Last month I climbed Hakusan, a volcano on the borders of the Ishikawa, Fukui and Gifu prefectures, which is one of Japan`s three holy mountains along with Tateyama and Mt Fuji. Enough time had passed since my ordeal on Mt Fuji, and I had heard enough nice things about this hike to give mountain climbing another go. I was hoping to be more impressed by Hakusan than Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish author who settled in and became famous for his writings about Japan, was by Mount Fuji. In his diary he complained about the physical difficulty of the climb and the anticlimactic view from the top – “No spot in this world can be more horrible, more atrociously dismal, than the cindered tip of the Lotus as you stand upon it.”
“If you never climb Mount Fuji, you are a fool, but if you climb it more than once you are also a fool.”
“Fujisan is a mountain for looking at, not for climbing.”
– old Japanese sayings
I woke up at 3:15 a.m., got geared up and cycled to my friend`s house where we were getting a lift from. There is limited public transport to get to the beginning of the trail, so this climb was coordinated by the JET Association who organised carpools. It was strange to drive through Kanazawa at 4:30 a.m. when the streets were full of revelers leaving bars, clubs and karaoke parlours in search of food. It took about an hour and a half to get to Hakusan, and the terrain gradually turned more mountainous and was lit up by the dawn.
We arrived at the parking grounds at about half six to meet with everyone else in our group and from there we took a short bus ride up to the start of the trail. There were lots of other groups of well-prepared-looking Japanese climbers stretching around the starting station, so we decided to just have a quick group photo and then get going so that we could get ahead of the other groups. After going through the torii gate that marked the start of the pilgrimage, the first part of the trail was actually a (steel) rope bridge suspended over the river valley below. It swung precariously with the pounding of our footsteps and we swayed like drunks across to the other side. I was in the middle of our group when we headed off, but I knew that if I didn’t want to get left behind, I had to keep up with the fastest group at the front.
I caught up at the first station, and after a quick rest to take off a layer of clothing and apply suncream now that the morning cool was fading, I went with the first group to start climbing again. At the head of our group was of course, the indomitable Liz, and our friends Kacie and Mauricio. The first section had been quite steep, with stone steps embedded in the forested hill, but past the station, the vegetation became more low-lying and we were able to use the excuse of appreciating the beautiful views below us to pause for a moment to catch our breath.
At the next rest stop we were in good spirits because we could see the top of the mountain and it didn’t look too far away, that was, until we were told that it wasn’t the summit- the peak of Hakusan was the mountain behind the one we were on! Unlike Mt Fuji, which is so iconic due to it being an isolated volcano with a very defined outline, Hakusan is part of the Japanese Alps, chains of mountains that run across Honshu, and so it’s a mountain piled on top of other mountains.
When we reached what we thought was the top of Hakusan, we arrived at a plateau that had a wooden path marking the way to the trail to the true summit. As we walked across the meadow of wild grasses and colourful bushes, it reminded me so much of Ireland and walking in places like the Burren. And then when you looked behind, it was like looking at New Zealand and its Middle Earth mountains.
It was great to be with the front group because, thanks to Liz’s whip-cracking, we made it up in about four hours, whereas we were told that it usually takes five. I was the straggler of our little group, as I had to stop more often to catch my breath and quiet my heart, but I managed to keep up and when we got to the top we had time to rest and survey our domain. The climb was not an easy one – a few times I thought I was going to have an asthma or a heart attack, or that my legs would seize up from constantly lifting them – and the descent was hard on my knees. But I enjoyed it so much more than I did Fuji. I was better prepared mentally (if not physically), I was able to move fast because there were less people, I stayed with a group of friends who encouraged and entertained me, and the mountain and views were stunningly beautiful. I probably wont go back and climb it again, but I definitely want to climb Tateyama next year to tick all the holy mountains off my list.