#32 – HIUCHI-GA-TAKE
I walked in silence across the boardwalks into a golden, sunlit mist, awake before the crowds, crossing paths with a handful of lone hikers and photographers on my way north.
The rising sun chased away the mists as I walked into Jujiro, an enclave of huts at the northern end of the marsh, nestling at the edge of the woods, beneath the gaze of the imposing Hiuchi-ga-take. If conquering Shibutsu-san took barely more effort than a walk in the park, her counterpart at the far end of Oze, I feared, would extract much more.
“It’s a steep climb from here,” a fat man warned me in English across the picnic table we rested at in the shade of one of the huts. “I climbed Hiuchi with my wife many years ago. From the other side. She said it looks like ‘The Sound of Music’ over there.”
I nodded grimly partly because of the confirmation of my fears regarding the severity of the climb ahead and partly because the miniscule cup of coffee that I sipped was immune to tasting decent no matter how much white paint (also known as long life cream) and sachets of sugar I added to it.
“The place doesn’t seem to be as crowded as I expected,” I mentioned.
“No, you missed the crowds by a week or two – when the mizu basho flowers. But it’s not as busy as maybe ten years ago,” he continued. “The hiking boom in Japan is over.”
Heading up Hiuchi my head buzzed from the coffee. Due, I was afraid, not to the over abundance of caffeine but to the fact that I’d spent four hundred yen on the tiny cup of liquefied fecal matter. When they charge, the buggers don’t miss you in the mountains.
Crowds, as I’ve come to find in Japan, is a relative term and soon through the trees marching toward me came hiker after hiker. I marveled at how they’d got up and down Hiuchi at such an early hour. Further on a group of five gorgeous young lassies smelling of department store cosmetics flitted past then, catching up with a sprucely attired family of three at a small waterfall – kiddy obsessed Mum capturing every move of her tiny lad on video as he squatted with his softly spoken father over a small pool – I suspected things weren’t right.
“They are not going to the top of the mountain,” I silently assured myself. “Meaning I’m probably not either.” I pulled my map out of my pocket and there it was, the fork in the trail, back before the waterfall I now stood at. I’d walked right past it and into the realm of the Clean People. The parade I was witnessing was that of the daytrippers, flooding into Oze by way of the gentle trail from the bus stop beyond Oze-numa. I retraced my steps. On the correct path I was instantly assaulted with a trail going straight up the mountain and degrading into a virtual rock scramble amidst a clamouring, humid, windless forest.
On top of Hiuchi-ga-take I slid out of my pack and collapsed onto the red gravelly ground and valiantly attempted not to die there amidst the gaggle of other climbers already recovered from their efforts. On the final push to the summit I had taken a hammering, willing myself upwards, gasping under my breath not to stop until I reached the top. With the sound of blood coursing through my cranium fading, I raised my sweaty skull off the dirt just in time to witness Fuji-san, sitting far out to the south, being swallowed by a rising bank of white cloud.
“Akagi, Hotaka-yama, Shibutsu,” a chap behind me was rattling off the names of Hiuchi’s neighbours. He pointed out Nantai-san and Okushirane-san. Nikko was but a day’s walk to the south east. I was filling in the gaps of the Kanto mountains. I tried to spot Sukai-san but from where I lay the mountains between Okushirane and Akagi appeared all somewhat the same.
With the skin on my reddening arms a-sizzling I forced a packet’s worth of peanut m&m’s into my uninterested gut and washed them down with a few gulps of water. I’d found that in mid hike my appetite all but abandoned me. I could guzzle as much fluid as I liked, but more often than not found that I needed to force feed myself to keep my energy levels up. Hunger never overwhelmed me until the end of the day.
Down the northern side of the mountain the hills were indeed alive with the sound of music rather than the squeals of my imminent demise as they were on the ascent. My batteries were recharged by the glorious scenery of forest and open patches of marshland I strode through. More boardwalks aided the speed of my descent and after a final struggle across a vast blacktopped parking area I collapsed into the confines of a lavish visitor centre and instantly downed half a litre of Coke.
“Ice cream!” cola guzzled, the idea forced me back onto my sore, path pummelled feet both tingling and aching simultaneously. I scrounged around a freezer until I found a sexy looking vanilla and chocolate sundae, then grabbed another Coke to spare any further walks to the fridge. But then I was up again anyway, the lure of another ice cream all consuming. The sunlight shining into the cafeteria was turning golden. Licking the remains of the second sundae off my dirty fingers I considered an early dinner would probably be a good idea and staggered across to the meal counter and ordered up a bowl of meat and rice that was in turn washed down with half a litre of ice tea and half a litre of water.
Fed to the gills I toddled outside and caught a bus to the town of Hinoemata lying deep in a valley running north east from Hiuchi-ga-take, in the shadow of Aizu-koma-ga-take the mountain forming most of the western side of the valley. There I squeezed my tent into an overcrowded camp ground chock full of summer campers. Narrow little concrete gutters flowing with cool mountain water ran between our tents and the campers had filled the waterways with beer cans and soft drink bottles to keep them cool. From the bus I’d spied an onsen up the road from the camp ground and I staggered off burping cola and beef flavoured burps to the bathhouse like a haggard old explorer who’d, on his last legs, stumbled upon Eldorado. Once there, on that hallowed, rubber matted ground, I realised I’d never been happier to get my gear off in the presence of a bunch of other blokes. Blokes whose kids gawked at my shriveled, foreign borne tackle as though it sprouted pink and blue polka dotted mushrooms. Hallucinogenic fungus be damned, the stench arising from down below was enough to send small animals within a radius of ten feet into convulsions. The kids turned tail from the locker room shrieking and hollering with delight having laid eyes upon their first nude foreigner, their dads deserted the bath in turn as I entered wobbly kneed and slowly lowered myself down onto a small plastic stool at water’s edge. Soaping and re-soaping myself, I washed away the accumulated layers of salt, sweat and grit.
“Damn this place is heaven,” I said as I sunk into the boiling waters of the communal outdoor bath. The sky above me slowly turned a deep dark blue and a star or two appeared. Some time later, half broiled, I hauled myself out of the waters, dried off, slipped back into my reeking clothes and headed back to camp, zipped up the tent behind me and slept like a log.