Monday, June 20, 2011

Two-Day Hiking Bender in Kyoto: Part Deux

Iwakura-Konpirasan-Ohara hiking course


Continuing on my brief stay in my former hometown of Kyoto, on day two I decided to head up to the mountains north of the city and try to replicate a perfect day that I had back in the summer of 2008 hiking from Iwakura to Ohara.

I started off by purchasing some onigiri (triangular rice balls wrapped in seaweed, known as samgak kimbab in Korea), drinks and other snacks at the Family Mart, then hopped the #45 bus for a long ride up to the hamlet of Iwakura in northern Kyoto. It was a great day for a hike - sunny with a light breeze. From the bus stop the trail head can be a bit tricky to find (the first time I attempted this hike I think I ended up in somebody's private wood lot). But the neighborhood hadn't changed since the last time I was there and I got on the trail quickly.

The trail starts out on a logging road alongside a babbling brook, climbing gently at first but gradually narrowing and growing steeper until you suddenly notice you're out of breath. It's the sort of scenery - sun-dappled trail disappearing ahead through tall trees - that I like to put on my desktop backgrounds when I get tired of looking at my kitty.

Looking uphill

Looking downhill
After about an hour of progressively steeper climbing, the trail finally gives up all pretense and, taking a sharp turn to the left, begins a hard slog up the last 500 meters or so to the summit of the first foothill, Hyotan-Kuzushi-Yama (瓢箪崩山). There's no view at the top but it's a good shady spot to have some coffee and take a breather. I paused to examine some of the hand-written signs and placards different groups had left marking their passage. At some time recently this site appears to have been part of a school scavenger hunt:
"Uzura Kindergarten
Question #5:
How many onigiri did Mrs. Takashima bring today?"
Continuing on I followed the signs pointing to Ebumi Pass (江文峠) and Ohara (大原). This part of the trail was longer and much more difficult to follow than I remembered; it seems to have fallen into disuse.
Keeping a sharp eye out for the few markings and ribbons remaining on the trees, I eventually found my way to another crossroads, this one decorated with laminated hand-drawn signs made by children hanging from a dozen different trees, all bearing the slogan "Let's hike at an easy pace."
After this, the trail headed steadily downhill toward Ebumi Pass, and the trees thinned somewhat offering the first views of the next mountain, Konpirasan (金毘羅山). This part of the trail seems particularly wearying because, with every downhill step you take, you know that you'll have to take another uphill step to get to the top of Konpira on the other side of the pass. But there are pretty flowers to cheer you up.

At Ebumi Pass the trail crosses a section of the Kyoto Isshu Trail, mentioned in my last post, and also a two-lane highway leading into Ohara. Across the road a torii gate and Shinto shrine mark the entrance to the trail up Mt. Konpira.

This trail is clearly older and also better-maintained, with moss-covered stone steps leading up the steeper sections and a few small Shinto shrines along the way. Again, the trail follows a clear mountain stream for a while, and fallen flowers from the surrounding trees litter the pathway. The atmosphere is shady and mysterious.


It was along this section of the trail that I encountered the only other hiker I saw on the trail that day, who also happened to be a foreigner. The rest of the 4-hour hike was spent in absolute solitude, something that would be unimaginable here in Korea on any day of the year.

Near the summit of Konpira-san, there is a scenic outlook at a small Shinto shrine. Passing through the torii gate, you are presented with a panoramic view of the sleepy village of Ohara spread out below.

The trail subsequently followed the ridgeline from Konpira-san to Suitai-san (翠黛山). Along this section I had my eyes peeled for a particular tree. The last time I did this hike, around this point in the trail I remember feeling pretty exhausted and throwing myself down at the base of a big old tree, discovering to my delight that its trunk was curved in a such a way as to provide the perfect orthopedic support for my back, and it offered an excellent view of the mountains further north. I nearly fell asleep just leaning against that tree. I figured I probably wouldn't recognize it again after so much time, but then at a turn of the trail suddenly there it was:

My favorite tree
The tree was just as comfortable as I remembered it. Unfortunately I only had time for a perfunctory 5-minute sit at its base before I had to move on.

The rest of the trail was a long, steady downhill hike into Ohara. I remembered that last time I managed to lose the trail just before the end, with Ohara in plain sight in front of me, and had to bushwhack my way through the last 100 meters. This time I was determined to keep on the trail to the end, so I kept a vigilant lookout for trail markers as I approached the final section, but once again I lost the trail at the exact same spot. The trail was clearly marked right up to the last 100 meters, and then it just disappeared without a trace, forcing me to pick my way through rough mossy terrain until I came out behind someone's house. Another Kyoto mystery!

One of the best features of this hike is that it ends right at Ohara onsen. This ryokan-style onsen offers a day-tripper package that includes use of the rotemburo bath and a simple udon set meal for 1500. It would be overpriced elsewhere in Japan, but in Kyoto it's one of the few outdoor baths worthy of the name. And after a long hike, it's so inviting to soak in a hot cedar tub while looking up at the side of the mountain you just emerged from, as if to say, "No sweat, nature, was that the best you could do?"

Ohara Onsen

The village of Ohara

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