(Click here to start the Mount Mitake series from the beginning.)
The portion of Mount Mitake’s upper slopes just below the summit is called the Forest of the Gods. With only half a day on the mountain, and half of that dedicated to the hike to the summit and a visit to Musashi-Mitake Shrine, I opted to spend the remaining hour on the path that winds around Mitake’s upper slopes and through the sacred forest.
The path begins near the Tengu’s Seat–a giant cedar whose branches grow in unique curves that would, indeed, make perfect perches for the infamous mountain demons of Japanese lore.
Just beyond the wooden torii, a sign points the way to the Forest of the Gods:
Which is good, because the entrance to the path itself blends in with the forest, making it difficult to spot unless you know what to look for.
I stopped at the trailhead for a moment, surprised to find myself completely alone. (Hiking is a popular pastime in Japan, and it’s common to encounter other hikers on the trails.) Overhead, a crow chastised me for intruding on his territory, his raucous cries punctuating the distant calls of other, more melodic birds.
The air was cool and filled with the scents undertones of pine, damp earth, and moss: the peace-inducing scent of a Japanese forest on a summer day.
With a wave to the indignant crow, I set off up the hill on what the guide described as a 30-minute hike. Although the morning’s rain had stopped a couple of hours earlier, the trail remained soft, and some of the branches hanging across the trail shed droplets on me as I passed. Even so, I stayed to the uphill side of the two-foot path, because in many places the mountain fell away at a dramatic and dangerous angle only inches from the opposite side of the trail.
The path wound slowly around the mountain, undulating with the terrain. Given the state of the undergrowth trying to reclaim the trail, I suspected I was one of only a few hikers to pass that way this year.
For most of the hike, I walked through silent forest, the only sound my tennis shoes on the earthen path, the rustling of leaves, and the song of birds whose calls I did not recognize. Once in a while, a crow would sound alarm.
I spotted several clusters of Indian Pipes (aka “ghost plant”) pushing through the earth beside the path–an appropriate flower for the setting, and a lovely one as well.
Aside from these determined blooms, the world around me glowed in vibrant shades of green.
Near the end of the trail, I came upon a steep slope, its decline made even more treacherous by the slippery state of the muddy path. I picked my way down, carefully selecting places to set my feet and wishing I had brought a trekking pole for balance. (As hikers’ luck would have it, every branch within grabbing distance was either too thin to help me or covered in vicious thorns.)
Then, to my horror, I spotted the final obstacle at the base of the slope: a wooden bridge of unknown age, slanting downward at an angle that would have been dangerous even without the moss that coated the tops of the logs.
I paused to snap a few pictures and plan my crossing.
The bridge looked old, but stable. In dry weather, the crossing would be merely an exciting end to a beautiful hike. However, the prospect of crossing moss-coated logs still slick with rain on a downhill slope with a hundred-foot drop one poorly-chosen step to the left gave me more than a little pause.
Unfortunately, re-ascending the way I came and retracing my steps through the Forest of the Gods would put me behind my planned (and necessary) departure time. Forward was the only option, so forward I went.
It was not a graceful crossing.
After three heart-stopping slips, I seriously considered kneeling down and crawling the rest of the way across. Unfortunately, the angle of the bridge and my unwieldy purse (I hadn’t brought a backpack, because I didn’t think I’d be doing much *real* hiking) made the process of kneeling feel almost as unsafe as continuing on foot–so on I went.
Three harrowing minutes later, I made it safely to the other side, where I shot a video clip of the bridge that didn’t come close to showing the angle, or the drop, accurately.
From the bridge, it took only three minutes to reach the opposite end of the trailhead, which emerged at the entrance to Musashi-Mitake Shrine. The entire hike took 30 minutes exactly – yet another a testament to the accuracy of Japanese trail markers.
The weather (cloudy, overcast, and threatening rain that did not re-materialize) had kept most visitors away, so I didn’t pass, or even see, another hiker on the trail. I returned to Tokyo, regretting my decision not to spend the entire day on the mountain and the plans that prevented me from changing my mind and remaining on Mitake-san to hike the other trails.
On the positive side, I have a reason to return–and will, the next time I’m traveling in Japan.