ishizuchi 7The Stone Hammer, Ishizuchi-san, highest peak in western Japan, slices the Shikoku skies from the north west to the south east with a summit more reminiscent of an axe blade than a hammer head. The mountain is a centre of Shugendo ascetic training and as you walk the trails the mournful sound of the yamabushi sounding their conch shells can be heard echoing through the woods.

The skies overhead had cleared as promised. But right from the word go, I was engulfed in cloud – a cloud of tobacco smoke, in what I imagined must have been one of the last remaining smoking train carriages operating in Japan. I sat myself down in my seat at the back of the car and noticing the compartment’s funk, put it down to the last minute platform puffs of the salarymen surrounding me. But then, as we moved off the smoke began to rise as if the train was powered in  some way by smoking businessmen. Firstly, from a seat about half way up the car a wisp, quickly succeeded by a larger puff of blue smoke erupted.  Then more smoke billowed from a seat a little closer and then not too much later the bloke across the aisle lit up as he peered into his laptop on his knee.  It wasn’t long before a discernible haze filled the car. Shikoku was a fair way off the beaten path and it seemed as though the anti smoking doctrine hadn’t made it to the local JR offices. Somewhere in the ticket purchasing process I’d gone and paid extra for the privilege of a reserved seat, in a smoking car of an express train. My discomfort was outweighed by my wallet’s, and for the sake of the beleaguered mountain budget I respectfully and steadfastly refused to budge – lungs be damned…

ishizuchi 2Blood oozed from the Yamabushi’s battered feet. My smoke filled test of endurance that morning suddenly paled in comparison. The wild eyed, white haired mountain ascetic, clothed in his white robes, conch shell strapped to his side, chatted with hikers outside the religious precinct at the top of the Ishizuchi-san Ropeway. His single pegged gettas, wooden thong-like footwear, were spattered in blood. Where he’d come from or where he was going with his balancing act, I had no idea but he was chatting to his audience quite calmly, despite the desperate condition of his feet. “Yeah every morning before breakfast I clamber over a dozen miles of broken ground, snap a few toes and peel back a nail here and there, just for the heck of it. Why don’t you try it? It’ll do yous all the power of good,” he was probably saying. I should have taken a photo but at the time I felt it was a little intrusive.

ishizuchi 4ishizuchi 8I took to the sun drenched woods, sporting my first bit of unblemished genkiness in weeks and scrambled up the heavy chains draped over the rock walls of Ishizuchi up to the shrine and hut on Misen. There, I took in the view across to the slender summit spine of Ishizuchi-san, one of the Hyakumeizan’s most dramatic scenes. Some hikers scrambled amongst the scatty, stunted timber on the peak’s western flank and I soon left a small but gathering crowd at the hut and joined in their pursuit.  It was a short scramble to the summit where I stood and put the entirety of Western Japan beneath my feet. Shikoku was conquered in a mere two days.

ishizuchi 9By evening, the cigarette smoke may have cleared but the stale, stench of it certainly hadn’t.  The town of Saijo was booked solid, or so it seemed, all except for one pokey hotel room next door to the station.  It was a room, I was politely informed of at the front desk, designated for smokers.  “Well, how bad could it really be?” I assured myself as I forked over another wad of cash.   “I’d be asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow anyaway.  And I could open the window anyway right?”

The room reeked.  The window budged no further than three inches open.  Turning on the aircon for respite was like having an enormous gurgling, ten pack a day toad, hanging on your ceiling and softly blowing into your ear.  As the night wore on my throat grew raw and by breakfast I was desperate to escape – all the way to the island of Kyushu, no less. Surely a better night’s sleep awaited me across the waves.

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