THE ROAD TO OZE

AUGUST 2007

#31 – SHIBUTSU-SAN

The campground was silent and still, cast in the steely, blue-grey light of dawn.  The stream babbled beyond the bamboo grass lining its banks.  Clear blue sky glowed on high and I imagined sunlight dancing on unseen mountaintops.  By the time the sun’s rays touched the tips of the trees dotting the camp I was fed, packed and ready to get the show on the road once more.  And road once more it was.  The morning was consumed by a march on tarmac; a smooth strip of two lane black top snaking up through sun drenched forests to a spot called Konroku Pass.  Over Konroku and sporting a healthy sheen of the day’s first sweat I was promptly sent back down into the deep green folds of the mountains. The snaking, roller coaster of a road rose again and joined the main tourist route linking the town of Numata to Oze – Japan’s most famous highland marsh.  Heavily laden coaches grumbled and hissed as they climbed the tight, rising switchbacks on the road to Oze.  I stared up through the lightly tinted glass of the coach windows where payloads of bleary eyed tourists stared blankly out into the trees.  I came expecting crowds.  My timing seemed to be spot on – or off.  Propped up alongside the bus drivers tour guides dolled up to the nines and sporting permanent toothy grins – no doubt jazzed on cheap canned coffee and leeched make-up chemicals – blabbed cheery bollocks to their captive audiences.  I sucked exhaust fumes and dodged the towering, oblong boxes on wheels coming up behind me one after another and swinging round the hairpin bends in sweeping arcs consuming the full breadth of road.

At Hatomachi Pass, the bus terminus and southern entrance to Oze, I sat on a wooden bench and stared up at the gentle profile of Shibutsu-san.  Vast shadows of clouds swept across its face where tan coloured boulders sat amongst the mountain’s green cloak of bamboo and creeping pine.  Day trippers milled, waiting for their parties to assemble before taking the flat trail north, directly into the marshland.  I savoured a Coke, its sweetness heavenly after a day spent living on water alone.

Once on my way up the mountain a gently rising hiking trail alternated with boardwalk. Over Ko-shibutsu-san, the bamboo gave way to rockier ground and low pine, here and there smatterings of summer flowers bloomed.  The neighbouring peaks were smothered in a midday haze, all colour bleached out of the blue sky that had greeted me at dawn.  Resting on top of Shibutsu-san amongst the tan coloured rocks I stared down into Oze, the flat expanse of marshland dotted with glinting pools and hemmed in by rising ground on both sides.  The rooftops of the huts at Yama-no-hana poked out of the trees a short hike from the base of the mountain.  Some ten kilometres to the north, at the far end of the marshland the deep purple silhouette of the imposing Hiuchi-ga-take dominated the scene.  Darkening clouds, feasting on the humidity of the day massed at its shoulders and the air gently stirred.

Thirty one mountains down and I was calm and contented.  On the second day of my longest foray into the hills things were going well.

I headed north, down into Oze, boulder hopping between flights of wooden steps recently constructed above an eroding trail that was gradually being reclaimed by stunted bamboo grass.  I negotiated stretches of rocks so smooth they must take on characteristics of ice in wet weather, then spotted my first blood on the trail.  The crown of an impossibly round boulder the size and shape of a beach ball sported fresh blood.  From a thick single glob of dried, near black liquid dribbles of dark red spread out like the stylised image of an exploding firework.  I stood and stared at it for a moment, wondering if head had met rock or if someone, already stricken, had just sat there and bled.

“Spit on it,” I proclaimed aloud to nobody, recalling the Old Man’s simple, oft repeated mantra offered up to remedy all host of ailments ranging from scratch to snake bite.  Whatever had occurred, the sight of blood refocused my attention.

From a quiet forest of pines covering the mountain’s lower reaches, from which only the occasional twittering of a bird or tinkling of a bear bell emanated, I emerged onto the southern end of the boardwalks running the length of Oze.  The deep, guttural, ominous sound of distant thunder rolled across the flat expanse of swampland.  Looking ahead as I made for Yama-no-hana, dark, foreboding cloud slowly enveloped Hiuchi, smothering its proud triangular peak and I shuddered at the prospect of wrestling a tent battered by wild, midnight storms.

Yama-no-hana is where the two trails from the bus terminus at Hatomachi meet before running north east across the swamp towards Hiuchi-ga-take.  Three huts, a visitor centre, modern toilets and a campground make up the congregation spot for hikers at the southern end of Oze.  While the storms congregated around Hiuchi, the afternoon sun cast a golden glow over Shibutsu-san and the tiny settlement.  A large café doubled as a souvenir shop and there I devoured a red bean soft cream and washed it down with a second delightfully fizzy Coke.  Tents dotted the open spaces between buildings though it seemed most people were holing up in the huts for the night.

By the time I’d pitched the tent and strolled back out onto the boardwalks the sun had vanished behind the hills and the storm to the north had fizzled out.  I sat on a wooden bench and watched the night take hold, zipping up my jacket as the evening cooled.  An air of quiet descended over Oze and most of the people retreated to their huts or tents.  We, the stragglers, embraced the darkness alone.  Reverently watching the night silently casting its spell over the land.

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