Monday, April 19, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (17)

Travelogue concluded: the avatar of a Famous Mountain is present even in the middle of Tokyo

24 November: I’d passed the little shrine in Ogikubo a dozen times over the years, never giving it a second glance. Now, on the way to dinner with old friends, I noticed the characters inscribed on the stone pillar: White Mountain.

So this was a Hakusan shrine, taking its name from the 2,702 metre-high volcano on the Japan Sea Coast. The mountain's most recent eruption was in 1659, meaning that, even now, it smoulders on beneath its woods and streams. In its eruptive prime, 100,000 years ago, Hakusan may have topped out at three and half kilometres, making it possibly the highest mountain in all Japan.

Hakusan lays a more certain claim to fame as the first of Japan’s high mountains to be climbed. It was opened in the first year of Yōrō (717) by the monk Taichō. He is said to have meditated in a lava cave below the summit, which can still be visited. (Picture of cave below by courtesy of Hakusan no Shizen blog.) Perhaps it was there that he was granted his vision of the eleven-faced Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

By the middle ages, Hakusan was established as one of Japan’s top three sacred mountains, alongside Fuji and Tateyama. Today, there are two thousand or more Hakusan shrines in Japan, considerably outnumbering the Sengen shrines dedicated to Mt Fuji.

Over the centuries, quite a few people have sought counsel or comfort from Hakusan. One of them was Fukada Kyuya, the Hyakumeizan author. In the relevant chapter of his most famous book, he records how, when he came home after the war and led an isolated, fugitive life for three years and a half, it was Hakusan that consoled him. “I could write for ever about Hakusan, so much has this mountain given me,” he concludes.

The little shrine in Ogikubo offered sanctuary of a sort too. Sandwiched between a shopping street and a main road, it was a grove of silence and shadow amid the city's din. Surely there was time for a quick look before dinner… But before I could move, a man in a business suit walked quickly out of the shopping street, past the raucous pachinko parlours, and up the stone path under the trees to the shrine. I turned away. On second thoughts, it wouldn’t do to be late for dinner.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nihon Hyakumeizan: in search of ground truth (16)

Travelogue continued: a social visit to the Tanzawa mountains uncovers some changes

25 November: When, after many years, you climb a mountain with an old friend, you’d expect the friend to be changed more than the mountain.

Yet here was Matsuo-san, swinging a heavy pack onto his shoulders, just as he did on our snow-holing expeditions a decade ago. Since then, he’s retired or rather devoted himself full time to mountain photography. Possibly his pack was even heavier now; these days, the compleat photographer carries both digital and film gear, together with a vast armoury of lenses.
Privately, I doubted if those cameras were going to get a look in. A cloud bank with the density of miso soup had socked in the Tanzawa hills. But we were on our way to Kusano-san’s hut on Nabewari Hill, which faces Mt Fuji, and Matsuo-san had to be prepared. A man whose mountain calendars sell 10,000 copies a year has a reputation to live up to.

At the foot of the hill, we found a table piled with water bottles and a hand-written sign bidding us to carry up to the hut as many as we dared.

In the old days, Kusano-san used to port immense loads up Nabewari (he maxed out at 114 kilos); now his guests are invited to share the burden.

Obediently, we loaded up. Perhaps we overdid it; an hour or so later, I started to suspect that tectonic forces had raised the hut by several hundred metres since our last visit.

It was then that we came across the deer. Grazing by the side of the path, they hardly bothered to notice us. Like chimpira lounging by the curb in Kabuki-cho, they grazed as if they owned the place. Strange, I observed to Matsuo-san: you never used to see deer this low down.

The hut materialised out of the fog and we stumbled gratefully inside. Kusano-san looked much the same, though he doesn’t pack quite as much uphill as he did when he carried up every beam, plank and pillar that went into this hut.

After ordering two bowls of his famous Nabewari udon, we asked him about the deer. Kusano-san confirmed what we’d seen: their numbers have increased remarkably. Meanwhile, the reverse is true of their hunters: – the police are reluctant to give out new licences, so that the gun-owning population, like Japan’s, is ageing. Sometimes, hunting parties lack the strength to carry out a dead animal and just leave the carcass to rot where it fell. Kusano-san has several times happened on these grisly scenes.

And perhaps because the deer have spread, so have leeches – these were practically unknown in the old days, except, we’d heard, in the sawas of aptly named Leech Peak ( Hiru-ga-take). Now leeches are everywhere, Kusano-san said. They even batten on his car when he drives home. If he’s not careful to pick them off the tyres when he parks – as many as 20 or 30 can be lurking there – they will creep after him into the house.

Not all the news was bad. The beech trees near the hut, unlike their brethren on To-no-dake, haven't taken ill from the acid rain. And a radio tagging project suggests that 33 bears still inhabit the Tanzawa range. But don't worry if you hike the ridge paths: the bears prefer to haunt the river gorges.

We washed down our noodles with a coffee and went out to continue our survey. The fog hadn’t lifted. On the ridge behind the hut, the forest understorey had been nibbled almost to the bare earth. There used to be knee-high panda grass here. Yes, this mountain had changed quite a bit in ten years.

Stopping for a breather on the way down, we noticed a miniature torii by the path, its beams wrapped in silver foil. I turned to Matsuo-san for an explanation, but he’d never seen anything like it either. "Lurking under its trackless forests, the mountain exuded an air of mystery in those days," says Fukada Kyuya in the Tanzawa chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan. Tenacious as the fog, some of that mystery still clings to these hills.