#26 – OKU-SHIRANE-SAN
Afternoon sunshine flickered and flashed like a lightning storm, spearing through the greenery and registering against my closed eyelids. From the foot of Nantai I was carried off deeper into the Nikko countryside, the beer from the restaurant on the shores of Lake Chuzenji conspired with the gentle rocking of the bus to ease me into a state of semi conscious bliss.
I pitched the tent beneath a stand of trees on the edge of a grassy ski run at Yumoto Onsen. When had I last brushed my teeth? Toothbrush poking out of my mouth, I dawdled listlessly across the bottom of the ski run to a covered cooking area, filled up with water and scrubbed my pearly whites back into a condition befitting the name. I’d been pretty much on the go, either climbing or in transit, since tackling Shari-dake some five mountains before. A dull ache sang in my bones and exhaustion was starting to weigh me down more than my pack. Although making the 25 mountain milestone, Nantai-san barely registered as an experience. Shrine, trees, top, Fuji, trees, shrine, beer. That was pretty much it. Going through the motions. I could’ve been looking at Fuji on a faded postcard, thumb tacked to a fat spattered noodle shop wall and got more out of it. As sundown turned to dusk I boiled up some noodles of my own, slurped them down and settled back in my tent on top of my sleeping bag, too tired to crawl in and passed out, halfway through a box of chocolate almonds.
The next morning motivation remained at low ebb. Another day in the mountains didn’t spark any fires of enthusiasm. My legs felt like lead weights, my brain as energised as a dead jellyfish. I lay on my side, eyes open, registering the glow growing outside as the day dawned. A strong breeze gusted through the treetops and I let the sound sweep me away back to oblivion…
Action! The start of the climb from the ski ground up to a forested ridgeline did nothing to lift the metaphysical load off my drooping shoulders. The trail, if that’s what it could be called, was in more a state of neglect than the mess I’d endured on Azuma back in June. Between a stony gully marred by small concrete weirs and a ski run, I dragged my withering frame up a course bordering on the nonexistent, in a gloomy forest of fallen and tangled timber.
Oku-shirane-san is the highest peak in the Nikko Mountains. Oku means interior and it’s a relatively remote peak – in Nikko terms at least. Before Fukada-san’s book rolled off the press it was a peak reserved for silk worm farmers and probably the random hiker or ascetic while the more accessible Nantai-san and its neighbour Taro-san garnered much of the attention.
Having made the ridge and at last setting foot on a decent trail my spirits began to rise. I snacked in a pretty clearing in the woods and felt the wind pick up in my sails. On lesser peak of Mae-shirane-san the woods parted and I stood and stared across at the silent, brooding summit of Oku-shirane-san rising above the natural bowl holding the dull waters of Goshiki-numa. According to Fukada-san the pool was much maligned by the locals who viewed its insipid beauty as a sign of a cursed area. I begged to differ, it was a glorious sight after the uninspiring day out on Nasu and Nantai. Below me in the dale between the peaks, deer feasting on the mountain grasses sensed my arrival and squeaked in alarm scattering into the trees ringing the pond. Long gone by the time I reached their feeding spot I pressed on heading for the trail up to the summit of Oku-shirane. There the winds held sway, growing in strength, whistling through the gaps in the rocks and buffeting the alpine grasses into submission on the treeless peak. I nestled down for a smoko break in the grass amongst the boulders, a touch below the summit and watched the winds sweep away the cloud rising out of the surrounding valleys.
Up top I met another climber being buffeted by the winds. He was standing on his fifty second Hyakumeizan. Precisely double my score. We took proof shots for each other and I made a hasty departure down the far side of the ancient lava dome. In a grass bottomed dell lined by trees that broke up the wind’s onslaught I sunk into the soft grasses off the trail and dozed. The sun warmed my face after a while as it broke through a high layer of cloud that had swept over the landscape and opening my eyes I found I’d been joined by a young deer, who feasted on the grasses, not in the least concerned with my presence.
Later on the trail loop, heading back to the campground, a procession of about a hundred teenaged schoolboys spilled over a rise in the gathering woodland. One of the somewhat alarmingly few teachers supervising the brigade of navy blue tracksuited boys stopped to talk as I stood aside to let them all pass.
“We were planning to climb Shirane-san too,” he said in English. “But a typhoon is coming soon.”
“Typhoon?” That was surprising. It was a month before typhoon season was supposed to begin.
“Where is it now?” I asked.
“Around Kyushu,” the boys continued filing past and I wondered about how a bloke that would march into the hills with a batallion of school boys and less than a handful of supervisors could be so concerned about a typhoon a thousand kilometres away.
“Is it coming this way?”
“Yes, maybe,” he said and the line had passed and he took up the rearguard bidding me farewell with a curt, “Okay, take care.”
“You too,” I replied and continued my own, more sedate march back to the tent.
I had eaten Oku-shirane-san up, knocking a couple of hours off the map estimates despite my supposed lethargy. But, typhoon or sunshine, whatever was bearing down on us, it mattered not, it was time to take a day off and I bussed down into Nikko township proper, found the local Youth Hostel and holed up for a couple of nights.