This year I wanted to combine two Japanese New Year traditions, Hatsuhinode (Viewing the years first sunrise) and Hatsumode ( First visit to a shrine). Not far from where we live is a 417 metre mountain named Honmyozan, and on top of it is a small shrine. Its not a huge mountain, but its the highest one in its area and the views are supposed to be superb. The weather has warmed up some, and it looked to be cloudless through tomorrow, so in the middle of the afternoon on new years eve we called some friends who own an Onsen in Arifuku at the base of the mountain to check if the trail marked on my map still exists. They tell me it does, and that people go up there for Hatsuhinode, so why dont we come and have a soak in their onsen before heading up there.
We get into Arifuku around 8 p.m. and enjoy a soak in the baths for an hour or so. Our plan was then to head up the trail out of the village and get to the top by midnight, sleep out and wake before dawn. Our friends though had contacted the Ujiko (Parishioners group) responsible for the shrine on top and arranged for us to drive up with them. There is no road marked on the map, but apparently the Ujiko have been building one to enable easier access to the shrine. The Ujiko consists of about 30 families who live around the mountain, and each year 3 families send someone to "run" the shrine over the new year. We meet up with them and ten of us pile into 2 little K truck pick-ups and head up the mountain. The word road does not adequately describe what we were on. Only slightly larger than a footpath, nothing larger than a K truck could make it. It is hand made, and steep. After about 20 minutes of driving we have to stop as the 660cc engine is overheating under the strain of carrying 5 adults and 3 kids. Another 20 minutes of driving and we stop, pile out, and walk the last 400 metres to the top.
The generator is fired up providing light, and we enter the small shrine. The space in front of the altar is 6 tatami, small enough for a kerosene heater to quickly make warm while the men busy themselves with preparations. One starts a fire to the side of the shrine, another lights the candles on the altar and starts filling paper envelopes with Osenmai, rice that had been on the altar as an offering to the Kami. The envelopes will be given to all the people who visit the shrine tomorrow. The oldest man in the group is a hunter and he had brought some Inoshishi ( wild boar), so he starts preparing Inoshishi nabe. Every village has a hunter, and wild boar are the main species hunted, so boar meat is not a rarity. About once a year someone gives me a big chunk. While all this is going on, the rest of us busy ourselves drinking the Omiki, the sake that has been on the altar for the gods. When that has gone we move on to non-sacred warmed sake. Someone pulls out a huge pack of sashimi, and someone else a bag of onigiri, then a bottle of nigorizake, and everyone sits around amiably chatting till we notice that midnight has passed.
The shrine was builthere in the early 16th century by the Amago clan, one of the dominant warlords in western Japan who had a small castle on top of this mountain. Following the Amago's defeat by the Mori clan the castle was destroyed but the shrine remained and has never had a priest so has been maintained by the local people ever since. The small building we are in has been constructed around the original shrine which is still in pretty good shape, though the cedar shingle roof is a little worse for wear. Around 2 a.m. the sake has got the better of me and I head out onto the rock outcropping in front of the shrine, spread out my sleeping bag and crawl in. Its a beautiful, moonless night filled with stars and though is below freezing I quickly fall asleep to be woken 4 hours later as the first visitors to the shrine arrive. They have spent more than an hour climbing the mountain and its still an hour to sunrise.
My sleeping bag is coated with frost so i stay inside it a little longer, but as color appears in the eastern sky I jump out and quickly head to the fire. More and more people arrive until we number about 30. Then a shout cause everyone to look to the east as the sun pokes over the horizon. Everyone claps and cheers as it slowly ascends till the whole orb is above the horizon. All agree that this is the best Hatsuhinode in many many years. Back in my village there is a new years party planned for 10 a.m., so with a small group we head back down the mountain by the footpath. It is as steep as the road we came up on, but not difficult walking, and the warming sun streaming through the trees make it very pleasant.
Onsen in Japan
Monday, January 02, 2006