In the mountains in Mie
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Mie and Nagoya summers are, to say the least, not much fun. As conscientious, environmentally sensitive global citizens, most of us Nagoya city dwellers doubtless try to use the air conditioner as little as possible, our tiny contributions to energy-saving well worth the price we pay in torpor, discomfort and sweat. A far better solution to the oppressive humidity of the summer is anyway to take advantage of the natural air conditioning of the mountains with which Nagoya is so plentifully encircled.
Nihonkoba is the high point of a long subsidiary ridge of the main north-south backbone of the Suzuka range, branching away from the Oikedake (大池岳) massif in a southwest direction before splintering into the lovely forested valleys and hills of the Eigenji (永源寺) region. Access to this area is easy at present only in the summer, when Route 421 is open, although the imminent completion of a tunnel beneath the high, narrow pass of Ishiguretoge (石榑峠) should help to keep the road open all year round. At any season this is a fine destination.
The walk begins near the Nyouraido (如来堂) bus stop where prefectural route 34 heads north from Route 421. A prominent sign beside a flight of stone steps indicates the direction, and frequent subsequent signs and trail markers reduce the difficulty of navigation, although there are a few places where attention must be paid. Initially level, the trail-heads into the forest from the top of the steps, and after five minutes or so passes the small, neat shrine of Kasuga Jinja (春日神社). From this point the path drops into the wide gully of Fujikawa (藤川) and crosses the stream by means of boulders and balance. The trail climbs up beside this river, crossing several smaller tributaries before reaching a wide, airy clearing where Fujikawa is re-crossed with slightly more difficulty. Times of high water significantly increase the trickiness of these crossings, as does the mossiness of the rocks.
Stream crossings notwithstanding, the walking is delightful. At first the treescape is dominated by towering plantations of Japanese cypress (杉), but these gradually thin out sufficiently for dense stands of broadleafs such as Japanese pieris (アセビ), mountain azalea (山ツツジ) and camellia (椿) to benefit from the increased light and space. Depending on the season, this varied woodland provides constantly changing visual and olfactory pleasures, from the new green and early blossoms of spring, through the rich golds of autumn to the elegant silhouettes of winter. These woods also furnish homes for a surprising range of different birds and animals. Monkeys, deer and Japanese serrow are reputedly common on this mountain, although on my most recent trip the most exciting wildlife sighting was a pond full of small frogs. David Attenborough need have no fears for his job just yet.
About an hour and a half from the trailhead, the third and final crossing of Fujikawa is negotiated near a small waterfall, and the trail leads up to the foot of an impressive and somewhat intimidating granite buttress. This is certainly a steep section of the route, and rope handrails have been fixed to the rock, but the support provided by these rather dubiously attached aids may be more psychological than actual. There is indeed a long drop to the right, and a fall would be unpleasant, but handholds and footholds are both plentiful and secure; most hikers will find this short scramble exhilarating.
An unexpected feature of this rock promontory is the cave of Iwaya (岩屋), a small opening in the rock wall leading into a large chamber that could comfortably accommodate five people — or a much larger number of bats, to judge from the distinctive odour. The top of the buttress also affords a splendid view of the valley of Fujikawa, the forest canopy, and the imposing bulk of Ryugatake (竜が岳) back to the east. This is a splendid place to enjoy a cup of tea, breathe the fresh air, gaze at the loveliness, and feel very, very glad that you are not back in Nagoya.
Above the buttress, the trail continues through more loveliness, winding up between boulders and pines, before reaching a clearly marked junction. The right-hand path leads down to the hamlet of Mandokoro (政所), which will be our descent route, but the left-hand trail veers south in the direction of Nihonkoba summit, the flanks of which can be occasionally glimpsed through the trees. The second topographical surprise of this route is that the trail actually loses altitude from this junction, heading down into a beautiful marshy valley, decorated with flowers and grasses and appearing very different to anything that has gone before. In spring, the blossoms of Japanese Angelica (タラの芽) contribute a colourful softness to this area that is quite captivating; it would be a splendid place to camp. Somewhat hard to discern at times, the route follows the small stream in the centre of the valley up to a saddle. From this point the path to Nihonkoba summit is clear, heading up through the mixed forest attractively clothing the wide ridge to the right.
A few minutes of very pleasant walking through these woods leads to the 934-metre summit of Nihonkoba, a wide area from which most of the trees have been cleared, presumably in order to enhance the view, which is indeed very satisfying. The southern prospect, glimpsed through the trees at the edge of the clearing, is of the long ridge stretching from Ryuozan (竜王山) in the west over Watamukiyama ( 綿向山) to Amagoidake (雨乞岳) in the east. To the west the high ground falls away to the developed shore of Biwa-ko, and the main Suzuka ridge is visible in the east. Thoughtfully furnished with a couple of convenient cypress logs, as well as the more usual summit marker and triangulation point, Nihonkoba peak is a very pleasant place to sit and think. Or just sit.
Leaving the summit area for the descent is not an appealing prospect, but the thought of again walking through the little hidden valley below the peak is a powerful inducement. The thirty minutes back to the Mandokoro junction are just as enjoyable as on the way up, and there is the added interest of a different route from this point on down. The path that turns left at the junction is less well marked than the ascent trail, but still presents no serious route-finding problems. Essentially a long, steep, zigzagging descent through alternating sections of mixed natural forest and cypress plantations, the trail does not have the varied appeal of the ascent, but nevertheless has its own attractions, not the least of which is its function in completing a very satisfying loop. It emerges in the pretty village of Mandokoro Kawanishi (政所川西), from whence a twenty-minute walk down the small road running beside the river leads back to the trailhead.
Six wonderful hours on the hill, including time for meals and breaks, and the prospect of returning to the humidity of the city seems somehow less enervating. And, if any further inducement to stay were needed, just one kilometer back down Route 421 the little shop of Hiroseya (広瀬屋) has a great selection of local rice wine (地酒). Highly recommended — the mountain and the sake.