Once in a while you meet people in your life that open your eyes. They make you think differently, they make you consider another way of life, they inspire you to be a better person. This happened to me in the strangest of places with the strangest of people: a monk in training atop Mt. Tate. Here is my story.
We were traveling during the Obon holiday (August 13th — August 16th), a small window of time where the dead can travel back to earth. Many Japanese people will take off from work, spend time with their families, and pray in memory of the deceased. It’s also a time of the year where many people have off from work, which means loads of people will navigate to bigger cities like Kyoto or Osaka. Naturally, to avoid the crowds, we decided to head to Japan’s countryside for a camping excursion.
When we arrived at the campsite after several hours of driving, my friend explained that we were from Shiga Prefecture looking for a place to stay for the night. They informed us that they were unfortunately all booked for the night, and that we should try another campsite up the road. Still, being the friendly foreigners we are, we chatted with them (my friend with his very good Japanese; and me with my so-so Japanese). Right away, we discovered the women at the counter was also from Shiga, what a coincidence! What’s more, when pressed about what city she’s from, her answer was Makino, the place my friend has lived for four years now!
After discovering this odd coincidence, they took to our liking much more. They allowed us to stay as long as we could find space at the camp. We found ourselves a nice spot only a short walk from the beach. Then, we unloaded, and set up camp. By nightfall, we tried to start the grill, but were having some trouble with no starters. We asked our neighbors if we could borrow one. They exceeded our expectations and were very enthusiastic about helping us. The man brought over all his hot coals and dumped them into our grill where then he went on to explain how he had visited California once before and loved America. I told him I was born there, and we made friends. Gotta love Japanese hospitality.
Later at night, we walked along the beach looking for people to mingle with. There were lots of families on the beach, and they were lighting fireworks along it. We talked to them for a while, then ignited some of them with their two sons, who were very kind and respectful referring to me as Zack-san (san is like saying Mr. or Miss in English). I realized that while I couldn’t engage in full-on discussions with them, I could at least understand everything going on (small accomplishment for Japanese learners, yay!). One of the kids said he liked playing Super Smash Bros, and I asked him what his favorite character was, which happened to be Kirby. I told him mine was Lucas.
We headed to bed shortly after as the next day we would climb Tateyama, one of the three holy mountains of Japan. I tried to fall asleep in my tent, but it was in the thick of summer, so I was cooking like a sardine all night, not to mention the lights for the camp site didn’t turn off till 1 AM! When i awoke the next day, the tent’s ceilings were dripping with sweat. As soon as I gained consciousness –without a moment’s delay– I zipped open my tent, ran toward the beach, and took a swim. The sea was so refreshing. I was ready to hit the road for Toyama prefecture.
It took two hours by car to arrive at the station. It was surrounded by trees that seemed to decorate the Japanese alps. I did some investigating and soon realized that we would have to pay for the cable car up the mountain (3,600 yen round trip), something I hadn’t researched enough beforehand. They told me that it would take nearly 8 hours to climb to the top otherwise, so we payed our dues and took the cable car up to about 2,600 meters. When we arrived, it was drizzly, foggy weather. It was pretty cool though cause it created a kind of mystical atmosphere.
Along the way up the mountain, I heard some stories about why Tateyama is considered a holy mountain (one of the three in Japan). A man told me that some of the wetlands have blood red pools from an overabundance of iron-oxcide. People say they are the “hells” of the mountain. When looking through them it’s as if you’re seeing into the depths of hell (pretty scary!). However, at the same time, near the top of Tateyama are views of the entire region which are absolutely breathtaking. People say this is the heavens of the mountain for obvious reasons.
Once we reached the summit, we each payed 500 yen to enter the highest part of the mountain where the monk waited for us. We were told to wait until the monk gave us permission to continue upward. When the monk came out from hiding atop the rocks, he waved his hand up in the air giving us the okay to proceed up to the highest point (3,000 meters)
The closer we came to him, the more I realized I was freaking out (in a good way!). I looked to my right and I saw a cliff, one that would surely kill me if I fell. But the thought of dying doesn’t even process; it’s too damn beautiful. Looking up ahead, I notice the monk, whose bright orange clothing contrasts deeply with the wide grim sky behind him. I felt a sense of awe as I took each step up the holy mountain, both for how wonderfully it was paved, and also in the majestic views. It truly matched the description the other climber had mentioned — the feeling that one was climbing toward heaven.
The first thing i said to him was “Kakkoi!”, which basically means you look cool! He said, thanks –and then asked us if it’s okay if he does the ceremony in Japanese. We both agreed. I kinda shook my head up and down really fast like an excited toddler because I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited. Then we sat down with our knees on the ground and bowed towards the shrine. He then faced the inner parts of the shrine with his back to us. There he played the drum from inside the shrine, and sang a song with his low, hypnotic voice. The hymn was originally made by the many monks who did pilgrimages throughout Japan, some of which (the mountain-dweller sect) hiked and meditated for months at a time. After the song, we bowed two more times and then we had a sip of sake before retreating down the mountain. My friend then said, “I’m driving”, he said back with a straight face, “just a sip”.
I asked him several questions such as what song he sang to us, if he lives up here on the mountain, and why he wears orange (I was thinking maybe some connection to Naruto?). He answered very cooly, he is living at the shrine now and is training to become a monk; he sang “the song of the mountain”, and that he doesn’t know why he wears orange –“It’s just tradition from long ago”, he said in Japanese. What I admired about him was that he seemed so at peace with himself, the way he gazed and the way he walked, and yet compassionate in answering my questions. He also wore a smile like he knew something we didn’t (like my fly was down or that my shirt was inside out), which makes me laugh now that I think back on it.
I don’t personally believe that the mountain or any of the shinto gods granted us safety or happiness that day; but I do believe that when we are in the presence of someone who practices mindfulness, whether they are a Buddhist, a Christian, Islam, something in us recognizes this sacredness. I went up the mountain in search of adventure; I came down the mountain enlightened, thanks to the mysterious monk.
This was the second of the three Holy mountains. If you missed my experience of Mt. Fuji, check it out here. Next up, is Hakusan, the last of the holy mountains!