â€œWho is it that carries for you this lifeless corpse of yours?â€. Hsueh-Yenâ€™s koan comes to me often in the mountains. I look up at a distant peak and know that by nightfall I will be at its top, but I do not know where the will comes from or how it must happen. Something stirs and pushes me on.
I lay in the tent listening to the light patter of snow on its canvas in the pre-dawn. Much against my will something drags me from the soft, warm down of my sleeping bag and plunges my feet into icy boots. Then it throws me towards Mount Hyakkyo-ga-take, whose head remains swathed in cloud and snow.
Iâ€™d walked through the primeval forests of Mount Odaigahara the day before. Mist clung to the trees, smothering all sound except that of the river below. My bear-bell rang forlornly in the gloom, but I was glad of its presence (and my capsicum spray) after finding bear scat on trail.
Beautiful as it was, I was not sorry to turn my back on Odaigahara. The freezing mist had chilled my bones and the gloom my heart. I went in search of the nearest hot spring to put the warmth back in them both before making my way to the foot of Hyakkyo for Sundayâ€™s climb.
The storms of early winter had washed away much of whatever path there had been up the northern spur of the mountain. No cultivated cedars for Hyakko, this is primeval forest and I crash through the thick undergrowth and over fallen trees, trying to keep a compass bearing. Then I come upon a mighty gash in the mountain, a landslide deep and wide which bisects the path for fifty meters both above and below me, and I know that today\â€™s climb has come to an end. The exposed yellow clay is fresh and garish, and stands in contrast to the deep greens and browns of the forest around it. A small rock bounced lazily down its length before stopping with a clatter in the mess of tree trunks and boulders at its foot.
I head for the hot spring resort of Dorokawa, which lies at the foot of the holy mountain Omine. I soak away my aches and disappointment in the hot water for hours until night falls. I need real food and walk Dorokawaâ€™s deserted streets until find it at a lonely okonomiyaki restaurant. The owner is closing up for the night, but takes pity on me and waves me towards the tatami mats and a small room festooned with banners of the seven lucky gods. His wife takes my order, brings me some hot sake and asks where I am staying. She shivers when I say my tent.
The sake cuts like a knife and spreads through me. The owner shuffles over and, trouser fly down, cooks the okinomiyaki for me on the hot plate in the table. We talk about Omine. He thinks there will be a meter of snow on top, but I am not so sure. He leaves me to eat, and watches the Sunday night history drama on television about the Satsuma rebellion. For a moment I am jealous of him and his wife tonight. Their beds will be warm, and their life uncomplex. Whatever carries their corpses is different from mine. Warm and fed, I stand and make my way out. The ownerâ€™s wife wonders aloud if she should lend me a blanket, and I smile and tell her I have a good sleeping bag. The car rolls through the dark night, along the rock-stewn road to the trailhead, into the snow and away from the land of men.
Mount Omine has been a training ground for ascetic buddhist monks since the seventh century when En-no-Gyoja roamed its peaks. Even today women may not stand on its slopes, a fact proclaimed by large signs at the entrance.
The climb to the top follows the Omine-okugakemichi, the 1300 year old pilgrimage route which winds over one hundred miles along the hills of the Kii-peninsula. Snow falls heavily for the first few hours. I count my steps, one to ten, over and over again to keep going. At the gate to the temple on the top of the mountain I bow, and as I do so the sun breaks through the clouds and within minutes the mountains lay their snowy splendor before me. Jumping and shouting with delight I bound down the mountain, crampons cutting smooth and deep into the bright snow.
I still donâ€™t know who it is that carries this lifeless corpse of mine. But I do know that the mountains call to it, and it to them. And for that I am glad.