09 April 2017

山 the mountain

Part 1

First of all, you have to walk up the mountain.

It's a long steep walk -even if you can stop for delicious tea and sweets half the way up- so work on non-attachment and leave as much as possible at Tsuruoka Station. It has big lockers for ¥600 a day. The bus straight outside the station (stop #2) takes an easy half hour to the base of the 2,446 steps you will need to climb.

View from the rest station

Of the trio of sacred mountains known as Dewa-Sahan, Haguro-San symbolises birth. Perhaps whether you attain the purity of this state will depend on how much you sweat on the climb. The start of September, early autumn, was not an easy time for the walk, I was drenched with sweat in the 30 degrees C with 80% humidity, as were the majority of people on the path, going up or down. So I would avoid this in summer entirely unless you really love the heat.

Arriving at Saikan, there is one English speaker, a Japanese-speaking Hungarian woman who is a resident of sorts. Check-in sorted, even though it's barely 4 o'clock, bathing is my first priority. It's not an onsen, but there is a huge square stone bath to sink in to after rinsing off on a stool. Freezing cold to rinse, then hot soaking and repeat a few times finishing with cold water. It is such a superior bathing experience, but even then it is half an hour before I stop sweating from the climb.

You have to bring your own towel, but you get a yukata to wear for the duration of your stay. And I'm told it's fine to wear it to dinner. I am in a private eight tatami room. I thought I would be sharing a really big space, but I guess that is for groups of pilgrims. The bathroom is a little walk from my quarters but there is a toilet really close.

There is a thermos of hot tea waiting in my room for me. All the bedding is fresh and clean. It's the nicest traditional room I have stayed in until that point. It has two really big interior shoji-style windows covering normal windows with fly screens. There are cedars hundreds of years old right outside the window and the room is on stilts overhanging the lush green sloping valley. It faces directly west over the setting sun and the stippled light is soothing as evening arrives.

I write all this as I relax and wait for dinner. I consider volunteering to help with food preparation, this being a temple complex, but I have already seen a number of people at work in the kitchen, and given I can't speak Japanese, it's not a good idea. Saikan is huge, I won't visit the temple proper until the morning...

My room is in a far corner which means no-one complains when I play a little western flute before dinner (the instrument, not Ennio Morricone music). True, it would have been more fitting to bring a shakuhachi with me, but it's such an expensive, fragile thing and unwieldy to transport once it is well-packed. I haven't been playing flute much lately and perhaps it is the location, but it sounds really sweet - to me anyway.

A loud speaker near my room begins to broadcast a long pleasant intonation in Japanese, before abruptly switching to English to pronounce, "Your dinner is ready. Please come to the dining room next to the reception."

It's an hour earlier than expected and I was planning to meditate on the sunset, but I'm pretty hungry and keen to see what it will be.

Part 2


Of course I am the only one wearing a yukata. The young Japanese ladies also present, Toko and Noriko, are dressed in casual clothes.

I thought the meal would be vegetarian, but there's a plain broiled fish on top of the plate. The desert was my favourite part or maybe I just remember it best because I ate it last. There's something about eating like this: it is so beautifully presented, looks balanced and tastes and feels more harmonious as a result. I am told the dish in the top left corner is a symbolic representation of the trio of sacred mountains.

Toko and Noriko. I really have no idea how many pilgrims are lodging the night, but we must be the only visitors who have paid for dinner. It is Toko's birthday, although this is only revealed at the end of the meal. I figure these two are fast friends until after we finish eating, but in fact they have just met.

Toko has climbed Haguro-san seeking maternity. To explain, she shows me the screen of her phone and a translation app reveals in English: "Dear God, please make me a mummy. Please make me a mummy. Please make me a mummy." I briefly wonder as to the precise urgency of her need, before Noriko clarifies by miming a pregnancy. It's a literal interpretation of the birth concept attached to Haguro, but obviously a popular one: Toko has come all the way from Nara, by bus, to climb this mountain, by herself, on her birthday. I think she said it took her 15 hours one way.

Both women speak excellent English, having studied it for nine years at school. Although our conversation is quite fitful, I thank them and explain so many Japanese people know some English and try to use it, whereas if they come to Australia they will not be so lucky.

I had that day read Hojoki by Chomei and as soon as I mention it, Toko starts reciting the beginning in both Japanese and English! All Japanese study the text in junior high, which is probably all you need to know about the mind of the people - read it and see.

Thinking of my studies in the equivalent of junior high, I declare it's like Shakespeare, and recite, "The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, upon the place beneath."

Toko responds with, "Ah, Hamlet". (It's actually The Merchant of Venice, but I had to look it up to check.)

Noriko says, "Shakespeare is English, not Australian."

Don't think I'm making this up, it's all true.

We talk all sorts of nonsense and eventually Toko explains through a combination of words and mime that she expects all Australians to be totally mad, possibly drunk, and way more ebullient. I'm on my best behaviour so have restored some dignity to the reputation of my nation, but confess I am no saint.

There are a number of points in the evening where we all stand there and simultaneously retreat into silence, before we all look at each other and burst into the universal language of laughter.

We stand around studying a poster which includes a simple map of Basho's travels in the surrounding region and the haiku he wrote at each location. Noriko decides to translate some and then says it is impossible.

I agree and say it is like when someone asked a famous Zen monk (so famous I can't remember his name) the meaning of a song he had just played. The monk, without a word, played the song again from beginning to end.

When asked about my hobbies I confess to writing poetry but do not make them endure any of my verse. On reflection, I should have just asked to hear a native speaker recite some Basho to appreciate the music of it.


In the morning, after a light breakfast, we travel up the hill to the temple proper to watch a Shinto ceremony through a long internal passage. I was told snow reaches to the top of these windows in the winter. This must be quite a sight.


Sights on the climb to the top.


I booked my stay using Japanese Guest Houses.

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