Mitakesan’s Mystique

This is the end! Here I am, clinging to a tattered, fraying hemp-fiber rope, dangling precariously about twenty feet above a pile of jagged rocks below.  My feet have lost any form of traction on the slippery stone wall I’m trying to surmount, the mist from the clouds mixing dangerously with the soft green moss covering the pathetic excuse for steps carved into the wall’s face.  As I try to regain my footholds, hands burning, arms shaking from the strain, legs heavy from the blood draining down and the previous two hours of exertion to get to this point, my hands start to slip ever so slightly.  Maybe I should have just gone to the mall today.

In order to explain my current predicament, it’s necessary to start from the beginning of my little adventure.  Two weekends ago, I had made plans to go hiking with a couple of people up on top of Mt. Mitake.  However, as an eventful Saturday night came and passed, Sunday morning found me a little bent out of shape and just slightly hung over.  Rather than rouse myself to face to sun, heat and further brain-pounding dehydration associated with the hike, I curled up in my bed, clinging to my pillow for dear life.  Later that night, I met up with everyone and listened to stories of how incredible the hike had been and how I had definitely missed out.  I had been planning on doing the same hike since the first week I made it to Japan, and after hearing about it from them, I was determined to climb Mitake before I left.  Checking the weather forecasts like I hawk last week, I determined that this past Sunday was going to be my best shot at comfortable temperatures and zero precipitation in my remaining time in Japan.  So unwavering was I on completing this journey that I took it relatively easy Saturday night, knowing that if I didn’t, I’d never find the motivation.  That being said, I still didn’t get a very early start, choosing to sleep-in and build up as much reserve energy as possible (at least that’s how I like to look at it).  I finally got myself going, snagged a bunch of water and set out for the train station and my destination at the town of Mitake.

Once in Mitake, I found the local bus headed to the Takimoto cable car station and enjoyed the ten minute ride.  The cable car takes hikers and other travelers 519 meters up the side of Mt. Mitake, ending at the Mitakesan station and the beginning of a vast network of trails.  Alternatively, it’s possible to hike the whole way up the mountain, but for $5 it seemed pointless to not take the cable car and save your energy for the actual trails.

Our cable car about to ascend Mitakesan

From the little village at the top, a twenty-minute hike straight up brought me to the summit of Mt. Mitake and the Mitake-jinja Shintō shrine.  Shintō is one of the most practiced religions in Japan, and it serves as a way for Japanese people to connect with the spirituality of nature and the country’s ancient past.  Shrines can be found all over the country, and if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to pass by their entrances without even noticing them.  That being said, it was impossible not to notice the Mitake-jinja shrine.  Sitting at the top of Mt. Mitake, it’s construction is said to date back over 1200 years.  Even as an outsider to the Shintō religion, it was hard to miss the spirituality surrounding the area.  Many Shintō believers treat the journey to Mitake-jinja as a pilgrimage, and I have no doubts as to why.  Upon first sight of the shrine, one must spend another ten minutes climbing up steep, weathered steps to get to the entrance.  With each step, the shrine becomes larger and larger, slowly filling your entire view.  At the top, you are able to see the different levels and areas in greater detail.  The entire complex consists of beautifully designed buildings, some large, some small, all made out of wood and crafted to perfection.  Intricate woodworking decorated the eaves and entrances above doors and windows.  Red and gold were very prominent colors, adding to the splendor of the structures.  The views of the surrounding mountain range were beautiful, although fairly obscured by gray clouds stubbornly hiding all but the shortest of peaks.  I walked around the shrine for a while, yet I was anxious to get started on the rest of the hike.  Most people don’t stray too far away from the shrine and the village below it, but my goal was to make it to Mt. Otake, a good five-hour round-trip hike from Mitake-jinja.  The trail was supposed to pass by waterfalls and various rock gardens, and that was my main reason for taking the cable car to the top.  So, I tightened the laces on my sneaks, grabbed a couple of maps from the visitors office and set out west.

Mitake-jinja Shrine

Beautiful colors accentuated by the trees

I love the architecture

Still in great shape after 1200 years

The first half of the hike was fairly easy-going.  The path was wide and cleared of most obstructions, allowing for more people to walk.  I made it to the first waterfall in no time, scrambling down the step stairs to the pool below.  Nanoyono-taki waterfall was small yet very peaceful.  The poured out of the green foliage above, landing in a shallow pool surrounded by boulders and a muddy, pebbled beach.

Nanoyono-taki Waterfall

Moving on from Nanoyono-taki, I quickly started to regret my choice of food for my pre-hike meal.  Word of advice: on a five-hour hike where bathrooms are virtually non-existent, it’s not wise to snack on foods named Fiber-One bars.  Contrary to most supplements or nutritional products touting amazing muscle-building or healing properties, these bars actually do what they claim.  Keep that in mind for your next trip.

For about an hour, I hiked through the Rock Garden, and small bubbling stream constantly broken up by moss-covered boulders and the occasional footpath crossing.  With massive trees rising up to block out most light from reaching the creek bed, the “garden” had a peaceful yet slightly gloomy feel.  The trail brought me to the Ayahirono-taki waterfall.  Taller than Nanoyono-taki, it also exuded a much stronger spiritual aura.  A small Shintō shrine was present, decorated by shide (white, paper zig-zag ornaments suspended from hemp-rope) and rocks engraved with Japanese kanji.

Part of the Rock Garden

Ayahirono-taki in the background

Shintō shrine at Ayahirono-taki - drinking at a shrine shows unity with the gods

Shide decorating the shrine at Ayahirono-taki

I left Ayahirono-taki behind and began my ascent to Mt. Otake.  I passed a sign pointing out that the hike up to the summit was supposed to be eighty minutes in length, but I wasn’t so sure I agreed with that.  I’m slightly taller than the average Japanese person, with a much longer stride.  Plus, I was confident in my conditioning level and was sure I could make it up much faster than that.  The path got steeper as I rose in elevation.  The gurgling of stream below quickly faded, replaced by silence and the occasional call of a bird.  Not only did the trail get steeper, the quality quickly began to deteriorate.  Dirt was replaced by sections of tree roots, serving as complicated ladders connecting the “easier” parts of the trail.  About fifteen minutes up, I came to what appeared to be a leveling off of the trail, giving the impression that the summit had been reached.  Exulted, I let out a yell, then quietly chuckled to myself about the relative easiness of the climb.  I turned the next corner and was shocked to see the trail start back up again.  This time, however, both dirt and roots gave way to sheer rock with small steps daintily carved in.  After another ten minutes, my legs were burning, I was panting like a dog and was covered in sweat.  The path seemed to let up somewhat, but I was more weary of it getting excited this time.  And wouldn’t you know it, but around another bend, the path reared its ugly head back and ascended into oblivion once again.  At times, it was impossible to know if a trail even existed.  I was forced to literally climb twenty-foot sections of rock at a time, only to be squeezed through a slight gorge between two boulders at the top and then pressed to do the whole thing all over again.  In the worst places, ropes and chains were hanging down, providing only a small amount of assistance.  The higher I got, the more I wondered if this was going to be worth it.  The higher I got, the less visibility I had.  I was climbing through the clouds.  Gusts of wind would shoot pockets of mist across my path, allowing me to only see a few feet in front of me in some places.  This brings me to my current crisis.

As the mist got stronger and my legs got heavier from the ninety-degree climb, the trail naturally became exponentially harder.  One section towards the top required climbing up a wet rope while using your feet to find slight ledges on the rock wall.  I was tired, drenched (either sweat or mist, I don’t know) and quickly losing motivation.  Almost to the top, my right foot slipped, causing my whole body to slam up against the rocks.  Spinning around on the rope, I couldn’t seem to find a foothold.  I would have slid down the rope to the bottom and tried again, but the rope had been neatly severed about fifteen feet from the bottom, and I wasn’t about to chance a drop onto the rocks below.  Luckily, I was able to push of the wall, spin around and find a small rock jutting out to set my foot on.  I found another hold and then another, and made it up and onto somewhat level ground.  Thankful, I pushed on, rounded a corner and came to the summit of Mt. Otake.  Thinking I was going to be rewarded for my efforts and for not turning back, I went to the outlook and saw…nothing (aside from a young couple obviously upset I’d interrupted them…they left soon after).  Clouds blanketed the valley and mountains.  I could have been on top of Mt. Everest or down by a river and I wouldn’t have known the difference.  A little disappointed but happy with myself for sticking it out, I checked the time and discovered I’d made it to the top in about forty minutes, or roughly half the time the signs had allowed for the hike.

The view from Mt. Otake

The one bright spot at the top of Otake

Knowing I had a good two-hour hike back to the cable car, I headed back down the way I came.  The way back didn’t require as much effort, but it called for much more patience to get back down all the obstacles I’d overcome.  Many places had chains to hold onto to help with the descent, but, note to the Japanese National Forest Service: metal tends to get a little slippery when it’s wet.  I tried to take my time but ended up slipping a sliding a good portion of the way down.  The mud slick on the back of my shorts made it look as though the Fiber One bars had finally broken through my defense and won the battle we’d be fighting for most of the hike.  Already dirty and lacking the conviction to hold myself back, I allowed gravity to take over towards the bottom and began an up-tempo, slightly controlled run back to the river.  I passed the couple that I met at the top of Mt. Otake, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  They were both spotless and holding hands.  The girl had on some tights and a little sun dress, while the guy was wearing bright white pants.  Here I am, soaked, ankles and legs caked in mud splatter, clothes dirty and looking incredibly haggard, while they look as if they’re out for a fucking picnic.  It doesn’t seem right!  And they weren’t the only ones.  As I got closer to the village, I passed more and more people who were dressed in their Sunday best.  I don’t understand how these people can look so clean and natural.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  I wonder what their secret is!

Pretty sure I was somewhere up there in the clouds

Before getting back into the village, I passed an old, abandoned Shintō shrine.  Walking up to it, I rang the giant bell outside the entrance, gave a primal yell into the surrounding forest, silently thanked the Shintō spirits for allowing me safe passage into their domain and headed back into town.  Goal accomplished!

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