#53 – TAKAZUMA-YAMA
The train from Kiyosato ground to a standstill in Nagano Station. I’d arrived in Japan’s most recent Olympic city, and capital of both the land’s most mountainous prefecture and its ancient province, Shinshu. Pack on the back, travel bag in hand I strode purposefully out through the ticket gates and followed the signs straight to the Tourist Information Office. I needed a cheap hotel and having pounded the pavement well and truly enough over the last week, I was more than ready for someone else to pitch in and do the hard yards.
‘Hello,’ I said to a woman who rose out of her seat to greet me as I entered through a glass door and dumped my gear on a seat in the spacious glass panelled office, ‘Do you speak English? I need a hotel room for a few nights, close to the station and as cheap as possible,’ firing off a volley of demands as I approached the desk.
The only other soul there in the office was being attended to by the only other clerk there in the place. Tall, foreign, English speaker, probably American, glasses, thinning, light coloured hair, some kind of cloth sash strung through his belt loops holding up his jeans. He was discussing, from what I could make out, getting to a place called Togakushi, head cocked as he pored over the papers placed sideways between him and his clerk.
The lady I’d addressed had opened a file resting at her fingertips and we quickly came to the conclusion that the Nagano Plaza Hotel was the place for me, “Can you speak Japanese?”
“No, no,” I lied. I mean, although my Japanese was crap (and still is), I could have organised it but preferred to do nothing if someone else was up for the task. She called ahead and booked the room.
“Hi!” the fella beside me suddenly said, his assistant like mine, otherwise engaged.
“Hello,” I replied.
“That’s a big pack you’ve got there. You in town for a few days?” Yep, he was American.
“Ah, yeah, maybe five days to a week I suppose.”
Nagano set me up slap bang in the middle of the next five mountains on the agenda. Three up to the north dotting the volcanic Myoko Mountains and two peaks out to the east I’d put off in the summer: Naeba-san and the daunting triple-decker volcano, Asama-yama.
“Doing a bit of hiking?”
“Yeah, just a bit.”
His gaze didn’t waver, pale eyes stared straight at me through angular black rimmed glasses.
“Where’re you from?”
“Australia, Brisbane or close enough to it,” I shrugged. “Living in Osaka now though.”
“Right,” he nodded, “U.S.A. Charleston. North Carolina. Spending some time in Fukui. It’s a little north of you. You know it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard of it.”
“What are you doing down in Osaka?”
“I’m an English teacher. Or was, anyway. I’ve taken half a year off and am travellin’ round Japan climbing its famous mountains.”
“Oh yeah?” His interest piqued. His clerk returned. “Hey,” he said before getting back to his business, “You up for some lunch?”
“Check-in time is after three o’clock,” my Tourist Info lady informed me.
“Great thanks a lot.”
We found a small sushi restaurant off the main drag through town and holed up in a booth and ordered small colour coded plates of raw fished goodness. Add some wasabi and soy sauce it was the first decent meal I’d had in nearly a week.
“I teach some English in Fukui,” his name was Patrick. “Kids, mostly.”
“Yeah, right, same here.”
“God they’re cute. They just walk all over me,” he sat there shaking his head, smiling, a piece of rice on his bottom lip. “These two little girls I teach, five years old, they just melt my heart, I can’t raise my voice at them for anything.” He’d gone all gooey.
“When did you arrive in Japan?”
“This summer. The heat nearly goddamn killed me. I mean Charleston, it gets hot, but shit, the humidity here is unfathomable!” He was leaning forward now, animated again, the rice had fallen from his lip. “I had basically had enough of the States,” he nodded. “A buddy of mine lives here now, in Fukui, he’s married to a Japanese. I pretty much came here on a whim. Hey, anyway, so tell me about these mountains…”
Later, checking in at the tidily kept Plaza Hotel, to my dismay the lady at the front desk informed me that they had no laundry facilities. She directed me over to a somewhat seedier part of town, backing onto the main street that ran up to the landmark Zenkoji Temple.
My clothes dancing the spin cycle samba, I whiled away the time by wandering up to Zenkoji and taking a peep. For a moment the sun lit up the scene, deciding to make a brief appearance late in the day before just as quickly dropping below the unseen horizon.
“God! I love a good jerk!” Patrick leant back in his seat virtually frothing at the mouth. We’d reconvened for the evening at a tiny, ethnically themed, hole in the wall in Nagano’s backstreets. The conversation had veered to Jamaican chicken from a mysterious loud bang that haunts Charleston Harbour and Patrick’s admission that he’d left his belt, passport, underwear and camera battery recharger at his home away from home in Fukui and thus the reason for the sporting of his ryokan’s bathrobe sash around his waistline.
The pasta I’d ordered arrived in the shape of a pizza but, unperturbed, we guzzled down our meals and beers as we yakked away and watched the old coot behind the bar test the strength of his cocktails by licking his stirring spoon mid recipe.
“Tell me, is Tsurugi up in Toyama on your hitlist?”
“Yep, she sure is,” topping out a metre under 3000 it was a mountain that demanded respect. Tsurugi was a massive edifice of rock, the last of the Hyakumeizan to be ‘officially’ climbed. Amongst its crags hikers become rock climbers for a day.
“I’d love to get up that mountain. Have you climbed it yet?”
“Not yet. Should be there in a couple of weeks or so, all being well weatherwise.”
“Look, drop me a line and I’ll join you, you don’t mind right?”
“Shit no, by all means. She’s a bit of a monster by all accounts though.”
We knocked back a few more drinks and called it a night. Patrick made for the ryokan and I staggered back to my hotel and passed out face first on the bed.
By breakfast, he was as glum as the clouds that hung low and drizzly over Nagano City. I wasn’t going anywhere near a mountain in those conditions so I met up with him for a late morning coffee. “I’m all out of cash,” he mumbled. “I mean, I’ve got cash in the States but there are no International ATM’s operating in this town.”
“Did you go to the Post Office?”
“Yes,” he jerked his head affirmatively, spittle flying. “They won’t accept my fucking card for some unknown reason.”
Later we discovered it was a bad weekend to run out of cash and be relying on international funds. Japan Post was privatising and all its systems were shut down for the entire two days.
“So I can’t get a bus ticket up to Togakushi, not that I can buy a fucking camera battery for the trip anyway,” he rested his brow on his clenched fist as he reclined in his seat. I got him a coffee.
“What’s this Togakushi anyway?”
“Oh, man. You don’t know Togakushi? It’s just this amazingly, ah…” he stopped himself. “But what does it matter anyway. I’m just going to have to head back to Fukui.”
“You able to get a ticket?”
“Can you get a cash advance with that?”
“No! All the ATMs are shut!” he snapped, withering glare shooting out through his glasses.
“I mean from a hotel or JR or something like that?”
He looked at me, a slight “Aha!” expression softening his grimace as he waggled an index finger in a slow, rhythmic fashion.
It didn’t last. The impressive looking Metropolitan Hotel was willing to oblige if Patrick would produce his passport. JR after much, humming and haa-ing also declined. And trusty old Tourist Information, unfortunately, were unable to offer up any new ideas.
With the promise to meet up on Tsurugi, Patrick headed out of town. Sadly, the rains remained. The weatherman waved his wand and declared Monday a wet one as well. What could I do? Unless things were impossibly treacherous I couldn’t let another day slip by.
Up beyond the glorious Togakushi sits Takazuma-yama, the tallest mountain in the Togakushi Range. At the end of a long narrow saddle of a ridgeline, its pyramidical form rises abruptly to some twenty-three hundred metres. From its rocky summit, it offers unhindered views of Myoko-san, a sister Hyakumeizan, and the rugged spine of the North Alps. Unhindered that is, if you climb in fairer conditions than I had the pleasure of scrambling to the top of said mountain in. Spared any serious rain before reaching the peak I thought luck may well have been on my side after all and settled down amidst the summit boulders to munch on my replenished supply of good old chocolate almonds and take in the views of thick, glutinous white in all directions. No such luck. Fat raindrops fell out of the sky literally the moment my bony buttocks settled into a comfy little hollow.
Unimpressed on a day where inspiration was hard to come by, I hauled ass out of the hills, as those Americans in our midst are wont to say, back into Nagano as fast as my legs, and the bus, would carry me.