Yesterday the wife and I joined an outing organized by the village hall. Along with about 20 other villagers we hiked along a trail used in the past by pilgrims on their way to Ontake from Kiso-Fukushima, which is located about 20 kilometers to the east.
We all loaded on a village bus and left the hall at about 9:00. Our first stop was at a small stone monument that sits on the side of the road near a bridge that connects Otaki with Mitake, the next village over. T-san, who's lecture I attended last week, gave some background on the monument which dated from the Meiji-Era (late 19th century). On the other side of the road, and up a small hill stood another monument, also form this era. An nearby bridge, painted a fierce orange, spanned a section of the Otaki River where a boat used to carry pilgrims from one side to the other. This was the only spot deep enough for a boat. Later, nobles from Tokyo built a bridge as a gift to Ontake, the holy mountain.
Back on the bus we turned off the main road and drove up into the mountains. Our guides pointed out more stone monuments along the road. At one point someone pointed out a home and everyone on the bus, except the wife and I, seemed to know exactly who lives there. Before long the paved road we had been traveling on gave way to a dirt road, narrow and rutted. Luckily for my wife, whose face was showing panic, we stopped before long. We began on foot along a small creek up a narrow gorge that climbed quickly up and into the hill above us. It wasn't long before we reached our next destination: ｈachi-ban-taki 八幡滝. Hachi-ban-taki is a dry waterfall where, as an ascetic practice, believers would meditate as the waters pounded their bodies. The waterfall itself is, at least in part, human-made. A small rock outcropping is topped by stacked rocks with a grooved section at the top to channel the water. The site also boasted a number of statues, monuments, and shinto altars, as well as a stone wall. Nearby stood a small mountain hut that had apparently been used in recent years.
After a short rest we continued up a dry creek bed, stepping from rock to rock. As we traveled along I learned from various people the names of a variety of plants and was told to sample several of them. I was amazed by the amount of knowledge the villagers had. The mountain became a buffet counter as I was instructed on how to eat a variety of wild vegetables. Some for now, others to take home and prepare later. Japanese knotweed, called itadori, was like a treat , said one man, remarking that there was no candy or sweets when he was a child. One can peel the tough outer skin of itadori, which looks like wild asparagus, and eat the soft and sour center.
We emerged onto a dirt road and continued up the mountain. On a slope to our left several members of our group noticed four flowers growing that brought vocalized expressions of marvel. Apparently the flower, called yama-shakuyaku 山芍薬 in Japanese, is quite rare. Judging by it's scientific name, paeonia japonica, the flower is a Japanese variety of paeony. The flower is wonderfully delicate looking and appears to float upon the flat green leaves that protrude beneath it's petals.
A stretch on the mountain road brought us to another small pathway leading through the trees towards the top of the mountain that we'd been climbing thus far. The vegetation here was low and thick; this section appears to have been cut sometime in the post-war era--perhaps the 1960's and so there were few taller trees. Within an hour we had reached our main destination for the day: sawataritouge 沢渡峠. The area is located in a small clearing at the top of the mountain. Prior to our departure we had each received a sheet of paper containing historical photos of the places we were to visit. As depicted in the photo we received, which was dated 1921, the area where we stood had once been used as a resting spot for pilgrims. The location once afforded a fantastic panorama of Ontake, but broadleaf trees now block most of the view. In the past, framing the view of Ontake, was a large torii gate, like that found at the entrance of most Shinto shrines in Japan; now all that remains are the stone "feet" that the wooden gate once stood on. On either side of the gate stood stone lanterns, which some Otaki residents unearthed last year and put back together as best they could. To one side of the gate also stood a station for washing hands, and next to that a small mountain hut. On a hillside below the location where the mountain hut stood, there is a large scatter of beer and other beverage bottles, bowls, and other bits of "trash". At the urging of some of our companions, we picked out some of the bottles to take home with us.
After eating our lunches and taking time to chat, share treats, and dig for treasures we began our decent. We made our way down the opposite side of the mountain, away from Mitake and towards Otaki. The forest we descended through was much more mature, broadleaf forest comprised of beech, chestnut, sawara cypress, and other varieties. Again we were treated by our guides to a wealth of lessons in natural and human history. S-san, whom I had not met before that day, pointed out two different sumi-gama 炭窯, which are earthen ovens where logs were burned for days to create charcoal.
I was amused and amazed by the love and joy that my companions showed for the natural world. Trees that exhibited some unusual form, or that were particularly old, were greeted with awe and respect--often accompanied by smiles and touching, as if they were old friends. The women in the group used small digging tools to collect plant specimens they planned to carry home and place in their gardens.
M-san, who was our driver for the day, met us on our descent. He had moved the car to our finishing point and started up the mountain from the opposite side. When we met him on the trail he informed us that lower down he had encountered a bear. The group seemed as excited as they were concerned about the news; several of the men joked that there were enough of us to take on the beast. As we continued down the mountain we found signs of the bears passing, trees stripped of their bark--hunting for grubs perhaps. In addition, we found pools of mud where wild boars had been wallowing.
The forest changed forms as we moved through it. Lower down on the mountain the trees became more and more uniform--probably locations once used for harvesting firewood. On our way out of the forest we passed a small house where an elderly woman was cutting weeds. We informed that a bear had been spotted and she asked where exactly. This woman, as well as the older women who had accompanied me on the 7 kilometer trek we had just finished, dominated my thoughts; I was in amazement at the vitality and strength they exhibited.
Back at the village hall, our guides offered some closing words. One man said that the village is hoping to develop these historical trails so that other people can enjoy them. T-san closed with an urging that we all take time to remember the people that made their life using these pathways and consider the conveniences we now enjoy, especially our cars.
Thank you Ontake.