Apocalypse when?

A man once told me that you could see Mount Fuji from the Ginza crossroads during the war. All it took was for the B29s to firebomb every intervening building between there and Yokohama. But those twin evils of modern cities, high-rise buildings and pollution, have once again blotted out the mountains which ring the Kanto plain where twenty million Tokyoites eat and sleep, and work.

Once in a while however, the air clears a little and the mountains force their presence back on the city. They start in the south-west with the Tanzawa and Hakone ranges, up to Takao above Hachioji, and then further north to the mountains of Chichibu and Okutama.

Tonight they ringed the city at sundown as a jagged purple line. They brooded, harsh and uneven against the lights and sharp lines of the city. You took something from us, they say. One day, we take it back…

Yuka watches the clouds roll in like the sea. “It’s a sign.” she says.


The bells of Daisen temple rang from the valley below, and were answered by the bear-bells that adorned the pack of every climber making their way up the mountain.

“Hard course or easy course?”, I ask Yuka as she comes back to the tent.
“I just threw up. Easy course. I don’t think pretzels make a good breakfast.” she replies. I was impressed she wanted to go at all. We set off, and by the mid-point she was back on form.

We’d come to the Chugoku region to climb its mountains, but it was its villages and valleys that linger on in our minds. In the crumpled folds of Oku-Izumo lie innumerable tiny hamlets, surrounded by fresh green rice paddies and backed by emerald hills. Terracotta pantiled roofs shone in the summer sun, glimmering above freshly whitewashed walls, and nowhere was the slightest thing out of place. We made our way slowly with no fixed plan other than to climb Daisen on this long summer weekend in Japan.

The sounds of a midsummer festival drift up the valley to the meadow where we camp on the first night. Fireworks shake the night, and we watch the smoke drift lazily across the face of the moon as we lie in the cool grass. By the light of the flames shooting from the Kelly kettle we plot our route for the next day. The highest peak between us and Daisen is Mt Sentsu; with vague intentions to climb it we drift to sleep, the sound of the festival drums below drifting through our dreams.

As Takachiho is to Amaterasu, so Izumo is to her brother Susanoo in the mythology of Japan. A rebellious and truculent young god who goes on to redeem himself through great deeds, his is the story of every young man, and is psychologically echoed in Sun Wukong of Chinese legend and the Trickster Coyote of the Native Americans. Izumo shrine is his shrine; we paid our respects there at the start of our journey, and now find ourselves on the morning of the second day wrapped in his lands. A battered sign by the roadside points to the Ryuzuyae Falls (eight-headed dragon falls), bringing to mind the eight-headed serpent Susanoo fought and killed. The water is icy cold, but it is still early in the day and so with great shouts we jump into the pool and feel the waterfall like shrapnel burst upon us.

Deeper still into Oku-Izumo’s valleys we find Oni-no-shitaburui, a canyon choked with boulders, many eerily eroded into gargoyle-like visages spewing and swirling the waters of the river. Picasso never painted so well.

Mt Sentsu is deserted when we arrive in the early afternoon. It’s humid under the trees as we climb the few thousand feet to the top, and we are grateful to arrive on its bald summit and for the breeze which cools us. Susanoo was here too. The sign at the top tells us that he slew that eight-headed serpent on this very mountain. We give thanks at the small shrine on the peak; as I bow, I find myself eye to eye with a snake which peers unblinking from within the cracks of the wall, and then languidly slides away.

As Yuka dances on the summit, swarms of dragonflies fill the air; one lands on her outstretched hand, and for a few minutes they waltz silently before it takes to the skies again.

But they are camera-shy insects, and not one wishes to pose for me, so I reach up try to catch the clouds instead.

We arrive at Daisen, and the next day set off for the summit with the throngs who are also making the best of the weather. Judging from the amount of kit being carried, many if not most are headed on to Everest. We show them our heels, and before long are bracing ourselves in the cloud and wind that whip the top of the mountain.

Yuka and I will have been married ten years this September. Back at the carpark I ask her what she wants to do for our anniversary.

“How about we renew our vows?” she asks.
“Sure. A shrine or temple somewhere?”
“I was thinking just us. At the top of Mt Fuji.”, she smiles.
And, just to make sure I fully remember why I love her, she adds,
“It is outside the climbing season, isn’t it?”

Back in the saddle

The short climb up Mt Ryokami did not exorcise the demons. Under the summer canopy the air was humid and still, a warm and comforting bath when what I really wanted to feel was cold and alive. It took a little under two and a half hours to climb the 3,500 feet to the summit, where I gazed out at the explosion of deep green life that the Okutama region had put forth. Fuji hid its head in the cumulus that poured off the Pacific and mighty crashes far off held the promise of thunder storms advancing through the thick summer air. Getting off the summit seemed a wise idea.

Reversing my route would put me back at the Ryokami hut within a couple of hours. A good meal, a visit to the hot-springs, another tick on the Hyakumeizan list.. Instead, turning my face from the sun, I headed north along the ridge towards Higashi-dake and then east along the Temmusho ridge. On the map it is marked as a thin dotted line, copiously adorned with warnings of certain doom for those that wish to travel it. Four hours later as I stood on the summit of Tenri-dake, halfway down, I knew why. The rhododendrons grow thick along its spine, not only making progress painfully slow but also obscuring the edges of the cliffs; on more than one occasion my boot parted their branches and hung over hundreds of feet of air. The undergrowth whipped my legs like a martyr and the sharp granite cut into my hands and arms as I climbed down.

From Tenri the ridge drops away and back towards the hut. The vegetation grows thicker with every metre descended. I decided instead to rapp into the Nagaiya-sawa gorge that leads from the summit, back into the valley below. The cool waters of the gorge washed the blood away from the earlier wounds, and added a few of its own as I skated on the slick stones of its bed. The Nanatakizawa course at the valley floor took me back to the trailhead, where my appearance scared the old woman and even the dogs gave me a wide berth.

I felt better than I had in weeks, and the demons were nowhere to be found. Sometimes you just have to lose a bit of skin to let them out.