“You want to hike up that mountain in Misasa?” Y-chan asked me. I had, in fact, had Misasa–a little town in the middle of Tottori–on my list for a long time, after having seen photos like this around for a while:

Really, I just wanted to take that picture of Nageiredo, a National Treausure and one of the buildings of Sanbutsuji Temple. I wanted to take that picture, put it here on my blog, and say, “look, isn’t this cool? Its name is ‘the temple that was thrown into place,’ as you can see why.”

“throw” “enter” “temple”

Having already climbed Mt. Daisen a couple times I figured it would be a lot of stairs, but not as many stairs since Mt. Mitoku is only 900 meters high. What I found was, well, not stairs.

There’s a certain lack of stairs on this trail.

Actually, it simply did not occur to me until just now–weeks after the hike–that I was undergoing Shugendo. Certainly, I am aware of the ascetic practices of certain Buddhist monks that they put themselves through in order to gain spiritual prowess, and I have a certain image of them meditating under waterfalls on holy mountains where women were not even allowed to enter until recent history. And I was aware that upon entering the path and being granted a protective talisman and a white sash that I was being marked a pilgrim on holy ground, and yes, I thought that was interesting since I had never received such things while hiking elsewhere or visiting other temples. However, I never put all the pieces together to realize that I physically underwent Shugendo. Does it still count if you weren’t aware you were doing it?

Up I go. The path down is the one at the side by the fence.

I probably should have been tipped off that this was not a normal stroll through the woods when we had our shoes checked for traction twice upon entering, and when they were selling thick gloves for climbing. There were no walking sticks for sale, as apparently those are not allowed. I anticipated a 90 minute hike before we’d head in to town to find an onsen, but almost immediately I was taken back by how steep and somewhat slick it was. We regularly passed by people who were making a successful trek back down, but there were a few screams by started people as they lost their footing in a couple spots, and embarrassed laughter as they recovered seconds later. I took a mental note of those spots and continued up. For the most part, as long as you kept a rather even pace, you’d often find yourself stepping into grooves in the rocks warn away by thousands and thousands and thousands of footsteps of pilgrims over the course of the past 1000 years or so (no exaggeration—the temple itself was established in 709, and Nageiredo was somehow thrown into place in the 11th or 12th century).

Standing firm in the steps of those before me

My favorite surprise was all the katsura (Japanese Judas tree) roots we had to climb! I was reminded of our fun ninja adventures on the obstacle course in Adventure Forest in Gotsu, but these were completely unplanned by mankind. They were really fun and easy to climb, and they did not shutter a bit–you’d almost suspect that you were climbing concrete.

Far easier and more fun than it looks

I was less thrilled about the boulders to scale with our bare hands, and when I first encountered them, I wondered if I should have bought those gloves after all. They weren’t slick, but it took some caution and thought to decide the best course of action each way up and each way down. There were footholds worn into them like those footsteps left behind by thousands before you, but they were not as obviously. While the ascetic yamabushi (mountain monks) of years ago might have taken similar strides, their differences in height and reach made for a wider variety of lesser worn vertical paths.

This angle might be misleading, but long as you stayed on course there wouldn’t be any especially dangerous falls. You know, as long as you stayed on course, no sudden departures to the left or the right. Just stay on the beaten path, however little of a path it looks like sometimes.

Does it count as Shugendo if instead of strict mental training, I was instead incredulously exclaiming, “Wait, what? Seriously? We’re supposed to climb this? What???” It wasn’t until we got to the one boulder which required a chain to climb and an older couple passing by us on their way back down informed us that we were halfway to the top that I figured out that this was probably what I should have expected all along.

It was around that spot that I had been embracing the hope that as we neared the sounds of the enormous bell that we would near the top circle of temple buildings soon. However, unlike some other mountains of Buddhist significance that I was climbed, there were no particularly busy gathering of buildings, instead only a series of buildings along the way and a steady stream of hikers/pilgrims/Shugenja/unsuspecting tourists on their way up or down proving that people of a wide range of ages and physiques were capable of accomplishing these feats. The 2-ton bell itself is from the Kamakura period and no one is quite sure how it got there (Benkei, was that you? After all, he supposedly carried a bell from Mt. Daisen to Gakuenji Temple because was as yamabushi as yamabushi come). Ringing it is said to cleanse you of your sins, and the whole time, I had been pressed on by the sounds of people polishing up their souls–or at least announcing with audible graffiti, “Taro Tanaka was here.”

It wasn’t all grueling hard work, just a lot of caution and bursts of brain power. We were also able to enjoy the refreshing sights and sounds and fresh air of nature.

wild fuji (wisteria)

sugi (Japanese cedar)

After about an hour of hiking, we reached as close as you can get to Nageiredo.

It was only on the way back that I finally heard that it was called the most dangerous national treasure in Japan. It’s probably more dangerous for the people who keep that Heian era architecture in such pristine condition, and I can see why the trails would not be open in rainy or snowy weather, but with a pace you feel comfortable with, it’s certainly not impossible. Just make sure to hike with a buddy (as is required) and bring good shoes (as is always required). And maybe go into it with the expectation that you were undergoing Shugendo!

Even if you don’t feel like undergoing the hike, however, there were a number of other interesting things to observe in the temple buildings at the base of the mountain. I’ll post those photos next time.