Before I climbed Mt. Daisen, I had never climbed a literal mountain in my life. Still, the friend who invited me climbing told me that she regularly guides elementary-school-aged kids up and down the mountain, so I figured climbing Daisen was something I could probably pull off.
As it turned out, the actual experience of climbing a mountain was something I never could have accurately imagined on my own. By the time I made it back down the mountain, I felt like an exhausted wooden doll and my legs were sore for about three days afterwards. Oh, was it worth it, though!
Looking back down about 100 meters from the sumit
If you climb a lot of stairs in your daily life, you’ll probably be well prepared to climb Daisen. The trail we took was made of steps that just kept going up. In some places, the steps were so steep that I barely had to bend over to use my hands to help me up. Despite how hard the climb was, I was ecstatic to be climbing Daisen because the natural beauty on that mountain is otherworldly.
A small section of man-made steps
The trail head my friends and I took leads you straight through Daisen’s old growth forests. Fun fact about these: since climbing was forbidden on Mt. Daisen until recent times, the trees covering the slopes have just been allowed to grow and grow and now they’re the oldest growth beech forest in Japan. As you climb, you’ll get some indications as to how much the trees in this forest are valued. There are multiple sections on the trail where a tree just sits right in the middle of it, and climbers have to go around. I also noticed that someone had built a cairn in the nook of one particular tree. I pointed it out to one of my friends and she said it’s probably because a tree that old most likely had a god inside of it.
Daisen beech forest
Because I wasn’t accustomed to a climb this steep, I had to take a lot of breaks. I was really glad for the frequent breaks, though, because they gave me an excuse to stop and look around at everything. I’m not exaggerating when I say that each view on Daisen is better than the last. I would stop somewhere, look up and around at the trees, and think about how beautiful this particular view was. Then I would climb just a little bit higher, and I could see through the trees and look down on how far I’d climbed and that view was even more beautiful!
On this particular trail, there are ten different signposts to pass before you get to the summit. The forest continues until around the seventh or eighth signpost. The trees obstruct your view for a while, but they also keep you shaded for the most difficult parts of the climb. The higher you go, the more of your surroundings you’ll be able to see.
The last couple hundred meters of the trail look completely different from where you started. Because the wind near the summit can be really strong, the vegetation is much shorter than everything near the foot of the mountain. The last hundred meters or so were my favorite part of the trail. At this point, you leave the steep steps you’ve been climbing and move onto a wooden boardwalk. Cool wind blows and refreshes you from the climb so far. If you look behind you, you can see Tottori Prefecture, and a little bit of Shimane Prefecture stretching out below you. Best of all, since multiple trails converge on the summit, there are several boardwalk paths you can take to explore the area around the summit.
All of the trails end at the summit ranger’s station. Here, an open space has been cleared for climbers to take a rest and enjoy the view. That’s not the only thing you’ll find, though. Inside the ranger’s station is a small shop that sells drinks and snacks rangers have packed up the mountain. They even sell souvenirs that you can only find if you make it to the summit. On top of all of this, the ranger’s station sometimes offers climbers a place to sleep overnight. If someone wants to see the sunrise from Daisen, a common thing to do is climb the mountain in the evening, stay the night at the ranger’s station, and then wake up early to watch the sun come up.
One of the most interesting things I learned during this climb is the fact that’s it’s customary for climbers to carry a rock with them up the mountain. Just before the trail head my friends and I used to climb, there’s a pile of different-sized stones that climbers can choose to carry. When you finally reach the summit, you leave the stone there. Daisen’s rangers use these stones to help prevent erosion on Daisen’s summit. The wooden boardwalk around the summit is also meant to help with this. Back in the 1980s, much of the plant life on Daisen’s summit had been trampled by climbers, leaving the mountain prone to erosion. Projects like the boardwalk, carrying the stones, and other efforts have helped to preserve the mountain and restore its summit.
When I looked down at the view from Daisen’s summit, I couldn’t believe we had actually climbed all this way. The trail head my friends and I had take was about 900 meters above sea level, and the summit stands at 1700 meters. We had just climbed eight hundred meters of stairs, and made it to the top of the highest mountain in Japan’s Chugoku region. It was so satisfying to know that I’d stuck it out this long to get to the top, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this experience.
The summit ranger’s station
In total, climbing up and climbing back down took about six hours. Two hours to climb the mountain, and a little less than two to climb back down, but my friends and I took lots of breaks, rested at the summit, and took our time exploring the trails around the ranger’s station. There are multiple trails going up and around Mt. Daisen, and we took the one that skirts around Daisen Temple. To access this trail head, you take a right from the souvenir street above the information center, cross a bridge, and then walk a little ways down the road until you see some steps leading up into the forest.
Outline of our route up the mountain
On the way down, we turned onto a different trail that leads straight to Ogamiyama Shrine. There were fewer people climbing up this trail, so it was much easier to walk down. Completely unrelated to that, this trail was amazing because just before we reached the shrine, we were brought this dry riverbed that looked back up at the mountains. I could have sat for hours just taking this in!
By the way, I didn’t realize this would be the case until I actually did it, but climbing down the mountain is almost harder than climbing up. Since the stairs are so steep, you have to pick your way down carefully. Also, since your legs are straining so much to keep you steady on the way down, you’ll feel you’re legs twitching if you stop to rest (my friend told me that in Japanese, you describe this by saying hiza ga waratteiru, or, “my knees are laughing”).
All in all, there are too many good things to say about climbing Daisen! The sights are spectacular, the people climbing up and down the mountain are so friendly, and it was actually possible for a beginner to finish the climb in one piece. I would love to come back and see more of these trails.
Daisen is one of those places that makes me so incredibly happy to have been placed in Shimane. I had never heard anything about this corner of Japan before I was told to come here, but now, I don’t think I would have liked it any other way. The opportunity to explore places in and around Shimane is priceless, and I’m so happy to be here.