climbing mt. misen

(written during my recent trip to Japan…)

the great torii, miyajima islandFrom the hotel you walk down into town, past the shops and stalls where the merchants are beginning their day.  They roll up the metal gates over the store fronts, hose off the sidewalks and street, sweep out the shops.  A woman goes down the row of shops pulling the canvas shade covers over the street, murmuring greetings to merchants and wanderers.  A couple of deer linger hopefully outside a restaurant; inside two men prepare to hang out the curtains and a woman brushes oil on a griddle.  Already the air is starting to smell like food, chestnuts and onions and fish.  Small utility trucks drive alarmingly fast down the narrow streets, horns politely beeping so that you can jump into an alcove and out of the way.  An old man squats on the ground and watches four cats eat; all the cats are snow white and none has a tail.  When you come to the end of the street, the water is like glass and the torii gate is bathed in early morning sunlight.

Miyajima Island is a short train and ferry ride from Hiroshima.  The island is a sacred place in both the spiritual and the secular sense.  It is home to three spectacular temple complexes and hundreds of smaller temples and shrines.  The deer and monkeys enjoy the protection of the gods and roam temple and town unmolested.  The entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the extensive old forest on the far side of the island is thus also unmolested.  At 535 meters above sea level, Mt. Misen is the highest point on Miyajima Island.  Twelve hundred years ago Kukai (also known as Kobo Daishi), a buddhist monk and founder of Shingon Buddhism, climbed it to seek enlightenment and today his path is followed by elderly couples helping each other up the steps, a sports team running up them and down again, school kids who clamber up the huge rocks and flash peace signs for photos, and one slightly out of shape american tourist.

ropeway, mt. misen, miyajima islandThe way to the ropeway begins past the Itsukushima shrine.  You walk up a gently sloping path, through Momodijani park.  Small clusters of deer lie in patches of sunlight.  Their eyes and ears swivel to follow you as you walk past but they show no alarm and it is likely they are merely wondering if  you might have something for them to eat.  A bright vermillion bridge, vivid against the green trees, crosses a small river just before the ropeway station.  A bowing white-gloved attendant shows you into your tram car, closes the door behind you, and waves you off with a smile.  The tram climbs fairly steeply; you are alone and it is quiet and below you the deep green forest passes serenely.  You see Hiroshima in the distance and the islands of the inland sea, each ringed with oyster beds.  At the end of the line, you wait with a group of Japanese men for the larger gondola that will take you to the top.  There are only two; as one ascends the other descends, so while you wait you take photos of the distant blue islands.    When you arrive at the Shishiiwa observatory the first thing you see are signs warning you about the monkeys; it is strongly suggested that you store your things in the lockers at the tram station.  But you don’t intend to come back this way so you shoulder your pack and start the climb to the top.

The ropeway takes you to 430 meters above sea level but this is deceiving because the path to the top of Mt. Misen first descends for a ways into a small depression between the two peaks.  Soon enough though you are climbing again and eventually you stop to marvel at the fact that nearly the entire climb is done on rough-hewn granite stairs.  They do not seem particularly ancient but still, getting them up the mountain and installing them  must have been quite a feat.  You briefly envy Kukai his long-ago journey; the climb would be much easier on a regular path.

a small shrine of rocks, mt misen, miyajima island It’s a pretty warm day up on the mountain and you are glad you have a tea with you, even though it turned out to be hot tea rather than the cold tea you thought you were getting (sometimes it’s hard to guess what’s going to come out of a Japanese vending machine).  You climb steadily for about an hour, passing one vista of the inland sea after another.  Soon you can look down on Shishiiwa observatory.  Along the way are small shrines, many with offerings of cans of peaches or drinks, most with coins placed carefully in front of them or on their heads or outstretched hands.   Occasionally you pass piles of stacked rocks; perhaps these are impromptu shrines (it is common to see rocks piled on the cross pieces of the torii or on lanterns or on or near the small shrines) or perhaps they are just piles of rocks.  Suddenly, as you reach the top of one flight of stairs and turn to climb another, you see the curved peaks of the temple roofs ahead.

There are several Buddhist temples at the top of Mt. Misen. Kukai completed one hundred days of training at the site of the Misen Hondo (main hall).  Sankido Hall is said to hold the deity that protects the mountain.   Reikado Hall contains the fire first lit 1200 years ago by Kukai himself; drinking tea made from water boiled on this fire is believed to have powerful healing properties.  This fire was used to light the peace flame in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial garden.

view from the top of mt. misen, miyajima islandThe temples are a peaceful place and a respite from the climb, but the stairs ascend still higher to an observatory at the very top of the mountain.  The peak is noted for its enormous and unusual rock formations.  The temples nestle below them and an observatory with a commanding view of nearly the entire island perches above.   A small herd of deer roams around the summit and school kids stand on the rocks and flash peace signs for photos.  A bright yellow ginkgo tree frames the view of Shishiiwa Station.   The sky is blue, a slight breeze blows, and the sea glows in the early afternoon sun.  It is a beautiful day.

Reluctantly you begin the descent.  According to the map there are two smaller shrines located on the path down the mountain and you’d like to see both.  The first, Miyamajinja shrine, is down a side path, not terribly far, and is one of those bright vermilion temples that glow luminously in the light of this area.  A couple eat their lunch under an old tree near the shrine so you take some photos, admire the view for a few minutes, and then leave them with their solitude.  A sign a bit of the way down the path points you to the next shrine and off you go.

shrine and offering,  mt misen, miyajima islandThe path to the Okunoin shrine is a little disconcerting.  It starts descending rather steeply and appears unused.  It goes deep into Miyajima’s primeval forest and you no longer pass others making the same journey.  It also seems to be much farther than it appears on the map.  After walking for a very long time you come to another sign pointing to a dirt track in the woods, a path that shortly narrows so much you are no longer sure there is a path.  But then you are there, at what is called the “inner shrine” (which appears to be the Shinto euphemism for “really really far away from everything else”).  It is a clearing in the woods full of smallish shrines and stone markers.  It’s deserted and if there weren’t obviously recent offerings (shiny coins, fresh cans of peaches, a beer) you’d think it was abandoned.  The main shrine sits apart, on the top of a small hill and is quite simple and beautiful.

As you head out on what appears to be an actual road, a monk appears.  He doesn’t look even a little tired after his hike out to the middle of nowhere and his English is excellent.  He points you toward the right path and asks if you like the shrine and Mt. Misen.  You assure him that everything is beautiful and start down the mountain.

Going down takes two and a half hours.  The path keeps descending, one switchback after another.    The stairs are hard, rough, and uneven.  Every beautiful vista just serves to remind you that you aren’t at the bottom yet and the end of the descent doesn’t appear to be getting any closer.  You start to wonder if you are still going to be on the mountain when it gets dark.  Eventually you see tile roofs in the distance and finally you are at the gate of Daisho-in temple.  You almost don’t go in because there is a huge flight of stairs to get up to the entrance gate.  But here you are and up you go and you aren’t sorry.  You spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the temple taking pictures, contemplating serenity, and forgetting entirely how much your feet hurt and how hungry you are.

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~ by gun street girl on November 22, 2010.

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