#001 – ATAGO-SAN
Snow flakes, more delicate than rice paper drifted earthward, through the bare momiji branches, they floated out of the night and into our tiny piece of illumined world. A back and forth flurry of blue shirted, steam breathing ruffians shouldered our meagre horde of possessions into the rickety, old house nestled in a pine grove at the end of a dark Kyoto laneway.
The Japanese summer was a long way off. The warmth in my bones, accumulated over the course of an Antipodean summer sojourn was fading fast.
Long gone too were those heady days of Osaka bachelorhood. The quiet life beckoned – or some semblance of it. I’d got the girl. She brought along her boy.
In mere months the loner had inexplicably become a family man and notions of starting up a little English school in Kyoto, a stone’s throw from the Heian Shrine, gestated. Thoughts of the mountains remained just that.
As spring dawned Tohoku was swallowed by the sea.
Notions of heading home were scarier than staying put. Home. Pushing ten years in Japan, lines for years explicitly drawn in the sand had begun to fade.
The Old Man with the little sister in tow turned up that spring and I took them back to Takayama and Shirakawago. A couple of old haunts revisited. The mountains were reeling me in.
As the rainy season drew to a close in the Kansai and the mercury soared, the barometer begged for mercy and Kyoto stagnated in a hazy, humid soup. Cicadas sung in the pines, old men cleared the grasses on Daimonji Hill and beer tasted sweet again.
The classroom shut down for the summer break but most of that spell was filled with part time teaching gigs here and there. It was a year of little rest. The lack of time and cold hard cash held the lure of the big hills in check. For a day and a half I flirted with the idea of blowing the bank and returning to Daisetsu-san in Hokkaido. It wasn’t to be.
At the end of July we headed out. The Missus, the Kid and me. A couple of days off at last. We settled on Atago-san, out on the western city limits – a long, not overly strenuous endeavour that I assumed shouldn’t rattle the Kiddo’s cage too much.
Down in the valley town of Kiyotaki where the forested folds of Atago’s foothills are cooled by the waters of the Kiyotaki-gawa we strolled beneath the span of a red torii gate, following in the centuries old footsteps of pilgrims past. Swallowed in the radiant, sun drenched woods we hunted bugs and poked at overgrown mushrooms with sticks. An orange snake slithered across our path and through a gap in the trees we peered back, across the haze choked city, to Daimonji Hill and the Higashiyama. It was as good a home as any I supposed silently.
We stood on holy ground. The mountaintop shrine is home to a fire god. The pilgrims climb up here to make peace with the deity and buy trinkets to protect their homes and businesses from inferno.
Thunder grumbled from behind the mountain as we made our way down. The plan was to hit the river again and then hike into the village of Takao, a locality renowned for its World Heritage treasures. Dropping into the dark woods beyond Gatsurin-ji – the Moon Ring Temple – halfway down the mountain, the heavens opened. Monumental cracks of thunder rattled around Atago’s heights, the accompanying lightning show illuminated the woods. We had our rain gear. Summer drenchings were to be expected.
Arriving at a forest road, the tumult overhead refusing to abate, we made for Kiyotaki, abandoning the Takao option. The downpour was relentless. The Kid chased frogs. River crabs crawled out of the leaf matter. The forests darkened.
Back in Kiyotaki the short stroll up from the river to bus stop hurt. It hadn’t been an overly arduous outing but the pins felt it for days afterward. The only way to sort them out was more days in the hills…