CHAPTER 15: Magic in the Mundane

Mt. Kirigamine (Kurumayama): June 24, 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.

As the end of June, and my first apartment move in Japan, approached, I made a two-day trip to Nagano Prefecture to climb Kirigamine (aka Kurumayama). The trip did not go as planned, in many ways–and yet this ended up among the most memorable climbs of my mountain year.

The free hot-spring foot bath at Kami-Suwa Station

Suwa Shrine, one of the most important holy complexes in Japan, is referenced in historical texts as early as the seventh century. The area is also home to a number of volcanic hot springs, one of which feeds a foot bath on the boarding platform at Kami-Suwa Station.

Not entirely sure about this one.

This display for a technology company was set up inside Kami-Suwa Station. I don’t think it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and suspect whoever designed it had heard of the Terminator movies . . . but almost certainly had not watched them.

Street Art in Suwa

Many Japanese businesses have sliding or roll-down metal doors across the storefronts. It’s not uncommon for the owners to paint these doors, either with the name and logo of the shop, or with more elaborate art, like this parrot on the security door of a coffee shop near Suwa Station.

Suwa Shrine Torii

“Suwa Shrine” is not a single shrine, or even a single holy compound. Instead, the four primary complexes of Suwa Shrine are arranged at different points around Lake Suwa, with numerous subsidiary shrines in the vicinity (and branch shrine complexes across Japan).

Suwa Shrine Hondo

This worship hall at Suwa Shrine is famous for having the largest cast-bronze komainu (guardian lions) in Japan. At the right side of the frame, you can also see one of the four holy onbashira (sacred poles) that stand at the corners of the shrine. Traditionally, these sacred poles were replaced every seven years.

Dragon Head Fountain, Suwa

The sacred spring that feeds this fountain is located just a little way up the hillside, at a Shintō shrine affiliated with Suwa Taisha. The basket of cups to the left of the dragon was placed there by an unknown local, so that passersby can drink from the sacred stream.

Dragon Fountain, Side Profile

The fountain sits along a portion of the Nakasendo, a 17th century travel road that follows the routes of several much older roads through the central mountains of Honshu (Japan’s largest island).

The sacred spring

The photo above is the sacred spring that feeds the dragon fountain.

Irises in Bloom at Suwa Shrine

At another of the Suwa Shrine precincts, I saw a display of irises in bloom. Flowers are important heralds of the seasons in Japan, and beautiful blooms are prized and universally appreciated.

Iris at Suwa Shrine

After leaving Suwa Shrine, I hiked to the lake, to enjoy the afternoon. I had only a single day in Suwa (with the climb of Kurumayama the following day) so I wanted to pack in as much fun as possible.

Suwa Lake

Suwa Lakeside Park features a lakeside park (with ducks) and a sea wall with plenty of places where people can sit and enjoy the view. The swan boat on the right takes people on sightseeing cruises around the lake.

Brother Crow

In Japan, crows are considered the sacred messengers of Amaterasu-O-Mikami, the goddess of the sun and the chief deity in the Shintō pantheon. Since I began coming to Japan for research trips, crows have played an important role in my adventures; they always seem to show up at critical moments–and while I am not an adherent of the Shintō faith, I do believe they are intelligent, insightful birds–certainly capable of carrying messages for the divine, were they asked to do so.

The sightseeing lift, Mt. Kirigamine

In the winter, these lifts carry skiers and snowboarders up the mountain. In the summer, they carry hikers.

Approaching the summit of Kurumayama

I’d heard the lift went “to the summit” but thought the description meant “a short hike below the summit” as most Japanese mountain lifts do. No. In the case of Kirigamine/Kurumayama, the lift literally deposits you less than 50 meters from the high point of the mountain.

White Torii, Kirigamine

This white tori designates the summit as a sacred space, and looks out toward the sacred Yatsugatake Mountains (visible on the horizon).

Summit Photo: Mt. Kirigamine/Kurumayama

Like many Hyakumeizan peaks, Kirigamine is the name of a mountain complex with multiple peaks. The name of the high point, Kurumayama, literally translates “Car Mountain.” When I first arrived on the summit, it felt overbuilt and over trafficked, and not at all special.

Butterfly on my pants.

….and then the butterflies arrived. The summit area was covered with butterflies, and they seemed attracted to hikers. At least, they were interested in me. Quite a few of them landed on my pants, my hands, and my hiking poles as I walked the trails near the summit.

He landed there all by himself.

All I had to do was stop walking, and the butterflies arrived. I held out my hand, and they landed directly on it. My inner child has never been so delighted.

Descending from Kurumayama

After the magical butterfly experience on the summit, I looked at everything about the mountain with new eyes. On the descent, I noticed the beautiful scenery rather than the lift–and I was deeply grateful to the butterflies for helping with my attitude adjustment.

Shika don, Kurumayama lift restaurant

When I returned to the base of the lift, I headed into a nearby restaurant for lunch. The menu board advertised a local specialty: shika don. In English: “deer bowl” – literally, a rice bowl made with venison from Japanese deer. I like venison, and decided to order it.

The clerk who took my order looked concerned. “Shika,” she said slowly. “Wakarimasu ka?” (Do you understand “deer”?)

She looked uncertain even after I told her that yes, I did know what deer (meat) was–and seemed delighted when I actually enjoyed it. In a country filled with delicious things to eat, this was still a stand-out, delicious dish–but it wasn’t even close to the amazing, elaborate meal I ate before the next climb on my list…

I hope you’re enjoying this “behind the scenes” photo-companion to CLIMB! Please click through and join me for Chapter 16: Daisen’s Giant Chipmunk

* 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).

2 thoughts on “CHAPTER 15: Magic in the Mundane

  • December 4, 2020 at 6:51 am

    My sister Carol Levine has been following you and invited you to our Book club to talk about your book. It is so nice to now see the additional photos and stories …. I had already planned to reread the book (on Chapter 49 currently) to experience your climbs further. Now I’ll plan to read here first as well.

    • December 14, 2020 at 6:27 pm

      Thank you so much for inviting me – I had such a wonderful time meeting and talking with all of you! I’m so glad we connected, and I’m delighted that you’re enjoying these photos. I love sharing them.

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