Monday, January 02, 2006

New Years Day: Climbing Mount Takao

Most New Years that I remember consisted of staying home and nursing a hangover. This one was different: not the hangover part, but the staying home. I actually left the house ... to go mountain climbing.

This is less arduous than it sounds: they had a chair-lift that took us most of the way up (incidentally, the chair-lift didn't have a guard-rail, unlike every other chairlift I've ever been on. This is not a country that feels the need to idiot-proof everything, in stark contrast to back home, where coffee comes served in cups that are careful to inform you, 'careful! hot!' But I digress.)

Now, before I go any further, I should mention that one of the many Japanese New Year's traditions is visiting a shrine (other traditions include: giving money to your children, nieces and nephews; and watching the first sunrise ... not everone does this last one, as it involves getting up Really Early and, well, there's that whole hangover thing....) Anyhow, my girlfriend and I decided to visit the shrine at Takaosan (ie, Mount Takao: in Japanese, the suffix 'san' is used both as a unisexual equivalent to Mr., and for the names of mountains.) It was closer than the Meiji shrine, after all, and - given it's presence halfway up a mountain - likely to be less crowded.

Once we got off the chairlift, we purchased a small pine box full of sake, to warm us for the climb (it was cold up there. I got to keep the box, too: makes for a pretty cool souveneir.) The path up was lined with a variety of interesting shrines, gravestones, and monuments, some of which are pictured here. There was a lot of other stuff, too, all very interesting and beautiful, but very little of which I was allowed to take pictures of (it's rude.) And for the rest, it rapidly got too dark to take any decent pics with my camphone (lacking, as it does, a flash.)

There were also some amazing, ancient, gnarled trees to be seen, which I was informed are called 'god-trees' (as they are, I suppose, inhabited by gods, or at least godlings.) Oh, and the view was, well, see for yourself:

The shrine itself was impressively large, consisting of several buildings in the traditional Shinto style: swooping tiled roofs, curling up at the edges, decorated with guardian spirits. On either side of the gate were several fountains, presided over by statues of gods, heroes, tengu, dragons, and other fantastical creatures. We paused there, dipped out some water with wicker baskets, and cleansed our hands (the water was ice cold, always fun when your hands are already frozen.)

Thus purified, we entered into another part of the temple, where we purchased bundles of incense, which we burned (getting them to light wasn't easy), stuck into a truly mountanous pile of ash, and and then wafted the smoke over our heads. The ritual is somewhat similar to blowing out the candles on a birthday cake: while the smoke drifts past you, you keep your wish for the next year at the front of your mind. The smoke catches your wish and relays it up to heaven.

After this, we prayed: we waited in line, made an offering, clapped our hands twice and bowed our heads. I felt a little silly doing this, because I couldn't help but think that all the Japanese people around us were thinking, "What's this silly gaijin doing?" A little like a muslim receiving communion, maybe ... except that the concept really doesn't quite map, as Christianity (and, for that matter, Islam) are post-ethnic religions, whereas Shinto is an organic outgrowth of two thousand years of Japanese culture. It's just not a relgion that makes converts, which is why it must have looked kind of weird to them to see a gaijin doing it.

After visiting the shrine, we climbed the rest of the way to the top (only another twenty minutes), passing two more shrines on the way. Both of which were noteworthy, the first for being surrounded by a small army of two-foot high guardian spirits, and the second for being decked out in gold, lions, and dragons.

Then there was the cable car. We nicknamed it 'Takao Disney', because it's at about a 45-60 degree slope, and we took the whole thing standing (or, occasionally, hanging, as the case may be.)


At 11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taka = 高
o = 尾
san = 山

"san" in this case means mountain. It's not a unisex suffix. That's さん.

At 12:02 AM, Blogger Matt said...



Post a Comment

<< Home