Xiwang mu Queen Mother of the West, her wild dancing women and rabbit pounding the elixir of immortality

Medieval poets and artists show the goddess riding on a phoenix or crane, or on a five colored dragon. Many sources mention three azure birds who bring berries and other foods to Xi Wangmu in her mountain pavilion, or fly before her as she descends to give audience to mortals. The poet Li Bo referred to the three wild blue birds who circle around Jade Mountain as “the essence-guarding birds.” They fulfil the will of the goddess. Several poets described these birds as “wheeling and soaring.” [Cahill, 99; 92; 51-3; 159]

The Jade Maidens (Yü Nü) are companions of the goddess on Kunlun. They are dancers and musicians who playjade maidens gather in a wilderness garden  as the goddess flies in on a phoenix

chimes, flutes, mouth organ, and jade sounding stones. In medieval murals at Yongle temple, they bear magical ling zhifungi on platters. In the “Jade Girls’ Song,” poet Wei Ying-wu describes their flight: “Flocks of transcendents wing up to the divine Mother.” [Cahill, 99-100]

Jade Maidens appear as long-sleeved dancers in the shamanic Songs of Chu and some Han poems. The Shuo wen jie zi  defines them as “invocators [zhu] …women who can perform services to the shapeless and make the spirits come down by dancing.” [Rawson, 427] Centuries later, a Qing dynasty painting shows a woman dancing before Xi Wang Mu and her court, moving vigorously and whirling her long sleeves. [Schipper, 2000: 36] Chinese art is full of these ecstatic dancing women.

goddess seated in hall, hands in sleeves, with large birds

Han dynasty people placed bronze mirrors in burials as blessings for the dead and the living, inscribed with requests for longevity, prosperity, progeny, protection, and immortality. Taoists also used these mystic mirrors in ritual and meditation and transmissions of  potency. One mirror depicting Xi Wangmu bears a poem on the transcendents:

The common people marched westward through various provinces, toward the Han capital. Many were barefoot and wild-haired (like their untamed goddess). People shouted and drummed and carried torches to the rooftops. Some crossed barrier gates and climbed over city walls by night, others rode swift carriages in relays “to pass on the message.” They gathered in village lanes and fields to make offerings. “They sang and danced in worship of the Queen Mother of the West.” [Lullo, 278-9]

People passed around written talismans believed to protect from disease and death. Some played games of chance associated with the immortals. [Cahill, 21-3] There were torches, drums, shouting. Farming and normal routines broke down. This goddess movement alarmed the gentry, and the Confucian historian presented it in a negative light. He warned the danger of rising yin: females and the peasantry stepping outside their place. The people were moving west—opposite the direction of the great rivers—“which is like revolting against the court.” The writer tried to stir alarm with a story about a girl carrying a bow who entered the capital and walked through the inner palaces. Then he drew a connection between white-haired Xi Wangmu and the dowager queen Fu who controlled the court, accusing these old females of “weak reason.” His entire account aimed to overthrow the faction in power at court. [Lullo, 279-80]

Change was in the air. Around the same time, the Taiping Jing(Scripture of Great Peace) described “a world where all would be equal.” As Kristofer Schipper observes, “a similar hope drove the masses in search of the great mother goddess.” [Schipper: 2000, 40] Their movement was put down within the year, but the dynasty fell soon afterward.

Patriarchal revisions
From the Han dynasty forward, the image of Xi Wangmu underwent marked changes. [Lullo, 259] Courtly writers tried to tame and civilize the shamanic goddess. Her wild hair and tiger features receded, and were replaced by a lady in aristocratic robes, jeweled headdresses, and courtly ways. Her mythology also shifted as new Taoist schools arose. She remains the main goddess in the oldest Taoist encyclopedia (Wu Shang Bi Yao). But some authors begin to subordinate her to great men: the goddess offers “tribute” to emperor Yu, or attends the court of Lao Zi. [Cahill, 34, 45, 121-2] They displace her with new Celestial Kings, Imperial Lords, and heavenly bureaucracies—but never entirely.

In the later Han period, the spirit-trees of Sichuan show Xi Wangmu at the crest, with Buddha meditating under her, in a still-Taoist context. [Little, 154-5; Wu, 89] By the Six Dynasties, several paintings in the Dun Huang caves show the goddess flying through the heavens to worship the Buddha. [Cahill, 42]

(In time, Taoism and Buddhism found an equilibrium in China, and mixed so that borders between the two eroded.) But cultural shifts never succeeded in subjugating the goddess.

She held her ground in the Tang dynasty, when Shang Qing Taoism became the official religion. She was considered its highest deity, and royals built private shrines to her. Her sheng headdress disappears, and is replaced by a nine-star crown. Poets named her the “Divine Mother,” others affectionately called her Amah, “Nanny.” But some literati demote the goddess to human status, making her fall in love with mortals, mooning over them and despairing at their absence. In a late 8th century poem she becomes “uncertain and hesitant” as she visits the emperor Han Wudi. [Cahill, 82-3; 58-69; 159]

Others portrayed her as young and seductive. [Lullo, 276] Worse, a few misogynists disparaged the goddess. The fourth century Yü Fang Bi Jue complained about her husbandless state and invented sexual slurs. It claimed that she achieved longevity by sexually vampirizing innumerable men and even preying upon boys to build up her yin essence. But the vigor of folk tradition overcame such revisionist slurs—with an important exception.

The ancient, shamanic shapeshifter side of Xi Wangmu, and her crone aspect, were pushed aside. Chinese folklore is full of tiger-women: Old Granny Autumn Tiger, Old Tiger Auntie (or Mother), Autumn Barbarian Auntie. They retain shamanic attributes, but in modern accounts they are demonized (and slain) as devouring witches. Two vulnerable groups, old women and indigenous people, become targets. [ter Harrm, 55-76] Yet the association of Tiger and Autumn and Granny goes back to ancient attributes of Xi Wangmu that are originally divine.

On the celestial level, the goddess also manifests her power through the Dipper Stars, a major focus of Taoist mysticism. [Schipper, 70. He notes that Ma Zi was also seen “as an emanation of one of the stars in the Big Dipper.” (43)] A Shang Qing text dating around 500 says that Xi Wangmu governs the nine-layered Kunlun and the Northern Dipper. The Shih Zhou Zhi also connects Kunlun mountain “where Xi Wang Mu reigns” to a double star in the Big Dipper, known as the Dark Mechanism. The Dipper’s handle, called the Jade Crossbar of the Five Constants, “governs the internal structure of the nine heavens and regulates yin and yang.” [Cahill, 35-8]

Taoist texts repeatedly associate Xi Wangmu with nine planes, a nine-leveled mountain, pillar, or jade palace. She is worshipped with nine-fold lamps. She governs the Nine Numina—which are the original ultimate powers in Shang Qing parlance. The goddess herself is called Nine Radiance, and Queen Mother of the Nine Heavens. [Cahill, 68-9, 126]

Legend said that the Zhou dynasty king Mu (circa 1000 bce) travelled to Kunlun in search of the Western Mother. Many ancient sources elaborated on their meeting beside the Turquoise Pond. The emperor Han Wudi was granted a similar audience in 110 BCE. The Monograph on Broad Phenomena says that the goddess sent a white deer to inform him of her advent, and he prepared a curtained shrine for her. She arrived on the festival of Double Sevens, riding on a chariot of purple clouds. She sat facing east, clothed in seven layers of blue clouds. Three big blue birds and other magical servitors set up the ninefold tenuity lamp.

In a later account, the cloud carriage of the goddess is drawn by nine-colored chimeric chilin. She wears a sword, a cord of knotted flying clouds, and “the crown of the Grand Realized Ones with hanging beaded strings of daybreak.” She granted the emperor a long instruction on how to attain the Tao—which he failed to follow. Instead of nourishing essence, preserving breath, and keeping the body whole, he lost himself in carousing and indulgences. [Cahill, 81, 149-153]

Qi Xi, or the Night of Sevens
Over the centuries the Double Sevens festival drifted away from Xi Wang Mu, and toward the Weaver Girl. This night was the one time in the year that she was allowed to meet Cowherd Boy. An ancient legend says that the god of heaven separated the lovers, or in some versions, Xi Wangmu herself. Angered that the girl was neglecting her loom, she made her return to the heavens. When Cowherd followed, the goddess drew her hairpin across the sky, creating the celestial river of the Milky Way to separate the lovers. (They were the stars Vega and Aquila.) Later, she helped them to reunite by sending ten thousand magpies to create a bridge. So the holiday is sometimes called the Magpie festival.


In this tomb art from Guyuan in Ningxia, it is Xi Wangmu and Dong Wanggong who are separated by the Milky Way, not the Weaver Girl and Cowherd, showing that there were a range of stories around these themes.

In other versions, Weaver Girl is a fairy whose work is to weave colorful clouds in the sky. The cowherd surprises her and her six fairy sisters swimming in a lake. He steals Weaver Girl’s clothes (or all of them) and she is forced to marry him. This angers the goddess of heaven, who commands her to return to heaven.

Xi Wangmu’s connection to weaving has faded, just as her sheng headdress was dropped from Taoist iconography. Now it is Weaving Maid who oversees women’s fabric arts, silk cultivation, and needlework. She rules “the fecund female world of seedy melons and fruits” and “the gathering and storing of precious things.” Yet this too connects her with ancient goddess, whose “numinous melon produces abundantly” every four eons. [Cahill, 77]

Two thousand years later after the Shang inscription to the Eastern and Western Mothers, folk religion continued to pair Xi Wangmu with a goddess of the East. Often it was Ma Gu or Ma Zi, goddess of the Eastern Sea, whose paradise island of Penglai was equivalent to Kunlun. Ma Zi is another eternal being who oversees vast cycles of time, as the Eastern Sea gives way to mulberry fields, and then back to ocean again. Some sources say that Xi Wangmu traveled to this blessed Eastern Isle. [Cahill, 118; 62; 77] These goddesses also share a title; like Wangmu, the name Ma Zi means “maternal ancestor, grandmother.” [Schipper, 166; Stevens, 137]

Source: Xi Wang Mu, the shamanic great goddess of China by Max Dashu Suppressed Histories Archives

Melons were introduced from China

The Moon rabbit, also called the Jade Rabbit, in folklore is a rabbit that lives on the moon, based on pareidolia that identifies the markings of the moon as a rabbit. The story exists in many cultures, particularly in East Asian folklore, where it is seen pounding in a mortar and pestle.[1][2]In Chinese folklore, it is often portrayed as a companion of the moon goddess Chang’e, constantly pounding the elixir of life for her; but in Japanese and Korean versions it is just pounding the ingredients for rice cake.

An early mention that there is a rabbit on the moon appears in the Chu Ci, a Western Han anthology of Chinese poems from the Warring States period, which notes that along with a toad, there is a rabbit on the moon who constantly pounds herbs for the immortals. This notion is supported by later texts, including the Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era encyclopedia of the Song Dynasty. Han Dynasty poets call the rabbit on the moon the Jade Rabbit or the Gold Rabbit (金兔), and these phrases were often used in place of the word for the moon. A famous poet of the Tang Dynasty period, Li Bai, relates how: “The rabbit in the moon pounds the medicine in vain” in his poem “The Old Dust.”

Folklore

White Rabbit in the Moon making the elixir of immortality. From an 18th-century imperial robe embroidery

In the Buddhist Śaśajâtaka (Jataka Tale 316),[3] a monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit resolved to practice charity on the day of the full moon (Uposatha), believing a demonstration of great virtue would earn a great reward.

When an old man begged for food, the monkey gathered fruits from the trees and the otter collected fish, while the jackal wrongfully pilfered a lizard and a pot of milk-curd. The rabbit, who knew only how to gather grass, instead offered its own body, throwing itself into a fire the man had built. The rabbit, however, was not burnt. The old man revealed himself to be Śakra and, touched by the rabbit’s virtue, drew the likeness of the rabbit on the moon for all to see. It is said the lunar image is still draped in the smoke that rose when the rabbit cast itself into the fire.

A version of this story can be found in the Japanese anthology Konjaku Monogatarishū, where the rabbit’s companions are a fox and a monkey.

Similar legends occur in Mexican folklore, where people also identified the markings on the moon as a rabbit. According to an Aztec legend, the god Quetzalcoatl, then living on Earth as a man, started on a journey and, after walking for a long time, became hungry and tired. With no food or water around, he thought he would die. Then a rabbit grazing nearby offered herself as food to save his life. Quetzalcoatl, moved by the rabbit’s noble offering, elevated her to the moon, then lowered her back to Earth and told her, “You may be just a rabbit, but everyone will remember you; there is your image in light, for all people and for all times.”

Another Mesoamerican legend tells of the brave and noble sacrifice of Nanahuatzin during the creation of the fifth sun. Humble Nanahuatzin sacrificed himself in fire to become the new sun, but the wealthy god Tecciztecatl hesitated four times before he finally set himself alight to become the moon. Due to Tecciztecatl’s cowardice, the gods felt that the moon should not be as bright as the sun, so one of the gods threw a rabbit at his face to diminish his light. It is also said that Tecciztecatl was in the form of a rabbit when he sacrificed himself to become the moon, casting his shadow there.

Native American (Cree) legend tells a different variation, about a young rabbit who wished to ride the moon. Only the crane was willing to take him. The trip stretched Crane’s legs as the heavy rabbit held them tightly, leaving them elongated as crane’s legs are now. When they reached the moon Rabbit touched Crane’s head with a bleeding paw, leaving the red mark cranes wear to this day. According to the legend, Rabbit still rides the moon to this day  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rabbit

The waning tradition of admiring the moon

Moonlight is reflected on the sea in front of Kugunari beach in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, in this photo taken in 2008 before the Great East Japan Earthquake. (Mainichi)

Moonlight is reflected on the sea in front of Kugunari beach in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, in this photo taken in 2008 before the Great East Japan Earthquake. (Mainichi)

Japan is famous as the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

 The national flag, featuring the central body of the solar system, is both simple and impressive (which I say with, hopefully, a justifiable national pride).

However, the sun is not the only body of skyward concern for the people of Japan. Over the years, the Japanese have developed a taste for another celestial body, albeit of much diminished luminance compared to the sun.

Admiring the moon has been an elegant thing to do in the tradition of Japanese culture. Many waka poems, which preceded haiku poems by hundreds of years, have touted the joy of looking up at the moon. Noble men and women in the Heian period (794-1192) made a point of making ritualized observations of the moon, in the crystal clear autumn night air. (In Japanese tradition, by the way, there is a rabbit in the moon, as opposed to the Man in the Moon perceived in some cultures. The rabbit is supposedly making rice cake.)

There’s much written testimony of the lunar love in the history of Japan. The Pillow Book is one of the most important and still widely read collections of essays from the Heian period.

Sei Shonagon, an extraordinarily talented woman of noble origin, wrote this magnum opus of hers around the end of the 10th century. In this masterpiece, there is a particularly memorable passage where Sei Shonagon is taken unawares one night, while resting herself on a column in the imperial court.

Empress Teishi, Sei Shonagon’s master and a much-admired guardian of fine culture at that time, asks what is occupying the writer’s mind, as her silence is making the Empress feel lonely. Sei Shonagon answers that she was just admiring the autumn moon. The Empress laughs on hearing that, in a good-humored manner. The whole sequence is a vibrant record of what now would be called streams of consciousness, exchanged and shared between two lonely souls.

As this piece from the Pillow Book suggests, the act of admiring the moon has always been exercised with a tinge of introspection. The tranquility of tsukimi (admiring the moon) is in marked contrast with the festivities associated with hanami (admiring the cherry blossoms), which is characterized by merriments fueled by sake and other alcoholic drinks.

In recent years, there has been a lamentable decline in the custom of admiring the moon. This venerable custom, usually conducted on a full-moon night in autumn, finds itself followed by fewer and fewer people. This decline in lunar admiration is partially due to the admittedly more subdued nature of the rituals, in conflict with the spirit of time which puts disproportionate emphasis on people having fun together. But there’s more to it. The deep reason behind it all is the changing landscape of Japan. Japanese people are, simply put, out of space for admiring the moon.

The custom is a demanding ceremony on the environment. Ideally, the stage should be set at the rim of a traditional Japanese house, with a garden in front, where the silvery heads of Japanese pampas grass would be swaying to and fro.

The autumn insects would be chirping their sweet music, while a gentle breeze would occasionally give a refreshing sensation. The skyline should be clear, without buildings or electronic wires, and the full moon, shining alone in the night sky, would be the sole conspicuous entity in the vast space above.

Such an environment, while being common in the Heian period, is an endangered species today. It would have been quite easy for Sei Shonagon to find a proper place for admiring the moon. In today’s Tokyo, that is simply impossible, perhaps even at the Imperial Palace.

Thus, the very idea of admiring the moon nowadays brings a feeling of nostalgia and a pang for times lost in the Japanese mind. Economic growth has turned simple joys in the past into unattainable luxuries of modern times. Difficulties in admiring the moon today symbolize the sometimes foolish approach we have taken as we progress. (By Kenichiro Mogi, brain scientist)

(Mainichi Japan) September 24, 2011

::

Hiking with the gods of nature in the heavens of Kamikochi

The scenic beauty of Kamikochi and its surroundings. (Mainichi)

The scenic beauty of Kamikochi and its surroundings. (Mainichi)

“You can’t buy a view like this,” beamed 73-year-old guide Kazunari Okuhara as he gazed over the ragged sun-drenched peaks of Kamikochi in the heavens of Nagano Prefecture. Having reached the 2,450-meter summit of Roppyaku-zan — one of the region’s famous crests — an incredible 220 times, the feisty mountaineer is well qualified to make such a comment.

Equipped with an ice pick and a machete, Okuhara — whose diminutive frame stands only 166 centimeters tall and weighs a mere 50 kilograms — packs a powerful presence as he poses for a few photos at the snap-shot hot-spot of Kappabashi Bridge. He soon leads a group on a 6-kilometer roundtrip hike (OK, a stroll by this legend’s lofty standards) to Myojin Pond and back.

Following the Azusa River upstream, the crystal-clear tributaries and the underwater grasses that shine in the sunlight are early signs of the purity of these alpine waters.

Kazunari Okuhara poses for photos on Kappabashi Bridge before guiding tourists around Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

Kazunari Okuhara poses for photos on Kappabashi Bridge before guiding tourists around Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

After a good hour’s walk along the river — past ferns, moss gardens, dry flood beds full of gigantic granite rocks, and massive trees — Myojin emerges. The area has several lodges and shops but its main attraction is Myojin Pond and the historical mountain Kamonji-Goya hut, the latter’s significance explained by a nearby sign.

The tribute reads: “This mountain hut was built in 1880 by Kamijo Kamonji who guided Rev. Walter Weston in the mountains of Japan. Today the hut is run by its fourth owner who is a descendant of Kamonji. Rev. Weston wrote about the mountains and Kamonji in his books. …”

It later continues: “Rev. Weston gave an ice-axe (pickel) to Kamonji as a tribute to their long friendship. This ice-axe, along with the hunting rifle Kamonji loved to use, is displayed on the wall near the sunken hearth in this hut.”

The hearth is a great place to warm up on a cold day, and visitors may also find a batch of fresh salted trout there as well, being slowly grilled to seal in the flavor. The hut remains a popular rest stop today.

A young man grills local trout, or iwana, at a mountain hut near Myojin Pond. (Mainichi)

A young man grills local trout, or iwana, at a mountain hut near Myojin Pond. (Mainichi)

A short walk from the Kamonji-Goya mountain hut lies Hotaka Shrine, where Okuhara-san immediately removes his cap and backpack, and pays his respects with a deep bow, a ringing of the bell and a loud clap of the hands as he prays for safety on the mountains.

Further along, Myojin Pond actually consists of a bigger pond and a smaller pond joined together, and crystalline water bubbles from underground springs. The surreal scenery is very Zen-like with the reflection of Mt. Myojindake on the still lake.

The Azusa River’s clear waters are naturally very cool at an average of 4 degrees Celsius year-round. Kamikochi is considered part of the Japan Alps National Park (or Chubu Sangaku National Park), and is protected from development. Private cars are banned in the area and public transport consists of hybrid buses. Visitors are repeatedly encouraged to take their trash home with them.

The area’s pristine environment also makes the national park a popular home for wild animals — bears, snakes, mountain goats, hawks and trout. Recently an increase in the number (and brazenness) of Japanese monkeys has left rangers puzzled. While tourists may see the creatures as “cute,” to environmentalists their increasing presence is a major challenge. Signs are posted throughout the area — even on the backs of bus seats — to remind visitors not to feed or touch the monkeys.

The pure waters of the tributaries that feed the Azusa River in Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

The pure waters of the tributaries that feed the Azusa River in Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

“Go on get out here! Get back up the mountains where you belong!” shouts Okuhara as he lunges with the heel of his ice pick at a simian seeking a snack at a lookout point. “They don’t belong here with humans …” he continues.

Seconds later the energetic guide breaks into song as he serenades his beloved Ryobbyaku-zan to laughter from tourists.

“I like climbing mountains using my bare hands and crawling on my knees, no ropes …” Okuhara adds as he stares up at the rocky roof of his outdoor theater in blatant admiration.

The most popular mountains in the region are Yarigatake at 3,180 meters and Hotaka-dake standing 3,190 meters tall. Autumn is a very popular time to scale the crests as the slopes are dotted with colorful fall foliage before the mountain is closed for winter on Nov. 15.

Guide Kazunari Okuhara serenades his beloved Ryobbyaku-zan from Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

Guide Kazunari Okuhara serenades his beloved Ryobbyaku-zan from Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

Huts are available on many of the trails for hikers to stay overnight before an early rise in a bid to reach the summits of the region’s peaks. The check-in time is normally around 4 p.m., but it is recommended that you get to the huts earlier. You do not need to bring a sleeping bag, and they provide two meals and sometimes a simple lunch for around 8,000 yen per person. You can get more information at the visitors’ center.

Despite Okuhara’s advice that you can’t put a price on the views of Kamikochi, for those looking to splurge serious amounts on their mountain adventures there is Gosenjaku Hotel, which with its nine-course French dinner, 400 types of wine, views along the allure Azusa River and refined rooms is a touch of luxury amid the rich natural surroundings.

Located right at Kappabashi, a wooden suspension bridge known as a symbol of this mountain resort, Gosenjaku dates back to 1918 when it started as an inn for lumber workers. The Gosenjaku Hotel now boasts of 29 rooms spread over four floors. The cheapest room package will set you back 28,000 yen, including the full multi-course French dinner and a hearty Japanese or Western breakfast. At the top end, a suite runs at 45,000 yen a night per person including two meals.

The Gosenjaku has an impressive 39 percent repeat rate for guests, which General Manager Hisaho Tanaka attributes to several factors.

The Gosenjaku Hotel offers a full-course French dinner for guests and has over 400 different types of wines in the cellar. (Mainichi)

The Gosenjaku Hotel offers a full-course French dinner for guests and has over 400 different types of wines in the cellar. (Mainichi)

“We have a perfect location and the quality of our food is first-rate. Plus our staff have all been with us a long time,” reasons Tanaka.

For those looking to avoid the peak prices of the top-end hotels, nearby Gosenjaku Inn offers accommodation and two meals for 13,100 yen, while the Kamikochi Nishiitoya-Sanso is even cheaper at 8,000 yen per person inclusive of breakfast and dinner.

The informative Sacred Highland Kamikochi (kamikochi.org) web site offers hotel discounts ranging up to 10 percent for some of the area’s better hotels. Alternatively, visitors not looking to spend so much can camp at designated sites for as little as 500 yen or stay at cabins, which are clean and reasonably priced.

Whatever your budget, as veteran mountaineer Okuhara reminded us, Kamikochi offers a priceless experience. (By Greg Mettam, Staff Writer)

The scenic beauty of Kamikochi and its surroundings. (Mainichi)

The scenic beauty of Kamikochi and its surroundings. (Mainichi)

“You can’t buy a view like this,” beamed 73-year-old guide Kazunari Okuhara as he gazed over the ragged sun-drenched peaks of Kamikochi in the heavens of Nagano Prefecture. Having reached the 2,450-meter summit of Roppyaku-zan — one of the region’s famous crests — an incredible 220 times, the feisty mountaineer is well qualified to make such a comment.

Equipped with an ice pick and a machete, Okuhara — whose diminutive frame stands only 166 centimeters tall and weighs a mere 50 kilograms — packs a powerful presence as he poses for a few photos at the snap-shot hot-spot of Kappabashi Bridge. He soon leads a group on a 6-kilometer roundtrip hike (OK, a stroll by this legend’s lofty standards) to Myojin Pond and back.

Following the Azusa River upstream, the crystal-clear tributaries and the underwater grasses that shine in the sunlight are early signs of the purity of these alpine waters.

Kazunari Okuhara poses for photos on Kappabashi Bridge before guiding tourists around Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

Kazunari Okuhara poses for photos on Kappabashi Bridge before guiding tourists around Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

After a good hour’s walk along the river — past ferns, moss gardens, dry flood beds full of gigantic granite rocks, and massive trees — Myojin emerges. The area has several lodges and shops but its main attraction is Myojin Pond and the historical mountain Kamonji-Goya hut, the latter’s significance explained by a nearby sign.

The tribute reads: “This mountain hut was built in 1880 by Kamijo Kamonji who guided Rev. Walter Weston in the mountains of Japan. Today the hut is run by its fourth owner who is a descendant of Kamonji. Rev. Weston wrote about the mountains and Kamonji in his books. …”

It later continues: “Rev. Weston gave an ice-axe (pickel) to Kamonji as a tribute to their long friendship. This ice-axe, along with the hunting rifle Kamonji loved to use, is displayed on the wall near the sunken hearth in this hut.”

The hearth is a great place to warm up on a cold day, and visitors may also find a batch of fresh salted trout there as well, being slowly grilled to seal in the flavor. The hut remains a popular rest stop today.

A young man grills local trout, or iwana, at a mountain hut near Myojin Pond. (Mainichi)

A young man grills local trout, or iwana, at a mountain hut near Myojin Pond. (Mainichi)

A short walk from the Kamonji-Goya mountain hut lies Hotaka Shrine, where Okuhara-san immediately removes his cap and backpack, and pays his respects with a deep bow, a ringing of the bell and a loud clap of the hands as he prays for safety on the mountains.

Further along, Myojin Pond actually consists of a bigger pond and a smaller pond joined together, and crystalline water bubbles from underground springs. The surreal scenery is very Zen-like with the reflection of Mt. Myojindake on the still lake.

The Azusa River’s clear waters are naturally very cool at an average of 4 degrees Celsius year-round. Kamikochi is considered part of the Japan Alps National Park (or Chubu Sangaku National Park), and is protected from development. Private cars are banned in the area and public transport consists of hybrid buses. Visitors are repeatedly encouraged to take their trash home with them.

The area’s pristine environment also makes the national park a popular home for wild animals — bears, snakes, mountain goats, hawks and trout. Recently an increase in the number (and brazenness) of Japanese monkeys has left rangers puzzled. While tourists may see the creatures as “cute,” to environmentalists their increasing presence is a major challenge. Signs are posted throughout the area — even on the backs of bus seats — to remind visitors not to feed or touch the monkeys.

The pure waters of the tributaries that feed the Azusa River in Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

The pure waters of the tributaries that feed the Azusa River in Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

“Go on get out here! Get back up the mountains where you belong!” shouts Okuhara as he lunges with the heel of his ice pick at a simian seeking a snack at a lookout point. “They don’t belong here with humans …” he continues.

Seconds later the energetic guide breaks into song as he serenades his beloved Ryobbyaku-zan to laughter from tourists.

“I like climbing mountains using my bare hands and crawling on my knees, no ropes …” Okuhara adds as he stares up at the rocky roof of his outdoor theater in blatant admiration.

The most popular mountains in the region are Yarigatake at 3,180 meters and Hotaka-dake standing 3,190 meters tall. Autumn is a very popular time to scale the crests as the slopes are dotted with colorful fall foliage before the mountain is closed for winter on Nov. 15.

Guide Kazunari Okuhara serenades his beloved Ryobbyaku-zan from Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

Guide Kazunari Okuhara serenades his beloved Ryobbyaku-zan from Kamikochi. (Mainichi)

Huts are available on many of the trails for hikers to stay overnight before an early rise in a bid to reach the summits of the region’s peaks. The check-in time is normally around 4 p.m., but it is recommended that you get to the huts earlier. You do not need to bring a sleeping bag, and they provide two meals and sometimes a simple lunch for around 8,000 yen per person. You can get more information at the visitors’ center.

Despite Okuhara’s advice that you can’t put a price on the views of Kamikochi, for those looking to splurge serious amounts on their mountain adventures there is Gosenjaku Hotel, which with its nine-course French dinner, 400 types of wine, views along the allure Azusa River and refined rooms is a touch of luxury amid the rich natural surroundings.

Located right at Kappabashi, a wooden suspension bridge known as a symbol of this mountain resort, Gosenjaku dates back to 1918 when it started as an inn for lumber workers. The Gosenjaku Hotel now boasts of 29 rooms spread over four floors. The cheapest room package will set you back 28,000 yen, including the full multi-course French dinner and a hearty Japanese or Western breakfast. At the top end, a suite runs at 45,000 yen a night per person including two meals.

The Gosenjaku has an impressive 39 percent repeat rate for guests, which General Manager Hisaho Tanaka attributes to several factors.

The Gosenjaku Hotel offers a full-course French dinner for guests and has over 400 different types of wines in the cellar. (Mainichi)

The Gosenjaku Hotel offers a full-course French dinner for guests and has over 400 different types of wines in the cellar. (Mainichi)

“We have a perfect location and the quality of our food is first-rate. Plus our staff have all been with us a long time,” reasons Tanaka.

For those looking to avoid the peak prices of the top-end hotels, nearby Gosenjaku Inn offers accommodation and two meals for 13,100 yen, while the Kamikochi Nishiitoya-Sanso is even cheaper at 8,000 yen per person inclusive of breakfast and dinner.

The informative Sacred Highland Kamikochi (kamikochi.org) web site offers hotel discounts ranging up to 10 percent for some of the area’s better hotels. Alternatively, visitors not looking to spend so much can camp at designated sites for as little as 500 yen or stay at cabins, which are clean and reasonably priced.

Whatever your budget, as veteran mountaineer Okuhara reminded us, Kamikochi offers a priceless experience. (By Greg Mettam, Staff Writer)

Related links

Sacred Highland Kamikochi
http://www.kamikochi.org/
Sacred Highland Kamikochi Special Offers
http://www.kamikochi.org/special-offers
Gosenjaku Hotel
http://www.gosenjaku.co.jp/english/
Kamikochi Official Website
http://www.kamikochi.or.jp/english/index.php

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