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Hiking Where there is no Church

The tent is hot. I pray for sleep, but my heart races. We aim for Mt. Rishiri in the morning, the pinnacle of a remote island off of Hokkaido’s northern tip. After two nights without sleep and in this heat, climbing this mountain could be dangerous. I pray Psalms 23 and 121 over and over. Still, my heart races, no sleep comes, and I feel like I’m going to be sick.
It’s getting light. I drag myself out of the tent and force down some tea and a bit of a Soyjoy (energy bar). My husband, Keith, fills our water bottles with the nine liters we’ve decided to bring with us and deposits several of them in my pack. I take a Dramamine tablet with the hopes that it will settle my stomach.

We start up the trail at 5:30 a.m. Many others have started before us; I heard their bells, habitually attached to their packs though there are no bears here. Maybe if I just walk a little, I’ll feel better, I tell myself. 

After half a kilometer, there is a spring. We stop there and sit in the picnic shelter. “Sorry, Keith, I can’t do this today,” I say, nearly in tears. I rest for a while with my head in his lap. 

“It feels like something doesn’t want us here,” Keith says. It’s not the people—they are kind and full of concern for our well-being, as they are for all the hikers who visit the island. It’s not the mountain. We are drawn to this mountain, as if it is beckoning us to climb it. It’s not the hot, humid weather—we had that before we left home. No, it’s something else.
We think back to the last time we were here, eight years ago. Keith remembers feeling the starry-eyed optimism which characterized our early days in Japan—“We could plant a church here!” But that was also the trip when my hiking boots self-destructed, I discovered poison ivy, and a crow stole a box of instant ramen right out of the back of our car. Were these a series of unlucky circumstances, or harassment? 

And then, a thought: Is there a church on this island? Is there anyone here giving glory to God? What if we are the only ones? Is this what a place feels like without the light of Christ? In our frustration and grief, we pray together—“Why can’t we sleep? Why can’t we rest? It feels like we are meant to be here, that our coming to this island, even for vacation, has purpose. What purpose, God? Why are we here? Are we meant to prayer-walk to the peak of Mt. Rishiri? If so, why are we stuck here at its foot, unable to move? Will we be able to make the climb tomorrow? This place is yours, God, and we claim it for your name.”

My stomach has settled a bit, so we set a course for two lesser peaks, Mt. Pon and Little Pon. My head is in a fog from the Dramamine, but there’s nothing wrong with my legs. I power up the mountain like usual. From the peak of Mt. Pon, we are treated to a beautiful view of Mt. Rishiri, but it sparks frustration rather than awe.

“Maybe we should prayer-walk around the campground,” I say, half joking. Then I realize it isn’t a joke. Before bed, we walk around the campground, praying over the people who are cleaning up after dinner, for the ones who will come tomorrow to climb, for the caretakers of the campground. We ask God to drive off demons and crows and noisy motorcycles. We pray that God will grant all of us hikers sleep tonight. We pray that tomorrow, we will have safety in our climb—that no one will have heat stroke and no one will have to be rescued by helicopter.

The birds are awake, so we emerge from our tent and sling our heavy packs over our shoulders. “God, grant us success,” I pray. We set out from the campground shortly before 4 a.m. We pass the spring again, and reach the third station. So far so good. At the fourth station, the sun is visible through the trees. But by the fifth station, my nausea has returned. I sit on a rock, crouched over.

“Keith, today is no good either,” I whimper. “My stomach hurts. It’s hot.” 

“We don’t have to decide yet. Just rest a little,” he suggests, handing me a bit of baguette and an umeboshi (salted plum), my go-to cure for summer weariness. We don’t want to give up and admit defeat to whatever-it-is.
Hikers pass us. Among them is a pair of guys whose accent gives them away as residents of Osaka. They look at us, concerned.

“Here, have some ame-chan,” one of them says, filling my hand with hard candies. I pop one in my mouth, lemon flavored. My body surges with energy in gratitude for the sugar.

“I think I can walk a little further,” I say. “Let’s try for the sixth station.”

“Okay,” agrees Keith. “We can always turn around if we need to.”

Fueled by ame-chan and the kindness of a stranger, I make the sixth station, then the seventh station, and start the grueling climb to the eighth station. The wind rises when we reach the viewpoint. We sit on rocks again, taking in the view of neighboring Rebun island and Hokkaido looming in the distance, while the shock of cool air for the first time in weeks revives us.

At Mt. Chokan, the eighth station, Mt. Rishiri’s summit emerges from behind the ridgeline, and we see her for the first time on this climb: impressive, awesome, dominating the landscape. So close, and yet it will take us another two hours to reach her peak. Moved by her glory, all traces of stomach pain and weariness vanish. My steps and my heart are light as we press on towards the summit.

After the ninth station, the path becomes rough and steep, but I only notice the wildflowers spreading out in endless meadows on both sides of the trail, disappearing into the fog. The air is cool, inviting us upward.

At last, the summit—we’ve been climbing for six hours! We are smiling, giddy as we explore the mountaintop, thankful. A tiny shrine crowns the peak, adorned whimsically with propellers from small boats, dedicated to the mountain god. We sit, eating the rest of the baguette with salami and cheese, enjoying the refreshing mountain air, hoping for a break in the clouds. Other hikers arrive, excited, breathing heavily. They snap selfies in front of the shrine. Some press their palms together in worship.

We are also here to worship. We climb mountains because when we climb, we walk with the Living God. We pray with our feet, and our cries of delight at the dramatic sky and the shapely rocks and the fields of wildflowers go up in praise. But that “something,” that oppressive presence, would prefer that we hikers worship the mountain itself, or our own achievements, not the one who made the mountain and us. It’s no wonder that we are not welcome here.

A Google maps search for churches in Rishiri yields no hits. Well, there are hits, but they are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, including the one which marks the peak of Mt. Rishiri. There was once a Catholic church, it seems, but the most recent Google satellite image shows a vacant lot where it once stood.

But Rishiri is a remote island. You get there by ferry, after driving all day from Sapporo. The population is small—only about 5,000 people. There are places more populous and less remote that also have no church. But God loves every single one of those 5,000 people. When will Rishiri’s turn come? Will it be in my lifetime?

I don’t usually buy mementos from the mountains I climb, but this time I purchase a pair of hiking socks and a pin badge from the little shop at the ferry dock. From now on I carry the island of Rishiri with me on my feet, pinned to my pack, and in my heart.

By Celia, an OMF missionary

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