An Unfolding Leaf

The changing of the seasons was something I hardly noticed when I was younger. It just seemed as though we’d jump from grey winter to green summer and back with hardly a beat, and there didn’t seem to be that much to notice anyway. I mean, sure, there were the flowers in spring and the fall colors too, and I did enjoy them, but they were just a blip on my radar, gone again and not to be thought about again until the next year, and then only because they were there right in front of my face.

And why should I have noticed? Why should I have paid attention? I was busy. I had a social life, friends, part-time job, and of course school. If I wasn’t at school with my nose buried in books, or bustling around the yard at Doc and Cindy’s old house keeping their estate in order, or sneaking off to some weekend party down by the river, I was sitting inside with my nose buried in a book or my eyes glued to the TV screen. I don’t think I ever lingered in one place long enough to truly appreciate the process that was unfolding before my eyes.

Fast forward to my first year after graduating from college. Then I was teaching English at a high school in South Korea, where every morning I found myself sitting at the same bus stop for about fifteen minutes every day for an entire year. Not having much to do then, I would just look around absently while my mind wandered. That is, until one morning in early spring when I noticed without any intention the very first sliver of green on a bush nearby: the very first leaf of spring. I was quite struck by the fact that I had never once in my life prior to that noticed that singular moment.

These days I wait eagerly for that first sign of foliage, and week by week as I walk along the Kanto Fureai Trail, I often looked at the tips of the branches searching for that speck of emerald, waiting for that superior green landscape that far outstrips the colorless winter slopes. On the day that I hiked section 4 in Saitama, I had the chance to experience this in a whole new way. You see, down in the valley, spring was already in full swing, with flowers blooming everywhere and leaves nearly reaching full mast, but on the ridgeline not a single leaf had even started to grow. On my way up the slope, then, I had the chance to watch Spring happen in reverse as the leaves slowly folded and shrank the higher I went until eventually there weren’t any left at all.

The Path Where the History of the Passes Endures

Up to this point, the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama has been winding through the ancient state of Musashi (武蔵), present day Hanno City (飯能市) on a more or less northward trajectory towards Chichibu (秩父), who longtime readers might recognize as the starting point of my summer trip from last year. Here on Section 4, the Path Where the History of the Passes Endures, the trail finally crosses over the border into Chichibu after a trek along a ridgeline filled with old passes that once served as the highways for pre-industrial Japan. The number totals seven in all, bearing such names as Perfect Circle (Shômaru, 正丸), Former Perfect Circle (Kyû-Shômaru, 旧正丸), Kokuzo (虚空蔵), Shearing-point Hill (Kariba-zaka, 刈場坂), Greatfield (Ôno, 大野), Highgrass (Takashino, 高篠), and Whitestone (Shiro-ishi, 白石).

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A roadside teahouse; the owner is a sweet old lady, so drop in and spend some money if you pass by.

Personally, I found the walk to be a relatively easy, leisurely trot through the woods, but it has to deficiencies. First, much of the path follows directly on or very near paved mountain roads, making the sound of passing cars and cyclists pretty constant. Secondly, outside of Circle Mountain (Maru-yama, 丸山), there really isn’t much by way of sweeping views either. But, if you’re looking for a relaxing walk that doesn’t require too much effort, this section is definitely worth taking up.

History

Encircled by mountains as it is, the Chichibu area is typically thought of as being cut-off from the surrounding areas, but in reality Chichibu has always been closely connected to the outside world by a great many mountain roads. The number of passes connecting Ogose Town (越生町) with the Musashi Plateau is particularly great, suggesting that long ago Ogose was central to the economy of the area. Old milestones can still be found along these routes today, and the carvings etched into them that reveal something of those old times. For example, the markers along Highgrass Pass (Takashino Tôge, 高篠峠) indicate that the road was also used as a pilgrimage route. Accordingly, we can say that the road, which was constructed for economic purposes, also enhanced cultural exchange.

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Worn by centuries of traffic, a deep trough has been worn in this mountain pass.

One might surmise travelling over the mountains is harder, and building a road over them is harder still; this being the case, one might also wonder why more of the old roads didn’t follow the rivers instead. Aside from the fact that crossing the mountains is far more direct, it may also be the case that these mountain routes were preferred because they didn’t get washed away in floods as easily as those following rivers.

Geography and Geology

Circle Mountain

Standing at 960.3 meters above sea level, Circle Mountain, or Maruyama (丸山), is easily the tallest point on the trail and, as it turns out, the tallest point in the whole Musashi Plateau. Located just beyond the halfway point on the route, this mountain has a clear grassy patch right at the summit where paragliders like to take off; on the day I passed through I just happened to see one take off right in front of me. The lack of trees here provides quite a nice view of the valley below and Kanto Plain beyond.

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A paraglider recently departed from the summit of Maruyama

In Japan, it’s fairly common for mountains to bear multiple names, and Maruyama is no different. One other name it bears is Highgrass Mountain (Takashino-yama, 高篠), though this name refers not just to the peak known as Circle Mountain but to all the mountains over 900 meters high in the nearby area as well. Another name it bears is Great Circle Mountain (Ômaru-yama, 大丸山), a name used to help distinguish it from Perfect Circle (Shômaru).

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The view from Circle Mountain

Paleozoic Fossils

Those who read the last post will remember that the Peak of Izu and others in this region are made from chert, an ancient sedimentary rock formed from the remains of prehistoric organisms from the Paleozoic Era. The representative fossil found in this layer of rock, known to geologists as the Chichibu Paleozoic Stratum, is that of organisms from the Fusulinida order, called bôsuichû (紡錘虫) in Japanese. Typically ranging from the size of a grain of rice to a black bean, these protozoa once made calcium shells shaped like miniature footballs, which fused together to form limestone rock. If you look carefully, you can probably find some. I’m no geologist, but I think maybe the picture below might show some.

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Possible fusilinda fossils

Religion

The Jizô of Safe Childbirth

Not long after departing Shômaru Station, you will see a small red-roofed shrine building on the side of the road. Not attached directly to a larger complex, it hardly looks important at all, but it actually houses a rather famous statue of a bodhisattva, the Jizô of Safe Childbirth (Anzan Jizo-son, 安産地蔵尊). Many such images located at larger temples are difficult to view as they are only put on display for a limited time every year, this one appears to be easily visible right through the front door anytime.

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The shrine Housing the Jizo of Safe Childbirth.

Originally the principal object of worship at the former Wealth-Spring Temple (Kyû-Hôsenji, 宝泉寺) located in valley below, this small Buddhist image contains a tainaibutsu (胎内仏), a smaller statue housed within a larger statue. It came to be housed in it’s current location after the promulgation of the Kami and Buddha Separation order in 1868, which was intended to extricate the heavily entwined foreign Buddhist religion from the native Shinto faith. Legend has it that, when the authorities came to remove the statue to the neighboring Righteous Treasury Temple (Shôzôin, 正蔵院), it miraculously increased its weight, becoming unmovable. After that, it was decided to move it to this small Kannon Hall that venerates the Kannon of Child-rearing. I guess the gods approved, because here it stands today.

Even before this miraculous event, the statue had earned a number of devotees due to its miraculous ability to prevent miscarriages. According to tradition, when a woman found that she was pregnant, she would come and take a sash from in front of the statue (see the picture below), tie it around her midriff, and wear it until the date of the birth. They say that women in the valley don’t ever miscarry because of this practice.

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The interior of the Kannon Hall housing the Jizo of Safe Childbirth statue

Each year on April 24th a festival for childbirth and child-rearing is held at the shrine. Be sure to stop in if you’re hiking through.

O-sarukô

Another holiday to look forward to in this area is O-sarukô, a Shinto celebration that takes place every year on the first Day of the Monkey in February by the lunar calendar. Roughly translated as “Monkey Mass,” this festival is for venerating the gods of the mountains, who are said to protect the hills and forests as well as the men who work there.

Though perhaps not as widely celebrated as it once was, here in the mountain western part of Saitama Prefecture, it is still particularly well observed. If you want to participate, you could drop into one of the major shrine complexes in the area, but for a more a closer connection to the soil, hike the trail in search of roadside shrines or large old trees and boulders, which represent mountain spirits.

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A collection of hokora, small roadside Shinto shrines

Given that this holiday is not part of a centrally organized religion, the exact target of worship varies from place to place, and could venerate anything from major deities such as Ôyama-Tsumi-no-Kami (The God Who Piled up the Great Mountains, 大山祇神) and Ki-no-Hana-Saku-Ya-Hime (The Princess of Blooming Tree Flowers, 木花咲耶姫) to more generic spirits such as saruta-hiko (monkey-boys, 猿田彦), tengu (goblins, 天狗), and even actual monkeys.

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hokora

The celebration itself is a rather simple affair: all you need to do is wrap a shime (注連), a special rope used in Shinto for consecrating a pace, around a big old rock or tree to pay your respects to its spirit. As Shinto is not an organized religion but rather a loose collection of religious practices, anyone can do this. If you’ve got a particularly noteworthy old tree or rock in your neighborhood, why not put up a shime and pay your respects?

 

Flora and Fauna

Yama-buki

Yama-buki (山吹), or Kerria in English, is a deciduous shrub that grows wild in wet places along valley streams in the mountains of Japan and produces bright yellow flowers. It’s name means “mountain-breeze,” which is believed to derive from the fact that it’s slender branches wave easily when the wind blows even slightly. The outer surface of it’s egg-shaped leaves is a brilliant green with concave veins branching out forming channels. These are useful for easily shedding water during the plentiful spring rains, maximizing the efficiency of the leave’s photosynthesis.

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Eizan Violets (叡山菫)

A perennial flower that grows wild in forests and groves, the Eizan Violet has leaves that grow not from the stalk above ground but directly from the root underground. The leaves are “hairless” on both sides and in the flowering season they divide into three sections. Around April, the flower stem grows up among the leaves and sprouts somewhat large horizontal-facing scented flowers of pale purple or white color with faint purple streaks on the petals.

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By 柑橘類 (talk) – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7081656

The name Eizan Violet comes from the famous center of Buddhist worship on Mount Hiei. The mountain’s full name in Japanese is Hi-ei-zan (比叡山). Dropping the first syllable yields Eizan, the name of the flower. Though I’ve never been, I suppose this flower must be common there. They are also sometimes called Ezo Violets (蝦夷菫), Ezo being the old name of Hokkaido before it was formally incorporated into the Japanese empire. Perhaps these are also commonly found there.

The Tanuki

Possibly the cutest of animals native to Japan, the tanuki is known commonly in English as the Japanese raccoon dog, which can be found just about anywhere in Japan including the mountains of western Saitama. As the name suggests, this member of the canidae family appears to be somewhat of a cross between a dog and a raccoon. And, like raccoons back in the US, you can find them just about anywhere in Japan, from remote mountains to relatively urban areas. In the more than two cumulative years that I’ve lived in Japan, however, I’ve only seen one. That was in the farmlands of northern Kyushu.

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By 663highland – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1162806

In Japanese, there is an expression called “Tanuki Sleep” or tanuki nehairi (狸寝入り), which refers to a feigned sleep. This comes from the fact that, apparently, if you surprise a tanuki, they have a tendency to faint.


Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Where the History of the Passes Endures
Map:
Click here
Access:
Start: Shomaru Stationon the Seibu Chichibu Line (西武秩父線正丸駅)
End: Shiroishi Garage Bus Stop (Shiroishi Shako Basu-tei, 白石車庫バス停)
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Low
Ideal Seasons: Spring (for flower viewing)
Camping Locations:* Between Kokuzo (虚空蔵) and Shearing-point Hill (Kariba-zaka, 刈場坂)
Length (distance): 15.6 km
Length (time): 4 hours and 50 minutes
Food access: A small refreshment stand not far up the road from Shômaru Station; a restaurant and gift shop in Shômaru Pass

*Note that these are not officially designated camping locations but simply places that I judge would be nice to put down a tent. Camp at your own risk.


 

My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 140.4 km (7.8%)
Courses completed: 11/160 (6.9%)
Days Spent: 9


© Brian Heise 2018