Heihachiro Tamura’s father was a guard at a prison camp in Tokyo during the war. There he befriended two English officers, and taught them useful things like how to make the their thin rice gruel palatable with pickled plums.
The Englishmen were climbers, mountaineers before the war. Tamura-san’s father had also spent his youth in the peaks around Nagano. They shared stories of hard climbs and jagged summits, and on clear days would stand on the roof of the prison looking out through the smoke at the mountains on the edge of the city. Then the war ended, the Englishmen were returned home and Tamura-san’s father drifted though the burnt out remains of the capital before marrying, settling down and passing his climbing stories to his only son. His bones were too weak to let him climb again, so he became an insurance salesman and worked hard for his family as Japan raced to catch and overtake the West.
Tamura-san tells me all this as we sit together on the express out of Shinjuku, headed for the Japan Alps. He also tells me that the English invented mountain climbing. Is it still popular there? Yes I tell him, but the mountains in the UK are very different to Japan. Wetter, rounder. No bears, wild boar or poisonous snakes. He likes this and laughs, and then the conductor announces my station. Tamura-san is going further north, towards the mountains his father climbed. I am headed for Aka-dake in the Yatsu-ga-take range.
Three hours and a 700 meter climb later puts me at the Gyoja hut at the base of Aka-dake. The mountains of Yatsu-ga-take crowd around the little tents scattered below, like Norse gods playing chess.
The climb to the top is quick and hard. I miss the route that leads along a ridge to the summit, and instead make progress through the snow that still clings to the side of the slope, grateful for crampons and axe. Small rock slides clatter down the mountain as the early summer sun melts the ice, and my heart jumps each time.
At the peak of Aka-dake, almost 2 miles above the Pacific, a small shrine and a solid mountain hut cling to the rocks. The gods get five yen and my thanks for keeping watch over me during the climb. The wind is strong to pitch a tent and the light fading too fast to make it back to the Gyoja campsite, so I stay at the hut.
As the setting sun sets the snowy peaks of the North Alps on fire, I watched and wondered if Tamura-san had climbed his mountain too. I thought about the two Englishmen and whether they had ever come back to country which had imprisoned them, maybe climbed some of these same mountains.
The hut was warm and the guests friendly. They asked which country I was from, and they told me that the English invented mountain climbing. I told them it’s still popular, and I slept well that night.