#11 – ZAO-SAN
Zao-san was to be my second mulligan after Hachimantai. I’d abandoned Mr Fujimoto on a sunny Yamagata afternoon but by dawn, the next morning rain was pounding the streets. Zao-san, looming over the eastern reaches of town, was clad from head to toe in an ugly, dark, rainy season murk.
“I’ll be buggered if I’m hiking up anything in that,” I thought peering out through hotel curtains then rolled over in bed and slept until the free breakfast buffet downstairs had almost finished. After gorging myself on rice and sausages I hit the sack again, deciding to give the weather another twenty-four hours to buck up.
By three that same afternoon, I’d ventured out on the tourist trail to the town of Yamadera, some twenty minutes by train from Yamagata. There I climbed through the mists, beneath towering cryptomeria up and around an old temple complex in the crags above the town. Zao lay immediately to the south and was still cloaked heavily in cloud. Apparently, a trail leads up into the hills to the mountain from Yamadera, a perfect start or endpoint for a traverse of the mountain.
Alas, as magical as it may have been to undertake such a hike, with a rain clogged forecast for days to come I had no desire to get out in forests and slop around in the glug. And so, after downing another buffet breakfast on my third day in Yamagata, I begrudgingly boarded the tourist bus bound for the mountain top.
On Katta-dake, a lesser peak on Zao they’ve plonked a rather large visitor centre and caked football fields worth of mountainside with asphalt. A few cars cruised around slowly on slick tarmac through the low, windswept cloud and I piled out of the bus with an entourage of oohing and ahhing grandmas clad in rain gear and old men in sports jackets and sneakers. The visitor centre was packed with day-trippers eyeing off souvenirs and ramen menus. Kids ran amuck, clambering over the furniture, beyond which, out through the plate glass, thick cloud swirled in a strengthening breeze.
Eventually, I left the confines of the visitor centre and stepped into a cold, gusty crosswind which blew a spattering of precipitation into my face. As the building swiftly vanished into cloud behind me I moved into the Twilight Zone. The cold wind whipped at my hat. A bird chirped off to my left in the mist. The only other sound: the crunch of my boots on the gravelly earth beneath my feet. I roamed some strange lost highway marked sporadically with pale grey, wind blasted poles poking at odd angles out of the ground. Alongside the trail clumps of low, purple flowered vegetation dotted the earth. An approaching straggler or two would appear out of the gloom mere metres in front of me, grim faced and damp as if they had fled the wrath of some terrible marauding thing lurking further on. The buffeting cross-wind blasted in from over my left shoulder, overladen with moisture and ice crystallised on my shirt and eyelashes. My ears ached and my nose began dribbling into the stubble above my upper lip. I had to keep moving to stay warm. It wasn’t the single polo shirt day I’d imagined it was down in the humid confines of Yamagata. I wandered, jaw clenched, past small cairns of stones and boulders that would have been good rest points in more hospitable conditions. At a rickety signpost animated by the gusts whipping around it I turned into the wind and a short climb later a torii gate, shrine and hut materialised, perched on ground that had changed to a rich shade of ochre. Amongst some red boulders beyond the hut, I located the summit post and assumed I was on top of Zao-san, a mountain – though you could be excused for not realising it – on Planet Earth at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Cloud reduced visibility to mere metres and I squatted down behind a boulder before fishing the camera out of my pack. A shape wandered away from the hut. There must have been someone inside. I soaked up the atmosphere for a few minutes and briefly considered whether your typical blue skied mountain views were overrated.
On the return trip, the murk lifted just enough to reveal handfuls of day-trippers strolling across the otherworldly landscape and downhill, from where I assumed the visitor centre still sat, to catch a glimpse of the magnificent Okama Crater and its mystical waters. Depending on the time of the day and the state of the weather the lake can range from a brilliant dazzling blue to a deep green.
I stood alone, off to the side and marvelled at its jade green waters. Digital cameras beeped and a few people chatted but silence still dominated out there in that strange place. Soon the chilly air got the better of me and I climbed the rise and slipped back through the portal separating two worlds. I’d returned to the visitor centre, a bleary eyed and dribbly nosed stranger, to be assaulted by the sights and sounds of the milling throng and their scampering kids. I wandered around the souvenir stands, slowly thawing out and found a vending machine in the corner and bought a hot can of coffee. Not overly satisfied with myself at having resorted to a mulligan I sat down against the glass, back to the swirling cloud and waited for the bus to whisk me down into town.