Friday, September 01, 2006

Basho travelled – dangerously - by rice boat on the swollen Mogami River en route to Haguro-san. I consider stopping off at Furukuchi to take the same trip, but it’s raining. It’s more than raining, it’s tossing it down and showing no sign of stopping. The swollen lead-grey Mogami slips past to starboard as I stay on the slow-train to Tsuruoka. Basho wrote:

All the summer rains
Violently gather
Mogami River

I write:

Long, grey, boring, miserable day;
the weather brightens towards evening.

Dewa sanzan’ means ‘the three peaks of Dewa Province’. ‘Dewa’ refers to the custom of paying tribute in featherdown in the 8th century. The three peaks are Haguro-san, Gassan and Yudono-san. They represent Birth, Death and Rebirth and are an exceptionally popular pilgim route in season. According to Basho, ‘the Engi ceremonies call Haguro-san ‘Ushusato’ or ‘Feather Province Village Mountain.’ He goes on to say, ‘calligraphers mistakes changed the name to ‘Feather BLACK Mountain’. He also calls Gassan ‘Moon Mountain’ and Yudono-san ‘Bath Mountain’. All in all, lots of room for confusion.

I spend a few very comfortable days in Tsuruoka, staying at Nara Ryokan with a kind landlady, visiting Zenpoji, eating at Mister Donut, then take off for the mountains.

Mister Do-Not:
Tomorrow - genuine Japan;
but tonight - Mister Donut!
er, sumimasen, 'genuine Japan' wa doku desu ka?
(sumimasen=pardon me; wa doku desu ka = where is it?)
In Tsuruoka:
Sod the gameshow:
let's see the crumpet!

“You’re not going up there!” scolds the lady from the information office, rushing up to me as I wait at bus-stop no. 3 for the bus to Yudono-san san rosho. “It’s all shut for the winter. There’s nowhere to stay! It’s cold and the mountain demons will eat you! There’s no bus at the other end, either!”

The bus deposits me at Yudono-san san rosho and a concerned gentleman accosts me. “You’re not going up there!” he scolds. “It’s all shut for the winter. There’s nowhere to stay! It’s cold and the mountain demons will eat you! There’s no bus at the other end, either! You should go up and come back down today, stay in the hotel!”

I mumble something to pacify him – but I have no intention of coming back down. I have made a deal with the mountain that, come what may, I am going up it and spending the night on the top. I’m fully equipped and provisioned and there’s no question or confusion in my mind. I stride off down to the beflagged stream, then up the first stage, disturbing a white-clad figure bathing in a mountain pool – a sprite?

An hour or so later, halfway up the Mountain of Rebirth, Yudono-san, I suddenly realise I’m doing the pilgrimage the wrong way round. The guide book recommends it the wrong way round!

Muddle through.
Do everything wrong.
That’s life.
Some people act as if they know what’s what.
They don’t
Pale crescent moon over Yudono-san

Fine. Next, I next miss the top of Yudono-san completely (it’s a small bump off a long ridge). And to set the seal the run of three, I realise I’ve also completely missed the all-important shrine – Yudono-san jinja - which is at the start of the hike! This shrine is so holy, nothing is to be said about it. I can’t say anything about it even if I wanted to, because I’ve completely by-passed it!

Basho wrote:

forbidden to speak
alone on Yudono Mountain
tears on my

I write:

Bypassed Yudono Mountain.
Missed rebirth yet again.
Guess I’ll have to make do with this life

Ah well. My father used to say, ‘don’t go back – go on’.
I go on.

I reach the top of Gassan, Mountain of Death (1984m), at around 3.30 that afternoon and cast around for somewhere to sleep. At Kaji-goya, a handful of feet below the summit, there’s a random collection of prefabricated buildings, but they’re all shuttered and bolted against the winter. I investigate a possibility behind the main building. Then I look at the obviously new toilet block. The sliding door is - open! The inner door also slides away obligingly and I’m looking into a bright new toilet lined with sweet-smelling pine. Metal rungs go up invitingly to an open trapdoor. I climb up and stick my head through into a clean, snug space of about 15X30ft, with small frosted glass windows to let in light, completely wind and rain-proof! Thank you, whatever-your-name-is, mountain god!

At the top of the Mountain of Death
I say a prayer for my dead

I take shelter from the bitter wind behind the shrine wall, munching on bread and processed cheese. Rank upon rank of mountains march off to the west, rimmed progressively in red, then gold, then salmon, then pure light as the sun slips below the cloud layer. A great horizontal wedge of light has its apex to the south, its striations running round 270 degrees of sky, past Chokai-san on the borders of Akita province, merging in the east into the most subtle mauve, then fading to deep indigo and nothingness. I stand and just look for 2 hours, alone in the sanctuary.

By 6.30 it’s pitch black so I retire to the shelter, curl up and try to sleep. I’m in my sleeping bag, wearing a thermal top, long johns, two pairs of thick hiking socks, trousers, a T-shirt, a shirt, a thick winter fleece, a Gortex jacket and a balaclava – and I’m still cold. The wind howls round the eaves and sings through the sliding doors downstairs. I keep dropping off, then half wake up again, thinking someone is singing to me. The pitch of the voice varies from a soft warble to a crescendo. But not a hostile song.

all night long
the mountain sings to me

At some stage in the long night the voice tells me she wants an offering. I don’t even think of slighting her, so I oblige. Later, I go down for a slash and look out into the night. It’s misty. Rain is OK, wind is OK - but fog could be dangerous. I go over the route I came up in my head – can I retrace my steps in fog? I drop off eventually, wake up just after 6 and rush down to check on the weather. The wind has dropped and it’s clear and dry.

Gyatei gyatei. Hara gyatei. Hara so gyatei.
Boji sowaka. Hannya shingyo

I say ‘thank you’ at the shrine, leaving my nightly offering and a few coins, then stumble over rocks on a very well marked trail down to Butsusho-ike-goya, a hut just below Omowashi-san (1828m). It’s spitting with rain, long wisps of cloud drifting over the path and up the valleys. Soon the rain really sets in.

a single strand of red momiji
across mossy rock
below Omowashi-san

It’s only later I read that the male deity of The Mountain of Death has a female counterpart – The Goddess of Fertility.

Mountain gods I can deal with
Human beings?
Well, they're just a little
more complicated

The wooden-platformed trail leads on over Midi-ga-hara, ‘a scenic marshland with countless small ponds and plants, including some rare species said to have existed since the glacial era’. I hit the carpark at Gas-san-hachi-gome, from where a bus to Haguro-san would’ve left if there’d been one. There’s a crane restructuring the carpark after the latest mountain shrug and a few sodden visitors. I briefly consider hitching a lift, but I want to commune with the mountain, not explain to daytrippers who I am and what I’m doing there. Anyway, I’m on a pilgrimage and I want the anticipation of the wondrous Haguro-san ahead of me as I labour towards it, not to get there in a car or bus and have it presented to me.

all day long
I trudge from death to life

Down I trudge, for mile after mile and hour after hour, along a one-track metalled road, always down. I go through three climate zones: the tops with wiry grass; the dwarf maple zone, resplendent in red and yellow; then, lower down, mixed deciduous wood, beeches, a few pines. It rains. Then it rains some more. Then it rains some more again. I go slightly mad.

HULLO MOUNTAIN! I yell at Gassan.
HULLO MOUNTAIN! I yell at Yudono-san.

About 2/3rds of the way down I come across a tiny shrine to the forest god - with wide, overhanging eaves. I move his sake and beer offerings to one side and take shelter next to him for a while. He doesn’t seem to mind.

Shrine of the forest god
shelter from the rain

Mountain god passes me on to forest god
"Look after him for me," he says,
"he’s a poet."

After 6 ½ hours of continuous descent the road finally bottoms out (4 ½ hrs from the beginning of the road). I squelch on, the road winding slightly uphill again, till I come across the incongruous sight of a large, well-lit ‘education centre’, plonked down in the middle of a glade. Did a UFO deposit it there? I beam in and when someone eventually appears in response to the phone ringing I ask him if he speaks English. He shakes his head and says, "chottomatte kudasai" (just a moment).

I chottomatte, dripping water all over their clean floor, and when I next open my eyes the Fairy Princess in the shape of a marvellous, attractive young woman has materialised in front of me. My mouth drops open. Is this a being from another planet? Fairy Princess rings up a nearby hotel who’ll come and get me in a car. Whilst waiting she shows me around the visitor centre, pointing out the plants and animals and exclaiming over how far I’ve walked. Gassan has over 5m of snow in the winter, she says. I bask (males are easy to flatter by the female of the species). When the car comes, she gives me a present (a button clip of a flower which grows on the mountains). She stands at the door to wave me off.

Forest god he fond of joke
Find nice young woman to get poet hotel room

[click here for satellite imagery of dewa sanzan]


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