A senior co-worker first told me about an interesting mountain tucked away in north-eastern Tsu (closer to Shiroko and Suzuka than Tsu City proper) about this time last year. Out there in the woods at a place called Ishiyama Kanon (石山観音), more than 30 images of Buddha have been carved into stones on the mountain. I wanted to visit right away but with it lying so far from home by bike, well beyond my then range, Ishiyama Kanon was put on my ‘bucket list’ of destinations in Tsu. Put there and never really reconsidered, for the tyranny of distance remained too strong and there’s no public transport nearby. But two weeks ago with a whole picture-perfect autumn day to myself, I was finally free to test my mettle and roam further than usual.
The ride there indeed proved long but not too difficult until it suddenly took off upwards over a series of undulating hills just before my destination. My legs weren’t happy at that last little push having been dulled by the miles of flat riding against my old ‘friend’, the winter westerly wind. Thankfully nothing strenuous awaited me on the ‘hike’. The narrow forest trail isn’t long or hard, and doesn’t take more than an hour to thoroughly explore all its many twists and turns.
Bathed in dappled sunlight filtering through the trees, the little dirt path gently meanders upwards through native forest past the scattered carvings towards a lookout and ‘the horse’s back’, the summit of the gigantic stone outcrop that gives the mountain its name (‘ishi’ is stone in Japanese). Though the trail itself will give you no problems, do find something to brush away the spiders with. When I visited, these red, black and yellow terrors had spun their webs across the trail at every chance they’d gotten. I’m not the squeamish sort, having been raised the land of creepy crawlies (aka Australia), but even so, less spiders would have been nice instead of ending up caught in their webs every couple of steps.
The beauty of Ishiyama Kanon owes much to it having been subtly added to figure-by-figure over centuries. Alas the rock into which many of the figures have been carved is very soft and time hasn’t been kind to man’s handiwork. Many of the figures faces are heavily weathered while others have survived quite unscathed. The effect is a glorious mix of detail that makes it hard to know just how old the place truly is. In a curious twist, one of the best preserved images is the oldest. Historians believe that the earliest image, a five meter tall effigy towards the end of the trail, was carved around 1185-1333 AD as it is in a style consistent with the Kamakura Period.
I could have spent many hours hanging about waiting for the light to be just right to sake my shutterbug desires, but I could feel my body stiffening by the minute. So it was back on the bike post-haste to get my tired self home to a hot shower. A shame really, for Ishiyama would be a grand spot to watch the sun set over Tsu and Ise Bay.
If the constant westerly wind wasn’t enough proof of Autumn being in town, the old man in his tiny white farm truck stopping here and there along the forest road, clasping a long handled pincer in search of wild chestnut trees sure was. I’ve seen fleets of vehilces just like his truck cruising the back roads doing the same thing. Some even put out their own traffic cones. I guess things growing on the roadside must be fair game for all.