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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Trip to Japan: Day 4 6月20日水曜日

Today was the day I finally lived out my yamabushi 山伏 fantasies by climbing Mt. Omine 大峰山. A Yamabushi is a practitioner of Shugendo 修験道, which combines elements of Shinto 神道 and Buddhism 仏教 who undergoes ascetic training in mountainous regions. Omine-san is one of the most holiest peaks in Japan, and is famous (infamous?) for being the last mountain in Japan where women are not allowed to go. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage 世界遺産 Site (as is Yoshino 吉野). So at 8:15 on a beautiful sunny morning, I left my ryokan 旅館 and set out to conquer Omine-san.

The view from the Daitoyo-san Ryokan 大豊 as I set out.

It was a long walk from the ryokan to the start of the trail up Omine-san. On the way I passed a spring reputed to be one of the 100 best in Japan (according to the plaque on the rock), the Gorogorosui spring ごろごろ水. Having filled up my bottle on the way back, I can say it was pretty tasty.

I encountered this large snake sunning itself in the early morning sun.

Eventually I reached the Omine-san Ohashi 大峰山大橋, the start of the traditional path up the mountain. By this point, I had walked 3340 meters (2.08 miles) from Dorogawa 洞川, and was looking at a 5570-meter (3.5-mile) walk uphill to the summit of Mt. Omine 大峰山頂.

Soon after crossing the bridge, I came to the sign stating that this was as far as women could go. Up until 1872, women were not allowed to climb mountains considered to be sacred (including Mt. Fuji 富士山). There were various reasons for this ban - women were considered "impure" due to menstruation and childbirth, and were thought to be too much of a distraction (read temptation) for the ascetic monks. I've also heard that because the 神 of the mountains are goddesses, they are jealous of female intruders. Whatever the reason, only Omine-san still maintains this ban today. Needless to say, I didn't encounter any women on the hike up. In fact, I didn't see anyone until I was almost at the summit, and overall I counted just six other hikers (including two yamabushi) while I was there.

Despite some evidence of logging on the lower reaches of the trail (and the sound of a chainsaw in the distance), the scenery was fantastic. The path was a gradual one, so that while it took a long time to reach the top, it wasn't very strenuous, and was much easier than I had anticipated.

Another spring inviting hikers to help themselves to the water. The summit was still 2710 meters (1.7 miles) away.

There are three tests on Omine-san that a yamabushi has to undertake. The first is called the Kani-no-kabe 蟹の壁, or crab wall, which the yamabushi has to scale. I managed to climb about 3/4 of the way up, using my hands and feet, but the last leg could only be scaled by using a chain to pull yourself over a protruding rock to get to the top. Not having much confidence in my upper-body strength (and not wanting to leave Amber to grow up without a father), I worked my way back down. Fortunately, the top of Kani-no-kabe could be reached on the opposite side via a much easier set of chains. The view from the top of the outcropping was fantastic. The town in the far distance is Dorogawa. Had I really walked that far?

The second test is called the Nishi-no-nozoki. In this one, the pilgrim is hung by his heels over a cliff while he confesses his sins, and promises to live by Buddhist precepts. I looked around, but was unable to find the site. I guess on a weekday morning in mid-June there isn't much demand for tests of faith (not that I would've done it anyway as heights make me very anxious). The last test is called the Ura-no-gyoja 裏の行者, and involves climbing over the true summit of Sanjo-ga-take 山上が岳 using chains. I found the start of this trail, but it looked even more imposing than the Kani-no-kabe, and the sign in Japanese warning of the danger of attempting the route without a guide convinced me that an ascetic lifestyle is best to be seen and not practiced!

Getting closer to the top...

Finally, after 3 hours and 30 minutes, and 9010 meters (5.6 miles), I reached Omine-san-ji Temple 大峰山寺!


I ended up spending about 90 minutes wandering around the temple complex. From the summit of Sanjo-ga-take (1719 meters/5640 feet), the views of the surrounding mountains were spectacular.

At times the mist came rolling in...

A self-portrait at the top of Sanjo-ga-take...

A father-son pair of yamabushi on their way to one of the pilgrims' lodgings on the mountaintop. These two would later pass me on the way back down. They were unbelievably quick on the trail.

Finally, it was time to head back down. I'm embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten to take any food with me on the hike, and in fact I had only brought one bottle of green tea to drink, which I had finished by the time I'd reached Omine-san-ji. I was hoping there would be some teahouses open at the top, but being the middle of the week, everything was closed. The caretaker of Omine-san-ji took pity and gave me a couple of packets of sembei 煎餅 (rice crackers) to munch on. When I reached the spring I had passed earlier that day on the way up, I dropped everything to fill up the empty tea bottle and quench my thirst.

Almost to the bottom of the trail, near the Omine-san Ohashi...

...where soon after crossing the bridge, I stopped in at a teahouse and proceeded to drink a bottle of Kirin Beer and eat a plate of curry and rice カレーライス in Olympic-record time. The owner offered to drive me back to Dorogawa, but having walked this far, I was determined to go all the way on foot.

I must have been on some kind of high similar to the endorphin-rush that joggers get, because I felt like I could walk forever. Instead of taking the road back to the village, I detoured onto a longer nature path that eventually led me to a suspension bridge high over Dorogawa, and a lookout point on the small mountain beyond it.

The trail down from the bridge passed a spot where people can meditate under a waterfall, and onto the grounds of an attractive temple called Ryusen-ji 龍泉寺.

A final stroll along the main street through Dorogawa...

...and I was back at the Daitoyo-san Ryokan by 6pm. I thanked the Buddhist and Shinto deities for the day that I'd had, and for the bath, meal and beer that followed before going off to bed.

Next: Koyasan 高野山

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