I’m really blessed these days to be able to do so many different types of writing, both for myself and different online media outlets. A lot of the work I do for others is travel-centric review and itinerary pieces, but I still love writing longform brooding travelogues on this blog. Recently, I traveled up to Mitakesan, one of my favorite places in Japan, and published two articles for Japan Journeys: a one-day itinerary for the mountain and an accommodation review. Here, then, is the lengthy, touchy-feely companion to those articles.
In the summer, my friend Hava and I got to talking. He was pretty bummed about being stuck in the city and the fate of the world as we know it was getting him down. Trapped in his apartment, too much time on social media, he had gotten buried in a hole, similar to the one that I had found myself in back in when I got laid off in the spring and stuck in Kanazawa. “Let’s just get away,” I said. “Let’s go to the mountains, get out in nature. Let’s go to my mountain. Let’s go to Mitakesan.”
The first time I visited Mt. Mitake was in March last year on a whim. I happened to be there while, far away in California, my grandmother passed away. Serendipitously, as if the spirits of the mountain themselves arranged it, on a whim I stepped into a 150 year old guest house for tea and met Koko. Then I returned last June for the purpose of interviewing her and learning more about Higashibaba, the house that her Shinto priest husband will inherit and that she helps to run. It felt like I’d been trying to get back to Mt. Mitake and my new friends ever since. I was finally able to in August, which turned out to be the most magical visit of all, since I stayed at Higashibaba itself, the grand dame of the mountain.
And Mitakesan is a pretty special mountain in Japan. There are many mountains to visit in the country, and plenty of good hikes, and countless lovely, family-run guesthouses. But Mitakesan is more spiritual, literally, as Musashi Mitake Shrine sits on the very top of the mountain itself. Around the shrine, a religious community sprang up, and a whole pilgrimage industry to support it, with restaurants and pilgrimage guest houses, called shokubo, all run by Shinto priests and their families. To this day, the majority of the community are still made up by Shinto priests.
Stepping out of the cable car onto the top of the mountain after the drudgery of the city really did feel like taking in a big breath of fresh, clean air. We lingered and admired the view, then set off down the road to Higashibaba, admiring the quaint signs along the way. Somehow I’d missed a small laminated book that details all of the many local birds along with their calls, spelled out in katakana, one of the Japanese writing systems. How utterly delightful.
I’ve always known that Higashibaba was a special house, but staying there allowed me to have the time to really admire all it’s lovely details, such as the thick cedar floors that feel so good under your feet as you glide down the hall, and all the delicate sliding screen doors and windows, and the sheer abundance of seemingly-random decor that probably all has their place in the family history. Koko warmly welcomed us, with Jou, the baby, on her back, and showed us to the two huge rooms that would be ours for our stay. She and Okami (the official title for her mother-in-law, the house proprietress) served us some matcha and sweets, and then we took showers and changed into our yukatas, which we would lounge in for the majority of the time we spent in the house.
Dinner that night was beautiful, of course, a tray filled with tiny dishes in their own uniquely sized and shaped receptacles. Arranging these meals is truly an art. I would have no idea how to do it. A few of the dishes included: konyaku sashimi, a soft sesame dish, an assortment of fancy pressed sushis, green matcha soba noodles, a basket of tempura, an egg pudding, and a clear, refreshing soup. We think of all Japanese soups as being miso with tofu and seaweed, but actually, the variety of soups in Japan has really surprised me.
Koko came by with her husband and older son, Dan. At only two and a half, Dan didn’t remember me, and was shocked into silence when he saw our strange white people faces. His parents tried to get him to say “konban wa” (good evening) to us, but he refused, and only stared with his giant toddler eyes. Later, I went to the kitchen to ask for water, and was met with a delightful scene: the family eating on the floor, surrounded by the kids’ toys all around them. Now, they finally got Dan to speak to me, and say “konban wa” and give a polite little bow. Precious.
To go with our meal, we had a refreshing summer sake, and chatted late. The whole trip was a constant, endless stream of conversation, covering so many topics. Dating. Love. Success. Creativity. Travel. Japan. Family. Work. Connection. The future. Friendship.
Breakfast the next morning was served at 9:00, and it was once again a feast, but thankfully lighter than dinner. Dishes included: natto (which I actually ate half of, a first for me), soft tofu, tamago yaki, rice with edamame, nori, pickled cucumber and umeboshi, a hearty soup, and salad.
Although we had a big day of hiking planed, we lingered around and Okami served us some coffee as well. I think it was during this time that Toshu (the official title for Koko’s father in law, the head of the house) accosted us. Toshu is a character. The house is his, but it’s obvious that Koko runs the show these days. He likes to fuss around, most likely in gym clothes with a cigarette dangling from his mouth if he’s out of doors, futzing with the insect repellant and the window shutters, but not really doing too much. This morning, he played us his flute, some Shinto melodies that are used for ceremonies. At least, I think that’s what the songs were. About half of what he says gets a little lost in translation.
And then, much to Koko’s chagrin but to our delight, he went and got his sword to show us. A real Japanese sword, a family heirloom! It was long, with a thin, slightly curved blade in a bamboo sheath with a simple bamboo handle. The blade was so beautiful, shiny and precise, with a watery pattern running through the steel. He showed us how samurais always sit on their knees, so they can easily draw their swords anytime, and we worried for a second that he was going to hit something. But both of us, and the furnishings in the room, escaped unscathed.
By this time it was already 11:00, and high time for us to get out and see the mountain. We began at the shrine. The main building is beautiful of course, but I love slinking around the smaller wooden buildings in the back. It all feels a bit more spooky, a bit more magical, with wolf statues everywhere. This is because, thousands of years ago, in the ancient days of Japan, the emperor’s son was attacked by a deer demon on this mountain. He was helped by a white wolf, so the wolf is enshrined here as a guardian deity. We spent a while praying, taking tons of pictures, and admiring the delicate seasonal purple and white flowers. We both contemplated buying omamori (Shinto good luck charms), but decided against it since there were no English translations. If I buy an omamori, I want to know what it is that I am wishing for.
We spent the next few hours hiking around. First stop in our loop was Nagao-daira plateau, boasting great views of the surrounding area and tons of dragonflies. From there we hiked down an endless flight of steep steps to the Nanayo-no-taki waterfall. This was by far the most difficult thing we did and my legs ached for days afterward. The waterfall, tucked into a crevice between rocks, was pretty impressive, and made for a perfect place to stop for a victory beer. The rocks were pretty slippery and treacherous, but surprisingly both of us managed to get close to the falls without slipping. There were quite a few families with kids there, and the kids really impressed me, because this was not easy hiking!
Luckily, to get out of that area there were less stairs and they were much more even. The Rock Garden path is sublimely lovely, a rocky trail that zigzags alongside a clear, cool stream. It’s cleverly done, so that it feels natural but must be man made. At the end of this is another waterfall, the mystical Ashiro-no-taki, regarded as a slightly sacred place here, and marked with a Torii gate. This is the fall that pilgrims stand under. They hike at dawn and jump in and see how long they can stand it! I wanted to try it, but we still had a ways to go, and soldiered on.
The first dinner had been nice, but the second dinner was exquisite. Dishes included: fresh sashimi with sweet shrimp and tuna, tempura that included a beautiful forest mushroom, soba noodles, clear soup, but different from the night before, grilled river fish that Toshu had caught himself, roasted chicken with rosemary from Koko’s parent’s garden, vegetables, a gelatinous dish made with starchy yam and agar powder, kumquat, candied ginger, and a dessert dish consisting of a single sweetened giant black bean and a pickled green plum. I ate every single bite of this dinner and loved every minute.
For this dinner, we busted out a bottle of premium Daiginjo sake that we had brought from a local brewery. Baba saw it and got so excited. “Daiginjo!!! Oishi-ne! Suparashi!!!” Clearly he approved of our choice. In hindsight, we should have offered him some, but then again, we probably would never have gotten rid of him. Koko also gave us a bottle of sparkling plum wine, and once again, we had deep, sentimental talks into the night. Before each glass, we made a toast, which varied from “To Higashibaba!” and “To friendship!” and “To success!” and even “To Fuck Yes!”
At 9:00 the next morning it was time for our final lavish meal. Dishes included: cold salmon (I’ve been in Japan long enough that I love a cold fish for breakfast!), rice with forest mushrooms, a different hearty soup from the day before, green beans with a paste made from egg yolk and miso, candied sweet potato, a grilled eggplant and shiso pepper with miso, and a salad. Although Koko had said check out was at 10:00, by now we knew the drill. They were going to take their time and so could we. Once again, we were delayed with coffee, and a tour of the house by Koko, displaying all the secret nooks and crannies like the old style “refrigerator” basement and edo-era toilets and uneven ninja stairs.
Finally, the family bowed us out and sent us on our way down the mountain back to the city. For me, travel is ultimately about connection, and so the best things about this trip were seeing Koko and interacting with her family, so removed and living such a different life up there on the mountain, in an old, historic house. It seriously felt like stepping back in time. The Japanese love vacations where you don’t really do much: good food, relaxing with your loved ones in a beautiful location, that’s enough. But staying at Higashibaba really takes the ryokan experience to another level. It felt like we were samurai warlords passing through.
Safe and Happy Travels,