AUGUST, 2007


Hotaka, Shibutsu, Hiuchi, Aizu-koma, Hira-ga-take, Echigo-koma, Makihata: quite a mouthful of mountains.  My finger danced over the route linking the seven peaks spread across three maps laid out in front of me as I sat cross legged on my hotel bed.  It looked to be a week’s worth of hiking – maybe a day or two more.  The plan was to trek north out of Gunma Prefecture and into the southern reaches of Fukushima then bear westwards, flirting with the border regions of Niigata before finally turning south into Gunma yet again.  It all looked good on paper, but with Japan in the grip of a summer heatwave and a hell of a walk ahead of me, a lot of it uphill, I assumed things would become uncomfortable at some point or another.  In spite of all that potential pain and discomfort the prospect of knocking off seven mountains in nearly as many days was nothing less than mouthwatering.  It was like blazing a run of seven birdies midway through a round of golf to get your score back on track or like knocking back seven beers early in an afternoon piss up and then settling in quietly for the less frantic evening session.  A much needed burst of momentum was what my Hyakumeizan quest needed.  On my post Sukai rest day, as the sun sank low, painting the late afternoon a hot, oppressive, shade of yellow I was reinvigorated and raring to go.

Later, sucking the remnants of a 7-11 chocolate sundae off the tip of a flat wooden spoon an Indian beast feast already nestling in my gut, I looked over my stash of goodies on the bench at the window.  Yellow packs of peanut m&m’s, beef jerky, cashews and instant noodles repacked into ziplock bags.  I was set.

By five the following morning I was up and by six I stood at the station.  The streets of Maebashi were streaked with early morning’s shadows.  The sun’s relentless assault on the lingering cool of dawn was already underway and I felt the trickle of the day’s first sweat inside my shirt.

Arriving in the adventure town of Minakami, still shaded by the towering mountains rising to its immediate east and blighted by ugly concrete hotels clogging the sides of the Tone River, I disembarked my train and hunted down a bus that would take me up to the road that led to Hotaka-yama’s trailhead.  Suntanned bus drivers in tatty dark blue suits milled in the parking lot.  They guffawed and badgered each other with their bus driver banter while sucking on tobacco strong enough to kill a small animal.  I approached the men and producing my map, pointed to a spot on it and asked which of their buses, lined up behind them, I should catch.  One of the drivers dropped his half smoked cigarette to the tarmac, scuffed it out with his shoe and took the map out of my hands for a better look, opening it out a fold further to get his bearings, then nodded and loudly proclaimed, “Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Haa,” displaying a maw full of yellowed incisors in the process.

“A-soko!” he pointed out my ride and I thanked him, allowing him to get back to his pre-work rituals.

From the station my designated bus wound its way up into the steep hills to the east of Minakami, through dark tunnels and along the edges of a steep sided dam before depositing me on to a deserted mountain road.  Suddenly I’d lost all desire to walk.  Venturing forth my legs became leaden, my pack sagged on my shoulders and the sweat trickling off me seemed to be the only thing interested in action that day – probably because it was going downhill rather than up.

Roadside grasses sparkled in the first rays of morning sunlight to reach deep down between the hills and dance on their dew soaked fronds.  The smooth tarmac shone.  My boots opened up and shut again like black Venus fly traps at the points where they were coming apart.  Each step testing the next stitch in line.  They were holding, but surely were on the brink of busting sooner or later.

A dark van, crunching its gears out of a bend behind me whizzed past then pulled up and reversed back, using more revs than necessary.  I stopped, the passenger side window pulled level with my head and a round eyed, sandy haired, white man stared out at me from the driver’s seat.  With a nod and a wink of greeting he said, “Mate, where’re ya headed?”

“Up to Hotaka-yama,” I replied.

“Get in. I’ll give you a lift.  I’m headin’ up that way to pick up some people.”

It was the kick start I needed.  Two hours were knocked off Day One in a matter of minutes thanks to Linc, an Aussie bloke working for an outdoors mob based in Minakami.

“A week!  Shit!  Ah well, you’ll be right, the huts are open right through that way, you’ll have plenty of food ‘n’ the mountains are full of water at the moment so don’t worry about that.  I’ll drop you off at the Urami Waterfall up here.  Go take a look, she’s a beauty.  The trail’s closed down around its base though, but nobody’s going to stop you jumping the rope and heading down there…

“Otherwise the trail to Hotaka’s straight up the road.  Me and a buddy rode trail bikes to the top a couple of years back.  Ha-haa!”

Campers were out in force as we passed a gorgeous open spot in the woods.  Bidding Linc farewell, I dumped my pack at the top of the path to the waterfall and strolled down to the viewpoint for a look. A torrent of water tumbled out over a curved, rocky ledge from an unseen nook amidst the trees.  Moisture hung in the air and settled on every surface.  Down beneath an overhanging rock face, some yards beyond the waterfall sat a tiny, wooden, pointy roofed shrine.  The scramble down there looked tempting but, even though I was all for rope jumping, I had a mountain to climb.  I’d gained a couple of hours so there was no point letting them go to waste.  And why chance snapping an ankle on some mossy rocks below a waterfall I didn’t have to venture down to when I could just as easily do it, and justify it, on a mountain I was endeavouring to climb?

I headed back to my pack, “Hotaka-yama here I come.”

Linc was right, water was oozing out of the hills as easily as it was out of me.  Dying of thirst seemed like it could be taken off the list of things that could potentially do me in.  I found where the track departed the overgrown forest road.  There was a small sign, a stream sparkling in the sunlight between the greenery and a cup on a string sitting perched on a rock indicating the water was drinkable.  I replenished my sweat reserves and sat down on a stone just big enough to cradle my bum and succumbed to the temptation of scoffing down a pack of m&m’s right off the bat.

The forest road had been gentle.  I suspected things were about to get somewhat rougher.  The lethargy that had gripped me for the past hour or so was slowly passing and a pace was beginning to be set, but to my surprise, having been gradually gaining the nimbleness of a mountain goat over the past weeks, I was swiftly overtaken by another, much older, hiker.

“That hadn’t happened in a while,” I mused as I continued to leak fluids, watching him disappear up the steepening, tree choked trail.

A couple of unenthused horseflies buzzed out of the undergrowth and briefly harangued me but after a few sound map swattings they buggered off to find better things to do.  I relished in the tiny victory and I dragged myself ever higher.

I caught a brief glimpse of Hotaka-yama’s peak, but for the majority of the ordeal the views remained obscured by the dark green woods I clambered through.

The sweet aroma of tobacco smoke hit my nostrils as I approached a set of chains leading up a wall of rock defending the final summit approach.  The fit hiker who left me in his dust earlier in the climb was relaxing in the shade and puffing away on a cigarette, appearing as though he had not a care in the world.

“Konnichiwa,” I smiled.

He nodded, breathing blue smoke out his nostrils, replying with a hearty konnichiwa himself.

I was beginning to notice these smokers in the hills.  Skinny, wizened, suntanned old buggers usually, who lugged packs they could probably squeeze into themselves, up steep mountainsides at a furious pace.  What the hell was going on?  They were bloody smokers!  They should have been coughing up black lungs out of holes in their necks, dying miserable deaths drowning in their own slime clogged oesophagi or be hooked up to a cluster of iron lungs and oxygen cylinders.  Full of beans and out running up and down mountainsides?  What the hell was going on?  Any sort of physical exertion should reasonably see these fellas thrashing about in the throes of respiratory failure.  Or so we are led to believe.  And yet, there was one of them!  Right in front of me!  As happy as Larry and puffing away halfway up a hill like bloody Thomas the tank engine!  How dare he and his ilk, these despicable smokers, these people we vilify on a daily basis, these scum of the Earth, who rank not much higher than international bankers and prostitutes, so flagrantly contravene the laws of nature.

I sat down in the shade alongside the smoker and he blabbed something in Japanese at me that I had no hope understanding (he probably asked me whether I needed a light due to the fact that I appeared so bloody buggered).

I apologised and said I didn’t understand.

He understood.

I pulled out my water bottle and swallowed about half a litre of the cool refreshing liquid.  Cicadas sang amongst the leaves over our heads and I leant back on my pack and shut my eyes for a few moments, contemplating nothing in the cool shade and inhaling the mingling aromas of mountain, sweat and cigarette.

Up on top there were more of them.  Leathery skinned old coots seated cross legged on the ground around their whooshing gas cookers, sucking in the smoke from their cigarettes and shooting the breeze.  I was at a loss to explain it.

Shade was running at a premium.  The vegetation had thinned out, only waist high bamboo and scatty little trees remained.  I munched down some more chocolates and gobbled down a pack of beef jerky.  Thunderheads, attempted to mass overhead in the clear blue sky.  Out to the north I rested my gaze upon my next two targets, Shibutsu-san and Hiuchi-ga-take the two peaks bookending the celebrated Oze Marshlands.

Hotaka-yama failed to entice me to linger longer than I luncheoned and soon after finishing off a bag of cashew nuts I took to the trail once more, heading off the peak in the direction of Shibutsu-san and Oze.  A long three and a half hour walk ensued, northwards down a gentle gradient and into the forests filling the valleys below Hotaka and Shibutsu.  Golden shafts of late afternoon light pierced the greenery, illuminating the dust and other floating matter suspended in the air.

Just past sunset I emerged from the forest trail at a campground on the side of a sealed mountain road, where a conflux of three mountain streams occurred.  There, children squealed in the waters, grown-ups reclined in camp chairs outside their large family sized tents and barbeque smoke replaced that of the tobacco variety.  The summer campers had made it deep into the hills.

After dinner as the light began to fade I burnt the trash from the day’s meals in an uninspiring fire outside my tent.  All the dead wood, leaves and grass clippings were too damp to achieve any serious combustion, so by eight thirty I doused the miserable smoking pyre and turned in for the night.

It hadn’t been a bad day, upon reflection – rather, quite a satisfactory start to my longest foray into the hills yet.  I slipped of my trousers and socks and lay on top of my sleeping bag.  The night was warm down off the mountain and the sounds of quiet conversation nearby and the babbling brook soon sent me drifting off into a deep slumber.

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