Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Valley of waterfalls: Ontake's Kurozawa route

time slipping by; writing and preparations for this and that. . .behind on work. . .so it goes.
My friend, T-san, had been offering for some time to take me out and show me some of the sights around Otaki. Originally, the plan had been to go fishing, but the good season passed without us ever getting a date set. So, last week we finally forced each other to schedule a time when we could take a walk together to enjoy Ontake's fall colors.

On the scheduled day T-san arrived at my house at 8:00 on the morning. A thick haze that had been sitting in the Otaki Valley when I awoke that morning, had all burned off by the surprisingly penetrating rays of the fall sun; now we had blue skies. Chizuko accompanied T-san and I as we all crawled into his van and took off down the valley, skirting the south side of Ontake reservoir. The water was smooth and glassy, offering a parallel set of hillsides alight with autumn's palette and topped with a sky of deep azure. We descended from the reservoir paralleling Makio Dam and then swung through a series of S-curves. Right at the Hino-seiyaku gift shop and then further on down the valley we zoomed, the Otaki River tumbling alongside us.

At Mitake--a former village, now part of Kiso Town--we turned north, heading across Ontake's eastern slope. At a major shrine of Ontake-kyo (the religious sect associated with Ontake) we turned left, west, up the mountain's eastern slope. Farm houses gave way to forest, which then gave way to several series of ireihi 慰霊碑--what we might call "spirit stones" or "death monuments". The road here was lined with hundreds of these stone monuments; some of which, according to T-san, have stood here since around the 18th century.

We continued up and across by climbing one ridge along Ontake's broad base, turning back onto that ridge, following it back to it's u-shaped apex, and then turning once again away from the mountain along the top of another. Back and forth, back and forth; T-san commented about how decieving the smooth shape of a mountain like Ontake can be when viewed from afar--it's only when you get up close that you begin to understand its true shape.

We stopped at a pasture that sits atop a low hill above the Mitake section of Kiso Town. Ontake's eastern slope opened up in front of us, yawning in the blue sky. Open fields like this one were once prevalent on the slopes of Ontake, T-san informs me, villagers used to burn the areas and use them to gather feed for cows and horses kept near houses below. "I like these open spaces," he laments.
"Me too".
Back into the van. We circle back a bit and then head straight up a ridgeline, as if to simply drive straight up to the summit. But, the road eventually levels a bit and then breaks to the south. We switch back our way up a few hundred meters; we're in the middle of Ontake Ropeway Ski Hill's gerund now. A few more twists and we arrive at a parking lot; end of the road.

T-san, Chizuko, and I shoulder our packs and start off across Ontake's broad slope. Walls of bamboo grass line the trail, threatening our hands with their paper thin leaves--we all put on gloves. We go down first into a small ravine. At the bottom runs a small stream flowing over rust-colored rocks. Tanaka tells me that the stream carries heavy loads of iron, which accounts for the rocks. I run my hand through the water, expecting the warmth of a hot spring, but it's icy cold.

We cross the river and climb the other side of the ravine. We're in a mixed forest that appears to have remained largely untouched. Two to three hundred year old hinoki cypresses tower above the more modestly sized broadleafed varieties: oak, beech, birch, and other varieties.
At one point T-san bends down, plucks a couple of mushrooms and hands them to me, "these are pretty good." I take the mushrooms, pause and watch colored leaves spin through the columns of soft autumn light that pours in through the canopy above. The air is crisp and cool; it nips at my exposed skin where beads of sweat are beginning to form.

We top another ridge and turn east, away from the mountain. There we encounter the remains of a mountain hut. The hut had been used in the past by worshipers on their ascents of the sacred mountain, but roads and lifts have long since made it obsolete--even the worshipers use buses. The hut simply sits now. It will whisper its stories of the past until the forest takes it back and the stories are forgotten.

The valley we've come to see is visible now to our right. I see one waterfall and my eyes light up. T-san must notice because at that moment he tells me, "you can see much better just up ahead." I follow eagerly behind until we reach a flat area that looks out over the valley. As I gaze out I have to catch my breath. Below me the earth arcs downward into a great basin of space that curves up to the Ta-no-hara plateau on the far side. The valley is steep and sudden, giving me the sense that it wasn't carved gradually, but rather fell, like a failed souffle. I spot one waterfall and then another, and another, and another--there's four or five in the valley. Again I sense the violence and ferosity with which this landscape must have been shaped so many years ago.
Yet now all is silent. The hillsides are alight with the autumn's blaze and the scene draws me away from myself , down and into the valley itself. As I look down upon them I explore each of the valley's waterfalls. I imagine myself a river of water flowing down and over each precipice. I feel my being flung into myriad pieces as I fall, glimmering in the sun for a moment, then smack into earth, flowing back into something new and different than I had been before.

We move to a nearby clearing for lunch. Chizuko and I have brought bentos. T-san pulls out onigiri wrapped in houba leaves and also small cups of ramen and a stove for water. He offers Chizuko and I one of the onigiri; it's slathered with miso on one side and looks irresistable. I hestitate before taking the precious gift--I remove beers from my pack and hand one to T-san as compensation, knowing it's too little; still, he gladly accepts.

The water boils and T-san prepares ramen. We sit, and eat, and let the time slip away from us. "I'm really glad you got to see this place," says T-san.
"Me too."


Jen said...

Hey! Thanks for reading my blog. I've been reading yours too. I love the post about Keeping with Tradition: "Aka-kabu" and "Sunki" and wondered if I could use it on a new Web site I'm developing with a friend called Foodlore Library.

It's a wonderful story about the anthropology of this local food.

Lemme know and I can pull text from your site and have you send me some photos if you want.


Project Hyakumeizan said...

Many thanks for this posting - read together with your November posting about Ontake, it highlights the immense variety of scenery encompassed by one and the same mountain. That was what impressed Fukada Kyuya, the author of Nihon Hyakumeizan. Here's what he had to say:-

"The more deeply you go into a long-held tradition, the more secrets and surprises it yields up. Mighty Ontake is like that. The mountain's inexhaustible treasury of riches is like some endless storybook with its pages uncut. As one follows the rambling plot along, one is always looking forward to reading more. Every page yields things never found in other books. Ontake is that kind of mountain."