Miki and I wanted to escape Kyoto's Gion Matsuri like the plague. We still had to finish the Yama-no-be section of the TSH. For whatever reason, our guidebook neglected to cover this section, and the usual TSH bloggers had little to say either. One guy did it over four 6-hour days, but he proves to be a powerhouse, clocking times much quicker than ours. We reckoned that if we carried camping gear, we could do it in three long days. The additional weight would slow us down of course, but it would be good practice for the six week walk we have planned for later this summer.
On the Japanese national holiday commemorating the sea, we once again headed to the mountains. We spent Friday night in Nabari, in one of those small seedy hotels that blurs the line between business- and love-hotel. A cheap dinner in a locals only izakaya fuelled us for an early start the next morning. The bus had us at the trail head before nine. A month before, we stood in the same place, admiring this same view. But this day was to teach me that those same mountains whose shapes you most admire tend to bring the most grief. A sudden ascent led us quickly through a village and into a forest where we soon became lost. The path here is well marked, but a typhoon had caused some heavy damage to the region, sections of the hills shoved violently down into the streams below. The path took some unusual twists and turns, no doubt created by the footfalls of hikers winging it. We found ourselves looking up at the remnants of a slide. After poking around looking for alternative routes we decide to push straight up the slide, happy to find the actually trail just above. We soon came to a parking area, where a frog-like granny sold unseasonably warm drinks. I wanted something cold, but her cute expressive face nearly made me cave. Just above this lot was the Soni Kogen, a wide grassy plateau that rose up toward three peaks. A marshy lake filled the basin between and beyond it, we could see small figures pushing their way slowly up a long, straight diagonal toward the 800 meter pass. For some reason, my mind flashed onto a famous eight minute long take from Wender's "Wrong Move," where his characters riff about life while ascending toward similar heights. The climb was quicker than expected, through grass moving in waves toward the col. Other figures were higher up on the peaks themselves. Our own route brought a merciful descent, into a well tended forest, and eventually to farmland well fortified against hungry wild critters. We passed a woodcutter with a machine slung over his shoulder in a way similar to Mifune's wanna-be samurai slung his in Kurosawa's classic. A bearded artist-type was weeding amongst his chickens and goats. One kind old gentleman offered us a ride. The other villagers we passed were equally nice and friendly, but one disturbing thing about the place was that the trail signs had been altered to point toward a single destination; some kind of herb garden for tourists. We really need those markers as we didn't have a map. Mie performed as well as expected, offering not only well-marked trails but also the occasional map. We sat beside one of these, eating lunch in the shade of a sake shop. The map showed that we'd be spending the afternoon going over two 900 meter peaks and both Miki and I seemed to dawdle over our food, not wanted to face the inevitable.
We eventually moved on toward Ōborazan. Halfway up the mountain we passed the only temple we'd see in two days. Beyond it was a field of bizarre rock shapes. Apparently this whole mountain was supposedly the body of Zao Gongen, the deity so beloved to the yamabushi. And typically, spiritual peaks are in the best shape. The forest up here was lively, frogs jumping all about, doing extreme leaps off the trail and free-falling out into open space below. I saw more than one bounce headfirst off trees or rocks, wondering each time if their joints and heads were as elastic and squishy as they look. And the higher we climbed, the bigger the frogs were. Long legged spiders moved out from beneath our feet, their extreme appendages looking like sci-fi moon landers. Most bizarre were the crabs that never fail to surprise me when I see them at these heights, near no water whatsoever. We moved below the peak and came to a stone trail that paved the ridge. The stones were weathered and uneven and slowed our pace a great deal. There was no surety to our steps due to many of the stones rolling if trod upon. Another slide forced us to drop far below the ridge, then rapidly up again. We came across more and more of these rapid ascents, striated by those helpful 'log' steps that are a boon to hikers everywhere. New they might serve a purpose, but years of erosion turns them into hurdles, the hiker then forced to goosestep over them. Killer on the knees. Up until now I'd been thankful how Mie had kept the trails well-marked and clean, but now it seemed excessive.
We soon came to Amagatake. Whereas the former mountain had been green and teeming with life, this mountain was the land of the dead. The flora? Cedars. Fauna? Cicadas. We moved along the bare forest floor devoid of anything but dirt. More of those deadly steps strained our knees as we moved up and down the hills. The descents were most fearful, the logs shifting with our weight. My footing wasn't sure yet, my center of gravity uncertain under the heavy pack. As we moved downward, we saw a sign that promised a short cut that would save us nearly a kilometer of walking. Instead we walked nearly three times that as we moved the wrong way along a road. Miraculously, a car came from nowhere and the driver set us straight. No more short cuts.
Around six-thirty, we finally came to Menard, a posh resort for golf and tennis and overpriced food that sprawls across the hills. We stocked up on water, then found a nice patch of grass at the resort's far end. As we were illegally camped, I won't reveal exactly where, but we had toilets, a vending machine, and BBQ pits. We had dinner near the latter, as stars came out and fireflies flew by, bigger and much faster than their citified cousins. We waited until after dark to set up the tent and settled down for a restless sleep. Resort workers came and went from a building not far away, every voice bringing anxiety about being caught. The cicada had quieted down considerably after the sun fell, but their occasion soft buzz sounded too much like the footfall of large predators, bringing me quickly back to alertness. A couple of deer had a conversation down where I'd hung my sweat-soaked clothes. I pictured them having a feast at this newest salt-lick, and my shreaded clothes strewn about the next morning. And then there was the genius who parked nearby, turning his car stereo up to 11, and blasting some asinine talk radio from 4 to 4:30. Thanks dude...