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.
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.
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.
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.