Mysteries and majesties of Mount Hiko

by Stephanie Gartelman

The Mount Hiko region has long been an important training ground for yamabushi, itinerant Buddhist monks. Today, other pilgrims on quests of naturalism, heroism or masochism join the white-clad mountain mystics climbing the steep, forested flanks of 1,200-meter Mount Hiko.

Hikosan Jingu Shrine worships Ame no Oshiho no Mimi no Mikoto, eldest son of Amaterasu Omikami, from whom the Imperial Family is said to descend.

Although just a stone’s throw from northern Kyushu’s expressway sprawl or the former mining town of Tagawa, Mount Hiko in Fukuoka Prefecture is hidden from urban ugliness by its ring of protective mountains. The region has been a mystic retreat for centuries, since Buddhism was first introduced to Japan and Mount Hiko was one of Japan’s holiest mountains, in the class of Nikko or Nara’s Mount Omine.

Once, according to a sign in the area, 3,800 yamabushi lived here. No women were allowed near the shrine; this ban was lifted in 1800, significantly earlier than similar bans on women on other holy mountains.

Mount Hiko was a virtual pharmacy of medicinal herbs, including ginseng and yellow lotus root, some of which are still found here today. A text found at an 18th-century temple describes priests selling the medicines around Kyushu, and the plants’ uses for various symptoms ranging from coughs to gynecological disorders.

Despite its tradition of discipline and thought, Mount Hiko is not without its stories of bloodshed. Conflicts between Mount Hiko priests and warlords saw temples aflame and heads rolling in 1581, and two major disturbances broke out during the Edo Period. As a result, Mount Hiko’s older relics are found farthest uphill, while its newer ones (including the landmark copper torii of 1637 that marks the shrine’s entrance) are mostly downhill.

Today Mount Hiko is a national park well known for its wild birds, its crystal-clear streams, its rich beech forests that turn red and gold in autumn and the walking trails that let pilgrims enjoy all this.

There are three approaches to the mountain’s top: the south, north and central paths (sando). Most people take the central path, the shrine’s formal entrance road, starting at the Kane no Torii gate to plod the 40 minutes or so uphill to Hikosan Jingu Shrine. From here, it’s about three hours up to either the north or south peak and back. All along the way are sights with stories to tell, like the giant 1,200-year-old cedar tree said once to have housed a demon.

Although you can skip some of the steps by driving or taking the bus up to Jingu-shita, just below Hikosan Shrine, these ancient craggy steps are one of the best things about Mount Hiko. Temples and shrines on either side of the steps contain ancient Japanese gardens dating back to the early Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Among the oldest is the impressively stern Kameishibo Teien, a contemplative garden for meditation, designed around 1475 by the great Zen priest and painter Sesshu.

Fresh water from Hikosan’s holy spring gushes through a dragon’s head fountain.

The south and north trails to Mount Hiko’s peaks are better for nature watching than contemplation, and will take you down deep, lush glades and up some almost-vertical rock faces. Wasabi and arrowroot grow in some of the lower-lying gullies — Mount Hiko’s pristine water reserves help these delicious plants thrive. Cedar trees up to 500 years old line the paths. A heady spot named Boundai (literally, “cloud observation platform”) awaits thrill-seekers on the southern path, starting at Takazumi Shrine.

“Boundai. Is it far?” we asked the man at the kiosk marking the trail entrance. “Just a 25-minute walk from here,” he replied with a wave of his hand. With a grin, he added, “The last bit’s a little wild, though.”

It sure was. After hauling yourself up a vertical cliff on chains, you edge around its lip trying not to look at the sheer drop on the other side; then it’s up another vertical cliff to perch on what feels like the edge of the world.

Near Mount Hiko is the historic castle town Akizuki and the pottery village of Koishiwara, one of the former entrance points to the mystic mountains. To the east are the forests of Yabakei. Most visitors who’ve spent a day walking the hills of Mount Hiko will be too tired to care, though. Head straight to Hikosan Onsen Shakunage-so, (0947) 85-0123, and you can contemplate anything you want to while the steaming waters do their work.