#50 – TATESHINA
Overnight, wanderlust had turned to futonlust.
In the aftermath of the twelve hour slog along the rugged spine of Yatsugatake I’d been seduced by the sirens of slumber. Cast adrift from the trivialities of life on the Hyakumeizan trail, the world of hills and mountains, of sweat and snow and train timetables and convenience store dinners was light years away. I was warm and snug; my mind sealed inside an unconscious realm of sweet, unadulterated nothingness.
But how fragile the illusion. A hushed murmur, an exhalation nearby, a meagre hint of my surrounds wrested me from that other dimensional diversion.
“Ohayo,” one of the hikers from Tokyo, himself bleary eyed, welcomed me to the new day in the mountains.
“Ohayo,” I replied.
“05:15,” said the iridescent figures on the tiny display on the front of my phone.
By six, unsubstantial instant noodle breakfast digesting in my gut, I hauled boots onto a pair of trail weary feet, already unenthused at the prospect of a further three days torture all the while bound in their dark, moist confines. Laces tightened and pack on back, I bade my hosts and fellow lodgers farewell and stepped out into a grey, cloudless morning. Wisps of cloud, sailing high in the blue were lit by the sun. A breeze danced in the tree tops, a noticeable chill flitted through the air. I regained the main trail North and skirted the edge of a precipice, flimsy ropes strung between trees all that separated me from thin air. Sunshine touched the mountains. Glancing back to the South I was halted by the view across to the mighty edifice of Io-dake, an ancient crater half crumbled away into the forests lying beneath it. Out to the East a cloud sea, painted pale pink by the rising sun washed over the tops of distant hills. Out there lay my past. After briefly plunging into a dark stand of woodland I emerged on the other side of a minor rise dubbed Naka-yama into an open field of boulders and low creeping pine. There I spied my future.
A heavy lethargy hanging over me refused to be shaken. I succumbed and settled down amongst the boulders and took in the vast panorama on the horizon. To the North-West the crags of the Northern Alps rose dark blue against the clear September sky. Yari, the Spear, easily distinguishable amongst the soaring peaks. Further to the West the line of the Central Alps were accompanied the mighty Ontake-san volcano. To the immediate North however, beyond a pass filled with pine forests, lay Tateshina, another volcanic peak, it was the goal for the day, mountain number fifty and the halfway home mark. I munched away on a seven o’clock helping of chocolate almonds, a mountain fly traversed the lens of my camera, slowly sleep came on as my limp frame soaked up the warmth of the early autumn sunshine. Who was I to resist? Daydreams came and went as I listened to the breeze rustling the creeping pine.
At some point a surge of adrenalin shot through the lethargy. How long had I been there, nestled in the boulders? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? It was time to get a wriggle on. I dragged myself out of my little nook, rock hopped back to the trail and slowly made my way down through the forests to the pass below.
A two lane strip of blacktop, Route 299, dissected the mountain range east to west. An a-framed hut sat at the edge of a gravelly parking area offering up such sweet temptations as curry rice and shitty coffee to passers-by. I dumped my pack outside, slipped through the door and promptly ordered up a steaming plate of curry rice – a third breakfast.
Fed and watered (brown water, tasting like mud and what some people refer to as coffee), I located a rough wooden sign pointing me into the trees on the opposite side of the road and plunged into a silent, dark, bog floored woodland. In time boggy trail met rough mountain road. Bathed in brilliant early autumn sunshine I followed the track as it skirted the midriff of a steep, boulder strewn peak, a high reinforced steel fence bent and twisted by fallen boulders lined the left shoulder of the roadway while out to my right I was blessed with open views across the wide blue yonder, as the mountainside plunged away into the forests of the Northern Yatsu-ga-take Range.
Midday passed unnoticed and I followed a rising trail out onto grassy, windswept hill country, the day’s trudge had brought me around the back of Tateshina and to its Northern side. A large cloud parked itself between the sun and I and, unable to find shelter from a chilly wind, I slid into my coat and sat down in the grasses alongside a small shrine and eyed off the final push. A lone hiker, strolled past, clutching a pair of hiking poles like he was strangling a pair of chickens and offered up a hearty “Konnichiwa.”
Time marched ever onward and it was time I did the same. The climb up Tateshina wasn’t as strenuous as it had appeared. The trail rose gently through a wood beyond another roadside hut before hitting the final summit scramble, a half hour boulder hopping effort straight up the scrubby face of the mountain.
By the time the summit was achieved sunshine had returned to the world. There on Tateshina I stood atop no regularly craterd volcanic peak. Before me lay a flat, round field of grey stone, some 300 metres in diameter. To my left a wooden hut had been fastened to the rocky rim and sat unmanned and silent. I hopped across the boulders splashed with yellow paint marking the way onward and headed for the summit marker. Off to the right a small shrine sat amidst the rocks. Overhead the sky was clear but the view back towards Yatsu-ga-take had been obscured by afternoon cloud.
Standing over the tiny summit marker I let out a hoot of joy. The half century was on the boards. Not since standing atop Rishiri, when I turned South from the tip of Hokkaido, bound more or less for Osaka, had I the feeling of reaching a significant milestone. Now the push for 100 was on. Now I could start counting down in my mind instead of up. It wasn’t time to get cocky, though. There were still more hard yards to be eked out, especially if winter was angling to throw a spanner in the works.
With that in mind, I lugged my gear across the remainder of the boulder field and down the maliciously steep Southern face of the mountain. Feeling in all toes was rapidly, and thankfully, lost but to make up for it my heels and ankles began to reverberate with firey resonance with each pounding step downhill. My knees threatened to turn to jelly. I whimpered and yelped like brown dog being kicked around the backyard for an afternoon. The advertised ninety minute descent on the map stretched well past two hours. When ground finally levelled out to more gentle gradients and the sweet sound of traffic on a road below echoed up through the trees I knew the end of the day was in sight.
“There’s a bus stop down there somewhere,” I mumbled to myself spying the sleek black strip of Route 192 through the trees as I squeezed out a glutinous, yellow, half litre of dehydrated piss onto the trunk of a tree. And then, as if the angels above had heard me I spied a bus slowly grind to a halt through the trees below me.
“Oh, you beauty,” I quickly zipped up.
The bus sat idling.
I hastened my pace. Lower extremities protested. Bus remained motionless.
Rounding the last switchback, knees threatening to pop a gasket or whatever it was that knees popped I watched the bus, with barely a handful of trees between me and it, lurch forward and rumble off in a puff of black smoke.
“Hey!” I yelled, the echo of my voice carrying through the woods.
Then, “Bugger,” quietly, resigned to my fate.
It was after five. That had been the last bus of the day. Ninety minutes later I wandered the darkening streets of a silent, wooded enclave above the shores of Lake Shirakaba. Street lights were beginning to take effect. Large homes reclined, set back from the roadway amidst the greenery. Greenery that clamoured skyward and formed a canopy of leaves above the homes and streets. A man and lady out walking a fluffy brown and white mutt the size of a rugby ball directed me further on towards a campground. I couldn’t find it. My head spun, after effects of the efforts of the day coming home to roost. Approaching a woman wielding a whipper snipper as she attacked the grasses along the fronting of her land, I offered up a hearty “Konnichiwa,” and startled the poor old girl as she turned, blade whizzing between us. She directed me straight on and I spotted an overgrown clearing down beyond a culvert, on the outside corner of the road. Dark by then, the light of the moon beginning to take effect and I set up camp in the small plot of land and laid upon the softest bed of grass I’d ever slept upon. I chugged a litre of water and after munching on more chocolate almonds and a tube of Pringles and was asleep before my head hit the little, inflatable pillow wrapped up inside my jacket.