Playing in the Field of Gods
The Daisetsuzan Traverse is 70km of incredible mountainous terrain located on the island of Hokkaido at the northern tip of Japan. It connects 13 different peaks and takes the average person 5-8 days to cross depending on the conditions you are facing. We planned to do this in two days. “Ambitious, yes. Impossible, no”.
This is when Nash brought up the idea of MISOGI. We started talking about the concept, and tying up to this ambitious but not impossible task of crossing the Daisetsuzan Traverse. How would it impact our lives mentally, spiritually, and physically? Misogi is a Japanese Shinto practice of ritual purification by washing the entire body. Misogi is related to another Shinto purification ritual, harae. Thus, both are collectively referred to as misogi-harae.
I am very spiritual and am a practicing Dharma practitioner studying Buddhism for some time now. I love anything that pushes me to practice the things I have been cultivating and put them to full use. This is where I truly get to practice the Four Noble Truths: What is Suffering? How is the Suffering caused? How can I work to stop Suffering (Cessation)? The Insights and self-realization that are gained from learning how to work with Suffering help you live the Eightfold path.
Every year, many people take pilgrimages to sacred waterfalls, lakes, and rivers, either alone or in small groups, to perform Misogi. Mount Ontake, the Kii mountain range, and Mount Yoshino are a few examples of ancient and well-known areas for Misogi in Japan. In Kyoto, people douse themselves under Kiyomizu Temple's Otowa no taki (Sound-of-Wings) waterfall, although the majority of visitors drink from the waters rather than plunging into them.
While the Western way of looking at Misogi is best described by Jesse Itzler: “The notion around the misogi is, you do something so hard 1 time a year, that has an impact on the other 364 days of the year. Take on challenges that radically expand your sense of what’s possible. There are just two rules: you have a fifty-percent chance of success at best, and it doesn’t kill you. Does it make your jaw drop? That’s a good litmus test for whether something can be a misogi or not.”
We all knew where we stood with this mission and I knew this was going to be a radical Misogi of some sort for everyone, you could just feel it after the call. A sweet mixture of nervousness, a little doubt, and fear, with a whole heap of excitement, a sprinkle of danger, and for me a little contemplation. The fact that this was the first Buddhist country that I would visit, and the spiritual calling to this unique part of the world that I never thought I would get a chance to see was made even more special and mystic by the company of my brother, Travis Weller.
I did some research, looking at pieces of written documents and video documents. I knew this was not going to be a little walk in the park, this was some live or let-die type shit and I need to be ready for the good and the bad.
At one point I was trying to psych myself out and tell myself I couldn’t do it, and every time I have gone down this road of self-denial and self-doubt, intuitively my partner would remind me of some life-changing work that I have done and snap me back to reality as if to say, “ You've done hard shit before and you can do it again.” So in the last week, I carried this mantra in my heart and soul: I CAN DO THIS!
Soon, we finally arrived in the backcountry of Daisetsuzan and already things started to change unexpectedly. We drove into a bunch of cold air, fog, and mist. Next, Nash goes down with an inflamed back and could hardly walk (I still think the 7-11 corn dog has something to do with it). I tried to give him some Guasha, a very old traditional Chinese medicine technique to get blood and qi moving in blocked areas of the body, along with ibuprofen and Tylenol; nothing was working so now Plan A and B are aborted.
Tracking weather we could see that we were going to encounter snow, fog, maybe rainstorms, and most of all 40/50mph winds, which on top of a ridgeline is no fucking joke, so now we had to do this as a 3 man team in unfavorable conditions. Sleeping at, and starting at the northern terminus at an ungodly hour was out of the question, luckily we were near a hostel that would become our base camp and a place where Nash could find some solace and relief. The night before we decide to regroup, talk kits, and go over what we will be carrying in our packs and all the usual stuff before embarking on adventures in the backcountry. Mentally and spiritually I was in a good place and I knew whatever happened I was good with my life, I was good with my relationship with Buddha, and I knew whatever suffering I was going to endure, the insights would life-changing, and I was open to receive whatever the universe wanted to throw my way.
Travis and I had some real heart to hearts on this journey, many that I will forever hold in my heart. The night before we talked about this moment and this adventure that would either make us or break us, what it took to get to this point, and how there are no other humans I would rather be on the mountain than us.
I started to gain trust and value the connection between myself and Drew, who was on the ride to capture this whole experience and was no rookie to incredible dangers on mountains being that he just came off an expedition where he was trying not to die in avalanches. I knew if I was going to be in any danger, Drew would be a trusted resource to help navigate whatever may come up, so I was ready to do this MISOGI.
Out of the three, I knew I was the least skilled in climbing, hiking, and running summits. Travis is an accomplished Ultrarunner who has the Redwoods to use as his playground., Drew is a beast and is an avid climber along with his wife and is no stranger to high elevation. I just started climbing, hiking, and trail running maybe 7 years ago and in that small amount of time ran up volcanoes in Mexico, and hiked some of the tallest peaks in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, but this was going to be something else, something different, this I knew was going to make me different.
After some hot brews, gathering thoughts and meditations, we embark on this journey from North to South starting at these lily pads that would be our entry point to this adventure.
From the beginning, I could sense this was going to be challenging and then the onset of snow several yards in I just knew I was about to fuck around and find out. The sun was out but that didn't matter, the snow was the true teacher out there, and it taught us some major lessons. At one point I had to put some micro spikes on because the snow was not playing any games and I would find myself losing half a leg and having to pull out of the snow near these big trees not knowing about tree wells.
Just as I am getting used to this terrain there’s another added layer, it is getting steep and the breathing starts getting shorter and shorter but what serves as a secret sauce is I would turn back every once in a while and just look at this incredible picture. It was just purely breathtaking, it almost looked like we were in the Pacific Northwest: luscious luminous greenery along with cascades of snow was our backdrop as we climbed higher and higher following the pink tassels leading us through the trail.
I would just stare and reminisce about the times I yearned for somewhere like this; breathing in this air thinking how grateful I am to be here and also how much of an honor to represent my ancestors in this mystical land called Japan. There were many times my heart was released and I would cry knowing how much of a journey it was to this point. I kept telling myself that I was worthy to be here and that I made my ancestors proud by showing up. What I was doing was a radical act and I know how important it is for other Black and Brown folks to witness this magic. This was in my head and my heart a lot during this campaign and left me with a desire to keep going even when it got tough and spicy.
Originally we had planned to do 20 miles the first day, get to one of the huts/refuges on the way, sleep, and do the rest of the traverse the following day. Mount Ashi-dake had other plans for us. As we were going up we faced myriad conditions from nice and sunny, to blistering winds that would cut you like a knife, there were also times being engulfed in the clouds where visibility was little to none, and we had to watch the next man’s shoes so that you knew where you were going.
Ridgelines of snow and different colored rocks along this volcanic mountain were also stepping stones and guideposts along the highest peak in Hokkaido, and at this time all I could think about was how good that steaming hot veggie miso ramen was going to taste in less than 48 hours, telling my partner I did it and celebrating with the boys at a vinyl bar in Sapporo; these things were what was keeping me going.
At one point I looked down on this steep ridgeline and realized there was no going back down any time soon. There was no room for mistakes and thank god that this team was locked in and was assessing every action. At a certain point, we all looked at each other and said we truly need to think about how much further we can take this show because the forces of nature were having their way and we needed to start making some crucial decisions because after this hut, we were not going to get to a shelter for many miles and quite a few hours.
I also knew that we had already hiked a grade 3/4. I was feeling very uncomfortable doing a grade 5 climb in these conditions, although I had lamented about what would happen if I lost my life to the mountains, and how that would look. If I was going out, I was going out on my terms. I know my skill level and I brought this up to the team. While smelling the gulf streams of sulfur erupting in the nostrils of Mount Ashi-dake, we had a long team dialogue and thought it best that we forgo doing the full traverse and instead just summit Ashi-dake and then make it back down base camp in one day.
There were no bruised egos. There was no bashing of skill sets. There was no finger-pointing or blame.
There is an old saying about how mountains will indeed humble you, and on this adventure, the mountains humbled fuck out of us, in particular me. I was very humbled and I ate every piece of that humble pie. We all agreed to make it to the highest peak of Hokkaido and celebrate our win. It was beautiful to see three grown men getting sensitive and letting hearts release on top of a mountain.
There were times I just didn't want to look down, where the wind went from a light breeze to get the fuck off this mountain, where the windchill felt like darts penetrating the skin. Ashi-dake wanted it to be known if you are going to climb me you are going to have some respect, and we sure did.
There were a couple of unspoken moments between myself and Travis where I knew we had been in battles before in different lifetimes and I trusted this man with my life and I knew going into this battle we would come out victorious. At one point halfway between the hut and the summit, Travis looked at me, we locked eyes, and it was a very spiritual and auspicious moment where really nothing needed to be said. He looked at me and said, “You ok?” I don't even think I answered, I think I just gave him a head nod, but at the moment I knew we were nearly there and I was not giving up.
The moment we summited, I looked at Travis and just sunk my head on his shoulders and started to cry. It was overwhelming. We embraced each other and I told him how thankful I was for him and how much I loved him for giving me this opportunity.
This was my 7th or 8th summit and I am sure there will be many more but this one was special, very special. The bond I have with Travis and now Drew through this experience is something that I will take with me through infinite lifetimes. The Brotherhood, the kindred essence of this adventure, the vulnerability, the love, and adoration not only for each other but this land is something that I will share with my grandkids and great-grandkids, and will forever be in my heart.
I honestly didn’t know or think I was capable of completing this mission and Dukkha and Mara (doubt, fear, death: the archenemies of the Buddha) came to challenge me and knock me off my square – but it didn't work, the ancestors had my back.
I came to Japan to prove to myself that I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. I showed up for myself, my ancestors, and all the Black and Brown and Indigenous folks who paved the way for me to go through my own personal Misogi.