The bells of Daisen temple rang from the valley below, and were answered by the bear-bells that adorned the pack of every climber making their way up the mountain.
“Hard course or easy course?”, I ask Yuka as she comes back to the tent.
“I just threw up. Easy course. I don’t think pretzels make a good breakfast.” she replies. I was impressed she wanted to go at all. We set off, and by the mid-point she was back on form.
We’d come to the Chugoku region to climb its mountains, but it was its villages and valleys that linger on in our minds. In the crumpled folds of Oku-Izumo lie innumerable tiny hamlets, surrounded by fresh green rice paddies and backed by emerald hills. Terracotta pantiled roofs shone in the summer sun, glimmering above freshly whitewashed walls, and nowhere was the slightest thing out of place. We made our way slowly with no fixed plan other than to climb Daisen on this long summer weekend in Japan.
The sounds of a midsummer festival drift up the valley to the meadow where we camp on the first night. Fireworks shake the night, and we watch the smoke drift lazily across the face of the moon as we lie in the cool grass. By the light of the flames shooting from the Kelly kettle we plot our route for the next day. The highest peak between us and Daisen is Mt Sentsu; with vague intentions to climb it we drift to sleep, the sound of the festival drums below drifting through our dreams.
As Takachiho is to Amaterasu, so Izumo is to her brother Susanoo in the mythology of Japan. A rebellious and truculent young god who goes on to redeem himself through great deeds, his is the story of every young man, and is psychologically echoed in Sun Wukong of Chinese legend and the Trickster Coyote of the Native Americans. Izumo shrine is his shrine; we paid our respects there at the start of our journey, and now find ourselves on the morning of the second day wrapped in his lands. A battered sign by the roadside points to the Ryuzuyae Falls (eight-headed dragon falls), bringing to mind the eight-headed serpent Susanoo fought and killed. The water is icy cold, but it is still early in the day and so with great shouts we jump into the pool and feel the waterfall like shrapnel burst upon us.
Deeper still into Oku-Izumo’s valleys we find Oni-no-shitaburui, a canyon choked with boulders, many eerily eroded into gargoyle-like visages spewing and swirling the waters of the river. Picasso never painted so well.
Mt Sentsu is deserted when we arrive in the early afternoon. It’s humid under the trees as we climb the few thousand feet to the top, and we are grateful to arrive on its bald summit and for the breeze which cools us. Susanoo was here too. The sign at the top tells us that he slew that eight-headed serpent on this very mountain. We give thanks at the small shrine on the peak; as I bow, I find myself eye to eye with a snake which peers unblinking from within the cracks of the wall, and then languidly slides away.
As Yuka dances on the summit, swarms of dragonflies fill the air; one lands on her outstretched hand, and for a few minutes they waltz silently before it takes to the skies again.
But they are camera-shy insects, and not one wishes to pose for me, so I reach up try to catch the clouds instead.
We arrive at Daisen, and the next day set off for the summit with the throngs who are also making the best of the weather. Judging from the amount of kit being carried, many if not most are headed on to Everest. We show them our heels, and before long are bracing ourselves in the cloud and wind that whip the top of the mountain.
Yuka and I will have been married ten years this September. Back at the carpark I ask her what she wants to do for our anniversary.
“How about we renew our vows?” she asks.
“Sure. A shrine or temple somewhere?”
“I was thinking just us. At the top of Mt Fuji.”, she smiles.
And, just to make sure I fully remember why I love her, she adds,
“It is outside the climbing season, isn’t it?”