On Japan's Mt. Ishizuchi, seeking a higher self

On Japan's Mt. Ishizuchi, seeking a higher self

by Takashi Oki
The Yomiuri Shimbun

Western Japan’s Mt. Ishizuchi is a sacred mountain where Kobo-Daishi (A.D. 774-835), the high-ranking priest who established the Shikoku pilgrimage, trained. Today, many ascetics, conspicuous in white robes, come together to reach its 6,500-foot summit in early July, when rituals are held during a ceremonial opening of the year’s climbing season.
 
The mountain, the tallest in western Japan, is particularly known for its climbing route with several sets of heavy metal chains dangling down a rocky cliff path leading up to the summit. In “Eien no Ko,” a novel by Arata Tendo, children seeking spiritual salvation struggle to climb the mountain by gripping the chains for support.
 
I decided to reach the summit myself, hoping to find a different self there.
 
On July 17, I visited Saijo, Ehime Prefecture, at the foot of the mountain. To build up stamina for climbing the next day, I ate a popular pasta dish called Teppan Napolitan, a local specialty that is served on a hot iron plate.
 
At 8 a.m. the next morning, I took the day’s first ropeway service to Ishizuchi Shrine’s Chugu Jojusha, one of the shrine’s worship facilities, located 4,750 feet above sea level. Unfortunately, clouds hid the summit from view.
 
I began climbing from there, my mind on the weather. After climbing for about 90 minutes through a beech forest, I reached the Yoakashi-toge mountain pass about halfway up the mountain. The forest ended here, and my field of vision suddenly expanded.
 
“You can see the summit,” nature observation guide Yoshiyasu Imagawa, 38, said excitedly. I had asked him to climb with me.
 
Seeing such a dignified mountain, I felt refreshed and invigorated, ready to climb to the summit.

Climbing a little farther, we reached Ichi no Kusari, and the first set of chains running down the side of a cliff came into view. The thick chains run 108 ft. down the cliff. Each link in the chain consists of a short iron rod with a ring a little larger than four inches in diameter at each end.
 
Gripping the rings one by one while groping around for toeholds, I climbed up the cliff little by little.
 
It was tough for my arms to support the weight of my backpack and my own body, which has a little too much extra fat.
 
During the climb, I looked down and was seized by fear. It felt like I was dangling from the cliff. If I lost my grip and my feet slipped, I would fall straight down.
 
The thought made me so frightened that I held fast to the chains with both arms. It is said that even grade school children can make the climb, but it felt almost impossible for me. I managed to finish, but when I reached the top of the cliff, I felt dazed. I might have pushed myself too hard.
 
After a while, we reached Ni no Kusari, the second set of chains. These run as long as 213 feet.
 
“The part we can’t see down here is difficult to climb,” Imagawa said.
 
I gave up on climbing this part.
 
Fortunately, however, there is a detour route for those like me.
 
San no Kusari, the final set of chains, was under repair. I was relieved to hear it and continued going on the detour route.
 
“Ryu-ryu-ryui, ryu-ryu-ryui,” cried a bird in the distance.
 
“It’s the meboso mushikui,” Imagawa said, using the Japanese name for the arctic warbler. “I hope we can see it.”
 
About two hours and 45 minutes after climbing from Jojusha, we finally reached the summit. Although it was not clear and sunny, I could see a foggy range of mountains in the distance.
 
“I did it!” I found myself crying out.

At the shrine’s Okunomiya Chojosha worship facility in the summit area, I saw Atsuki Yamashita, 60, and his wife Riemi, 59, being given an incantation. Yamashita told me that he had turned 60 that day.
 
“I wanted to start a new life at Ishizuchi,” he said.
 
However, I had farther to go in seeking my new self — Tengudake peak, which is the highest point of Mt. Ishizuchi, which can be seen just across the summit area. It projected sharply through the fog like a fang.
 
The route from the summit area to Tengudake was rocky, but I had no alternative other than to just keep going. I slithered forward little by little on my stomach on the rocky path. I knew it was pathetic for me to be so full of fear while climbing, but I couldn’t help it.
 
After a while, however, I finally reached Tengudake. When I stood at the highest point of western Japan’s tallest mountain, my surroundings became enshrouded in mist, enveloping me in what felt like a divine cloud.
 
I realized I can’t change myself so easily, but I found myself fully enjoying a sense of accomplishment all the same.
 
Climbing Mt. Ishizuchi
 
The closest train station is Iyo-Saijo on the JR Yosan Line from Matsuyama to Takamatsu. From Okayama, the Shiokaze Limited Express train makes hourly runs to Iyo-Saijo station (1 hour 50 minutes). The ride from Takamatsu is 90 minutes using the Ishizuchi Limited Express.
 
From Iyo-Saijo, there are only four buses daily connecting to the start of the ropeway (1 hour, information at 0898-23-3450). The 10:23 a.m. bus is the last that will get you to Ishizuchi in time to make the climb and catch the last bus back at 5:22 p.m.
 
For more information, call the Saijo City Tourism Association at 0897-56-2605.
 

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