Six Days in Shikoku: Ascending Ishizuchi-san


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.

The map shows that Ishizuchi-san is in northwestern Shikoku

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.

We see a wooden statue of a man in the foreground, and in the background, therough a window, we see Ishizuchi-san

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.


Fantasyland United States

For many Taiwanese people, the United States is the Mysterious Land they see in Hollywood movies. They occasionally hear something about the United States or read something in the newspaper or hear a story from an acquaintance. Music from the United States is also common. They remember some things they learned about the United States in school. That’s it.

At least almost everyone in Taiwan is aware of the United States’ existence. The same cannot be said of many people in United States regarding Taiwan’s existence.

Taiwanese people who have visited the United States are sometimes more knowledgeable – though not always. If they only went to major tourist attractions, the United States may still just be the Mysterious Land of Hollywood movies. I have lost count of how many Taiwanese people I’m met who say they have visited California, but they are not sure whether they went to San Francisco or Los Angeles. This is in spite of the fact that San Francisco is more than TWICE as far away from Los Angeles as Taipei is from Kaohsiung. And as a Californian, I find it incredible that anybody who has been on Californian soil could get San Francisco and Los Angeles mixed up.

Taiwanese people who went to the United States for work, or who have a particular interest in the United States, or who engaged with United States society without the psychological shields used by most travellers, tend to be much better informed.

Surrounded by people for whom the United States is a distant, fantastical land, it rubs off on me. I am starting to think of the United States in a bit of the same way. It sometimes feel unreal that I was ever there, let alone that I spent most of my life there.

For me, East Asia was once the fantastical land across the ocean. Of course, I was very interested in East Asia and did my share of research (there is a reason why I moved here instead of, say, Africa, Europe, or South America) – however, comics, history books, and studying languages increased rather than extinguished the mystique. During my first few months in Taiwan, I often said to myself ‘Holy shit, THIS IS ASIA!!!! FOR REAL!!!’

Taiwan now feels just as everyday as a sweet potato (Note: Taiwan is often described as a sweet potato in the South China sea; hot sweet potatos are a common snack in Taiwan). Even though my travels have been restricted to Taiwan, Taiwan is at the crossroads of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Korea, and Japan, so living here has made me think of all of those places as places of day-to-day life rather than mysterious lands.

And finally, I find the real Taiwan is more fascinating than the Taiwan I imagined. Fantasyland Taiwan, of course, is limited by my imagination – the real Taiwan has no such limitation. And I would say that the real United States is more fascinating than Fantasyland United States.

Flora of Where I Live

When I see San Francisco in my mind, much of what defines the look of the city are the plants. Miner’s lettuce, nasturtium, French broom, Himalayan blackberry, eucalyptus, hollyhock, rosemary, Algerian ivy, jasmine, fennel, pines, ginkgo, olive, yellow oxalis, and so forth; these are all plants which are really common in San Francisco, and are plants which I powerfully associate with both the city and my childhood. For example, as a child, I would eat (or at least try to eat) most of the plants on the list with my school friends. Interestingly, out of all of those plants, only the miner’s lettuce and maybe the pines are native to California.

Taiwan has very different flora, having a totally different climate at all. In the less populated areas, lots of ferns, subtropical broad-leaf trees, ferns, bamboo, ferns and so forth. In the more populated areas, lots of rice, bananas, and vegetables. Outside of Taipei city itself, quite a bit of food gardening/farming happens within town/city limits – for example, just a 15-minute walk away from where I live there’s a rice field, and I live in downtown. And there are even still some farms within the city limits of Taipei itself – they tend to be in places like Neihu and Maokong. The lines between the urban and the rural seem blurrier in Taiwan than in California.

But sometimes I go to a place in Taiwan, and the flora makes me think of California.

Keelung makes me think of San Francisco and Oakland simply because it’s a hilly port city. Most of the flora in Keelung is of the low-elevation subtropical type, … but on Heping Island, the flora consists of coastal scrub. San Francisco also has plenty of coastal scrub, and while I’m sure the species are different, coastal scrub looks like coastal scrub. It made me think of California all the more as I looked out at the Pacific Ocean.

The first time I went through a patch of pine trees in Taiwan (I think it was in Pingxi) it also made me think of California, but pine trees are actually common in Taiwan at the higher elevations, and I’ve seen enough pine trees in Taiwan that they do make me think of California as much.

But last week, I went through an oak forest. In Taiwan. Specifically, I hiked the Wenshan trail in Hualien county, which runs from Wenshan to Lushui and is part of the path the Japanese made to help ‘pacify’ the Taroko people. I associate oak trees with the East Bay (Oakland and Berkeley), and I had never really seen oak trees in Taiwan before. So there were moments on that trail when I asked myself if I were really in California, not Taiwan. I even looked out for poison oak once or twice, even though I knew there is no poison oak in Taiwan.

Plants which I encounter frequently sprout and grow in my subconscious.