A mountain ride becomes a journey of enlightenment for Graham Simmons.
It feels a little unnerving to be cycling a mountain trail under the penetrating gaze of a wrathful deity. The god in question is Fudo Myo-o, known as "the eternal, immutable diamond" in Japanese Buddhism. His right hand carries a sword that is said to slash through ignorance, while in his left hand is a noose to catch and bind evil spirits.
Sounds like a thoroughly "cutting" experience. But maybe I really deserve Fudo Myo-o's tender loving treatment and this trip has been pre-ordained. Whoever said mountain biking isn't therapeutic?
On this day, I'm also in the expert hands of Tasmanian Chuck Olbery who, with his Japanese wife, Toshie, runs Mountain Biking Hokkaido. He has promised to take me on one of his favourite trail rides on the slopes of Mount Tokachidake, in Daisetsuzan National Park. Starting from the Shirogane Information Centre, the trail will traverse Biruke no Mori forest before veering onto the Fudo Myo-o Waterfall track, then uphill to Shirogane-bashi Bridge - with the promise of spectacular views over the Biei River Gorge - and downhill via another forest trail back to the start.
These names are as unfamiliar to me as the trail itself. But with the autumn leaves at their most spectacular, it seems this itinerary will guarantee not just thrills but an eye feast without peer. As we set off, Olbery explains some of the features of the route.
"'Biruke no Mori' means 'silver birch forest'," he says, as we head along a trail lined with trees bearing leaves in a hundred shades on the red-yellow spectrum. "But the native Ainu of Hokkaido used to call this place 'the forest of the little people'."
Later, I'm to hear of the Koropokkuru, a pygmy race in Ainu folklore that some archaeologists say really existed. Tiny "human" footprints are said to have been discovered in the rice fields of northern Japan dating from the Jomon era, about 10,000 years ago. Some legends say the Koropokkuru is a demigod small enough to live under the leaves of the butterbur (or "dinosaur plant") and can help or play tricks on people according to whim.
Fortunately, the Koropokkuru seem to be in a good mood this day, as I miraculously manage to stay on the bike. But more difficult tests are to come. As we enter the Shirogane Fudo Myo-o Waterfall track, Olbery points out how to negotiate the slippery, tree root-studded trail that lies ahead. "When you come across a tree root, try not to let the bike drift sideways," he says. "Take it at a decent speed and jump over the roots if you can."
As I'm soon to learn, the Shirogane Fudo Myo-o Waterfall track has its own mystique, with a series of shrines or engraved stones placed at intervals of about 100 metres along the way. The track was laid out by members of the Buddhist Shingon school from Shikoku Island and is a mini-version of the famous "88-temples" pilgrimage trail of Shikoku. The names of the Shikoku shrines are written on the stones that line the Fudo Myo-o Waterfall track and it has to be said: the effect is mesmerising.
The "88-temples" pilgrimage trail on Shikoku Island is renowned throughout Japan and overseas. Devoted pilgrims visit all the temple shrines on foot - a feat taking between one and two months. Many of these temples were founded by the famous engineer monk Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi), who introduced esoteric Buddhism to Japan more than 1000 years ago. His followers - including former prime minister Ikeda and leaders of top corporations such as Sharp and National Panasonic - believe he is still alive and living atop Mount Koya, near Osaka.
But by now, we've reached the super-scenic Fudo Falls, which cascade through a russet-coloured canyon. Overlooking the waterfall, a giant statue of Fudo Myo-o keeps silent watch. I'm told Fudo Myo-o has the secondary role of protecting those travellers who don't rub him up the wrong way. That's also the case for his companion deity, the Jizo Bodhisattva, whose role is to ease the suffering and reduce the prison term of those languishing in hell. So, maybe there is hope for me yet.
From here, the trail narrows and starts to wind uphill. All along the way, shrine stones mark the tortuously zigzagging trail. In a tree-shaded clearing, large statues of pilgrims on the Shikoku 88-temple route make me stop and think for a moment: is the destination of a trip the main purpose, or is the journey itself the main thing? On a glorious autumn day like this, it's hard not to conclude the destination is only secondary and the real purpose of the trip lies in tackling and overcoming obstacles while revelling in the delight of new experiences.
Thanks to Fudo Myo-o, I manage to get to the top of the trail in one piece. At the trailhead, the Shirogane-bashi Bridge offers spectacular views over the Biei River Gorge and the 30-metre-high multi-streamed Shirohige-no-Taki Waterfall. The vivid cobalt blue of the river and the golden-orange leaves make a picture that could have leapt off a painter's easel.
Then it's back to the Shirogane Info Centre, passing en route an emerald lake studded with flooded silver birch trunks. After this, it may be time to do the loop all over again - but this time on foot. Slow and steady may not always win the race but in a "race" like this there are no real losers.
The writer travelled courtesy of Japan National Tourist Organisation and Furano Tourism.
Japan Airlines flies from Sydney to Asahikawa Airport in Hokkaido, via Narita (Tokyo). The Shirogane Falls and trail are about 18 kilometres from the town of Biei, which is a short drive (20-30 minutes) from Asahikawa Airport.
Minshuku Akiba, near the rail station in Furano, is highly recommended. Family-run, with good facilities and free wireless internet. Nightly rates from $58-$92 a person. Phone +81 167 22 3205, see furanotourism.com.
Mountain bike rides are organised by Mountain Biking Hokkaido; see mtbhokkaido.net. Also, biketoursjapan.com offers a range of tours covering Hokkaido Island.