I follow the trekkers down a precipitous slope. It has busy traffic, but the mountain can accommodate us all. The sheer path is made entirely of loose rocks on dry dirt.
I’m wary. I rolled my left ankle, yet again, on my way up Gassan. Rocks and dirt, the most harmonious path with nature is also the most dangerous for bad feet. I shouldn’t be doing this. There’s already pain in my ankle. I use my staves as feet down to avoid the pain in my knees. I inch. Everyone, the numerous elderly included, pass me. I smile and greet them in turn. I admire them. I hope they are as happy as I am just to be here.
‘Ganbattekudasai!’ a boy-scout voice pipes from above.
There’s a ripple of chuckles. This repeats every few seconds until a 12 year-old sends me the same encouragement. I watch him skip from bolder to bolder and deftly step over rocks that roll after his foot has lifted. How I’ve forgotten that sure-footedness. How good it is to be young!
For all the worries we develop as adults, I wonder how many cultivate the wisdom that can only come with time as well.
In the end, I spend an hour going down this slope that would have no problem charging up in 15 minutes. Still, it is an hour with the breathtaking valleys, carved out by a sliver of a river on one side and languid bowls left by the last ice age’s glaciers on the other. I look back up at my harrowing trial to get one last look at Gassan’s peak, from where I saw this trail earlier. The holy clouds have already reclaimed that corner.
I continue on a stone-slab path that has knawed-out holes from snow storms and monsoon rains.
No matter how slow, how good it is to have a pair of legs that gets me by.
Despite the bustling traffic only minutes away, the route down to Yudono Shrine has few visitors. The boy must have gone back to Satsu at this last fork. From there, he and the other trekkers can take a gondola down the mountain and drive home.
This last part has much more dirt, which is a boon for my feet. The path initially follows along the hillside before circling into another valley. It looks as if it’s been cleared by bushwhackers and dug out by adventurers. Unlike the one on Gassan, this route was not made by the devout ascetic creating a path to the spiritual world. This was made by those who’d forgotten the world altogether, aspiring to go nowhere in particular, and therefore leaving nothing in particular behind. The route seems like an afterthought.
The silence here is resounding. It is so thick the chirping birds, trickling stream, and ripple of leaves do not pierce it. It devours them all. It is a bit unnerving. I stop often, looking behind me. It is the perfect, blazing sunny afternoon, but the silence has possessed my shadow.
Despite the clear signage at the fork between the Satsu gondola and Yudono-san’s shrine, I doubt myself. I am relieved to finally reach the rest hut that I’d read about in a route description. At least I’m on the right track. I look inside the locked building, with its abandoned sink, bedframe, and other bits and bobs. It has an outhouse toilet. Since Yudono-san’s shrine is in a valley, this is my closest view of the peak. It looks close, it’s true distance hidden by the gradual ascent.
From here, it’s straight down. The path is soon covered by a low canopy, shielding me from the afternoon sun. At a clearing, I can see a small structure poking out of the dense green valley. I relax a little: at least it’s in sight – or something is in sight.
Then, I smell ferns, the low curly bushes – the ones in the undergrowth across the Pacific. Then, comes a sound distinct to this Asian side: the cascade of cicadas.
I continue down the windy, sharp turns, down the chain ladders sitting on 90-degree inclines. I finally encounter another hiker, who patiently follows me. Once there is a foothold, I step aside and let him pass. He quickly disappears.
After the ladders, the path goes along a stream. Then, the stream becomes the path. There is no other way down. Finally, the stream joins a river, which then goes to a dam.
Civilization, even if the fringes, is a relief. Only the adrenaline is numbing the pain on my trembling knees and aching left ankle. What would I have done without my two walking staves? I don’t even want to think about it.
I cross the stream and follow the dirt path that’s re-emerged along the river. There’s one bend with a view of a waterfall. The echoing roar and the afternoon sunlight hitting the cascade creates a spine-tingling awe. Surely enough, it is marked by a shimenawa, a holy rope that marks yorishiro, an object capable of attracting spirits.
I enter Yudono shrine via the back entrance, pay the fee, and go through. It is also a small shrine, but where Gassan was austere, this one is tinged with a little magic. Yudono-san’s shrine is also the most secretive, and visitors are not meant to discuss what they saw. There is, however, a hot footbath to soak in after the long hike just outside!
After that, I return to modernity. I walk to the parking lot, wait for the shuttle bus taking me to the massive torii gate that sits at the mouth of the valley and marks the beginning of Yudono’s sacred grounds. I check out the visitor centre items while waiting for the bus that will take me out of the mountains to Tsuruoka.
Through a combination of bus and train, I will be transported hundreds of miles south again. By nightfall, I will be in the capital of an entirely different prefecture: Niigata.
Continue on to Dewa Sanzan Afterword.
For more information on reaching Yudono-san, please check my Dewa Sanzan information post.