Monday, November 25, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (31)

3 November: or has autumn been abolished? Under a flat grey sky, the air is windless, warm, sultry; no blush of red or yellow yet tinges the leaves. At the mountain’s foot, woodsmen are hacking down bamboos that bent or broke in the recent typhoon. We trudge uphill with our bear-bell chiming, though it does nothing to repel the hornets droning across our path. One circles us before deciding that we’re not worth sending into anaphylactic shock.


For the third time in four days, we’re following in the footsteps of Taichō Daishi (682-767), the pioneer of Hakusan. But today’s objective is lowly Ochi-san (612.8m), where the youthful sage used to repair for meditation, running the 15 km distance to and from his home village every night. This makes him a forerunner of ultra-running as well as mountaineering.


When we enter the summit shrine’s precincts, we’re debating whether it’s safe to mute the bear-bell. Just then, we spot a straw-hatted figure on a flagstoned path. He is sweeping away the fallen leaves with such vigour that, for a moment, we wonder if the shrine has signed up some young volunteer. But, no, this is the shrine’s guardian himself, wielding a besom fit to belie his eight and a bit decades. Invited to the main building for tea, we’re introduced to his niece, who also holds a licence to officiate.


Autumn is arriving late, we agree. Otani-sensei shows us an article he’s written for a local newsletter. This paints the season as it should be up here:

“Soon our eyes will be delighted by the autumn foliage of this deciduous wildwood, all 540, 000 square metres of it …Its beauty will sink into the depths of our souls. Horse-chestnuts, beech mast, acorns and chestnuts come to fruition, granting man and beast all the blessings of good health. As flocks of migrating birds pass through and the chestnut tiger (asagimadara) butterflies dance in the air, Ochi-san’s fans will come up the hill in droves to pay their respects, drawn by these benisons of nature. On the Fifteenth Night, Ochi-san draws together the blessings of heaven and earth, and those of the mountain in its autumn raiment … When the evening light turns the mountaintop to gold, this is a sacred mountain indeed, the dwelling place of gods.”

The conversation turns to history. In Meiji times, the new government subjected hilltop sanctuaries like this one to its policy of purging Buddhist elements from Shinto places of worship. This was when Ochi-san became a shrine – previously its pavilions and stations had mingled elements of both Buddhism and Shinto. This cultural revolution may account for the shattered or defaced Jizō figurines that we saw on the way up here.


Yet Monju-san (365m), on the other side of Fukui City, still has both a summit shrine and a hall for a statue of the Kannon. As Kamata Tōji observes, in his illuminating Myth and Deity in Japan:The Interplay of Kami and Buddhas, the authorities never could articulate their policy clearly, let alone enforce it consistently.


Although this is a topic that should fascinate any aspirant meizanologist, we are keeping our hosts from their lunch – it is well past noon. So we bid farewell, and continue to the summit. A gap in the trees presents the view that must have inspired Taichō to undertake his momentous ascent of Hakusan in the first year of Yōrō (717). Today, alas, the mountain is no more than a distant smudge in the grey haze.

A nearby signboard relates a story from the Taichō legend. One day, it says, the monk came upon Fuse, one of his acolytes, asleep at this very spot. Defending himself, Fuse said that there were two types of training – one for the body, and one for the mind. It was, of course, the latter type that he was practising as he lay comatose on the hilltop. Somehow the story appeals: one can almost see the wry smile on the sage’s face as he listens to Fuse. Taking the hint, we sit down on the stone steps and grant ourselves a second tea-break.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (30)

1 November: we take the warning sign seriously. Citizens of nearby Katsuyama have sighted bears scores of times this autumn, and four people have been attacked. As pointman, I get to wear the bear-bell that we found a while back on Daibutsuji-yama. It chimes so melodiously, suggests the Sensei, that it might attract bears instead of repelling them. I would prefer not to test this theory.


On this fine mid-autumn day, we are in search of koyo, though the nights up here on Fukui’s hilly borders aren’t yet cold enough to turn the leaves. The foliage is still green in the beech groves we walk through on the way to Karikomi-ike. Only around the famous pond have some of the trees started to yellow and redden towards peak autumnal glory.


Fringing the pond are almost as many photographers as there are trees. Reassured by all this company, we mute our bear-bell (it is a fully featured one) and take in the scene. Mysteriously, streams flow into Karikomi-ike, but none flow out.


Legends too seem to accrete here. The mountain that floats inverted on the pond’s leaf-strewn surface is San-no-mine – the Third Peak that Taichō Daishi climbed on his way to climb Hakusan in the third year of Yōrō (717).


Inevitably, the pond too memorialises the pioneering monk. According to a helpful signboard, the neighbourhood was then much troubled with gigantic marauding serpents. But Monk Taichō corralled them under various lakes around Hakusan, a thousand of them under this very pond. Hence the name “Karikomi” for a place that “shuts in” the serpents. We cast a doubtful look at the limpid waters, but nothing stirs beneath.


Before the homeward path starts downwards, we come upon a sign warning us that, last October, a bear attacked somebody at this very spot. Theories abound as to why bears and people are crossing paths more often. One is that the warming climate has dried up the beechwoods, depriving the bears of the nuts and berries they need to survive. So, instead, they resort to people’s vegetable patches.

Back at the carpark, the numberplates tell us that Karikomi-ike has attracted visitors from far afield – several cars have come from Osaka, and one or two from Hamamatsu and Tokyo. I’m about to feel smug at the thought that we are locals. Until I remember that, two days ago, I flew in from Europe. Where is the latter-day Taichō who will help us wrestle our emissions into the ground?

The valley has a final surprise for us. As the Sensei deftly pilots her van in and out of its various headlands and re-entrants, we notice that, for all the road’s windings, the huge bulk of San-no-mine stays in view almost until we reach the main road. The ruler-straight line of the river below suggests that something more powerful than erosion has carved this valley.


A helpful signboard explains that the gorge follows a tectonic line known as the Hata-ga-yu Dislocation. It is thought to be slippage along this fault that triggered the magnitude-seven Kita-Mino earthquake in 1961. Together with a destructive typhoon at around the same time, this was the last straw for the few remaining farmers in the upper valley, which is now uninhabited. That accounts for the derelict van we have just passed, rotting under a makeshift shelter in the woods.


Halfway down the valley, at Hato-no-yu, which is not a Dislocation but rather the location of a lonely hot spring hostelry, the cars in front of us brake to a halt. A fox is trotting nonchalantly along the line of vehicles – on the drivers’ side – glancing up at the windows. He seems to be asking for something, although not as if he expects much joy.


Friday, November 15, 2019

A meizanologist's diary (29)

31 October: stumbling, jetlagged, after the Sensei up the steep path, I fell to thinking. If one wanted to define a mountain – and some philosophers struggle to do just that – Hakusan might be a place to start. It was once higher than Mt Fuji, the savants believe. And people have been climbing it for one and a third millennia. This is a mountain with stories to tell.


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.