Mt. Omine and Tenkawa Gorge: June 21, 2018
This photo supplement tracks the events in CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.
The day after my ill-fated climb of Mt. Ibuki, I headed to southern Nara Prefecture–more than an hour south of the famous deer in Nara City. Most American travelers never get this far south in Nara, which is a pity, because some of the best and most beautiful parts of the prefecture lie off the beaten tourist path. (Highly recommended for nature lovers!)
Dorogawa Onsen is the last stop on the bus from Shimoichiguchi Station–and while this little onsen (volcanic hot spring) town is popular with those in the know (most of whom are Japanese) I fell in love with it immediately.
One of the best parts of the 100 Summits year was the new and unexpected experiences and discoveries that seemed to wait around every corner–like the shrine (which was not listed in my trail guide) and the monorail:
Just past the shrine, I encountered what appeared to be an abandoned monorail track and shed. But for the red light glowing on the “doorbell” at the entrance to the lower station, I would have thought it deserted. But there was a button, and a sign that suggested pushing it, so I did what any 47-going-on-12-year-old would do…
I was shocked when a female voice answered the doorbell, and even more surprised when she told me to wait. Three minutes later, the craziest little log-shaped monorail train I had ever seen came down the track and carried me up the mountain. It felt like a Disney ride dropped into the middle of rural Japan, and although it seemed quite strange, I was rapidly learning to face such experiences with a shrug and the explanation “Because Japan.”
The upper monorail station sits at the entrance to the Menfudō Limestone Cave, and the 300-yen (about USD $3) monorail ticket fare includes a ticket to enter the cavern–a fact I didn’t know when I hopped on the monorail, and which came as a great surprise. I had time to kill, so why not?
It takes about 20 minutes to walk through the cavern. The atmosphere is cool, and the paths well marked and beautifully lit. The picture above doesn’t really do it justice – but my other pictures didn’t come out as well as I would have liked. Yet another reason to return…
Shintō (the indigenous religious faith of Japan) worships the divine spirits found in nature, known as kami. While some kami are more like what Western religions might call “gods”–for example, Amaterasu-o-mikami, the goddess of the sun and the chief deity in the Shintō pantheon–Shintō also reveres more humble objects, such as stones, or trees, and recognizes the divine spirit in these as well. This shrine is one example.
A short walk from the Menfudō cave brought me to a famous 120-meter (approximately 360 feet) –high suspension bridge that spans the Tenkawa River. I’m not afraid of bridges, or of heights, but I definitely noticed that this one wobbles when you step onto it.
The view from the center of the bridge: green, misty mountains rising up behind the village of Dorogawa Onsen, with the Tenkawa (River of Heaven) flowing through its center. An unexpected perspective, and yet another delightful experience I hadn’t planned on in advance.
The recent rains (again…see Mt. Ibuki…) had swelled the Tenkawa over the banks in the area near the base of sacred Mt. Omine. As I followed the trail along the river, I had to pick my way through several flooded sections. I also passed numerous signs warning me that women are not permitted to climb Mt. Omine–a peak considered highly sacred to practitioners of Shugendō and the only mountain in Japan that remains off-limits to women. The ban is enforced on the honor system only (and some women have climbed it anyway), but before I came, I decided to respect the ban, for reasons I discuss in more detail in Chapter 13 of CLIMB.
En route to the base of Mt. Omine, I encountered many varieties of mushrooms and other fungi, including this spectacular specimen that was about the size of a dinner plate.
The trailhead for Mt. Omine sits on the grounds of a small Buddhist temple, in the middle of a cemetery. Given the Buddhist emphasis on death (and rebirth), this seemed fitting. Buddhist cemeteries are beautiful, peaceful places, and I enjoyed walking through this one en route to the trailhead.
This image always puts me in mind of the moment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where the crusader knight tells Indiana Jones that the Holy Grail cannot pass beyond the Great Seal. And no, I did not walk through the gate to see what would happen.
Logic dictates that if a woman is not allowed to climb a mountain, the “women’s summit” is located at the trailhead. Therefore, I took my summit photo for Mt. Ōmine at the trailhead and called it good. This was the easiest climb of the entire year.
Since I couldn’t climb Mt. Ōmine, I decided to spend the rest of the day on a 7.5-kilometer hike through Mitarai Gorge, along the course of the Tenkawa.
I got a later start than planned, but found myself lingering as I walked through the bright green forest along the banks of the Tenkawa.
The recent rains had created many new waterfalls, in addition to the permanent ones that run down the slopes to join the rushing river. Some of them flooded pieces of the trail, but fortunately not in hazardous ways.
The Tenkawa passes through several cataracts as it flows through Mitarai Gorge. The rushing water thunders over the massive stones, drowning out all other sound.
The Tenkawa follows a twisting course through the gorge, which was itself carved by the river over the course of millennia. Water and stone, alternately channeling and directing one other in a geological dance through time.
More than half a dozen suspension bridges cross the Tenkawa in Mitarai Gorge. Although the one in this photograph looks old, they all felt solid and well-maintained underfoot. I loved them.
Water dripped down from the overhanging rock, splashing gently onto my head and making me feel as if the mountain was baptizing me–welcoming me into the natural environment and making me a part of the beauty that surrounded me at every moment of this spectacular hike.
Right after I crossed this bridge, I lost the trail . . . which led to an adventure of an entirely different kind (but to learn about that one, you’ll have to read the book).
I hope you’re enjoying this “behind the scenes” photo-companion to CLIMB! Please click through and join me for Chapter 14: Too Many Bees
* 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).