Hiking the mountains of legend

The open-air temple of a secret religion

Mt. Tsurugi in Nishi-Awa is the second highest mountain in western Japan. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, its name means ‘sword’. The mountain is sacred to the practitioners of the secretive Shugendo religion which combines elements of Shinto, esoteric Buddhism and Taoism. Believers dress in white cloth and animal skins, and undertake challenging mountain treks to develop their spirituality. Their rites involve blowing conch shells, and the mournful notes of this unusual instrument rolling over the mountain is an exhilarating and unforgettable sound. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter one of these denizens of the mountain.

At 1,995 m above sea level, Mt. Tsurugi may sound like a tough climb. And it is, but there’s also a chair lift that takes you to within 900 m of the peak. The lift starts at Minokoshi station and the ride up to Nishijima takes about 35 minutes. In fact, it’s the longest chair lift in Japan. If you’re planning to take it in cold weather, wrap up warm! The top of Mt. Tsurugi is above the treeline, and it’s carpeted with attractive sasa bamboo. There’s a lodge at the summit where you can stay, and in the morning you may be treated to an amazing view of a sea of cloud.

Home to rare bears

Mt. Tsurugi is a sanctuary for about thirty black bears. These black bears with a moon shaped patch of white on their chest used to inhabit wide areas of the mountains of Shikoku, but hunting and increased reforestation have reduced their habitats. They live mostly at more than 1,000 meters above sea level where broadleaf deciduous forests remain. Since the bears are shy, you’re unlikely to see one, but it’s nice to know they’re there. In summer the pretty yellow wax bell plant flowers along some of Mt. Tsurugi’s trails. This rare plant only grows on high mountains.

More strangeness than you can shake a stick at

Mt. Tsurugi is associated with several mysterious stories including a giant serpent and the Ark of the Covenant. And these aren’t the only regional myths. The Oboke Koboke area is renowned for its yokai, hobgoblins of every sort.

There are all sorts of monsters – a little old man who cries like a baby, but when you pick him up to comfort him, he grows so big he crushes you, long-nosed demons called tengu, and all manner of shape-shifting animals.

Humorous as they may seem, they’re thought to have played a practical function in the life of the region. Many are associated with particular locations that are naturally hazardous, such as an attractive pool below a waterfall where a baby’s voice is said to be heard. Passers-by on the trail beside the pool are lured by the sound and fall in. The story is calculated to encourage people, particularly children to give the place a wide berth.

Today the yokai are celebrated in Nishi-Awa, and there are statues and effigies of them in many places with a hiking course linking them. You can get a map of the hike at the Michi no Eki, which happens to be home a really freaky Monster Museum. All of the many monsters depicted here were produced by local people using simple craft materials. Some of them are disturbingly realistic, causing small children to burst into tears and demand to be removed from their presence. Older children and the young at heart will be fascinated.