Battling a Dragon

(A cloudless sky.)

It’s quite some time since I wrote. Last week, I successfully proposed a topic for my MA thesis, so I should be able to take it a little easier now, or so say some fellow students, but my mind is already full of how I might construct this massive academic text in the next few months. So, I’m sorry if this blog has fallen out of my awareness a little.

There is, however, a story I would like to tell about a small excursion I embarked on shortly before my thesis proposal. I was so overwhelmed with having to summarize all my thoughts in a page-long summary and with the crazy heat that is of course normal in this part of the world at this time of year, that I fled to a nearby mountain for a hike.

I left my apartment wearing hiking boots, jeans, a linen shirt, and a straw fedora. As always, I was lathered in sun screen, and the sunlight was so blinding, I had to wear sunglasses. By the time I got to the train station I was covered in sweat. On the trains, people waved foldable fans to bring the air conditioned air to their faces.

Not a cloud was in the sky, and yet my cell phone told me that the forecast held rainy weather in store for my destination. Looking out the train window, I could hardly imagine it would rain. Not a cloud was in the sky. Even if it rained, I reasoned, it would just be a small shower.

I was heading towards Takao-san (aka Mt. Takao), a mountain on the western edge of Tokyo graced with an old temple and in summer, a beer garden. A cable car runs up and down it, and on weekends with nice weather, it’s crowded with people escaping the city. I was there on a weekday, and was not wrong in the expectation I would see other people there.

As I got off the train at Takao, clouds had covered the sky, but by then I had decided that even if it did rain, I would climb the usual path to the peak. Only, at that moment, I had no idea how much it would rain. I headed into the forest and after a few minutes, a gentle shower started. I came to a place where shrines to Buddhist gods are placed in three little caves. A few people had taken cover there and one woman sitting on the ground at one of the altars was chanting the name of the Amida Buddha as she struck a gong on the ground.

When I came to this mountain for the first time a year ago with a good friend, we talked about the power of Japanese forests, the spirits that lived here, particularly dragons, which like three things, women, water (particularly in the shape of waterfalls), and wine (or rather alcohol in any form, I imagine).  This makes sense, because dragons belong to ying as does water, and in that world view, women are also considered as being full of water. Some legends tell of a dragon palace at the bottom of the ocean, and they have also been worshiped as rain gods.

In any case, I pushed on. The rain wasn’t so strong in any case. I made it all the way to a shrine that’s built beneath a waterfall. At the fall itself, a middle-aged man in simple clothing made of thin white cotton was standing on one foot, his right foot resting on his right thigh, his hands pressed together, chanting incantations as the water cascaded over him.

Not wishing to get too wet myself, I took out my umbrella and pushed on, but pretty soon, it turned into a downpour, and I was instantly drenched. Once drenched, I can’t get wetter I reasoned and pushed on. All this water must mean a dragon was near, I thought, and smiled. Then I thought the rain meant he didn’t want me climbing the mountain, and my smile faded. Well, I would see how far I could get.

I got as far as a place where the path turns into stepping stones going up a stream. The stream had swollen and it seemed like a number of rocks were partially submerged. No one was around anymore, so I turned to climb back down the mountain. A few moments later, a mother and son came towards me up the mountain. I explained the situation to them, and they laughed, oh we’ll go through anyway, they said and passed by me.

I can’t have lost to the dragon yet, I thought, and ran after the pair. The three of us made it through to the top. Worse than the stream, a set of stairs near the top of the mountain had turned into a cascading waterfall, but we made it through.

At the top, there was no view to speak of, because of the clouds, but just as we headed down the mountain on another path, the evening sun came out and colored the trees orange. Was that perhaps a sign the dragon gave up in the face of our obstinacy? The woman laughed and said I put too much thought into it, and we headed down the mountain.

7 thoughts on “Battling a Dragon

  1. Sounds like a wonderful adventure. Reminds me of my own journey to find the site of Shunkan’s mountain hut, where he and several others plotted against Taira no Kiyomori. Fortunately, it didn’t rain while I climbed, but serious rains the previous days had made the path just a bit more dangerous than I really should have braved… But, not unlike yourself, I met another hiker, who thought absolutely nothing of it. She was on her daily constitutional, or whatever the phrase is, calmly doing stretches and such at the top of the mountain when I arrived, sweaty, sore, and tired. Oh, how I miss such adventures.

    1. Dear Travis,

      These experiences make good memories, don’t they? And I doubt it’s possible to always have them. Is the mountain you mentioned Hiei-san or somewhere near there? It sounds like a fascinating place.

      Will you be in Kyoto this summer? If so, get in touch. I’ll be there off and on.

      Take care!


      1. Not Hiei-zan; actually, it’s Daimonji-yama, near Ginkakuji and the Philosopher’s Walk. I climbed it once using some path that starts right near Ginkakuji and leads up to where the Daimonji itself is. But this day, I took a different path, which leads to a marker for Shunkan. It’s in the area called Shishigatani (左京区鹿ヶ谷大黒谷町); the path starts somewhere near Honen-in or Anraku-ji, I guess.

        Anyway, sadly, I will not be coming to Japan this summer. Hopefully next summer something will fall into place… Hope all is well!

  2. Hanna, I loved your “Dragon piece”. Know exactly the feeling. I met my dragon
    at Inari Taisha in the pouring rain, where I wanted to cross over to Tofuku-ji and
    got so lost, thank you Lonely Planet (“after the vegetable field there is a path …”)
    But there came a man out of the fog and shook his head at me and I bowed and bowed some
    more and he lead me out of the steep woods to the South portal of Tofuku-ji.
    Thanks to your story I now know that he was a dragon’s helper taking pity on the
    not so smart lonely woman in the rain. But he did not smile once ….
    So glad you write those wonderful adventures for us to read and enjoy. And YES,
    those are the best memories, one has to be thankful for.
    Much love,

    1. Dear Christiane,

      I’ve gotten lost on that same route! Haha! But a young man, who I could have sworn in retrospect was a deceiving fox led me to Tofukuji and then wanted to take me all the way home. I couldn’t get rid of him until the very end. Another memory that fascinates me. . .

      Thanks as always!


  3. That says it all – a fox, yes, I thought so too. But mine was older and he checked
    his watch a million times. Couldn’t get rid of me soon enough !!
    I love that we walked the same paths – a memory I wouldn’t want to miss – for
    nothing in the world.
    Do you know, WHERE we got lost ?? The guide has to be reviewed ….
    Aber, Du weist ja : Der Weg ist das ZIel –
    Love, CH

    1. Dear Christiane,

      The best experiences often take place when we’re lost, either geographically or emotionally or otherwise. To find the way for oneself, deviating to the left and right a little sometimes brings the way into better view. :) Although. . . that moment of searching for the way requires a whole lot of concentration and dedication.


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