外国人の日本体験 Experiences in Japan
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Michael Buder
Simple, natural beauty - peace
Mountain of Pride (Part 4)
by Michael Buder (Canada)

I was a little confused when I boarded the tiny bus for Owa because nobody paid. I could see that there was a fare machine at the front beside the driver but nobody was using it so I squeezed into one of the tiny seats with my pack, and waited to see what my fellow hikers did.

The bus cruised along a narrow, winding road with mountains jutting up into the sky all around. Although the bus was smaller than the ones in the city, at times it felt as if it was still too large for the narrow, meandering road. Before each stop there was the sound of chimes followed by a woman's voice announcing it. When we finally stopped at Owa all of the passengers started filing off the bus paying their fares as they did. When I got to the machine, I asked the driver how much, he told me three hundred yen. I fumbled in my pack for the change, paid and got off the bus - an interesting version of C.O.D. (cash on delivery), I wondered why it was done this way.

Immediately to my left was a row of small, decaying old shops selling a range of souvenirs, food, and drinks. I noticed that most of their proprietors were either nowhere to be seen or in the back of the shop watching television waiting for customers. After passing the shops I came to a path leading left toward a bridge. The sign indicated that this was the path to the cable car or "ropeway" as it is called in Japanese. I referred to my map and saw that I was to cross this bridge and keep to the left of the ropeway to take the trail up to the shrine.

The bridge crossed a wide section of the river and I stopped in the middle of it to take a photo. When I got to the other side, a couple asked if I could take their picture to which I obliged. We exchanged the usual chitchat about where I was from and if I liked Japan. They said that they were going to be taking the ropeway to the shrine, hiking to a cabin to stay over night and then making their way to the top of Kumotori and back home the next day. When I told them of my plan to do the entire hike in one day they seemed quite impressed. They wished me luck and off we went in different directions. They followed the signs leading to the ropeway and I kept to the left.

I took off my jacket, put it inside my already stuffed packsack, I crammed my camera into my pocket and started hiking. The trail was wide and very well worn. On the left hand side were many large monuments resembling tombstones. Some appeared to be very old as they were covered with moss and I wondered what they represented. They were mysteriously etched with Japanese script adding another element of the unknown to my journey.

I took many pictures at the beginning of my hike. In fact, what would have normally taken me fifteen minutes took over an hour because of this. At one point I came upon a beautiful stone gateway with a tiny waterfall gently cascading behind it. I had no idea what to expect when I had planned this journey and had been pleasantly surprised by what I had stumbled upon to that point. I only wished there had been someone there to share it with me. I knew I would never be able to describe it sufficiently with words and that pictures would only be mediocre reminders at best.

Once I started hiking it didn't take me long to break a sweat. The path wound up the mountain at a steady grade. The sun hadn't yet penetrated the forest and all around me was a hazy cool fog. I was only able to see about three meters into the forest, my vision then blocked by a thick blanket of gray. Clinging to the vegetation on either side of the trail were what appeared to be hundreds of neat little spider webs at evenly spaced intervals throughout. Again I found myself taking pictures.

I was startled by snakes on two occasions as they both decided to wait until I was about to step on them before frantically slithering away. There's nothing quite like startled wild animals to increase your heart rate, especially when they're snakes. The first one was only about two feet long with brown and black markings; the second was probably twice as long and was spotted beige. Knowing that there were highly poisonous pit vipers in this area I knew I was going to have to be alert and watch where I stepped for the whole hike. I wasn't equipped to handle a poisonous snakebite.

It took me less than an hour (once I put my camera away) to reach the top. I could see the cable car terminal as soon as I crested the summit. Once out from under the cover of the forest, the sun cast its warm glow upon me. The view from this first summit was of beautiful green mountain tops as far as you could see surrounded by infinite blue sky. The wide-open space and fragrant aroma of the forest buoyed me with a sense of ultimate freedom.

I followed signs along well-marked paths to the Mitsumine shrine complex. I was amazed to find beautifully carved wooden gates and shrines, made even more remarkable by the apparent centuries of natural wear. I wandered along paths stoically guarded by stone animals and marveled at intricate carvings of wooden dragons. Again I found myself spending the better part of an hour snapping pictures, intoxicated by the smell of pine and the intrinsic glory of history.

Not only was I amazed that such a beautiful place existed, I was even more amazed that it was so quiet. This Shinto sanctuary nestled snuggly within fragrant pine treed mountain- tops so close to Tokyo seemed almost abandoned. I thought of all the poor tourists spending their time waiting in the excruciatingly long lines at Tokyo Disneyland or buying t-shirts from the gift shop at Tokyo Tower. Did they know of this place? If only they could see what I saw at that moment, simple, natural beauty - peace. I guess if too many people were aware of this place this would be lost, a sad paradox indeed.

When I finished wandering around the shrine grounds I walked to the ubiquitous tourist shops. I was pleased to find that they were at least a far enough distance away from the shrine so as not to visually diminish its integrity. These little shops double as restaurants as well. I stopped at a couple of them to see if any sold chocolate, I wanted some to take as a quick energy source. To my surprise, I found that nobody had any chocolate. They all had things like key chains, ramen, and dried fruit, but no chocolate.

At one shop there was a man about my age who spoke very good English. We chatted for a little while and I learned that he loved surfing and had traveled to many places in the world in search of nice waves. His parents owned the shop in which he was working which also just happened to be their home. He told me how he enjoyed living on the mountain but couldn't wait for the days when he could go surfing again. I wondered if his obligation to his parents kept him in the forest when what he really wanted was to be in the ocean. It seemed very honorable.

I asked him if he had any chocolate, but like all the other shops I checked before his, there was none. I decided to grab a bag of dried fruit and a bottle of water instead. An elderly lady was ringing my purchases through the register when he emerged from the back of the shop with a box in his hand. He held it out and offered it to me as a gift. It was chocolate covered macadamia nuts. He explained that he bought it on a surfing trip to Bali but that I could have them for my journey. I was very moved by this expression of kindness but told him I couldn't accept it. He kept insisting that I take them and in the end I had to take them worrying that it would be an insult if I didn't. The nature and consistency of Japanese kindness is something that still amazes me. The whole trip up to this point had exposed me to some incredible new things. Things I knew would stay with me for the rest of my life.

My new friend introduced me to his mother, his grandmother, and his grandfather who were all working at the little shop. I chatted with them for a few minutes and they asked me where I was going. I told them I was going to Mount Kumotori. They remarked that my pack was quite small for an overnight trip. Then I told them my plan - they became very concerned.
(to be continued)