It’s a moot point for those who live there that the name “Chiba” is, in many minds, synonymous with images of hot-rod gangs, peanut farms, car dealerships, pachinko emporiums, empty lots with chain-link fences and giant electric pylons marching across rice fields — a purgatorial transition between city and countryside.
If parts of Chiba Prefecture seem like a well-planned wasteland, a place of banishment for economic failure, there is a rural aspect to the area that is often overlooked, where it is possible to feel a kind of wind-swept remoteness, places even of spiritual resonance. Mount Nokogiri, or Saw-tooth mountain, way down the west coast of Chiba’s Boso Peninsula, is known for being the site of Japan’s largest rock-carved Buddha, though this fact seems to be little known outside of the prefecture.
Many of the contradictions of Japan’s strained relationship to nature are present on the mountain, where we see the razor gauges of defacement that are reminders of the time when its rock faces were quarried, but also a venerating of their surfaces with the incision of Buddhist deities on them.
Aside from the easy option of the cable car, there are two principal routes up the mountain. The older, quieter way winds beneath cryptomeria trees, through rock defiles, following earthen trails and ancient, worn stone paths, but also involves climbing some quite steep stone steps. This is by far the more interesting route, the effort and time required to make the ascent reducing the number of climbers to just a handful at any given time, even on weekends. The alternative route is a pleasant nature ramble that snakes up the mountain in manageable stages. This is the one I descended on.
A few steps from the beginning of the more challenging ascent, somebody had placed a chinowa ring across the trail, requiring hikers to pass through it. Only very occasionally seen near the entrances to the compounds of Shinto shrines, chinowa are made from dried chigaya (cogon grass), woven into a tight ring. Passing through the hoop is said to be an act of purification, one that brings good fortune. This signaled the first encounter with the sacred character of the mountain.
The altered form of the western, bay-facing section of the 329-meter-high Mount Nokogiri owes much to extensive quarrying during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when rock was cut and then shipped across the water to Edo (present day Tokyo), where the stone was used, among other things, to fortify the foundations of the town, much of which was built on marshland. If the chiseled sides and cavities quarried from the rock at perfect rectilinear angles resemble the abandoned monuments of civilizations like Mesopotamia, as one hiker I struck up a conversation with visualized it, then the sacred carvings that cover other parts of the rock face serve a higher purpose.
Carved into a recess that was left after a great vertical section of the rock had been gouged out, a relief of the Hyakushaku Kannon appears to be as old as the mountain itself, but was completed in 1966, after six years of work. The carving, standing in perfect harmony with its rock gallery, was created as a memorial site for victims of World War II. In keeping with the unexpected contortions of meaning that monuments with a palpable aura often undergo, most of the petitioners I came across were offering up prayers for safe journeys and protection from traffic accidents.
On the summit, the presence of families with children created a holiday mood, a day out among headless Buddhas, stone deities and bodhisattvas of a monument park with fine views. People were queuing to enter the carefully fenced in Ruriko Observatory, a rock promontory, whose saw-tooth sides indicate that it was also partially quarried. On clear days the lookout affords views across the bay to Mount Fuji.
Descending the other side of the mountain, I was struck by the number of natural caves, cavities and grottoes. The chambers have been requisitioned not only as galleries for the display of Buddha and bodhisattva statues, but as sheltered spaces for rows of arhat. Mount Nokogiri is home to the so-called 1,500 stone Tokai Arhats. These were disciples of the Buddha who achieved spiritual enlightenment, though they remain in the earthly realm.
The statues were carved over a 10-year period, with the target number reached in 1798. Now, only 538 remain, the majority vandalized at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when the state-sponsored religion of Shinto was being promoted, and Buddhism, with its Asian origins, discredited. Like arhat in other parts of Asia, these resemble Li Guangxiu’s brilliant ensemble of figures at the Bamboo Temple outside Kunming in China — each facial expression is different, ranging from the beatific to the craven. Tradition holds that if you begin counting your own age from any given figure, you will arrive at the arhat that most resembles your own character and inner self. You may not like what you find.
The holy mountain has quite an illustrious history, with enough sights to please everyone, including geologists and naturalists. Ultimately, however, it is the site’s religious art and holy relics that dominate — the largest being an impressive incarnation named the Yakushi Nyorai, or the Buddha of healing and medicine.
Teams of stonemasons and carvers spent three years working on the imposing seated image before its completion in 1783. No hydraulic lifting or hauling gear was required for the creation of the statue, which was carved from an existing rock face. Standing at 31.05 meters, it rises from a semi-circular base, shaped in the form of overlapping lotus buds, to a stone aureole resembling a disk or antimacassar. Smaller Buddha figures, cut into medallion-shaped reliefs, grace the ascending design, drawing the viewer upward and toward the beatific visage of the main Buddha.
The gray rock may not be as appealing as the sandstone Buddha carvings of Bayon in Angkor, the sacred images of Siliguri of West Bengal or the red cliff from which the Giant Buddha of Leshan in China was hewn, but the final effect is suitably impressive. Where the Tang Dynasty Chinese behemoth overlooks, and some say protects, two rivers flowing beneath its feet, the Buddha at Mount Nokogiri gazes across a vast and infinite ocean. Despite its aura of protective divinity, the carving was not impregnable to earthquakes, undergoing extensive restoration in 1966.
All that climbing and traipsing back and forth can make you hungry. I saw no restaurants on the mountain, though there were a few discreetly placed drink vending machines. After passing several unpromising eateries near the station, I found myself instinctively moving toward the sea and the prospect of some decent fish dishes. If patronage was anything to go by, the pointedly named The Fish, a restaurant right on the sea wall, with a broad deck for al fresco dining in good weather, seemed busier than the mountain, visitors writing their names in a reservation book, then sitting it out until their names were called.
It was worth the wait, the establishment offering at the top end of its menu, expensive sashimi cuts displayed on platters fashioned into models of wooden fishing vessels. I opted for the more modest tendon: fish and vegetables in batter served on a steaming bed of rice. This rather superior version of the dish came with a generously proportioned conger eel. With the mountain behind, the sea in front, the setting of the restaurant seemed ideal.
The old sages of Mount Nokogiri would no doubt have said the geomantic dispositions were just right.
Getting there: The Tokyo Bay Aqualine from Kawasaki connects to Kisarazu. There are also direct trains from Tokyo and Chiba stations. It is 41 minutes on the JR Uchibo Line from Kisarazu to Hamakanaya Station, the nearest stop to the mountain. The Tokyo Wan Ferry takes 40 minutes from Kurihama Ferry Terminal in Kanagawa to Port Kanaya, where it’s a 10-minute walk to the mountain trails. The restaurant The Fish is a five-minute walk from the station, in the direction of the sea.