Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Wednesday Nov 3 was a national holiday in Japan, called Bunka no Hi, or Culture Day. As to why it is a national holiday, I know only that on Nov 3, 1946, the new Japanese constitution, drafted by the then occupying Americans, was announced. So as not to waste this great opportunity to escape the city, me and Masa, my Japanese friend, woke up early in order to hike up Mt. Kongo (1125m), a mountain located about 100km south of Kyoto. We took the train at 8.30 AM from the Shin-Hōsono station near my house and arrived at the base of the mountain two and a half hours and 1500 Yen later. We wasted no minute and started hiking. As culture day is one of the statistically clearest days of the year (according to Wikipedia), it should not surprise you that the weather was beautiful, with temperatures at 11°C at the base, and 5°C on the top of this holy site for both Shinto as well as the Buddhist religion.

A couple of the "500 Stairs".
We started our hike at Chihaya, a small group of houses and restaurants that are called a town, at about 500m above sea level. From Chihaya, we first climbed up the so called "500 Stairs" (more like 600, Masa did the counting), which led to Chihaya Shrine, the first of the many religious sites on the slopes of this monumental mountain. This small shrine is taken care of by two people, a nice old lady selling Oden (a soup-like food), beer, walking sticks and such in the Shrine's restaurant, and an old man who nicely rakes the sand on the shrine's grounds (to no use as people walk over it over and over). The interesting thing about this Shrine is that it used to be a Temple worshiping a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist deity) until it transformed into a Shinto shrine. 

The Flamin' Sattva. 
When we got to the top, there was, as it tends to be the trend in Japan, a restaurant, a temple, and another shrine. The temple was dedicated to, as I came to call it, the Flaming Bodhisattva, of whom there were many statues and pamphlets (Bodhisattva = a Buddhist deity). There was also a statue of a bull, a small pond, and staircase leading to the temple's main hall. While most of the visitors seemed to understand these religious symbols as yet another Buddhist site, one man in his late thirties was throwing money at one statue after another and chanting Buddhist chants as if singing, clapping his hands, and running around. I guess we all have our passions, don't we? Let's just hope he got what he came for. 

The path leading to the shrine on the top of Mt. Kongo.
The Shrine on the top was quite pretty, with the path decorated by red lanterns all the way up. Masa knows more about it, but other than one thing, I don't think it is worth any special mentioning. 
The Suntory (サントリー) stone pole among other sponsors' poles.
The one thing that is worth mentioning about the shrine is that Suntory (サントリー), one of Japan's four biggest beer makers, acts as one of the sponsors of the shrine. As such, it also gets to erect its own stone pole at the Shrine to honor its donations, one which is appropriately taller than all other poles, probably because Suntory's donation bigger in comparison. More importantly, in honor of Suntory's donations, its Malts Beer is the only beer served on tap in the restaurant on Mt. Kongo. Though I am not an economist, I daresay that the profits from the sales of Malts have probably repaid the investment in form of the donation many times over. Added with the money thrown on statues and such by people like the chanting guy I described above, religion in Japan seems to me like a good business indeed. Of course, Me and Masa also contributed indirectly to this local Shrine by buying ourselves one pint of Suntory's Malts.

Me and Masa on top of Mt. Kongo. The city behind us is Osaka.
The view was, as the bus announcer on the way to the base of the mountain told us, itsumo utsukushii, always beautiful. We could see Osaka in the west, Nara in the East, and the hundred kilometers wide Daikō Mountain Range in the south. While the leafs in Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka are still quite green, those on top of Mt. Kongo were turning into beautiful shades of red, yellow, purple, and orange, making the view ever so pretty. If the temple and the two shrines were not, the view from the top of Mt. Kongo was a truly religious experience indeed.

View from Mt. Kongo, looking to the south-west.