#39 – AZUMAYA-YAMA
“Eh!” I said taken aback.
“Ni-hyaku-en,” the grisly faced old cow repeated and went on muttering something or other at me.
“Two hundred yen! What kind of rort was this?” I stared, aghast in the middle of a long, straight strip of blacktop. The old, wrinkled crone couldn’t have been serious.
And she continued babbling! Getting all her hackles up, coming at me, waggling a bent finger as she sensed my reticence building. Surely it was just for people passing by in cars. For parking or something.
“No kuruma,” I said raising my hands as if to state the obvious.
She barked something else and I flinched hoping she wouldn’t bite as she bared a bright pink set of gums. I handed over two silver coins to shut her up and avoid a case of rabies or mad cow disease. Old fogies are granted serious respect in Japan and she was a prime example of one of the leathery, wizened old badgers who milk it for all its worth. I wondered if she’d been born in Osaka as I continued, allowed to pass the checkpoint, two hundred yen lighter, up a road bordered by green pasture.
I suppose I could’ve ignored her, outrun the old bat. Though, knowing how her ilk often revert to the tactics of a wailing three year old when they don’t get their way, leaving her there in the middle of the road, all red faced and hollering until she keeled over might have had serious repercussions. As much pleasure as it would have been to witness her keel over there and then, I exercised some of my underutilised discretion for a change. And there went any hope of a good day out. Embryonic notions of a pleasurable day in the hills had been aborted by the twisted old bitch.
“Argh,” I just didn’t want to be out hiking.
I should’ve stayed in bed. I was tired and sore. An ache consumed my body.
A blackened nail hung doggedly onto my battered right pinky toe. I had no intentions of yanking it off – the nail or the toe. I’d wrapped a band aid around it and slipped on a sock before heading out that morning. Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe it’d graft back to flesh in those dark, moist confines. Both of my big toes possessed no feeling whatsoever, which, with sixty odd mountains yet to climb I took as a blessing – two fewer spots in which to feel the pain.
Sunday mornings, long ago the preserve of sleep ins and laying low while hangovers swept overhead like threatening skies, were now, more often than not, arse crack of dawn wake up affairs, heralding more forlorn forays into the hills.
Looking up from my sorry boots as I trudged onward and upward, cloud, fluffy and formless, pallid and grey, hung low over Azumaya-san and its twin Neko-dake. At the top of the long, straight stretch of road I passed through a small parking area filled with cars of people who’d come to see the cows that grazed on the gentle slopes of the mountain. It was then that I realised I’d been fleeced two hundred yen to see a mob of cattle chew their cuds and shit in the grass. Bloody hell! I’d done that for twenty-seven fucking years – straight – back home on the farm. I’d seen cows shag, give birth and die. I’d handed my uncle little frozen tubes of stud bull sperm while he was up past his elbows in heifer. I’d cut beasts into quarters, bagged ’em and froze ’em before loading ’em into containers bound for Korea.
I wasn’t even paying to climb the bloody mountain!
The road turned sharp right and crossed a river. On the other side, I walked up into the woods and promptly got lost. For half an hour I strolled around the woods in circles on a series of vehicular tracks that led nowhere in particular.
I had assumed it wouldn’t be complicated. I’d briefly glanced at the map and nonchalantly shoved it back into my pocket.
The sound of bear bells in the woods eventually led me to a trail full of miserably happy hiking parties out for a Sunday in the hills. I sunk into my own little private cloud of grey and ignored the lot of them. Cheerful old shits that they were.
I tried to spark up. Regain lost form. Get a bit of genki-ness going again. I didn’t want to be the party pooper but I just couldn’t shake the despondency.
I sat on a rock, stared up at the mountain appearing and disappearing out of the cloud and munched on some chocolate almonds. Nothing. No genk got going. The whole day had just gotten on my tits from the get go. I became vilely jealous of hikers already heading down the mountain towards me, passing by and offering up their flippant konnichiwas. I got trapped amidst long lines of them, ten, fifteen, twenty at a time and was accosted with questions I had no desire to answer: “Where are you from? Do you live in Japan? Are you here on business? English teacher? Australia? Suuu-goi, have you climbed Ayres Rock? Do you have Japanese wife? Can you use fucking chopsticks?”
On the way back down, fleeing the cloud swept summit I fought off the demons that had chased me around the peaks of northern Kanto for the past ten or so days and kicked the little black dog off my shoulder into the scrub. It was time to regain lost perspectives and start enjoying things again. I shook off the nagging gloom, abandoning it on the mountainside, leaving it for the cows and the day trippers.
Back in Sugadaira, the highland hamlet nestled on the slopes rolling down off Azumaya, I was fittingly bathed in a golden afternoon sunshine. Sliding into a seat beneath a large, leafy tree I devoured a vanilla soft cream and watched some young lads belt the hell out of a tennis ball in the heat. A rugby squad pounded tarmac. Tennis drills from somewhere else rang out through the trees. Shadows lengthened and I soaked up the serene, secluded, country club atmosphere pervading the moment.
Summer was drawing to a close. With demons exorcised and some serious mountain momentum on my side (some fifteen peaks in 26 days had me over a week ahead of schedule) the time had come to move on yet again. To Tokyo. From there I could attack the mountains encircling the western side of the Kanto Plain and, of course, the big daddy of them all, Fuji-san.