Looking out from Kaoburi Pass (顔振峠), waves of blue mountains roll out across the horizon and into the distance. Warm summer wind caresses the branches of trees and bamboo, who sigh in response. Red, blue, and grey rooftops below stand out amid the greenery, while a curtain of grey clouds wraps the sky. This is the central scene of Saitama Section 11 of the Fureai Trail: The Path with Waterfalls and a Yoshitsune Legend.
This path spans 8 km through the old state of Musashi from Agano Station over Kaoburi Pass to the Three Black Mountain Waterfalls (Kuroyama Mitaki, 黒山三滝). The pass itself is not particularly high or remote (a paved road runs right over it), but it is known for having a rather charming view of the area to the west, including waves of mountains rising off in the distance, among them Mt. Fuji if the weather is good.
This section is one painted in history. According to legend, the medieval general Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) crossed over it while fleeing northward from Kyoto. Though the forces of his brother Yoritomo were in hot pursuit ready to take his head if they should capture him, the view from the pass was so beautiful that the fleeing general couldn’t help but looking back at the view again and again. For this reason, the pass was named Kaoburi or “Head Turner.”
Outside of the above military story, this trail is also a place to enjoy religious history as Black Mountain, the course’s conclusion, was once prosperous as a site for practicing ascetic Buddhism. It’s even believed that one of Japan’s most famous early ascetics, En the Pilgrim (634 – c.700-707), once practiced his mystic arts there. Perhaps the draw to the area was its mysterious deep valleys, within which can be found the Three Black Mountain Waterfalls (Kuroyama Mitaki, 黒山三滝), for which this section is named.
Trail at a Glance
The Path with Waterfalls and a Yoshitsune Legend (義経伝説と滝のあるみち)
This post is a continuation of last week’s post on Section 9 of the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama. Be sure to check out last week’s post for general information, bus timetables, and additional points of interest.
More Points of Interest
A Mountain with a Class-1 Triangulation Point
In 1888 the Department of Land Survey (陸地測量部) set out to produce the first modern survey of the country and so installed a network of triangulation points across the country to serve as a standard of measurement for this endeavor. The 1/50,000 scale maps that were produced from this survey became the gold standards for Japan’s first generation of recreational hikers. Today these original markers are known as Class-1 Triangulation Points and can be found spaced at roughly 40 km intervals all across the country, one of which can be found at the summit of Castle Peak.
In Saitama Prefecture alone there are eleven Class-1 triangulation points. Five of these are located on top of mountains: Three Jewels Mountain (Sanpōzan, 三宝山, 2,483m), Cloud-Catcher Mountain (Kumotori-yama, 雲取山), Mt. Dōdaira (堂平山, 876m), Lookout Mountain (Monomi-yama, 物見山, 375m), and Castle Peak Mountain (1038m). From the summit of Castle Peak, the first three of these are visible. In addition, many other Class-1 points outside of Saitama are also visible from the summit, including Mt. Nantai (男体山), Kesamaru Mountain (袈裟丸山), Jizo Peak (地蔵岳) at Akagi Mountain (赤城山), Hotaka Mountain (武尊山), Komochi Mountain (子持山), Tanigawa Peak (谷川岳), Mt. Haruna (榛名山), and Akakuna Mountain (赤久縄山).
Castle Peak’s Legendary Tragedy
In the first half of the 10th century, the warlord Taira no Masakado, a rebel against the central Japanese state based in Kyoto, subjugated the Eight Kanto States, or Kanhasshū (関八州), which once occupied the broad plain where Tokyo now lies. Shortly after he captured the state of Shimōsa (下総) Masakado established a castle on the top of a mountain far to the east, which was then known as the Peak of Ishima (石間ヶ岳). From then on, the local villagers began to call the mountain “Castle Peak.” At least, this is according to tradition.
In those days, the Kanto area was on the hinterlands of state authority and could have been considered particularly valuable in and of itself, but Masakado’s subjugation could not be left unchallenged. Therefore, Fujiwara no Hidesato (藤原秀郷) was dispatched to bring the Eight States back under imperial control. According to legend, the two faced off in Chichibu, with Masakado occupying the high ground at Castle Peak.
Staying in the fort with him at the time was his beloved wife, Bellflower (Kikyō, 桔梗). Unbeknownst to him, however, she would at times disappear from the fort, but for what reason is unclear. Some stories say that she was betraying him, reporting secret information to Hidesato, while other stories say that Masakado, upon discovering her absences, merely assumed this to be the case. Regardless, all accounts agree that Masakado had her executed for this offence. Shortly thereafter, Masakado himself was defeated and executed. Thereafter, bell-flowers ceased to bloom on the mountain.
Taira no Masakado and Mt. Castle Peak
The above legend notwithstanding, there actually isn’t any hard evidence that Taira no Masakado ever personally set foot in Chichibu, let alone Mt. Castle Peak, and yet a great number of Masakado legends have been passed down through the ages all over the region. This appears to be due to the fact that the area became a stronghold of the Bandō branch of the Taira family (坂東平氏). Since Masakado became such a famous figure, the Bandō Tairas likely spread these rumors in order to secure an association with their more famous family member.
That said, there are many signs of military activity times past. For example, great many military-sounding place names can be found all over the mountain, including “Horse-Washing Pool” (Uma-arai Fuchi, 馬洗い渕), “The Estate Grounds (O-Yashiki Ba , お屋敷場), Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城), King’s Castle (Ōjō, 王城), Castle Valley (Shiro-no-Sawa, 城の沢), and Castle Flat (Jōdaira, 城平). On top of those places, an excavation survey carried out by prefectural government discovered a flat area on Castle Peak that is thought to be the remains of a lookout site. Despite this, experts believe that these all date to the Warring States Period rather than to Masakado’s time.
Castle Peak Shrine
Shortly after descending from the summit of Castle Peak, the trail visits Castle Peak Shrine, whose founder is said to be Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, the same figure who founded Hodo-san Shrine in the same area. According to legend, he climbed to this point during his famous Eastern Expedition to subjugate western Honshu to the central government in Kyoto in the 1st century CE. According to legend, when he reached the area, he deemed that it would be an excellent place to worship the gods, and so he enshrined an arrow there. Even today there remains a place on the north side of the ridge known as Yanō (矢納), or “Arrow-Offering.”
One of the interesting points about this shrine is the fact that it has a campground attached to it. This provides a rare experience for hikers spend the night sleeping on temple grounds. For this reason, I recommend anyone hiking this section to plan an overnight stay so you can take advantage of this chance.
Taira no Masakado in Japanese Culture
As a member of the Taira Clan, Taira no Masakado belonged to one of Japan’s oldest and most distinguished samurai clans, whose pedigree extends back to the earliest recorded history of the country. Thus, though in actual terms he was hardly more than a minor rebel who only briefly defied central authorities, he has nonetheless become an incredibly well-known figure, and has even become the subject of religious worship. This worship has typically taken two forms.
The first of these is the formal worship of his spirit at Shinto shrines dedicated specifically to him. Two prominent examples of these are Kanda Shrine (Kanda Myojin, 神田明神) and Torigoe Shrine (Torigoe Jinja, 鳥越神社), both in Tokyo. The second of these is the worship of Masakado’s severed head. After Fujiwara no Hidesato ended the rebellion and decapitated the rebel leader, he sent the head back to Kyoto to be put on display. Various stories have circulated about mysterious events connected to the head, including that it would laugh and passerby and also that it actually flew away back to Masakado’s hometown. The common people, hearing these stories and believing in the power of Masakado’s spirit, build kubizuka, or “Head Mounds,” to worship this mysterious power. Today you can still find some of these mounds in the Kanto area, for example at Enpuku Temple (円福寺) in Minano Town and another in Ōtemachi (大手町) in Tokyo.
Photos from the Trail
Trail at a Glance
The Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
On a day in November of 2018 I stood on the mountainside to the east of Nagatoro, overlooking a long arm of the Chichibu Basin stretching out towards the Kanto to the east. Below, the town spread out along the blue line that was the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川), and past that the wall of mountains beyond which lay Gunma Prefecture, the next stage of the Fureai Trail. For nearly a year now, I had been making my way steadily to this point. And along that ridge, the highest peak rose up, towering over the basin, a perfect vantage point. I had stood there myself some months before. Then it was a peak wrapped in mist so thick that I could hardly see more than a few kilometers. At that time, I had no idea what view was hidden from me, nor how important that view has been in the past.
What I was looking at was Mt. Castle Peak (Jōmine-san, 城峰山), the focus of Section 9 of the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama Prefecture. At 1037.7 meters tall, the mountain is the tallest within Chichibu’s Jōbu Nature Park (上武自然公園) and commands a sweeping view of the mountains of Inner Chichibu (奥秩父), the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地), Nikko (日光), and also the mountains of Jōshinetsu (上信越). It’s a shame that on the day I passed through it was too misty to see any of that, but such is a common experience for hikers in Japan.
Given that the peak makes for such an excellent lookout position, it comes as no surprise that over the centuries it has been associated with prominent military figures, in particular the Heian Period (794 – 1185) rebel Taira no Masakado and also the Warring States Period (1467 – c. 1600) general Takeda Shingen. Even today there are numerous place names on and near the mountain that reflect this history: King’s Castle (Ōjō, 王城), Castle Mountain (Shiro-yama, 城山), Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城), and Castle Valley (Shiro-no-Sawa, 城の沢). As such, this section of trail makes an excellent stop not just for nature enthusiasts but also for fans of history as well.
At 14.3 km long, this section is the longest course on the trail since Section IV, all of which have been less than 10 km. As such, those who are more interested in hiking than simply strolling will definitely get their fill on this trip. The trail picks up some distance up the road from the end of Section VIII and is accessible by bus from Minano Station (皆野駅), but Google doesn’t have the bus line in its system yet, you’ll have to rely on this timetable. You should get off at Nishi Montaira (西門平). From the bus stop, walk further up the road a short distance until you see your first Fureai Trail marker.
The first half of the trail sticks to footpaths all the way to the summit of Castle Peak, but shortly after descending down to Castle Peak Shrine, the trail begins to follow predominantly roadways, though there are still some sections of actual trail. Towards the end, this section meets up with Section X before ending at Tosen Bridge (登仙橋). Google can carry you home from there.
Points of Interest
“The Bugs’ Farewell” of Montaira
If you’re planning on hiking this section in mid-August, consider planning your trip for the 16th so that you can witness a distinct local celebration: Montaira Village’s Mushi Okuri or “The Bugs’ Farewell.” In this event, the villagers perform a sort of exorcism to remove evil spirits from the village who were once believed to cause disease, pestilence, natural disasters, and all sorts of other misfortunes. The event features a parade of people in traditional dress marching to the edge of town while playing musical instruments such as taiko drums and flutes or carrying special flags, called segaki hata (施餓鬼旗), all the while chanting a special prayer.
This parade occurs on the last day of the Bon festival, a Buddhist celebration for honoring deceased ancestors celebrated all over Japan and is often compared to the Thanksgiving holiday in North America. The last day of the festival, on which Montaira’s Bugs’ Farewell occurs, is known as Okuribon (送り盆), or “Farewell Bon,” because on this day people would traditionally hold a ceremony in which they bid the spirits of their ancestors farewell.
What sets the Bugs’ Farewell apart from the more typical version of the festival is that in Montaira the focus of this ceremony is not to see off the spirits of their own ancestors, but rather to do so for the spirits of those who don’t have families to tend their graves. According to tradition, people who die childless or whose family line dies off are left in a deeply unsatisfied state and therefore cause all sorts of trouble for those of us in the human world. To appease these ghosts, the people of Montaira began holding this special ceremony just for them, bringing them to the edge of the town like honored guests on the point of departure. The festival acquired its name because, once these spirits were satisfied, they would quit sending bugs to lay pestilence upon the crops.
Mountain Forts of the Warring States Period
The period from 1467 to roughly 1600 is typical referred to as the Warring States Period, or Sengoku Jidai (戦国) and is marked by a collapse of central authority and the rise of autonomous military states across the country who constantly vied with each other for territorial control. A number of great generals are remembered from this time, among them one Takeda Shingen (武田信玄), who became active in the area around Castle Peak towards the end of this period. For those of you who have followed this blog, you might be interested to know that he was the ruler of the old state of Kai (甲斐), where a certain Peak of the Colt (甲斐駒ヶ岳) is located.
By 1569 Takeda had established control of western Jōshū (上州), whose southern border happened to be the mountain range on which Castle Peak sits. During that same year he pushed further south, crossing the Kanna River (神流川) into that range (which was then part of Musashi (武蔵) province), where he established a line of forts to secure his frontier. Among the many that he built, the best remembered today are Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城) and the lookout on Mt. Castle Peak, both of which are located along Section IX; Kanasana Mitake Castle (金鑚御嶽城) Kamikawa Village (神川村); Tiger Hill Castle (Tora-ga-Oka Jō, 虎が丘城) and Kanao Stronghold (Kanao Yōgai Sanjō, 金尾要害山城) in Yorii Town (寄居町); Highpine Castle (Takamatsu Jō, 高松城) and Dragon Valley Castle (Ryū-ga-Tani Jō, 竜ヶ谷) in Minano Town (皆野町).
Near the end of the Warring States Period, rival daimyo managed to capture one of the castles in Takeda’s line, and after Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s unification of the country their reason for existence was lost, so they fell into ruin. Today, only their earthwork portions remain.
More to come!
There was quite a lot of information about this section, more than could fit in a single post. Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we discuss more about the history of the area. Until then, please enjoy some of photos from my visit!
Trail at a Glance
The Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
On the day I hiked the Path Gazing Over the Chichibu Basin, the skies were threatening rain. I remember standing atop Gable Mountain (Happu-san, 破風山) looking out at the dark clouds rolling across the horizon obscuring the high mountains in the distance; nonetheless, the broad expanse of the basin lay clear ahead, painted in dark evergreen with geometric patches of grey townscape and pale green rice fields. Barely visible in the distance, the thin blue stroke of the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川) meandered across the valley.
Nearby, my coworker Derek rested on a low, rough-cut wooden bench. In that humid August air, we were both thoroughly drenched in sweat. I checked my phone. “It looks like the sun might come out in a few hours. If we’re lucky, we just might get some swimming done this afternoon.”
That was the original plan at least. Since the Path Gazing Upon the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺めるみち) is just a short 4.3 km section, we needed something to fill out the day trip. I’d ordinarily have been inclined to do a second section, but this one was isolated from the previous and the next by several kilometers of roadway, so I decided on another tack: a stop by the Rough River for some good swimming, something which had been longing for for a while. Wouldn’t you know it that the weeks of perfectly sunny skies would be punctuated with rain when I finally did. As it turned out, though we did get some rain the sun eventually did come out. During the rain, we got to enjoy a hotspring spa, and during the sun we went swimming in the river. I call that a win.
The Path Gazing Upon the Chichibu Basin officially starts some distance from the end of the previous section, but the two are connected by roadways marked with Fureai Trail signposts if one were to want to hike the whole distance. Once you arrive in the small village of Futto (風戸), however, the path turns left across the stream and up into the mountains. From there its a quick 4.3 km hike to the top of Gable Mountain (Hafu-san, 破風山) and back down to the pavement. Overall, it’s a fairly easy and quick hike well suited to people of all ages, but it still yields some fantastic views.
Being such a short section of trail, hikers ought to plan to spend a significant amount of time enjoying the various attractions to be found along the trail and just after. Luckily, this section has a lot to offer, including a hot spring spa, a variety of flowering plants, and a bit of history and religion. Read on for details.
Mangan no Yu Hotspring
Mangan no Yu Hotspring is a popular local hotspring sure to be lively with visitors on any weekend. Equipped with a gift shop selling local products, an outdoor bath in addition to the typical indoor pools and saunas, and a cafeteria to boot, you could easily spend a whole afternoon here relaxing after the hike. It’s located very close to the start of the trail, but since the route makes a horeshoe loop up to the summit of Gable Mountain before dropping back down to the main road, its pretty easy to just walk right back down after you finish. Derek and I spent a couple hours there while we waited for the rain to let up, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
The Flowers of Futto Village
A walk through a village in Saitama is certain to dazzle you with beautiful flowers, and Futto is no different. Even in August, everywhere I looked there were flowers of all colors blooming.
The Shade Rhododendron Colony in Futto
If you’re visiting in May, about 2 km into the hike you’ll come across a slope covered in pale yellow flowers: these are Futto Village’s colony of shade rhododendrons (hikage tsutsuji, 日陰躑躅). This evergreen shrub native to Japan grows approximately 1 meter high and can be found in shady spots on mountainsides all over Shikoku and Kyushu, but only grows in the southern half of Honshu. In fact, this particular colony is thought to be at the absolute extremity of their livable climate — no other known colonies exist further north.
Known as Japanese Andromeda in English, asebi is a medium-sized shrub whose name written in Chinese characters literally means “horse intoxicating tree” and was so named because its poisonous leaves would cause horses who ate them to behave as though they were drunk. Interestingly, though, this poison had its benefits: in the old days, farmers would steep the leaves and stems in hot water and then spray the resulting tea on plants and livestock as insect repellent. I suppose we hikers today might use it in this way if we forget to bring our own repellent, but try it at your own risk.
Asebi typically grows from 1.5 to 3 meters high and can be found everywhere in Japan. Owing to its wide distribution, its has become known by a variety of names according to local dialects, including asebu, ashibi, and asebo, among others. It can be identified by its long, thin, and waxy leaves that taper to a point, accompanied by its pale purple bell-shaped flowers, which bloom in March. Be careful not to mistake it for suzuran, another species that features similarly shaped flowers.
About a half a kilometer from the summit of Gable Mountain is Monkey Rock (Saru Iwa, 猿岩), a outcrop right by the trail that stands about 3 or 4 meters high. The rock can be scaled easily around the back side without needing to do any real bouldering, and from the top one can get a decent view of the surrounding landscape.
The summit of Gable Mountain is easily the highlight of the trip. At a height of just 627 meters, at first glance it might not seem worth the trip, but in fact the summit offers a sweeping view of the Chichibu Basin as well as the high mountains beyond, making it a great destination for photographers and sightseers alike. I imagine the view would be especially beautiful on a starry night, where one could juxtapose the light of the town below with that of the moon. Just below the summit is a large pavilion that would make an excellent place to sleep for the night.
Shortly after descending from the summit of Gable Mountain one will arrive at Tagstand Pass (Fuda-tate Toge, 札立峠), where the trail joins with the Chichibu Fudasho pilgrimage route. This route covered 100 km and takes roughly 6 days to complete, during which pilgrims visit a total of 34 local temples, each of which offers a fuda, a type of paper tag used as a talisman; to complete the pilgrimage, one should acquire a fuda from each of these temples. This pass is located between the last two temples on the route, Kikusui Temple (Chrysanthemum-water Temple, 菊水寺) and Suisen Temple (Water-concealing Temple, 水潜寺). The route follows the Akahira River (赤平川) from the former in Hisanaga Village (久長集落) before descending down to the latter in Shimo Hinozawa, where pilgrims can receive their final fuda tag.
At first thought, one might assume that the name “tagstand” originates from the fuda tags associated with the pilgrimage route, but actually it comes from a different fuda tag. According to the stories, long ago in great times of drought, monks would climb up to this point to place special fuda to request the gods send rain.
The way to Suisen Temple follows a narrow ravine lined by rocky outcrops. As you approach the temple, Buddhist monuments start to appear on the right.
I wasn’t able to find a lot of information about the temple’s history, but the hall dedicated to the Buddhist deity Kannon located there was apparently built in 1828, so it’s a fairly historic building. It’s also the final stop on the Chichibu 34 Holy Grounds and Japan’s 100 Kannon Holy Grounds pilgrimages. Even today you can still sometimes see pilgrims passing through wearing the traditional white tunic and sedge hat.
The main object of worship here is a single block wooden statue of the Thousand Handed Kannon, which dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). The temple also venerates images of the deities Amida Nyorai and the Yakushi Nyorai. These two deities represent the Saigoku and Bando regions respectively, which along with Chichibu comprise the entire area within which the the 100 Kannon Pilgrimage is contained.
Unfortunately, as the temple occupied an extremely narrow valley and was set somewhat up a hillside slightly obscured by trees, it was impossible to get a decent shot of the building.
Trail at a Glance
The Path Gazing over the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地を眺める道)
The following post is Part 2 of my two part series about Hôdô-san Shrine in the town of Nagatoro, Japan. Be sure to check out Part 1 before reading on! And be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you think.
The Sub-Shrines at Hôdô-san
It isn’t at all uncommon for Shinto shrines to be accompanied by one or more sub-shrines, or betsu-gû (別宮). In Hôdô-san’s case, there are three: Tenmanten Shrine, Hogyoku Inari Shrine, and Yamato Takeru Shrine. Each is dedicated to a different spirit, and each has its own legends, traditions, and holidays, which are explained below.
Originally, this shrine was simply dedicated to the renowned Heian Period (794-1185) poet and statesman Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真). However, in later years another nearby shrine was combined with this one and so was renamed Tenmanten Shrine (天満天神社). Michizane, however, remained as the venerated spirit, and is today revered as a deity of calligraphy, scholarship, and agriculture.
In the past the temple’s holy day was called Hatsutenjin (初天神) and was held every year on January 25th. On that day, the local children would make a visit to the shrine to present their first calligraphy of the year. Afterwards, they would gather together at a nearby house to spend the day having fun playing traditional Japanese games like karuta (歌留多) and sugoroku (双六) and eating delicious food.
These days, owing to modern work schedules, the holiday is now celebrated on the nearest Saturday to January 25th. These days, parents and children who are preparing for a test or for school admissions visit the temple to pray for success in these endeavors. For this reason the holiday is also called Kangaku-sai, or the “Encouraging Study Festival.” Those celebrating the holiday also leave small wooden ema (絵馬) plaques in front of the temple containing such messages as prayers for success in school or, as in the old days, the year’s first calligraphy.
Hôgyoku Inari Shrine (宝玉稲荷)
The Hôgyoku Inari Shrine is just one of the countless shrines across the country dedicated to fox god Inari, a god not of mischief as in the western tradition but of rice, tea, sake, and fertility. I suppose these things go together. This particular shrine was established on December 14 of the year Bunsei 5 (1822) when half of the spirit of Uka-no-Mitama (倉稻魂, the spirit of rice in storehouses), an associated deity to Inari, was enshrined here. I say half of because according to custom, that’s literally what is believed: a spirit cannot be simply worshiped in two places since the spirit is not considered to be omnipresent as in many Western traditions, and it has to be ritually divided in order to be worshiped in two different locations. The other half of Uka-no-Mitama’s spirit can be found at its original home at Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷社).
This shrine is revered by numerous people both within and without Nagatoro for it’s divine virtues, which are said to bring about bountiful harvests, prosperity in trade, and domestic security. It is also believed that if you visit the shrine at times when you’ve lost something, it will miraculously return to you.
The annual festival of Hôgyoku Inari Shrine is called Hatsuuma-sai (初午際), or the “First Horse Festival,” so named because it falls on the first day of the horse by the old lunar calendar. Additionally, there is a ritual held on the 25th each month called Otaki-age Matsuri (御炊上際), or “The Cook-up Festival.” This festival starts at 3 pm with prayers for wealth and happiness followed by offerings of red beans, rice, and holy sake left in the grottoes around the mountain so that the messenger of Uka-no-Mitama, the white fox Obyakko (御白狐), will come to work miracles.
The Shrine to Yamato Takeru no Mikoto
Longtime readers of this blog will have already heard something of the famous 8th century warrior and son of the 12th emperor of Japan Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, who led a great expedition to eastern Japan to subdue rebellious subjects. There are more than a few locations in this area that have legends about this man attached to them. Here at Hôdô-san, he holds a special place as the founder of this holy site.
According to legend, Yamato Takeru was enthralled with the beautiful shape and mystical atmosphere of this mountain, and so he decided to establish a shrine here (see the previous post for more information). Those who remembered Takeru’s compassion built this shrine, near the spring where he ritually purified himself before climbing the mountain.
The festival for Yamato Takeru is called the 88th Night, so named because it occurs on the 88th day following the first day of spring by the old lunar calendar, which is May 2nd by the current system. On this day believers reenact Takeru’s climb to the summit, carrying a ritual palanquin holding his spirit to the Inner Shrine at the top of Hôdô-san, where the festival is carried out and traditional Shinto dances and songs are performed. Another name for the festival is Tsutsuji Matsuri, or the Azalea Festival, because a prominent variety of azalea blooms at this time. In addition to marking the start of the farming season in the Chichibu area, it is also the official day when the mountain is ceremonially opened for the year, so the summit is lively with believers and hikers alike at this time.
Kagura: Entertaining the Gods
Among the several outbuildings at Hôdô-san Shrine lies one building that isn’t actually a sub-shrine per-se, but is rather a hall dedicated to a traditional form of Japanese theatrical performance known as Kagura (神楽), or the God’s Entertainment. This practice is rooted in the most ancient of Japanese mythology and originates from the following tale.
Long ago, the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照) hid herself in a cave to sulk after a dispute with her brother, thus casting the world into darkness. The goddess Ame-no-Uzu danced at the entrance of the cave in order to coax her out. The plan worked: Amaterasu was intrigued by her dance and came out to watch, and so light was restored to the world. From then on, the people of Japan commemorated this important event by repeating Ame-no-Uzu’s dance, which is now called Kagura (神楽), or “the gods’ entertainment.”
Though the Kagura tradition is carried out in some form all across Japan, the practice takes various shapes, from the formalized mikagura (御神楽) of official shrines to the folk versions known as Village Kagura, or satokagura (里神楽). In the Chichibu area, there are a total of six lineages of Kagura, one of which is still practiced today at Hôdô-san Shrine. The unique characteristic of this form of Kagura is the fact that there are individual dances dedicated to many gods that appear in the two great classics of Japanese mythology, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. In addition to simple dances, theatrical performances of famous stories from these two books also occur. Whether dance or theater, all of the performances are done silently save for a single Waka poem that appears in one of the stories, which is uttered aloud. In addition, a cauldron containing hot water used in a special purification ritual is hung outside of the Kagura Hall (pictured below).
The variety of Kagura performed at Chichibu’s shrines dates back to the early 19th century, but these activities were suspended roughly half a century later during the political upheavals that led to the end of the Tokugawa regime (1603-1868). The formal practice resumed once more in the 1920s; prior to that the dances were performed by roaming Kagura troupes. One of those troupes was the Hinozawa Futobuto Society (日野沢太々協会) of Hinozawa village in nearby Minano Town (a few stops down on the Chichibu Line from Hôdô-san). At that time, the people of Nagatoro (then called Fujiyabuchi, 藤谷淵), lacking their own Kagura Troupe, went there to engage in the practice. However, in 1910 the Nagatoro’s own Fujiyabuchi Kagura Troupe was founded, and so the two troupes began to take turns giving Kagura performances at the local shrines.
In 1922 the Fujiyabuchi Troupe became the official Kagura performers for Hôdô-san Shrine and thus changed their name to Hôdô-san Shrine Kagura Troupe (Hôdô-san Jinja Kagura-dan, 寳登山神社神楽団). Since then, they have continued to preserve traditional performances and so in 1960 they were designated as an intangible cultural heritage of Nagatoro.
The major performances each year occur on January 1st, February 3rd or 4th (depending on the year), April 3rd, and May 4th.
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Out in the mountains northwest of Tokyo in a region known as Chichibu, Section VII of the Saitama’s portion of the Fureai Trail winds through the quaint riverside town of Nagatoro (長瀞). Given it’s rural location, one would hardly expect such a place to have much to recommend it, but in fact the area boasts one of the most beautiful and historic shrines that I’ve ever found in such a place: ancient Hôdô-san Shrine (寳登山神社), which according to legend has been operating in some capacity for nearly 2,000 years. Put together with the many other nearby attractions, this certainly makes Nagatoro a must-see destination for anyone looking for a day-trip out of Tokyo.
The Founding Legend
According to legend, Hôdô-san was established more than 1,900 years ago by the imperial prince Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (日本武尊), a child of the 12th emperor of Japan. Takeru arrived in the Chichibu area while on a military expedition to subjugate the locals, who had not yet bowed to his father’s rule. Upon reaching present-day Nagatoro, his heart was taken by the mysterious atmosphere and beautiful shape a mountain on the west side of the river, so he ritually purified himself in springwater and attempted to climb to the top. Not long after setting out, however, a wildfire suddenly broke out on the mountain and in no time he was surrounded by flames. Takeru and company fought the flames and it seemed like they might not survive, but then a group of large wolves appeared who helped him quell the rampant flames. After that, they accompanied him to the summit, but disappeared once he arrived there. Takeru considered these animals to have been the divine messengers of the wolf god Ôkuchima-kami (大口真神).
After the event, Takeru decided to call the mountain Hôdô-san (火止山), meaning “fire quelling mountain.” Looking out at the magnificent view of the mountains of Chichibu, he deemed it a place befitting the worship of the gods, so he established three shrines on the summit: one to the spirit of Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan; one to Ôyamatsumi-no-Mikoto (大山祇命), the spirit who made the mountains; and one to Homusubi-no-Kami (火産霊神), the spirit of fire. In later years, the place became a prosperous holy site, and so an inner shrine (okumiya, 奥宮) at the summit and the main shrine (honden, 本殿) at the foot of the mountain were established to venerate Takeru’s spirit.
In the early 9th century, a mystical orb was seen soaring over the mountaintop, which was taken as an auspicious sign from the gods. Consequently, the shrine and mountain were renamed Hôdô-san (寳登山), which possessed a similar pronunciation to the original but was written with the characters meaning Jewel-Ascending Mountain. From then to this day, the shrine has been an important place of worship.
Today Hôdô-san Shrine can be found at the end of a long, wide thoroughfare marked by a large white torii gate that runs straight from Nagatoro Station to the foot of the foot of the mountain. The distance is easily walk-able, but taxis and buses are also available to suit the elderly and those with small children.
The main shrine complex features a main hall surrounded by a series of minor shrines dedicated to various gods and spirits and is located at the foot of the mountain. An inner shrine can be found at the summit and is accessible by either on foot or by cable car.
The Main Hall
Easily the most recognizable building at the Hôdô-san, the Main Hall is located at the top of a steep flight of stone steps at the end of the main approach, or omote-sando (表参道). In contrast to the typical Shinto Shrines found in the area, which tend to be either unpainted wood or painted plain red, this one is covered in a variety of bright colors and designs reminiscent of more famous shrines like the Toshogu in Nikko.
The point that really sets this building apart from other shrines in Japan, however, are the scenes carved on its exterior. Each of these are drawn from classics of Chinese literature, namely four from The 24 Filial Exemplars (13th century) by the scholar Guo Jujing and a fifth from the Record of the Three Kingdoms (4th century) by Chen Shou. Their presence here at a holy place for Japan’s native religion shows the strong effect that Chinese culture had on Japan over the centuries, and the deep respect afforded to its wisdom.
The Filial Exemplars
The 24 Filial Exemplars is a collection of parables intended to illustrate the proper application of the Confucian moral principal of filial piety, or loyalty to one’s parents. Although in the West we tend to learn of Confucius and his teachings as a distinct system of thought, these principles were in fact widely accepted as a basic philosophy of life all across Asia and were thus followed in tandem with the teachings of other religions, hence their appearance here at a Shinto shrine. The four scenes depicted here can be found high on left wall towards the front of the main hall, above the sliding wooden windows and below the eaves. Each scene progresses from right to left in the order that they are presented below.
He Fed His Parents with Doe’s Milk Enshi’s (郯子) parents were losing their eyesight, so for their sake tried to obtain doe’s milk for medicine. He therefore donned the skin of a deer approached the herd, but a hunter mistakenly shot him. Nonetheless, Enshi obtained the milk and thus fulfilled his filial duty.
He Carried Rice for His Parents
Shiro (子路), one of Confucius’ 10 disciples, lived a life of poverty, but though he himself ate meager meals, he spent his daily earnings on rice which he delivered to his parents without begrudging the long road. Thus, he fulfilled his filial duty. Confucius greatly lamented Shiro’s passing.
He Fought a Tiger to Save His Father
Yôkô (陽香) and his father were working in the mountains when a tiger appeared before them. In an attempt to sacrifice himself for his father, Yôkô leaped out in front of the tiger though might have eaten him at any moment. Even the tiger could sense the depth of his filial devotion in risking one’s life for his parent, and so both father and son were saved.
He Cried and Bamboo Sprouted
Môsô’s (孟宗) mother was deathly ill during a brutally cold winter, but she desired to eat bamboo shoots in spite of their being out of season. In order to grant her request, Môsô went out into the cold bamboo forest to look for shoots even though he knew he could not possibly find one. However even the heavens were moved by this display of filial devotion, and so the gods made shoots grow up through the snow.
Interestingly, the story as presented at the shrine differs from the original telling. In that story, Môsô was told by a physician that his sick mother needed a soup made of bamboo shoots to be healed, but since it was winter and they were unavailable he simply went to the forest and cried. Suddenly, he heard a loud noise and, going to the source, he found bamboo shoots growing.
The Record of the Three Kingdoms
The Record of the Three Kingdoms might be the most famous work of early Chinese scholarship and chronicles the history of the country from the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE) through the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280), from whence the book derives its name. The work was so monumental that it became widely read throughout east Asia, including in Korea and Japan, hence why a depiction from the book can be found on Hôdô-san’s Main Shrine. The carving here is of General Zhao Yun (趙雲) at the Battle of Changban Dike (長坂坡の戦い) in 208 CE.
Zhao Yun is counted among the many beloved characters of the book along with his beloved horse White Dragon (白龍) and his spear Yajiao (涯角). At the Battle of Changban Dike, which preceded the even more famous Battle of Red Cliff (the subject of Jon Woo’s movie), Zhao Yun was tasked with defending Liu Shan (阿斗), the son of his leader Liu Bei (劉備). Zhao Yun fought hard to protect the boy, who would later go on to rule the kingdom of Shu. For this reason, he was often called “The Pillar of Shu” (蜀の柱石).
This post started getting a little long, so the second half will appear next week. If you enjoyed reading about this shrine, be sure to like and comment below! And, of course, click subscribe on the bar on the right to make sure you get to see next week’s post.
The day that I visited the Path for Learning About Nagatoro’s History and Nature, I almost didn’t make it past the first few kilometers. This had nothing to do with the difficulty of the path — it’s not difficult by any stretch — and everything to do with the vast wealth of attractions that the town of Nagatoro has to offer.
To start with, there’s the Arakawa River, which is great for swimming, kayaking, taking a traditional wooden pole-boat tour, or even jumping into deep pools or just taking a scenic walk along its banks. I was so enticed that I almost didn’t leave. However, there’s more.
Right near the best swimming hole, not far from Kami-Nagatoro Station, is the Nagatoro Natural History Museum, where you can learn all about the local geology and ecology. From there, walk down the river path while watching the boats laden with tourists pass by until you reach the main Nagatoro Station, where you’ll find a shopping street filled with restaurants and gift shops. Follow the main street up towards the mountain and eventually you’ll arrive at Hodo-san Shrine (寳登山), but don’t forget to stop in at the silk museum on your way up the road.
If that wasn’t all, once you finally get up to the top of Hodo Mountain (宝登山), you’ll find a sweeping view of the Chichibu Basin. Feast your eyes on pleasant views of the Japanese Alps in the distance. Finally, for those who have grown tired of the hustle and bustle along the trail up to this point, few of the tourists hike further than the summit, so you’re guaranteed a quiet end to your hike.
Given the constraints of the bus schedule at the end of the trail, I was forced to decide whether I would stay to enjoy all of these attractions or hurry on; in the end, I decided to take the trail.
Up to the Top of Hodo Mountain
The path officially starts right outside Kami-Nagatoro Station. Get off and walk straight down to the road toward the river, then follow the riverside path to is end near the main Nagatoro Station. From there, follow the main road past the restaurants and up to Hodo-san Shrine. From here, getting on the trail up to the top of the mountain is a little confusing as it isn’t well marked, but just look for a road heading up the mountain and you’ll be on the right path — the trail and the road are one and the same, though alternate footpaths do cut straight up the mountain rather than following the switchbacks if that’s more to your taste.
As you climb, you’ll start to get some nice views of the valley below, but the best views are to be found at the top, where you can see sweeping panoramas of the truly high mountains off in the distance, including Ryôkami-yama (両神山), one of Fukuda’s 100 Famous. What’s more, there are quite a lot of nice facilities at the top due to the cable car running up there. You can grab an ice cream or a bowl of noodles while you enjoy the view.
From the summit of Hodosan, the hike follows a rather leisurely and quiet forest path down the mountain to Highway 44, where you can catch the bus to Minano Station, a couple stops down the line from the start at Kami-Nagatoro Station.
The Forests of Hodo Mountain
As you climb the mountain, take a look at the forest. You’ll notice primarily four varieties of tree: cedar, cypress, sawtooth oak, and pin oak. These trees reveal the legacy of human activity on the mountain. The cedar and cypress form a man-made forest that has been cultivated over the centuries for building materials. The sawtooth and pin oaks grow wild in the open spaces where the former two varieties have been cut away, but afterwards left to nature. These two varieties do particularly well in such spaces is because they love good sunlight, so they take off well in such open spaces.
The pin oak, in particular, has historically been used to make both charcoal and fertilizer, so it’s ended up spread far and wide all over the Kanto. The forests of Musashino, which the earlier sections of the Fureai Trail in Saitama passed through, often consist of this kind of man-made forest. Though these forests were originally tended by human hands, these days they have been left to grow wild.
As a native of the Missouri Ozarks with its famous morel mushrooms, a rare delicacy that locals love to hunt for both to eat and sell, it comes as no surprise to me that a country such as Japan, home of the famous shiitake mushroom, would have a similar tradition. When the mushrooms are in season, it isn’t at all uncommon to see old villagers walking the hills looking for them and other mountain vegetables to bring to market. The slopes of Hodo-san as well are no stranger to such activities.
As with all edible mushrooms, there’s the danger of misidentification and poisoning. For example, the edible tamago-take (egg mushroom, 卵茸) and poisonous tamago-tengu-take (egg-goblin mushroom, 卵天狗茸) look rather similar, as do the edible urabeni-hotei-shimeji (red-pleated pouch mushroom, 裏紅布袋占地) and the poisonous kusa-urabeni-take (stinky red-pleated mushroom, 臭裏紅茸).
One of the challenges of mushroom hunting in Japan, even for natives, is the problem of names. Japan has only had a nationally designated standard dialect for about 150 years, and, as a result, there still remains many local names for these mushrooms that vary from region to region and even from valley to valley. For this reason, even if you learn the names from a guidebook, you might not actually be able to tell which mushrooms are safe and which ones aren’t. The official stance of the Japanese Park Service is to simply not pick mushrooms at all.
Trail Name: The Path for Learning About the History and Nature of Nagatoro (Nagatoro no Shizen to Rekishi wo Manabu Michi, 長瀞の自然と歴史を学ぶみち)
Map: Click here Access: Start: Kami-Nagatoro Station (高原牧場入口バス停)
End: Negoya Bridge Bus Stop (根古屋橋バス停); this stop is not available in google, so check the timetable here Difficulty: Easy Natural Beauty: Medium Ideal Seasons: Summer Camping Locations:* There’s a nice field on the far side of Hodo-san that’s great for camping; otherwise, consider renting a cabin by the river for 9,000 yen (about $90) Length (distance): 8.8 km Length (time): 3 hours and 10 minutes Food access: Kami-Nagatoro Station, Nagatoro Station, the summit of Hodo-san
My Trail Stats
Distance traveled: 170.5 km (9.5%)
Courses completed: 14/160 (8.6%)
Days Spent: 11
Heat waves shimmered over the pavement as I made my way steadily through Minano Town (皆野町), moving steadily across the wide valley that separated Section 6 and Section 7 of Saitama’s portion of the Fureai Trail. As usual, I didn’t pay too much attention to the maps when I set out, but now that I lacked the guidance of trail markers, I took a closer look. I was surprised to find, though, that I would soon be crossing the Arakawa, or Rough River, whose mouth flows into Tokyo Bay not far from where I live. I hadn’t had any idea that this was where it’s upper reaches lay. Nonetheless, at that moment it was just a mere curiosity as I hadn’t found the river particularly interesting being that it was nothing more than a channelized waterway flowing sluggishly out into the ocean. Really, there wasn’t a thing rough about it.
But I walked on. Soon after crossing the train tracks the road descended quickly and suddenly the ground fell away on either side leaving behind just the road, a narrow bridge spanning a shallow gorge. Below a wide river flowed swiftly eastward along a rocky cliff on the south shore, and on the north there lay a long, flat gravel bar where a group of people sat relaxing in the sunshine. A few children were playing in the shallows and great wooden boats laden with tourists launched periodically. I stopped for a moment to enjoy the cool breeze blowing off the water, and the sound and scent of fresh flowing water. Soon, I wandered off in thought.
Some 10 years ago I was employed as a van driver in New York City shuttling people back and forth between the Fordham University’s Bronx and Manhattan campuses. This was my first time living so far away from home for such an extended period of time, and naturally as the months passed I gradually began to recognize the things that I had taken for granted in my old life that I was now beginning to sorely miss. One of those things was the sound and smell of fresh riverwater.
My hometown was a rather isolated little place located in the northern half of the Ozark Plateau in Southeast Missouri. The whole area is a dense thicket of forests filled with nearly impassable underbrush and low but steep hills and dry creekbeds, but running through the biggest of the valleys were beautifully clean, pristine rivers flowing with dark green and blue mineral water. It was along these rivers that settlements in the area invariably formed, settlements like Van Buren along the banks of the Current River, my home. As a child I couldn’t imagine letting a summer pass by without spending every moment possible swimming, fishing, bluff jumping, or just relaxing by that cool water while enjoying a sound and smell that words can’t quite capture as well as the experience.
“What do you miss most about home?” The passenger sitting next had been moving one by one through those same few questions that just about everyone asks when they find out you weren’t born in the place you happen to be at the moment. At the time we were speeding along next to the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan, blessedly without any traffic to slow us down. That broad body of salt water stretched out to the Jersey side, a drab grey color wafting forth an unpleasant odor that I was all too glad to be far enough away not to smell. Somewhere down there I knew a fair amount of trash was floating.
I didn’t miss a beat. “I miss having a river.”
She gave me a puzzled look, and then gestured out the window. “But that’s a river, isn’t it?” she said.
I returned her look with one of my own. Of all the wonderful things that the river I grew up with had to offer, this polluted urban monstrosity of a waterway offered not a single one. Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that didn’t think of it as a river at all.
The Rough River
It’s been years now since I’ve lived on the shores of a fresh mountain river, but the memory of a childhood lived in such a place never really fades away — it just goes dormant until something wakes it up. Something like sights, sounds, and smells of the Rough River in the summer.
Later I walked down to the riverside, where I watched some tourists from southeast Asia jumping off a large rock into a deep pool as kayakers practiced in a nearby rapid. From time to time, those large wooden boats laden with visitors passed by.
Meanwhile, I sat by the water with my bare feet dangling in, reminiscing about times past, and summers long ago spent with my friends on the Current River. I craved to spend a summer like that again, but these days I don’t have a single friend nearby who appreciates these rivers the way I do and more than a few who can’t understand why I’d want to spend a hot summer day there when I could just stay in with the air conditioner. After some thought, I decided I was just as happy to be here to enjoy it alone.
From the moment I opened my eyes on the morning that I walked the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park, I was in a sour mood. Eyes squinting and brow furrowed, I got my bag packed and shuffled off towards the train station with rough thoughts bouncing around my mind. And it wasn’t just that day — I my mood had been off for more than a week, which was exactly why I set out to hit the trail on that day.
There’s no better cure for a bad mood than spending hours traipsing through the hills by yourself. With nothing to distract you, no phones or computers or internet, you have all the time you need to untie that knot in your mind. And, on top of that, once you get it undone, then you find yourself surrounded by beautiful scenery and fresh air, which is good prevention from settling on something new to be mad about. For me, I was already in a humming good mood before I even reached the halfway point of the trail.
The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park starts right where the last section ended, at the Highland Ranch Bus Stop (高原牧場バス停) and can be reached by bus either from Seibu Chichibu Station (西部秩父駅) or from Oyahana Station (親鼻駅). The path follows the gentle slopes rising over a low ridge-line leading over to Oyahana Station and the Arakawa River Valley.
The main attraction of this trail is Bi-no-Yama Park, literally meaning “The Mountain of Beauty.” As one might guess from the name, the park is indeed quite beautiful on several levels. In the first place, it provides outstanding views of the Inner Musashi Mountain Range, along which the Fureai Trail has been travelling all the way through Saitama so far, but further off you can also get clear views of the towering mountains of Inner Chichibu and even the distant Nikkô Range in Tochigi Prefecture.
On the park grounds itself, however, visitors can also enjoy a wide range of flowers most of the year, though the most famous are the 8,000 or so cherry trees that make the mountain a perfect destination in April. The place has so many trees that it has even earned the “The Kanto’s Yoshino Mountain,” a comparison to the most historic site of Japanese cherry viewing located in Nara Prefecture, not far from Kyoto.
In addition to the park, the trail includes several other attractions, including ancient stone road signs from the Edo Period, traditional houses, two of the area’s most important holy grounds, and also a historic silk textile production site. In all, it’s an easy and quick trail with good historical appeal as well.
Though far enough off from Tokyo to be a fairly independent area in the days before railroads, the Chichibu region was nonetheless close enough to benefit from the demand for products generated by that metropolis, which even a few hundred years ago was still one of the largest cities in the world. It is not surprising, then, that multiple byways connected this isolated mountain basin with that city on the bay.
According to The Revised Musashi Atlas (新編風土記稿), published in 1825, a total of three highways led from here to Edo: the Kumagaya Way (熊谷みち), the Kawagoe Way (川越みち), and the Agano Way (吾野みち). Those familiar with the Kanto will recognize the first two as important urban centers on the plain, which these two routes pass through respectively; the third is a more mountainous route that passes over Shômaru Pass (正丸峠) before moving through Agano on the way to the Tokyo. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that the Fureai Trail also passes along this way, although it sticks to the ridge-line whereas the old road follows valleys everywhere except the passes.
The main divergence of these three routes is located near the start of the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park in an area called Misawa, which is a historical site for silk production (see below). Seeing as silk was such a lucrative industry and in high demand in the capital, it’s likely that the crossroads were located here to facilitate transport of this product.
The Temple of Common Comfort
The first part of the trail leads gently up a paved road through the Misawa, a scenic hillside village.
Not long after departing the bus stop, you’ll arrive at a small temple known as the Jôraku-ji, the Temple of Common Comfort, which is affiliated with the New Shingon Sect. They say that the temple was founded some 300 years ago, though apparently it was lost to fire during the Tempo Period (天保年間, 1830-1844) along with all of its artifacts. The current main hall was rebuilt in 1852.
Unfortunately, it proved difficult to photograph as it was built so close to the edge of a steep hillside that only a small portion could be caught in a single frame. Hanging above the entrance, however, was the following piece of calligraphy.
The principal deity of worship at the temple is Fudô Myô-ô (不動明王), the Immovable Shining King, whose wrathful visage is depicted wrapped in flames that burn away the impediments defilement that block the path to enlightenment. The main hall of the temple is dedicated to him, but next to it is located a smaller hall where the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of infinite life, is worshiped.
The Flowers of Misawa Village
Though not noted as particularly famous in the area, many of the locals have cultivated a wide variety of flowers in front of their houses. As you travel along the road through the village, take the time to enjoy their beauty.
The Weavers of Kami-Misawa
Past the Temple of Common Comfort the trail continues along paved roads through the village. Though many of the buildings are showing their age today, in the past this place was once a area of vibrant economic activity due to local silk production. According to the information signs along the trail, the lack of land flat enough to grow rice in the Chichibu area led farmers to supplement their income with silk production, which could be carried out even on steep mountainsides. According to The Revised Atlas of Musashi, women were those principally in charge of this industry, both raising the silkworms and weaving silk textiles.
At the end of the Edo period in the mid 1800s, the number of villages exporting raw silk in the area expanded greatly, and even out of the way places like Misawa became prosperous. Chichibu is still famous today for its meisen (銘仙) silk, which is popularly used as kimono fabric owing to its durable thick weave. A signboard along the path here states that the sound of weaving machines can still be heard here, but I didn’t notice anything as I passed through.
The Temple of the 23rd Night
At some point the trail plunges into dense vegetation honing in on the trail such that it nearly forms a tunnel, but not long after it comes out again on pavement, and shortly thereafter you arrive at yet another temple — this time, it’s the Temple of the 23rd Night (Nijûsanya-ji, 二十三夜寺), an affiliate of the Shingon Sect.
Perhaps it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that “the 23rd Night” is a reference to a specific cultural something that can’t be grasped just by the name alone. I was at a loss at first, but after some digging I found that “The 23rd Night” is a monthly religious ceremony that was once widely celebrated in Japan, though today I suppose few participate. The ceremony was apparently held on the 23rd day of each month by the old lunar calendar. On that day the congregation (that is, the men of the congregation most likely) would gather together to watch the moonrise while partaking in much food and drink, believing that a spirit would manifest itself.
This temple, it seems, has a long history. The temple records hold that one of the most important figures in early Japanese history, Prince Shôtoku, founded the temple. This man is not only remembered as the statesmen who promulgated the first written Japanese legal code but who also the first major proponent of Buddhism who worked to spread it far and wide across the land. They say that Shôtoku himself carved a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来), one of the principal Buddhist deities, and also built a thatched roof hut within which to enshrine it.
After that, Gyôki (行基), a 7th century monk, carved and enshrined a statue of the bodhisattva Seishi (勢至菩薩), who is now the principal deity of worship at the temple. Seishi is a god of wisdom, and his many followers believe that those who suffer hardship on account of their ignorance can be saved by the light of his wisdom.
I wasn’t able to determine the age of the current structures, but it seems unlikely that they’re very old since most temples make a point of promoting that and this temple didn’t make any reference to it. Nonetheless, it is a charming temple built in traditional style, and given the wear and tear on the exterior, it definitely has been around for at least some decades if not a century.
The signage on the trail is a little unclear at the temple, but to find the path again climb up to the front of the main hall and then turn left. The path will continue of the mountainside from there.
Among the various types of flora to be found along the Fureai Trail, one to look for on this section is the Cape Lilac, or sendan (センダン) in Japanese. This deciduous tree grows wild along the seashores and mountains of Kyushu and Shikoku, but is also often grown domestically in towns and villages. In May and June clumps of light purple flowers form at the tips of their branches, and in extremely rare cases, you can even find varieties sporting white flowers. They also produce elliptical fruits that turn yellow when ripe and often remain in large numbers even after the tree has shed its leaves for the fall, a good tell for identifying the plant. These fruits are called kurenshi (苦棟子) and are used as medicine, which I assume means they don’t taste so good. You can spot a specimen in the parking lot of the Temple of the 23rd Night.
In Japan, there is a variety of forest known as a “mixed grove” (雑木林), which is comprised of several varieties of trees rather than a more pure, single-species forest. Much of this section of trail passes through such a forest, though their are a few predominant species, such as the sawtooth oak (kunugi) and pin oak (konara). The forest floor in this area is also rich, not just in low growing plants but also in birds and insects.
Forests like this have had a close connection with Japanese society over the centuries. For example, villages have historically used sawtooth oak, chestnut, and pin oak to make firewood and charcoal, and even to grow mushrooms. On top of that, fallen leaves were used as fertilizer.
The Flowers of Bi-No-Yama Park
Less than 30 minutes after departing the Temple of the 23rd Night you will reach the main attraction of this section of trail: Bi-no-Yama, or the Mountain of Beauty. This mountaintop park provides not just gorgeous views of the high mountains all around from Chichibu to Nikko, but also sports a wide array of flowers that bloom all through the Spring, Summer, and Fall. The mountain is probably most famous for its 8000 or more cherry trees, which make the mountain a perfect destination for the Cherry Blossom Season in April, but you can also see various species of iris blossoms in from April to July, and also hostas and lilies in July and August. There are even some flowers still in bloom as late as mid December.
Outside of the cherries, however, two of the mountains most famous attractions are it’s fields of hydrangea (ajisai, 紫陽花) and azalea (tsutsuji, 躑躅). The hydrangea field is located on the east side of the park and contains more than 3,500 specimens over a space of 7.5 square kilometers. On the west side of the mountain, growing with a shady forest, is the field of bright red azaleas. I wasn’t able to find much info on the scale of the field and the flowers weren’t in bloom when I passed through so I couldn’t see for myself, but the pictures in the visitor center suggest that this is also quite a sight to see. Be sure to take your time to explore all the corners of the park to make sure you don’t miss anything interesting.
The Temple of 10,000 Blessings
Following Bi-no-Yama Park, the path descends downward more or less directly towards Oyahana Station, the end of the trail. However, once you reach the town below be sure not to miss the last attraction on this path, the Temple of 10,000 Blessings (万福寺). The temple is located fairly close to Route 140, the main highway passing near the station, but it’s easy to miss as the signage isn’t the best at that point. As you follow the road through town after getting off the mountain, keep your eyes on the right.
They say that the Temple of 10,000 Blessings was first founded in 1023 AD by the monk Kango Hôin (看鑁法印), but I couldn’t find much more information than that regarding it’s origins. As seems to be all too common with Japanese temples, the original structures and most of the temple’s artifacts were lost to fire in 1882, but miraculously the statue of the Amida Buddha, the principle deity of the temple, survived. The current structures date to 1932.
Personally, I didn’t find the temple to be that impressive, but if you’re passing by you might as well stop in to have a look before you catch the train from Oyahana back to Tokyo.
Trail Name: The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park (Bi-no-Yama Kôen wo Tazuneru Michi, 美の山公園を訪ねるみち)
Map: Click here Access: Start: Highland Ranch Entrance Bus Stop (高原牧場入口バス停)
End: Oyahana Station (Oyahana Eki, 親鼻駅) Difficulty: Easy Natural Beauty: Medium Ideal Seasons: Spring-Fall Camping Locations:* None Length (distance): 8.2 km Length (time): 2 hours and 40 minutes Food access: Bi-no-Yama Park (seasonal only), Oyahana
*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: 161.7 km (9%)
Courses completed: 13/160 (8.1%)
Days Spent: 10.5
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Sights Along the Path
The Horsehead Kannon
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.
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 villagers escort evil spirits from the settlement. Once a widely observed holiday, these days Shiroishi Village is the only place in the Chichibu area still holds the celebration.
During the festival, the villagers engage in a variety of symbolic activities meant not to drive out the evil spirits by show of force, 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 out of the village, they set up a giant sandal with a hole in the middle as a talisman against their return.
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 the 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.
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, they 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 on 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 Kama-fuse 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.
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.
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.
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.
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: Highland 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