There's One Catch to Hiking the Japanese Mountain Promising Rebirth
The arduous trek to the top of Mount Mitoku has been followed by pilgrims for centuries, but my sneakers that have lasted me through numerous treks were frowned upon.
I was staring dubiously at the rough straw sandals suspended from the monk’s fingertips. “Waraji have strong grip!” he said “much better than those” he added, gesturing at my trainers with mild derision. Up until now they had seen me across rivers, over mountains, and through jungles, but were about to be abandoned for some less-than-convincing straw sandals. Faintly aware the hike involved scaling steep slopes with chains, I should have known a mountain promising rebirth would take a little more effort than most.
Tapping their approved hiking boots gleefully on the damp ground, my fellow hikers—previously considered friends—admired the model foot beside me, horrifying in every way imaginable. We were standing at the base of Mount Mitoku in Tottori, a sacred site home to Japan’s most dangerous national treasure, awaiting permission to climb.
Highly revered in the Shugendo tradition of asceticism, the arduous trek to the top has been followed by pilgrims for centuries. Rewarded by the sight of the stunning Nagereido temple, hewn into the rockface and perched on stilts, they also seek to purify the six roots of perception, a process known as Rokkon Shojo. Training the ears, eyes, nose, tongue, body, and mind, the journey rewards self-discipline with natural harmonization and deep spiritual power.
Reluctantly winding the straw between my toes, I listened to our guide’s description of the climb ahead. Strewn with temples, the trail is known for root-covered paths and steep climbs, with occasional chains to help climbers along the way. I began to think maybe my current levels of spiritual strength were fine without the promised boost—before realizing that I and I alone had lost the shoe battle. Accepting some extra inner strength might not go amiss after all, I tied a final knot and accepted my fate.
Forbidden from climbing in rain, we had been waiting patiently for the light morning drizzle to peter out. We snacked on some locally made tofu, keen to get into the ascetic mindset, but supplemented it with the not-so-traditional biscuits we had also smuggled in. Eventually, our monk gave his blessing for us to set off, and my sandal-clad feet were able to begin their journey to inner strength.
Soon becoming more of a scramble than a stroll, with tangled roots twisted across the narrow paths, my primary concern moved quickly from future enlightenment to protecting my terrifyingly exposed toes. Lost in contemplation of their current risk-status, I can only assume I adopted a particularly rapt look, as our guide was keen to know what was on my mind. Unable to admit to my preoccupation, I mumbled about the beauty of nature and we admired the primeval forest surrounding us, which soon became a convincing distraction.
Slowly but surely, we ascended the mountainside, conquering the root-strewn slope known as kazurazaka and pulling ourselves up the rocky-incline known as kusarizaka with the help of rusty chain links. Feeling triumphant but exhausted, we had reached Monjudo—a temple offering haunting views across the valley from its sheer-drop veranda.
Freeing my feet temporarily from the mud-encased waraji sandals and breathing a sigh of relief, I stepped onto the smooth wooden ledge. We circled the temple to achieve the wisdom that legend rumored a full rotation would bestow and sat for a while to admire the mist-covered valley beneath us. Centuries ago, the founder of Shugendo—En no Gyoja—had thrown three lotus petals into the sky to seek out new spiritual lands. As legend has it, they landed in Nara, Ehime, and here on Mt. Mitoku—claiming them as spiritual homes for the gods.
After catching our breath and almost losing it again as we nearly fell victim to vertigo, we continued on. We had almost forgotten our quest for purification when we came across Shorodo temple, home to a three-tonne bell with mysterious origins. Rung to calm the spirit and purify your ears, how the bell was dragged up to its location remains unknown. After a small scramble up rocks to swing a wooden beam into the weather-worn side of the bell, you can send a dull but calming ring reverberating out across the valley.
With this taste of purification providing a much needed boost, the trail continued, leading us to the dark and narrow cavern of Motoyuikake-do and Kannon-do, sheltered in a rocky cave overlooking the forests below. As dark and un-enticing as it is possible to get, the path leading behind the temples offers a rare chance at rebirth and is nicknamed the womb. Perched on the very edge of a steep cliff, there was no alternative, and somewhat reluctantly, we took it in turns to step into the darkness.
Cool and silent, the cave behind the temple was at once unsettling and strangely comforting. The closeness of the air and the calm of darkness was a welcome break for a hike which had assaulted the full six senses, now offering them a chance at respite. Stepping back into daylight to see my friend curled up and reenacting their rebirth, the spell was broken, but not entirely forgotten.
Feeling refreshed if not entirely reborn, my scuffed and muddy feet continued on until we were stopped in our tracks by our guide. One by one, we were allowed to turn the corner of a narrow cliff-edge path, uncertain of what lay on the other side. Suspended in the rockface above, Nagereido greets you, surveying the valleys below and stirring a rare sense of awe in admirers. Weather worn but grand, the temple stands on wooden stilts in a seemingly impossible act of balance. With its construction a mystery, legend has it that Gyoja himself threw it into place from the base of the mountain.
We took a seat on a worn slope in order to admire the architectural wonder, counting our senses as we caught our breath. Purifying our ears with ancient bell-ringing, our bodies with fatigue from the challenging climb, and our eyes with the views of the valleys and Nagereido itself, we were already halfway there. The scents of a rain-washed forest along with incense at the lower temples had refreshed our noses while a taste of local tofu made from fresh water had taken our tongues. Lastly, our minds—here, our guide explained, was the true power of Nagereido. While beauty can be shallow—only affecting our eyes, the wonder of the temple before us reached the very soul of its observers. Filling them with the wonder of both nature and man, effortless existence with artful design.
Rarely a believer in anything spiritual or transformative (a skeptic, some have even said), I had expected to make my usual non-committal nods when faced with the temple and the end of our rebirth, but found myself genuinely in awe. Partly at nature, partly at those who had built the temples and carried the bells, and partly at the beauty of the two combined. Looking at my feet for the first time in a while, now caked in mud with the occasional crushed insect, I realized the straw sole had moulded to me, protected my toes and let me feel the rain-covered grass, the mud and the grit between my toes and I felt far better for it.