I had not been to Mt. Shichimen since golden week vacation 2020, during the very first COVID pandemic ‘state of emergency’. It was a surreal trip to say the least. Shinjuku station and the Chuo Expressway were completely deserted on a Saturday as I rode all alone, the only passenger on the Keio Highway bus to Minobu.
This time, golden week 2022, there were people thank goodness, at Shinjuku station, on the bus and in the highway rest areas. Even Minobu looked somewhat lively with day tourists enjoying a vacation day drive in the countryside. But there were signs of decay from two years of COVID restricted travel. A shop closed here, a vacant lot there. There were visitors, but few pilgrims. The temple inns for them (shukubo) were mostly empty at a time they should have been full.
And because they were mostly empty the staff were generous with food and drink. When I ordered a cup of sake to go along with dinner, the head priest of Chijaku-bo brought an opened sake bottle urging me to finish it off saying, “I don’t drink now and this will go to waste.” I obliged but drank far more than bargained for. I took a bath then stood outside in the cool evening air to let my head settle, listening to the sounds of the river as a crescent moon slid into a black outline of mountain peaks.
Next morning I took the early bus to the Shichimen trail base. The climb is recorded in the video. I tried to capture all 50 ‘chome’ point markers but missed a few. The video is a kind of experiment to see what works and what doesn’t in preparation of another climb to record the protective dragon legend of Mt. Shichimen. Until then…
Poor Minobusan cannot catch a break. The Shugyoso Monk’s Run Trail Race profiled in 2014 was cancelled in 2018 due to major typhoon inflicted damage on the Minobusan~Shichimensan trail. Denied use of the full course, race organizers made do with mini races covering usable parts of the trails. This year’s challenge was greater than ever: the COVID crisis almost cancelled it altogether.
To keep it alive Rev. Yuji Komatsu of Takeibo and the resourceful Shugyoso organizers opted for a 17 km ‘mini course race’ up and down Shichimensan this year, limited to 50 runners each on November 21, 22, 28, 29 with COVID protocols in place to limit crowding. It’s an encouraging sign that all race slots sold out.
The first race on November 21 went very well. The weather was clear and warm. Organizers did a good job taking care of the race and racers. Everybody was relaxed and enjoyed a good time. Final race results ranking the best times of all 4 race days are posted on the Shugyoso FaceBook page (Japanese).
If all goes well the road linking Minobusan and Shichimensan will be completely repaired and once again open for Monks Trail Race event.
Nichiren Shu followers are well acquainted with Minobusan, site of Kuonji Temple and the resting place of Nichiren Shonin. Both followers and tourists have visited the top of Minobusan via the ropeway to see Shishin-Kaku Temple, breathe cool fresh mountain air and take in the view of Mt. Fuji and the Fuji River valley below.
The more adventurous way to the top for pilgrims, or even trail race runners, is to hike the old trail from Kuonji to Shishin-Kaku Temple. Only the truly adventurous, or hard-core trail runners, then continue on the trail to reach Shichimensan. at trail goes down the other side of Minobusan passing long shuttered inns (bo) for visiting pilgrims, through the village of Akazawa. The name of the town, red mountain stream, comes from the reddish colored rocks found in the Japanese Southern Alps and surrounding foothills.
Hiking map of Minobusan
Kanseibo Temple mark
Kanseibo is no longer in use
Akazawa dates back to the Heian period. It has been designated a historical preservation district. Its history is tightly bound to the history of Shichimensan, which was established as a holy mountain and pilgrimage site long before Nichiren Shonin arrived at Minobusan in 1275. The trail from Minobusan might sound romantic, but it long ago disappeared into a quiet country road that zigzags down the backside of the mountain. Only at the entrance to Akazawa does it become a foot path again, a steep stone path winding through the village.
ANCIENT PILGRIMAGE PATH Near the top of the stone path is Myofukuji Temple. According to Rev. Chiyu Ide, the head priest of Myofukuji, its history extends back to the deepest roots of Japanese Buddhism. “Have you heard of Shugendo?,” he asked. This was one of the first forms of Japanese Buddhism
It incorporated mystic elements of both Buddhism and Shinto. Shugendo ascetics and priests journeyed through deep valleys and peaks as part of their spiritual practice worshipping huge boulders, giant trees, and the mountains themselves as the sacred vessel bodies of gods, seeking enlightenment and rebirth in the rising sunlight over the mountain.
Shichimensan itself is a kekkai, a sacred barrier, protecting Mt. Fuji. If you watch an equinox sunrise on Shichimensan, the sun rises directly over the peak of Mt. Fuji. On that day, the sun shines in a perfect line across the top of Mt. Fuji, through Shichimensan, and straight to Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture. Izumo is one of the most important Shinto Shrines, said to be older than Ise Shrine itself.
“This was established as a Shugendo temple,” Rev. Ide explained. “In Nichiren Shonin’s time, it was Shingon. Nichiro Shonin, a Senior Disciple of Nichiren Shonin, convinced the head priest of Myofukuji to covert and become part of Kuonji.” Some of the Myofukuji Temple structures today look new. Inside the Founder’s Hall, colorful kifuda line the walls. In the Main Hall, there’s a restored ceiling painting of Shichimen, the protector of the holy mountain. Asked about the number of temple members here in Akazawa, Rev. Ide became quiet for a moment. “I have to travel a lot to support the temple. I’m not here as much as I would like to be.”
Buddhist priests in country temples usually have to work other jobs to make ends meet. Rev. Ide travels extensively doing Kito blessings and Reidan consultations. It not only supports the temple, but also helps bring new practitioners and pilgrims to Akazawa and Shichimensan.
THE WOMAN GENERAL OF EDOYA Further down the stone path, almost at its end, is the Edoya ryokan, the last surviving inn of Akazawa. It is run by 92-year-old Kinu Mochizuki, the Okami, or proprietress. She is the 27th in her family line to hold this honor and responsibility. Okami is one of the many Japanese words almost impossible to translate into English. The two characters that make up Okami are “woman” and “Shogun.” It conveys a woman general who runs the family business, raises the children and keeps the tradition going. Still today, the longest running Japanese family businesses, some dating back to the Heian period, are invariably run by women generals.
Mochizuki-san’s back is bent with age. She walks with a cane, but is cheerful, bright and always happy to show you her inn while explaining the history.
“I’m 92, and since last year I’ve had pain in my lower back,” she explained. But that did not stop her from opening up the sliding doors to reveal the big interior room.
“This is where guests chant Odaimoku, eat and sleep.” She pointed out the hallway that ran outside the tatami rooms. “As you can see there is plenty of space for groups of 50 to 60 to put their luggage and other belongings.”
“We have groups staying here from May to November, 700 or 1,000 people sometimes, so all the inns (meaning Edoya and the other bo surrounding Shichimensan) have to cooperate and divide them among the inns. We all serve the same food and charge the same price. 60 stay here, 40 there, and so on. When that happens we all sit around making hundreds of onigiri, rice balls. Even though my back hurts, I can do it. I only have these hands, but I endeavor to do my best.” She thrusts out her hands for emphasis, strong country hands that have clearly done a lot of work.
THE FUTURE OF AKAZAWA
What is the future for the last remaining inn in Akazawa? Mochizuki-san says, “I have a grandson. He is interested, but I don’t know if he is willing to take on the responsibility of running Edoya. I have no say in the matter of what happens after I die. What’s the point of worrying about it?
“Nowadays, who wants to take on this difficult work when there are easier ways of making a living? There really isn’t anything here in Akazawa. It is 100 Cho (the old distance measure of approximately one cho =109 meters) to Minobu, 50 Cho to Shichimensan. There weren’t that many pilgrims when I was growing up because of the distance. And there were not many pilgrims coming during the war. Those who came had to bring their own rice, and we would cook it for them. They had to have enough for the whole journey because of war rationing.
“It became dangerous here, too. Near the end of the war, several bombs were dropped in the village below, because the B-29 planes had to clear their holds on the way back from bombing Kofu. It’s hard to believe that a person like me experienced that. We had to clear metal debris from our fields. As junior high students, we were required to work in military or agriculture production. There was no freedom. We can look back now and say how stupid it all was, but back then it was simply what one had to do.”
Mochizuki-san went on to explain that modern roads and bridges changed everything. Now people can drive to the bottom of Shichimensan, park their car and start walking. When groups come now, they don’t hike from Minobu. They drive up from below, stay overnight, and then drive back down to the Shichimensan trail entrance. The pilgrims have changed, too. Most of those coming now are from Reiyukai, not Nichiren Shu members.
She waved her hand at the big empty room. “In the old days, the ceilings and walls were covered with silk banners and senjya fuda. They disintegrated long ago. When the pilgrims came, it wasn’t just once. They arrived every year, no matter what.” Nichiren Shu members stopped coming during the late 1980s bubble era, when values changed and Japanese birthrates went into steep decline. A culture carefully built up over centuries can disappear in the blink of an eye.
Osakaya had been closed for years but reopened this spring as a guest house for hikers
“There used to be six inns here in Akazawa. We’re the last one. Osakaya had been closed for ten years, but this spring, someone rented it and has opened it as a guest house for backpackers from overseas. There’s even a man from France who wants to live here,” she said, as if a man from France was an unexpected turn of events.
If you come to Minobusan, Akazawa and Shichimensan, you can experience directly and breathe the air of faith and practice expounded by Nichiren Shonin. You can see all that it built over the course of centuries, one pilgrim, one step at a time. Don’t let these hard earned accomplishments fade away. Come to Shichimensan and hike the same path of countless pilgrims over centuries past. The path is the same, taken one step at a time.