Hiking Japan: Living Journal Routes: Hiking Walking

Cold Dry Wind

Okutama Mukashimichi Mountains and Gorges
Mountains and gorges of Okutama.

The wind blows off Okutama reservoir, whistling through the bare lattices of the roadside trellis and bites at my cheeks. It is cold enough to bring tears to my eyes and I swing off my pack to pull out the fingerless bunting gloves from the back pocket. Sunlight, falling from high in the mid-day sky, glances off the metallic blue of the reservoir water and seems to lose strength with the meeting, so that although the afternoon is bathed in a gold luster, I can feel the wintry chill seep through my three layers of clothes. I rummage in my pack again for an extra layer, a windshirt, to cut the wind and stave off, for a while, the final dip into the end of the year, the sinking into deep winter.

Two more days and the new year begins.

Okutama Mukashimichi Rest Stop
The Okutama Mukashimichi Trail leading down toward the flatter section of the trail.

I meant to take the bus further out along the reservoir, to where the mountains jut up higher into the wilds of the western sky, but buses run later and more slowly with the holidays, and something about the past year, with its disappointments and unspoken hesitations, urges me to get off early and stay low. I stand at the edge of the curb, watching the bus, now tiny along the arm of land reaching out into the reservoir, trundling away to the end of the finger of land, round the tip, and disappear. It isn’t so much a scramble I am after, but more of a confirmation that I still have that restless call to wander the hills and woods whipping about within my soul. So it is a slow stroll I start out upon, nothing too strenuous or untamed.

Okutama Mukashimichi Susuki Head
Autumn susuki grass seeds.

I had begun to doubt my own capacity to step out into the open and simply love whatever weathers and encounters I would find, just as they are. The details are unimportant, but for 48 years I had never failed to mark myself, or more accurately, “be aware of” myself, within the urgency and immediacy of a living world, a boundless feeling and way of seeing that makes it impossible to remain content with asphalt streets, parking lots, cars, and horizons choked with nothing but humankind.

Okutama Mukashimichi Garden Bodhisatva
Bodhisatva statue in the midst of an overgrown garden filled with old figurines and flower pots.

Then two years ago the courage to get out there seemed to go still. I often stood by my window gazing out at the rain, and felt far away. I packed up my backpack in an empty gesture, wrote up gear lists and route itineraries, even went out and bought the ingredients for meals to be cooked over a tiny alcohol stove, only to heft my pack, reach the front door of my apartment, and stop there, staring at my shoes. I just couldn’t get myself to go.

Last November I turned 50. I had long ago promised myself that, for my birthday, I would go on a journey to a childhood dream, to Patagonia. I sat scrolling through Facebook posts instead, not really feeling anything.

Okutama Mukashimichi Lake Hillock
Tree-covered hillock overlooking the Okutama Lake Dam.

I start up the trail, camera in hand, and just let the cant of the hill talk to me with its crunch of gravel and dash of old leaves. It always takes a while for my sight to focus enough that photographic images present themselves. Sometimes it comes effortlessly; I raise my eyes and patterns or juxtapositions, forebodings or delights jump out at me, fixing themselves into position and all I have to do is raise the lens and see. At other times it is like a sheet of water washes over the glass and the patina of relevance remains cold and hard as a shell.

Okutama Mukashimichi Okutama Dam
View of Okutama Lake from Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.

I’ve heard people say about the places I love to wander as being empty, with nothing there, but when the sight is good, that’s not how natural places reveal themselves. There is always something going on or self-revealing in the eye of the old world. Perhaps places rely upon the kernel budding in silences, with the heart beating at the center of rootedness. Perhaps adaptation begins when you recognize why you can longer stay the way you were.

Okutama Mukashimichi Wind Leaves
Leaves blowing in the wind along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail

I reach the pass with the wind heaving in the brittle forest. Branches rattle against lichen-splotched statues that have long ago returned to the forest. I listen for the call of a watchful jay or the busy, skirling twittering of siskins in the brush, and they are ghosts, swept along my peripheral vision like smoke. I kneel amidst the fallen leaves and smell the sweet burning of the past summer, half praying, half asking for forgiveness. When I stand, the world tilts for a spell, as if to drain ill words and muddy expectations.

Okutama Mukashimichi Forested Ridges
Forested ridges lit up by the last rays of the sun.
Okutama Mukashimichi Quiet Road
Quiet back country road along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.
Okutama Mukashimichi Feathery Seeds
Feathery seeds ready to be blown to new seeing grounds.
Okutama Mukashimichi Old Well
Abandoned old covered well.

All afternoon the trail and road wind through the forests and hills and ravines in a ritual of touch and go, stepping in to lean over a trickling brook, then swinging back out to bow to the curtains of beech and maple that stand rapt in the attention of the late afternoon sunlight. The path both hides from and reaches up to the open sky, and without another person, not once, to bring the path to life, I feel as if I am slipping from memory, the further along I ramble, the deeper into the great sleep of the forest I become enveloped. The sun dips into the horizon and the world closes in with a slow, bated breath.

Okutama Mukashimichi Sunset
Sunset over the hills along the Okutama Mukashimichi.

Okutama is not far from the city and this walk along an old logging road only takes a headlong push through the tunnel of trees to reach the end at the train station, but as the darkness descends the hills rising all about switch masks and with the grip of the cold to accentuate the loom of the trees and the holes in the visibility of the ravines that yawn to one side of the trail, seem to rise in stature until I am but this tiny creature stepping past hidden, watchful eyes. Okutama now seems like a forbidding kingdom, one whose borders I’ve inadvertently passed into and there is no turning back.

Okutama Mukashimichi Bridge
Bridge over a ravine along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.
Okutama Mukashimichi Car Tunnel
Approaching a car tunnel along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail.

But as all tunnels go, you pass through and eventually reach the other side. Okutama is riddled with tunnels. They burrow through the folds of the landscape like threading holes in an old jacket. Somehow the trail holds together and I weave through the darkest groves with just enough light to find my way to the verges of human settlement. We always leave guideposts for unwary wanderers, perhaps to remind us that without our walls and doors and fences there really isn’t much out there to hold our tendency to drift in check. If we wait long enough eventually the trees start growing in upon our stead. The wild really has little inclination for sitting still.

Okutama Mukashimichi Foundation Beech
Beech tree growing out of an abandoned house’s foundation.
Okutama Mukashimichi Stone Lantern
Abandoned stone garden lantern
Okutama Mukashimichi Shrine Chochin
Paper lanterns hanging outside a small shrine at Okutama Station.

I step back onto the main road closer to the end of the year and just five minutes before the last bus would pass. The wind has abated, but clouds hang on the tendrils of my breath, bowing their heads for dawn. I still have time to ride back to the trains, to bright lights and the straightness of chairs and doorways, and already imagine the hot bath that will melt the final cast of the mountains.

Okutama Mukashimichi Me
Me, taking a break along the Okutama Mukashimichi Trail
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Okutama Walking

The Sun, the Moon, and Mars

Sugoroku Group Silouette
Band of walkers starting their dawn climb up towards Yari Peak, Kurobe, North Alps, Japan 2001

My pack was heavier than I wanted when I set up on a two-day jaunt over the crest of Kumotori Mountain (Cloud-Grabber Mountain, at 2014 meters, the westernmost point of the municipality of Tokyo and the tallest mountain in the Kanto region) over the weekend. I was carrying a camping hammock that I had sewn together a few weeks ago and a little more food than my knees cared to share the pack with. Also, not having gotten up among the peaks for most of the summer, my muscles were decidedly uncooperative when it came to demanding a toll from them. I had stayed up most of the night packing and mulling over an acrimonious letter I had received from a former friend. I definitely didn’t feel prepared for a scramble up among any crags and down steep inclines of loose gravel. So, after a scant 1 hour of sleep and shuffling along the road toward the train station with the sun barely snuffling at the horizon, I had to chant a mantra to myself, “I am having a wonderful time! I am having a wonderful time! This is what I live for! What life is all about!”.

The air was rather cool compared to the oven-baked, steam-dumpling sauna party that hit Japan three weeks ago. With the windows open in the train, I could close my eyes and drift away into thoughts of flavored ice-cubes as the wind frolicked over my close-cropped cranium. There was even time to take stock of the other walkers who were heading in the same direction, most of them nodding and bleary-eyed like me. The train carried on toward Chichibu in a rocking silence, the sun flashing through the windows like a bright-eyed girl flirting through the curtains.

Five transfers later my boots stomped onto the swaying floor of a ropeway car and my pack and all, crammed into one end of the car among a gathering of hopeful strollers, were whisked up toward a point in the heights where swallows love to gambol. I found myself stepping out onto an observation deck, the sun stretched high in the sky and stomach grumbling. So I sat myself down on a bench and gobbled up the baked salmon and mushroom rice box lunch I had brought with me. One of the families that had ridden the ropeway up with me came marching back from their glance at the valley below only five minutes after I started my lunch. Not even enough time to huddle together and pose for a photograph!

Shouldering my pack I started up the trail. The first hour took me along a stone paved path that led through the grounds of Mitsumine Shrine, the home of the goddess Izanami, who, with her brother/ husband Izanagi created the islands of Japan. I had expected an ancient wooden structure, but found instead several huge modern concrete buildings that somehow couldn’t convey the sense of one of Japan’s most holy places. The path itself retained its centuries old charm and until the actual hiking trail took up from the cessation of the stone paved path it took me past tranquil courtyards and gardens among which tourists quietly sat on weathered blocks of stone, bantering and sharing lunch. A hush hovered over everything, as if someone were watching, and all the visitors seemed to feel it.

With the sun still behind the bulk of the range, the hiking path led up among stands of cedar while a cool breeze swept among the shaded tree trunks. The forest duff gradually gave way to crumbling rock and gravel and the crunch of my boots sounded loud in the silence.

People traveled mostly in bands of three or four, mostly elderly people who smiled a lot and seemed so much more full of life and energy than the few younger walkers I passed. I wondered about this, thinking that perhaps all these older people had spent more time outdoors when they were young and had grown accustomed to the rigors of a hard walk. The younger walkers often exhibited a sullenness or reticence, evident when they barely gave a glance up upon passing and only mumbled their hellos. So unlike the traditional, stoic cheerfulness of Japanese mountain walkers, but also perhaps a reaction against ingrained social expectations. After all, the mountains were also supposed to represent self-reliance and getting away from the city crowds, but even here the crowds never ended.

I passed numbers of non-Japanese walkers, too, mostly walking alone, all men, and by their accents, mostly from Britain. One lightly-burdened walker surged ahead so fast, that halfway to my night’s destination, he already came loping back down the trail, ready to catch the afternoon train back to Tokyo. Another group of five, one pony-tailed Brit with legs of thunder who led the group, a plastic map case strung around his neck, an Indian who huffed and puffed as the group trudged up the steep rocks, two Japanese women who plugged along while conversing with a bespectacled Canadian. Listening to their discussion I had to laugh: between labored breath they were outlining the intricacies of the Human Genome Project. I was amazed at how disciplined the mind of the Canadian was… he could chug along stepping from one chemical sequence to another all while his eyes were fixed on his boots, never once looking up to admire the view.

With only one hour of sleep my body refused to go along with my intentions. The walk became a dream of exhertion, my breath squeezed out of my lungs while the fire burned in my muscles. I stopped every hundred steps to catch my breath and still my swirling mind, then I pushed on. Not fun… but no, yes, fun! Yes! Yes! Yes, fun! “I’m having a great time! I’m having a wonderful time! This is what my life is meant for time!” And the 45% incline wordlessly couldn’t agree more. The uphill stretching before me outlasted my little attempts at heroism.

Raindrops pattered among the leaves by the time I reached my day’s destination, a mountain hut crouched on a huge outcropping in the ribcage of the mountain’s torso. An old man with bug-eyed glasses and Mona Lisa’s ephemeral smile greeted me at the door. I informed him that I wanted to camp for the night. He waved his arm behind the hut to a flat, grassy spot beyond which a further space opened and beyond that the world fell away to the burning vista of the mountains of northern Chichibu, and the sun lowering in the sky.

The old man whipped out an dog-eared copy of the camping register, flicked away the dried, flattened body of a harvester spider, and asked me to sign in. Behind him a small group of women hikers huddled in the gloom of the hut, laughing uproarously about something they had encountered on the trail.

The tent went up just in time for a rain shower to dump its load on the canopy before letting up and a fiery sunset lit the western sky. I took my cookpot and stove out to the edge of the cliff and sat boiling a packet of pre-cooked rice and a packet of Thai curry. Watery grey clouds paraded in front of the sun, their trailing robes dragging across the sharp ridges of the mountains. Several times shika deer gave sharp barks like yelping dogs. One wandered near the campsite, but bounded off with a series of heavy crashes after it discovered me perched on a boulder.

With evening and nightfall sleep dragged at me until I could barely hold my head up. Before I knew it I was out, the fatigue closing around me like a drug.

I woke near dawn with the need to relieve myself. I stuffed my feet into my boots and stumbled outside, where the world was bathed in blue moonlight and the sky was filled with the manes of lion-like clouds and between them glittered a black-velvet table of diamonds. Mars, like a tiger’s eye, stared at the moon in all his distant jealousy, riding the night sky like a chariot driver. A ceaseless hissing issued fromt the treetops as the wind raced overhead. I stood a long time just gazing.

I woke again when the first light filtered in through the translucent film of my tarp walls. Hoverflies buzzed outside the netting and, incongruously, a radio played Marlena Dietrich songs from inside the hut. I wriggled out of the sleeping bag and packed up all the belongings, before stepping out to cook up a breakfast of Chinese ramen, pumpkin soup, ginger rolls with cheese, and a cup of cappucino. The grass was glittering with the flitting bullets of the hoverflies and the sun breaking over the crook of the pass to the East. By the time the pot was wiped clean, the stove stashed away, and water bottles (filled with precious drops that I had had to scramble down the side of the hill for twenty minutes yesterday evening) fitted into the pockets on the outside of the pack. Shaking out the waterlogged tarp, I stuffed that away in an outside pocket, too.

And away I go, hark, lark, and ho!

It was all up, up, up through the morning, the boot toes turning this way and that with the switchbacks. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, turn, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, turn…on and on. After all the comers and goers tramping up and down the mountain the day before, few people accompanied me through the first half of the day, so the vegetation, as the elevation grew, made their costume changes in relative silence, from the tall, evenly-spaced Cedars, to stands of Beech, then the dark, unkempt brooding of Larch, and finally the luminous green embroidery of White Birch. Even the animals seemed to sleep in on this Monday holiday morning. Having slept well, my legs ground up the slopes like a tractor.

The last spurt to the summit levied its toll by deciding to act more like a wall than a slope, angling itself up and requiring gingerly steps along the slippery scree. I saw the break in the trees and the open sky beyond. It was like discovering release and I charged the last hundred meters till I thought my lungs were going to burst. Then I was out in the open, breathing the wind, the sunlight, the arc of the dome above.

Lots of others were gathered here, sitting facing the sun like cormorants. People pointed toward distant mountains and tried to name them. A group of boyscouts stood in front of the summit sign, taking snapshots of themselves in different poses. A group of elderly walkers, about ten strong, and wearing an assortment of clothes that gave them an air of a flock of gaily colored songbirds, shouted at one another across the sweep of open ridge. “Come! Come! Come! Look! Look! A dragonfly!”

From here on it was almost all downhill, laughing knees downhill. Shouldering my pack again I descended. It was a jaunt along an open ridge, with the mountain dropping away, treeless, to the West, and a panorama of forested valleys stretching away to the horizon. Open ridge walking is like slow flight, each step a heavy wingbeat. This side of the mountain harbored many more walkers and every few minutes someone would come laboring up past me, or, occasionally, like the boyscout troop, would come marching down and overtake me. Once a man who seemed to be in his fifties, wearing black lycra tights, came running, and only stopped to wheeze for breath after I had gone on beyond what he thought was earshot. An hour later he came dashing past me again, heading back down the mountain. I had heard that on the weekends an eighty year old woman ran over these ridges, carrying only a knapsack filled with water bottle and a box of lunch. I wished that I was in such good shape.

Lunch found me sitting back in the bamboo grass munching on poppy seed cake and crunching an apple pear. The whole mountain seemed to take a nap then, as people stopped moving and only the flies kept buzzing around the rocks.

Two mountain bikers came lugging their machines up the trail, their cycling shoes clattering against hard surfaces.

My legs began to ache and the trail dropped down into the forest again, where it wound down endless through stands of Cedar, on and on, swerving left, then right, then swooping down straight ahead. It was just a contest of putting one foot in front of the other and trying not to think how much longer the end of the trail would be. Two hours later, nearly at the foot of the trail, the two mountain bikers came flying back down. They passed so quickly and so silently that it seemed no more than a passing thought. “Excuse me”, they each muttered, and they were gone.

I had to laugh and make jokes to myself to ward off the pain in my feet along the last stretch where soil turned to concrete. After two days the concrete seemed suddenly too still and made my legs wobble. I lurched along the side of the road, then took a short cut through some terraced farmland, and ended up at the side of a main road along Okutama Rreservoir. There stood the bus stop sign and a panting crowd of walkers, all grateful for the end of the atrocities to their knees. I lowered my pack and stood there swaying in sweat. I gulped down the last sloshes of my water and gave a big, happy sigh. I just love pain!

I looked back the way I had come. The mountain was bathed in the orange heat of the dying sun.