I’ve never been a big fan of Mt. Kongo. A summer ascent a decade ago left a mental and physical scar that haunts me to this day: an endless array of log stairs ended at a summit plateau scarred by development. That evening after returning to Osaka I developed a fever that led to a serious bout of the flu, most likely given to me by the ghosts of Kukai haunting the hallowed reaches of what was once a sacred mountain. There was only one way to conquer my fear: a winter ascent with a local guide.
Kanako and I boarded an early morning train on the Nankai line to Kawachi-Nagano station, where a packed bus shuffled us to the trailhead. Fortunately I ran ahead of the other elderly hikers and grabbed the last remaining seats for the 40-minute journey along the winding, motion-sickness inducing rural roads. All was clear when we exited along the icy roadway marking the entrance to a network of dozens of trails up the cedar-lined pitch of the western face of the mountain. Our guides for the climb were two local Osaka transplants that moved into Chihaya village just a few meters down from the bus stop. Kaori Inaba, a hairdresser-cum-Himalayan guide and her trusty partner Hajime Nakano, an ex-Patagonia employee turned NGO activist. The duo knew the area better than most seasoned climbers, so we opted for the less-traveled Tsutsuji-dani route: the mighty valley of the rhododendron.
The four of us scuttled along the frozen gravel of the forest road for about twenty minutes until reaching an unposted trail shooting off into the forest on our right. Here we affixed the crampons while Hajime lead the purification ceremony: salt was thrown across the mountain entry in much the same way beans are thrown to shoo away the demons at Setsubun. Sake was then poured as our leader said a small prayer to ease the mountain spirits. So perhaps this is the reason for my troubles the first time around: I forgot to ask the mountain deities for permission to enter.
The route followed a small stream which fed water to the residents of Chihaya village. The higher we climbed the softer and lighter the snow became. Kaori explained that during regular winters the snow is usually very wet and heavy, but here we were with the light and dry powder that can usually only be found at higher elevations. After passing by a half-frozen waterfall we arrived at a larger multi-tiered fall almost completely frozen over. Kaori poured hot chai into our cups while Hajime explained the old practice of misogi that Shinto priests of yesteryear used to engage in under the very water dropping overhead.
A bit higher up the constricted valley the trail split: both paths led to the ridge above, so we took the left fork and soon rose above the thicket of cedar into a grove of deciduous trees alive with dazzling displays of hairy hoarfrost. Winds flew over the ridge like passing jetliners as we tightened the straps on our jackets and raised the lenses in a hardy salute to nature’s brilliance. The sound of shutters fluttered wildly among the otherwise still forest – the crowds from the nearby gondola had eclipsed our soothing sojourn and turned it into a spectacle fit for a stroll down the Shinsaibashi shopping arcade. We darted between tourists frozen in a mouth-gaping gaze and popped out on the high point only to be met by even denser swarms. It was as if every inhabitant of Kansai had gathered here for a meeting. We beat a hasty retreat to a small noodle shop nestled between the shrine and the reception desk for repeat customers.
Repeat customers? Well, yes, it seems Mt. Kongo has a bit of a quirky custom: visitors who climb the mountain over 1000 times will have their name emblazoned on a billboard-sized signpost affixed near the summit. Participants must go to the reception desk to have special cards stamped as proof of a successful ascent. The catch is that these cards cost money to purchase – the first one is 500 yen and it’s an additional 450 yen for each successive one. Since each card can hold twenty stamps, you’ll spend upwards of 18,000 yen just to collect enough stamps to reach the magic number. Oh, but the fun doesn’t stop there, as there are separate billboards for those select few mountaineers who have climbed 5000 or even 10,000 times! Why anyone would want to climb the same mountain day after day, year after year, and decade after decade is a concept I have yet to grasp.
After warming up with the hot noodles, we continued further along the beaten ridge, reaching a metal observation deck rising sheepishly above the treeline. The Daikō mountains were draped in a swath of white while Mt. Takami’s pyramidal massif pierced the blue sky like a schooner adrift in a whitewashed Pacific. The lofty crags of the Omine mountains drifted in and out of cloud in much the same way a sleepy toddler drifts in and out of consciousness.
Hunger once again occupied our thoughts: noodles are a good snack but hardly fulfilling when you’re out burning calories all day. The only thing open was a small refreshment stall hawking frozen foods by briskly thawing them in the microwave. Not the healthiest of choices but they did the trick. Shortly before four o’clock we retraced our steps back to the summit plateau, which was now completely devoid of visitors. Kongo’s subtle charms came out of hiding: the late afternoon sun shimmering off the roof of the temple that esoteric monks used to call home before retreating to the quieter hills of Koyasan across the sweeping valley. Snow fell gently from the branches overhead, landing on the frozen footmarks before being whisped into oblivion by the eastern winds sweeping over the ridge from Nara.
Hajime led us on a secret path through some of the last remaining patches of virgin deciduous trees. The route could never be picked up by the untrained eye – only the local guides knew the way down, so we kept an attentive eye on our leaders’ movements as we slowly eased back into a cedar forest preparing to turn in for the evening. The accumulated snow offered enough reflective light to eliminate the need for headlamps, as the four of us carefully lowered our limbs over an impossibly steep ridge back down to the forest road. By the time we reached the village again it was pitch black. Kaori and Hajime invited us in for tea and snacks before chauffeuring us back to the train station.
Thus, the curse of Kongo was broken. One question remains, however. Do I tempt fate with a third ascent of the peak, or just sit back in complacency and focus my attention on the remaining peaks of the Kansai Hyakumeizan?