Road Trippin’ with Yo-chan: Mt. Kongo

09Apr07

A month or so ago I went to Mt. Kongo with Yo-chan and members of the Osaka Daigaku Photography Club. Kongo-san is most famous for the hoarfrost and icicles that cover its forested peak during the winter, but we were too late for hoarfrost and came for the view instead. The weather had been threatening all day, and it had been raining off and on during the week, but we decided to attempt the mountain anyhow. The bus pulled us up the mountain and we emerged into a strange fogworld that grew denser and denser the higher we ascended.

In fact, this fogworld seemed to embody, more than anything I’ve experienced in a long time, the idea of “looming.” The fog created a space in which nothing could be known and out of which objects emerged, carrying themselves forward in a total, sudden, self-expression. I suppose it created a sense of temporality that would otherwise not have existed — walking through space had become walking through time since the limitations on vision resulted in an incredible sense of unfolding, of things becoming events that were happening now.

In addition to this sense, there was also the general funkiness of the area to be taken into account. Mountain towns that are off the beaten path — that haven’t become ski towns or high-class tourist destinations with expensive restaurants — are always on the fringe, just getting by on what little business manages to flow through the area. The old man in the picture was selling some kind of food from the back of his van, near a series of ramshackle buildings set up, almost impromptu, as a kind of general store from which you could buy film, batteries, various kinds of food, some fresh vegetables, and piping hot dango and konyaku. I love these kinds of places because they’re so disembedded from the contemporary experience of capitalized space that financial transactions seem almost improvisatory. You call into the back of the dark store after you’ve picked out the items you want to purchase and then someone emerges from a space deep in the building where they’ve been watching television, and comes out to take the money for the item you’ve already got in hand. Nobody is there ‘watching’ the storefront. Instead there are simply the items for sale, and the understanding that if you want something you’ll call inside to bring the store owner to the front so that the mechanisms of exchange can come to life. Until this call, there are only the objects, sitting in their places.

The cable lift at Kongo-san has a famous view, but it was so foggy when we hit the lift that we almost literally could not see the trees that we would come close to from time to time as the gondola ascended the mountain. There was a strange, quiet feeling of disembodied space around us. It was almost as if the gondola had been lifted into a bright, white nowhere. There were all the signs of motion — the sounds of chugging machinery, a slow sway in the gondola, rhythms of passage — but outside there wasn’t a single available marker. Even the cables quickly disappeared into the fog, creating strange parallel lines that seemed to point, but faded before the intention of their pointing could be felt.

I’m not sure why, but these hawk stickers were ubiquitous around Kongo-san. Stuck to all of the windows of the cable-lift building they formed silhouettes that gave the illusion of masses of hawks, diving, from the corner of the eye.

At the top of the lift, where there would normally be an amazing view of the other peaks in the mountain chain, is the Kongo-san regional museum. Inside this building there is a warm wood fire where you can stand and remove some of the chill of the fog, as well as a small natural history display that includes a room-sized recreation of the forest environment that surrounds Kongo-san. There’s a natural history mural on the walls (which are rough wood to simulate the feeling of a log cabin) that follows the history of Kongo-san from the time of the dinosaurs to the present. Upstairs there is a room for presentations and informational videos. The cold fog outside had drawn in a group of retired hikers who decided to spend some time inside, in the warm conference room, watching a video about Kongo-san.

Because it was so cold, Yo-chan decided to hand out some of the miraculous, warmth-inducing choco-mushrooms that he had in his backpack. These きのこの山 (Mountain Mushrooms) are normally found only at the combini, but once they make their way up into their natural environment, their true flavors come out.

Although the fog obliterated the possibility of the sweeping views that were expected from the mountaintop, it enabled views of the trees that would have been otherwise impossible. Without any confusing background noise, these trees were allowed to make themselves seen in as much of their own shapes and forms as possible.

Kongo-san is covered with these cedar trees, most of which have probably been placed here as part of Japan’s greening program. Since the 1940s there has been a tremendous effort on Japan’s part to reforest large areas of the countryside. However, there has been one interesting side effect of this program. Because there are now so many cedar trees in Japan, every spring there are enormous problems with allergies when the trees release their pollen. Because of this there is a new program in the works to slowly replace the pollen-generating cedars with a slightly different breed that generates far less pollen. Often when you see Japanese people walking around wearing cloth masks, what you are seeing is an attempt to limit pollen intake. In the meantime, these trees form amazing parallels that, in the fog, seemed to point up to infinity.



4 Responses to “Road Trippin’ with Yo-chan: Mt. Kongo”

  1. 1 K

    What a great trip! There is really something to be said for fog–and chocolate mushrooms!

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    Hey K., it was indeed a great trip. Somehow fog and choco-mushrooms always reminds me of what I think San Francisco must have been like circa 1967.

  3. 3 angie

    i read about sugi allergies in dogs and demons. apparently ten percent of the population is affected.

  4. 4 Trane DeVore

    I’m please to say that I don’t have allergies to sugi, to dogs, or to demons. But I do have an allergy to at least 10% of the population . . .


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