Mt. Odaigahara: June 22, 2018
This photo supplement tracks the events in CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.
I encountered the mural above at the bus stop where I boarded for the two-hour ride to Mt. Odaigahara. I must admit, the look on that hiker’s face did not inspire confidence.
Odaigahara lies in southern Nara Prefecture–several hours south of Nara City (itself, an hour south of Kyoto)–in a mountainous region formerly known as Yamato. After two days of rain, I was glad to see the sun.
Those reading the book no doubt wondered just how narrow the road actually was. I still have no idea how our full-sized bus managed to get past that truck. I closed my eyes right after I snapped this photo.
The narrow road wound steadily upward through green mountains, past drop-offs so steep I couldn’t even get a proper photo out the window. The views themselves were lovely, though.
If you want to hike Odaigahara, you need to either make reservations at the trailhead lodge (which I hear is nice) or make sure you’re up early and on time to catch the first bus of the morning–there are only two round trips to the mountain trailhead daily (and you’ll need the second one to return to the station when the climb is through).
This was the largest sustained incline of the entire hike. Most of Odaigahara is a high-altitude plateau, making this one of the least strenuous (but among the most beautiful) climbs of my 100 Summits year.
The viewing platform sits directly on the high point of the mountain. There’s even a picnic table, with benches, under the shelter created by the platform itself.
Southern Nara Prefecture is a mountainous region – it abuts the sacred mountains of neighboring Wakayama Prefecture (to the south) and Mie Prefecture (to the East). The summit of Odaigahara has spectacular views of mountains rolling away in all directions, without a city anywhere in sight.
The title of this trail sign reads “Animal Poop.” As you’ve probably figured out, it’s a guide to the various scat hikers may encounter on the trail. As I read it, I couldn’t help but wonder why they bothered to include a detailed description of bear scat–clearly, the bear poop is the one with all the bear bells* in it.
*(Japanese hikers, including me, wear tinkling bells to warn the bears of our approach. In theory, the bears hear the bells and move away, because they don’t want to interact with humans. I must admit, it seems to work, because I’ve yet to see a bear in the mountains. That said, it has occurred to me that, viewed from a different perspective, we’re wearing dinner bells.)
Wooden boardwalks cover large portions of the trail on Odaigahara. Signs in Japanese, Chinese, and English ask hikers to remain on the trails, in order to preserve the delicate plants that cover the mountaintop. I’m pleased to say that people do follow these rules; the Odaigahara plateau is a lovely, pristine place.
According to legend (or history, depending who you ask) a divine three-legged crow called Yatagarasu (literally “the eight-span crow”) led Jimmu across Japan, from the region known as Kumano (in modern-day Wakayama Prefecture) to this spot on Odaigahara (in a region then called Yamato), where the sun goddess Amaterasu granted Jimmu (who was, supposedly, her lineal descendant) the right to become the emperor of Japan.
This statue stands on Odaigahara, in the approximate place where Jimmu assumed the throne. Yatagarasu–pictured here atop Jimmu’s bow–is still considered the messenger of Amaterasu, and the divine symbol of the three-legged crow can be seen at hundreds of Kumano shrines across Japan. It is also the symbol of the Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route through the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture (which I walked later in the year, and talk about in Chapters 41 and 42 of CLIMB).
One of the highlights of a trip to Odaigahara is a visit to the narrow, tapering outcropping known as Daijagura, which hangs out over a massive chasm.
This photo does not do the drop off justice. The rock extends out over empty space, and hikers who climb all the way down to the chains at the end can look over the precipice. Sadly, I had not yet conquered my fears enough to climb all the way to the end and take a look. That said, I did manage to get halfway down the rock, and given where I was at that point in my life and my journey, I called it a win. (I still do.)
I found this unusual ice cream treat in the visitor center near the Odaigahara trailhead. The crispy outer shell (reminiscent of a “cake cone” style ice cream cone) surrounds a layer of matcha (green tea) ice cream topped with chunky Adzuki bean paste and mochi (pounded rice cake).
During my 100 Summits year, I made a point of bypassing the “normal” when there was an unusual option available, so although the visitor center had both chocolate and vanilla ice cream available, I opted for this one. It was delicious, and I have no regrets.
Since I visited on a weekday, the parking lot was fairly empty, but I understand it gets quite busy on weekends and holidays. I’m not surprised. As hikes go, this one was both enjoyable and relatively easy, with spectacular views and a unique historical connection. In fact, the only negative (aside from needing to make sure I returned in time for the only bus) was the unusual number of bees that lived in and around this parking lot. They did not seem aggressive (although they were curious, and I had to keep moving to avoid them), but since I’m allergic to bee stings, I also didn’t stay in any one place long enough to tempt them.
As an added bonus, the hike wore me out so thoroughly that I didn’t need to worry about white-knuckling my way back down the narrow road aboard the bus. I fell asleep the minute my rear end hit the seat–which was good, because I had another big adventure waiting for me two days later…
I hope you’re enjoying this “behind the scenes” photo-companion to CLIMB! Please click through and join me for Chapter 15: Magic in the Mundane
* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).