A walk in the woods

Before embarking on my cycling-tour-stroke-endurance-test to Sado Island last summer, I decided to build up my stamina with a spot of hiking. On a typically sweltering August afternoon, I parked the car at a michi-no-eki (道の駅 / roadside services), took a precautionary photo of the route – as displayed on a nearby information board – and headed west along a narrow valley road. The footpath I wanted was so well hidden that I walked straight past it the first time, and having doubled back, found it to be overgrown and strewn with fallen branches. Fortunately, a local hiking group had been considerate enough to tie lengths of day-glo pink ribbon to trees along the way, so the main obstacle to my progress was the enormous number of spider’s webs, seemingly all of them at head height. To be honest, apart from swatting away at these with a makeshift walking stick, there wasn’t much to keep me distracted, and in well over an hour of yomping the only thing I found worthy of a photograph was this mushroom – quite an impressive mushroom, it has to be said, but a mushroom nonetheless.

I passed the highest point on the trail – the 275-metre peak of Mount Shirazawa-fuji – almost without realising, and soon arrived at the Shirayama Jinja (白山神社 / White Mountain Shrine), which was as shrouded in foliage as everything else in the vicinity.

While its surrounding stone walls – well, they were more like battlements – had tumbled over in the earthquake, the shrine itself was perfectly intact: originally erected in 1515, Shirayama was burned down in a forest fire in 1862 before being rebuilt in 1880, and there appeared to be at least 132 years’ worth of dust on the floors and furniture inside.

The front steps were the first place I had found that offered enough space to sit down, so I dug out the carton of tea and peanuts choco I had brought with me and took a break. And that would have been it, had I not discovered another, much smaller shrine a few hundred metres further along the trail, tucked away in the mossy recesses of a rocky outcrop.

Konsei-shin (金精神) is a Shinto god of fertility, safe childbirth and happy marriage, and making an offering at a konsei-jinja (金精神社 / konsei shrine) reputedly works as a miracle cure for STDs (thank you, Wikepedia Japan). The kon of konsei means ‘gold’ or ‘shining’, and the sei means, among other things, ‘sperm’ or ‘sexual stamina’. So in the same way that the kintama are one’s ‘golden balls’,  the konsei are, so to speak, one’s ‘golden tadpoles’. Not that you need to know any of this to identify a konsei shrine, as its centrepiece is normally a large phallus – or phalli – made of wood (no laughing at the back there, please), stone or metal.

This tiny shrine had three of them, and while I hadn’t thrown any money into the collection box at Shirayama, I felt that this was too good an opportunity to miss, and tossed a hundred-yen coin into the cave-like cubby hole before saying a prayer.

At the time, Mrs M and I were just about to embark on our first attempt at IUI, and whether or not this unplanned pilgrimage helped things along, I don’t know. Still, the coincidence had a karmic feel to it, and as if to emphasise my good fortune, not long before rejoining the main road to the michi-no-eki, I was finally rewarded with a view.

As a footnote to this story, a couple of weeks later I came within a few hundred metres of a much more renowned konsei shrine, which is apparently a short walk from the Konsei Pass between Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures. While I didn’t realise this at the time, the road from the pass did take me through the Konsei Tunnel – or if you prefer, the Golden Tadpole Tunnel – an act that for its sheer Freudian symbolism must surely have done Mrs M and I some favours.

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