A night on the phoenix*

My watch swings from a stunted tree on the summit of Jizo-ga-dake. It tells me two things. First, it’s been five hours since my conversation with the owner of the Houou-zan mountain hut. Second, the temperature outside is minus fourteen and falling.

At the hut some 1000 feet below the peak, the owner flashed his yellowing incisors at me, the only two teeth in his head.
“It’s Y6000 to stay, or Y3000 without food.”
“I’m not staying.”
“Then it’s Y500 to pitch your tent.”
“No tent. I’m bivvying.”
“Same as a tent, Y500.”
“Not here, I’m bivvying at the summit.”

His crabapple face creased and narrowed.
“You’re not s’posed to bivvy unless you get into trouble…..”
“I’d better go get into trouble then.”
Kanshin da na.” Gotta admire that.

He bets that I’ll be back by 8pm. And that he’ll charge me Y1500 if I do.

Minus fifteen. My stove is playing up and my water bottle is turning to ice. The wind is too strong for a fire; if I take my gloves off for more than a minute my hands go numb. I’d say this counts as trouble.

I throw the bivvy down and crawl inside. A heat patch slapped underneath my heart and one on each femoral artery sends warm blood coursing through me. A billion stars play overhead. For a few minutes the blur of Andromeda sits on Mt. Jizo-ga-dake’s spire, chained and awaiting her fate as she did in legend while Cassiopeia preens above her. I drift into a sleep as dreamless and black as the sky above, alone on this ancient seabed thrown two miles into the sky.

I wake at 3a.m. when the gale finds the airvent in the bivvy and blows in a faceful of spindrift. I’d seen the sun go down over Mt. Jizodake; determined to see it rise from the summit of Mt. Kannon-ga-dake I set out into the night. The snow is soft and glistens in the light of the headlamp as the wind kicks it into icy clouds. On the saddle between the two peaks it is all I can do to keep from being blown into the blackness on each side. I somehow pick out a trail before losing it again, and resort to a more straight-line approach through the snow and the rocks. Kannon-ga-dake shines ahead of me as the moon wheels overhead like the grin of the Cheshire cat.

There’s the merest suggestion of a thin red line on the horizon as a I reach the summit. Mt. Fuji still slumbers, alone, and to the right the snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps stretch away into the night. Far in the valley below I can see a single headlamp tracking through the trees, a climber probably making his way up the Nakamichi ridge from Aoki-kosen. I have the peak to myself this winter morning. The stove lights, first time, and capriciously melts enough ice for a coffee.

The sun rises, lighting the three summits of the Houou-sanzan;Jizo, Kannon and Yakushi. Jizo the bodhisattva of travellers, children, and souls lost in the underworld, Kannon the bodhisattva of mercy, Yakushi the Buddha of healing. And once again I’m reminded that we travel, small and lost like children, through hell and towards compassion, finally to be healed in the heat of the new dawn.


* Houou-sanzan: Literally, the three peaks of the phoenix

In search of civilisation

The sun sets over the Boso peninsula, briefly illuminating the folds of the mountains which stretch like crumpled linen all the way to the Pacific. We dash down from our outlook and through the darkening forest, back to the deserted temple which will be our home for the night.

In fifteen years this was my first visit to the mountains of Boso in southernmost Chiba prefecture. Chiba is to Tokyo what New Jersey is to Manhattan. Or so it seemed to me. Scrap metal yards and freeways compete with factories and soulless strip malls for space, the only seeming countryside being the tatami mat network of rice fields you see from the plane as it spirals down into Narita. Yet where the Philippine plate dives below the North American plate, mighty techtonic forces have conspired to fold, rumple and raise that old sea bed into mile upon mile of ridges and valleys. The result is that here, less than a hour’s drive from Tokyo, deer sing in the mist and hawks circle the firs and cedars which cover the hills. Hardly a soul disturbs us as we make the short hike up.

The temple itself is half built into a cave which has been carved out of the sandy rock below the peak. Just a single room with a small altar, a red tin roof and a statue of the Kannon which gazes sliently at the valleys below. A sign at the entrance tells us that this outcrop has been a stopping point for pilgrims since the 7th century. The walls inside the shrine are covered in neat charcoal grafitti recording the names and dates and hikers and pilgrims now vanished. There are many dates from before I was born, and there will be many more after I am long gone.

We light a fire in another alcove carved from the cliff.  Potatos mutter in their foil jackets in the coals. Garlic cloves and onion bulbs are roasted, matsutake mushrooms covered in soy sauce and grilled on green sticks. Aromas sweeter than incense drift past the cold nostrils of the Kannon. Before long my friends bring out hand drums and start beating soft Asian and Latin rythms into the night. I fetch the Hopi Indian flute from my pack and as the warm wine hits my head I can imagine myself to be playing much better than I probably am.

As the fire dies and I drain the last of the wine from my paper cup, it occurs to me that I’ve just spent the most civilised of evenings. It’s amazing how far from civilisation you have to travel in order to do that.