Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Three Mountains

(August 5-31, 1998)

Return to Oniko Goes To Japan


Wednesday August 26th, 1998
The phone rang early. Blearily, I picked it up and mumbled "moshi, moshi"... which is "hello", but only used for answering phones. A pre-recorded voice then informed me that it was time to get up to catch the Gassen bus in forty minutes. And so my day started.
Within fifteen minutes I was down at the front desk and talking to another clerk, who was quizzing me on my trip, telling me where to catch the bus, and ringing up my bill. She stopped for a moment, looking at her computer screen; "didn't you eat dinner?" she asked. My brain, still groggy, shorted out for a moment -- why did she ask that? I told her that I hadn't... and she said that she would deduct the cost of dinner from the bill then. oy. I hadn't realized that dinner was included in the price of the stay; no wonder the clerk kept pestering me about it yesterday!
So, making mental note to check about meals next time, I paid my newly adjusted bill, took the bento [box lunch] that they made for me to take, and walked out to wait for the bus with the two other people who were headed to Mount Gassen.
It was a long and mountainous ride to Gassen... I had to wonder exactly where I would have been walking if I choose to. Perhaps the old trails no longer exist, simply because the road is more convenient; but if I ever do this walk, I don't want to be on the road! After a forty minute ride, the bus pulled into a parking lot that on one side looked out over a mist filled grassy valley, and on the other side faced a three-story tall visitors' center and the start of Mount Gassen, quickly obscured by the fog that hadn't lifted yet. There were already a few cars and one large tour bus here, although it couldn't be later than 7:30AM yet.
I looked through the visitor's center a little, and bought a bell to tie to my bag... with all the fog, I think the local dieties may need a little help keeping track of me, eh? Then I went to the trail head; what a trail. The first part of Gassen is basically a swamp; so instead of walking on a ground based trail, I and the others tracking their way up were walking on planks lifted above the water level and surrounded by grass tall enough to hide the lower half of hikers around a turn in the path. Maybe I should have found someplace to stash my bag before I started, eh?
I had to pick my path twice at forks in the planks... I don't know where the other paths go, but I'm glad I picked the right ones to follow. It was a pretty safe bet; this was the first time I had encountered people wearing the official costume of true religious pilgrims, an all-white outfit with a shoulder bag for various items, as well as the staff and hat that I had. I just followed these people at the turns, since they were likely headed where I was... to the temple at the top of the mountain.
After a short climb through the bizarre field of planks, I reached a small combination shrine/coffee house where a number of people were getting their morning cup of joe and having a priest inscribed loved ones names onto large wooden markers to be added to the shrine outside.
As I looked about, an older woman asked, in broken English, if I could speak Japanese. I answered, in broken Japanese, that I could. After the usual questions -- where are you from?, do you like Japan so far? -- she asked if I was heading up or down the mountain. I said "up", and was asked if I would like to join the tour group she was with, who were also going to go to the top. Being no idiot [today], I said "yes". As I was talking to her -- I never got her name -- a group of women were haggling with the priest doing the wooden markers. As I started up the mountain after the tour group -- I had taken a moment to look over the small shrine -- the priest and the women came out of the coffee house, and he started some sort of service for them. I was curious, but it would be rude to intrude; besides, I had a group to catch up to.
I chatted with the woman and her companions as we scaled the rough terrain; the mountain had turned to almost nothing but big, slick rocks after the coffee shop. Eventually a man with the group asked what my name was, so I told him... and, as he tried to work my first name around in his mouth ["Gaarutsu? Gaaatsu?"], the woman pointed to the name on my hat. "Oh... that's just my comic book pen-name," I replied. She turned to the small group of women behind us and announced that I was named "Oniko"... the ripple effect soon spread the word to everyone in the group, and from then on I was referred to as "Oniko-chan" -- "Little Oniko" -- by everyone in the group.
The mountain was extemely rough; where Haguro had been a forest, Gassen was nothing but grass, rocks, and fog. Any illusion that the sun might eventually appear was dashed as the first sprinkle of rain started. Umbrellas and rain slickers appeared among the group; the woman asked if I had anything to stop the rain. My shoulder pack is all but watertight, so I wasn't worried about my stuff getting wet, and my hat was keeping it all out of my face... besides, I'm not one to quibble at a light shower like that, since I'd long since learned to like rain [rainy days were the only days in my childhood that I was allergy free, you see]. So I let her know that it wasn't any problem; I like rain.
Gassen cured me of that before we reached the next outpost. The rainfall steadily increased; so did the wind. The only advantage to all this was that the rain made the fog go away; but soon the rain was falling hard enough to equally impair our ability to see ahead on the path. And soon we were scaling over boulders, not just rocks. Conversations all died off as we worked each other up the mountain, sometimes helping one another over a gap in the path or up a rocky climb, sometimes just calling back and forth so the group could all stay on the same path.
I'm not sure how long the climb took to reach the small building we sheltered in; it's all a bit of a blur. At this building we were able to sit down and rest for awhile; some people pulled out food they had packed up to eat, while most everyone else ordered one of the simple meals that were being offered by the people staying here. My suspicions about Gassen's weather being permanently wet were confirmed as well by the fact that the building had a tremendous number of rainslicker suits for sale.
As I ate the bento the hotel had given me, I inspected my camera. I had been wearing it around my neck early in the climb, but had dropped it inside my shirt when the rain started to fall. From there I had been too busy to consider how it was fairing. The simple fact was that it was soaked... I turned it sideways, and water poured out of the card slot where the digital film was. I wouldn't be getting pictures of the top of this mountain.
After draining it, I put the camera in a plastic bag I had and then into my shoulder bag; no use keeping it out, eh? The others were starting to head out. The woman asked if I was ready, and I thought about it... I bought a rain slicker suit, and then said I was ready. We all headed back out for the last third of the climb.
Climbing-wise, we had already passed the worst part of the trip. The rain never fully stopped, but it did lighten up as we got towards the top of the mountain... this last part of the climb was a breeze compared to the earlier part despite there still being some rough terrain.
At the top was a small number of shelters made from stone; we had to put our packs and cameras in a covered area before being allowed to step into an open 'U' shaped path with sheltered racks on the sides of it... this was the temple we had come to see. The side we entered on was mostly full of wooden planks with what I assume to be the Buddhist names of a lot of dearly departed people [at death many people receive a Buddhist name, and this is the name that you are supposed to use on Buddhist memorials to them... though from what I've seen it's normal for memorials to have both this and the departed's original living name as well]. At the turn of the 'U' was a small Buddhist statue on a stand with many coins and small objects piled around it... I dropped a few coins on the pile, and paid my respects as well.
On the exiting side of the 'U', I found myself standing in line with the others in the group, as each of us got a turn to be blessed by a priest and then purchase charms and/or have a book stamped. As I was watching, two people in the full pilgrim outfits took white shirts out of their shoulder bags and had the priest stamp those... one of the shirts was almost entirely red on the back due to the number of stamps it already had! I figure they had kept these shirts in their bags because they would have been too wet to stamp if they'd worn them. I imagine the purpose of these stamps is not to prove you've been somewhere -- once a shirt's all red, how could you tell where it had gotten stamped? -- but more to collect and show in general the sacred blessings only available to those who make many, many pilgrimages. These shirts may be considered to be sacred themselves; or they may just be a display of religious efforts made by a single pilgrim... or maybe even by a family, over time. I'll have to try to find out more, eh?
Anyway, it was my turn to be quickly blessed, then buy a charm and get my book stamped... I had pulled my "Tonari no Totoro" notebook from my backpack before I entered the 'U', so I now presented it to be stamped. The priest looked at me oddly, so I opened it to the stamp I had gotten at Haguro to show him. This got a surprised laugh from the woman I had walked up with, who was behind me; a half-smile from the priest said it would okay, and he stamped it.
As we stepped out of the 'U' shaped temple, I looked down the mountain on a stone stairway leading away in a different direction than I came from. I pointed and asked if it went to Mount Yudono; the answer was that it did. I looked at it for a minute more, deciding; the priest asked if I was planning to walk to Yudono. "Tabun", I answered... "maybe". Then the priest asked the same question I was asking myself: "hitori de?"... "alone?"
The narrator in the PBS "Travels" episode had been asked the same question. She had been lucky enough to have a priest who was headed that way walk with her... and, of course, there was at least one cameraman along, so she had plenty of company. I had neither. The distance wasn't a problem for me -- six kilometers I can do without thinking -- but I knew that the terrain was probably as rough as what I'd just climbed, the weather wasn't likely to get any friendlier on the way, and if I lost the trail I didn't know if there would be anywhere to get shelter for the night. Normally, none of these are particularly daunting to me, but I am not in top shape this trip... and I don't speak the language well enough to feel confident of my ability to handle being lost. I guess all that answers the question, doesn't it?
I wouldn't be walking to Yudono today; maybe the next time I visit these mountains I will be more confident, or have friends along... but not today. So I told the priest that I would be taking the bus to Yudono instead; he look relieved. I picked up my bag, and followed the tour group back down the mountain the way we came.
The wind and rain seemed to be stronger on the way back down; I nearly lost my hat twice, which is a feat considering it was tied on. The strap on my bag popped loose once also, but everything (meaning laptop computer) is in working shape, luckily. After we had reached a flater stetch of path, the woman dropped back to where I was and asked if I liked to visit temples and shrines; we hadn't had a chance to talk much since the climb started, so she didn't know anything about my trip yet. I told her that I love visiting all sorts of temples and shrines... and, smiling, she hurried forward to the main part of the group again. I wasn't sure what that was all about, but I figured we'd get a chance to chat more at the bottom of the trail.
After a long trek down, we reached the coffee house/shrine where I had first run into the tour group. Everyone shuffled inside to warm up, and I was offered a warm bowl of miso soup which I gratefully accepted. I'll tell you, that bowl of soup was as good as a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day!
As we were sitting and recovering, the woman again trotted over to me and quizzed me about where I was staying tonight... I told her that I was planning to find a hotel for the night, and that I currently didn't have a room anywhere. She trotted over and talked to the man who had tried to pronounce my name earlier, and the two of them talked back and forth about something; but what?
I soon found out. We all walked back down the plankway to the parking area; I was just wondering where I should check to find out when buses were due, when I was asked by the woman and the man if I would like a ride to Tsuruoka in the tour bus! First I said "YES!" Second I said "Thank you!" Third I said "is it alright for me to go?" They assured me it would be, but I wasn't so sure the bus driver would be so accomedating... until we reached the bus, and the man put on his bus driver's cap! Surprise, surprise, eh?
As we drove out, I talked with the driver and woman. I got the impression by this time that she was in charge of the trip -- the group was all older women, excepting the driver. They wanted to know what hotel I thought I would be staying at. I wasn't sure what to say at first, but if I was headed back to Tsuruoka there was only one hotel I knew of... so I told them I'd try to get a room at the "Alpha-1", where I had stayed two days earlier. They asked what else I had done on this trip, so I told them about my going to Mount Fuji which started a small section of the bus comparing their Fuji climbing experiences.
After awhile, the driver told me there would be one stop before we all went on to Tsuruoka. The ladies were scheduled to visit one other temple today before heading to their designated hotel, so I would get to go to the temple also. Bonus!
Of course, I should have know what temple they were going to visit; for we were soon parked in the Haguro temple's parking lot. I told the driver I had been here yesterday as well; he chuckled. I followed the tour group to the temple I visited yesterday, but today I got to go inside for a ceremonial blessing that the women had pre-arranged for their trip... lucky! We sat in a spacious waiting room as the ceremony was prepared, and soon were ushered into the main temple itself. Yesterday, I had been just outside this room looking in; now I was kneeling close enough to the treasures inside to get a good look.
I watched the others to know what I was expected to do and when... mainly the priest chanted, and then we needed to bow as he waved a wand with paper streamers hanging from it over us to purify the group. Afterwards, I followed the group towards the exit. On the way there, each woman was stopping at an odd statue near the door and patting it a couple of times; one or two of them dropped a few coins near it. Not sure why they were doing it, but not wanting to miss out, I gave it a pat also as I looked at it... it was an image of a fat man dressed in ancient Chinese merchant finery.
The woman asked if I knew who that was, and I told her that I didn't. She said a name that I just couldn't understand or remember, and said that he was a deity related to wealth, which was why everyone was touching him... hoping a little wealth would rub off, eh? We bought charms and then I looked around again while the group got their books stamped at the small temple I visited yesterday, and then we all filed back to the bus. As we walked, the woman pulled out a small bag with something she had bought for me: a small portrait of the fat little wealth god, which -- hopefully -- will insure me a little extra income in the coming year.
On the bus ride back to Tsuruoka, the woman broke out the mini-bottles of plum sake, the favorite alchoholic bevarage of all older women in Japan, if TV ads are to be believed. I tried to beg out, but politeness forced me to at least hold one and sip at it a little; the ladies on the bus were not so hesitant, and quickly were on their second and third mini-bottles. The bus driver told the woman that I had been to Haguro yesterday and she asked if that were true, so I pulled out my "Tonari no Totoro" notebook to let her see the stamp up close. As we neared Tsuruoka, the woman invited me to visit her home in Nagoya sometime, and wrote her name and address in my notebook; and I wrote down my contact information on a page, and ripped it out to give to her.
Soon the driver pulled up in front of the Alpha-1 and dropped me off. I thanked them all for all the help and kindness they had given me, and waved goodbye as they took off... then dumped out the rest of the plum sake when they were out of sight. I don't drink alchohol under normal circumstances, and the few sips I had taken combined with my just being tired to start with already had me a little on the wobbly side. No problem, though... I was at the hotel, and now I could call it a night, since it was quickly getting dark.
Except the Alpha-1 was full. oy.
I really didn't need more challenges today, but what choice was there? First, I bought a bottle of water and chugged it down to help dilute the alchohol in my system. Then I looked at the map I had of the area on which the Alpha-1 clerk had marked off a book store for me two days earlier... except this time I looked for other hotels. There was one a short walk away, so I headed to it.
It was a Japanese style hotel; and the number of shoes in the front entrance led me to suspect what I was soon told. This hotel, too, was full. They asked if I had tried at the Alpha-1, so I told them that I had. The clerk got a thoughtful look on his face, and then asked me to wait for a moment as he made some phone calls. It soon became obvious that he was phoning several hotels trying to find a room for me; how is it I'm this lucky today? [I'm not complaining, mind you!] Soon he asked if 8000yen would be an okay price for me, and I said yes... he said he had a place, but it was on the other side of town and I would have to wait for a driver to pick me up. That was fine with me, so he said I could wait inside the lobby until the driver arrived.
Soon I was being transported through the streets of Tsuruoka to the "Dewa Hotel"... about the only things I remember of this trip is that I passed over a bridge and then through a street that was covered and well lit up, likely a market street. I was dropped right in front of the hotel, and was soon able to drop my stuff off in a room. I emptied my bag and checked that everything was still working and dry; I propped the camera up over a towel to let it drain overnight... I sure hope it ain't dead. Luckily I still had dry cloths in the bag to switch to, so I was soon feeling much better overall. Unluckily, I realized I had left one thing on the tour bus: my "Tonari no Totoro" notebook, with the stamps and the woman's name and address. Ah well; not much I can do now but blame the plum sake.
Hungry and curious, I headed out to do a quick walk of the area. It was dark out now, but the various house and street lights in the area gave plenty of illumination for my walk. There seems to be a lot of older buildings in the area, and lots of small shops and restaurants... the sort that the owners live in. Unfortunately for my tummy, there were no nearby convenience stores and it was late enough that all the restaurants had closed their doors for the night. But around a corner near the hotel was a little shack, just big enough for two or three people to sit in, in which a woman was watching a small TV and cooking small shishkeebabs over a gas burner.
I've seen small restaurants like this portrayed in Japanese comics and animation millions of times, but this was the first time I had run into one. A man who had been eating got up and walked off. I poked my head in past the short curtain in the doorway and said hello; the woman looked up from her TV, gave me a long glance, and then invited me to have a seat. We talked as she cooked a small variety of keebabs for me -- chicken, beef, squid, with prices ranging from 75yen to 150yen -- and we were soon joined by a mother with a young boy. This new arrival wasn't very talkative, so the mood soon died down some; having ate my fill, I paid the cook and thanked her, and headed back to the hotel.
I took a hot soak in the tub -- I have my own tonight -- and it's definitely time to call it a night. Tomorrow, Yudono!

On to August 27th, 1998

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