Hiking Japan: Living Journal Routes: Hiking Walking

The Lost Peak of ’76

Kiso Couple Clouds

Jump back to 1976, Japan, the summer when I was 16, and picture the gangly teenager with shoulder-length hair, who loved wearing bell bottoms jeans, lace up lumberjack boots, and a broad-brimmed black felt hat adorned with a Navajo bead band and bright blue, jay feather. And picture this youth ambling along shouldering a huge yellow Mt. Whitney external frame backpack, complete with giant synthetic fill sleeping bag strapped to the bottom and a guitar slung across one shoulder. Beside him trudged his best friend, dressed more conservatively in straight leg jeans and sneakers, but none the less burdened by a big external frame pack, too… orange, hip-belt too low, sleeping bag strapped on haphazardly with cotton cord. Two typical backpackers of the 1970’s.

Kiso Komagatake Feet Me

Here we were just outside Kiso-Fukushima station, walking the road under a sweltering summer sun, seeking the way up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, the highest peak in the Central Alps. We’d both camped quite a lot, but had never been so high in the mountains, and knew nothing about what to expect or whether or not we were even prepared for such a venture. All we knew was that the pictures in the Japanese guidebooks looked adventuresome with their green crags and impressive, sweeping abysses and patches of summer snow.

Kiso Komagatake Kamiigusa
Kiso Komagatake First Range

The problem was that neither of us could read Japanese well and therefore we had little information to go on. For one, we had landed at the wrong train station and though we could see the peaks from where we had started, they were still too far way from where we needed to be. We spent the better part of the afternoon seeking a path up the mountains, wandering through little farming villages, eliciting shocked exclamations from the locals, many of whom had never seen foreigner before, especially not one wearing a big black hat and toting a guitar. Odd indeed.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Cloud Puff

Eventually we found our way back to the train station and realized our error and took the next train to Komagome, which was the proper starting point for climbing Kiso-Komagatake. Unfortunately it was getting late by then, so we looked up the local youth hostel and booked a night there. A number of mountain climbing groups were also holed up there for the night, and at dinner we sat with all of them, chatting. Two high school mountain climbing clubs, one university climbing club, and even a troop of acolyte Buddhist monks, with shaved heads and loose blue robes and who would be climbing the mountain as a kind of spiritual training, all sat together at a long table, eating dinner. It was obvious that we were the odd men out; our clothes certainly gave us away.

Kiso Komagatake Col

Photos of the mountains we hoped to climb hung all along the walls and the scenes of the crags and windswept slopes soon had us doubting our own plans, making us think we had taken on more than we could handle. The way the club people spoke, with all the talk of wind and rain and cold nights, struck fear in our unprepared hearts.

Kiso Red Leaves

Discussing our options, we decided that attempting the summit of Kiso-Komagatake was perhaps foolhardy, so we decided to camp along river down here in the valley and try the peaks another time, when we were ready.

Kiso Komagatake Couple Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Asian Peak

Now jump ahead 35 years. High school graduation, moving to the States, university, grad school, work, many mountains and long bicycle journeys later, I was back. I’d recently recovered from a month long bout of sickness and wasn’t sure I was strong enough to even climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain slope, so after taking the gondola up to 2,600 meters, I stood there in front of the gondola station gazing up at the peaks that I had dreamed of at 16, and felt a mix of trepidation and joy. There they were, the green, wild rocks that the guidebooks had tempted me with, the same light grey stone, the same lush vegetation, the same deep blue sky. But alive and real this time. As if no time had passed at all since I was still a boy. I watched clouds rise, sail, and fan across the sky, moving as fast as the swifts that darted across them. The gondola had carried boatloads of tourists up, but a hush had befallen all of them, so that even the noisy ones tended to speak in awed tones. One university girl in high heels, obviously seeing such magnificence for the first time, couldn’t stop exclaiming how beautiful and overwhelming it was. She snatched the camera from one of the boys and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! It’s not real, is it?” She attempted a few shots, but soon gave up. “I can’t take a picture of it,” she said. She tossed the camera back to the boy and stood gazing up with her hands on her hips, a stern grimace on her face, as if the mountains had somehow outsmarted her and she had quite figured out if she should forgive them or not.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Rocks

I started climbing and immediately it was obvious that both the altitude and the exertion were going to take their toll on me. I took it really slow, stopping every hundred meters to regain my breath and clear my woozy head. People passed me every time I stopped, and at first it bothered me that I was so weak, when in the past I would have strode up such a slope, breezing by everyone, but the simple feel of the wind and the familiar act of putting one foot in front of the other on the rough randomness of a trail soon took my mind off such silly concerns, and all that mattered was losing myself in the landscape. This was a trial run after all, to see what I was capable of after so long being housebound. After the shaking up of my confidence in the aftermath of the Tohoku quake, nothing was whole anymore, it seemed. I jumped at every shiver of the earth. Elevators made my heart race. Big, thick-kneed buildings inevitably brought out a moment of hesitation before entering. And as if there were strings attached, my body followed suit, seemingly welling up with hormonal and systemic aftershocks, with inexplicable rashes, internal aches, stomach fluxes, and wild blood sugar swings that had nothing to do with what I was eating. In the middle of the summer, just before I was supposed to head out for a month-length traverse of the Japan Alps, something imploded inside, sending my brain into a tailspin every time I tried to stand up, robbing my toes of sensation, retracting my breathing so that I felt as if I was suffocating as I slept, and punching out lumps and blood spots in my eyes… The doctors had no idea what it was, just vaguely guessing that perhaps it was “a virus”. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” they said. But I knew better. My body was typing out Braille messages, with the warnings, “You are NOT exempt from the consequences.”

Kiso Sweep Down
Kiso Nakadake Sign

The aftershocks lessened after a month of lying in bed. And I emerged feeling much the same as I did coming out of the big March quake: shaky, but oddly windblown, with an aimless, compass-less sense of selflessness.

I stopped often along the first climb, trying to regain my breath. But I made progress, slowly gaining each step of the rock masses, ascending higher and higher, until the gondola station had shrunk to a tiny blip in the circle of mountains. My nose touched the underbelly of the clouds as they ripped and shredded amidst the crags, passed in front of the sun, cast galloping shadows upon the slopes. Tiny, multicolored beads of people crawled infinitesimally along the scratches of trail, all aiming for the top.

Kiso Morning Peak
Kiso Komagatake Kiso Grass

Lungs burning, it almost seemed to be happening to someone else when I gained the ridge and came face-to-face with the sweeping panorama of the col. A troupe of macaques scribbled down through a grove of white birches, plaintive ululations echoing throughout the valley, at once playful like children, but something also immensely lonely, as if they were lost and couldn’t find their way home. The wind buffeted me, giving me a shake, letting me go, then racing away laughing. I laughed, too, giddy with joy. Here I was, I really was, above tree line, alive, looking down at the whole world, up where I feel connected to grace. Because it was still raw and new, the photographs I tried to take fell flat each time. I was trying to look in too many directions at the same time. So I stashed the camera away for later when the wind felt more like it was blowing through me, rather than against me.

Kiso Komagatake Gorilla 1

It’s always funny how the place that you end up standing in seems to have no relationship to the imaginary collage you had pored over for days on the map. The peaks and valleys came out in relief right where you expected them to, but there is a presence they all exude that immediately tells you that they are alive, in spite of the seeming indifference and silence. They come across as being bigger or smaller, darker or brighter than at first imagined. And when you step out on them, to trust your feet to their care, you realize that rocks are harder, the branches sharper, the drops far steeper, and the wind so big that that sense of mastery that a map can trick you into quickly gets whisked into fantasy.

Kiso Precipice

Thick clouds had crowned the ridges, and so it was hard to see beyond the first hundred meters ahead. Visible was a flat saddle between two shadowy peaks lost in the shrouds of mist. The lines of people who had climbed up to this point broke off in different directions, most of them heading for the mountain hut neaby where they could sit down to take a breather and get a nice hot lunch of curry rice or egg-chicken rice bowl. Those wearing proper climbing gear or carrying the extra loads of camping equipment, and a few less mindful, or knowledgeable, of their safety, set off for the peaks. A few tourists in high heels and loafers stood at the edge of the cliffs, taking photographs of one another and laughing loudly. In the thinner air and huge, racing clouds, their voices were swept away.

Kiso Komagatake Rock Mound BW

The thin air made it hard for me to breathe and without stopping to rest and consult my map, I followed the crowd and veered off toward the charismatic spearhead of a peak off to my left that was Hokendake, but that I thought at the time was the peak I was aiming for, Kiso-Komagatake. Immediately the trail left the flat saddle behind and shot up into the air, in no time turning into a hand over hand scramble up a steep, tortured stone path, complete with chains and ladders. I thought it vaguely strange that the map hadn’t said anything about this, until a small group descending slowly from above stopped to talk with me and told me I was on the wrong peak. Embarrassed, I sat down on a narrow ledge and consulted my map, and sure enough, there I was heading south instead of north, right along the ferrata path that crossed the dizzying razorback col between Hokendake and Senjiyojiki. I sighed with relief and turned about, making my way gingerly back to the saddle ridge and crossed north, in my intended direction. I met the group again further down the descent and we took photographs and exchanged email addresses.

Kiso Komagatake Hutte Wide

The walk north was completely different, more of a level ridge stroll, with gradual rises and, as the clouds began to clear, views of the valleys and the distant ranges like the South Alps, Mt. Ontake, and the winding path toward the northern half of this range. My breath still came with big gulps of air and I had to stop frequently, but a spring came into my step and I almost bounced along, heady with the joy of walking on an alpine ridge again. My camera came whipping out at every new rock formation or flower or cloud, one wonder following another, though the sense of immersion still eluded me… the weakness of my body continued to stay in the foreground, punctuated by all the stops and dizzy need to get my heart to slow down. People kept passing me by and I nodded to them, trying my best to smile.

Kiso Komagatake Campground Above

When I reached the top of Nakadake, a minor peak providing a sheltered place among boulders to take a break and view the way back down, I lowered my pack and surveyed the path ahead. I had intended to walk all the way to the top of Kiso-Komagatake and then backtrack to the campsite directly below, but knew that, in this condition, there was no way I’d be able to enjoy the walk, so I decided to just concentrate on making it down to the campsite and call it quits for the day. Arriving at the campsite in the early afternoon would allow me to grab a good camping spot among the rocks that littered the campsite, before all the other campers had returned from their climb to the top of Kiso-Komagatake.

Kiso Komagatake Clouds Rising
Kiso Dawn Cirrus
Kiso Komagatake Morning Cloudsea
Kiso Komagatake Three Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Thunderheads BW
Kiso Komagatake Wild Clouds BW

Getting down to the campsite took a lot less time than I anticipated, and before I knew it I was picking my way among the campsite rocks, looking for a level and dry site. Already a lot of campers had set up their tents, and the bright orange and red bubbles of their canopies stood out like limpets amidst the dry grass and stones. I found a spot at the bottom of the campground, right at the edge where a rope warned people off pitching in the protected swale below. Beyond that the mountain dropped away to an unseen precipice, and beyond that was nothing but open air, wild clouds, and hazy, distant peaks.

Kiso Komagatake Shrine Roof BW

The ground was hard as rock and getting the stakes in for the simple, open tarp I was using proved quite a challenge. Two of the stakes bent at the head and immediately became useless, while the other stakes required several tentative probes to push past the hidden rocks beneath to get a proper purchase of the ground. Even then the pitch of the tarp, though tight, kept a few wrinkles and off-center veerings that would later in the night prove to make it hard to sleep in the wind. Nonetheless, the campsite made a comfortable little space where I could relax, all my belongings set out on the groundsheet under the tarp, and the sleeping quilt laid out beside the tarp, snug in its bivy. A neat sanctuary. I lay down on the quilt and closed my eyes for a while, feeling the waning rays of the sun warm my face and hands.

Kiso Komagatake Campsite
Kiso Komagatake Campsite Me

Other campers steadily arrived and set up camp, until there were few places left. Latecomers had to make do with rocky sites or their tents pushed up against bushes or along the verges of the campsite where water pooled during rains. One couple traveling with a third person produced two tents that they proceeded to pitch around an old tree stump, and all three went about setting everything out with much laughter and photograph taking. Another couple had arrived earlier than I had and now sat lounging in inflatable seats, gazing at the sky while sipping coffee. Still another group, two fathers and five children around 12 years old, hollered and shrieked from the center of the campsite as if they were lounging about the privacy of their homes, but strangely the noise was comforting and familiar, and the delighted discoveries the children were making at being inside a tent or watching a stove burst into flame reached across the hush of the mountain and made me smile.

Kiso Cupo Coffee
Kiso Komagatake Me Coffee

The sun dropped below the edge of the peaks, drawing for a while, a brilliant orange heat from the waiting rocks and boulders, and in its fire the moon slipped unannounced, still pale with daylight, but impatient, seemingly, to take the stage and give an equally brilliant performance across this stark landscape. For a full ten minutes the two stared in defiance at one another, until the sun backed down and sank beneath the horizon. The sky blushed indigo, and the crags darkened until their outlines raked a crenulated midnight out of the base of the skyline. Clouds swam like dim, silent whales through the dark, overhead ocean, rising, cresting, diving into the abyss.

Kiso Komagatake Mist BW
Kiso Komagatake Moonrise Rocks BW

I made dinner as all these celestial events played above me, a simple bag of curry rice with a side of cream of asparagus soup and a cup of instant cafe latte. The fuel tab stove took quite a time to heat up the water, so I waited with my arms wrapped around my knees, shivering a little in the chilling air, and looking up, looking around, looking down at the ever-so-slightly crackling stove. Goups of people huddled over their stoves here and there in the field of stones, their headlights light-sabering through the darkness, and the subdued hiss of their cannister stoves issuing soft threats like snakes. People were telling stories and laughing and sitting together pointing up at the sky, and as I watched it hit me that this was a scene our kind have played over and over again for most of our time on earth, and that it was as human and indicative of who we are as anything that we have ever done.

Kiso Komagatake Bowl Silhouette
Kiso Komagatake Night Wacthmen

To the northeast an enormous anvilhead thundercloud rose up and flashed with lightning. Here and there the flash echoed itself, in lesser thunderclouds, all silent, all distant, all safe from where we sat. One flash sent out a spiderweb of lightning so bright all the tents exhibited their colors for a moment, and the faces of the tribe lit up like spectators at a fireworks event.

Kiso Komagatake Night Spinnshelter

As I ate, one of the men from a neighboring campsite made his way over and asked if that was a tarp I was sleeping under. He’d seen them in the magazines, but had never seen one in person, and hadn’t expected to see one way up here at 2,600 meters. We talked. His nickname was Chilli and he was here with his wife Junka and their close friend, Yuri, the couple and the third person I had noticed earlier. We got to talking about ultralight backpacking and how to use gear to do double duty and get your pack weight down. He’d already started learning about it, even mentioning some of the relevent stores in Tokyo where UL enthusiasts could buy a lot of the specialized gear and exchange ideas. It was still quite a new movement here.

Kiso Komagatake Chili Tent Stars
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Junka
Kiso Komagatake Shadow Puppets

Chilli invited me over to their tent to talk and get out of the cold. We sat hunched up in the small space, sleeping bags draped over our legs, and getting to know one another and telling jokes and stories of past mountain adventures and mishaps. I loved their cheer and the enthusiastic embrace of being outdoors, in spite of the inconveniences and hardships that sometimes characterized getting out here. As I listened to them I was once again reminded about what I take to mean loving life and feeling alive. It had nothing to do with sitting at home watching endless TV reruns or spending the weekend going shopping at the mall.

Kiso Komagatake Star Door

When people began yawning, it was time to head back out to my tarp and dive into my quilt. I put on my down jacket, pulled on a layer of windpants over my regular pants, placed my water sack near the head of the quilt, slipped into the quilt, and lay back to go to watch the stars. Already they had spilled across the northern sky opposite the moon and I could see the outline of the mountains where the stars were blocked out. The moon cast a hard blue light across the field of tents, bright enough to read a book under. The white tarp canopy glowed in this blue light, and when I swiveled my head I could see all around, the openness of the tarp keeping me in touch with accumulating stars, the sailing moon, and the silent tents one by one winking out as the inhabitants switched off their lights and went to sleep. I pulled out my camera and took some time lapse photographs of the heavens and tents, finally feeling immersed in the mountains and in the moment, feeling that wonderful sense of being tiny and insignificant with big eyes for the sky and the wind.

Kiso Komagatake Apex Stars

I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of wandering aimless trails. My sleep pulled me down into the earth, further and further from the thin film of my tarp and into the well of my deepest shores. I felt safe, enough to dream. Then the wind hit. I shot awake. A hard, series of punches that snapped at my tarp and set off the telltale crackle that I had been warned about concerning spinnaker cloth shelters. Since I hadn’t been able to get a drum-tight pitch the tarp shook incessantly, whipping all about my ears, and snapping me awake with every gust of wind. I tried a number of solutions… adding more stakes to the side, tightening the guylines, trussing the trekking poles-cum-tent-poles up a little higher, but to no avail. Finally, at about 1 in morning I gave up and I sat out on a rock, gazing at the sea of clouds to the east.

At about that time one of the men in the tent next to mine set off on a snoring campaign from hell, so loud and distinct that I couldn’t believe no one else didn’t wake up. But the campsite remained still, most likely individuals here and there lying awake in the dark, waiting for morning.

Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Door
Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Dawn

I did manage to finally get back into my quilt, stuff ear plugs in my ears, and get about two hours of sleep. The sun had already poked under my tarp by the time I woke.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Me Smile BW
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Tents

And what a morning! A storm-tossed blue ocean of clouds below us, a fan of sun beams illuminating the heavens, and a chipper accentor calling from up the slope, telling us to make breakfast and start the day.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Tent
Kiso Komagatake Wide Cloudsea

While chatting with the three friends from the night before, I heated up some muesli with egg soup and chai, and packed up. The shortness of breath of the day before seemed to have disappeared, and though I had hardly slept and felt sleepy, I felt as bright as the sun. I left my full pack by the mountain hut, took my windbreaker, some snacks, and my camera, and headed up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, about a half hour scramble. The wind blew so strong that when my feet balanced on sharp rocks or I swung around on a switchback it sometimes knocked me off balance.

Kiso Jizo
Kiso Little Shrine
Kiso Komagatake Torii BW

I reached the summit of Kiso-Komagatake 35 years after I had started out. When I saw the weathered wooden sign, creaking in the wind, I let out a whoop of pure joy and found myself watching that boy of 16 run the last 10 meters up the slope to reach out and touch the sign. And I heard myself shout out, “You finally did it, Miguel! You finally made it here! I knew you’d make it here one day! Good job!”

Kiso Komagatake Me
Kiso Komagatake Top Me

It wasn’t the tallest mountain I’d ever climbed, and certainly not the hardest. But there was something about dredging up that past and placing it in front of me again, tying up old loose ends, that felt more satisfying than a lot of other summits I’d reached. Maybe I won’t fulfill all the dreams I’ve ever had, but it sure does feel good to put my arm around that shy 16-year old, and slowly head back down the mountain, this time together.

Kiso Sun Shrine 2 BW
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Outdoors Photos Shizuoka Trip Reports: Hiking

Lady of the Gaseous Screens

Senjo mist woods
Larch woods on the start of the Mt. Senjo walk.

Senjo Knees
The first look at the treeline


As I had hoped it has become a summer of mountain walking, probably one of the activities I love best. I’m finding that when I return to town the cloying heat, the unfriendly crowds, the mindless rushing around, and the general inattentiveness to the surrounding world has gotten me spending every spare moment seeking a way out, towards a way of life more conducive to my temperament. Even time at the computer is falling away; I’m finding that I cannot stay seated in front of the computer for more than a half hour or so before restlessness hits me and I have to get up and pace the apartment or go for a walk.

The photographs here I brought back from my walk over Mt. Senjo, west of Tokyo in the South Japan Alps. It was my third attempt. Twice before torrential rains washed the trail out and I had to turn back. This time the rains hovered overhead for two days and constantly threatened to come pouring down, but somehow I managed to slip by unnoticed by the Lady of the Gaseous Screens, as Mt. Senjo seemed to me.

Senjo shoulder walking
Clouds followed the entire walk.

Kamikoma from Senjo 3
Mt. Kaikoma never really revealed itself.

Senjo string of flowers
String of flowers in a nook away from the wind.

The walk was easier this time than the walk up Mt. Shirane a month ago. The exercise has been paying off, and then Mt. Senjo lent itself to a comfortable pace, with the succession of views and exertion just stretched out enough that the walk could be taken in comfortable increments. The main concern was time, because the new bus system didn’t allow for much leeway in terms of the first and last buses down the mountain. So, though I thoroughly enjoyed the walk, I had to rush a little, too.

Senjo summit approach
Ridgeline walking is what makes mountain walking so heavenly!

Senjo shoulder
First view of the shoulder of Mt. Senjo’s summit.

Senjo looking down
Eating a rice ball while staring into the abyss

Mt. Senjo acted like a coquettish lady, peeking out from behind the screen then dancing away to another before I could get a glimpse of her face. The whole day was a series of just missing a grand view; I would be huffing and puffing up an incline, look up, and just catch a new screen of clouds sliding over a sunny panorama. The clouds rolled and slid over the peaks like great white-gloved hands, the fingers whistling in the wind.

Senjo shoulder crags
A moment of clarity along the ridgeline

Senjo ptarmigans
Because of all the other photographers I couldn’t get into a good position to take a good photograph of these two ptarmigans. The sat unafraid, watching us as if we ad landed on the wrong planet.

Senjo Hut
Senjo Mountain Hut, a lonely building sitting in a hanging valley overlooked by the peaks of Mt. Senjo.

The most difficult part of the walk took me through a razorback ridge where some rock scrambling left me hanging over thin air at times. My heart pounded as I twisted myself over ledges and heard the wind boom from behind me, nudging me toward the edges. None of it was terribly difficult, though, and with just enough scary footing to add spice to the grayness of the sky, the walk lifted me up over the whole world. I stood atop the narrow peak, stared out into the wall of cloud, and then sat down to warm myself with some curry and rice.

Senjo Cirque
The round of peaks which I had climbed earlier

Senjo ridge walkers
Walkers descending from the peak to the hut.

Senjo hut view
View of the hut and the trail over the summit

Rounding the walk off I followed a roundabout path that led around the peak opposite Senjo’s summit ridge, taking me down through an alpine garden of pink flowering rhododendrons, black lilies, white birch, and rowan. The trail lowered itself gently here, drawing away from the rocky ridges and coloring everything with rain-washed emerald green vegetation. waterfalls spilled down along the steep slopes and seemed to dance like children over the dark rocks. I was filled with oxygen and joy, and sang as I walked. Following the contour of the mountain, it took me back to the trail upon which I had first stepped onto the shoulder of Mt. Senjo and then took me down into the larch forests below again. The clouds still followed me, but held back their rain.

I packed up my tent and just made it to the last bus of the day.

Senjo log hut
Log mountain hut on the slope opposite Senjo ridge. I wnated to stop and have coffee here, but I had to make it down the mountain to catch the last bus.

Senjo rock waterfall
Waterfalls spilled down in every ravine in the last part of the walk.

Senjo mist rising
The clouds never let up all day, but they carried their own mysterious and moody beauty.

Hiking Japan: Living Journal Outdoors Photos

Mountain Big, Person Small

Mt. Oku-Shirane start climb
View of Mt. Oku-Shirane after the initial climb.

Climber celebrating at the top of one of Mt. Oku-Shirane’s crags.

Lake You vine
Vine climbing a cedar trunk.

Lake Yu shore
View of Lake Yu from western shore.

The morning I started out of the house for a two-day climb of Mt. Oku-Shirane, in the hinterland of the area of Nikko, northwest of Tokyo, trepidation must have been my main state of mind. There was the embarrassment of my belly pushing somewhat over the restraint of my backpack hip belt and the matter of my breath, or rather the lack thereof. I wondered whether my knees might buckle up along the alpine trails and whether I might find purchase of my lungs in the rarified air. More than that, though, was the concern about the early summer weather and terrain conditions so high up. At the end of May two meters of snow had still blocked access to the trails and it was possible that some areas would still be too dangerous to attempt. I packed away my crampons just in case and an extra layer of insulation for possible frigid nights, and decided to see what I would see.

The trepidation must have played havoc with my sleep because I don’t remember getting any. Yawning my way through the rush hour crowds, I stood horse-like in the train and made my way around the edge of central Tokyo to Asakusa, where I changed tickets and boarded the express for Nikko. Rain threatened the views from the windows, the grim concrete morass of eastern Tokyo clacketting by amidst grey rivers and lowering clouds. The passage gave me time to review my options, and with the gradual greening of the landscape outside the excitement of returning to the mountains built up into a kind of heady song. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Clouds had lifted to a safe distance by the time the train pulled into Tobu-Nikko station. Using the discount afforded by having purchased the all-inclusive Nikko Mini Free Pass, I boarded the bus headed up into the alpine marshland of Yumoto Hot Springs and Senjo Marsh, an area that I had visited many times, including in winter when the fields and forests are buried in snow. The bus skirted the edge of big Lake Chuzenji and then wound up the zig-zag road into the clouds, though them, and up above, where snatches of sunlight broke through. The trees transformed from the heavy beeches of the lowlands into white birches, larches, and rowans. All the greens in the trees glowed with the bright green of Spring and the light surrounding the bus shimmered with newness.

Passengers trickled off the bus as it entered Senjo Marsh until, arriving in Yumoto Hot Springs, there was no one else on the bus. Cool, mountain air greeted me as I stepped down onto the asphalt. Few people were about, probably most of them relaxing in the many hot spring hotels nestled amidst the trees and lanes. I headed straight for the campground.

Oku-Shirane ridge flank
Ridge flanking the northern saddle of Mt. Oku-Shirane

Oku Shirane cair
Cairn atop Mt. Oku-Shirane. Oku-Shirane is an ancient volcano with loose moraine and rotten rock that pulls out easily and has collapsed, to reveal huge gaps in the peak, dropping away to dark precipices.

Red club
Members of a university hiking club, wearing their uniforms and singing atop a crag.

Oku Shirane rushes
Rushes along the top of the waterfall dropping down into Senjo Marsh

It was noon by the time the tent was set up and still a whole afternoon ahead of me before I had to settle in for the night. Gathering a rain jacket, some food, and a camera, I headed for a stroll around Lake Yu and further on down the mountain to Senjo Marsh. The edge of the Lake Yu bustled with fisherman renting boats to cast for stocked rainbow trout and with tourists up for the weekend. The overcast light rendered the colors of the scenery subdued and pale, and a hush absorbed all sounds but those of warblers in the underbrush, the shrill keen of a black kite, and children running along the lakeside trail. The walk progressed slowly and deliberately, with time to stop and look closely at things, leaves and roots and gulping trout.

And for a time the whole world submitted to the thunder of a waterfall, white tresses tumbling down a tilted table of rock. I started from the top and swung my legs on down to the chill wind of its base, where fly fishermen waded in the roiling water, delicately teasing the pools. Words seemed to be drowned out in the great white noise and I passed on through in awe, like a man walking in a dream. I love waterfalls, but I always find myself glad to distance myself from them, back to the quiet of the woods, where my thoughts float clearly and with my own approval.

The trail shot through the larch woods, many of them wrapped in wire mesh to keep the overpopulated shika deer from stripping the saplings away. The slope flattened out and after crisscrossing the river with a series of wooden bridges, passing events of waterfalls and gurgling streams and newly emerged skunk cabbage uncurling from the duff. When it became apparent that my loitering would make it difficult to get back to the campsite if I missed the bus at the end of the trail, I hurried along the plank walkway out into the open expanse of Senjo Marsh, and rushed by the dry reeds and white birches without stopping to look at anything. Evening was settling over the mountains. To the west the rounded hump of Mt. Nantai rose like a huge shadow amidst the clouds. And to the other side rose Mt. Oku-Shirane, the destination tomorrow.

The bus appeared out of the gloom after a half hour of sitting along the edge of the road. With no people around and the trees still as sentinels, for a time it seemed as if the modern world had retreated. With the bus came a box of lights, snuffing and hissing through the wilderness, and the glass keeping the night at bay. In fifteen minutes I was whisked back the way that had taken me four hours to walk and deposited in an asphalt square surrounded by fluorescent lampposts.

Tomorrow would begin very early, just at dawn. Time to retire. I headed back to the campsite. A number of other tents had been set up since earlier in the day, but all were dark and silent. The grass was wet with dew and slid heavily across my boot tops as I kicked through it. I positioned myself at my tent entrance, lit my stove, and conjured up a package of keema curry with pilaf and a cup of tom yam kun soup. My belly round with spices and warmth, I lay back in the sleeping bag and listened to the wind on the ridges. A shika deer barked from the woods and then all was quiet. The moon glowed through the tent wall, blushing. I closed my eyes.

Oku Shirane peak go round
Part of the throngs of hikers who crowded the summit of Mt. Oku-Shirane. I wondered sometimes if people were playing musical chairs with the available rocks to sit on!

Oku Shirane lunch break
Lunch does seem better when you’re on top of the world, looking down.

You fly fishing
Japanese are crazy about fishing. Some rivers are so packed with weekend fisherman that the fish have no hope of negotiating the gauntlets. In the bookstores the fishing magazines outnumber outdoor magazines something like ten-to-one.

Lord fisherman
This old warrior sat atop his launch chair barking out loud comments on each and every person on the lake. Even the fish genuflected to his commands!

One thing about sleeping in a tent is that there is only a millimeter or less of film between you and the full complement of the world all around you, not least of which is the open sky above. Waking in the middle of the night I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I slipped out of the tent and wandered in the dark up to the back of the campsite, close to the trailhead, kneeling down in the grass to run my hands through the dew-laden grass and gaze up at the moon riding the clouds. An insistent wind blew down off the ridges and sighed through the trees. It was warmer than I had anticipated, so my initial worries about a cold night soon dissipated. All the other tents huddled silent and, watching them, I could almost imagine the inhabitants’ dreams swirling about the domes. My insomnia problem might make for a day of suffering later, but for now it allowed me to keep watch over the tribe.

I managed a few hours of fitful sleep before the alarm jarred me awake. It was just getting light and warblers were fluting in the forest while cuckoo birds sent echoes through the valley. I poked my head out the door and lay my eyes upon mist rising from the lowland floor and pooling over the lake below. Eager to get an early start I packed the essentials for the day and left the rest in a bag at the foot of the tent. Everything ready, I squatted at the entrance and put on a pot of water to boil for tea while munching on a bowl of muesli with powdered milk. I savored the crunch of peanuts with the soft give of raisins and drained the bowl of every last drop of milk.

The Japanese rural areas are going through an economic depression that is draining them of the younger generation. It is so bad in some areas that the local governments are offering incentives like free land and free houses in order to entice the young to return. A lot of the problems stem from a singular lack of imagination in taking advantage of what the rural areas have to offer. If you peruse the country living magazines in the city bookstores, just about the only types of suggestions to make a living that they ever offer are: “pension” owner (pension as in the mainland European types of bed and breakfasts), farmer, potter, or wooden toy maker… all rather limited in survival statistics and not very appealing to most young people. And it isn’t helped by a stubborn conservatism among the elderly that prevents changing any of the traditional ways of doing things. The young want only to live in the cities and almost none of them ever want to return to their birthplaces. Those young who grew up in the cities cannot discern any good reason to live in the countryside.

The result to a hiker of this dying away of the rural communities means that the buses which used to carry me up to almost any obscure corner of the country have slowly begun to disappear. With more and more people driving cars there simply is no economic sense in continuing to run the buses. However, for someone like me with no car this means relying on taxis to get me to the trailheads. Two years ago, when I tried to get up to the very popular route over Kitadake (North Peak), the second highest peak in Japan, I was told that the road had washed out from a huge mudslide. While I debated what to do a taxi driver approached me and offered an alternative route… at a cost of ¥25,000 ($240) one way! Needless-to-say I gave up on that trip.

But the dilemma repeated itself here in Nikko. Last evening, with considerable hemming and hawing on the part of the area’s information officer, I managed to secure a taxi ride up to the north side of Mt. Oku-Shirane. It would be waiting for me at 6:00 right where the bus had left me off yesterday.

I put the cooking gear away and hefted my rather light pack and made my way over to the taxi. The taxi driver stood waiting beside the car, picking his teeth with a toothpick. He deposited the pack in the trunk and began a nonstop soliloquy about the difficulty of securing a taxi and the different attempts that people had taken in getting out to the different sides of Oku-Shirane. He also related horror stories of the snow atop the mountain, at one point stating that it had reached over 3 meters deep just a month ago.

He deposited me and my pack at the trailhead where quite a few busloads and carloads of earlier hikers had already made their way. He also attempted to talk me into ordering another taxi for the return trip, but since I intended to possibly take the southeastern trail back down directly to the campsite, I declined. He whipped out an album of photos taken of the top of the mountain covered in huge drifts of snow, but a moment later further stated that he had never climbed the mountain. I realized that most likely one of the hikers he had befriended had given him the photos, but at the same time knew that I couldn’t rely on him to provide trustworthy information on the mountain. So, saying good bye, I left him behind with his taxi and started up the rocky trail.

It was steep going from the first but not at all as strenuous as I thought it would be. The initial trail involved scrambling up rocks and slipping between boulders. The forest gradually dropped away rising more and more into krummholz zone, the trees growing shorter and more bent with wind. I took a break on an outcropping that looked back down the trail and, while quaffing water, watched mostly elderly walkers huffing and puffing their way up the slope. Many of them carried heavy tripods and packs laden with camera equipment. I fiddled with my own new Nikon D70s and felt slightly uncomfortable with its size and weight. But the pictures kept popping up in my head and so I was grateful for the ability of the camera to be left on without draining the batteries and for the instant shutter response whenever a composition formed in my eye. I could never have done that with my lighter and more compact Nikon 5400, also quite an impressive camera.

It was still only 7:30 by the time I reached the flat tarn area that formed the start of the real climb up Oku-Shirane. The water was blue-green and clear right down to the logs at the bottom. Water striders and whirligigs flirted with the glittering sunlight on the surface and a few dragonflies flitted about among the reeds at the shoreline. The trail switched into plank mode and led straight to a saddle from which the steepest part of the climb lost itself amidst a slanted field of boulders.

Mt. Oku-Shirane stood towering over the scene like some long forgotten lord, a hoary old geezer of a mountain complete with scraggly beard and a balding pate. The rock carried the memory of a fiery past when this whole valley must have formed the bottom of some huge caldron of sulfur and hot rock. And in ages past there must have been a monumental explosion, blasting the earth away until the mountain itself had collapsed into ruin.

A sublime ruin, though. I strolled past the tarn, all the time spellbound by the blue sky and that great mound of rock. Not a cloud in the sky, and the sun already baking my skin. A big grin breaking the winter rigidity of my face, I started up the trail towards the summit. All my months of worry fell away and the sheer exhilaration of defying gravity with the surety of my boots and the sound of scree giving way reminded me of what had got me loving mountains in first place so many years ago.

Lake You cove
Lake Yu in the gathering evening light

Lake You blossoms
Blossoms and new leaves along the Lake Yu trail

Lake You Red Azalea
Azalea bursting with color on a grey afternoon.

Mt. Shirane krummholz
Krummholz halfway up Mt. Oku-Shirane.

Here is where the effects of sitting in front of the computer and bad control of my diabetes began to kick in. The thinner air already made breathing more labored and with the apprehension of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) constantly buzzing at the back of my mind, I also began to hyperventilate a little. Light-headed and slightly dizzy I watched myself carefully while placing one foot in front of the other. I had to pause at intervals, to take deep breaths and still my pounding heart. When the first signs of hypoglycemia wriggled their way into my arms and legs, causing slight shaking and an unwillingness of my limbs to do as they were told, I had to take a break. I lowered my pack and sat on a rock looking over the tarn valley, across to the other ridge of Mt. Mae-Shirane, the smaller sister of Mt. Oku-Shirane. From where I sat I could make out the scrape of gray moraine along the ridge, where three years ago I nearly died from hypoglycemia, and just barely managed to scrape together enough food to raise my blood sugar enough to make it down the mountain to a restaurant. The memory of that terrifying afternoon followed me up this trail and stirred up chills in my spine as I sat here witnessing the very spot where it had occurred.

Rejuvenated from some digestive biscuits and candied beans I started up the trail again. Rocks now closed around me, huge, tortured boulders like the base of some castle wall. The trail dipped in and out of sight, rising and falling amidst the dark rock fallout, and from where I balanced on the slope it seemed at times as if there could be no path up. At one junction the path switched back upon itself without hint of doing so and it seemed as if I would have to clamber up a steep gully choked with boulders. I found the trail just when I began to wonder where the elderly women ahead of me had disappeared to.

Snorting and puffing up over a giant’s staircase, I hauled myself to the top of the ridge and suddenly stood overlooking the opposite side: a drop of about eight hundred meters, ominous black precipices falling away into a windy maw of broken ramparts. A splintered spire rose out the middle of it like a stone spear and cut the wind in two, so that a low moan rose out of the depths, as if some huge person lay far below, in agony. Sickles of swifts whipped through the wind, playing like children and their sharp wings whooshing as they darted past my ears. When they sang, it sounded like African finger harps played in rapid succession. My eyes followed them through their maneuvers, so fast that my head spun around keeping track. I had to break off as vertigo hit and threatened to make me lose my footing on the ledge.

The summit waited just a few scrambles farther on, crossing a wide-open ridge, dropping into a ravine through which the wind barreled, and back up to a tower of untidy outcroppings, and around the opposite side to a tiny point of a crag, upon which hordes of early hikers had already ascended, gathered like flocks of unruly birds. Group after group edged their way around the ledges to the summit sign post where they balanced on the slippery boulder and posed for photographs. From this vantage point I could see in all directions, the mountains of Nikko and Oze and the Tanigawa range beyond all rolling away toward the horizon. One of the groups of people, a university hiking club from local Utsunomiya, all wearing a red shirt for the club uniform, gathered at the edge of one outcropping and stood under the sun singing for all to hear. Such crowds would normally have irritated me on a mountain climb, but today the mountain’s hugeness and the grandiose gesture of the wind subdued the puny efforts of us humans and the joy we let out as a species seemed oddly sad and brave at the same time. For these moments it was great to be human and to revel in those moments of our little triumphs.

Oku-Shirane crag
Emerging from the backside of Mt. Oku-Shirane, the earth fell away and looked upon crags such as this

Oku Shirane break
Everyone up here stopped to sit, eat their lunches, and slowly gaze about.

Oku-Shirane tarn birch
Birch just beginning to bud and put out leaves, after a particularly long winter.

Oku-Shirane skunk cabbage
Skunk cabbage putting out its first new leaves along the marsh borders and wet shadow ravines.

On the windward side of the peak I sat back against a boulder and made lunch. Lunch in the mountains in Japan inevitably consists of one kind of curry or another, that being the prepackaged meal of choice in the stores. Thai curries, Indonesian curries, Indian curries, Japanese curries, English curries, and here I was boiling a package of Sri Lankan curry poured into a package of parboiled mushroom rice.

The sun had really let loose this late morning, hot enough to make me take off my hat and wipe the sweat away. Swigging cold water from my water bottle I watched an army of about 30 elderly walkers settle amidst the rocks just off the trail. They set their packs down, and, dressed in a patchwork of brightly colored, expensive outdoor gear, clomped off to snap group pictures by the summit marker. A lone woman, probably in her sixties or possibly seventies, stayed behind, sitting on a rock, facing the wind. She opened her white blouse and closed her eyes as the wind billowed the fabric out behind her. From the snatches of instructions given by the leader before they took off to the summit this group consisted mainly of people who were climbing for the first time. I wondered what the woman was thinking, how she felt. A brief smile passed over her lips and I thought, “Perhaps she’s the only one in the group who would really remember this place.”

The breeze felt good, that’s for sure. The curry still burning my lips, I, too, closed my eyes and for a while felt the mountain move beneath me, while the clouds that had been steadily gathering since reaching the top passed cool hands over my brow.

I gazed at my boots, noted the scuff marks on their toes, garnered from over eight years of wandering. Over the 32 years I’ve been walking mountains I’ve gone through about eight pairs of boots and more sneakers than I can recount. After you’ve used one pair for a while they become like old friends, with old memories etched into the cuts and scrapes. These are the tools that keep you steady on the climbs and give you faith when placing your feet on the loose scree of hairy descents. In recent years I’ve begun favoring light walking shoes over clunky leather boots, but old boots curry a fondness that the quickly shredded light shoes just cannot match. I still love dipping my finger in the special camphor grease made by Limmer Boots and rubbing the paste into the leather, feeling the grease melt in the warmth of my finger tips and the grit lodged permanently in the leather. I love coating the whole boot until it is glistening and soft, the leather dark from years of applications. And then, twelve hours later, taking a brush to the surface to buff it into a luster that keeps water beading off for quite a few days of dashing through puddles and mud. With the throw away attitude of outdoor equipment these days that old love of equipment that lasts for decades had faded away like black and white photography.

A dark cloud rose from the void, flinging short flurries of raindrops. I packed away my stove and swung my pack back on. The gravel crunched beneath my soles and I started off on the first descent of the day.

Above Oku-Shirane tarn
A view of Mitaga tarn and the top of the initial climb

Oku-Shirane elder walker
Elderly woman sitting and relaxing the cool breeze while other members of her group explore other places

Oku-Shirane red pine roots
Roots of a red pine

Goshiki tarn deer
Fearless Shika deer passing along the shore of Goshiki tarn.

The southeastern side of the mountain was devoid of trees. The soil was a beige, gravelly tuff, like little marbles that slid from under your boots as you stepped along the steep incline, making from some hackle-raising sections. The swifts loved this side of the mountain for some reason and they winged about in aerial scuffles, constantly chittering at one another. An unending stream of group walkers, some thirty members or more long, ascended from the tarn below, giving me a flow of reasons to stop and look about, but also requiring me to utter, like a looping message, greeting after greeting until the sincerity in the hellos no longer held any weight. The stopping to let these groups pass was merely a minor annoyance, though, nothing to get angry about. The people were nearly always cheerful and friendly, quite a nice change from the sullen, avoiding-one-another’s-eyes anonymity of Tokyo. And it was just nice to see so many people doing what I love so much to do; something I wanted more people to get out and appreciate.

The heavy clouds ballooned into thunderheads that threatened rain. The wind picked up, buffeting me as I zigzagged down the slope, boots stepping from the top of one rock to the next. Though they are hard on the knees such open-faced scrambling made for some of the best mountain walking, with the contour of the mountain slanting against the sky and the landing of the forest visible far below. There was something indescribably moving about hearing the wind softly punch your ears as a huge cloud came silently pouring over the lip of a ridge. Or to witness the slow passage of the open-winged back of a hawk far below above the treetops. It was for a moment like inhabiting the halls of the gods, looking down upon creation.

Legs took me down to reality in rigid-kneed restraint, though part of me wanted to just let loose and belt down the trail like a banshee. I was surprised by how smoothly I was able to maintain the pace and that the knack for negotiating the incline by taking care to stay atop the rocks rather than placing my feet in the scree between hadn’t been lost. Unlike other sports where developing the physical coordination and techniques to accomplish specific tasks would be considered necessary in order to master the sport, for some reason most hikers either stumble upon how to walk in different situations or else bulldoze their way among the rocks and roots and mud, without taking a moment to think things through. And yet it makes a big difference when you take care to walk with smaller steps or to keep your center of balance back, like in skiing, or to think of the path beneath you like a set of stairs. Utilizing techniques can make for a much safer and enjoyable walk.

Scraggly birches rose from the earth near the bottom of the slope and gathered in dense thickets within the gullies. The last of the winter snow, crusty and greying with debris, clung to the shaded areas and I had to kick in my heels to maintain balance. A party of boy scouts, led by a chubby man carrying entirely too much paraphernalia all clinking and swinging and clanking around his body and backpack, kept calling back, in a booming voice that carried through the valley, instructions to the boys on how to negotiate the snow fields and place feet amidst roots. I couldn’t help but feel that he was eyeing me the whole time, though, because each time I reached a new section with a new challenge he would fall silent until I completed the moves. It was like trailing my own mobile intercom system, the bullhorn, in a shrill Doppler Effect with some slight delay, directing a hapless pack of boys in some diabolical version of Simon Says. I glanced back at the stumbling, slipping, sliding, grimacing boys behind him, and wondered if they would look back on this trip with pleasure. Somehow I doubted it.

The trail passed through a dark ravine and then passed into the flat bottomed vale of Goshiki tarn. Mountain cherry blossoms bloomed on both sides of the trail, their rose-tinted blossoms painting a blush of pink over the grey-green tangle of birches and rowan that filled the bowl of the valley. Here and there, in a curious hush small groups of hikers sat in circles, eating lunch. In front of them spread the blue-green disk of the tarn, the surface so still the eddies of tiny fish broke the mirror of the sky. A flat boulder sat next to the tarn’s edge and here I set my pack down to take a short break.

Oku-Shirane traffic jam
Beginning the descent.

Yu Falls
Standing before Yu Falls.

Gazing at Lake You
Taking time to just look.

You boat keeper
While watching this old man step between boats and then opening the scuppers I had to grip the sides of my chair, hoping he would be all right!

The tarn harbored no sounds. It lay as still as a pane of glass and seemed to hold its breath. It was almost as if the surrounding mountain gods sat in stern watch and the god of the tarn furtively looked back, its eyes peering up through reflections of clouds passing across the surface. I felt my heart shrink in my chest, pulling back.

From the tarn there was supposed to be a side trail that would take me up to Mt. Oku-Shirane’s sister peak, Mt. Mae-Shirane. I consulted the map and ran my eyes along the shoreline of the tarn to the gully that led up to the ridge. Suddenly from behind me a flow of movement disturbed the stillness and when I turned to look four deer glided along the western shore of the tarn, noiseless. They looked jittery, their eyes wide as they eyed the people sitting eating lunch. Every now and then one of them would start and prance a few steps forward. As I watched I couldn’t help but feel how much a part of this place they were, their brown coats blending in so well with the surrounding vegetation that they were hard to make out. Only their bright white tails flashed across the distance between us. They slowly made they way to the thickly wooded cover of the south, where they disappeared in the undergrowth, probably seeking tender young shoots and buds.

I took the shore trail and followed it around to the side trail. I stooped beside the tarn and dipped my hands into the water, expecting the shock to be ice cold. But it was lukewarm, and clear as crystal. I brought the handful up to my face, splashed some of the sweat away, and soaked my hair. After the hot work of the past few hours it felt good to feel my skin cool with the evaporation.

Just as I was starting up the side trail a man carrying two water bottles condensed with droplets on the outside from the cold of the fresh water inside, and a woman behind him also carrying a freshly filled water bottle stopped and asked if I was intending to head up to trail above. when I answered yes, he told me that this trail would only take me as far as the water source just at the top of the rock slide. beyond that there was no trail. Thanking him, I set my pack down and scrambled up the rocks to the water source and discovered that the man was right… the terrain beyond closed in like a curtain of brush, thick tangles of branches and trunks, and moss-covered boulders everywhere. No trailblazers marked any possible direction to go. It was hard to imagine why the map indicated that this could be a way up.

I kneeled to fill my water bottle with the ice-cold water. I took a deep drink and then filled the water bottle again. I headed back down the trail, picked up my pack, and headed back up the way I had come down earlier, to take another side trail up to Mt. Mae-Shirane.

The wind blew steadily now and rain couldn’t make its mind up whether to stay or go. The crowds of walkers disappeared and the forest opened up with widely spaced birches that let in a lot of light. The path climbed up to the ridge and the trees fell away. Ice fields still patched the hollows and their cold radiation met the glare of the afternoon sun stirring up a glowing mist that seemed to blur the atmosphere all around. It was so hard to see that I had to squint to make out the path ahead, but it also rendered the trees and the outlines of the slopes into a dreamlike world right out of my imagination. Water striders sluggishly stroked the surface of the frigid pools at the bases of the ice fields, while all around thousands of trickles and drips of water falling from lips of ice tinkled upon the pool surfaces. Ferns and tiger lilies added bright green to the glow until nothing seemed real. The sun seemed to glow from behind a frosted window.

The path reached a pass where suddenly the wind picked up again and the mist cleared away. Big cedars and larches stood straight down on the slope below, protected from prevailing winds. And farther down still the great forest, dark and engulfing.

I followed the open ridge that I had walked three years earlier, landmarks jogging memories. It was if I passed the haunts of just barely visible deities, guarding their nooks and crannies, and I acknowledged them with a nod or recognition as I walked by. I stopped at one point up the slope and turned to look back. The ridge swung below in an inverted arch, reaching all the way back to where Mt. Oku-Shirane was supposed to be standing. But an enormous wall of cloud had intervened, blocking out the view. The winds flexed and just a for moment the veils parted, revealing the looming, just barely discernible outline of Oku-Shirane, floating in the air. The sight set my heart trembling. It was hard to imagine that I had been walking up there just a few hours before.

The clouds set in then like a thick coat. The summit of Mt. Mae-Shirane appeared out the mist with barely a whisper and passed behind. The slope reached its zenith then dipped down, into the forest. The hard part had just begun.

Lake Yu trunk
Trunk of a beech tree next to Lake Yu.

Lake You shadow leaves
Leaves filtering the evening light

Lake You yoga split
Beech tree doing yoga at the edge of Lake Yu.

Lake You crow
Carrion crow winging its way over Mitaga tarn.

This was the same way I had come up three years ago. The memory of the climb set my teeth on edge; some parts had required some nerve-wracking scrambling amidst loose boulders and mud-slick tubes of eroded trail beds. I had promised myself not to return, and yet here I was simply because there was no other way to return to the campsite without a taxi. Like a zoetrope in reverse I started down the trail, the familiar landmarks popping up left and right.

The clouds were heavy now, pregnant with rain. The trees, too, on this windless, leeward side of the mountain, stood tall around me, their evergreen branches blocking the afternoon light. In just a few steps the open vistas of the crowns of the mountains transformed into heavy woods, a tangled morass of moss and lichen covered roots and trunks clinging to the steep slope, everywhere interrupted by a chaos of rocks that spilled down the incline like rubble from a blasted castle wall. Half the trees had twisted into skeletons of wood and, with the mist drifting among them, loomed over me like anguished spirits. I shuddered at the thought of being caught here in the night.

Low blood sugar threatened my exertions so I found the same spot I had rested in last time, a small clearing with stumps and plates of rock to sit on. Here it was three years ago that an army of grasshoppers, wingless and all moving across the forest floor in the same southeast direction, their numbers spread out through the underbrush in all directions and their rustling causing the forest to sound as if it were raining, found me exhausted while munching graham crackers. They crawled past as if I didn’t exist, not even dodging my hand when I reached out to touch them. The forest floor lay silent now, but I could still hear the movement of the grasshoppers. I wondered where they had been heading. With whom did they want to rendezvous?

One last, slippery snow field brought me to the edge of a trail in ruins. Years of careless trail use and nonexistent trail maintenance had left the trail vulnerable to the rains as boots passed over the duff and ate into the loose soil. So many people had passed and so much topsoil had washed away that at parts the trail had sunken into a neck deep gully, right down to the crumbly clay beneath, and gooey and slippery as a mud slide. Tree roots hung exposed everywhere, some trees just barely hanging on. Somehow I had to negotiate this and come out of it still telling myself that I loved hiking.

For the next three hours the surrounding world narrowed to where I planted my boots and which exposed roots I could grab. I swung around tree trunks, seeking stable descents and dug my heels into the mud to keep from shooting down the trail into sharp rocks or ledges that gaped at thin air. Rocks underfoot that I balanced on, thinking they were stable, slipped from beneath me and went crashing through the underbrush, snapping twigs and dislodging other rocks on their way down. With understandable sagacity, not another soul had ventured onto this trail, and so I was left to slip and slide and swing and scramble down the madness of a walk all to my own devices.

The only break in the tedium came in the welcome respite of a leveling out of the slope, when for a brief moment I thought I had reached the bottom. As I strode forward huge hands of rhododendron leaves rose in applause all around and suddenly, upon rounding a bend in the path, erupting into a private surprise party of pale pink flowers. It was magic! The bright color lit up the gloom of the forest and I slowed to a halt. Not a sound disturbed the late afternoon stillness, and yet it seemed as if there were creatures laughing and cheering and making toasts. I passed through this little community of rhododendrons and confronted a drop into the dark confusion below. The trail had a long way to go.

It was the time of day on a hike when you wonder why the hell you do it. You realized then that no matter how big your ego, no matter how sophisticated your equipment, or how fit you were, mountains would always be bigger than you. The walking becomes a stubborn placing of one foot ahead of the other, your body slick with sweat, and your knees aching from the constant stomping and bending, until your mind wanders and begin to feel detached from yourself. It is such times that are the most dangerous; you get careless and in your fatigue you step where you should not or miss a critical handhold.

I tried to keep myself alert, breathing an innocuous song to myself, “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go! We work and work and work all day! Hi ho! Hi ho hi ho hi ho!” to keep my mind running. Several times I nearly slipped and fell, but I always managed to catch myself on a root or with a swift leap to a new foothold.

By the time the end of the trail came into view– a verdant pool table of mown grass– I was too tired to cheer. I just lurched down the rest of the broken rock and mud until I stood at the edge of an off-season ski slope. Stepping away from the grit of the trail it was almost like landing upon the resplendent carpet of a banquet hall, while looking like a vagabond. My knees still wouldn’t straighten out and my thighs kept threatening to go rubber on me. The walk to the campsite still required following the entire length of the ski slope, but at least it was smooth going and an evening breeze cooled the sweat off.

Near the campground the sky began to spit water. I reached my tent just as the clouds opened up and let loose an furious downpour. The campground disappeared in torrents of rain, and the mountains cracked their sides with peals of thunder and lightning. I huddled under the translucent film of polyester and listened to the water drumming on the membrane. And I thanked the gods for the little bit of mercy, for allowing me to get back home to safety.

I took my time packing and breaking camp. The other tents had long since disappeared. The load back on my back I headed toward the center of Yumoto for the bus. As I sloshed through the puddles a rescue helicopter thundered by overhead, right from the direction of the start of the day’s climb. I wondered who hadn’t made it.

Like a quiet denouement the bus slipped out of the valley like a ghost, carrying me away with a ball of emotions and memories. I closed my eyes and let the wind from the cracked open window sing me to sleep.

You Falls side view
Yu falls once flowed as a “hot” waterfall, the waters flowing from the hot springs that have since been diverted for use at the spa farther up the valley.

Lake You foot plants
Young plants emerging at the base of a pier next to Lake Yu.

Lake You maple leaves
Japanese maple leaves silhouetted in the evening light.

Oku-Shirane elder walker 2
Parting shot of an elder walker.