Climbing Shichimensan

My nephew passed away in January at age 36 from a diabetic coma. 10 years ago he came to Japan with his dad, my older brother, on a trip to Nagano and some hot springs. My brother said trip was a special memory for my nephew, I promised to offer a memorial prayer when I climbed Shichimensan in the spring.

Then the COVID crisis hit and going anywhere became a nightmare of hurdles: travel restrictions, reduced operating hours, limited transit schedules, getting enough face masks and hand sanitizer when those items were hard to obtain along with toilet paper.

In the end it turned out to be a memorable trip: not because of difficulty or length, because of it’s other worldly-ness of attempting to do normal things in a world that isn’t normal. Japanese authorities never enacted a ‘lockdown’. Instead, local governments requested self-restraint for businesses and the public in early April.

Throughout the month wearing face masks at all times outside of the home because routine while clear plastic sheet barriers when up at every store checkout. Cafes and restaurants reduced seats then closed altogether or switched to takeout only. Rush hour trains and the Shinkansen started running empty. By golden week vacation, normally a peak time for travel and going out, city streets and major stations were nearly empty and looked like scene from a science fiction movie.

Ghost World
Going to Shichimen looked out of the question until I called Okunoin temple and discovered that travel restrictions were lifted at the end of Golden week. The temple was open for pilgrimages, offered food and shelter, but the priest on the phone said, “please wear a mask when you are here, and be careful of leeches on the lower parts of the trail.” I decided to take the chance, packed extra masks and disinfectant, purchased an online bus ticket and made my way to Shinjuku bus terminal on a clear Saturday morning.

Anybody who has used Shinjuku bus terminal on a weekend knows how packed and hectic it is. On this particular Saturday morning, Shinjuku bus terminal was empty except for the staff who checked and rechecked empty passenger lists. The bus to Minobu was empty, the expressway and rest areas were clear of cars and trucks. At Minobusan the Kuonji morning service was all of 3 locals attended to be 20 priests.

And yet, things felt more normal in Minobu than anywhere else. People were running errands, schools where beginning to reopen, construction workers were busy. On the final taxi ride up to the Shichimensan Omotesando trail entrance, the driver pointed at the gravel road and said, “take a good look because this road is going up there soon,” he nodded up the hill where there was another road. “They need that road to remove rock as they bore the new (linear) Shinkansen tunnel.” The new linear Chuo Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Nagoya will tunnel through the Southern Alps region very close to Mt. Shichimen.

I did a quick water fall purification at Bentendo temple along the Haruki River then started to climb. There are five rest area ‘bo’ on the climb up the ‘South Sando’ pilgrimage trail. All to them were closed and quiet expect for the sound of bees circling clumps of Rhododendron blossoms. And there were songbirds: wrens, flycatchers and robins. May is the best time to hear them and they were busy.

Trail damage from consecutive typhoons these past two years was massive in places, whole valley sides are missing along with pieces of the upper trail. There are new trail sections built around them. At the gate entrance to Keishiin temple I noticed something new. Deer had eaten away the bark of old trees seriously damaging them. Deer overpopulation is a big problem in Japanese mountains, protecting high mountain forests and wildflowers is a growing challenge.

The morning sunrise was clear and quiet with colors so vivid it looked like a different world that felt more real and eternal than the fleeting ghost world that Tokyo had become. There are holy places throughout Japan were it is said the souls of the dead go to be reborn. It is also said that Shichimensan is where the souls, the followers of Nichiren Shonin go. My nephew was not a follower of Nichiren Shu but the view and the sounds were for him.

The temple priest drummed and chanted Odaimoku until the first rays of sun penetrated the horizon, he then recited the famous Kenji Miyazawa poem ‘Ame ni mo Makezu’, “not losing to the rain…not fettered by desire.” I thought of the quote Nichiren Shonin included at the conclusion of Kanjin Honzon Sho, “When the sky is blue, the land is bright, so those who know the Lotus Sutra can see the reasons for the occurrences in the world.”

After morning service and breakfast I said goodbye to the priests and hiked down the North Sando pilgrimage trail. The forest on this side of Shichimensan was untouched by typhoon damage. The return to Tokyo was uneventful, I felt exhausted but also refreshed and somehow grounded again. Nichiren Shonin lived in extremely challenging times but now that we are all living in challenging times, how comforting it is to live in the wisdom of his footsteps.