#027 – AKASAKA-YAMA
Ride the rails out of Kyoto, through Otsu, along the western shoreline of Lake Biwa and your left hand windows will be filled with the posturing eastern flank of the Hira Mountain Range. A wall a thousand metres high, it appears all the more fearsome when capped with a menacing crest of black cloud…so much for the weather forecast.
‘There are avalanche warnings for Shiga today,’ The Missus casually informed me as I peered up into those malevolent skies, a looming tsunami-esque wall of black churning vapours, viewed from the cozy confines of a heated train carriage.
‘Yes. I thought you knew.’
‘How would I know?’ I asked, aghast.
‘Well you went upstairs and checked the weather, right?’
‘Yeah, well, when I check the weather I look at the radar and the forecast. I don’t check for bloody avalanches!’
‘Well, there are warnings. Not just advisories. Warnings.’
‘And they said this on the telephone? At breakfast? When we were all sitting comfortably around the dining room table thinking about the day’s hike you didn’t consider mentioning the small matter of an avalanche warning?’
‘You said everything was going to be fine.’
Weather wise, yes, but, bloody hell, avalanches!’
I pulled the map out of my pocket and looked more closely at the contour lines criss crossing our planned route up Akasaka-yama, an 800 metre peak in the northern reaches of the Hira Mountains. On paper everything seemed doable. We’d be climbing up a spur running down off the peak rather than ascending any snow funneling valley. The contours weren’t terribly dense indicating a reasonably gentle incline. There were some steep hills in Shiga and it had been quite a snowy season but I guessed we’d be out of harm’s way. Though the baying black skies were making me feel a touch leery.
‘Let’s see how we go,’ I reasoned.
A relentless easterly wind blew in hard off Lake Biwa and through the wide streets of Makino. A lone hound tied to an unmanned bicycle barked at his owner savouring a warm brew inside a tiny coffee shop. We hunkered down inside our jackets, made fists of our hands in our pockets and walked the streets in search of a convenience store. Save for us, and the dog, the streets were deserted. Everyone was either huddling together indoors or had been blown away. Stocked up at last, we returned to the the station and boarded a bus as empty as the streets (though the dog had been replaced by a bus driver of similar countenance) bound for the Makino Highland.
The highland is ringed with mountains, some rising to heights outstripping Akasaka but, as you ride into the district, it is she, Akasaka-yama, that captures the eye, gracefully sitting at the head of the narrowing valley – her only blemish: a string of electrical pylons slung over her south western shoulder.
Alighting at our bus stop and in spite of the wintry conditions, I eyed off a sign at the bath house immediately in front of us promising all and sundry the availability of luscious, Hokkaido milk soft cream. With that on my mind, we headed across the snowless ski runs annexed by the hunched and wizened ranks of the grand golf set and shot up steep log stairs leading us into the woods and promptly onto the wrong path.
At a picnic shelter, already high above the ski ground, the trail veered off into the trees abandoning the spur we assumed we were on when studying the map. Luckily, it seemed we weren’t the only ones to make this error and we found a gnarly little trail heading uphill beyond the shelter and to the path we should have been on all the while.
Patches of snow dotting the woodland like unoccupied, white picnic rugs, grew larger as we climbed and slowly encroached on our path. The browns of late winter were quickly being swallowed by a blanket of white. Eventually things became snow smothered and slippery and we strapped on our crampons. Overhead the high winds had blown away all the black clouds and blue sky prevailed. A few hikers descended past us but we were mostly alone out on the mountain that day. Maybe the morning’s promise of avalanches had caused feebler souls to waver at the prospect of a day out in those hills.
Out of the woods we found ourselves atop a broad ridgeline and heading eastwards for the summit, beyond the towering, skeletal string of electrical pylons. The wind was howling up there and we huddled alone, behind a summit boulder for some respite and a quick snack. Ibuki-yama was half hidden in haze across the waters of Lake Biwa and Nosaka-yama languidly reclined to the north. As the cold seeped into our frames we shot off some summit photos and raced down across the snow drifts crowning Akasaka and returned to the shelter of the woods.
And then it happened…
Down in the valley, in the shadow of the mountains, something nefarious reared its ugly head. An occasional glimpse of the nightly news is suffices when it comes to realising that this lump of rock we inhabit, is for the most part, going to Hell in a hand basket. I had held out a little bit more hope for the Japanese. Of course the Land of the Rising Sun has its blights but even they seem distant concerns for the most part, and so, when one comes face to face with this slow, malignant rot festering up to the surface when he least expects it, it hits hard.
We entered the bath house complex at the bus stop at something like two forty in the afternoon. The place that advertised the sumptuous, creamy, sensual Hokkaido milk soft cream I’d only once previously sampled, the year before, on the shores of Lake Biwa, during a particularly nasty wave of summer heat and humidity. I dare say it left an impression. So much so that a wintry wind wasn’t going to deter me from a long awaited second helping. A sign at the cafe announced a three o’clock closing time and as we stared across the expanse of upturned chairs perched on tables we were somewhat confused. Four ladies of reasonable vintage stood around the counter nattering cheerfully. Sensing my rising panic, The Missus approached them and inquired as to the availability of the Hokkaido milk soft cream.
I could see that they’d knocked off for the day. I could see it. But, this was Japan, it was twenty full minutes – alright, nineteen – before the advertised closing time and these ladies had audaciously, in the face of all that’s right and proper, shut up shop! And not only that, they were happy to stand around gas bagging behind a printed sign that clearly adveritsed their blatant dereliction of duty. In a land where the customer not only comes first, but has his hairy butt crack metaphorically licked clean – in a land where the general rule is to work for hours beyond one’s scheduled knock off time and expect no reward – in a land where manners, politeness and courtesy reign supreme – in that land The Missus and I had unearthed the festering, malignant canker from which The Rot will set in.
Forget your Fukushima meltdowns and your pork barreling politics, the cafe at the Sarasa Bath House, in the Makino Highland, on the northern shores of Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture, is ground zero for The Rot. The Rot that makes most westerners fat and lazy and demanding of compensation for barely lifting a pinky finger was setting in. Never before had I borne witness to such utter disregard for all the moral codes that makes Japan such a heavenly place in which to reside. The ladies refused to budge – admittedly politely. Those girls weren’t cranking up that Hokkaido soft cream machine for anyone – certainly not when it was the best part of half an hour before bug off time!
The Missus returned and relayed to me what I’d already surmised.
The Rot had set in.
Across the way, in a neighbouring building, I got myself an incredibly inferior soft cream product and glumly sucked on it in the cold as we waited for the bus ride back to Makino proper.