#24 – NASU-DAKE
Underpantless and unimpressed, a lone soul in the night, I leaned against the doorpost of a grimy coin laundry in the equally grimy city of Utsunomiya. Rain fell hard, spattering on the asphalt in front of me, reflecting street lights and taking the sting out of the humidity of the day. The Hokkaido refugees had been right, summer was packing a punch down south.
With the Hokkaido Hyakumeizan behind me I’d ferried south to the port of Oarai on the Pacific Coast of Honshu and made for Utsunomiya, a city as inspiring as the skidmarks being laundered out of my underwear.
A cockroach scuttled inside, fleeing the downpour, it’s nook in the street no doubt filling with rainwater. Stubbed out cigarettes choked an ashtray, a metal box on legs, their stale reek hung in the moist air. Machine emptied and dryer loaded, I called the Olds at home on the farm. Rain still wasn’t showing itself. The dog and the cat were fine. They’d sold a few head of cattle. A woman’s body had been dumped on the side of the road heading into town but no, otherwise all was well. The cockroach re-emerged. I squashed it flat with my hiking booted hoof, doing my bit to balance out the death toll on both sides of the Equator. I stuffed my tent bag full of clean, warm, tumble dried clothes and wandered the rain slickened streets back towards my business hotel lodgings.
Down in the dumps in the dumpling capital of Japan. Chinese dumpling capital to be precise. Gyoza is what they call it, little crescent shaped pouches filled with garlic, pork and more garlic. Dip ‘em into a spicy sauce and gobble ‘em down before they fall apart between your chopsticks. Opting for eel and rice in a box over the local delicacy, I slipped through a doorway sporting a red lantern, ordered myself up a feast and washed it down with a cold beer served in an ice encrusted glass. At least the weather made for good tasting beers. I decided to live a little and downed a second glass, silently tipping it to sunny days ahead.
It was my second night in that damned city. I was there to conquer Nasu-dake – or ‘The Eggplant’* as I’d dubbed it – the mountain I skipped before heading off to climb Iide-san. It was supposed to be a quick stopover before venturing deeper into the greater Kanto region but rain was putting a brake on proceedings.
That morning I had in fact been standing on the mountain, at the bus stop and tourist centre atop the evocatively named Volcano Highway, high on Nasu’s flanks. The trouble was I’d arrived there just as the mountain was swallowed in the tumult of a vicious thunderstorm.
The haughty woman ensconced in the ropeway ticket booth inside the visitor centre was adamant that I abandon the hike. Her ropeway wasn’t an option anyway – the storms had shut it down for the duration of the day. I produced a map and began pointing at a trail. She produced a weather forecast and began pointing at the image representing thunderstorms. I said I’ll wait. She said come back another day. She was a frigging know-all annoyance and I was in a mood that made a five year old in mid-tantrum look mature.
I paced around the visitor centre, jaw clenched, frustrated, counting potentially wasted yens in my head. “What the hell would that stupid bloody cow know anyway? I was the great gaijin adventurer. I’d climbed twenty two of her country’s goddamned famous mountains. Who the hell was she to tell me what was for the best? The glorified ticket punching old bat.” My mood was as black as the turbulent skies above me. Thunder and lightning banged and flashed outside. The long, drawn out rumbles in the heavens sounded as though God was rearranging his furniture upstairs. Disconsolate hikers milled inside the visitor centre and waited for the bus to head back downhill. I swore at a noodle menu and reluctantly joined their sorry, round shouldered ranks, destined to have nothing more than a clean load of laundry to show for the day.
Nasu-dake, take two. The angry storm front cleared overnight but my mood remained gloomy. The sun shone but cloud lingered. Rain remained a possibility later on. I was on the first train north out of Utsunomiya, convenience store breakfast in hand, daypack over the shoulder, clean pair of undies hugging my balls. All I had in mind was getting up and getting off the mountain and moving on. At the visitor centre I wandered round until I made eye contact with the Ticket Tart, gave her a wink then turned my back and headed for a trail up the hill instead. Her rinky dink ropeway spurned in the vain hope that it didn’t reach budget projections for the month and she’d get the chop and be forced to wash gyoza pans or scrub toilets down in Utsunomiya to make ends meet.
The trail climbed up to a small hut squatting in a saddle between two of Nasu’s more prominent peaks, the gas belching Chausu-dake and the red coloured Asahi-dake. From there the way became rocky and devoid of most plant life. I negotiated a section lined with chains and studded with metal poles that would have acted as serious lightning rods the day before. Schoolkids abounded, scrambling over the rocky ground, hollering “Ya-hooou,” down to their classmates from the top of Asahi-dake. Cloud, mingled with the volcanic gases, conspiring to mask the impressive looking Chausu-dake. Beyond the summit of Asahi where the vegetation regained its hold, out of reach of the volcanic fumes, I escaped the schoolkids and dropped down into a broad, muddy bottomed basin. Nasu’s high point, the uninspiring Sanbonyari-dake rose gently skyward on the far side of the depression. I made the top as cloud filled in the last remaining patch of blue sky. A lone hiker departed the summit as I arrived and I sat down on a log and chewed on an old, dry, apple flavoured Calorie Mate. I was beginning to have my fill of those dry, crumbly things. It started to spit lightly with rain. I screwed the small, silver tripod into my camera, set the timer and squatted down beside the wooden sign belted into the ground and waited for the thing to fire off the proof shot. With a click of the shutter and a return hike Nasu was done and dusted but with the the highs of Hokkaido lingering I bussed off The Eggplant’s slopes not overly bothered about ever setting foot on it again.
*Mistakenly dubbed it as it happens. Nasu translates as eggplant but also, and in this case, refers to the name of the region the mountain is situated in. When written, the kanji characters are distinctly different but read the same. Either way though, in my mind the name stuck and in the end it just so happens the mountain was about as inspiring as eggplant anyway.