Japan forces a foreigner to pause and ponder on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
There are any number of reasons for this: the friendliness of the people, a meal laid out like a piece of art, the natural drama of the countryside, the imposing feudal castles, J-Pop, the neon underworlds of the major cities or the regional mascots to name only a tiny handful of the obvious ones.
The full list could fill a library and would be as long as it is ecclectic. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, it would also need restarting as soon as it is finished as parts of the culture adapt and remould.
My most random ‘pause and ponder’ moment to date came in the form of a cave, stumbled upon after a gruelling three hour uphill hike to the approach of Mt. Fugen.
We leave early; rucksack packed with onigiri (rice balls) and bellies sloshing with toast and coffee to ward off the chill of the early morning fog. The climb starts as soon as we leave town. We cut right between two still shuttered shops and up through a stretch of red and rotting torii gates. They mark the gateway between the secular and the sacred, as well as the beginning of our gradual haul up to Mt. Fugen (the second highest peak of Mt. Unzen).
The switchbacks of this old trail are thigh-burning and so we take plenty of opportunities to admire the campsites dotted alongside. One boasts an entire menagerie of stone-chiseled animals. The squat turtle and prowling lion double up as fantastic chairs for weary legs.
We reach Nita Pass, the gateway to the mountain, tired but in good time. The mist continues to roll over the peaks, though the veiled sun is doing its best. We push on up to Mt. Myoken (1,333m) and the Myoken Shrine in the hope that it might break through.
It does not. We find ourselves alone, shrouded in the cloud, passing underneath the grey torii that marks the entrance to the shrine. The wind picks bright red maple leaves from trees and hurls them around in the damp tasting air. A ragged Japanese flag flutters nearby. The deserted shrine is impressive, and a little haunting.
A few kilometres later, as we mull over a mid-morning bean curd dougnut, we are caught up by a trio of middle-aged Japanese ladies. They are very happy to have found us here and, after some communication in broken English, are also delighted that we are enjoying Japan. Their delight turns to giddy joy when it turns out that they also have Osprey bags like mine. All three of them twirl in unison to show them off.
We continue along the mountain trail towards Hato-ana Junction. The path becomes so thin and steep here that there is a one way system in place. Before we reach it though, we arrive at a lava cave with a detailed descriptive board outside. A ‘silkworm lava cave’ to be specific.
A wild silkworm cave, it must be? Up here, in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain? A mountain next to an active volcano which seems suspectible to molten rock, rain and fog?
Apparently not. Silkworm eggs were carried all the way up here because the cave provides the very best conditions for their preservation.
To be clear, I am no silkworm farmer. But could one not sacrifice having just slightly worse conditions for the silkworms by having a similar cave in a much more practical location? A quick Google tells me this is what they did in Korea, pre-refrigeration.
Who knows. The point is that this is why Japan is so brilliant: the strive for perfection, no matter the effort involved, is paramount. This ethos is core to the culture here and the humble modesty people show amplifies it even further.
The sun does now break as we sit amongst the Tateiwa Peaks. The newest and tallest peak Mt. Hesei-shinzan (1,483m) watches over us as we wolf down our rice balls. It is forbidden to climb it. Steam oozes out of the top. All the other peaks nearby have been here for around five thousand years. Hesei-shinzan has been here for twenty. It is not just Japanese culture that is remoulding, it is the landscape too.
Clambering up the final rock face to Mt. Fugen is a glorious moment. The drop is sheer and the views are incredible. From the peaks to the sea, the whole Unzen penninsula is lit up like its our own personal kingdom.
All except the lava dome of Hesei-shinzan, which continues to cloak itself and chunter out a warning at its own steady pace.
N.B. For this hike, and the one from the previous post, head to the Mount Unzen Information Centre in Unzen town. They have a fantastic array of English Language guides, with pencil illustrations of the local flora and fauna.
If you’re feeling lazy, you can get a shared taxi from here up to Nita Pass and a cablecar from there to Mt. Myoken. Mt. Fugen can only be reached on foot.