Monju was “opened” by Monk Taichō himself, in the first year of Yōrō (717). Presumably, he was warming up for his pioneering excursion to Hakusan in the same year – the climb that Fukada somewhat adventurously identifies as Japan’s first high-mountain ascent. Actually, it is surprising that Taichō didn’t climb Monju sooner, since he was born in Asōzu, the village at its foot, more than three decades earlier.
Be that as it may, Monju’s Meizan status cannot be disputed. Like any self-respecting sacred mountain, it has three peaks, identified on the hiking map as Little Monju, Big Monju and the Inner Sanctuary (Oku-no-in). But the first and last ones are known additionally as Murodō and Ōnanji, names that also adorn the equivalent places on Hakusan and Tateyama. This suggests that people once saw Monju in the same terms as those two other sacred peaks.
Some centuries after Taichō, Monk Saigyō, the all-terrain poet of the Heian era, distinguished the mountain in a deft tanka:
In Koshi, over yonder
Is it Fuji there, I wonder?
So bright the daybreak glows
On Tsunohara-Monju’s snows
Indeed, you can still climb Monju via a “Tsunohara course”. And it may be that the mountain really does look like Mt Fuji from that western aspect. Though, when we step out of the Sensei’s van at the foot of the normal route, it is a straggling ridge that rises above us rather than a shapely cone.
In the carpark, we brush up on Monju’s history from a signboard. On its battered paintwork, a tiny frog is contemplating a vertical direttissima. A few minutes into the woods, we encounter a sign warning that bears might leap out at us. The Sensei is unfazed, but I deploy her bear-bell all the same. It’s always best to err on the safe side when dealing with these ursine types.
In fact, the trail presents a greater hazard – it is broad but slippery, the mud polished to a mirror glaze by the passage of a millennium’s worth of feet. About half-way up our hill, the Sensei tires of it and launches into the woods on our right. Trust me, she says, there really is a path. So, chiming rhythmically, we start our own direttissima across the mountain’s north face. A strip of red tape marks the way for those who would brave this route in mid-winter.
In front of us, the leaf litter rustles as something leaps for cover. Fortunately, it is an order of magnitude or two smaller than a bear. Instead, we find a fat brown frog palpitating by the side of the track– pregnant with eggs, says the Sensei, who knows about country things. Perhaps it is taking the warm weather for the start of spring.
We come up on the ridge close to a pavilion that houses a Kannon, or so at least a gaudy banner suggests. Nearby is a tree wearing a sacred rope, suggesting that nobody ever tried very hard to disentwine Buddhism and Shintoism here, as they did on Ochi-san. Even today, the Sensei tells me, it is a temple at the foot of the mountain that looks after the shrines up here.
High on the ridge, we pass a lightning-scarred tree. Monju, one of the four great Bodhisattva (Bosatsu), is sometimes portrayed with a thunderbolt (vajra) in his hand. He seems to toss them down with considerable liberality on his namesake mountain.
A few minutes later, on the summit itself, we see a tree-stump that a lightning strike has completely burned out. Probably one should avoid Monju during thunderstorms.
Below the Oku-no-in, the path leads into a rift between the two halves of a gigantic boulder. You should only pass through if you have a clear conscience. No impure thoughts now, says the Sensei. Or the rocks will clap together and swallow you up.
I hesitate for a moment. I mean, suppose there were an earthquake. Then, surviving the passage unscathed, we circle back through the woods towards the middle peak.
Guarded by a row of jizō statues, the summit shrine is silvery with age. Its timbers must have looked fresher when Fukada Kyūya, then in his fourth year at Fukui Middle School, came up here with three companions on November 27, 1919. Another noticeboard gives us these details.
As fellow students had helped to clear the path a year or two before, Fukada and his friends might have felt a proprietary interest in Monju-san. At any rate, all four felt entitled to inscribe their names on the shrine.
|Where the future Hyakumeizan author left his mark |
(Photo: Fukui Shimbun)
The view makes up for any disappointment. For its height, Monju must afford one of the best all-round vistas in the prefecture. Through gaps in the trees, we look westwards to Ochi-san and the coastal hills. In the opposite direction, Hakusan and all those other famous mountains of Hokuriku loom through the haze. Mountains, as any meizanologist will testify, are places that let you see further.
Tomorrow, we would have to head back to the Big Slope. There were friends to meet and a flight to catch. We’d take the view from Monju with us, though.