#34 – HIRA-GA-TAKE
“You motherfucker. “You mo-ther-fuck-er,” sweat sodden, wracked with exhaustion, I wilted. Humidity, exertion and the weight of a fully laden pack combined to turn me into a blathering mess at a time more sensible souls would barely be rising and shining. On hands and knees I spat obscenities into the pale, crumbling earth. Beneath furrowed brows, my eyes stung with sweat. I longed for those grit laden rivers to scour my eyeballs from my head, for what I peered into I had no desire to see. Four days into my cross Kanto trek, energy reserves at low ebb, nearing the top of a scrappy, crumbling ridgeline rising out of the forests below Hira-ga-take, a ridgeline I’d christened ‘The Nutbuster,’ with my own spit, sweat and tears, I stared down into its final, cruelest joke.
For something near on three hours, beneath a rising sun sporting a particularly merciless sting, I had laboured up an endless, progression of gravelly scrambles interspersed by small clusters of pine. Every time I made it up and over another little hummock held together by those knots of vegetation – every fucking time – another scramble and clump of greenery stared me fair in the face. The last of these incessant little bumps sits at just over 1400 metres and appears to be the culmination of the climb up to the point where the trail onwards to Hira-ga-take flattens out. That, as it turned out, was sadly, not the case. In utter disbelief, I stared into the gaping maw of nothingness. Instead of strolling over a final, flatter approach to the top of the ridge I was down, grovelling in the dirt trying to comprehend what I saw: a fifty metre drop and a climb up the other side at least three times that. I couldn’t believe it. My brain hurt. Wiping the sweat and grit and dirt from my eyes I re-examined the map and sure enough, upon closer inspection this cruel joke was vaguely discernible.
I had nothing left to give. Down in the dirt my mind wandered back to that woman on Aizu-koma the day before. The cunning old hag! She really had sapped me of my power when she shook my hand! I’d chewed up Aizu-koma and spat it out. Less than twenty-four hours later and Hira-ga-take was doing the same to me.
I sucked down some water and plucked up the scraps of resolve whimpering in the nooks of my psyche. Retreat was inconceivable. The idea of repeating the ordeal had me up on shaky pins and staggering down into the gap. Dragging myself up the other side, like a half drowned cat clambering aboard a ship I collapsed onto an old, weathered stump in the shade of an ancient stand of gnarled pines, sucked in the sultry mountain air and prayed for mercy.
As refreshed as I was going to get, I was up and following the trail south along a broader, greener ridge that dropped down on occasion to pass through little stands of trees before veering west into a highland forest and toward the distant, gently profiled peaks of Hira-ga-take.
Sated at a spring bearing some of the sweetest waters I’ve tasted in the hills I made my way through a heavily wooded swamp before walking out into scenery dominated by fields of head high bamboo then strode into a literal wall that knocked me back on my heels. A barrier of sun drenched, bamboo covered mountain rose before my unblinking eyes, cresting high in the dazzling, cloudless blue overhead. The trail hit it headlong. An angry, unforgiving vertical scar tore through the swathes of bamboo. How much brutality was this mountain willing to throw up? I was being played like a fucking three stringed guitar. Lulled into believing the worst had passed only to be dealt a metaphorical walloping round the ears as I made the next bend. A curtain of misery and suffering was drawn around me. I saw nothing of the beauty of the place. I couldn’t fathom the cruelty, just endure it. I surrendered myself to the tsunami of bamboo and suffering and walked unflinchingly and unfeelingly into the dusty, hot, steep scar in the dirt. There the sun seemed more vicious, the ordeal more arduous than it had at any other time. I dragged myself up, hand over fist, with the aid of the stringy bamboo clinging to the loose, dry earth.
On to level ground yet again, I stumbled, punch drunk, through a scrubby stretch of terrain and soon found myself standing on a weathered old platform lining the edge of some mountain pools. From there, finally, the top of Hira-ga-take seemed within reach, a wide expanse of rolling mountaintop which could easily have been mistaken for some nondescript hill country had it not been for the hideously, hellish climb that it had taken to get there. Pack unclipped, it slipped from sagging shoulders and hit the deck not long after I.
Staring somewhere far off into the astoundingly bright sky blue above me, I lay, hurting, aching, chest heaving. For how long? I don’t know. Dragonflies flitted, in and out of focus, across the azure milieu. Blood surged through my limp frame, frantically delivering the oxygen I sucked out of the atmosphere.
Slowly rising to my feet again, as shaky as a drunken clown on white ant riddled stilts, I staggered across to the top of the mountain where, in a scene dominated by shin high bamboo and shallow mountain pools, a wandering hiker, arriving in my wake and snapped off a couple of shots at the spot we guessed the summit marker should have been located. I’d done it. Beaten the beast. I spat in its dirt and cursed it again. No love was lost between Hira-ga-take and I.
Three options existed as I planned my flight from that mountain to the next: Echigo-koma. The most direct, but most risky option was to trail blaze north west over a line of peaks, camping once or twice as I went. On any other equally fair weathered day it would have been an enticing option but not on that day. I was in no state to trailblaze. Option Two was to head down the only other trail up Hira-ga-take, follow the winding mountain roads north and then west and maybe get lucky hitching. It was going to be a long couple of days walk otherwise and with barely another soul on the mountain and none I’d spied coming from that shorter option I was leery of that choice. Reluctantly, having hauled my pack to the top of the hill, I begrudgingly returned the way I had come. The torture relived in reverse, I stumbled out onto the road at the trailhead a soul shattered, shell of a man.
I should have camped there.
Stopped and called it a day.
Slung up my tent and slept.
Having swallowed my pride after lugging all my shit to the top of the hill only to bring it back down again, I didn’t need to regurgitate it then.
Progress had been made. I’d gotten up and down the mountain. The last bus toward Ginzan Lake had long gone anyway.
I should have stopped there, but I didn’t.
I walked another half hour up the road to a lodge, determined to live it up a little after a day of unadulterated misery.
Once there, as the sun slowly dropped toward the highland to the west, I propped myself up at the bar in the corner. Food and beer and bed on my mind. I could feel a glimmer of the old Willie, the indefatigable Hundred Mountain Man coming back. After the day’s ordeal I’d earned this. Deserved it.
A short, sharp burst of English from the lassie behind the bar shattered my simple aspirations: “No beds or meals tonight,” was the response when I asked for the menu as she set about setting about 20 plates out on a long table in the centre of the room.
The joint was fully booked. A bunch of schoolkids on a study holiday – an oxymoron if I’d ever heard one – were staying and the young minds, full of hope and potential had to be fed. So I set about buggerising mine and ordered up a beer. Liquid nir-fucking-vana in a can. The drink didn’t hit the sides.
Across the road from the lodge was a campground dotted with a few tents and infested with swarms of aggressive green horseflies. The bloodthirsty critters took chunks out of my head as I begrudgingly set up camp, proboscisizing right through the thick fabric of my hat no less.
I should have stayed at the trailhead.
Those bugs and the cold beer sitting there in the fridge right across the road had me simultaneously salivating with rage and anticipation.
I slammed down a thousand yen note on the bar and got well on the way to being maggotted on only the second can. It’s amazing what a twelve hour hike, with little food and a dose of near dehydration can do for one eager to hit the piss whilst on a tight budget.
A big white haired bear of a man tended to a fire outside. A pair of young fellas in easy chairs reclined in the corner near the door, chatting and drinking. The lassie pushed a bowl of nibbles across the bar towards me and asked, “Can you eat Japanese snacks?” I told her I thought I’d be able to manage just this once, gave her a smile and burped beer. We got talking, the big fella from the fire entered the dining room and asked where I’d hiked from. I told them I’d basically walked most of the way from Minakami over the past few days. They told me I was a madman. I ordered another beer.
I should. Have stayed. At the trailhead.
Orgasms were firing in my synapses as brain cells exploded with glee. To want to continue climbing after the ordeal I’d put myself through, I reasoned a brain cell cull was a necessary course of action. The fellas by the door – one sporting a moustache with less hair than a turtle’s eyebrow, the other close cropped mop and spectacles with flip up sunglasses – invited me to join them. We talked the sun down and the stars out. Beer flowed as long and as hard as the River Tadami outside. At some point in the proceedings the kids emerged, ate and dispersed again before the cook had a change of heart and an octopus salad, salmon in a delightful cucumber sauce, chicken stew and vegetables appeared, all on the house. The big bear of a bloke joined us with a bottle of wine and by sometime around ten, after some five hours of indulgence we were all pretty well cut. I hauled myself up and out of my seat, said my goodnights and offered my profound thanks, the big fella not accepting a cent – or a yen as it were – for the food or wine. Making for camp in the pitch black, moonless night, head a-spinning like a runaway merry go round, I got tangled up in a knot of thorny vines then stepped into a small stream as I freed myself, disintegrating boots instantaneously taking on water faster than the Titanic.
The world teetered on the brink, the river rushed interminably loudly inside my head. I tripped over a fly wire of a distant neighbour and scanned the darkness for my tent as horseflies attacked. I bumped into it before I saw it, bumbled inside and passed out instantly.
At some point the gushing of the river beyond the trees was drowned out by the gushing of dinner from my innards. I hurled like a gut shot pig, roaring as the vile, half digested mush, burst forth from my stomach. I chundered the night away. Chundered like I’d never chundered before. Each time I awoke fit to burst, my head was already, instinctively, poking out the tent. And each time as I waited for my guts to expunge another wave of vileness, mosquitoes and horseflies descended upon my exposed bald, sweat dripping skull.
I swore and swore I would never drink again as I blew a globs of vomit out my nostrils.
The gut at last settled; sleep came on deep and I awoke to the ringing of cicadas in the trees outside my little cocoon of humidity.
In the bleached, washed out light of day the sultriness of the air clung to me like a wet nightie. An unholy stench, a living cocktail of sweat and vomit, rose out of the valleys and pits of my body and hung on me like clouds in the mountains. On the verge of hurling again I sat down beneath the bus stop sign outside the silent lodge.
No soul stirred inside.
And no bus to the lake came at the designated time. Rechecking, I’d read the sign wrong. I had another ninety minutes to wait. My gut lurched. Cicadas hummed. My head buzzed. I wandered off into the trees beyond the camp ground, found a quiet clearing and, hands on knees, hurled all the water I’d ingested that morning out between my feet.
And that was it. I threw up my stomach lining and threw in the towel. I was done and dusted.
I should have stayed at the trailhead.
“Fuck it all,” I sputtered and spagged out a glob of gunk into the leaves on the ground. Echigo-koma could wait.
I fled the mountains. Bussed back past Hira, Hiuchi and Aizu-koma and onwards to a train bound for Maebashi…
…you know things are pretty rough when you can smell yourself without farting, burping or sticking your nose anywhere near your armpits or arsecrack. The stench wafting off me had some of my closest companions on that train ride experiencing more than a little discomfort. The thick layer of grease and grime that had congealed on my skin was of a consistency that flies, bugs and small children would have stuck to had they been game enough to approach me. Clean, well dressed Sunday afternoon day trippers surrounding me had their chins pushed back into their necks and fixed grimaces on their faces. I tried not to make eye contact. It was grim.
Back down on the flats the heat was like a hammer. While I had been slogging it out in the mountains, Japan had been baking. The air was as thick as scotch broth, the sky so full of gunk it had turned a pale, sickly grey. At my hotel, when I checked in again, the lady told me the mercury had been hovering around forty degrees for days. I nodded and smiled, uttered an appropriate “Sugoi,” in response and staggered upstairs – the final climb of the week.