#29 – SUKAI-SAN
From the hill town of Mato, at the end of the railway line north east out of Maebashi, I ventured into the forests once again. Bound for Sukai-san, a 2100 metre peak hidden deep in the forested mountains of northern Kanto. I crossed a river and headed up a sealed, one lane road past old metal workings and a humming powerplant slowly being consumed by the lush, summer greenery. Cicadas serenaded me on my march and bright orange centipedes scuttled in the road’s gutters. Over a mountain pass and down again into a deep valley the asphalt eventually turned to crushed rock and the thoroughfare narrowed. Maple leaves met in a congress of summer green overhead, shading my progress as the heat of the day grew in strength. A river gurgled through rocky nooks down to the left and dark, shadowy woods hung off steep, rising ground to the right. The gravel and rock road ended at an old picnic area from where a washed out trail led down to the base of a waterfall, the sound of it drowning out the cicadas’ droning song. I followed a soft, leafy trail up into the forest over a series of old mossy footbridges, through some rocky terrain before arriving at a grand old timber hut. The Koshin Sanso, an elegant two storied structure, its front stairs leading up to a wide verandah, stood silently at the back of an inclined clearing in the woods.
“This place has to be locked up,” I assumed as I climbed the stairs.
I tried the glass panelled front door. It slid open easily, “Wow,” and I stepped inside. More stairs led up to a second floor, that sported a balcony above the verandah. Through to the left was a dining area, a tatami matted sleeping quarters lay beyond that. To my right was a wash area replete with cold running water that must have been fed by a mountain spring somewhere higher up. A couple of doors were locked, probably protecting supplies to be used whenever they opened the place. It was hiking season. So it was strange the place was unmanned. But, being a Monday on the less accessible side of a mountain I presumed the place may have only been staffed on weekends. I climbed the stairs and discovered more sleeping quarters then returned to the first floor and set up camp in the room beyond the dining area. Though it was only mid afternoon clouds were gathering quickly and my sweaty shirt began to feel chilly against my skin. I changed and hung the wet one on a wire hanger above my sleeping bag. In a cupboard with sliding doors, I found a stack of futons and, along with a pile of musty smelling old blankets, threw together a comfy little nest to bed down in. The hut was full of trapped flies. Big bulbous things crawling up the glass window panes, verging on translucent as the light from outside shone through their starved, empty guts. I freed as many as I could and then lay down on my triple futoned nest and swatted to death any stragglers that dared come near me.
Dry and cosy I studied my map come fly swatter. Sukai-san lay nearly five hours hike away to the north west of Koshin-san, the peak directly behind the hut. To Sukai’s north was Oku-shirane-san. Nantai of Nikko sat on the far side of Lake Chuzenji to the north east. Akagi-yama lay to the south west. After a short snooze, I wandered outside as evening began to hold sway. Munching on some chocolates I looked up at the host of crags that comprised Koshin-san. Cloud hung on the rocky buttresses where the cryptomeria and cypress clung. A mist filled twilight descended, slowly drawing the curtains of darkness over the day. The silence of the early evening lent an eerie air to the scene.
I sat down on the wooden stairs and finished off my snack in the last remaining light. Before long a trio of hikers appeared from the trees at the bottom of the sloping clearing. Two middle aged women and a young man. The ladies huffed and puffed and offered up a few “Yataa”-s of relief. The lad was silent and gawky.
“Otsukare-sama,” I said quietly as they approached, congratulating them on making it to the hut.
“Hitori-desu-ka?” one of the ladies asked peering around as if expecting someone else to show themselves.
“Hai,” I replied affirmatively.
“Ooh, Nihongo shaberu!” the other said.
“No, no, no,” I was no Japanese converser. “Chotto-dake, chotto-dake.”
Smiling, they climbed the stairs past me and I slowly hauled myself up and followed them inside, the silent spell hanging over the place broken. Later, after they took over the upstairs room, we had dinner by torchlight together in the dining area. They had certainly come prepared. Salad, soup, ham, eel and rice, red wine, fruit and dessert. Glancing at my measly portions of instant noodles and chocolates they insisted on sharing their banquet. The ladies, Michiyo and Hitomi, were sisters. The lad, Hiroyuki was Michiyo’s son. They came from Western Tokyo, the Chichibu Mountains was their hiking home ground. With a second helping of wine, I showed them the photos of my trip up until then, regaling the three with stories of the trauma on Iwaki and pain on Hakkoda. Tales which at that point seemed like a lifetime ago. Where was Yuki’s Place? Who was the Rock Eagle? Soon after that, suitably impressed, they headed upstairs and I retired to my cosy futon nest.
In the darkness, they came for me. From all corners of the room. I heard them first, rustling around in my gear. I fumbled for my headlamp, flicked it on and they froze, hunkered down low in my plastic bags or hugging the tatami. Scores of shiny, black cricket like creatures the size of Matchbox cars had materialised out of the night. As soon as I shifted the light and then returned it to them they’d scuttled in closer under cover of darkness. Red, curved spikes a centimetre long stuck out from the ends of their abdomens like rhinoceros horns affixed to the wrong end. Thin wire like antennae a couple of inches long protruded from their sinister, elongated black heads. What the hell were those things? As soon as I got up and moved for them they scampered back on spindly legs to the cover of the gaps between matting and wall. And as soon as I settled back down again they re-emerged, resolute, I was sure, to drain me of my blood by sunrise.
Headlamp fastened, I grabbed my sleeping bag and fled upstairs.
The lad sounded like he was being slowly choked to death, but it was a strange case of snoring rather than death by marauding black crickets. The ladies stirred as I set up my second camp.
“Oki, kuro mushi. Shita. I-paii!”
“Ooooh,” bad Japanese or not they shuddered at the news of insects crawling about in their midst. I shone my light around the second floor. All seemed fine up there and I settled down to sleep.
Heavy rains fell in the night, washing over the hut in waves. There was a stirring at four. My fellow hikers were rising. The hut was still dark but with dawn’s grey light slowly illuminating the misty woods beyond the windows. It was time for action.
Breakfasted, the trio left for Sukai-san as I cleared up the remnants of my abandoned camp in the downstairs room.
“See you at the top – choujou,” I said and gave them the thumbs up.
Half an hour later I was scaling the ladders of Koshin-san in their wake, climbing up out of the mists that clung to the forests around the hut. I clambered out onto a rocky promontory and gazed across the rolling blue mountains and ridgelines to the immediate south. The glutinous haze that had cast itself over the Kanto region for the past week had persevered and any hope of a view of Akagi-san was laid to rest. I swallowed some water before, in turn, being swallowed by a dark stretch of forested ridgeline that ran to the highpoint of Koshin-san.
There, through the trees, they came for me. Swooping down out of the branches like an innumerable squadron of kamikazes – brilliant, yellowy gold horseflies, the size of a kid’s thumb. In a blur of colour accompanied by a droning buzz, they flew straight at my face before averting their course right at the last possible moment. Swatting them away into the greenery with my map seemed to have little effect on their armour plated bodies and they returned or were replaced by their comrades as I moved along the trail. On the tricky bits, when my hands were full of ropes or clinging onto rock they seemed to relish in their torment tenfold, swooping in with their aviator goggled eyes as I dangled precariously over the steep parts. I caught up with the others picnicking on a rock looking out toward the proud, bull shaped form of Sukai-san. They shared some grapes with me and I moved onward. Onward over horsefly infested rises and mountain saddles choked with head high bamboo grass the likes of which I hadn’t seen since descending Tomuraushi in Hokkaido. The only things guiding me through these seas of green were small red metal plates hammered high on tree trunks. I hoped the other three would be fine forging their ways through those tangles, they were each at least a foot shorter than myself.
The summit of Sukai-san was heavily wooded and afforded no views. There the mongrel horseflies were joined by hundreds of flitting dragonflies that danced in the windless air without a care in the world. A small, fly the size and colour of a bee attached itself to a knuckle on my index finger and went about sucking up whatever minuscule morsels of dead skin and sweat it could find. I waited for the others, giving them some thirty minutes’ grace but it wasn’t until halfway back down Sukai’s final ascent that I ran into them, happily huffing and puffing their way up through the dark woods smothering the mountain.
On the return trip, I took a lower trail running more or less parallel to the south of the one I fought along in the morning. Initial navigation through another virtually impenetrable sea of sasa eventually gave way to a glorious stroll along a flat trail through open woodland carpeted with a less choking variety of knee-high bamboo. The sun vanished behind a layer of afternoon cloud, the horseflies called it a day and I was able to soak up the silent mountain atmosphere once more. Investigating a side trail I climbed out onto a rocky buttress and stared out over forests of deepening green. Somewhere below me, the sound of rushing water rose out of the trees. An unseen bird or two chirped in the gnarly cryptomeria above me and I wondered how the others were doing.