JUNE, 2007


Under leaden skies heralding more than ever the arrival of the rainy season I laboured, knees a-sizzling under the weight of my pack up a road bordering a rocky river, where mauve petals of wild wisteria flitted like confetti into stony pools down between the boulders.  I was heading for the sanctuary of Yuki-no-koya.  A cosy little minshuku nestled in the lower folds of Hachimantai. Through the pine I spied mowed fields filling a narrow strip of land on the opposite bank before it rose steeply beneath a cloak of green woodland into the grey murk overhead.  Foliage dripped with the remnants of a morning rain shower, gravel crunched underfoot and I made out the shape of a small brown cottage up ahead.

“Hello, my name’s Willie-san.  I called yesterday from Towada-ko about accommodation for a few days,” was pretty much how my introduction to the man with a thick grey beard and hair went when he opened the door.  “I’m climbing the Hyakumeizan, but right now I can’t walk…” I’m not too sure what he thought he was getting he and his wife into, but I was quietly invited inside with a nod and a gentle smile.  He was Ikuo.  His wife Yuki, a slim, grey haired woman with an equally friendly and serene disposition, greeted me from where she sat on the tatami floor alongside a low table.

Two days after struggling off Hakkoda-san walking was barely possible.  Forget hiking poles, I needed a zimmer frame.  Both knees now were wracked with pain whenever I dared take a step.  I swore I could see a heat haze rising off them.  The right one, red and swollen, was even bursting into painful protestations when I rolled over in bed.  Had I stripped tendons from bone? Were my legs faulty?  If they managed to recover would hitting another serious climb bugger them again?  Having gotten over the Iwaki ordeal I was mentally ready to take on any mountain challenge that stood in my way.  Sadly, all my knees were ready for was mutiny.

I slept until six then showered before dinner.  In the dark, stone floored bathroom I grabbed hold of the  hand-piece, turned up the water temperature to 50 degrees with an adjustable tap and directed the spray onto my knees until the skin nearly burned away.

The following day my legs had gained nowhere near the strength to attack Hachimantai and Yuki and Ikuo were kind enough to allow me to stay and rest alone in the quiet little cottage while they went to visit his mother in town.  I slept most of the morning away and after a lunch, kindly prepared by Yuki,  I sat in a square of yellowing sunlight and leafed through a small book of haiku by a fella called Basho, a well known 17th century Japanese poet.  Abandoning all comforts, he had traveled throughout the Tohoku region relying on the generosity of the people he met on the road.  The way my budget was going I could see myself having to do the same bloody thing.

I considered changing the adventure completely and mused about a slow walk through the backwoods Basho-style.  From there to Osaka.  Instead of labouring up and down the mountains I’d sleep under bridges and in out of the way temple precincts while I watched the seasons change.   Maybe I’d even tackle a few hikes on the way.  It would be a bitter pill to swallow, to abandon the mountains but at least, I hoped, I could continue on some sort of an adventure.

The sun set early.  Dropping down behind the highlands above the cottage.  Upon Yuki and Ikuo’s return I thought I’d give the knees a try out down on the rocks in the river.  To my surprise and relief, as long as I took things easy the pain wasn’t as severe as it had been the day before. I didn’t want to bus to the top of a mountain and merely stroll to the summit, as was possible on Hachimantai, but discretion persuaded me to call in my first mulligan on mountain number five due to the extenuating and excruciating circumstances I found myself in.   It would be a good second try out nevertheless.

Caught up in a contemplative mood, I sat down on one of the huge brown boulders beneath the wisteria and soaked up the silence of the afternoon.  Brilliant blue sky high above, still lit by the sun, a darkness crept out of the woods down in the valley.  A trickle of water burbled below me somewhere amongst the rocks and the distant muffled exertions of an old tractor or rotary hoe echoed down from further up the valley where a thin column of smoke rose skyward from an afternoon fire.  A cuckoo announced its presence and a dog barked somewhere upstream.  As the shadows began to congregate I hauled myself up the bank and slowly returned to the cottage swirling with the aroma of the evening’s meal.

A man in a casual pin stripe suit, pointy leather shoes with a blonde rinse through his hair; a younger dude in a polo shirt, his bare arms sporting a strange pair of tufts of inch long hair in front of the elbows; a pretty girl and her pretty boyfriend in flip flops, giggling, slipping and sliding across snowy patches of trail; some hard core snowboarders making the most of the last of winter’s snow.  It was a blue skied Sunday on the broad topped Hachimantai and every man and his dog were there.  Serviced by a winding strip of asphalt known as the Aspite Line, the mountain is easy prey for Hyakumeizan hunters and daytrippers alike.  The road dissects the highland, a broad plateau as large as a city suburb, a mere stroll away from the highpoint.  With my legs teetering on the knife-edge between recovery and comprehensive crural collapse, an easy afternoon out was just what the doctor ordered.

Trails criss-cross the top of the mountain.  They weave through woodlands of stunted, fragrant Aomori fir and around the edges of alpine pools and lakes barely demanding ascent or descent all the while.  Off the edges of the plateau, on Hachimantai’s steep flanks, hot springs and mud pools broil to the surface reminding all who venture there that the innocuous mountain is part of a volcanic chain which undulates southward towards the rather more dramatic Iwate-san volcano.

That night, having summited and showered, I announced over dinner to Yuki and Ikuo that my legs were in fairly good order, they’d come off Hachimantai still attached and it was time to move onto Iwate-san.  It would have been fantastic to have stayed with them for a few more days but I knew I had to keep going.  Time was marching on and I needed to limp on after it.  The hospitality and kindness shown to me there at that little cottage in the woods will remain with me for the rest of my days, it was a magical, calming experience that hushed the turmoil and uncertainty in my mind and raised my flagging spirits once again.  It seemed as though things could keep going for a bit longer yet.

Early Monday Ikuo left to visit his mother in town again and although having hurt her back the previous afternoon in the garden Yuki came out to see me off.  Farewells and good lucks exchanged I tentatively strode out across the little concrete bridge spanning the rocky river.  Sunshine warming the back of my neck, I vanished into the pine trees, hoping Yuki’s Place would still be there when I passed through those parts again.

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