The car followed a river of teal and aquamarine, which wound around boulders it had carved out of the mountain. Some of the boulders were as big as my flat, but the scene didn't have that jagged violence that I have been inspired by in other Japanese landscapes. Though the scale of nature was impressive next to the size of our little car, the I felt calmed rather than excited about it.
This was Ehime during Golden Week. A lot of people would be out visiting family, catching Covid in restaurants and among friends. So I decided to go out to nature. Somewhere long and hard that would make the 3-day weekend feel worth it. I decided to climb Mt. Ishizuchi.
Ishizuchi is about 2,000 meters high. I haven't climbed a mountain that high in forever. The peak is a large rocky outcrop which seems to fold over like the hook of a nose. Perhaps it's for that reason that a Tengu, a long-nosed creature of the spirit world, is worshipped there and there are festivals performed on the mountain each summer, despite the danger of falling off the rocks. This Tengu is the protector of the mountain. He protects the trees, the rocks, the wildlife. . . And people seem to think he'll protect you too, if you send him your prayer. But I think if I'm going to pray at a mountain shrine, I'm not going to pray for my safety, I'm going to pray that the mountain's biodiversity stays balanced and thrives. At least I believe that's the kind of prayer that the Tengu would honor.
So after a prayer, Yossi and I lined up for the ropeway. The ropeway takes you to the start of the trail at 500 meters. You start off parking on a precipice where spring flowers grow naturally in grooves in the rock and you can see the bluish-green water through the fluttering leaves of trees and petals of wisteria. But then you start going up the ropeway and the seasons change. At 500 feet, wisteria is not yet blooming, but the mountain azaleas are pushing out their purple flowers as if it were a full month ago. Spring leaves are just beginning to unfold. I wonder if there are insects that get caught in the ropeway gondola and get confused when they go down to the next season or up to the season before, and have trouble mating.
I think I'm the only one who worries if insects have trouble mating. Sorry.
The start of the trail first leads up to a small clump of buildings. One is a simple house to set up a bed and prepare for a sunrise hike. Another is a shrine to the Tengu. There are a couple places to buy souvenir towels or icecream. But the building that made me stop was a shrine where, instead of the back of the shrine being a closed alcove where the sacred mirror or other treasure is stored, it is a broad window with a panoramic view of the peak. You're literally sending a prayer directly to the top of the mountain. And at that very top you can barely make out the actual shrine of Mt. Ishizuchi. It's a tiny white building perched between rocks with a torii gate facing east toward the rising sun. That's where the genuine sacred treasure is held, I believe.
It takes 3 hours to hike to the top according to the internet. We took four. Here's where we went wrong.
The trail starts as a slow meander into a valley, with glimpses of the impressive peak here and there. You pass under the imposing form of a torii gate, signifying that you are entering sacred ground. After a while, the trail turns steeply upward and the hard work of climbing stairs begins. We imagined how much steeper it would get, and what might happen when we reached the point where wooden stairs were no longer an option. Finally we found ourselves before a giant mound of boulders with lengths of iron chains hanging down. Each link in the chain was as long as my forearm. I put away my camera and starting putting on gloves. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Yossi asked. "There's a path meandering down the other way. It might take longer, but it's safer."
I told him, "I'm satisfied with what we had for dinner last night, so if we die here it'll be fine. Let's go."
So we started climbing up the boulders. Sometimes they stuck out so we had to rely on using the chains for footholds and pull ourselves up by our arms. Sometimes the chains moved when you put your weight on them. Sometimes your foot slipped on a rock. But each step further upward was invigorating to me. There's something about using your total physical energy to do something that's just as exciting as it is tiring. At the top of the mount, we fount ourselves on a summit of boulders with a 360 degree view of gorgeous mountains.
The problem with 360 degree views is that it means there's no more way up from there.
Looking at the map again, we found we'd climbed the "Trial Chain."
I thought trial meant like, "Man this chain is going to test you hard!"
What it meant is, "This is a practice chain for people who just like climbing rocks with chains for no reason."
So now we had to get all the way back down the rock face on the other side. The way down was far worse, as instead of boulders it was a lot of sheer rock with tiny crannies to stick your feet it. Twice I had to risk jumping. I kept looking at my thin little arms thinking, "Can you guys really hold me up if I miss my step??" But perhaps all's well that ends well because we both made it down with our lives intact and only a few minor bruises.
That chain was probably the hardest of them.
There were 3 more we had to struggle up, but they seemed tamer, or maybe my confidence was growing. I love clinging to a rock face dripping sweat while simultaneously enjoying the view of peaks near and far. Once I got used to using the chains, I felt no fear of heights or worries about missing my step. It was all fun.
Until we hit snow.
Who knew that even in the warm temperatures along the Seto Inland Sea, there would still be snow!
High up on Mt. Ishizuchi, the season changes one more time to late winter. Trees have not yet unfurled their new leaves. The azaleas are not yet blooming. And there's snow. Snow melts and turns the path to slush and rivers in some areas, then in others it's frozen in to ice. Going up slippery, wet chains with snow hiding the danger of the rocks beneath you wasn't something I'd expected.
A man ahead of me looked back, "So, uh, I see you're not the sports clothes type." What he meant by that was I was wearing all the wrong clothes for the outing. Oh well.
The good thing about snow is that when you're hot and sweaty from hiking, you can just put a little under your hat and let it dissolved and drip down your face and the back of your neck. Yossi caught on to this and was pleased. He'd brought long pants which were making his legs too hot, so I told him to put some snow down his pants. Not sure why he refused, it might've felt good!
Finally we topped the last chain. Heaving ourselves up in front of the Ishizuchi shrine, we were met by a blast of wind coming from the other side of the mountain. For the first minute, we enjoyed the cool air and the feeling of victory. But soon the wind proved more chilling than cool, and the actual peak of the mountain was still a good length of rock climbing away. Yossi raised his eyebrows exhaustedly. "We aren't there yet?"
We had lunch before making our way to the shards of rocks standing up from the earth that makes up the peak of Mt. Ishizuchi. The way is narrow, so people going up had to wait in turn for people coming back. Sometimes you couldn't see if people were going or coming, and you'd end up making people wait as you followed the guys in front of you. Despite this, the very top wasn't crowded and while there were a couple groups of teens, they respectfully decided to take their summit selfies elsewhere and make room for other climbers.
Ishi means rock and Zuchi means hammer.
The mountain used to be called, "Rock earth" but for some reason I guess it was cooler to write it as "Rock hammer" with the same pronunciation but different character, and the word stuck. The rock face that makes up the peak is called, "Tengu Rock."
We decided not to use chains on the way down, but went the scenic, meandering route that involved a lot of stairs. Down, down, down. It was wearing on the knees and Yossi taught me a new phrase. When your knees are like jelly because you've been using them too much, Japanese people complain that, "My knees are laughing."
I started to notice a guy behind us. I would stop to take a picture of something and he would catch up. Then he would stop for some reason and I would get ahead. After a while, we became more in synch. I'd stop to take a picture of a flower and he would catch up, then as I moved on, he would take the same picture of the flower, and I wouldn't see him until I stopped to take the next flower, etc. Finally I looked back and asked, "Do you like taking picture of flowers?"
He then told me about the Akebono Tsutsuji, or the Sunrise Azaleas. Instead of growing as a bush, they grow as a tree. Before the leaves come out in the spring, blush-colored flowers bloom on its branches. They're a rare plant in Japan, and one of the few places they grow is Ishizuchi. That's one of the flowers I'd been taking pictures of! As we walked through the forest together, we found more and more specimens to take pictures of. The man had a nice zoom lens on his camera and would take pictures for me of things far off to show me what they looked like up close. He told me the names of all the flowers we passed. But his pace was eventually faster than mine and we parted ways.
We finally arrived back at the ropeway at 4pm. We'd been on the trail for 7 hours. At the ropeway station, they were selling postcards of the Akebono Tsutsuji. I hadn't even noticed at first!
Back on the ropeway going down, I looked out at a distant peak and saw clouds forming there, elongated like the tail of a dragon, its head resting on the mountain and watching us. It was a sign that the weather was going to turn bad, but I imagined that it was the Tengu watching over the mountains. Finally we arrived back at the bottom of Ishizuchi with all the wisteria blooming on the vines and other signs of a spring in full vitality.