

A broad river bank awaits our footsteps, through an idyllic forest of hardwoods and rhododendron. The stone foundations of huts built for the production of charcoal emerge periodically beneath the undergrowth. The forest provides the perfect environment for the Edo-era craftsmen: plenty of oak trees and a constant supply of water to douse the red hot embers burning away in the earthen kilns. Haru pauses for a quick thought about the long-lost art.

We follow the contours of the land, traversing up and around natural features in the gorge and past countless streams depositing their payload of water into the main river as it shuttles their gifts toward Lake Biwa. At one particular stream crossing we lose sight of the tape marks and head down to the river bed itself for a bit of boulder hopping until the gorge once again becomes too constricted and we climb the precipitous river bank until finding the track again higher above. After an hour of this cat and mouse game of route finding, we reach Hirosawa, which true to its name is a broad fork in the river that is marked as a campsite in the Lonely Planet guide. Haru drops to our right in order to find a place to cross the fork while Hisao and I head straight to meet the whitewater head on. We find a beach area that would definitely make a great place to camp along the edge of the green water, if not for the plethora of leeches in the summer that is.

Haru shouts from the opposite side of the bank. Not only has he found a way to cross but he has also stumbled upon the trail and ushers us across. I can clearly see him on the top of a spur, so I make my way over to an area with an abundance of dry boulders and hop my way across, scaling the steep river bank while grasping onto tree roots to propel me up to Haru’s location. Hisao follows my footsteps in unison and our reunited trio marches along downstream through the heart of the gorge.

Narrow is an understatement in certain sections of this hidden gem of a waterway, and the route spends a fair amount of the time climbing up to traverse along a spur high above the waters themselves. Mossy boulders present themselves at the apex of the spur, tempting us to place our feet on them but we refuse to give in to their silky temptation. Haru speeds along and we can just catch sight of him during our descent towards the gorge. Rumblings in my stomach remind me that not only am I hungry but that we’ve been speeding along with nary a break.

We cross a stream and reach a junction with a handprinted sign pointing towards Tengu falls. I glance at the sign a take note of the Chinese characters for ‘danger’ written alongside in parentheses. I can hear the roar of the cascade as Haru escorts us along a narrow rocky track and through a series of fixed ropes fastened to the rocks. The last of the ropework is completely vertical, dangling over the edge of a cliff so steep that no footholds can be seen. Haru slides down the line and pops out on a massive boulder sitting on the edge of the water and just opposite Tengu’s spout. Descending vertical ropes has never been my forte but I carefully lower myself to safety and wipe the sweat from my brow while taking a seat near Haru. Hisao lets out a gasp before he too descends to our lunch spot. I pull out the sports drink and down it in nearly one gulp while fishing through the rucksack in search of calories.

Haru pulls out a hot thermos to make a quick brew of coffee and proceeds to snack on a vial of seed that looks like it belongs in a feeder. Birdseed and coffee, lunch of champions I suppose. We are sitting in the bowels of the gorge, a section of river untouched for centuries. The waters have carved these cliffs for millennia and have probably hosted a dinosaur or two during their tenure. It is refreshing that such places exist and I can see why the guidebook recommended this place. As I scan through the description, though, I see that they have failed to mention this side trip down to Tengu falls, easily the best part of the day so far.

After lunch we retrace our steps back up the cliff and continue heading downstream. We once again climb high above the waters to traverse along a narrow spur before dropping down to the river’s edge at a junction. This is the other campsite marked in the guidebook: from here you can simply cross the river and continue downstream to Yuzurio (somehow mislabeled as Nakahata in the Lonely Planet) and take a bus to Eigenji Shako but for us we leave the guidebook behind and instead head up Shirataki-dani, the valley of white falls. Even Haru admits that it is his first time on this route, so we start our ascent with an extra spring in our step until falling into that regular rhythm that typically accompanies a slog.

The route is pleasant enough and spends most of the time on a long incline through forests of cedar sprinkled with beech and oak from time to time. We stick mostly to the right bank of the river until ascending up past Shirataki, which resembles more of a whitewater channel than an actual waterfall. After passing by the ruins of a forestry hut (once used by the cedar plantation farmers mind you), the route turns old growth deciduous once again in the uppermost reaches of the gorge. Here the Suzuka mountains once again remind you of their spellbinding beauty.

Signs posted to the trees alongside the crystal-clear waters of the stream warn visitors that fishing without permission is strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, we come across a trio of men with their rods cast out, perhaps hoping to catch the endangered white-spotted char. I flash them the evil eye while they tuck their heads into their jacket hoods as the track climbs above the last of the waters and onto a root-smothered path that safely chauffeurs us back up to the ridge line and the Mie Prefectural border. We turn right, joining throngs of other day trippers on a narrow track lined with white Andromeda flowers. We ignore a junction and climb to a rocky prominence known as Hatomine. Upon reaching the summit, the howling winds blowing in from across the valley send us retreating for cover. Thick cloud has blown in from Ise Bay, threatening to gift us an afternoon shower. Peering down into a mountain pass just below the summit, the white sandstone makes the perfect setting for some mountain graffiti, as someone with a sense of humor has crafted a giant heart out of loose rocks and penned the word ‘Happy’ below. Japanese people love word play, and even though the peak is named after the dove (hato), it resembles the loan word for heart (haato) and has thus captured everyone’s affection.

The three of us drop down to the artwork and turn left at the pass, down the switchbacks of the eastern face of the peak and past a rock dam that was built in the Meiji era by Dutch engineer Johannis de Rijke, who is best known as the architect of the Lake Biwa Canal in Kyoto. It is a shame that concrete has taken center stage over these traditional breakwater dams. Nowadays the dams are built without any regard to the landscape or aesthetics, but in de Rijke’s time they were a work of art and exquisitely constructed, having stood intact for over a century.

Just past this dam is the start of the forest road that takes us back to the car which we follow with uplifted spirits for having explored one of Kansai’s truly gorgeous places.

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“I’ve got Mt. Shaka still on my list”, replies my fellow Kinki conspirator Nao, as he cruises north along the Kisei expressway. Since he had just finished reaching peak #90 on the list, I was inquiring about the remaining mountains to help give him some advice. “Wait, are you sure Mt. Shaka is on the list”, I reply, the puzzled look in my eye sending a signal of surprise to my trusty companion. Hmm, is it possible that I have overlooked something? The ride back to Osaka is full of easiness, and as soon as I arrive back I pull out the list and scan down to find Mt. Shaka’s name clearly marked, with a green highlight already strung through the mountain. Well, wouldn’t you know it – there are exactly 3 different mountains in the Kinki district by the name of Shaka, and it turns out that I have only climbed two of them, which now meant I had to add another mountain to the list. I thought I was on #98 of the Kinki Hyakumeizan, but now I needed to admit that I was only at #97. With this in mind, I immediately put a plan into action to knock off Mt. Shaka before word got out among the masses. Luckily Paul D. went along with my plan, and we set aside a Monday in late March for the assault on the 1000-meter high peak.

Rain fell in dreadful pellets throughout the night, but the weather forecast indicated a high pressure system returning to the archipelago in the morning, with skies clearing throughout the day. I boarded the 7am limited express train bound for Nagoya and settled into my comfortable seat when the phone rang. “Have you seen the weather forecast and live camera,” asked Paul D, still sitting in his apartment awaiting the green light to proceed. I did, in fact, open the link to Gozaisho’s live camera feed when I woke up, but quickly closed it when I found the image caked with hoarfrost and ice. I knew that the previous evening’s rain did fall as snow up in the higher elevations, so before setting out I threw in the gaiters and light crampons.

The mountain weather forecast for Mt. Shaka gave a grade of “C”, which basically means conditions are ‘not suitable for hiking’. Since I was already on board the train, I recommended we proceed with our original plan and meet each other at Yokkaichi station, with a back-up plan B of a hot spring bath if the foul weather decided to rear its ugly head.

The train journey took roughly 90 minutes, with blue skies prevailing throughout, except for a stubborn wall of cloud hovering over the Suzuka mountains. The white-capped outer edge of the range had begun to reveal itself, but Mt. Gozaisho was still cloaked in mist as we boarded the train to Yunoyama onsen. The gale that hit us upon exiting at the final destination had us running for cover, as the station sat completely empty, including the taxi stand that is usually lined with drivers eager to collect an easy wage from impatient climbers. It turned out that the road to the ropeway at Gozaisho was closed for construction, so the taxi drivers were told to focus their attention elsewhere, as no one would likely want to use their services. This forced us to call a taxi ourselves, as Paul’s girlfriend Riho came to the rescue and requested a driver be sent immediately. It was my first time to meet the aspiring dental assistant, who was on the third hike of her entire life. The first two hikes were in the Suzuka mountains as well, and she was ready for an adventure, winds be damned.

Luckily, the road to Asake gorge was open to traffic, so the driver happily dropped us off in the warm sunshine at the deserted trailhead. There are several routes up to the summit of Mt. Shaka, but we opted for the Matsuo ridge, which looked like the easiest and most straightforward route up the mountain. Looks can be deceiving as we all know, especially when studying a 1:50,000 scale map with poorly rendered contour lines. The path climbed steeply to the top of the spur, following a narrow root-infested ridge through a wind-battered deciduous forest as it meandered higher towards the main summit plateau. Anyone who has hiked in the Suzuka mountains know that the spur routes are anything but flat, coming closer in profile to the jawline of a rapid canine than say a toothless vagabond without dental insurance.

It took about an hour of steady climbing to reach the first peak on the route, where we faced the headlong gales sweeping in from the northwest. This sent us scrambling behind a collection of large boulders which spared us the brunt of mother nature’s exhale but not of her vengeful tears. A wall of dark cloud had rolled in as if on cue, dropping its payload of stinging sleet pebbles on everything in sight. We ducked for cover, swallowing small morsels of food in between swift tugs at the zippers of our outer shells as the sleet literally turned our hair white. If this tempest did not let up we would surely be forced to turn back.

By pure force of will, the sleet storm moved on just as quickly as it had arrived, but the chilly gales sent us moving upward for warmth. The fingertips burned from the cold, so I improvised some creative hand gestures in order to restore circulation, gripping the trekking poles tightly in between the carpal oscillations. The sun moved through the clouds as though we were watching a time-lapse video as Paul and I ducked behind lee-side hedges to escape the gusts as they threatened to send up tumbling to the darkened valleys below. Between blows we aimed our lenses westward,  towards the rest of the Suzuka mountains glistening with fresh snowfall.

The path rose and dropped like a poorly-built wooden roller coaster and we carefully picked our way through the contorted mess of wind-swept shrubs and shivering tufts of bamboo grass. In the final col below the crest we lost the path completely, relying on the GPS and our upward momentum to gain the spine of the twisty dragon-back ridge. Once on the true north-south axis we faced the wintry gales head on, leading with our weight into the wind in order to keep from getting blown down the stubborn snow slopes on the eastern side of Shaka’s towering form. Gaps in the frozen trees provided a brief chance to train our lenses on the frosty spectacle spread out before us.

A gap in the ridge, known in Japanese as a kiretto, sliced through the mountain as if a giant dragon had chomped down for an afternoon snack. I took the lead, sliding down the exposed sandstone until reaching the low point at the saddle, fully exposed to the howling winds. I crouched to my knees while waiting for an ebb in the torrent before breaking out in a full-on sprint towards the rocky spires on the other side. Due to the brunt force of the gale, my stride looked more like a drunken sailor than pioneering mountaineer, but once on the other side I took refuge behind a boulder and waited for Riho and Paul to cross the fractured gap.

Blessed by the shelter, we pushed on up the soaring sections of rock, carefully picking through sections of rotting, unstable snow before once again rising up to meet the wind. We soon popped out on the high point of the ridge – it wasn’t the summit proper, so we continued along the meandering ridge through soft tufts of powder snow that glistened in the afternoon sun. Hugging the trees to our left in order to avoid the frightful snow cornices to the east, we strolled through a hardwood forest caked in hoarfrost and backed by a brilliant hue of azure.

At one point, Paul cried out in agony as his knee abruptly popped out of its socket before magically moving back into place. If not for the knee brace we surely would’ve been calling for chopper assistance. Hobbling, stumbling, and sometimes gliding along, the summit of Mt. Shaka was reached just after one in the afternoon. Despite the hardships, there were plenty of smiles to go around.

The temperature hovered just around freezing, which didn’t allow us much time to loiter. We retraced our steps, taking care once again in the kiretto and along the undulating contours of the ridge. The winds had dropped from a gale to a strong, uncomfortable breeze, but it was much easier to have those streams of air coaxing our behinds rather than fighting them head-on. Once we returned to our sleety rock outcrop of the morning, Riho called the taxi company to book our return transport, as we reached the paved road with just minutes to spare.

Mt. Shaka did not surrender easily, but at the end of the day I could finally rest assured that I was indeed 98% of the way through my mountains. Would the final two mountains yield their weapons peacefully?

 

 

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