Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Mount Takao Morning

Buchholz family

My wife and our two daughters go to Japan nearly every year, and while they always have some fun adventure, the main purpose is to reunite with Wife's family. Haruko and her sister Sakiko are very close, so close that I wasn't surprised when they both gave birth to their first child on the exact same day. After a 16 year absence I decided to let my business fend for itself and I invited myself to go to Japan too. Our timing was the end of November and my goal was to see wild nature, not just Japanese gardens and nurseries.

Hachiyoji City at the foot of Mt. Takao

Our hotel in Tokyo was near Shinjuku, the rail hub of the city, and we decided to take the express train to Mt. Takao which was only an hour away. Takaosan, as the Japanese refer to it, isn't much for elevation at only 1965', but it's home to a wealth of plants, in particular Japanese maples. We left early to avoid the crowds while my daughters elected to sleep in. They had access to the internet and were able to connect with their American boyfriends, so they had no real interest to get up early and climb a damn mountain.

Atsuko Gibson
I already knew a little bit about Takaosan due to a fun article written by Atsuko Gibson of the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden in Washington state. She was there two years ago at the end of May to see the blooming of Dendrobium moniliforme (accomplished!). Atsuko explains that nearly 3 million visit Takaosan annually, and my wife supposes that every Tokyo child takes a school field trip there, which she did when she was ten. Atsuko calls Takaosan “heaven” for those who are there to observe plants. It is located on the boundary between the cool zone and the warm zone and approximately 1,300 taxa* can be found. And, if you're into bugs, 5,000 species of insects crawl around to the delight of a bird population of 150 species.

*In the whole of Great Britain 1,500-1,600 taxa are found.

Magnolia hypoleuca

Styrax japonicus

Cryptomeria japonica

Cryptomeria japonica

I was somewhat apprehensive when we deboarded the train due to cold rain and wind, plus I was suffering from a head cold and my nose dripped constantly the entire day. But the brisk mountain air energized me because to stay warm one had to walk. During Atsuko's visit in spring she saw Magnolia hypoleuca, Arisaema limbatum, Hydrangea serrata, Iris japonica and Styrax japonicus in full bloom, plus a number of ferns. The ferns were still present for me as well, but the preponderance of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) was impressive. Often I couldn't see the tops of the sugi trees because of the foggy gloom, nevertheless their reddish-brown trunks were straight and stately. Then best of all were large specimens of Acer palmatum scattered throughout the cedar forest, and we were there at the perfect time for their red and yellow autumnal foliage.

Cryptomeria japonica Takosugi


Takosugi's eye

There are eight trails to the summit but we took the main one with the promise that we would see the 450+- year-old takosugi or “octopus tree.” The tree was protected by a few posts and next to it was a pedestal on which sat a reddish ball with an octopus carved on top. The tree is so-called because the root arms look like octopus tentacles. Legend has it that the large tree was in the way during the construction of the pathway, and when workers tried to cut the tree down...that night it bent its roots to open up a way for them instead. Now sacred rope is placed around its trunk, making it Takaosan's sacred tree, and it is considered a place of spiritual rejuvenation. It is said if you pet the head of the Hipparidako statue it will bring you good luck, so I gave him a pat and a wink.

Acer palmatum

Near the takosugi we encountered a very short old woman who greeted us with a cackle and a smile. She welcomed us as if she owned the place and she was very energetic and enthusiastic, and for all I knew she maybe climbed the mountain every day. In Japanese the spry midget told Haruko that we should take a side trail if we wanted to see the best large maples. Haruko wondered how could she possibly know that old Buchholz was "Maple Man," and indeed that's what he wanted to see? On the way down from the summit we did take her advice and the short trail ended at a church-like structure surrounded by huge Acer palmatums. The fact that they were barely visible in the fog made them all the more impressive. I thought about the old woman and wondered if she was a real person or something from the spirit world. Maybe the octopus ball brought good fortune by sending this creature to me.

Stewartia pseudocamellia

Abies firma

Unidentified tree

Unidentified tree

Further up the mountain I encountered Stewartia pseudocamellia for the first time in the wild...unless not wild if someone planted them there, and one tree was impressive for golden autumn leaves. After a few more up-steps and turns I discovered a “true fir,” Abies whatever – Abies firma according to Ms. Gibson's article. Honestly, considering the length of my career, I really should be more adept at tree identification, but I confess that I have trouble with trees from the wild or trees from someone else's garden or from a city's urban forest. To wit: a fantastic broadly-crowned tree with brilliant yellow leaves. Haruko couldn't identify it and neither could I. Help – please! – from the Flora Wonder readership.

Kusumoto Taki
Kusumoto Ine

Philipp Von Siebold
Japan abounds with buildings with architectural styles from its historic periods which I know very little about. Just as I have trouble identifying some of its native trees, I couldn't tell you if a structure is a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. Haruko laughed and said she couldn't either, but sometimes they both occur in the same area. I don't know what any of the stone pillars signify, but just as with British gravestones it is a somewhat awesome pastime to wander amongst the old weathered markers and imagine about the people from a hundred-to-hundreds of years ago. Basically I think they were the same then as we are now. For example, the famous German/Dutch physician-botanist, Philipp von Siebold, fell in love and fathered a beautiful child (Kusumoto Ine) with the comely 16-year-old (Kusumoto Taki), whom he described as "fine as any European woman." I did the same, of course, except my wife was 23 when we married, and certainly we knew that scrutinizing tongues were wagging. But, due to my oriental attraction, I am now (19 years later) in Japan climbing up a sacred mountain and indulging in the aura of its exotic flora. What a wonderful ticket to happiness my wife has been!

Takaosan Temple

Tengu statue

Back to temples, Takaosan, being a power-place location, features Yakuoin Yukiji, a Buddhist temple where many visitors pray to the Shinto-Buddhist tengu (a kami from Japanese folklore). Kami are the spirits or holy powers that were/are venerated in the Shinto religion, and they can be elements of the landscape or forces of nature, or can be the spirits of dead persons. The Takaosan Temple (built in 744 AD) features statues of tengu – a mountain deity with the long Pinocchio-like nose, where the novice tengu has a crow-like beak, but where the more progressed tengu, who has been trained longer on the mountain, possesses the funny long-narrow nose. I know that my wife occupies a more ethereal realm than I do, and even without formal training she submits to the interconnecting energy of the universe (musubi) and is in harmony with, and conscious of, kannagara no michi, or “the way of the kami.” The literal meaning of tengu is “Heaven-Dog,” and since most things “Japanese” are derived from China, there is in Chinese mythology a creature named Tiangou which means “celestial hound.”

Umbrellas at the cable car

Our descent from the summit of Takaosan was far more hectic and problematic due to the increased hoard of visitors who were puffing their way up. Most of the climbers were now armed with the cheap, clear Japanese umbrella which serves its purpose, but nevertheless I suppose that if one was not diligently on guard, then you could easily get spoked in the eye. Per protocol we were hugging the left side of the path, just as motorists do on the roads and street commuters do on stairs and escalators in the train stations, nevertheless Haruko was knocked by a bow-legged woman who wouldn't yield to the correct side. I'll say the following carefully because I don't want to denigrate anyone for their nationality, but the charging woman was Chinese, and no matter what, they are absolutely different, or at least the tourists are very aggressive. The Japanese all realize the importance of Chinese money and the power of their economy, but the Nihonjin grumble that they are growing more and more prolific in their island nation, and that they are...well, less refined.

At the bottom of Takaosan is a tourist village with a number of shops near the cable-car station. Haruko bought me a delicious hot coffee from a vending machine. Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan; they are well-stocked and clean, and I suppose you could still live a healthy life if you ate from them only. We were startled when a loud whoosh of steam was released from the side of a tourist stall. It was fathersan roasting chestnuts in his fancy steel machine. Inside his beautiful daughter was serving nuts to the hungry mob. I studied the sweetheart closely, impressed with her calm attentive demeanor, where she flashed a smile and gave a pleasant greeting to every customer. I wondered: is she really that nice at home? Haruko assured me that she probably is because Japanese are “good people.” Anyway the chestnuts were delicious, the squash meal was enhanced with a sticky brown sugar, and I think the species is Castanea crenata.

We returned to our hotel where our daughters were lounging on their beds which were littered with plastic wrappers of healthy snacks from the nearby convenience store (konbini), and I'm sure that they gave no thought – because they never asked – about our Takaosan adventure.


  1. Yes, the Chinese, even very old bow-legged woman can knock you down or in my case almost over the railing into the South China sea as I was trying to board a ferry with 200 other Chinese. I did get even though when I saw her exiting the ferry in front of me. hehe

  2. Hi Talon, your unidentified tree and closeup of the leaves remind me of images that I've seen of Bischofia polycarpa. A quick google search indicates some taxonomic uncertainty with this and the wide-ranging B. javanica. I've never heard of golden fall color on this species, but if that's the identity, it would be a very interesting find.