[Sixth in a series of posts about a recent trip to Japan.]
Light comes early this far north, even earlier than in Tokyo, especially without blackout curtains to prolong the night. I awakened at 4:30 a.m., looked at the clock, and settled back in for another hour before giving up and rising. The inn was quiet.
When we went to the common room for breakfast at 7:30, we found it ready. Again, delicious: smoked salmon, a “salad” with a leafy green similar to bok choy, a vegetable with a texture similar to green tomatoes but similar in appearance to okra (possibly Japanese eggplant), rice, miso soup and a few other items.
When the innkeeper asked us if we had a guide for Gas-san and Yudono-san for our hike the next day, we started to wonder if we should. Was it well marked? Yes, in kanji (Japanese characters). Was it dangerous? Slippery with a difficult saddle between two peaks. Did he think we should have a guide? “Hai! Hai! Hai!”
That sounded pretty affirmative. We asked if he knew a guide who could take us. Wait five minutes, he said. In five minutes, a younger version of him arrived, his adult son, who was willing to guide us the following day.
We talked about logistics: how to get there, how to retrieve our bags, how to get back. All this was definitely a test for Thom’s Japanese – hardly common topics. Eventually we figured out that we needed to leave by 7 a.m. the next day, that the van arranged by our tour operator would take us there, and the son would call his wife to pick us up once we were done. She would take us back to the western-style hotel we had booked for the night after the hike in Tsuruoka, 30 minutes away.
Our driver called for us at 9 and delivered us literally three blocks away to the foot of the 2,466 steps. (We would, however, need the car to visit the two “living Buddhas” in a town roughly 45 minutes away.)
We started at the entrance and reviewed the history. The Shugen Shidan sect (which practiced a joint form of Buddhism and Shintoism) was at the height of its popularity in the Heian/Kamakura eras (@800-1192 A.D.). Improvements in the Edo era included the construction of the steps and planting of Japanese red cedar trees, of which about 600 remain, lining the steps. After a period during which Shugendo was banned, the religious tradition was resumed after WWII.
According to the sign, the stone staircase and area has a “mythic atmosphere.” Thom, striding ahead, looked like he was walking next to Ents as he ascended the weathered stone steps. He said the woods reminded him of Endor.
After passing through the torii gate, the steps dropped to a cluster of shrines to various kami (spirits) at the foot of the Suga waterfall; then we crossed the red lacquered bridge before passing a 1,000 year old Japanese cedar girdled with a Shinto spirit rope.
In the woods ahead, a tall five-story pagoda, considered a natural treasure, climbs toward the clouds, which on this day were emitting periodic sprinkles. The wooden structure has traces of white paint but is largely a weathered, gray-brown.
In the area surrounding it stood small stone statues draped in red bibs, called Ojizo-sama. With their child-like faces, the statues are the guardians of children, particularly children who died before their parents. The red bibs are meant to protect them in the afterlife.
Rejoining the main stone path, we headed up the first of three major sets of stairs, and the easiest. During our climb, we only saw two other groups going up. It appears that most travelers take a bus to the top and walk down.
The second set of steps got our attention: steeper and longer. As we passed one of the groups coming down the steps, a woman paused and said in Japanese, “Try your best,” which is a common phrase used to encourage someone, especially children in school. At the top of the second set of steps, a friendly proprietor of a tea house asked where we were from. She said she doesn’t see many Americans.
Just before the third set of stairs, we saw a trail to the right leading to the three mirror ponds. They weren’t too reflective given the cloud cover, but we squished our way through the damp soil there and back in 20 minutes. (Be prepared for mosquitoes.)
All in all, the 2,466 steps were less intimidating than they sounded. On average, the steps had a rise of about four inches. But as Shugendo followers wore wooden clogs with only one support rather than two, I imagine it would have been a significant trial to make it up the mountain. To keep the trail interesting, stonemasons carved 30 symbols into the steps; it’s supposed to be good luck if you find them all. (Sadly, we only noticed one, part of which is the Chinese character for Buddha, pictured at left … something for next time.)
At the top, we passed Saikan, the best known temple lodging. We passed through the huge torii gate and stopped to make an offering at Sanjin Gohsaiden (the suggested offering is 200 yen, or $2). Just beyond, a giant copper bell, third largest in Japan and cast in 1275, hung in its wooden frame, a wooden log suspended by rope waited, ready to strike it. Before departing, we spent 600 yen ($6) for a frothy matcha tea, little cookies and tofu in a salty sweet sauce. As we were leaving, a yamabushi – in his white robe, wooden clogs and doll-sized hat – explained their practices to a group of tourists.
Our drive to Oami, where we would visit the living Buddhas, crossed through rural farms and wound up the hillside to a shrine at the top of the small town. Churen-ji shrine was where the best known of Japan’s “sokushinbutsu” came to pass away in 1829 after a life of hard asceticism. What’s left of him is enclosed in a glass box, his head drooping and his fingers curled upwards, the backs of his hands resting on his knees, which are folded in lotus position.
He is Tetsumonkai, a name he adopted at age 25, when he quarreled with samurais and fled to Yudono-san. He entered the temple there and became a mountain ascetic, waking to the sound of the bell at 4 a.m., dressing in white cotton and chanting prayers.
Eventually he traveled all over and went to Edo (old Tokyo) where he plucked out his own left eye after learning about the rampant eye disease affecting the people there. He threw the eye in the river and prayed for the disease to abate. It disappeared.
After 20 years, he returned to Churen-ji, and for 3,000 days, walked three times a day to Yudono-san, a trip that took four hours on foot. His diet of plants, which excluded cereals, naturally preserved his remains.
The shrine was quiet, and since there was no priest to offer a tour, they waved the usual 500 yen ($5) per person fee.
We looked around a bit and were surprised to find the ceiling of one room transformed into a contemporary art installation. Each of the panels depicted a famous world figure: Buddha, Jesus, Charlie Chaplin, Einstein, the Beatles, etc.. A second room had another composition on the ceiling, this one with a mythical ocean theme.
On our way out, I pulled the massive rope that is used to call the spirits as it strikes a huge, hollow copper gong.
The second shrine, Dainichibo, was rebuilt on the current site and is home to another Living Buddha, Daijukuboatsu Shinnyokai Shonin, who died at the age of 96 in 1783. The shrine itself is quite different, if for no other reason than it receives busload after busload of Japanese tourists, who arrive en masse. Thom was fascinated by some of the statues that were bedecked with offerings, including one to which dozens of children’s stuffed toys were tied.
Hungry, we stopped at what our driver had called a “drive in,” which turned out to be a roadside establishment with four or more food venues. We had a great meal situated alongside the dramatic river gorge.
By then the rain had started in earnest.
I read the Haguro Town Council’s English brochure after taking a nap:
“Why does all the world take a great interest in practicing Shugendo?
It may be because all people feel a sort of inexpressible anxiety about the world’s circumstances in the present day, when virtual reality gives us the illusion of reality. Right now it seems many things are decreasing in value. People feel that even though they are alive, they can find no reason for living.
In these stressful times, if we were in the mountains far away from the logical world, walking and devoting ourselves to the deities, and we could make the most of our minds and bodies, what world would be brought into being?
In Yamabushi ascetism, ascetics immerse themselves in nature, throw away all unworldly connections, purify their bodies and minds and entrust themselves to Prince Hachiko [who founded the practice]. In this way, Yamabushi, day by day, come to realize that they become one with the heart of nature (the truth of the universe) and that they cannot live without nature and thus learn from nature.”
Next: Shikata ga nai: when things didn’t go as planned