The lights came on around 4am, rousing the passengers of the packed bus bound for Matsuyama. We were still 30km from the city, but all of the commotion was for one lone passenger, yours truly, who wanted to be let off at a desolate bus stop in the middle of the expressway. The bus pulled away as I settled in for a slumber on a weather-beaten bench in the bus shelter, rain steadily keeping time in the pre-dawn stillness. Once daybreak hit, I nibbled on breakfast and wandered out to the edge of the road, hoping to hitch a ride to the trailhead of Mt. Ishizuchi, my goal for this miserable mid-October weekend. Finding a ride to Iyo-saijo, I wandered up the rural route hoping someone would come to my rescue. Sure enough, a kind-spirited local whisked me up past the dam towards Nishinokawa, my intended destination. Reaching a bend in the river, the driver pulled off. “Before the cable car was built, this was the traditional route up Ishizuchi”, explained my guide. “This is the route you’re going to take today.” And with that the driver sped off, leaving me to plot my next move.
I really had no idea where I was in relation to my map, but trusted the man’s judgment and passed through the stone torii marking the trail. 3 grueling hours later, after passing through an abandoned ski resort, I met up with the main trail at the top of the ropeway, where the masses gathered to view the fall foliage. I trudged up towards the temple complex of Joujuu, passing loads of day-trippers along the way. Several storefronts displayed a variety of pilgrim gear, while steady streams of Shingon faithful paid their respects at the main shrine. I sought shelter under the eave of one of the huts, filling the stomach with carbs for the impending climb.
Once through the main gate marking the trailhead, the path lost about 100 vertical meters of altitude as I passed countless souls on their way down front the cloud-swept summit. At one point I shared the trail with a friendly Canadian gent, who’d given up on summiting last October because of a blizzard. I silently hoped the cool rain wouldn’t turn into a repeat of last autumn. Ishizuchi is not a place for scaling in the ice without some serious gear. After an hour of relentless climbing, I reached a junction and a set of dark, heavy chains. Little did I know that this was the area used to test pilgrims for their readiness to scale the peak. Not even marked in my guidebook, I clambered up the frigid metal links, which threatened to spit me out and hurl me down the mountainside with each advancing step. Miraculously, I reached the top of a gargantuan rock formation unscathed, but realized that an even steeper descent awaited me. Grasping the chains, I tiptoed my way down to an abandoned hut, where I met up with the trail again. “All that work for nothing”, I fumed, thinking that the chains would carry me directly to the summit. Not even close.
I continued my ongoing battle with Western Japan’s highest mountain, reaching a flat area called Yoake-toge, which translates as “dawn pass”, but should be renamed kaze no mae no shizuke (the calm before the storm). The rain let up a bit but visibility remained at less than 5 meters. I dropped the pack and examined the map: 300 meters of vertical climbing spread out over half a kilometer or so. It was nearing 5pm and I knew darkness would soon set in. I pushed on towards the campsite that supposedly lay just ahead.
“You call this a campsite?”, I exclaimed out of utter disbelief. I spent the next 20 minutes wandering around the hut of Ni-no-kusari trying to find the real campground. A flat area, barely 2 by 2 meters, sat just off the trail, surrounded by thick, damp bamboo grass. “It’s a good thing no one else is camping”, I remarked to myself, sitting up my tent with the attention of a 5-year old. I’d even put the rain fly on upside down in all of my hastiness, deciding to repair the damage after racing to the summit. I reached the first of 3 sets of chains that most pilgrims use to reach the shrine at Misen. I took one look at the rusty links, remembering my earlier battle that zapped nearly all of my energy. “Nah, not today”, I uttered, opting for the handy set of steel stairs built to bypass these tricky sections. I knew I could always come back the next morning and climb them in more favorable conditions. After 15 minutes or so, I reached the summit of Misen, resting on the rock formations just beside the large signpost marking the summit of Mt. Ishizuchi. Completely alone, I congratulated myself on all of the hard work. Visibility remained minimal, and only later did I realize that the true summit actually sat 100 meters to the north along a tricky, knife-edge ridge on an unmarked trail. I retreated back to my tent, cooking up a meal in the dark.
Sometime around 9pm, the skies opened up, pelting my tent with large drops of rain. Luckily I’d remembered to turn the rain fly around, but the water still threatened to seep in from the aging seams. 12 hours later, I found a sizable pool of water in the corner of my tent as the rain continued its unabated assault on the rugged peak. My original plan was to traverse over to Tsuchi-goya, continuing along the ridge towards Kame-ga-mori before dropping back down into the valley. I ate breakfast and waited another hour in my tent before reaching a final decision. “Screw this,” I quipped, hastily throwing everything into my pack before heading out to break down camp in the torrential rain. I’d never had a more miserable time on a mountain in my entire life, racing in utter silence down to the shelter of the forest. I retraced my steps back to Joujuu, reaching the shrine in less than a hour without taking a single break. I threw down my pack, sweat and rainwater flowing steadily down all areas of my body. Seeking refuge, I tucked into the altar of the main shrine, stopping dead in my tracks by the spectacle before me. Dozens upon dozens of pilgrims, all donned in white, gathered in the main hall, listening to the chants of the head priest. Slowly, in unison, the worshipers raised their conch shells, belting out a tune that gave Rahsaan Roland Kirk a run for his money. I stood awestruck at the cacophony I was so fortunate to witness. Now it all started to make sense. Sometimes we get so caught up in racing up peaks we forget that the most important part of the experience lies in actually getting there: the smell of the forest, the gentle chirp of the insects. These are the things taken for granted, yet such an integral part of being out in nature. The rain was just nature’s way of telling me to pay more attention to the details.
With this heightened sense of awareness, I bounced through the forest like a toddler crawling around the living room. I became utterly fixated with every aspect of the old growth forest. Even the abandoned houses in Nishinokawa took on a life of their own. Finally off the trail, I strolled back down the paved road past the ropeway entrance, hoping for the best. I stuck out my thumb at a clearing in the road while an elderly man who’d obviously never hitched in his life tried to put in his 2 cents. I politely ignored his insane suggestions as best I could, knowing that if I’d listening I would’ve either caused an accident or gotten run over. 10 minutes later, a hiker gave me a lift to the expressway on-ramp, where the first car gave me a lift to a rest stop on the outskirts of Okayama. While walking through the parking lot, another car pulled up and offered me a ride all the way back to Osaka. Perhaps the deities had given me a bit more than just spiritual awareness.