JUNE, 2007


Heaven is a cold beer and a midday shower.  The warm water washed away the grime and the beer worked its way through my system, anaesthetising the aches and pains.  I’d made it to The Rock Eagle, a guesthouse amidst a little enclave of guesthouses in Amihari Onsen.  In just over 24 hours I’d come full circle, arriving back on the eastern side of Iwate-san in more or less one piece, having survived my first night on a mountain.  Muscles were slowly seizing up and the big right toe was oozing a viscous yellowy goo in sympathy for my swelling right knee.

It would have been ideal to dump half my near twenty kilos of gear there at the guesthouse before attacking Iwate but Koji-san, the proprietor, had been out and about himself, hiking away the last of the spring sunshine, before Tohoku was engulfed by the ever encroaching rainy season.  A tall, broad shouldered, suntanned man, he wrapped his head in a towel and sported a pair of round thin rimmed spectacles, t-shirt and floppy drawstring pants.

“Ah Mr Willie! You are early.  I am doing the vacuum,” he said when I turned up at the bottom of his front stairs.

I apologised and, negotiating a dirt bike in my path, assured him I wouldn’t get in the way before asking: “Do you have a beer?” a noticeable hint of desperation in my voice.

“Yes,” he smiled.

“And can I take a shower?” I added, the stink of stale sweat and wood varnish rising from my frame.

“Ah, yes, this is okay,” he replied as we squeezed around another dirt bike propped up on his tiny balcony at the top of the stairs.

I unstrung my boots and he offered me a seat in his airy dining room, two walls lined with books, photo albums and pictures of motorcycles and mountains.  A large window filled the other, capturing views out over his garden and down across the forested foothills running away from Iwate-san.

“Big beer or small beer?”

I said a small one would be fine.  I’d have fallen off the chair otherwise.

“Okay, I get now.”

He came back with a guest form and no beer.  “Ah sorry, only big beer.”

“Oh – well – okay – hai – no problem – big beer please.”  If the only choice was either beer or no beer then beer it would be.  Hell, I would’ve drunk the damn stuff out of a dog’s bowl if I had to.  Hot. Filtered through my sweaty underpants.  Get me that damn beer!

He crossed the room and sat down in front of me, sliding the form over the table, “Do you have food?”

“Well, ah, yes, I have enough for lunch.”

“Do you have food for dinner?”

“No,” I said.  Of course not!  That’s why I came here.  To a guesthouse. C’mon!

“Okay, we’ll go down there,” he pointed out the window, down into the trees.

“Where?”  I wasn’t up for a monkey hunt right at that point in time.  Though he came across as the type of fella who’d be keen enough to do something like that at the drop of a towelling head scarf.

“To Japanese food and pizza restaurant.  Can you eat Japanese food?”

“Oh.  Yes, no problem.”  And I can drink Japanese beer!

I had called over twenty-four hours in advance, from the hotel with the breakfast buffet in Morioka, but it seemed he was barely ready for me.

“For breakfast, toast, egg, milk, okay?”

“Hai, okay.  No problem.  Address here?” the tip of the pen hovered above a large space on the form.


He retrieved a beer after that.  I savoured it, sinking back into the seat and scoffing the last of my chocolate almonds for lunch, while Koji – the Rock Eagle, as I’d dubbed him – clattered around the place with the vacuum cleaner.

Hayachine Bridge

Despite his seeming lack of preparedness his hospitality was genuine.  Vacuuming done, he showed me to my room and then the shower, grabbing some towels from room 108 across the hall, where I glimpsed trail bike number three residing. That evening he chauffeured me “Down There” to the Japanese food and pizza restaurant.

By breakfast, rain was steadily tumbling out of low hanging cloud.  It was official:  Tsuyu, the Rainy Season, had arrived in Northern Tohoku.  By mid morning it had abated to a drizzle and the cloud descended, cloaking the world in a dense, moistened mist.  I spent the day relaxing in the dining room with a terribly slow internet, some books from the shelves and my maps.

The Rock Eagle emerged from somewhere with a miniature sickle in his hand and proclaimed: “Now I grass cutting.  Spring comes and grass,” or weeds I guessed, “Dun! Dun!  Dun!  Coming up everywhere.  Very hard work.”

“Ah, I see,” I nodded eyeing the sorry excuse for a bent butter knife clasped in his hand.

Before he headed out into the yard I apologetically asked, as is the way in Japan when making a request of a host, for a cup of coffee.

“Oh!  Coffee!?  You drink coffee?!?” he put down the knife, “Okay, I making now.”

On Hayachine

That night after another trip “Down There” for dinner he pulled out his hiking books and showed me pictures of his favourite Hyakumeizan.  He’d climbed the lot over a ten year spell and I asked him about conquering my nemeses; Daisen and Asama.

The Rock Eagle looked at me seriously, “You don’t have to go there.”  Flipping pages, he located Asama-yama and pointed to the map accompanying the beautiful photos of the restless giant, “This is the top of the mountain,” his finger sat at the spot where the little red squiggles marking the trails stopped short of the little black triangle marking the top.  “Danger.  Danger.  This is the top of the mountain Mr Willie.  It’s okay.  It’s okay.”

I suddenly realised this big guy, this gung-ho, balls and all, dirt bike riding nut known as the Rock Eagle was actually a big bloody wuss.  How can anyone say they’ve climbed a mountain if they stopped when things started getting a little bit dodgy rather than on top?  Huh?  Who?  I was sure I’d be gleaning some top notch information from the bloke, but all he had to say was “Don’t go.”

Disappointed, attention turned to matters at hand: Hayachine and the weather.  The Rock Eagle’s painfully slow internet connection promised rain to be clearing late the following morning and then to be fine for three days after that.  It was time to get going again.  Sleeping well, registering only a muffled sigh of resignation from my strengthening knees, I awoke on a cloudy but rainless morning, enthused and ready to get back into the hills.

River below Hayachine

“I don’t like cityside driving,” the Rock Eagle was hunched over the steering wheel of his tiny little grey hatch, gripping it with white knuckled determination, nervously zipping in and out of the morning traffic on slick, rain soaked roads, “because I live – gulp – over there.” He pointed with one hand back over his shoulder towards the mountainside lost in cloud, eyes glued on the road ahead, burning holes in the windscreen.  “I don’t like cityside driving.”

To take his mind off his nervousness he explained that his place was called the Rock Eagle because during the winter months, when the snow settles on Iwate-san, a rocky area of the mountain remains clear, its shape resembling an eagle.

We made it to Morioka Station in one piece.  Koji-san jumped out of the car and helped me with my pack and giving me a good strong hand shake said, “Be safe.”

I was.

Though the climb up Hayachine devolved into yet another struggle.  Sapping humidity, thick cloud, rotting snow and a bloke in the summit hut who snored like a salivating Rottweiler on a barbed wire chain.

Sunrise the next day more than made up for the latest trials and tribulations.


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