Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Mt Ishiwari and Ishiwari-jinga (Shrine) Fuji excursion

Rick Kennedy's old but useful Little Adventures in Tokyo book suggests a plethora of alternative less-touristy attractions in and nearby to Tokyo. With his description in mind, I boarded the holiday Kaisoku Picnic-Go train at Shinjuku bound for Fujiyoshida station west of Takao, gateway to the Fuji region, Lake Yamanako and innumerable clay-court tennis resorts and lakeside recreational activities, like pedal-driven swan boats, waterskiing, 'surfing', American football (gridiron) and, of course, numerous hiking trails to enjoy the forest and its nature or the bare volcanic rock-hewn pilgrimage up Fuji-san (about seven hours).

The train ride itself, about 2 hours to Fuji-yoshida, follows a very scenic route after leaving the western outskirts of Tokyo around Takao and heading into country hills, agriculturally rich land, deep gorges and rivers surrounded by hills and mountains. Takao, too, is said to be a nice walking area, not far from Tokyo's hustle and bustle. Many of my train-mates were dressed in canvas pants, gigantic hiking boots, carrying poles, thermos flasks, fancy backpacks, towels and hats. I was hoping this was an exaggeration or indulging a pleasurable fetish for outdoor equipment because I was just in jeans and a T-shirt with my floppy tengei-style basket-weave hat to keep sun off my neck and provide privacy on the train, an anti-fashion statement. In fact, I was most concerned about the 31+ degree temperature even by 8am and the thought of more slithery Japanese snakes, of which I seem to encounter quite a few. At Otsuki (Big Moon station), the front 3 carriages of the train split off and trundle more slowly up a single track, stopping at nearly every country platform.

At Fuji-yoshida, I gobbled an unwholesome but necessary snack of ebi-burger at MOS (Japanese hamburger shop, an inferior to Freshness Burger or the big M) and waited for the bus (another 40 minutes) to Hirano, a half-kilometer walk from the foot of the trail up Mount Ishiwari (1413m, ~5km circuit). We passed the sailing swan-boats and hoards of Japanese tourists enjoying the beginning of their holiday (approaching Obon) season, thinking the sunny beaches with Fuji view looked very relaxing and resort-like. Many school-age people seemed to be heading to the plethora of tennis workshops and camps dotted around the lake, donning enormous quadruple racquet tennis bags and wearing Mizuno and Yonnex sports clothes. I have never seen so many tennis courts and related shops in one location. Interesting.

Following closely the instructions in my guidebook, I found the tori marking the trailhead and wandered for at least 20 minutes up a road before reaching the tori-proper and stairs lead UP (forever upward) to the Shrine. The stairs rise steeply and are surrounded by walls of cypress pines even more steeply perching on the hills around. In fact the elevation of the steps increases as you climb bringing on steady perspiration, not relieved by the bear-warning signs along the path. I was not aware that bears were a problem/feature in Japan! I was rather hoping not to meet one or I would have to run all the way back down those stairs!

At a couple of junctures on the way up the thousand-odd steps, there are resting points, where I paused, wiped the torrents of sweat off, and tried not to drink my entire water ration. After the steps finish, I reached a kind of picnic hut and a fork in the path. At this point, I could not be sure which direction to head and the English signs evaporated so I was very hopeful as I chose the most used-looking one and continued to climb. By this time, hints of mist circled around and the view that should have been evident down on Lake Yamanaka was looking worryingly white but I continued enjoying relaxed butterflies and sheer drops off to the side of the trails where assiduous tree-planters had carefully placed plastic-wrapped seedlings on the 80 degree slopes. Parts of the track had turned to sloppy mud and I had to abandon notions of Japanese cleanliness and orderliness at this time, glad of the goretex feature of my shoes and parts of the trail were severely eroded into deep chasms and perilous-looking overhangs with mud-slide warning signs (pictures comprehensible in any language).

Eventually a peculiar retaining wall filled with stones revealed the Ishiwari-jinga (Shinto Shrine) above it tucked in to the oblique rock face decorated with tassels and rope, typical of Shinto nature appreciation. I rested a while there, observing the sparrow darting in to a straw tassel where she had made her hanging nest, the inchworm crawling on the lion statue's head, listening to the dripping of supposedly medicinal health-bringing water into a bucket in the crevice between the rocks and contemplating the beautiful forest around. Two iron geta (sandals) are the only adornment for the simple small shrine and some bottles of sake left as offerings to the gods by pilgrims.

Afterwards and ever upwards, the track actually grew steeper and more precarious as the erosion had washed away stretches of track and the nylon ropes left dangling by which to haul oneself up by were sometimes broken or shredded. Tree-roots and the floor-covering of a low-growing bamboo variety provided the strong 'ropes' necessary to pull oneself up and over the mud-coated exposed tree-roots and slippery slimy path. By this time I was naturally starting to register some concerns about isolation and hoping that the view would be deserving of this effort yet harbouring some scepticism due to the increasing clamminess and mist. By this stage, one is probably either above or inside the clouds and feelings of thunder were starting to rumble around the hillside. Finally I emerged on the bald muddy summit completely surrounded by whiteness and unable to sense any bearings, apart from the signposts that affirmed I had found the right place! Once again Fuji-san escapes in summer. I am now glad I did not spend 7 hours trudging up that hill with no view. As a break in the cloud did not look imminent, I decided to wait a little while, just in case, and to listen to and feel the energy of nature and rest in the tranquillity of solitude so seldom found in Japan that it is a treasure and an opportunity for mind-stillness. Nature revealed many small-scale joys like the fluttering butterflies, the tasty-looking but probably poisonous berries, fascinating flora, a black squirrel too quick for me to photograph and intricate little wood fungi.

Left = the real view; right = the view I came for according to the brochure [Photoshopped]

The way down was much less strenous in the sweat-ranking, though upon reaching the steps, I discovered new muscles, marvelled at the 60+ year old couple heading upwards, and saw snake no.5 of the brown slithery variety towards the town. Totally exhausted and with weather closing in, I headed more or less straight back via far too many trains on the return journey and reached home around 10pm ready for a huge bath, beer and deep sleep.