Travel

Snow and spirituality in Tottori: Winter on a sacred peak

by Alice Gordenker

Contributing Writer

Mount Daisen in Tottori Prefecture is the largest mountain in the Chugoku region of western Honshu. An isolated peak with views over the Sea of Japan, the mountain stands at 1,729 meters and gets plenty of snow in the winter, making it one of the preferred destination for skiers and boarders living in nearby Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto.

But the chance to ski with a view of the sea ought to draw winter-sports enthusiasts from further afield, and the mountain’s fascinating history as a spiritual center provides a cultural dimension you won’t find at the average ski resort.

The mountain has long been an area of worship; this year there will be extended celebrations to mark its 1,300 years of history. In the Heian Period (794-1185), Mount Daisen was a major center for the practice of Shugendo, a form of mountain worship that incorporates elements of Shintoism, Buddhism and Taoism. More than a hundred temples stood on the mountain and thousands of monks lived in the forests there, practicing mountain asceticism and training in martial arts.

With so many armed monks, Mount Daisen wielded considerable power at the time, on par with other mountain-temple complexes such as Mount Hiei and Mount Koya.

The mountain remained shrouded in mystery until fairly recent times. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), it was off-limits to everyone except a handful of Shinto priests, who would ascend only to collect sacred waters from a spring near the summit. But the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, brought great changes to the area.

Mount Daisen
Mount Daisen’s Ogamiyama Shrine, its steep staircase buried beneath the snow. | TAKASHI KARAKI

Many temples were destroyed in the new government’s campaign against Buddhism, and Daisenji Temple, the most important, was forcibly closed in 1875. It remained shuttered for decades before being allowed to reopen in 1905. Although the prohibitions against entering the mountain were lifted, most people kept their distance. Some did so out of respect; others were scared off by the legend of karasu tengu — a mythical half-bird, half-human creature — and stories of a spirit fox that was said to guard the mountain.

Ski in a national park

Because of its status as a sacred place, and its incorporation in 1936 as part of Daisen-Oki National Park, Daisen escaped the over-development that scarred so many other once-beautiful places in Japan. It is not total wilderness, however. There is a well-maintained trail to the summit, popular with hikers in the summer and fall, and several ski resorts were built in the ski boom of the 1970s.

Views over the Sea of Japan from the ski slopes of Mount Daisen.
Views over the Sea of Japan from the ski slopes of Mount Daisen. | COURTESY OF DAISEN WHITE RESORT

Daisen White Resort is the largest, with 10 pair lifts and four triple lifts serving 12 runs, and two access lifts that ferry customers up from the parking lots. All the slopes face the coast, so in clear weather you get stunning views of the sea. The resort is family-friendly, with a good range of slopes for developing skiers: 40 percent of the slopes are rated beginner, 30 percent intermediate and 30 percent advanced.

Among the resort’s facilities are rental services and ski schools, and a kids’ park designed for younger children. You can even rent a room for day use that overlooks the park, so a nursing mother, for example, might retreat inside with an infant while keeping an eye on the rest of the family. Parents should look for the discounts targeted to families. On upcoming “Family Days” (Feb. 10 and 24), for example,”Oyako” (parent-child) lift tickets will be reduced from ¥7,300 to ¥5,900.

There are many other promotions, including weekday discounts for seniors and groups of women skiing together. Some of the ski-school instructors speak English, and the rental shop carries a limited number of boots in large sizes (up to 31 cm). In both cases, it’s a good idea to make advance reservations.

There are three other ski resorts on Daisen, but they are smaller and don’t face the sea. Daisen Masumizu Kogen, for example, has only one lift serving two slopes. Oku Daizen, on the southern slope has two pair-lifts serving four courses. It’s small but may appeal to skiers who dislike sharing the snow with boarders, who make up only 10 percent of users. Kagamiganaru, meanwhile, goes out of its way to attract boarders: it has one lift serving three courses, including a kicker course for boarders.

Access all areas

While some love the thrill of downhill sports, others will undoubtedly prefer a more serene experience. (Like many ski areas in Japan, the Daisen resorts pipe pop music onto the slopes.) Snowshoeing is a perfect alternative. It’s good exercise and a nice way to be outdoors in winter.

Snowshoeing allows access to some of Mount Daisen
Snowshoeing allows access to some of Mount Daisen’s most scenic areas. | TAKASHI KARAKI

Another benefit is that walking on top of the snow brings you to places and experiences that aren’t accessible in other seasons. Standing atop a high drift, for example, raises you close to tree branches that would otherwise be too high to examine.

The largest snowshoe-tour operator in Daisen is Mori no Kuni. The company offers a variety of plans, ranging from beginner-level packages, including equipment rental, to wilderness tours for experienced trekkers. A popular offering is a tour on which participants bring their dogs. (For an extra fee, a professional photographer will tag along and take glamor shots of you and your pooch in the snow.)

Daisen’s summit is not closed in winter, but sudden changes of weather pose a real danger to anyone attempting to climb the mountain. The upper slopes also afford the opportunity for some excellent backcountry skiing but any winter ascent of the mountain should be attempted only by experienced climbers, preferably in the company of a local guide and with a full set of equipment to allow for avalanche rescue.

Sacred in snow

To visit Daisen’s temples and shrines in winter, snowshoes are pretty much essential due to deep snow. The main approach is through the woods along a path lined by tall stone lanterns, often half buried in drifts. When shrouded in snow, the trees and structures look completely different than in other seasons. The winter landscapes of Mount Daisen, rendered in so many shades of white and gray, closely resemble the scenes in traditional sansui-ga ink paintings.

The first structure you’ll come to is the main hall of Daisenji Temple, which was rebuilt in 1951 following a fire. The main image housed within is a statue of the Jizo Bosatsu. Above it, deeper in the woods and at the top of a steep set of stairs, is Ogamiyama Shrine. The shrine, which is thought to date back to the year 927, is the largest extant example of gongen-zukuri, a style of Shinto architecture that dates back more than a thousand years.

Although Daisen and its surrounds offer a range of lodging options, from big hotels to cozy pensions, a unique way to partake of the mountain’s history is to stay at the shukubō, a traditional lodge set up to accommodate groups of pilgrims. Located below Daisenji Temple, Shukubo Sanrakuso is run by Buddhist priest Goken Shimizu and his wife.

Below: Shukubo Sanrakuso, a pilgrim
Below: Shukubo Sanrakuso, a pilgrim’s inn, offers traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine using the local ingredients of Mount Daisen. | COURTESY OF SHOKUBO SANRAKUSO

In keeping with Buddhist tenets, no meat or fish is served; the couple prepare sumptuous vegetarian meals using mountain vegetables and mushrooms gathered nearby. Guests can try their hand at sutra copying or join in morning meditations. After a busy weekend of active winter sports, it’s the perfect way to unwind.

Mount Daisen is about three hours by car from Osaka and Hiroshima. Access by train is to JR Yonago Station; buses to Daisen run on a regular schedule from outside the station. The closest airport is Yonago Kitaro, served by ANA, Hong Kong Air and Air Seoul. ANA operates six flights a day between Yonago and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The author visited Mount Daisen courtesy of the San’in Tourism Organization.

Sanrakuso’s vegetarian delights
Good news for vegans and vegetarians: Shukubo Sanrakuso will prepare a lunch of shōjin ryōri, traditional Zen Buddhist cooking that uses no animal products. You can also stay overnight here with two vegetarian meals included. By reservation only. (www.san-raku.jp/en)

Locally made soft ice
Don’t let the cold put you off ice cream, it’s made with milk from local dairies. At Daisen White Resort, the Nakanohara Ski Center offers black-tea soft ice cream and the Goenzan Lodge serves up a tasty yogurt soft-serve. It’s made in nearby Katori, a village settled after the war by Japanese returnees from Manchuria.

Bier Hof Gambarius

This brew-pub at the foot of Mount Daisen complements craft beers brewed on premises with a Western-style snack menu of pizza, sausage and ribs. Their Weizen Daisen G Beer won first place in the wheat-beer category in the 2011 World Beer Awards. (g-beer.jp)