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Shrine at wit's end as climbers scale, deface sacred rock on famed Japanese peak

Gojoiwa rock, sacred to Kanazakura Shrine in the Yamanashi prefectural capital of Kofu, is seen atop Mount Kinpu on Aug. 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Yusuke Tanabe)

KOFU -- At the summit of the 2,599-meter-tall Mount Kinpu, one of Japan's "100 most famous peaks," looms a deified tower of rock dubbed "Gojoiwa" that is sacred to Kanazakura Shinto shrine, some 12 kilometers distant in the Yamanashi prefectural capital of Kofu. The 15-meter-tall Gojoiwa attracts a large number of climbers, and though it stands stark against the sky as if made of towering layers of giant rocks, that has not stopped people from climbing all over it and, in some cases, scratching graffiti into it.

    Mount Kinpu lies in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park straddling the Yamanashi-Nagano prefectural border, and is the main peak in the Okuchichibu range. The Gojoiwa rock has been honored as the shrine's deity, and it holds Shinto ceremonies at the foot of the sacred rock. Some 2,000 square meters around the rock are also officially part of the shrine's precincts.

    People climb Gojoiwa rock on Mount Kinpu in Japan's Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park on Aug. 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Yusuke Tanabe)

    And then there are the climbers, who were scrambling to the top of Gojoiwa so often that Kanazakura Shrine posted a sign in July 2021 urging them to stop. People connected with the site have also been taking to the internet and other mediums to get the same message across, to little avail.

    Climbers have been trying to top Gojoiwa for many years, but the shrine had hitherto held back from trying to warn them off, saying that the mountain where the gods dwell is a place of respect and thus an inappropriate stage for disputes. In recent years, however, graffiti has become a growing problem as well, gouged into the rock with climbing pitons or stones.

    That led, finally, to the sign, a 90-centimeter-wide, 40-cm-tall copper plate standing on posts 1.5 meters high at the foot of Gojoiwa. It states plainly, "No works without permission," and "Climbing the rock is strictly prohibited."

    Graffiti is seen scratched into Gojoiwa rock, a sacred Shinto site on Mount Kinpu in Japan's Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, on Aug. 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Yusuke Tanabe)

    In July this year, Hiromi Matsui, a 42-year-old resident of Kai, Yamanashi Prefecture, who is a member of an association dedicated to research and preservation work on the Mitake historic trail up Mount Kinpu, posted a column on the blog of the climbing shop where she works, explaining the spiritual significance of Gojoiwa and asking people not to climb it. The next month, Yamanashi Prefectural Police mountain unit also posted that "climbing the (Gojoiwa) rock is strictly prohibited" part of the copper sign text on its official Twitter account. The messages managed to reach some mountaineering enthusiasts.

    However, there remain many videos online explaining how to climb Gojoiwa, some of them featuring climbers posing atop the sacred rock. One mountaineer in his 40s from Kanagawa Prefecture who made it half-way up Gojoiwa in late August told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I didn't know it's not allowed." A man in his 30s from Gunma Prefecture said, "I read the sign, but I took it to mean that we aren't permitted to use equipment like pitons."

    Kanazakura Shrine chief priest Mikito Shimura commented, "The rock is a sacred place. It's disrespectful to climb it or to drive a steel piton into it." Katsuhito Aihara, the 78-year-old head of the shrine parishioners' association, said, "For us, it's like people are stamping on our spiritual ground. Even though we put up signs, more and more people seem to be climbing the rock."

    A copper sign warns people not to climb Gojoiwa rock, a sacred Shinto site on Mount Kinpu in Japan's Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, on Aug. 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Yusuke Tanabe)

    The more people are warned online not to climb Gojoiwa, the more climbers seem to want to break that ban. While Mount Kinpu is in a national park and a well-established spot for mountain climbing and hiking, it is also a long-established place of faith.

    "I want people to understand that we cherish the mountain as an object of faith," said Kanazakura Shrine's Shimura.

    (Japanese original by Satoru Yamamoto and Yusuke Tanabe, Kofu Bureau)

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