Shortly after finishing the Kansai section of the Tōkai Shizen Hodō in July 2009, I'd wanted to start this website, in order to create a sort-of hiking guide for the route. Eight months of travel and an international move distracted me some. An email from a friend and fellow hiker kept the project alive. What better day to begin than this, the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day.

Where earlier on Notes from the 'Nog, I'd published posts chronologically, here I'll write them geographically, in the order you'd walk them. I start from my home at the base of Uryū-zan, (behind Zōkei Daigaku), going up and over Hiei-zan's shoulder to Biwa-ko, then work south through Nara and along the Yamanobe route to Murō-ji before looping back to Ishiyama. From there the westbound posts will deal with the section heading from Hiei-zan to the terminus at Minoo above Osaka. Posts will appear more or less as they did earlier.

Looking back, I realize now that I didn't write about the entire hike, in particular the sections in North Kyoto. We had earlier walked these sections as the Kyoto Isshū Trail, which follows the same course as the Hodō. I'll try to fill in the gaps with basic course information, leaving out my usual witty insight and banter, no matter how much you plead.

Now, the tools. The resource I relied on most heavily was
東海自然歩道30選 関西編—大阪・京都・滋賀・奈良・三重 (Tokai Shizen Hodō 30 Sen, Kansai Hen --Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Nara, Mie), easily found at Amazon Japan. This book details most of the route, and does a fantastic job despite the fact that it's showing its age somewhat. The route has changed some in the 10 years since publication, what with the ever changing face of Japan. Entire housing communities now lie across certain sections, trails have washed away, and Matsutake growers allow no access during the picking season.

Some of the gaps can be covered with a quick visit online. Prior to setting out, I spent an fair amount of time at 東海自然歩道ぶらり一人歩き. This guy's stuff proved invaluable, particularly in transportation to and from the hike (Do double check bus times online, as this info too is 7 years old). Don't rely too much on the times he gives for the hikes, since they're so quick I began to think he did the Hodō on roller skates. Times in the
東海自然歩道 30選 book are much more realistic.

Other useful online resources:

(Unfortunately, all the information is in Japanese. So why not grab a native speaker and try some internationalization. A hiking date, perhaps?)

The only English information I've yet to come across is a blog called Nomadic Tom. In addition to the narrative of his complete traverse of the TSH in 2015, he has created a useful guide to walking the course.  Tom himself admits that the information is somewhat basic (and geared more toward those walkers coming from abroad), but it is still the best English resource out there. 

By far the greatest resources are the trail markers. They are for the most part consistent, though notable exceptions are in Shiga, Ōtsu in particular. If confused, it is far better to ask a farmer or old timer than someone in one of those MosMansions thrown up by Daiwa House the day before yesterday. (Most of these suburbanites don't even know the name of their neighbors, let alone a badly marked hiking course.) Asking other hikers would help, but aside from in the hills ringing Kyoto, you'll be surprised how few people you see out there. On the other hand, locals in the more remote farm villages often will take the time to chat.
One fascinating facet of doing the entire Kansai section is noticing the difference in character from prefecture to prefecture, village to village, mountain to mountain, valley to valley. It is an amazing way to learn about the region's history and ever-changing culture. The walk you do today will have a different character than my own.So throw those onigiri in the pack, lace up your boots, and get tramping!

Hiei-zan 比叡山 to Minami Shiga 南志賀

Having climbed most of the mountains in this region, and having completed the 60km Kyoto circuit trail, Miki and I have recently begun to walk some of Japan's ancient roads. Part of them have been paved over with busy thoroughfares, but quite often the simple act of taking the next street over will magically slide you centuries back in time. Much of their charm still remains in the form of small villages and old mountain trails dotted by statues and stone. These excursions have overlapped on occasion with the Tokai Shizen Hodo, a more modern trail that starts at Takao in west Kanto, meandering through the hills above its more famous ancestor the Tokaido, until finally coming to a sudden stop in Osaka Prefecture. On weekend days of generous weather, we can be found ambulating the loop that wends around southern Kansai.

We began our true circuit this summer. I've been long curious about the lights that are atop the mountains above my house, always beckoning me during my nighttime bicycle rides. They seem to be just out of reach, an hour's walking tops, I thought. We climbed our usual route up to Uryu-zan, then followed the Hiei-bound trail until it drops into a beautiful valley where a small stream curves away from Kyoto and begins to head south. The best picnic spot in the city. From here, the path shoots straight up with far too much enthusiasm. Our single-hour hike, doubled, then doubled again. At the top we found a hotel belonging to Seika University, whose caretaker had proven to be a rude shite when I'd tried to chat him up about hiking routes back in March. Across the road at L'hotel Hiei, we picked up the Tokai Shizen Hodo (TSH) Here the trail drops again, down the steepest staircase in the world. At the bottom, we were congratulating ourselves on not having to ascend them, until we saw an equally daunting set of switchbacks immediately ahead. Over this ridge then, and down a kinder slope, though one where a concrete fetishist had littered the narrow valley with about a dozen huge and pointless dams. Does it really snow that much up here? The ghosts of the ruined temples dotted about probably aren't amused. The stream we followed led us eventually to Biwa. Long lateral traverses are always much more difficult than relatively easy ridge walks, and although we hadn't covered a lot of space relative to the map, we'd exhausted much energy in crossing three ranges in a few hours. Tired, the train swept us in.

Minami Shiga 南志賀 to Mii-dera 三井寺

Sunday's forecast was for cooler, overcast skies, promising nicer walking conditions. But the closer we got to Hiei's eastern face, the less I liked the look of the sky. Those carved valleys were holding onto clouds, letting loose precipitation which would eventually precipitate cuts deeper still. Mere minutes off the train, the rain found us and the cuts most quickly noticeable were those in my mood. The squall moved on soon enough but my mood remained dark. We'd had a black cat run out in front of our bikes today, and those old wives tales were proving their staying power. Yet can I default to superstition what had truthfully been my own absent-mindedness? In less than 15 minutes, I'd forgotten my camera, habitually stepped into flimsy sandals rather than decent hiking shoes, and boarded the wrong train. When I'd noticed my empty camera case, Miki and I had been deep into a conversation about a lecture she'd heard the day before. The speaker had mentioned that two of the major crises facing Japan are its falling birthrate and the lack of self-sustainable food sources. It's as if people today, overwhelmed with the conveniences of modern technological society, have forgotten two of the most fundamental parts of human survival- making food and having babies. Ironically, having forgotten my camera--the technological extension of the eye--I'd have to rely on my own sight and memory.

We found the place where we'd left the trail a couple weeks back. It led us to Omi Jingu, whose beautiful roofs matched the line of hills behind it. The word "Omi," used as a prefix for many of the towns and train stations in this area, denotes the region's wealthy merchant background. This massive shrine, comparatively ornate for the simplistic nature of Shinto, was a testament to that wealth. After a few claps and a bow of the head we moved on. And got lost. It took us some time to find the trail marker, behind a fence and facing in the direction that it was least likely to be seen. About a hundred yards or so, we found another marker at the edge of a new-ish bedroom community. The trail markers earlier on in Sakamoto had had arrows showing the direction of the path. These new posts had replaced those single arrows with a kind of slogan or brand, of multiple arrows extending in various directions like a hydra's head. I assume that the trail markers of a particular area is the responsibility of the municipality. Otsu-shi, into which we'd just stepped, had no doubt decided that in order to be different from their neighbor city, it would design a unique, yet counter intuitive, sign. This decision, encapsulated in a single simple wooden post, led us first about twenty minutes up a steep mountain road to a lonely shrine, then later, coupled with some helpful, yet incorrect advice of a local old-timer, further into the mountains along a different road, into the waiting arms of those storm clouds occupying this valley. We sat a while under the gate of a Jodo temple. (I smell a metaphor here. The major tenet of that sect's belief is that in times of trouble, one can find refuge in the Sutras. Which to them seems be sufficient since their closed-off temples definitely won't offer refuge from the elements.) The sky cleared as we backtracked, and we were directed to yet a third route, which proved correct. We quickly grew lost again, and by a series of frustrated guesswork, made it through a lush city park, past a few posh condos and into the woods where those previous, useful signs resumed. This traverse through the 'burbs should've taken 15 minutes at most, but it took us over two hours, all due to a single sign. I fumed the whole while. Why erect signs at all, if you plan to space them so far apart that they're impossible to follow? Apparently somebody agreed with me, since the only other marker we saw had had most of that confusing hydra symbol torn away to reveal at least the correct cardinal direction, if not the path itself. (This loss of direction is metaphor number two. The scenery below and around us was of monoliths of wealth, in the forms of rec facilities, stadiums, and towering apartment blocks. Yet the town chose not to fund a few yen for decent signs. And the three local people who we asked directions didn't have any idea what we were talking about. Again, those trappings of modern society serving as disconnect from things on a human scale and our more localized 'place in space.' But isn't a map or trail marker also technology? Am I being a hypocrite to rely on these rather than in the intuitive skills which define me as human?) All I know is that once back in the woods, on a well-marked path, my shoulders fell away from my ears, and I was again taken over by the enjoyment that a good walk can bring.

At the border here of new and old, we found a small temple with uneven stone stairs and a weathered gate whose thatch was peeling in the corners. The garden beyond was overgrown, and behind it were a series of grave stones dotting the forest floor. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon the final resting place of Ernest Fenollosa. I'd known he was buried somewhere in Shiga, but I hardly expected to find him here behind a seemingly forgotten temple. Next to him were the graves of Tendai convert William Sturges and of James Woods, an early American scholar of the Yoga Sutras. Nearby was a bench offering views of the buildings of Otsu city stacked below. We watched dark storm clouds coming over from the direction of Hiei. When the thunder and lightning began, we rushed through high grass to a small shelter I had spotted through the trees. It turned out to be a bell tower, but oddly, the bell had been removed. The long wooden striker still hung from a rusted chain, but the platform on which we sat was cracked and uneven . The bell seemed to have been taken quite a long time ago. I pictured Nobunaga, in his rush up to burn out the Sohei of Enryaku-ji, had melted the bell down as iron for his guns. The elderly woman in the temple itself later provided the answer. During the Second World War, the bell had indeed been taken to be melted down for munitions, but had never been used. After the war it was to be returned, but as the workmen had not wanted to carry it further up the steep hill, it was taken only as far as neighboring Enman-in temple, who refused to give it back to the proper owner. I thought it amazing that one temple would steal the bell of another (not too surprising if you remember the enmity between the Tendai sects around here), but upon arriving at Enman-in twenty minutes later I quickly understood. It was the gaudiest temple I've ever seen, with a massive concrete design under a bright neon sign. Money and profit seems to be the driving force of faith here; even the kanji can be read as "Full of money." They had a Soba shop on the grounds, plus offered services for Mizuko Jiko, these services for aborted fetuses being big business. Hundreds of flags dotted the courtyard, the names of the business donors flapping in the wind. It was if an old samurai army were camped in this concrete fortress. And of course there was the bell. Rather than being housed in the usual simple platform of wood and stone, it instead hung from three massive steel rods fashioned into a curved pyramid. The insult was complete. Miki and I expressed our disgust at the well where worshippers purified their hands and mouths. Being a follower of Buddhism, I have great respect for those rituals which give the sect definition. Yet today, I redefined the form by using these ladles to wash off my muddy feet and sandals.

Cleansed, we soon came to nearby Mii-dera, one of my favorite places in Japan. The rest of the day was spent wandering these temples, admiring the simple beauty of the wooden Buddhas, and trying to coax the caged peacocks to open their tails. Later, up at Kannon-do, we meditated before the many armed statue of the god(dess), noting how it would look right at home in India, the land of this diety's birth. All the while the fluorescent lights above droned like a tamboura, an instrument from that far-off land, out of whose seemingly monotonous tones melodies are born, much as how thoughts, and the moods that accompany them, come out of the unceasing constant of Reality.

Mii-dera 三井寺 to Ishiyamadera Eki 石山寺駅

Near Nagara Koen is a small temple dedicated to Fudo-myo. It has a bizarre layout, with a covered path that leads behind a waterfall to a small cave where a few statues of the deity stand. I crane my neck out to wet my head, already sweaty from the heat of a sun shining in the flawless blue of a post-typhoon sky. Thus purified, Miki and I rejoin the Shizen Hodo. Our gentle climb to ridge is accompanied by the rhythm of a taiko being played somewhere through the trees. The contours of Lake Biwa's eastern shore are easy to make out in this clear air. We descend again, to find a small shrine. We sit here awhile, the taste of our trail mix sullied somewhat by the smell of burning meat wafting up from a restaurant somewhere below us. We cross a skybridge high above a well-trafficked Rte 1. Then the stairs begin. I've mentioned before how lucky we've been not to have had to ascend some of the steeper sets we've come across, mere coincidence based on our choice of direction. Today our luck runs out. Each step is spaced a little wider than a normal stride, which means wearily lifting the thigh to a height where we're nearly goosestepping. Yet they give an alternative to a long climb up trails made wet and slippery after heavy rain. The stairs seem to have been built relatively recently, and the smell of cedar accompanys each step. Unfortunately, they seem to cover each of Otowa-san's 593 meters and over an hour later we're still climbing them. Near the top, the trail levels out to cut through kumagusa, and our fatigue immediately vanishes with the worry of an accidental encounter with a bear foraging before a long nap. On the peak, there is a clearing which offers fine views of Kyoto in the distance, but it lies under a series of electrical towers crackling and buzzing high above. A den of boy scouts has already taken up most of this clearing, and none of the adult scoutmasters seems prepared to return a polite greeting. After a quick look at the scenery, we move off the peak, to find a quiet lunch spot just off the trail further down. The descent is far gentler than the climb, taking us through sections of forest unique in that they aren't choked with the usual monoculture of sugi. At one point, I could actually be back in New Mexico, walking over reddish clay beneath short pines. Other places are of a more Alaskan tinge, the forest floor lush with ferns. The trail takes us alongside a creek for awhile, before passing between a series of small ponds. Wires cross-cross some of them in order to protect the carp from scavenging kites. It isn't too long before we reach a village, where a couple of old men rest beside cameras that have been aimed at the ridges above. A month ago, somebody built a small park here, all ropes and logs. We linger awhile to swing and climb, then doze a bit in a hammock, under a tree canopy high above, the tall boughs stealing kisses as they waltz in the breeze. Moving on through houses growing more consistent. A long flight of steps leads up to Basho's hermitage of Genju-an, where we sit and pen hasty haiku.

Not even autumn winds

Can lift heavy legs

Up Genju-an's steep steps

Walking back down the hill over damp mossy concrete is like walking on ice. Below, we encounter heavier suburbs, and soon the trail markers peter out. We are directed across the grounds of a high school, and eventually find Ishiyama-dera's train station past flimsy trophies of newly acquired wealth.

Ishiyamadera Eki 石山寺駅 to Uji 宇治

Miki and I trained it to Ishiyamadera, to continue another section of the TSH there. Just off the train, I opened my mouth to say something, only to take a full blast of smoke from some guy walking a few steps ahead of me. I appreciated neither the tobacco, nor the other bits of black sludge that he'd just expelled from his lungs. Truly foul. Today's walk, and the day itself, offered little to better my spirits. It was a long 22km over paved roads. Aside from the pleasant Iwamadera, where Basho supposedly heard the

Old pond's frog splash

(Voila! Revisionist minimalist haiku!)

and the subsequent long steep descent over slippery leaves, we rarely left the hard stuff. Not many cars, but the feet do ache after awhile. Plus curve after curve of garbage laden hillsides. Having recently taken part in the clean-up of a similar hillside, I know how much work it will take to restore this area. Really depressing. We quickly and nervously went past a gun range, and the only real open space we found, where we'd hoped to rest and lunch, was being used as a landing zone by a gang of remote-controlled helicopter pilot otaku. At the very end of the walk we were rewarded with another short bit of forest, but it was the verge of dusk and we lost the light quickly. This is the first time this has happened to us. On two occasions we passed a single lone man walking without a torch, both acting shady. At the end, we were rewarded by a beautiful night view of Uji from atop the mountain behind Ujigami Shrine. Overall, it hardly seemed worth, as we'd done most of this walk already a year ago, though in reverse. If we'd known this this morning, we wouldn't have bothered. Multiple experiences have shown that any hike in or out of Uji involves long stretches of asphalt. I recommend the train...

Uji 宇治 to Hirayama Bus Stop 平山バス停

We walked out of Uji on concrete. Yet it was a pleasant walk, upstream along the Uji River rushing past toward the sea. This was a familiar route leading toward many of Uji's historic sites, and as such, there were more pedestrians than cars. We came to a fishing bridge suspended over the water, which we crossed then took the advice of a sign pointing us up a small trail, allowing us to forgo the busier road nearby. It was a lovely walk through the trees, between high narrow walls, a stream moving just below us. We eventually found the grave marker of an important but long forgotten princess, and the village of Shirakawa at her back. There was a small gate here, flecked with small holes that I at first took for the marks of bullets, though I know of no battles fought here. Miki corrected me in pointing out that the holes were the work of termites. The wild will eventually take this structure, no matter how old or historic. To emphasize this, a long stalk of weed had pushed itself through the wall of an abandoned house standing nearby. The gate gave us a clue as to the location of Hakusan Jinja, fortified somewhat by a deep circular moat and tall encircling trees. Atop the stairs was a unique structure, hexagonal, and covered in thatch but for an open cut at the top to let out cooking smoke. One of the biggest delights of tramping in Japan is coming across shrines like this one, remote yet well-kept. So well kept that it could stand here for 900 years. In front of one of the small shrines here were a couple of huge shells like those fired from a battleship. There was no indication of why they;'d been deified. Up the trail a bit we found a small crop of jizo, decorated with rice cakes and some slender strands of bamboo. This too is another highlight, these somewhat pagan rites known only to the locals and reaching back through time.

We came out of the forest to a huge cluster of tea bushes. A few small plants had a tripod-like covering of old rice stalks as protection from snow. We met the road again at the top of the filed, and here we stayed for the rest of the morning, but for a small trail taking us past a forestry station seemingly abandoned for the winter. A really old man rode his bike at incredible speed up a steep hill. We were amazed by this, then again as he raced back down. Past a chicken factory, the cacophony from within like an excited impatient audience before the symphony. A skittish dog foraged around the now abandoned "Green Village." The next town was of a decent size, but luckily the Hodō took us along its outskirts, bisecting older homes of some character. Two friends sat talking on the steps of a wooded shrine, signs at the perimeters warning of vipers. Huge tree trunks had been stacked in the lot of a large factory that makes Torii arches for shrines. Outside town, we spotted another grove, obviously a shrine. A group of young motorcyclists politely rode off as we approached. One of the ceders here was simply massive, wrapped with paper and straw to signify its status as a diety. How long had it been here, and what has it overlooked? The shrine below it was a youngster in comparison, erected in 1202.

The fields narrowed to become forest, and we made our way up a long, straight rise into the dark. The afternoon was getting on, and it began to appear that our maps were wrong. The Hodō is well marked these days, and easy to follow except in certain cases, so a map isn't really necessary. The book we were using was now 9 years old, and showed we were to bypass this mountain. The markers on the other hand looked to be only a few years old, and someone had decided to include this peak on the course. Jūbuzan was at 607 meters, not as big as some of the giants of the Nihon Alps, but Kyoto's Hiei was now covered in snow and is only slightly higher, I'd thought. (I checked. At 848m, it towers.) I worried at what we would find, and whether we'd get down before dark. I had a torch, but remembered only now that the batteries had died. We slogged on silently, spending 90 minutes moving at an angle across the mountain's face. Then the trail suddenly switch-backed and we were at a clearing near the top. I had been afraid to check the time, but it was just 3pm. No worries at all. We soon reached Kontaiji temple, the base for the Yamabushi who lie down in these mountains. A couple of them were enjoying a day off in a small room which was warm, but seemingly devoid of a heat source. One of the men was restlessly pacing in his shorts(!), and the other man, slightly older, was clacking away at his computer. They were both really friendly, the older one having just retired from his career in the Self Defense Forces. His humility and obvious intelligence suggested that he'd been an officer of high rank. He called his wife to make us tea and zoni, which warmed us as much as the conversation. Afterwards, we went up to the peak itself, standing above a cluster of buildings aging beautifully in the elements. Shugendo temples are always the most aesthetically pleasing: wordlessly expressing impermanence. From the peak we could see Biwa, Hiei, and even Kyoto, peeking up from beyond the Higashiyama range. In fact, from this vantage point, we could see the entire route we'd walked thus far, a nice auspicious start to 2009, this being our first tramp of the new year.

We dropped back to the temple and said our goodbyes. There is a big event here late summer, and hopefully we'll be back. Then we followed the trail down, running steep and wet, through the cedars. It levelled out pleasantly, and we came to a rise, the entire valley before us lined with tea plantations, their curved bushes running parallel up and down every hill like frantic caterpillars. It were struck by the beauty and lingered awhile, the sun backlighting all in yellow hues. As it dimmed, we worked our way down through the bushes to the village at the base of the mountain. It was near dark when we got to the bus stop, but with just enough light to hitch a ride to the train station a half hour away.

Hirayama Bus Stop 平山バス停 to Tsuki-ga-sei-guchi 月が瀬口

Awoke Valentine's Day to the warmth of April. More specifically, the muggy tropical warmth of the April of Hong Kong. We biked down the hill, jackets unzipped, hair finally freed from woolen caps, waving behind us all the way to the train station. We were forced by JR to ride a series of trains and buses which took a ridiculous amount of time, due to their usual poor scheduling. It amazes me how inconvenient this route is, despite being the main line between the tourist sites of Kyoto and Nara (with another, Uji, in the center), and penetrating into the heart of the suburban commuter Kansai Bermuda Triangle (if you include Osaka). JR further showed its obliviousness to context by turning on the air conditioner, despite this being an early February morning. A bus took us to a village whose name, Wazuka, loosely translates as "A bit." We stood there looking up at the high mountain in front of us, ribbed with tea bushes stretching all the way up to the crest. This tea represents about half of Uji's famous brand, and we'd need at least a cup in order to get to the top.

The trail led up a narrow track rutted by the tires of small farm trucks. On the crest, we had a quick lunch while sitting on a single iron rail used to transport tools up and to send freshly plucked tea leaves back down. The descent down the other side was steep, leading eventually to a small village seated in a high valley. This village was simply two rows of homes bisected by a single road, and to walk through it was to walk through any old Western film. Next to a pond were a group of geese, two female, and a male who protectively challenged my approach, craning its neck and hissing. I smiled and backed off, somewhat ashamed at ruining his date on this day reserved for lovers. At the far end of the village, a light truck wheeled up, its elderly driver smiling at me and making conversation. He seemed amazed to see me here, the huge smile never leaving his face. Though we'd spend most of the day on roads, we'd see very few vehicles, and nearly all of them bore the teardrop mark of an aged driver. We walked through rice paddies, some flecked by huge stones looking like the backs of breaching whales. Before long another group of farm houses appeared, stretching out along this high plateau. A sign told us that nearby were a Korean Confucian temple and the tantalizingly named "Fudo Falls," but they were far off our route today. We did find the Pond of Benten, that muse of poets, whose festival day is traditionally in April, and today's warm weather gave us a taste.

We descended now, dropping down for the next 2 hours, for the next 8 kilometers. This middle portion was somewhat uninspiring, but for the occasional glimpses of mountains and mountains unfolding south toward Nara, Yoshino, and Kumano beyond. With little to occupy us visually, we'd distract ourselves with rambling conversation. A few words, a bit of passion, and boom! off we'd go. We spent at least an hour debating Kipling's "East is east" quip. At the bottom we found a busy road, then a trail which climbed up to some high marshy land. The reeds rustled to a bossa nova rhythm, and amidst this beat we found a simple house standing where it was least likely to be found. The owner no doubt prefers it this way, and the warm rusticity hints at a simple, satisfying life. Where the reeds ended, more tea plantations began. In the wooded areas between them we found a few bamboo cutter hard at work, one of them complaining to us that with the unseasonal warmth, the bamboo shoots would come early, and unless he pruned back their taller ancestors, the youngsters would never get enough space and light to survive. A literal generation gap played out in the forest. And we walked on into spring, with the plum blossoms being serenaded into bloom by the uguisu, tuning its rusty pipes for an early, and sudden return to the stage.