Awe-inspiring experiences typically start in mundane ways, and this was no exception. Our trip started with a train out of Tokyo, bound for Shimobe Onsen. Three hours later, my friend Nicolas and I arrived in the town, a place where many things seem frozen in time.
Venturing into the basement of the inn in search of the baths, we had a feeling of being watched by ghosts; there were lots of dark, narrow hallways leading to unknown rooms. Finally, we located the baths, which reeked of sulphur but were soothing to slip into after a long day on the train.
The next morning, we awoke and started the long ascent to the top of the mountain. For five hours, we dragged our weary legs upward…and upward…and upward, wondering why on earth someone would carve a path into this mountain.
Arriving at the top, however, we understood: first we were greeted with the sight of a gorgeous emerald-green lake (a dragon is rumoured to live under the surface), and then with a stunning view of Mount Fuji. It was almost as if we were standing right next door to the famous mountain. We also met our guide, Genga-San, a monk who lives on top of the mountain.
Our accommodation for the night was a Buddhist monastery with many long hallways and sliding doors; I almost expected a Kung Fu fight to break out, it seemed like the perfect setting! We were ushered into a large room, the walls and ceiling of which were covered with complex gold carvings, chandeliers, pillars and special drawers. I asked Genga-San, ‘Why gold?’ and he responded, ‘Because gold is eternal.’ Then followed ninety minutes of sutras – a seemingly endless, ocean-like wave of sound as fifteen monks ‘sang’ their sutras in guttural voices, occasionally banging a gong or beating a drum, led by a powerful-looking monk in a conical hat. When they had finished, we were ready for bed. Genga-San asked us, ‘What time would you like to get up?’ I responded, ‘4:30 AM,’ not realising what consequence this would have. The next morning, at exactly 4:30 AM, we were awoken by the sound of drums. The sliding doors were swiftly opened and three monks entered, demanding our futon, and in its place quickly putting a pot of green tea and some cups. All of this happened within fifteen seconds, and by the time they left I felt as though I were still dreaming, but the steaming pot of tea confirmed that it had all, in fact, been real.
Climbing to the Fuji viewpoint in the dusky light, we slowly became more and more aware of a droning sound, like thousands of mosquitoes. As we got closer, we saw five-hundred teenage girls, all clad in white robes (similar to karate outfits), facing the sun as it slowly started to peek above the horizon, and passionately chanting a sutra.
It was hypnotic and surreal, being in this spot, seemingly removed from the rest of the world, surrounded by hundreds of chanting girls, the clouds spreading away from us as far as the eye could see, like an endless ocean; and the sun slowly rising, almost like an actor slowly emerging upon a stage.