Ah the drudgery of rainy season, the oppressive humidity, the leaden skies, the permanent damp, the arrival of the cockroaches, fleeing their flooding cracks and crevasses in the streets for the safety of first floor apartments…
It had been just over a month since the Houou excursion during Golden Week and as the seasons transitioned from mild spring to muggy summer, the refreshing burst of new leaves and their vibrant green turned to a choking, explosive mass of vegetative voluptuousness that, as it always had, threatened to take over civilisation as Japan knew it. Tree canopies smothered sunny parkland, vines ran rampant up walls and over fences, as weeds and grasses claimed the low ground, spilling out of nooks and cracks in the concrete, burying footpaths and bikeways, clamouring into spaces between houses. Legions of leaves that blocked the breezes and darkened the rooms allowed their allies, the moulds and funguses, to wage their new season campaigns of conquest across bathroom, laundry and kitchen. The seasons change fast here in Japan.
And it wasn’t just the seasons that were a-changing either. Patrick’s Asian adventure had literally turned south over the past weeks. A paperwork mix-up involving previous employers and valid work visas had resulted in him being in possession of nothing more than an approval to apply for a visa rather than the actual visa itself. Honest mistakes and oversights don’t count for much when it comes to dealing with rigid officialdom in the Land of the Rising Sun and Patrick, having innocently presented his papers to said officialdom, soon found himself on the receiving end of a polite request to leave the country, coupled with a stipulation that he dare not even consider returning for a year – at least. As things eventuated, he made the most of it, and after bumming around South East Asia for a bit, landed a gig teaching at a university in Vietnam, safely out of reach of kindergarteners.
So, I was flying solo again. With twenty-three mountains to climb and the year nearing its mid-point I had to pull my finger out and rejoin the fray. A forecast dry weekend in usually soggy June was all the encouragement I needed. Shaking off the exhaustion of a hectic week, I boarded a northbound train straight out of work on a Saturday evening. Bars and booze, for once, made way for the mountains. I rode the rails through Kyoto and Nagoya and onwards, into the heart of the Kiso Valley where Japan’s Central Alps rise dramatically on the eastern side of the river of the same name and soaring out of the mountains to the west the massive Ontake Volcano breaks through the three thousand metre mark. It was the mighty Ontake-san that was my target for the weekend.
Off the train just after 9 PM and the chilly air, making a nice change from the stifling June humidity of Osaka, had me reaching for my jacket. I’d pinpointed a car park marked at about 1300 metres on my map as an ideal start for the hike. When I pointed this out to a waiting cabbie in the silent forecourt of the station however, well, let me tell you, he took one look at where I wanted to go and another at me, rapidly said he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about and gunned his engine and got the hell out of there. I supposed he imagined he’d just escaped a potentially grisly end, the headlines of the following day’s newspapers flashing before his eyes: ‘Taxi driver slaughtered by sadistic, bald foreigner at remote mountain location.’
The next driver to pull into the rank was exceedingly more accommodating. As we drove into the foothills surrounding Ontake, he pulled to the side of the road and pointed straight ahead. Above the treetops moonlight illuminated the snows draped over the ominous looking summit. The volcano appeared overwhelmingly massive, cast in that light. As we continued our drive, he pointed out the endless roadside monuments to the gods, headlights flashing across eerie vignettes in the night.
In contrast to the other cabbie, he was more concerned with my safety than that of his. Pulling into the lonely little car park, he made sure I was adequately prepared for a night out in the wilds, running down a list in his mind of the essentials, before letting me out of the vehicle. He climbed out with me and scouted around for the trailhead with a flashlight, pointing it out when he located it. Before he drove off, he wound down his window and enquired if I wouldn’t prefer spending the night at an inn a little further down the road. I thanked him and politely declined and he implored me to stay safe before heading back down out of the hills, probably visualising tomorrow’s news headlines: ‘Innocent traveller slaughtered in tent at remote mountain location.’
By the light of the moon I set up camp, a river gushed over boulders behind me, somewhere in the dark scrub, across the road the kami-sama watched from the darkness, in silent, stony repose.
Ontake oozes mysticism. Congo lines of the devout flock to its slopes in the summer months. It may not be one of the ‘Big Three’ holy mountains of Japan, but it sure wants you to know it’s up there somewhere on the list. In the early morning light, after a great night’s sleep, attempting to get my mind and body juiced for the climb, I wandered through some of the little precincts reserved for the kami gods, their nooks in the woods chock full with engraved stone. Some of these plots were meticulously maintained, while others had been left to the whims of the encroaching weeds and tangles.
But, that was enough of that. It was action that was required! Strolling around those stone monuments wasn’t getting me any closer to the top of the mountain, lost somewhere, in heavy, grey cloud a good 1700 metres overhead. I wandered back to my loaded pack on the side of the road, slung it over my shoulders and slipped into the forest; a forest of towering trees and delightful waterfalls and, as always, a steep ascent to set me in my place right off the bat.
Damp stream lined trail wound up into drier, bamboo lined tracts carpeting a woodland of startlingly straight timber. A ratsnake stopped me in my tracks, slithering across the path at my feet, reminding me of the seasons’ procession into summer. It’s from these forests, deemed as national treasures, that they still harvest an occasional tree for the revered Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Also, around those parts the old inland road linking Edo, modern Tokyo with Kyoto, known as the Nakasendo passes. Staging posts marking the route and semi preserved post towns still exist in the district.
I took a break at a view-point from where beneath a wooden torii gate a woman cast in what I guessed was copper greeted me, a dragon nestling at her thighs. Across, on the far side of a bottomless ravine choked with glorious woodland a single stream of white water fell out of the forests and into the canopy below. Above this scene the cloud remained, stubbornly clinging to the mass of the volcano.
Further on, a battle with the bamboo commenced. Fighting through the undergrowth I soon became smothered with tiny, green nymphlike insects. As I climbed and cursed, blocks of remaining ice began to clog the trail. The battle continued until I surprisingly made it to a rope blocking the path I’d just appeared from, to climbers – or rather, descenders. Stepping over it, I met one of the main trails up the mountain, leading in from a nearby ropeway.
I fed and watered myself on an old wooden bench outside some broken down ski buildings, dumped most of my overnight gear in the trailside bamboo, and stole myself for the remaining ascent. From that point the forest quickly gave way to brushpine and bare trees. Twisted by the harsh winter elements they resembled the veins of withered old hands reaching for the sky. Heavy cloud still clung to the volcano, masking Ontake’s uppermost crags. I strode a wide, snow laden path to the hut at Hachi-gome, the eighth staging point of ten on the mountain. As the larger vegetation thinned out, the monuments returned and dotted the path to the summit. Jagged rock pierced broad snowdrifts, like the spines on the back of a shape-changer, tearing through cloth. Grim looking visages, riven in stone, eyed me off as I spluttered past, ever higher on my way up the mountain.
Out of shape and well on my way to gaining that 1700 odd metres, the altitude, I suspected began to get the better of me. I’d been too long out of the mountains but, suffering I though I was, it was fantastic to be back on the trail. That crunch of late season snow under my feet I had come to love. The glances upward from beneath furrowed brow. The drip of sweat hanging by mere molecules to the tip of my nose, sent shooting off into space by a well-directed exhalation. Hand on hip, the shake of the head, a muttering of something or other, and a willing of the spirit to get on and get up. This was the life I had longed for over those lost months in the city. Air currents worked at the grey cloud on the summit. At times, as it drifted on, the crags sliced it apart allowing for brief moments of sunlight to illuminate the snow drifts. Mostly though, the grey gas was there to stay and as quickly as it was torn apart, it filled in again. Creaky looking huts reclined into the mountainside, sitting on abutments of stone piled up on precipitous slopes, their roofs held down against the alpine elements with scores of soccer ball sized boulders. I stepped over gaping cracks in the snow and reminded myself that if I found myself stuck on the wrong side of one of those gaps I’d be surfing the down volcano on an iceberg, with only the gnarly trees to pull me up somewhere below.
And finally I was up on the crater rim. A crunch of gravel underfoot once more. I gasped for air. Nausea swept over me. Ninety-nine percent of the effort finally over and I could barely move one foot in front of the other. I sat myself down on a low trailside wall of stone, spat in the dust and shut my eyes. I dreamed seconds long snippets of nonsense. What was this? Was it altitude sickness? Dehydration? A bit of both? I was well on the way to 3000 metres, but it had never bothered me before. Must’ve been getting soft. Maybe after months at sea level I’d taken on too much all at once. I didn’t know, but I felt sick to the gut. I lifted myself to my feet and dragged myself along the gently inclining path with my walking pole. I crumbled to my haunches in another fifty yards, shut my eyes and the strange random visions came again. Afternoon tea on the farm. Kids running rampant at work. There was no quitting now. I looked over at Ontake’s crater where ice caking the low inner walls was melting into Japan’s highest mountain lake. On the far shoreline sat a sorry looking hut and closer, a shrine made up of a cluster of stone figures, monuments on boulders, a brass bell. Scattered timber trash and a few 44 gallon drums added to the ambiance.
Two more huts, closed, boarded and bolted until July, sat on the summit crag. Having dragged myself there, fifty yards at a time, I then hauled myself up a set of stone stairs to my destination: the summit the shrine and the peak marker. I quickly propped the camera on a rock and got off a few photos before more bouts of nausea, coupled with a searing exhaustion, willing me to sit down and sleep, chased me off the summit. Cloud obscured any decent views so there was no point hanging about and anyway, I had to get back to my gear and set up camp before nightfall.
There were only a few people on the mountain and I’d passed them heading down as I was going up. Alone on Ontake with only the kami-sama for company, I made it down across the steep snow drifts and back to the hut at Hachi-gome. There, I slumped down on a wooden bench under the gaze of two bald, serious serious looking statues and slurped some water. The nausea had receded as I descended, strengthening my suspicions that a bout of altitude sickness had been the culprit. A light breeze whipped up volcanic dust. Birds chirped away in the brushpine. I hacked up a glob of saliva and scuffed it into the red, gravelly soil with my boot, 4:30PM, I could be down to the rough huts amongst the trees and in ‘bed’ by six.
Suddenly, a skinny, middle-aged man appeared around the corner of the hut from the direction of the mountain. He moaned loudly, the agony of exhaustion emblazoned in deep creases across his face.
He noticed me sitting and watching him and I gave him as much of a knowing grin in reply as I could muster. He slumped down beside me and dug out some water of his own. Takeshi was his name and for a minute, looking over his choice of hiking garb, I took him to be some kind of official or worker on the mountain, maybe to do with the ropeway or one of the huts. I hoped he wasn’t going to be shooing me away later as I attempted to set up camp. But I was safe and as we chinwagged, half in English and half in Japanese, he told me he was a carpenter from east of Nagoya. He often hiked in his work clothes as they were perfectly suited for the task. When I told him I lived in Osaka he asked me if I had a car to get back. I said I was planning to camp on the mountain and take the ropeway down in the morning, then grab a taxi back to the station.
He offered me a lift back to Nagoya. Halfway home more or less. From there, within a couple of hours, I could jump on a bullet train and be showering and slipping into my own bed instead of roughing it for the night. I couldn’t believe my luck. Takeshi’s car, it turned out, was parked less than an hour’s hike from where I’d dumped my gear. Once we made it there, I fell into the passenger seat and suddenly realised I wasn’t flying entirely solo after all.