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Posts Tagged ‘Takashima trail’

Late July seemed like a really great time to start section hiking the Takashima Trail. The long-distance path follows the Japan Divide through some of Kansai’s most rugged and varied scenery.  The path starts at Kunizakai kogen snow park, climbs up the ridge and undulates until reaching Mt. Norikura, the first of 12 peaks along the 80-km trail. From there it’s a series of abrupt climbs and steep ascents along the saddleback ridge until reaching Mt. Akasaka, where I could descend to Makino kogen for a hot bath and ice cream.

A quick scan of the weather brought a favorable high-pressure system, so after a fitful sleep with a wriggling toddler, I loaded up the pack and caught the 7:45am train from Osaka to Makino station on the northern reaches of Lake Biwa. Somewhere between Osaka and Kyoto it occurred to me that I might have forgotten my memory card for my camera. I shuffled through my pack and confirmed my fears. At Makino station I alighted and walked down to the beach to the nearest Family Mart, but unfortunately they did not carry any memory cards. Perhaps the manager was a bit old-fashioned, as packs of Fuji 400 speed film lined the shelves where the usual store would stock their digital camera supplies. I retreated back to the station and searched in vain for a coin locker to deposit my camera, but there wasn’t much at the station aside from an attendant with too much time on his hands. Rather than leave it with him, I opted to just carry it as dead weight, as I could use the extra kilograms to work out the thigh muscles.

The bus dropped me off at the gated entrance to Kunizakai, whose massive parking lot lay empty and the rest house and restaurants boarded up for the summer. The place was utterly deserted, as if everyone had gone on vacation. The ski lifts fan out in a finger-like way, and with no signposts in sight, I opted to head in the pinkie direction, if the ski resort was left-handed. I made it about 100 meters into the bunny slope, just before the black diamond run merges with the main course on my right. I was standing just below the toilet block, on the green slopes of the following map, when I first caught sight of it.

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A black bear made its way down the black diamond run gracefully, with a steady yet smooth rhythm, crossing the path directly in front of me, no more than 50 meters in front, to be exact. It paid me no heed, as it was too preoccupied with crossing the field to get to the cool, comforting waters of the mountain stream, which flowed with a trickle on my left. The beast looked lean, as if it had been a while since its last good meal. Not wanted to tempt it with fresh flesh, I retreated back to the boarded up rest house and sat in the shade. My heart was racing, not because of the encounter with the bear, but with the regret of not bringing my memory card. I’d been waiting to see a bear up close for years now, but with no proof, there’d be nothing but doubt from my friends. A police sketch of the culprit has been issued in lieu of photographic evidence.

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On the train ride earlier, upon finding my forgetful error, I joked to myself that I would probably see a bear on my hike today, not realizing that it would actually happen, and so close to the trailhead no less. I pulled out the map and discovered that the trail to Norikura actually begins towards the index finger of the snow park. Perhaps the bear just came out to remind me that I was indeed going on the wrong direction.

The next bus wasn’t for 3 hours, and the chances of encountering that exact same bear were pretty low (unless I were to take a dip in that mountain stream). Without a camera to document the proceedings, I made quick work of the ski runs, reaching the top of the highest lift in a heap of sweat and exhaustion. I pushed on, bushwhacking through the dense, overgrown forest until popping out on the real trail just a few minutes later. The trail ascended through a healthy beech forest with a smattering of claw marks on the larger trees. I set a turnaround time of noon in order to catch the 1:22pm bus back to Makino. Traversing all the way over to Mt. Akasaka without a camera seemed like an exercise in futility, so I compromised by deciding on an up-and-back of Norikura as a recce for a future section hike in a cooler time of year.

The path was easy to follow, and once on the ridge the vistas opened up towards the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, hidden in a haze of smog and cloud. Hakusan would definitely be visible from here on a clear day, and the views down to Lake Biwa are some of the best from any mountain in Shiga. Occasionally a breeze would blow in from the north, helping to evaporate the sweat accumulating on my back. I was starting to overheat, but decided to push on without a break until reaching the summit. The top was marked by a concrete bunker that looked more like a storage tank than any welcoming accommodation. The door was bolted shut, so there was no chance of peeking inside. My clock read 12:15pm, a little later than planned but I knew the descent would be much faster than the climb up. I broke out the frozen Aquarius sports drink I had bought earlier, and used the thawed bottle to help cool down my neck, face, and forehead. I forced down a salted rice ball in order to restore the saline balance and started back down the path after pausing for only a few minutes.

The return journey took just 30 minutes to reach the top of the lifts, where I kept a vigilant eye out for that bear. It did not return and I made it down to the bus stop with 10 minutes to spare before the bus.

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There has been plenty written about the other Sanjo in the Omine mountains of Nara Prefecture, but information about another peak by the same name remains spotty at best. It was time for my own in-depth investigation.

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Mt. Sanjo sits buried among a deep fold of mountains in northwestern Shiga Prefecture. It is best known as the highest point of the Takashima trail, a 80-km traverse along Japan’s Central Divide. Water down the western slopes of the mountains flows out to the Sea of Japan, while the watersheds on the eastern flanks empty out into Lake Biwa, which continues south to Osaka Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

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Willie and I had been planning on exploring the area in May, but just days before our departure a solo hiker was attacked by a black bear along our very route. The attack occurred at 4:30 in the afternoon along a stretch of trail that does not see many other hikers, even on the weekends. The prefectural authorities were likely to close the trail until the ursine culprit could be apprehended, so we concentrated our efforts on other mountains in the meantime.

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With the winter weather slowly closing in, we found another window in early December for another attempt at the monster. Will and Mai picked me up from Yamashina station at a quarter past 8 in the morning, and we headed north along the western edge of Lake Biwa and past the shuttered ski resort of Mt. Hakodate. A meandering forest road worked its way up the steep slopes, past a troupe of monkeys who seemed more interested in collecting chestnuts than checking out the vehicular intruder. At the top of the ski resort, the road eased down into a narrow valley following the Ishida river, where the trailhead for our target peak sat between two forks in the clear-running stream. We parked the car and geared up for the 4.2km slog to the summit.

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A flyer posted at the trailhead (and dated May 2015) warning of bear encounters suggested that hikers bring both a bear bell and spray, and avoid hiking alone. Two out of three wasn’t bad, we thought, as Mai affixed the improvised wind chime to a sidestrap on her pack. The trail wasted no time in gaining altitude, cutting through a cedar forest with little regard to the lay of the land. It was as if the original trailblazer was under a spell by the Pied Piper being led up that steep hill by a magic lute and a trail of deer droppings. Sweat oozed from the pores during the unexpected workout, making me regret my choice of insulated fleece-lined hiking pants.

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Luckily, there was only a 200-meter elevation change before the path flattened out at the ridge, and soon enough we were sitting on the spine of the mountain, admiring the vistas across the valley to Mt. Buna (not to be confused with the Mt. Buna in the Hira mountains). The cedar trees ceded their power to the mighty beech towers, whose bare limbs had long since shed their cloak of flaxen foliage.

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Instead of the undulating up-and-down of most ridge lines, the route was one long, gentle incline, like a wheelchair ramp for a disabled giant. Hints of animal activity lay all around: claw marks notched in the trees from the feet of a climbing bear, tree trunks stripped of bark by hungry, foraging deer, and the scat of an unknown variety laying gently among the dampened leaf litter. On this overcast day, however, the mountains were eerily quiet – not even the usual calls of songbirds could be heard in the cool, silent air. Or perhaps the drone of Mai’s bear bell and our audible cackles of laughter sent the local fauna scurrying back to their hiding places.

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We took our first break of the morning at the base of a towering beech whose branches fanned out above us  as if to provide a natural parasol. Indeed, this sprawling canopy must offer refreshing shade in the sunnier, greener months. I reached into my pack for an energy bar and a refill of water. As soon as I sat down, I could feel the cool air seeping into my base layer that was already damp with sweat. I put back on the fleece for the time being in an effort to prevent all of my precious body heat from escaping.

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A bit further up the elongated ridge, we got our first glimpse of the summit plateau rising gently in front of us. It still looked a long way off, but my GPS indicated a modest 200 meters of vertical elevation left in the climb, meaning that the worst was behind us. The trail moved through the hardwood forests dotted with grasslands stained gold from the early frosts of winter. Snow had blanketed these highlands during a recent cold spell the previous week, reminding us that the hiking window would soon be closed in these forgotten tufts.

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We attained the summit plateau shortly past noon, reaching a junction for a shorter trail that dropped off the eastern spur of the forested massif. It was an alternative way off the peak, as was an unmarked trail on a ridge running parallel to our approach. We opted for the latter, knowing we could always retrace our steps if the junction was not easily discernible. Lunch was devoured on the broad, open summit. I indulged in a thermos of piping-hot vegetable soup I had prepared earlier that morning, while Will and Mai dined on lunch boxes warmed by kairo heating packs affixed to the bottom of their lunch containers. I made a mental note to remember that innovative solution to a hot lunch on the cool mountains.

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The frigid gusts of wind blowing from Wakasa bay to the north had us reaching for extra layers. My winter down jacket was more than sufficient in the subzero temperatures. Mai jumped around eagerly to keep the blood pumping, and after a quick summit proof using a tree as an improvised tripod, we meandered along a section of the Takashima trail that whet our appetite for further exploration. The entire 80-km route looks like a fine multi-day outing – the route is anything but technical, but still offers formidable challenges due to the lack of reliable water sources along the route.

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After a 15-minute jaunt through the pristine grasslands, we reached a junction marked for Hachioji valley. Despite not being marked on our maps, Will possessed a printed copy of a GPS log uploaded to yamareco that showing a possible loop track back to the car. The signpost was hand-written and indicated that the trail was for ‘experts only’. I’m not sure what constitutes an ‘expert’, but, as Hyakumeizan alumni, we considered ourselves aptly qualified for the challenge.

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The path dropped steeply off the summit plateau before leveling off through yet another immense and incredibly beautiful virgin forest. The route narrowed in places, tramping through a thicket of rhododendron who were obviously confused by the relatively balmy temperatures for this time of year. One plant in particular had skipped winter altogether and decided to blossom five months early.

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After reaching an area signposted as ‘peak 686’, we stopped for a bit of a rest and rightfully so – my map indicated a significant drop in altitude to the forest road in the valley far below. Will and I split a package of fudge brownies for an extra bit of kick. The trail dropped back to the edge of a cedar forest, where it petered out all together. With the printed GPS track in hand, we veered left towards the deciduous cover, following a faint trail likely carved out by foraging deer. The pitch of the terrain was inversely proportional to our confidence level, climaxing as we reached the start of an impossibly steep gully flanked on either end by a rocky precipice. The only way down was through this gulch carpeted with leaf litter and fallen timber.

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Will and Mai looked at me as if I was leading them on a death march and rightfully so – one slip here and you’d tumble head-over-heel into the river churning a hundred vertical meters beneath our feet. I took the lead, lowering myself to the start of the trench one cautious step after another. At the far end of the channel, about 50 meters directly under our flailing feet, sat a natural dam of broken tree limbs and rockfall. It was hard to see what lie beyond that natural barricade, but my gut instinct was that the angle would ease a bit. Once I reached this ledge, I stepped to the side out of the path of potential rockfall and verbally guided Mai down the treacherous coulee. She made it down without too many problems, but Will looked spooked by the angle and footing.

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“Here, catch my pack,” he shouted, sending his 30-liter knapsack tumbling down the culvert until it somehow halted its forward progress at the base of Mai’s feet. Vertiginous though it was, it was no harder than some of the Hyakumeizan that we had scaled in the past. (though for the record, the steep trails of the more famous peaks of Japan are graciously lined with fixed rope to aid in the descents).

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Just as predicted, the angle did ease on the far side of the dam, with plenty of trees to help slow the momentum. Once we reached the water’s edge, a path became more apparent, though it was likely not a trail that was made by humans, as evidenced by the pellets of deer scat lining the route. At last, we spotted the forest road where we had parked our vehicle a mere 5 hours before. All that remained was to cross to the other side of the mountain stream, which Mai and I did with relative ease. Will, on the other hand, still sporting a case of the ‘laughing knees’, stepped straight off the first foothold and landed feet first into the chilly waters. Though silent he was, the expression on his face was all that needed to be said. I suspect that he’d likely have a word or two for the author of that GPS log.

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Once back at the road, we had a thirty minute stroll back to the car, where we changed our clothes and pointed the engine back towards Kyoto. Mt. Sanjo was a deceptively tricky mountain, but the beauty of the forest and lack of visitors (both human and ursine), made it one of the best peaks in Kansai to date. The rest of the Takashima trail will have to wait for another day.

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