Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mountain opening ceremony 開山式

On Friday July 10th I climbed Ontake-san for the first time this season. July 10th is the date of the annual "mountain opening ceremony", known as kaizan-shiki 開山式 in Japanese. This year was my second time to climb Ontake-san for this ceremony (you can read my post about last year's ceremony here).

The weather was not agreeable to the ceremony this year. My friend R-san, a Belgian philosopher currently living in the village, and I began our ascent at a little after six in the
morning. The weather at the ta-no-hara 田の原 parking lot was rainy with a bit of wind--most of Ontake-san was cloaked in dark swaths of cloud. But, we had both been prepared to meet bad weather. So, we slid our packs on and passed through the immense stone torii that marks the entrance to the mountain.

The rain wasn't too fierce, and we only encountered a bit of heavy wind towards the first (Otaki) summit (王滝頂上). In hindsight it would have been best to push to the true (ken-ga-mine 剣ヶ峰) summit right away, but a friend was working in the mountain hut at Otaki summit and so we stopped in for a coffee.

There were a handful of other climbers who had come for the ceremony. One, a Shingon monk, whom I had seen last year, was there drinking warm sake. R-san asked the monk about some of his gear, which included a conch shell, a bell, and a long red cord. The red cord, the monk explained, represents an umbilical cord that ties him to his mother, Ontake-san. I didn't catch the explanations for the other items . . . my attention was drawn by the increasing howls of wind outside. "Gonna be a wild ride to the top," I thought to myself.

After a few more minutes we prepared for our departure to the Ken-ga-mine summit--only about a 30 minute walk on a good day. The monk suggested we climb together. "OK," I agreed. The shrine that sits upon the Otaki summit is surrounded by a stone wall that blocked the majority of the wind. I knew, however, that between this wall and the Ken-ga-mine summit lay only a naked ridge, with nothing to offer protection from the winds screaming sideways across Ontake-san's wide slope.

The monk blue his conch at the Otaki summit shrine; a salute to the mountain. We were ready. Stepping out from the shrine wall was like stepping into a fast flowing river--the wind pushed mightily and threatened to undermine each step. We crouched and slowly made our way up the rocky ridge. I looked back to check on the monk who was coming up behind us. He seemed to be having trouble. The wind came in strong, quick gusts pummeling my body with Ali-esque force. Rain pelted my face, stinging like shards of glass. I tried to keep looking back to check on the monk, but eventually lost myself in my own struggle and couldn't keep track of him.

We made fairly good time to the Ken-ga-mine summit and quickly jumped into the mountain hut there. The ceremony there was to begin at 10 AM, in about 15 minutes. We rested alongside white-clad worshipers; drank some tea. At 10 we climbed the stone steps that lead to the summit. Worshipers were crowding into a small hut next to the shrine. I saw S-san from the Otaki community center and he informed me that the ceremony was going to happen inside this year. "I'm heading down for the ceremony at the Otaki summit," he said.
"Can we join you," I asked.
"Sure". S-san is a seaoned veteran on Ontake-san, so I felt relieved to be going down with him.

As we began out descent the wind exploded upon us with even greater force than before. I knew that to my left sat a steep gully, which drops away for about 1,000 meters and ends in a series of massive waterfalls--one misplaced step could mean a quick ride to the foot of the mountain. The wind was coming from my right. I moved my legs one at a time, placing each firmly and then leaning my body into the wind. A rope that runs the length of the ridge connecting the Ken-ga-mine and Otaki summits provided some stability, but at one point I accidentally uprooted one of the stakes connecting the rope to the mountain . . . not much help there.

Even with the wind we made fairly good time down from the summit and arrived back at the Otaki summit just before the ceremony was to begin at 10:30 AM. The villagers who had climbed for the ceremony gathered within the small shrine. The priests, who wore their full ritual attire, emerged from the hut and the ceremony began. As the priests chanted and intoned the spirits of the mountain gusts of wind continued to slam the shrine, threatening to overturn the sake, vegetables, and other offerings placed on the alter. At one point a gust tossed the hat off from one of the priests' head, but he didn't skip a beat and kept on chanting while someone tied it back on.

The ceremony was cut a bit short, but representatives from various groups in the village were able to make their prayers to Ontake-san. We all retired to the mountain hut, stripped our wet clothes and feasted on fried fish while drinking newly sanctified sake.

R-san's and my descent was uneventful. The trail had become a small flowing stream. We reached the car in no time and drove to the nearest onsen for a bath. As we sat in the hot, iron rich waters sunlight began to filter, and then pour, into the forest as the sky cleared . . . the timing for the ceremony had been just off. Oh, well. We sat happy and warm in the bath, laughing about the wild winds and the driving rain.



Monday, July 13, 2009

Forgotten roads

There is a landscape that lays like lattice-work across the mountains and deep valleys of Otaki. This landscape is spiritual in nature--attuned to the sacred Mount Ontake, which stands at its center. Once well trodden roads articulate with points of power or significance where statues or other markers stand. However, these markers and roads are disappearing into forests that are now rarely visited by humans.

A series of etched stones depicting the Buddha Kannon roughly denote the geography of a road that once connected the hamlet of Kashimo with the hamlet of Takigoshi. This road continued on to Mount Ontake and was used heavily by pilgrims. The stories, goods, and even marriage partners of local residents also traversed the road.

Most of the Kannon stones remain, though a few have still yet to be found. Local residents on both sides are working to keep the road visible. . .to maintain it as part of the landscape. Few, however, know of its existence. Without taking the time to walk the road, one only sees a forested hillsides.


Monday, July 6, 2009

The rainy season

It comes every year to Japan. It's both a nuisance and a pleasure. The rainy season. Any excursion includes a clunky umbrella, uncomfortable rain boots, and a jacket that is too much in the hot, muggy air. At the same time the rainy season landscape is undeniably beautiful. It's a mystical landscape where the lines between sky and earth become blurred and clouds haunt the hillsides like wandering spirits. When the rain lifts the earth swells, as if breathing sighs of gratitude for the few precious months of warmth and moisture afforded it each year. When the rains come I am always reminded of what a wonderful season this is.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

The evolving debate over devolution.

Today the wonderfully insightful and remarkably detailed blog, AMPONTAN, contained a post outlining the growing debate among Japanese politicians over "devolution". The term refers to the simplification of Japan's current system of governance based on provinces and municipalities, as well as a centralized government.

Find the original post here.

I'm not sure how I feel about the prospect of devolution. I like the idea of more power and control at the regional level, but wonder if this will extend to the local level. Also, I fear the idea of a bureaucratically slim, yet powerful central government--more authority concentrated in fewer places.

Would be interested to hear thoughts.