Mythology

July 22, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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?”

Comments

12 Responses to “Mythology”

  1. Captain Interesting on July 22nd, 2008 3:59 pm

    A great evocation of the Japanese summer … interesting about the mythology: this is exactly the direction that Fukada Kyuya takes in Hyakumeizan. Here’s the start of the chapter from the, er..um, gently marinading translation:-

    “In legend Daisen is one of our oldest mountains. Once upon a time, the god of Izumo decided that, to eke out his own scant realm, he would weave together spare territories from overseas. And so he cast a rope around them and hauled away to the refrain, “Come, lands, come”. The stave to which he belayed this rope was none other than a mountain called Hinokami-dake (later Daisen), so the Izumo Fudoki records.

    This legend of the deities Susano-o and ÅŒkuninushi makes Izumo the oldest of Japan’s provinces, even if we now harbour doubts about its claim to have been the cradle of Japanese civilisation. Yet the fact remains that Daisen has always towered over this land, admired and revered by its people. The mountain has served as their beacon and waymark whenever they sailed out to sea and or set forth by land.

    Primitive peoples worshipped the mountains as gods and we can even read in historical records how Emperor Ninmyō promoted this peak’s deity to the lower fifth court rank in February of the fourth year of Shōwa (837). In the ChÅ«goku district, where prominent mountains are scarce, Daisen stands out both for its height and elegant form. So clear was the air on the autumn day when I climbed the mountain that we could see not only the mountains that form the backbone of the San’in and Sanyō regions but even those of far-off Shikoku, or so claimed the local man and mountain expert who had accompanied us….”

    It sounds as if you too had a memorable and rewarding ascent.

  2. wes on July 23rd, 2008 9:00 am

    congrats on having beautiful weather!

    did you attempt the knife edge ridge line to the high point?
    i’ve heard it’s feasible in winter, but I wasn’t sure of the current state of the crumbling ridge.

  3. cjw on July 23rd, 2008 10:00 am

    Thanks Captain, that is a curious coincidence – I didn’t have time before going to read the chapter on Daisen, so was quite unaware that Fukada had taken the same tack. But it doesn’t surprise me; I found the region almost forces its mythology upon you, and I think you’d be hard pressed not to come away with the feeling of having encountered something ancient.

    Hey Wes: the ridge actually looked feasible to me, although it was roped off – there was a definite path. More than the rope, though, it was the look that Yuka gave me as I stepped towards it that kept me from exploring further.. sensible girl! I quite fancy giving the winter ascent a go, maybe something for late this year or early next – I’ll take my rope and find out if that ridge can be done..

  4. butuki on July 23rd, 2008 11:53 am

    CJW, what a joy to read this was! Not only did you evoke what climbing is like in Japan, but you also expressed the joy and the love for both mountains, nature, and one another that you both carry with you. The photographs were delightful! I especially like the one with Yuka holding her hand out for the dragonfly, but I also like the last picture of (I guess that’s Yuka?) in the waterfall pool. Both the words and the photos make you forget that they are essay and photograph and tell a story like I would hear over a campfire with good friends. I even forgot I was reading a blog! That doesn’t happen very often! Wonderful trip!

  5. Julian on July 24th, 2008 8:21 am

    As with all of your posts, the style of writing is an absolute joy to read, and I wonder how you know so much about the history and mythology of the mountains and Japan in general.

  6. cjw on July 25th, 2008 10:51 am

    Butuki, Julian, thank you both. I’m really glad you liked the post – we had such a good time down there, and I hope some of that feeling came through.

    I got to know a fair bit of Japanese mythology when I was at undergrad. One of my graduation papers was on ghosts and psychological phenomena in the Tale of Genji – I read through a large portion of the Kojiki and Nihongi as background. It’s with some sense of awe that I can travel to places like Takachiho, Izumo or Togakushi; the ancient Japanese chose their mythological locations well!

  7. Ted T on July 28th, 2008 1:33 am

    Ah, you sure brought me back home man. I lived up in Yonago for 12 years, and the tracks of my soles/soul can be found in the dust of all the peaks in the region. San-in simply pulsates with the old gods.

    I followed that knife-edge route once, and to be sure, it was hairy even back in ‘94. The autumn winds kicked up midway across, forcing me to crouch into a Chuck Berry duckwalk for awhile. Then the cold began to cramp my legs…

    Those gods command much respect.

  8. Melanie on July 29th, 2008 8:01 am

    So poetic and such amazing images! I have to say, I love each and every one of your posts.

  9. cjw on July 29th, 2008 11:11 am

    Ted T – that’s a great area to have lived in. I quite fell in love with it. As we passed through those little villages, so many of them had signs announcing “House for Sale”. Kept thinking about throwing the towel in on the rat-race, buying a wee plot down there, farming rice, shovelling snow…

    Melanie – glad you enjoyed. More vicarious mountain climbing to come!

  10. Deas on April 25th, 2009 1:08 am

    Another stupendous entry. I missed it the first time around, but caught it via the Japan blog matsuri. I really enjoyed how you meld into one post the pictures, the inner narrative, and the portrait of your relationship with Yuka.

  11. Aileen Kawagoe on September 18th, 2010 11:33 pm

    Rare to find beautiful imagery of Izumo – evocative of the subjugated ancient heartland of Japan that even the Japanese have forgotten today. Great pictures, thanks for sharing.

  12. CJW on September 19th, 2010 3:33 am

    Hi Aileen – I thoroughly fell in love with the place, especially the deep valleys and hamlets of Oku-Izumo. As we drove through them, we saw numerous “For Sale” signs – farmhouses with land and fields, only Y5,000,000. In the darker days of 2008, my mind kept returning to them, thinking “Farming in Izumo might not be a bad life…”

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