#1 – IBUKI YAMA
“Hell, I’m friggin’ stuffed!”
The last day of April, 2007, a mere twenty minutes into the climb of Ibuki-yama, my first Hyakumeizan and I was on my last legs. It was an instant attack. A sudden drubbing conjured up by the mountain gods in order to send me yelping, tail between legs, back to the comforts of a life I was set to abandon. Stumbling out of the trees blanketing the lower reaches of the mountain, sweat drenched and gagging like a half drowned dog, I was stunned at how unfit I had become after five years of sitting on my arse teaching English in Japan. I collapsed onto a seat outside a tea house stubbornly operating in the leafy shade amidst the tumble-down ruins of an abandoned ski area. A warning shot had been fired across my bow. Who was I to think I could just waltz in and knock off the Hyakumeizan in a season? I’d been snapped out of a hubris that had been slowly building over the months since announcing my foolhardy intentions to family, friends and work. There, outside the tea house, I began to consider the possibility that this mountain lark might just do me in good and proper.
What was happening? April Fool’s Day was supposed to be at the beginning of the month. I felt like a one-armed bantam weight boxer, conned into donning a glove and thrust into a cage match against some rabid, heavy weight fiend juiced up on a bad dose of speed and whiskey. There was only one person to blame. I’d conned myself. There I was, at the commencement of round one, round one of a hundred, and I was already a gagging, knock-kneed mess.
A middle-aged Japanese chap in a plaid shirt and pressed pants strode towards me. Having descended the mountain he looked a damn sight more composed than I.
“Hello,” he said, settling down on the seat opposite me. We talked a little. I struggled with my meagre grasp of Japanese. Hanging my head, rivers of sweat dribbled into my eyes and off the tip of my nose. I prompted him for some sage advice by announcing that I was tackling my first Hyakumeizan. I would climb the lot by Christmas. Hokkaido to Yakushima, that was the plan. Impressed by my boast, then offering a slight smirk, he more or less pointed out that Ibuki, one of the smallest of the hundred, seemed to have me well and truly by the balls and, with the distance I had left to climb, didn’t appear like it would be letting go anytime soon. I could do nothing but sweat and begrudgingly nod in agreement, the cheeky bugger was right. He wished me luck as he rose and went inside, allowing me to suffer in peace.
I felt ill. I hacked a glob of phlegm up from the back of my throat and spat it out into the dust, watching the saliva around it slowly soak into the ground. It focused my thoughts. Action was needed before all my dwindling motivation evaporated. Less than half an hour in to a hundred mountain adventure was definitely not the time to pack it in. The Hyakumeizan were there to be climbed and bar broken limbs, erupting volcanoes or disembowelment by marauding bears I was going to make it to the top of every last one of them by Christmas Day, so help me Buddha.
The slugfest persisted for the entirety of the climb, all the way up the dry, brown face of the mountain to the summit at 1377m. Overhead, as I negotiated an endless series of switchbacks, the clear spring sky was filled with the iridescent sails of paragliders gracefully riding the rising thermals without a care in the world. Wracked with envy I coughed and sputtered beneath their swooping arcs like an old Massey Ferguson axle deep in a bog. Hikers who had caught the buses up the northern side of the mountain descended past me cheerfully chatting and laughing, some pausing mid-conversation to offer a konnichiwa or a gambatte.
The struggle up Ibuki was an effort measured in inches by the time my head popped up over the final rise leading to the summit. Up there the circus was in town. Kids jostled and ducked through the milling crowds. Men in sports coats strolled with pretty ladies on their arms. People sat around in ramshackle tea houses eating and drinking and laughing and all I thought about was the conundrum I had gotten myself into: no job in a month’s time and a shitload of mountains to climb. I bought an overpriced Coke, nearly punching the bloke who sold it to me when he apologised for its exorbitant price and went to find a place to sit down and lick my wounds, away from the sudden hustle and bustle congregated up there.
Folded into a plastic garden chair I sighed to the heavens, now some thirteen hundred metres nearer my limp frame than they had been at the start of the day. The sun was on its way down to the horizon and a cool breeze rustled the brown grasses against the wall of the tea house. The day was cooling down quickly. I slipped on my jacket and silently sat, half sleeping and wondered again about what I had gotten myself into.
Ibuki-yama was a mountain under siege long before I set foot on it. Its name translates to ‘Breath of Nature’ but in reality the stoic looking peak sitting at the northern end of Lake Biwa, a couple of hours train ride north of Osaka, seems to be having the wind squeezed out of its sails. A cement works ravages its western flank, machinery tearing at a garish scar of exposed limestone like hyenas feasting on the carcass of a once proud beast. Ski runs slice down through the flattened vegetation on its southern face. A tourist road wends its way, like a viper up the mountain’s back depositing the venomous dose of day-trippers onto an enormous black scab of tarmac directly below the summit blighted by tea houses, souvenir stalls and antennae. I wondered if all the hundred mountains were like that: over exploited, loved to death, robbed of their mystery.
Coke downed, I got up and ambled around for a while before accosting a young lassie serving beers near the summit marker and handed her my camera. I perched on the rocks surrounding the base of the monument and she fired off a couple of proof shots for me while a rowdy bunch of munchkins scrambled over the masonry behind. And that was that. Ibuki-yama was in the bag. One down, ninety-nine to go.