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.