#59 – JONEN-DAKE
“If you catch the train from Matsumoto to Azumino in winter you’ll notice a brilliant white pyramid, rising proudly in the Alps,” our old friend Fukada-san notes. “That is Jonen-dake. Each and every time I see it from the train, I don’t blink. I don’t take my eyes from that mountain.”
I wasn’t blinking either. The black taxi’s engine screamed, shattering the early morning silence as my driver gunned it for the hills. With winter fast approaching I knew I was in a race against time but, crikeys, at the rate of knots we were going, everything seemed to be fast approaching. A dew drenched golf course glistened in the day’s first light. The sky was clear, air verging on crisp. What a morning. I licked my lips at the prospect of another gorgeous day in the mountains. And not just any old mountains either. At last, the day had come to venture high into the Alps of Japan. It had been a long time coming. A long, 58 mountain march. The way things were going though, the first trick was to survive the taxi ride. The cab hit a hump in the tarmac, got light, returned to full traction, bottoming out, shock waves shot through the diff housing. The driver flinched not an inch, my knuckles turned white, gripping the Jesus bar. The mountain wasn’t going anywhere. I hadn’t specified any desire for such urgency on his behalf. Maybe it was all part of the service. Though, the town of Hotaka, just north of Matsumoto didn’t appear to be brimming with potential cab riders. Maybe the trick was to get hikers to the mountain as fast as possible then head back and see if he couldn’t snap up some more. The trip to Jonen-dake was probably the fare in these parts and I suppose the fact that the season was on the wane wasn’t just a sole concern of mine.
The road was closed a kilometre or so before the trailhead. The driver dropped me at a yellow and black chevroned sign and I, in my rudimentary manner, organised for him to come back and pick me up around five that afternoon. There was no way I was waltzing back into town in the aftermath of a projected ten or eleven hour hike up and down a mountain scraping the underbelly of 3000 metres.
At the trailhead a pink arsed monkey nonchalantly strolled out of the men’s ablution block and leapt up onto its roof and sat staring at me as I approached. I hope the bugger had flushed and not used up all the paper. I approached cautiously, ears pricked for any sound, not wanting to disturb any of his pink arsed cohorts that could have remained inside, squeezing out their morning monkey biscuits.
With the coast cleared and my load refreshingly lightened I exited the crappers and stepped into the forests cloaking Jonen-dake. It was to be a monster climb but on a day as crisp and clear as that one, any exertions, I was sure, would be relegated to footnotes. The woods shone. The sun climbed beyond the ridges running down into the valleys and lit the autumnal tones filling the forests. I climbed beneath a resplendent canopy of reds, oranges and yellows, awestruck at the brilliance of the colours. A stream bounded down over boulders and I lay on a large, flat rock mid torrent and snacked on chocolates and guzzled water.
I gushed at the beauty of the woods as I made my way ever higher and eventually left the sawa for the final ascent to the ridge just above the treeline. Cresting the ridge of bare, stony ground the scene that opened up before me knocked me to my knees. Not since rising over the ancient volcanic crags in Daisetsuzan and laying eyes upon Tokachi-dake had I been left so dumbstruck. Beneath a cloudless sky, beyond the roof of the Jonen Hut hunkered into the western side of the ridge, a serrated horizon of pale grey rock stretched from north to south. I spied the unmistakeable spear of Yari-ga-take, arguably Japan’s second most adored mountain; to its left sat the massive bulk of the Hotakas. A bottomless valley dropped away between those mountains and where I stood. On the roof of the hut, men spread sleeping mats out to air in the sunshine. Resisting the urge to down an over-priced mid-morning beer at the hut, I turned to the rising tower of boulders to my immediate south and began the final ascent of the pyramid of Jonen.
Fukada-san quotes in his Hyakumeizan tome the words of Walter Weston, the so called doyen of mountaineering in Japan, who assertively claimed that “Of all the peaks seen from the neighbourhood of Matsumoto, none more impresses the spectator than the graceful triangular form of Jonen-dake.” When Weston climbed Jonen he found a cairn of rocks on the summit. Hunters who chased bear and deer had climbed this mountain before him.
I’d climbed alone but on the summit other hikers had scatterd themselves in comfortable nooks amongst the rocks on that sumptuously clear day. I found my own comfy lounging spot in the rocks and together we soaked up the views and the warmth of the sunshine. A cool breeze danced around the summit, briefly raising the hairs on my arms. I gazed westwards, longing for more chances to scramble up the jagged peaks of the Alps. Days like these made you forget about the fast encroaching winter. This was sunbathing weather. I just prayed it would hold for another few weeks.
Back in Matsumoto that evening, the lines of the black castle lost in the darkness of the night, I climbed the unlit stairs, convenience store dinner in hand and entered the cramped, darkened lobby of my lodgings. The old man rose from the sofa in his room beyond the desk, glasses above his brow and excitedly greeted me, eager to see the new number inked onto my palm.
“Jonen?” he nodded, encouragingly.
“Hai,” I revealed the faded 59 on my hand.
“Ooh! Good, good!” he smiled pleased.
“Yes, yes,” he nodded in agreement, “Very beautiful.”
“Ashita. O-yasumi.” Tomorrow would be a day off.
“Ah!” he understood, “Holiday, tomorrow.”
“Yes,” I smiled. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” he bowed slightly and I climbed the stairs, curling around above themselves, to my room. I wondered if the old man had climbed the magnificent mountains lying to the west of his hometown. Had he been lured to their soaring peaks in his younger days? Their magnetism seemed irresistible. Fukada-san had a friend who had lived in Matsumoto, a man not taken by the mountains soaring beyond its suburbs, and even he insisted:
“I’m not interested in climbing, but I want to climb Jonen.”