Field notes from Mt. Akadake

March 30, 2013 3:03pmAkadake base camp

I’m currently hiking the approach into Akadake of the Yatsugatake range in Nagano, stopped for a few minutes rest.  The trail is a mix of ice, snow and slush.  With steel plated boots I edge into the soft ice, trudging my way up the valley.

Just came across an assembly of dedicative steles and minituare shrines associated with the Akamine Shrine, the Immovable Luminous King Fudō myōō and a confraternity called Shinmyō kō 眞明講.


My three climbing mates and I arrived into base camp around 5:00, set up camp, made a snow kitchen, cooked up dinner, and drank hot whiskey.  Now I’m bundled up my sleeping bag in the tent.  It’s freezing outside.Bunzaburou ridge

After years of grad school, kids and the daily hustle, I can’t remember the last time I was out alpine climbing.  In the interim, I’d forgotten what it feels like.  But my body remembers.  Subtle adjustments to higher altitude, sore hips and shoulders from the weight of the pack, icy winds grazing my face, snow pellets slipping into the exposed space between long underwear and boot.  Sensations not encountered in the ordinary day to day.  It feels good to be reacquiring  them now.

March 30, 2:04pm

Back at the car.  A phenomenal day.  Casual 7:30 am departure from our tents.  Equipped with axes and crampons, we headed up a series of snow encrusted ridges, arriving at the summit of Akadake at 9:30am.Approaching the Akadake pass  A tiny shrine on top with the characters Midō 弥堂 – “mi” being a likely a reference to Mt. Sumeru, the axis mundi peak in Indian cosmology.

The descent skirted a corniced ridge line.  Gusty winds threatening to sweep me off my feet howled constantly.  At a small Jizō bodhisattva statue, we dropped down into craggy flanks until reaching tree line and eventually our tents.  Snow showered us as we made our way back to the car.

As an individual of the modern age, I would never claim access to the mindset of those who tread these mountains long ago, erecting shrines and consecrating icons along treacherous paths, practicing austerities, bracing themselves against menacing spirits and praying to benevolent ones.  Awareness of geology and meteorology, training in modern mountaineering techniques, and use of sophisticated equipment gives me a highly distinctive experience.

Akadake summit

Akadake summit

But forgetting all of that and simply feeling the sheer awesomeness of the winter mountains today helped me imagine for an instant the numinous, and at times terrifying, cosmic realm that those who dared venture into the mountains once experienced.

About calebscarter

I specialize in Japanese religions within the broader context of Buddhism and East Asian cultures. Within these fields, I focus especially on Shugendō, a mountain-based tradition in Japan developed largely from esoteric, Zen and Pure Land Buddhism with additional influences from Chinese religions and local spirit worship (later identified as Shintō). I approach these subjects from an interdisciplinary perspective that draws on literary, economic, political, social and intellectual history. I received my Masters (2008) and PhD (2014), both in Buddhist Studies from UCLA, with a BA (2000) in Philosophy from Colorado College. I currently teach full-time for the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Outside of research and teaching, I play a three-stringed instrument from Okinawa called the sanshin and spend time with my family at nearby playgrounds and campgrounds. I also love the outdoors, especially climbing in the mountains—an orientation that has in many ways shaped my current intellectual path. View all posts by calebscarter

One response to “Field notes from Mt. Akadake

  • John Carter

    Hi Caleb! Wonderful account of reconnection with an “old love” (alpine climbing), camaraderie on the trail; and an awesome encounter with the numinous in nature. Check our psalm 46.

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