Mt. Takao-san

This post is overdue and I would just skip it if not for the fact that it covers a quintessential Japan experience. Also, it's Friday, so this is no time to work. Just grab a coffee and let me help you waste the last hour of your week.

So...shortly before I left for Texas in February, Boz and I took a day trip to Mt Takao (about an hour west of Tokyo). I had been researching hiking routes and Mt Takao appeared to be a sufficiently challenging spot. We took the Soba Express line (yep...named after the noodle) early on a Saturday morning and landed in a  remote little town near the base of Takao. We must have appeared a bit dazed upon arrival as a solo Japanese hiker immediately took us under his wing. He asked (via several gestures) where we were headed and we pointed up the mountain. He motioned for us to follow his lead for what we assumed would be 5 minutes. Takao-san is no joke, so we thought he was simply ensuring our safety and awareness of the pending challenge. It was quickly established that B and I are hiking beasts and capable of guiding ourselves, but after about 30 minutes in our threesome, it was clear this man was never leaving. The dude was just committed. He had found some Americans and he was going to get them to the summit of Takao if it was the last thing he did. In the States, this would have been entirely unacceptable to me. I prefer to be alone (or with Boz and Pancho) in nature, so I was on the verge of pushing the guy off a cliff until it dawned on me that the language barrier would prevent any chit-chat. It would just be like having my own personal mute sherpa...which is something I've always felt has been missing in my life.

The snow was still heavy in February so B and I began the hike wearing a few layers, but we were both stripped down and panting after a mile. Fortunately the Takao-san trail is dotted with colorful and distracting cultural sites, including shrines and statues of various mountain gods...and one octopus:

This gorgeous (and surprisingly ornate for being on a mountainside) shrine sits about halfway up Takao. There is a shrine near our T-Cube that has similar barrels (above right) and they're full of sake. It's all sake that has been donated by various breweries... and it is intended for the gods. I have developed a deep appreciation for sake over the past few months (which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one) so these barrels fascinate me. Barrels and barrels of free sake. Lucky-ass Shinto gods.

B and I continued up the mountain and were starting to lose enthusiasm...until we were suddenly blasted by the sound of drums and 'trumpety' noises...

Monks on their way to mid-day prayer and meditation!!!!
I realize a picture can only do so take my word for it, this was 'goose-bumpley' incredible. The sight of these very stern-faced monks marching in unison to their instrumental call to duty was surprisingly moving. Boz and I watched with mouths agape.
 It. Was. Awesome.

Our Japanese sherpa was visibly beside himself over this experience. He repeatedly looked at the monks, then nodded at us and exclaimed "lucky!!" numerous times. B and I eavesdropped on fellow hikers' conversations and deduced that a monk sighting (of this level of intimacy) is very, very rare. I have spotted monks on my daily expeditions in Tokyo, but they have always been traveling alone, dressed in casual monochrome robes, and obviously trying to fly under-the-radar. The monks on Mt Takao, however, are on their home turf, praying to their gods and practicing their daily routine, and (at most) merely tolerating the presence of hikers. Just so freaking cool.

side note: Boz and I pray together before he leaves every morning and we always thank our God for experiences such as these. Quite the interesting juxtaposition.

We continued our ascent and were nearing the summit when the snow just got crazy-deep (and slippery) and I COULD NOT stay upright. My sherpa offered me his walking stick. I declined and Boz reassured him that I would be fine. The sherpa insisted...and I hiked the rest of the way with this inexplicably kind and generous man's walking stick (while he slid around on the snow and ice behind us, always keeping a careful, watchful eye on his subjects).

We summited.

                                                         Our rock star of a guide:
(...and all my female readers simultaneously think 'Well no wonder you were fine with this') 
I know, right?? Apparently Japanese sherpas are easy on the eyes.
We chilled on top of Takao for about 20 minutes before tackling the descent, which we assumed would be smooth and uneventful. We made it halfway down the mountain and then, once again, struck gold:

 Boz and I have never once been on time for anything AND we had no idea how long the monks would be gone for morning meditation. We just happened to be in the right spot to see them return...this time in a much longer and louder procession.

We hiked the rest of the way in a euphoric daze and after much konichiwa-ing and bowing to our guide, jumped on the Soba Express back to Tokyo. It's quite difficult to capture the magnitude of this experience on 'paper', but perhaps this update will help:

Boz and I are hiking from the sea to the top of Mount Fuji in July. It's a 24-hour expedition called the Sea-to-Summit and the registration fees go to Oxfam Japan (to fight hunger and poverty). We are in maximum training mode right now and Boz is hell-bent on adding some hill workouts to our routine. I avoid running hills at all cost. I will run an extra 10 miles around a hill to avoid going over it. But, being the clever man that he is, Boz has lured me to the dark side with the promise of Takao-san. We are tackling hills on Takao this weekend and I am, for once, completely stoked. Even if we don't actually see the monks again, I now know they are on the mountain. And I now know there is a palpably magical quality to unfamiliar faiths and rituals. Language and raw fish flesh be damned, I am definitely starting to 'feel' Japan.