Mt. Daisen: climbing with the Gods.
Everyone seems to know each other on the bus out of Yonago City towards Mt. Daisen in Tottori Prefecture. The greetings are familiar and the chat flows easily despite the fact that all the passengers sit facing the front and talk to the backs of each others heads. This is small-town Japan, and it gets smaller as I leave the city behind and travel through rice fields lined with late blooming cherry blossoms. The few other passengers alight along the way, one businessman in a suit and tie inexplicably gets off the middle of nowhere in a forest, the driver makes a detour to another village en-route to pick up nobody and by the time we arrive at the final stop of Daisen-ji Temple I’m the only rider.
The scenery has changed as the road climbed and I’m now standing in a landscape that could almost belong to the Alaskan wilderness. A river rushes out of a misty gorge guarded by ancient trees, the kind of place Gollum would haunt. Above, the colossus of Daisen rises, but I’m only given a hint of the mountain’s real size as cloud obscures the dome like an ill-fitting toupee. The lower slopes are cloaked in snow, and there is a lot of it.
Daisen-ji temple, at this ‘why-aren’t-I-still-in-bed’ hour, is silent and locked, there is no one around and the whole place pervades with an air of solitude and separation. The origins of the temple date back to its founding in 718 when the volcano above it was known as Okami-take, ‘Mountain of the Great God’, until the Edo Period the peak was considered so sacred that only Buddhist initiates were permitted to climb it. At its glorious heights the mountain boasted 160 temples and 3000 warrior monks, most of whom fell out of favour in the late 19th century when the government of the day backed Shinto-ism over Buddhism.
Towards the trailhead I pass a MontBell outdoor clothing store, I don’t stop, thinking there is nothing I need and cross a bridge over a boulder sprinkled river and begin to climb into the forest. Rather monotonous and lung-punching stone steps make up the first part of the trail past other temples and the ruins of others still and through a tangle of beech, Mongolian oak, hydrangea and maples, all still wintery naked.
I’m relieved to see that the few other climbers along the trail are mostly gents twenty years my senior, although this illusion is shattered when some of them go skipping ahead of me like little kids. Soon I hit the snowline and find myself walking over hard packed snow a whole season old, frozen and treacherous underfoot. Suddenly the trekking poles everyone else has look much less silly than they did down at the start of the climb and when they all start lashing crampon spikes to their boots I’m the one who is feeling rather foolish. I try to console myself with thoughts of the Zen monks making this climb in their sandals but all the while kicking myself for passing that MontBell shop.
At 1400 metres the vegetation has changed from trees to shrubs, apparently the species are the same but at this altitude they keep their heads down to stay alive. After slipping over for the tenth time I start to wonder if I should turn back, but I can’t bring myself let ‘Team Gaijin’ down and be the only trekker who doesn’t make it to the top today.
A sign warns me not to ‘drop stones’, later another sign tells me to beware of stones being dropped on me. Closer to the top the trail is built on a merciful raised boardwalk made to prevent the alpine vegetation from being trampled into oblivion by the crowds the mountain gets in summer.
The summit! The hut that caps it looks like the kind of place Scott would have checked into in the Antarctic, snow lashed and rocked by wind. The views are incredible, or so I’m told by the sign boards that point out the features I would be able to see below if I could see more than the two metres I can at the moment. In fact the actual peak is still 150 metres away but the ridge was left dangerously unstable after an earthquake in 2000 and is off limits. Though I can’t see far beyond the rope barriers there is an instinctive sensation that the ground drops away from here, dramatically, sharply. I go no further.
I spend most of the descent either falling on my ass or sitting on it when I get tired of getting to my feet again. And in fact I find that squatting on my haunches and sliding down some of the smoother slopes is actually a good, and rather rapid, way of getting down.
Finally back at Daisen-ji I’m cold and exhausted, but glad I started the hike when I did, the snow is heavier now, squalls whipped by the wind. So, yeah, Mt. Daisen, it’s a great climb…in the summer.