Mount Miwa: The holiest hike in Japan
At just 467 meters, Miwa-yama is nothing like Japan's tallest peak. But what it lacks in height, it makes up for in piety.
Worshiped for millennia -- by some accounts, as far back as the prehistoric Jomon era (10,000 BC to 300 BC) -- Miwa-yama was once regarded as a sort of Mount Olympus, a place where Japan's various gods kicked back when they weren't doing godly things.
Miwa's mountain protocol
And now, befitting a place with such a lofty history, there is a strict protocol for those wishing to scale the sacred peak. The nearby Ohmiwa Jinja ("Great Miwa Shrine"), which administers the mountain, gives out permits for ¥300, without which you will be promptly sent back to your sea-level beginnings.
It also monitors such ungodly activities as eating, drinking, smoking, and photography, which are strictly prohibited on the trails. And that's not all -- the permit is only good for three hours on the mountain. These gods have precious little time to entertain mere mortals.
An avid hiker, I'd always wanted to climb Miwa-yama, its strict rules a rarity even in tradition-obsessed Japan. And now, permit in hand (which is actually a white cloth sash emblazoned with kanji characters slung over my neck) I have my chance.
Making my way to the trailhead on a gray November morning, a river of low clouds flows at breakneck speed above my head. This foreboding weather is somehow appropriate for the occasion.
Stowing my backpack in a locker -- I couldn't use anything it contained while on the mountain anyway -- I make the necessary spiritual preparations for my ascent. In keeping with Shinto custom, I pay my respects to the shrine at the base of the mountain.
Lifting a staff festooned with plaited white paper streamers from the altar, I wave it from left to right and left again before me. Now with body and soul suitably purified, I can approach the trailhead, a gateway marked by a thickly braided rice-straw rope hung between two posts: Shinto-ese for "sacred ground ahead." The holy hike was on.
Enough prep, time to hike
The trail starts steep, but flattens quickly, so the more short breathed among us needn’t worry much. The trail is lined with trees, passing towering cedars and huge rock outcroppings. An hour of steady climbing later and I reach Miwa-yama's peak. Another shrine, partially obscured by bushes, is visible in the middle of the clearing atop the mountain. But I’m not done yet. Another, far older holy spot lies beyond this one: Okitsu-Iwakura.
Okitsu-Iwakura is a jumble of boulders where one of Japan's oldest gods, called Ohmononushi-no-kami ("The God of the Greats") is said to descend to Earth.
A loop of braided Shinto rope draped over the pile of stones marks it as holy ground, and a stand of cedars provided a natural alcove -- though calling it an alcove belies the massive size of the trees from which it was constructed long ago, their towering trunks blocking all external views save for a circle of sky straight above.
The sense of a divine presence is palpable. People have prayed here for more than two millennia. Could Queen Himiko, ruler of the proto-Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, have conducted rituals here? It seems more than possible.
Certainly the protection that the cedars afford the inner sanctuary would have made it a perfect place for ceremony. When a gust of wind thunders through the area startling me out of my wits, the haven inside is entirely unaffected, such is the effectiveness of the trees at acting as a windbreak. I take my time soaking in the ambience, but all too soon it’s time to leave.
As another squall rattles the trees -- you could call it a real kamikaze, a "divine wind" straight out of history -- I begin carefully picking my way back down the path and to hectic civilization once again.
From JR Kyoto Station, take the Nara line to Nara station, then switch to the Sakurai line and disembark at Miwa station. (Travel time is about 1.5 hours.) The trailhead is a 5 minute walk from Miwa station.
The official English website of the Oomiya Shrine can be found here: http://www.oomiwa.or.jp/eng.html