Welcome to the strangest natural place I’ve ever been in Japan.
It’s no surprise that such a place would be a priests’ training ground in the mountains.
The place is called Nakayama located in the Kunisaki Penninsula of Oita Prefecture. It’s about an hour or two drive from my home in Nakatsu. There are no trains running through the penninsula and very few towns around the edges on the sea. This is definitely the mark of a place worth going … for someone like me, at least.
The penninsula looks amazing from afar, kind of like some kind of mountain fortress. The mountains aren’t so tall, but on such a small penninsula their size is magnified.
I’ve actually come to this penninsula before in search of mystical mountains and did pretty well. I found a cool mountain, but was disappointed when I got to the top for the lack of views. It might sound like complaining, but I don’t mean it that way. It just seemed like there was more to this place. The mountain in the distance in the picture above seems like the one I climbed before. But this time I found something much different, similar to the cliffs located in the foreground of the picture above.
This time I went with my wife, Satomi, and drove to the center of the penninsula in search of the mountain. I like to go by instincts and physical maps in finding such things, but we got lost and Satomi lovingly urged me to figure this kind of stuff out before we leave. According to the map we were right next to the mountain, but there was no direct road there from the center where we were. Instead, we’d have to drive north to the coast, then south along the water, and go in from the opposite side. We almost gave up on the trip for the day, but persevered for some reason.
The area around this area of Nakayama isn’t so out of the ordinary, but you enter this area, climb a little bit, and it’s a whole different world. It’s something you wouldn’t notice until you were right on top of it.
So I mentioned this area was a priests’ training ground, Shugendo Buddhists to be specific. Shugendo Buddhism seems to be on the more mystical side of the spectrum. I’m no expert but the image I have from what I’ve read are of mountain ascetics practicing in the mountains with their own special practices.
One of these practices I’ve read about entails two priests. One ties rope to his feet and dangles upside down hanging off of a cliff while his buddy holds on to the rope.
When asking other people about Shugendo Buddhism, or Yamabushi (mountain warrior priests), their reaction seems mostly negative, like such people are weirdos who head to the mountains in order to achieve other worldly powers.
To me that sounds incredibly interesting. When first coming to Japan this was at the core of my interest. My attention has gone other places, but it’s something I’d like to hear more about.
Through these mountains are paths that the priests walk along for their training. With all of the small Buddha statues along the way, I can imagine them all in their white robes climbing on these very trails paying tribute to the spirits and continuing their journey.
The feeling I got from this place was that it felt like a giant playground. There was one path we walked along, but there were so many more around on all the neighboring strange mountains. There were so many hidden cliffs and valleys in this small area, one could spend a life time exploring every nook and cranny. And who could know what lies in each until venturing.
I could imagine priests going mad in these hills searching in such places, sitting here, climbing there. It’s an incredibly powerful place. It’s hard to describe, and I’m not sure the pictures do it service, but I found myself speechless standing on the cliffs looking out.
At one point the trail became obscured and I ventured accidentally to the left. I quickly realized it wasn’t the main one we were traveling on, but I could see it lead somewhere interesting and continued on. It led to a cliff that jutted down a few hundred feet into dark vine crawling forests. Across the way was another peak we would eventually climb, and from there another cliff led down into a bowl-like valley. There was such grandeur in this picture. It was big, but not like Grand Canyon big. It was deep, and dark. In this grey stone half-bowl was a dark mysterious forest. About five crows soared just above the trees and their caws echoed hauntingly off the cliffs. It was in this spot I had a moment. I had a feeling like I’ve had before in such places, and I immediately thought of my home in the San Juan Islands of the northwest U.S. In small unknown mountain forests, there is an incredibly deep silence found in otherworldly locations. I was hypnotized by this moment in time, and so few people will ever see this place or understand. But Satomi was there with me, and in the silence we understood what wasn’t said.
We continued down from the mountain along chains and seemingly hidden paths. Caves and Buddhas escorted us on the descent.
I think Satomi might be getting used to this.
What is it? A mountain spirit perhaps …
Afterwards we headed back to the coast and found a very enticing beach (damn, the picture makes it look good). We will definitely be coming back in the summer for camping and barbecuing.
This place keeps revealing jewels. Slowly like mist receding across the forests, the mountains get bigger and bigger. I can’t wait to see what else comes from this unknown country-side.