Hiking Asama Onsen – Part 3: Climbing Daionji-yama
Our Asama expedition continues with another trip uphill. In Part 2 we saw the understated, history-laced sights at the foot of Mt. Daionji. Today we head for higher ground.
But first, a few bonus notes about the foot of the mountain.
From the street below Nishinomiya Ebisu Shrine, at the edge of a cement-lined creek tumbling down out of the woods, you’ll see a large stone monument (a continuing theme from Part 2).
It was erected in September 1921 to commemorate renovation of the road leading over Asama Pass – an ancient, spiritually significant trail leading up Misa-yama to the east. The inscription in the stone represents the calligraphy of Rosodo Kiichi, the haiku poet commemorated in one of the monuments over near the Yakushido outside the Nishinomiya Ebisu Shrine gate. My best guess is that the large characters (not pictured) read 開道記念 – kaido kinen, meaning ‘road opening memorial’.
Walk up the path along the river and at the second footbridge – which, incidentally, connects this path to the grounds of Nishinomiya Ebisu Shrine – you’ll see this white sign, accompanied by a short stone marker. If it looks like there’s nothing there to commemorate, that’s because there isn’t. There used to be, though.
A ‘climbing kiln’ – noborigama in Japanese – is a multi-chambered pottery kiln built on a piece of sloping ground. The heat from the lowest firing chamber rises through each chamber above in succession, making efficient use of the heat of the fire while allowing for large-scale pottery production.
Kiln-making know-how in general was brought to Japan from China via Korea. The noborigama made its way from Korea to Kyushu in the latter part of the 15th Century, and in 1605 was introduced to the city of Toki, just northeast of Nagoya, in 1605. From there a new and advanced style of pottery, called Oribe-yaki, caught fire (so to speak), enjoying widespread demand while becoming the preferred aesthetic of the Japanese tea ceremony.
In the early 1940s a man by the name of Yoshikazu Shinoda salvaged a load of fire-resistant kiln bricks from the ruins of a dilapidated kiln in Tajimi City, next door to Toki, hauled them up here, and built with his own hands a noborigama in a style associated with Kyoto-Kiyomizu-yaki pottery. Now located in nearby Azumino, the Shinoda noborigama is the only one of its kind in the Nagano region.
After you’ve gotten your fill of the kiln that isn’t there continue along, around the bend along the diminutive river and over the next footbridge where you’ll find Fudo-myo and his waterfall. Up the steps sits Fudo-in Temple, where, off to the side, lurks a steep set of dirt-and-log stairs. This is the entrance to Daionji-yama.
At the top of the first short set of stairs is this sign, one of many dotting the maze of trails crossing and climbing the west face of Daionji.
Go at it however you like, the paths and the views are worth taking in at a leisurely pace.
Fair warning: at the peak of 887-meter Daionji-yama there is no view to speak of, covered in woods as it is. But just below the top is an open space that affords ample opportunity to take in the Shinshu valley and the Northern Alps to the west.
One minor point of interest here on the west face of Daionji-yama is a small pond, fed by a trickle of water cascading from a length of bamboo. This pond (it really is small) was put here to commemorate the fifth year of tree-conservation efforts in the area, and was inspired by hopes of becoming an attractive photo spot.
Wanting only to contribute, I took a photo.
This pond sits at the southern end of the web of trails where, across the road, is the beginning of the hike up No-Name-yama. Heading right down the road brings you back to where our exploratory stroll along the foot of Daionji began. Returning the way you came gets you another visit with Fudo-myo and his attitude.
If neither of these options sounds satisfying, there is one more way to round out your hike. Hike to the top of Daionji, then keep following the trail down the other side. You’ll soon come to a trio of mismatched signs at a split in the path.
Head left and wind your way down through the woods, along a trail that will spit you out at one of the several dams keeping Asama Onsen from succumbing to a long, slow landslide. Just before this you might spot another small white sign, very much like the many we’ve seen already. This one explains how this mountainside was the site of Yokoya-jo, a castle of Lord Akazawa during the Warring States Period of Japan. Defensive ditches and some stone wall remains from this castle of the 1500s can still be found.
Following the trail downhill brings you to a road you likely won’t recognize. But no worries, follow it down and around and in no time (meaning less than ten minutes) you’ll find yourself back at the stone commemorating the renovation of the path of Asama Pass, the place where that noborigama used to be, and all the good stuff we found in Part 2 of this journey through Asama Onsen.
If you’re still not satisfied, take a hike up Goten-yama. It begins along the road leading down from the dam, and is explained in Part 4 of our Hiking Asama Onsen series.