A Trip to Mt. Hiei, Kyoto Japan

I wrote the following while living in Kyoto Japan in 1993. Noise pollution in Japan remains an issue today.

Kyoto is a city of a million people lying about 35 miles north of Osaka. Although mass transportation and urban sprawl have turned Kyoto into a suburb of Osaka, Kyoto has retained its identity as being the cultural and historical capital of Japan, even managing to retain its distinctive dialect of Japanese. It sits in a broad valley with low mountains to the north, east and west with a thin and shallow concrete banked river running north-south through the eastern half of the city. The city is a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial spaces with the edges predominantly residential and the southern part of the city industrial. Centuries old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dot the city. Although Kyoto escaped the bombings which leveled other cities like Osaka during the war, most of the temples and shrines in Kyoto were destroyed in the various civil wars which raged in the area between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries or by accidental fires which periodically spread and laid waste to the city.

Late one summer the Wife and I  decided to escape the heat and city life by visiting Mount Hiei in Eastern Kyoto. Hiei is a cone-shaped mountain rising about 3,000 feet above sea-level at the northeastern edge of the city. We chose Hiei because we were craving outdoor activity after months spent living and working in the city. Plus Hiei’s history is irresistible to any serious Nipponophile.

In the 12th century monasteries of the Tendai sect of Buddhism were established around the summit of Mt. Hiei. Thousands of warrior monks lived, prayed and trained at the “Enryakuji”, the great monastic headquarters of the sect. As the power of the rulers in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto ebbed with the general collapse of centralized government during the period, the warrior monks caused problems. At various occasions during the next three hundred years the monks would descend on Kyoto to rape, pillage and generally wreak havoc in the city and the surrounding areas, returning to the safety of their heavily fortified monasteries before an organized defense could be mounted. Weakened by corruption and the shift of power to the provincial nobility, the central government could do little to combat the raids and the threat the monks posed to feudal society.

Oda Nobunaga was the first of three great leaders who unified Japan in the 16th century. He was a provincial lord from the east of Kyoto who, using diplomacy and force, began the unification of Japan which his successors Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu completed in the early 17th century. In 1568 Oda seized Kyoto and for 3 years worked to control the various sects of warrior monks living in the mountains surrounding the city. In 1571 he laid siege to Mt. Hiei in an attempt to subdue the monks of the Enryakuji. With the failure of various diplomatic overtures and military attacks and no sign that the monks were suffering from the siege, Oda installed archers at the siege line circling the mountain and the set fire to the trees. The heavily forested mountain of cypress, fueled by dry summer winds created an inferno which trapped the monks at the mountain’s summit, setting fire to their wooden fortifications. In desperation the monks ran through the flames and were picked off one-by-one by the archers. Thousands of monks were killed and at a single stroke he power of the warrior monks was destroyed. Only in 1992 did the monks of the Tendai sect begin to include Oda Nobunaga in their prayers at their annual memorial of the event.

We took a city bus to the foot of the mountain then a cable car which ratcheted up the side of the mountain on geared tracks. Halfway up we switched to a rope-way which lifted us above the cypress-covered valley and carried us to the summit. As we exited the car and stepped on the broad summit of the mountain, all thoughts of a quiet hike in contemplation of nature and history were blasted out of our skulls by a barrage of Japanese pop music blaring from loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles and trees around the summit. Expecting to find quiet Buddhist temples and hiking trails we found a miniature golf course and game center with a grass-ski lodge where one could strap on roller skis and ski down the mountainside while being serenaded by Japanese pop stars. Searching the woods for an escape from the cacophony we stumbled upon a broad asphalt parking lot flanked by small open air kiosks selling souvenirs and fast food such as fried octopus and squid omelets. We crossed the parking lot and ignored a chain across a trail head and set down the path strewn with soft drink cans. cigarette butts and even rusting refrigerators. Although quieter the noise echoed between the ridges and trees to become an even more annoying din.

The trail zig-zagged down the mountain but try as we might we could not escape the noise. Just when we thought we had found a place where the noise was blocked, the wind would shift and we would be assaulted by the noise again. After half an hour of hiking down the mountain, the litter and omnipresent noise were too much and we decided to leave.

As we turned and began the hike back up the trail we heard the sound of a distant temple gong. Behind a thicket of trees we could make out a Buddhist monastery. The gong sounded again and for an instant I imagined the how the valley must have looked hundreds of years ago during Oda’s siege. The encampment and bamboo barricades at the foot of the mountain. Oda’s banners flapping in the summer breeze. The smoke and advancing wall of flame. But the gong stopped and the din from above muscled out the thoughts. We slowly made our way up the trail and left the mountain.

2014 Update: Beat poet Gary Snyder once said of Japanese Buddhism, “They got the message but didn’t open the envelope.” While living there I was never able to bridge the dichotomy between what the Japanese present and what they really are. Pollution was everywhere, and noise pollution in particular made it impossible for one to ever be alone with his or her thoughts. There were even speakers at the famous rock garden temple of Ryoanji that never shut up. The idea of tranquility never became reality, and the Japanese couldn’t understand it because they had grown up with the noise pollution and so couldn’t understand why foreigners complained. They just didn’t get it.

 

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