CHAPTER 16: Daisen’s Giant Chipmunk

Mt. Daisen: July 1, 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 Tokyo Skytree, as seen from our Sumida apartment

At the time of its completion in 2011, the Tokyo Skytree was the largest tower, and the second-largest man-made structure in the world. As of 2020, it remains in the top five, and is easily visible from many of Tokyo’s 23 wards, as well as the neighboring mountains. At night, and on holidays, the tower lights up in a variety of colors.

I loved being able to see the tower from our second Tokyo apartment–as well as living within walking distance of the delightful Solamachi “Skytree” shopping center.

A village in Tottori Prefecture

Tottori Prefecture is 880 kilometers west of Tokyo, in the Chugoku region of southwest Honshu. The clouds rolled in as my train rolled through the countryside, and by the time I reached Tottori heavy rain had begun to fall.

This narrow cobblestone street connected the Daisen Visitor Center with Sanraku-sō

The area around Mt. Daisen has been considered sacred for many centuries, and is home to a number of Buddhist temples and Shukubo (temple lodgings), including Sanraku-sō, the temple where I stayed during my trip.

Buddhist statues near Sanraku-sō

The rain let up just long enough for me to hurry up the street to Sanraku-sō, and began again almost as soon as I reached the temple lodging.

My guest room at Sanraku-sō

Shukubo vary widely in terms of accommodations, food, and expectations–at some, visitors are required to attend Buddhist worship services or meditation, while at many others, participation is voluntary. Sanraku-sō has no religious obligations, and offers private, well-appointed rooms furnished much like ryokan, or traditional inns.

The main entrance to Daisenji

By late afternoon, the rain had slowed to a heavy drizzle, and I braved the weather to visit Daisenji, a Buddhist temple at the foot of the sacred mountain. The timeline for my 100 Summits climbs did not leave much room for sightseeing, and I found myself wishing I had more time to stay and enjoy the history and nature of Daisen-Oki National Park.

Shojin Ryori dinner at Sanraku-sō

Shojin ryori, or “[Buddhist] temple cuisine,” is one of my favorite styles of cooking–not only in Japan, but in the world. I’ve blogged about the details of this unique, vegetarian cooking style before–and two days of shojin ryori meals were one of the things I anticipated most about my time in Tottori.

Tempura at Sanraku-sō

Tempura (battered, fried vegetables) is a common part of shojin ryori meals, where it’s often served with matcha salt (fine salt mixed with powdered, high quality green tea) for dipping, instead of soy or other sauces–an unusual but delicious pairing.

Moonset from Sanraku-sō

By morning, the rain had disappeared, and the day of the Daisen climb dawned clear and bright. The moon was just setting as the sun came up.

The beech forest on the lower slopes of Mt. Daisen–with the summit hidden in clouds.

The lower slopes of Mt. Daisen are home to the largest beech forest in Japan. Beech trees retain enormous amounts of water and return it to the earth slowly, and their presence has a large environmental impact on this area. This forest is one of the reasons why the area around Mt. Daisen is a national park.

The lower slopes of Daisen

The first third of the trail up Mt. Daisen curls gently upward through lush beech forest. In early summer, ajisai (hydrangeas) bloom beneath the trees. Birdsong fills the air.

Midmountain trail – Mt. Daisen

As the trail gains altitude, the trees grow shorter and the underbrush grows thicker. The huge amount of water retained by the beech trees keeps Mt. Daisen lush and green, even in the warmer months.

My only photograph of Chipmunk Man

The day I climbed, the temperature was over 30C (86 F)–and yet, I encountered a Japanese hiker wearing a full-body chipmunk suit, complete with hood and stubby tail. The people behind him are his wife and (thoroughly humiliated) tween son.

The view from a bottleneck on the trail.

The trail up Daisen grows so steep and narrow that it’s often necessary to wait at a wider place while hikers ascend and descend a narrow stretch. Some of these “waiting zones” required standing right at the edge of the trail (see the photo below)–but the views were spectacular.

“Waiting zone” at the edge of the trail

The large body of water on the horizon in the photo above is the Sea of Japan, which separates Japan (to the east) from Russia and Korea.

A rocky section of the Daisen ascent.

The trail gets increasingly steep and rocky as it approaches the summit plateau. The day I climbed, the clouds closed in as well, making it difficult to tell exactly how much trail remained before the top.

“Waist-high climbing ropes were strung through thin metal posts”

The summit plateau of Mt. Daisen is a protected ecosystem; hikers are required to remain on the boardwalks at all times. In some places, the boardwalk has ropes on both sides–in other places, on one side only. The day I climbed, wind howled across the summit, dropping the temperature and (at times) making it difficult to stay on the boardwalk.

Another section of boardwalk

It took about fifteen minutes to walk the length of the boardwalk to the official high point of Mt. Daisen. In addition to the summit marker, the area around the summit includes an open-air amphitheater (where, presumably, the views are spectacular on clear days) and a summit hut with a small shop selling ramen, tea, and cookies.

On the summit of Mt. Daisen (1,710 m)

This was my 13th hyakumeizan peak, and the first of my 100 summits where my hair was long enough for a non-bald summit photo.

The descent from Daisen

The clouds that closed in around the peak as I ascended followed me back down as well. After leaving the summit, the first hour of the descent was fairly clear, but the clouds increased and the sky began threatening rain.

Daisen’s summit, covered in clouds

The trail, though long, was not technically difficult, so I didn’t worry too much about the rain. Even so, I was glad to reach the bottom–and Sanraku-sō before the rain began again (which it did, shortly before dinner).

konjac sashimi and foraged vegetables

Dinner that night was another delicious shojin ryori feast, and one of the nine courses even paid tribute to Mt. Daisen: a plate of konjac sashimi with edible cutouts of Daisen and a flying crane.

The following morning, I (sadly) left Tottori and boarded a train for Kyoto, where I had scheduled a one night stopover on another sacred peak, in yet another shukubo–and the experience went quite differently than planned . . .

Click through and join me for Chapter 17: All Roads Lead to Kyoto

* 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).