Mount Mizen, Biting Flies, and Sacred Deer

During last summer’s research trip to Japan, we spent the night on Miyajima, a sacred island off the coast of Hiroshima.

The island is home to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines (specifically, Itsukushima, whose Grand Torii gate is one of Japan’s most iconic images)

16E02 great torii

…as well as several hundred sacred deer (sika, in Japanese) whose protected status leaves them with no fear of humans.

16E02 C and deer

The deer wander the island unimpeded, many so tame (and used to handouts) that they approach or follow visitors, begging for food or a scratch behind the ears. Signs on the island warn visitors that the deer are wild, and ask people not to feed them, but it’s clear the deer don’t read the signs, and they hope the people don’t read them either.

The second morning of our stay, my son and I took a cable car to the lower summit of Mt. Mizen, Miyajima’s sacred mountain.

16E02 Mizen cable car 2

The trip to the top involves two different cable cars, one of which takes you the first 2/3 of the way and discharges at the platform for the second.

Overcast, misty skies made the day both comfortable (a pleasant change from the hot, muggy Japanese mainland in June) and atmospheric.

16E02 Mizen Mist

From the top of the second cable car, it’s normally a 45-minute climb to the summit of Mizen. The day we went, it took a little longer, since the climb takes place over old, uneven stone stairs that become not only hazardous but downright foolish to climb in the rain. (So, in case you were wondering, I’m a fool.)

16E02 summit stairs

Shortly below the summit, the Reikado Hall holds Japan’s eternal flame, which was lit by the monk Kobo Daishi in the early 9th century and has burned without interruption for over 1200 years.

16E02 Reika-do

A short (but treacherous) walk up the mountain from there, the summit of Mizen offers dramatic views…except when it’s overcast and raining.

16E02 Mizen summit

Even then, it’s a dramatic place to stand and meditate…and delay the moment when you have to turn around and head back down.

The hike from the summit to the base of Mount Mizen normally takes “90 minutes to 2 hours” – it’s almost 5 kilometers in length, and drops 1,755 vertical meters–almost all of it over stairs originally built a thousand years ago, by people who didn’t seem to care much for unimportant things like “uniform rise and run” or “personal safety.”

The hike is beautiful, and the stairs are lovely and magical–but also highly treacherous in the rain.

16E03 base of mizen

Halfway down the mountain, I lost my footing and fell down a flight of stairs. For the first time in my life, I actually thought I might break my neck. As it turned out, a lovely (if thorny) tree graciously blocked my fall, and I managed to walk away with half a dozen baseball-sized bruises and a pulled muscle in my rear.

A little farther down the mountain, it began to rain in earnest–and not the misty, pleasant rain that greeted us higher on the mountain. This was sideways-slanting, umbrella-avoiding, tree-soaking rain that left us drenched.

Ten minutes later, the rain let up–and the biting flies came out in swarms. Not little flies, either. Flies the size of cessnas, with appetites that would put a vampire to shame. When they bit, they actually left you bleeding.

My son and I arrived at the foot of the mountain soaking wet, trickling blood from our ears and the backs of our necks and (in my case) covered in bruises–just as the clouds cleared out and the sun appeared.

We retrieved our luggage and walked into town for lunch before catching the ferry back to the mainland. We chose a restaurant near the water and, to our surprise, one of the locals tried to follow us in:

16E02 Mizen deer

The deer stood outside the door the entire time we were in the restaurant. Every time another patron came in, he tried to join the party. The restaurant owner seemed on excellent terms with the deer–he headed it off in the entry, scratching its ears like a dog and walking it gently backward until the doors could close with the deer outside.

Despite the rain, the flies, and the fall (which fortunately left no lasting damage) that day on Mt. Mizen remains one of my favorite memories in Japan. I can’t say I’d hike back down again–not on a rainy day, anyway–but in terms of building memories, I can truthfully say it’s one I’ll never forget.