I recently took a group of tourists on a sail through the Seto Inland Sea for three days. Our destination was Miyajima, home of the Great Torii Gate and Itsukushima Shrine (built in A.D. 593), a World Heritage site since 1996.
After a beautiful three days of sailing and stopping at islands along the way, we arrived at Miyajima, where our guests disembarked and we bid them farewell. I have done this sailing route many times, but until this last trip, I had never climbed Mount Misen, the mountain on Miyajima.
Finding ourselves with a few hours free while waiting for the tides to turn in our favor, my husband and I decided to hike Mount Misen. Another thing that prompted our mission was a new map titled “Miyajima Mount Misen Guide Map” in excellent English “ranslation” available at the Tourist Information Center. It outlined the different routes to the top of the mountain.
On Mount Misen you may encounter monkeys, deer and tengu goblins. Yes, goblins! Mount Misen is where all the tengu goblins of Japan gather. I don’t know when the last goblin census in Japan was, but having seen so many renditions of goblins on my journeys throughout the country, I have no doubt that if all Japan’s goblins were to gather on Mount Misen, it would be goblins galore.
Tengu goblins are supernatural creatures that happen to be very deft with a sword. It is also said that on Mount Misen, you can hear them clapping pieces of wood together at night. Perhaps the tengu are trying to communicate with us. Could the clapping together of wood be an aural version of smoke signals?
So if you’ve ever wondered if there are alternative life forms out there, the answer is yes, and they have swords.
While climbing the 535 meters to the top of Mount Misen, if we ran into any tengu I’d recognize them by their trademark long noses. How the Japanese distinguish them from gaijin holding swords, I don’t know.
There are three established hiking routes to the top of Mount Misen: The Omoto Course, the Momijidani Course and the Daishoin Course. Right now, however, the Daishoin Course is closed. This is because every now and then the Seto Inland Sea experiences a particularly nasty typhoon, causing Mount Misen to get angry and heave itself onto the ground below in the form of landslides. A mountain belch, so to speak.
The biggest belch was in 1945, when Mount Misen sent down 20,000 cubic meters of earth and sand, burying the Itsukushima Shrine and grounds.
Most recently, parts of the Daishoin Course were washed away in a belch in 2005. But work is being done to restore the path bit by bit and hold it together with cement and other wonders of modern art.
Yes, modern art. You’d be forgiven for mistaking parts of the hiking course for an outdoor art exhibition because of the amount of sculptured nature. Nature rearranged to be balanced and pleasing to the eye. Having borrowed from the Bonsai method of tugging, pulling and coercing trees into specified directions, we learn that this same method can be applied to streams and hiking trails. But this is a different kind of control-erosion control.
In 1948, Hiroshima prefecture started re-defining nature to control the movement caused by the mountain belches. The result was erosion control methods hidden in a Japanese garden style.
Rocks were strategically placed in streams to encourage the water to flow in certain directions, creating scenes that look more like paintings than nature itself. The water from Momijidani stream flows perfectly down a manicured stream bed and shimmies over a stone wall. The stone wall has evenly spaced troughs of predetermined widths in it to create pleasing water flows. The basin below is full of fish — plump, round and smiling.
Like managed health care, this is a managed forestry retirement plan. After all, this primeval forest has been around a long time and needs some guidance if it wants to survive in our modern world.
We made it to the Mount Misen summit and back in three and a half hours, ascending via the Momijidani Course and descending via the more difficult and less maintained Omoto Course. It was still an exhausting hike and I was glad I only had to sit on a sailboat for the next three days wandering in and out of the islands of the Seto Inland Sea.
And for the record, on our hike we saw four people, three deer and no tengu goblins.