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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 85-103
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Hell and Heaven at Tateyama
Anyone in the land of Japan who has committed sins will fall into the Tateyama hells.
Through the window of the pokey two-car train, sunlight warms the sandalwood prayer-bead bracelet I bought three days ago in a pilgrim shop. Chin on my hand, I can smell the spicy resin, a promise of other worlds. But can I trust it, will I find them here?
Leaving its straight-line course through heavy-headed rice fields, the train works into the foothills. Clouds block the peaks of the Tateyama range. Here by the Japan Sea coast, the mountains catch a lot of moisture. I'm worrying about the weather, wishing I knew more about this place. Then above a string of tile-roofed houses, I see it: the broken arc of a rainbow over one low ridge.
Some of us notice, mostly rucksacked visitors from the cities. The local people (farmwomen toting shopping bags, kids in school uniforms in mid-August) don't much care. The arc lengthens. A second bow appears beside it, the colors reversed: Roy G. Biv joined by his elusive mate, Vi B. Gyor. A moment passes and Roy opens, widens. The inner arc runs through the spectrum twice.
In medieval paintings of the Tateyama's heavenly heights, holy beings descend on luminous tinted vapors. Rainbows, iridescent clouds reveal the radiant energies of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods. But this double rainbow strikes me as too timely, too pat to be a sign.
I spot a troupe of fluffed-out monkeys heading for somebody's grapes. Flaunting their fannies, they shamble, cheerfully outrageous, goofy-looking [End Page 85] as any humanoids. Maybe they're descended from the fabulous apes who built Wisteria Bridge at the Tateyama's base: earlier travelers into these hills teetered over a risky span of ropelike vines. Above the gorge this train will soon be crossing, they felt the blood-rush of a passage beyond the edge of death.
Signs and wonders—that's what I've come looking for. I know I'll see huge dams and rock-defying tunnels, and a weird highland valley filled with geothermal curiosities, the kind called in Japanese a jigoku, a hell. Yet so far I haven't even found out where the old pilgrims' foot-trail ran.
This could reveal something about the people I've been asking. It could be an omen that applies to me.
In the last centuries before modern times, the Tateyama drew up to ten thousand pilgrims a year. Today the trip across these mountains is marketed as a transportation funfest. The Tateyama Alpine Route: nine stages, 60 miles, five corporate entities, one hundred bucks.
Leave the office for the weekend, put on your jeans or ski togs, hey ho! First, the nostalgic local train, then you ascend by cable car, switching to a bus that swoops up the high plain to Murodō. Next, go down down down in a tunnel trolley-bus, and on an angled ropeway, and in an underground cable-tram. After that, you walk atop a monumental dam, half a mile by shank's mare on its wide wall of concrete. Another tunnel, another trolley; finally, you cool off from these mechanical glories on a normal highway bus, with normal diesel fumes.
If the marvels I want were those of triumphant engineering, I'd be set.
But the posters and vivacious pamphlets say next to nothing of this place's history. Shamans used to cast themselves forth on cosmic journeys in the Tateyama. Pilgrims walked for weeks to reach these slopes. They knew the volcanic massif to be the earthly correspondent of the Other World, the one we go to after death.
Does anyone besides me and a few anthropologists care about that today? Maybe ski lodges and jolly hikers, hydroelectricity and flood control are all I'll find. Maybe it's impossible, in these times, to learn...