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Now that the oppressive summer heat has finally abated, hiking is much more comfortable. Earlier this month I went to Daisen in Tottori Prefecture.

Kamchatka bugbane (Cimicifuga simplex) at the southern end of its range on Mount Daisen

Daisen (1,731 meters) is a volcanic peak in the same mountain chain as Mount Hakusan (2,702 meters) in Ichikawa Prefecture. It is the highest mountain in the Chugoku region, despite sinking 1 meter following the earthquake that shook Tottori and Shimane prefectures last fall.

Daisen is a holy mountain. According to the priest at the historic Ogami-yama Shrine, nestled in pristine woodland, Japan’s first Shinto god is believed to have originated on Daisen, and the earliest shrine was built there during the Nara Period (710-784) to honor and protect the deity. Long before that, however, people had been praying to the mountain itself, believing it to be the home of a god.

Right next to the Ogami-yama is the small and charming Shimo-kami Shrine. A great fire burned both buildings to the ground in the early Edo Period, but they were immediately rebuilt. In 1980, the treasures of Shimo-kami Shrine were returned by the national museum and are now housed in a small building nearby.

Buddhism boasts an equal lineage on Daisen. During the Heian Period (794-1185) there were some 100 temples at the foot of the mountain.

Before the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the forest immediately behind the shrine was closed to public access. It was — and still is — a sacred forest. There are dozens of majestic Japanese cedars (sugi, Cryptomeria japonica) growing there. Unlike most sugi growing around the country, however, these ones are believed to be wild.

The yearly average temperature on Daisen is 8 degrees lower than nearby Yonago. The annual snowfall is up to 3.5 meters, adding up to total annual precipitation of around 3,000 mm. As the mountain is also buffeted by icy winds in winter, I was fascinated by how plants survive such severe conditions.

Daisen yew grows wider than it does tall, covering large expanses of mountaintop.

My goal was to see the Daisen yew (kyaraboku, Taxus cuspidata var. nana). The normal Japanese yew (ichii) is an evergreen tree attaining 15-20 meters, but Daisen kyaraboku is a dwarf shrub. It grows to 1-2 meters, but the branches can spread up to 15 meters along the ground — though you have to climb the mountain to see it!

The starting point for an ascent is Daisenji, a small monzen-machi (temple town) that grew up around Daisenji Temple. This is a good place to overnight, and I stayed in the pleasant, family-run Toyama Ryokan which boasts excellent food and a 24-hour onsen. The owner knows where and when to see the best flowers on Daisen, and offers valuable hiking tips. From there to the summit is a 3-km hike taking about three hours.

The main path up is known as the summer trail (natsu-michi) and leads off from Daisenji bridge, 800 meters above sea level. Up to the second station, you see mixed forest of conifers and broadleaf deciduous trees, while between the second and sixth the track passes through forests of tall, beautiful Japanese beech, or buna (Fagus crenata). Aside from them you can see mizunara (Quercus mongolica var. grosseserrata), a deciduous oak that attains heights of 35 meters and has attractive, deeply toothed leaves.

In the lower story of this beech-dominated forest are painted maple (itaya, Acer mono), the English name deriving from the shades of gold and crimson in the leaves during fall. Mushikari or okame-no-ki (Viburnum frucatum) is a deciduous shrub with large veined ovate leaves. It bears white flowers between April and June, but again its autumn colors — scarlet and maroon — are excellent.

Ezo ajisai (Hydrangea serrata var. megacarpa) is a natural variety of the mountain hydrangea, confined to Japanese beech forests along the Japan Sea side of Honshu.

All these trees give the feeling of a luxuriant broadleaf deciduous forest, but the understory is interesting too. Yama-sotetsu (Plagiogria matsumureana) is just one species among the many ferns that grow on Daisen. It is deciduous, with fronds 30-60 cm long. The plum yew (hai-inu-gaya, Cephalotaxus harringtonia var. nana) is a dwarf evergreen conifer that grows as an undershrub in the beech forest, farther down than its famous cousin. The fruit is like a small plum, oval, 2.5 cm long and bright red in autumn.

Once past the sixth rest point at approximately 1,400 meters, the tall trees give way to tall shrubs, and between the eighth and ninth stations the Daisen yew becomes evident. Whole areas are covered with a carpet of this dwarf conifer.

Kitsune-yanagi (Salix vulpina), a dwarf willow, grows alongside the Daisen yew, reaching heights from 0.5-2 meters. The male flowers are catkins 2.5-4 cm long, reddish brown in color — rather like a fox’s brush, hence the Japanese name. I was happy to see the pale pinkish-white Shikoku geranium (Shikoku furo, Geranium shikokianum) still in flower. This is a perennial growing in open sunny sites on the mountain, and the flowers bloom from July to September. A dwarf variety of the Japanese holly (hai-inu-utsugi, Ilex crenata var. paludosa) also grows among the Daisen yew.

An 8-hectare area of Daisen yew between the eighth station and the summit was designated by the government as a special national monument March 29, 1949.

The end of October is reckoned to be the best time to view the autumn colors.