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Misen Trails: Can We Go Hiking Yet?

You may be familiar with the saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As someone with a penchant for travel, one of my greatest desires is to visit faraway lands in the company of wonderful people so we can check off bucket-list items together. Alas, life moves faster than we would like, and as every person has priorities in different places, lining up schedules is an ordeal. Impatient to wait for my friends to be available, I often take the liberty of going off on my excursions all by myself, resulting in me seeing various parts of Japan (and other parts of the world before the pandemic) a lot sooner than I would have had I insisted on assembling a group every time. Going alone has never impeded on me going far ever since I moved to this country, which makes me doubt the above proverb, but at the same time, some moments on my journeys seem like too much of a waste for me to hog to myself.

A considerable number of said moments happen in the spring, a nigh-universally preferred time to travel. Spring is the time that frost thaws and makes way for flowering plants, and temperatures rise to a range that allows for vacationing in comfort. One of the activities I anticipate the most throughout the year is hiking, which is best done when it’s not cold enough to make you sick or hot enough to make you pass out. Hiking season around these parts tends to be from March to May and from September to November. There’s a wide variety of mountains to climb in Hiroshima Prefecture alone, but the one peak I climb more often than any other is Misen on Miyajima, to which I have become so accustomed that I have made its three trails my training grounds. In addition to getting my muscles worked up again on the warmer trails, I decided to knock out two birds with one stone and watch the evolution of cherry blossoms around the island over the last few days of March.

In a nutshell, there are three distinct trails on Miyajima that lead to the summit of Misen: the Momijidani Course, the Daisho-in Course, and the Omoto Course. Of the three, the Momijidani Course seems to be the easiest to ascend, and although it’s not as stair-heavy as the other two trails, Momijidani still has a fair share of steep inclines that can provide a challenge to most hikers out there. In contrast, the Daisho-in course is basically one extremely long staircase; while this means it takes longer to ascend than Momijidani, in my experience, Daisho-in also makes for the fastest descent, which I will cover in more detail later. The Omoto Course is undoubtedly the longest and most demanding trail, with more steps than Daisho-in and steeper slopes than the other two trails. My plan was to visit Miyajima on three different days in late March and report on the progress of the cherry blossoms on the island as I conquered a different trail each time, starting with Omoto.

 

Better Luck Tomorrow

My first attempt at scoping out the sakura as well as Misen fell on Saturday, March 19th, well before peak hanami season. Long story short, it was not a success as I didn’t get to hike, but I did get to see the first cherry blossoms open up on trees here and there around town. Before going, I checked the weather forecast for the day on my smartphone, which said that the rain would subside by the afternoon, so I took a gamble and went to Miyajima, hoping to eke in a quick climb before the Misen observatory closed. Unfortunately, I lost that bet, as it was still raining by the time I set foot on Miyajima Pier.

I forewent the hike and opted to sightsee at Omoto Park, where I caught two crows shamelessly plucking fur from a deer’s rear end. At the time, my mood also matched the deer’s; the cherry trees were mostly barren, the rain meant we had to stay put, and it wasn’t even mealtime, leaving me in a bit of a slump. Before heading back, I stopped by the Omotesando shopping street on the other side of town for a deep-fried Momiji Manju, as consolation for my plans literally being rained on. This one had a peach jam filling, which is uncommon despite the diversity in flavors of Momiji Manju that can be found in various stores. After wolfing down my snack, I bought some packaged Momiji Manju to share with my colleagues at a different store, and then got back on the Matsudai ferry.

 

Back in Greater Numbers

I couldn’t make it far that day, but was intent on doubling my efforts to conquer the Omoto course soon enough. That night, I returned to Hiroshima City, where I met my colleagues and passed out the Momiji Manju I bought while I recounted my failed excursion. It was then that I learned that one co-worker of mine was planning on hiking with his companions the next day when it was more likely to be sunny (silly me insisted on a Saturday), and invited me to tag along. I mulled it over, accepted his offer, and mentally prepared myself for my redemption journey.

I believe it was Cyrus McCormick who said in a speech, “Scaling the mountain or breasting the stream, he travels farthest who pulls with his team.” On Sunday, March 20th, I became the fifth member in a group set out to tackle the Omoto Course, and we were determined to make it the best hike possible. When we arrived on Miyajima, we walked to Omoto Park at a leisurely pace, admiring the local wildlife and seeing how many cherry trees were blooming, which wasn’t a large number. Early in the morning is feeding time for the deer, so we found hay and raw vegetables strewn here and there around the island for them to gather around and eat. The local deer are always keen on eating anything they can get their mouths on, and some of the more territorial bucks are not afraid to get violent if it means securing more rations for themselves.

 

Once we reached Omoto Park, we proceeded to the beginning of the trail, but not before watching the deer gobble down their breakfast. In retrospect, this herd somewhat represented us that day, enjoying good food in good company surrounded by soothing scenery. The trees here weren’t any pinker than they were yesterday, so there was nothing else to do but hike.

Before long, the march began, and myself being the only one who had climbed Misen via this trail before, I was less intent on photographing my surroundings and more eager to reach the top so we could eat our packed lunches at a decent hour. It was a jolly time when the five of us were together, singing, chatting, munching on the occasional snack, and posing for pictures, but for the bulk of the climb, the boy and I left the other grown-ups behind and called out to them on occasion to make sure they were still there. In our defense, we were hungry, and as we thought lunch would be the highlight of the trip, we just wanted to make it happen sooner.

At about the middle of the journey up, I was getting photo burnout and no longer wanted to stop for unnecessary photoshoots. When they wouldn’t budge, I would insist on doing something more daring in the picture, or what my comrades dubbed “suicide poses,” such as the one near the top of this page. Once we were near the summit, the kid and I made a break for the observation deck, where we waited for the straggling party members. By my watch, it only took the two of us a little more than two hours to reach the top, and that included the myriad pauses spent waiting for them to catch up as well as participating in a bunch of individual and group photos. Eventually, the rest of the group showed up, and we sat down on some boulders right outside the observation deck to chow down.

Moment of Joy: Falling with Style

After taking our sweet time admiring the scenery from the peak of Misen, we made tracks back to town, this time via the Daisho-in Course. Many a hiker would say that climbing down a mountain is harder on the knees than climbing up, but that’s only if one descends deliberately. On the other hand, it has been said that running down a mountain trail is more efficient and easier on the body if one knows how, and personally, I have found the Daisho-in Course the most conducive for such a descent, even with all its stairs. Racing the boy down the mountain was indisputably the most exciting part of the hike for me, and as we took turns overtaking each other and left passersby in the dust, I explained to him that the secret to going down stairs quickly is not to consciously take every step, but rather, to extend one leg outward over the first step, lean to the front, and let gravity do the rest. With legs that react quickly to the falling body, going down the Daisho-in Course’s stairs boils down to falling with style; after “falling” to the bottom of the trail, the two of us awaited everyone else, then as a group, we treated ourselves to some congratulatory deer poop (read: chocolate-covered wheat puff) soft serve ice cream!

 

He Who Travels Alone

In the opposite corner, allow me to share an excerpt from a poem The Winners, penned by Rudyard Kipling:

 

“Down to Gehenna and up to the Throne, 

He travels fastest who travels alone.”

 

I speak from experience when I say that this is 100% true; I’ve hiked all of Misen’s trails multiple times, and I can say with certainty that hikes with companions take longer than hikes I do on my own. Specifically, I’ve gone up the Momijidani Course so many times that the slope barely phases me, and I now perform time attacks on that trail just to keep me interested. Previously, my record for climbing the Momijidani Course from the bridge below to the observation deck was a smidgen above 40 minutes; today’s hike on Friday, March 25th, would be all about shattering that record.

In order to not waste any time stopping to eat or drink, I sat down at a picnic table in Momijidani Park and ate my packed lunch before the climb. After hydrating sufficiently at the start of the trail, I started my timer and began marching at a constant pace. Even with a mask on, constant deep breaths were enough for me to power through without stopping, and just a teensy bit over 35 minutes later, I reached the observation deck once again.

It was only at this point that I took a breather on the second floor, where weary hikers are able to sit or lie down (with footwear off) in the relaxation area. Thanks to it being a normal Friday afternoon, there was barely anyone up here that day, so I didn’t have to feel guilty about sprawling and taking up lots of space for a long time. Furthermore, since the observation deck provides free Wi-Fi, I ended up staying here for a good long while before dashing down the Daisho-in Course once again. As for cherry blossoms, the trees didn’t look too different than they did five days ago, so I figured I would have to try one last time, five days later.

 

Twin Peaks

On Wednesday, March 30th, I took one final excursion for two peaks: Misen as well as peak sakura season on Miyajima. Cherry trees everywhere were in all shades of pink imaginable, and the island was naturally inundated with tourists. Add to that the optimal weather, and I could’ve easily spent all day in the town area alone, but alas, I had a mission to complete. For my third and final hike of the month, I was to go up the Daisho-in Course after going down it twice, and as I am now getting more accustomed to these Misen time attacks, I was intent on having an official record time for this trail as well. It has even inspired me to craft my own witty, rhyming proverb:

 

“Down to the torii and up to the peak,

Those who go solo achieve what they seek.”

En route to the start of the Daisho-in Course, I happened upon many a cherry blossom in full bloom, including these beauties from a tree in a local park close to Daisho-in Temple. There aren’t really any sakura to be found between the base of the trail and the summit, so I took some time to savor the flowers before I began my march. Once again, I began after filling my belly with lunch (this time from a restaurant on the island), so I was ready to put in maximum effort and climb the stairs as fast as I could.

As soon as I started the timer, I walked past the stone torii pictured above and sped to the top. The Daisho-in and Omoto Courses have some interesting diversions along the way, but I would visit them on my way down instead. When I got to the top of the observation deck and stopped my timer, it displayed 41 minutes and 30 seconds. I wasn’t as fast as I was going up the Momijidani Course, but going up stairs is harder than going down them, after all. Furthermore, I actually biked the Shimanami Kaido all the way to Imabari between my Momijidani and Daisho-in ascents, so I’m actually surprised I had the energy for a time attack at all.

With my third and final climb out of the way, I breathed a sigh of relief, took a well-deserved rest, and descended Misen at a leisurely pace, this time via the Omoto Course. I took out the time to hit up Miyama Shrine (pictured left) and the Okuno-in Temple (pictured right), the latter whose trail affords more chances to see colorful flowers and animals wandering discreetly in the bush. Now that there was no more hurry, I wanted to stay on the mountain as long as I could, but I still had to make it back to town before sundown, so I huffed it all the way back to where my quest began: Omoto Park, which was now lush with cherry blossoms in their prime.

To conclude, I’d like to first answer the question in the title: is late March a good time to go hiking? Yes, definitely, especially if you wish to catch sakura on Miyajima, and while hiking multiple times in a short span of time is unusual, I recommend putting aside more than one day for Miyajima to make sure you get your fill of cherry blossoms. The best time for viewing them varies year by year, and when it rains, sakura season is highly likely to end prematurely. My three trips up Misen might have been exhausting, but each expedition was an unforgettable experience worth the time, effort, and money I poured in.

When it comes to hiking, is it better to go alone or together with comrades? The answer obviously depends on one’s preference, but I would recommend trying at least two Misen hiking trails: one to be done in a group, and another to be attempted solo. When done on different days in late March or early April, the state of the sakura will also change, providing an even more enriching experience of Miyajima as a whole. No matter what type of trip you choose to take to this island and how many of you there are, may you go both fast and far. Happy trails!

 

Written by Kevin Peng