Where the ridge – or crater rim, in fact – from Moto-shirane joined my path I surveyed the summit, rising to a gentle, scrub clogged point some 300 metres away; a dense conflagration of head high sasa and brush pine in between.
A solitary, round faced lady probably aged somewhere in her forties approached me and said, “Hello.” Chatting, I casually mentioned I was going to the top and she informed me it was off limits due to poisonous gases seeping from the other side of the mountain. Furrowing my brow and feigning concern as I surveyed the scene, I pointed out that the wind appeared to be in my favour. She chortled a couple of tut-tutting chortles, nodding in agreement and wandered off in the direction of the rock, probably wishing to disassociate herself with me as fast as possible. “He’s a mad man with a death wish. I don’t want to be anywhere near him when he comes a cropper,” I read her mind.
Cloud darkened the horizon. The threat of rain was imminent. Left to my own devices, I stepped over the ropes and plunged immediately into a turbulent sea of tangled scrub. The bamboo grass sucked me down into a deep, green bowl the size of a squash court. Holding my breath as best as I could, suspecting places like those were where the poisonous gases might gather, I scrambled up the other side forcing myself headlong into a phalanx of sasa spearing down towards me, in deference to the winter snows that blanketed the mountain. Parting the tangles I clung to handfuls of them and hauled myself up a short, steep incline out of the bowl and was back atop the crater rim beyond. The Myoko Mountains of Nagano to the west and the menacing Asama-yama to the south were all hidden from view by a cloud bank that was slowly unfurling down their slopes. It was hot despite the cloud cover, grit clung to my sweaty skin and stuck in my collar at the back of my neck.
“Better get a move on boy,” I estimated it would be some two hours max before the rain hit.
The sasa gave way to a thicket of creeping brush pine that smothered the ground and rose to overhead height. Clambering through it, across its lower branches serving as a kind of horizontal ladder, I quickly found myself in a small clearing in the scrub the size of a bathroom. I peered out across the crater to Bullshit Hill and smugly picked pine needles and leaf matter from my hairy arms and down the back of my shirt. There was no sign of a summit marker up there with me. Nothing. The ground dropped away in all directions, it was the top but the place was obviously a no man’s land. I scrawled a thirty-seven on my sweaty palm and manoeuvred myself into a position with the bogus rocky summit in the background and snapped off a couple of shots. Heading off Moto-shirane-san northwards, not fancying a second scramble through the brush I found a narrow trail snaking through a stand of stunted pine and followed it to the edge of a steep gully of loose yellow dirt and rock. Peering downhill the crater trail on which I’d spoken to the straw hatted bloke was visible so I got on my rear end and half scrambled and slid down to the path. In a clatter of rock and dust, I tumbled out onto the trail right in front of a guided tour of golden oldies who all came to a halt and stared at me as I brushed myself off.
“Konnichiwa,” I grimaced at the guide and braced myself for a bollocking having obviously just appeared from somewhere off course.
But he just nodded and led the silent group past me. Not a konnichiwa from any of them. Shame on me. My hand bled, a sliver of rock had sliced a nice inch long cut into my right palm but otherwise I was fine, satisfied at having knocked off another peak. I poured some water over the cut, washing out most of the blood and grit and headed back to the bus stop down through the woodland.
It wasn’t until later that I learnt that achieving the summit of this mountain is a pretty inconsequential diversion from what makes Kusatsu-shirane-san truly special. An hour’s hike to the north of the summit nub of Moto-shirane-san lies the mesmerising pale blue Ugama Crater Lake, surrounded by barren, crumbling walls in the shadow of the 2160 metre nub of Shirane-san. Fukada-san, the Hyakumeizan master, states in his volume that one can be fully satisfied on Kusatsu-shirane-san there, peering into the acidic waters of Ugama, rather than troubling themselves with the unsubstantial Moto-shirane-san. So, it seems, I’d missed the point after all.