JUNE, 2007


Despite the nosebleed inducing stench issuing from the ablution pits, the Kodera Hut is an immensely atmospheric place.  A charming, weathered, little mountain inn sitting on the banks of a gushing stream, framed by dark woods and hemmed in by the steeply rising foothills of the Asahi Range.  It was here, from within its dark timbered walls, across a low set dinner table in a simple dining area, that I met and befriended Mr Fujimoto, a middle aged family man from Tokyo, out for a couple of days in the hills.

Mere mountain trail companionship was the farthest thing from my mind though as I dished him out a bowl of rice and plied him with sour, green tea.  It had taken me three hitchhikes to get to that inn the same day I walked off Gas-san.  A minshuku girl, a takenoko picker and a generous rainbow trout breeder by the name of Shimigi had all selflessly come to my aid as the sun gradually dropped out of a clear afternoon sky.  My cash reserves had been reduced to virtual coinage.  I was at the wrong end of a dead end road, my last ten thousand yen note forked over for accommodation to the grumpy granny in the kitchen, an old black haired thing who huffed and puffed about the need to dish up an extra helping of mountain vegetables and dead fish.  Fujimoto-san was my free ticket out of there.  He’d rented a car in Yamagata and driven in from there – the very spot I was headed for next.  I had to get that ride.

O-Asahi-dake, my tenth Hyakumeizan, was to be his 82nd.  The bugger was on the home stretch.  Chewing away on a tasty morsel of shriveled fish, I wondered what it felt like; to have the end in sight.  Did he mull over those last 19 peaks before he dropped off to sleep at night?  Counting them down like kids count sheep.  Were his grey, winter afternoons filled with dreams of summer hikes and fast approaching Hyakumeizan glory?  I couldn’t imagine it.  For me, Mountain 100 was so far off it was pointless to entertain such notions.  Survival was more the concern of the moment – and getting that damn ride out of course. By dinner’s end we had agreed to embark on the hike together and set up a start time of four the next morning.


That uncanny body clock instinct had my eyes flicking open seconds before my cell phone alarm began its annoying bleat.  Dressed, I packed away most of my gear, grabbed my day pack and headed downstairs to brave the crappers then munch down a stale Calorie Mate or two in the pre dawn gloom outside.  Fujimoto-san appeared, and with an “Ohayo-gozaimasu,” but without a moment’s hesitation, we were off, up around behind the hut, wending our way into the mountains, the sky lightening above us, the darkness receding deeper into the forest.

The sun burnt off an early grey murk that masked the sunrise and I moved ahead of Fujimoto-san, pushing on alone while he breakfasted on a rock.  Hours passed and I left the forest behind and strode along a broad open ridge.  O-asahi rose skyward ahead of me, alongside its smaller counterpart Ko-asahi, their summits buried in a slender strip of cloud.  A pair of grizzly, suntanned hikers having overnighted in the emergency hut below the summit, made their way down a steep snow drift smothering the trail.  I sat and watched them edge closer, strapping on my crampons and soaking up the endless views of snow streaked mountains.

“You are fast,” Mr Fujimoto said when he joined me on the summit some ten minutes after my own arrival.  We snacked in the sunshine.  It was a shirt sleeves and sun hat day.  Carpets of flowers tumbled off the peak’s flanks and we talked some small talk until I hit him with the big one: “Today, Yamagata?”

“Hai.  Yamagata.”

“Could I hitch with you?”  I showed him a thumb in the hope he would understand.

“Okay,” he nodded easily, “but down, we go my pace.”

“Sure, no problem,” I’d seen him climb up, I had him covered.  “Thank-you very much.”

And with that he was up, gear repacked and scooting off down the mountainside as sure footed and nimble as a mountain goat, rapidly fading into the hazy late morning air. I watched him go from the summit, there was no let up, the bugger must have had knees of rubber.  I needed to get a wriggle on.  As good as my knees had been heading up, on the way down they still felt like a couple of bags of rusty nuts and bolts.  The fires of Hakkoda-san reignited as I tried to keep him in sight.  I needed that damn lift out of there and struggled on downward ‘til the bitter end, stumbling out of the woods and back into the forecourt of the inn a dishevelled, limping mess.

He was bathed and chilled, sitting on the doorstep waiting for me.  I was half surprised he’d hung around.  The old lady appeared from inside and looked me up and down and I mentioned I’d be hitching a ride out with Fujimoto-san and she apologised to him for the inconvenience.

Silly old cow.

I took to the waters of the bath house and bathed and soaked my weary bones then hobbled upstairs to rustle up my gear.  It was only after that, when heading out to the parking area alongside the ever so patient Fujimoto-san, that he told me he had to be on the bullet train back to Tokyo by two that afternoon.

“Bloody Hell!” I gasped.  It was already approaching one!  I guessed we were a fair distance out of town but assumed he knew what he was doing, he’d driven in after all.

I began to feel a touch guilty about the time he took a second glance at the GPS and swung the car around on a narrow mountain road, pointing it back the way we’d come.  Precious minutes had been lost, my nerves began to frazzle, but all the while Fujimoto-san remained unfathomably serene.

Time evaporated like water in a salt pan and at a red light in central Yamagata I spied the station at the end of a street.  I hauled my pack onto my knees, having made enough of a mess of his schedule by then I thanked him and said I’d walk from there.  He insisted on driving.  I insisted walking was fine. It was the least I could do.  I thanked him over and over and scrambled out into accelerating traffic.  Abandoned, he was swept away in the mid afternoon flow.  He had less than ten minutes to refuel and return the vehicle then make his train.

He was done for. Stuffed and buggered.  His ship: sailed.  His shinkansen: shot through.

And I?  Well, I was in Yamagata City, a stone’s throw from my next mountain…but, jeez, what can I say?

“Gomenasai Mr Fujimoto, gomenasai.”

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