When a meandering road trip along the coast in southern Chiba took me to Nokogiri-yama (“saw mountain”), I didn’t think I’d come across Japan’s largest Buddha, or the oldest umeboshi (salt-cured plums) and cheapest fresh fish I’d ever laid eyes on.
Having left my car in the free-parking lot halfway up the mountain on the southern side, I climbed the rest of the way on foot. I was informed at the ticket booth that embedded in the mountain was a temple called “Nihon-ji.”
“You must not miss the Buddha,” said the smiling kind old man in the wooden hut. “Or the Hyakushaku-Kannon, or the rakan [statues of Buddhist saints], or the views, or the beautiful trees.”
I smiled weakly, my heavy legs and light head reminding me that I hadn’t yet had lunch. “I think you’ll find them interesting,” he finished modestly, delivering the first huge understatement of the day.
A hundred or so zig-zag steps later, I found myself standing in a vast area of open space with Japan’s largest daibutsu (a big statue of Buddha) saluting me. At 31.05 meters, he towers over his Kamakura counterpart, which measures 13 meters. Next to me stood a local man wearing a beret and with his hands clasped behind his back. He was even older than the ticket-booth man and smiling just as profusely.
“It’s quite big, isn’t it?” he giggled, and informed me that the Buddha was “sculpted into the side of the mountain.” I agreed on the word “sculpted”: the finesse of the lines was in no way compromised by its scale or its exposure to the open air, nor was Buddha’s silent smile any less mildly discomforting. But I somewhat disagreed on the connective word “into.”
Only the back of the Buddha was sculpted “into” the rock behind; the rest of the statue stuck out bravely to face the strong sea winds sweeping across the mountain side.
As I turned to continue up the steps, the man in the beret said that he was turning back, and he left with a knowing smile. Wondering why he was retiring so soon, I stopped by another wooden hut, which looked even older than the ticket booth, selling, besides good luck charms and pens, packets of ume-boshi. Thinking to myself that on this mountain, the age of people or buildings seemed to increase with altitude, I inquired about the ume-boshi to the old man behind the counter whose skin was as wrinkled and dark red as the dried plums he was selling.
“We grow and salt them here at the temple,” he said. “They’re fairly old.”
“Oh, several decades,” he smiled.
I peered into the simple packaging — they certainly looked utterly homemade, utterly old, and utterly salty. “I’ll take three, please,” I said, thinking both sets of grandparents would adore these, and as I popped one into my mouth, I anticipated their delight. But, as the salt burned my tongue and made it numb and my insides howled, I decided they were not to be eaten on an empty stomach.
“So, how long does it take to reach the top?” I asked the old man, who seemed highly entertained by my gastronomic trials.
“Not long,” he said, “though these temple steps are the second longest in Japan. There are 2,639 steps and they’re an Important Cultural Property.” I now knew why the beret man had gone home.
But all 2,639 steps turned out to be well worth the suffering through dehydration and hunger. An adventure along a narrow path snaking between high cliffs took me to a shaded clearing, where stood another tall Buddhist statue, Hyakushaku-Kannon. At 30.3 meters, this was most definitely sculpted with sharp lines into the vertical cliff edge, making him a harsher, Dickensian uncle to a rounder daibutsu father. Further on, I met a population of smaller rakan statues nestling in a dark half-cave. No less than 1,500 in number, they are each said to have a different facial expression. This made for a fascinating observation of the subtleties of the face and the complexities of artistic expression, but it also made it rather difficult to capture them in a single photograph, resulting in many dark pictures that came out virtually identical.
Mount Nokogiri was named after a saw because of the jagged outlines that were left after so much stone was cut from it. But, having reached the top, I felt the name was more befitting the ferociously exposed, sharp-edged cliff that awaited you at the end of your climb. There is only room for one person at a time at the furthest point of this cliff, named all too vividly Jigoku-nozoki (“a peep at hell”). If you decided to scramble through the small excited crowd to peer over the edge, you were treated to the experience of watching your stomach shatter onto the jagged rocks and pointed trees below.
This mountain forms the boundary between the Kazusa and Awa areas of the Boso Peninsula, protecting the neighboring towns from cold northern winds. The winds mean two things for those standing atop the barrier: one, the strength of the wind is such that it makes you disinclined to perch on a small rock and tuck into your bento, in the event that you have one; two, the air is so deliciously fresh that it fills you up instead, poetically speaking at least. The view, if you can peel your eyes off the “hell” that awaits below, is breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji outlined against the soft blue of the sky and sea, like an Impressionist painting. But Fuji-san is only one feature in a panoramic watercolor sketch that includes Tokyo Bay, Mishima Peninsula, Izu Peninsula and the Izu islands. To secure a clear view of Mount Fuji, I would recommend visiting in early- to mid-spring, and summer into autumn; but the trees and flowers, and the various statues that you meet along your climb should be appreciated in all seasonal lights and shades.
Fishing for food
By the time I climbed back down to the coast on the south side of the mountain, the rolls of film for my camera were finished, as were my legs. It was time to eat, and never was there a cheaper, tastier, timelier offering than the large open-plan restaurant called Banya. Standing in the middle of the outdoor market at Hota fishing port, it treats you to modestly homemade but unbeatably fresh and overwhelming generous portions of seafood dishes. At lunchtime, queues snake as far as the free parking lot, where cars with number plates from Shinagawa, Yokohama and even far off Gunma are parked next to each other, glistening in the sun. If you prefer a more laid-back environment to eat, you can venture into any of the market-cum-eatery buildings a walk or a short drive along the coast, which is what I did for my supper, sitting on a balcony eating oysters and drinking beer, watching the sun set.
Clearly not beaten by the boatfuls of seafood already consumed, I wandered into the fish market. Fresh fish, as well as fish cooked on coal onsite, were sold for prices that were a third of what you’d pay in a supermarket. After much exploration and countless tasting sessions, I came away with a slightly queasy stomach and two large plastic bags bursting with pike and sardines, wondering when and if I would find enough room in my stomach for them.