January 16, 2013
There are literally a countless number of mountains in Japan. They do all have names, however, even if those names are known only by the families who live below them. So, from the beginning of the culture, anyone wanting to go anywhere, had to cross a mountain or more. Such being the case, the Japanese by nature are a mountain climbing race. Or, more accurately in these modern times, a weekend, mountain strolling people. There are hundreds of mountain climbing clubs. Some are quite serious, and challenge high peaks in the Japan Alps. But most are smaller clubs whose members, usually retired folk, just enjoy walking thru the hills, taking photos of unusual flowers, stopping for a lunch break of rice balls and tea, eaten on some sunny knoll or beside a small, abandoned shrine.
There is, however, one very large group, with members from nearly every corner of the country. The Zodiac Mountain Climbing Club is based here in Kyoto where it was begun in 1960 by the late Kyoto University professor, Kenji Imanishi. (He made his name by refuting Darwin's theory of evolution. Tokiyuki Nobuhara wrote in his paper of 2010
Imanishi’s thesis was that a “peaceful existence” as an equilibrium within the
whole biosphere of nature is the goal of all living organisms in their adjustment to their
social environments. (italics mine))
This club has a membership of over 100. Mostly retired teachers and some business people, doctors, housewives, almost everyone is over 60 years old with the oldest being in their late 90s. All of them are fit as fiddles. I have been a member since 1983, am the only foreigner, and have not missed a single climb in 30 years. Every January on about the second weekend, which is a national holiday, we gather together near the chosen mountrain in some inn or hotel for a great evening meal, which includes lots of sake drinking, singing, sharing local foods, and general catching up of news.
Next morning, early, we eat breakfast, don our mountain climbing gear, get into a bus or into private cars, and drive to the mountain whose name is the same as the year's. 2013 is the Year of the Snake. There are in Japan many mountains which have animal names, tiger being one of the most common. This snake was on Kyushu Island, quite far from Kyoto. I was going to take a night boat, a pleasure for me. But I opped out for the Bullet Train so that Kimiko and I could at least ride together to Okayama, her hometown, where she was to see her mom and one of her sisters. I arrived at Beppu in the mid-afternoon. Beppu is very well known as a hot spa town. That whole area around Beppu is volcanic; there are spas all over the place, steam vents everywhere. Quite fascinating. Our hotel had a spa, but it was lukewarm and not interesting at all. This means that I will have to go again sometime, and boil myself in a real hot spring.
Snake Mountain is 1,024 meters high, about one-third a mile up. We did not start from sea level, however. Our bus took us up most of the way, and we walked up to the top in 40 minutes. This was an easy climb. Other climbs have been rougher. The weather was good; no snow falling, only patches here and there on the ground.
After everyone reached the top, we drank a toast, gave cash gifts to those who were 60 years old, 70, 77, 80 and 88 years old. These ages have special meaning for the Japanese. Remembering that in the old days, living to be 40 was a feat, I wonder why every year past 50 isn't an opportunity to receive some gift.
After enjoying some freshly brewed coffee and eating part of our box-lunch, we made our way back down to the cars and bus, and drove to the railroad station for some of us to return home.
I went to Okayama, tho, to meet Kimiko and stay for two days with her sister's family. Both Kimiko and I are Rabbits. So, two years ago, I and only one other were gifted on top of Rabbit Mountain. (Kimiko has never attended this mountain climbing adventure.) That climb was hard, quite unlike the idea of what a rabbit ought to be. Still, we had fun and could enjoy the scenery of the surrounding countryside. As long as I am able, and that may be a long time, I intend to climb all 12 animals' backs repeatedly.