June 5, 2018
The images in this photo supplement follow the events in Chapter 9 of CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features”: information that didn’t make it into the book.
All shinkansen (bullet trains) are not created equal. Some stop more often than others do, and some travel at (slightly) faster speeds. The fastest, known as the hayabusa (peregrine falcon) travels at up to 300kph (200 mph) runs mostly in the Tōhōku region, north of Tokyo. This is the hayabusa shinkansen I took to Sendai on the morning of June 5, to climb Mt. Zao.
The Zao Ropeway serves as a sightseeing lift in summer and a skiing gondola in the winter months. The lower portion of the trail up Mt. Zao follows the ski slopes, past enormous trees that wear fantastical coats of ice and snow during the winter months, when they become a natural tourist attraction known as the “Zao Snow Monsters.”
Despite their one-use function, Japanese Cable Car and Ropeway tickets are often works of art. Many, like this ticket from the Zao Ropeway, show scenes from numerous seasons–at least partially to encourage visitors to return.
The bodhisattva (enlightened being) Jizō is a patron and guardian of children, travelers, and the lost. He is often displayed in the garb of an itinerant monk, carrying a staff and a jewel. This larger-than-life Jizō sits near the upper ropeway station on Mt. Zaō; the hood and bib are offerings left by pilgrims who come to this site to pray or to offer thanks.
I learned quickly that photos often do a poor job of conveying steepness. While not dangerous, or even uncomfortably steep, this slope was a great deal steeper than it looks in this particular photograph.
While climbing Mt. Zaō, I noticed numerous other trails branching off into the surrounding mountains – like the one on the left side of the photo. As naïve as it now sounds, when initially planning my climbing year, I didn’t even stop to consider that some of the mountains I climbed might be connected to other mountains, and that if I’d spent more than a single day in any given place I could have climbed some of those peaks as well. The early days of my mountain year were eye-opening in many ways.
Like many English-language signs in Japan, the summit marker on Mt. Jizō is “close enough”–but not quite accurate. It does in fact read “Mt. ZIZO.”
While cairns are a common sight on Japanese mountains, the presence of a (creepy-faced) statue perched atop a cairn is not. In fact, this was the only such statue-cairn I saw during my 100 climbs. It gets weirder when you notice that the Jizō’s head has been severed (most likely during the Meiji Restoration, when Buddhism was temporarily declared a “dangerous foreign religion” and many statues were defaced) and reattached – and that the head doesn’t quite match the body, suggesting that the head is not the original. I’ll just leave that–and the attendant questions–there.
The mountains of central Honshu are a true alpine ecosystem, complete with hardy, short-stemmed plants and delicate flowers. Brightly-colored blooms like these bring many flower enthusiasts to the mountains in the spring and summer months, while foliage is a major autumn draw.
This cairn sits at the start of the summit ridge to Mt. Kumano, the highest peak in the Zaō volcanic range. Like several other hyakumeizan, “Mt. Zaō” is the name of a group of peaks, each of which also has an individual name.
This weathered Shintō shrine (the upper portion is made of wood; the base is stone) sits on the summit of Mt. Zaō’s highest peak. Most hikers stop to pay respects, and snap a few pictures, of the shrine and its guardian komainu.
Komainu, or “stone [guardian] dogs” are a common sight at Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. Originally imported from China (where they’re known as Fu Dogs or Guardian Lions) these stone guardians are believed to ward off evil and protect both holy sites and the people who come to worship there. To learn more about these guardians, click here.
In the Shintō faith, torii (literally “bird gates”) mark the entrance to a sacred space. For that reason, they’re a common sight at the entrances to Shintō shrines and other holy sites. This one stands at the entrance to the summit shrine on Mt. Zao’s highest peak, but I photographed it from inside the shrine, looking outward toward the mountains of central Tōhōku.
If you look closely, you can see that my head is bald, my eyebrows are barely starting to return, and I have almost no eyelashes at all. This was barely two months after the day of my last chemotherapy treatment.
This was some of the best-traveled trail mix in history–and also directly responsible for one of the least-pleasant lessons of my 100 Summits year.
The crater lake on Mt. Zao, known as Okama (御釜) for its resemblance to a traditional cooking pot, is also called “Goshikinuma” (five-colored lake) for its tendency to change colors in different light. The lake was created by one of the many eruptions in the Zao range. It measures 1km in circumference, 325m in diameter, and just over 26 1/2 meters deep.
I don’t have many photos from my descent of Mt. Zaō (a situation I hope to rectify when I return to climb it again, hopefully in the autumn of 2020). To find out why . . . you’ll have to read the book.
The large Jizō statue in the earlier photograph is on the platform at the bottom of the trail, center-right, while the upper ropeway station is center left. In the winter, the upper ropeway station is a popular site for viewing the famous “snow monsters” that cluster on the slopes below.
Mt. Zaō was my final climb before the start of Japan’s summer “rainy season,” which takes place in June and July each year. (The typhoon season, which can also being during these rainy months, typically reaches its peak in August and September.) Although the clouds in the picture didn’t carry rain, a major storm hit Tokyo the following day, right after my return.
I hope you’re enjoying this “behind the scenes” photo-companion to CLIMB! Please click through and join me for Chapter 10: Cuckoos and Chains
* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).