August 7, 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.
In early August of 2018, I found myself struggling to choose between continuing my attempt to climb all 100 hyakumeizan in a year and shifting the goal to climbing 100 famous Japanese mountains (not all of which would be hyakumeizan) and focusing on overcoming the fears that had ruled my life. With the oppressive heat and humidity of a Tokyo summer bearing down, I headed to Yugawara (90 minutes south of Tokyo) to hike Shiroyama (562 meters) – a mountain I hoped would help me choose my greater path.
The trailhead for Shiroyama sits behind Joganji, the ancestral temple of the Doi clan, whose castle once stood atop the mountain.
According to local history, the juniper tree in the picture above is 800 years old, and was planted by Sanehira Doi, the daimyō who ruled this area during the late 12th century. During the Genpei War, the Doi gave shelter to the fleeing Minamoto no Yoritomo, who hid in a cave on Shiroyama until his pursuers gave up and left the area. Minamoto went on to win the war and establish the first Bakufu government at Kamakura, ushering in the age of samurai. But for the Doi, and Shiroyama, he might not have survived to do so–making Shiroyama the site of a pivotal moment in Japanese history.
I accidentally left the temple via the incorrect gate and walked uphill in the blazing sun for almost twenty minutes before realizing my mistake. (Had the road not dead-ended, it would have taken even longer.) The view from the road was nice, but not the one I was looking for.
The road that led to the Shiroyama trailhead passed through a residential neighborhood, climbing steadily uphill until the houses ended and the forest began. The asphalt road wound up the mountain, serving as the trail for most of the way to the summit.
The web above caught my eye because of the delicate pattern of sticky threads at the center. Based on the shape, and the spiders common to the area, I suspect it was made by some species of orb weaver spider. I saw several webs like this on the Shiroyama hike, but none of them had visible spiders in them as I passed.
It was so hot, even the birds were panting. Cicadas screeched and rattled in the trees. I was soaked in sweat before I even reached the trailhead (no thanks to the detour) and continued sweating for the entire hike. I’m not a fan of the heat, but the mountain was beautiful despite the weather.
Butterflies and moths fluttered through the air beneath the trees. I was alone on the path the entire way–I didn’t pass another hiker on either the ascent or the descent (most likely because it was entirely too hot for anyone to be outside) but the forest seemed peaceful and welcoming, and being alone just gave me an opportunity to think.
The photo above shows the place where I stopped to rest and think about my decision (and other things). It looks somewhat unremarkable, but it felt quite peaceful at the time.
By August, some of the cicadas are beginning to die off; they drop from the trees and buzz their way to the ground, where they wait for unsuspecting hikers to pass by and then fly up, buzzing frantically. In Japan, they’re called “cicada bombs”–and they startle people regularly in the summer.
Japanese cicadas come in several species, but all of them are exceptionally loud. They scream all day and all night from the end of June until September, and you know summer has arrived for certain when they start their familiar click, rattle, and screeching in the trees.
The clouds rolled in as I climbed, and by the time I reached the bio-toilet that sits a few minutes below the summit, I could no longer see the coast. The view from the summit of Shiroyama is supposed to be spectacular; all I can tell you with certainty is that the toilet is quite clean.
Just past the toilet, the trail leaves the road and heads uphill through the trees for the last few minutes of the hike to the summit. The sun tried to break through the clouds a few times, but ultimately did not succeed.
The carved stone on the summit marks the place where Shiroyama Castle once stood. The site is probably beautiful on a sunny day in May or June, when the ajisai (hydrangeas) around the monument are blooming. They were still trying to bloom in August, as you can see, but they definitely had passed their prime. (I liked them anyway, but I’m a big fan of ajisai.)
The clouds opened up just long enough for me to snag the photo above–a hint of the expansive view the castle site enjoys on sunny days. That’s the Pacific Coast of Honshu, looking east.
I descended along a branch trail that passed by a pair of creepy-looking abandoned houses. I couldn’t tell whether they were homes or camping retreats; in either case, they had been abandoned for quite some time, and passing them was the only time I felt even the slightest unease about hiking alone–and even then, I wasn’t concerned about humans as much as “things that go bump in the night.”
I didn’t notice this bear trap on the ascent, because it was set a little way back from the trail near a switchback that had me facing away from the trap while climbing up. When I passed it on the descent, I felt glad that I hadn’t seen any bears on the trail–and that I wear my bell even on peaks that seem less remote when the trail’s not busy. The orange spheres in the trap are kabocha (Japanese squash), which bears apparently love.
I didn’t make the “big decision” on the hike itself; instead, I realized on the train back to Tokyo that I had made it even before the climb. I just hadn’t been brave enough to admit what I truly wanted from the climbing year. The real quest–and the story CLIMB exists to tell–was about finding the courage to overcome fear and grasp, and live, the life I truly wanted.
The only question was: would the government grant me the visa I needed to do it? Fortunately, I didn’t have long to wait–and I talk about the answer, and another climb, in Chapter 24: To Play With Crows
* 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).