Climbing Gassan, the mountain of death… In Dewa Sanzan, Japan


We ate an early breakfast of rice, miso soup, cold tofu and pickles, at 6:30am.
Our intention was to get the local bus from Haguro Village to Mount Gassan, and to come back on the four o’clock bus, which was the last bus towards Haguro Village.

Our guesthouse host packed for us my favorite lunch of rice balls (Onigiris) wrapped with seaweed (Nori), and filled with pickled sour plum (Umebushi).

We arrived early at the bus stop ready for a day of mountain climbing, with our day packs, hiking boots, water and snacks.
At exactly 7:30am we boarded the local bus heading to Gassan.

A friendly lady with only one single front tooth in her whole mouth, wished us good luck in climbing Gassan mountain.
When we tried to squeeze together on the narrow bus bench, in a bossy but friendly tone, she ordered us to sit one person per row.
It was a charming old bus with narrow seats and a wooden floor.

Jules said that from the look of the other hikers on the bus, it was not going to be too difficult to climb this mountain…
Of course he was wrong….and the climb was very challenging and the people who rode the bus with us, did not summit.

We arrived at the start of the trail at 9:00am.
It was totally misty at the bottom.
The parking lot was full of cars and buses, all shrouded in a thick mist.

Later we discovered that only a small number of people actually climb the mountain.
The majority of the people just come to walk around the perimeter at the lower elevation, close to the parking area, which is a beautiful pasture land covered in tall grass, ponds and wildflowers.

Before we started the climb, we followed in the footsteps of the group ahead of us, and we stretched our legs, loosened our knees, bended a few times and performed some basic stretches to gear our bodies to the challenge ahead.

Facing the mountain, we bowed and offered our respect, along with a prayer for insight along the way and for a safe and fruitful journey ahead.

From living in the high Rocky Mountains of Colorado, we have learnt to respect the mountains.
Every day the mountain is different with its own micro-climate of wind gusts, mist, snow, rain, loose earth or exposed rocks.

The path stared with an enjoyable walk among the green pasture of Gassan.
Small beautiful ponds inside the volcanic rock, dotted the tall green grass, and the area was filled with butterflies, wildflowers and birds.

Mount Gas-San is the second mountain that we climbed in the area, and it represents death.

Pilgrims come here to climb it and to wish for the paradise of the next world, or for a better and more favorable incarnation for their departed loved ones.

Of course many people come just for the mountain climbing experience, and for the outdoor challenge that this beautiful mountain offers.

At the entrance to the trail, the sign pointing towards the mountain had a small drawing of a ghost on it… We were entering the unknown…. Literally…since it was so misty that we could not even see one another from a short distance.

The grass swaying in the high wind, and I could hear it whispering in and around my ears.
We walked on elevated wooden boardwalks until the path diverged and we started to climb up a rocky path.
It became very steep, and the rocks got bigger.

It had rained all day the day before, and the rain did not ease up until mid morning, so the path was very wet.
We started walking with our raincoats on, but as we stared to climb and the path became more and more difficult, we stripped down to our t-shirts.

We saw some pilgrims wearing white clothing and traditional hats, carrying tall wooden sticks that they have stamped in each temple they visited along their pilgrimage.

Some of them wore the traditional sock-shoes, which are thick canvas socks that have a thin sole on the bottom.
They were aiming to do the climb as it has been done for over a thousand years, by ascetic hermits and devout pilgrims who have climbed this mountain seeking spiritual growth.

Most were sweating and already covered in mud, and their white clothing was no longer white…. But they got my total respect… Especially after climbing for hours and realizing how hard this climb was.

Yesterday, as we climbed Mount Hagurosan, I was so wet from the humidity and the mist, that today instead of wearing a sports bra, I wore my bathing suit top.
I figured that since a bathing suit is fast drying, it was a much better idea than to stay soaked in rain and in sweat all day long….
A note to other women mountain climbers hiking in steamy weather – It worked perfectly.

For a long while, we walked the mountain of death,… Not seeing the path ahead.
We could hear other people talk or laugh at a distance, and the sweet sound of hiking bells ringing, but we could see almost no one.

Climbing the boulders in the extreme heat, was a strenuous affair, and leaping on boulders that stood in muddy waters, required a lot of mindfulness and total attention to the path.

If I wanted a drink of water, I would stop completely, because there was no break in the path when you could just walk with your eyes scanning the scenery around you…
You eyes had to be glued to the path and each step that you took had to be carefully planned.

At the higher elevations, the path borders a vast patch of permanent snow.
At this point, I saw some people who took the bus there with us, turning to go back.
For me, it was a lesson that you must not give up at the sight of difficulty…

It was a hard hike that traversed over large and wet boulders with muddy patches.
We stopped to photograph often and it was getting to be past the half time, and we had not yet summited.

The half time is when you calculate how long it will take you to make the whole journey, to make sure that you have enough time to make your way down the mountain, to catch the last bus.

Jules looked worried about the time…. He said to me that we did not have the time to summit….and that we were running out of time.
The last bus was leaving at four in the afternoon, and there was no other way to get back to Haguro Village.

I did not answer Jules…
I KNEW that we simply MUST summit the mountain of death…
For me, and for us, it was a symbolic climb of overcoming the illusion of death, and we simply could not give up….

I walked faster, absolutely determined to summit and conquer the mountain of death….

I was convinced that we will succeed… We simply MUST summit and that we would still make it in time for the last bus, or we could always beg a ride back from one of the many cars in the parking lot….

I had no answer as to how to get back to our guesthouse….
I did not want to worry about it…
I was engulfed with insights and realizations and I simply felt compelled to push forwards at all cost.

Jules walked behind me as fast as he could.
I saw him walk behind me, with his head scanning the ground for the best stone to place his footing.

At the rest house two thirds of the way to the top, we bought some bottles of green tea, but we did not stop to rest.

After crossing a long stoney path, we reached the summit.
The low visibility made it impossible to see the views from the summit.

Through the mist of the low clouds, I could see many people sitting on the ground, boiling water for tea and for noodles, talking and eating.

At the temple gate, we paid a donation and stood to get a blessing.
The priest gave us two pieces of paper, cut in the shape of a small white kimono, with a blessing written on them.
He indicated that we must rub the paper all over our face, head, arms and clothing to purify us.
Then we placed the pieces of paper in a nearby stone fountain to float among the others.

The inner Shinto shrine had stone sculptures of rabbits standing on both sides of it.
The rabbit is considered to be the good luck animal of all the zodiac animals.

We got our spiritual pilgrim passport stamped by a priest wearing white, and drunk some sake from a small tin pot in small drinking saucers.

We did not linger long…. We had to turn around and almost run down the mountain to make the last bus.

The heat of the day had melted some of the snow, and the path down was slippery and even more wet.
Visibility was still low and it was very steamy and misty.

I ate my delicious Onigiri rice balls while walking on a flat board area, which was the ONLY portion of the path which I could walk without keeping my eyes on the rocky path…

For a couple of hours we had to walk in total mindfulness, focusing only on the NOW… Only on the present moment.

I noticed some people who slipped and fell, and they seemed so shaken as they regrouped and kept going… you truly could not look away for more than a few seconds, or you could twist an ankle or fall.

With the speed of the walk and with asking my inner Spirit guide for strength and help, I became energized and light,…. I felt like a graceful mountain goat or a gazelle, leaping from rock to rock with ease and good balance.

My mind was remembering that I am NOT a body, I AM SPIRIT…… I AM FREE….

We made it down in plenty of time to make the last bus.

A beautiful shrine filled with stone sculptures representing ancestral spirits, stood in a rock garden with red wind-chimes tinkling in the strong wind.

It was a beautiful childlike sight that warmed my heart….. So much love… So much devotion…. So much care….

We exited the marshland area filled with wildflowers and ponds, just when hordes of people had come to see the wildflowers.

We had a great day on the mountain of death.

My body acted very well and carried me in a perfect manner, and I thanked it for being so cooperative.

I noticed no muscle pain anywhere, except for the bottom of my feet which felt fatigued from seven hours of standing up continuously, and leaping on uneven rocks.

I cannot really speak of all the insights that I received and experienced while hiking the mountain of death.

All I can say is that from today on….I hope to develop a new relationship with my body,
A relationship of kindness and mutual honor and respect, instead of one of criticism, disappointments and expectations….

The body, however lovely, is not real.
It is an illusion of separation that we imagine to exist around our Perfect Spirit.

So is the illusion of death….
It is not real…
And LIFE is an everlasting flame of Love and Light with no end….

(If you wish to get some background on our experience in climbing the mountains in this region of Japan, please refer to my previous post about climbing Mount Hagurosan.)

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