Hiking is about as pure an activity as humans can do. It is walking from point A to point B. We call it hiking because it takes place outside, on trails. Anyone can go hiking; there is a broad range of levels, from paved short trails to just at the cusp of what then becomes mountain climbing.
When I hike in Japan, it is, mechanically, the same as hiking back home. One foot in front of the other. Repeat. There are a couple of key differences. First, in Tennessee, it isn't likely that, along the path, I will come across an old temple or shrine. Log cabin, sure; even old cars, especially in the Abrams Creek area of the Smokies. Second, trail signs in Japan are written in Japanese. That might seem really obvious; I suppose it is, seeing as how I'm in Japan. But I cannot read Japanese all that well; I've simply forgotten a lot of the characters over the years from lack of use.
It is that second one that was important to my walk on January 2nd.
Himeji is surrounded by mountains. Surprisingly few of the hills have serviceable hiking trails. My favorite place to hike is the collection of mountains north of the castle, particularly Mt. Masui and Mt. Hiromine. That was my destination.
I took the train to Nozato, which is two stations up on the Bantan Line. The Bantan Line is the north-south artery out of Himeji, connecting the wonderful town of Kinosaki Onsen up on the Japan Sea coast. I could have walked to Nozato in about 45 minutes, but I figured I would be doing enough walking later.
From Nozato there are a couple of ways to get up the mountain, none of which I knew at the time. I was going old school: I could see my destination, and I would find a way to get to it. And I will admit that my destination was Mt. Hiromine. I wound up going to Mt. Masui. It was a lucky turn of events.
On top of Mt. Masui is a Buddhist temple called Zuiganji. Like most temples, it claims a lineage going back to the early days of Japan's history. The buildings are only a few centuries old, having been burned down by a ravaging warlord. It is a sprawling place, and, as temples go, it's actually quite small. That isn't to say the temple isn't a grand place; it is, and is made all the more so because of its location. In reality it's only a few miles from the sprawling Himeji suburbs, and a major east-west interstate runs under the mountain, exiting every so often to fill the hills with the sound of cars rushing somewhere. At Zuiganji none of that is evident. Every so often, when the wind blows the right way, I can hear a car horn, or maybe a loud truck. Mostly what I hear are birds. Lots and lots of birds, even in the heart of winter, a symphony, playing just for me.
I miss the trail and walk up the road that I think goes to the temple. An older lady passes, and I ask her in my politest Japanese if I am on the road to Mt. Masui. She smiles and says, yes, wishes me a happy new years, and moves on.
It takes 45 minutes to walk from Nozato to the steps that lead up to the temple.
There is a choice of a really nice, pretty set of steps or an old, worn set. Being who I am, I take the old, worn, ankle-breaking set of steps. Along the way I see a shrine or two, and a large pipe with crystal clear water running out of it.
At the top is a small pond, and two large maps. I get my bearings and walk to the main hall, a large, old building. As I walk around, an old lady off to my right yells to me, “Would you like some daikon?” (Daikon is a long, cylindrical Japanese radish.) I reply that I would, and walk to the newer building where she stood, along with a collection of other people standing around a fire or working in the building. She brought out a plate with a stewed slice about two inches thick, along with a kind of tofu and a cup of tea.
“Do you want some sake?” one of the men asks. I decline, explaining that I have a long walk ahead of me and don't really want to drink at the moment.
“How about Amazake?”
“What is that?”
“It is a sweet, fermented rice drink, non alcoholic.”
I didn't know the word for “fermented” that he used, and we had one of those interesting moments you get in travel when you stumble to find a way to explain something. A young lady happened along who spoke good English, and she translated it for us. I never actually said I wanted any. It was brought to me, and I drank it. I'm not sure how to describe the flavor. It's somewhat like sake, with bits of rice floating. I enjoyed it, and felt somewhat invigorated after.
The man who had done most of the talking gave me some maps of the temple area.
“Do you live here?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I study Zazen.”
“I'm impressed,” I told him. And I was. Zazen isn't easy. I have great respect for those that can meditate, sitting perfectly still or else you get whacked on the shoulders by an older priest, which I think would make me want to move even more. He showed me how to get to the trail to Hiromine, and on the map I saw where I had missed the trail up the mountain. They gave me two tangerines, and I said goodbye. For fifteen minutes or so I explored the various areas of Zuiganji, most of which I didn't know existed. Then I headed for Hiromine.
It's an easy trail to follow, if you know the characters for “Hiromine Shrine” (which I did). Just over a mile between the two religious locations, it takes me fifteen minutes of fast walking.
Hiromine was crowded with people coming to ask for a New Years blessing. I ate one of the tangerines, drank some of the tea I had brought with me, and rested for a few minutes. I didn't take many pictures of Hiromine; people were worshiping, and I felt it disrespectful. I walked around the back of the shrine and headed up the mountain.
A sign told me that it was about 5 kilometers to Mt. Shosha. For many years I've wanted to make that trip. Online I have not found any maps that explain the route. So I would go exploring. How hard could it be?
Turns out it was really hard.
The sign at Hiromine that pointed towards Mt. Shosha was the one and only sign that mentioned my destination. So when I got to a crossroads that pointed to another place that I couldn't read, I didn't take that path, choosing to go straight ahead instead. The trail had red blazes, and, in the Smokies, trails are often marked by colors in just such a way. I walked.
Along the way I passed another crossroads that I couldn't read, so I again kept straight.
Then I passed the cemetery, and I thought it would be pretty cool to be buried high up on a mountain like that. For one thing, it would give my family an excuse to not take care of my grave. But it was a beautiful location for a graveyard, and many of the tombstones looked ancient. If I knew kanji (the Chinese characters used in Japanese are called kanji) I would have stopped to look at some. Instead, I went on.
I ate my second tangerine.
Then I got to a third crossroads. There was no sign, but I knew that going straight was not correct. That way went north, and I had been growing concerned that the trail was much to north-south; I needed to go west. The split in the trail went west. So I went that way. Soon I saw a red blaze on a tree. Great. I'd made the right decision.
The trail became pretty treacherous after a hundred yards, a real scramble down. Then it stopped being a trail at all, but was simple tree after tree with a red blaze. Eventually a creek formed and the trail more or less followed that. I saw many signs of wild pigs, from scat to the areas they had dug up looking for food. Wild pigs are bad news. I didn't want to have a run-in with one, or more than one. For one thing, I would lose that battle; for another, I didn't know if anyone would ever find my body.
Another stream joined the one I was following, coming down from my left. The red blazes went that way. Every instinct in me said don't go to the left, even though that's where the red markers were. How the hell did I know that the markers were even to mark a trail? They could have been put there by hunters (yes, there are hunters in Japan), or people out looking for wild vegetables or roots. When in doubt, follow the water out. I went against my instincts, going up hill. As if to confirm I'd made the wrong decision, I saw a wild pig. It was small, but made me slightly tense. I started conserving my water, even though I was certain I could find my way out by going back down to the stream and taking it to a larger stream, on and on. I could hear, far in the distance, the bell from Mt. Shosha, home to one of my favorite temples in Japan (Engyoji; it was used in The Last Samurai movie).
I rejoined the previous trail after about a half hour of fast walking/scrambling up the hill.
So I went back to the crossroads (the second one noted above) and took it. It went to another cemetery, one that seemed to be even older than the first one I had passed. I walked back down the trail, and then headed to the other crossroads (the first one noted above). It indicated that there was a pond of some sort in that direction. It was well kept, and well marked for about half of the distance.
Then it, too, became a treacherous scramble down. I was exhausted and wasn't sure I could make it back up that hill if I needed to. More than once I slid to a stop, thankful that I hadn't hurt myself. At the bottom was another sign that I couldn't read; later I learned that it pointed towards a local college (which was what I suspected). The other pointed towards the pond. I went to the pond.
It started to rain. Of course it did. I needed rain like I needed a kick in the groin. It was just a sprinkle, so I waited to pull out my rain coat, hoping for a shelter at the pond. I mean, the dang place had signs all the way from Hiromine Shrine many miles away. Surely there was a shelter.
There is no shelter there. Nor is there a pond.
But there is a road.
And I heard the bells again. Then it hit me that, had I gone right instead of left an hour and a half earlier, I probably would have wound up at the exact same place.
I took the road. It went from dirt to gravel, gravel to broken pavement, then to asphalt, then concrete. Houses appeared in fits and starts, becoming large neighborhoods. Then I joined a large, well-traveled road, and I could see the cable car that goes up Mt. Shosha.
I still had quite a walk. I put on my rain coat as the sprinkling of rain became stronger. It never turned into a downpour, thankfully, until, over a half hour later, I got on a bus headed for the train station where I could then walk home. Mt Shosha would have to wait; there was no bridge from my side of the river over to where the cable car and hiking trails go up to the top. Well, there is, but it would add about a mile to my trip. And I didn't know if I could do it. Besides, my goal was to find a way to walk from Hiromine to Mt. Shosha, and I had accomplished that.
I was starving.
My legs ached.
Somewhere in my back a small rebellion was being waged by the various muscles there.
Yet I smiled all the way back. I had met and overcome many challenges in the previous five hours. I calculated that I had done about twelve miles of total hiking, of which maybe four were superfluous.
Back home, I recounted my adventures to a mostly uninterested family. They went out shopping while I stayed to write.