For Great Hikes, Head for the Hills

Osaka | Fall, 2001 | 20 years old

When we speak of the wonders of Japan, we tend to focus on that which is man-made. Human innovation and achievement are unquestionably one of Japan’s greatest wonders, and modern technological feats along with the asthetic beauty of older temples and gardens are rightly a centerpiece to any first-time visit to Japan. However, Japan is also a country of astounding natural beauty. Nearly seventy percent of the country is mountainous, and due to a desire to live among others rather than in isolation, developed cities and towns often end abruptly at the foot of steep hills. When the road ends, that’s where the real tour begins, because for a small country with so many inhabitants, Japan still maintains a large and varied mountainous landscape that is sure to invoke thoughts of days-gone-by rather than days to come. Mt. Hiei (Hieizan) is one such recommended natural excursion, reachable via Kyoto’s rail system.

I was introduced to the beauty of Mt. Hiei by way of a Japanese history class I was enrolled in during my semester abroad in Osaka. It’s worth the trip for several reasons if you’re in the Kansai area. It’s easily accessible, holds a wealth of cultural treasures, and provides fantastic views of the forest, hills, and of course Lake Biwa. Our class convened one Saturday morning in early fall in a small town at the foot of the mountain just before the train turns to navigate the landscape toward Biwa. After filling up on onigiri and other snacks at a convenience store, we were all set to begin what our professor called a “strenuous hike” to its summit. Our plan was to hike up the Kyoto side of the mountain, forgoing the convenience of the cable cars for the views and the exercise. After the initial hike and lunch we would enter the central temple area of Enryaku-ji and tour some of the religious sites that were so central to Japanese Tendai Buddhism over the last 1200 years. We would end our tour with a descent down the Lake Biwa side of Hiei and pick up a train home from there.

I quickly learned that our professor had not used the term “strenuous” lightly. Our initial ascent was a steep and narrow trail that wound delicately through the dense forest and vegetation of the foothills. We reached the first overlook panting and out of breath, slightly amazed at our much older professor’s lung capacity and stamina. However, the fruits of our climb were evident within the first half hour, as we had already reached a clearing that afforded us a stunning aerial view of Kyoto and the mountain range that stretched far beyond to the north.

Additionally, our professor told us a rumor regarding a path to Buddha-hood that I have yet to substantiate, so I’m throwing it out there: We were told that one must go on a pilgrimage of a three year solitary hike around the mountain, and if they complete the journey, they will have earned the status of the Buddha. We joked, with a touch of genuine sincerity, that the three-year plan to Buddha-hood sounded a little better than the four-year plan to a BA. Finally, I must point out however that this information is totally un-verified, but makes for an interesting idea for a three year diversion.

We reached the temples at the at the top of the mountain shortly after noon. Branching from the first temple established 1200 years ago, the mountainous spiritual center (loosely defined and known as Enryaku-ji) at one point contained nearly 3,000 religious buildings and temples. Lots to choose from, however, there are several that should not be missed. Saicho , a Chinese priest who brought the Tendai sect of Buddhism to Japan, founded Kompon Chu-Do in 788. Due to disasters throughout the years, the hall has been rebuilt and expanded, with the last construction on the temple being completed in the 17th century. One of the largest and most beautiful temples is Enryaku-ji.  Stop to watch the flame in the temple’s Inner Chamber. It’s been burning for the past 1200 years. Another beautiful temple I would recommend is the Amida-do complex, a gem of an orange structure that was enhanced by the surrounding fall foliage. For some interactive fun, line up to ring the large bell near the main hall, you´ll feel the zen-like vibrations in your bones.

Coming down over the other side of the mountain, the trees began to break on clear blue water stretching out nearly off the horizon. The town of Biwa wraps around the lake and hugs the shoreline as the neighborhood meets the trails of the mountain. The trail curved back and forth through the mountain as we descended, ambling along until the houses and roads picked up the path .

This is a fantastic hike that I would recommend to anyone visiting Japan. However, if you’re not in the Kansai region, there are many more hikes like this one out there, just head for the hills!

Public Bath House

Osaka | Fall, 2001 | 20 years old

I spent four months in Japan studying abroad and living with a homestay family in Osaka. During my stay, I visited temples in Kyoto, partied in Shinsaibashi, hiked Miyajima Island, and climbed Mount Fuji. I soaked in Tokyo from the top of its imitation Eiffel Tower to the Back-to-the-future-throwback Delorian I found parked at its base. Amazing as these adventures were, by the end of my stay, they had left me broke and contemplating what was next, or to put it more accurately, what I could still afford.

December was approaching, and I quickly began adding layers at night as my breath materialized more every morning in the scarce surroundings of my tatami bedroom. My favorite remedy became hot sake and an even hotter o-furo. The larger train stations along the Keihan line between Osaka and Kyoto installed giant Christmas trees and female pop artists in revealing Mrs. Klaus outfits and bleach blonde hair. The religious element of the season, almost entirely stripped away in Japan, left more room for the commercial blitzing of the holidays. A combination of bad pop music, cold weather, and decreasing daylight left my mind seeking refuge. As the walls of the shopping malls started to cave in around me I began thinking more and more of tales I heard from other travelers of natural hot springs in Japan. In daydreams, I imagined monkeys that would bring you Chu-hi’s in hollowed pineapple containers with little umbrellas in them, as I relaxed and soaked in the heat of the water in the company of my animal friends and attending geisha. Fantasy embellishments aside, it soon became clear that such a trip wasn’t going to fit into my budget. Needing relief, my friend Thomas and I, a big and excitable guy from Tennessee, decided to go for the next best thing. If we couldn’t afford the splendors of nature, we’d gladly pay a couple of bucks for the simulated experience.

The next-best-thing was a public bath house in Hirakata that a fellow Study Abroad student, who spoke more fluently than we, had recommended. We each paid 300 yen at the door, stripped down, grabbed a towel and ventured in. The room was filled with hot tubs of all shapes and sizes, steam rooms, and rows of showers with plastic seats so you could relax and soak some of the hot water into your scalp. I don’t think the place had any healing powers, but it was refreshing. Plus, what better place to soak in real Japanese culture than in a no-frills city public bath house? All over Japan, there were bars, clubs, and the like that were for Japanese only. Meaning westerners, despite our big noses, hairy chests, and other quaint qualities that amused the Japanese I met, were not allowed to enter and disturb the culture and atmosphere preserved in these restricted zones. Apparently, they overlooked the Hirakata bath house.

Though we remained as respectful as possible, I realized that the image of two naked pasty-white giggling hairy westerners intruding into a Japanese bath house may one day serve other non-western nations as a rallying symbol for increased immigration laws and state-enforced cultural seclusion. However, in my experience, nudity has long been the great equalizer. After all, everyone, no matter where you’re from, is essentially the same under their clothes. Perfect place to have a language barrier, since few feel comfortable or compelled to practice a second language without pants.

We were diplomats to the best of our abilities. Our offenses were limited, the greatest one perpetrated by Thomas at the showers. Below the shower heads were buckets, and next to the buckets were spickets that poured freezing cold water. The idea was to fill your bucket with cold water while under the hot shower, than pour it on yourself to excite the senses. Not throw the bucket behind your head and hit the guy behind you. The victim answered to the cold water with an annoyed grunt, turned to see it was a large uncouth gaijin that had interrupted him from his respite, and walked off muttering to a hot tub as far away from the two of us as possible.

Moving to safer terrain, Thomas and I ventured to the tubs, soaking in the steam and letting the hot water sink in. People were talking all around us, but I soon noticed conversations choking on their words and eyes diverted to a corner of the room where one of the shower stalls sat. I followed the collective gazes of the room, letting my eyesight pierce through the steam. Through the shroud of rising water, visions of demons with bulging eyes and dragons with sharp teeth rippled out in the heat. The skins of the beasts were tanned to beat reds, deep forest greens, and sun-burnt yellows, pronouncing even more the subtle undulations of the creatures from the slow beating heart of their master. Perhaps as protection, or as a sign of a darker nature beneath their painted underbelly, they displayed their claws and fangs in a sign of warning to the room. As the steam cleared the heads of the demons became shoulder blades, and their claws entwined around a man’s spine. The realization set in that the real menace in the bath house was not a creature of myths but an outlaw of the present. A Yakuza wearing only the suit his mama gave him. The symbolism of the tattoos stretched across his back did not escape the room, and though naked and sitting on a plastic stool in a 300 yen bath house, the specter of the ink-skinned gangster gave pause to all in the room, including the two hairy gaijin.

Without our clothes, we’re all a little similar, but sometimes nudity can show you just how different we can be. Today I equate this bare-skinned adventure to the Soprano’s on HBO, and the scenes of Tony chilling out in his Northern New Jersey backyard pool, gut hanging out with his fading hairline, and realizing that despite the Yakuza’s nakedness, he was still pretty bad ass. Hope for Saddam that despite pictures of the disposed dictator in his underwear, he may not have lost all his clout along with his pants. Or if you prefer, compare it to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” just in reverse. Musings aside, after my 4 months in Japan, I had finally spotted a legendary Yakuza; not in the dark trenchcoats and sunglasses of the movies but in his birthday suit. We made it a point not to splash cold water on the guy when we returned to the showers. Partly because of his mob affiliation, but also because after all, when it came down to it, we (students, foreigners, salarymen, children, hitmen) were all there for the same reason, to cap off the year and warm our chilling bones with a hot bath and sauna. Even Yakuza need to pamper themselves sometimes, and splashing cold water on anyone, especially when you’re a gaijin, just isn’t very diplomatic.