Dake-san (English version!)
This is a long bit of prose about my hiking trip.
They say Mount Dake is in the shape of Buddha, reclining on his side. His head lays toward the East and the sun rises behind his crown. Some people who are particularly devout, start the day by facing the mountain and clapping twice toward this figure in prayer and gratitude.
When I set out to climb the mountain, I wasn't quite sure where I was going. I downloaded a map of the area's topography and hiking trails, but I hadn't taken in to account that roads and homes had been built since then. Seeing the mountain up close, it was just another hill among the others, and I wasn't sure if I was really going the right way. Suddenly I saw a statue of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of mercy, standing tall at the intersection of two country roads. As I made my way toward her, I found a sign pointing up the hill saying that the hiking trail was near. After a long morning of walking and searching, I'd found it!
All the way up the hill, my eyes fell across the flowering gardens of quaint farm houses and butterflies scattered in front of me. Soon, large branches of trees began to close in over my head, cutting the heat from the air and letting just the wind blow in. Cool and refreshed, I was in good spirits when I arrived at the hiking trail. I don't know if this joyful energy was because of the beautiful countryside, or if it was just my own excitement at being able to navigate to an unknown place on my own two feet.
There was a parking area with a sign in front. This sign did not display any map or history, but rather a ghost story! In the Meiji period, the Irish writer, Yakumo Koizumi, published ghost stories with the help of his Japanese wife, who had a sixth sense for the supernatural. Everywhere in Matsue city you can see this or that sign referring to some story that Yakumo wrote.
The path starts under a rather makeshift Torii gate. Just a few branches tied together with straw, and a "nawa," a sacred rope, dangling from the center. This designates the entire path as sacred, and I was intrigued that a statue from one religion guided me here, while an emblem from another leads me up. The next thing that caught my eye was a bundle of walking sticks left by people before me. They were made from sturdy bamboo. Usually I prefer not to take a walking stick, as I like to have both hands free to catch myself if I fall, or to hold on to some rock if I need to. But something told me to take that stick, and I was much grateful for it afterwards.
The ground of Matsue seems to come in two varieties. The first is black, volcanic stone. This area was once seismically active and you can see evidence of that everywhere. The dark, porous rock is used in building materials and statues, including the stones which build up the castle walls. But the other is an earthy red color. Stark against the deep greens of the forest, I found the bared ground of the path very attractive. I felt somehow connected to the flesh of the city, my feet directly coming in to contact with that earth above which all other things flourish. Many Japanese mountains are covered in stairs, walkways, planks, and concrete. This mountain had absolutely none of those. The trail going up was completely natural, maintained by the many feet stamping up and down it. Even after the heavy rains of the day before, the ground was solid without any mud or puddles. It was quite a comfortable hike of less than an hour. I stopped once for a drink but didn't ever need to catch my breath, and the gentle foliage kept away the heat.
At the very top of the mountain there are two view points. One looks out over Matsue city, I could see through the hazy summer air all the way to the hill where my apartment sits. The river, swollen with the monsoon rains, looked ready to burst at the seams. Rice fields far below were like little square mirrors cut into perfect shapes and pressed between river, hill, and town. Before I could make my way to the second view point, I came across a shrine.
Just about every mountain in Japan has some kind of shrine or temple. Maybe I've gotten jaded to them. I don't always stop to pray. But no one was there, and butterflies were flitting about the wildflowers under the trees, and I really did feel obligated to put in a couple of yen to thank the spirits for letting me have such a nice time on the mountain, that I decided to go for it. Most Japanese people I know will pray for good health and the prosperity of their family in front of the closed gates of the shrine. But I prefer to just to quiet my mind with my eyes closed and my hands pressed together, letting myself feel instead of all the thinking that normally resounds cacophonously between my ears.
If I hadn't stopped to pray, I wouldn't have noticed the notebook. It was kept in a waterproof tin and I opened the lid gingerly to see what was inside. The notebook was where anyone was free to write their name, their impression, or just the date. Just a few entries before, someone had written in English, "Completed the third leg of my journey." Who wrote that? Were they still in town? How many legs in total did their journey consist of? What is this journey? I thought about my own journey... I realized suddenly that the wonderful time I was having on this mountain wasn't just me enjoying a day hike. It was me taking ownership of this extended business trip and really making a connection with the city's roots. I was compelled to write something in the book. I wanted it to be something other people could appreciate. I was too self-conscious to write anything in Japanese, so I used simple words that any Japanese person could understand. It was some kind of poem. I don't remember it now.
I returned the book to the tin and made one circle around the shrine before stepping aside to the second viewpoint. Here I could see across the inland sea, Nakaumi. The water was a deep blue in reflection of the sky and two islands lay flat in the middle as if they were merely floating on the surface. The nearer island is called "Daikon-jima." Daikon is a kind of giant white radish that is eaten commonly in the winter. But the island is neither daikon shaped nor famous for cultivating daikon. So I wasn't sure about the name. Later I went there and asked someone who told me the name is a cover. Back in the Edo period, Matsue needed more revenue so the Castle Lord made Daikonjima a place to grow the rare and valuable root ginseng. Ginseng came from Korea and is used medicinally and in teas. The island, surrounded by the inland sea, is difficult to get to and so protected from robbers or prying eyes. Ginseng could be made in secret by farmers who claimed to be growing mere daikon. In this way, a lot of revenue was successfully obtained and the city could flourish.
So I was thinking of heading back just the same way I came, but I saw a sign that someone had painstakingly printed out and posted which said, "To all hikers, why don't you go down the back way and see a waterfall?"
I answered the question, "Why not! I'll do that." And I headed off of the edge of my printed map down a thin trail among the undergrowth, wondering just what kind of adventure would be waiting for me.
No sooner had I started off when a man came up the other way.
"Where are you going? This way goes down to the bottom, you know," he said.
"Does it? That's fine with me," I answered.
"But what about your car? How will you get back to the parking lot? Are you going to walk all the way back up here?"
I smiled at him. "I came here on my own two feet."
"Well then! Take care, it's a steep route."
We parted ways and I found myself walking along the ridge of the mountain. At first it was a pleasant stroll with the occasional plant in my face, but soon it dropped off into a long hour of steep slopes, where I was using my bamboo stick to keep me from sliding down the hill sometimes. Never have I ever been so glad to have a walking stick with me. Without gloves, it wouldn't have been pretty and I might have given up without that wonderful tool. As I scrambled downward, I came across a plethora of insect species that were great fun to photograph. Birds flitted in and out of view, but too fast for a shot. I stopped whenever I liked to take a drink or watch something crawling on a leaf. So despite the steep trail, I didn't feel bothered by it at all and I enjoyed the dappled sunlight and the bits of sky through the trees.
As the trail headed even further down, though, the ground grew damp and mosquitoes rose from beneath the foliage. Spiders had spun webs across the path. Fallen trees covered in suspicious mushrooms blocked the way at times. I hacked through this with my bamboo stick. This kind of trail used to make me feel uncertain and in a hurry to get back out. But on that perfect day, I think I'd just had enough experience on similar mountains, it didn't really bother me. As I swatted mosquitoes while getting a face full of spiderweb, I was fully aware that this should bother me, and that it didn't, and that I'd reached a turning point in my life where I'm now totally cool with bushwhacking through the forest.
A little stream appeared beside the trail. The trail seemed to follow it, but it was following quite close and the two became one on a few occasions. This is where I started to feel nervous. It had rained quite heavily for two days, and if the trail became lost in water, I really would have to go aaaallll the way back up the mountain.
However suddenly, the trail angled away steeply, allowing the stream to throw itself over a cliff. We met again at the bottom where I could observe the waterfall in its full glory. What a wonderful thing that it had rained so much and I could see so much water coming down from the mountain! I would not have been able to point to where I was on a map, and it seemed like I'd found some secret of the forest nymphs or something like that. Near the waterfall there were no spiderwebs or mosquitos, and I sat in the shade and ate some snacks from my bag.
The trail ended in dazzling sunlight not at all further down. The difference between being in the forest and being out in the civilized world again was striking. In Kobe or Okayama, you can hear and smell the city when you're getting close to the end. This was completely different. I thanked the mountain for my experience and went on my way.
Haphazardly taking roads that seemed to be going in the right direction eventually brought me to a bus stop. But the whole time I was walking I could see the mountain behind me watching over me. The deep blue sky, the rich and varied greens, the rice growing orderly in the fields.. I couldn't imagine wanting for anything more than that moment.
By the time I got home, the sun was starting to set. Until then, I'd been fond of watching sunsets over the lake, but after taking a shower I realized I wouldn't have enough time for that at all. I decided a quick stroll up the hill behind my house would have to do, as the sky was already turning yellow and orange. When I arrived at the top of the hill, I was struck by what looked like a painting. So many colors, shapes, and depths turned the sunset into a living work of art. As I stared at it, I heard someone else coming up the hill behind me. It was an older lady, who clasped her hands over her face and gasped at the beauty of the sky.
Seeing someone else so touched by the beauty of nature made me feel that we already shared some bond. It's said that when you feel happiness, it increases the urge to connect to people and communicate your experience. Brain chemicals translated into human interactions. So I exclaimed to the woman how beautiful I thought the sky was. We stood there, coming up with metaphors for the vista as the clouds changed and the rays of the sun extended over us in three dimensions. Then we began speaking of more practical things. I told her about my 2 month transfer. She told me about how she'd always lived here and felt that Matsue was the most beautiful city in the world. I told her how much I loved Matsue, and she expressed that feeling as well in her own words. We talked together until the sky grew dark and she had to go home to her family.
After she left, I stared at the pinks and purples fading from the sky, and the sleeping Buddha in the distance. Suddenly, a shape came out from the forest and flew soundlessly through the air. I've seen kites here, and crows, but the crows are noisy and the kites are much larger and won't come this close to the city. This was something completely different. I recognized the silhouette as an owl!
The owl stopped and perched on an electric pole. It swiveled its head around and looked down at me as I looked up at it. I raised my camera, but it saw my sudden motion and flew away. Silently. Off in the direction of the lake.
I've never seen a wild owl before ever in my life.
I made a promise to myself to remember this day forever.