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.
Karikome 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.
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
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.
Modern 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.
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!
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.
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.
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)!
On 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.