In Japan, such firsts as the first dream, the first sunrise, and the first prayers at a shrine on New Year’s Day are very important. My Japanese wife and I eschew the traffic jams and crowded shrines by snowshoeing to a peaceful shrine in the mountains.
We live in Niigata, a prefecture that few people outside of Japan know. Located on the Sea of Japan, Niigata`s highlands receive some of the heaviest snowfalls in Japan when cold wet air gusting across the sea and the coastal flatlands smacks into the steep mountains. The nickname for this area is Yukiguni 雪国. That means snow country. Many homeowners in Niigata’s highlands have to enter their homes through the second floor during winter.
Our home, though, is near the ocean in the flat rice-growing area of Niigata (famed for high quality rice that is grown with runoff from that delicious snow). On January 1, while driving to one of our favorite hiking/snowshoeing areas, we greeted the first wild swans and geese of the New Year, their long necks and beaks pecking at spilled rice and the remains of rice stalks in muddy rice fields. Through my open car window, I screamed, “Happy New Year,” and they raucously responded.
After crossing the flatlands, we reached the foothills and parked where the snowplows stopped operating just outside of the small onsen (Japanese hot spring) village named Tsukioka Onsen (月岡温泉). Tsuki means moon and oka means hill. We put on our snowshoes and strolled with our female black dog along the white road. I threw a snowball into the forest. Deliriously happy she dived into a snow bank and came out with the snowball in her jaws, eliciting the first laughs of the year.
The meandering forest road took us to where the hills pressed closer together and the Japanese cedar trees grew taller and thicker. Then we arrived at Sword Dragon Gorge, (剣龍峡) pronounced kenryuukyou in English. Slivers of light filtered through the trees and the only sound was the voluptuous tumbling of a small waterfall. The gorge might be named after the icicles that grow like dragon teeth over rocky overhangs in the cliffs. We removed our snowshoes and clambered over rocks to appreciate the view from the bottom of the gorge and to take photographs of the dragon teeth. At the time of our visit the largest were about a meter long, but they are sometimes longer than three meters.
Our short-haired dog is not a fan of icicle photography and she gets cold in the snow if she is not moving, so we soon climbed out of the gorge and walked toward the entrance to the hiking trail called Arakawa Kenryuukyo Tozando (荒川剣龍峡登山道).
First, though, we wanted to visit the Shinto shrine and make our first prayers before the spirit of the mountain, yamanokamijinja (山の神神社). Shinto teaches that a myriad of spirits exist in nature, so hikers find shrines in many natural settings.
We approached a nondescript wooden building at the mountain’s foot, gently tossed a coin into a box for offerings, rang a gong at the shrine entrance twice to get the god’s attention, and prayed. Inside the building, close to the rock-hewn shrine were a variety of wooden phalluses, some as large as a tall man. The phalluses have many meanings: successful harvests, fertility, love, healing, protection from sexual diseases, and strength.
Some shrines have companion shrines located in different areas. The companion shrine of Yamanokamijinja is higher up the mountain. Some people believe that the spirits move between the shrines, descending in spring to support the start of new crops, and, after the autumn harvest, returning into the mountains to a more diminutive shrine. Our main goal was to visit Yamanokami Okunoin (山の神奥の院), the smaller shrine in the deep forest.
This shrine is along the Arakawa Kenryuukyo Tozando, a circuitous hiking trail with steep climbs, descents, ridge walks, breath-taking views, and chances to encounter large mammals, including deer, boar, and bear. The trail length is approximately six kilometers, but in autumn the trail demands at least four hours from hikers in good condition. The highest point is the top of Mt. Arakawa, which requires a climb of 630 meters. We have never seen anyone else on this trail in winter, not even their snowshoe prints.
At the onset of the ascent, we have to exert ourselves: the trail is steep and the snow is unpacked. Branches heavy with snow are bent over the trail. In some places, we grab those and pull ourselves up. In summer, we use a long thick rope that someone had attached to trees and rocks, but that rope is soon buried with the first snows.
At slope’s end, we reach the first ridge walk, which gradually leads us higher and higher. Looking back, through the branches of a red pine tree, we can just see the opening of the valley we had walked into and beyond that the rice fields laid out like badly designed checker boards. Here and there on the trail we can see red plastic strips hanging from branches to alert hikers to the trail’s presence. There are not many and anyone unfamiliar with the area could easily get lost.
My memory of the trail guides me where there are no markers. I also notice that the snow seems slightly lower on the trail. We usually pause walking to listen to the distant gurgling of a stream or the chirping of birds. At one point, I hear a fast repeated thwacking sound and then find its source, a small woodpecker chipping away at a tree. Mostly, though, when we stop there is only the beautiful sound of … silence.
Looking leftwards, we can see, through gaps in the trees, taller mountains with thick caps of deep snow. Mt. Ninouji, or ninoujidake (二王子岳), appears in the distance. Then, towering above Mt. Ninouji is the Mt. Iide Mountain Range, Iide renpo (飯豊連峰), in the neighboring prefecture of Yamagata. Mt. Iide’s white top looks like the head of a bald eagle, flying above the other peaks.
We continue enjoying views along the ascending trail. It alternates between steep, almost seventy-degree, ascents; ridge walks; and valleys between knolls. After over an hour of climbing, we find the second shrine in a small clearing that faces north. From there we can see thousands of tiny rice plots and, beyond them, the ocean.
The mountain shrine is tiny. Almost covered in snow, it does not even reach my thigh, but peaceful atmosphere around it feels strong. I pray for the health of my small family and for the strength and ability to help protect the natural environment.
It has been a perfect start to the year, but it gets even better. As we walk back along the curving ridge, a Japanese serow (Capricornis crispus) is standing still and staring at us. This species came close to extinction because of habit destruction and over-hunting. One is now just ten meters in front. Serows tend to stand still before running away from threats and then look back, so shooting them must be easy. The serow looks like a combination of deer, donkey, and hairy mountain goat. It does not move until our eyes meet. Then, in a blur, it disappears down the shrubby cliff. The serow population is increasing due to a new hunting prohibition, but encounters with the animal are rare.
After such a wonderful but cold snowshoe experience, there was only one more thing left to do—celebrate in a hot spring. My favorite hot spring in nearby Tsukioka Onsen is the one at Hotel Masyuu, which has indoor baths, outdoor baths, and a sauna. The thermal emerald green alkaline water penetrated my skin, warmed my tight muscles, and last year’s stress flew away with the steam. The baths were designed with an eye on tradition. A Japanese garden was created around the outdoor baths. As I cooled between submersions, I looked into a small pond with gold, red, and yellow Japanese koi. After a wonderful snowshoe experience and a revitalizing bath, I let out my first of many intensely relaxed sighs of the year.
Most of Tsukioka’s hotels welcome non-staying guests to enter the springs during daytime for between 700 to 1,000 yen (seven to ten US dollars). In the evenings, only overnight guests can enjoy the baths.
Tsukioka is a convenient base for snowshoe explorations of the surrounding rice fields, bamboo forests, foothills, and steep mountains. Click here for travel details on the English webpage of the Tsukioka Tourism Association.