Running the Yata hills, Yamatokoriyama, Nara

Japanese Cyclocross Champion 2012 Yu Takenouchi pretending to be tired, with Masaki and his boss

The Yata hills are small and easy but very pleasant for a gentle jog or some speedwork. I was introduced to them last October by Masaki-san, a trail runner and mountain biker whose local running patch they are (he has asked me to point out that they are often too crowded for MTB riding to be safe). He kindly arranged a run and family picnic and invited some friends along. As well as his boss, there was Yu Takenouchi, whose puppyish demeanour belied world-class racing ambitions on the European Pro Cyclocross and road scene. Since then he has won the Japanese national cyclocross championships in January 2012 and finished 33rd in a cyclocross world cup race - no mean feat. As I write he is preparing for the World Championships in Belgium this weekend. The boy is only 23 and he is going places. Fortunately he had come 3rd in a national MTB bike race the day before, and had never been trail running before, so me and Masaki were able to whup his ass! Probably the last time that will happen. Ever.

Yu and me (see what I did there?) and bossman. Yes I was hot.
The hills run from north to south for about 10km and there are a network of good fast running trails all over them. Seen in the photo above, a wide 'maintenance road' runs over the spine, with smaller tracks running off, and it is probably possible to string together a route with more climbing in it by using paths up the sides.

View from the Yata hills east across Nara city

A run in the Yata hills can be nicely combined with a family or group day out, as there is a pleasant park area with a big grassy area for picnics and for the children to play in - marked on some maps as the Yata Prefectural Park, but by signs on the hills as the Children's Forest Play Park. There is also Hiyoru-ji temple at the southern end, a world heritage site, and Yamatokoriyama castle on the eastern flank, which has some impressive stone walls and moats. there are small stations all round, so access is easy. (see map below).

A run followed by a nice homemade picnic - now yer talkin'
I really appreciated Masaki-san organising this, as we had recently self-evacuated from Fukushima prefecture, and it was the first time I felt able to relax or run for a long time. It was great to see children and not worry so much about them. I wish them a long and healthy life. Masaki lead us on a pleasant hour's route, waiting every now and then for the other to catch up, and then we all had a good trough in the shade of a tree. I was just feeling all mellow and had changed back into my cycling gear for the ride home, when he announced another run. Blimey, with my belly full and my under-used legs twinging and tendons pinging I wasn't so sure. But who can say no this smile?

OK, OK, another run, OK....
Masaki-san is a busy man with work and family, and doesn't get enough time to run and ride his MTB, so I guess he needs to make the most of it when he can. This time we took a few less used paths and had fun on the downhills - Yu was interested towitness the glory that is UK downhill technique on the rough stuff and said "I will beat you downhill next time!" Bring it on baby.

Looking south to Ni-jo yama and the Kongo-san range from the Yata hills
It was interesting to hear about Yu's experience on the Belgian semi-pro scene, and how a few of the other riders tried to wind up with racist jokes. I explained to him about black 'humour', and how sometimes it is used as a weapon to make you angry and weak, and sometimes it is a sign of friendship - very confusing. I told him some of the strategies that had helped my daughter survive the other girls in her English school playground, and if you can survive that, the peloton should be a doddle...

Yu Takenouchi texting his coach about why he had just risked his season on the turn of an ankle

Click for map of Yata hills

Mount Rokko Longitudinal Course - part 1

View  to the south west from Kikuisui-yama, looking back along the first 40% of the Rokko trail

The Mount Rokko Longitudinal Course is a 56km trail from Sumaurakoen station on  the Sanyo Dentetsu line to Takarazuka station to the north east, with about 3,000m (10,000ft) of climb and descent over 16 peaks. It is incredibly varied, from neat park-like paths, to road, to very rough rock and root-strewn sections, and even ladders and exposed crags. But more than anything, it has steps, steps and more steps.

I have entered the race in March, so I wanted to have a look, and I am glad I did. Route-finding wasn't easy, even with map and compass and signs on the way, especially in the urban sections, as the signs sometimes go AWOL when you most need them. There are worse ways of loosing your way. On the way to begin on an early commuter train a young guy in a suit was keeled over asleep next to me - or was he dead? I began to think so at the end of the line when vigorous shaking didn't wake him, and called for help. He finally stood up and staggered onto the platform where he sat down on the first bench and went immediately to sleep again, clutching his briefcase. I don't think he was drunk, just exhausted to his very bones, perhaps on his way to 'karoshi', or death by overwork - the dark side of Japanese economic success. I felt very sorry for him and wished him a better life and stronger unions. Hard work in the context of the freedom of mountain running could not be more different, and the first few hours of my run were coloured by this encounter. I felt very lucky.

The freedom of running. Osaka bay from the park steps up Hachibuseyama
The views over the sea make for a sublime start, but on a slightly earthier note there are toilets in the station and the park, but no paper, which is surprisingly common - note to self: add a pack of tissues to kit list. The first of many, many flights of steps lead up to the cable station on the first top, Hachibuseyama. Paper! As with most of the tops on the first half of the Rokko-san Longitudinal trail the low height in metres is deceptive as you climb more or less from sea level each time, and those steps - ouch!

Looking from the steps down the 1st descent to Yokoo-san, the second objective
Each mountain is strung in a line heading towards Rokko-san like islands of forest, with suburbia lapping and nibbling at the edges. The streets are more confusing than the mountains, as always, but both required careful navigation and sometimes asking people to make sure. Presented with 5 different paths and a map without much detail it took a lot of time. I don't want to waste too much time on race day. A lot of the paths are over-engineered, being so close to towns. I don't know about you, but I find staircases harder than rough trail. I couldn't believe it when I found this was the second climb of the day....

You have got to be kidding me. Killer steps up Yokoo-san.
Ah the love affair with concrete and the taming of nature (as if that can be done). Actually, practising and training on steps would be a good idea for trail racing in Japan, they are very common on any well used mountains and require their own brand of pacing on the way up, and a particular style of descending. I don't want to fall down these babies. The view back from the top was good though...

Looking back to Tekkaizan and Hachibuse-yama, the big bridge and beyond
Who would think from those regimented steps and the innocuous first part of Yokoo-san that it is such a dramatic mountain. After the first top there is an easy short ridge that comes up to a second top. There is a short path straight on, but it doesn't go through, it just gives this glimpse of what is ahead...

Glimpse of the craggy col section on Yokoo-san, with Takatoriyama, the next top, behind

Don't go straight on here! It seems strange when the route veers down to the left. Here is why...

The precipitous crags on Yokoosan - note the walker bottom right for scale
The north east end of Rokoosan is a crumbling mess of jagged gravelly crags, and there is a bit of exposure to drops in a couple of places. Ladders have been added, and there would be some 'bad steps' without them. It is as if someone has attacked it with an axe. I took a lot of care here, no show-boating!

Looking back to Yokoosan (312m) from the NE.
For the last 5km or so I had been to-ing and fro-ing with a very fit man who looked to be in his late seventies at least. I kept passing him, but every time I stopped to check the way he came past, and he ran down every descent, his cagoule pulled off his shoulders and slung round his arms. From behind, with his neck of thick corded muscle and his easy movements, he looked 30 years younger. I was very impressed -  he looked like he could go all day like that, but he waved away my compliments and was off before I could get my camera out....

All in a day's jog for this septuagenarian: Takatoriyama (328m) from Yokoosan
The next confusing crossing of suburbia over, there is a stiff pull with more steps up to Takatoriyama (328m), which sports an enormous telecoms array, like many mountains near cities. This time there was a family with small children near the top, stopping me from feeling like running up hills was anything special - well, ok, puffing and panting up them at fast walk, then, what are you, psychic? I love to see that, too - kids having a good time on the hills, in this case in the company of their dad and grand-dad. Maybe in 70 years time one of them will still be enjoying it, like the elder on the last hill.

Young boy reaching the first of Takatoriyama's two tops (328m) with Osaka in the distance
The hill has a long top mainly taken up with shrines and paved footpaths, but affording this view across Kobe and Osaka bay...

Across Kobe and Osaka Bay to the Nara and Wakayama mountains beyond
The way off Takatoriyama was particularly hard to find and not well marked with the Rokko Longitudinal Course signs. This set the tone for a scrappy route through the next bit of town, where the signs suddenly gave out and I went wrong - or perhaps it was my concentration that gave out. I used map and compass to go in the right general direction and met up at a railway station with some walkers I had left ten minutes before, where we milled around a bit looking confused until I plunged off down the path I had convinced myself was the right way. Fortunately I was right for once, and a few kilometres of track and road brought me past some reservoirs and beneath a big dam to the big climb up to Kikusuiyama (458.8m). Here's the view again....

View back over the route on the way up Kikusuiyama
Next comes another big climb to a 486.2m top...are you getting the picture? They aren't so big, but those climbs just keep on coming. The navigation needed care again on this next section by Futatabi-yama over to what should be checkpoint 3 in the race, with paths heading off all over the place and not many course signs, so I wasted a lot of time trying to match up Kanji symbols on the signs with those on the map, without much success. Fortunately I asked a walker, who put me back on track. No shame, me, I always ask when needed. I was too tired by then to deal with unnecessary diversions.

A long drag took me up to Maya-san at 698.6m, and by this time my legs were telling me those spot heights were surely not nearly high enough - but apparently most of that 3,000m/10,000ft height gain has been done by this point, and it gets a little easier. Maya-san is home to Tenjo-ji temple, which was founded in 646 but burned down in an arson attack in 1975. Fire, whether arson or accident, seems to figure in the history of most Japanese places.

Shinto shrine on the top of Mayabetou-san 717m
On this day at the end of a week in which I had already done two long runs and a long bike ride, it was beginning to look as if discovering the last part over Rokko-san itself would have to wait for another day. The afternoon was growing gloomy, the January wind was blowing sharp, and snow laden clouds were coming in. I went on to what should be checkpoint 4 out of 5 on race day and decided to call it quits - the roads and tourist developments on this section did not inspire acts of heroism, and being on my own in the dark was not appealing 6 and a half hours into the run with a full rucksac and very tired. I found a steep and rugged but direct line down towards the nearest station to the south east. After more steps - a lot more steps - I bumbled out into suburbia just before dark, and treated myself to a nice hot bowl Kitsune Udon. Rush hour was beginning as I travelled on packed trains back through Osaka. I was tired and probably over-trained, but it was just my own silly fault. I wondered what time my exhausted friend from the morning would get home, or if he would at all?

The whole 56km route over 16 tops can, according to Jean-Yves Terrault in Kansei Scene, be done by elite runners in under 6 hours, by regular runners in 10 or 11 hours, or by walkers usually over two days. The cut-off time for the 45km race which finishes in Arima-onsen is 8 hours. See my post on 2nd half of the route here. My race report from 2012 is here. Another runner has some blog posts on the Rokko trail here


Slight bear spray accident

Two wild boar on a small wooded mountain, somewhere in Japan.
"Here kohai, did you see that the other day?"
"What's that then, senpei?"
"Bloody hilarious. There's these two humans farting about trying to get who knows where on the ridge up there."
"No, no guns, no. At first I thought they were bears, they were thrashing about in the bushes that much..."
"Oh, don't talk to me about bears, think they own the place, crapping in the woods - it's a well known fact. What tipped you off they were humans? The smell?"
"Stink more like, they smelled too bad to be bears, I'd be doing bears an injustice, I really would."
"Nothing worse than humans senpai, that horrible 'out of the forest' stench, all hairless and nasty little teeth. Turn my stomach."
"Yes, well don't let them catch you my boy, or they'll turn it inside out. Literally."
"The story kohei, the story?"
"Yes, well, there they were, what they call 'running' even though a one-legged piglet with the shits could move faster on a bad day. The bald one at the front, he's wearing this thing on his back..."
"What's that for then, senpai?"
"Oh don't ask me kohei, probably to make his bony back look more nice and round and boar-shaped. Anyway, he's bending down crawling through the sticks, acting like he's one of us, when suddenly there's this loud PSSHHHTTT!!!"
"No, it was definitley a psshhht, or maybe a fhhhtt, and this orange spitty stuff shot out in a cloud."
"What, like sensei when he sneezes?"
"Worse. Then the bald one's going 'Aaaarghhh, my eye, my eye!"' and the big one's going 'What the hell was that?' then he's going 'Aargh' as well."
"No argh, and stop interupting. So there they are rolling about in the bushes, and there I am rolling about on the floor - I nearly snapped me tusks laughing I can tell you, made my day. Even the birds had a little chuckle I can tell you, and they are usually miserable buggers, except for the ducks and crows o'course, they laugh at nothing, can't shut 'em up, drives you..."
"The story, senpei?"
"Well that's it really."
"They just went argh a bit more, then went off doing boary snorts and mumbling something about twigs and safety catches and 'Unbelievable,' and some stuff I couldn't follow."
"No change there then senpei."
"Nothing, nothing. No punchline then?"
"Not as such, no."
"Anyway, I've got no time to waste on you. Places to go, things to do."
"Nice muddy wallow, senpei?
"Don't mind if I do."
* * *

A painful reminder that pepper sprays are serious kit  and need to be handled with great care
The safety was flipped off by a twig and the trigger depressed by another - ouch!

I've carried this spray in the mountains for a couple of years without problems, either fixed to a rucksac strap on my chest, or in a mesh pocket at the side - checking that it was quick to get out. In principle I knew it was a serious weapon - now I know in practice. It only went off for half a second and most of it went on my back, but the edge of the cloud hit my eye. There was a strong chemical smell from the propellant, then the burning hit. This was only a half-second spray, but it didn't stop hurting until after I'd had a shower. As the run went on my eye improved but as it continued it began to irritate anywhere clothing was rubbing on sweat (use your imagination). Even my friend, who wasn't directly sprayed had trouble from running behind me afterwards, and in the end his eyes reacted so badly he couldn't see very well. It seems to have got everywhere and something else would suddenly start hurting.

I have learned several things from this:
  1. If I have to use it on wildlife it may well work, as your body reacts immediately and wants to get away from it
  2. Spraying a lot of it it will likely also be very uncomfortable for the user
  3. The American occupy protesters in the notorious video where they are sprayed long and hard right in the face, and yet kept still, have my respect.

Sacred forest: aren't they all?

The Kasugayama Primeval Forest World Heritage Site, hiking course and Wakakusayama, Nara City

A venerable citizen of Kasaguyama forest
Making a circuit round the back of a 498m hill looking remarkably like any other, it takes nearly as long to say "The Kasugayama Primeval Forest World Heritage Site hiking course," as it does to run it's 12.7km length, an easy blast on unsurfaced forest roads.

It's been said that this 'sacred' forest has been untouched by human hand since 841, when cutting was forbidden. Apart from the big forestry road that has been hacked through it.... Oh, and the metalled toll road and manned booths, the path made down to the waterfall, the Buddhist rock carvings and statues, and the usual signage? Yes, but apart from that. There are few truly primeval forests in the world, a word implying those that have never been felled or significantly affected by human hands. Perhaps a more useful term is 'old growth forest,' which acknowledges the absence of accurate history and concentrates on the state that the ecosystem has reached.

In a way, being told a mountain is 'sacred' or that a forest is 'primeval' sets you up for disappointment if you are approaching it as a jaded visitor looking for something deeper or more beautiful, some meaning absent from shallow modern life. It is sacred in the minds of those who feel that way about it, not in its actual form. A Japanese friend explained too, how because of the crammed narrow streets, the Japanese have evolved a way of looking at small patches of beauty and ignoring all the crowded dross around them. So there was me, running the route and pondering the contradictions, and then there was the solitary man clapping at a small shrine, placing his hands together and staring intently at the large tree above his head. We were seeing a different forest.

It's curious, this layering of meanings in one place, and a good example of how we each change things by looking at them. It can drive you crazy trying to grasp it fully, but it's good to at least know that it is there and very interesting to try and step outside your habitual way of experiencing things and notice others. Meanwhile, I was running.

Wakakusayama looking south: and how are you experiencing it madam?

On Wakakusayama there were families who had driven up on the toll road braving the brisk cold wind and the deer trying to bully them into giving up their food. There is a nice little diversion from the course on steeper tracks down to a small waterfall at the back of the route. The viewing platform was unattended but cluttered with hi-tech gear belonging to a film crew who were at the top of the waterfall discussing the next scene. They had left a pristine laptop and hard-drives on the bench, and a wooden bow. God bless their innocent little socks, only in Japan... and possibly Singapore...and maybe anywhere they chop your hands off for theft, I wouldn't know. To stretch a point, all different people seeing different forests.

And at the end, from the sublime to the cor blimey. I had to chuckle at the masses of pink love hearts with wishes on them at Kasuga Taisha shrine. But they were no more incongruous in that ancient place than a runner gawping around in black tights  - why is it the gear feels fine until you have to walk in it amongst non-runners?

Maps of the course are available from Nara Information Centres - handily the Japanese for hiking course is 'hiking course.' It's impolite to run in temples and shrines.


Hidden caves and a secret village...possibly

Unusual man-made cave hidden near the top of a small mountain - any guesses?

One of the great things about running in the hills is the unexpected, those little shocks to the illusory order imposed by our minds, the simplification and predictability we crave tickled into repositioning itself. No? That'll just be me then. The Yamashiro hills in Kyoto prefecture just north of Nara are modest and unassuming, but once you get into them, they have some refreshing surprises. I had been trying to find some new routes in this complex little area, but working out how it all fits together is not easy, and that makes for running fun. Trying to link up well used paths and starting and finishing points into good circuits means thrutching through some thick scrub on old hunters tracks, and sometimes loosing even those.

One of the more 'runnable' bits along a ridge

Taking an educated guess took me and my mate Richard down a steep hillside on a path that was probably made by wild boar, as it appeared from the goodly stink and a muddy wallow. After we had finished doing that we carried on. Luckily, just as the 'path' petered out, some unusual dry-stone embankments appeared in the woods, marked by red tape on twigs.

A long way from the nearest modern village up in the hills - there were lots of these

As we descended through a steep rough gorge more of these terraces appeared, some on the hillsides, and some apparently marking off flat areas. It felt to me that we had stumbled onto what used to be a hidden village, perhaps built at a time of war to hide from conflicts. If this was the case it was a good spot, as there was a water supply, and the bottom of the valley was protected by a rocky gorge, which though small, certainly wouldn't have looked to marauding soldiers as if there was anything up there worth plundering. As we stumbled out of the undergrowth, scratched but intrigued, and looked back, you would never know there was anything to see now.

Above this same area, coming from a different direction we happened across two caves at the base of a small sunken crag. I let Richard check out if there were sleeping bears in them first, it only seemed fair out of respect for his spirit of adventure, I'm very selfless that way. Each had been chiselled out and was big enough for two people to lie down in (or several to crouch in), and crude stone shelves had been carved out in each. Why were they made? Were they also hiding places, or were they graves? The chisel marks were quite sharp, so Richard wondered if they were WWII bomb shelters - yet we were far from any target, and the Americans deliberately spared Kyoto and Nara from the fire-bombs that destroyed most Japanese cities. Osaka is 40km away.

The second hidden cave

There is one man made cave about 10km away by a road, and in Saitama the Hiaku Anna (100 caves) are scattered across anentire craggy hillside. Yet no-one really knows what they were for either, though their guess of graves seems sensible  These caves were rougher and made in a hurry, but whether that was because of fear of an enemy, or the need for a local misanthropic boar hunter to bivouac regularly we'll probably never know. And I quite like it that way.

But what do you think we were looking at?