This is a diary entry of my day-hike up Mount Ishizuchi in Saijo City, Ehime Prefecture, Japan. Unlike most of my informational posts, this one is a more personal reflection similar to my Foreword to the Dewa Sanzan and Shikoku Henro diary entries. For hikers wanting to know what the trail is like, I have a separate post with a route description.
My day starts as it used to two years ago, rolling up into a sitting position. The Japanese screen doors of my room emerge with the pale blue light. I am staying with the same host as I had two years ago as well, when a typhoon swept through the Shikoku. Back then, I was walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage in high summer because I figured I could sleep better in the heat than the cold. How little I knew then. How I wouldn’t have come if I had known any better. If I hadn’t come then, I wouldn’t have discovered the mountain I’ve come back to climb: Mount Ishizuchi, the Stone Hammer mountain.
After having breakfast with my host, I take an early train to catch the first bus to the Ishizuchi cable car station. It takes about 2.5 hours from my host’s door to the cable car station on Mount Ishizuchi. The route should seem far, but it doesn’t. The waits should seem long, but they don’t. I should be sleepy with about 6 hours of broken sleep, but the anticipation is keeping me fueled.
Eventually, the bus comes and I sit down to enjoy the modern convenience of being carted by a mobile tin box out of the city.
The road into the mountain that the bus takes is the same one I used to get down from the Shikoku Pilgrimage’s Temple 60, Yokomine-ji. The concrete retaining wall can barely contain the zealous wild bushes and protruding weeds. The road, and even the trees, aren’t much to look at. But they are to me. Every turn is one I took with my own two feet two years ago, accompanied by three little puppies that followed me down from a solitary restaurant. I’m probably one of the many walking strangers they’ve seen walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage. But their memory helps anchor the shady spots that I walked under to avoid the scorching afternoon sun. This morning, the shadows are angled the other way.
I turn my head to the left, where the dam is. The contours make it unmistakable. But the colour of the water — what happened? My memory was the colour of milk tea (to be polite). At the time, it looked sickly, like puke, with a film of dust in the air. This time, the water was a deep, emerald navy, shimmering at the rim where the sun climbing the hills has reached.
I thought I would nap, but the view keeps me staring out the window. Turning in from the dam, the hillsides close in around a tributary river. I read the slopes, noting the patches of younger trees, the wild bamboo drooping over sections, and the rocky riverbed. Though the sky is already a fierce, blazing blue, the trees were still in shadow. Then, comes another turn: a curtain of gold is drawn over the retreating night mist.
Sometimes even in the city, I forget that transit is an option and riding private cars always feels like a novelty. The transit to Ishizuchi adds up, but when I consider the number of days it saves me to get to the trailhead, it’s worth it. I had previously walked Shikoku at a time when I had no income, but plenty of time; now, I was walking the way most people do: with a steady source of income, but a poverty of time.
But time poverty is also just a matter of perception. By waking up early to catch the connections to the first cable car, I am at 1400 metres above sea level by 9:10am. Therefore, I have time for the toilet! A happy bladder is the key to a happy hike.
I don’t stop to look at the town or check out the shrine. I came here to walk, so I figured I could visit both places later. I take some photos to help future hikers, and go through the shinmon (spirit door, 神門). I’ve waited two years for this.
From the trailhead at 1400 metres, it’s a descent until the saddle point of about 1300 metres. That’s the only piece of information I hold in my head. As the forest closes in protectively, my last attachments to work, all my practical life concerns, and even my own thoughts, fall away. Back in April, when I had planned this trip, I had desperately wanted to hike, to camp, to deprive myself until I hit a catharsis as I had on the Kunisaki Penninsula. In April, I thought was giving myself space and time in order to reflect over several days. But now that I am here, barely three months later, I’m reminded of how little I know about myself. Rather, that knowing what I should do is different from knowing why I should do it. My instinct made the right choice to decide to come, but my head made the wrong justification. And that’s okay. What’s important is that I’m here, walking, with a blank mind.
I pass a few hikers here and there as I’m on my own and have nothing to do other than to keep taking steps forward. I pause and take photos, check my time, take a sip of water. My shirt isn’t yet drenched, and my brow isn’t dripping yet. I don’t even need the sedge hat that I had brought. This feels good.
I can relax this time because, for once, I have wi-fi, a fully charged phone, a powerbank, and a camera. The mental space of knowing you have backups — that I can look things up later, capture moments forever on a camera, make a phone call if I need to — is massive. Enjoying this trail makes me realise the true mental weight of fending for myself with far fewer resources back then.
If I had climbed Ishizuchi two years ago, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it like I am now. I would have been carrying twice the weight and wouldn’t have bothered stopping for photos. I would have been worried about my dying phone, where to camp, and how to get off the mountain without a map.
It’s only returning now that I can confirm I made the right decision then. Then, was not the time. Then, I was not ready. Although, I still don’t know how to define what ready means now.
If I lived here, I would go slower and just soak in the view, savour the quiet in the trees. The trees aren’t even rustling. In some parts, there aren’t even the cicadas, the thundering heralds of Japanese summer.
No direct sun is great. I can keep my shaved head uncovered. No cicadas is a bonus. No walking staff is an inconvenience (affects my confidence with weak ankles). No mosquitos and hovering gnats is a godsend. I guess the human mind just works that way — immediate concerns. Grounded concerns. Grounded concerns were also extended to fellow hikers: how on earth do they expect urbanites to not trip through those gaping holes between the wooden planks?!
My first checkpoint is the saddle point, where I stop descending and have to regain all my lost altitude. The next four are the climbing chains that lured me to Ishizuchi. It seems to take forever to climb from the saddle point to the practice chains. My feet keep moving mechanically as my mind grows mildly impatient.
But when I finally see the practice one on a little slope, I can’t be bothered to try in case I have to come back down. Instead I follow the walking path to the same destination as the chains: an open rest area with sitting benches. My reflex is to see them as benches for sleeping. So I really could have camped up here. A mental sigh, and I move on. I want to try those chains!
When I finally get past the relentless ascent, the bugs come. They were lurking at a stony bend that opens out into a breathtaking clearing. Right in front of you is a wall — Ishizuchi’s wall. To the left and right the ridges peel from green into blue. This would be one of those spots to take out a folding chair and just stare. Except I can’t.
Except I can’t. The one or two black dots hovering around my eyes quickly multiply into a dizzying ten. I barely have enough time to take a photo of a sign that marked my distance before racing on. Buzzing and overing dots are the bane of my existance.
As the bushes close in again to offer shade without covering the sky, I begin to hear voices. A group of three guys chat leisurely away and I catch up with them just as the last one starts climbing the first set of chains, called kusari in Japanese.
I study how he climbs and lift one of the links. The humungous chains are stabilised by their own weight. My small hand can just close around around it. Despite the added weight of my backpack, it’s effortless to hoist myself up the first step. The solid rock face is uneven, so everywhere looks like a foothold to jab my toe into the way one does for bouldering. The first few steps are pretty routine for someone who grew up on a mountain slope.
Half-way up, something changes. First, I slip. In the past, it was a point of pride that I could cling on calmly with just my arms and pull myself back up. But after I dislocated my shoulder this February while climbing, I learned how bad the habit was. Since then, I’ve focused more on taking precise, steady steps. I regroup and remind myself to focus on technique.
Was that sweat on my hands? Why is my breathing heavier? Oh, it’s my backpack. This climbing is nothing like the bouldering gyms because it’s not an artificial setting. I’m not able to change into comfy sports clothes and ditch my stuff in a locker. I’m carrying everything. That extra everything on my back is working with gravity to push me forward and pull me back no matter which I lean.
By the second set of chains, the feeling I had earlier comes to full bloom: fear. I finally notice the tingling: my calves are quivering. This second set is forcing me to push myself up and make long reaches. The mountain is beating down my dignity by forcing me to use whatever route I need to haul myself up. No elegant bouldering moves here.
I look out at the view — an unobstructed view of cloudland where an endless stretch of mountains should be. I look down — an unobstructed view of a 40+ metre fall. I finally get why my hands are clenching. But it doesn’t matter that I can’t see much. I like being here. Fear wasn’t quite the right word. It’s another feeling. Finding a wider sitting spot, I stare out for a bit and try to examine it. But it remains as elusive as the view.
By the third set, I watch another hiker disappear into the clouds before starting. To be left behind. To see someone else trail blazing. How different the interpretations could be. I left the group of chatting guys behind at the last rest station while I climbed the second set of chains. The solitary hiker who took the bus with me has set his own steady pace and left me behind. But, watching his steady steps on the smooth granite rock makes me feel a bit better. This was probably his first time too. Maybe I don’t look as silly as I feel.
I proceed to grab the last, and longest, set of chains. My legs are growing numb from trying to contain the adrenaline. I don’t get it. My mind’s game to do this. My heart isn’t racing or stuck in my throat. It’s nothing like the agonizing nervousness I feel in, say, a presentation. My muscles aren’t spasming from fear. But my legs are afraid. Why?
I don’t dwell on it. My body knows what to do when there’s something to climb and I go on autopilot. Look for a foothold, then look for the best corresponding link to grab.
Focus on stepping up with the legs. Use the rock properly. You can’t rely on friction with all the cloud dew on the rock face.
I slip as I’m stepping up. I can feel the slight pop on my left shoulder and do a mental curse. Your runners aren’t your climbing shoes: they have no grip and the toe isn’t so reliable. But I’m sailing up on adrenaline.
I want the internal quaking in my legs to stop. I want them to trust in my ability, in their own ability. I look behind me. There still isn’t anything to look at, except the distance down. But this is the first time I’ve enjoyed a view clinging on to something rather than standing somewhere. That’s what the feeling is — a feeling of firsts. Every first feels different. Sometimes I’m so caught up I don’t notice it. But there it is, another first.
In the end, I don’t savour the moment long. The bugs are climbing right along with me. They had thinned out, but even one or two zipping around your head is enough to keep me in the practical moment of moving forward.
At the top, I come around to face the Ishizuchi summit shrine, Ishizuchi Jinja. It’s small, but it looms above the path. My eyes trace along the sparse architecture: a fence, a small house for Ishizuchi’s spirit, and the torii gate with its sacred rope markers. Within second, the lines point my attention up into the swirling clouds. Just like the holy pile of rocks on top of Gassan that made up a shrine, this landmark is merely a reminder of where you are. The place isn’t much, but it also isn’t a disappointment. How could I be disappointed when I turn around and realise I am on top of Shikoku?
It’s a little house for a venerable spirit, one with centuries of worshippers. I take in the waves of undulating hills, shifting between light and shadow, and conclude that Ishizuchi’s kami, spirit, probably spends most of its time out there.
Then, I walk past the shrine to the summit lookout. This cleared gravel area is where most hikers stop. The ones that walked, rather than climbed, would see this spot first and might entirely miss the shrine hidden behind.
I drop my bag and start to snack. This vista is a view worth walking for any day. And when I stand on the large boulders at one end looking to the true peak of Tengudake, I understand why people come here for koyo, the autumn foliage. The green razor peak would transform into a crimson and golden flame in the Fall.
In the Fall, there are no mosquitos.
Of all things to think about. But the weight of the thought settles in. I chew thoughtfully on my energy bar.
The small chain link down from a pile of large boulders is the obvious clue towards the true peak of Tengudake. I followed that down. I’m this close anyway, may as well. I can see the trickle of hikers heading over and a few standing on the other end. I follow.
After using the small chain to get down the boulders, I follow the upper rock area. I can’t see a path, and the elevation gives me a good view. It’s a pretty straight forward walk at first, even though everything is slanted.
Then, it grew not slanted. And by the time I realize, I am already clinging to the rock on all fours. I went from walking, to a bit of sitting, to a bit of grabbing. Only when I got stuck did it dawn on me this was not the right route.
I poke my head over the edge and watch the clouds shoot up past me. I turn my head to the group of hikers coming down from Tengudake. How can they be walking on the rocks? I stare at them.
As each of the hikers wait for each other in turn, one of them stares at me. We stare at each other. I’m wondering where that invisible path they were clearly following was. I guess they’re wondering why there is a random person sprawled on a 45-degree rock.
After arriving at Tengudake, my legs are still wobbly when I took a 360-panorama. This climb has taught me that I really don’t trust my feet. At such heights, apparently balancing takes all my focus. It didn’t matter that there were a ring of protective rocks. It didn’t matter that rationally there was plenty of space to stand.
But the view. The view I have to my myself is incredible. Actually, my shaking feet made the moment sweeter. I didn’t want this moment to end any faster just because of a strange sensation in my limbs. My heart was steady. My mind was calm. My panicking legs just haven’t grown up yet.
I persevere with the photo taking at every angle and snack some more, completely disregarding the signals coming from my limbs. Funny if I do end up being one of those Instagrammers who fall off a mountain trying to take some vain photo (that isn’t even a selfie!).
In the end, the flies keep me from staying here forever. A holy place is not necessarily a romantic one, so I’ve learned. Two women come up and I head back down. By watching them approach, I found out there was a much easier walking trail over.
Of course. I just didn’t look hard enough. And I don’t regret it. It’s nice having options as I climb along the rock shelf a bit more, reluctant to let go of the incredible view. The draw of the clouds sweeping up the cliff was irresistible. Danger has its beauty. Or perhaps the beautiful are usually dangerous. Can’t tell, but I don’t have time to think about it. I need to watch my time.
The return walk is straight forward. I take the stairs back down and go at an even more brisk pace than I did while coming up. I keep my head down and just kept on watching the next step. Which rock is safe to step on? Should I angle my steps down?
Now, it is just about getting back down the mountain to catch the 3:20 bus back to town.
There are so many things I could have done a little bit better. I could have taken bug spray so I wouldn’t have any buzzing around my ears. I could have done overnight lodging to enjoy the views for longer. I should have checked out the Joju Shrine before entering the trailhead so that I could pick up a free walking stick to help my knees and give myself a bit more confidence. I could have found the trail to Tengudake. But…in the end I’m glad I didn’t. In the end, today was perfect.
Mount Ishizuchi is a dream two years in the making, a dream I didn’t really know I had. My first attempt in 2015 was just a mental exercise. Would I have enough time? Would I be able to camp on the mountain? Would I starve if there’s no food? Two years ago, I sat on a bench at Yokomine-ji and stared at glowing sheets of white above the shingled temple rooftops. After staring temptation in the face, I turned my back on Ishizuchi and finished walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage in 40 days. I vented that frustration by climbing the Dewa Sanzan instead a few weeks later.
My second attempt was in 2016 when I was desperate to walk through high summer again for my birthday. The logistics didn’t work well, I went to the Kunisaki Peninsula instead to do some solitary walking and camping.
After walking Shikoku, I reflected in my afterword that I “think more in terms of seasons: five years would be five chances to climb a mountain in the summer”. At the time, it was just an idea. But being able to climb Mount Ishizuchi this year is a small act that reaffirms that conviction. I have changed and, I think, for the better. Every year, in returning to the same habit, I am laying a small brick towards … who knows what?
Nevermind, I saw, I climbed, and now I’m napping.
And yes, I treated myself to coffee that afternoon. Even better, this unassuming independent cafe, Nakamura Coffee in Imabari City, has an owner who’s so fanatical about bikes he used the wheels as decoration for his ceiling lights!
Thanks for reading!