Monday, August 2, 2010

Tohaisai - Climbing Mt Nantai at night

This is a Japan Blog Matsuri entry for August. This month's matsuri is hosted by Through Eyes From Afar and the theme is Nature and Japan.

Yeah, we got that covered, that's for sure.

Now read on, and then visit Through Eyes From Afar to check out other Japan Blog Matsuri entries for August.

Let me start off by saying that I love mountains. I really do. I just don't like to climb them. Why? Going up is the easy part, that I can do, no problem. It’s the going down bit that is always a circus. And today was no different.

But first things first.

What was I doing climbing a mountain today? And not just any mountain, but Mt. Nantai (2486 meters above sea level) – one of the most sacred mountains in Japan.

And not just any old climbing either. Oh no! We couldn’t be that mundane, now could we? Because if you’re going to do something you don’t especially like, you might as well go all out and do it like it’s meant to be done, right? Do it once but do it right.

And that’s why we were climbing Mt Nantai at night.

Waiting to pray before the climb

Yes, it was Tohaisai time – the sacred nighttime climb to watch the sunrise from the summit. The full name is: 男体山登拝講社大祭 – Nantaisan Tohai Kosha Taisai and it’s held annually on July 31st until August 7th.

The event is organized by Futaarasan shrine in Nikko, and as the name suggests – you climb the mountain and you pray. The only difference between this climb and an ordinary hike is that this one starts at midnight, you climb in the company of other worshippers, and you do it by flashlight.

Waiting to start the climb

And once at the top, you can pray while admiring the sunrise. That is, if the visibility is fine. This morning it was foggy - well, you are, after all, IN the clouds. Today, before the sun rose properly, the visibility was an astounding 10 meters.

The whole thing starts at Futaara shrine in Chuzenji (that's still Nikko, in case you're wondering). There’s a daytime festival that inaugurates the climb, then you pay 1000 yen, and off you go.

Praying before the climb

By the way, notice their clothes? They're more like Buddhist than shinto priest's clothes. Why? That's how it was back in the olden days, there wasn't much distinction between those two religions.

Once when all the initial prayers are completed, at the stroke of midnight the gate behind Futara shrine is opened and it's showtime. The climb should take about 4 hours, so you arrive at the summit just in time for the sunrise.
The gate is open, time to go.

Now, I don't know if it’s just me, but man, it was hard. It was also slippery, dark and muddy. On the other hand, I’m glad it was dark. If I saw what I was climbing over, I’d probably never even attempt it. And as it was dark, and the only light came from my and other participants flashlights, I just had to focus on what was in front of me and blindly go forward.

Once you start, there is really no option to stop. You climb in a huge group, so any slacker causes a jam. This year there were about 2500 climbers (as reported by Shimotsuke shimbun). We were divided into smaller groups of about 500 people. Hint – if you’re planning to do this climb, elbow your way into the first or second batch of people at the start. Otherwise you’ll never reach the summit in time for the sunrise. Or you’ll have to climb like a mad man.

You are led by shinto priests in Buddhist clothing

Actually, today some people did climb like mad men. The fastest guy reached the top in about 90 minutes. Now, for comparison, it took Dr. Trouble 4 hours, and it took me 4 and a half. And Dr Trouble is a fit beast that can jump over rocks like a monkey. I’m not fit, but I’m very determined. And even though at the 75% mark it looked like I might want to give up, I gave myself a kick in the butt and pushed on. Let’s just say that Dr Trouble never expected to see me at the top. (Jerk, after all these years, he should have known me better by now.)

Yes! We made it!

Watching the sunrise from the top of Mt Nantai

You'd think there would be a statue of Monk Shodo at the summit, but no. This actually looks like Okuninushi - the god of Mt. Nantai.

Going up is easy, it’s the down part that always kills me when mountains (or anything elevated, including ladders) are involved. Let's just say that going down, at least for me, was pure hell. It was already daytime and I could actually see the way. And that was the main problem. I scratched my head and thought to myself, often out loud, “How the hell did I get up THIS thing?”

Going down, lake Chuzenji in the background

And then the inevitable happened. I fell and twisted my ankle, skinned my leg and smashed my knee. How did I manage to do that when for the most part I was sliding down the mountain on my butt is anybody’s guess.

Bottom line, when I reached the 40% mark going down (that’s where the access road starts), the descent for me was over. Dr Trouble was waiting for me there (didn’t I tell you he can jump like a monkey?) and when he overheard people coming down complaining that a foreigner caused a jam, he knew something was up.

Soldiers supervising the descent, and assisting when necessary. They also do the cleanup, so please be kind and don't litter!

When I hobbled down, he dragged me to the Red Cross van (even though I was fully prepared to hobble all the way down to Futaara shrine) where the paramedics took one look at my leg and told us we’re riding the rest of the way – that I wasn’t going anywhere on this foot and would be stupid to try. And that someone down at the shrine was going to examine it and administer first aid. And that they did. Their diagnosis? Sprained ankle. One of only four injuries today, which for 2500 people, is not bad at all.

Praying at the summit

If you want to participate in Tohaisai, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Get a head light, not just a normal flashlight, but the kind that goes on your head, you'll need all your hands to just hold on.

  • At Futaara shrine make sure you are in the first or second group, otherwise you'll never make it to the top before the sunrise.

  • It will be cold at the summit and you will be soaking wet, bring a jacket and a change of clothes. Though if you’re female, you won't be able to change anyway - there's no privacy really.

  • Waterproof backpack for your camera gear – that is essential. Even if it doesn’t rain, the humidity just hangs in the air (after all you're IN the clouds for the most part), everything will get wet if you don’t protect it.

  • Gloves (essential) and a walking stick (optional). Personally, I don't like walking sticks, but that’s because I use all my limbs when climbing over rocks and exposed tree roots.

  • There will be drinks and snacks for purchase at the 40% mark, and cup ramen, miso soup and hot beverages at the summit.

  • Take all your trash with you!!! You’re in Nikko National Park. The poor soldiers who hop the mountain all night and day long during this event pick up everything left behind, but that's not an easy job, even if you're a fit soldier. Do you know how heavy their backpacks are? They carry radios, chains, ropes, drinks (which they give out to exhausted climbers going down) and first-aid supplies in them, AND they pick up trash along the way. So do your part and pick up your trash yourself.

  • Toilets - only in designated port-a-potties at the 40% mark and the summit. No shitting on the mountain! This is a holy place. So a strong bladder is essential.

  • Once you start climbing, the only option to back out is at the 40% mark (the access road). If you change your mind later on, the only thing you can do is to move to the side and wait until the morning to go down.

  • Going slow is OK, just let people behind you pass from time to time. You don't want to be like that foreigner today, who caused a traffic jam on the mountain. Ahem...

  • There are soldiers and police stationed at the most dangerous sections, that's the time to ask for help, if you have to. It seemed that at least one person at each section could understand English, and they were eager to show off their speaking skills, too.

  • You will see a lot of older Japanese folks passing you. Don't feel bad. They’re not mere mortals like you and me. They’re tough Japanese grandpas who climb this bloody mountain every freaking weekend.

  • This is a tough climb, even some of those fit Japanese people agree. There will be very few (actually, apart from the access road, none at all) flat stretches. It's all very steep and very up. So be careful!

Happy climbing!

And here's a video of Tohaisai 2010 - enjoy!


  1. It looks like it was a very interesting experience. I'm sorry you got all banged up on the way down though. You must have been very tired. Thanks for the pics.

  2. Your posts are always so informative. And funny. And sometimes quite touching. The shot of the rising sun framed by the (shinto?) gate brought tears to my eyes.
    One tiny question: did I miss the explanation of why the mountain is sacred? And what does one pray for or to during the walk up? Besides not falling down. Okay, technically that's two questions.

  3. Great post! Informative, amusing, and a little sad (the ankle part). Is you ankle all right now?
    This makes me want to go out and climb something now. Or, maybe in a month when it's a little less humid... ;)

  4. Thank you for your funky entry! Hope your leg gets better soon.

  5. I did the Oyama-sankei at Iwaki-san last year and it was a very similar experience. Even if the Oyama-sankei is a smaller event, it was still great and it remains one of my best memories from Japan. I hope your ankle will be fine.

  6. Sounds like a great experience! A bit adventurous to do a climb at night....
    Well, as the saying goes"at least try it once".
    A extra-ordinary cultural experience as that must contain some valuable lessons. Take care of that ankle! Enjoy, the experience :-)

  7. awesome matsuri entry. Love the pics especially the one with the soldiers.


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