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Hiking Japan: Living Journal Shizuoka Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Pouring Rain

Takazasu Hill

I stood at the entrance to the train station staring out at the weather. The town dropped down into the grey swirl of low clouds and seemed to hold tight against the wash of cold rain. Streams ran along the street and what few people had left the warmth of their homes hunched their jackets against the chill, trotting along the sidewalks to reach the station and get out of the wetness. The freezing wind howled at the opening to the station and buffeted me, urging me back inside. None of the mountains in the distance allowed themselves to be seen and I was sorely tempted to just turn around and head right back into the heated compartment of the train. The prospect of even one night holed up in a drafty tarptent, alone in the dark of the night time winter woods while the rain pounded away all around me just wasn’t my idea of a good time. I kept remembering waking up in the puffy comfort of my bed before dawn and lying there shaking my head at the strange things that I do for kicks. Who in their right mind wakes up during the hours of the dead to go walking on some windblown ridge?

My pack was light, the lightest I’ve ever gotten it for a several-day winter hike with camping, lighter even than the pack I used in the summer Alps last year. I worried that maybe it was too light, that I might spend the night shivering while snow came drifting down to laugh at me. But I’d checked and re-checked everything to make sure I had gotten it right and, in my head at least, I knew that I should be fine. But as these things always go, it’s one thing to theorize about something, quite another to actually get out there and raise your glass to the elements and make a toast. Weather has an upsetting habit of not respecting theories. Or toasts, for that matter.

Takazasu Tree

I spied the blond-haired adventurer deep in consultation with the local tourist information center lady. I knew he was an adventurer because he wore nothing but running shoes, a pair of navy blue training pants, a navy blue wind shirt and on his back a tiny backpack. Only adventurers challenge such winter weather with nothing by a thin film of nylon. He leaned over the tourist information center counter for an inordinately long time, so long I began to wonder if he was able to speak Japanese. The lady behind the counter seemed a bit piqued as she attempted to make head or tails of what he was saying. When they both looked stumped I stepped up and asked if they needed any help.

“Yes, that would really save me!” exclaimed the adventurer in a heavy French accent. “Hi my name is Eric!”

“Miguel.”

“I’m from Canada and this is my third day here. Three times I’ve tried to climb Mt. Fuji, but no luck.”

“Climb Mt. Fuji?” I stared at his outfit, from head to toe. “In winter?”

“Yes. It rained the first two days and I had to turn back. Yesterday I made it to 3,130 meters, but the snow got up to my chest and I couldn’t go any further. A Norwegian guy ahead of me was able to continue on. I only have a week left in Japan and I’m determined to climb Mt. Fuji before I leave.”

Unidentified Sitting Moth

“Not to doubt your determination, Eric, but are you sure you are prepared for Mt. Fuji? It’s a very dangerous mountain in winter if you don’t know what you are doing or have the right equipment. Every year people die on it in the winter. It’s extremely cold up there, plus some people have to worry about altitude sickness at that elevation.”

Eric hugged his chest and shivered in the wind as raindrops dripped off his chin. “It’s really okay! I’m from Quebec, I’m used to the cold!”

Concerned, I indicated his clothes. “Are you climbing in those clothes?”

“Yes! I work for UPS! You like the pants?” He laughed. “I need to buy some boots before I try Fuji again. You know where I can buy some cheap boots?”

We spoke a while about prospects for a sports shop in this area. I used to live near here and knew of nothing that might get him better geared up. Eric’s shivering got worse, so I showed him into the heated waiting room inside the station. I always wonder what to do in a situation when I meet someone about to head into a dangerous situation, but who doesn’t really understand what they are getting themselves into. I don’t want to push my worries on them, but also don’t want them to do something they will regret. While we spoke a local elderly man came up to us and asked me where we were going. I pointed out into the rain, at where the West Tanzawa range was supposed to be looming. Eric hit his chest with a big smile, “Mt. Fuji!”

The man glanced out in the direction of the mountains where I was planning to go and shook his head. “All those mountains look the same after a while. Pretty boring, don’t you think?” He turned to Eric and grinned. “Fuji! Really! I used to take care of one of the mountain huts at the ninth station. Mt. Fuji, eh? In winter! You have to be careful!”

Eric hit his chest again. “Don’t worry! I’m fine! I’m from Quebec!”

“What did he say?” asked the old man.

Fuji Bright

I missed my bus while talking to the two Fuji aficionados. While they attempted to communicate with one another about Fuji conditions I went to check on the weather again. A lightness had made its way into the grey billows of the clouds and it looked as if at least the rain might let up a little. Eric had decided to head back 400 kilometers west to Osaka for the night and would attempt Mt. Fuji again the next day if the weather improved. Since he was taking the bus over the pass where I hoped to start my walk I decided to join him and talk a bit more. It was good to have company before heading out into the cold. At the very least I hoped to spark at least a bit of curiosity in Eric over my own adventure. Nothing doing; Fuji was imprinted in his Quebecois mind.

Eric had never in his life climbed a mountain before. “You said you’ve been to Montreal, yes?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What is the highest land form you saw there?”

“Er, Mount Royal?”

“That’s right! No mountains! I never even saw a mountain before I came to Japan!” He laughed contentedly to himself, as if that was sufficient explanation for his attempting Mt. Fuji.

“We Quebecois are really tough! Much tougher than those slouches from Montreal! When we were fighting against the British it was the Montrealers who surrendered, but not us! We stuck it out to the end!” He grinned at me and snorted. “So you see, that’s why I came to Japan, the land of the samurai!” He folded his arms and laughed effortlessly.

From Takazasu

We parted at the junction between Lake Yamanaka and Kagosaka Pass. The rain had stopped and already signs of the sun had broken through the clouds. The west foothills of the Tanzawa range rose to the east, heading up into the still watery grey clouds.

“You’re a good luck charm, Eric,” I told him. “I wish you good luck on Mt. Fuji. Please do be careful and don’t take the mountain lightly.”

He waved from the bus, still smiling. “Don’t worry about me. I’m…”

“I know. You’re from Quebec!”

“That’s right! Don’t forget it!”

The bus pulled away and I was alone again with the weather. I started walking. With each step the clouds opened a bit more and by the early afternoon I had taken off my rain jacket and was sweating in spring sunshine. Lake Yamanaka dropped away behind me and the sky stepped back to welcome me into the folds of the ridges.

The One Nishi Tanzawa
Categories
Journal Musings Tokyo Walking

Walking As Prayer

Bamboo grass in snow
Bamboo grass laden with the first snow of the winter

I spent half a sleepless night reading the long-distance walking accounts of Chris Willett. There is a lot of reading, but through so much of it I felt as if I were walking with him, on much the same kinds of walks that I enjoy doing. His account of walking the Great Divide Trail especially moved me, because the experience came across as so similar to my own solo bicycle ride from Denmark to Paris in 1988. While writing my book about the experience (I’m still looking for a publisher… Anyone interested in giving it a read?) I had to face the constant memories of how much time I spent alone, and how meeting other souls along the way made all the difference in the story line of the journey.

Last year I had planned to go to Australia to walk the Larapinta Trail, but circumstances left my wallet as dry as the Outback. Reading Chris Willett, though, the fire is stoked again and I hope that this year I can actually make it out of my front door. I’ll shoot for September for a nice long walk in the desert. And with eight months to get in training I should be in top shape for even the hardest parts of the walk.

One day soon I want to try another long journey like the six-month bicycle trip my wife and I took in 1995. For anyone who has never spent such a long single stretch of time out of doors, camping each day, moving at your own pace, and feeling your body harden in ways you never knew you could, it is hard to describe the sheer immediacy and match that the human body and mind finds when living close to its original state. We were meant to live outdoors. W were meant to spend most of our time without a roof over our head or walls to block out our peripheral vision. We were meant to live with the roll of the sun and stars, the passage of clouds, and the motion capture reality of flowers and trees growing. And you can’t know it by reading a book or walking in an artificial park. You can’t really know the full presence of the earth until you actually feel yourself crawling across its surface, your muscles growing in proportion to the pull of gravity and distance.

Ever since I can remember journeying and getting outdoors into all the mess has been like a ache of joy that I had to follow. Sitting everyday at my computer now, pacing back and forth in the generic streets of Tokyo (and earlier, Boston) it is as if I am denying myself my own predisposition. Maybe other people don’t find walking alone in the mountains in a pouring rain all that exhilarating, but for me it is life itself. I am never more in my element than when walking in the woods or on a ridge or along a seashore wrack-line. If only there was a way to make it permanent, and still have my family and friends and livelihood.

I go snowshoeing tomorrow. I hear the snow in the Nikko area north of Tokyo reaches up to your hips. And more on its way tonight. It ought to be a blast!