Kyoto, Japan: Hiking Daimonji-yama

Ethereal forest on Daimonji-yama
Rainy day on Daimonji-yama.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2005

Second in a series about journeys to Japan in 2005 and 2007.

The last weekend of our 2005 study abroad in Kobe, Japan was set aside as free time.  Previously, the schedule was fairly regimented- language classes and cultural activities with some afternoons off and sometimes longer excursions to other cities in the Kansai region such as Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, and Himeji.  This weekend, however, classes finished Friday and we were on our own our return to the United States on Monday.

Some students headed to Tokyo and I think a few tackled Mt. Fuji.  I wasn’t quite that adventurous, but I was eager to try a hike listed in my Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan guide, the trail on Daimonji-yama (aka Mt. Daimonji.  Literally “Big Character Mountain”, 大文字山) in Kyoto.  Daimonji refers to a really big 大 (which itself means “big”) burned onto the mountain during a festival each August.  Other characters are burned onto neighboring mountains.  The mountain had been visible during a previous group visit to Kyoto, but with the group itinerary it was not possible to hike it then.  At 466m (about 1529 feet), Daimonji-yama is more of a hill than a mountain, but it seems the Japanese language doesn’t distinguish between the two when designating topographic features.

Kyoto Train Station has an amazing interior
Kyoto Station’s amazing interior.

On Saturday July 2, 2005, Samhitha and I took a JR train back to Kyoto.  June and early July is typically the rainy season on the main island of Honshu.  We’d lucked out for most of the study abroad, given that the weather during June 2005 had generally been sunny.  This particular day the weather was more typical of what early summer in Kansai is usually like.

Silver Pavilion's Kennon-den
Silver Pavilion’s Kannon-den

A light rain began to fall as we arrived at Ginkaku-ji (aka the Silver Pavilion, 銀閣寺). Built at the base of Daimonji-yama, the temple and its moss-filled gardens are truly beautiful, especially with rain moistening the branches and pattering in the pond. Despite the name, the main temple building, the Kannon-den, isn’t actually silver. Construction on this structure began in 1482, its design influenced by an older Kyoto temple, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion, 金閣寺). While the Golden Pavilion was ornately colored, the Onin War interrupted plans to apply silver foil to the Silver Pavilion.  Perhaps its incomplete, lower profile was beneficial in some way.  The Golden Pavilion has had many admirers over the centuries, but one was a deranged monk who burned the structure to the ground in 1950.  (The modern Golden Pavilion is a reconstruction.)

Map of Daimonji-yama. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007
Map of Daimonji-yama trails. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

The rain cleared for a bit as we picked up the Daimonji-yama trail near the temple, but the air remained damp.  Further up the trail, I noticed a young woman hiking alone on the trail.  Most hikers we’d encountered in Japan were middle-aged or elderly, but this woman couldn’t have been older than 20.  Despite her short stature (5’4″/165cm at most) and thin build, she had a huge backpack that looked like it weighed at least 50 pounds (22.7kg).  Samhitha had better language skills than I (and was perhaps a bit less shy about opening communications with a stranger!).  She struck up a conversation with the woman, Chirasumi Yuki.  (note: with Asian name order, family name is listed first)  Yuki, it turned out, was a student from nearby Kyoto Seika University.  I didn’t follow all of the conversation.  Samhitha told me later that Yuki explained that as part of a test to join a hiking club she had to hike a distance carrying a certain weight.  Apparently that much weight could only fit in a backpack that was about as big as she was!

Samhitha and Yuki
Samhitha and Yuki at the clearing.  The victory salute or peace sign is a common gesture when Japanese people pose for photographs and is now probably devoid of either meaning.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2005

We reached an amazing overlook just above the location where the character is burned into the mountain during the festival.  On clearer days, the overlook provided a panoramic view of Kyoto, but on this rainy day only part of the city was visible through breaks in the streams of clouds rolling below.  Above, the trees gradually disappeared into the mist which covered the mountain. The sights, the feel of the breeze, and the songs of the birds in the canopy combined to make a sensation that was mesmerizing.  After a little while, Samhitha and I continued uphill towards the summit.  We sadly parted ways with Yuki, who advised that she had to head down.

Misty forest on Daimonji-yama
Misty forest on Daimonji-yama

We came to a three-way fork in the trail.  Unfortunately there were no markings to indicate which trail led to the summit.  The hiking guide was not any help either…and it wouldn’t be the last time.  We picked one of the trails and hoped for the best as we entered the misty forest. The clouds glowed white from behind dark pine trunks, swaying slowly in the wind.  It was so ethereal; at the risk of sounding cliché, I can only compare it to being in a dream.

Summit of Daimonji-yama
Summit of Daimonji-yama

Fortunately, we’d chosen the right trail and eventually we arrived at the summit.  The view from the summit overlook was nothing but white clouds. I was initially disappointed with how little we could see, but Samhitha started speaking so poetically of how amazing it actually was.  My recollection may not do what she said justice, but this is my best attempt at a summary:  On a clear day, it would just be a modern city out there.  But Japanese people standing at the same spot on a similarly rainy day centuries ago would have seen the very same view we were seeing now, instead of their city.  In a metaphysical way, it was if that ancient capital city Heian-kyo was out there waiting for us beyond the clouds.

Spider web near the summit
Spider web near the summit

We descended along a series of paths branching away from the summit. The guidebook didn’t give clear instructions, so we ended up on the wrong trail.  Although main trails can often be distinguished from side trails by their condition, in this case it was not evident at the fork.  For a ways after the fork this trail remained wide and in good condition.  We ended up seeing a beautiful, secluded mountain pond, with raindrops building rings on its surface.

I think we took a wrong turn...
I think we took a wrong turn…

As the path began to narrow, however, we grew uneasy.  Wet foliage brushed against us on all sides, drenching us. We skidded down a rocky path, pushing the ferns aside.  We breathed a sigh of relief when the trail finally opened up on a peaceful cemetary at the base of the mountain, tucked away in the forest. It was truly a place of rest, as Samhitha put it.

Cemetery near the foot of Daimonji-yama
Cemetery near the foot of Daimonji-yama

When we tried to leave the cemetery, however, our path was blocked by a gate.  To the left of the gate was a barbed wire fence; to the right, an electric one. Obviously, it was designed to keep people out, not in.  Even so, we now faced the prospect of having to retrace our steps up the slippery trail and find the correct path before dark.  Fortunately, the electric fence was only about knee-high, probably to keep out animals like the inoshishi (wild boar).  I risked stepping over it, scaling a tiny ridge and hopping out on the other side of the gate. Samhitha wasn’t thrilled, but she made it too.

“I thought you liked adventure,” I kidded her.

“Not if it involves electrocution,” she replied.

Rain poring down on Sanmon
Rain poring down on Sanmon

We’d ended up in a residential area not far from where the correct trail would have brought us, Nanzen-ji (Southern Zen Temple, 南禅寺), another one of Kyoto’s many temples. A deluge began as we walked, gradually drenching us despite our raincoats. We visited the beautiful Sanmon (Third Gate, 三門, part of the temple complex), but it was already closing time at Nanzen-ji so we couldn’t linger.  We stopped at a speghetti restaurant to recuperate from the hike and escape the weather.  By the time we finished eating, the rain had passed.  It would be another hour and a half before we managed to get back to Kyoto Station.  First we had to wait a while for a bus and then we were packed in like sardines when it finally came.  At the station we caught a blissfully empty JR Special Rapid Service back to Kobe.

View from Daimonji-yama. Infrared photo. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007
View from Daimonji-yama. Infrared photo. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

Postscript: Return to Daimonji-yama, 2007

In 2007 I returned to Japan, where Samhitha was teaching English at the time.  On November 4, Samhitha, her boyfriend, and I hiked the trail on Daimonji-yama once again.  This time we hiked the trail in the opposite direction, starting at Nanzen-ji.  On the hike up, I saw the trail to the cemetery branch off and I’m pretty sure we could easily have made the same mistake again if we’d been hiking in the same direction as 2005.  The weather was much more pleasant, though that ethereal feel was gone without the rain and clouds.  In a way, I suspect I could never recapture the experience of the hike in 2005 even if the weather had been similar.  As the last adventure of a life-changing study abroad, the first hike held a special place in my memory, unlikely to be matched in the same place at a different time.

This post is reworked from a narrative that I recorded on July 3, 2005 as well as an essay I wrote the following spring, A Tiny Woman with a Big Backpack or Dai Bakkupakku Yama which won the University of Delaware’s 2005-2006 Institute for Global Studies Study Abroad Writing Contest.  Some passages are almost verbatim from one of the accounts; others have been rewritten and expanded upon.

Daimonji-yama Map from 2007 GPS track via Google Maps. The cemetery from 2005 is also marked
Daimonji-yama Trail map from 2007 GPS track displayed in Google Earth. The cemetery from 2005 is also marked, although not the trail to it.  You probably don’t want to go there- they may have upgraded their electric fence by now!

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