Japanese Hills : Part One
Kabutoyama (Helmet Mountain) lies at the edge of the Inland Sea in the Kansai district of Japan. It does indeed look like an ancient warrior’s helmet in the distance–but a fuzy one, as it is densely forested. We ambled along a woodland trail with Dr. Shimose, a metallurgist, and his family past stalks of susuki grass, groves of bamboos, and clusters of tall red pines. Picnickers’ smoke filled the already heavy air, and locusts of September droned and chirped while large crows squawked in the sultry sky above.
We soon arrived at the stone steps of Kanoji Dera (of the Buddhist Shingon-shu sect) at the foot of Kabutoyama. As incense poured out of the temple’s entrance, monks chanted in unison, sounding like some gigantic locust. We bowed our heads and said a prayer of thanks to Buddha for a safe journey across the Pacific to Japan where I would teach for one full year at Osaka Daigaku (Osaka University). Then, we skirted past the temple buildings (built of dark cedarwood), a giant gong, and a bright orange and white pagoda tower where the mountain trail began.
Just as we began our ascent, the gong bonged through the forest of Kabutoyama, giving a literal significance to the title of a novel I had been reading, Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain. The rooftops of the temple and pagoda blended well with the surrounding pines, as though they were somehow an organic part of the forest. In his study on Japanese Buddhism, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki writes that “the love of nature which is innate to the Japanese heart has been enhanced and given a far deeper significance by Buddhism.”
He further explains that the concept of kuyo, or paying reverence or adoration to nature, is at the core of Buddhism (a way of life). Kuyo rites include giving due respect to insects singing in the autumn field, to fishes caught in fishermen’s nets, or even to discarded artists’ brushes used to re-create nature in a painting. It is little wonder that Thoreau’s Walden is a deeply admired classic in Japan. In a sense Thoreau’s book is a kind of kuyo which celebrates the cycles of nature from summer to spring.
Several hundred feet higher, the temple of Kanoji was no longer in sight. Noticing spiderwebs all along the trail, I brought up the topic of Navajo spider legends of the Desert Southwest, which seemed to interest my Japanese friends. In ancient times a grandmother spider, who still resides in the Taylor Mountains of New Mexico, taught Navajo people their great art of weaving.] But our Japanese friends explained that Kabutoyama had several legends of its own. One has it that Gyoki, an ancient priest, heaped up soil to form this mountain and the depression of nearby Koya Pond; another tells of Jingu-Kogo, an ancient queen who buried her helmet in the mountain that gradually took its shape.
Half way up the helmet, we all worked up a sweat; however, Dr. Shimose had a remedy. I never tasted anything so refreshing as cold mugicha (a roasted barley tea) from Shimose’s thermos jug. The heat of this Japanese rain forest reminded me of my readings of Himalayan expeditions where climbers must proceed through densely jungled foothills before the glory of ascending Everest or Annapurna. Locusts rang out as we paused to peer into the valleys below where all of Osaka and Nishinomiya seemed to spread out endlessly.
At last we emerged from a steep, thick forest onto a flat, hot summit of Kabutoyama, slightly less than a thousand feet above the Inland Sea. It would take at least twelve Kabutoyamas to make one Mount Fuji that we would climb almost a year later. We had read in the papers that morning that Fuji San received its first snow of the year above 12,300 feet. Unlike Fuji with its deep crater, the small crater of Kabutoyama had filled in over the years with soils and vegetation.
The view up here was superb into Osaka Bay, distant Wakayama Prefecture with sacred Koya Mountain rising in the distance, and many islands of the Inland Sea. Dr. Shimose, who had a Sidney Greenstreet kind of chuckle, tapped me on the shoulder and said “Look! A living Navajo legend!” In the sky, clouds (kumo ya) built up in the sky, and under our feet was a spider (kumo wa–but a different kanjicharacter) who built up its web from the base of several grass stalks. Dr. Shimose again chuckled. After some more swallows of cold mugicha, we turned around to hike down the back side of the helmet of Kabutoyama to the accompaniment of squawking crows. By the time we reached home at Nigawa Takamaru, clouds darkened over the summit of Kabutoyama. I sensed that I would be climbing more hills in the near future.