#67 – TSURUGI-SAN
“What is this dark world I find myself in, replete with its gloom and dilapidation? Who are these people, stooped and hunkered, wandering its dimly lit streets?” Impressions from first night on the island of Shikoku were entangled in my own malignant disposition. Moments of despair bubbled to the surface, accusing notions of capitulation sneered and doubt laced voices whispered, second guessing my choice to walk away from the big mountains. Those thoughts, coupled with an imminent return to normal life, swept in like the heavy rain showers strafing the streets of the small, rundown city of Awa-Ikeda, my weighing point for the impending assault on Tsurugi-san.
I stood beneath a dripping canvas awning. The convenience store bento, in the plastc bag I clutched was losing heat fast as I waited for the latest rain shower to abate. A lone salaryman, head down, briefcase in hand, wandered past oblivious to both the weather and me. I succumbed to my hunger and made a dash for my tiny hotel’s front door, a beacon of light in the oppressive darkness…
Things seemed no less disheartening the following morning as daylight filtered through leaden skies. I took to a bus that ran deep into the mountains of Tokushima. Four hours there and the same back again sandwiched my projected two hour hike up Tsurugi-san. I had ample time to stew in my own disconsolate funk.
The bus ride took me up a steep sided valley lined with villages. Houses perched precariously on metal girders driven into steep, rocky, river banks. Ugly tourist traps. Along the route engineers and construction workers toiled against nature. Concrete plastered here to hold back a mountainside, road widened there on more girders, out into thin air. A Lego sized excavator clawed into soil, its tracks halfway up a towering embankment between road above and river below. I spied a single laned route collapsed into the river – not mine – and the bus grumbled onwards. Cables strung up on pulleys spanned the gorge, slung so, from hidden anchor points in the forests, to transport payloads of concrete skyward where they would be splashed over the hillsides. Helmeted workers squatted at roadsides puffing away on cigarettes as they took a break from their war with the land. It was a fruitless battle, but I supposed it put dinner on tables, booze in bellies and smokes in pockets. As the bus moved on, the efforts of those who had fought the good fight before were crumbling away, strained, cracked, leaking, filled with vegetation happily undermining their toil. The mountainsides were breaking back through. Plant life reclaimed anything untended: sheds, houses, cars, old roads replaced by tunnels. Maybe that’s why the Japanese never stop. If they did, they’d be grown over. Even weather beaten crones, bent over like half snapped pen knives, tended muddy slithers of fields, their back complaints perfectly complementing their grubby, thankless work.
“Tsurugi-san is shrouded in mystery and legend…” that’s what my guide book said. Sniff around a bit and that’s what you’ll find. Some say Japan’s own Excalibur, the Kusanagi, is buried up there. Dig a little deeper and you might come across nothing other than the Lost Ark, dragged over from the other end of Asia by one of the lost tribes of Israel. Deep in the valleys below they say, are where the survivors of the Heike clan fled after their defeat in the Genpei War.
Tsurugi remained a mystery to me, revealing very little of herself as I climbed from a deserted parking area into thick, moist, droplet laden cloud. The wet trail snaked up through autumnal hued woodland, beneath a rinky dink chairlift before eventually opening up into fields of sasa hemmed in by cloud. At last I found myself strolling the summit boardwalks in a fine rain that floated on the breeze and clung to me in tiny glistening droplets. I stood by the summit marker, suitably unimpressed, fired off a couple of shots and then ‘headed for the exit,’ as they say.
On the bus ride back to civilisation, as darkness fell, a brief lightening of the western sky signalled better times ahead. After a day where my backside had done more of the hard yards than my feet, I hoped for better the following day, when I aimed to make it up Shikoku’s only other Hyakumeizan peak: Ishizuchi-san.