#025 – OTOWA-SAN
It was cold.
We were venturing south, yet it was cold.
Colder even, maybe, than Kyoto.
Every time the train doors opened we were blasted with an icy burst of wind. South of Miwa-san sits the Otowa Sanzan, three unobtrusive peaks in a range of unobtrusive peaks that stretched westward from where we sat in our warm, heated seated paradise. These mountains rise to over twice the height of the venerable Miwa-san, a mere snowball’s toss away, across a narrow strip of low, flat land where train lines, roads, farmland and ugly suburbia squeeze their way out of the south eastern corner of the Nara plain, tripping over themselves in the clamour for a last bit of habitable, level earth.
When the doors opened at our station we disembarked without enthusiasm into the frigid air, made our way quickly out of the cold, concrete structure and dove into a warm, toasty convenience store and then, before too long, leapt from there into the equally toasty confines of an ink black taxi.
‘To Otowa-san,’ we ordered our white haired driver and prayed, though an arm and a leg would need to be sacrificed, that the ride would take longer than expected.
It didn’t, and soon we stood in an empty, wet gravelled car park at the bottom of a steep concrete road that beckoned us to continue up into dark, wintry woods. We were back on our KINKAN trail and this time it was steep, cold, and treacherously icy.
At a small temple in the woods a barking dog announced our arrival, having either sniffed us out or heard our gasps as we slithered on the icy concrete. Soon we were invited inside the main hall by a shaven headed woman whose smile lit up the darkened sanctuary more than any electrical light would do. She regaled many stories to The Missus while I huddled by the heater and supped on hot, salty, seaweed tea.
‘Are you hiking the Otowa Sanzan?’ she inquired in Japanese.
‘Hai,’ we responded in unison, though my enthusiasm was already on the wane. Otowa-san, the first of the three peaks that make up the three mountain loop, was our ultimate target for the day and I was, minute by minute, becoming all the happier to suffice with just that.
She told us a thousand years ago a hundred temples stood along the path we’d just laboured up. A path barely stretching over a kilometre in length. And most all were swept away in a great landslide. Today only her sanctuary remains, together with the risk of further subsidence.
Otowa-san is smothered in plantation timber – sugi they call it, or Japanese cedar, though it’s not really a cedar at all. You’ll find it planted everywhere in the lower mountains the length of the archipelago. It is the bane of the countless millions of allergy sufferers across the nation and the lifeblood of the masochistic breed of nose doctors that profit from, and indeed exacerbate, the incessant misery. There were mass plantings of sugi after the War, as timber was seen as a way to revitalise the shattered economy. That was then, now Japan imports most of its lumber and as a result sugi is also overpopulating the crowded island nation. Not only this, the timber plantations loosen the soil and landslides have become more common. Taking this into account the Otowa Sanzan could well eventually become Otowa-daira, or Otowa Flats.
We couldn’t sit there all day and natter as we supped on seaweed tea…
Actually, we could, but time was of the essence and slowly, we prised ourselves out of the relative warmth of the temple. We gradually made our way up into the snows blanketing the floor of the man made woodland, clambering over felled timber and boulders exposed by erosion.
The climb warmed our frigid frames and the monotony that the sugi forest could have become was countered by the glorious world of white we made our way through. The Missus had a thermos of ginger tea which added to our warmth and on top of Otowa, as we supped in turn, we agreed quite emphatically to call it quits there and then and head back down the way we’d come.
It was a ‘one and done’ kind of day.