The Ishizuchi ropeway is definitely past its prime. Rust and weeds threaten to take over the entire collection of run-down souvenir shops and the gondola structure itself. Obviously the vast amounts of cash made from whisking day-trippers up to the shrine are not being spent on upkeep of the facilities. I wanted to ask the attendant if the area had been painted since the ropeway opening in 1968, but alas, kept my inquiries to myself. I boarded the aerial lift with a half a dozen other people, gazing with wonder as the machinery lifted me 850 meters above the valley floor in a little over 7 minutes. During my last trip here, I’d spurned this shortcut up the mountain, but ever since my chronic cough and asthma problems surfaced a year and a half ago I’ve been forced to save precious energy at any cost.
At the top of the gondola, I followed the meandering, gravel forest road to the shrine complex of Joju, where, to my great astonishment, a huge concrete pylon rose abruptly from the mountain behind the collection of rustic buildings. Even Ishizuchi itself hasn’t been spared the wrath of cell phone companies trying to give their customers uninterrupted service in every inch of this country. I wonder how the Shinto gods and Fukada himself would feel about the desecration of this holy precinct. Lunch was consumed in one of the empty restaurants while the TV blared a benign drama at an eardrum piercing decible. Why does the volume need to be cranked all the way up anyway? I checked into Shiraishi Ryokan and whittled away the afternoon exploring the shrine grounds and the sorry excuse for a ski resort.
The summit was surprisingly free of clouds, a good omen perhaps to my impending ascent in the morning. I didn’t have enough stamina to attempt the summit this afternoon, a decision I would later learn to regret. Sunset was lovely as Sasa-ga-mine finally broke through out of the clouds to show her shy figure. This is another on my “to climb” list that I hope to conquer the next time round, so it was great to see what I would be faced with in the future. I retreated back to the ryokan and the scrumptious serving of mountain vegetables.
Breakfast was served at the ripe hour of 6am, as I wandered outside to check out the sunrise. The summit was free of cloud cover as I danced excitedly back to my table to finish the morning fish and eggs. Pack on, I prayed at the main shrine just in time to see a white-clad henro (pilgrim) slip gently through the entrance gate to the mountain. I quickly followed pursuit.
The path dropped a lot further than I’d initially remembered and then climbed abruptly from the saddle. The path basically became an endless array of wooden steps for the majority of the climb. I can tell you that most of these steps were certainly not here 7 years ago, a testament to the overuse of this mountain and the rising popularity of the Hyakumeizan themselves. I reached the chain section that I’d mistakenly climbed on my first journey and quickly took the shortcut to the left. A wooden hut with tacky aluminum siding awaited me on the clearing, with a friendly gentleman setting up shop for the day. Refreshments could be bought here during the busy summer climbing season, but 7:30am was still too early to take a break. I continued in silence.
Reaching Yoake-toge, the summit plateau finally came into view. Well, sort of. I peered up towards Ni-no-kusari hut where the mountain disappeared into a sea of white. “Wait a minute, where’d this cloud come from?”, I screamed. Dropping my pack, I sat in utter shock in the dirt of the saddle, literally kicking myself for not taking advantage of the previous day’s clear weather. Here I was trying to get revenge on a peak, and I was about to be robbed of a view! I seriously considered turning around in utter defeat, but slowly talked myself into continuing.
I passed by the clearing where I’d camped in the horrendous rain storm, wondering how many others had followed in my footsteps. The hut at Ni-no-kusari looked truly deserted. It was completely boarded up and I wondered if it were open at all during the busy summer holidays. Future climbers should not count on staying here, as it looks as if the roof would cave in on itself at any moment. It was here that I had to make a crucial decision. Do I attempt the climb up the chains or take the easy detour on the metal steps? I felt the rocks and bamboo grass. Damp from the mist. I took that as I sign to stay towards the right and flew up the stairs. Once on the summit, I sat with a half a dozen other climbers in the thick mist and waited. It was only 9am and I was determined to make it over to Tengu-dake if the cloud decided to drop.
The air at 1900 meters turned cool, and I had to reach for a long-sleeved shirt for the first time in nearly 3 months. If only there were a way to carry this air back to Osaka, which had been suffering from the worst heat wave since record-keeping began just after the war. As I sat on the cold rock formations on Mt. Misen, a patch of blue became visible directly overhead. Perhaps the cloud would clear after all.
The next 45 minutes became a fierce battle between the bright sun and the thick cloud, as slowly the views started to show themselves.
Finally, the sharp flank of Tengu-dake broke out of the clouds as if to say “Bring it on!” before being sucked back into the fight. One glimpse was all it took.
I dropped down the back of Mt. Misen, grasping tightly to the metal chains to prevent being thrown off the peak. A young university student from Tokushima quickly followed suit, and I now had a hiking companion. The two of us followed the unmarked path as best we could, trying to stay away from the vertigo-inducing drops to our left, hidden by a thin layer of cloud. We reached the summit after only 5 minutes of climbing. There was no room to sit, so we stood and chatted about hiking. Two lone males on the highest peak in Western Japan. The cloud lifted briefly while we waved back to the crowds at Misen. Astonishingly, absolutely no one followed suit, and we had the peak to ourselves on this quiet September morning.
Once back at Misen, I felt a huge sense of relief. While robbed of a splendid view, the sense of accomplishment was strong. I’d won the battle with the mighty Tengu, but now it was time to get off the peak without incident. My new hiking companion kept me in high spirits and we took the right fork towards Tsuchi-goya. This was one approach I was keen on checking out. We passed countless hikers and even a few dogs on the long but easy descent to the parking lot. About 1km into our descent, a lone figure caught my attention. Dressed completely in white, with an elegant purple sash covering his chest, the elderly statesmen commanded our respect. He was no ordinary henro,but a genuine yamabushi yielding a large wooden staff topped by a series of metal rings – the sign of Shugendo. Despite my various pursuits, this is the first encounter I’ve ever had with a bona fide mountain priest. We both froze as we met, as an arm stretched out to greet me. The priest grasped my hand, chanted an ancient mantra, and released his firm grip as quickly as he had seized it. An overwhelming surge of energy permeated my extremities as the otherworldly figure continued his steady climb up the peak.
Back at the trailhead, we said our farewells as I entered a restaurant in search of a tasty bowl of noodles. The clouds continued to cling heavily to Ishizuchi’s rocky face as I determined my coordinates. Retreating back to the road, I held out the thumb and flawlessly hitched a ride to Omogo gorge, where a new exploration awaited. Ishizuchi had been much kinder than the first time around, but thoughts of a winter ascent still stir inside of me. Someday, I promised, someday.