Kachuo Fuugetsu: “Forest Bath”, Mount Takao

Forest Bath, Mount Takao
Forest Bath, Mount Takao by Aaron “tokyoaaron” Paulson 2013

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea…

– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

… or the woods, or the mountains.

June has been a bit rough around the edges. I won’t bother you with details, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say this month has been “a damp, drizzly November in my soul”, but a bit rough as I say.

So on a recent Wednesday — the first mild day since the start of summer vacation — I took a break from the computer, from the house, from the too-familiar city and headed to the mountains. Specifically, Takaosan — a 599 meter mountain and home to mythic tengu warrior birdmen — on the westernmost fringe of Tokyo.

Unfortunately, the tsuyu rainy season has come early this year (I blame global warming). Fortunately, I have a Gore-Tex jacket and pants (though no longer the ones I got married in… but that’s another story), and I kind of like being out of doors when it’s wet like this, so long as it isn’t cold or windy. Colours are more saturated in the rain, like everything has been shot on old Velvia slide film, and sounds are muffled yet somehow more… intimate. There’s also far fewer people at popular places like Mount Takao, which can see more than 10,000 visitors on a busy weekend morning.

So, I left a note for my wife (who does still have the same Gore-Tex outfit she got married in) and trained it to Chichibu-Tama National Park — at the end of the Chuo line, a little less than an hour from Kichijoji.

Because Takaosan is so easy to get to, it is a very popular daytrip from The Big Sushi. With views of Fujisan on a good day, and eight trails of varying difficulty and length (one of em’s a road; none are really much more than a walk), it’s not surprising the mountain can feel as crowded on a Saturday or Sunday as Shibuya’s infamous Hachiko Crossing in Shibuya…

Fortunately, since it’s such an easy place to reach, people are also seemingly ready to put it off if the weather’s not so nice. So, on a drizzly Wednesday morning when I arrived there were only a couple of other hikers donning bright blue and yellow and red raingear, and loading up on rice balls and bottled tea at the convenience store.

Of the eight trails, my favourite two are Route 6, which follows a streambed for much of the way, and the Inariyama trail, which sticks for the most part to a small ridgeline.

Common wisdom has it that the Inariyama trail is slippery when wet, and treacherous on the descent. So I reversed my normal circuit and started up the steps and roots of the Inariyama. Contrary to expectations, I found the roots and steps and exposed rock gave solid footing, and I made good time — for me — to the summit: just under two hours.

Not sure when exactly the steady pace, the constant but unfocused attention on the warm rain as it fell on me and through the foliage, the constant shift in shades of green, worked its way through my workaday concerns, but at a certain point I noticed I no longer ruminated on the things which had prodded my monkey mind – as the Buddhists call it — recently. I finally unwound into the rhythm of nowhere to be, nothing to do: a perfect state of beginner mind which is one of the payoffs of time spent out of doors.

After an hour or so of dawdling about the summit observatory and the tengu shrine I descended by way of Route 6. The trail dropped quickly into a riverbed, and the lush evergreen rainforest struck me as something of a Jurassic Park – if Jurassic Park were set in northern climes. There were few other hikers, and at times the mist-shrouded, rain-soaked (by now it was a torrential downpour) mountainside seemed full of strange sounds, as though all the woodland critters who normally hide themselves from the parade of hikers were coming out to play, and a couple of times I was certain I heard voices just ahead and expected to meet other hikers around the next bend — only to meet with an empty trail. Genuinely spooky.

I emerged from the river valley drenched and happy. For the first time in a while my over-active imagination had put everything back into perspective. I didn’t solve any problems on Takaosan, but I did see those problems for what they were: the inevitable challenges of living a life less travelled.

The Japanese have a word for the healing effects of time spent in nature: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Learn more about it on this Wikipedia page, and read Florence Johnson’s “Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning” in the December 2012 issue of Outside magazine.