ishizuchi hiking saijo city

Mount Ishizuchi: Route Information

This is just an informational post with descriptive photos of the Omotesando hiking route from the Ishizuchi Cable Car (1400 metres) and Joju Shrine to the peak of Mount Ishizuchi (1982 metres), the tallest mountain in Western Japan, in Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku. I have a separate post on:

 The Ishizuchi Omotesando Route

Mount ishizuchi english route map

Mount Ishizuchi English hiking route map

For information and photos for train connections, bus times (note, only 4 buses run daily), and lodgings please check my transportation and lodgings post.

mount ishizuchi hiking map

A general idea of all the routes you can take up to the peak. — Photo by Athena Lam

Preparation & Etiquette

ishizuchi hiking guide

Free walking sticks at the Joju Shrine by the trailhead — Photo by Athena Lam

Please check my general information post on preparation.

A friendly reminder that we are visitors on the mountain and we should take all the rubbish that we have (wrappers, etc.) back down.

mount ishizuchi toilet

Use the spray to flush the toilet if you see one — Photo by Athena Lam

Toilets, also, are not flush. You should follow instructions and throw used tissue into the bins provided so they can be taken down the mountain. If they are thrown into the toilet, they will just stay untreated, which is unhygienic.

Ishizuchi Omotesando hiking route

The English and Japanese trail guides suggest about 3 hours going up and 3 hours going down. Below is my time.

Strava Mount Ishizuchi climb

Strava recording of my route up Mount Ishizuchi (screencap)

This recording is from the cable car station, through the town with the Joju shrine, and up to Mount Ishizuchi’s peak. It doesn’t include the last leg to Tengudake.

map of mount ishizuchi shrine

It’s about 1km uphill to the shrine — Photo by Athena Lam

Note that many Japanese maps are not to scale. They’re general ideas, but the distances they measure are often pretty accurate. Many signs are also only in Japanese, but I think the toilets have English instructions. Try to keep a translation app on your phone if you need help.

ishizuchi ryokan 日の出山旅館

Hinodeya Ryokan and other lodgings at the Joju Shrine — Photo by Athena Lam

From the ropeway, just follow the route uphill to Jōju Shrine at about 1400m. It’s about a 20-minute walk through a wide, winding path with plenty of shade. This part of the route will have a good number of benches because many local tourists only go to the shrine. On the actual hiking route, benches are usually only at specific rest points.

The 1km approach to the village will end at a cluster of buildings which make up mostly the ryokans for people who stay overnight and the shrine is just behind. The trail begins at the an open wooden gate labelled with the characters “登山口” (tōzanguchi), which means trailhead.

Ishizuchi trailhead 石鎚山 登山口

Ishizuchi trailhead (tozanguchi) — Photo by Athena Lam

From the trailhead at 1400 metres, it’s a descent until about 1300 metres through a natural and relatively shady path. The path can get muddy after the rains as the water doesn’t drain from the troughs that well.

mount ishizuchi trailhead

The first leg of the route goes down until the saddle point — Photo by Athena Lam

The good news is it doesn’t have a killer amount of mosquitos, but if you don’t have bug spray, be prepared for a swarm of flies circling your head with the most irritating buzzing.

The torii gate that you encounter is the saddle point of Hacchozaka. From there, it’s a non-stop climb.

mount ishizuchi hiking trail

The torii gate that marks entry into the sacred grounds of the mountain  Photo by Athena Lam

Note that many of the stares are oddly spaced as they’re built into the mountains. Also be careful of the planks, which have huge gaps where your feet can get caught if you’re not careful with your step. Finally, take your time with steps as the planks can also be slippery.

八丁坂 石鎚山

Saddlepoint of Hachozaka — Photo by Athena Lam

The endless stairs can be a bit of a drag. Just look out for a crest with a small trail to the right. That is the set of testing chains, which I do recommend for people who have not climbed or bouldered before.

ishizuchi trial chain kusari

The trial chains for Mount Ishizuchi — Photo by Athena Lam

For people who don’t want to climb, just take the left route and you will arrive at the same rest house.

For me, this would be a suitable rest house to overnight if you have a sleeping bag and plenty of bug spray and mosquito incense. I don’t think there is a toilet, but there might be running water as there used to be a shop here. I would say bring extra water if you plan to overnight, as the trail doesn’t cross any streams.

mount ishizuchi camping

A possible sleeping spot by the trial chains for campers — Photo by Athena Lam

From that point, I began to notice the bugs. I don’t know why they started hovering around me after I left the shaded area, but anyway they did and it was a pain. They weren’t mosquitos, but the buzzing was about the same.

I didn’t dwell in the clearing as long as I’d have liked as a result. This spot offers a perfect view of the Ishizuchi wall. The mountain right in front of you is what you’ll be scaling. The thought gave me a boost because it looked cool and in the end, I figured that all mountains with designated recreational trails can’t be that killer.

ishizuchi hiking saijo city

The clearing looking up towards Ishizuchi’s peak — Photo by Athena Lam

The distance covered by the time you hit this spot is about 1/4 way in from the right of the elevation map. The spot is marked with characters. So you are more or less in your final stretch.

ishizuchi hiking elevation

The clearing that is close to the first flight of chains.

Continuing from the clearing, you will encounter your first set of chains. The chains are called kusari (鎖) in Japanese. The lengths are 33 metres, 65 metres and 68 metres.

Ishizuchi chains kusari

Giving a sense of size

The first set of chains is relatively straight forward. If you’re still unsure, but want to try one, this is the one to try. The other two are both longer and more difficult.

A few tips for climbing the chains:

  • Safe is better than sorry — no matter how confident you are, use a steady grip until you get the hang of these chains.
  • Find a steady foothold first before moving up to avoid slipping as you step
  • Use your legs for power rather than your arms because those are bigger muscles
  • Suck in your stomach — activating your core helps you balance and eases weight on your arms
  • Use the chain links as a foothold if necessary (but I’d suggest keeping the other foot on a rock to stay steady)
ishizuchi kusari chains

First flight of Ishizuchi chains is 35 metres — Photo by Athena Lam

After the first flight of chains, you will reach a lookout and last resting point. The lookout has a signpost pointing in different directions. Remember Joju (成就) as the direction you need to return to later. The tsuchigoya is another mountain hut for overnight staying, but it is 4km away.

ishizuchi tsuchigoya

Joju points back down to the cablecar, while Tsujigoya points to a mountain hut 4km away — Photo by Athena Lam

Above the fork is the last resting facility, which has vending machines and a clean toilet. Note that ¥100 charge for the toilet is for the upkeep of the park grounds and the facilities. I would highly suggest contributing. In addition, this toilet is a manual flush and the toilet paper should be discarded into the bin.

Last rest station before the final climb to the peak — Photo by Athena Lam

Ishizuchi chains kusari

Sign to the 2nd set of Ishizuchi chains — Photo by Athena Lam

Just a flight or two up from the rest station is another fork. The left route is towards the chains (鎖). The right one is the walking route.

Unfortunately, I was a bit too anxious to take a photo with my camera because I was worried I would drop the cap, so I had to make due with my phone. This second set of chains is twice as long as the first one and has an open view, which probably will give the effect of being higher up.

石鎚山 鎖

Looking down from the second flight of chains — Photo by Athena Lam

In addition, this climb heaving yourself up in some parts. Parts of the chain will have additional triangle footholds. Give them a try, but a warning that they swing. The swinging can be unnerving, so I suggest keeping at least one foot on the rockface to help. Also, if you have a backpack, your centre of gravity will be behind you.

This set of chains does have spots to sit and rest if you need to. Lastly, after I got to the top of this set, I didn’t exactly end up on the trail again. I came across another pile of rocks that had I think one link of chain or rope and went up that one too. Don’t be fooled by the short distance or slightly flatter smooth rock because this type of surface is easy to slip on.

石鎚山 鎖道

鎖道 means chain route — Photo by Athena Lam

The above is the sign to the last set of chains. Ishizuchi’s third set of kusari is the steepest. The crevices are smaller and there are fewer pieces of rock sticking out to use. Whatever shoes you’re using, drive them into crevices to get a better foothold so that you can step up rather than rely only on your arms to drag you up. The third set of chains doesn’t have much space to sit or rest, so take plenty of time to mentally prepare!

If you haven’t already experienced it by the second set of chains, the rock will be slippery because it will be wet. The clouds are driven up the mountainside and precipitate on the rocks even on a clear day.

Mount Ishizuchi chains 石鎚山 鎖

The last set of kusari, chains, is 68 metres up to the peak — Photo by Athena Lam

I’m used to climbing and bouldering, but I’ll be the first to my legs turned to jelly and my fingers clenched. I also began to sweat as I clung on to the gigantic chains, but in retrospect, I think this is also because of the weight in my backpack.

I didn’t climb back down any of the chains. Climbing down, in my opinion, is far more difficult.

mount ishizuchi camping

An cabin I saw along one of the chain routes — Photo by Athena Lam

The final set of chains carries you face to face with Mount Ishizuchi shrine, which is quite an accomplished feeling since most other trekkers walk up from behind the summit.

ishizuchi jinja shrine

Ishizuchi Shrine at the peak — Photo by Athena Lam

The summit has a lodge, which I wrote about in my other post. The open area is also great for taking your lunch and the group of guys I overtook made fresh coffee over a portable stove as well!

But this summit is not the peak. The real peak is the razor-shaped Tengudake. Dake or take (岳) means peak and tengu are the mountain spirits that look like a cross between a dog and a lion.

石鎚山 弥山

The optional final leg to Tengudake (Tengu Peak) — Photo by Athena Lam

To get over there, climb over and down the cluster of rocks (where you will see another chain link). You can leave your backpack at the viewpoint, as Japan is quite safe and many other climbers also do.

The trick is after you get to the bottom of that chain link, look to your left (if you are facing the rock). The path towards Tengudake might be slightly covered by the bushes, but the dirt route is entirely free of weeds and well maintained. I suggest following that route.

Tengudake 天狗岳

The recommended trail to Tengudake — Photo by Athena Lam

The walk requires a bit of climbing over some rocks, but within 15 minutes you should reach Tengudake. The outlook is quite narrow, so it can only fit a few people sitting or standing at a time. I suggest you stay sitting to be safe while you enjoy your snack and the beautiful 360-degree view.

ishizuchi Tengudake 天狗岳

The view of the mountains from the true peak, Tengudake — Photo by Athena Lam

I spent an extra hour or so in this area around the peak and I would suggest factoring that in to your total walk time. This is definitely the place to have a picnic. Your coat might also come in handy as your body cools down as well.

ishizuchi hiking peak

The viewpoint from Mount Ishizuchi’s peak — Photo by Athena Lam

At this point, if you are not planning to overnight either on the peak or at the trailhead, then you should watch your time to return. If you’d like a traditional souvenir, you can pay for a stamp at the stamp office.

mount ishizuchi peak

The shrine office at Ishizuchi summit — Photo by Athena Lam

The last bus leaving Mount Ishizuchi is around 5:20pm. If you took the first and cable car up (to start hiking at around 9:30am), then you should have plenty of time for the return walk. If you took the later bus and started closer to 11:00 or 12:00 noon, then you should definitely watch your time. My non-stop return walk was 1:30, so about 2 hours to the cable car station.

Again, please be careful when you go down the mountain as the path is steep and there are many gaps between the planks.

joju shrine ishizuchi hinodeya ryokan food

The ryokans outside the Joju shrine serve simple food, but menus are in Japanese — Photo by Athena Lam

If you arrive at the Joju Shrine and know you cannot make the 3:15pm bus, then you may as well stop and reward yourself with a meal. You have about two hours to rest and check out the shrine.

ishizuchi shrine chugu jojusha shrine

Joju Shrine — Photo by Athena Lam

I had about 20 minutes to spare at the Joju Shrine, I went to look around. I was told there were a bunch of hammers (as a symbol of the mountain), but didn’t notice them.

The way to pay your respects is to wash your hands, one after another, with the ladels provided at the fountain. Replace the ladel as you found it. Next, proceed to the shrine. Toss a coin (a 5-yen with a circle is best for luck), go back out to ring the bell with the rope, clap your hands twice, bow, and make a prayer. When you are done, clap your hands twice again and bow.

ishizuchi shrine chugu jojusha shrine

The inside of the Joju Shrine — Photo by Athena Lam

Finally, go back down to the cable car station and have a stretch if you have a few spare minutes!

ishizuchi jinja shrine

Many shrines have smaller shrines — Photo by Athena Lam

Thanks for reading! If you found this helpful, please share!

You can also check out my post on transportation to Mount Ishizuchi so that you can properly plan your transit route. Happy hiking!

Walks and Hikes
mount ishizuchi peak

Mount Ishizuchi: Overview & General Information

This is a summary report of hiking Mount Ishizuchi (石鎚山, 1982m), the “Stone Hammer” mountain in Ehime Prefecture, Japan. My two main reasons for doing this are to give people a sense of what it is like to hike in Japan, some cultural things to note, and specifically for Mount Ishizuchi, what the 3 sets of climbing chains are like.

Officially, the mountain is open between July 1 and October and I hiked it in mid July, 2017.

This is my overview post of Mount Ishizuchi, which includes tips on preparation. I have separate posts for the following:

A bit of history

ishizuchi jinja shrine

Ishizuchi Shrine at the top of end of the top of the mountain — Photo by Athena Lam

Mount Ishizuchi is also one of Japan’s 7 Holy Mountains (Japanese Wiki), along with Mount Fuji, Mount Tate, Hakusan, Mount Omine, Mount Shakka, Daisen. But what makes this obscure set of 7 different from the better-known 3 Holy Mountains (Sanreizan 三霊山) of Mount Fuji, Mount Tate, and Mount Haku? The set of seven that Mount Ishizuchi belongs to can also be called the Seven Holy Peaks (nanareiho 七霊峰) in mountain worship, sangakushinkou (山岳信仰). Wikipedia describes mountain worship as part of nature worship in Japan (自然崇拝). This could be simplified under the umbrella of Shinto (神道), Japan’s worship of nature and natural forces. Shinto and Buddhism together feed the syncretic religion of Shugendo (修験道), which is often known for its austere and remote training (i.e. on top of mountains).

Mount Ishizuchi today is actually made of three peaks: Mount Ishizuchi (the end of the main hiking trail), Mount Tengu (天狗岳, the true peak), and Misen (弥山).

ishizuchi Tengudake 天狗岳

The view from Tengudake, the real peak about 15 minutes walk from Ishizuchi Shrine — Photo by Athena Lam

Ishizuchi was known as a Shugendo site since the Nara Period. It is also associated with Kukai (空海), disciple of the Chinese monk Huiguo, and founder of Japan’s Shingon Buddhism. Kukai is said to have done escoteric training at Ishizuchi Shrine (石鎚神社), Maegami Temple (前神寺), Gokuraku Temple (極楽寺) and Yokomine Temple (横峰寺). During the Heian Period, the Gongo Zaogongen (金剛蔵王権現) deity, a unique Shugendo blend of a Buddhist war-like bodhisattva and mountain god, was enshrined at the site. It is also said that Toyotomi Hideyori made a donation to Ishizuchi as well because of the shrine’s significance since the Imperial period.

In 1871, during the Meiji Shinto-Buddhist separation period, Ishizuchi became designated as a Shinto shrine while Maegami Temple and Yokomine Temples ended up being designated as Shingon Buddhist temples.

Ishizuchi Shrine actually consists of several parts. The shrine atop Mount Ishizuchi is said to have been founded over a thousand years ago by a shaman called En-no-Gyoja. Another is a 20-minute walk from the Ishizuchi ropeway (the Joju Shrine). One location is just outside Ishizuchiyama Station on the JR Yosan Line. Buddhist artworks and scritures by successive emperors are still kept in one of the locations.

How I got there

shikoku JR yosan line ishizuchi train

The special Anpanman Train on the JR Yosan Line — Photo by Athena Lam

  • Train from Imabari Station: 6:50 > 7:11am arrival
  • Bus: 7:47 > 8:41 arrival
  • Ropeway: 9:00
  • Ropeway: 15:00 (10 min ride + 5 min walk)
  • Bus: 15:17 > 16:11 arrival
  • Train for Matsuyama: 16:19 train

I have a more detailed post on logistical information here.

Preparation & Etiquette

ishizuchi hiking guide

Free walking sticks at the Joju Shrine by the trailhead — Photo by Athena Lam

Mount Ishizuchi is a good day-hike, but it will be a challenge for people who are not used to climbing altitudes. The route has many flights of stairs, many of which are uneven.

To bring:

  • Food: snacks and at least 1 full meal.
  • 1L of water minimum because there are no vending machines until you get to the top.
  • Bring a backpack.
  • Mosquito / bug spray or incense because the incessant buzzing most irritating thing along the route
  • An extra layer (or two in the Fall) as temperatures are lower at the peak, wind chill can be a factor, and the weather can always change.
  • A rain jacket or umbrella.
  • Comfortable hiking shoes or runners (something with grip and that you can walk for 6 hours in and would support weak ankles).
  • Pick up a free walking stick from the Joju Shrine just before the trailhead. Also makes a great natural souvenir.
  • Spare battery to charge your phone / pocket Wi-Fi

The day of:

  • Know your transit times
  • Keep your garbage and take it down the mountain
  • Follow instructions in the washroom because the waste gets flushed right onto the mountain.
  • Say ‘konichiwa’ as a friendly ‘hello’ greeting to other hikers
  • Say ‘sumimasen as a polite ‘excuse me’ if you want to overtake someone

My Route Overview:

Strava Mount Ishizuchi climb

Strava recording of my route up Mount Ishizuchi (screencap)

Generally, the recommendation is 3 hours for going up and 3 hours for coming down. I would say that is quite accurate, although doable within 1.5 hours both ways without stopping if you are fit and used to trekking.

You can check my route information post  for photos of how various checkpoints look (especially the chains).

You can check out this post information on how to get to and from Mt. Ishizuchi and accommodation.

Walks and Hikes
mount ishizuchi peak

Mount Ishizuchi: How to Get Around & Hiking Info

mount ishizuchi peak

View from Mount Ishizuchi’s peak — Photo by Athena Lam

This is an informational post on hiking Mount Ishizuchi (石鎚山, 1982m) the tallest mountain in Western Japan, on Shikoku. The “Stone Hammer” mountain is most famous for its sheer cliff face and the three iron chains that climbers can use to get to the peak. Of course, a regular walking route is also available now and the mountain offers a range of hiking routes for campers, day trekkers, and hikers.

Officially, the mountain is open between July 1 and October, but you can follow the routes from the base up yourself as early as Spring, once the snows melt. In the Fall, it is known for koyo (autumn foliage); in the winter, it also offers skiing grounds. Mount Ishizuchi is also one of Japan’s 7 Holy Mountains (Japanese Wiki), along with:

  • Mount Fuji (Shizuoka and Yamanashi Prefectures)
  • Mount Tate (Toyama Prefecture)
  • Hakusan (Ishikawa Prefecture)
  • Mount Omine  (Nara Prefecture)
  • Mount Shakka (Nara Prefecture)
  • Daisen (Tottori Prefecture)

In this post, you’ll find information on:

  • Getting to and from Mount Ishizuchi
  • Local hiking route map
  • Lodging information
  • Basic vocabulary (for map reading mostly)

You’ll find further information in these posts:

Getting In and Out:

The closest major cities to Mount Ishizuchi are Takamatsu (Kagawa Prefecture) and Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture). Many people who drive across the Shimanami Kaido will also stop at Imabari, which is a small city that’s a few stops from the closest train station.

This guide is only for people taking public transit, which includes trains, a local bus, and a ropeway up the mountain. I’m not familiar with driving routes!

Getting in:

  1. Use Google Maps to search your train route to Japan Rail (JR) Iyo-Saijō Station. Google maps in Japan is very reliable and has exact train times.
  2. Take a bus from outside Iyo-Saijo Station to Ishizuchiyama (JR伊予西条駅 → 石鎚ロープウェイ前). Note: 4 daily buses only.
  3. Get off at Ishizuchiyama (石鎚山) stop.
  4. Walk up a hill to take the ropeway.
  5. Take the Ishizuchi Tōzan Ropeway (石鎚登山ロープウェイ) up the mountain. (¥1000 adult one-way, ¥1950 round trip)

Getting out:

  1. Take the Ishizuchi Tōzan Ropeway (石鎚登山ロープウェイ) back down the mountain.
  2. Take the bus back to Iyo Saijo Station.
  3. Take the train from Iyo-Saijo Station back to where you are staying.

The connections I used is in my Mount Ishizuchi: Overview post.

Train:

shikoku JR yosan line ishizuchi train

Anpanman Train on the JR Shikoku Yosan Line — Photo by Athena Lam

You must note the exact trains that match the 4 scheduled bus times.

For example, to meet the 10:27 morning bus from Iyo-Saijo Station you would have to take:

  • From Takamatsu: Ishizuchi #7, departing at 8:44
  • From Okayama: Shiokaze #3, departing 8:30
  • From Matsuyama: Shiokaze #12 departing at 9:12

I took an early train from Imabari to catch the 7:47 bus from Iyo-Saijo.

You can look up the train prices on Hyperdia, but if you have a JR Pass or All-Shikoku Pass it doesn’t matter.

Bus Times:

shikoku henro nojuku 四国お遍路 野宿 伊予西条駅

JR Iyo Saijo Station Bus stop for Mount Ishizuchi (look for the timetable) — Photo by Athena Lam

Buses in Japan are pretty punctual. Surprisingly, mine at 7:47 was not that day. The tip is, definitely be on time because buses will leave on time, but don’t panic if it’s not on the dot! The bus stop has several different bus routes, so make sure you look at the bus sign before getting on. Don’t just get on any bus that arrives at 7:47. The bus you’re looking for has the route name blow

The route for the bus is: JR伊予西条駅 → 石鎚ロープウェイ前

The return route for the bus is:  石鎚ロープウェイ前 → JR伊予西条駅

JR Iyo-Saijo Station to Mt. Ishizuchi Ropeway Timetable(※2017 Version)
※Weekends, Weekdays, Holidays
Iyo-Saijo Station 07:47 10:27 13:37 16:23
Kawaguchi 08:33 11:13 14:23 17:09
Ropeway 08:41 11:21 14:31 14:33
Nishinogawa 08:43 11:23 14:33 17:19
Check the latest times on the Setouchi Bus (Japanese Only)
ishizuchi ropeway bus stop

Where you get off to take the ropeway up to Ishizuchi.

ishizuchi ropeway bus stop

The bus stop for the return ride to JR Iyo-Saijo Station is on the opposite side of the street.

Mt. Ishizuchi Ropeway to JR Iyo-Saijo Station(2017 Version)
Nishinogawa 06:54 09:10 12:00 15:15 17:20
Ropeway 06:56 09:12 12:02 15:17 17:23
Kawaguchi 7:04 9:20 12:10 15:25 17:31
Iyo-Saijo Station 07:50 10:06 12:56 16:11 18:17
◆:Not running on Sundays or Holidays
Check the latest times on the Setouchi Bus (Japanese Only)
ishizuchi ropeway bus ticket

An old school bus ticket that the little souvenir shop beside the bus stop sells (bus takes cash too). 

Ishizuchi Tōzan Ropeway Times

ishizuchi ropeway cable car

Mount Ishizuchi Ropeway cablecar — Photo by Athena Lam

Translation of the Japanese Ropeway Timetable

Departures are every 20 minutes, so at 0:00, 0:20, and 0:40.

Price: ¥1950 Adults, ¥980 Children

I went in the summer and the ropeway opens at 9:00am. This means that if you take the 7:47am bus, you will probably have a little bit of extra time.

New Years (Jan 1) 4:00 ~ 18:00

Jan 2~ Apr
Daily

8:40 ~ 17:00

※Ski ground is open from late December to early March (skii ground hours (Japanese).

May~ Jun 8:40 ~ 17:00 (Weekdays)
7:40 ~ 18:00 (Weekends & Holidays)
Ishizuchi Festival
Jul 1-10

4:20 ~ 18:20 (Weekdays)
3:00 ~ 18:20 (Weekend)

Jul 11~ Aug

8:00 ~ 18:00 (Weekdays)
7:20 ~ 18:20 (Weekends, Holidays, Obon 8/13-16)
Sep 8:40 ~ 17:00 (Weedays)
7:40 ~ 18:00 (Weekends & Holidays)

Oct~ Nov 3

8:20 ~ 17:00 (Weekdays)
7:40 ~ 18:00 (Weekends & Holidays)
Nov 4~ Dec
Daily

8:40 ~ 17:00

※Late December – Early March the skii grounds are open Japanese ski ground schedule (Japanese).

Closures

April 10-14 (Full day)

Mount Ishizuchi Climbing Route

Mount Ishizuchi is famous for three sets of iron chains that climbers traditionally used to get to the peak. These days, a walking route is also available. I would recommend printing the English map for climbing Mount Ishizuchi as I found the information and route estimations quite accurate and helpful.

Mount ishizuchi english route map

Mount Ishizuchi English hiking route map from Iyo-Saijo (PDF link here)

The most popular route, from the Ishizuchi Ropeway (cable car) is also the shortest. The recommended time for the route is 3 hours up, and 3 hours down, which probably factors in plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. I did the route in 2:26 going up (moving time 1:53) and 1:29 going down.

I have a separate hiking diary entry with photos to give a sense of the route and the 3 sets of chains that people would be climbing.

Lodgings

ishizuchi ryokan 日の出山旅館

Ryokan by the Ishizuchi Chugu Joju Shrine — Photo by Athena Lam

Note that most places on Shikoku only speak Japanese, and a phone reservation prior is recommended. If you walk in, you will want to ask if there is room that day by noon, although the room may not be prepared until after 3pm. Most places come with a dinner prepared, and maybe a breakfast as well. The prices differ based on how many meals you want.

Below is a list of lodgings at Mount Ishizuchi. There is one lodge at the peak, and a cluster of places to stay at the top of the ropeway.

Shimotani (Base of the Ropeway)

Onsen Ryokan Kyoya (京屋旅館)  0897-59-0335
106 Nishinokawako, Saijo, Ehime Prefecture 793-0215, Japan

To be honest, from the outside, it doens’t look the greatest. Assuming the price is around the same as the ryokans at the top of the ropeway, I would suggest staying in one of those instead. Of course, if you want an onsen, then this is the one to stay at after a long day.

In Ishizuchi Komatsucho

*30 mins walk after the top of the Ishizuchi Ropeway, where the Ishizuchi Chugu Jojusha Shrine and entrance to the Ishizuchi trail is。

Hinodeya Ryokan (日の出山旅館)  0897-59-0143

Tamaya Ryokan (玉屋旅館)  0897-59-0415

Shiraishi Ryokan (白石旅館)  0897-59-0032

The three ryokan are the only buildings on the mountain that you will definitely pass when walking from the ropeway station to the Mount Ishizuchi trail. Together with the Joju Shrine.

At Mount Ishizuchi Peak

ishizuchi Chōjō-sansō 頂上山荘

Chōjō-sansō (頂上山荘) at the peak requires you to take rubbish down yourself — Photo by Athena Lam

Chōjō-sansō (頂上山荘),  0897-55-4168, The name actually means summit lodge description of this mountain hut run by the temple. It’s open from early May to early November. The lodging is pretty basic, but still costs ¥8500 with two meals, so budget yourself before deciding to just show up!

Useful Vocabulary (especially for map reading)

Note that all vowels are pronounced in consistently in Japanese. This means:

  • a = short a (as in ‘bat, at’)
  • i = ee (as in ‘tree’)
  • u = oo (as in ‘too’)
  • e = short e (as in ‘get’)
  • o = long o (as in ‘role, sole, coal’)
  • ai = long i (as in ‘I‘)
  • ei = long a (as in ‘Say’)
  • yu = long u (as in ‘shoe’)
  • oe = long o + short e (oh + eh?), two sounds
Map:
  • Peak – (Sanchō) 山頂
  • Information – annai (案内)
  • Bus – basu (バス)
  • Bus stop – basu tei (バス停)
  • Station – eki (駅)
  • Toilet – toire (トイレ) or tearai (手洗い )

Places

  • Iyo-Saijo JR Station – Iyo Saijo Eki (伊予西条駅)
  • Ishizuchi Cable Car – Ishizuchi ropuwei mae (石鎚ロープウェイ前)
  • Mount Tengu Peak – Tengudake 天狗岳

Accommodation / Bookings

  • Inns – ryokan (旅館), Minshuku (民宿) , Shukubo (宿坊)
  • Reservation – yoyaku onegai shimasu (予約お願いします)
  • Stay 1 night – ippaku (一泊)
  • Stay 2 nights – nipakku (2泊)
  • One person – hitoride (一人で)
  • Two / three / four people – ninin / sannin / yonin (2人、3人、4人)
  • Meals – shokuji (食事)
  • Stay without meals – sudomari (素泊まり) * otherwise usually at least one meal is assumed.
If you have a pocket wi-fi or SIM, you can check out my list of apps for local travel. I had a pocket wi-fi on me and the reception was good.
Check out my information on hiking the Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata if you want to go somewhere else local!
Walks and Hikes
Koyasan Koyo Fall Leaves Maples

Henro Afterward: Mount Koya Oct. 15

Bamboo Grove Choishimichi Koyasan

Bamboo grove beginning to the Choishimichi to Koyasan

There is an old saying that upon entering the sea of Buddhist truth, even the smallest fish is instantly transformed into a great dragon. Monastic disciples upon entering the Dragon Gate at Eiheiji, one of the two Soto Zen headquarters in Japan, are transformed into dragons, and when he finishes training and re-enters the world, he goes back to being a fish.

Kaoru Nonomura (Eat Sleep Sit p. 27)

It’s October 15, and I’ve left the swimming world of fish for a day to wrap up my Shikoku pilgrimage at Koya-san (Mount Koya), the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s been over two months since I finished the Shikoku pilgrimage (or Ohenr0) and fell back into ‘life’, but I do feel the change. Perhaps I’m a small dragon, like the one in Disney’s Mulan.

I wake to the same pitch black night I went to sleep in a few hours ago. It’s 5:00am and I need to catch the first train to Kudoyama, where the path to Koya-san begins from Jison-in. This 22km pilgrimage path is the historical route that Kukai, the founder of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism, routinely walked to visit his mother at Jison-in since Koya-san at the time was closed to women.

Having finished my kechigan, visiting all the 88 temples, the last thing to do is to thank the founder to give thanks for a safe passage. I had put it off in August, thinking I didn’t have enough time to enjoy the place. Ironically, I have even less time now. I’d taken an overnight bus from Tokyo to Osaka and arrived yesterday at 7am, but too late to start my hike up. Today, I need to finish the hike and then head back in another overnight bus to Tokyo, and then catch a flight out to Hong Kong. The entire arrangement seems unceremonious, and yet is entirely in line with my character. If I don’t do it now, I will not be able to do so again until next year’s Spring.

Sunrise over Tokyo

Early birds get to see sunrise

I have breakfast in the downstairs area of my Airbnb house, a pristinely kept building converted into a private coffee house downstairs. My host left me a massive breakfast of bread, tea, fruits, yogurt, and even onigiri. Such breakfast spreads always lull me into a leisurely pace as I put a bit of everything on my plate and fetch a drink too. By the time I sit down, I have only a few minutes left to inhale the food. I fail to finish. Not wanting to hurt my hosts’ feelings by having some dishes untouched, put some of the fruits in a bag as a snack. I rush upstairs to get my things and out the door to catch the train. Missing this one means losing an hour’s worth of walking time (and my precious sleep earlier!).

Unlike my mornings on Shikoku, the air is refreshingly cool.

The station is only a few minutes away, and I end up having a few minutes to spare on the platform. I watch the navy sky melt into warmer colours above the flat-topped houses. Other people in shirts and dark suits were fanning out across the platform in a sleepy daze. This quiet urban scene is such a contrast to the rural towns and highways I woke up to, drenched in sweat, two months ago.

The local train arrives and weaves its way into the hillsides of the next prefecture, Wakayama, where Koya-san is located. I try to nap to make up for my tossing and turning last night. Despite the poor sleep, I need to make the most of daylight, which means setting off at dawn. I’m taken aback by how this was taken for granted, given that city life and city lights means liberation from the limitations of daylight. Could Shikoku really have been two months ago? And was the entire experience really only 40 days? How could something so distant, so specific, be so easy to pick up again? How had those days worked so deeply into my bones, muscles, and entire thought process?

Kudoyama Hiking Route Koyasan Map

Map of Kudoyama’s hiking routes, including the one to Koya-san

When I get off at Kudoyama Station, I fall into another habit I used to have: taking my time to do things like snack and use the toilet before beginning my walk. It’s about a 30-40 minute walk from the train station to Jison-in where the trail begins. The station has a map of the town and I follow the main roads which have morning traffic and many Buddhist temples sprinkled all around.

There are no other henro (pilgrims). Even though I’m accustomed to walking alone in Shikoku, I’d always imagined that Koya-san would be busy as a destination for henro, monks, Buddhists, hikers, and even tourists.

At Jison-in, I take my time looking at the grounds, which includes both an old main gate, and a modern side entrance and fountain area. In between, are the small main halls. I had expected something a bit more lavish,  and this is a charmingly modest place for a temple that once housed Kukai’s mother. The most noticeable items are the streams of what could be mistaken for manju, steamed buns, in the Main Hall. They are breasts, and women often pray here for safe delivery and childbirth.

Jison-in to Koya-san

Jison-in en route to Koya-san

The Koyasan Choshimichi begins from here, up the steep flight of stairs past the Shinto temple. The little henro stickers appear again to guide the way down a small path on the side and through the bamboo groves. Soon, I reach one of the first stone pillars that mark the distances in the route. Of the original 220 stone markers representing every 109 metres, 180 remain. They will be my guides throughout this 22 km trek.

Entrance to Koya-san Choishimichi

Sign at the top of the shrine to the Choishimichi

The route passes persimmon orchards on the hills and steadily climbs upwards without much shade from the sun, but plenty of temptingly ripe orange fruit in the Fall. At the top of the orchard hill, there are baskets of persimmons asking a mere 100 Yen for 4. If I had the appetite, I’d have paid and eaten them on the spot, but this morning’s formidable breakfast is still sitting firmly in my stomach.

Koyasan Choishimichi Map

Map and history for Koyasan’s Choishimichi

This is the last point for me to look back down at the sea, the hills, and the cityscape paved over all the flat patches in between. From here, I will follow the path into the forests. Koya-san safely secluded several ridges away from urbanity.

Hiking to Koyasan

View above the persimmon orchards before entering the mountains

For the most part, I focus on keeping my pace. The well-kept dirt path is easy on the feet, and I don’t feel the need to stop much.

The trees haven’t begun to change colour yet, but there are fewer mosquito in the cooler mountain air. It’s little things like this that I notice. Like Shosan-ji, this route is much more comfortable than I’d anticipated. I’d approached it by considering what I could encounter, such as mud, overgrown paths, and mosquitos. I now understand why henro walk in Fall and Spring – it’s actually pleasant.

My pace is slower than two months ago, when I was well practiced from daily walking. I notice the wide path, the small statues and offerings. I should have time today, so I make a point of observing the tall canopies, the young trees in contrast to the old ones, and the way the sun beams trickle in.

Choishimichi to Koyasan

One of the Choishi that mark each 109 metres to Koyasan

Koya-san is behind several ridges, and therefore compares to the more difficult temples, Shosan-ji (#12) , Unpenji (#66), and Okubo-ji (#88), but the ascent is gradual and without as many sharp turns. It feels like a long, long walk in the quiet woods.

I pause at a pair of stone markers, an old weathered one several feet above the new one beside the path. This path, though old, is also new. Paths stay naturally clear with heavy traffic. Modern pilgrims and day-hikers keep the weeds from growing. Due to the route’s popularity, it is certainly maintained at least a few times a year by an organisation or two. In contrast, I wonder how clear the path for the older, worn-down, marker is. Still earlier, the markers were made of wood and were regularly washed away. What Kukai and his fellow monks for centuries did was no less than bushwhacking year after year, with a single paper lantern and straw sandals that would probably need replacement once they got down the mountain.

Hike to Koyasan

The wide natural hiking route is unlike the paths on the Shikoku pilgrimage

What was it like then, really, to be walking through these woods? Even in our contemporary era, with smartphones, data plans, and Google Maps, we experience the human feeling of anxiety at the unknown and, increasingly, fear of nature that we’re out of touch with. The people that came before us, without stone markers – how did they approach this route? How did they read these trees? How did they gain confidence and reassure themselves? What concrete knowledge did they have that we have now lost in our excess of abstract knowledge and poverty of experiences?

Around lunch time, I descend onto the only roadside restaurant and dig into my packed snacks, the single apple and onigiri. Eating is important for both sustenance and offloading weight. Nothing more, nothing less. Gratitude makes everything tastes good. The bare henro life also renders taste irrelevant. This indifference sounds like a loss in a day and age where food options are abundant to the fortunate. In fact, I have found this detachment from taste liberating.

Hiking route to Koyasan

Occasional views along the hiking route

Another cycling henro stops outside the restaurant, a small log outpost building. An avid cyclist myself, I ask him where he came from and how long he took to get here. He’d taken the ferry to Wakayama and had been riding for a few hours. He remarks that he’s taking it easy, since he’s walked the route I’m taking now.

I feel a special connection with this man already. As a fellow pilgrim, he has shared the same path, no matter what his motivations. The cycling henro invites me to join him for a refreshment and treats me to an o-settai tea and sweet. I gratefully accept. I enjoy these momentary connections with fellows from my community, reminding me that there is a larger river that we are all a part of. I also know I really need food even though I don’t have much of an appetite.

After we finish, I take my leave and he sits on a bench chatting to another walking henro that I’d seen on the way up.

Shikoku Henro Osettai Matcha

Afternoon matcha and sweets O-settai (a treat) from a cycling henro

It’s the last part, the last bit, I keep telling myself. I’m almost there. That knowledge pushes me onwards, above the echoing conversations of socialising henro. This section winds its way through ravines along the streams and I make sure to keep at least one bend ahead of the the three chatty uncles. Their voices bellow through the silence, reflecting lack of consideration and desecrates the stillness in the trees. I’m also mindful that I have not yet achieved the serenity to withhold judgement, to remain aloof from disagreeable things.

The last part is a steady zig zag up a steep slope. I continue my march. I should be there soon. I can hear the cars above me.

I take a final right, following another henro who has disappeared up a ledge.

Mountain Path to Koyasan

Sunlight filtering through the trees in the morning

There it is, the massive red entrance gate.

The cars continue to whiz by, barely slowing down at the structure. I join a monk while we wait for the pedestrian signal to change. We exchange smiles and nods. I lean on my staff and continue to stare. I’m a lay-henro, and the physical demands of walking have pared down my sense of propriety down to bare necessity. I feel no shame in expressing my fatigue, or wiping the dripping sweat from my forehead with my forearm. Thank goodness I’m here because my feet are starting to ache.

Mount Koya Daimon Gate

Daimon (The Big Gate) that marks the entrance to Koyasan town

It’s just past 2pm, so I’m happy with my time. It lulls me into complacency as I buy myself a manju snack at the first shop I see. I don’t know if there will be shops ahead, what time they open and close, or what they will serve. I didn’t do any research on Koya-san and so I only know that it is the largest Buddhist temple collection in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I walk down the carefully preserved historical main street with restaurants and souvenir shops.  There are some discrete tofu shops and grocery stores, pedalling the famous dry-frozen Koya-san tofu. I pick up some for foodie friends as souvenirs.

Manju Buns at Mount Koya

Manju (steamed buns with red bean paste)

I meander through some of the main temples. The complexes have large main halls and multiple buildings that have fresh lacquer and many golden statues. They are impressive. The structures are impassive to the crowds churning between them, squeezing inside, and being excreted back out the cavernous halls again a few minutes later. It is the monks that anxiously watch their stations and direct the tourists. I take it all in. I am no longer dismayed as I once was at Nara’s Todai-ji, Tokyo’s Senso-ji, Matsuyama’s Ishite-ji, and Kagawa’s Zentsu0-ji. I cannot begrudge visitors for their curiosity, ignorance, purposeful prayers, or anything else. The frenetic activity from temple to temple has a suspended feeling of virtual reality, as though the town is holding its breath, waiting for sunset when the temples close and the crowds depart.

I continue meandering around, curiously watching. Having walked all the way here, I just want to see what the place is like. Shikoku taught me that walking to a place always makes a place worthwhile, exactly for what it is, nothing more or less. Disappointment is something we carry on ourselves.

Mount Koya Koyo Fall Leaves Maples

Koyasan is a popular destination for Koyo (changing colours of leaves)

For my part, one moment in particular catches my eye. The maples leading up to an avenue of cedars are turning red. This is Koya-san, during Koyo (the season of red leaves).

Finally, I stop at a Family Mart and chat with my mom on Whatsapp. I feel like I have time to take a break, take off my shoes and let my feet breathe a bit. But before I know it, I’m rushing off again. I realise that Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum will probably close soon at 5pm, and it is deep inside a cemetery almost three kilometres away.

Totoro Plushie at Mount Koya Souvenir

Totoro pilgrim is one of the Studio Ghibli plushies at Koyasan

I end up speed walking the rest of the way through the town. At the entrance to the mausoleum is a small bridge, where pilgrims should cleanse themselves, and bow before entering. There is a one-kilometre hall of regal cedar forest covered in lavish, moss-covered graves nestled between the ancient roots. These are the dignitaries that have striven to be as close to Kobo Daishi as possible.

The air here is thick – perhaps with meaning, purpose, the dead, their souls, or just the moist evening chill. The high canopy makes for a dark, reclusive feeling. It is a place to sit for a day and work towards a layperson’s epiphany induced by a high on the fresh mountain air filtering out 700-year old evergreens. Already, the lanterns on along the main route are beginning to light up.

Mount Koya Kobo Daishi Mausoleum Cemetary

Outer cemetery surrounding Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum

I regret not coming earlier. As usual, I am nearly running through the stone path, focused only on the next few feet in front of me, alert so as not to roll on my ankle. I am shaving precious minutes.

Finally, I arrive. At the end of the cemetery, is Kobo Daishi’s hall, where he is in eternal meditation. The dimly lit, gold-leafed interior feels warm and empty at the same time. It has lavish red carpets, a deep altar, visible more in its size than its contents. The hall is so wide, it fits three large boxes for visitors to toss their coins. The atmosphere is solemn and reverent. Yet, it feels as though Kobo Daishi, the man, were no longer here. The centre feels empty. At the same time, it feels large, full, suspended in breath.

I bow and drop my osamefuda (nameslip) and coins into the box.

Oftentimes, we are misguided to believe that doing something will bring us peace. We  grow obsessed with accomplishing something, mistaking our fervent behaviour as genuine progress towards something better. We load expectation into the result. We are often wrong. Yet, sometimes, we are wrong the other way. Sometimes, we underestimate how much an act would mean. This is one of those experiences for me.

This was the closure I needed, the closing of the loop. It didn’t matter that the town outside is packed with tourists, that an aruki-henro (walking pilgrim) is a rare creature in the commerce of cultural tourism. In this moment, at this closing of the day, the Golden Hour, I feel it was worth it. It was right to come here.

Mount Koya Kobo Daishi Mausoleum

Kobo Daishi Mausoleum cedar forest and cemetery

I stand back on the stone steps leading back down the way I came. I feel like I’ve crossed a threshold, and left behind a part of myself from only minutes ago. It feels like this space is suspended in time, where the living trees are holding their breath. This stillness evokes the torrent of time gushing as images of congested streets and crowded train stations in distant cities. Time doesn’t exist here for the moss that slowly encases the oldest tomb mounds in the far corner, at least not in the same way as it does for us urbanites.

I can see the real world beyond, at the bridge about two hundred metres away. At that spot, there is the temple shop beyond selling charms and a collection of bodhisattva statues. For some reason, the tourists seem more interested in the statues. Perhaps it is also because, on that side, people can still speak and tour guides answer questions with shrill eagerness. On the mausoleum side, silence is observed.

I walk slowly back out and stand on the bridge. Once I cross, I will leave this suspended realm behind. I will step back into the mortal realm, into night, into humanity. I will become a fish again. This moment feels both significant and ordinary, made complete by the two paradoxical halves.

But for now, in this instant, I feel at peace, as though some part of me has joined this eternal, deep slumber.

I wander back out via a shortcut and take the bus that winds down to the tram. I purchase my one-way ticket, which then gets us to the trains. It’s a busy train. There’s nowhere for me to sit, so I stand for the full 45-minutes back into Osaka, staring out at the darkness of rural Japan. My feet are aching, but the pain means little now that I am done.

Once in Osaka, I treat myself to okonomiyaki (a pancake with various toppings) at a random place I find that’s well reviewed close by. I don’t feel the need to celebrate because it somehow feels like just another day, but I force myself to do something a bit different. I should do something that I remember Osaka as more than just a transit point. Then, I roam around, waiting for the overnight bus to take me back to Tokyo.

Okonomiyaki at Namba Osaka

Okonomiyaki at Namba Osaka

I feel tired, moreso mentally than physically. I climbed Mount Koya on Oct. 15. I should remember that. I won’t remember the date so well. But I will remember the trees – the cedars under which the lords and the powerful carve out a space. I replay the day, which again feels distant already now that I am in the thick of Osaka’s neon signs, billboards, and dinner crowds.

The loose ends are finally tied. Yet, I can’t put Shikoku away quite yet. I know that there are a lot of things I have not quite worked out – many mysterious experiences. What is the impact of Shikoku and Koya-san? What have I become?

I ponder this from the overnight bus to Tokyo right through until am at Haneda airport for another overnight wait (for a 5am flight).

It’s over. No ceremonious beginning, no end, no celebration. Not even relief. But, it is the end – an end. I can move on. I will move on. A fish back in the sea of life needs to keep swimming.

Yet, I already know I will return. I don’t know why. Perhaps I will find out when I begin again.

Shikoku Pilgrimage / Ohenro Walks and Hikes
Shinto Torii Gate Yudono-san Dewa Sanzan Yamagata

The Dewa Sanzan: Afterword

p_20150806_183319.jpg

It was August 7. I checked into a budget business hotel in Niigata City after dark. Tomorrow, I will head to Shibu Onsen and treat myself for my birthday.

Only a day ago, I’d taken almost the exact same train up north. Now, I am being hurled at over a hundred miles an hour down the western coast of Japan.

The sky and sea are as calm as yesterday. However today, I am watching golden hour unfold. The ocean remains as inscrutable blue as ever. The sky, dotted with a splash of cloud here and there, is not as fierce as yesterday. The royal blue mellows into magenta. As the sun hovers like a perfectly golden yolk. Its saturated colours fan out into soft orange brush strokes above the opaque sea below.

It’s hard to believe I began the day in civilization, at a ryokan, and will end the day in civilization, in one of the largest cities on Japan’s rugged western coast.

I mull over the three shrines and their characters. Haguro-san was by far the wealthiest and most visited since it houses the deities for all three mountains for year-round worship. The size and quality of craftsmanship is as impressive as temples in Nikko and Koya-san. Its wealth has brought prosperity to the village below as well. I appreciate it especially because of its pristine morning, with nothing but the rustle of the trees and the call of birds. I’m not sure how I’d feel about it arriving mid-day, with the cacophony of tour groups churning through.

The second, Gassan, I felt houses the spirit of Shugendo. Symbolically, it seems that one does have to wade past the grey bog to see the blue skies above. Yet, even at the peak, they chose, of all spots, the windiest, mistiest corner. On the surface, it seems a grey view of the world, but once one works past the apathetic natural forces hurling through, there’s an uncanny peace. The shrine may be a pile of rocks, but the true mark of achievement is the hundreds of thousands of rocks leading up to them that were placed to give us a road up. If we were really walking the path, then the form at the end does not matter. Being impressed no longer matters. What matters is that, for whatever reason, we were drawn here. What matters is that we arrived.

The last, Yudono-san, is the heart. Like Gassan, it is small. It is not much. It is not aloof. It is hidden, nestled in a valley easily missed amongst the thousands in this region. However, this Yudono’s Shrine is the holiest of the three. The holy has a dash of magic; just a little is enough.

While the three are so different in character, and the paths that mark them equally so, they work well as a trio. The first retains the majesty of human faith and dedication, an homage if nothing else to the heights that humanity can ascend. As to the other two: the strong and the wise have left spiritual peddling to others. The holy is that sense of wonder, gratitude, and mystery at the forgotten corners all around us, as powerful and fickle as the mountain, and as intense and nourishing as Japan’s hot springs.

 

Walks and Hikes
Shinto Torii Gate Yudono-san Dewa Sanzan Yamagata

The Dewa Sanzan: Foreword to the 3 Holy Mountains of Yamagata

This is is the preface for my series on the trekking route through Haguro-san, Gassan, and Yudono-san.

p_20150806_163200.jpg

The sun chars the craggy cliffs racing by. The Sea of Japan glistens. The blue skies form a white halo around the late afternoon sun.

On August 6, I watch the minute changes on the horizon as my train races up the northern edge of Japan’s main island.

Less than a week ago, I was far south, on the distant island of Shikoku. At the time, I’d just finished a month-long walking pilgrimage. I’d dozed in on the train that sailed high above the Seto Inland Sea and back to Japan’s main island. In this vast protected straight, islands are littered everywhere, like casually crumpled scraps of origami paper casted from the sky. After a month of continuous walking, sitting to just be deposited an hour later at my destination some 90 kilometres away was a mind blowing concept. At the time, I was on my way to a vacation.

Now, I’m glad that vacation is over. My legs are growing sore from just sitting for the past few days. My muscles are bubbling with anticipation.

I will satiate this desire by hiking the Dewa Sanzan (出羽三山) the Three Mountains of Dewa Province, the old northern frontier. They are the historical sites where Shugendō,(修験道) is practiced and where legendary writer Matsuo Basho stopped in his visit to the Deep North. The mountain names are Haguro-san (The Black Winged Mountain), Gassan (Moon Mountain), and Yudono-san (Spring-Lord Mountain). San means mountain(s).

These three sites were declared sacred by Prince Hachiko in the Suiko Reign, in the 6th Century, after he arrived from Nara, the Heian capital. Official history states that he landed in the town of Tsuruoka and was led by several women to Haguro-san, where he spent time in ascetic training.

Shugendō, evolved since its 7th-century roots into a syncretic religion. The name basically means the Path of Training. It blends elements of mountain worship / Shintoism, Taoism, and esoteric Buddhism. Enlightenment is equated with attaining oneness with nature and the spirits (kami).

This place is 500 kilometres out of Tokyo. It takes 4 hours on a Shinkansen and express train to get to the closest station in Tsuruoka (transit info here). From there, it’s about a 40-minute bus ride from the coast to the foothills of Yamagata Prefecture. The words yama means mountain, and gata means form. The mountains are never out of sight.

The millennia-old pilgrimage route remains intact (or so I thought at the time). After almost two months outside of cities, spent either on farms or walking the Shikoku pilgrimage, I need to readjust to ‘civilisation’. That means I need regular breaks from it.

p_20150806_171346.jpg

Countryside rice paddies near Tsuruoka

I arrive in the early evening at Tsuruoka and walk around looking for food without much luck. Luckily, I’ve arrived on time for the last bus to the foot of Haguro-san, so I hop on. I ask the bus driver if he knows of any ryokan, Japanese inns, in the town near the first mountain. I hadn’t booked a place because I didn’t know when I’d arrive. It’s passed 5pm, so many ryokan will no longer take last-minute reservations because they are already preparing dinner (usually included unless otherwise specified). I will just have to believe that my luck will carry me through.

mt haguro

Japanese maps are rarely to scale, but they give you a general idea of what to look out for!

The bus driver hands me a map with the lodgings for the three mountains listed (see travel information post). I study it and make a call to two ryokan during the bus ride. My first choice is full, but my second one has an available room. I take it, requesting sudomari, stay without food. I will be gone by dawn tomorrow anyway.

By the time I arrive at the town, it’s almost dark. Rows and rows of shukubo, lodgings, line the road, but there are no restaurants in sight. I forgot, this is rural Japan. I have better chances getting fresh produce from home gardens than finding a restaurant. Visitors would dine in their ryokan. I’ll have to ration my snacks for dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. I hope there will be a shop open early enough for me to purchase food from tomorrow.

My mind remains calm as I process the food logistics. This train of thought was the norm only a week ago, when I used to pick up provisions to do nojuku, camping while visiting Shikoku’s 88 temples. Focusing only on what I need to do now to walk tomorrow keeps me centred. I prefer this sparse life.

I check-in to my ryokan and am given a room in the extension building. The bath is in the main building, which has preserved its dark wooden floorboards, posts, and ceiling beams. I explain to the owner that I will be leaving early the next day and ask if he wants to settle the bill now. He says it’ll be fine if I do it tomorrow.

Instead, he changes the topic and to the bus times. With my two walking staves from Shikoku and henro hat, he can tell I am not just visiting Haguro-san, which is all most visitors see. He wants to make sure I know when the buses are so that I can get back. I’m taken aback, as I’d planned to walk between the three mountains. But it turns out, Haguro-san and Gassan are several days’ walk from each other and no-one takes the old walking route, not even along the paved road. Also, the time table shows that there are far fewer buses than I’d expected. The owner’s concern and initiative was a life-saver.

Then, he tells me that hiking all three in a day will be impossible: most guests do Haguro and Gassan on the first day and Yudono-san on the second because it is another bus route. I can’t tell if walking is actually impossible, or just impossible by Japanese city standards. Generally, the tourist signs filled with warnings are accurate for city-dwellers unused to exercise; however, local climbers have more athletically tuned, even stoic, scales of “difficulty”. On Shikoku’s popular pilgrimage path, I wouldn’t mind discovering how far I get on the day, but I am not equipped to be camp in the Northern mountains, even for summer. I need to make specific bus times. The one or two small lodgings on Gassan are sure to be booked already.

If I decide to break walking into two days, I would have to retrace my steps down Gassan rather than crossing the other side of the mountain to Yudono-san’s shrine. Since the bus from Yudono-san is a different route, I’d be spending most of the second day doing bus transfers than actually hiking.

But I came to hike.

I mull over it while showering and soaking in the bath, a Japanese ritual I have an irrational attachment to after 2 months of farm labour and urban camping. Even though I haven’t walked much yet, the full day of train travel has worn me down. When I finish, I make tea with the bag and pot provided in my room. The complimentary crackers provided will effectively be my dinner. Thankfully, I’m not hungry.

Before sleeping, I study the maps and elevation gains for the mountains to calculate my feasible walking distance. Haguro-san isn’t too high. Gassan is the tallest one, but the bus climbs most of it to the 8th Station. The route from Gassan to Yudono-san is not too far, but a descent. I need at least an hour or two buffer time, especially for descents. With a previously injured left ankle and bad knees, I cannot make up lost time by running down mountains. I will finish Haguro-san to catch the first bus from there to Gassan. Then, I should have plenty of time to do the full route and catch the last bus out of Yudono-san in the afternoon.

It’s decided: tomorrow, I will wake up at 5am before dawn.

My back’s against the wall. I duck under the covers, content with tomorrow’s challenge.

Bring it on.

Continue to my post on Haguro-san to find out what the route is like.

Walks and Hikes