Sunday, August 10, 2014

Shudders On Mt. Shirataki (Innoshima Island, Onomichi City, Hiroshima)

広島県尾道市因島重井町:白滝山 (Mt. Shirataki, Innoshima-Shigei, Onomichi City)

(BGM: "Face Yourself" by Michael Hedges)

Seto Inland Sea National Park: Mt. Shirataki.
Three (!) months have passed since my most recent brush with death. The trauma has since subsided enough for me to go ahead with this story that I was hoping to post in May, when I made the climb. Even now, I really don't feel like disturbing, or even locating, the tiny reservoirs of fear still pooled in parts of my body over Mt. Shirataki. But just as a wound should bleed a little before healing, I've gotta get this out of me so I can move on with my life. Besides, autumn is rapidly approaching in Japan, now, and I need all the courage I can get.

So here I am being honest with myself. Up until this experience, I would charge fearlessly into the forests with a near reckless abandon, certain that no harm would befall me or my loved ones. Not anymore! I have since been put in my place.

Deep breath.

While researching Mihara City's Mt. Shirataki (of which you can read about here), I learned of this other, more famous mountain of the same name on Innoshima Island, known for its parade of jizo statues (Gohyaku rakkan) and a commanding view of the Seto Inland Sea. Hubby agreed this would make a fine day trip, looking back fondly on our other thrilling mountain hikes over the past spring. He was pleased to have a definite destination for this particular trip. (Normally we would wing it and simply go where the roads led).

More spooky than serene...
Once on the island of Innoshima, we followed the clearly-marked signs to Mt. Shirataki from the main highway and parked in front of a huge mural painting of Buddha near the trail entrance. Songstress wagtails and blue rock thrushes struggled to get a word in edgewise between the relentless barking of carrion crows. The heat wasn't terrible at 31C, despite it being the warmest day of the year. A cool, dry breeze caressed my grateful skin, pushing the corners of my mouth up into an easy grin of anticipation. From the base, Mt. Shirataki is a good 227 meters high but it's only a leisurely 20-minute climb from our parking lot to the Kannon Hall, a place of prayer built by pirates who controlled these islands hundreds of years ago. Twenty minutes was no big deal. We figured we could do it without water.

Trail leading to the Gohyaku rakkan, a collection of hundreds of Buddha statues carved by the same guy. Though the name means "500 Buddhas," the count is closer to 700.
Before climbing anything though, I made sure to anoint myself with a nice, toxic mix of SPF-30 sunblock and deet-based mosquito dope. Confident that I would be bug-free on this trip, I joyfully grabbed Ol' Green (my trusty bamboo walking stick) and eagerly followed Hubby into the bushes, thrilled at the sudden drop in temperature. I found myself wrapped in a refreshing veil of mist and darkness from the tree canopy overhead, shielded away with the ferns, safe from a jealous sun.

A picture-perfect iris greets me five steps into the trail. :-)
Our trail was an aging, uneven series of granite slabs of varying pitch, but was easily climbable thanks to the addition of sturdy (albeit rusted) metal handrails going all the way up the mountain. Mammoth overhangs of bald, peach-colored stone loomed over us, edged with dark scraggly pines and junipers.

As my husband turned a corner around a towering wall of stone, I paused for a moment in the bright sunlight to soak in the view of the sea behind me...

My view of the Seto Inland Sea from halfway up the trail.
It was at that moment that I felt a sudden woosh in front of me, making me look up. It was a Vespa mandarinia japonica (Japanese giant hornet), as large as my pinky finger, busy scouting for food. Since we see these insects all the time here in Japan, I thought nothing of it, though I was surprised to see one this early in the year. (They're most active from late spring until the first killing frost of November). Giant hornets usually mind their own business, and I was pretty confident that I posed no threat to it. Following it with my eyes cautiously for a moment, I felt reassured of my personal safety and continued my climb unfazed.

The final approach to Kannon-do.
Nearing the top, we strained and pulled on hot, mottled handrails, hoisting ourselves up the last leg of this narrow, dizzying stairwell. My quadriceps smarted in protest as I stumbled through the aged, simply-carved wooden gate of the 430 year-old Kannon-do hall, panting and dripping sweat. The view was worth the exertion!

Looking down from the Sanmon gate.
Fortunately for us, Hubby spotted a still-open kiosk near the temple entrance. They were out of water but he was able to secure one tiny box each of grape and orange juice. We quickly sucked our boxes dry through tiny plastic straws, savoring the view from the wooden platform more than our drinks!

The recently-built viewing platform, overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. No shoes allowed on the wooden deck!

The ancient Kannon Hall. It was just about to close when we arrived there around 4:00pm.
"Can we go back down, now?" Hubby asked.

"Not yet. There's supposed to be a 360-degree panorama spot near here," I whispered between labored gasps. "We need to find it." I had a particular shot in my mind I wanted to take. You know, the kind of angle you'd see in a travel magazine but know you could do better. The clear contrasts of "the golden hour" were working for me, this evening. I wouldn't leave the mountain until I got my shot. (That's just how I am).

We casually followed a crestfallen man in his early forties to the back of the temple behind a crumbling plaster wall as countless Buddhas looked on from every nook and cranny. Sitting on the ground in an outhouse-shaped closet was a simple piece of whitish granite somewhat in the shape of a human torso, slightly smoothed on the corners, looking quite plain. Apparently, this was the Lover's Rock (koishi-iwa 恋し岩), a magical stone containing a mysterious Picasso-esque engraving of two lovers kissing. According to the explanation taped unceremoniously to the wall, should you pray with all your heart to this stone, your true love will find you and bring you long-lasting happiness. The lonely guy, obviously in need of companionship, reverently dropped a few coins into the tiny wooden offering box provided, prayed solemnly to the stone and stepped onward, avoiding all eye contact with us. We both nodded in understanding. It's a cold, hard world out there!

It was finally our turn to see what the fuss was all about. We both stood there staring hard at that rock for too long a time, neither of us able to see the definite outline. (Perhaps the visual trick stops working after you get married?) Hubby gave up in frustration and shuffled off first, but I lingered there a while longer, intent on making out a form. The pink and white hues of this impressive chunk of granite reminded me of cherry blossoms and torii gates more than anything, which was plenty for me, I suppose.

Nope. Can't see it.

Nope. Still don't see... wait a minute...! Is that Yule Brenner?
Finding ever more signs for the Gohyaku rakkan, we seemed to be getting closer to our destination. There was no choice but to keep going up. We still had a ways to go from here.

"I found it!" the Hubby exclaimed in victory, disappearing behind a wall of weather-worn Buddhas of various age, height and style. As usual, I took my time, snapping photos and relishing in the familiar earthy, oily stink of antiquity all around me. These statues dated back to the Edo period, well over a hundred years old!

"It's beautiful up here! You're gonna love it! Hurry up!" Hubby beamed from the recently-constructed cagelike platform, smiling wide and radiant like he always does when wowed by nature.

And then I felt it again: another whoosh! followed by a menacing low-pitched hum. A giant hornet had made a complete pass around me, this time circling me, surveying me. It made a second pass. And then a third. I knew about this creature's lethality from fear-factory TV shows designed to keep old ladies like me scared, home-bound and consuming. But all the years I've been hiking around Japan, I've never once heard a real-life story of anyone being stung by one without provocation. Usually these Vienna sausages with wings stick to their jobs of securing food and shelter, and little else. Would I be the first to be stung out of spite?

O-suzumebachi (Japanese giant hornet). Photo Credit: t-mizo via Flickr, a Creative Commons image.
Immediately, I cleared my mind of all thoughts of fear, consciously putting into practice what I'd learned in yoga class: filling my body with calming breath, relaxing the muscles, lowering the heartbeat, focusing on nothing but still, placid ocean water...

Bzzzzzzzzzz! (Damn it!!

The bone-rattling unnerving hum of burnt-orange papery wings, vibrating hard and noisy like an old National Panasonic rotary fan stuck on the lowest setting, drew itself in to me, closer and closer, breaking my concentration. The massive hornet lingered by my right hand, no doubt smelling the sticky grape juice smeared on my fingers. It then floated up to hover within five inches in front of my face, daring me, just daring me to swat at it, me the unwilling partner of an impromptu staring contest in which the penalty for losing was possibly death. It was so close, I could see its twig-like jagged legs, extending towards me and relaxing, as if debating whether or not to land on my nose (or crawl up in it). Its tangerine lozenge-like head jerked and flicked from side-to-side in quick 15-degree angle movements, robotic, emotionless. The fine hairs on my nose could easily feel the wind from its wingbeat. This is it, I thought. This is how I'm going to leave this earth.

"Go away, please," I whispered in English through clenched teeth, without moving my lips. It was more of a prayer than a command, for I sensed an element of the Divine in this formidable creature. It just hovered there between my eyes as beads of sweat rained from the pores of my whitening forehead, dripping onto my chest. The hornet seemed to remind me that death was always beside me, no matter how many times I might outsmart or avoid it. He would always be there, and it was time to count my blessings, pronto.

A force stronger than my instincts had riveted my hands down to my sides, preventing any attempt at swatting at this flying syringe of death. But I couldn't take this torture much longer, as bright shimmering white stars streaked on and off like fireflies in my head -emergency flares signaling a fainting spell was coming on.

Suddenly, I heard my own voice in my head:

Move forward now, slowly.

I found that my legs could move, but with some resistance. I gingerly stretched out one leg before me, the hornet moving backwards in step; we were locked in a deadly tango, a pas de deux. I then moved my left foot and pressed my torso forward, steadily. And with that, the hornet backed up quickly out of my personal space and zoomed off, replacing me with butterflies for hands and stomach. Standing there completely stunned, it took my brain a few moments to comprehend that the danger had passed, before the violent, involuntary shaking set in.

My feet flew me straight up the light blue metal viewing platform to where Hubby stood oblivious to my plight, taking photos of the seascape. Realizing that I'd been traumatized, he asked me if I was okay. On the verge of hyperventilation, I frantically recounted my story, tears streaming down my face without my permission. My hands and arms trembled uncontrollably for another twenty minutes (no exaggeration) as I coached myself through a healing round of Pranayama breathing (a technique I often use for pain management). My husband coached me to breathe in a controlled rhythm and it finally worked, my shock melting into the opposite emotion of extreme euphoria. What a trip this had been!

Sundown and Swifts on Mt. Shirataki (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
I stood there silently beside him, thankful we could behold this stunning scenery together, as swifts (related to swallows) dipped and dive-bombed for mosquitoes (and hopefully hornets) in the early evening breeze. Like the boy in the Grimm tale who "went forth to learn fear," I learned how to shudder for the first time in my life. Every lifeform is a teacher. Neither good nor evil, like me, we simply are, until the moment we all breathe our last. That hornet would be long dead by winter while I, with any luck, would keep on living. I had a lesson to learn about its passion, curiosity and fury for life. There on that crumbling, desolate island mountaintop, with no access to a hospital or helipad space for a medivac, I could have easily met a very painful end. But that hornet left me with the sacred gifts of humility and gratitude: I learned that I should humbly admit to myself my own fear of pain and death, for it's part of my survival instinct and nothing to be ashamed of. And of course, I was reminded yet again that every second of life is to be treasured. The carver of all these statues was reputedly inspired by a near-death incident. Perhaps a hornet delivered to him the very same message -and the same inspiration.

Turning around to face the path that brought me to this moment, I found it: the shot I was after. Had things gone awry just minutes before, this photo wouldn't have happened.

Mt. Shirataki. (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
"I'm glad you went through that and not me," Hubby chuckled. "I would've swatted at it and probably died." (That was his way of saying I was the braver one. As sweet a compliment as it is, I gravely disagree. Fear rendered my arms completely useless, not courage). But his straightforward Korean humor made me drop all seriousness and erupt into a hearty, cathartic guffaw of release, anyway. And boy, did that feel good! 

But what a beautiful place to die, surrounded by symbols of deliverance and grace! Like that rocky river valley in Shiga where Hubby and I nearly met our ends, the top of Mt. Shirataki now stands another holy place in my life. But as the saying goes for Mt. Fuji, "the wise climb once. Fools climb twice." Just one climb up this mountain was quite enough for moi. (And if we ever climb another mountain in this country, we'll be sure to bring water and not juice).

(Update: I've since encountered these hornets five times this summer. All were too busy buzzing around to pay me any attention, but fall is coming and they tend to snoop around more aggressively as they get desperate for food. Do be careful out there).

Mt. Shirataki Information: 
Open Hours: Open 365 days a year, 24/7.
Transportation Access:
Parking: Several free parking lots exist on the mountain at several spots from the Flower Center.
Access By Car: Exit the Shimanami Kaido on Innoshima and get onto Route 317. On the west side of the island, this highway eventually turns onto Route 366. Follow the signs to the Flower Center and even more signs to Mt. Shirataki (Shiratakiyama 白滝山).
Access By Ferry:  This link provides a ferry timetable and a map in English.
Admission Fee: Free. Note that anything touristy on this island seems to close around 4:00pm, however.
Available Facilities: Public restroom, drink kiosk, brochures, emergency phone and Buddhist temple services are available. The Kannon Hall (Kannon-do 観音堂) is often open to tourists as well.
Other Points of Interest in the Area: Innoshima Flower Center, Innoshima O-hashi bridge, Centennial Beach, Innoshima Suigun Castle, various temples and shrines.
Handy Information For Hikers In Japanese Giant Hornet Territory: 
Habitat And Behavior:
Vespa mandarinia japonica, a subspecies of the Asian giant hornet, can be found all over Japan, in both cities and the countryside. But according to my observations, they seem to have a preference for mountain forests and old abandoned houses -rural locations where they can secure food and shelter more easily. The scout bees usually fly alone, hunting for food from morning until dusk (fruit, insects, other bees, etc). They can also be spotted on the sides of old wooden buildings, bridges, fences, wood pilings and tree trunks, stripping and digesting wood pulp for building their massive paper hives. The hornets sometimes fly to a sandy beach or rocky cliffside to lap up minerals like many insects have to for survival. Like most Hymenoptera, Japanese giant hornets are otherwise too busy to go around harrassing humans. (I know it's fashionable on the web now to write sensationalist articles about how terrible and scary these insects are {okay, they are pretty damned scary}. But in reality, they're much more focused on their own personal survival than picking fights with people). Most attacks happen because the hornet or hive was already disturbed or threatened, the victim smelled or looked like food, or inadvertently did something to provoke an attack.
We've noticed that these hornets are attracted to red and black-colored cars more than white or silver ones, especially while parking. The heat and loud engine hum certainly stimulates them when we park in wooded areas and mountainsides. If we notice more than one giant hornet hovering around our car, we've made it a habit to just assume we're near a hive and re-park where there aren't any.
What To Wear: Think like a beekeeper. Calming, solid colors less likely to aggravate a giant hornet include white, khaki, olive, light browns, off-white, muted greens -neutral forest tones. Colors to avoid include BLACK, dark blue, orange, red, purple, etc. Also try to avoid loud patterns, especially floral. If you have black hair, be sure to cover it with a white or off-white hat, bandana or towel.
What To Avoid At All Costs: Juice (grape juice and fresh fruit like berries and oranges are giant hornet magnets!), sweet perfumes and colognes, strong deodorants and body odor. Also avoid hiking while intoxicated. The scent of alcohol can also attract them. If sweat is an issue, use a fragrance-free anti-perspirant. Many shampoos and hair products (like hairspray and styling gel) also contain strong perfumes that can attract all manor of stinging and biting pests. (This informative report illustrates how Vespa mandarinia were caught using a mix of orange juice and alcohol). Avoid hiking alone in Japan at all costs. Use the buddy system and common sense!
Ever More Things To Avoid: Avoid hiking in regions with no phone signal. (You'd be surprised how off the grid much of Japan still is!) Avoid wooden pilings, old rickety bridges and especially unearthed tree root systems (hornets often live under these places). Never stray off the trail. Keep an eye out for round holes under trail steps (they could be hive entrances or snake burrows). If a giant hornet selects you for inspection, DON'T RUN OR SWAT! Your sudden motion will only stimulate its fight mechanism (which is faster than your flight mechanism). It will most likely realize you have no food or shelter to offer and fly off (this is according to Japanese common sense, not fact. There are no guarantees in life). Avoid screaming or making loud noises in the forest, especially if you encounter a hornet or hive. If you see two or more giant hornets in the same area, please consider turning back the way you came.
Still More Warnings: According to this Japananese site, if an enemy approaches a giant hornet hive, they will click their jaws and chatter an eerie kachi-kachi sound in unison as a warning. If you value your life and hate the idea of anaphylactic shock and flesh-eating acid melting bloody, bullet hole-size welts into your skin, heed this warning by slowly backing away into the opposite direction of the sound, or just head back to your car and consider yourself lucky. Japanese giant hornets are the most lethal creatures in Japan (next to humans, that is). Best to leave them alone as much as is humanly possible.
Should You Get Stung:  Call 119 immediately if possible. If you're somewhere without a phone signal (very common in the mountains of Japan), try to squeeze (not suck!) as much poison out of the wound as possible and seek immediate medical treatment any way you can. We make it a point never to hike where we don't have a phone signal. Most healthy people without bee venom allergies survive giant hornet stings the first time around. (It's the second time that tends to be lethal).
DISCLAIMER: The author of this blog post is in no way claiming to be an expert on Japanese giant hornet behavior, sting prevention or treatment. The author of this blog post shall bear no responsibility should a reader suffer any trauma, injury, or death. Readers who hike in Japan do so completely at their own risk.

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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