Just look at that stone embedded in the path. A frozen bouillabaisse of fossilised mussels, it wouldn’t look out of place on some limestone peak in the Swiss Alps. It must have congealed in some epicratonic sea. So what’s it doing on an active volcano?
While pondering this one, we come up on the ridge. Now our way merges with the Echizen Zenjōdō, the pilgrimage route opened by Monk Taichō himself in the first year of Yōrō (717). “I like the gentle look of Hakusan from here,” says the Sensei. Mercifully, the path too moderates its angle of attack.
“Urusai!” says a middle-aged mountaineer as he passes – were we chattering too loudly? Then we realise there’s a drone buzzing about overhead. Too high to be seen, the device pesters us with its hornet-like hum all the way across Midagahara.
By the Buddhist ring of its name, this high plateau should be a place of meditative stillness – indeed, once a year, you’ll find the Zen monks of the Eiheiji temple processing across it on their annual outing to Hakusan.
We’re high enough now to see the Japan Alps straggling across the eastern horizon. The small tump at the northern end must be Tateyama. That volcano too has a Midagahara, to say nothing of other identical place names, suggesting that the Tateyama and Hakusan faiths must be intertwined.
Harried by the drone – somebody must be furnishing it with a bottomless supply of spare batteries – we come up on Murodō. On both Tateyama and Hakusan, the name once indicated a single, smoky pilgrim’s hut. Now it’s a cluster of blockhouses large enough for seven hundred hikers all at once. Is this is the Hyakumeizan effect, I wonder.
For lunch, we park ourselves on a stone revetment, out of the wind. Later, on the carefully laid stone steps leading to the summit shrine, brown crickets hop out of our way. An improbable sight for so late in the autumn. At the summit, we so far forget ourselves as to take a selfie. The granite pillar there is engraved with the characters for “Reizan” – holy mountain.
Today we’re going to inspect the crater lakes on the summit’s far side. The path leads across a snowy ridge, before winding down a gully. The second lake is called Midori-ga-ike. “And on a cloudy day it really does look green,” says the Sensei, whose native mountain this is. Today the pool outdoes the sky in a deeper shade of blue. Was this where Monk Taichō saw his vision of the Eleven-Headed Kannon? A stiff breeze chases ripples across the ultramarine waters.
On the way to the third lake, Hakusan reminds us of its geophysical agenda. A huge bulwark of lava looks as if freshly extruded from the depths.
A noticeboard tells us that it probably dates back to an eruption in 1554. Even now, the mountain still stirs occasionally in its sleep.
Back on Midagahara, we happen across the drone crew. The three young men are collecting footage for a video spectacular on Japan’s national park, they tell us, to be shown at a museum in Tokyo during next summer’s Olympic bash. Gentlemen, I hope your auditorium has good air-conditioning.
Clouds drift by as we drop towards the treeline. The woods are particoloured – part green, part brown, part gold, as if struggling towards autumn. Probably the nights are still not cold enough to turn the leaves red and yellow all at once. Climate change: another chapter in the story of Hakusan.