#9 – GAS-SAN
“Herro! Gajin-san! Herro!”
My gut clenched. That raspy greeting was directed squarely at me. No doubt about it. Waiting, out of the rain, for the first bus out of town at the entrance of Tsuruoka Station, a can of warm, sweet coffee in hand and heavy pack down at my side, there was no chance of escape. Emerging out of the milling school kids and dark suited commuters, he’d zeroed in on me through his Coke bottle glassered sights. Bow-legged, silver crew-cutted and heavily suntanned, sporting a grey business suit top above a complementary pair of grubby track pants and holey sneakers, he waved a smouldering cigarette in greeting.
“Kuni! Kuni!” he demanded, jabbing a stubby, yellow fingered smoking hand at me, staring up through the dirty lenses of his spectacles, eyes big, round and magnified.
“Hai! Kun-tor-lee! Kun-tor-lee!” Unlike the shy, run of the mill Japanese the drunk and senile don’t consider a lack of status, cleanliness, or English ability a barrier when accosting the lone foreigner in their midst. It seems we are viewed as kin; fellow outsiders with which to shoot the breeze, as we drift along on the fringes, free of the expectations and constraints that hold regular society back – er, I mean together.
“Australia,” I replied.
“Ohhh! O-su-to-lei-ree-ahh,” he announced to the oblivious crowd then mulled it over for a couple of seconds. A good foot shorter than me his breath, tainted with the stench of stale booze and cigarettes, wheezed out from between his ground down yellow teeth and assaulted my nostrils.
“Gas-san desu-ka?” He motioned at my pack, ash scattering from the end of his cigarette.
“Hai, so desu,” I confirmed. I was headed for Gas-san, the highest of the Dewa Sanzan, the three holy mountains of the old Dewa Province.
“Ski, ski?” he did the actions of a shaky legged downhill skier.
“Hai. Ski? Ski?” Or maybe it was the dance those pink arsed Japanese monkeys do as they try to loosen a sticky grogin from their bum crack curlies.
“No, I can’t ski,” then added in Japanese: “Dekinai. Muri. Tozan desu.”
“Ohh,” he nodded and looked me up and down, sucking in a lungful of smoke. “Oh-su-to-laria shitty?”
I didn’t think so – “Oh!” Hang on, “City?” I suddenly realised. It’s par for the course for the Japanese to pronounce the “si” syllable with a “shi” sound – especially when they’re tanked by breakfast time.
“Do you know Brisbane City?”
“Ah Bu-li-si-ba-nuuu,” he mused flashing his yellow toothed maw knowingly.
Then he sparked up again, ranting about some supposed famous Australian skier: “…Tony, Tony…Tony…Ski, ski,” he was back doing his dance, cigarette hand clasped to his forehead as he tried to recall Tony’s surname.
“Ski champion?” I queried.
“Ohhh, hai, hai. Chum-pi-on desu. Ski, ski.” He stiffened up, propped a hand on his hip and turned to me very seriously, screwing his face into a knot of creases. “Tooo-neee…ah wakaranai, wakaranai…ski, ski. Ohh-su-to-lei-ri-ah, ne.”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged after a few minutes of back and forth about this Tony bloke. I couldn’t help the old bugger. I was no winter sports guru. Maybe it would come to him during a bout of the d.t.’s. Disappointed he stuck his cigarette in between pursed lips and thrust out his tanned right hand, dirt clogging the lines on his palm, “Fu-lendo, fu-lendo,” he affirmed out the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, hai, friend,” I said and shook his hand and smiled. He was a harmless old bugger. He wandered off to have a yarn with another similarly scruffy looking chap outside the Tourist Information Office and I watched the heavy rains tumble out of the leaden sky and counted down the minutes until departure.
By 6:30 the following morning the skies had cleared and I was heading up Gas-san from Yudono Onsen, enduring an uninspiring climb across rising fields of thick, chest high bamboo grass. Here and there takenoko pickers rummaged for fresh shoots of bamboo and had me jumping in fear of bear attack as they suddenly emerged out of the dense scrub, hacking and spluttering like wild animals. I traversed more tracts of snow and scrambled around hikers coming in from the ropeway off to the South as I huffed and puffed up a final steep rocky climb to the hut and shrine complex on top. Once there I feasted on a second breakfast of ramen noodles and washed it down with a ten o’clock beer – a little early I know, but it was 11AM in Australia.
On the summit, out behind the shrine, marked with nothing more than a small triangulation stone I sat in the sunshine and peered across snowfields of Gas-san. A thick curtain of blue haze obscured any view back toward Chokai-san or toward my next target, the Asahi Mountains to the south, but I sat satisfied, burping beer and noodles, knowing that even with a full pack I’d managed to overtake a few hikers on the trail. It seemed as though I was finally gaining my mountain legs.
Eventually I trudged off back down the mountainside into rising white cloud and hunted out the trail to the ropeway that whisked climbers southwards off the mountain. Crossing a vast, snow filled bowl I glimpsed, through the swirling cloud, distant figures with skis strapped to their backs – the famous summer skiers of Gas-san – clambering up the the snow smothered sides of the mountain. By lunchtime I was sitting in a grotty kiosk at the top of the ropeway where ‘Too Cool for School’, bleach haired skiers hung out amongst the hardy, old, plaid clad Japanese hikers. I ordered a bowl of udon noodles off the young fella behind the counter who wandered around the joint like a Thunderbird puppet with a gammy leg. His English was quite good but he seemed a bit slow, like he’d been donged on the head one too many times by the chairlift seats outside. I got a beer off him too, slightly concerned, at least until the first gulp hit the back of my neck, that these mountains were slowly driving me to drink…
“Ah well,” I thought, “Nine down, another 91 to sober up.”