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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Trip to Japan: Day 3 - Completing the Holy Trinity 5月26日

First it was Haguro-san 羽黒山 in Yamagata-ken 山形県. Then came Omine-san 大峰山 in Nara-ken 奈良県. This day would be Hiko-san's 英彦山 turn, the third in a trinity of mountains linked to Shugendō 修験道 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shugendo). I left my hotel around 6:30 in the morning (let myself out would be more accurate - there was no one at the front desk and the automatic door was turned off at that hour), and approximately two hours and three train transfers later, I arrived at the unmanned Hikosan Station 彦山駅, and waited about 15 minutes for the bus that would take me to the start of the hike.

 
A self-portrait taken on the last leg to Hikosan Station.

While waiting for the bus, a taxi pulled up to the stand. If this was Taiwan, the driver would probably have told me a B.S. story about how the bus service had been suspended, or of the bus breaking down, or maybe that the road had been washed away in a typhoon - anything to get me to jump in the back of the cab. This taxi driver, however, just handed me a map of the hiking trail and drove away, and a couple of minutes later, the bus arrived on time. Ain't Japan great?

Armed with the Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan guide (http://shop.lonelyplanet.com/Primary/Product/Activity_Guides/Walking_Guides/PRD_PRD_2317/Hiking+in+Japan+Guide.jsp?ASSORTMENT%3C%3East_id=1408474395181057&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=2534374302025804&PRODUCT%3C%3Eprd_id=845524441760463&bmUID=1243956373093&lpaffil=lpcomsearch-shoplinks), I set out up the trail, which like many others in Japan, was marked by a torii 鳥居. A short climb up the stairs led to the lower shrine of Hiko-san-jinja 英彦山神社.

From the lower shrine, more stairs continued up the mountain to the upper shrine at the top, but I took a right turn instead, walking along a gentle path 1.9 kilometers (1.18 miles) to Tamaya-jinja 玉屋神社, located in a picturesque setting at the base of a cliff:

From here on, though, things would get a lot harder. The next stretch of trail was a 1.4 kilometer (0.87 mile) uphill walk, with the last section involving the use of chains to get over and down a ridge. The attraction here was the Oni-sugi 鬼スギ, a 1200 year-old tree. After checking out the ancient cedar, I took a side trail up to another Shintō 神道 shrine built under a cliff. This one was called Daiminami-jinja 大南神社, and it was possible to open the door and go inside. It was a peaceful moment, communing with the 神...and the giant Japanese hornet スズメバチ I inadvertently let inside when I entered.

The fun really started after leaving the shrine. It was 1.1 kilometers (0.7 miles) of strait uphill climbing, much of it over boulders and tree roots, and requiring the use of chains, before reaching Minami-dake 南岳. From there, it was 200 meters (660 feet) to the next peak, which happened to be the upper shrine of Hiko-san-jinja. By this point, my Portland Trailblazers T-shirt was so soaked with my sweat, and creating such a stench, that I was walking shirtless (though I donned more respectful attire again before reaching the shrine structure).

The buildings of the upper shrine weren't particularly attractive, no doubt due to the fact that the structure is regularly rebuilt and the materials have to brought in by helicopter. Following a conversation about the geography of the state of California with two men taking a break behind the jinja, I continued on to Kita-dake 北岳, but not before taking a self-portrait in front of a marker indicating the 1200-meter (3937-foot) altitude:

By this point, the sun had disappeared, and ominous-looking dark clouds were drifting over the mountain. I could have chosen to walk down the main trail leading back to the lower shrine, but I decided to press on, walking 800 meters (0.5 miles) along a thankfully easier path to Kita-dake. From there on, however, the descent would become very steep. The overcast weather limited the views of the nearby mountains, but it was still pretty scenic:

It took a long time to get down to Takasumi-jinja 高住神社. The path was almost entirely made up of stones (not stone steps), and in some places, it was necessary to keep an eye out for the red ribbons tied to trees denoting the proper route to take. The forest scenery, however, more than made up for the difficulties:

Takasumi-jinja was yet another scenic shrine located in front of a cliff-face, and there were several tourists checking out the beautiful buildings and towering cedars:
It was getting late, however, my leg muscles were feeling the strain and I wanted to get back to the bus stop before the rain started to pour, for the sounds of thunder in the mountain above were becoming louder and more frequent. It was more than 2.5 kilometers (1.55 miles) from the shrine back to the bus stop, but the route was mostly on a level path through a lovely stretch of forest. Before setting off, I used the bathroom at the shrine parking lot, where there was an interesting looking insect crawling around the inside of the wash basin.

In the end, the threatened downpour only amounted to a few drops, and I only had to wait a couple of minutes for the next-to-last bus of the day to take me back to the train station, and the long train ride back to Fukuoka 福岡. Considerate person that I am, I had brought along a change of shirt and shorts to spare my fellow passengers the sweet aroma of my hiking-induced sweat. According to the Lonely Planet guide, I had covered 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). However, the supposed 4-hour duration of the hike turned out to be more like 6.5 hours in my case. Now I'll be the first to admit I'm not the most in-shape of hikers, but I'm no ton o'lard either (and I'm definitely a lot faster than a certain well-known Taiwan-based blogger who has recently caught the cycling bug). Having done several hikes in the LP book, I think I have enough first-hand experience to say their times are overly optimistic. Seeing as the Japan hiking guide is in need of an update anyway, I'd like to throw my two cents in and ask that the next edition not assume that everyone who intends on using the book will be a professional mountaineer.

Arriving back at Hakata Station 博多駅 after 7pm, it was time for a well-deserved, and long-anticipated, dinner of tonkatsu 豚カツ and draft beer 生ビール.

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