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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Japan and Taiwan: Day 4 - Mission accomplished

Tsuruoka as seen from my hotel window at around five in the morning on Saturday the 14th

About seven years ago, I arrived in Tsuruoka 鶴岡, a small city of around 140,000 souls located by the Sea of Japan 日本海 in rural Yamagata Prefecture 山形県. My intention was to do the Dewa Sanzan 出羽三山 hike, covering three peaks associated with the Japanese mountain ascetics known as yamabushi 山伏. I tackled the first mountain, Haguro-san 羽黒山, without any problem, ascending the 2466 steps to the Shintō shrine 神社 in beautiful weather. The following day, however, an approaching typhoon put paid to my plans to attempt the hikes of the other two mountains, Gassan 月山 and Yudono-san 湯殿山, and, like General MacArthur, I vowed that day that I would return. I actually made plans to do just that in the summer of 2011, but the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hammered Japan's Tōhoku region 東北地方 forced a change in schedule as well (I ended up going to Okinawa 沖縄 instead that summer).

Tsuruoka Station 鶴岡駅 at around six in the morning, on my way to the bus stop for the ride to Gassan

Finally, seven summers later, I've at last been able to complete the Dewa Sanzan hike. With China's week-long national day holiday upon us, some of my colleagues were wondering why I was taking time off from work in mid-September instead of now. The answer is that public transportation from Tsuruoka to the Gassan trailhead at Gassan Hachigōme 月山八合目 only runs from the start of July to mid-September, and my window of opportunity was fast closing. I arrived in Tsuruoka on Friday the 13th to find a typhoon approaching Japan, but the weather forecast for the following day looked promising (rain was predicted for Sunday the 15th), so I woke up early and caught the 6:02 am bus going to the trailhead. It was to be a long, grueling and alternately hot and chilly morning and afternoon, but after seven hours and 10 kilometers (six miles) I finally earned my yamabushi stripes.

At the start of the trail leading to the top of Gassan. It took a couple of hours by bus to get here, and, as you can see, the weather was perfect.

The official start of the trail is the Eighth Station, a few minutes uphill from the parking lot. The torii 鳥居 arch signifies the spiritual importance of the mountains.

The significance of the rabbit statue was lost on me, but Jizō-sama 地蔵様 protects both travelers and the souls of dead children. For such reasons, I always pay my respects whenever I encounter his statue(s).

The first stage of the trail uphill passed through marshland. The hut in the background was where the above-mentioned torii was located.

The way up consisted of a very gradual ascent, in contrast to the later descent down to Yudonosan-jinja Shrine 湯殿山神社.

Scattered patches of ice in mid-September were a reminder why public transportation links were only in operation for a short time during the summer months. This area is buried under heavy snow in winter.

By the time I reached the 9th station, an hour or so into the hike, the fog had started to roll in. I soon went from being drenched in sweat to thanking myself for having the foresight to bring along a heavy sweater (though in the end I never actually donned it). 

Gassan is noted for its alpine flowers

Almost there...

After 2½ hours, I made it to Gassan-jinja Shrine 月山神社, which sits atop the mountain. Photography inside the shrine was prohibited, but I don't think the gods would be upset if I write about what went on after entering the premises. After paying ¥500 (about $5), a priest first purifies you by waving a paper banner over your head while reciting a prayer, then hands you a paper figurine. You rub the cutout over your head, shoulders and body, then place it into some water and enter the inner shrine compound. Following prayers and a circuit around the interior, you then make your way out of the shrine (but not before purchasing some amulets - I've amassed a small collection over the years).

1984 meters (6509 feet) above sea level. By the this point, the clouds were swallowing up Gassan-jinja. A few moments later the shrine couldn't be seen at all.

Halfway to Yudonosan-jinja. It had now taken me almost three hours to cover five kilometers (3.1 miles) uphill. How long could a 5K descent take? Four hours, as it turned out.

Ready for the downhill trek. Or so I thought...

The first stage of the descent was slow-going, owing to the steepness, the large stones that had to be stepped over carefully and the large numbers of hikers on their way up to Gassan. The scenery more than made up for it.

The trail ahead of me soon branched off to a ski lift, which explained why there were so many going in the opposite direction (i.e. hiking up to Gassan).

Looking back toward Gassan, the shrine was no longer visible. No turning back now...

Soon after passing the branch leading off to the ski lift, the trail widened out and leveled off, and it appeared it was going to be as gentle a trip down to Yudonosan-jinja as the ascent was up to Gassan-jinja. It wasn't long, however, before the trail split. The easy-looking trail continued uphill, but the sign indicating the way to Yudono-san pointed to the right and a rough-looking, narrow path barely clinging to the side of the mountain. A group of middle-aged female hikers, after confirming that I knew in which direction I was headed, told me to 気をつけて - "Be careful". They were right.

The trail soon veered away from the mountainside, but the steep, stony path only got harder. Each step was a potential sprained ankle or retorn knee ligament. At one point, the side of the trail gave out from under me, and I almost fell into the thick brush. It soon became apparent why there were only a few hikers on this trail, contrary to the impression I had gotten from reading guidebooks.

The scenery, of course, was never anything but incredible. The ridge in the distance was part of the same range as Gassan, showing how far I'd come.

A video I shot while taking a short break. The area of road that can be seen far down in the distance was the site of Yudonosan-jinja, showing how far I still had to go.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more difficult, I came across the ladders. These were a series of ladders bolted into the side of the mountain. Rusting and wobbly in many places, for someone as afraid of heights as I am, getting down these things was a challenge. My feet were shaking from fear as I gingerly climbed down, occasionally having to sidle over to another ladder and often finding it difficult to get a secure foothold. At times I would need to hold on to chains that had also been put in place. It was with a great sense of relief when I alit from the last of the ladders…
…only to then have to carefully continue downhill on a streambed, filled with mossy and/or slippery stones. I’ve always been unbalanced and not just mentally, and gravity did its hardest to pull me down, but somehow I eventually made it to the end of the trail relatively unscathed, four hours after leaving Gassan-jinja. 

If I had to choose a religion to follow, it would probably be Shintō 神道, and the idea that a god (or gods) reside in natural objects. 

At last, Yudonosan-jinja. I’ve been to hundreds of Shinto shrines over the years, but none like this one. First off, all visitors had to remove their shoes and enter the precinct barefoot, the antithesis of going into a typical Japanese home. Following the ritual purification (the same as on Gassan), I proceeded into the inner grounds. Here, there were no buildings or halls containing symbols of the gods. Instead, the objection of veneration was a large orange boulder. Everyone had to climb up, and then down, the large rock, which was steaming from the hot water cascading over it (and which felt great after the long trek). The visit ended with a long, relaxing foot bath, before donning my sweaty socks and hiking shoes. As with Gassan-jinja, photography wasn’t permitted, so I had to sneak the shot above. The boulder can be glimpsed on the right.

The large red torii at the entrance to Yudonosan-jinja. Note the oversized straw sandal in the background, denoting this as a place of pilgrimage.  

A well-earned beer enjoyed while waiting for the bus back to Tsuruoka. The small dish held a complimentary serving of myōga 茗荷, or Japanese ginger. Interestingly, the word with different characters 冥加 can mean "divine protection or blessing", thus making it a highly appropriate snack, for I have been born (Haguro-san), died (Gassan) and reborn (Yudono-san).

My dinner at the end of the day, yakiniku raisu 焼肉ライス. Like many others I met in this part of Japan, the very fact that I could speak a few words of Japanese was of great relief to the elderly couple running the diner.

Back around 1991/92, I prepared a list of noted Shinto shrines and sacred mountains in Japan, and promised myself that I would eventually visit all of them. They ranged from the gateway to the other world in the north of Honshū Island 本州 that is Osorezan 恐山, to the cave at Takachiho 高千穂 on the southern island of Kyūshū 九州, where the sun goddess Amaterasu 天照 hid, plunging the world into darkness, until she was lured out by an erotic dance performed by one of the lesser goddesses (gotta love Japanese mythology). It’s taken 21 or 22 years, but with the completion of the Dewa Sanzan hike (which itself required seven years), I’ve finally visited them all.

So where do I go from here?


1 comment:

  1. incredible scenery, indeed! a very interesting story Jim, and your photographs are great. you must be feeling a very satisfying sense of accomplishment right about now. i'm glad you were able to return after all those years and finish the last hike.