The two hour climb to reach the top of Mt. Takachiho-no-mine, on the island of Kyushu in southwestern Japan, is a difficult task. But for determined hikers, the payoff from 1,574 meters high is worth the effort: spectacular views of the surrounding peaks and the often scorching Sakurajima volcano across Kinkowan Bay. There is also a monument at the top of the mountain – an oversized bronze three-pointed spear jutting out of a pile of stones.
The spear, known as Amanosakahoko, is a strange object to find in the middle of Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park, a 90,500-acre (36,605-hectare) expanse of volcanoes, mud flats, forests, sand “baths” and crater lakes straddling the prefectures of Kagoshima and Miyazaki. Weird, that is, until you have heard the old tales Takachiho-no-mine.
The mountain is the setting for one of Japan’s best-known myths about the arrival of a deity of the celestial world. In the story, the sun god sends his grandson – the deity Ninigi-no-Mikoto – to rule the islands of Japan. As he descends to Earth, he plunges his spear through the clouds and on top of Mt. Takachiho-no-mine. The descendants of Ninigi-no-Mikoto would eventually become royals: the deity’s great-grandson, Jimmu, would be the first emperor of Japan.
It is one of the many supernatural tales of spirits and deities that take place on the peaks and in the forests, marshes and lakes of The 34 national parks of Japan. These chronicles belong to a tradition of seeing otherworldly connections in seemingly ordinary natural objects. “The belief that kami (deities) inhabit mountains, trees and rocks probably stems from a sense of fear and awe that people here felt about their surroundings,” said Kikuko Hirafuji, professor at Tokyo Kokugakuin University. “For example, people viewed erupting volcanoes as gods. You can find parallels in Greek mythology, with Hephaestus, and in the Roman god, Vulcan.
Still, much about Japanese myths – when and how they were created – remains a mystery, Hirafuji said. This is true of the story of Ninigi-no-Mikoto, which is contained in the country’s oldest written documents, the 8th century. Kojiki and Nihon shoki, but continues to confuse modern scholars.
Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park was one of the country’s first national parks to be designated in 1934. Sometimes its scenery has a dreamlike quality: shrouded in fog and mist, the mountains resemble islands in a landscape. sailor – hence the name Kirishima, which means “island of fog”.
This mystical side, combined with the difficult terrain, has made the region a popular place of pilgrimage for mountain ascetics (yamabushi). For centuries they have wandered the slopes and peaks in search of spiritual enlightenment through their interactions with the deities of the natural world. This tradition continues at Kirishima-Higashi Jingu, a Shinto shrine (established in the 10th century) on the eastern slope of Mt. Takachiho-no-mine. Each month, Masahiro Kuroki, the 56-year-old chief priest of the shrine, spear climbs to the summit along a steep, rocky path that rises to 1,006 meters above sea level. “We worship the mountain itself as a deity, a Buddha. Being on the mountain for our physical and spiritual training is the goal, ”said Kuroki, whose shrine owns the spear.
In other national parks, folk tales are inseparable from the landscape. In Nikko National Park – a sprawling area in the prefectures of Fukushima, Tochigi and Gunma, two hours by train north of Tokyo – Mt. Nantai has long been a source of fascination and local traditions. Located in Tochigi Prefecture on the west side of the park’s 284,000 acres (114,908 hectares), the Conical Peak is the backdrop to an ancient and epic turf war.
Legend has it that 20,000 years ago the deities of Mt. Nantai and Mt. Akagi (in Gunma prefecture) fought over the ownership of Lake Chuzenji. After a dead end, Mt. Nantai, as a serpent, conquered Mt. Akagi, a centipede; Mount. Nantai’s grandson, Sarumaru, a master archer, delivered the killing blow by shooting an arrow into the eye of the giant myriapod. The fight gave its name to the high altitude swamp (a habitat for over 100 species of swamp plants and a vital breeding ground for caps, snipe and other birds) near the lake – Senjogahara, which means battlefield. There is also a festival: every January, in Futarasan-Jinja Chugushi Shrine, a Shinto shrine at the foot of the mountain, traditional kyudo archers recreate the final by shooting arrows towards Lake Chuzenji.
The UNESCO-listed shrines and temples of Nikko draw the largest crowds. But the mountains in the region have also exerted a strong pull on people since Shodo Shonin, a Buddhist monk, became the first to climb Mt. Nantai in the 8th century. “A lot of people don’t realize that Nikko is a great place for outdoor recreation,” said Takamichi Morita, guide and official Nikko Natural Science Museum, located inside the national park. “There are around 100 active guides in the Nikko area who are experts in rafting, bird watching, running, snowshoeing, trekking and ice climbing.”
The highest point of Mt. Nantai’s climbing season from May to October falls on August 1. It was then that hundreds of people with headlamps and backpacks gathered in the dark at Futarasan Jinja Chuguji Shrine, a Shinto shrine. At midnight, two Shinto priests in long, stiff robes and pointy caps open the doors to a traditional wooden door at the start of the mountain trail. The ceremonial start of the night-time climbing season dates back over a millennium and sets off a three-and-a-half-hour race to reach the summit, 2,486 meters high, in time for sunrise.
It’s a reminder that Japan’s national parks are valued for more than their scenic landscapes and protections for native flora and fauna. They are the backdrop for ancient myths, the sacred abode of traditional beliefs, and a popular outdoor escape for outdoor enthusiasts on Japan’s wilder side.