#35 – TANIGAWA-DAKE
A line of digital clouds and umbrellas dominated the seven day forecast on the computer screen in front of me. I sunk back in the soft chair and rued the booze induced missed opportunity that snookered my cross Kanto expedition.
“Probably just going to be a few showers here and there,” I reassured myself. Getting wet should’ve been any real concern anyway, I’d just spent five days hiking beneath brilliant midsummer skies and was drenched from head to toe most of the time anyway.
Supplies restocked I hunted down a roll of gaffer tape and added it to the goodies. The boots were hanging on in there but a blowout was imminent, especially if water was going to be entering into the equation.
Tuesday dawned encouragingly bright and back on the Joetsu Line, I rode the rails north toward Tanigawa-dake, a dramatic rocky peak which rises into the clouds a touch up river from Minakami, the town I’d ventured forth from, bound for Hotaka-yama, the week before.
Approaching rain and the lure of a ropeway, daunting prospect though it was, tempered my enthusiasm for heading directly to the trails snaking up the ravines of Tanigawa. The ropeway promised to deliver me up to 1300 metres in a mere ten minutes, time was of the essence so I took the plunge – for the want of a better word.
Within a couple of hour’s hike of the ropeway, the clouds had caught me and were slowly enveloping the mountain, riding on the back of a chilly, blustery wind. In the grey rocks nearing the summit bright splashes of yellow, purple and white flowers nestled in the gaps. At times the cloud would attempt to part, revealing perilous drops off steep sided cliffs into the valleys below the mountain. Crowned with a pair of large rocky outcrops said to resemble cats ears, I clambered over the lesser of the two – Toma-no-mimi – and up onto Oki-no-mimi where thick wet cloud swirled around me.
Tiny droplets gathered on the fibres of my shirt and the blustery winds chilled my sweat. Swamped by cloud, Tanigawa wasn’t giving any of its majesty away easily and I wasn’t in much of a mood to sit around in the murk and wait for it to change its mind.
Beyond Tanigawa, no firm plan had been settled on. I mulled over options at the hut below the summit. There were two basic choices. Option One involved heading north, over the summit again, then down into the valley on the Niigata side of the mountain and take the train to Makihata-yama and Echigo-koma. Otherwise, two days hike off to the west sat Naeba-san. From Naeba further options to the north and south existed. I was bound to get wet and miserable whatever the decision so, as I scoffed down a pack of m&m’s, I determined my fate by the luck of the draw. A blue m&m would send me northward, while green would see me setting off to the west. I wondered whether mountaineers on Everest resorted to such methods when stuck in such conundrums as I munched down browns and reds and oranges before the official result revealed itself.
To Naeba-san it was then, via on what paper seemed to be an enticing ridgeline traverse. In reality, I had no idea what I was traversing, the cloud cut the views down to mere metres most of the time. The plan for the remainder of the deteriorating day was to make it to one of the emergency huts along the way, hole up and wait for finer weather to materialise the following day.
“15:15,” the iridescent blue numbers on my cell phone clock shone in the gloom. Holed up for the night in the tiny Ooshoji Hut, a u-framed, corrugated iron, garden shed perched in the saddle of a narrow, treeless ridgeline. The little joint was a metal shell, solid as hell, with a wooden floor and a few rickety shelves against the back wall. No power (unless it was hit by lightning), no water (other than a nearby spring and the overhead rain), no toilet (other than the ground). Supposing everyone liked each other you could’ve got eight, maybe ten souls inside the place, twelve if you really liked each other, twenty if you were all Siamese twins. Outside wet, knee high bamboo blanketed the ground, dancing, swaying, gyrating as the growing winds harried it. There was a rock to sit on and drops to fall off. Visibility was down to about fifteen, twenty metres in all directions, so if there were any other features I missed, say thirty metres out, – revolving restaurants or mountaintop pachinko – I was oblivious to the fact.
And so was my mate. There were two of us cooped up in the joint that soggy afternoon. I, the cold, morose gaikokujin and he, a little monkey of a man sporting close cropped grey hair and sideburns, a big grin that nearly split his head in two, wide eyes and brown, leathery looking skin. He was smoking on the rock when I arrived like a spectre out of the cloud. By three he was bundled up in his sleeping bag on the cold hard floor. The wind blew wafts of cloud in through the door I’d purposely left ajar to allow in some of the feeble afternoon light. Everything was damp. I boiled up some noodles. Fuckin’ noodles. Airplane food and a hospital dessert would’ve been more appetising. Rains swept in and darkness came early. I shut the door, slid into my sleeping bag, propped my head up on my pack, watched the ceiling fade to black and waited for sleep to come. On cue, the little fella started wheezing in his sleep.
Rain had fallen hard and loud on our metal shed all night but failed to drown out old mate who snored and farted like a hell hound from the pit. He’d left around six. In wet weather gear and boots much sturdier than mine.
I peered across at my sorry footwear with their gaping black grimaces around the toes.
“Wait her out big guy,” I concluded. In that rain the boots had no chance so I resigned myself to a second night there in the hut unless things dramatically improved; notions of retreat entering my mind.
“I wanna go home,” in an hour those notions of retreat had grown into full on desire for repatriation. I longed for the easy life. A two-shower a day routine. I was sick of stinking. I was sick of hard floors. I was sick of instant fucking noodles and Calorie Mates.
At the spring water trickled out of loose rocks and stones. I filled my bottles.
“Thirty-five mountains and quit? No, not yet.” Schedulewise things were nearly a week to the good. I sat at a tick over a third of the way home. The budget situation had stabilised and I was holed up in free lodgings with plenty of food and an endless supply of water. I couldn’t completely complain.
A little shut eye, a beef jerky snack and a piss in the sea of bamboo out the back of the shack. There I spotted where the little fella had pooed. No wonder he was such a small bloke. Anyone would lose six inches in height if they squeezed out a grogin the size of that every day. That thing lying there in the scrub wasn’t a poo you’d step in, it was one you’d snap an ankle on.
Intermittent showers had been dancing over the ridgeline. Between their sprinklings I, like the long departed little bloke, succumbed to the urge to purge. It took so much toilet paper to get my arse clean, that had it not been for the cloud cover, any hiker popping their head up over the hilltops and peering down into the saddle would have been greeted by the scene of a quaint little tin shed and a madman, pants down in a sea of bamboo doing some wiggly little dance as he continually stuck paper in his arse.
I woke up. Alone in a black as pitch night. A strong wind had the metal hut wincing in the darkness. I couldn’t hear any rain so I slid on my headlamp and stepped outside for a leak. Off to the north side of the ridge, far down below I was shocked to see a bedazzling chain of lights spearing from virtually beneath my feet.
The expressways that ran deep beneath Tanigawa shone in the darkness like a river of diamonds, their glint and sparkle sent my spirits soaring.
It was farewell to my little home in the hills. From the top of a rise on the ridge, I turned for a final look at the little place. Like a lifeboat in a sea of mountainous green waves it signalled its farewell to me in brilliant morning sunlight. Opaque tufts of cloud, impotent and drained of their moisture floated away on the winds that dried out the hills. Back past the Tanigawa top hut I turned southward and wandered down the rocky summit trail past hikers struggling upward. I’d headed back the way I came. Abandoned the Naeba idea in favour of a direct journey to the foot of Echigo-koma instead.
To hell with those green m&m’s.