The Statue on the Mountain
Far south of Tokyo, there lies a broad, flat, and fertile plain crisscrossed by rivers, hemmed in by mountains to the north, south, and east, and fronted by sea to the west. This is Kansai (関西), the cradle of Japanese civilization, the area of the country most rich in history, and more than a little myth and legend. It is home to the old capital Kyoto (京都), the older capital Nara (奈良), and the land of the founders of the first Japanese state, the Yamato (大和).
Clearly a haven to fans of famous temples and castles, the region leaves little excite those who seek famous mountains. But isn’t wholly devoid. South of Kansai lies the Kii Peninsula (紀伊半島), a veritable thicket of mountains comprising of two great ranges, the Ômine (大峰) and the Daikô (台高). At the highest point of the latter of these lies Ôdai-ga-hara (大台ヶ原), a sprawling plateau filled with wide fields of bamboo grass beneath broad blue sky. In one of these fields large stones lie left and right like resting cattle, and here and there small, crystal clear pools of water gather several meters in diameter.
And there in the field stands a tall figure of man. Sword at his waist, bow in hand, and falcon perched atop, his right hand is raised to block the sun as he gazes out into the east. This is a statue of Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan. Though it’s hard to say whether Jimmu existed at all, let alone whether he ever stood in this field, the image is powerful: the warrior king delving deep into the wild mountains accompanied by his hunting falcon, braving danger while surveying the land over which he ruled. It’s a story told by no more than the name of the man and the place.
On the day I stood there back in May of this year (2018), a cold mountain wind was blowing to spite the warm sun. Accompanied by Dylan, my geologist friend from Minnesota, we were feeling thoroughly satisfied at having reached this place after failing in our attempt to reach two other mountains of a three-day trip in the alps of central Honshu just a few days before.
At the end of that earlier trip, Dylan and I had finally arrived back in Tokyo around 5 p.m. We were exhausted but we had no time to rest as we were due to board the bus to Osaka just before midnight. After a trip to the sauna and the laundromat to fulfill our needs for physical and material cleanliness, we met up with Ivy and Sophie, a couple nice Chinese ladies, for dinner at a local Thai restaurant before rushing off to Ikebukuro, where we were joined by Sky, another friend from China, shortly before boarding the bus. With that, we five set off south for the Japan’s L.A. Needless to say, we slept easily the whole way.
It seemed like no time had passed at all when we arrived, and so the sightseeing began, including visits to sauna’s, reconstructed medieval castles, and temples galore at the nearby old capitals of Nara and Kyoto. Not one much for conventional tourism, I focused on enjoying the company of the China trio while biding my time for the real goal: Ôdai-ga-Hara. After failing to reach Kinpu and Mizugaki hardly 24 hours earlier, we was eager to get at least one mountain off the list this vacation. Nonetheless, we waited patiently as the appointed day approached, frequently checking the forecast and hoping for a clear day though we were determined to go regardless of the weather conditions.
The Day Begins
Warm sunlight peaking through the window of our condo signaled that it was time to get up. Bags packed from the night before, we simply shouldered them and then made for the station, where we caught a train bound for the historic Yoshino (吉野) area, the place which lends its name to the most famous variety of Japanese cherry, the Somei Yoshino (染井吉野), which can be found in parks all over Japan and the world. If you’ve ever seen cherry blossoms in a park, chances are it was of this variety.
Our train wound its way through the dense Osaka suburbs, but once we crossed into Nara Prefecture the buildings began to thin, and before long we found ourselves in beautiful countryside backed by the mountains of the Kii Peninsula rising off in the distance. Soon the train reached the shores of the shallow Yoshino River and not long after that we got off at Yamato-Kamiichi Station (大和上市駅), where we transferred to the bus that would lead us deep into the mountains to the entrance of Ôdai-ga-Hara.
The bus was filled to the brim. Apparently plenty of people were hoping to spend an afternoon hiking around this famous mountain.
Into the Mountains
The bus pulled out from the roundabout at the station and hit a narrow highway running along the river, which it preceded to follow for quite some time. I dozed off periodically. We got higher and higher, passing dams that turned the river into a series of reservoirs, and then suddenly the bus swerved onto an single lane road that proceeded steeply up the face. Occasionally we met cars going in the opposite direction; they had to back up until they reached a wide spot, for there was no chance that this bus was going to back down.
We thought the view had been good before, but it couldn’t compare to the point at which we passed through a tunnel to the other side of the ridge, where we were first graced by a clear view of the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. That thicket of mountains stretched out as far as the eye could see with not one inch of level space between them. It was completely unlike what we had experienced hiking in central Honshu. There, great ridges hundreds of meters higher than these rose up, but between them lay wide and fertile valleys. There, we were always able to see human habitation from the high open spaces, but here there was nothing but mountains and sky.
The gorgeous scenery made us all the more eager to reach the mountain, and yet at the same time we were perfectly content to take in the view passing by right outside our window.
This post got a little long, so be sure to keep your eyes open for part two, coming next week!
© Brian Heise, 2018