Japanese Spirit with Western Learning: The Omi Konan Alps

Samuel Sorenson, a JCMU English Language instructor in Hikone, will be writing a series of articles on various topics related to Japanese food, culture, and more in hopes of encouraging students to step out of their comfort zone while studying abroad.


While Japan is famous for its sprawling urban cityscapes such as Tokyo and Osaka, it is easy to forget that more than 70% of Japan’s total area is mountainous. Shiga is no exception. With a number of famous mountains such as Mt. Hiei and Mt. Ibuki as well as many other mountain ranges throughout the prefecture, Shiga offers plenty to enjoy for any mountain climbing or hiking enthusiast.

I will admit that it was the cityscapes that first drew me to Japan, but after living in Shiga for more than four years I must say that I have really come to love all the natural beauty that Shiga’s mountains have to offer. My experience is actually quite similar to the experience of Dr. Taylor Atkins as described in his recent blog post, as I too came to prefer living in rural Shiga over the more urban areas.

In my first blog post I shared that the goal of my posts here would be to introduce things about Shiga that I have enjoyed. So, I would like to start by introducing a particular mountain range in Shiga known as the Omi Konan Alps that I visited recently.

The Omi Konan Alps are located in the southern part of Shiga Prefecture in the city of Ritto (konan is written as 湖南 literally meaning “lake south” referring to the southern part of Lake Biwa). There are several ways of accessing the mountains, but the best way to get there from JCMU using public transportation is to take a roughly 40-minute train from Hikone Station to Kusatsu Station and then a 30-minute bus ride from Kusatsu Station to the hiking trail entrance.

Here, you can see a map of the hiking trails throughout the mountain range. I chose a route that would take about five hours and allow me to see the Ochigataki waterfall, the Tenguiwa rock formation, the Sakasa Kannon monument, and a Dutch-style dike built during the Meiji-era.

Picture 01.jpgAnyone with experience climbing mountains in Japan will know that it’s a little different from many of the well-maintained hiking trails available in national and state parks in the US. In my experience there is always a sense of danger and adventure when entering Japan’s mountains. Often times you are greeted by signs at hiking trail entrances such as the ones below warning visitors of anything from giant wasps and wild boars to wild monkeys and bears (snakes, both venomous and not, are also not uncommon sights depending on the season in which you are hiking). This is all just to say that there is always a sense that you’re taking your life in your hands when choosing to venture out into the Japanese mountains – and that’s part of the reason I like hiking out here. That said, the trails I visited on this hike were relatively well-maintained compared to some other hikes I have been on, and any sense of danger was eased by the fact that there were quite a few other hikers out enjoying the mountains on this beautiful and sunny fall day.

Rather than boring you with the details of the hike, I’ll let the pictures I took that day speak for themselves…

 

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The Ochigataki waterfall – my first checkpoint of the day

 

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The first scenic view from the mountain featuring the cities of Kusatsu and Otsu as well as a small part of Lake Biwa towards the right

 

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Sometimes a rope hung from a steep rock face is considered a hiking trail in Japan…

 

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The Tenguiwa rock formation

 

picture-08My lunch of the famous Tsuruya Saladroll made right here in Shiga! The roll features takuan (pickled radish) mixed with mayonnaise and margarine. Definitely a previous tabezugirai food that I now enjoy!

 

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One of the many streams that the trail crisscrossed throughout the hike

 

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The Sakasa Kannon monument carved about 800 years ago during the Kamakura period. The monument originally served as a signpost for the Konshouji Temple that is still located deeper in the mountains. Sakasa is written 逆さ and means “upside down.” This is a reference to the fact that the monument is now upside down since falling over.

The final destination on my hike was this Dutch-style dike that was designed by the Dutch engineer Johannes de Rijke and built in 1889. The dike was built to protect the villages at the base of the mountain from flooding. The dike still stands exactly as it did more than 100 years ago when it was built. An interesting story about the dike is that during construction there was a lack of stones, so a portion of the Sakasa Kannon monument was carved off and used in the construction. This was done while the monument was still upright, which led to a shift in balance actually resulting in the monument toppling over leading to its current state.

 

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This is said to be the oldest dike built in this style that is still standing in Japan

 

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A bust of Johannes de Rijke with the dike he designed in the background

 

With that my hike was finished. As I sat at the bus stop waiting for my ride to Kusatsu Station I reflected on all that I had discovered and learned that day. At the start of my hike I read a sign which explained that the lush mountains that lay before me had at one time been nearly bare – their trees having been recklessly harvested starting more than 1300 years ago to supply the lumber needed to build the growing number of shrines, temples, and palaces throughout the area. By the Edo period these mountains were essentially barren, and with no trees to absorb water, flooding of the rivers and tributaries throughout the mountains became a huge problem. Since the Meiji period there started to be more and more efforts made to protect and reforest mountains such as this one and, thankfully, those efforts have succeeded.

 

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The sign with a picture of the deforested mountain

 

While waiting there for my bus I realized how lucky I am to live where I live and to be given all the opportunities that I have to experience the beauty that Shiga’s nature has to offer. I believe that with those opportunities also come the responsibility to value and protect that nature so that future generations can enjoy it as well. It is my sincere hope that visitors to Shiga can experience the grandeur of this nature first-hand for years and years to come.

 

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