Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Three Mountains

(August 5-31, 1998)

Return to Oniko Goes To Japan


Friday August 28th, 1998
I got up and out around ten, so I could get to the post office as it opened and send off the box... then I headed straight to the shrine.
Nothing much was happening, despite the sign I saw last night; nonetheless, the shrine was strangely facinating. It occupies a large area that is part public park. Surrounding the park are two moats which are full of gray, white, and orange coy... each fish is around a foot long, and they swarmed near me and anyone else who stood near the moats. Looking for handouts, I expect.
There is another small playground for kids, as at the temple I first saw when I came to Tsuruoka a few days ago; and there is also a very small art museum, but it was closed today so I have no idea what is in it. What was very weird, however, was that this park area also features what has to be the smallest zoo I have ever seen. It had a total of three cages: one with chickens and peacocks in it, one with some deer in it, and a two-story tall cage with Macaws -- a breed of monkey native to Japan -- in it. The monkeys didn't look very thrilled with their lot in life, I tell you now.
After talking to the animals for awhile -- they looked like they needed some attention -- I entered what I felt was the shrine area proper itself... at least, I walked past the Shinto torii gate that marks the entrance, and into the area with the older buildings that would normally be small shrines or temples in the main complex. But most of these buildings were full of gift shops and other non-shrine related stores; and right next to the shrine's main hall was one building that had been converted into a men's and women's clothing shop with everything from three-piece suits to nightgowns on display in the windows! I'm not sure if this is a normal situation for other shrines; maybe this one has fallen onto tough financial times, and they've sacrificed some of their buildings to try and stay afloat?
At the main hall, I paid my respects; then I walked over to where someone dressed like they belonged with the shrine was selling the usual protective charms and such. They had the books that I had seen other people collecting temple and shrine stamps in, so I wanted to buy one. This prompted the clerk to ask if I knew what the book was and what it was for; then he quizzed me a bit about my being in the area, and then about the fact I was visiting the three mountains. Soon I was talking to two clerks, as one stamped the book and inked it up for me. Then I was talking to two clerks and an older woman who came up as we were talking. By the time I was done, I had bought the book, stamp, and a beautiful protective charm made with white and gold thread, had been offered an umbrella by the older woman who had heard that Yudono could be as wet as Gassen, and had one of the 'clerks' -- the one who had stamped and inked the book for me -- hand me his card... according to which, he was Jun-Ichi Ishihara, head priest of the Shonai Shrine [being the name of shrine I was at, naturally]. So, with their best wishes [but not their umbrellas], I walked to the station and caught the bus to the Yudono hotel.
It was a long ride; Mount Yudono is much farther from Tsuruoka than Mount Gassen. The bus headed up, up, up, into the sort of mountain roads that make me want to just close my eyes and forget how far we can fall. But I couldn't close my eyes... the mountains were covered by a lush forest of wet greenery, often hidden by great clouds of fog that crawled between the peaks through light rain. I knew right then I was going to like Yudono.
For all my experience with Mounts Fuji, Haguro, and Gassan, I was still surprised by Yudono... it was something completely different from the others.
A little before reaching the hotel, the bus passed what had to be my destination; it was a road that was stradled by a gigantic tall vermillion red Shinto torii, which clearly meant it led to an important sacred site of some sort... five minutes later, the bus pulled into a parking lot with a hotel, a couple of small shops, and a large artificial pond. I was itching to go back to the torii, but first things first; I had to check in and get my stuff settled in.
The hotel appeared to be all Japanese style, so I had to remove my boots at the door and switch over to a pair of slippers. As I checked in, the clerk asked what brought me to the hotel; when I told her I came to go to the Yudono temple, she told me that they could have a driver take me there anytime I was ready... now that's service!
Despite the Japanese style entrance, I was shown to a Western style room -- it had a bed instead of a futon, and a desk and chair instead of a kotatsu [short table]. The restroom and the bath, however, are both communal and at the end of the hall. I left all but my small travel bag and camera in my room, and headed back down to ask for a ride to the temple; I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time to reach and examine the temple area before dark!
The hotel seemed empty; I suspect that's why I was able to get a ride so quickly. Within a half-hour of arriving at the hotel, I was at the gigantic torii and on foot, exploring. Next to -- and drawfed by -- the torii was a three-story building that appeared to have a restaurant and a visitors' center in it; I figured I would check it out on the way back. I walked under the torii, and started up the road.
A little past the great gateway and off to the right of the road, I found a buddhist cemetary full of lifesized statues of various religious figures. One intrigued me, I must admit... it appears to be a Chinese style statue of either Buddha or a woman [it's sometimes hard to tell] holding a scroll, with an Asian dragon on their back and draped over their head. Now one of the things I mean to research at a later date is the nature of the Asian dragon in Japan, and I've already noticed it appears commonly as a symbol at temples and shrines... I've got lots to learn, and I hate waiting! Ah, well...
Just behind this graveyard was a small stairway that led up into the wooded area obscured by foliage just behind it. Naturally, I couldn't resist investigating. At the top of the short path and hidden in the trees was a small Shinto shrine which I left a couple of coins at. A second stairway led me to a spot a little further along the road I wanted to follow, and just a short ways from a bridge I couldn't help but notice, mainly because it was the same vermillion color as the torii gateway I had already passed; against an all green background, it stuck out like a sore thumb.
I followed the road as it gradually wound its way uphill following the path of a small river that flowed in the shallow valley only a little below me, occasionally stepping to the side as a bus or car went by, occasionally saying hello to the few people walking back down. It was this small valley and river that the bright red bridge had crossed over, and it was towards its point of origin that I suspected I was walking. Dotted all along the sides of the road at different spots, and sometimes nearly completely lost in the greenery, were more small Buddhist and Shinto shrines, altars, and statues; clearly, the whole mountain was considered particularly sacred by both religions. After a mile or so, the road ended in a rough parking area, and a short trail led to the entrance to the Yudona temple... or should I simply say "sacred spot"? Like the area at the top of Mount Gassen, there was no particular building associated with this spot; no actual temple or shrine.
Update 2002: I've since learned that the ban on photography at this site has only been imposed since the late 1960's... there is a color film that predates this ban that shows the area before it was walled in. But why was the ban established?
What was there was a receiving area for guests where you could leave your shoes and cameras. Cameras? That's right... no pictures allowed. In the PBS "Travels" episode I saw about these mountains, the narrator, too, had to leave her cameras behind... in fact, it's at the door to this site that the episode ends. So I had no idea what to expect past the door.
But first, I needed to perform a ritual to purify myself -- all visitors were required to do this, further evidence of how important the site is considered. The ritual consisted of taking a white paper cut in the shape of a robe and briefly wiping it down both my arms and then brushing it across my head, all to gather up any bad karma, luck, mojo, and/or juju that I might be carrying around with me. I then had to place the paper into a basin that Mount Yudono's water flows through to clean away all the bad stuff I'd gathered on the paper. After these steps had been taken, I was then allowed to open and step through the door that led to the sacred area.
The door opened onto a path that was walled in with tall stone on both sides; at the end I could see a small building with priests sitting in it, and that the path turned to the left in front of this building. I reached the turn, and looked to my left... and faced a huge, red, wet rock. Rock? BOULDER. Jutting gently out of the side of the mountain was a boulder whose exposed side was about twelve feet high; at its top were a few of the other visitors, barefoot like me, stepping carefully around something I couldn't see and being careful not to slip on its wet surface. Water trickled down the boulder's face, which was covered with a red mineral deposit that was undoubtedly what was preventing plantlife from growing on the stone. Everything in this area revolved around this rock; it was clearly THE sacred object of the site.
I hesitated to climb it immediately... I wanted to watch the other guests first to gauge what was okay to do where climbing the boulder was concerned. So I looked at the various items for sale first, which included bottles of what had to be the water coming off the rock. I bought a protective charm while watching people climb up and down the boulder... and, once I convinced myself it would be okay to do likewise myself as long as I watched my step, I walked over and slowly climbed to the top of the boulder. The water was warm... then it was hot. At the top of the boulder was a small hot spring bubbling from where the great rock protruded from the face of the mountain; it churned in a small pool created by a wall of the same red mineral deposit that the spring had long since covered the rock with. Just like the red torii and bridge, the great red boulder stuck out among the greenery of the mountain like a shining beacon... it was easy to see why it would have attracted the attention of visitors long in the past, eh?
Like the other visitors, I stayed at the top only as long as my poor feet could take the heat, and then I gingerly stepped back down and cooled my feet off in the relatively cold water pooled at the base of the boulder. I then followed the other visitors again, and walked over to the priests at the turn in the path. They were doing the stamps, so I reached for the book I had bought at the shrine earlier... and realized I had left the stupid thing at the hotel [sometimes I'm a real genius, huh?]. So I bought another book, a different one, and had them stamp and ink that; and, because everyone else was doing it and it seemed impolite to refuse, I drank a small cup of sake I was offered by the priests and which they assured me would purify me. I took one last look at the boulder, quietly thanked the local dieties for letting me visit, and then walked back out the way I came and retrieved my camera and shoes.
Back down the road at the visitors' center, I bought a topigraphical map of the area in case I decide to do the walk between Mounts Gassen and Yudono at a later time. My driver from the hotel was in the restaurant, waiting for me... and having a beer and chating with waitresses. I don't think he was too upset about getting out of work at the hotel for an hour or so, eh? I looked around the restaurant/shop, and bought some more souveniers to give out when I get home, then me and the driver were on our way back to the hotel. Along the way, we chatted about temples and shrines, pilgrimages, and Japanese comics.
So I was finished with my major goals for this trip and back to the hotel by about four o'clock. Dinner, I discovered, was included in the hotel's room pricing; it would be served around six, so I had some time to kill.
I browsed around the nearby shops and bought a couple of small things... and discovered that the big artificial pond in the parking lot in front of the hotel is a "fish and eat" pond; whatever you catch the hotel's chef will cook up for you, though I'm pretty sure you have to pay to rent the fishing rod. But I'm no big fisherman, so I headed back into the hotel. Since I still had plenty of time, I cleaned up and soaked in the communal bath. I know there are other guests at the hotel today, but the whole place seemed -- and seems -- to be empty.
At the end of the hall with the bathing room was a display case filled with a variety of stuffed animals. While these were mostly ducks, it did contain two animals that made me run back to my room to get a camera... why? Because seeing them answered many a question I've had regarding yet another Japanese monster, the tanuki. Tanuki, you see, are another animal that is acredited supernatural powers, just as are kitsune, foxes. The real question for me has been exactly what animal a tanuki is; some dictionaries will translate the word as "badger", others as "raccon", and the one I'm currently carrying actually translates the name to "a racoon dog; a badger"... but what's a 'racoon dog'?
The answer, it turns out, is simple: I was raised in a country which has both racoons and badgers... but no tanuki. The tanuki appears to be an extremely large racoon -- it has the same mask pattern on its face -- but the size and shape of its body is more like a badger. And since such an animal does not exist in the English speaking world, there is no direct translation for the name tanuki. I wonder if the opposite problem is also true? Do the English words 'badger' and 'racoon' get translated to the Japanese word tanuki in dictionaries because Japan has nothing else native that resembles these two animals? Ah, well... that's another question I can't research until I get home, eh? [Care to see for yourself? Click Here!]
Dinner was in a large hall downstairs, full of the short Japanese tables you have to kneel at... I was one of only three people dining in a room clearly meant for at least fifty people. The place is empty. During dinner, which was huge and good, the TV at the end of the room was showing the news, not all of which I could follow. What I could understand, though, was this: there's a typhoon due to hit the Tokyo and Narita areas on the 31st of the month... the same day I'm supposed to be on a plane back to the States. Still, the odds are it won't effect the flights that much; what may be a bigger pain is that several of the Northern prefectures near where I currently am are having some heavy flooding, and the JR raillines in some have been closed.
Tomorrow, I'm planning to take the bus back to Tsuruoka and then take the JR lines all the way back to Tokyo... it's near the end of my trip, and I'm almost out of ready cash with no way to get more anywhere other than in Ikebukuro. I guess I'll find out tomorrow if I can get through on the JR lines... if not, I might be sleeping near a JR station tomorrow night due to a lack of cash to get a hotel room! Guess I'll find out... night.

On to August 29th, 1998

Return to Oniko Goes To Japan Home Page - Back to Top!

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