Bitter dragons

At 4a.m. the rain was still pounding like a canon on the roof of Kijitei, the restaurant owned by Yuka’s parents, which nestles in the verdant foothills outside Chichibu. The grey dawn filtered through the paper screens, while the frogs sang in their damp delight outside. I’d planned a fast, light climb up Mt. Ryogami this morning. But the thought of knee-high mud, cold water trickling down my neck, and probably no view at the top had me crawl back under the warm futon instead. There would be other days.

Mt. Ryogami’s black, jagged teeth jut defiantly against the skyline to the west of Chichibu city. These mountains hold gold and other metals; some of the nation’s first-known coinage was found in these parts, and there were commercial mines here until recently. There are hidden villages too, huddled half way up the valleys. One is rumoured to comprise the the direct descendants of the defeated Heike clan, who fled to the hills when the forces of the Minamoto routed them after the battles of the 12th century. The heirlooms of more than one homestead are scraps of faded cloth, said to be the remnants of battle standards and armour over eight hundred years old. The women still filed and blackened their teeth in the manner of the medieval Japanese court until the middle of last century. Life does not change quickly here.

The present name for Mt. Ryogami comprises two characters, “both/two” and “god(s)”, and so it is said to be named for the ancient deities Izanagi and Izanami. But as Fukada points out in his Nihon-Hyakumeizan, there is nothing to suggest a duel or twin nature to the mountain, no double peak or other characteristic. Instead he takes us through the history of its various appellations. Formerly it appears to have been known as Mt. Yokami (eight-day-visible-mountain). Further research suggests that originally the mountain was known as Mt. Ya-okami (eight-headed-dragon mountain), which makes far greater sense. Its serrated edge on a fine day is clearly the spine of some mighty serpent, and on the map one can just trace the eight heads leading from its peak, much as one can trace the five heads of the dragon which lead from Mt. Goryu (five-headed-dragon-mountain) in nearby Nagano.

The rain clears by mid-afternoon, and my mother-in-law continues with my instruction in the tea ceremony. Just as the mountains of Chichibu have shaped and formed the attitudes of this outpost of Tokyo, so the tea ceremony has shaped Japan’s cultural and psychological vocabulary. To be bad or unskilled at something in Japanese is to be “nigate“, literally “bitter-handed”, a word originally describing a tea ceremony neophyte whose concoctions were tanic and undrinkable. We whisk the powdered tea as the late afternoon sun streams through the windows and catches the magnificent ramparts of Mt. Buko, the symbol of Chichibu so cruelly devastated by the excavations of the Onoda Cement Company. Further off Mt. Ryogami is no doubt enjoying a magnificent sunset too. My father-in-law bravely offers to try my first attempt, and brings a cup to his lips.


I’m going to stick to climbing mountains.

Closer to heaven


Looking around the hut you could tell the ones who had just been to the summit of Yari. They had the burnt-out, shell-shocked look of veterans. Bloodless fingers nervously flicked the ice from the sharp points of their crampons, axes caressed lovingly against their arms. A cigarette crackled and spat in the thin air as its owner sucked it down in one long inhalation.

An hour and a half later I had acquired my own Yari-induced thousand yard stare.

Yari is named after the Japanese for spear. Its pyramidal peak pierces the sky, a lethal black weapon atop the smooth white curves of the glacier which curls away below it. In summer it is a short, if hair-raising, climb from the hut below via two ladders and some fixed chain. In winter all except the top ladder lie below the thick snow and ice which remains plastered to its steep walls. The result is a near seventy-degree climb without protection, and a long fast drop to the glacier ending in a mess of certainly fatal injuries somewhere far below. With this in mind, I dug the axe deep, stabbed into the snow with my free hand to the elbow where I could, and kicked again and again until the crampons hit home to the toe with a reassuringly solid thud.

Lightning strike

I flopped onto the summit and lay for a few minutes on my back starring at the sky, lungs bellowing. As the chill hit me I got up, walked slowly to the small shrine which sits at the top and thanked the gods for a safe ascent. The cloud cleared briefly, arraying the Alps before me in every direction. Crouching out of the wind before the shrine, I noticed the coins left by previous climbers as an offering were strangely melted and discoloured. The result, perhaps, of the lightening which strikes this sharp conductor through the summer months?

The climb down took twice the time of the ascent, each step a blind kick into the whiteness below. Reaching the ridge at the foot of the summit, I walked back to the hut on legs turned to jelly. I grabbed a can of cold beer and nursed it, speechless, for a while.

I’d started out from Kamikochi at 8p.m. the day before, walking through the night and the black forest as far as Yoko-o. The full moon shone over my shoulder, lighting the snow capped peaks and throwing my shadow long over the path ahead. The bear bell jangled happily at my hip, and I reveled in the sharpness of my senses, the sound of the river and the scents thrown up in the cold night air. Chesterton’s lament for olfaction lost rang in my head,

The brilliant smell of water,
The brave smell of a stone,
The smell of dew and thunder,
The old bones buried under,
Are things in which they blunder
And err, if left alone.

The wind from winter forests,
The scent of scentless flowers,
The breath of brides’ adorning,
The smell of snare and warning,
The smell of Sunday morning,
God gave to us for ours.

At Yoko-o I rolled out the bivy, climbed in and watched the clouds race across the face of the moon until I fell asleep. Waking a short while later at 2:53, I stuck a cold hand outside to light the stove for breakfast, and searched the horizon for a glimmer of light. Nothing yet, but the sun would be up in an hour. I wanted to hit the glacier as soon as possible before the solar radiation turned it to slush.

By six, I was at the hut at Yari-zawa, chatting with its owner in the early morning sun. “There’s a couple of people camping at the bottom of the glacier, and two couples here at the hut. Should be nice and uncrowded for you today.” he said, sipping his coffee. Another hour later and I found the tents huddled against the stone windbreak, sole patches of colour against an otherwise monotone landscape.

From Yari-zawa, the valley curves around and up to the west and then north to Yari itself. As I climbed, the sun peered out from over the summit of Jounen-dake, lighting up the valley; the thermometer said minus four, but it felt like a convection oven. I pasted on the sunscreen and started up through the snow towards the hut below the summit at a little over 10,000 feet.

Reaching the final steep slope which marks the head of the glacier some five hour later the weather turned. Hard pellets of snow, like grains of pudding rice, fell from the liquorice coloured sky and a cold wind blew from the north. Suddenly my sweat-drenched t-shirt, so nice and cool when the sun was out, started to suck the heat out of me. I dug around in my pack, pulled out my jacket and hunkered in the snow for a few minutes as the soft down warmed my body. The clouds cleared momentarily, and taking a quick bearing on the line of bamboo wands stuck in the snow, I started the ascent to the hut again, still a thousand feet above. At eleven thirty I staggered into its warmth, and prepared myself for the route to the summit.

A thin red line on the horizon the next day mocked the forecast for cloud and rain. Pulling on cold boots and crampons, I grabbed my camera and ran onto the hard ice outside, filling my eyes with the beauty of a clear dawn across the mountains. I wondered to myself if I would ever tire of this sight, of the flickering purples, blues and reds which marked the start of a new day. I can’t ever imagine not wanting to see this. I watched the sun break above the horizon, saw it kiss the peak of Yari and continue to rise into the cloudless sky above. Back in the hut I made a liter of hot chocolate and drank it down as I looked out over the white roof of Japan, and I thought myself the luckiest man alive.

Giant leaps through the sun-softened snow took me back down the glacier, fast and fun. By eight I was back at the Yari-zawa hut. In a few hours I would be at Kamikochi among the day trippers, where people no longer met your eye or said good morning as they passed. I dropped my pack, stripped off my t-shirt and washed in the cold river. The water leapt and fizzed as if it were happy to at last be free of the glacier and on its way to the sea again. What if the water of my body felt the same way? Would it too rejoice when I closed my eyes for the last time? It was a thought at once both terrifying and strangely comforting, and it accompanied me down the trail to the shrine at Hotaka.

The midday bus took me back to Shin-shimashima and by evening was back in Tokyo. My wife opened the door, giggled at the sunburnt vision in front of her. “You smell like you had a good time.” she said.

I certainly did.

Fishing for mountains

Kitadake rising

I saw my soul at nine minutes past six in the morning, as I climbed the ridge between the summits of Nokogiri and Kaikomagatake. It floated like a phantom in the clouds billowing up the north face. It was clearly mine; I waved at it and it waved back. Its elongated arms and legs matched my movements. Like a shadow but surrounded by two, and at times three, perfectly circular rainbows.

Specter of Brocken

It walked with me as I made my slow way through the snow and up the ridge. At close to 10,000 feet the air was getting thin but this was no hallucination. I could see that it too seemed to be carrying a large pack, and I was happy to think that it must love the same things that I do. We walked together for maybe fifteen minutes before I climbed into the clouds that obscured Kaikomagatake’s peak, and that vision of my soul disappeared with the sun.

Specter walking

Sadly what I saw wasn’t really my soul but a phenomenon known as the Specter of Brocken, a rare interplay of the sun and clouds that occurs at mainly at altitude. It is named for the highest peak in the Harz mountains in Germany, where the Specter is said to be a monster of immense proportions which wears a headdress of oak leaves and carries an uprooted pine. It appears suddenly and seems to possess enormous, treetrunk-like limbs. The motion of the climber and the movement of the clouds upon which it is projected seem to give it life, a presence which is at once malign and malicious. It never fails to surprise, causing more than a few climbers to fall to their deaths with shock. I’d seen it once before on Kashima-yari last year, but this time felt different, more proximate, as if I truly was in the company of something sentient. I’m lucky to have seen it at all; Jim Wickwire, one of the first men to climb K2, said he saw it just once in forty years of climbing.

The Specter itself is obviously the result of the climber’s shadow being projected onto nearby clouds. The giant size is a misperception, the same one which makes the moon look larger when it is near the horizon. I’m not sure what causes the rainbows. Maybe some kind of back scattering of the sunlight. I suspect Captain Interesting knows, or has a book that holds the answer.

Clouds on the Roku-gome ridge

I was back for another attempt on Kaikomagatake in the Minami Alps. Like last time I started out from the foot of the Todaigawa valley, following the trail along five or six miles and up a few thousand feet through the boulders and debris. The winter snows were melting, turning the Todai river into a boiling, grinding flood of grey water. Rough log bridges that had spanned the current two weeks ago now ended half way across; with pack unclipped and slung over one shoulder, I jumped the gaps. Unlike last time I had a different line planned for my ascent of Kaikoma, one which would take me away from the trade route from Kitazawa, which was deserted two weeks ago but would now be crowded with Golden Week climbers. The map showed a route which branched off the valley and up Nokogiridake (the “Saw Peak”) and along to Kaikoma. Fukuda Kyuya’s description of Kaikoma is filled with superlatives, “the most beautiful of the Alps”, “the hardest climb” and I felt this would be a fitting route since technology has rendered the mountain otherwise overly accessible. I also needed solitude, desolation and a challenge; this promised all three.


Per the map, the climb up Nokogiri should be five hours. However the winter snow still lay thick and rotten on its upper slopes, turning it into a “tottering pile of shit”, to borrow a phrase from Jon Tinker. In turns it went from sawa-nobori (gorge climbing) to bouldering to hacking through steep, dense rhodedendron forest to chest deep snow, knife edge ridges and the constant staccato accompaniment of rockfall. Seven hours later I topped out at 8800 feet and from the summit beheld the long crest to Kaikoma. The north-east side of it was still heavily corniced with snow, while the south-west side was a mess of tumbledown rockfall where the snows had melted and granite boulders career down the mountainside.

North face of Nokogiri

The original plan was to make the summit of Kaikoma by nightfall, roll out the bivy and catch both sunset and sunrise. Creeping slowly along the ridge, however, it became evident that I would scarcely make the hut some two hours below Kaikoma before darkness. Progress was slow. Each fixed rope and chain had to be tugged and checked carefully before clipping in. The mountain erodes too fast for anything to stay permanently attached up here. Six hours of butt-clenching fear later I stumbled on the unmanned hut at Roku-gome, tugged at the door and found that snow had drifted inside and frozen it shut. I dug a pit by the door, unpacked the bivy and crawled inside, imagining myself to be cozy in the hut instead.


I woke before the alarm at 3 a.m. to a mighty crash from the valley. Landslides and rockfall are common at this time of year, as the snows melt and the mountains loosen their grip on their fabric. Then another crash and, as I watched the shooting stars from the small gap in the bivy, I imagined the noise to be the hooves of giant horses galloping down below. Kaikomagatake translates to “Horse Peak of the Kai Region”, and in ancient times it was believed that the horses of the gods were stabled here. Some people say it is because the snow forms the shape of a horse as it melts off the peak, but I wondered whether in fact it was the sound of rockfall that gave birth to the myth. Either way, it was time to get moving. An almost lenticular cloud hung over Senjogatake, bringing a warning of worse weather to come and the barometer was already starting to fall.


A few hours later I came over the north-west ridge of Kaikoma to the summit at 9800 feet, joining a few small groups of climbers who had made their way either up the north-east spur from Kurodo or from Kitazawa to the south-east. After some jokey applause and playful taps on my helmet, their general consensus was that only madmen come via Nokogiri. I found it hard to disagree. From the top you can see back down to the grey scar that is the Todaigawa valley. It felt strange to think that in a few hours I would be down there again, but food and fuel had run low on the longer-than-expected Nokogiri route, so down I would have to go. I turned my back on the summit and started the descent, passing hardy bands of climbers making their way up from their multi-colored tents pitched below at Kitazawa.

Clouds on Kaikoma

On the first day I’d met only one other person, Nagase-san the fisherman, who drove up just as I was preparing to depart. He greeted me good morning, then with a great sigh “Aaah, it’s been thirty years since I last came to the Todaigawa valley. Are you climbing Kaikoma?” I said I was, and he told me how he had come here as a high school student when he belonged to the mountaineering club, and they climbed Kaikoma in the days before the Minami-Alps through-road to Kitazawa was built. He was born and raised in Hyogo prefecture west of Kyoto and spent twenty five years as a hardware engineer in Tokyo before returning to Hyogo five years ago to work for a regional sake brewer. I asked if he still climbed. “No, not since high school. I fish. Every day, before and after work! And I remembered the river here, so I drove through the night to see if there might be something good here. Do you know anywhere good to fish?” There was a spot about an hour and a half away that I had passed before, and I offered to lead him there as it was on my way. We walked and talked about mountains and fishing until we reached the pools where mountain trout flitted back and forth. We said goodbye and I carried on up to Nokogiri and beyond.

Storms on Kitadake

Returning to the car late the next day, I found a plastic bag tied to the wing mirror, inside of which was a note and a parcel. The note read:


(I hope you can read Japanese)

Thank you for leading me up to the fishing spot in Todaigawa. I enjoyed our time together, and listening to you talk about the mountains I was reminded of how much I used to love climbing them too. Tomorrow I am going to Tokyo, and while I am there I will buy some hiking boots. I am going to climb the mountains in Hyogo, and when I use my boots I will remember you.

I hope you like fish and sake.


Inside the parcel were two mountain trout, carefully gutted, packed in snow and wrapped in newspaper, and a 250cc bottle of sake from his brewery. The fish were promptly grilled over a small fire and the the sake warmed up in the Jetboil. As I sat in the dark valley watching the flames I thought that in some way these mountains had shown me something of my soul after all.