#29 – SUKAI-SAN
“This is a journey I make mostly in silence. My only soundtrack: the wind and water, the rumbles of faraway thunder, the clatter of the railway, the hum of the road. I don’t speak much to anyone. If I tallied up all the words uttered on this journey, konnichiwa – the standard Japanese mountain greeting – and a bunch of random cussing would be the leading contenders by far, closely followed by a collection of guttural moans and gasps. The language barrier stifles any conversations of significance with the inhabitants of the land. The sky wheels above me, the sun adheres to its set course and the clouds drift at the mercy of the winds. The ground is an ever mutating treadmill of surfaces beneath my boots. It’s introspection on steroids. A meandering meditation in the mountains. Who have I been all these years? Alone in the hills, the all the facades held in place by the demands and expectations of life down on the flats fall away. I can hear myself again.”
From the hill town of Mato, at the end of the railway line north east out of Maebashi, I ventured into the forests once again. Bound for Sukai-san, a 2100 metre peak hidden deep in the forested mountains of northern Kanto. I crossed a river and headed up a sealed, one lane road past old metal workings and a humming powerplant slowly being consumed by the lush, summer greenery. Cicadas serenaded me on my march and bright orange centipedes scuttled in the road’s gutters. Over a mountain pass and down again into a deep valley the asphalt eventually turned to crushed rock and the thoroughfare narrowed. Maple leaves met in a congress of summer green overhead, shading my progress as the heat of the day grew in strength. A river gurgled through rocky nooks down to the left and dark, shadowy woods hung off steep, rising ground to the right. The gravel and rock road ended at an old picnic area from where a washed out trail led down to the base of a waterfall, the sound of it drowning out the cicadas’ droning song. I followed a soft, leafy trail up into the forest over a series of old mossy footbridges, through some rocky terrain before arriving at a grand old timber hut. The Koshin Sanso, an elegant two storied structure, its front stairs leading up to a wide verandah, stood silently at the back of an inclined clearing in the woods.
“This place has to be locked up,” I assumed as I climbed the stairs.
I tried the glass paneled front door. It slid open easily, “Wow,” and I stepped inside. More stairs led up to a second floor, that sported a balcony above the verandah. Through to the left was a dining area, a tatami matted sleeping quarters lay beyond that. To my right was a wash area replete with cold running water that must have been fed by a mountain spring somewhere higher up. A couple of doors were locked, probably protecting supplies to be used whenever they opened the place. It was hiking season. So it was strange the place was unmanned. But, being a Monday on the less accessible side of a mountain I presumed the place may have only been staffed on weekends. I climbed the stairs and discovered more sleeping quarters then returned to the first floor and set up camp in the room beyond the dining area. Though it was only mid afternoon clouds were gathering quickly and my sweaty shirt began to feel chilly against my skin. I changed and hung the wet one on a wire hanger above my sleeping bag. In a cupboard with sliding doors I found a stack of futons and, along with a pile of musty smelling old blankets, threw together a comfy little nest to bed down in. The hut was full of trapped flies. Big bulbous things crawling up the glass window panes, verging on translucent as the light from outside shone through their starved, empty guts. I freed as many as I could and then lay down on my triple futoned nest and swatted to death any stragglers that dared come near me.
Dry and cosy I studied my map come fly swatter. Sukai-san lay nearly five hours hike away to the north west of Koshin-san, the peak directly behind the hut. To Sukai’s north was Oku-shirane-san. Nantai of Nikko sat on the far side of Lake Chuzenji to the north east. Akagi-yama lay to the south west. After a short snooze I wandered outside as evening began to hold sway. Munching on some chocolates I looked up at the host of crags that comprised Koshin-san. Cloud hung on the rocky buttresses where the cryptomeria and cypress clung. A mist filled twilight descended, slowly drawing the curtains of darkness over the day. The silence of the early evening lent an eerie air to the scene.
I sat down on the wooden stairs and finished off my snack in the last remaining light. Before long a trio of hikers appeared from the trees at the bottom of the sloping clearing. Two middle aged women and a young man. The ladies huffed and puffed and offered up a few “Yataa”-s of relief. The lad was silent and gawky.
“Otsukare-sama,” I said quietly as they approached, congratulating them on making it to the hut.
“Hitori-desu-ka?” one of the ladies asked peering around as if expecting someone else to show themselves.
“Hai,” I replied affirmatively.
“Ooh, nihongo shaberu!” the other said.
“No, no, no,” I was no Japanese converser. “Chotto-dake, chotto-dake.”
Smiling, they climbed the stairs past me and I slowly hauled myself up and followed them inside, the silent spell hanging over the place broken. Later, after they took over the upstairs room, we had dinner by torch light together in the dining area. They had certainly come prepared. Salad, soup, ham, eel and rice, red wine, fruit and dessert. Glancing at my measly portions of instant noodles and chocolates they insisted on sharing their banquet. The ladies, Michiyo and Hitomi, were sisters. The lad, Hiroyuki was Michiyo’s son. They came from Western Tokyo, the Chichibu Mountains was their hiking home ground. With a second helping of wine I showed them the photos of my trip up until then, regaling the three with stories of the trauma on Iwaki and pain on Hakkoda. Tales which at that point seemed like a lifetime ago. Where was Yuki’s Place? Who was the Rock Eagle? Soon after that, suitably impressed, they headed upstairs and I retired to my cosy futon nest.
In the darkness they came for me. From all corners of the room. I heard them first, rustling around in my gear. I fumbled for my headlamp, flicked it on and they froze, hunkered down low in my plastic bags or hugging the tatami. Scores of shiny, black cricket like creatures the size of Matchbox cars had materialised out of the night. As soon as I shifted the light and then returned it to them they’d scuttled in closer under cover of darkness. Red, curved spikes a centimetre long stuck out from the ends of their abdomens like rhinoceros horns affixed to the wrong end. Thin wire like antennae a couple of inches long protruded from their sinister, elongated black heads. What the hell were those things? As soon as I got up and moved for them they scampered back on spindly legs to the cover of the gaps between matting and wall. And as soon as I settled back down again they re-emerged, resolute, I was sure, to drain me of my blood by sunrise.
I scrounged around in my gear for my trusty old purple can of Rid. Good honest insect repellent from Down Under – Tropical Strength no less – and blasted them when they got within range of the spray as they crouched frozen under the glare of my headlamp. A face full of repellant sent them flipping and scurrying away on spindly black legs. But more came. I sprayed again. Another push would be mounted minutes after that. I got nothing more than five minutes of peace at a time.
After a number of these unsuccessful repulses and subsequent advances I’d had enough. I threw off my blanket, angrily spraying a perimeter line of repellent into the tatami matting until a wet line of chemical encircled me and arced over my head on the wall behind. But by then it was I who could barely breathe. The spray had me gagging more than the bloody bugs. Tropical Strength or not the damn things were immune. If I fell asleep there they’d devour me on the spot. They’d be in through every orifice available and be feasting on me from the inside out in no time, the evil, demonic, horny arsed beasts that they were. Headlamp on, I grabbed my sleeping bag and fled upstairs.
The lad sounded like he was being slowly choked to death, but it was a strange case of snoring rather than death by marauding black crickets. The ladies stirred as I set up my second camp.
“Oki, kuro mushi. Shita. I-paii!”
“Ooooh,” bad Japanese or not they shuddered at the news of insects crawling about in their midst. I shone my light around the second floor. All seemed fine up there and I settled down to sleep.
Heavy rains fell in the night, washing over the hut in waves. There was a stirring at four. My fellow hikers were rising. The hut was still dark but with dawn’s grey light slowly illuminating the misty woods beyond the windows. It was time for action.
Breakfasted, the trio left for Sukai-san as I cleared up the remnants of my abandoned camp in the downstairs room.
“See you at the top – choujou,” I said and gave them the thumbs up.
Half an hour later I was scaling the ladders of Koshin-san in their wake, climbing up out of the mists that clung to the forests around the hut. I clambered out onto a rocky promontory and gazed across the rolling blue mountains and ridgelines to the immediate south. The glutinous haze that had cast itself over the Kanto region for the past week had persevered and any hope of a view of Akagi-san was laid to rest. I swallowed some water before, in turn, being swallowed by a dark stretch of forested ridgeline that ran to the highpoint of Koshin-san.
There, through the trees they came for me. Swooping down out of the branches like an innumerable squadron of kamikazes – brilliant, yellowy gold horseflies, the size of a kid’s thumb. In a blur of colour accompanied by a droning buzz they flew straight at my face before averting their course right at the last possible moment. Swatting them away into the greenery with my map seemed to have little effect on their armour plated bodies and they returned or were replaced by their comrades as I moved along the trail. On the tricky bits, when my hands were full of ropes or clinging onto rock they seemed to relish in their torment tenfold, swooping in with their aviator goggled eyes as I dangled precariously over the steep parts. I caught up with the others picnicking on a rock looking out toward the proud, bull shaped form of Sukai-san. They shared some grapes with me and I moved onward. Onward over horsefly infested rises and mountain saddles choked with head high bamboo grass the likes of which I hadn’t seen since descending Tomuraushi in Hokkaido. The only things guiding me through these seas of green were small red metal plates hammered high on tree trunks. I hoped the other three would be fine forging their ways through those tangles, they were each at least a foot shorter than myself.
The summit of Sukai-san was heavily wooded and afforded no views. There the mongrel horseflies were joined by hundreds of flitting dragonflies that danced in the windless air without a care in the world. A small, fly the size and colour of a bee attached itself to a knuckle on my index finger and went about sucking up whatever miniscule morsels of dead skin and sweat it could find. I waited for the others, giving them some thirty minutes’ grace but it wasn’t until halfway back down Sukai’s final ascent that I ran into them, happily huffing and puffing their way up through the dark woods smothering the mountain.
On the return trip I took a lower trail running more or less parallel to the south of the one I fought along in the morning. An initial navigation through another virtually impenetrable sea of sasa eventually gave way to a glorious stroll along a flat trail through open woodland carpeted with a less choking variety of knee high bamboo. The sun vanished behind a layer of afternoon cloud, the horseflies called it a day and I was able to soak up the silent mountain atmosphere once more. Investigating a side trail I climbed out onto a rocky buttress and stared out over forests of deepening green. Somewhere below me the sound of rushing water rose out of the trees. An unseen bird or two chirped in the gnarly cryptomeria above me and I wondered how the others were doing.
Back at the hut, cloud hung high on Koshin-san, yet again preparing for its late evening descent. As the dusk began to seriously consider surrendering to the night I fretted about the welfare of my companions. Like an anxious parent I paced the darkening hut’s tatami matted floors and wondered how far out from home they were. Peering through the second floor window, I slipped on a jacket to fend off the chilly evening air and breathed a sigh of relief as they appeared at the edge of the clearing, just as merry and satisfied as they had been the day before.
The following morning I left what had been my home for a couple of nights at a later, more respectable hour, set for the long trudge back to Mato Station. Michiyo and Hitomi invited me to join them at an onsen, but I politely declined. I wanted to get back to Maebashi and prep for further forays into the hills. After a round of goodbyes and good lucks I strode down across the clearing below the hut and into the forest. The sun shone, the river gushed, the trees swayed gently in a light breeze. I watched a pair of holes in my boots gape and close with each step. The stitching was coming apart at the bends between my toes and feet. The boots weren’t waterproof and finally the dousings they were copping from rain and dew were taking their toll on the tired old things. With each step their stitching creaked and moaned like the rigging of an old galleon. I urged them to hold together for another couple of weeks until I made it to Tokyo, fearing booting a twenty nine centimetre foot was a virtual impossibility to achieve outside the big smoke.
In tiny Mato Station I sat down opposite a pair of pretty women who smelled of summer flowers and waited for the train. They sat alongside a goatee and pony tailed old chap who appeared to be a Japanese version of Willie Nelson, though he was overladen with cameras rather than guitars. Five of them hung off the pack by his side. He sported a thin headband to help hold back his crop of long grey hair, wore a pocketed vest over his shirt, red baggy pants and new, pale brown boots that put mine to shame.
“Sukai-san desu-ka?” he asked quietly, his bright black eyes betrayed the spark within him.
“Hai, so desu,” I nodded.
The young ladies oohed and ahhed. One of them spoke some English and explained they were both reporters for a local television station, there to do a story on the railway. Sadly no interview time was to be spared for the intrepid, dashing, young, Hundred Mountain, adventurer who had just wandered in. When their accompanying crew arrived they went about their business and departed on an earlier train than the old man and I.
The cicadas and the echoes emanating out of the metal works across the street regained supremacy as the sound of the train faded down the single set of tracks servicing Mato.
“Ko-su, dochira desu-ka?” the man asked.
I didn’t know the name of the trails I’d taken so pulled out my map and showed him the route I took up and down Sukai.
“Oooh. Nan jikan?”
I said that the return loop to the hut had taken me about ten hours all up.
He said he’d done the same route in six hours before.
“Running?” I asked in English, doing actions with my arms.
“Hai,” he nodded eyes sparkling. Adding that he was armed only with a couple of rice balls, some water, a pick and his camera.
He was eighty four years old. He lit up a cigarette and went on to quietly tell me he’d climbed Mt McKinley in Alaska four times, been to Australia ten times and China and Vietnam many times as well.
He let me ponder all that in silence, sitting there in the station below the rocky peaks of Mato while the heat and humidity of the day welled to a point where I half expected the air to literally liquefy and splash to the earth at our feet.
As he smoked, he eyed off the sorry state of my boots, got up and knelt down in front of me and calmly retied them saying that they looked dangerous in their state. I agreed. He returned to his camera laden pack and pulled out a photograph of three tiny pink flowers.
“Koushinsou,” he announced quietly and wrote it on the back before signing his name. “Dozo,” he said and presented me with the photograph. “Sukai-san kara,” he added. The picture had been taken on the mountain.
Thanking him I watched as he put his gear together, checked his pack and slung it over his shoulders, adjusted his ponytail and said “Sayonara.”
“Ah, sayonara,” I replied, confused as there was no train in sight.
Outside he straddled a small fold up bicycle propped against the station wall and slowly rode off downhill, out of town. I got to my feet and leant on the doorpost looking down the road after him. The ponytail was an impossibility, but I hoped and prayed I’d find myself in similar shape if I ever made his vintage.