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Ishizuchi Shrine   Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

Soul Mountains
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

“You’re joking, no way!” Kuro-e thought to herself, looking up at the 70-meter-long iron chains hanging down from the vertical cliff. This morning, Kuro-e left the hotel in the town of Saijo and took a bus to the foothill of Ishizuchisan, the highest mountain on Shikoku Island. Her destination was the Ishizuchi Shrine on the summit. A cable-car took her up to the Chugu Jojusha Shrine, where the long foot trail to the top of the mountain began. She walked through the beautiful foothills afire with fall foliage - brilliant red Japanese maples, golden elms, brown oaks and birches. After almost 8 km, the trail ran abruptly against the cliff where Kuro-e now stood, the first of four sections of vertical rocks surmounted by climbing the iron-chains to reach the mountain top. She tightened the hip-belt of her daypack and started climbing.

Ishizuchisan is one of the major centers of Shugendo, an ancient syncretic religion combining Taoism, Shinto, ascetic Buddhism, and Shamanism. Founded in the 7th-century by En no Gyoja, a mythical monk reputed to possess magical abilities. The goal of the practitioners (called yamabushi) was to gain supernatural power through ascetic religious training while treading through steep mountains. Ishizuchi Shrine is one of many temples and training sites established on sacred mountains all over Japan.

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Buddha's Light   Photo  Tim Wong

Upon reaching the tiny summit, Kuro-e was surprised to find the Ishizuchi Shrine and adjourning hut crowded with pilgrims in white yamabushi attires. She found a spot between an older Japanese woman and a young foreign woman to sit down to catch her breath. She asked the young lady where she was from. “Oranda!” the young lady replied, imitating how Japanese pronounced Holland. Turning to the older woman, Kuro-e said, “How beautiful the fall colors today!” The older woman responded with a sly smile, “Yes; but it was even more beautiful when I came up here last week!”

After some rest, Kuro-e looked for a more private spot to have lunch. She saw a narrow ridge bridging the shrine and the neighboring summit of Tengudake. She said bye to her new acquaintances and started walking along the craggy ridgeline. White clouds swirling up from the valley hit the sheer vertical face of Tengudake and shrouded it in a gray mist. With the sun behind her back, Kuro-e saw a fascinating sight in the mist - her own shadow surrounded by a rainbow halo. That optical phenomenon called ‘Buddha’s Light’ was taken in ancient China as a sign of personal enlightenment. Kuro-e took that as a good sign to stop. She waved to her enlightened alter ego, who waved back, then sat down at the edge of the cliff and took out some dorayaki from her backpack for lunch.

On Mt. Mitoku, some 300 kilometers north of Ishizuchisan, is a mysterious shrine called Nageiredo, perhaps the most spectacular Shugendo shrine in Japan. One rainy autumn morning, Kuro-e took a bus from the town of Kurayoshi in Tottori Prefecture to the Sanbutsu-ji, at the base of that mountain. From there, a steep trail snaked up the mountain into a misty forest. Few visitors were on the rain-soaked trail, which at times was nothing more than picking the least resistant path through dense thickets or scrambling up tangles of ancient tree roots and moss-covered boulders, aided occasionally by ropes placed strategically along the most exposed precipices. About halfway, she topped over a ridge and arrived at the Monjudo Hall, a large square wooden building where Monju Bosatsu was enshrined. A narrow wooden plankway encircled its perimeter, offering vertiginous views of the valley and surrounding mountains.

Farther up the ridge was the Shorodo bell tower, with its massive iron bell suspended under a sturdy wooden canopy. Kuro-e swung the suspended shu-moku (wooden beam striker) to strike the bell before moving on. The trail leveled out and entered a deep dark forest where she found a cave sheltering the Kannon-do Shrine dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. Following tradition, Kuro-e entered the cave with her hands clasped, circled behind the shrine and emerged from the other side, symbolizing her rebirth. Soon, she arrived at her destination, Nageiredo.

The spectacular shrine was shrouded in mystery. This architectural masterpiece perching precariously on the sheer cliff looked downright impossible. Legend had it that it was thrown onto that cliff with magic by the Shugendo founder En no Gyoja, hence the name Nageiredo (Thrown-in Hall). Wooden statues enshrined within when the hall was built were dated to the late Heian period (794-1185), apparently inspired by the hanging temples in China. No one really knows exactly when it was built or by whom. There were several smaller shrines on the surrounding cliffs, none appeared to be accessible or as impressive. As Kuro-e was admiring Its elaborately crafted woodwork, a light rain started to fall. She walked up to a wooden fence beneath the shrine festooned with hundreds of folded pieces of paper written with pilgrims’ prayers. She took out a small piece of paper from her pocket and added her prayer to the assemblage, before heading back down the trail.

When she arrived at the bell tower, four men in white yamabushi attires had gathered there. One of them held up a horagai (large conch shell trumpet) playing a forlorn tune. They paid no attention to her at all as she continued down the trail in the rain. By the time she reached the Monjudo shrine, it was pouring. She ran to the shrine to get out of the rain. Standing under its eaves gazing out over the valley now shrouded in fog, gongs from the bell tower rang out, reverberating in the mountain. The surrounding landscape gradually faded away in white swirls, leaving only the mountain tops floating like islands in a stormy sea. A haiku by Yosano Buson came to her mind.

     From a Mountain Temple

     the sound of the bell struck fumblingly

     vanishes in the mist

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Nageiredo   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano