Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Three Mountains

(August 5-31, 1998)

Return to Oniko Goes To Japan


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 (593710), 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!
The main building of the Haguro complex is called the Gosaiden, and it contains three shrines inside, one for each of the three sacred mountains... I wandered up the steps of the gigantic main hall, following the flow of other visitors to the area I was looking for. I paid my respects, bought a protective charm, and walked back out to explore the last part of the complex, on the opposite side of the gravel yard from which I initially came.
In this direction I found two things: what appeared to be a large stone stairway heading down into the woods, and another small temple. But this small temple was a little different from the others; instead of being closed up and somewhat uninviting, its doors were open and a priest was sitting just inside its small (8 foot square) room chatting with visitors. Of course, it's likely that the doors being open and the priest being present were related phenomena... he was probably acting as a guard for the building's sacred stuff as well as a being a friendly face, eh?
Because the other small temples had been closed, the only view of the images inside I got was through small holes in the doors designed for that purpose; so this was an opportunity to get a good look at the interior of one of these buildings I wasn't going to miss. I walked up to pay my respects and eye the place over, and I couldn't help but notice that another person with a hat had handed a book to the priest, who then stamped it with a big red stamp and painted some characters over that with a brush and black ink. The two then chatted as the ink dried and as I dropped a few coins and said a silent "thank you" to the temple's diety [I'm visiting its home, after all].
Once the other visitor had left, I asked the priest about the stamp. First, he gave me the long explanation... then, when he saw he'd totally lost me, he gave me the simplier version, slowly. The stamp is a traveler's proof of having visited the temple complex. The protective charm, too, is proof... but the book is what you can proudly display, while the charm is a personal protection against various adversities that eventually needs to be replaced. He convinced me; I dug through my bag until I found a "Tonari no Totoro" notebook that I had bought earlier, and I asked him if he could stamp it for me, which he did. ["Tonari no Totoro" translates to "My Neighbor Totoro", and it's an animated movie now available in the States; buy it -- you and your kids will love it.]
We got to talking about my trip as the ink dried, and he was surprised that I knew about the three sacred mountains and intended to visit them all. He asked if I had walked to the temple; I had to admit that, no, I had been bused up to it; so he pointed to the stone stairway and said that it was the direction that pilgrims on foot usually arrived from... perhaps I'd like to walk down it aways. Sounded good to me, since I had wanted to walk up to the temple in the first place.
In the PBS "Travels" episode, the narrator had walked to the Mount Haguro temple by a path I had been unable to map out... but she had climbed a stone staircase on her way, and this was undoubtedly the same one. In addition, she had spent the night at a guesthouse near the temple which was specifically for pilgrims making the sacred trip; and within ten minutes I found I was standing in front of that as well. It's a strange feeling, finding confirmation of the half remembered memories of another person's trip... and, since I was feeling a bit guilty about not having made the walk up and didn't particularly want to ride back just yet (I still had the better part of the afternoon ahead of me), I decided to walk all the way down. I need a break from cities for awhile, anyway.
The path wasn't steep, but it was long: according to the cook at a small restaurant halfway down, there's 2,446 steps in the path. It was cool and shaded, the trees preventing the light rain that occasionally fell from reaching me. Here and there the trees would thin out, and the view through them once again confirmed the fact that I was on a mountain, though this was easy to forget sheltered within the trees. Dotted at different spots along the path were various small monuments, shrines, and tombstones, some almost totally lost to the light folliage of the forest.
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.
I passed a few people on their way up, and was passed by two who were also headed down; but for the number of people I encountered, it was clear that the majority of the people who were visiting the temple at the top were arriving by way of the road, not the walk. After a very long trek down -- most of the way, as it turned out -- the stairway opened out into a large flat area that had been cleared of all but a few gigantic trees at some time in the past... in the middle and just a little off the path was a five-storied Chinese style pagoda. There were people here too, all visitors, taking pictures of the pagoda or picnicing at some of the tables in the clearing. I took a rest and looked over the pagoda. I'm sure it has some special significance, but there were no signs; I'll try to find out more about it later.
The pagoda style of architecture came over from China around 600A.D., if I remember right... it was about the same time that lots of little things -- like governmental systems, religions, and written characters -- were being borrowed from Chinese culture and introduced into the Japanese culture. Of course, like everything that gets borrowed by the Japanese culture, the cultural bits from China soon took on new meanings and styles that are uniquely Japanese; Japan does not imitate other cultural ideas so much as integrate them, a point sometimes missed in news releases in the States talking about the "Americanization" of Japan. Oh sure, Japanese citizens are buying more and more American blue jeans and pop music... but do these items have the same meaning to a Japanese citizen as they do to an American citizen? The assumption has been that the reason Japanese citizens buy stuff from America is because they want to be more American in every way... but do Americans who eat sushi necessarily want to replace the US government with a Japanese one?
Consider this example. In a 1994 PBS special about Japan (appropriately called "Japan") a group of Japanese men who liked to dressed up as American cowboys at a Tokyo bar styled after an "Old West" saloon were interviewed about why they liked cowboys so much. They all agreed that there was one image in their minds that most represented what they liked about cowboys; the image of a group of cowboys sitting together around a campfire after a hard day's work, sharing food, singing together, and just talking and joking. This sense of friendship, loyalty, and comradery was, for these Japanese gentlemen, a romantic ideal of interaction with others. Would an American citizen pick out the same image for the same reason if asked what they liked most about cowboys?
But I digress from the trip (yet again, eh?).
After I had rested some and was ready for the next long walk, I headed down the path again... and shortly reached Haguro Town. The pagoda is pretty close to the bottom of the trail, which is why there were so many people visiting it. The trail opened out onto a corner I remembered my bus passing through earlier, so I could have stopped here and walked up had I known; next time, next time.
I crossed the street to a little cafe/shop to get some water, and got to chatting with a young mom and dad who knew a little English -- they wanted to know if I knew what my hat was for, or if I simply bought it as a souvenier. When they heard I planned on going to all three mountains, they gave me some candy to help me on the journey and then talked back and forth a little as me and their two kids watched. Then they turned back to me, full of answers I hadn't quite asked for.
There wouldn't be enough daylight left today to go all the way up Gassen and back... did I have a place to stay? No, I told them. They talked back and forth again. Then the father informed me that there was a hotel on the other side of Mount Haguro that had a bus that goes to Gassen each morning; they could drive me there if that was okay... which of course, I said it was [between "thank you"s]. Fine, then; that was settled. If I would just wait a few minutes while they walked up the stairway to the temple, we could be on our way shortly.
I looked at them. I looked at the cafe owners; they were as confused as me. the young parents asked "what?" I tried to explain in my poor Japanese that it was a loooong walk, not 'just a few minutes'... then the cook chimed in with how many steps their were, and the mom and dad suddenly understood. And they talked back and forth again, this time interupted by the chef inserting the words "kuruma de dekimasu yo"... which translates roughly as "you can get there by car, you know."
This resulted in a three-way conversation as they pumped the chef for information and re-planned their whole stategy; then they informed me of the new plan. Everyone was pretty sure that the hotel was on the same road as the entrance to the Mount Haguro temple parking lot which my bus had taken me to. So they proposed to take me to the hotel first, and then go to the temple by way of the parking lot, which made sense to me since I don't imagine their kids would put up with the stone stairway for very long, eh?
And so soon I was at a large and expensive looking hotel on the other side of the mountain. the young parents explained everything they knew about me to the clerk, but didn't explain much about the hotel to me. Then, waving profusly, they were off to see the temple... and I was left to talk to the clerk. He explained that the bus would come by around 6:45 tomorrow morning, and that I would recieve a wake-up call around 5:30 [ugh]. He then showed me to the room, and pointed down the hall to let me know where the communal bath was.
I dropped everything on the bed and laid down for awhile... I'm pooped, and not so much from the day's physical trials as from the last hour's worth of cross-lingual interaction. But it was still only about 4:00 to 4:30 or so; and, after a moment's rest, I got up and headed out to explore the area around the hotel.
Mainly I wanted to walk over to what appeared to be a small block of buildings that me and the young parents had driven by on our way to the hotel; the hotel itself is in the middle of the forest and mountains on a big road with no other obvious sign of civilization nearby, but I knew these buildings were just a short walk away. The first one, closest to the road, was a ranger station of some sort; it had several displays about the local wildlife, forests, and mountains, with lots of little buttons to push to light up different features you were supposed to pay attention to. I wasn't the only one looking; a young couple was walking through, and a mother with a maybe-four-year-old kid was there as well, so I had to compete to get a chance to push a button! I learned a few things about my destinations of choice: of the three mountains, Haguro is by far the shortest... and Gassen and Yudono are near each other, but not very close to Haguro at all.
Mount Haguro: 1358 feet
Mount Gassen: 6509 feet
Mount Yudono: 4934 feet
In the PBS "Travels" episode, the narrator walked between all three mountains; and I would love to do this, but I just don't have the time [or the confidence, or the lingual skill, or the sheer gall] to do it all now. I might have enough time to do the walk between Gassen and Yudono though... between Haguro and Gassen it's a stretch of about twenty-five kilometers (what is that in miles?), but between Gassen and Yudono it's only a six kilometer stretch. So we'll see on that, eh?
I walked out to check the last two buildings over here... one was permanently closed and waiting for a prospective owner, and the other was a small restaurant. I stepped in and looked at the menu board, mainly because a good bowl of ramen would likely cost less than a glass of water at the hotel's restaurant. After a moment, one of the two people working here stepped out and found me; I asked about a couple of things, and he said they didn't have them... at least, that's what I thought he said. I then asked about the "kitsune udon" ["Fox noodles" -- so called because they have two triangles of fried tofu in the bowl that look a bit like fox ears] and he stepped back to the kitchen to ask; yes, they could do that for me.
So I had my bowl, and it was good; I paid them, and walked out... then they shut the door and put up the closed sign, which I then realized they had wanted to do before I arrived. oy. I uttered a quiet "gomen-nasai" ["sorry!"] as I walked back to the hotel, and wondered if and when I'll ever understand enough Japanese to not be an accidental nuisance; I hate it when I know I've messed people up that way... it leaves me wondering how often I do that without knowing it. Once again: oy.
As I walked back into the hotel, the clerk who checked me in made sure to remind me that the restaurant was now open for dinner; I said thank you, and went up to my room to relax a little and watch TV. Fifteen minutes later, the clerk called me at my room to further remind me that the restaurant was open for dinner... and I informed him that I didn't need dinner, but thanks for reminding me, again. I was already stressed out by my earlier faux pas, and then the phone call added to it [speaking to a Japanese speaker on the phone is harder than face-to-face, and still scares me silly when I have to do it], but now I have one more major trip-related stress to face; I had hoped to put this off until a later trip, but I no longer have that option.
The problem, you see, is that after today's hike, I stink... and the only way to wash in this hotel is in a communal bathing room. Naked in public... double-oy.
I walked down to the bathing room with the towel I had been given by the clerk when I checked in, vaguely aware of what I needed to do. Just before the actual bath room there was a room with cubbie-holes for stashing your stuff, as I expected, and, also as I expected, it was occupied; it sometimes seems like nothing about this trip will be easy. There was an older man in his underware getting dressed to leave; he had an amused look when he saw me timidly creep into the room. I picked a cubbie-hole, and started to strip... but once down to my underware, I hesitated.
Not only am I prey to the common American ideas of privacy and embarrasment of public nudity, I'm doubly cursed by being extremely shy about these sorts of things; so this was definitely not a high point for my trip. But if I could get myself to do it once, I knew it would be easier next time... a large part of the fear was just not entirely knowing what the expected rules of behavior are and being afraid of mis-stepping.
The older man, now mostly dressed, was still watching me out of the corner of his eye -- I suspect he was dressing slowly so he could see what I was going to do. So I looked right at him, and explained I'd never done this before... and sheepishly asked him if I had to remove everything here. "Hai," came the answer, "zembu"... "Yep, everything". oy. I took a deep breath, then finished stripping. oy. I picked up a washcloth, and headed into the actual bath room, as the older man left, still grinning. oy.
Of course there had to be another man in the bath room itself; he was soaking in the tub as I came in. I said "hello", and then pulled up a small seat in front of a sink to clean up. In case your wondering, if you find yourself in the same uncomfortable situation you will need to wash yourself before you get in the tub. The tub is for relaxing in, and because it's meant for more than one person to sit in at the same time and the water isn't changed for each bather [as with the pivate bath tubs in America], to get soap or dirt in the tub is a big social no-no... other people have to sit in it either with you or after you, after all! So in the same room as, but separate from, the tub are small sinks with soap, chairs, and buckets. Fill up the buckets to soak yourself initially, soap up and scrub, and then rinse yourself off with some more buckets of water... all before you get in the tub to soak for awhile. Oh, and be warned... the tubs are usually pretty hot, which is fine with me. [By the way, the floor in these rooms are tiled and have drains, so don't worry about splashing a bucketful of water onto the floor.]
The other man left before I was done washing my hair, so I had the tub to myself while I soaked, thank goodness. As I soaked away my immediate pains and embarassments, I mused... I think the hardest part of this trip is that I don't have access to my library of books that could help me understand much of what I've encountered, not to mention my helpful collection of Japanese language texts. Basically it means that, for me, the main ways for learning about Japan are separate; either I can study what has been written about the country and language, or I can experience it. Perhaps this is for the best. There comes a time when reading about something cannot help any further until you have direct experience with it... just as there comes a time when you need to do research in order to fully comprehend what it is you have experienced. Having the two separated may be a problem in the short run -- I would love to be able to look up information on some things as I encounter them -- but in the long run, it's probably better to just experience things fully, and try to understand it all later. That way, you don't miss things on the way... though you do occassionally screw up because you don't know better, eh?
I managed to dry myself off and get dressed without anyone else coming into the bathing room to freak me out, and was soon back in my room and ready to sleep. And so, with the TV set to sleep mode and on a science special of some sort, I closed my eyes.
Two hours later, I was typing up my notes for the day. It was hard to sleep; the room was uncomfortably hot, and I was waiting for it to cool off now that the air conditioner was firing full blast. I suspect now that the hotel is mainly meant for Winter ski tourists, and that I was just here in the off season... maybe that's why they keep the place so warm. I don't know; but right now I have got to get to sleep. I've got an early bus to catch tomorrow. Night.

On to August 26th, 1998

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All illustrations in these pages are copyright (c)2002 Garth Haslam, and shouldn't be used without his permission. To contact him Click Here!