Posts Tagged ‘Suzuka’

I have done most of the peaks in the Suzuka range, but needed one more visit to cross the massif off my Kinki 100 list. I turned once again to fellow Kinkan conspirator William, and with Mai and Sota in tow we guided the Mini along the expressway towards the northern edge of the mountains. Mt. Eboshi is the very first mountain in the range, and in clear weather the peak affords mouth-watering panoramic views of the rest of Suzuka’s craggy spires, and even out to Hakusan and the Kita Alps. Clear weather and the Suzuka mountains, however,  are rarely used together in the same sentence and we anxiously awaited to see what mother nature held in store for us.

The first rain squall hit right outside of Kusatsu city, and the further north we drove, the more unstable the weather. Luckily this storm system was held in check by the strong highlands of Mt. Ryozen, and sunny weather awaited us on the northern side of Ryozen’s sprawling form. Just before reaching the trailhead of our target peak Mt. Eboshi, a bright rainbow stretched across a golden rice field just in front of the car. Perhaps these clouds have started to infiltrate our secluded valley.

Several peaks in Japan have been crowned (so to speak) with the venerated name Eboshi. The most famous of which is the Eboshi in the Kita Alps, whose pointy features really do resemble the priest’s hat for which it is named. The origins of the Suzuka Eboshi, however, are steeped in mystery, for the mountain is more akin to a beanie hat than the headgear of a sumo referee. In fact, in the old days it was known as Mino-fuji, the Mt. Fuji of Mino province. However, when viewed from the east, the resemblance to the pointy hat really becomes clear. Dreadfully, there is no path from the east, which forces us to trudge along the main trail shooting directly up the northern face.

We hit the trail in relatively good stride, pushing past a cedar forest before breaching a small ridge that led to the crux of the steep climb to the summit plateau. From there, the deciduous forests reigned supreme, just beginning their early autumn tinge of color in the brisk air of early November. The sun filtered in and out of the clouds while the gales continued to lap at the mountain like the wake of a passing motorboat. A series of viewpoints offered glimpses into a broad valley flanked by the Yoro mountains beyond. Sota used these vistas as an excuse to squeeze a few extra minutes of rest out of us, which didn’t bother us too much since we were still a bit sluggish from the long drive and lack of sleep.

The trail split higher up, and we veered left onto the aptly-named rock course, which wound its way through a forest floor of damp leaf matter and chestnut spines. The woods glowed from the golden maples nestled against the darkening sky. The first drops of rain swept through the quivering foliage, forced through by the strong gales from the west. We pushed straight through the torrent, popping out on the summit after being swallowed by the cloud.

Sota began shivering, so after a very brief photo session we dropped straight down the tree tunnel of the northeastern ridge and back out of the cloud, coming face-to-face with a rainbow stretched out directly in front of us, almost within grasping distance. In order to stave off the wintry chill, I pushed the pace until arriving at the top of a vertical precipice, affording a soothing view towards the Ryozen massif, still cloaked in a menacing cyclone of evil cloud. I admired the views while waiting for William and company to catch up, and as soon as we were all reunited, we dropped down to a northerly slope sheltered from the wind and were finally able to stretch the legs comfortably.

The sunshine had once again returned, which brightened the spirits as we once again descended into the warm comforts of the cedar forests. Back on pavement, we chatted with a local pensioner praying at the shrine who informed us about the large number of leeches that live at the base of the mountain during the summer. The worst part is apparently in these safe-haven cedars. It seems that the leech population has exploded in recent years, mostly due to the increasing deer population which provides plenty of fresh blood for the aspiring vampires.

As soon as we arrived back at the car, the sky opened up, pelting the vehicle with large drops of rain as we scarfed down the lunch and turned on the heat. The drive back to Kyoto was non-eventful, especially due to the sunshine in abundance everywhere except these cursed highlands of Suzuka.

With the Suzuka mountains now behind me, I could now focus my attention on the remaining peaks dotted throughout the rest of the region. Little did I know that my time with Suzuka was far from finished.


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With spring in full swing, I seized the opportunity for one last foray into the Suzuka mountains to knock off the final, and highest, peak in the range. It was time to once again call upon Paul D. in Nagoya for some welcome companionship. Kanako, Tomomi, Baku, and I settled in the rented minivan in the early morning hours for the long drive out to Mie Prefecture and our rendezvous point at Nishifujiwara station. After getting stuck in traffic in the Kusatsu bottleneck, we arrived approximately 90 minutes behind schedule. Paul and his co-worker Shuhei squeezed into the backseat of the vehicle as Tomomi approached the switchbacks along route 306 that would take us to the trailhead at Kurakake pass, the shortest and easiest route up the peak.


We hit an unfortunate snag very early in the journey, as the entire route was closed off with a head-high steel fence. The road was under construction, and there’d be no way to get to the trailhead unless we drove all the way around to the Shiga side of the mountain, which wouldn’t leave us enough time to complete the hike. I broke out the map, frantically studying alternative options from the Mie side of the mountain and there was one very long but possible route at a small village by the name of Yamaguchi. Tomomi did a u-turn as we drove around looking for the proper forest road, which was located a short time later. Unsure as to whether there’d be parking further up the narrow lane, we parked at the bottom and covered the 20-minute hoof to the start on foot.


It was already late morning when we did finally hit the trail. Though it was dotted on our hiking map, the route was easy enough to pick up and relatively well-travelled. After a steep slog through a dense forest of planted cedar, the upper contours closer to the ridge remained out of human’s harm, with a healthy and bountiful hardwood forest beginning to sprout a new leafy outfit for the approaching summer.


Our first landmark on the route was regrettably a monstrous electrical pylon. Even a range as humbling as the Suzuka cannot escape the claws of civilization. At least the bare foundations did afford some nice vistas of Nakazato reservoir that otherwise would not have been possible through the thick timber of the forest.


The route meandered along a serpent-like spur towards Shirase pass. After a short drop past a washed out gully, the trail veered northwards through a fertile plain teeming with fresh plant life. The Suzuka mountains are well-known for their wildflowers, though we were a bit early to experience the brilliance of the False Helleborine in full bloom.


We reached the mountain pass just past two in the afternoon and settled down for a late lunch. At our leisurely pace we would not be able to summit before nightfall. Not wanting to give up so easily, we hatched up a plan. Kanako, Baku, and Tomomi would head back down to the car from here, while Paul, Shuhei and I attempted to knock off the peak at lightning speed. The map said it’d be a 3-hour round-trip jaunt from the pass, but we aimed to complete it in less than two.


Powered by the challenge, we trotted along a splendid ridge dotted with limestone and granite, giving an alpine feel to this section of the range. The trees still lay bare of foliage on this wind-swept spine, providing glimpses of our target peak sitting directly opposite our current position across a vast valley. Mt. Oike is actually on a parallel ridge from the main ridge running through the Suzuka mountains, so it takes a bit longer to reach than the more accessible sections of what is known as the Suzuka 7 area of the range.


We reached the 40-minute hike to the junction for the Kogerumi route of Oike in only 14 minutes. The adrenaline quickly wore off when the signpost indicated that we had only reached the 6th stage point of the mountain. I checked the altimeter: even though we had started at Shirase pass at close to 1000-vertical meters, we were now at less than 800. The summit sits at nearly 1250 meters above seal level and time was of the essence.


The route followed an ancient gully lined with moss-covered rocks and newly-sprouted plant life. Luckily the mountain leeches had not yet awakened from their winter slumber. With so many blood-sucking worms in the range, the climbing season is short. The pitch steepened as we reached the 8th stage point, and our fatigue was beginning to show. My calves ached as the trail turned towards the southeast, up yet another constricted gully still lined with a stubborn snowfield. Paul’s lungs were bothering him, a sign that a cold was perhaps on the way. He pushed on despite the discomfort and shortly after 3pm we topped out on the narrow summit and sunned ourselves on the small boulders flanking the high point.


I downed my last energy bar as we slowly gathered up the courage to begin the downward descent. The drop to the 7th stage point was swift, but the climb back to Shirase pass was agonizingly slow. We seemed to be held back by not only the forces of gravity, but by our own physiological limits. We had already clocked over 10 kilometers and still had a long way to go before reaching the car.


Back at the pass, we all settled into our own pace. I led the way, not wanting to rest until reaching the forest road again. Once entering the cedar forest, the trail seemed a lot steeper than earlier in the day, and I slowly eased my throbbing knees down the log steps built into the crumbling hillside. I felt completely spent – the last 6 months of antibiotics were finally catching up to me. I could hear my liver whimpering even through the wind. I vaguely remember my doctor cautioning me against doing any form of heavy exercise. Perhaps a 1000m+ vertical elevation change was too much for a body still trying to fully recover from a major illness.


We somehow reached the trailhead just past 4:30pm. Our minivan was not in its original parking place, so we had a bit of a longer walk back down to Yamaguchi bus stop, where the gang were waiting. Kanako had settled into a relaxing nap in the back seat while the three of us collapsed into the soft seat cushions. Paul looked worse for wear and seemed happy to had the intense slog behind him. I for one was glad that we did not have to turn back, for I knew it’d be tough to find another leech-free climbing window.


We dropped Shuhei and Paul back off at the station and headed to a nearby campground to see out the rest of the evening. Breaking up the trip into two days allowed us Kansai folk a chance to relax before the long drive back into town. The Suzuka mountains are definitely one of the best mountain ranges in the Kansai/Chubu area, and I had this Kansai Hyakumeizan list to thank for allowing me the motivation to explore it more deeply.


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Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest decision to head to the Suzuka mountains during the Golden week rush, but what other choice do you have when your target peak looks like this:


So I once again found myself on an early morning train, this time to eastern Mie Prefecture on the Kintetsu line. The fastest train took over 3 hours, so shortly before noon I boarded a taxi for the short journey to the foot of Mt. Gozaisho. The only problem was that hundreds of other hikers had exactly the same intention, and the cab ground to a halt well below the trailhead. I jumped out, opting to foot it the rest of the way, finally arriving at the entrance to the gondola that whisks lazy hikers to the summit of one of the most overdeveloped of the 200 famous mountains. Gondola, you say?


I usually turn up my nose to such modern contraptions, but my target this time around was not Gozaisho but the neighboring peak of Mt. Kama. A rugged ridge line connects the two mountains, so instead of wasting precious time ascending to the ridge, I thought it best to start directly on top. I had already climbed Gozaisho one time before from the base, so the peak was already checked off of the Kansai 100 list. The top of the gondola was teeming with tourists who were more intent on viewing the skunk cabbage in bloom than hoofing it up a mountain.


From the summit of Gozaisho, the route dropped abruptly, through an area of well-worn sandstone that gave the footwork a challenge. Chains embedded in the rock helped slow the gravitational pull, and after an hour I bottomed out at Buhei pass, pausing for a short time for mid-day sustenance. The route climbed just as abruptly on the far side of the pass, through an area of Akebono azalea in full bloom. The pink blossoms, which come to life before the foliage, contrasted starkly with the gray branches and the light blue sky above. The trail intensified in gradient through a maze of sandstone and towering boulders. Just below the final climb, ropes clung precariously to the crumbly walls of the sedimentary monolith, making for a hair-raising ascent. Two hours after setting off from the top of the gondola, I topped out on the tiny perch of a summit and collapsed against a weather-beaten boulder. The panoramic views were astounding, but I was focused more on staying hydrated and cool in the thick May air.


The route dropped dramatically on the far side of the pyramid, the sandstone giving way to hard, crystalline granite that made for a pleasant descent. The peak is a geological anomaly in the contrasting rockwork of the northern and southern faces, the likely result of fierce tectonic forces millions of years ago. At the bottom of the sharp drop I reached Dake pass, with a spur trail that dropped to the east and looped back towards the bottom of the gondola. The route was difficult to pick up as it traversed the side of a narrow gorge carved out by heavy rains and flowing streams. Paint marks on the boulders and tape marks affixed at regular intervals along the deciduous boulevard made things a bit easier, and shortly before 4pm I popped out on the main road and coasted down to the bus stop with only minutes to spare.


With Mt. Kama in the books, only two more peaks remained unscaled in the mighty Suzuka range. I’d have to wait until after leech season to seize an opportunity to visit again.


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Early February and here I am still chipping away at the Kansai peaks. The heavy snow drifts to the north cut off access to the mountains of Shiga and Kyoto, but further east in Mie Prefecture the Suzuka mountains offer a challenging yet relatively safe foray into the powder dusted backcountry. Along for the ride were Tomomi and Baku, a cheery couple from Kobe whose thirst for adventure surpassed the average brand-bag toting, smartphone addicted youngsters huddled together in the heated comforts of the shopping malls.


We set of from Osaka at the crack of dawn, with Tomomi behind the wheel and myself providing backseat navigation. The stretch of highway that connected the shores of Lake Biwa to the sheltered hamlet of Kaneyama ground to a halt from the heavy rain bouncing off the pavement. Further up towards the mountain pass, the precipitation fell as snow, turning the cedar forests into something fit for a Bob Ross canvas. Ah, the fickle weather of a Kansai winter, where a 10% chance of snow may very well mean a blizzard.


The highway hugged the eastern edge of the Suzuka mountains as we trudged along steadily to the north. These towering peaks act as a cloud catchment of sorts, protecting the coastal cities of Nagoya and Yokkaichi from the brunt of the winter storms. Mt. Fujiwara, our destination for the day, lay on the northern cusp of this winter weather hold, and as we parked the car at a gravel parking lot at the base of the peak, golden streaks of sunlight pierced the ceiling of cloud. The storm was beginning to break up, as if on cue from a symphony conductor.


We took some time at the car sorting through gear: even a small lapse in judgement could have dire consequences once we hit the snow line, so we all tucked crampons and extra gloves in our packs in preparation for the elements. The parking lot at the trailhead was overflowing with automobiles. It seemed as if half of Nagoya itself had read the weather forecast and gambled for this weather break. In fact, Mt. Fujiwara is one of the most popular peaks in the entire Suzuka range, due to the ease of access. In less than 90 minutes you can go from sipping your latte in Nagoya to sniffing the fresh mountain air in the forests of Fujiwara.


The path was heavily eroded and incredibly easy to follow and, just like Mt. Fuji, divided into 10 stage points for ease of pacing. The first 3 stages were knocked out in no time at all, but once we hit the snow line things ground to a halt. The footsteps of the early birds had turned the mountain trail into one giant bobsled run. Baku and Tomomi had the luxury of 12-point crampons and full mountaineering boots, but I made due with my 4-pointers strapped onto my thermal rubber snow boots. I spent most of the time off trail in order to find better traction, while my companions honed their toe stepping skills.


We hit the 8th stagepoint in high spirits despite the growling of our empty stomachs. There was a large flat area that would make a great place for a break if not for the knee-deep snow. With no dry place to sit, we pushed on, convincing ourselves we could do the last fifth of the climb in no time at all. The angle steepened, and once out of the forest the howling gales forced spindrift down our throats. I closed my eyes, picking my way around the rock formations in search of a safe way to navigate. Fortunately the cloud had lifted, but any warmth that the sun would normally imbue was sucked away by the subzero temperatures. I was not having much fun at all, opting to accelerate my pace in an effort to stave off the cold.

I left Tomomi and Baku behind, summoning up my last energy reserves for the final push. I passed by one couple, admiring the views with an expensive pair of snowshoes strapped to their pack. It seemed like those things should be strapped to the bottom of their feet instead, but perhaps this duo was part of a growing trend among Japanese hikers who are simply sporting gear for the sake of fashion. How many times have you seen hikers with trekking poles strapped to their packs? I’m more of the ‘use it if you’ve brought it’ school of thought, and you can bet that I would be using snowshoes if I had bothered to bring them along.


The last hundred meters of the ascent were painfully snow, as I was running on empty and in desperate need of a break. At the top of the next rise the mountain hut came into view, and the spirits lifted once again. I pushed open the door of the day-use shelter and couldn’t believe my eyes: every available inch of seating space had been occupied by scores of elderly hikers chatting away as if on a leisure walk. Camp stoves hissed in unison from half a dozen different hiking groups, but in the far corner of the hut I spied a space in one of the tables for maybe two people max.


I unstrapped the crampons and squeezed through the thicket of bodies until I had reached the small clearing. I sipped on hot water from my thermos while waiting for Tomomi and Baku to arrive. Tomomi had made sandwiches for us, but the snickers I pulled from the inside of my fleece provided a nourishing appetizer. Twenty minutes passed before my companions stumbled in, and fortunately by that time there was adequate space at the table for us all. Tomomi looked as if she had just stepped off a transpacific flight, with dark, heavy bags under her eyes and a hunched posterior from the weight of her pack. It took us less than two minutes to devour everything she had prepared. I brewed coffee by draining my thermos while we mentally prepared ourselves to continue our ascent. Even though the mountain hut was the 10th stagepoint, the summit was still a twenty minute climb away.


I once again led the way as the path vanished into a mass of white. The cloud had once again moved in, bringing with it heavy flurries that sprinkled our gear with pellets of frozen crystals. My GPS indicated that we needed to climb to the top of a massive hill just to our right. Footsteps disappeared into the growing snow drifts as I used both trekking poles to help the fight against gravity. Eventually we did reach the high point of the mountain, with a heavily corroded signpost and not much else. We could just make out of the edge of another valley on the other side of the peak that acted as the funnel for these wind gusts. Loitering around in these Siberian temperatures was not an option, so after a quick snap of the shutter we ran down the peak and back to the hut, opting to forfeit another break at the hut for fear of losing the daylight.


On the descent, I cut the switchbacks as much as possible by making a direct beeline to the 8th stage point. I would take a few steps and invariably fall due to the lack of traction and just let my momentum carry me. During the third such slide I managed to connect directly with a large boulder concealed by five centimeters of fresh powder. My coccyx took the full brunt of the impact, sending sharp pains running up my spine and leaving me nearly in tears. Anyone who has ever bruised their tailbone can attest to the discomfort.


The pain eased thanks in large part to stuffing a fistful of ice down my pants and onto my throbbing buttcrack. We shuffled off out of the snow line again and reached the parking lot just after 4pm. The thermal baths of the nearby hot spring brought feeling back into my extremities, and the tailbone would eventually heal (though it did take several months). With Mt. Fujiwara off the list, only one more mountain remained in the Suzuka mountains, and it happened to be the tallest one of them all.

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