Friday, March 14, 2014

Merry Meetings Atop Mt. Shirataki (Mihara City, Hiroshima)

広島県三原市小泉町白瀧山 Shiratakiyama, Koizumi Town, Mihara City, Hiroshima Prefecture

(BGM: "Levels" by Avicii) 

"Oh, sometimes, I get a good feeling, yeah..."

The fiscal year was wrapping up and I could feel the year-end crunch starting to grate my nerves, wearing me down. Add to that 3 weeks of being laid up with a bad knee and a bad case of cabin fever. Since I needed to get away from it all, socializing was definitely not a part of my agenda for the day. The Hubby knew just where to take me to lift my spirits in beauty and silence.

With the image of Sisyphus in a business suit dancing through my mind, the idea of hiking up the final 50 meters of boulder-studded Mt. Shirataki (白瀧山, Shiratakiyama, 350m) somehow seemed very appropriate. My husband had already done the full 1-hr climb up the mountain several days prior and couldn't wait to show me the spectacular views from the top. Sounded good to me!

New Jizo with Spring Sprinkles
When we left our home, the weather was just perfect; it was a warm day with blue skies and a gentle wind. By the time we reached the foot of the mountain, however, rain began to sprinkle intermittently on our windshield. But looking up, the dark clouds above us were moving too fast across the sky to pose any threat. And the Geiyo islands were still visible all the way to Ehime Prefecture. It was obvious this storm wasn't going to hang around for long. Luck was on our side, today! If anything, the moody weather would only add to the mystical feel of our journey!

The drive up the mountain to the uppermost parking lot was consistently dotted with identical granite jizo (small statues of a Buddhist bodhisattva) alternating one every eighty feet or so, from the base all the way up to the top. The jizo grew progressively larger the closer we got to the parking lot. Since they showed no trace of wear from the weather, I concluded that they might have been recently placed along the trail to compete with the slightly more famous Mt. Shirataki that sits atop Innoshima island with its 500 jizo. Even out here in the middle of nowhere, competition runs fierce.

We were greeted by this friendly, affectionate pup and his two owners, a younger Japanese couple sporting the latest hiking fashions, just wrapping up their climb. They were smiling, looking relaxed and satisfied with their hike. My husband asked them for directions to the viewing platform while I sneaked a photo of their friendly little lion wannabe, who gently licked my hand and accepted a few minutes of love scratches behind the ear. I could feel the introvert in me finally taking a back seat.

Looking a little love-drunk from my attention.
Before embarking upon our ascent, my husband presented me with my very own bamboo walking stick! Most Asian hikers I've seen carry some sort of stick even for the gentlest of hills. Bamboo walking sticks in particular are associated with Buddhist pilgrims and the elderly in Japan, definitely not something a young whipper snapper would want to be caught dead carrying. But they can have their flashy aluminum canes. I've always preferred the biodegradable look.
Besides, I'm used to natural. In rugged, wild Alaska, where you're trained from birth to make due with what Mother Nature gives you, we often use knobby black and white paper birch or poplar branches to hike with. Though beautiful, their inconsistency in size and heft make it tough to find a suitable one when you need it. And once they get water-logged, they disintegrate into mushy useless pulp when you least expect it. Not very practical.

But bamboo makes for the perfect walking stick: lightweight, smooth, and strong enough to be used year round in any weather. Their colors range from rich grasshopper green to antique gold and they don't harbor unwanted insects like red spider mites or ants. I especially appreciate how a bamboo stick provides me with a means of self defense should anything go awry on my climb (not that anything would, but you never know).

Nobody better mess with me and my Old Green!

The wind started to blow stronger, gently rustling the tops of the young pine trees lining the sides of the trail. A splattering of five-second rain anointed our heads as if to purify us for the climb. We stuck to the rock side of the trail for safety and shelter from the rain. The trees provided adequate cover, so we didn't need to bother with our collapsible umbrellas. My eyes kept climbing up the mountainside, enjoying the color changes in the rock face -every possible hue between warm, sunny bronze and cool key lime green. I noticed a few cairns (rock stacks) here and there along the trail. Instinctively, without any thought, I picked up a small stone and topped one of them off just for the heck of it.

The concrete trail sloped so gently, it didn't even feel like we were hiking! Every turn promised an awe-inspiring vista that made us wow in delight. The higher we climbed, the more islands we could see off the coast of Mihara, stretching out into the distance as far as Shikoku Island. 

Okunoshima Island (with Japan's largest power tower on top) and the Geiyo island chain.

The switchback trail revealed ever more glorious rock faces. This granite slab in particular with a light turquoise fungus growing on it really caught my attention!

My husband suddenly disappeared around this corner and called out my name in excited urgency. "You gotta see this!" he yelled. We were dumbfounded. Japan had done it again, moving us to silence with its incredible beauty.

Mt. Shirataki viewing platform overlooking Mihara Bay. (Photo taken from the gate of Ryusenji Temple).
Moving on up the mountain, we encountered another couple descending from the temple. My husband asked the man in a red Columbia hat if he knew how to access the gazebo by the rocky outcrop. The man looked to his female companion, who explained to him in Japanese sign language my husband's question. I quietly advised Hubby to slow down his speech, since the gentleman could still make out spoken words if he saw them. Eventually, the two were communicating smoothly. 

The kind man glowed with inspired intensity, eyes wide with a passion for life as he described, partly with his hands, the glorious 360-degree panorama waiting for us at the gazebo. He suddenly noticed that I was a westerner and shouted in English "very very beautiful!" We both smiled and gave each other high fives, for what reason I don't know. But the moment made me feel better about people, again.  

By the time we reached the first stairwell to Ryusenji Temple, the chilly gusts had whipped up into a frenzy, tousling our hair and driving icy cold rain into our faces. We hid out under the temple gate a few minutes until the black, menacing cloud curtain finally lifted.

The entrance to Ryusenji Temple on Mt. Shirataki.

New stone marker at Ryusenji Temple, Mihara
Concerned by the sudden temperature dip, we decided to save exploring the temple and upper rocks for next time and proceeded down the woodland trail to the much-hyped viewing platform out on the cliff.

I was awestruck by the rich color contrasts of the pine needles both overhead and underfoot. Whether deep green with living vitality or terracotta red from eternal slumber, in that moment, they seemed to symbolize the profound harmonic relationship between life and death -an endless cycle of which I am a part. Whenever I get out into nature, I can easily remember how truly connected I am to all life around me. But instead of feeling small and insignificant as some people do, I feel the uniqueness and preciousness of my life and the role that I play in other people's lives. I come into nature to experience communion and belonging, never to feel alone.

As we approached the gazebo, the blue sky had successfully dissolved little holes in the cloud cover, letting warm sunshine spill all around our mountain. The view from the gazebo was, well, see for yourself! :-) 

Rainy Day Over Mihara Bay
Time can easily stand still at a place like this. The best thing to do is to simply let it.


When we finally headed back down the mountain, I noticed this peculiar shrub about as tall as myself, with squared twigs in the most fascinating geometric shapes! I'd never seen anything like this in the Americas! It looked as if it had been genetically assimilated into the Borg collective, or like a genetic experiment gone very wrong.

Winged Spindle Tree (Euonymous alatus)
The winged spindle tree (Euonymous alatus), is a wild shrub native to Japan and other parts of East Asia. It's also known as "burning bush" for its intense red leaves in fall. I made a pact with myself to photograph this intriguing tree throughout the next year to revel in its colorful transformations. Something to look forward to!

Near this serenely meditating jizo, we heard a strange, whiny whistle and a rustle in the bushes overhead. Too big to be a bird, we both froze for a moment and it called out again, high-pitched and nasal: "Heeeeaaaaaaaaann! Eeeeeeaaaaaaaaann!" 

Did you say something?

Thinking it might be a wild boar, my husband urged us to hoof it fast back to the car. But thirty years in the big wild of Alaska taught me that you never, ever run from a wild animal. You either stand your ground, make sure it sees you and slowly back off, or do what most idiots do and try to communicate with it!

"Eeeeeeeeaaaaan!" it squealed again, louder than before. Flipping through the Rolodex of animal sounds in my memory, I finally recognized it! "Shika, dayo!" (Deer!) I whispered. I couldn't see any telltale flash of white rump in the thicket, but I mustered my confidence anyways and called out to it, unable to help myself. I love white-tailed deer!



"Heeeeeeeaaaaaaaann!"  It answered back! It answered back!!

Again, the rustling of underbrush as another deer hidden in the trees moved closer down the mountain to get a better look at us. My husband tried calling out to it, sounding more like a duck than a deer.

"Kwaaaaaaahh! Kwaaaaaaaahh!"

"Eeeeeeeeeeeeaaan!"  it quickly replied.

We were utterly delighted! Maybe this particular herd was bored and in the mood for just about any conversation, or used to the occasional handout from humans. Nonetheless, it was tremendous fun to bond with another lifeform in sound this way, if only for a moment. They kept answering our calls until my husband thought it best not to tease them with food we didn't have.

Hubby started walking down alone while I remained there, straining for a peak at my new four-legged friends. "CAR COMING!" he shouted at me from around the hill.

A Buddhist priest in black robes driving a rickety old white utility truck drove towards me. I stepped to the side and bowing my head, signaled with my hand that he could go on his way unhindered. To my surprise, he stopped his truck and rolled down the window.

"Hello!" he chimed in perfect American English. "Where are you from?"

"It's you!" I laughed with joy, beaming from ear to ear. "I've always wanted to meet you when I first heard about you! You're a legend around here!"

He chuckled aloud, nodding while sheepishly looking down at the floor of his truck with humble grace. We exchanged formal greetings and shared brief stories about our backgrounds. He said his name was "Doiku" (道育), originally from Pennsylvania, USA, and has been living in Japan for nearly half of his life. It was hard to tell his age by looking at his face; he was beaming with youthful energy, which made it impossible to be guarded or standoffish around him. He looked like he was just coming back from a ceremony or an official event, so I didn't want to keep him long. But he invited my husband and I up to the temple for some tea and conversation next time we were in the area. How could anyone refuse such a wonderful offer? I shook his hand and said it was a done deal. By the time he'd driven off towards the temple, I'd already come up with at least ten questions to ask at our next meeting.

The Friendly and Famous Doiku-Sensei of Ryusenji Temple, Mihara

Life is awesome in this way. You can go somewhere expecting to be left alone and yet come back from your journey completely refreshed from having met the most inspiring people! Each friendly face along the way makes life's burdens a little easier to bear. I know I'll be out this way again for more. Who knew that a small mountain in the backwoods of Hiroshima could be such a great place to meet new people?

Mt. Shirataki Access Information:
Transportation Access:
(By Car): From Takehara City, take Route 185 to the corner of Highway 2 and follow the road signs to Shirataki Yama. But even with road map instructions, it's easier to just use a navigation app on your smartphone and put the address information in the search bar.
Contact Information:
Address: 三原市小泉町4543 (Mihara-shi, Koizumi-cho, Postal Code: 729-2361)
Admission Fee:
No fee required.
Available Facilities: Gazebo, picnic benches, toilet (inside the temple)
Other Points of Interest in the Area: Mt. Kurotaki (Takehara City), Usagi Shima "Rabbit Island," aka Okunoshima (Takehara City), Sunami Beach (Mihara City), Mt. Fudekake/Mt. Ryuou National Park (Mihara City)

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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