Omine-san

Mist rests in the tops of the Japanese cedar. Drops of water fall from the leaves onto the rectangular stone plinths marking the Buddhist graves. The only sound is the rush of the river and the trill of a bird. At the far side of the graveyard a large wooden arch marks the start of the hike into the mountains. A sign beside the arch reads in English and Japanese, “No women admitted. Regulation of this holy mountain Omine-san prohibits any women from climbing further through this gate according to religious tradition.”

I pass beneath the arch and follow a rocky path through the forest, the trunks of the cedar trees as straight and smooth as telephone poles. The sound of the river falls away, muffled by the thick moss carpeting the ground. The hush seems appropriate.

Women have been restricted from climbing Mount Omine, on the mountainous Kii Peninsula 100 kilometres southeast of Osaka, for at least 800 years. The peak is sacred to Shugendō, a religion which blends Shinto, Animist, Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. Shugendō was founded in the 7th century by a wandering ascetic called En-no-gyōja. En-no-gyōja saw Zaogongen – the main Shugendō deity – on the top of Mount Omine after meditating for 21 days. Followers of the religion are called yamabushi, translated as ‘those who lie down in the mountain’ – known more colloquially as mountain priests. Yamabushi believe these mountain peaks, caves and valleys are populated by spirits and deities which help them achieve enlightenment, especially when combined with harsh tests of physical endurance. Practitioners continue to come to the region to perform their ascetic rites, including fasting, seclusion, meditation, spells, fire ceremonies and chanting. Followers also perform tests of physical endurance, including long, difficult pilgrimages between religious sites, which have resulted in a network of trails through the mountains collectively known as the Kumano Kodō. My four-day, 65 kilometre hike will take in part of one such pilgrimage route, the 170 kilometre Omine Okugakemichi path – said to have been founded by En-no-gyōja himself.

As I climb higher the cedar falls away and a variety of maple dominates, branches supporting thick ropes of vines. At 1,520 metres I reach the ridgeline where the track joins the pilgrimage route running north-south. Wind tears the mist into steamers, opening plunging views over green forest valleys and rumpled ridges.

Yamabushi – mountain men

Heading south along Omine Okugakemichi Path, the sound of a gong reverberates through the trees. Following the noise through the forest I find a man being dangled over a cliff by his ankles. A yamabushi holds the man’s legs, while two others, dressed in the white robes of mountain priests, hold a rope tied around his shoulders. They hold him there, suspended head-first above the abyss while he confesses his sins. This is the Nishi no Nozoki, the Insight from the West, a test to gauge the purity of your intention, one of the many rituals yamabushi perform on the mountain. The yamabushi use the rope to haul the man back up and slap him on the back, grinning. Noticing me, they make motions indicating they’d be happy to dangle me off the mountain next. I smile and back away. The purity of my intention is to get out of here alive.

I reach the temple set on the 1,719 metre summit of Mount Omine (also known as Sanjogatake). The original temple was built in the early 8th century; this structure, replacing a temple lost to fire, dates from 1706. It’s an austere cedar building, wood weathered to grey, hunkered beneath a vast tile roof. The yamabushi I’d seen earlier at the cliff arrive and beckon me inside. The interior is dim, smelling of the incense which burns in a large brass urn. One-by-one the yamabushi toss a coin into a slotted wooden chest before the stark, simple altar, clapping their hands a few times before clasping them in prayer. Formalities completed, they open a bottle of sake and press a full cup into my hands. We pool our mutual language – their dozen English words with my dozen Japanese. They are on a daytrip and will now turn around and head back down the mountain. They find it surprising that I’m continuing on, especially alone. They top up my plastic cup and wish me luck, leaving with a complex sequence of bows, handshakes and photographs.

The path less followed

South of the temple the path becomes much narrower and rougher. I walk slowly. The two cups of sake were a bad idea. The path is lined with fine, ankle-high bamboo and thick, springy moss, studded with the occasional boulder or gnarled tree. This is Japanese old growth forest, a rare sight, courtesy of the ancient tradition of not cutting wood along the pilgrimage route. It’s very beautiful, all elements seemingly in harmony – the perfect Japanese garden.

After an 11 kilometre day, I arrive at Ozasa-no-shuku, a clearing beneath massive yew trees. The clearing once contained a temple, but now holds a red-painted shrine, a fire pit, a basic hut (which will be my home for the night) and a bronze statue of Zaogongen, the manifestation of the Buddhas past, present and future. The statue is 2 metres tall, a fierce thickset figure sheathed in flames and wielding a sword. The silence, the moss, the neatly spaced rocks and trees dripping with water all combine to make me feel as if I am somewhere far away from the regular world.

The next morning the wind howls through the yew trees, shunting me sideways, the straps of my pack flapping wildly. It’s still misty, but less so than yesterday, with views of deeply riven hills seeming to stretch away forever, a reminder two-thirds of Japan is covered in forest. Setting off along the track, I pass through a wooden archway marking the southern approach to Mount Omine. Women can now access the route once more.

Things start to get tough

The path rises steeply, becoming a primordial mix of boulders, snaking tree roots, thick moss and clumps of rhododendron. The first peak is the 1,780 metre Daifugentake. Thin wooden votive tablets lie in piles against the base of a tree at the summit, inscribed with yamabushi prayers in flowing black calligraphy. Some seem fresh, the wood still honey coloured and the ink jet black, while others are rotting and grey, returning to earth. The sun breaks through the cloud and cicadas start calling, their hypnotic drone rising and falling like a wind-up toy. I find myself grinning like a loon, wind in my hair. This is the Japan I want to see, not the dense, gritty cities far below.

A series of peaks follows: Kunimidake (1,655 metres), Hichiyodake (1,584 metres) and Gyojagaeridake (1,546 metres). Today’s hiking is much harder than yesterday’s, with sections of steep, slippery rock requiring the use of chains and ladders to negotiate, until it becomes more like climbing than walking. Fortunately after Gyojagaeridake the track softens to gentle hills linked with meadows of flowers, dense clusters of sweetly scented star-shaped false helleborine. A deer – tawny with white spots – bounds away on all fours like it’s mounted on a pogo stick.

A sign says it’s only 900m to Misen, the mountain I’m planning to camp on tonight. It’s been a tough day, and the final section to the top of the 1,895 metre mountain is steep. I’m pushing my hands against my knees for a bit of extra momentum and groaning as each new uphill section is revealed. The climb continues and continues and continues into the mist. I feel like I’ve come 9 kilometres not 900 metres, and still the mountain rises before me. Just when I’m thinking how comfortable it would be to lie face first on the moss beside the path, I see the faint shape of a curved roof through the mist. I check my watch. The 900 metres has taken me 90 minutes.

Misen-goya – a haven

I had planned to camp the night on the summit, but a ferocious wind rips through the trees, it’s getting late and I’m exhausted. Fortunately there’s also a lodge here, Misen-goya, a series of sprawling wooden buildings like a school camp. A futon in a shared room costs a whopping $55. There’s only cold water and an institutional ambience, but it’s worth every cent as the building shudders under the fury of the wind.

The next morning the wind still rages and the mist is thicker than ever. The track rises slowly through ferns, moss and dead pines, casualties of a savage typhoon several years ago. I pass through a large enclosure protecting Siebold’s magnolia from deer browsing. The rare bush, with its crisp white flowers, is famous enough to have earned its own special icon on my map.

Hakkengatake, at 1,915 metres, is the track’s highest point and offers a panorama of dense mist. I don’t linger. The mist precipitates on the trees and is dispatched by the wind in a steady shower that soaks my boots and taps against my coat and pack cover. A landslip has turned a 30 metre section of track into a muddy, 6 metre deep chute funnelling a trickle of water over the edge of the mountain into the mist. The only option is a detour up and around the slip, laboriously hauling myself up the steep mountainside on all fours, face in the grass, mud between my fingers. The wind howls across my pack, pressing me closer to the ground. My pack feels like another person draped across my back. The going is slow. One slip and I’d fall into the waiting chute and be funnelled to oblivion.

Rain and tears

Based on the distances and elevations, I’d thought this hike would be relatively easy. Stupid really – Japan is not a country of easy topography. I’d also underestimated how mentally tiring this hike would be; since the temple at Omine the track had demanded my full concentration all the time. There was no room for day-dreaming if you wanted to avoid tripping over rocks, slipping on roots or tumbling off ladders. The hike was much harder than I had anticipated. And why had I come alone? I’d thought, being summer, there would be plenty of other hikers. Wrong. I’d only seen a couple of day-walkers, and nobody at all today. If something did go wrong, I’d be in serious trouble.

By the time I work around the slip and back to the path 30 minutes have passed and I’m soaked in a mixture of sweat and water from the wet grass. At least it’s not raining.

As the track wends up and down small peaks, the rain comes, slashing in horizontally on the wind, soaking through the final frontiers of dryness under my coat and filling my boots. To make matters worse, I’m worried I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Although I’ve got a good map and there are generally English signs at track junctions, the only signs I’ve seen for the last few hours are in Japanese – characters I can’t find anywhere on the map. My compass indicates I’m still heading the right direction so I continue through the slicing rain.

I’m ecstatic to find Yoji no Shuku hut, both as a confirmation of the route and to get out of the wind and rain. I pour the water out of my boots and wring out my socks.

The hut’s visitors’ book shows few recent visitors, apart from an English entry from the day before. A David from Switzerland had got lost near here and spent six hours wandering in the rugged forest screaming for help. After many desperate attempts to reach a peak (where he hoped to find a path), he encountered a faint track which eventually led to this hut. David was a very grateful man. The section of track he got lost on is the section I’m due to do next. This creates a dilemma: do I push on, solo, aware that the last hiker to attempt the route had become hopelessly lost? Or do I do what David did, abandon the hike and double-back towards Misen to take the first turn off the mountain?

Recalling the landslip behind me I decide to continue on, cautiously, with my compass in my hand and pausing to check for markers whenever the route became questionable. Perhaps it was the wrong decision, as the weather soon gets even worse, squalls bending young trees and sending rain into my face so hard it stings. My boots refill with water. Slowly and methodically I plod past Busshōgatake (1,804 metres) – the peak that the Swiss hiker had become lost – and grimly continue towards the next peak, Kujakudake.

Raw fear

The track gets rougher, with more ropes and chains to scramble up and down, the route a stream of water and mud. It’s probably a good thing there are no views, as sheer cliffs border the path and I sense it is a long way down. Pummelled about the shoulders by wind, I move slowly, testing each step and handhold before continuing. This isn’t fun – it’s not even hiking – it’s rock-climbing beneath a waterfall. During the most difficult section I get down on my hands and bleeding knees, using everything I have for purchase on the slippery rock except for my teeth. I’m muddy, tired and scared. It is very clear how stupid I’ve been to do this hike alone, underprepared and with only a vague understanding of the weather forecast. On a sunny day I suspect this route would be tough but wonderful – no traction problems and the views over Kansai brushing away any fatigue. The only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I can’t turn back.

The final climb to the summit of Shakagatake (1,800 metres) is hell. Ropes, chains, slick rock, each step offering a dozen ways to do myself an injury. Again it seems endless, up and up into the mist, my boots heavy with water, the wind driving rain into my eyes. When I finally reach the top I throw back my head and yell into the howling void. But I am not alone. A life-size bronze statue of Buddha stands at the peak rising from a lotus flower, hand raised in peace.

Shinsen-goya at last

I know it is all downhill from here, the most dangerous cliffs are behind me. As soon as I relax and begin to pick up the pace I catch my toe on a root and go head-first into the bamboo beside the track, further cutting my legs. As I lie on the sharp stems deciding whether to try and get up, there is the slightest movement and I see a toad a foot from my face. Fist-sized, it watches me with eerie red eyes. I lever myself upright and slowly walk on, each step heavier than the last.

The hut at Shinsen-goya is a grim little shack with a damp floor and one tiny window. It’s the most welcome sight I’ve ever seen. I shuck off my wet clothes, climb into my sleeping bag and heat up a reviving cup of soup. Outside the rain intensifies as thunder begins to growl.

The morning brings a cautious lull. With one last look back at the lifesaving little hut I leave the Omine Okugakemichi pilgrimage route towards the hamlet of Zenki.

The decent out of the mountains is initially slow and jarring, but soon improves with long stretches of stairs. The wind drops and the sun comes out and in no time at all I’m in a T-shirt, hat and sunglasses. Yesterday seems like a bad survival video, while today is a jaunt alongside a clear mountain stream.

A few hours later I’m in Zenki, a cluster of simple wooden buildings where the same family has offered yamabushi lodgings for the last 1300 years.

Wisdom of the walk

I sit on a stump in sunshine. I’m thinking about the mountain priests, how tough they must have been – and still are. I remember the photocopy in my pack, an account of a Shugendō pilgrimage on the same section of track I’ve just done. My eye alights on the first sentence where the chief yamabushi explains, “When you are concentrating on getting past these dangerous places your mind is clear. You do not think of money, sex, drink, or any other distraction. Perhaps for only a second you think of nothing. For a moment you are in the world of nothingness. This is the state of mind you must cultivate. The purpose of Shugendō is to realise this state of mind and cultivate it in every day life.”


This story originally appeared in Wild magazine, issue 141.