In the midst of a snowstorm on a snow-covered forested mountain in Japan, my wife and I made and shared a bowl of thick green matcha. On the first day of the New Year, my wife, my dog, and I were the only visitors from outside the woods. The tips of my fingers and my toes were numbed by the below-freezing air temperature, but the tea was certainly the best I’ve ever had. We were celebrating two wonderful Japanese customs, hatsumoude and hatsugama, in a manner that only other crazy snowshoe enthusiasts could understand.
Hatsumoude means the first visit to a shrine at the start of a year. Most shrines are jammed with people making offerings, choosing amulets, and praying for health, happiness, success, love, and other goals shared by people like us. Almost every Japanese person in Japan visits a shrine on January first. To enter the grounds of a popular or famous shrine often requires enduring traffic jams and standing in long lines with hundreds or thousands of strangers in chilly weather. That’s not our style.
Hatsugama is a custom that is more rare than hatsumoude. Only individuals with a fondness for Japanese tea culture practice hatsugama. The first tea ceremony in January is hatsugama, which is usually an intimate event. This is definitely our style.
My wife and I combine these two wonderful traditions in our own unique ritual. Wanting to avoid crowds and to embrace and to be embraced by nature, we pack our tea making implements: a light bamboo tea whisk, a ceramic tea bowl-shaped from Japanese clay by my wife`s hands, and an alpine camp stove.
Then we drive toward the mountains, but we have to make one stop to pick up an extra important ingredient. To prepare the perfect matcha on this day requires water that is available from only one location in the world, Iwasakishimizu. That is the name of a miniscule freshwater spring that pours from the base of an icy cliff. The name directly translates as rocky cliff pure water. Residents of the nearby farming community say the water promotes longevity. They might be right. We only see old people around there. We passed that isolated village of mostly elders in traditional homes made from earth, bamboo, wood, and stone while driving on a frozen road that threads between the edges of snow-laden rice fields and forests of dark green pine trees and tall bamboo stalks bowing to the earth under the weight of tons of white snow.
Iwasakishimizu is near the foot of Yakiyama, the mountain we would climb to reach the shrine we cherish. Both Iwasakishimizu and that shrine are considered sacred spots. A Shinto belief is that spirits exist in shrines and in nature as well. As I bent down to let the clear water enter my thermos, I noticed a tangerine that had been left as an offering to the spirit of the spring.
Snow was falling hard as we walked to the start of the hiking trail. There were no tracks from previous hikers. At the onset of the ascent, we had to exert ourselves: the trail was steep and the fresh snow was soft. Our feet sank down at least a foot, and we sometimes slipped downhill. Branches heavy with snow were bent over the trail. In some places, we grabbed those and pulled ourselves up. Finally, we made it to a gently sloping ridge. Sharp slopes on either side led downward into thick dark woods and valleys. The only sound was the gurgling sounds of a stream cutting its way through snow in a valley below us.
More than two hours of walking in deep snow passed before we reached a knoll where we found Yamanokami Okunoin, our chosen shrine in the deep forest. It is a shrine for a mountain god of harvests and fertility. Despite its importance, the shrine is just a thigh-high rock carving in the snow.
We dug a hole in the snow to prevent the wind from overwhelming our dependable French-made Turbo 270 Camping Gaz stove. Only one waterproof match was necessary to light it. The only sounds we heard as we waited for the water to boil were the hiss of flames and occasional chirpy bird calls. When the water finished boiling, we poured it into the bowl, where the water temperature quickly dropped in the chilled air. My wife smoothly whisked the powered matcha and water into a frothy and creamy green tea. We took turns drinking from the bowl while appreciating the speckled mountain scenery, listening to the silence, feeling snow grace our cheeks, and savoring the creamy matcha.
A fiercely cold wind blew from the north where we could see in the distance, between two valleys, thousands of fields of rice, vegetables, and even tea. Since Niigata is the northernmost location for growing tea in Japan, and the shrine is for a harvest god, it felt appropriate to offer tea to the spirit, so I poured some verdant tea onto the pure white snow in front of the shrine.
I thanked the spirit of the shrine for another wonderful year, and I promised the woods around us that I would do my best to protect the environment in 2015. Energized by the tea and the natural surroundings, we hiked further up the mountain.
When I hike that mountain in spring, autumn, or summer, I hate the sight of red plastic ribbons hanging from the greenery of trailside branches, but I appreciated them that day. The trail had taken on a completely different appearance. Some familiar trees had toppled. Branches covered the route, making me doubt if we were on the trail. We had to stop often and scan all directions for the trail markers that I had hated before. We often found that we had been unknowingly zigzagging back and forth across the trail.
The pace of falling snow increased and so did the slope. My wife wanted to continue, but I was felt that turning around was the best choice. We balance each other out. She always wants to reach the summit. I think more about safety. Because of her desire to keep moving, I get more exercise and see more of nature. Perhaps, because of my conservative nature, she is still alive.
On the return trip downhill, I saw that the continual snow was filling in our footprints around the shrine. All that remains now are memories of a fantastic bowl of tea in a snowstorm on a mountain in Niigata, Japan, an exceptionally wild and beautiful tea house.