AUGUST, 2007


It was a glimpse into the future, caught across an expanse of shimmering white.  From the top of Nantai-san, an ancient, volcanic cone, towering above the shoreline of Nikko’s Lake Chuzenji, I spied the pale blue peak of Fuji-san far to the south.  A blanket of cloud spanned the horizon and held beneath it the industrial sputum of the greater Tokyo region.  I scrambled onto a boulder and stared at the distant peak.  The heat was grim on that treeless summit.  Golden dragonflies flitted on the breeze and fellow hikers chatted and laughed amongst the boulders.  Having travelled the winding roads of Tohoku and traversed the remote peaks of Hokkaido I stood at the beginning of the next stage of the journey and stared, awestruck at its terminus.  Like an oversized exclamation mark, Fuji-san sat at the far end of the Kanto leg of my adventure, some 150 kilometres and twenty or so mountains away.  The mountainous regions surrounding the Kanto Plain and the greater Tokyo area to the north and west comprise a sweeping arc of volcanic and tectonically tortured terrain, from Tsukuba-san, the smallest of the Hyakumeizan around to the towering Fuji-san, the grand-daddy of them all.

It was the first day of August, the halfway point of Fuji’s official two month climbing season, I wondered how many thousands of modern day pilgrims were struggling up its graceful slopes, timing their ascents to the minute, as only the Japanese could, in order to witness the sunrise from the highest spot in the nation.  All achieved with a minimum of wait in the pre-dawn chill.  Though weeks away, I too was timing my Fuji ascent, deliberately aiming to be zig-zagging up its slopes a short time after the official climbing season ended.  By then, the crowds that congo-lined up its famous switchbacks throughout the summer months would have pretty much dissipated, if not vanished completely.

Schedulewise, all was going well.  My rough estimation of things Hyakumeizan, detailed in a little black diary I carried, had me down through the northern reaches of Japan and summiting Nantai-san by the sixth.  I was five days to the good.  And with expectations of a fine August ahead and shorter distances between mountains, things were looking rosy.

A gas burner whooshed to life over in the rocks behind me and snapped me out of my daydream.  Fuji spotted, I strode around the summit and tried to spy any other peaks I’d soon be getting to know a little better.  “Akagi?  Sukai?  Oku-shirane was supposed to be nearby somewhere…”  I couldn’t tell.  It would be a few more weeks before I could pick out the giants of Kanto conclusively.  Cloud lapped at Nantai’s flanks.  Waiting for it to part sufficiently to allow a glimpse down to Lake Chuzenji far below seemed like it was going to be a lost cause.  So, day pack hunkered, I headed back down, hot, sweaty and unenthused.  Despite the summit panorama I remained bogged down in the funk that had gripped me on Nasu.  The rotten tarpaulin and plastic mesh anti-erosion measures littering the trail didn’t aid inspiration.  Maybe it was the post Hokkaido blues.

On the way down my second hiking pole seized up.  At a tiny sheet iron shack, where I’d dumped my main pack, I grimly forced the pole to retract into itself and there it stubbornly stuck, unwilling to extend out again.

“Fuckin’ Mont Bell bullshit,” I grumbled as the sound of it clattering off the wall of the shack rang out through the sun dappled forest.  “Go to hell.”  Together with its partner, the one dumped in the bin at the station back in Aizu-Wakamatsu, they’d propped me up long enough anyway.  My hiking legs had straightened out underneath me.  It was time to lighten the load.  Physically at least.

I made it back down to a series of switchbacks of tarmacked mountain road.  On the way up a small van had been selling refreshments and I’d summoned up all of my willpower to resist splurging on a drink until my return – and would you bloody well believe it – the damn thing had packed up and gone.   Early afternoon, the hottest part of the day and the bloody bastards had conveniently buggered off!  I stood on the abandoned road, hands on my hips, confused and bewildered like some poor soul in the pictures who’s just been zapped into another dimension.  Sweat ran in rivers down my bent frame.  The Honshu summer had hit me well and truly.  I wiped a sheen of perspiration off my head with my already sodden hat and muttering dark thoughts, made for the shrine complex down at the trailhead.  On the way up I’d managed to avoid the cheeky, little money grubbing buggers at the Futara-san shrine.  Supposedly payment of a five hundred yen climbing fee was in order.  “They could poke that fair and proper up their puckered posteriors,” I’d thought as I read about it in my good old Lonely frigging Planet.  Unobstructed as I slipped through the complex on my way up, I’d dumped my pack at the shack in the woods where it couldn’t be held hostage until I paid up on the way back down.  System successfully bucked, I stepped out onto the road running along the northern shoreline of Lake Chuzenji and spied a small restaurant where my five hundred yen was put to much more agreeable use: the purchase of a highly enlightening, spiritually awakening, ice cold beer.

The trail running up Nikko’s Nantai-san from the shores of Lake Chuzenji via the Futara-san Shrine is, for the most part, a steep, ugly, eroded mess.  I learnt a couple of weeks later on my trek across the Oze Marshlands that it’s much better, though maybe longer, to scale the peak from the north rather than the south.


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