Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Mt Rokko traverse

The idea to run the Mt Rokko traverse above Kobe was born while perusing this blog about trail running in Japan. According to the author, “The Mount Rokko Longitudinal Course is a 56km trail from Sumaurakoen station…to Takarazuka station to the north east, with about 3000 m of climb and descent over 16 peaks”. I briefly thought about epic-ing and trying to do the whole trail in one day, but decided to curb my enthusiasm and only part of it. After a serious Strava Routebuilder session, I planned a route starting at the north east terminus of the Mount Rokko Longitudinal Coruse and descending down to Kobe central train station, for a total of about 26K. 

Once again, I felt completely out of place in my trail running gear as I caught to the train towards Kobe. That didn’t change when I got off the train at Takarazuka station and saw a cityscape around me, with no sign of the aforementioned trail. I had created a handy GPX track to follow on my phone, so I whipped it out and dutifully followed the red line through apartment buildings, first gradually, then steadily, uphill. The first sign that I was going the right direction came when another runner came flying downhill towards me.

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Crossing the Muko river near Takarazuka station.

My GPX track dumped me onto a tiny, excruciatingly steep trail. It was unmarked, and given the markings I found later on I wonder if this was kind of a back way leading onto the main trail. Hands on knees, I clambered up the dusty, root-strewn trail.

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This does not do justice to how steep the trail actually was. But look, I found a trail!

Not long after, I saw my first Japanese snake. I think I literally jumped as it slithered across the trail, and I began to look distrustingly at every curvy tree root on the forest floor. I think the snake was just as scared of me as I was of it, but all the same I didn’t want to be caught unawares again! 

I started to notice trail markings, stakes in the ground marked with symbols. Good, maybe I wouldn’t have to spend too much time navigating. I was on a sort of ridge now, still climbing, and the forest floor dropped away steeply on either side. Let’s hope this doesn’t dead end.

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I half expected these trees to start walking around and talking.

The trail continued to widen, and passed through several junctions. They seemed to be clearly marked for those of us who can read Japanese, i.e. not me. I stopped frequently to make sure I was still on the red line of my GPX track, but basically I just followed the main trail. I was starting to meet other people now, a good mix of hikers and trail runnings. I enjoyed the quiet kinship of meeting like minds, people who choose to sweat through the forest on a Saturday morning, even if we didn’t share a language.

I found myself fascinated by all the different trees I was running through. There were the green, ropey trees in the lower forest, which gave way to straight brown trees with flakey bark.

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Flakey trees. Cedars? Someone help me...

Then, higher up, the trees all had wiggly branches, like curly hair blown by a permanent breeze. Sometimes I ran through shoulder-height stands of thick vegetation that threatened to obscure the trail. (I think it might have been baby bamboo). The trail was relentless, either climbing or descending steeply, never flat, rarely runnable. I was enjoying the grind, because I knew there was a summit in my future. Occasionally I would get spit out onto a road for a few hundreds meters. This wasn’t exactly the wilderness.

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Squiggly trees.

Soon enough I was climbing the final slope up to Mt Rokko, on top of which there was, most anticlimactically, some kind of radio tower. It was a hazy day over Kobe Bay, and the view was of a different sort than I was used to. Beyond the jungle of forest was a jungle of city, stretching out to to a seemingly endless ocean.

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Kobe bay from Mt Rokko.

I stopped at the top to eat an onigiri (rice ball), one of my favorite Japanese snacks. They can be bought at convenience stores for next to nothing here, and I’m seriously considering learning to make them so I can start bringing them on runs at home.

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Onigiri filled with some kind of fish, enjoyed on Mt Rokko.

After the peak, the trail passed through a developed area, with a ski lift, ugly modern art, a restaurant and then a golf course. It felt kind of strange that all of these things were just up there, after all the kilometers through quiet forest.

I was hoping to pick up the pace a little after the summit, as Mt Rokko was the high point of the day. But the trail kept undulating, with a series of short, steep climbs and descents. And then came the stairs - so many stairs!

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One set of stairs isn’t particularly threatening. Fifty is.

I consider myself a fairly decent downhill runner, but running downhill on stairs quickly requires a completely different technique than the one I use. Judging by the section of ‘trail’ between Mt Rokko and Mt Maya, Japan might be just the place to learn how to run stairs.

After seemingly endless stairs, up and down, I came to Mt Maya, from where I would begin my descent towards the center of Kobe. There’s a road to the top of Mt Maya, and there were tons of people on the top, picnicking and enjoying the sun and the view. There was a group of musicians playing flutes and a truck selling snack foods. I stopped to snap a few photos, and began my descent. I had already been out more a long time for a ‘mear’ 26K.

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Kobe seen from Mt Maya.

The descent through the forest was so steep and loose I wasn’t able to run - I had to sort of shuffle. This trail never really gives you a break! I thought. I lost all of the vertical I had spent the day gaining in a few kilometers. I had been alone on the trail during the descent, but then I popped out on some well-maintained tourist walkways to Nunobiki Falls. I decided to check it out, and ran past a gorgeous set of waterfalls dropping into round pools. All of this, less than a kilometer from the cityscape of Kobe! Even if the nature is a little overdeveloped for my taste, at least the beautiful areas are still here to enjoy.

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Nunobiki Falls.

I ground out the final kilometers on pavement to Kobe main station, feeling sweaty and dusty and disgusting amidst flocks of clean city people. I stopped outside the train station for some salty, delicious ramen and several glasses of ice cold matcha tea. I had earned it.

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Strava data here

- The Wild Bazilchuk

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