Oniko's Travel Diary:|
The Three Mountains
(August 5-31, 1998)
Tuesday August 25th, 1998
I feel much better after a hot bath, a good movie, and a long night's rest; I'm ready to mis-step into the unknown again. Truth is I need to keep myself distracted and busy, and stress is very good at doing just that... and perhaps that's one reason I made this trip. In any case, I've sat in place on the edge of an explore for long enough.
I enjoyed the morning cartoons and news, then checked out around ten and headed straight to the post office. I boxed up all the presents and extraneous stuff I was carrying -- including last night's movie and the books I picked up [I'll have time to read them after the trip, after all] -- and mailed it all off to the States and out of my hair. Now much lighter and ready for trouble (I think), I headed to the train station and located the bus station nearby.
It took some talking to find out which bus would take me to Haguro, the closest of the three sacred mountains. I wasn't sure why it was so difficult at first, until I realized that the clerk wanted to know if I was headed for the mountain named Haguro [Haguro yama] -or- the town named Haguro [Haguro machi]. I said the mountain, and within a half-hour was on my way.
Have I told you about the buses here yet? They're just different enough to be confusing. You get on at the back of the bus, and exit from the front... and you pay when you get off, not when you get on. This is because the cost of your trip depends on the distance you travel. When you board the bus, you take a paper ticket from a vender at the back door; this has a number on it that signifies the location you boarded the bus at. As the drive rolls on, a display at the front of the bus shows all the location numbers that the bus has visited, including the number that is on your ticket; next to each number is the cost for your trip if you exit at the next stop. As the bus roll further and further, more and more numbers are added to the display and the cost for the trip next to each increases... so the longer you stay on the bus, the more you will have to pay at the time you disembark.
It makes sense, really... for the great distances these buses generally cover, one-price-for-all would never make a profit. Of course the downside is that if you don't ask how much it will cost to get somewhere, then you have to wait till the end of the trip to find out... and that can sometimes be surprisingly higher than you may have expected. The trip to Mount Haguro cost me around 1600yen, for instance... about $13 US at the going rate.
It was a nice trip past rice fields, then through a small town and through some hills; about an half-hour's drive all told, and when the bus came to a stop in a parking lot I was more than ready for the next big climb. But first: the parking lot had a few gift shops and pilgrim's goods shops to explore [and a restroom!].
At the gift shop I picked some more small souveniers to hand out when I get home, then I crossed the parking lot to the shop that had the traditional pilgrim's staves and hats for sale. I first learned of these in the PBS Travels episode that pointed me to this mountain, and then later read more about them at random in some articles I found. It's traditional for people who are walking the three mountain pilgrimage to carry a staff and have a large straw hat with their name on it. The staves at this shop didn't have bells on them, like the staves at Fuji... but the purpose of the bells was to let your protective spirits of choice keep track of you. I suspect wearing a big straw hat with your name on it is meant to have the same effect, eh?
I watched as two other bus passengers bought hats and staves; the shop owner then painted a large number of Chinese and Japanese characters on the hats with black ink and a brush, ending by adding the recipient's name to the hat and then pulling out a blow dryer to dry it all before it got worn. I knew I wanted to buy a staff before I arrived; but I figured that as long as I was visiting all three mountains I may as well do it right, so I bought a hat too... much to the amusement of the shop owner and his wife. They asked my name; I told them "Garth Haslam"; they stared at me with the look that says both "how did you pronounce that?" and "do they call people that?".
My name is problematic to pronounce if all you speak is Japanese. In Japanese, there is only one consonant sound that is not already paired up with a vowel sound... so the "th" in my first name represents a sound that simply does not exist in Japanese. To make matters more difficult, Japanese does not truely have a sound that is close to the English pronunciation of the letter "R"... the closest they get sounds like a mix between an soft "R" sound and an "L" sound, and it has to have a vowel sound attached [the possible sounds are ra, ri, ru, re, ro]. So the last three letters in "Garth" are difficult for native speakers of Japanese to pronounce separately, and much worse when they're together. My family name is easier though... "Haslam" sounds almost the same in Japanese, since the vowel "U" is almost silent when used: Ha-Su-Ra-Mu [note the "ra" sound to approximate the "L" in my name].
Confused? You and the people selling me a hat. I realized that I would have to figure out the nearest approximation of my name in Japanese phonetics and sound it out to these people; I then further realized that, besides being a pain in the butt, this would more than double the number of characters these people were going to write on the hat... which would make the finished product more ink than hat. What to do?
Then the solution occurred to me; and, after a moment, I got up the nerve to voice it. I got an odd look at first, but when I explained that I'm a manga-ka -- comic book creator -- in the States, they nodded as if that explained everything [I wonder if it did?]. In any case, out came the brush and on went the sacred incription with the name of choice... Oniko, of course, now officially my manga-ka pen-name.
Hat tied on and staff in hand, I was ready to scale a mountain. I checked the map that was posted up to see which direction to head, and headed there.
I reached the temple about five minutes later.
The bus had driven me to the top of the mountain, which certainly is not as big or steep as Fuji was. The parking lot was just a few hundred feet from the Haguro temple complex. Surprise, surprise.
It's a big place, with several large buildings roughly surrounding a huge gravel yard full of small statues and monuments. I wandered around, both because I wanted to look around a little and because I didn't know where the main hall was... plenty of other people were doing the same thing. A light rain started to fall as I examined several small temples; from one back corner of the complex I could see out through the trees across the small valley between this mountain and the next.
In front of the main hall was a huge pedestal -- ten feet tall with a ten foot by ten foot base -- with a giant stone globe on top, and a small metal bird on top of that. I couldn't tell from where I was standing, but I'll bet it had three legs... why? The story is told that during the Asuka period (593—710), Prince Hachiko, first-born son of then Emperor Sushun, fled from Kyoto [then the capital of the country] to escape danger. After many adventures traveling up the coast of Japan, he made his way to Yamagata Prefecture where he followed a three-legged crow to Mount Haguro and then founded a cult of mountain ascetics at the location of the current temple complex.
Also in front of the main hall was a pond with a large roof over it. Many people were looking this over, so I looked closer myself; it's small and very murky... rather than being bounded by the small stone wall around it, it was set off from it -- as if the purpose of the stone wall was to simply discourage people from stepping closer to the pond. One of the other visitors saw my curiousity, I guess, because he tried to explain why the pond was walled off. I couldn't follow the story very well, but what I got was that long ago the pond was inhabited by something very bad, and a Buddhist priest performed a miracle to drive it out... and that this was one of the reasons a temple was built in this place. I need to find out more about this story later; it sounds like many of these temples may be linked to the historic stories of Japanese monsters that I want to investigate someday, eh?
Update: A flyer from Tsuruoka tells more about the pond. It's called Kagami Ike, the "Mirror Pond". Long ago, women were not allowed to enter the shrines and temples on the mountain to worship; in their stead, a male member of their family would throw their hand mirror into the pond. The mirrors were believed to carry the woman's hopes and prayers, thus presenting these to the sacred pond was essentially as good as the women visiting the shrines and temples.
|UPDATE 2000: The "protective charms" that I keep buying at temples and shrines are called mamori. I can tell you more... Click Here!|
|UPDATE 2003: The five-story tall pagoda is called Goju-no-to... literally "five-story pagoda". It was designated a national treasure in 1966 -- Yamagata Prefecture's first -- and was built without the use of any nails! It is believed to have been built by a warlord named Taira no Masakado sometime in the Heian period [794-1185 A.D.], and was rebuilt 600 years ago after a disaster of some sort.|
Mount Haguro: 1358 feet|
Mount Gassen: 6509 feet
Mount Yudono: 4934 feet
|All illustrations in these pages are copyright (c)2002 Garth Haslam, and shouldn't be used without his permission. To contact him Click Here!|