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.
Hiking Journal Natural Reality Nature Outdoors Trip Reports: Hiking

A Lack Thereof

Sidewalk Debris
Debris on a sidewalk in Soest, Germany, 1988

This is the sixteenth installment of the ongoing Ecotone essay series. This week’s topic is Food and Place. Please stop by and read the other essays or feel free to contribute your own words.

In this fast-tracked modern world, where the goods that hold up our daily lives magically appear, cut up, cleaned, wrapped, and ready to eat, more and more it seems as if we’ve lost touch with how and where it all comes from. Even when we do head out into the “wild” to harvest some measure of communion with our green past, we carry all the implements with us, like an astronaut walking on the moon. Throw away the backpack, the quick-drying clothing, the stove and pot, and most importantly, that nylon ditty bag of sustainables, and we’re lost. Most so-called “outdoorsmen” today, if suddenly left to fend for themselves far from the road and the aid of transportation, would quickly find themselves starving to death, even if an abundance of food presents itself an arm’s breadth away. Just watch a “Survivor” episode; those people know nothing about actually surviving.

In the late summer of 2001, upset and disoriented from an argument, I set off one weekend for the back country mountains north of Nikko, a national park area 2 hours north of Tokyo, without properly checking my packing list. All I could think of was that I needed to get away from people and from my home. I hoisted my pack and set off to the train station, intent upon images of forest trails and windy ridges.

Things went badly from the start. I had forgotten the map for the area and so missed the campsite that would have set me right at the trail head for the following morning. Instead I had to pitch my tent in an auto camping area, a few kilometers from the trail. It was hot and muggy and all night I lay swatting mosquitoes while drunk campers nearby reveled until the coming of dawn. I got perhaps three hours of sleep, and when morning broke, my muscles and head felt as heavy as the wet mist that sat upon the tent.

I packed quickly and headed off toward the trail, leaving early so that I might avoid the crowds of hikers. The approach to the trailhead zig-zagged along a river valley, with no signs posted, and only by querying a few farmers tending their sweet potato patches did I manage to make it to the trailhead. By that time the sun had already climbed quite high and the Japanese summer heat had begun to melt away the mist. There were no other hikers, which, because I was glad to be alone, I didn’t take note of.

The trail led into an overgrown wood with downed trees across the path and thick, almost impenetrable bamboo thicket lining the inclines on either side. Much of the walk involved scrambling through branches and stepping around crumbling ledges. Luckily a few faded wooden signs pointed to the one name of the mountain I was trying to reach and I followed them on faith.

The trail grew steeper and entered a dry ravine riverbed, old painted trail markers polka dotting the boulders and outcroppings. Walking here meant digging my boot toes into gravel and pedaling through loose scree, pumping heart and breath in an effort to stay afloat on a steep slope.

Huge, fat, wingless grasshoppers began to appear all around in the gravel and dry grass. All of them moving in the same direction, adjacent to my own movement. They were so heavy they could barely hop, but even when I approached they seemed not to notice my presence. When I reached a small ridge, I sat on a stump, eating a rice ball and watching the mass movement of the swarm, like a flowing green carpet displacing the stillness of the terrain.

I reached the summit at about noon. The peak overlooked a tarn with lead blue water across the surface of which dragged shadows of the storm clouds, mounting behind the peak opposite. Thunder rumbled from the distance. I stopped to evaluate the trail and saw that I needed to traverse a treacherous slope of loose rocks and slippery mud.

That’s when my hypoglycemia, a diabetic reaction to insulin, too little food, and high energy exertion, hit. I absently reached into my pack’s top pocket for the chocolate bar I always kept there for just such occasions. My fingers fumbled around and found… nothing. I threw the pack down and rummaged more carefully throughout the pack, hoping that I had misplaced the bar somewhere in the main compartment. Nothing. I paused, looking into the pack, then pulled out the ditty bag of food I had brought. That would do, I thought. I’ll just eat the lunch I had brought. When I opened the bag though, only a package of freeze dried rice, another package of freeze-dried spinach, a packet of soup, and a tea bag fell out. Panicking, I emptied the contents of the pack onto the trail and sifted through everything I had. Nothing.

The hypoglycemic reaction was beginning to make me dizzy and my vision blurred. I forced myself to sit still and think. Carefully I placed everything back into the pack, leaving the ditty bag of food out. I sized up the incoming storm cloud and figured I had just enough time to get my stove going and cook all the food I had left. I found a sheltered space beside a huge boulder, set up my stove, and placed a pot of water on top to boil. I waited.

I observed the landscape around me. With my vision blurring and hands beginning to shake and an uncontrollable sweat slowly drenching my clothes, the mountains seemed surreal. I hugged my knees as a frigid wind blasted the shelter and howled among the treetops back behind the trail. I pulled on my insulated jacket and watched the water in the pot, counting the tiny bubbles forming on the bottom. Steam curled off the edge of the pot and was whipped away by the wind.

During those fatal moments, when I thought I might die, all I could think of was how soft the clouds looked and how I missed my wife, with whom I had argued. The mountains seemed cold and pitiless and my stomach had no belief in the bounty of nature. Everything felt like bones around me.

I was breathing fast when the water started to boil. I emptied the open packages into the pot, not caring what mixed with what, and whispered a litany to myself, of the dream of an explosion of flavors in my mouth. Of warmth streaming down my veins. Of a pact with the world in which my body must sacrifice its independence to house the freewheeling flight of my soul. Food is life, and life is food. There is no such thing as life without the death that food requires.

I could barely hold the bowl as I spooned through it, my hands were shaking so badly. I ate so fast my lips and tongue were scalded. Lights swirled in my eyes and I was shivering from the cold sweat. I used the remaining hot water to make a cup of tea and while it steeped I finished the rice soup. The soup poured into my recesses and glowed like a firefly, reaching into niches of sustenance that only the heat could revive. Gradually the shaking died away and I squatted beside the pot, breathing slowly, in and out. Breathing slowly, slowly. When I switched off the stove the stillness clapped shut around me, with only the wind speaking.

That was perhaps the best meal I ever ate, not because I had abandoned preferences and simply enjoyed the taste of rice and spinach and egg and salt, but because that meal was stripped of distractions. The cold wind, my beating heart, and the flow of calories and nutrients made up the entire moment.

It began to rain.

I put away the tools and scraps and cinched up my pack. I stood up on steady legs. I picked my way across the slippery slope and reached the ridge on the opposite side of the dale. From there it was just a matter of crunching down the steep trail towards the road below, just discernible. And a step ahead of my next meal.

Hiking Japan: Living Journal Walking


Oze Glow
Sketch of camping in the tipi at Oze Marsh, June 21~22, 2003

I told myself that I would never return to Oze Marsh after my 1994 let down. It is a beautiful place, but the hordes of people and the train track-like wooden walkways make it impossible to enjoy the place as it ought to be experienced. Japanese park authorities seem never to have heard of eco-tourism. There were times as I walked, that the package tour hiking groups that passed would make a steady line of bodies that stretched the entire length of the marsh, as far as the eye could see. The sense of tranquility and self-reliance that draw me to the mountains gave way to teeth-gritting impatience as hundreds of people hobbled by, each requiring a bright smile and a hearty “Good day!” that didn’t reflect my real mood.

Yet here I was again, tromping the wooden slats and again seeking communion with a grace that never quite made it through the invisible barrier between boardwalk and broad marsh expanse.

I went to the marsh because of months of inactivity and problems with diabetic neuropathy that left my toes and fingers twinging with pain. I needed a flat walk, easy on the climbing and backpack laden treads. Oze Marsh was about as easy as a mountain walk could get. I was hoping to get my summer start here, try out my new lightweight tipi, and work up to the higher mountains over the summer. By autumn I hoped to be scaling the peaks of the rocky roof of Japan, perhaps Yari-ga-take or Hotaka.

The weather broke through the monsoon grey with the first real summer heat, sunlight bathing the marsh in ultraviolet generosity that just barely managed to retain the alpine coolness of the elevation. I was in a t-shirt, my walking pants rolled up to the knees, but others clad themselves in woolens and umbrellas against the sun, vests, and clomping leather boots. Many people grimaced under their sweat and I wondered why they didn’t just remove their excess. Out over the marsh grasses a stillness hung, as if all the creatures waited with bated breath for the caravans to pass.

I did get a number of moments of reprieve and insight into the place; and to find these interludes I needed to stop and look hard. I waited until a lull in the traffic jam presented itself and then I would kneel down at the edge of the boardwalk and peer into the tea water of the marsh bogs. Cold water with water lillies just beginning to reach for the surface, stands of azalea, mountain cherry trees, and mugwarts. If the lull was long enough the hidden frogs would venture tentative croaks that blossumed into a full-scale chorus. Suspended in the clarity of the water, wriggling brown bodies of salamanders, gulping bubbles of air, shuttled between mud and atmosphere. On the water surface flotillas of whirligigs danced caffeine-laden polkas and waltzes while beneath them jerked the rowboat forms of water boatmen and waterbugs. Everything moved with deliberation, in slow motion, as if conscious of the spending of precious calories. Only the mad calling of cuckoo birds in the scattered islands of birch trees indicated any squandering of resources; but perhaps for the cuckoos, who leave the rearing of their young to others, there is leeway for their extravagance.

With the evening appeared one of Oze’s designated lodging areas. My tipi went up at the back of a bulldozed clearing, just shy of a village of bigger, rounder tents. Campers moved about in a hush, the smoldering evening light snuffing out loud voices, even the army of teenagers staked out in tents big enough that they could stand up in them. As the darkness descended blackflies rose from the grass and clouds of midges attacked my exposed arms, face, and legs. I had forgotten the misery of these biters, and all evening I squatted swatting absently at them. Under the enclosure of the tipi the blackflies receded, but the midges continued their rampage.

Dinner was Thai green curry, dried tom yam kun soup, some sliced celery and cucumbers, and a package of parboiled mixed rice. Dessert was a cup of steaming cappucino coffee.

Sleep took over as the darkness fell. Like a bird under the shell of the sky, I drifted away into dreams.

And at 2:30 in the morning woke with the need to pay a visit to the toilet. Out in the crisp air, the rising moon threw blue shadows onto the ground and got tangled in the fingers of bare-branched trees. It was cold enough for wisps of breath to waft from my lips and drift up towards the stars. The constellations awaited them, until the Milky Way and my breath merged, indistinguishable. I stood craning my neck, reaching with my eyes, yearning.

The tipi walls weeped condensation and the foot of my sleeping bag soaked it up. I fitted a garbage bag over the end, and went back to sleep… until the teenagers came alive and woke the camp with their teenage urgencies and indifferent boots stomping by the tipi walls. Long moments slogged by until the tipi walls grew bright with dawn and the hysterical laughter of the nightjars gave way to distant ring-necked pheasants bugling, to cuckoos and bush warblers competing for choral dominance.

I scrambled out of the sleeping bag and tiptoed along a neglected path behind the campsite, listening and watching for birds. The great hoary grey birch tree trunks and glowing new leaves grabbed the spaces of light and left a tangled profusion of vegetation from amidst which the cuckoos sang and the secret creatures hid. Nothing moved.

The rest of the day brought the sun again, and skies laced with tree swallows and lazy, drifting clouds. The hordes tromped diligently according to the signs, stopping at the designated rest areas, buying Hello Kitty trinkets and drinking cans of 600 yen beer at 9:30 in the morning. Cameras blinked and hovered everywhere, quick glimpses of the scenery, the moments captured on film before the eyes could register what they were looking at. Hiking in a daze.

And back out of the valley, up to the pass, where buses waited. The suddenness of immobile concrete and asphalt. The glare of human structure, treeless and spent, individuals hurrying away in their cars. Heads nodding among the bus seats, silent blood pounding from the effort of two days.

And home, back to the frayed lights and rush. Back to the heart of remembering.