#54 – NAEBA-SAN
‘Blue skies, smilin’ at me…’
‘The bastards have to be taking the piss,’ I gasped under my breath and nearly choking on the beer hitting the back of my neck.
‘Nothin’ but blue skies, do I see…’
I was back at the little Indian – Italian ethnic restaurant joint drowning my sorrows as autumn rains threatened to do the same to me outside in the sodden, Nagano City night. It seemed the DJ had chosen his tunes wisely for the miserable Hyakumeizan hunter in their midst.
‘Blue birds, singin’ a song,
Nothin’ but blue skies, from now on…’
I could only hope.
Having sloshed down off Takazuma-yama the day before, I’d watched the rains fall out of the heavens for a second day straight, albeit from the comforts of my hotel room, a Starbucks, a bookstore and a sushi joint.
‘Glum,’ would be how I’d’ve described it – weather and mood both.
Cloud/Cloud/Rain/Sun/Sun/Rain/Rain: the next seven days appeared for the most part a write off. Not too many blue skies were going to be smiling down on me. Plenty of grey ones pissing down though, or so it seemed. The meteorological situation I had found myself in, I dare say, was well on the way to shitting me to tears. Even if blue birds did decide to sing a song, with all the cloud hanging about at two thousand metres, for all I knew it could well be a troupe of trombone toting emus serenading me in the sasa. I ordered another beer as my pasta meal arrived – this time, thankfully, in the shape of just that, a pasta meal. Maybe it was a sign things were on the turn around.
I took that thought back the next morning as I lay spreadeagled on the floor in my hotel room having cracked my skull on the top of the doorway as I set about setting off for the day. Stars clearing and hauling myself back up, I resolved to enjoy things from that point on. Despite the promised cloud. Despite the fractured skull. Despite the excessive commute to the mountain and the big climb awaiting me.
From Nagano, I was bound for Tsunan, by train, to the north east and from there a bus would head south into the hills to the village of Koakazawa nestled deep in a steep walled valley below Naeba-san; the peak I was originally scheduled to climb after bearing west off Tanigawa only to have those plans washed away in summer showers.
‘Fuck me,’ I thought. ‘History was well on the way to repeating itself.’
Halfway up Naeba, having ploughed through the mud and hauled my grisly self up over rocky sections of trail I damn near split my skull open like a fresh watermelon on a tree branch. Talk about reopening old wounds. The festering gutful of malcontent erupted like a septic wound and rancid vehemence spilled out of me into the ether. I despised that place, I reviled Naeba-san, I abhored the Japanese mountains, Nagano, the whole godforsaken nation and, shit, why the fuck not: the whole miserable, shit heap of a planet too. When sunshine miraculously broke through cloud I swore at my shadow: ‘Who the fuck are you?’ and, and, and –
– and then the trees parted. I walked up over the crest of the rise ahead of me and onto a mountain plateau and into a world rimmed with cloud and smothered in an expanse of golden grasses, copses of pine and deep green, knee high sasa.
‘What the – ? What is this place?’ I had barely researched any of the mountains I’d set out to climb. Most of the features of the Hyakumeizan where shrouded in mystery, remaining nothing more than points on brown maps along red squiggly lines until I set foot on them. There were exceptions of course – live in Japan long enough and one knows exactly what to expect on Fuji-san for example. Those peaks that escaped scrutiny however, led to some of the most breathtaking moments I experienced in the hills. Laying eyes on Tokachi-dake for the first time was a jaw dropper, staring across golden fields to the jagged form of Shari-dake in Hokkaido another, the immense beauty of Chokai-san and the snow drifts of O-asahi-dake and the list went on.
I took a break on a broad wooden platform erected at the edge of the expanse. The sun showed itself again and this time the poison in my soul had vanished, my mood swings as schizophrenic as the weather.
A smiling Japanese chap approached across the boardwalks spanning the flat high ground and sat down for a chat. His name was Kiyoshi-san and I shared a box of my chocolate almonds with him.
‘God this place is gorgeous,’ I thought to myself, utterly enamoured.
We soon went our separate ways. He, down over the lip and I towards the highpoint, wandering across the boardwalks spanning the golden grassland dotted with small silver, glasslike pools.
Once off the mountain later that day, having dispensed with my demons in the trees, a vehicle slowly pulled up alongside me as I made my way to the bus stop. It was Kiyoshi-san.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Tsunan and then back to Nagano,’ I replied.
‘Come on. I’m going to Tsunan.’
In town, as I stepped from the car he implored me to do my best as I chased those hundred mountains and, most of all, stay safe. I assured him I would and with a wave, the happy man was off.
Stay safe: Suddenly those words bore an immense weight. With Naeba-san behind me, and the afternoon light wilting into the clouds once more, there was no more excuses for putting off the inevitable. The time had come to dance on the doorstep of Hell itself. A feeling of dread and foreboding descended on the train ride back into Nagano, as my attention turned to the fire and brimstone breathing beast known as Asama-yama…