BETWEEN TEMPEST & PLAGUE

AUGUST, 2011

#002 – MINAGO-YAMA

The old place creaks and groans when typhoons hit.

Sprinkles of dust and grit get sifted out of the ceiling cracks.

Three storms swept across the Kansai that season, blowing grannies off bicycles, turning umbrellas inside out and wreaking other such raincoat shredding malevolence.

Cicadas, clinging to their leafy refuges high in the swaying pines, cherry and camellia, rode out the torment, bursting into raucous song in the lulls between gusts.

On  finer mornings, when the sun burned down from on high, broiling the inhabitants of the Kyoto Basin in their own juices, there were times when you couldn’t hear yourself think on account of the cacophony blaring out of the trees.  By early afternoon the choral shrieks would fade, presumably the cicadas too had been drained of all fight by the spirit sapping humidity.  Once evening fell and I settled back in repose on the tatami, ice cold beverage in hand, it could well be that a rogue cicada would swoop in through an opened doorway and send the Missus into shrieks of unadulterated tea towel flapping terror whilst the Kid broke into howls of rapture.

Between tempest and plague we headed for the hills.  Beyond the hamlet of Ohara, resting deep in the Kyoto Kitayama – the Northern Mountains – Minago-yama rises to the highest point in the prefecture.  At some 972 metres it bests Atago by about fifty.  Renowned as a rather more challenging beast than its Kyoto cousin we nevertheless considered having a crack at it since the Kid had gotten up Atago so well.

Public transport was thin on the ground.  There was one morning bus out of Kyoto delivering hikers into greenery choked summer realm of Minago.  The bus was packed with passengers in day-glo hiker garb.  Grannies pored over maps.  Men snoozed in their seats.  I plonked myself onto the floor alongside the slumbering Kid.

No one disembarked with us – presumably heading for easier ascents further up the valley.  Unperturbed, happy to have the hike to ourselves, we marched through a tunnel and into the woods.

Swallowed by the clamouring foliage spilling off the abruptly rising mountainsides,  we followed a clear, gushing brook for the remainder of the morning.  Flimsy bridgework and loosely strung rope had the Kid hollering for home at times; only the promise of bugs, grubs and leeches around every bend lured him onwards.

Beyond a dark, riverside hut nestling in a sun dappled glade we climbed, alongside a tributary of the main brook, higher up into the folds of the mountain.  Negotiating boulder strewn crossings and more languidly slung ropes we came to an impressively built chestnut tree that marked the end of the fun and beginning of the hard graft to the top.

From that point, as opposed to all points trodden up ‘til then, Minago pulled no punches.  The trail goes straight for the summit.  No switchbacks to ease the pain, no view to pause and rest your eyes upon, just a miserable, slippery, leafy struggle to the top.

By the time the Kid collapsed on the summit beside me I think he’d had enough of me, the cranky old leader of the expedition, and the whole mountain lark to boot.  The Missus calmly handed us our lunches amidst a swarm of some hundred thousand flies.  Out with her boys, caked in sweat and a black swarm there was no place she’d have rather been.

Buna-ga-take and Horai-zan topped out at over a thousand metres across the valley and prefectural line.  We took in the blue sky views.  A horse fly took in a gallon of blood from my ankle before being spotted and swatted into a bloody mangle of leg and wing.

Getting off the summit was worse than scrambling up.  The place was atrociously lacking in signage.  We missed a sharp turn in the cedar forests we descended into and headed off down a ridgeline that abruptly vanished beyond a tangle of scrub I’d struggled through to investigate.  I hollered and howled in the woods like a lunatic, exasperated at how I’d dragged my family up a hill and gotten them lost at the end of the day.  Some seven hundred metres below us there was only one bus back into town and that one mistake had all but ensured we’d missed the bloody thing.

Regaining the trail and heading into a dark gully lined with a dribbling stream and we slipped and sloshed our way down to the bottom of the hill passing a pair of scruffy mountain men in the near dark woods, fishing the tiny rock pools for iwana, a kind of brook trout.

Back on the roadside, still light but with the sun already behind the mountains I implored the Missus to thumb for a ride, hoping for a sympathy vote from one the drivers heading back into Kyoto, something that I, the bedraggled, nerve frazzled gaikokujin would have been hard pressed to muster at that point in time.

Soon a friendly face appeared poking out of a small, white, truck window.  A neat, middle aged man offered us a ride north, away from Kyoto, then through the hills and out to the shoreline of Lake Biwa from where we could catch a JR train back into town.  It was a round about way of doing things but who were we to gripe?  The Kid got to ride up front, the Missus and I had to be content with the tray back.  Such are the breaks when hitching out of the hills.

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