#69 – KUJU-SAN
Island of fire.
Birthplace of Japan.
If one of the nation’s four main islands can stake its claim as the most active – volcanically speaking that is – it has to be the broiling, gas billowing land of Kyushu. There the mountains may not to rise to the heights of the mighty Alps on Honshu, or the snow strafed summits of Hokkaido or even the tamer, yet higher mountains of Shikoku, but what the peaks of Kyushu lack in height, they make up for in heat. Think Aso-san and Unzen, the moonscape of Kirishima, the hot, black sand beaches below Kaimon-dake and the omnipresent, ash belching sentinel of Kagoshima Bay: Sakurajima.
I stepped off the ferry from Shikoku onto that tumultuous land. I had arrived in Beppu, the hot spring capital of Japan. Here scalding water belches from some three thousand vents, the volume chugged out there, is second only to Yellowstone in the United States, its steam casting a fog over the town. Japanese come from near and far to bathe in Beppu’s aptly named ‘Hells’. In far off Hokkaido, in that little, abandoned, aquamarine train carriage in Furenai,I plucked a flyer from a wad on a string left by a traveller, no doubt from these parts, advertising The Beppu Guest House. It was with that crumpled piece of paper clasped in my hand I wandered the streets in search of my lodgings for the evening. Rains were, once again, in the forecast, so a good night’s sleep and an early departure for the nearby Kuju Mountains was in order…
9:00PM: I’m fed and bedded down in a stuffy dorm room. The place is brimming with lodgers. I was lucky to get one of the last beds. Two other chaps have hit the sack. One on the bunk above me threatens to burst into a snoring fit at any moment and one on the bottom bed of the bunk behind me, headlamp on, is immersed in the comings and goings described within the pages of his book which he holds up at an uncomfortable looking angle to the light. Night night.
9:10PM: Hold on a sec. The fella up top is starting to crank up. Saliva laced snortles have started erupting randomly in the dim light. I do not feel good about this.
10:00PM: I am weathering the storm as patiently as I can, but there’s no pattern to this fella’s startling bronchal detonations. As soon as I even entertain an inkling that he’s done, another enormous, abrupt inhalation rattles the windows – and my cage.
10:15PM: I’m tempted to send a hard, jolting size eleven hoof into the mattress above me. At least Chinese water torture has rythm to it, you know, some sort of predictability. Surely this cannot last much longer. I am staggered he hasn’t woken himself up. I’m willing to bet he has done the neighbours, who are probably huddled under their kitchen tables.
10:25PM: He is really putting the foot down now. Constant mucus filled music upon both inhalation and exhalation. I can only pray he’s drowning.
11:00PM: Find me an old Eastender who slept through the Blitz, an Iraqi who snoozed through Desert Storm, find me anybody who could sleep through a rendition of the entire John Farnham back catalogue by Tina Turner singing in a Gumby voice – just one – and I’ll wager them a truckload of the best Beppu sushi that they’d not sleep a wink beneath this unwavering torment, this oesophageal assault, this bronchial barrage. The room reverberates, I’m on the brink of popping something in my head, in addition to my eardrums. So much for that good night’s sleep…
12:10 AY-FRIGGING-EM: And old mate with the book behind me has nodded off. How do I know this? The bugger has begun to join in. It’s the fucking background vocalist, or gurglist, rather, to the main man up top.
12:20AM: “Good God! I’m surrounded!” I haven’t considered homicide since that night on Hayachine when I shared the mountain top hut with a bloke who had a snore like a chained Rottweiler. I think I’ve been quite tonsularly tolerant since then, taking the rough as guts along with the silky smooth, snorewise. For my own defense, I should hunt down a tape recorder. The way things are progressing, this is going to end up in court, and I can’t speak the local language to save my life but with a recording of this, if the tape doesn’t melt and the machine doesn’t self destruct, no judge or jury in their right mind would lock me up for putting this character here in the top bunk out of his misery. Any moment now he’s going to strip a poster off the wall or ingest the pair of dirty underpants hanging over my backpack.
12:50AM: No more. Up goes the white flag. Snorer No. 2 is rumbling along now, like an ouback roadtrain on a corrugated highway. He’s raising the stakes. But No. 1 ain’t taking it lying down. I am trapped in a no man’s land. These duelling snorers are in it till the death. The door to the dorm room opens and immediately shuts again. Retreat, obviously, is the only sensible option. I have to get out before whoever that was, fleeing for their lives, sends the authorities in. The place will be going into lockdown. I throw back my bedsheets, grab my sleeping bag and flee. There’s a smoking room down the hall with a big sofa. A smoking room, my only salvation. The irony bites. After the last couple of days on Shikoku and the vows I made never to be so stupid as to accept a smoking room as accomodation, it is that very thing, well actually a sofa in a glassed in box, which is my only hope and refuge…
Standing high on Kuju-san I stared at across rugged, boulder strewn, gas billowing terrain. The land was frosted to a golden brown. The sky, dappled with cloud, a striking autumnal blue. I picked a stubborn bit of sleep from my eye. Sleep, blessed sleep, though only a few hours of it, had come.
“Looks like I’ll beat the rains,” I breathed a sigh of relief, scanning the heavens. Fellow hikers dotted the landscape. A landscape more reminiscent of the Outback or Arizona, except for the column of volcanic gas seething out of bare mountainside overhead. Beneath that rising pall I strode over a crest, stony, dry earth crunching beneath my feet and down into a dry, shallow washout that probably only filled after storms or snowmelts. For a while I followed the dry stream bed and then, after another climb, made my way around the shores of a deep, emerald green pond. Kuju-san itself rose to the right and Naka-dake, the high point of this multi-domed volcanic confluence, lay ahead of me. I scrambled over both. There was one of those picnic atmospheres to the mountains that day, one that implored me to hold back and take it easy, the tops will take care of themselves in their own time. Scouts were on the rampage up on Kuju-san and the oldies had claimed Naka-dake and the pond between. A lone hiker, save for his saddle bag bearing terrier, stopped to greet me. There was no rest for the mutt and he happily collapsed in our shade and sucked in some much needed oxygen (what little there was left of it in that part of the world after the previous night’s astounding inhalations).
On Naka-dake I put my feet up and watched cloud sweep in and swallow the scenery across the valley. Picnickers in the grass and boulders below me stirred. All the sunshine that was going to shine that day had shone. I stole myself for the steep descent and long walk back to the trailhead and bus stop. Knock kneed at the bottom of Naka-dake I strode away from the mountains across a broad, grass filled valley floor.
As I walked, I reasoned things hadn’t progressed too badly on my first week out of Osaka, newly adjusted schedule and all. Four mountains down, one of them a half decade long nemesis, not bad. The “One hundred mountains by Christmas” mantra had been replaced by a simple notion to enjoy the remainder of the journey for what it was – a bunch of hikes in the hills. Hikes that would get done whenever they got done.
Back at the guest house the lassie at reception offered me a single room and I nearly leapt the counter to hug her. I immediately reserved it for two nights, with the rains on their way I wasn’t planning on going anywhere fast.