Category Archives: Japan – Places of Interest

Caves of Saitama

Earlier this month I set off for another exploration of the nature in the Chichibu mountain area of western Saitama Prefecture. The original plan had been to visit a canyon I had encountered during the spring. But too many short nights left my body in need of sleep and I had to thank the cat for waking me up at 5 am since I apparently shut off my 4:30 alarm and dozed right off again. So, a late start, and then my plans were thwarted once more as I crossed into Chichibu and found fog in the valley. This led me to make the fruitless decision to head up a road for a view, but I missed the turn and got on a road that led to no view of the valley. After losing another 30 minutes, I decided I was out of time for driving way in to find that canyon. So, as I drove up R140 and thought of where to go, I spied the Kaminiwa Cave across the river and up the slope.

The Kaminiwa Cave is actually two caves close together, one of them referred to as a “half cave” (半洞窟). They have formed in a limestone cliff and are said to have been eroded by the Ara River (Arakawa 荒川) some 50,000 years ago. The cave was used during the Jomon Period by hunters as a shelter while they were away on hunting trips.

Access to the cave is from either downstream by the large torii gate where the path leads up to the trailhead to the route up to Mitsumine Shrine, or further upstream at a campground with a free day-use area. I came in from this way and followed a path a short distance to the cave. At first it appeared to be just a wide hollow under an overhanging cliff face. But I soon discovered there was a low passageway leading to an opening that led to a small but open chamber. To one side, a narrow corridor ran a short distance to a very narrow gap in the rocks with a view to a corridor beyond that soon turned right and disappeared into the darkness. I had only the light of my smartphone to illuminate the inside, though reflected sunlight came in enough to provide a very dim light. A couple of cave crickets sat on the wall at one end where a small gap revealed darkness beyond.

The second cave has a very high opening that has been partly closed with concrete with a door opening cut in. Once inside, it would seem like there’s only this open chamber with a vaulted ceiling. But on the left there are what look like steps cut into the limestone layers. Two large screws with loops for running ropes through were jutting out from the rocks. above the steps, there was a deep shadow. I crouched down and saw that the steps led up a narrow chimney. Holding my light up, I poked my head up into the opening and found a small chamber opened up above. There was a dark opening at the end that suggested that there was another chamber. I was about to clamber up when I noticed two bats were hanging from the ceiling. I wondered how they would respond to my intrusion. I didn’t want to disturb them. But if they began fluttering about, would they panic with a large moving object blocking their entrance? Would they pee on me? Where there more bats in the next chamber? I decided to duck back down again and make a note to return in the future with a proper light, perhaps at night when the bats would likely be out.

There are several caves around Saitama. Perhaps the most famous one is the Hashidate Limestone Cave near Urayamaguchi Station and the Urayama Dam. For a small fee, you can enter this cave, going in via a low tunnel that leads to a large open chamber with interesting cave formations. These formations do not rival Japan’s more famous famous caves but they are still interesting. There are some other shallow caves I have found while out driving, some of them marked on the map or with a trail marker, a couple not marked. Saitama’s longest cave is 2.1 km and it’s found somewhere in the Yakemame Ravine, just before R140 disappears into the long tunnel that leads to Yamanashi. This cave is not open to the general public, but I did try to find my way – unsuccessfully – into the ravine last summer. Inspired by my recent cave visit, I will be looking for more.

The mountains of Saitama are largely composed of ancient ocean sediments. Limestone, chert, sandstone, mudstone, and the metamorposed crystalline schist of the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt were all laid down way back in the eons past when this area was a seabed. Not only caves, but limestone mountains are also found in the area. The most famous is Bukosan, which is mined for its limestone to make concrete. Futagoyama is a mountain on a limestone ridge that has two steep-sided peaks. The Nakatsukawa Ravine also has many limestone cliffs and at least two caves that I know of.

Photos I took of the caves and mountains can be found on Flickr.

Here are two photos from the Hashidate Cave from an older post from many years ago.

Cave growth – Hashidate Cave
Into the limestone cave – Hashidate Cave

Kusatsu

I’ve been spending most of my outdoor photographic time in Saitama in the last few years. The time for overnight trips on my own passed several years ago, and morning outings on Sundays and holidays was all I could manage for a long time. However, a former coworker who accompanied me on some outings in the past had started working in Isesaki City, in Gunma, and when we talked about meeting up and going out somewhere, visiting someplace in Gunma seemed like a refreshing idea. We originally had plans to do a hike up one of the Hyakumeizan in Gunma, but he only got off work at 9am on his one free day that matched my schedule and couldn’t meet me until after 10:00. So I looked to Kusatsu instead.

Kusatsu Onsen Town is home to one of Japan’s three most famous hot springs. But it is not here that we went. We bypassed the town and made Chatsubomi Moss Park (チャツボミ苔公園), just a bit north and down slope of the town, our first stop. The purpose of our visit was to see an area of volcanic rock that is covered in thick, green moss thanks to a hot spring stream.

There was a parking area, visitor centre, rest room, rest house, and unfortunately, a 600 yen entrance fee. If there’s one thing I don’t care much for it’s an overdeveloped natural area. The hike to the moss was about 1.3 km for which the woman in the visitor centre gave a seemingly unrealistic long time to walk. There was a free shuttle bus however. Given the shortness of our day already and the 600 yen entrance fee we paid, we decided to take the bus, which left every few minutes.

From the bus stop above, we walked up a path for a short bit until we reached a boardwalk path that circumnavigated the natural pools of lava rock and the thick coatings of moss. The area was a interesting as I had seen in the photos on the Internet. It was no trouble to photograph abstractions in the scenery, but setting up a tripod on the narrow boardwalk meant frequently having to move it as other visitors approached.

The time we spent there was satisfactory and we soon returned to the car and drove back into town where we stopped for refreshments before driving up to the Kusatsu Shiranesan volcano. My hopes were to see the crater of the volcano with its light turquoise lake as the setting sunlight lit up the crater rim. At the top of the road there was in the past a large visitor area with parking lot, souvenir shop, food services, etc. As we passed one gassy area, my companion recalled that there had been an eruption here in January of 2018, and some skiers had to be rescued; one of them dead.

At the top, we were baffled by the parking lot being roped off and all the buildings boarded up. We found a service road where we parked the car. Soon an announcement played over the loudspeakers. It told us that the mountain was an active volcano at Level 1 (the lowest level of danger) and asked visitors not to go hiking on the mountain and or go to the crater. We went anyway.

The parking lot was cracked and tall weeds grew up. The tiled pedestrian walking path was cracking and the tiles already disintegrating. The buildings appeared derelict for longer than they actually should have been. Had this place remained closed since they shut down at the end of 2017, or had it been shut down longer? The last time I visited was in 2009, if I recall correctly. The whole complex looked like yet another abandoned tourist facility.

The announcement played regularly was we walked on the crater rim and photographed the last of the sunlight. When we returned to the car, the twilight in the sky was reflecting in a perfectly still pond. The mirrored silhouette of a protruding crag across the pond and a cloud in the sky as the last light left the clouds was too good to resist. We must have stayed another 30 to 40 minutes before finally heading back down and back home.

I am very pleased with the photographs from the trip. Please have a look at the few I have posted on Flickr.

Walking to Gunma

Once there was a time when I traveled around Japan and even around the world to photograph and explore landscapes. These days, I am restricted to wherever I can go for a few hours in the early mornings. That means I spend my photography time fairly locally, and for the last few years I have been concentrating on exploring the mountain roads in western Saitama Prefecture. After moving to Kumagaya City, I am now within a half-hour’s drive of the local mountains, and there’s a convenient toll road that gets me way out into the heart of the mountain region in less than another half hour.

During the beginning of May there’s a holiday period known as Golden Week. I took advantage of one morning to wake up very early – at 2 am – and drive out to a road that was closed to public traffic. From the gate, I have always wondered what lay beyond as sheer cliffs of rock jutted upward from the steep green mountain slopes. So, at 4:20 am, I parked my car by the gate, shouldered my camera bag, and slung my tripod over my shoulder and proceeded to hike up the road. For the first 20 minutes or so, the road was pretty rugged. In one section I would have been pretty wary of driving my car over the rocks and dips. But after exiting a short tunnel, the road was nicely paved all the rest of the way. I mean, it looked to have been paved within the last year as there were only a few scratch marks where a fallen stone may have been scraped over the asphalt under the wheel of a truck. Mountain roads such as this one usually bear the scars and wounds of falling rock impacts or the spreading of cracks due to the slumping of the earth beneath the road. So this was fresh work here!

At the start of the hike, it was still pretty dim, and the scenery was not revealed in full colour glory yet. I passed some of those verticle climbs, a steep gorge, and dry runoff chutes cut into the rocks of the slopes. My plan was to keep hiking until I hopefully had some views in time for the sunrise, but it soon seemed that such views were not about to present themselves at any time soon if there even were any. So I relented to my desire to start photographing.

The road climbed gently and serpentine-like for a while before hitting a switchback and there it began climbing more steeply. I found chunks of limestone on the road but saw no sign of the parent rock until I rounded a bend and found a large limestone outcropping with a few caves facing out to the road. These caves were not deep and the usual cave formations such as stalactites, flowstones, and soda straws did not exist here. There were still some modest formations to discover and many broken pieces littered the ground outside the caves. I discovered several hooks attached to the cave walls and recognized this as a rock climbing practice site.

After exploring the cave area, I continued up the road until I finally came to the road closure at the other end. It was just after the exit of a long tunnel whose other end was in Gunma Prefecture. Two young men had driven up by car and were apparently disappointed that the road was closed. I continued into the tunnel, which became so dark that I could not see a piece of wood on the road and I kicked it accidentally.

After reaching the Gunma side, I turned around and made the trek back to my car. In the light of the morning now, I found many beautiful spots where the river ran through gorges and ravines of diorite. I again made a few stops for photography.

I finally reached my car at 11:30 and began the drive back but stopped when I saw more limestone outcroppings with boulders of marble in the river. My next plan will be to ascend another road that I am sure I drove up some 18 years ago to a pass called Mikuni Touge. This crosses over to Nagano. I went to this road a couple of years ago but it was closed after a point. I may have to walk to Nagano when I visit there again.

Aside from photos, I also made a video of the excursion. It can be viewed here.

More photos are at Flickr here.

Inspection of the Arima Gorge and the Shiraiwa Ravine

January 2nd, 2020. My first outing of the year. Even with the completion of my book of Saitama scenic photographs, I continue my exploration of the mountains of my prefecture of residence. The plan was to find a viewpoint of some mountains I visited two years ago and be there before sunrise. However, I accidentally entered the wrong location into the navigation computer and ended up arriving an full 30 minutes after sunrise at an insignificant mountain pass with no view, the road sloping downward before me toward the Tokyo border.

I decided to go on free exploratory mode and simply go where I thought I might find something to study and possibly photograph. My first stop was the dam at Lake Naguri in Hanno City. After a brief view from the dam, I started up the engine and drove fifty metres to a road block. It seems that Typhoon Hagibis (a.k.a. Typhoon #19 because it was the nineteenth typhoon of 2019) had caused a landslide right behind the dam administration office and effectively cut off the road around the north side of the lake.

IMG_3578 I had to drive across the dam and up the road on the south side. I had decided to drive up a small forestry road that twisted and turned across the upper mountain ridges cutting very close to the 800m high peaks before slithering back down to Route 53, which was the way I had come up before turning off to the dam in the first place. It looked promising until I hit a chained off road on the right and was forced to turn left. Well, we would see where this route led.

As I drove, I spied some layers of sediments alongside the Arima River. They were rather pronounced and I stopped to grab a few snaps.

As I drove more, the sediments continued to catch my attention. In all my explorations of ravines and gorges in Japan, I have never seen such pronounced and persistent sedimentary deposits. What was especially puzzling was that trees seemed to be growing up through these sediments as though the mix of rocks, gravel and sand had been deposited recently. I also noticed that some black hoses that snaked along the ravine also sprouted from the sediments as much as a metre or more below the surface. These had to be very young sedimentary deposits. But how young?

My travels up the road soon came to an end. Typhoon 19 had wreaked havoc on a section of the road. It seemed that water had traveled beneath the asphalt causing the road to sink in trenches and finally collapse at a bend in the road where the water could empty out into the ravine. A hundred metres or so up the road, the stream had wiped out a section of road.

On the way back down, further inspection of the mysterious sediments revealed a possible explanation. Green grass-like blades were sprouting from under roughly 50 cms of sediment. The grass was still alive but clearly had been buried. Nearby sat a large boulder with a cap of sedimentary deposits. That boulder could in no way keep a cap of sand and gravel on through a full summer/autumn season of thunderstorms and typhoons. The torrential rains would have washed it away. However, since Typhoon 19 there had been no heavy rainfalls of any significance, only usual rainy weather.

It was my deduction that either the dammed waters of the lake had flooded right back up the ravine or a clog of fallen logs had dammed the ravine. In either case, the ravine had filled up with raging muddy water charging down the mountainside causing an excessive amount of sediments to be deposited rapidly, covering hoses, grasses, and boulders. The river quickly cut through the layers since the typhoon but the sediments remained at the river banks, crumbling away little by little in the dry air even as I stood and examined them.

With that plan of exploration ended, I drove up into Kami Naguri, a small hamlet along the Iruma River, and stopped for a brief visit at a waterfall with no sign, only steps leading up to a Kanon statue overlooking the falls. For my final effort to find a place to set up my tripod, I went to the Shiraiwa Ravine to see how far I could get. I soon spotted a lovely gorge in a tributary stream. Red chert was exposed with alternating layers of light grey chert, and large boulders of limestone had fallen into the gorge from somewhere above. This place occupied me for the next hour or so.

At last I drove on to see how far the road went, but soon I came to yet another dead end. This time the reason was that a mine had formerly operated here. The concrete foundations of the structures were all the remained. In the distance, a bluff of limestone protruded from the tree-covered mountains. This was Shiraiwa – White Rock, the namesake of the ravine with its white boulders of limestone.

At last it was time to head back, but not before crossing over on more pass to see if there were any mountain views to be seen, which had thus far eluded me. I had a slight glimpse between the trees at Amamezasu Pass.

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More photos from the chert gorge can be seen at Flickr.

Raging River of Fear!

Oh, okay! Pardon me for being slightly hyperbolic. The title of this post was inspired by an old song by Captain Beyond. Nevertheless, a raging river it was.

I’m talking about Arakawa River (kawa actually means river so there’s not much point in stating the term “river” twice but it does sound better than “Ara River”).

After Typhoon Hagibis, or #19 as it was simply known in Japan, rivers across the country were swollen to the max and some burst their embankments or stormed out of their beds to wreck muddy, silty, soggy, soaking havoc on towns and rural villages. A friend of mine in Kawagoe, Saitama – one of the disaster zones – saw the water reach his parking space in front of his house before the rain most fortunately stopped and the waters receded. People on lower land across the street had indoor pools of brown water.

My neighborhood in Kumagaya City was not adversely affected. Water drained away properly and the tall trees by the shrine near my house remained upright with all major limbs intact. The following morning, the wind continued to blow but the sky was clear and fresh. I drove out to Aketo in the neighboring city of Fukaya, to a place where I have sometimes photographed Arakawa from a shelf of hard clay that spreads out along the river shore. Above this is a concrete slope with a walking path at the top and a concrete path lined with a railing following the river just a few meters above the waters’ surface.

The scene was vastly altered by the typhoon. Instead of the calm waters of the river gliding by, I saw a torrent of wild chocolate milk water throwing fits of foaming rage. The concrete path was under water in places and the railing was damaged in several places by trees and large branches that the river had cast violently into the railing. The river was bank to bank and swiftly thundering down its course. Sticks, branches, and lots of plastic refuse was piling up a few meters higher up the slope from the river, telling me that earlier the river had been up higher than where I was standing. All in all, an impressive sight that had me clicking away with my camera.

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Colours of the White Mountain

Me at Aburaike

Me photographing at Aburaike on Hakusan Photo by Tomohito Anrui

It’s already August and a month has passed since I was away visiting Hakusan for the NHK World program, Journeys In Japan. With the program due for broadcasting on NHK World on the 13th of this month and on NHK BS1 on the 14th, I have been eager to get at least one blog post up about the trip. But July is a busy month for me and so it’s only now I can finally set fingertips to keyboard keys.

Hakusan is one of Japan’s three sacred mountains, including Mt. Fuji and Tateyama, and was enshrined in the year 717. Prior to that, the mountain figured prominently in the local Shinto lore as it still does today. The Shirayama Hime Shrine was established before Buddhism was ever introduced to the Japanese islands. As both Shintoism and Buddhism revere the mountain in their own ways, there was a lot of interesting information about the human history and the folklore of the mountain. But while my visit to Shirayama Hime Shrine was mostly about the beliefs surrounding the mountain, the caretaker at the Rinsai Temple had a lot to say about the history as we looked upon a detailed mandala of the mountain and its pilgrimage routes. Once more the story of the Meiji government’s claim that since the emperor was a descendant of gods Japan had no need for Buddhism came up. Last year I had heard about how hundreds of Buddha statues on Mt. Fuji had been decapitated while the main pilgrimage route had been virtually erased. At Hakusan a similar tale was told of desecrated statues and the erasure of the principal pilgrimage route. The old caretaker did not speak favourably of the Meiji government who also brought Japan to war with other countries. He threw in a remark about how the modern government is linked to previous governments through succession.

Some of the folklore of Hakusan was easier to appreciate. One tale told of a man who went before the large crater pond of Midorigaike in the volcanic crater-pockmarked region of the mountain’s summit and a dragon emerged from the pond. I wondered if the “dragon” had not been a steam vortex formed from rising heat from the naturally heated crater. Dust devils and fire tornadoes form from rapidly rising heat and so a “steam devil” might have been the dragon, not so far off the mark I think considering that in Japanese a tornado is called tatsumaki – dragon twist.

Another fable told of a man who went to Midorigaike and under the heat of the sun, he placed his hands in the water to cool them. When he withdrew them, he felt the sun burning his hands more and they had turned red. He placed them in the water again and felt soothed. But after withdrawing them once more, his skin was red and burning. He proceeded to put his entire arms into the water and eventually his legs and body. Each time he removed the submerged body part, he felt his skin was burning in the sun. At last he went completely into the water and soon died. The explanation is that the crater pond was either still scalding hot or the water was acidic.

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Midorigaike: source of fables

Hakusan is a volcano that erupted atop layers of ancient sediments. The area of Ishikawa and Fukui Prefectures is made up of sedimentary deposits from rivers draining off the Asian continent back in the Middle Jurassic period to the Cretaceous. A species of raptor discovered in Fukui has been called the Fukui raptor. Other fossilized bones, plants, and shells can be found in the area, and my guide even pointed out a dinosaur footprint in a rock. The lower sedimentary deposits are all mudstones, sandstones, and conglomerate rocks which contain orthoquartzite stones originally from the Asian continent. But as one climbs higher, volcanic rocks replace the Mesozoic sedimentary rocks.

conglomerate

Orthoquartzite stones from the Asian Continent inside conglomerate rock

Hakusan is home to over two hundred species of plants, and about 18 of them have the appellation “hakusan” appended to them. This is not exactly because a Hakusan black lily is so distinctly different from other black lilies in the mountains but more so because Hakusan had established climbing routes by the time botanical research became a thing in Japan, and so many first recorded plants were from Hakusan. Of particular interest this time was the black lily – kuroyuri – known as a chocolate lily in the Pacific Northwest. My guide explained that at the high elevation of 2,400 metres there were fewer bees and butterflies to visit the flowers and help distribute pollen. So, the lily evolved a putrid fragrance in order to attract flies. Indeed, I had a whiff and yes, it did smell “like dirty pets” as I think I said on camera.

Our visit to Hakusan coincided with a spell of nasty rain weather crossing Honshu, but we were fortunate to have heavy rain only one night and then some moderate rain one afternoon. Following a stunning sunset, the next morning we were treated to a massively stunning night sky with the Milky Way arching overhead at 3 am. Then we were at the summit for a sublime sunrise. Our stroll past the ponds was rather hurried, but since we wrapped up shooting for the program by noon, I joined my guide and our two porters on a trek up to another of the three peaks at the summit and then we returned to one pond I had wanted to photograph more.

One other point of interest was a visit to Shiramine Town. The town was originally established as a suitable place for a base on the route to Hakusan but later became a silk town. Running a silk town was the perfect endeavor for Shiramine since its location is a narrow gap in the mountains; there’s little room for growing food. Mulberry bushes, whose leaves feed the silkworms, can grow on the mountainsides easily enough. The towns houses were built close together and each home produced silk. Silk was easy to transport out of the mountains because it was light and could easily be folded and carried. Furthermore, silk’s high value meant that silk producers could pay off their annual taxes with a smaller amount of product. That left them with more product to sell.

sandstone base

Real sandstone is an indication that the structure was built before the advent of concrete

For me, this trip encompassed geology, history, religious folklore, natural history in the way of flowers and small creatures, and photography. Once again, it was a deeply rewarding trip. The program, I have been told, has turned out very well.

Too see more photos, please visit my Flickr page.

Wow! What a fascinating mountain!

I climbed Mt. Fuji once, way back in the summer of 2000. Back then, I’m sure I took interest in the volcanic rocks all around, but my memory of that hike is filled with two other outstanding impressions: my bout with altitude sickness and the amount of rubbish I found along the route up.

Word is that the rubbish problem is being better taken care of, though as I was told on my summer trek up the mountain for Journeys In Japan, the problem continues as more foreigners come to climb the mountain and people from certain parts of the world have less garbage disposal etiquette than others. Altitude sickness can be avoided by climbing the mountain more prudently—taking one’s time and stopping for the night on the way up in order to acclimatize. This time, that was not a problem. Rather than starting from the 5th Station at 2,400 metres and then hustling to the summit, we started from sea level and took our time with a one night layover due to bad weather at the 6th Station.

Ever since my first experience on Mt. Fuji, I always maintained that it was not such a beautiful mountain to climb but was rather a mountain to be appreciated while climbing other mountains. What a thrill to stand at 3,015 metres on the summit of Tateyama, on the opposite side of Honshu overlooking the Sea of Japan, and gaze across the ranges of the Japan Alps to the familiar stratovolcano rising above the Pacific!

But this time I held an entirely different opinion: Mt. Fuji was incredibly fascinating!

Moss Forest Path

We passed through mossy forests where jumbles of jagged volcanic rock were covered in thick, spongy moss that made the rocks look like a sea of green clouds. We stopped at a lava cave where monks from bygone days stayed for days or weeks as part of their asceticism. The real joy for me came as we rose above the tree line and so many varieties of volcanic rocks were practically all there was to see, save for a few hardy species of scrubby plants that held on to existence most of the way up the mountain.

Fujisan Lava Detail

During our one day layover, clouds and rain kept us hanging about the Shin Hoei Sanso. But when the rain abated for a spell, I was out examining the local rocks and spent a pleasant time finding subjects that, in lieu of being able to take home, I arranged and photographed.

The rest of the climb to the summit was only made difficult by the lack of time I had to photograph. While hiking through the Hoei Crater (the large cater on the southeast side of Mt. Fuji), I was directed to keep walking past the large volcanic boulders that appeared out of the fog. When the clouds parted to reveal the upper reaches of the crater, I had to face the camera and say a few words, only to turn and see an alien landscape of red slopes with exposed dykes of grey rock that looked like ancient walls from some long gone civilization.

Thankfully, at the summit I had about an hour and a half at the end of the day to scuttle about the crater rim and find interesting subjects. This was perhaps the highlight of the trip for me. At one spot, numerous boulders of rock looked as though they had been squeezed through a tube or flung like batter. Then there was the crater itself with so many colours! From my experience at the summit, I gained a whole new love and respect for Mt. Fuji.

The colours in the sky prior to the sunrise the next morning were incredible and the light in the clouds cast a glow on the rocks of the crater and rim. But I was on camera during this time and so I could not take time to photograph for myself. I knew that though. I had to accept it. Perhaps I can go back again someday.

From the very summit we had views across the three ranges of the Japan Alps (how nice it was to lay eyes on those old familiar peaks that I haven’t seen for eight years!), Yatsugatake, and the Kai Okutama Chichibu Mountains. It sure was crowded though with visitors standing in line for over twenty minutes just to grab a photo at the summit marker.

For now, let me tell you that if you have any interest or fascination with rocks, Mt. Fuji is an incredible mountain to climb!

Fuji Rim Lava Collection The Foot and the Falcon

Fujisan Crater 12

3 Sillies

Sengen Shrine is surrounded by enormous cryptomeria trees and features one, standout, ancient ginkgo tree. There’s a main structure which, I heard, is usually closed and only open for special occasions. There are a couple of other structures, as well as trails leading off up the mountain slope. I was interested in seeing the interior of the main building because I heard there was a four-hundred-year-old mandala inside that served as a map of the route up Mt. Fuji. As fortune would have it, because today was the ceremony of the opening of the pilgrimage route for this year, the main shrine building was open, and we were permitted to go inside.

Sengen Shrine

The mandala hung on the wall on the left side at the back. There was a small altar in the middle at the back and behind it was a room with several artifacts displayed. On the right was an illustration of silhouettes of each of the items displayed behind the glass and an explanation in Japanese about them. These, I learned, were all things that previously had been set upon Mt. Fuji, mostly statues of Buddha—some beheaded—and some other statues of stone or wood. All these items had been carried back down off the mountain and were kept inside the shrine.

 

Upon close inspection, the mandala turned out to be a copy of an original, which made sense as a painting created in the late 16th/early 17th century is nothing to sneeze at. It was still interesting to study. The work was very detailed and depicted life below the mountain and the route all the way to the summit. There were pilgrims heading up to the peak or staying in rock shelters; men doing mizugori and people at shrines and accommodations along the way; and a river with people crossing. Emi and I were talking about it and we asked a man some questions. He called over another gentleman who explained in much detail about the mandala. I’m afraid my Japanese is not good enough to comprehend everything when talking about history and Buddhism.

Another similar illustration hung on the wall inside the front door but there were some differences. Emi noticed how one shrine below and to the west of Sengen Shrine looked much larger in this second mandala. She asked a man in official robes (he turned out too be the head of the shrine) if this other shrine was the head shrine since it was larger. He very sternly replied that Sengen Shrine was the head shrine and there were no mistakes to be made about that.

After we exited the structure, I asked Emi to verify what I thought I had understood. She confirmed that he indeed had stated that Sengen Shrine was the head shrine of the pilgrimage route and on this side of Mt. Fuji. She told me that some other shrines around the mountain also claimed head status or that their route was the oldest pilgrimage route. I recalled that the director had said in an email to all of us that we had to be careful about what we said about the Murayama Route and anything connected to the history and religious background of the area. We couldn’t declare things like, “This is the oldest…” or “This was the very first…”. Superlatives and exactitude were out. If rivals heard such things, there would be claims against NHK.

On the altar in the shrine I had seen an illustration of two men arm-wrestling with the English caption, “Do not gloat; Do not pout”. I asked Emi if she had seen it and what it said in Japanese. She confirmed that the Japanese had expressed the same idea: do not feel pride and do not be a sore loser. I said that it was ironic because it seemed that the people here who were claiming that their shrine was the head and their trail was the oldest route were doing so in pride and did not look kindly upon any notions that they were incorrect. The folly of pride indeed!

The beheaded Buddha statues were a curiosity to me. Why would anyone vandalize statues of the Buddha in a country that practices Buddhism? It was explained to me that during the Sino-Japanese war, Buddhism was considered the religion of the enemy and so the statues were beheaded. I later found several more examples at the summit of the mountain. Of course, once the war was over, Buddhism was acceptable once more.

What bizarre thinking! Buddhism, which came too Japan around 1,500 years ago and became in intrinsic part of Japanese beliefs and culture, was suddenly reviled out of the convenience of war, and then welcomed once more. Not that much earlier in Japanese history, Christianity had been regarded as a foreign enemy and crosses were stamped upon and Christians killed. But in the early years of the Meiji Period, Japan was allies with the West, so Christianity was then alright. I told Emi that this reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984 where there were three supernations and two were always allies fighting against the third. But near the end of the book, the “allies” abruptly become the enemy and the previous enemy now the ally. Real life is stranger than fiction.

A third case of puzzling human thinking was explained to us, but because of my ill confidence in my Japanese comprehension ability, I can’t be certain if I understood everything perfectly. The objects on display at the back of the shrine could be accessed by simply opening two sliding wood-framed doors fitted with windows. Of course we didn’t try to open those doors, but I later heard that they were alarmed because a theft had occurred in the past. The thieves were Koreans who had stolen the artifacts under the pretense that since Buddhism had come to Japan through the Korean peninsula, these items were in rightfully the heritage and property of Korea. This seemed completely ludicrous to me as everyone knows that Buddhism began in India and had come to the Far East through China. Korea was a convenient route to reach Japan.

So the story was that Koreans stole the artifacts and brought them back to Korea where the thieves were then tried in a Korean court and found not guilty because the court sided with them, agreeing that these items were indeed a part of Korean heritage. It sounds so utterly ridiculous that I really have to question whether or not I misunderstood some of what was said or if it was a story concocted to vilify Koreans (as that kind of thing does happen in Japan). Nevertheless, the doors were alarmed and the shrine usually closed to the public.

angry

Within a short time, people began gathering at the shrine, and a busload of junior high school students arrived. The ceremony to open the pilgrimage route for the year was about to begin.

The Pilgrimage Begins!

I climbed Mt. Fuji once. It was way back in the summer of 2000. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I took the bus up from the Yamanashi side up to the Fifth Station and followed the Yoshida Route to the summit. We left around ten in the morning with clouds around us and took the switchback path to the summit. I recall it taking longer than I had planned and trying to run up the path in spots. But I became quickly short of breath. At the summit, we stopped to eat, but my stomach felt queasy. A headache developed and without going to the true summit, we went back down, passing the final stations in the waning twilight as a bobbing line of zig-zagging lights swam up against us through the gloaming. I never felt that I had truly made the climb to the summit of Fujisan and vowed to one day return and do it properly.

Konnichiwa! I greeted my guide, Emi Kamimura, at the seashore in Tagonoura. She turned from the sea, smiled and greeted me back. We introduced ourselves and shook hands.

The seaside seems like an odd place to meet one’s guide. Why not at the train station or somewhere a little easier to narrow down to a point? But this was the script for the program and the seashore was where we were to meet because it was here that our journey would begin.

It was not my first time to meet Emi. She had been a porter on my trip to the Kita Alps two years ago. She is really easy to talk to and a very cool woman if you like tough yamagirls with a warm, friendly atmosphere. She was not the only one from that trek who was along this time. Mr. Otani was lead camera this trip and had been the sound and mic man last time. Mr. Komatsu, a porter for us on this Mt. Fuji trek had been our porter in the Alps too. He also worked as a guide but not for us this time. And our driver, Mr. Fujiwara, from two years ago was at the wheel again. Since the last time, I had learned that he runs a business called Awesome Barbecue, and they do “glamping” (glamorous camping), outdoor weddings, outdoor events that may include barbecues, and even commercials. They are on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. New to me were the other camera operator, Mr. Nii, who had lived in Canada before and was really a cool guy to talk to, and Mr. Koyama who handled sound recording this time. He was modest and a little quiet but still of warm and friendly disposition. Along with the director, we were seven to head up the mountain, though we’d be joined by a Mr. Nakayama later on.

Emi and I splashed sea water in our faces as a rudimentary cold water ablution ritual (mizugori) and then I followed Emi’s instructions and took a stone from the beach. Our first stop from here was the Fujizuka, a heap of rocks purportedly built up over the centuries by pilgrims who left a stone from the sea here and prayed for a safe journey. What we saw was disappointing though. It was a flattened concrete cone in a mock shape of Mt. Fuji and had large boulders of roughly equal size neatly arranged in the concrete. I’m sure no one carried such large rocks up from the seashore. Though there was a small pile of stones at the very top, I heard that once the pile became too large, the stones were removed. In fact, by tradition, the stones were meant to be removed after the pilgrims’ safe return.

Emi and I went up the steps to the small wooden shrine at the top, placed our stones, and said a prayer. This was most certainly starting off with the sense of a spiritual journey, unlike my previous visit years ago.

As the TV crew recorded some scenes in the area, an elderly man approached Emi and me and began telling us about the mound. He took us around to the backside and here, beneath the skirts of the concrete structure, was a lot of sand with hand-sized stones in it. It looked as though the concrete mound had been dropped on top of the sand mound. I asked the man if that was the original Fujizuka and he confirmed it was. He also pointed out a rectangular and vertical concrete door-like shape in the back of the concrete mound. He explained that just last year the mound had been cut into and several large urns bearing coins from the late Edo Period had been found inside. This story was much more interesting to me!

Fujizuka

We had a long way to walk and more things to see. Some ways out of town and climbing the slopes of the mountain into the rural landscapes between city and nature, Emi pointed out a stone marker that indicated when the road forked which way to follow the Murayama Route. The rocks were small volcanic boulders that had been inscribed with lettering, but it was the simple triple-peaked outline of Mt. Fuji that intrigued me. It was a neat symbol that one would associate with modern travel and not. I became suspicious as we encountered two more such boulders, both painted with bright white letters and the triple-peaked Fuji symbol. The rocks may have been the original markers but the engraved letters and symbol now seemed very modern.

Our final destination was Sengen Shrine. Tomorrow we would come to witness the annual opening of the Murayama Route where it led from the shrine into the forest. It was going to be quite a big ceremony with lots going on.

A Fujisan Pilgrimage (?)

Fujisan and Clouds

It was with relief as well as excitement that I read the message from the Journeys In Japan director. He was asking if I would be available in July to climb Mt. Fuji for the program, and for me that meant he was giving me another chance after last year’s “learning experience” at Taisetsusan in Hokkaido. During that trip, I learned towards the end what was expected of me as a reporter for the program, as the director and I chatted on the last night, and he explained what I had not been doing and what was necessary. No one ever took the time to tell me all those things before, and I worried that I may have blown any chance of working for Journeys In Japan again. So when I opened the email back in March, I was indeed relieved and of course, thrilled to be going out once more.

The message was brief but addressed my first and only question as though the director had anticipated my thoughts. Why Mt. Fuji? “Perhaps you’ve already climbed Mt. Fuji and don’t think it’s particularly interesting to do so again. But this program will focus on an old pilgrimage route called the Murayama Route which until twenty years ago had been forgotten.”

Murayama route

Part of the Murayama Route

The Murayama Route is one of the oldest (if not the oldest—there are debates) pilgrimage routes up Mt. Fuji. The mountain route begins at Sengen Shrine on the southern slope of the mountain; however, a proper pilgrimage up Mt. Fuji should begin at the seaside, and thus there are several stone markers along the route leading up to the shrine. The pilgrimage route is officially opened with great ceremony in July and closed in September. Though the Murayama Route was used for centuries, it eventually lost favour to a newer route and fell out of memory of most. The route was used by Rutherford Alcock, the first westerner to climb the sacred mountain, back in 1860. This though was more of a matter of authorities steering him and his entourage to that old, unused route in order to avoid having them disturb the dedicated pilgrims who were still climbing the mountain. The Murayama Route lay otherwise in relative obscurity, and once a paved road permitted the motor vehicle to transport climbers in ease and comfort to the fifth station at 2,400 metres, there was no longer any necessity to remember that old historic pilgrimage route.

That was until 20 years ago when a local mountaineer, Sohachi Hatakehori (畠堀操八), discovered the ancient route over a period of many years by following old texts that described the route. His efforts were published as a book, “富士山・村山古道を歩く” (“Fujisan: Walking the Ancient Murayama Route”). This was to be the context of our episode of Journeys In Japan: climbing Mt. Fuji via the old Murayama pilgrimage route, starting from sea level and going to 3,776 metres.

Fuji by the sea

Fujisan from Nagonoura. The seaside view back in Edo times surely was much different.