Mountain Watching

Identifying far off mountains one by one from the window of a train is a great pleasure of mine. While going down through the fields of Uonuma in Echigo after parting from Kiyomizu Tunnel on the Joetsu Line, again and again the mountains that delight my eyes come into view, one after another.
—Fukuda Kyuya


The pages of Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains are filled with such descriptions of those prominent peaks viewed from afar. When I read his words, I feel the man’s deep affinity for them, an affinity that allows him to recognize them at a glance. To the common eye they look so similar. But, just as any loving parent instantly distinguishes between even twins regardless of how similar they appear, Fukuda too picks out the shapes of his beloved mountains as they rise in the distance, peering over the shoulders of their siblings cloaked in mist and cloud.

As I began my journey through the mountains of Japan, I could hardly connect with Fukuda’s deep familiarity with the landscape, though I envied his ability. When I climbed a mountain and looked out at the sea of rippling ridgelines rolling down under a sea of blue, I could well appreciate their beauty though I couldn’t even tell you in what prefecture the mountain was located, let alone it’s name.

As I stood at the top of Great Mist Mountain, however, I gazed out on a broad panorama of ridges sweeping wide and far from distant Yamanashi and Nagano on one extreme to far off Tochigi and Ibaraki on the other. In that one broad sweep, no less than 5 of Fukuda’s famous mountains were visible, among them more than half of those I’ve already climbed. I looked out on them — on Kobushi-ga-Take and Kumotori Yama to the west and Nantai-san and Tsukuba-san to the east and felt that sense of familiarity and nostalgia that always arises when the memories of my own footsteps on those slopes rises alongside the places themselves, right before my eyes. At that time, I began to grasp the depth Fukuda’s knowledge, recognizing after this one year how many decades of walking these hills that he must have spent to develop that level of familiarity.

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From Great Mist Mountain

The Grandmother on the Mountain

On the day that Tianyu and I climbed Great Mist Mountain we were blessed with a beautifully clear sky whose sunshine illuminated a sea of flowers in full bloom applying the landscape with a wash of color. We arrive by bus at Whitestone in eastern Chichibu and spent more than a little time dallying around the beautiful display of flowers in the village, carefully managed by the watchful locals for centuries. We couldn’t help but feel that whatever sacrifice we might make to our salaries, living in a place like this would pay for the difference in full.

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Atop the ridge an hour or so later, we found ourselves at a busy mountain intersection buzzing with cyclists and hikers, and not a few people visiting by car as well. There we found a weathered old wooden guide map, which we puzzled over through the cracks and flecking paint to make sure we caught the right path. As we looked, a diminutive old woman with a wizened old face approached us and asked, in English, where we were going. We told her, Ôgiriyama.

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“That’s so far,” she said, but we assured her that we could make it and she agreed, noting our youth. Then she hesitated a moment, unsure perhaps of how to express her next words. Then she said in Japanese, “You know, you can see 5 or 6 of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains from there.” We hadn’t mentioned our quest for those 100 eminent peaks, but perhaps a wise old mountain lover such as herself could sense a kindred spirit in us. We thanked her and departed, eager for the view.


The Path Climbing Great Mist Mountain

Of all the sections of the Fureai Trail running through Saitama that I’ve hiked so far, this one is undoubtedly the most spectacular. Starting at Whitestone Garage Bus Stop, the path leads through a small mountain village overflowing with flowering trees of all kinds. Once you reach the ridge, though, the path winds along a series of pastures cleared off the hillsides that create sweeping views of the valley below. Along this first section is also Sadamine Pass, which is a popular location for cherry blossom viewing.

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The central point, though, is Great Mist Mountain. Standing at 761 meters above sea level, it’s not a mountain that would immediately catch the eye of a mountain climber, but what it lacks in altitude it more than makes up for in view: as mentioned above, the view from the top is beyond panoramic, offering a broad view that encompasses a huge swath of the Japanese alps, including more than a few of Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains. Tianyu and I, who are not usually the types to sit around, ended up resting their for almost a full hour, drinking in the view.

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Just below the peak on the far side, the trail splits into one of the two big loops in Saitama; this path takes the left fork, descending down past even more fields, these ones offering views of the Chichibu Basin and the larger mountains of Inner Chichibu beyond. The trail finally ends in the small village of Mitsuzawa; from there it’s a long bus ride to Chichibu Station and the train back to Tokyo.

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Sights Along the Path

The Horsehead Kanno

In old the days when the main form of transportation was by horseback, there were of course instances where, in the rugged and steep mountains of Japan, horses toppled over from the weight of their baggage. At such times, the handlers of the horses would build a memorial stupa for the Horsehead Kannon, the god who protects horses on the road. Aside from the religious connection, these markers served the very practical purpose of warning future travelers of the dangerous spot ahead.

These markers became common around the middle of the Tokugawa Period, and today many still remain in the old mountain passes; even along this path you can find some if you look carefully. If you see a large flat stone set vertically with the inscription 馬頭尊 carved into it’s surface, then you’ve found one. Of course these days the Horeshead Kannon has lost much of it’s importance due to the invention of the automobile.

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A memorial to the Horsehead Kannon

Seeing off the Gods in Whitestone Village

If you happen to be making this trip in May, try to come by on the first Day of the Ox for the Kami Okuri (神送り) Festival, a yearly celebration in which the villages escort evil spirits from the village. Once a widely observed holiday, these days Shiroishi Village is the only place in the Chichibu area still holds the celebration.

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A house in Whitestone Village

During the festival, the villagers engage in a variety of symbolic activities meant not to drive out the evil spirits, but to create the impression of being sent off heartily on a long, perhaps hopefully permanent trip. First, the villagers write farewell messages to troublesome spirits such as the thunder god and the god of wind, who would probably have been cause for much strife for these farming peoples. After that, they clean their bodies of demons using offerings of fried beans wrapped in calligraphy paper, likely a custom meant to cure diseases as sickness was often associated with demonic possession. Finally, they fashion palanquin from pine needles and green bamboo and give the spirits a kingly procession to the former boundary of the village in nearby Karasawa Valley (唐沢). Having thus coaxed the spirits of the village, they set up a giant sandal with a hole in the middle as a talisman against their return.

Holebears

As I hike through the mountains of Japan, I take it upon myself to learn the Japanese names of the various flora and fauna, and often I’m downright enchanted by the literal meaning of their Japanese names, and a badger is a perfect example of this. In Japanese, this animal is called anaguma (穴熊), which means “hole-bear.” Can you think of a more endearing name? I think even the most creative fantasy author couldn’t invent a better name.

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Holebear, the Japanese badger 
By Nzrst1jxOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The badgers of Japan are found from the low lying plains of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu up to altitudes of 1700 meters, so you might be able to spot on as you hike through Saitama. Active at night, the walk through the mountains, valleys, and fields looking for food, which consists of rats, freshwater crabs, insects, nuts and fruit, and even tree roots. Very much lovers of cleanliness, before entering their burrows they clean the mud off their claws with sticks. From about the middle of November these animals change the grass lining of their burrows with fresh grass and then hibernate until about the middle of March.

The Legend of Daidara-bottchi

There’s an interesting legend about the formation of the landscape in this area. According to the legend, there once was a giant named Daidabo (大太坊), whose name, if I were to render it in English, would come out roughly as “Big Fat Billy.” Apparently, while one his way to Mt. Haguro (羽黒山) far in the north, he had to pass through the mountains of Chichibu. Stopping for a break, he sat down in Sadamine Pass (定峰峠) and placed his hat, one of those iconic conical Asian farmers hats (called kasa in Japanese) on a nearby mountain; that mountain is today called Kasa Mountain. He then spread out his two feet near the Tsuki River and set about cooking a pot of rice porridge, called kayu (粥), in what is today called Kayu Nita Pass (粥仁田峠). After eating, he turned his kettle (kama, 釜) over to drain over what is now called Kamafuse Mountain (釜伏山), and stuck his two giant chopsticks the size of trees into the ground in a place now called Two Trees Pass (Nihon-ki Tôge, 二本木山峠). Finally, the depressions and small marshes located around the Tsuki River in Shiroishi are said to be the remains of his footprints.

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Sadamine Pass, where Big Fat Billy sat his rump

 Bridal Wreath

A deciduous shrub that grows wild in the mountains of Japan, bridal wreath is known as both utsugi (空木) and unohana (卯花) in Japanese. The former of these names literally means “hollow tree” and derives from the fact that the plant’s stem is hollow. In May and June, they sprout clusters of conical white flowers. You can spot this plant along the ridges of the path.

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Bridal wreath 
By Σ64投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示 3.0, Link

Serpentine Rock

In Japan, there is a belt of serpentinite running along the Sanbagawa (三波川) and Kamui Kotan (神居古潭) Metamorphic Belts. Serpentinite is an intriguing light green rock that has, as the name implies, a pattern resembling a snake’s body. The stone quarried from this area is called “Chichibu Serpentine” (秩父蛇紋) and is polished and used for interior decoration. Aside from Misawa (三沢), outcrops of serpentinite can also be seen in Kamafuse Pass (釜伏峠) and near Kuriyaze Bridge (栗谷瀬橋) in Minna-no Village (皆野町) on the Arakawa River (荒川), all of which fall within the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt.

 

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Raw serpentine

 

When we passed through, we found the ruins of an old quarry, which we assume was used to produce serpentinite products. It’s currently shut down, but the remains of some leftover materials lay just outside the gate, including a large pile of sand, likely the chaff produced when polishing the stone.

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Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Climbing Great Mist Mountain (Ogiri-yama wo Noboru Michi, 大霧山)
Map:
Click here
Access:
Start: Shiroishi Garage Bus Stop (白石車庫バス停)
End: Takahara Ranch Entrance Bus Stop (高原牧場入口バス停)
Difficulty: Medium
Natural Beauty: High
Ideal Seasons: Spring (for flower viewing), Winter (for low haze)
Camping Locations:* Ôgiri-yama
Length (distance): 13.1 km
Length (time): 4 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Shiroishi Shako Bus Stop, Chichibu City

*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: 153.5 km (8.5%)
Courses completed: 12/160 (7.5%)
Days Spent: 10


© Brian Heise 2018