Isolated for 350 years, the mountainous Iya Valley is often called the Tibet of Japan. They share an ancient allure. With time for only one hike in the Iya, we chose Mount Tsurugi, one of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains. On a clear day the view from its summit reaches to the Pacific Ocean, the Seto Inland Sea and mainland Japan. A yinyang (inyo in Japanese) mountain, Mount Tsurugi is Japan’s “most dangerous mountain climbable.“ But it’s also Iya’s most popular hiking destination when you approach it like we did from the western side and take the Yuhodoh, the “promenade” hike from Minokoshi Station, even easier when you ride the ancient chairlift.
Mount Tsurugi (1,955 m) was the last Japanese peak to be officially climbed. In 1907 Yoshitaro Shibasaki of the Land Survey Department reached the summit. Thinking the mountain was unexplored, he and his team were surprised to discover the tip of an ancient priest’s staff from the Nara Period, 710-794 AD!
The four of us arrived late morning on a gorgeous October day. Here on the island of Shikoku, autumn lingers, like in Vancouver where leaves of crimson and gold still cling to their branches in November. A perfect day for a short hike.
The chairlift didn’t whisk us swiftly to the top; one needed the patience of pines as we inched gently upward. Nor was there the monastic silence one usually associates with being alone on a chairlift in the forest; a cacophony of announcements blared at us in a language we don’t understand.
When you disembark at the Nishijima Station (1,750 m), you have options: some paths are for hikers; others are mountaintop treks for conquerors of peaks. The Yuhodoh trail is a short hike to the top, maybe forty minutes. Off we went, assured by Magellan that we were on the right path.
All of a sudden, the crisp, clear mountain air turned to a dense, cold fog.
Should we bother going to the summit for our picnic lunch we asked each other?
Inyo represents nature and the universe as expressions of opposite forces that are constantly changing. It is said the concept of inyo began as a way to define the two sides of a mountain: in, the dark and yo the sunny—even if you could split a mountain into two parts, you would still have a dark side and a sunny side. When you separate inyo and say “in” and “yo” you are creating duality and not seeing the whole picture. Bringing the balance of inyo into our lives depends on our willingness to accept this dualism and act accordingly.
The sacred Mount Tsurugi (closed to women in the early twentieth century, maybe until 1934 when the area became part of the new Chūbu-Sangaku National Park?) translates to “sword mountain.” Legend has it that Emperor Antoku hid a tsurugi in the mountain. However, the boy emperor died at the age of six, a little young for mountaineering and hiding swords. It’s more likely the mountain was named after its spear-like crag.
On the chairlift down, instantly as it emerged, the ethereal fog disappeared. Mount Tsurugi revealed her better side again.
The Japanese have another word that describes this hike: yūgen, “a mood in which one feels that the universe as a whole possesses a mysterious and elusive beauty.”
“Yinyang in Japan: Harmonizing Vital Energies.” Elemental Japan. April 27, 2020.