One of the things I most wanted to do in Shikoku was hike Ishizuchi-san, one of the seven great sacred mountains of Japan. At 1982 meters above sea level, it’s also the highest peak in western Japan. It was my last hike in Japan.
There are four buses per day from Saijo City to the Ishizuchi-san ropeway station. I took the first one. My diary says “The bus to Nishinowkawa takes a scenic route through forested hill/mountains, [with] a dammed river which cuts through a stone gorge”. The bus must have gone near one of the 88 temples, for I saw some walking henro on the road (most likely Temple 60, which is on the slope of Ishizuchi-san).
There is a trailhead near the ropeway station, and I could have done the whole hike on foot. However, given that there are only four buses per day, I figured that I shouldn’t risk missing the last bus out. Sure, I *probably* could have made it to the last bus even if I hiked without using the ropeway, but I would have been nervous and in a rush, and that wouldn’t have been much fun. So I decided to use the ropeway and enjoy the hike without worrying about missing the last bus.
A quote from my diary: “The cable car whisked us up, with a good view of a green mountain on the other side of the valley”.
Ishizuchi is one of the most important centers of shugendo – a religious tradition which fuses Shintoism and Buddhism. It only took about 20 minutes to walk from the upper ropeway station to Ishizuchi-jinja Joju-sha, a rather large shrine complex. In addition to multiple buildings for worship, there are several ryokan where visitors can stay overnight (expensive), as well as shops selling things to visitors.
In the windows of this room, you could see Ishizuchi-san itself.
After passing through the large shrine complex, the trail went downhill, then a steady uphill again. Even though September is not the hottest time of year in Japan, and we were in the mountains, everyone was sweating a little. My diary says “I was glad that most of the hike was shaded”.
For centuries, women had been forbidden on Ishizuchi-san. However, the restriction on women was lifted at some point in the 20th century, which is how I was able to hike. There is still one day a year when only men are allowed to hike Ishizuchi-san – fortunately for me, this wasn’t that day.
Eventually, the views did open up.
I’ve read that, in clear weather, it’s possible to see practically all of Shikoku, as well as the Aso caldera in Kyushu. The skies weren’t that clear when I hiked, but the distant clouds have their own beauty.
It seems that, at the time of my hike, they were (re)building one of the shelters along the trail. There was a helicopter bringing in supplies, and at one point I had to wait for a helicopter to clear before proceeding.
The degree to which Japanese people use helicopters seems ridiculous to me. One time, I witnessed a helicopter sending supplies to a place which was only a 40-minute walk away from the nearest road – at it was not a particularly strenuous trail (this was in Yakushima). When I asked the men why they were using a helicopter, they said nobody wants to carry supplies.
I’ve been told multiple times, by multiple people, that there are no mountain porters in Japan. This is not entirely true. I met one mountain porter in Japan. He’s from Nepal, he was hired to carry alcoholic beverages to a mountain shelter so they could be sold to hikers at inflated prices, and he was also trying to persuade Japanese hikers to hire him to serve as their hiking guide in the Himalayas. I also met a Japanese man who was making a very short portering run to resupply a mountain shelter (by ‘very short’ I mean that he only had to hike about one hour between the shelter and the nearest chairlift).
Taiwan does have quite a few mountain porters. Helicopter drops are still sometimes used in emergencies or for supplies which are particularly difficult for porters to handle, but porters are the default means of moving supplies in areas inaccessible to motor vehicles. Most mountain porters are indigenous people, and they earn decent pay for people living in Taiwanese mountains. I once met a 19-year-old porter who already had a wife, and a baby, and was saving money to buy a house, which he expected to be able to buy in a couple years. Very few 19-year-olds in the USA expect to be able to buy a house in a couple years.
This, of course, is tied to the stereotyping of indigenous people in Taiwanese culture. Taiwanese people tell me that indigenous people are particularly strong and suited for heavy work, unlike the Han Taiwanese (the vast majority of the population). Many Taiwanese people consider indigenous people to be unfit for any kind of work other than manual labor or singing and dancing – this makes it difficult for indigenous people to get white-collar jobs in Taiwan.
Taiwan, at least, has a group of people who are willing to work as porters. Japan doesn’t have that among its native population, and Japan is very reluctant to accept immigrants (even though the Japanese government seems to be laxer about enforcing immigration rules in the mountains than in the cities). Thus, even though helicopters require a ton of fuel, and gasoline is significantly more expensive in Japan than in Taiwan … well, the Japanese can’t hire porters they don’t have, so they use the helicopters they do have.
There are three sets of chains up to the peak. Pilgrims are supposed to use the chains to go up. If I really wanted to, I could have gone up the chains as well. However, I did not come to Ishizuchi-san for religious reasons, and I don’t like going up chains, so I went up the stairs instead.
I will describe the roof of Shikoku – and the most beautiful sight I saw in all of western Japan – in the next post.