There it was, perched precariously on the side of the mountain right in front of me; a perfectly formed snowman. Or rather, the body of one. No head to be seen, just its round body, a meter and a half across and forlorn in the snow. I looked around and spied another a little further up, sitting stately as a rotund East Island head and staring out across the snowy valley. Headless snowmen at 8000 feet made no sense.
Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I crouched without thinking, just in time to witness another giant snowman hurl itself down from on high and explode into a tree below, which shook the snow from its boughs in anger. Then I understood. Clumps of snow and ice were dropping off the rocks in the warm spring sun and rolling, gathering snow, before launching themselves off the cliffs above me. Some settled on the slope below like snowy Moai, while others barreled and exploded on whatever was in their way. I was in their way. It was time to go home.
Getting into Japanâ€™s mountains in the winter is to be a trespasser, a burglar of their cold secrets. The roads are closed off, some more securely than others. I spent half of Friday night looking for an entrance to Mount Kaikomagatake, moving blockades and dodging the rockfall on unkempt, potholed tracks. Rentacar companies donâ€™t like me much anymore. I saw tears in the eyes of one of their girls last time I returned the car, caked as it was in mud and with half a bush stuck in the bumper. And missing a hubcap. Iâ€™ve learnt always to take full insurance.
Eventually I hit upon an unblocked track, but as suspected it terminated at Todai, a good seven miles from the foot of Kaikoma. I grab a couple of hours of sleep before rising and starting the long walk up the Todai-gawa valley. At its head the Kaikoma ridge shimmers in the early morning sun, its face still streaked with snow, and looking impossibly far off. I feel very small. The route along the river looks easy on the map, but the distance conceals the 3000 foot rise in elevation along its course. And this just to reach the foot of the mountain, itself another 3000 foot climb.
By midday I was sitting in the sun at the Kitazawa hut, melting snow to drink and studying the ursine footprints in the snow. Didnâ€™t think theyâ€™d have woken up so early this year, but clearly they are on the prowl already. I punch on through the snow, post-holing in the springtime slush, until I am standing in the middle of the decapitated snowmensâ€™ garden.
Go down or go up. I choose down. Itâ€™s late in the day, and getting hit by one of these cannonballs would not be a good thing on this slope. Thereâ€™s no-one around for miles and itâ€™s a long drag back to the car. Not the kind of place to have an accident. As I walk back down the valley, Kaikomaâ€™s snowy head watches me until the clouds roll in and close it from view. Iâ€™ve figured out some of itâ€™s secrets and it knows Iâ€™ll be back soon.