30 Years, 30 Stories: Up Through the Mountains

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2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!

What one memory of your time in Japan stays with you the most? For our twenty-ninth installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, walk along with JCMU summer 2014 alum Olena Zozulevich during her long trek up Kōyasan. Though an exhausting adventure, read about why she will never forget the “sweat, mud, companionship, and humility of the climb.”


JCMU Summer 2014 was my first experience in Japan, and with it came many amazing memories and experiences. One in particular has always stayed with me: the day I hiked up Kōyasan with my friends in the program.

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The path to Kōyasan

Kōyasan (Mount Kōya) is a mountain in Wakayama Prefecture, about four hours south by train from Hikone. Kōyasan houses the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, and was settled in the ninth century by the monk Kūkai. Most visitors access Kōyasan by the cable car that takes them straight to the top. We opted to climb the mountain and reach Kōyasan by foot, which would be an eight hour journey – not including the four hours on the train to Wakayama Prefecture in the early morning.

Map in hand, my friends and I embarked from a small temple at the base of the mountains. The trail up to Kōyasan is defined by numbered stone markers that hikers follow in descending order. We were able to start walking in the cool summer morning, but it wasn’t long before the heat and humidity increased. At first, we had confused ourselves by misinterpreting the map we had, but we were quick to set along the right path. Every time we passed a stone marker, I would read the number out to everyone to announce our progress. Sometimes the markers were incredibly worn and difficult to read; others seemed to have been replaced more recently. Regardless, it was exciting every time we encountered one. No matter how the path winded, or whether we faced a steep up or down hill, we would know we were headed the right way.

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Tall trees marked the entire trail

The nature along the trail was absolutely stunning. Tall trees loomed over us; greenery spread out around us for miles with no sign of civilization in sight. Species of bugs and slugs I had never seen before shared the path with us. Having come from the bustle of New York City, it was impossible to believe this much undisturbed nature was right there in front of me. The beautiful nature of the mountain trail was the first thing that made me love Kōyasan.

The people on the path were wonderful as well. We exchanged greetings with every fellow hiker we passed – both Japanese and foreign, young and old. When we needed help, kind strangers helped us head the right way. A few people we passed sparked up a conversation. They all contributed to the positive energy on the mountain that kept us moving forward.

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Just some of the beautiful sites we saw along the long walk

Nearing the end of the trail, rain began to pour, bringing thunder with it. None of us had been expecting to encounter a thunderstorm. The beautiful nature was just as gorgeous in the rain and fog, but it brought with it bigger concerns of slipping, lightning strikes, and more. I was exhausted by that point, but the threat of the storm gave my friends and I the adrenaline rush needed to push forward.

Dripping wet with rain and sweat, breathing heavily, we stepped off the trail onto pavement and faced the Daimon – the great gate at the entrance to Kōyasan. We felt waves of awe and relief overcome us. I looked up at the gate towering over us and was incredibly humbled. After going up the trail for hours, the Daimon truly felt greater than life. I would say that was the most spiritual moment I had ever experienced in my life. We proceeded to stay overnight at one of the town’s temples and explored Kōyasan in a more relaxed fashion the next day. I am sure that we surprised the monks at our temple with our drenched bodies and muddy feet when we arrived!

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Kōyasan Daimon (photo by baggio4ever)

I studied abroad in Japan one year later under a different program through my college. One of our program-wide field trips was a day trip to Kōyasan. We circled up the mountain by bus, and I recall looking out the window at the passing nature and reminiscing about the hike from my time at JCMU. I may not have had to exhaust myself reaching Kōyasan the second time, but to me, Kōyasan will always be defined by the sweat, mud, companionship, and humility of the climb. For that, I am ever grateful to JCMU and my friends and peers.

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