In search of Karikome Pond

As I look out my window, swathes of the mountainside have turned a burnt orange colour, contrasting with the pines that stand unaffected by the changing of the seasons. On sunny days the leaves shine with radiant yellows, oranges and reds, but on cloudy days all I notice is the nakedness of the trees. In a last attempt to enjoy the autumn colours, I suggested to a friend that we take a trip out to Karikome Pond, near Ono. Unfortunately, winter got there before us.

30_01_tKarikome Pond is on the very eastern edge of Fukui prefecture, and a good two hours drive from Fukui City, so we had a race against time to get there before the sun set at 4.30pm. We did however have time to stop at the Watering Hole in Izumi, near Ono. This is a secret local spot, and I had to go through a maze of people’s back gardens, before I found the right road through the paddy fields to get there. When we did find it, this is what we were greeted with.

P1060606

Turquoise waters and no sounds other than bird song and the rushing of the river. This is a place where ALTs gather in the summer to swim and, as the name suggests, to drink. But without a group of laughing gaijin around, this place is the epitome of serenity.

A pilgrim’s path

monks-Zen-Art-by-Qiao-Seng-TN

From there we started out journey along Route 173 and our destination was the end of the road, quite literally. This road follows the path the Shugendo ascetic St. Taicho took from Fukui to Hakusan in 717C.E.

Shugendo is an motley mix of the mystical-spiritual stem of Buddhism, the philosophies of old Shintoism and some other stuff from folk animism. It had no founder or doctrine, and never turned into a ‘school’; it was only ever a ‘way’. Followers try to gain enlightenment by understanding the relationship between humanity and nature, most commonly sought through ascetic practices in mountains.

yamabushi-clothing-accessorites-3-TN

yamabushi-snow-suigyouModern day Shugendo

I was surprised to find that Shugendo exists today. Check out this tantalizing trailer for Shugendo Now, a film that followers practitioners as they seek experiential truth of Shugendo teachings, by doing arduous climbs in sacred mountain. 

Hakusan, the mountain I climbed last month, is one of the three sacred mountains in Japan, and pilgrims still make the journey to the top, looking for more than the perfect view.

yamabushi-suigyou-wadaphotos

Other practices they perform are seclusion, fasting, meditation, and enduring standing or sitting under cold mountain waterfalls, or in snow. If you want to find out more about these pilgrimages, this website gives you lots of information. 

As for Karikome Pond, its name derives from a legend that St.Taicho drove out 1,000 huge snakes from the pond, when journeying toward Hakusan! This pond is also mysterious as it has springs running into it, but none running out. I imagine it’s pretty wet underfoot then.

Driving along Route 173, we were following the route St. Taicho took as he pilgrimaged to Hakusan to found the headquarters of Shugendo. Apparently there are 1200 year old Judas trees which grow along the path because Taicho stuck his chopsticks in the ground when pausing to eat on his way to Hakusan. That’s certainly a lot of power! I wonder how many snow showers he must’ve had to do that!

Nowaday mountain-dwellers

As we made our way further into the Hakusan National Park, we could feel we were getting further and further away from civilisation (measured in Japan from the distance to the nearest combini). The only other vehicles on the road, were truck drivers mining the mountain. Most had a cigarette in their mouth, dark-tinted, dated sunglasses and a cheeky grin. Some even had full-on beards, which is an extraordinary thing for a Japanese man to have!

We went past houses which looked abandoned, and mini-vans that had once been protected by makeshift snow shelters, but had been left for vegetation to grow on them. As I drove past one tiny old lady tending to her cabbages, I wondered how she could live up here in the mountains. Then I looked at the beautiful view she woke up to every day, and I wondered if it would be so bad.

P1060608

 As we went round one corner, Mt. Sannomiya (elevation of 2128 m) came into view, and it shone radiantly in the sunshine. After a week of thunder storms, the sky seemed even more blue than I’d remembered.

P1060620

The road continued up and up, and round and round, criss-crossing over the river we were following. To my surprise, we reached the snow line and it felt like we’d crossed the time-zone into winter. The lake was still a fair distance away, the snow was scraping against the underside of my car and with no snow tyres on, we thought it was best to turn back before sunset and the roads became icy. Now I know that the lake is an 150 minute hike from the road, so we probably wouldn’t have reached there anyway, (a slight underestimation of distance on my behalf)!

P1060626On the way back we went past many roadside Shinto shrines with flowers, incense, and in this one had a can of beer! I imagine those truckers have a great sense of humour! We also passed an onsen that looked a bit like this one Houshi Ryokan in Ishikawa prefecture, the oldest hotel in the world, so it’s says.

We never made it to the pond, but it was worth it just for the journey. And perhaps next fall, I’ll make the trip again but do it in mid-October, when winter is still far off.

* Some people call the lake Karikome, others Karikomi, it’s the same lake. ** You can find more info on it here.

Embracing winter on the slopes

Just as spring is awakening and the snowline is receding I’ve found a way to enjoy winter, by hitting the ski slopes. In early-February, when I was craving sunshine and dreaming of a beach holiday, my friend Erin suggested we go skiing with her teachers. Ok, I said, why not? 

 

Week 1

That first day I went, the snow was relentless but, it did result in fluffy powdery snow, perfect for the re-beginner! I spent the day remembering what I was taught ten years ago when I learnt to ski in the Italian Alps; always be in control, make sharp turns round where you’ve touched your pole in and most importantly, practice stopping! In the afternoon I followed Erin’s more experienced teachers on to the ‘Illusion course’ higher up the mountain. It was only on the ski lift when they told me they would be doing the black course! I stuck to the red course, but was out-of-my-depth and took it slow. I very quickly learnt what a ‘mogul’ was (large mounds of snow) and found it was best to go round them, not to fly over the top of them! Anyhow, at the steepest point on one run I couldn’t turn quick enough and went flying over the top of one, loosing my balance and doing a comic-like fall with skis and poles going everywhere! The scariest part of it was putting my ski back on whilst other skiers zoomed past me, going at lightening speed. I reminded myself that I was much more of a hazard to myself, than they were to me. 

Week 2

The second time I went it was a bluebird day, the snow was glistening and the whole experience was much more pleasant. I’d brought a face buff with me this time, so my face didn’t freeze! Although the sunny weather and marginally warmer temperatures had made a crust on the snow, ,making the icy conditions much harder to ski on than the previous week. I succumbed to a fear of vertigo, especially as a peered down the mogul black course, which my friend Nigel told me, “It’ll be grand”. Unsurprisingly, the next ten minutes were not at all ”grand”. Neither was it for my friend Niamh, who had just started learning snowboarding that day! We did both make it down though, and were just about in one piece…

Week 3

The third outing was another snowy day which meant foggy sunglasses but excellent beginner conditions. After I’d seen the injuries and week-long muscle pain endured by my friends who’d tried snowboarding for the first time, I had vowed never to try snowboarding. I’d stick with the easier sport of skiing. (Most people agree that skiing is much easier to pick up, whereas there is a very steep learning curve for snowboarders.) However Nigel, encouraged me to give it ago, and seeing as two other newbies were learning at the same time I thought it would be a good chance to try. So instead of two trusty skis and poles for balancing, I walked out of the rental shop with just a board under my hand. At first glance I thought my board wasn’t much more than a tea tray with shoe clips on it, how was I going to balance on this? At first, it took a while to get used to the balance of it, and we just slid gently one way, then the other another. We kept to the bunny hill this time, and each time went down with less falls than the last.

Eager to learn the next technique, I was constantly losing control and falling over. So were my comrades, Erin and Neil. If you’re in the right frame of mind and it doesn’t hurt, falling over, and watching other people fall over is the most hilarious thing! Various profanities were coming from our mouths as we flipped, faced planted and tumbled down the slopes. This is fine if you’re not in anyone’s way. Yet two times I collided with other snowboarders, one of which happened to be a child! Fortunately the snow was so powdery that nobody was hurt and we just slid down the mountain together before disentangling our boards.

By the end of the day I loving it, and was twisting and turning down the slopes. The last run I took, I decided to detour to an off piste section of the slope. I’d watched as competent snowboarders had easily cut their way through the meter deep snow, having fun carving through it on their boards. I, however, carved my own route through it and consequently got stuck! When I put my hand down to push myself up there was no end to the light fluffy snow and I just fell deeper into it! Flipping my board over I was finally able to make some headway though the snow, but came out with snow down my neck, in my boots and up my sleeves! It was a fun way to end the day, but I won’t be going off piste again soon!

That day did convert me from two skis to one board, and next year I know exactly how I’ll  be spending those snowy weekends.

Skiing in Fukui

Fukui prefecture is renown for the best ski resorts along the western coast of Japan. We do not have the Olympic style black diamond runs of Nagoya or the 6km long Hakuba courses, but we do have perfect beginner and intermediate level slopes for the casual skier or snowboarder. The best resort is named SkiJam and is in Katsuyama, an hour away from Fukui City. It boasts several courses, randomly named ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Illusion’ courses which snake down and around the mountainous terrain. Wide courses have been cut into the pine tree covered mountain and a network of ski lifts put up, so that there are no long queues, and there are a range of slopes for every skill level. There are also amazing views from top on a clear day.

Unlike in Europe, snowboarding is much more popular than skiing in Japan. It seems snowboarding is more about getting the ”golden beauty” look. Every time I went to the ladies, there were women there with more make-up on than women would wear in a Weatherspoons on a Saturday night! With their Roxy ski jackets, make-up and long hair down, it looked like their priority was not snowboarding, but looking cute!

It’s possible to rent skis or a snowboard for about £30 a day, get a ski pass for about another £30 or get a whole package with clothes included for about £70 a day. There are three restaurants on the slopes that serve a variety of food, from curry-rice, to Korean bibimba to tomato spaghetti. If you’re in the area, during January and February, give it a go!

Related articles by fellow Fukui JETs, take a look at their awesome blogs!

I’m so Fukui

Breathing Means More

Finding Myself Fukuied

The Asakura Clan ruins: A Samurai City

A little-known tourist site in Fukui is Ichi-jo dani Castle, a restored town from the Sengoku and Edo period (around 16th to 17th century). Set in a beautiful valley surrounded by forested mountains and close to Ono, it’s worth a visit for anyone interested in Japanese history. Bring your own guide though, as there isn’t much explanation in English!

The main reconstructed street, also famous for where a SoftBank advert was filmed.

‘Little Kyoto’ 

The city was built by the head of the Asakura clan and it attracted many people to live there it was called ‘Little Kyoto’. Many priests, nobles and scholars moved to Ichijodani, bringing with them the latest technology and culture from Kyoto. During the 16th century the city had 10,000 people living there, making it the third biggest city in Japan! There was a castle on top of a mountain and gates at either end of the valley. The Asakura clan were defeated by a famous samurai, Oda Nobunaga, who sieged the castle and set it alight. Untouched since its destruction in 1573, some parts of the city have been restored to what it used to be like in the 16th century. Most parts have just been excavated and you can only see the outline of buildings, but the main street has been completely reconstructed.

A surprise!

My friend and I were enjoying exploring the shops and houses. They were dark inside so it took our eyes time to see the life-sized models dressed in traditional costumes. Then, my friend slid open a wooden door to find a man dressed as a samurai smiling back at her! She nearly fell over backwards! We were both wondering why he was dressed as a samurai and waiting in a house to ambush tourists, when he stepped outside and four other people dressed up in historical costumes did so too! Then it clicked, they were working there!

Once we’d stopped laughing, we proceeded to have an awkward conversation in English about the restored city. There were obviously friendly people with lots of knowledge to share, yet we lacked a common language to chat in. Maybe next time I’ll go back with someone who can translate!

Karamon gate used to be the entrance to the Asakura Manor House

Karamon gate used to be the entrance to the Asakura Manor House

Koi fish under the bridge. Do you know the oldest koi fish recorded in Japan was 226 years old?

Looking towards the Asakura Manor House

Samurai playing shogi (Japanese chess) in one of their three tatami rooms.  Also, see the swords above the men, one of  them is three metres long!

The dressed-up workers who surprised us! The tallest man is dressed as a samurai, the man on the left as a merchant and the women are general townsfolk.