CHAPTER 24: To Play With Crows

August 14, 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.

August is not the best month for mountain climbing in Japan. It’s hot, humid, and generally unpleasant in Tokyo, and while the more mountainous surrounding prefectures are somewhat better, it’s still a challenging (and potentially dangerous) time to exercise.

That said, when you’re trying to climb 100 mountains in 365 days, you haven’t got the luxury of waiting on the weather, so with the summer heat in full swing, I headed to Hadano–two hours southwest of Tokyo–for a station-to-station hike of Mt. Asama, Mt. Gongen, and Mt. Kōbō.

Mt. Asama, on the walk in

The bus to the trailhead ran only intermittently, so I opted for the two-kilometer walk from the station–which was pleasant, but entirely in the sun, alongside asphalt roads that reflected heat with a vengeance.

The route to the trailhead crossed this river

It was so hot that I even noticed a momentary drop in the temperature when I crossed the bridge that spanned the river (above). There was no one else out walking on the streets, and I didn’t wonder why.

Vegetable garden near the trailhead

These gardens filled the air with the scent of fertilizer and vegetables–pungent, though not unpleasant. The gardens sat by themselves, in a strip of land between the mountain and the road, and although it was clear they belonged to someone, who they belonged to remains a mystery.

Near the Mt. Asama trailhead

The temperature dropped to a much better (though still not entirely comfortable) level when I started up the stairs from the Mt. Asama trailhead. The pictures make it look much more peaceful than it really was–those trees were filled with shrieking cicadas.

The trail up Mt. Asama

The trail alternated between faux-log reinforced “stairs” and a gently sloping earthen path. Despite the heat and the screaming bugs, I enjoyed the climb.

Mt. Asama summit marker

The summit of Mt. Asama is mostly forested, but has a couple of overlooks where you can see Hadano and the distant mountains.

Hadano, as seen from the summit of Mt. Asama

Beyond the summit, a much wider trail leads over the plateau atop the mountain before descending into the valley beyond.

The wide trail across the plateau atop Mt. Asama

On the far side of Mt. Asama, the trail descends into a forested valley between Mt. Asama and neighboring Mt. Gongen. By this point, I was sweating hard enough–even in the shade–to be concerned about dehydration. I’d brought plenty of water, and sucked on candies too (but unfortunately didn’t think about the salt I was losing through my sweat).

The unexpected Privy Grove

The stumps in the picture above are public toilets–each of which is individually housed in a tree-shaped structure. Like most Japanese public toilets, they were spotless, and even had heated seats.

The ascent to Mt. Gongen

Beyond the toilets, the trail climbed steadily to the summit of Mt. Gongen. At this point, I started hearing crows overhead. They didn’t sound angry or aggressive, and I wondered what they were calling about.

One of many grasshoppers I saw on the Mt. Gongen trail

Grasshoppers, butterflies, and moths jumped and flew from the bushes along the trail as I climbed to the summit of Mt. Gongen. I often see various insects on the mountains, but rarely so many in such a short stretch of trail.

Gongenyama Summit Marker

Like Mt. Asama, the summit of Mt. Gongen is a large plateau. However, while Asama is mostly forested, Gongen’s summit is clear, and has a large, two-story gazebo with picnic tables and an overlook. From there, I could see the crows I’d been hearing all the way up the trail–they were playing in the air, riding the currents the way children ride boogie boards in the coastal waves in California.

Crows playing above Mt. Gongen

The photo above doesn’t do justice to their play, or the experience of watching them. Fortunately, I also captured it on video:

If you turn the sound on, you can hear the cicadas, as well as the crows calling to one another as they play.

The final bit of trail before the summit of Mt. Kōbō

Beyond Mt. Gongen, an easy trail leads down and then up again to the summit of Mt. Kōbō. Kōbōyama is named in honor of Kōbō Daishi (774-835), also known as Kūkai, one of the Japanese monks who brought esoteric Buddhism to Japan from China and the founder of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism in Japan. According to local history, Kōbō Daishi visited this mountain on his travels, and spent time in meditation on its summit.

The well atop Mt. Kōbō

Hadano is famous for its springs, one of which feeds this well atop Mt. Kōbō.

Buddhist temple atop Mt. Kōbō

Like many places associated with Kōbō Daishi, the summit of Mt. Kōbō is now home to a Buddhist temple. According to legend, Kōbō Daishi spent 100 days in meditation here–although it’s not known whether that figure represents a literal one hundred days or is merely intended to represent “a long time.”

This crow swooped down to take a closer look when I reached the summit

Japanese crows are large, intelligent, and curious. They also tend not to fear humans, although they’re smart enough not to let us get too close. This one watched me explore the summit, and didn’t even fly away when I approached to take his picture.

The trail beyond Mt. Kōbō

I took the picture above a few minutes before I realized I was suffering from early-stage heatstroke. I drank plenty of water on the climb, but forgot to replace the salt my body was losing through my sweat; I hadn’t even brought any salty snacks (or salt candies, which are popular in Japan in the summertime). I’ll never make that mistake again, and I’m glad I didn’t suffer any serious, or lasting, negative consequences.

From this point, I followed the sloping trail past the summit of tiny Mt. Azuma (125 m)–which didn’t count toward the official 100 Summits list–and then descended to Tsurumaki Onsen, a volcanic hot spring bath fed by one of the many springs that make Hadano famous.

Headless Buddha on Mt. Kōbō

The Buddha above is one of many that lost its head during the Meiji Restoration, after the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912) declared Buddhism a “dangerous foreign religion” and issued an edict designed to return Japan’s indigenous Shintō faith to state-sponsored supremacy.

Before this time, many Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines existed side by side, on shared land, and the religions had become heavily syncretic. Although the emperor’s edict caused a great deal of damage and disruption in many places, ultimately the two religions continued to exist side by side, with many Japanese people considering themselves adherents of both and following both sets of traditions.

Shortly after finishing this hike, I moved into my first long-term rental apartment, in Meguro city (where I still live in 2021, as I write this post), so I didn’t have time to return to the mountains for a couple of weeks.

And the next set of mountains I climbed proved to be among the greatest adventures of my life. I hope you’ll join me on those adventures too, starting with Chapter 25: Hokkaido Nature Tours

* 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 24: To Play With Crows

  • March 1, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    Dear Susan,
    What a miraculous journey you have embarked upon. So many of us have
    dreams but do not always accomplish these desires. You are an inspiration to
    all your mother’s friends. Thank you for sharing your story in your fabulously
    written “Climb”. I felt that I was along side you as you managed each mountain and every challenge. I hope when you.return to the states for a visit we can once again
    connect. Meanwhile, follow your heart it will lead you to more remarkable

    • March 6, 2021 at 11:31 pm

      Thank you so much Julie! It was great to see you on Zoom the other day, and I look forward to seeing you in person again as soon as the world opens up 🙂

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