Oct 27, 2013

Climbing Mt. Hakusan

On September 14th, we climbed Mt. Hakusan, one of the three holy mountains of Japan. In a single day we scaled the 2,702 meters from the base to the summit, and back again.


I woke at 2:50am and quickly dressed to pick up two other JETs by 3am, to drive us through the pre-dawn darkness to the holy mountain. We made it down to Kanazawa in about an hour because I was flying down the Kaido (seacoast highway). We traveled along Route 8, stopping by conbinis for breakfast.

We drove on the foothills of the mountain, towering blue humps of sleeping giants illuminated from behind in the soft shades of sunrise. As we drove through more and more backcountry towns, every gas station was closed. My dial was kissing E. Following the GPS, we drove out of the way for miles, but no dice. I was getting really anxious, and felt bad for such an irresponsible mistake. Who doesn't check the gas tank before a long road trip?

Mr. C asked for directions at a conbini and we drove all the way back to Route 8 where we found a 24-hour station - hooray! The relief was immense. We filled my car up to Full and took Route 8 down an alternate route to Hakusan. It took us through the crack between large forested foothills bathed in golden light from a pale sun. Windows down, the air was fresh and cool.

We were supposed to meet the rest of the JET crew at the mountain base by 7am. We had made time by driving fast, but the excursion to find gas had set us behind. I drove through red lights in sleepy towns and made illegal left turns to try and get there before everyone else left on the climb.

My company fell asleep and I drove us up a slanted bridge, past a dinosaur statue, and through many dark, foggy tunnels leading up and up. I couldn't look off the bridge without getting jitters, it was so far down! Once we reached a certain height, the road followed a single stream of river over a large rock bed. We were getting close.

We drove in at 6:55 to the cheers and applause of the other JETs - we made it, and it was only the beginning.

We parked in a forest lot, went to the main station building in the cool morning air, and quickly had to buy tickets because the bus was bound out in moments. We recounted our lack-of-gas adventure, and how lucky we were to have still arrived just in time!! The day's adventure would not have been the same without doing the climb with everyone. We kept each other going on that mountain.

On a short bus ride, we went up to the hiking base. I tried to distract myself from the bus seeming to lean on the road over gorges and cliffs. Then, we were at the base.

Although I came unprepared, sunscreen was shared and I put it on my arms and legs. Not my face, however, because I had put on makeup for pictures. A few squirts of shared bugspray and taiso-stretches later, we BEGAN!


It was about 7:30am. Through the large torii gate, across the wobbly footbridge over the gorge, through the stony path, and our first stretch began: steep stone steps. I wore my Vibram KSO's (toe shoes) for the trek for better grip and feel. Stepping on stones wasn't pleasant, though. Up and up we went. A canopy shaded us from both the sun and views around us.

My high heart-rate kicked in, and I felt my chest constrict. With only a coffee that morning, I was already dehydrated. I gulped down two bottles of sports water in the first run, paused when my heart was going way too fast, and was concerned how I was going to climb Hakusan if I was already getting my butt kicked.

We settled into the middle-paced group. Mr. C helped spur us on to keep our pace and time, and prevent us from resting too long. The first kilometer passed, and we hit the first rest stop quicker than I expected. I gulped down more water and ate an onigiri, sitting beside an eight year old boy who was also making the trek with his dad. Children, old people - every age group was climbing that day. If they could, so can I, I thought.

As we continued the climb, we realized that the mountain was teeming with people. We said konnichiwa (hello) and sumimasen (excuse me) to every passing person, which was exhausting on its own. When approaching someone, we either went through or stood to the side as the trail was too narrow for two people to pass alongside each other.

We continued on and on and on and on, up stone steps large and small, up and up and up and up. Daddy long legs scurried over the rocks. I heard two hissing snakes and saw one slither across the path. Bugs buzzed around us. Then we climbed above the canopy and beheld the pale blue waves of rolling hills receding into the misty distance. All around us was lush greenery - trees, flowering plants, rocky terrain, and some pouring waterfalls. It looked like a Renaissance painting.

We laughed and joked around, sang a few songs, and posed for group photos. My camera battery died early on. We complained of the aches, the stress, the impossibility of the task at hand - and still we climbed. The sunny, cool weather worked to our advantage. Not only was it beautiful, but the cool air as we climbed higher kept us from overheating.

At points the trail was so narrow only one foot could be placed in front of the other. The rocks were slippery with runoff from a waterfall that was up ahead, gurgling beside a stone bridge that crossed over the opened earth. How had people made this trail? What kind of effort must that have taken? We looked up and saw the rim so far away - the rim that was only 2/3 of the journey to the top.

We stopped at another rest stop, some collapsing over the benches. It was a gorgeous view, but we couldn't stay long. We forged on. Up and up and up. We did not see the view for the sake of watching our step on every rock. We came to a huge stone outcrop, and crawled forward on it to take in the view of the sheer mountainside below, where tiny figures with walking sticks were slowly trailing up or down the path.

Many hours later, taking turns to lead the pace, I crested over the ridge. Rohan lay before us - a long stretch of flat field with green grass, large shrubs, and red flowers, and wooden boards to walk across. Clouds passed over the field's horizon, on level with us. The air was chilly and, I didn't notice until I came down again, thinner.

After the fields of Rohan, we climbed up to the last rest stop - marking us 2/3 of the way to the top. The stop was a collection of large red buildings - restrooms, gift shop and restaurant, and storage houses. We took a long break for food, water, and leg rest. I ate beef curry, chips, shared pumpkin cake, chocolate, hot tea, and cold tea. It felt so good to eat, so essential. It wasn't just a meal, it was the energy I needed to keep going.

Then we were off to climb the hardest section yet - the top. Sheer, steep stone step after another. We passed the first group and knew as they rushed down we wouldn't make it the last bus at the base. We couldn't worry about that now though, we had come too far not to make it. There was only the mountain. The entire world was that mountain, and the mountain was the entire world.

I began to think on my experience in Japan, and how alike it was to the climb. I had come here unprepared for how difficult it would really be. I had a romantic idea of Japan, just as I did of climbing a huge mountain. I had just assumed it would be easy and I could do it because others had. Yet even though it's hard, it's that much more rewarding.

If I could conquer Hakusan, I could do anything, I thought. But I did not "conquer" it... I imagined a dragon, deep in the mountain's dark heart, slithering with great power and rumbling over it's long crossed body, snakelike. "I'm the God of the Wind," it said.

No one can think they can just climb Hakusan and come back down unchanged. You must take the climb, the journey, seriously. You have to offer up a sacrifice. What could I give up? I thought. I gave up my complaining. From that moment onward during the trek, I whimpered and sometimes swore inside my heard, but no more protest escaped my lips.

Not only was the air thin, there was no sound. NO SOUND! A silence, so profound and complete. People's feet shuffled, and the base camp's generator hummed, clouds passed beneath us like cold mist blow by the wind - and that silence lay over all. A person closer to the top could talk to those near the bottom - their voice carried all the way down, stopped by nothing. Hakusan is indeed a holy mountain.

Up, up, up - stones, and pauses, and thin air, and - the TOP! We reached the top of Hakusan!!!


It was between 12:30 and 1pm. We prayed at the green-and-gold miniature shrine, then took pictures at the tip-top's marker, and sat down for a look and celebration! We passed around a can of beer and had a celebratory sip. Everyone was happy and felt so accomplished.

A beautiful green-and-gold butterfly fluttered around me and landed on a stone in front of me, its wings outstretched so you could see the small blue dots on the bottom of its wings. It stayed there a long time, and I silently prayed, thanking the dragon in the mountain's heart (which is really the strong will and grace inside my own, inside each of our own) for this joy, this elation, this beautiful wonderful experience.

A crater lake glistened on the other side of the peak. In the space between the mountain top and the other ridges, clouds passed between them, driven by the wind. We soaked it all up.

When another person stepped over and disturbed the butterfly's tranquility, it left then came back to flutter around as a goodbye.

Our feet and legs hurt and ached. Other JETs planned out driving back along the bus route to pick up the last group if we missed the bus. Then, we began our descent.


Who was I to think I could easily scale Hakusan in a single day? We trailed behind as the last group, slowly stepping down on one rock step after the next. My shoes allowed me to feel every single stone as I pressed my body weight down into it. Every step was an impact to our knees.

And jumping jellyfish, I needed a bathroom! I tried to get down the first stretch ASAP to get to the large red base camp. It took a long time. Upon arriving, I bee-lined for the restrooms. Second time that day I felt immense relief.

Then we walked across the Rohan plains, and into the proper stony descent. It was harder than going up. After awhile, you forget how it ever felt to hike up, all you know is there's a cliff edge on your right, a shale outcropping on your left, and your shoes are slipping on the sand coating the rocks.

At first we kept each other going with jokes and encouragement. After awhile, we couldn't muster any words. We trudged on in silence, braving slippery wet stones, unsturdy rock steps, shifting cliff edges, and wooden boards to keep the rocks in place.

I tripped on a nail top on one wooden board and ripped the top of my shoe open. It was a good thing I didn't cut my foot! Everything in my lower body was pain. Another person nearly sprained his ankle. We joked that if he did, we all wanted to ride down the mountain in the rescue helicopter.

On and on and on.

When we finally hit the next rest stop, we collapsed on the benches. How could we go on? I know I didn't want to. Every single step down was a challenge. Every rocky step numbed the feeling in my body until I was nothing but a ghost walking on feet that would not die - would not release me from their deep ache.

As we went on, Mr. C tried to keep spirits up by remarking we were almost there - only 4km to go. 4km?! We weren't even halfway down!

90 year olds passed us going up, outfitted in gear we had laughed at on the way up and would pay a king's ransom for now. The time for the last bus passed. Our goal changed to reaching the base before sundown. We didn't know it then, but we weren't going to make it.

Every step down was pain. Nothing seemed familiar, how far were we? Were the rocks this angular and unsteady when we went up? There is no time on the mountain, just one step after another.

We hit the canopy at sunset. Bright red flames seemed to alight beyond the trees - the rays of a brilliant sunset. We trudged on. So often I hurt my baby toe, I thought I'd dislodged my toenail. I felt my eyes tear up with frustration, and took a breath to hold them in - what good would it do? Nothing was going to get me down this mountain except my own two feet, and the support of the JETs around me. We carried on. If they could do it, so could I. I wasn't going to be the one to break down. I have nothing if not endurance and resilience.

2km to go, the light began to fade. Only one of us had a flashlight, so, leading, I held an illuminated iPhone to show the way.

1.5km to go, how long had we been this way? The bugs, so many bugs!

1km to go, but where were the steep stone steps that signified the start? The trail forked, and we went on a longer, more gradual route that was narrow, slippery, and unfamiliar to us. The light of day was now gone. I flicked the iPhone's light back and forth to light both my way and the terrain behind me. On and on, sitting down to shuffle off rocks, unable to bend down to steady my footing anymore, unable to think of anything except the desire to be DONE.

It went on forever. And then on and on. And then, more.

My foot touched down on a piece of carpeted wooden board. I was confused. "This isn't rock," I thought, as if no other terrain was ever known to me.

There was the rickety bridge over the gorge. We had arrived. We made it, we had climbed the mountain!!!


No cars were waiting for us. One JET walked down the road to see if they were farther on. The rest of us were unable to stand again after sitting down; everything hurt. In the bathroom mirror, I saw that my entire face and neck were crab-shell red. That's what I get for not wearing sunscreen.

The JET returned - no cars. It was after 7pm. We had to walk down. We resigned ourselves to our fate and began the walk. I can't explain it, but there was a deep sense of pervading calm inside me. Everything was measured in the current moment, and I was okay and alive so there was no anxiety or need to worry about the future. I will continue walking until I make it.

I tapped into reserves of perseverance I never knew I had - more than I could ever have imagined. The brief time at the sunlit, cool-mountain aired top was beyond any experience I'd ever had. My chest, inside, was cleaved open. Rot and pettiness were eradicated and that sunlight and shade of blue sky opened wide and lit up my insides. This feeling would remain with me for two days.

Around the bend, just as we approached a chain-link barrier on the road, two cars pulled up - our JET friends!! Hip hip hooray!! We were so relieved, and they were so relieved to see us, too. We were driven back to the bus station where the rest of the JETs had stayed to make sure we were ok and arrived safely. They applauded and hugged us as we exited the cars. We shared our stories of harrowing the dark and narrow path, and our resolution to walk down the winding mountain bus road.

We bid the other JETs goodnight, I got in the car with my two passengers, and drove through the dark mountain tunnels, beyond the dark, sleeping lumps of foothill giants, and on the highway back home. The one step up my genkan (inside door step) was harder to scale than any rock I'd sundered. At midnight, 21 hours after take off, I was home; sore, tired, and irrevocably changed.

This is what I wanted, what I was looking for in travel - these experiences that take every ounce of your effort, and give you something 10x, 100x more in return. I made the holy pilgrimage, not expecting to be changed. It's like the air - you don't notice it's different until you've tasted it at the top of the mountain, and then come back down again. It's a story you tell your children and your grandchildren and friends, but unless you trek yourself, you will never understand the true experience.

For every painful step, every stone and branch and drop of sweat and sunburned skin...



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