To get up the mountain to where the upper Togakushi Shrine is located, you start by going down.
This gentle descent after lunch makes for a pleasing start. We pass under a large Torii gate and after a few minutes walking, we are away from the main road and the air has become noticeably crisper and fresher. We inhale deeply. The track levels out and gradually begins to ascend. The full extent of the towering cryptomeria trees which line the track becomes apparent. The sight takes our breath away.
The trees were planted over 800 years ago and today they have grown so tall, that they serve to make any human visitors appear extremely small and insignificant in comparison. It’s a clement day, but the light wind that is blowing is enough to create a sibilant hush in the trees overhead. In many ways, this towering man-made corridor of trees has the same vertiginous impact as the great gothic cathedrals of Europe, structures that also took centuries to build.
We pass under the Zuishinmon gate, another thatched specimen which I take a picture of, and carry on up the mountain track. The route attracts a full cross section of society: there are well dressed persons with slacks and white shoes, day-trippers with highly illuminous back-packs and an assortment of walking sticks, professional, improvised and scavenged.
The atmosphere is certainly more subdued and calm that in the ninja museum and house. Here, there are lots of children with their parents, who 30 minutes ago were goofing around the obstacles in the ninja house and running around the ninja park, enthusiastically scrambling up ladders and down slides. All that raw energy has gone now as the kids are coaxed (and sometimes carried) up the mountain track by their parents.
We pass some trees with spectacularly gnarled and exposed roots.
As we continue to ascend, the temperatures drops and there is more and more snow on the ground. Parts of the path are slushy and we have to hop and jump to avoid the pools being formed by the footfall up the mountain.
The final section before the upper shrine is a bit of a scramble, with a lot of stone steps to ascend, all of which are very wet and slippy. We need to apply our hands to the cold stone to avoid falling. It’s quite congested, because it doesn’t appear that anyone has turned back before reaching the upper shrine. There are some spectacularly over-dressed women in stilettos precariously edging up the slippery steps. I know it’s not a penance, but such as ascent is surely more challenging than going up the mountain bare-footed, something one often sees on Croagh Patrick, a holy mountain in Ireland which is popular with hikers and pilgrims alike.
It has taken us about an hour to reach the upper shrine. The view and setting are very dramatic, though there’s very little space to hang around and just appreciate the scene. It seems everyone who makes it to the top, commits a quick prayer at the shrine, turns around and goes back down the mountain.
I find a little corner to wait as Sachiko queues up before the shrine. While waiting, I see an elderly-looking foreign couple and we strike up a quick conversation.
“Two weeks we’ve been travelling around Japan and you’re the first foreigner we’ve seen”
“Same here”, I reply, “I’ve have been in Japan ten days and have only seen a handful”
The conversation takes me away from the beauty of the mountain I’m on. It’s only been one and a half months since the Tōhoku earthquake. The far-reaching effects and uncertainty created by the Fukushima disaster have caused domestic tourism to slump and foreign tourism to collapse. In the weeks after March 11th, only a minority of travellers decided not to cancel their plans.
The friendly couple are from Canada and they’re in Japan on holidays. After our brief exchange of information on foreign tourist sightings, they depart.
I go find Sachiko and we begin to descend the mountain track as well.
After we’ve descended all the way to the lower Togakushi shrine, where we got off the bus this morning, we pay a short visit to a local onsen. A great feature of Nagano is the numerous onsens that are dotted across the prefecture. The simple precaution of always bringing a towel with you when leaving the house in the morning, ensures that you’ll frequently be able to enjoy a warm and relaxing soak at any time during the day. Douglas Adams would surely approve.
We return to the Kobayashi household for our last night in Nagano. As usual, dinner is excellent and afterwards a lot of whiskey is drank. Sachiko’s father gives a demonstration of Noh singing, an extraordinary sonic art and presents me with some old books of Noh poetry, telling me he’s confident that in my long life, I’ll someday learn to read the old-style Japanese. I’m flattered and slightly scared. Sachiko tells me afterwards she can’t even read the Japanese in the books, so specialist a script is used.
Tomorrow we’re taking the bus towards Tokyo, where we’ll first be going to Narita airport to collect a friend who’s flying in from Shanghai.