A Rough Path to the Country Master

I was starting to get frustrated. Not long after breaking camp on the morning of the third day of my winter trip the trail had turned steep. Really steep. And, true to Japanese trails, it was going straight up the side of the mountain without a single switchback. But that wasn’t the problem I’m used to that kind of thing by now. What made this so bad was the snow. Hiking up such a slope would be difficult in normal conditions, but the slippery layer of snow on top of it caused me to slide back down the mountain with each step, reducing my forward distance to only a few centimeters per step, which had the effect of more or less tripling the effort required to ascend the slope. Even with my spikes on, I wasn’t getting enough traction to prevent this. At times I even had to crawl on my hands and knees.

It was one of those times where hiking wasn’t exactly enjoyable. On top of the fact that I was exhausting myself ascending the steep, snowy slope, the intense cold meant stopping to rest didn’t really give me any respite: as soon as I stopped moving I started to cool off fast, forcing me to press on again, and when I did stop to rest, I was forced to stand because everything was covered in snow so there was no place to sit that wouldn’t leave me with a soaking wet rear end. It was even hard to take pictures since I was using a smartphone and had to take off my gloves to get a shot. Throw on top of all that the fact that the water that I’d meticulously unfrozen by the fire the night before (a challenging task considering the water was stored in plastic, so I couldn’t let it get too hot) had already frozen solid yet again, leaving me with no drinking water.

At this point, I was about ready to walk my ass right back down off the mountain once I made it to Ôdarumi Pass on the far side of Kokushi-ga-Take. And it looked like it would be a breeze to get back down from there: according to my maps, a mountain road passed through there and it looked like it might be paved. After all this, a leisurely walk down paved forest road sounded rather welcome in comparison to trudging onward through the snowy trail, even if it did prevent me from getting another of Fukuda’s famous mountains added to my list.

On the bright side, given terrain, I felt like I had to be the final ascent to Kokushi, so I couldn’t be that far off from Ôdarumi either. And aside from the road awaiting me there, there also promised to be a mountain hut and a water source.

At last, exhausted, I reached the top and was greeted by a stunning view of Fuji.

Fuji after a tough climb.

I was unfortunately not as pleased with the sight as you might expect. Upon reaching the top, I quickly noticed that there was no marker signaling this as the top of Kokushi, and further, it was plainly evident from the view ahead that there was still quite a lot more ascent to go and that only after descending down into another saddle. I rested as long as I could before I got too cold, then pressed on.

It’s hard to keep track of time when you’re out on the trail alone; it’s doubly hard when it’s too cold to take out your phone and check. I haven’t a clue how long it took for me to finally come out on top of Kokushi, just that the moment when I finally hit level ground at the top was a great relief. What made it all the better was the fact that the spot was rocky and also directly exposed to the sun, meaning that the snow had mostly melted, leaving me with a decent place to sit and rest.

“Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park ‒ Kokushi-ga-Take ‒ Altitude 2592 meters ‒ Yamanashi Prefecture”
Mt. Fuji from the summit of Kokushi-ga-Take
The high mountains of Nagano Prefecture loom in the distance.


Translating the Name

Though I’m not as well versed in Japanese mountain lore as Fukuda, I noticed straightaway a bit of history contained in the name Kokushi-ga-Take, so I sought to translate it to make that a little more apparent to my readers, but getting the right nuance proved difficult. The last part, ga-Take (ヶ岳), was easy enough: it just means “The Peak of.” The rub was the first part, Kokushi (国師). As you’ve read so far, I’ve translated it, perhaps overly literally, as Country Master, but the nuances that these words bring to mind mislead one from the meaning that the Japanese word is meant to convey. To begin with, the word “country” in the context of my rendering of the name suggests the idea of the countryside, the antonym of urban and synonym of rural. However, the character koku (国) refers exclusively to country in the sense of a large swath of land, as in the example, “Russia is a vast country.” The second part, “master,” also is a bit misleading as the character shi (師) does not refer to one who controls something, like the master of a house or an estate, but in the sense of a person who has mastered a form of learning or a skill. Thus, though we can literally translate the name as country master, the implication of the words in English is entirely different from the connotations of the Japanese.

What, then, is a kokushi, a country master? As one might guess, it has a deep historical meaning going back well over a century, though today the word is probably not well known to the average person. The word, as it turns out, is actually a political title under the ritsuryo legal system, which was implemented in its earliest form in 645 C.E as an imitation of Chinese style legal systems based on Confucianism and Legalism. Initially, Kokushi was a title given to a Buddhist monk and denoted a person who was dispatched to various locales, or koku, by the imperial court in order to supervise their temples and clergy members as well as to explicate the sutras. Later, kokushi would come to refer to a high monk whose duty was to explain Buddha’s law to the emperor. In this way, then, we can understand kokushi as referring at first to a master (i.e. teacher) sent to the country and perhaps later as a master who came from the country. How the title came to be attached to this mountain, though, I can only guess.


Onward to Ôdarumi Pass

With level ground finally at hand moving became easy in spite of the deep snow. Or at least it was so much easier compared to the path behind me that it felt that way. I hurried along, glad to finally be within reach of the hut in Ôdarumi Pass. As I tend to do whenever the going gets easier, I began to think again about continuing rather than giving up. After all, I was eager to reach Kinpu and add another one of the 100 Famous Mountains to the list of those I’ve climbed. However, at the same time I had to acknowledge the snow. According to the map, it would be quite a few hours more to reach the next hut after the one in Ôdarumi and I definitely wanted to make sure I stayed in one tonight. The distance wouldn’t be a problem under normal conditions seeing as it was just pushing noon now, but the snow would undoubtedly slow me down.

In the end, I resolved to let my silent companion make the decision for me: if she went on, then I would too; if her steps led me off the mountain, then that way I would go. In a way, it was kind of a cop out since I was basically just putting the decision someone else’s shoulders. Luckily, my companion didn’t mind.

A rock.


This post is part 6 of a 7-part series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series for more photos and stories from the trail.

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© 2018 Brian Heise