Tottori’s golden sandbox and fog-shrouded mountains


Special To The Japan Times

The region north of the Chugoku mountains in western Honshu is known as San’in — “the shadow of the mountain.” In Tottori Prefecture, these craggy mountains give way to stretches of fertile farmland that butt up against the icy Sea of Japan. The erratic weather and severe terrain here conspire to create a landscape in constant flux, but the tangle of shadows reward patient eyes with radiant glimmers of what they hide.

The afternoon I arrive in Tottori the sandbanks made famous by Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel “The Woman in the Dunes” rise up like piles of gold, set vividly against a sapphire sky. From the crest of the largest dune I can see the Sea of Japan stretching out below, a steelier shade of blue than the sky it meets at the horizon. I watch as paragliders drift lazily back and forth on the updrafts alongside a few stoic kite hawks.

The protagonist in Abe’s story finds himself held prisoner amid the sand, forced to carry on the Sisyphean task of clearing grain after minuscule grain of sand from a neglected village whose inhabitants are wary of the outside world. Indeed, the country’s least populous prefecture has a widespread reputation for being cloistered, a distinction not aided by Gov. Shinji Hirai’s favorite boast that Tottori is the only prefecture in Japan without a “sutaba” (the local nickname for Starbucks) and the only one with a “sunaba” (sandbox).

Leaving that sandbox behind me, I edged closer to the mountains to rest up for the night in the secluded onsen town of Misasa. It was a Thursday night, and aside from a handful of ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) the only open business was an old arcade filled with vintage Showa Era (1926-89) pachinko and pinball machines, their bright lights illuminating the darkened street.

The next morning, I made my way to nearby Mount Mitoku, where the monk Ennin, aka Jikaku Daishi, founded Sanbutsuji Temple in 849 as an ascetic training center for Tendai monks, who would train on its famously steep path.

After breezing past the main temple while a priest chanted the sutra for a group of worshippers, I noticed a young monk in cobalt robes emerge from a small gatehouse. He asked to see my shoes and, once satisfied I had the footwear befitting a mountain ascetic, handed me a white sash marked rokkon shōjō, referring to the practice of self-purification through detachment of the senses. From there I was ushered through a red-and-black lacquer gate to begin my ascent.

I soon understood the young monk’s insistence on checking the soles of my boots. Much of the path was a ladder of thick tree roots made glossy and dark from the countless hands that had come before me. In the places without tree roots, I was forced to plant my hands into the muddy slope or grasp at dusty rocks to steady myself.

Scrabbling up one cliff face, I was so focused on where to place my hands and feet that I didn’t notice the first small shrine until I was just below the stout pillars girding it against the rock. A chain was bolted into the cliff alongside the joisting, and I used this to hoist myself up. Perched on the outer decking of the shrine, I peered back down the precipice I’d just scaled. The valley below was a patchwork of russet, gold and green. I’d yet to see another soul on the path when the deep boom of a temple bell further up the mountain reverberated down into the trees.

I found that massive cast-iron bell just above a second shrine, the wooden bell hammer still swaying slightly. After traversing an undulating ridgeline, I groped my way through a dark cave behind a dilapidated wooden hall and emerged on another face of the mountain.

I was beginning to feel like some specter or paranormal creature from the horror manga series “Gegege no Kitaro” whose author, Shigeru Mizuki — a now 92-year-old Tottori local — might materialize out of the shadows at any moment.

As I rounded the final bend, I saw it wasn’t yōkai (Japanese folklore creatures) who’d been ringing the bell after all. A half dozen other amateur ascetics were enjoying a break beneath Mount Mitoku’s crown jewel, the Nageiredo. Off limits to the public, this majestic hall is trussed on high joists in a shallow cavity far up a granite escarpment. The wide cave provides a natural roof and casts a protective shadow over this designated national treasure.

After a short rest, Tottori’s fickle weather spurred me off the mountain and on to my final destination. By the time I made it to Mount Daisen, the drizzle had swelled to a deluge. The storm continued unflaggingly through the morning, dampening my initial intention of reaching the peak of the Chugoku range’s highest and most sacred mountain. Looking up from my pension in the town below, Mount Daisen’s 1710-meter peak was completely obscured under a pall of gray clouds.

I sought refuge at Daisenji Temple, founded in 718 as a training center for mountain ascetics before it was later converted to Tendai Buddhism. The temple complex flourished in the Edo Period (1603-1868) when it had more than 50 buildings and more than 3,000 monks, but suffered after the Meiji Era policy of shinbutsu bunri (the forced separation of Shinto and Buddhism) was enforced. Now fewer than a dozen original structures remain, spread out along the lower northern slope.

The rain finally broke as I reached Okamiyama Shrine — a Shinto site considered rare because it was originally a Buddhist temple — at the end of a long path of glossy cobblestones. Circling the shrine, I found myself standing at one of two trailheads to the summit.

Autumn had already come to Mount Daisen, and the forest was a vivid kaleidoscope against the sky’s leaden chiaroscuro. The trail took me across a wide, rocky basin under a low ceiling of clouds, the surrounding hillsides the color of copper, before turning sharply uphill.

At 1,200 meters I penetrated the clouds, and passed the tree line at 1,300. There were more hikers on this upper section of the trail, but the fog was so thick that I inevitably heard people before I saw them. For the last hour of my ascent I followed the tinkling of a bear bell that couldn’t have been more than 20 paces ahead. It was my auditory beacon through the haze, until I finally overtook the source of the sound: a pair of hikers in full rain gear resting below the final ridge. They returned my cordial greeting without any idea of how much encouragement they’d provided in the guise of that bell.

At the crest of the ridge I confronted a relentless, moisture-laden wind that raced up the southern slope to deposit its cargo onto tickets of stalwart, and sacred, yew trees. On a clear day, Okayama Prefecture is supposedly visible beyond the mountains to the south and the turbid Sea of Japan is visible to the north. But between the fog and the glaze of condensation on my glasses, I was lucky to see where to put my feet on the slick boardwalk built to protect the trees.

By the time I made the true summit, the dew that had been collecting on my eyelashes was dripping down onto my cheeks like pristine teardrops. My mission accomplished, I doggedly turned heal to begin the brutal descent, legs trembling and stomach rumbling.

It was late afternoon by the time I reached the Amida Hall, the oldest building in the Daisenji Temple complex, built in 1552 using timber from the landslide that wiped out the original hall three decades earlier. There is no electrical wiring or open flames allowed as a precaution, and so the hall was black as pitch when I stepped inside. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, a lone volunteer shifted idly, flicked on a flashlight, and called me over. It seemed that the shadow of the mountain had one final treasure to reveal.

The beam from the flashlight came to rest on the face of a towering Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light, carved in 1161 and rescued from an much older landslide almost half a millennium ago. With no other visitors in the hall, the old man handed me the flashlight so I could drive out the darkness myself and, for a moment, I forgot my exhaustion.

Getting there: Flights to the city of Tottori from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport fly four times daily from as low as ¥13,000 one-way and take a little over an hour. Alternatively, Tottori Station can be reached by shinkansen or busses from major cities.